SGU Episode 48

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SGU Episode 48
June 21st 2006
SGU 47 SGU 49
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
P: Perry DeAngelis
SM: Steve Mirsky
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Show Notes


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 21, 2006. This is your host Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this week are Bob Novella, ...

B: Merry summer solstice, everyone.

S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...

R: Hello.

S: ... Jay Novella, ...

J: Ahoy!

S: ... and Perry DeAngelis.

P: Evening.

S: How is everyone doing this evening?

B: Good, Steve.

R: Super.

J: Good. How are you doing, Steve?

B: Longest day of the year!

S: Yup, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

J: The worst day to be a vampire.

S: That's apparent.

B: Well, depends where you are.

S: In the northern hemisphere.

B: Go real north and you'll have a day that will last five or six months. That's a bad day.

J: That's true.

R: It's insights like these that keep our audience tuning in week after week.

S: Riveting.

J: They love it.

S: The plight of polar vampires.

R: I'm going to write a scientific paper about that.

S: So coming up later in the show we have an interview with Steve Mirsky from Scientific American magazine, but first we'll begin with some news items, as usual.

News Items[edit]

Herbs for Menopause (1:23)[edit]

S: A recent survey that was published in the New York Times showed that women are using herbal remedies for menopausal symptoms in high numbers. I believe the numbers were about 60 or 70%.

R: But not telling their doctors about it.

S: That's right.

R: Apparently, for the most part.

S: Which goes along with previous studies which show that only about a third of patients will report supplements and herbs that they're taking to their physicians, usually either because physicians don't specifically ask, or because patients don't think that they need to report them because they're not drugs, they're just supplements, or because they're embarrassed because they think their physician will be judgmental about them. But either way there is a huge gap in the reporting of that. The survey also showed that about two thirds of the women who were taking the supplements felt that they were effective in relieving the symptoms, but 70% of former users felt that they did not help.

R: So what you're saying is there is some sort of short-term memory loss that's affected?

S: Right, well obviously it makes sense that people who stop taking them didn't think they were working, and people who continue to take them, at least some of them, think that that they do work, but you add those numbers, I don't know what the percentages were, but it comes out about 50-50 that it's subjectively helping or not, which is about what you expect from the placebo effect.

R: Steve, isn't placebo effect like one third?

S: It depends on what you're looking at. For subjective symptoms it could be as high as 50%. For pain it usually comes out to about a third, but in some studies it's higher.

R: Gotcha!

S: For more concrete outcomes it could be much lower: 5, 10, or 15 percent. So it depends on the outcome that you're looking at. But they did list some of the more common ones. Ginkgo biloba was listed. Ginko is -- we haven't really (unintelligible) much on this podcast we've talked about herbs and supplements in general. This is a topic that I'm particularly interested in, and I've written a couple of articles about it. I think on the NESS site you can find an article about natural mythology or marketing supplements are a couple of the articles I wrote. The interesting thing about herbs is that, and this is I think the most common misconception among the public, is that herbs are drugs. They are drugs. They are not supplements. They are not taken for their nutritional value. They are by definition not vitamins. They are taken for their apparent pharmacological activity. Therefore they are drugs. In some countries in the world, I think Australia in particular has actually very scientific, rational regulations regarding these substances. America probably has the worst regulation right now. We have the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which is a horrible piece of legislation, which, basically, specifically categorizes herbs as supplements, and at the same time changing the regulation for supplements so that companies can market them without any evidence for either safety or effectiveness. There are some regulations about how they have to couch their claims. They can't make disease-curing claims, but they can make this newly manufactured category of health claims called structure function claims. So what that basically means is that you can say that this "supplement" supports this biological function or this structure, but you can't say that it cures a disease.

R: Can you say that it gets rid of symptoms?

S: You can, and you could say like "ginkgo biloba improves mental function." You can't say it cures or treats Alzheimer's disease, because that's a disease, but you could say that it improves cognitive function and mental alertness and sharpness. You could basically make those claims as long as you word it properly. The difference in terms of marketing to the public becomes a difference -- a distinction without a difference. People take ginko biloba because they think it's going to make them smarter, make them think clearer.

P: What's desperately needed is the Supplemental Safety Act being championed in the Congress by Senator Dick Durbin.

S: Yeah.

P: I suggest everyone contact their congresspeople and urge them to finally act on this long-delayed act -- Supplemental Safety Act.

S: Yeah, some version of that, and that's a good start. We have to repeal DSHEA, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. It's horrible legislation. It has to be replaced by something that is more based on what these things actually are. And, also, the other thing is that for the reasons that most of these things are marketed and taken, they just don't work. Like ginkgo biloba, there was actually a very large, well-designed, placebo-controlled, multicenter trial, a fairly definitive trial, which showed absolutely zero benefit for mental function for ginkgo biloba. It doesn't work. And, also, when you investigate these herbs, if you look at where did the idea originally come from that it worked for this in any case, and people think it "Oh, it must've been based on some traditional cultures thousands of years of experience with it", and that turns out not to be true in most of the cases. It's a fairly recent notion that some marketing guy came up with.

J: Yeah, but Steve, it's all natural, though.

S: Yeah, that's the other -- you bring up the natural thing. I think about 40% of the women who were asked why they're take these things specifically cited that they wanted to take something that was "natural" -- 45%.

R: Yeah, 45%.

B: Well, arsenic is natural. Maybe they should try that.

S: Right.

R: Don't give them any ideas.

S: That is the product of a couple of decades of slick marketing, the whole idea that something is natural. Being natural does not make things magically safe and effective. "Nature doesn't care about us" is the bottom line. Plants evolve for their own sake, and if it's to their advantage to be poisonous to mammals, they'll be poisonous to mammals.

J: What are you saying?

R: He's saying you shouldn't have eaten those berries, Jay.

S: Yeah, go out into the woods in your backyard and eat some random plants. They're all natural, too. Most of the pharmaceutical agents we have, too, were derived from natural products.

R: That's the idea is that we find a natural product that has some sort of effect, we study it, and then we manage to take what's good about that natural product and separate it from what bad about it, so we can package up the good.

S: Yeah, purify it, quantify it, test it. It's a known entity.

B: Control it, yup.

R: Right. And instead people decide that they don't want that. They'd rather go with the unknown quality of (unintelligible)

J: But you can't trust the FDA. The FDA is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies.

R: Big pharma.

S: Yeah, big pharma conspiracies play a big role with that as well. But, also, its very interesting that people say "Don't trust the big pharmaceutical companies," so therefore they trust supplement manufacturers?

R: Right.

S: Like they have different motives than the pharmaceutical industry? Also, guess what? The supplement industry's being taken over by the pharmaceutical industry. The big pharma companies are the ones who are now making the supplements, because, hey!, ...

R: They're catching on. It's where the money is.

S: Why not? You mean they can sell drugs to the public and not spend $100 million on research? Sure! That's a good deal for them.

R: They're saying "Well, we could manufacture this actual pill that costs millions of dollars, or we could just sell sugar pills, and people still buy them, so why not?

