SGU Episode 495

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SGU Episode 495
January 3rd 2015
SGU 494 SGU 496
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
GH: George Hrab
Quote of the Week
You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering.
The Fourth Doctor, "The Face of Evil"
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Touring Australia

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

This Day in Skepticism (3:53)[edit]

  • January 3, 1888: Lick Observatory is first used

News Items[edit]

Alternative Therapies for Cancer (6:27)[edit]

Law-Schilling Twitter Kerfuffle (15:50)[edit]

The Deep Web (23:37)[edit]

Jet lag Pseudoscience (36:18)[edit]

Gender in Education (46:24)[edit]

S: All right. Rebecca, you're gonna tell us about programs that individualize teaching to boys and girls in school.

R: Yeah, I only just found out about this thanks to an article by Lisa Eliot in Slate. But, did you guys know this? There are seven hundred fifty public schools in the United States - and just to be clear, public schools are, in the US, the government-sponsored schools that every child pretty much attends unless their parents choose to pull them out and send them to private school. They pay extra for it. Or home school.

So, seven hundred fifty public schools in the United States that segregate boys and girls into single-sex classrooms, based on perceived gendered differences. Like that, to me, it blew me away. Like, it's 2014, and there are seven hundred fifty schools that are segregating boys and girls based on mostly pseudoscience.

So, these aren't, you know, I've seen some studies that suggest that maybe by segregating classrooms, you can stop girls from being spoken over by boys, you know, weirdo things like that. But in this case, this is all based on ideas like, "Before kids take a test, boys should be allowed to go out and run around and play, and girls should take yoga and relaxing sort of (snickers) exercises." I'm just picturing myself being in a school like this. I would go completely insane, and I would be miserable.

There are, in Florida, Florida seems to be the place where most of these schools are. And there are people there who make their living training teachers on sex differences, which could sound like a good idea, till you realize that they're people like Michael Gurian, who has no training in neuroscience, or education. I've seen interviews with him, where he's called "Doctor." But according to his own website, he only has a Masters in Fine Arts. So I don't know where that's coming from.

But he teaches these ideas that boys - here's a direct quote: "Boys come out of the womb with a form manning for non-verbal, spatial, kinesthetic activity on the right side of the brain. In the areas where girls' brains come out ready to use words. Boys' brains come out ready to move around, kick, and jump." This is complete and utter BS. And psychological, seemingly innate sex differences that are seen in men versus women are extremely minor, and it doesn't at all support the idea of segregating the sexes, and treating as though they're two completely different species.

You know, this is something that we used to do to various races, but we realized that that was a messed up thing to do, and that it ended up disadvantaging our children more than anything. So, and even, you know, if there were any benefits to be had from segregating kids, there are more disadvantages when it comes to teaching kids how to interact with one another as though they are all humans, and not two completely different species. You know, childhood is an important time to learn how to interact with other kids.

The good news is that recently, just a week or two as of this recording, the Department of Education in the United States (they have an office for civil rights), have identified this issue as a civil rights issue. And they've put out guidelines to stop schools from doing this. How effect that's going to be remains to be seen, because it seems that these are just guidelines right now, and not actual laws. But the American Civil Liberties Union has been on top of this. It's thanks to complaints mostly from them that the Department of Education has done anything at all.

So, now that this issue's starting to get more attention, the hope is that we can finally start forcing our public schools to use science-based techniques for educating children.

S: Yeah, this is all part, also, I think, of a bigger industry, right? There is almost a cottage industry, it's part of the self-help industry, if you will, which is largely disconnected from the scientific evidence. There are people who figured out that the education system is a huge client, right? It's a huge organization, with lots of money. And if you can sell something to them, you can make a lot of money. So guess what? They invented a lot of bullshit to sell to schools. And this just one of them.

R: Yeah

S: And it is completely disconnected from the scientific literature. You don't find, like, neuroscientists doing this, or people who actually have degrees, other than a degree in balogny, which is what this guy has.

R: Yeah, like do you guys have brain gym here? Do you know? Yeah.

S: Yeah, it's total nonsense.

R: Yeah, it has some really, I don't think it's in the US too much.

S: UK, I think is the center of it.

R: Yeah, and it's the idea that kids have to do these very specific exercises every day, and move around in very specific ways, which, you know, in one respect, you could say, "Well yeah. You know, kids should be able to move around, and get out some energy." But when you look at the actual things that they're doing, it's just such a load of bullocks.

