SGU Episode 505

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SGU Episode 505
March 14th 2015
SGU 504 SGU 506
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
K: Kevin Folta
MR: Marc Randazza
Quote of the Week
All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings... We must run roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.
Denis Diderot
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (5:47)[edit]

  • Emmy Noether: Groundbreaking mathematician made significant contributions to Algebra and Theoretical Physics

S: But first, Bob, you're gonna tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, this is your Forgotten Superheroes of Science. This week, I'm going to talk about Emelia Emmy Noether, 1822 to 1935. She was a mathematician who unified major concepts in physics that are critical, even to this day, to modern science. Ever hear of her? I think not!


E: I didn't realize that was a rhetorical question!

B: Um, I'm gonna call her by her first name, because this last name is, I've had different ways of learned on how it should be pronounced. I don't want to get it wrong all the time. But Emmy grew up learning French and English and piano like most girls at the time in Germany. But she

E: (Inaudible) piano.

B: loved math. She was all about math. And she was not allowed, though, to officially apply for classes. And I like her solution. She decided that she would simply audit them all. So she sat in all the classes, and she did so well in her final exams, which I'm glad they actually let her take, that she was allowed into the graduate program.

J: Wow!

B: So, when she finally graduate, she found it almost impossible, at least initially. It was incredibly hard for her not only to find a job, but to actually get paid actual money when she did have some sort of position. It was incredibly difficult for her. And this was in much part due to not only her being a woman, but she was Jewish, and a pacifist, and a social democrat, in Germany at that time.

E: Yeah, heading into the World War I era. Yeah, not a good time.

B: Yeah, so, not good. Not good at all.

S: Better than the World War II era, but year.

B: Yeah, right.

E: Yeah, the World War I era, yeah.

B: But finally, she did get work. And in her subsequent career, she did so many things. She solved many, many theorems. She made key contributions to things like abstract algebra, group theory, ring theory, and more. The list goes on and on. Truly a brilliant, brilliant mathematician. But her magnum opus was proving what later became known as Neutar's Theorem, which, one of them was a foundational part of theoretical physics, and invaluable to this day. And this is a really interesting theorem.

This theorem was used to turn continuous symmetries in nature into laws of conservation. For example, if a wheel rotates around an axis, it's symmetrical no matter how you look at it. So the fact that this is symmetrical in that way, in rotation, means that you can plug it into a theorem and determine the conservation of angular momentum from that, from those facts. That's pretty amazing.

But even more profound, she found, using this theorem, a link between time and energy. So you throw a ball in the air today, you do it tomorrow, and the trajectory is going to be the same. So this symmetry in time, or in variance, can be divined to come up with the conservation of energy. So think about that a second. You can get the conservation of energy from that. So that is totally amazing.

So this unifying principle would prove profoundly important in physics, and still a work horse today. None other than Einstein himself praised her for her penetrating mathematical thinking, and called her the most significant and creative female mathematician of all time. Physicist Ransom Steven said, "You can make a strong case that her theorem is the backbone on which all of modern physics is built."

E: Whoa

B: I mean, that's what some of these guys

S: Wow!

J: One hell of a statement, yeah.

B: It really is. So, mention Emmy to your friends, perhaps when discussing differentiable symmetries, related to conserved currents. She should be remembered.

S: That's pretty amazing.

E: You know what I think she should be remembered for? She obviously debunked the concept of an ether. I mean, you know, look at her last name,

Evan and Steve together: Noether

E: I mean, come on! That alone!

S: Coincidence?

E: Pheoneticaly, that's how it would be.

News Items[edit]

Bright Spots on Ceres (9:37)[edit]

Clinical Science (14:25)[edit]

S: Alright, let's move on, the next item I want to talk about, this is an interesting one, this is about the essence of the disagreement about the nature of medical research between science based medicine and alternative medicine proponents. If you recall, about six months or so, David Gorski and I had an article published where we essentially argued that doing clinical research on therapies that are essentially magic, they're so impossible that you might as well think of them as magic, is a waste of resources.

E: How controversial.

