SGU Episode 49

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SGU Episode 49
28th Jun 2006

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SGU 48 SGU 50
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

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Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is Wednesday, June 28, 2006. We are having a special episode this week; the skeptical rogues are on vacation. Now, don't worry; they'll be back next week. The—actually, the only reason they are out this week is because I'm out of town, actually vacationing in the wilds of Cumberland, Maryland, which means I do not have access to broadband. Now, many of you may not realize this, but we record our show each week completely over the Internet, using Voice over IP applications. In fact, each of us, myself and all of the skeptical rogues, the entire panel of skeptics, are in different cities at the time that we record. Rebecca Watson is in Boston and the rest of us are in different cities in Connecticut. So, without access to broadband, I have no way of conferencing with the other members of the show. We decided rather than skipping a week that I would do a solo show just so that we have something to hold over our loyal fans until next week. Now, the format of the show this week will be pretty similar to other shows; we have no guest and, obviously, no group discussion. I will still do a Science or Fiction at the end of the program. Although, of course, the panel of skeptics will not be here to offer their thoughts, but this one will be just for you. I'll also do a Name that Logical Fallacy. In addition, I will give the answer to last week's skeptical puzzle and give a new skeptical puzzle.

Questions and E-mails (2:02)[edit]

But the bulk of this show, I decided to get caught up on all of the great e-mails that we get. I'll take this opportunity to thank our listeners once again for sending in so many great questions and e-mails. We certainly do appreciate the feedback; the constructive criticism which helps us improve our show. And the questions are great topics for discussion. In fact, we have so many good e-mails now that we can only touch on a small percentage of them on the show. So I figured this week I would get caught on some of our better e-mail questions. So let's get right to them.

Darwin's "Theory" of Evolution. (2:40)[edit]

The first e-mail comes from Curt Nelson from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Curt writes:

Dear Skeptics,

Im an avid listener. Thanks for your show. In listening to your recent podcast[1] on evolution 101, I heard you (Steve)

—that's me, the host—

say something I think really confuses people who want to understand evolution. You referred to the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution, and I know what you meant by that, but I'm sure it's confusing to a lot of people. Maybe it even sounds wishy-washy to those who tend to be sympathetic to creationism. When anyone discusses Darwin's theory of evolution, a couple of things should be defined up-front:
1) Evolution is a fact; things do evolve (but without changing into a new species, as far as has been observed).
2) Darwin's theory is that evolution causes speciation, and is the mechanism that produced all the magnificent life we know, starting from bacteria. This is a huge leap from the fact of evolution. (For what it's worth, I believe this.) Keep up the good work.
Sincerely yours,


Well, Curt, this is a topic that does come up quite frequently when discussing evolution, especially in the context of creationism. Creationists are wont to say that evolution is quote-unquote "only a theory", although I'm usually fairly careful in referring to the fact versus the theory of evolution, and I do take exception to the way that Curt defines it in his e-mail. Now, this has been pointed out in many venues before, but I will take time to go over this briefly. The word "theory" as used by scientists is different than the way it is used colloquially by the public at large. Typically the word "theory" is used to refer to a guess or a speculation or assumption, but scientists use it to refer to an explanatory system; an idea or a unifying concept that brings together multiple lines of evidence, multiple phenomenon into one ex—one cohesive explanatory system. It doesn't really say anything about how much evidence there is for or against the theory. A theory can, in fact, range the entire spectrum from discredited to highly speculative to established beyond all reasonable doubt. I would characterize the theory of evolution as being established sufficiently to be considered a scientific fact, meaning over a very long period of time—150 years, about—it has withstood any attempt at falsifying it, and there have been many potential ways in which evolutionary theory could have been falsified. There have been numerous independent lines of evidence all validating the theory of evolution to such a high degree, and we have reviewed many of them on this show before. For example, fossil evidence, transitional fossils, morphological pattern of species occurring in an evolutionary pattern of relatedness; the molecular evidence is, I think, the most profound and is irrefutably shows all life on Earth is not only related to each other but is related to each other in a branching evolutionary pattern. So, evolutionary theory deserves the label of established scientific fact, which means it's the best explanation we have for now. I will also further point that within the over-arching theory of evolution, there are several sub-theories that are worth mentioning, and often we talk theories within evolution; we're talking about one of three kinds of theories:

One, there are theories of mechanism, meaning how does evolution come about? Now, Darwin's theory is—refers specifically to the mechanism of survival of the fittest, or differential survival based upon adaptive characteristics. Or you can also state it as natural selection acting upon variation within populations. That's Darwin's theory of survival of the fittest, which is, again, just one kind of theory within evolution.

The other kind of theory are theories that relate to the tempo and pace of evolution. For example, how do species, populations, and ecosystems change over geological time? Darwin's theory of tempo is known as Darwinian Gradualism, which is the idea that all species pretty much are changing slowly and imperceptibly all the time. This idea, this sort of Darwinian Gradualism still has its adherents, but there are competing newer theories such as the theory of punctuated equilibrium first proposed by Stephen Gould and Niles Eldredge. This competing theory says that species are stable most of the time and that this equilibrium, this stability is punctuated by brief—geologically brief, meaning five to fifty thousand years—episodes of rapid evolution and speciation. So, and in fact, creationists have exploited disagreements about these subsets of theories of evolution to—they've misinterpreted them as doubt about the overall theory of whether or not things in fact evolved or not.