S: Charge a lot of money. Spend no money on research. Not take the risk that it's going to be unsafe or not work.

R: That's the thing.

B: That's a win-win.

R: The pharmaceutical companies are no angels, so it's kind of tough for people like us to take the skeptical point and say "No, they're not out to kill you." But then, yeah, they are out for the almighty dollar, just like everybody else, and yes, sometimes they do jerky things.

S: Sure.

R: It's a fine line.

S: But they're a highly regulated industry for that reason.

R: Yeah.

S: And there are a lot of watchdogs on them, you know, academic medical researchers, although even though, of course, a lot of academics do research for the pharmaceutical industry, they also do a lot of investigator initiated or independent research with all these drugs. And the longer a drug's been out there, the greater the chance that it's been in a lot of studies. And it's also being used by a lot of people, so we get a lot of scientific data and a lot of experience with these chemicals, and the pharmaceutical industry can't control all of that. People use the Vioxx example and say "Yep, they dragged their heels on that evidence, and they tried to spin it the right way, and that was wrong of the company to do that." But the truth ultimately came out because the studies were -- further studies were being done. If an herb caused the same increase in heart attack risk that Vioxx did, we would never know about.

R: Yeah.

S: Because the kind of studies that showed that Vioxx carried that risk are not being done, largely, with the herbs and other supplements. So we just never know about it. So it's easy to claim that they're safe when you have no data.

R: Hm.

Anne Coulter and Evolution (10:44)[edit]

S: Well the other news item that was prominent in the last week or so we could talk about very quickly was Ann Coulter's new book.

B: Yeah.

S: We're not going to talk about the politics of this, but just the fact that she took the time in her latest book Godless to take a swipe at evolution. I know Bob, you were particularly annoyed by this.

B: Yeah, it really just annoyed the hell out of me. More so than anything else she had to say, this jt really rankled me. Just a couple of quotes here that are just so telling. Let's see, she's got here "liberals creation myth is Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, which is about one notch above Scientology in scientific rigor. It's a make-believe story based on a theory that's a tautology with no proof in the scientist laboratory or the fossil record, and that's after a hundred and fifty years of very determined looking. We would not still be talking about it but for the fact that liberals think evolution disproves God." That's just -- where do you start with something like that? A 150 years of very determined looking and we found nothing? No evidence? Just unbelievable.

R: You can't say anything to that, because every single word is just pure and utter ignorance.

S: It is. It's factually ignorant. Forget about the logic. The depth of her factual ignorance is astounding.

B: I found a little diatribe on the web. Thought it was pretty funny. Some guy said "I see that Coulters under-nourished body has finally resorted to burning brain tissue to keep itself going." I kind of liked that.

J: Ahhh.

R: Zing!

B: She did an interview with John Hawkins, and he gave her just a couple questions here about evolution that also were pretty interesting. He says "If you were to pick three concepts, facts, or ideas that most undercut the theory of evolution, what would they be?" Ann Coulter says "One it's illogical, two there's no physical evidence for it, three there's physical evidence that directly contradicts it. Apart from those three concerns, I'd say it's a pretty solid theory." That's her response to that.

J: She's an idiot.

P: Scientifically, just like the President, but scientifically, the two of them are chimpanzees. They are horrible, and I think, you know, it is directly related to their religiosity. That explains it to me.

S: The other politician who has weighed in on this in the last year or so is Pat Buchanan.

B: Yes.

P: Another ...

S: He also wrote a couple of very negative articles about

P: ... hyper-religious guy, yeah.

S: The lesson here is that these people, who are basically either politicians or political commentators, should not talk about science.

P: Right.

S: Just shut up about science, ...

P: Hear, hear!

S: ... because you are totally ignorant of the topic that you are talking about, and they embarrass themselves.

R: And they use that ignorance when they get into positions of political power, and they screw with all of our science programs, like Bush putting some moron PR 23-year-old college dropout at the head of -- like making decisions for NASA.

P: That's true.

R: It's just crap.

J: Did you see that video of Ann Coulter talking about Vietnam, and she's rattling off made-up statistics.

B: Made-up!

S: Well she said that Canada sent troops to Vietnam, and it was wrong, was the thing I saw. That's a very minor, trivial historical error to make, compared to saying that there are no fossil evidence in evolution.

P: Exactly. Exaclty.

S: That's abjectly ignorant, and she's trotting out the whole evolution is a tautology nonsense from like 50 years ago? Please. I mean that's ...

B: What kind of blinders do you to have on to spout stuff like that about evolution. I mean, how blind ...

P: Christian ones.

J: Yeah, Bob. She's a true believer, and she's spouting her religion.

P: Absolutely.

J: And its coloring here logic.

S: What this comes from, is that her information comes 100% from secondary, hostile sources. She has never cracked an evolution science book in her life.

P: Right.

S: That's why she can say that, because she thinks that what creationists say about evolution is all that there is to be said about it. That that's true. She has no concept that she has been fed a 100% pack of abject lies and distortions.

P: Now, you know, I'd like to think that she has a concept and just doesn't care. That would give her a little more credibility, but maybe you're right.

S: Either way it's bad.

P: Either way it's bad.

S: What's worse, that she is just ignorant or that she's intellectually lazy and has no intellectual rigor when it comes to ...

P: It's the same thing that led to the President's disgraceful decision on stem cells, on stem cell research. It's the exact same thing.

R: Oh she knows her audience, though, and that's what they want to hear.

P: That's true.

R: That's why they're going to shell over the bucks for.

J: Let's face it, guys.

R: She's got us talking about her.

J: She's not hot enough to spout crap like that without it hurting her.

S: She's really not. She needs to eat a friggin' sandwich.

J: Eat something, will you, for Christ's sake.

P: By the way, Rebecca, I'm sure you'd agree that sandwich should have some meat in it, don't you think?

R: Even I would agree, yes. Yeah.

J: I love it. Never heard anyone say the word meat with so much venom in it. That was awesome, Perry.

P: Oh, man!

R: Sorry, Steve.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Penta Water (15:56)[edit]

S: Email number one come from Derek Ross. Derek writes:

"Hello, my name is Derek Ross. I was wondering of you have ever heard of Penta water or somthing like it. This stuff really cracks me up." (S: and he gives the link []) "Is Penta really a new composition of matter?" (S: nows he's quoting the website) "Yes. Penta displays characteristics unique from other water, including a higher boiling point, higher surface tension, and a lower viscosity."

S: I checked into pentawater. I don't know if you guys had a chance to do that.

B: Yeah, I did. It's such bunk.

R: Never heard of it.

S: It's total bunk.

B: It is.

S: It actually ties in nicely to the herbal stuff we were talking about before, because -- so it's basically magic water. There are always multiple versions of magic water on the market, and these guys claiming all kinds of health benefits. He gives the standard, ridiculous anecdotal story "But oh, I had all these aches and pains and then I realized that I needed this magical water, and I've cured all of my ails, and people who take it think it's wonderful." But it's udder nonsense. These claims are not validated, of course, in any (unintelligible).