S: Yeah, right, exactly. But obviously the alternative medicine proponents were not happy with our opinion because everything they do is essentially magic. If you accept the fact that you shouldn't research things like homoeopathy, the homoeopaths aren't going to like that. So there was a lot of push-back, a lot of criticism of our article, all nonsense, nothing that we hadn't heard before. Again, in my opinion, the alternative medicine community is intellectually bankrupt, they have nothing new or interesting to say, their ideas have been completely demolished long ago, they're on a par with the creationists, really. They're just recycling the same logical fallacies over and over again. As evidence for that, a recent article was published by Sunita Vohra and Heather Boon in an alternative medicine journal, once again criticising David Gorski's article, David Gorski's and my article, although they misspelled his name Gorki. Gorki and Novella. (laughs) David hates that.

E: Nice (laughs).

J: It's awesome, right?

S: In which they recycle the same tired, old arguments. But here it is. I just wanted to summarise, to use this as an opportunity to summaries the Science Based Medicine opinion and what they're saying. So fist they say that essentially you shouldn't use prior plausibility to determine what ideas in science should be researched.

B: Oh god.

E: How convenient.

B: Seriously?

J: What?

S: Essentially, their argument, this is their argument, this is their actual logical argument, although they're not as pithy as this, but it boils down to: we don't know everything, therefore we should behave as if we know nothing. That's their argument. Their argument is: we don't know everything. And then they erect a bunch of straw men about what our position is.

B: Logical fallacy.

S: Yeah, our position is not that we know everything. And they also, interestingly, flip one of our arguments, which again, they're not even following the basic logic of our argument. We would say that basic science, if a treatment looks promising from a basic science point of view, you still need to do high quality clinical studies because just looking promising in the test tube isn't enough and doesn't really predict what's going to work clinically, you still have to do the clinical research. They take from that the reverse argument that things which look impossible at the basic science level still may work.

E: Oh my gosh.

S: But you can't do that, I mean that doesn't make any sense.

E: So kabooki dances and voodoo are just as plausible as anything else out there.

S: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, why not spend money studying voodoo. Yeah, exactly. Which, homoeopathy is on that level, it's magic, it's complete magic. They actually pull the Galileo gambit, they mention Galileo by name.

E: Of course.

J: Oh, not again.

E: That old chestnut.

S: Yeah. So, that's number one, prior plausibility, scientific plausibility is right out, that's just bias and so we should act as if we know nothing, as if everything is a brand new question, it's a new day. Number two, and this is really, think about the combination of these two things. Their second big point is, it's like yeah, but we get, because our argument is, it's a waste of resources, we have limited research resources, we can't do definitive efficacy trials of every crank idea, we have to pick and choose which ones are likely to work out, you know?

E: Right, limited resources, hello?

S: So here's their solution.

J: Uh, oh.

S: You don't waste resources doing large, definitive efficacy trials, you could do smaller trials like n of 1 trials. N of 1. That's one person. Or you could do pragmatic studies. Pragmatic studies are designed for comparing the real world application of proven therapies, they're not placebo controlled, they're not efficacy trials. So get this: they want to simultaneously throw out prior plausibility and appeal to the weakest form of clinical evidence. So they want to support their treatments with low-grade clinical evidence without any appeal to scientific plausibility. That's their solution.

B: Well that's the only chance they have.

S: Of course.

B: Right?

J: Well they could change their freaking minds.

S: Yeah, or they could respond to the actual evidence. What we're saying is, you know. The other thing is, it's not as if these things haven't been studied, like for example, there was just yet another review of homoeopathy which I wrote about on science based medicine today. They looked at over 1800 studies. Of those, they found 225 that were worth look at. The rest were so bad they weren't even worth counting.

B: Oh my god.

S: The 225 studies they looked at, they did a systematic review, this was the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. They concluded that homoeopathy doesn't work for anything. There's no clinical evidence to support homoeopathy's effectiveness, it's indistinguishable from placebo. So you have a treatment that makes absolutely no scientific sense, for whom we already have hundreds of studies showing it doesn't work for anything, but Vohra and Boon, they're the one who are studying homoeopathy.