The third type of theory is theories of relation: what's related to what; what evolved from what? For example, the notion that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs, which fit under this category. And again, that is perhaps the most speculative part of evolution at this point in time. We have a very incomplete puzzle of the history of the tree of life, of evolutionary life or phylogenetic relationships. And again, the ideas about what evolved into what are changing all the time; almost every time we pull a new, previously unknown fossil out of the ground, it's changing our picture of this pattern of evolution that, in fact, occurred.

That's kind of a long answer, but that essentially, in a nutshell, is—are the fact of evolution versus the theories of evolution.

Agnosticism (9:03)[edit]

E-mail #2 discusses a very different issue. This one comes from Donald Flood, who gives his location only as the USA. Donald writes:

If the empirical evidence for the existence of God is no greater than the empirical evidence for Invisible Pink Unicorns, is it logical to be agnostic with respect to the existence of God yet "atheistic" towards the existence of Invisible Pink Unicorns?

Well, Donald, the short answer to your question is yes! It would be illogical to be agnostic towards God and atheistic towards invisible pink unicorns. And that is not, in fact, my position nor have I ever heard anyone specifically espouse that position, so I think that's a bit of a strawman but it's based upon a very common misunderstanding that I get all the time. I do advocate personally an agnostic position towards claims which are not falsifiable. Claims which lie outside of the realm of science. So, and again, we have covered some of this ground before but again let me encapsulate the position that I take with regards to agnosticism. What that basically mean—and this is the sense that T. H. Huxley, who actually invented, or coined, the term "agnosticism" to refer to his own beliefs. Agnosticism means that there are certain questions which cannot, by their very nature, ever be known, or they cannot be explored scientifically. There is no way you could possibly validate or falsify them, therefore they are forever outside the realm of knowledge in the scientific sense and Huxley concluded that they're therefore outside the realm of anything that can meaningfully be considered knowledge. So, one can only say about that, if one were taking a consistent, logical, scientific approach, that it's unknowable. You can't know that it is true but neither can you know that it isn't true. Further, extrapolating from this, you could say that there's no point in believing in any proposition which is unknowable because there are an infinite number of unknowable propositions. It's limited really only by your creativity but you could sit around and weave un-falsifiable notions all day long. None of them will ever be known and that's all that really you can say about them. Any belief in un-falsifiable notions is, by definition, faith and faith is therefore, by definition, outside of the realm of science. And personally, I choose not to have a arbitrary belief either for or against such notions and to me it's sufficient to say they're unknowable and unknowable notions are of not value to human knowledge. So that is where it reasonably ends. So therefore I would say I am agnostic towards the existence of invisible pink unicorns or any other fantastical notion that you want to come up with, such as, to paraphrase a recent book, Flying Spaghetti Monsters.

Gerald Schroeder on God (12:05)[edit]

Let's go on to e-mail #3. This one also is about belief in God. This one comes from Luke from Indiana. Luke writes:

I have just recently found your podcast after listening to quite a few "paranormal/ufo/etc" podcasts for quite a while. I would consider myself, probably much like most people who are interested in these subject matters, an interested skeptic—I love considering the possibilities of these unusual subjects, but am not about to agree to something without proof.

On your most recent podcast[1], one of the major discussions was about evolution versus intelligent design. I have read several books by Gerald L. Schroeder, a MIT graduate with a Ph.D. in Physics and a Talmudic scholar. His books have, in my limited opinion, the most well thought-out argument for the possibility of a God. I was wondering if any if any of the podcast members were familiar or had read any of his books on the subject

In my personal experience, most real-life disagreements and arguements are not as simple as: one person or side is right and the other is wrong. His approach to the ID vs. big bang theories is not to show fallacies of one or the other, but instead to look for similarities and convergences of them. Regardless of one's particular disposition to either "side," I think his material is well-thought out, interesting, and worth considering.

I would love to hear something about these books on your podcast and your skeptical opinions about the subject.