P: Didn't we see James Randi eviscerate magic water on his Nova special?

B: Yeah, I got some ...

S: That was the Energized Water. It's basically the same.

P: Energized water?

R: It's all the same.

B: Well, I've got some quotes from Randi regarding this. He says "Folks, water is water. Its burned hydrogen, no more, no less." What a great term. I never heard of water referred to as burned hydrogen, but that's pretty cool. The molecules of H2O do not cluster as they claim. There's no such thing as an essence of water by any stretch of scientific reasoning or imagination. And he goes on, and it's just total baloney.

S: They commit a real doozy of a logical fallacy, too, on the website. They say that "We're comprised of 62% water," which I think that figure is wrong. I think it's more. "... and therefore we need pure, pure water in order to heal and be healthy and to get energy. This is the purest water on the planet." You can't even put a twist of lime in the water, it has to be absolutely pure. That's a non sequitur. That doesn't mean anything, because we're made of water we need to drink pure, pure water?

B: Plus, not only purity, they also spout these scientific terms that they use: molecular redefinition process, that it's supposed to reduce the size of the water molecule clusters, which using a patent-pending physics process. Of course ...

R: You know, over at the Penta Office they have a giant wheel, and they just spin it, and it lands I like "Oh, protein reconfiguration."

B: Right.

R: Throw it on the website.

S: The wheel of technobabble.

P: Molecular redefinition.

B: "Oxygenation" is kind of a buzzword these days, so it's "oxygenated," which supposedly makes it enter the bloodstream faster, and, of course, there is no evidence that any of that happens.

R: It's gets to the bloodstream faster.

S: It's just making it up out of whole cloth.

J: How is pentawater better than, you know, unawater?

S: Or triwater. I like triwater.

B: I like the docahedron water.

S: Do they drink pentawater at the Pentagon, I wonder?

R: It must be getting late. Let's move on.

Alcoholism (19:20)[edit]

S: Next email! This one comes from Frank Nameche, from New Boston, New Hampshire. Not the old Boston. He comes from New Boston.

R: Do you know what? Screw that. I don't know about these upstarts in New Boston.

P: Usurpers!

S: Hold your judgement for a moment, Rebecca. Frank writes:

I want to start by saying that I love the podcast. I am not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV, but I can sense BS a mile off and enjoy listening to like-minded thinkers. During my teen years I was "diagnosed" as an alcoholic and spent many years using that as an excuse to continue drinking. At that time I spent most days and nights drunk. At age 28 I decided to take ownership of my life and insisted that I was no longer an alcoholic and to put a stop to it. Now at 43 I am still sober and loving life. Is alcoholism a real disease as is the common wisdom, or is it a lot of BS and pandering to people in an overly PC society? On a side note, is there a chance that Rebecca will make a bikini or lingerie calendar any time soon? You could donate the proceeds to science education. Best regards from a true fan of Rebecca.

R: I love New Boston. Have I ever told you guys how much better New Boston is than old Boston? Wait, okay, well before we start talking about alcoholism, this would be a perfect time to mention that if Frank were a true fan he would know that I do in fact have a nudie calendar, The Skepchick Calendar, which we put out in 2006 and which we will be putting out again this year for 2007. There's going to be one of all women and also one with men, such as Phil Plait, who you heard on the podcast a few weeks ago, Michael Shermer, Richard Wiseman, a lot of cool people like that.

S: Very tasteful, too. Very tasteful.

R: Yeah, yeah, we'll go with that. Everything's relative, I guess.

P: As tasteful as a pack of nude skeptics can be.

R: So you can check the Skepchick website, though, for more news on that.

S: So is alcoholism a real disease?

R: No.

S: Well, this is a bit of a complicated question, and it gets to how you define disease, but I'll give you just a quick distillation. I think the short answer is "No," in that alcoholism is not a pathophysiological disease, meaning that we could say, yeah, there's some inherent abnormality in the way the brain is working that makes one an alcoholic. However, I do think it is reasonable to characterize alcoholism as a disorder. Disorder is a less of a specific term. It just means that there's something functionally out of whack that is a detriment to the individual. Certainly it's a pattern of behavior. There is an actual physical addiction component of it. In that way, there are changes to the receptors in the brain, but they're induced by the chronic exposure to alcohol itself. So, you know, it's partly behavioral, it's partly biological. It's better categorized as a disorder than a true disease, but that none of that implies that an individual is helpless in the face of it or that they cannot cure themselves or control their alcoholism through behavioral means. They may not be able to do it on their own. They may need either professional or personal help in doing so, but it should not be used as an excuse, because one is helpless in the face of it. That's actually my big beef with the twelve-step AA programs, is that ...

R: Oh, yeah. Their whole thing is giving up personal responsibility, and I think that ties in with calling it a disease.

S: Exactly.

R: Giving it over to a higher power.

S: And, again, I have to say I think the definitive treatment of this topic in popular culture was South Park, which they do so often.

B: Really.

S: I think one of the kids fathers was told that he was an alcoholic and it's a disease, and then he goes spiraling out-of-control, because he thinks that he's helpless in the face of this disease. And of course the kid, I guess it was Stan, had to talk him down, had to let him know that "You can control this. It's not something beyond your control," and they really went through the whole topic very well.

J: But they do have a physical addiction to it.

S: Yeah, there is definitely a physical addiction component to it, and there's a psychological, behavioral component to it as well.

J: But aren't all drugs that way, you know, drugs that people tend to abuse like heroin and cocaine and all that. There's really no difference between being an alcoholic and being a cokehead.

S: That is actually literally true from a neurological, biological point of view, in that the same exact changes happen in the same part of the brain in response to addiction to either cocaine or heroin or alcohol. Interestingly, nicotine is different. Biological changes in response to nicotine are different than the other drugs that I mentioned.

Well, let's -- we're getting short on time, so let's go on to our interview with Steve Mirsky.

Interview with Steve Mirsky (24:57)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Steve Mirsky. Steve, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

SM: Thank you very much -- pleasure to be here.

S: Steve Mirsky, for those of you who may not know, is the author of the Antigravity column in Scientific American. He's also one of the column editors for Scientific American.

SM: One of the article editors.

S: One of the article editors.

SM: Right, right.

S: He is also, now, the host of Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American magazine, which also happens to be the number one science podcast out there, at least according to iTunes, and doing a little Internet searching on you to see if I could dredge up some background information, I noticed that you were a Knight Fellow.

SM: Guilty.

S: What uh ...

SM: MIT, right, right.

S: And you have your bachelors from CUNY and a Masters in chemistry from Cornell, but you decided to give up a career in chemistry to go into science writing.

SM: Yeah, that was a mutual decision that the university and I made.


S: And interestingly, you also did a little acting before going into science.

SM: Uh, guilty again.

R: What sort of acting did you do?

SM: I, actually, right out of high school I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here in New York City, because I say here because I am in New York City right now. That's where I live, and that's were the magazine is -- Scientific American, and I spent a summer with the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. That was a long, long time ago, in fact, Lionel Barrymore was in the company, that's how long ago it was.