In fact, they're looking at homoeopathy for ADHD, they're involved in a controversial study in Canada looking at homoeopathy for ADHD. Why? Why should we ever do another homoeopathy study? It's impossible and it doesn't work. That is a complete waste of resources, it's unethical to subject subjects to that, it is complete malfeasance in terms of our responsibility to society, to civilisation.

Nothing less than completely throwing homoeopathy on the trash heap of history is ethically or scientifically appropriate, and yet they're trying to say, wait a minute, we don't know everything, you don't know, we can't say that, just because it looks impossible doesn't mean it is, and by the way, we're going to do crappy studies and use that as our evidence so we don't have to waste time with these fancy-smancy double-blink placebo controlled trials. That's their position, that's what they've got. And that's what we get every time, that is their position. What I liked about their article was they so nicely summarised the alternative medicine position and they made their two points right after each other so it really put it into very clear focus.

J: So the summary here is they wanted to develop really shitty science to support their shitty ideas about how to make...

S: Exactly.

J: And it boils down to them making money, it's not even about science, it's just about them having the thing that they...

S: Well the thing is, they want their treatments to be studies because the fact that they're studied is a marketing point, the fact that they're being studied. And they want to do crappy studies because they're almost guaranteed to be false-positive.

E: They must not agree though that there's been no evidence that homoeopathy does anything. They have a totally different opinion of the research I suppose.

S: I depends who you mean by "they".

E: These two researchers for example.

S: I don't know about these two researchers. One of them actually doesn't believe homoeopathy works but thinks that we should study it. I think that's Boon.

E: Oh that's interesting.

S: Thinks that we should study it because it's popular. First of all, it's not that popular, it really isn't, it's single digits, it's not that popular. And second of all that's not a reason to do yet another crappy study when there's already been over 1800 studies in 200 years and they haven't been able to show it works. At some point you have to give up and just say. If you're worried about the public then you should just talk to the public and let them know that this is magical nonsense that doesn't work, that's what they need to know. We don't need another study, because another study's not going to change anything. It's the definition of wasted resources because to anyone who is scientific or skeptical we've already shown it doesn't work, and to anyone who hasn't been convinced by 1800 studies, 1801 is not going to convince them. It's a complete waste of resources. *sighs*

J: At this point Steve, just imagine that government institutions probably need to show some backbone here and say we're not going to spend any money on this garbage.

S: Well that's the thing, the UK did a report saying it's witchcraft, stop supporting it, now Australia has done it. The science is there, the consensus is there, it's amazing that we cannot summon the political will to get rid of this, to just get this monkey off our back. Civilization can comfortably ditch homoeopathy, again just relegate it to the trash heap of history, there's no excuse for anything else.

B: I mean this, homoeopathy, it's the poster child of this type of thing, and it just gives me so little hope that if we can't put this one to bed, the other ones, forget it, how are we ever going to put them to bed?

J: I know Bob, tell me about it.

B: It's really discouraging.

J: I mean homoeopathy is so disproven it's so obviously wrong, and if there's people that are never going to give it up alive today, what do you do at this point?

S: You've just got to marginalise it, got to win the political battles.

E: Can't eliminate it though, it'll never go away, ever.

J: We have to educate the next generation to know that it's stupid.

S: Yeah well this is why we need science based medicine because that's the line in the sand, right? Evidence based medicine doesn't quite get the job done, we need science based medicine.

E: Right.

Gravity Lensing (24:49)[edit]

Edison’s Plans to Record the Dead (31:14)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (36:17)[edit]

  • Answer to last week:

Interview with Kevin Folta (40:23)[edit]

Interview with Marc Randazza (57:07)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Marc Randazza. Marc, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

MR: Thank you!

S: And Marc, you are defending me in the libel lawsuit against me, which of course, we appreciate. But you are on the show tonight, not so much to talk about the lawsuit, but to talk about libel reform in the US, which obviously is an issue that's come up as a result of the lawsuit. And I've certainly learned a lot about how libel law works in the US.