Thanks and keep up the interesting podcast,


Well, Luke, I confess I have not read the entire book. The most recent one is called The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder, although I have read significant excerpts from it and several reviews of it. The most, I think, complete review was written by Frank Sonnleitner, who is Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma, and we'll have the link to his review[2] on our notes page. Basically, I think the problem with Schroeder's approach, and others have taken a similar approach, is that it begins with the assumption that there's no conflict between faith and science—specifically faith in God, in the Judeo-Christian God in this particular instance—and science and then proceeds from there. However, it never really justifies or establishes that assumption in the first place and therefore, if that becomes a false major premise, everything that follows from that is invalid. And I think that's the pitfall that he is falling into. You did state, I think, quite reasonably that in most real-life disagreements or arguments it's not as simple as one person or side is completely right and the other side is completely wrong and I agree with that. In most situations that is true. I think that the most reasonable position usually lies between two extremes and there's usually both valid and invalid points on both sides of any argument or disagreement. However, that's not always the case. There are some times when side is making a profound systematic error in their approach or is following or proceeding from a invalid premise, and therefore everything on that side is wrong and I think that the creationism-evolution debate is one such issue. Evolution is a science and unbiased scientists, I think, are largely correct in their approach to evolution—in their approach and their evaluation of the evidence and the conclusions that they draw from that. Creationists, whether that's intelligent design or classic creationism, are following from a very biased premise that evolution must be wrong because of their faith in creation. And everything—every argument that flows from that point that they make is invalid and I have read extensively of the creationist literature; we've discussed much of it on this podcast over the months and they are a textbook of logical fallacies. They really don't have a single valid argument to make. So, it is one of those rare situations where I feel very strongly that one side, the creationist side, is in fact completely wrong. If there is a valid argument to be made on that side I have yet to hear it, despite exposing myself very avidly to the arguments from the creationist side. Regarding some of the specifics of The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder—again, I'll refer back to the very good review written by Frank Sonnleitner—and he starts by saying that basically that this is an elaboration of Schroeder's prior book Genesis and the Big Bang. Basically, Schroeder is not being fair with the scientific evidence. He, in fact—He accepts the standard geological and paleontological history of the earth but rejects evolution. He draws the line at evolutionary connections between the higher categories. For example, different classes or different phyla. Therefore... So he allows for some evolution to occur at a local level but disagrees with connections between major forms, which, of course, means that God had to, or something, some force had to create the basic forms of life and then evolution occurred within those basic forms. This is the old micro/macro-evolution argument that creationists have put forward. The problem with that is that there's no operational definition of what is micro- versus macro-evolution or why evolution would be able to create some degree of morphological change but not a greater degree. Why could allow for variations within classes but not the origin of the different classes of types of animals. He also makes a very classic creationist argument of rejecting evolution because he considers that the mechanism, natural selection, to be the result of pure chance. And again, he commits the creationist logical fallacy of saying that life on earth is so complex, what's the change—the probability of it occurring by chance alone is too remote and therefore we must invoke some kind of willful force. But this is looking at probability the wrong way. We, in fact, have another question on this so I'm going to come back to this a little bit later in the show. So, basically, I am not very fond of Schroeder's arguments. I think that he commits a lot of the core logical fallacies of creationists. I think he's trying to force a fit between science and Christian faith—Judeo-Christian faith, when in fact, to the extent that that faith contradicts the findings of science, I think that they just directly conflict and there is no way to resolve them. The only way to resolve them is to keep faith in its proper realm, which means dealing with the unknowables, and not to violate anything which is within the realm of science, Anything that could be investigated scientifically.

Magnets for Migraines (19:30)[edit]

OK, we're going to shift gears a little bit here and take a couple of e-mails dealing with—in the medical realm. E-mail #4 comes from Anthony Petruccione. That could be pronounced Petruchioni, if we need the more Italian pronunciation—from Texas. Anthony writes:

While looking over today's news articles I spotted this article about a new magnet-based device for the treatment of migraines. I'm not sure at all of the scientific veracity of using magnets to treat pain, but I can add that my father did have some success using a magnetic bracelet to treat arthritis. Mostly I'm linking to the article to spark a discussion. Since you have people on hand with some real knowledge of medicine it would be interesting to hear what you've read from the medical literature. Though the linked article dosen't go into great detail the price seems rather staggering for a large magnet. 1000 pounds could buy quite a stack of rare earth magnets. To the truest definition of the term, I'm skeptical. I'd love to hear everyone discuss this and hope some good information is drawn out of the discussion.

Well, Anthony, unfortunately you won't get a full panel discussion of this issue but this is something about which I am personally very familiar, so I will tackle it myself. First, I'm gonna to back up just a little bit and give some background information on what we mean by scientific research within the medical context. There are different levels of evidence within medicine. In fact, in the last 10 to 20 years, there has been a movement known as "evidence-based medicine", which has sought, basically, to standardize the evaluation of the degree of evidence for different clinical decisions and to put in the hands of clinicians, people making medical decisions, a objective assessment of the level of evidence that there is to support any particular claim. It's an excellent movement. There are some weaknesses to it. In fact, I think the big weakness is that they rely exclusively on evidence and they specifically do not consider scientific plausibility, and I think that that's a mistake, but as far as it goes it is extremely helpful. I'll review very quickly some basic different levels of evidence.