R: Oh wow! Pretty good.

SM: No, no, no, no. It was 1978, actually. Actually, who was in the company was Terrence Mann, who went on to become a very big-name Broadway actor and has been nominated for Tonys and some other people who you've seen on TV but you might not know their names. I did that for a little while, and then I decided to go to college, and it was interesting, because one of the reasons I decided to go to college was the realization that I really didn't know any science, and I thought that that was important to know in our modern world. And, actually, one of the reasons I decided that was because I happened to pick up during that summer a copy of Somerset Maugm's The Razors Edge, and I really related to the character in there, who was a young guy who was still kind of knocking around trying to find his path in life, and at one point, I think, in the book, he's just going to science lectures in Paris, and that's where I got that idea.

S: So do you think that your background in drama has helped either your science writing or your podcast personality?

SM: Well, yeah, I think there's no question that it's just made me kind of comfortable in front of a microphone, which really can't hurt in this brave new world of podcasting. And I also did some radio after I got out of school. I spent a year at a radio station being a morning man. I almost did a goofy morning man, but I really wasn't that goofy. So that's obviously, you know, a big help there, and yeah, definitely informs the writing too, because I know in the column I feel a real obligation to be entertaining as well as informative.

S: Hm, hm.

SM: You know there's definitely that the theater background comes into play there, pardon the play on words, to keep the audience engaged. It's great to impart the info, but they have to stay in the room 'til the end, so.

S: Absolutely. Yeah, we try to inject a little bit of humor into our podcast every now and then.

R: Really?

S: Try to keep it entertaining. That's why we brought Rebecca on-board.

R: I don't think anyone's noticed. Oh, is that why?

J: I thought that was my job.

R: Wait, I thought I was here for the intellectual vigor.

S: Yeah, yeah, that's we told you.

R: Whoooo!

S: Steve, you've earned a reputation as one of the few science writers who injects a lot of humor and satire into your writing, into the Antigravity column, and I pick up, certainly, a note of it, as well, in the Science Talk podcast as well.

SM: Yeah, a lot of that is just, you know, I've been very fortunate to have found a way to make a living basically being a smartass.

S: Right. But speaking of that. You've spoken for us before. You, and John Rennie has as well. John Rennie, of course, is the editor of Scientific American magazine, and you guys have a million and one hilarious stories from your experience with Scientific American with all of the letters and now emails that you get from readers, often irate readers. Before coming on the show you told me that you have some doozies to share with us. So why don't we get to that?

SM: Well I only actually have one here that's from an irate reader, and this just came in five days ago. It's really fresh, but let me back up a little bit and tell you that whenever we run an article about evolution, which is fairly common, because the name of the magazine is Scientific American, so there are going to be evolution articles in there. And it is always surprising to us how many people who are readers of the magazine are taken aback that we apparently are still one of the last holdouts, that we still believe in this obviously discredited farce of a theory of evolution.

J: How dare you!

R: You're on the fringe.

SM: We get these letters from people, and here, I'll won't bother to mention the email address, of course, and the subject -- apparently we did an article on a new fossil find, which I think was on our website. And here's the little note we got: "I am not 'scientifically' smart," the writer begins. The word scientifically is in quotation marks, by the way. And we could pretty much stop right there, I guess.

B: Right..

R: Well, okay, thank you.

B: Next topic.

J: With a disclaimer like that, I mean what a setup. "I'm an idiot, but let me continue."

SM: But I'll share the rest with you, too. "I am not 'scientifically' smart, but can you tell me how you can claim these new fossils to be the age they are when there is evidence of human, that is Homo sapiens footprints intermingled with dinosaur footprints in numerous sites around the world, which refutes either the age of dinosaurs or the age of man, and, furthermore, the fact that fossils that were identified in the scientific world as being millions of years old are suddenly discovered to be remains of species that are still alive and well today. I guess the question I am asking is why anyone should believe 'science'?" and the word science is in quotation marks, question mark. I don't know what to say.

R: I refer you to the discovery of the Flintstones by Hanna-Barbera. QED.

SM: It just brings to mind we often get letters from people who bring up the same point, and they really think they've caught us in something. They write: "If humans evolve from apes, how come there are still apes? Huh? Answer that if you're so smart over there."

R: You got us!

B: That sound you hear is the theory of evolution collapsing.

SM: (unintelligible) My goodness, we never thought of that, and the thousands of biologists around the world, and, you know, we shouldn't necessarily just defer to authority, but it's a lot of really smart people out there with doctorates, and they never thought of it, and you sitting at home, wherever you are, and having read maybe five or six hundred words on the subject, you figured that one out and challenged the scientific establishment with it.

J: On top of that, a self-proclaimed idiot in science is going to debunk every scientist out there.

S: We talked about this briefly last week about the argument from authority and how that really relates to scientific consensus and the authority of actually-working scientists, and this brings it up again. There's a certain amount of absolute arrogance combined with ignorance and naïveté about what the status of scientific information really is, to think that you have this knowledge of this piece of information that destroys an entire discipline of science and trumps the opinions of thousands of working scientists. People don't stop to think about the level of arrogance that that opinion entails.

B: Hubris.

SM: Yeah, it's a wonderful combination: arrogance and ignorance.

S: Yes.

SM: You put those two things together, and, you know, wow!

S: That's every creationist.

SM: And look all around you just for all the examples of what that combination has given us today.

S: Right, right.

J: Steve, do you bother even writing back to those letters anymore?

SM: You know, I tend not to write back to anybody who's sent in negative mail, but I can't help myself sometimes. I think that's the way John Rennie feels about it, as well. I'm not sure. This particular letter I read did not come to me personally. It came to the magazine, and I don't know if anyone has responded to that, but I did respond a few months ago. I had done a column concerning the penguin movie March of the Penguins, right.

S: March of the Penguins: an excellent movie.

J: I just saw that a little while ago.

SM: And you know how a lot of people picked up on that movie as being a real tribute to family values and proof of intelligent design. So I did a column about how the life history that is depicted in that movie is neither, because, for one thing, they're penguins, you know. They don't have a moral system that's comparable to humanity's. It's different. You can't look to them for your family values, and, for another thing, if you're looking at this whole business about keeping the eggs balanced on your feet in the 70 degree below-zero weather there as evidence of intelligent design, we're never going to be able to talk you out of that idea.


S: Right.

SM: But I did get email from a couple of irate readers about that. One fellow said that why should they believe anything that I write, because I'm still only part ape.

S: Hm, hm.

B: Touchè!

R: Take that!

SM: And I did write back to that fellow and said that I was grievously insulted by his categorization of me as still only part ape, because I am fully ape and proud of it.

R: And technically, you are also part penguin, so maybe you do have some morals.

SM: Well, I'm a biped, you know, so I have that in common.

R: Kind of.