S: Yeah, it's like, get the oxygen to the brain early in the morning. That kind of hand-waving stuff.

R: Yeah

S: Your brain gets oxygen. Don't worry about it.


R: Yeah, if your brain's not getting oxygen, you're gonna know.

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

B: Well actually, you're not gonna know anything.


R: Somebody will know!

S: Yeah, the notion that people have significant differences in how they optimally learn is also just nonsense. Hasn't really been established. Like, if anyone says something like, "I'm a right-brain learner," or "a left-brained learner," right? The whole right brain / left brain thing is nonsense. It's not true. Or like, "I'm more of a visual learner," and all that. The school system sometimes will cater to that sort of thing, but the, again, maybe thirty years ago, it was a reasonable hypothesis, but now we know it's all not true!

J: Yeah, so, to clarify, because I really believed this at one point.

S: Yeah

J: Everyone seemed to think it was the truth. But your brain is communicating with all different parts of itself at all times, right?

S: Yeah, I mean yeah. But you have this things called the corpus callosum, which is a massive cable between your two hemispheres. And you have networks that span both hemispheres. You're, yeah, it's not like there's this one little piece of the brain doing one thing. The brain's networking with itself across both hemispheres.

But also, there is, you know, a science of education. There is an education literature, and it does show that, yeah, there are some techniques that work better than other techniques in terms of getting people to learn, getting them to retain information, et cetera, et cetera. It doesn't show a lot of differences between people though.

So you don't have to, there's maybe these mild things that are just not worth worrying about. Just getting the broad brushstrokes correct for most people has a much more massive effect. And anything that smacks of brain training is nonsense. That whole concept of brain training, to me, is just, it's like the hypotonic solution! You know, it's a term that makes something mundane and ordinary seem more exotic and sciency. You know what brain-training is? Learning!

(Some laughter from audience)

S: It's learning. You know, and the things that work for learning, like studying, that works! But there's no special, magical, game thing or technique or exercise that you can do to sort of make things happen quicker. But people always want the shortcut, right? There's the implication there that there's this science-based shortcut that we've figured out. It's magically formulated for flight, right? Or this is scientifically formulated game to train your brain. It's all nonsense!

GH: Don't the games just basically train you to play the games better?

B: Yes

S: They train you to play the game you're playing better, and maybe very closely related games. But it doesn't get beyond that. It doesn't generalize to even the type of task, let alone making you quote-unquote, "more intelligent." That clearly, has been disproved.

J: So, Rebecca is excellent at Elder Scrolls.

S: Yes

R: And that makes me pretty much a genius everywhere.


S: Right, right, right.

B: So, if you want to get smarter, learn what you want to learn

S: Yeah, exactly!

B: to be smarter. Learn words, read,

J: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

B: science content.

S: The only thing I would say about that is that the evidence does suggest that learning novel things seems to have a benefit. You know, forcing your brain to make new pathways, recruit new stem cells to learn news skills and new tasks is better than doing the same over and over.

GH: Novel to you, novel to you.

S: Novel to you.

R: Yeah

S: Novel to you. Exactly.

R: And Steve, you, this is in your realm. I remember reading studies ages ago about people who are at risk of Alzheimer's,

S: Yeah

R: doing crossword puzzles, and different, like, lateral thinking

S: Yeah

R: exercises to stave off Alzheimer's.

S: Yeah, I think the bottom line of all that is, it's better to be mentally active than inactive. It's better to be physically active than inactive. And cross train! Do different stuff. That's pretty much all of the scientific literature on that, in a nutshell.

R: That's why I do word problems while I run.

S: Right


R: It's just the way I am, you guys.

Orion Capsule Test (55:50)[edit]

Seeing Infrared (56:40)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:02:07)[edit]

Item #1: In 1990 Prime Minister Mike Moore appointed an official Wizard of New Zealand, who serves to this day. Item #2: On September 19, 1893, New Zealand became the first democracy in the world to grant women the full right to vote. Item #3: When humans first arrived in New Zealand they were preyed upon by giant eagles, capable of killing a fully grown person. Item #4: New Zealand has won the most Olympic gold medals per capita.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:06)[edit]

"You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don't alter their views to fit the facts. They alter the facts to fit their views. Which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering." - The Fourth Doctor, "The Face of Evil"

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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