Typically, when any new concept comes about, a new claim, whether it's based on anecdote or extrapolating from basic science research, et cetera or someone just says, "Hey. Maybe A will or cure B. Let's check it out." Initially, what will be done are preliminary, or so-called "pilot studies". Pilot studies are very small usually involving less than 100 patients, even maybe as few as 10 subjects. They're often open-label, meaning that there's no placebo control group; there's no blinding, and they're basically given to a number of patients just to get a basic feel for how they respond. Are there any major obvious side effects? Do they seem to have a positive response? The point of pilot studies is not to base definitive claims. They are purely to see whether or not this will be a productive avenue for further research. I think using these levels of evidence in order to support a clinical claim is misguided, almost to the point of fraud. But, be that as it may, it is useful as a preliminary type of evidence. The second level of evidence is when you start to do some placebo control. You will compare people taking the treatment to people taking a placebo. It may or may not be open-label or there may be some blinding and the numbers are usually more than in the pilot study. Here we may have dozens of patients, maybe a couple of hundred patients depending on how rare the disease is and follow it for a significant period of time. At least weeks if not months, longer depending—again, depending on what is being studied. Here we get to start to get some real idea about whether or not a treatment has any significant side effects. Whether or not, all things considered, people on the treatment do better than placebo, but still this data should not be considered definitive or conclusive. Again, the point of this really is just to see if it's worthwhile to go on to the next stage, which is the more definite stage of research and this is when you have a large study, multi-center, prospective, meaning that you separate people into control and treatment groups before they get their treatments. You're not looking back at what people did. You're splitting them up and then either putting them on the placebo or on the treatment. That's important because that allows you to control for a lot of variables that might be interfering with the results. These studies are typically double-blinded, meaning that the subjects do not know if they're getting the placebo or the treatment and that the people running the study, especially those who are evaluating the subjects to see what their outcome is, also do not know if they're getting the placebo or the treatment. These can be—if they're large multi-center trials, they can be fairly definitive, but even with these types of trials usually the medical community would like to see 2 or 3 of them; some replication before saying, "Yep. This is pretty well established that this is a safe and effective treatment for this indication." That's considered the highest level of evidence. In fact, in this country, in the United States, if you apply for—to the FDA to try to get a new drug on the market you have to apply for what's called an IND, an Investigational New Drug permit and then—before you can subject people to this drug you need to do preliminary basic science research and animal research to show basically that this is safe and the chance that it's going to kill people is at least relatively small. Then you break the clinical trials, or human trials, up into phases.

Phase I trials are small studies, usually in healthy volunteers, just looking at how the drug handles the body and how the body handles the drugs and screening for basic side effects. Then there are phase II trials where you're getting more safety data; you're starting for the first time look at actual outcomes to see if people are getting better. And then if all of that is positive and no problems are cropping up, then you can do the phase III definitive trials. There's actually, in fact, phase IV trials, which are post marketing research to see if there are any less common safety issues come up now that hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of people are being exposed to the drug. Things may crop up that were missed in the trials. But even—not in the context of FDA trials, basically those same phases are followed in doing research. Now doing all of this research takes about a decade, at least. At least a decade. But when you're not within the context of regulations, for example, with supplements in this country, or with things like magnets that aren't drugs—people can sell magnets, then often what we see are preliminary studies, which are not definitive, should not be used to base claims; they almost always show some positive result because if it's an open-label trial—there's no placebo control—even a pure placebo effect will seem positive, so it's very common for these–the smaller initial trials to have a significant bias towards positive results. Also there's a huge file-drawer effect where we just tend not to hear about the negative studies. We only tend to hear about the positive studies. So taking all that into consideration, we're likely to get some preliminary positive results that's not reliable and yet those get conveyed to the public and often marketers will use those preliminary studies to say, "See, this supplement or device works for these symptoms." And it will take 10 years to really proceed to the more definitive trials and do the analysis of phase III data and it may later be found that those—that the device or the supplements do not work, but by that time companies marketing the devices have had years to develop a customer base and often people don't hear about the definitive phase III trials.

For example, a lot of people believe that Echinacea is useful for colds and the initial, positive, small pilot studies were very aggressively marketed to the public. But then the large, phase III, definitive trials were done and Echinacea is absolutely worthless for treating the symptoms of any infectious disease, of the common cold in particular. But most people don't know about that and when I, in fact, inform patients of that, for example, they've never heard of it. They've never heard that the data shows it doesn't work. The same is true of Ginkgo biloba and cognitive function or Saint John's wort and depression. All have large, definitive trials that were completely negative and that made very little impact on the public consciousness.

Magnets—it's basically the same thing but we're in the earlier stage of research; the phase I-II type of studies with magnets. First of all, with magnet therapy, there have been a number of speculative mechanisms put forward as to how magnets might work. The most common one that I hear is that the magnetic field improves blood flow and that the improved blood flow to the tissue increases healing and relieves symptoms. That mechanism, as well as every other proposed mechanism by which magnets—it's been proposed that magnets might work, has been shown to be false. Magnetic fields do not improve blood flow. Some people say, "Well, it's attracting the iron in the blood." Well, the iron in the blood is non-ferromagnetic. It does not respond to a magnetic field. Most of the magnets that are on the market have a very weak magnetic field or they may use alternating magnetic currents in order to get a stronger field, but at the same time, they get a much shallower magnetic field. Many do not penetrate, significantly, the wrappings around the magnet nor do they get through the skin. To date there is no compelling, carefully conducted evidence that magnets are useful for the treatment of arthritis or of pain. There is no evidence to show that they are useful for the treatment of migraines, nor is there any plausible mechanism that has been proposed by which they might work for the treatment of migraines. I think most magnetic devices come wrapped in bandages and if you put a bandage around your tennis elbow that has a magnet in it, it's probably the bandage that's helping the tennis elbow and the magnets are incidental. In addition to that, of course, there is the placebo effect, which has numerous psychological factors including risk justification and then the simple desire to get better that all tend make people believe that such interventions work. So, bottom line, there's no evidence nor plausible mechanism by which to argue that magnets are useful for treating any symptom or disease and certainly not for migraines.