SM: I have that in common. And there was another letter that came in about that that we did publish. We were going to publish the other one, the letter that accused me of being only part ape. I had the Huxley quote all ready to go, the famous Huxley retort to Bishop Wilberforce.

S: Yes.

SM: Because the guy actually called me part ape, it was like "What a gift!"

S: A real softball.

SM: If people don't know it, I have it here. Wilberforce said to Huxley in this argument that was going on about evolution shortly after the publication of Origin Of Species, Wilberforce says "Is it on his grandfather's or his grandmother's side that Mr. Huxley claims descent from the apes?", or at least that's what he is alleged to have said, and then Huxley's alleged reply was "As to whether I would prefer to have a miserable ape for grandfather or a man highly-endowed by nature and possessed of great means of influence and yet who employs those faculties and that influence for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape." So I was really excited about our running that reply in the magazine, but the fellow who wrote in apologized prior to publication, so ...

B: Aaahhhh.

SM: So we thought the decent thing to do was to not publicly eviscerate him like that.

R: Damn your ape-like decency!

SM: We did get another letter concerning that same column, and we did publish that and my reply. Let me share that with you, because that's kind of fun. This fellow from Washington state writes in: "I would appreciate it if Steve Mirsky did not jam his religion of evolution down our throats. He just cannot get off touting his religion as the only true religion, repeating his mantra again in ..." (and he names the particular column which was called the Trials of Life). "Thank you," he continues, "for reprimanding Mirsky about proselytizing his personal religion instead of reporting on science." So, that was the letter we got, and we published it, and we published my reply, which was "(this fellow's name) his faith in his conclusion." Let's say his name was Smith. "Smith's faith in his conclusion that I have been reprimanded is unfounded. He causes one to ponder, however, the benefits of decreeing evolution to be a religion. Biologists could tap the vast amount of research funding suddenly available through the White House office of faith-based and community initiatives, and academic departments would receive tax exempt status. Alas, evolution remains science."

J: Yeah.

S: What these letters show, just sort of a sociological thing, is it supports at least anecdotal evidence supporting the claim that creationism hurts science in general. It's not just about the theory of evolution. That these people are absolutely confused and mudlled about what even constitutes science. And, in fact, the first letter you said he proclaimed his distrust for the institution of science based upon the issue of evolution. So we're seeing firsthand the evidence for the real pervasive harm that something like creationism does.

SM: Yeah, absolutely.

J: Do you know what I'd like to do. Next time you might want to say this to someone: "Okay, let me put a little idea in your head. Would you rather get on an airplane that was designed by engineers, or would you rather get on an airplane designed by priests?"

SM: Well.

J: People, I guess, they're not realizing that science permeates everything that surrounds us. I mean, our cell phones is one thing, and take any little thing: your car, everything that we've come to grow to be -- to rely on. It's a part of our daily lives. They don't get it.

SM: The appliance that I like to bring up in those kinds of discussions is the toaster oven.

J: Yeah.

SM: Just because I think it's funny, that's all. You know, something like "Well, I hope your toaster oven still works, because without science, it's not going to work."

S: The other thing that's ironic about these letters: they often, while in one breath they are decrying the institution and the methods of science and also the conclusions of science with regard to evolution, but they're using scientific arguments, at least what they think are scientific arguments, to do so.

SM: Right, right.

S: They're citing evidence of studies. Well, if science is so bad, why are you even bothering to cite scientific evidence?

SM: Right, right.

S: It's inherent hypocrisy in their style of argument.

SM: Well we get letters also from people who point out that since science changes it's mind from time to time, and you know what I mean by that. New information comes in, and you have to change your worldview based on it. Because it does that, they say "that shows you that science is inherently weak and does not offer you anything, whereas your other belief systems, which are stable and immune to new information really, you know, give you the kind of bed rock that you need in this world."

J: Steve, how do you like running a podcast, and how's that going for you?

SM: I really enjoy it. It's a lot of fun. I've been fortunate enough to have some entertaining and stimulating guests. We had E. O. Wilson on the podcast that went up on June 21. A couple of Nobel laureates have come on. I find scientists fascinating people to talk to in general. For the most part, they are happy to talk to journalists, and it's a very pleasant interaction, and it's a pleasant way to spend your time. I have had the experience as a journalist of chasing lawyers down courtroom steps with a microphone trying to get a comment. Science journalism is a different world. I think for the most part it's explanatory journalism rather than investigative, although there's obviously investigative journalism going on, and it has to be going on, especially with the current misuse of what appears to be scientific information in a lot of cases. But doing the podcast -- it's a lot of fun. I learn a lot. I just think that -- and it's also great to get a distillation, because, as you know, if you're working scientist, you can spend years doing research, and it might not be that interesting on a day-to-day basis, but we're fortunate. We get the essence of it that's been distilled down. So, it's a lot of fun.

S: Yeah, I agree. I think we've had lots of venues in which to try to pursue our skeptical activism, our science education, and I think, all things considered, the podcast has been for us the most successful in terms of reaching people, and it's a very accessible format. You get to talk to a lot of very interesting people who are involved directly, either in teaching science or in doing science. Yeah, it's great.

B: From all over the world.

S: Yeah. From all over the world.

SM: Yeah, that, too. Yeah, you can just access the entire planet; it's terrific. Okay, I wanted to share another letter. It's one of my all-time favorites. It's not inflammatory in any way. It came in October 22, 2005. The subject line: Boy Scout letter.

S: Okay.

R: I already love it.

J: I'm scared.

SM: "Dear editors. Hello. I am a Boy Scout of America." (No other punctuation, by the way.) "I am writing this letter for a Scout requirement in the communications badge." (the word communications is spelled wrong.) "I think that your job must be hard, because you probably sit around ..." (probably spelled p-r-o-b-l-e-y) "You probley sit around and edit the magazine all day." (magazine spelled wrong)

J: Love it!

SM: "The magazine" (again spelled wrong) "that you edit it is a wonderful" (spelled wrong) "look at the world of science. I enjoy this magazine very much. Than (sic) you for your time." And then the icing on the cake: "Your viewer, David."

B: Whoa! David spelled wrong.

R: Wow! That's great. It's funny because it's true.

SM: I just ...

R: That's great.

SM: It doesn't need any comment.

J: Yeah, I know. It is what it is.

R: Did you write back and see if he got the badge?

S: Oh, I don't think we could. We were laughing so hard, I don't think we could control our finger movements, there.

R: I'm a little curious.

J: You should have told him that you would have given him an internship as long as he always wore his outfit, you know.

S: A little boy scout around the office. Steve. in your latest Antigravity, and also in a recent podcast, you mentioned the topic of birding.

SM: Hm, hm.

S: And in your bio, I noticed that you noted nature photography. I think it was nature photography is one of your hobbies.

SM: Right.

S: So are you now or have you ever been a birder?

SM: Have you no sense of decency at long last?


SM: I've just been wanting to say that to somebody for a long time, and it just seemed (unintelligible). So, yeah, I'm a birder. I love watching birds, and I do a lot of it in Florida, where my dad lives, actually. And birdwatching in Florida, it's so easy. The birds are all 4 feet tall, you know.

R: And bright pink!

SM: It's just fabulous: giant, great blue herons and great egrets and, you know, you do see the occasional roseate spoonbill, and I don't think I've ever seen any flamingos, actually out there, but ...

R: You've never seen a flamingo out there?

S: Not in the wild.

SM: Not in the wild, no.

R: Have you checked in the suburbs, because I've seen them all over there.

SM: Really.

R: They're standing on one leg.

SM: Yeah. Well, there are actually a couple of hundred of them, I think, within a couple miles of my house here, so.

R: Well, there you go.

SM: Yeah, because I live near the Bronx zoo, and they have a large flamingo colony.

S: Part of the reason why I ask is because I'm a birder as well, I confess. Although I've only been into it for a few years, and largely to encourage my older daughter, who is now six, to get into birding and to encourage her interest in birds.

SM: Hm, hm.

S: Which goes along really well with your recent Antigravity column where you talk about it as a way of introducing children to being a naturalist and into science in general. I found that to be very much the case. I mean, there's a lot of science in birding.

SM: Yeah, and there is just the pleasure of observation of these living things, and noting their behavior, and seeing things you didn't expect to see. And actually, let me plug my podcast a little bit, because E. O. Wilson is the guest on the June 21 podcast, and he talks about how as a kid, you know, he didn't have soccer at 3 o'clock and his oboe lesson at 5 o'clock, and then at 7 o'clock the whatever else, you know how kid's lives today are like a CEO's day planner, and he was talking about the importance of just letting kids loose in nature to observe things and learn things on their own. And, you know, obviously birding is a great way to do that, I think.

S: Yeah, I agree, because I think birds are inherently fascinating and they're beautiful. It's very easy to get kids into it, and I think they learn how to master a large body of knowledge, just on their own will, because they enjoy it, and I think that gives them some generic skills that will serve them well throughout life.

SM: Yeah, absolutely. And just, you know, the patience and the observational skills and that whole package of sitting back and getting outside yourself a little bit and just watching things and then slowly starting to put the pieces together and learning things on your own.

S: Yeah.

SM: You can really do that birding.

S: Yeah, I highly recommend it. Often like on our message board, the issue came up of how to parent skeptical or scientific kids, and I think birding is a great example. I've had the experience now of getting into it late in life, and the difference -- one of the things I learned was that I was surrounded by all these species of birds that were completely invisible to me.

SM: Yeah.

S: Now I can recognize, you know, hundreds of species of birds. I've identified at least a hundred in my own backyard, because I have a couple of feeders in my yard now.

SM: Hm, hm.

S: And they were there my whole life, and maybe before I could name and recognize maybe a dozen or so or twenty species of birds, and then there were like just small black birds, you know.

SM: Right "LBJs".

S: Right.

SM: LBJs: little brown jobs.

S: Uhm, right. So and now I'm getting my daughter to distinguish a male from a female downy woodpecker. The power of observation that you develop is really incredible. You get attuned to these fine details you didn't even know were there before, and I think it's been a great experience for us.

B: Steve and Steve, what are your favorite birds? Of all time?

SM: Ha, ha, ha. My favorite bird of all time, so we can count the extinct ones you mean.

R: Yeah, well if there were a bunch of birds in a wrestling ring, which one would come out on top?

J: There is so obviously one coolest bird out there.

B: And I know it.

R: What's that, Jay?

J: The American Eagle.

B: No, no.

J: Have you ever seen one up front?

S: It is a gorgeous bird.

B: I have. It gorgeous and impressive. I could beat it.

J: Go ahead.

B: A Phorusrhacidae.

S: Hm, hm.

R: What's that?

B: Two and a half million years ago, known as the Terror Birds.

SM: Oh, yeah.

R: Ooh, I like that.

B: Ten feet tall, a thousand pounds, could swallow a dog in one gulp.

J: That's pretty cool.

R: I can actually beat that, though.

J: Tell me.

R: I think that the all-time winner ould have to be a baby little blue penguin.

B: Okay.

R: I mean, have you seen those things? They would melt the heart of the terror bird and it would die on the spot from the cuteness.

SM: Hm.

J: Hey, Steve, do you go into Central Park to do this as well?

SM: You know that we did the podcast of a recording of a few people in Central Park talking about birding and about the park's ecosystem, really, and it was the first time I have ever gone birding in Central Park, and I've lived in New York all my life.

S: Hm, hm.

R: Wow.

SM: You know, one of the great things is, you don't have to go anywhere to look at birds. They're always around, and I'll just look at them in my backyard. I've done, just as an experiment, I think I mentioned it in the column that I sat out on the porch for an hour just to see how many species I'd get, and in my own backyard, which is not big, I got twenty species in an hour.

S: Yeah.

R: Neat.

SM: And as I said, I do a lot of it in Florida at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge and some other places.

S: I've been to a few down there. My parents also have a winter home down there, and Florida's wonderful. I'm also a bird photographer, but far and away my best bird picture is of a white ibis, which I just caught in a perfect frame and the perfect pose.

B: It looks lika a postcard.

S: Yeah, it really is a gorgeous bird, and it's a white bird with this downward-curving bill that's just gorgeous. You didn't get a chance to tell us your favorite bird.

SM: I think I have to go with the great blue heron.

S: Yeah.

SM: I think they're just majestic animals and ...

S: Let me make one more observation about birding before we get off this topic. The interesting thing I discovered about birders is that they are really good skeptics.

B: Oh, right.

S: Because you talk to birders about identifying birds in the wild and how you know when you've seen a bird, and they've evolved a lot of good, hard-core skeptical rules that would sound very familiar to any skeptic.

SM: Hm, hm.

S: Common birds occur commonly. If you've seen a bird it's more likely to be a common bird than a rare bird. It's more likely to be one that's in your region than not native to your region, and they have lots of rules of evidence about how clearly you saw it, did you hear its call, was there any photographic evidence, and this also came into play with the recent, apparent sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker ...

SM: Right.

S: ... and that ensued about that. Was it really the ivory-billed? Could it have been a pileated woodpecker, and how would you know the difference? In fact, David Sibley, who is a famous bird author, wrote a chapter about this in one of his books that I read, and it's about how to be skeptical about identifying birds. Like "Wow, this is a great piece of skeptical writing," and you could apply this to eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster.

SM: Yeah, absolutely. If you go out in a group at Loxahatchee, multiple sightings to verify things like that. You reminded me, though. Let me tell you about a little movie that I found that I don't think at lot of people have seen. It's called Rare Birds, and it gets into the other side of birding, which can be the gullibility, because the whole plot of the movie -- it's this little Canadian movie with William Hurt -- is that there's a restaurant out in the middle of nowhere that's going out of business. So they plant the idea in the media that they have sighted a bird there that shouldn't be there. So it's an exotic. And, you know how birders can be. They start coming in from all over the world to try to see this bird, and the plan is that once they arrive, that will save the restaurant, because it's the only place they'll be able to eat when they're there. So it's really a cute, funny, little movie, and I highly recommend it.