Regulating Supplements (30:20)[edit]

The next e-mail is a somewhat related question. This one is about regulating supplements. This comes from Sir Mildred Pierce, who gives his location as Antarctica. I did, in fact, e-mail back Sir Pierce to ask if he really is in Antarctica. He has not responded yet, but if he is truly from Antarctica, that would mean that we have listeners in all 7 continents and Sir Mildred, of course, would be the first one to e-mail us from Antarctica, so thank you. He writes:

On your most recent podcast[link needed], you mentioned the US has the worst regulations when it comes to herbs and "supplements". I would argue, as a skeptic, that perhaps the US has the best regulations, since that nation has the most unregulated rules. I think skeptics should eschew government intervention and regulation. Don't you feel that if the government is always jumping in and saying what is and what isn't safe that people in the long run will become less skeptical about these things on their own and will pretty much trust that everything on the market is safe, since everything on the market is regulated?

Well, that is an excellent question that deserves a very thoughtful answer. For background, I think it's worth noting that there is a significant overlap between the libertarian, anti-regulation community and the skeptical community and there certainly is a lot to be said for some libertarian ideals from a skeptical point of view. I know we've commented before on this show that Penn & Teller, for example, on their show—their Showtime show Bullshit! sometimes espouse libertarian political opinions and I think that that gets intermixed with their skeptical opinions. And most of the time, in fact, I agree with them, although I do think that the extreme libertarian position is not logical and not justified and this is why: First of all, when you say that a market should be unregulated, that assumes that market forces will produce a better outcome than government regulation. I would agree that logic and evidence, especially historical evidence, strongly favors the opinion that most markets, in fact, do better when they are unregulated by the government. When you, in fact, let market forces allow a natural equilibrium emerge from a bottom-up type of self-regulation and that most markets are too complex for a government to regulate from the top down. I think, in my personal opinion, history would support that and I do think that the evidence, to that extent, favors leaving markets unregulated. But I don't think that you can say, "Therefore that is true in every single market" and that government regulation is always bad. I think that that is an argument ad absurdum in a way. With respect to medicine in particular, we have to say, "What would market forces produce? And what are those market forces and are they superior to some common sensical regulations that could be imposed?" In fact, in this country, in the United States, since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which deregulated supplements, we have now have 12 years of experience to compare drugs, which are very highly regulated by the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, and supplements, which are completely unregulated. And we can say, "Let's compare these two markets and see what government regulation has wrought compared to the free-market system." What we have in the free-market system—the unregulated supplements in the last 12 years—has been an absolute explosion of marketing of these things.

Now, normally when you have a vast increase in the marketing of any product, that leads to competition and better products and better things for the consumer. Greater efficiency, more choices, better quality. But is that really true in medicine? That would imply that consumers are choosing their supplements based upon the quality of the supplements. For example, whether or not they really work. However, I would argue that the evidence strongly shows that anecdotal evidence, which means the individual experience of people taking supplements, is completely unreliable. That that personal experience, except for extreme immediate side effects, that for the most part, our personal experience with medical interventions is anecdotal and therefore highly misleading. In fact, I think the evidence strongly shows that anecdotes lead us to conclusions we wish to be true, not conclusions which are true. So that means that the consumer really has no way of driving an increase in quality. They have no way of choosing which supplements are better than others because all they have is their own personal anecdotal experience to go upon. Maybe the anecdotal experience of other people that they know, but that is completely misleading. Only very carefully accumulated statistical evidence really has way of discerning supplements that work from supplements that do not work. Therefore, I would argue that market forces would not drive quality within a market such as supplements. Further, what people do tend to gravitate to are claims which meet their hopes and expectations, which means, if anything, market forces are encouraging greater and greater and more sensationalistic and more hopeful claims on the part of supplement marketers and that is in fact what we have seen. More supplements with more fantastical claims without any quality control. Without any, arguably, any actual beneficial effect to the consumer. In fact, what we have seen is the marketing of specific supplements completely explode based upon the claims that are made for those supplements, such as ones that I've mentioned at the previous e-mail: Echinacea, Ginkgo biloba, St. John's Wort, to name a few, and yet when studies were done, and these were studies which were done by the government; done by the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, to look at whether or not these supplements actually work, it found out that they don't work. And that didn't really significantly impact the market that much because the market has been pretty much totally cut off from the scientific evidence. So therefore, the other argument that I've heard, the other sort of libertarian anti-regulation argument made is that, "Well, a Consumer Reports or other agencies, whether it's the government or academics or private investigating agencies will look at these products, will inform the consumers which ones have better quality than the others and that will drive quality within the market." But we've seen that that's not true; that's not what happens. In fact, marketing of these things which don't work happily continues despite—in the face of negative evidence.

So, my position, based upon the experience with these various markets is that companies should be given the burden of proving that their products are safe and effect prior to marketing. In fact, the other factor here is that doing biomedical research is hard work. It takes a lot of money. Companies in a deregulated market have absolutely zero incentive to do the research. In fact, research is a lose-lose proposition for companies in a deregulated market. They have to spend the money to do the research. The research has the potential to show that the product is either unsafe or doesn't work, which can only have the effect of decreasing sales, decreasing the marketing of that product. Again, it may not have a dramatic impact on it, but it certainly is not going to help. And if the research shows that it does work, it probably won't help because the company's already marketing it with the claims that it does work. So, if you can basically make claims that a product works without doing the research, doing research is a lose-lose proposition. So deregulation has completely removed any incentive from the private sector to do any kind of research in these supplements. It's only being done in government-funded or academically initiated studies. Even if you take the basic libertarian anti-regulation view, you have to apply it to specific markets and make an individualized decision based upon the market forces that actually exist in that market and based upon our real-life experience with what happens with deregulation versus regulation. Also, we can't assume that all regulation is bad. There is rational regulation, like what I think exists in Australia, for example, and irrational regulation, which is like what I think exists in the United States. It's not—you shouldn't make the false dichotomy of bad regulation versus no regulation. It's possible that there's a third alternative and that is actually rational and effective regulation. But that must be done very, very carefully.

Neuroethics (39:17)[edit]

Let's do one more e-mail and then I will go on to Name That Logical Fallacy. The last e-mail comes from Elias Luna from the Bronx, New York. Elias writes:

Hey guys. This question is mainly for Steve since Neurology is right up his alley. What do you know about this new field called "Neuroethics" that I continully hear about. A great quote defining what is Neuroethics by Michael Gazzaniga, author of The Ethical Brain is "the examination of how we want to deal with the social issues of disaease, normality, mortality, lifestyle, and the philosophy of living informed by our understanding of underlying brain mechanisms". In his opinion "It is-or should be-an effort to come up with a brain-based philosophy of life. They also bring up questions such as "When is a fetus considered a person?" and "When is it moral to end a braindead person's life?" They also question "What truly is "Free Will"? He argues that we are not a ghost in the machine per se. But that we are our brains and that me, self, and I are simply illusions. That The illusion is fed by 6 characteristics working in harmony. To me morals are obviously part of the human condition, and where and why in the mind humans evolved morals is still under questioning.

Well, that's a great question, Elias. Thanks for sending it in. Yeah, I'm very familiar with these various lines of reasoning and I think that there is a lot to be said for much of what they are promoting. Basically, I do think that an understanding—a scientific understanding of how the brain works; how the brain produces our personalities; how it produces our sense of reality; our sense of free will and what it means to, in fact, be a human person that—this kind of scientific understanding can go a very long way to informing a great many moral and ethical questions like the ones mentioned. However, I would also say that it cannot make these moral or ethical decisions for us and that is because moral and ethical questions contain a dimension which is either purely subjective or purely value-based. When is it moral to end a brain-dead person's life? Well, first of all, the question is a bit of a misnomer. Someone who is—at least by the laws in this country which I'm very familiar with—someone who is technically brain-dead is in fact dead. You can pronounce somebody dead if you can prove by the standards that are established that they are in fact brain-dead. So, by definition, they're not alive. They can be legally and therefore morally and ethically treated as a corpse. What I assume you mean is someone who has severe neurological impairment to the point where they are not able to maintain consciousness. One such state is called a "persistent vegetative state". This was very famously debated in this country about a year ago in the context of the Terri Schiavo debate. Terri Schiavo was a woman in Florida who was in a persistent vegetative state and her husband wanted to end her life and her parents wanted to keep her alive and the government got involved to a very inappropriate degree, in my opinion, and actually in the opinion of most Americans. So, when is it appropriate—what neurology can inform us about might be going on inside that person's brain, what level of consciousness they may be able to have, et cetera, but really can't tell us whether or not it's moral to keep them alive or to end their life given that they're in a persistent vegetative state, because that requires value judgments about the value of life; how quality of life should influence our value of life and how—what is societies responsibilities to such people as well as what is the individual responsibility to society. Is it responsible, for example, to spend millions of dollars of limited health care funds to keep someone alive in a persistent vegetative state when there is no meaningful probability of neurological recovery. These are all questions outside the realm of science. They can be informed by science but they cannot be answered by science. So that's my basic opinion there. I will say that—you bring up the issue of free will and there is a growing literature on what is, in fact, free will and do humans, in fact, have free will. In fact, we've discussed the issue of free will previously on this podcast[link needed] and there are those who believe that humans, in fact, do not have free will. That our brains are completely deterministic. They follow the laws of the physics of this universe and therefore everything that the brain does has a prior cause. What is the implications for this to our moral judgments, to crime and punishment, for example? Well, we still, as a society, need to make value judgments in order to come up with the ultimate conclusions but understanding how the brain actually works will, I think, not only inform those decisions, it will keep us from making, perhaps, harmful decisions based upon misconceptions.

Name That Logical Fallacy (44:51)[edit]

Well, that's it for the e-mail segment of this show. I'm glad I had the opportunity and caught up on a lot of those great e-mails. I'm going to do a Name That Logical Fallacy this week. This has been sort of an on-again off-again segment. Usually it's the one that gets cut because of lack of time, but this week I'm going to, in fact, read an e-mail that was sent to me that is asking about a logical fallacy. So that will be our Name That Logical Fallacy this week. This one comes from Marty Steitz from Forest Lake, Minnesota, and he writes:

Thanks again for a very informative podcast. I would like your help understanding the logical fallacies you might apply to improperly used "what are the odds" arguments. For example, religious fundamentalists often absolutely mangle statistics when they come up with their "what are the odds" arguments about our "special place in the heavens." Specifically, I'm not talking about the false premise of randomness so much as the looking backwards and being amazed at the improbability of an outcome after it has occurred. What logical fallacies might you apply here, other than simple math ignorance, since you could apply the same logic to flipping a coin 100 times, noting the odds of getting the exact sequence, and declaring it therefore a miracle.