J: Well I own a parrot, so I love birds. I'm a total bird fan.

R: Do you?

J: I love birds. Oh, yeah.

R: I didn't know you had a parrot.

J: I have a red Lord Amazon.

SM: I did a parrot article a few, uh, couple of years ago, because they found a diary of Einstein's housekeeper or a friend of Einstein who said that she had given Einstein a parrot for his seventy-fifth birthday, and do you remember any of this? This was in the news a couple of years ago, I think.

S: I missed that.

B: Is it still alive?

SM: Well, that's about as far as the information that we got goes, but you know that, as you said, the parrot can outlive you. And so we thought about what if that parrot was still alive? And what if it spent a lot of time with Einstein?

B: Oh, yeah. Right.

SM: You can find that article in the Scientific American archive.

R: Way to work that in.

J: Wouldn't that be funny if locked away somewhere in that parrot's head there was some equation that scientists would drool over.

SM: Right.

R: Sorry, Steve. What's that web address again.

SM: That's

R: Thank you. I'm going to look that up right now.

B: He's got his podcast voice on.

R: Yeah, that's cool. I actually -- I love that. That's the great thing about the Internet is that you can just call up stuff like that.

SM: And do you know something? That article, that column is, I believe, less than three years old, which means it still should be available on our regular website, free for nothing.

R: Excellent.

J: Steve, do you have a favorite skeptic out there, like Penn and Teller or Randi or ...

R: Besides me.

SM: Well, does Dawkins count?

S: Sure.

B: Absolutely.

SM: I like Dawkins a lot. I like Penn a lot, although I was disappointed in a program he did where he had some good things to say about some people who I don't think necessarily deserve it. I wish I could be more specific, but it had to do with -- there was a certain congressman who he kind of buddied up to who was trying to do some evisceration to the Endangered Species Act, I believe.

S: Oh, I think I know who you are talking about.

SM: And there were property rights involved.

R: A Libertarian?

SM: Yeah, exactly, his libertarian streak had gotten the better of him on that issue, I think.

S: It has on a couple of issues. Usually when I don't completely agree with their take on topics, like on their Showtime show Bullshit, it's because they're pushing some libertarian agenda.

SM: Yeah, it was that. And Randi, of course, is great. I know you've had him on your podcast a couple of times, and ...

S: Sure.

SM: ... I actually -- I went to a talk he gave it a AAAS meeting in Washington. It must be about ten years ago at this point. AAAS -- American Association for the Advancement of Science. And I happened to sit in the seat, in the audience, that he had planted part of this trick he did, under, so I wound up being the guy who had to help him with the trick, and I have no idea how he did what he did, and it was just amazing. And, wouldn't you know, wouldn't it be Randy's greatest trick if he really was a magician, and he's just going around telling people that there's a natural explanation for everything he does?

R: He's been accused of that on multiple occasions, and so, yes, not quite as crazy as it you might expect.

B: There you go.

S: (unintelligible) Well, we are -- actually, this went very quickly.

B: Oh, wow!

S: We are actually running out of time.

R: Aw!

S: Steve, we really enjoyed having you on our podcast.

SM: Oh, it's my pleasure.

S: We hope to have you back again, and before we get rid of you, I wanted to mention that you will be talking for the New England Skeptical Society on Saturday, July 15. So, if any of our listeners out there are in the New England area in mid-July in Connecticut, specifically, check out the NESS website for specific directions and time, etc., but Steve Mirsky's going to be talking to us live and in person.

SM: You know, the New England area, what are you talking about? Caribou, Maine? People are not coming down from there.

S: They will come.

R: You'd be surprised.

S: This is not far people from Maine.

SM: That's got to be 300,000 miles away.

B: 300,000!

R: (Maine accent) "You can't get there from heyah".

B: Farther than the Moon.

SM: And I say 300,000 miles, because I think that has to do with birding and an episode of The Honeymooners, where Ed Norton says that that bird shouldn't be within 300,000 miles of here, which is just a really funny thing to say.

R: You win for the most obscure joke of the night. Good job!

B: There you go.

J: Steve, I look forward to meeting you in person. I'll see you up there.

SM: Likewise.

S: All right, Steve. Well, thanks again. It was a pleasure.

B: Thank you.

R: Thanks, Steve.

J: Steve, if you need a lift, give us a call.

SM: Okay.

J: We live right near you.

SM: Oh, perfect.

S: All right. Take care.

SM: You, too

S: Well, again, very enjoyed having Steve Mirsky on the show. He always very enjoyable to talk to, and I'm looking forward to his lecture for us on July 15.

J: Yeah, he's a really cool guy. He lives pretty close to us, too. I didn't know that.

B: We've got to have him back soon.

S: Yeah.

R: Let's!

S: Definitely. He's a good, funny guy. One of the few real humorists writing science columns. Well, let's do a Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (60:30)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, and one is fictitious, and I challenge both the audience and my esteemed panel of skeptics to figure out which one is the fake. Now there's a theme this week -- haven't had a theme in a little while. These are three news items all coming out of Georgia Tech. Guys down at Georgia Tech have been quite busy. You ready?

J: Let's do it.

S: All right. Item number one: Georgia Tech researchers have developed a fuel combustion engine that produces almost zero emissions. Item number two: Georgia Tech researchers have developed a system to identify and neutralize digital video and still cameras to prevent unwanted photography. And item number three: Georgia Tech researchers together with a team from IBM announced the creation of the the first terrahertz silicon germanium transistor. Jay, why don't you go first?

J: I'll pick the pentawater one. That's bullshit. Okay, let's review these again.

P: Zero emission engines, unwanted photos, digital photos, and a fancy transistor.

J: The zero emission engine, Steve, can you tell me what the fuel type is?

S: Any combustion fuel. Any fuel that you can combust in a combustion chamber.

J: Zero emission engine.

S: You know, like gasoline.

J: Yeah, okay.

S: Or rocket fuel or jet fuel, you know.

J: I think I'm not going to pick that one. The second one was they can neutralize any kind of ...

S: Identify and neutralize digital cameras, video or still.

J: That's bullshit. Nope. I pick that one.

S: Okay. All right. Perry?

P: That one's true, about the digital cameras. I saw the story. I don't know if the tech actually works, but I'll tell you, if it does, they're going to make a lot of money. That's a great piece of technology. Zero emissions, combustibles, and that fancy transistor. I don't know enough about it. We do so much of that stuff nowadays, you know, it doesn't seem that spectacular. I'll go with the zero emissions. If you can burn gasoline with no emissions, I'd like to see that.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, I agree with Perry. I feel a little dirty. I also read the article about the digital and the thing. I agree that the zero emissions thing sounds way too good to be true, because if that were true, I think that ...

S: Almost zero. It says almost zero.

R: Almost zero?

J: Oh, that was almost zero.

R: Meh. Well then that's relative. I'm still going to say that is a little too good to be true.

S: Alrighty. Okay, Bob?