Marty Steitz

Well, actually I do think, Marty that you did, in your question, bring up, I think, the primary problem with these arguments and that is that it's based upon the false premise. They're looking at statistics essentially backwards. I usually use the lotto example. The chance of any individual ticket winning a lotto may be say, 100,000,000 to 1, just to use a round figure. Someone who wins the lottery, therefore, their probability—say if a woman bought a single ticket, they win the lottery, the chance of that person winning was 1,000,000 to 1 [sic]. If you start with the false premise that—which is really asking the wrong question; what is the probability of that person winning the lottery? The probability against them winning the lottery is 100,000,000 to 1. It is—the logical fallacy that's actually being applied here is a non sequitur. If you therefore conclude that they did not win by chance alone because the odds against them winning by chance alone is too low, therefore they must have been intended to win. I believe that is a non sequitur, but it's based upon asking the wrong question. Really the question is, "What's the probability of anyone winning?" And there the probability is actually pretty high. If you apply this analogy to evolution, they say, "What's the probability of a giraffe evolving?" It's pretty damn remote, but that assumes that a giraffe must have evolved. If, in fact, we rerun the history of evolution we may come up with a completely different set of animals—plants and animals alive today. Completely at random. The probability of a giraffe evolving is vanishingly small. The probability of something evolving, however, was extremely high. So, it's a non sequitur based upon a false premise, which is really asking the wrong question. I suppose the other logical fallacy that you could apply to this situation is the argument from final consequences, saying that what happened was intended to happen because it happened. And it's ignoring the possibility that something else could have just as easily have occurred. In the lotto example, if John Smith wins—well, John Smith didn't have to win. Just because John Smith won doesn't mean that he had to win. Anyone could have won. The fact that giraffes evolved didn't mean that giraffes had to evolve. It just means that they were the ones who happened to evolve. There was one species that happened to evolve.

Science or Fiction (48:38)[edit]

Now let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, one is fictitious. Now typically, I challenge my panel of skeptics to figure out the fake and they all offer their opinions. They're obviously not here this week to do that, so I will just give you, the audience, the three items and then discuss the answers. So here we go. Item number 1: University of Minnesota urologists have researched ways to reduce the vexing problem of kidney stone formation in astronauts. Item number 2: NY University at Buffalo researchers, reviewing data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that, contrary to prior belief, wearing seat belts did not significantly reduce the risk of fatality in an automobile accident. And Item number 3: A team of researchers at the University of Alberta have patented a device that uses ultrasound to regrow teeth.

So, is kidney stone formation a problem with astronauts which urologists are now researching ways to reduce? Does a review of data show that wearing seat belts actually does not reduce the risk of dying in a car accident? Or, have researchers found ways to regrow teeth using ultrasound?

Well, let's start with #1. Number 1 is science. The problem with kidney stone formation is that in zero gravity, our bones and our muscles are not under the weight-bearing stress of gravity and—which is necessary actually to maintain bone health and mass. Calcium, therefore, leaches out of our bones into our bloodstream and that calcium can form calcium stones in our kidneys. Now, we've know about this problem for a long time, ever since we've been putting astronauts into space and hanging out in zero gravity for a while. The primary approach to preventing this from happening is for astronauts to exercise. For example, space station astronauts will attach springs to a belt and they'll jog in place with the springs holding them down against the treadmill. The problem is that these types of exercises, while they're good cardiovascularly and they do help maintain muscle mass, they don't really provide the weight-bearing resistance that is necessary to maintain bone mass and therefore prevent kidney stones. Well, what of University of Minnesota researchers have done is they looked at—they simulated zero gravity by having people lay in a bed with their head below their feet. Doesn't sound very comfortable but that's what they did. They then put the test subjects in a type of chamber that used pressure to simulate gravitational resistance and... and then had them exercise in the chamber. Those subjects who exercised in the chamber had less bone loss, less calcium and fewer kidney stones than those who did regular exercise without the chamber. So there seems to be some advantage to using pressure, essentially, to simulate gravity. They also add that they need to combine this with hydration therapy, which just means keeping well hydrated, thereby diluting the urine and reducing the risk of all kinds of kidney stone formation. So, hydration and exercising in a machine, a chamber that simulates gravity reduces the risk of kidney stones in astronauts.

Let's go on to item #3. Item #3 is science. A team of researchers at the University of Alberta have been experimenting with using pulsed ultrasound to stimulate the growth of teeth. They have been able to, in fact, grow teeth from the roots and also to repair damaged roots. The first application, before you think about completely regrowing teeth—I mean, perhaps that might be the extension of this research over time, but what they're doing this primarily—the first application that they're applying this to are those with braces. Now if you use orthodontic braces to move the teeth around, to put them back into good alignment, that tends to cause a resorption of the root. And that limits the amount of orthodontic manipulation that you can do. The roots tend to get resorbed back into the jaw and that—weakening the root is a significant problem for teeth. Well, if they combined the braces with a miniaturized ultrasound device that gives pulse ultrasound to the tooth root, it decreases the amount of this root resorption and therefore extends the safe utility of orthodontic braces. So, very interesting line of research. Hopefully, this will continue to bear fruit and perhaps sometime in the future, we may actually be able to regrow fully-formed teeth using this technique. Or, at the very least, it will be helpful in such technology.