B: Tell me the third one again, Steve.

S: Georgia Tech researchers together with a team from IBM announced the creation of the first terahertz silicon germanium transistor. So this is a 1000 GHz, and to put this in perspective, the computers that we're running today are like 2 to 3 GHz.

B: Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's baloney. The first one, yeah, they did do that. They did create a combustion engine with close to zero emissions. Something about mixing it with oxygen. I thought that had been done before. I'm not sure why that would produce close to zero emissions, but, apparently, it's true. The digital nullifier is true. They somehow detect the CCD on, say, a camera. They can detect it, and then they basically shine like a light into it, a laser light or something to completely swamp it, and I'm not sure how well that would work, but that's pretty much the idea behind it. So three must be false. Doesn't sound right.

S: Okay, well someone's been reading the science sites recently. We'll just take them in order. Number one is, in fact, true.

R: Damn!

S: Georgia Tech researchers have made an almost-zero emission combustion chamber.

R: I actually got one wrong. Oh, no!

S: You did.

B: Back to zero.

S: You broke your record.

P: It wasn't to me, you dunce.

S: The emissions that they're talking about are nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, which are primary causes of air pollution, and those are basically produced from inefficiency in the burning process. You want to completely burn the fuel with oxygen to get the most energy out of it and to produce the least amount of contaminants, of emissions. The basic point with this technology -- Bob, you were pretty much on there -- is that because of the shape of the chamber and the way they work the airflow, that they keep an even temperature throughout the burning process. Usually it's hot spots in the burning of the combustion chamber that produces ...

B: Right. And it's low temperatures, isn't it Steve. It's not really high temperature.

S: Low temperature. It's a lower temperature burning. Its more evenly distributed. There's no hotspots in the combustion chamber, and that minimizes the emissions to almost zero. And NASA has been working on this, and, actually, the real breakthrough here -- it's not like the first time that anyone has developed this kind of chamber, but they designed in a way that's actually feasible for large-scale manufacturing, like you could actually have one of these things in a car or a jet, not just on a NASA project. Let's go to number two. Number two was the system to neutralize digital and video cameras, and, yes, that is also true. Several of you read that on the news items recently. Bob was correct. Basically, the use like a laser to scan a small area like a movie theater, theoretically, or a high-tech lab where you want to prevent espionage, and it picks up the camera CCD. It has like a three stage scanning process. One just to see the reflection that may be a CCD, and then it hones in on it, and it identifies the type of reflection to show that it's actually a CCD, and then it shines a white light that would wash out any photography, either still or video, without causing any biological harm, so it won't make you go blind or something if it hits you in the eye, apparently. Definitely the theaters, the film industry would be very interested in this to prevent pirating of movies, and any place where you would not want photography in order to avoid, say, industrial or other types of espionage would be interested in this kind ...

R: Nude beaches.

S: Nude beaches, though that's kind of a bigger venue. So number three is a fiction.

B: Now, Steve, did you twist that number three from another IBM advance that basically they created a 500 GHz chip?

S: Yes.

B: Okay. That's where you got that from.

S: This is basically the exact same headline, but I went from 500 GHz, which is a half a terahertz, to a full terahertz. I doubled it.

R: You sneaky bastard.

B: You also changed chip to transistor.

S: No, that was the title of the article.

B: Really.

S: It's a silicon germanium transistor.

P: Yeah.

S: They broke the 500 GHz or half a terahertz mark, although, to get those speeds, which again is about 250 times as fast as what's currently being mass-produced -- to get those speeds, though, you have to supercool it. At room temperatures, it's comes down to about 350 GHz, which is still quite impressive.

B: That is.

P: A snail! Snail-like.

S: What this shows -- this is a prototype. It's not the kind of thing that you could mass-produce, yet. But what this just shows theoretically is that the silicon technology has a long way to go before we hit any physical limits, that Moore's law is still well on track with the silicon technology, that we're going to continue to double transistor speeds.

P: I didn't know there was a botany component, though. Geranium?

B: Geranium?

S: Germanium.

P: Isn't that what people in Germany speak?

R: Stooopppp!

B: Oh, man.

R: Stop! It hurts!

B: Steve, that might get us a couple more generations, but it's just putting off the inevitable.

S: It's true. I wouldn't mind having half-a terahertz on my desk. I'd be happy with that.

B: Yeah.

S: At least this decade. So number three was fake. Number one and number two are correct. Bob got this week's correct.

J: I knew the answer, too.

R: Uh, uh.

S: Rebecca, you broke your long streak of getting them correct.

R: Yeah, well I just want to, you know, I don't want anybody to think I'm cheating, so I need to throw one every now and then.

S: Yeah, you need this for the street cred, right?

R: Yeah.

Skeptical Puzzle (69:34)[edit]

S: So I wanted to introduce a new segment to the podcast this week. I like to experiment with different segments and see how they work. I would just like to end the show with a very brief skeptical puzzle or brain teaser, and these could be either bits of skeptical trivia or actual logic puzzles or whatnot. I'll the give the puzzle at the end of this show, and the next week we'll give the answer. So you guys are not going to be guessing this week. You'll just be listening and commenting on how cool it is.

R: Thank you for that instruction.

S: Okay. Here's the puzzle.

R: (sarcastically) Oh, that's cool!

J: Number three.

R: Sorry.

S: This is a puzzle about two men. Both of these men were Freemasons. Man A invented an instrument that Man B used as part of a pseudoscience that he invented. Man A also famously debunked the claims of Man B. The puzzle is: who were these two men and what was the instrument? So we will leave you with that conundrum until next week.

R: Fascinating. That was very cool, Steve.

S: I hope you guys enjoyed that.

P: Highly, highly cool.

R: Thanks, Steve.


Message Board Update (60:57)[edit]

S: So the message board has been increasingly active. The audience is growing and growing, and there's lots of lively discussions on there. If you have not joined our message board yet, please give it a look. Sign up just to read the entries or participate. Our web site is continuing to evolve and to expand, both of the Skeptics' Guide website and the NESS website, so pay us a visit.

NESS Talks (61:21)[edit]

S: As I said before when we had Steve Mirsky on, he's going to be speaking for us. If you are going to be in the New England or Connecticut area on Saturday, July 15, he'll be speaking at the next New England Skeptical Society meeting, and the Saturday after that, on July 22, if you're going to be in the Boston area -- Rebecca is hosting a NESS talk in Boston.

R: Yes, you can actually meet me.

J: Clothing optional.

S: All the details will be on the NESS website. The lecturer for the July 22 meeting in Boston, I hear rumors that this is a skeptical activist with years of experience both lecturing and talking about skeptical topics, and he's going to ...

R: Sometimes interesting skeptical topics, too.

S: Sometimes. The host of the number one skeptical podcast out there, and we'll be talking on intelligent design.

P: Yep, Art Bell. Can't wait.

S: So, get your plane tickets now. Again, thanks again for joining me guys. Always a good time.

R: Thanks, Steve. See you next week.

P: See you next week.

J: Good night.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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