Which means that #2 is fiction. In fact there is a very large body of evidence over many years that shows that wearing seat belts significantly reduces the risk of death in a car accident. Of death and injury. And this study, published by University of Buffalo researchers, supported that. They did, in fact, review the Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but what they did find is that the middle back seat is the safest seat in the car. This is often the least desirable seat, to be squished into the middle seat in the back, but, in fact, it is the safest seat to have. Here are some of the statistics they found: Occupants of the back seat in general are 59% to 86% safer than passengers in the front seat and that the person in the middle is 25% safer than other back seat passengers. The reason for this is probably obvious to you, that there's more of what they call a "crush zone". As the car rolls or gets crushed in from the sides or the front or the back, they're pretty much in the middle of the car so they're least likely to be injured by this. They also brought up another point, which I hadn't thought of, which is that in a rollover the person in the middle seat is subjected to the least amount of torque or centripetal force as people sitting on the sides. In fact, this same study did lend further support to the notion that wearing a seat belt is safer. They said that nearly half of the passengers in the back seat, 46.9% were not wearing seat belts and results showed that these unrestrained passengers—34.6% were fatally injured compared to 14.9% of seat-belt wearers. So that's a significant decrease for wearing the seat belt. So continue to wear your seat belt and don't be afraid to be the person stuck in the middle of the back seat. So, I hope you enjoyed that Science or Fiction.

Skeptical Puzzle (56:25)[edit]

I'm going to finish up this week with the answer to last week's Skeptical Puzzle. To state it again, last week's puzzle was the following:

Two men, both 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.

Who were the two men, and what was the instrument?

Well, I will say, first of all, that of the Skeptical Rogues, Evan was the only one to send me an answer and he got it correct. So congratulations, Evan. I hope many of you out there also enjoyed this puzzle. Well the answer is the two men were, in fact, Benjamin Franklin and Franz Anton Mesmer. Both men were Freemasons. Benjamin Franklin was involved in, as many of you will know, electrical magnetic research. Mesmer was—he was as pseudo-scientist who, in fact, came up with mesmerism or being mesmerized. He would put people who had complaints—medical complaints into a sort of trance and in that trance he would use some kind of animal magnetic therapy to relieve their symptoms. Most of his clients had psychogenic symptoms to begin with so those, of course, are more amenable to complete resolution just through placebo effect. Benjamin Franklin was, in fact—was hired by the French government, who put him in charge of a commission to investigate the claims of Anton Mesmer. Franklin investigated them and found them to be—his therapy to be of completely no value. The conclusion of the commission was that any effect was purely in the minds of the patients.

What was the instrument that was used? The instrument that was invented by Benjamin Franklin that was used by Anton Mesmer was the glass armonica or glass harmonica. At the time it was—a common instrument of the time was using crystal glass filled to different levels with water to produce different harmonic frequencies. And you could play it like you can play any percussion instrument, like a piano or an organ. Benjamin Franklin invented the glass armonica which basically he nestled different crystal glasses of different sizes together. He used different sizes to produce the different harmonics so you didn't have to keep them filled with water to a certain degree and he nestled them together to greatly reduce the size. So he created a much more practical, compact glass armonica. Anton Mesmer used—played the glass armonica and used that to create the mood when he was putting people into his mesmerized trance. So Mesmer actually used a glass armonica.

Now for the new puzzle. This new puzzle is not one that I made up myself, I will disclose, but it is a very interesting mathematical puzzle used often to demonstrate how difficult it is for people to make judgments about statistics. The human brain is good at very many things but statistics is not of them and people often have a very hard intuitive time with these types of problems. You may have heard this before, but for those of you who haven't, this is a very interesting problem. Some of you may remember the old game show Let's Make a Deal, which was hosted by Monty Hall. Whether or not you remember that show, basically what would happen is that a contestant would be asked to pick one of three doors. Behind one of those doors was a fabulous prize. The other two doors had, essentially, gag prizes. The contestant would choose one door. Then Monty Hall would typically open one of the two other doors that contained the gag prize; that did not contain the valuable prize. For example, if the contestant chose door #1, Monty Hall might open up door #3, showing that behind it was a bale of hay or a donkey or something, leaving the contestant with door #1, which they chose and door #2, which is still unopened. Monty Hall would then ask the contestant, "Do you want to stick with your original choice of door #1 or would you like to change your choice to door #2?" The question is, statistically, should the contestant stick with door #1, should the contestant change their pick to door #2, the unopened door, or does it not make any difference? Is it a 50/50 choice either way? That's the question. I'll give the answer at the end of next week's episode.

Conclusion (1:01:17)[edit]

Well, that is my special episode for this week. I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly missed the lively discussion of the Skeptical Rogues, as I'm sure you did, as well, but I hope you found it entertaining nonetheless. We'll be back next week when we will be interviewing Gerald Posner, the author of Case Closed, a book about the JFK assassination as well as many other investigative journalistic books. He's lectured for my group in the past and he's an excellent speaker. I think that you will greatly enjoy listening to him. So, 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.


  1. 1.0 1.1 SGU Episode 47: Interview with Zachary Moore
  2. NCSE: Review: The Science of God
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