MR: Yeah, well, it is a rude awakening for a lot of people

S: Yeah

MR: who get sued in what I refer to, and what most people refer to as SLAPP suits. That's Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. And to put that in layman's terms, that's when somebody sues you to try to shut you up, but doesn't necessarily have the strongest case, or even a case that has a chance in hell. But, you win a lot of times when you sue your critics whether you win the case or not, because if the intent is to either punish your critic, or to scare other people away from criticizing you, well, a pretty hefty legal bill gets incurred as soon as you get served the defamation suit.

Some states have recognized this for a while. California really led it. The Phalanx of States that have enacted some kind of meaningful libel reform by passing the nation's first real anti-SLAPP statute. And let me be specific when I say that there are, most states have an anti-SLAPP law, but the vast majority of them are almost meaningless. Like, you have to be actually sitting in your state senator's office, complaining about a law in order for it to apply.

California passed one that was comprehensive. Any exercise of your First Amendment rights gets a sort of privilege. So then, if somebody sues you for defamation, they are going to have to make sure that that case is not frivolous. That doesn't foreclose legitimate defamation suits. But what happens is, the defendant can file a special motion to strike. That stops the case in its tracks, and forces the court to look at the case and say, "Is this really a case that has some arguable merit?" And if not, the case ends there, and the plaintiff has to pay the defendant's attorney's fees.

And it has been a resounding success in California. And Washington and Oregon followed suit. And recently, the Nevada legislature adopted what I think is the nation's strongest existing anti-SLAPP law. And I'm very proud, 'cause it was my baby.

S: Yeah

MR: And not only in Nevada. There was a recent case in New York, where the plaintiff was Sheldon Adelson, was a well-known, very wealthy casino owner out here in Nevada. He sued somebody in New York for defamation, and it turned out that the Nevada anti-SLAPP statute followed him there! So, it's got far-reaching consequences, outside of the state that passes it. And so far, there are six jurisdictions now - California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and the District of Columbia that have what I refer to as real anti-SLAPP statutes. But, you know, six out of fifty, that's just not enough.

S: Yeah, so we'd like to do, is to start a movement to promote and lobby for effective anti-SLAPP laws in all the remaining states. I'm gonna start in Connecticut, 'cause that's where I live. We encourage our listeners, if you want a cause to take up the banner for, we'll be coordinating at, Marc, you sent me a model anti-SLAPP law. Legal busyworks already been done. You don't ahve to reinvent the wheel. That's the kind of thing, you could take that right to a state representative, and say, "This is the law I'd like you to sponsor."

J: That is awesome!

B: Does it need any tweaking?

S: Oh yeah, you insert your state's name, you know?

B: Ah! So ya gotta do work.

(Steve chuckles)

MR: You know, any state may also have its own particular idiosyncracies. So it's just a model, but there are certainly even ways that I think it could be strengthened. You know, just recently, Steve, you had a great idea, whereas, in places like Florida, if you want to file a medical malpractice claim, you have to go through a pre-screening process before that claim even gets into court. And that's probably a good idea. When I think about access to medical care, or protection of First Amendment rights, well, maybe me personally, as a First Amendment attorney, I'm a little biased. But why wouldn't we have just as much protection as that?

So, if anybody out there is interested in promoting this law, and has even more items to strengthen it, I certainly have no ego about somebody who says, "I've got some better ideas."

S: Yeah, so, basically, the two components that we'd like to see, one is the anti-SLAPP, where you can shut the case down early, you can get your attorney's fees and your expenses; but also, some minimal hurdles. Before you can force a defendant to pay a dime to defend their free speech, you have to prove that you have at least some minimal merits of the case. And if you can't get over that minimal bar, then you can't force somebody to spend money to defend their own First Amendment rights.

MR: You know, anybody who's got any kind of access to a legislator, this might be something you might want to take up. But if you've got any legislator willing to sponsor it, if you're a member of this organization, or a listener to this show, I will come and speak to your state's judiciary committee, and give them the reasons why this should be passed.

And, you know, this isn't just about, you don't have to just sell it as a First Amendment issue. That's where I like it, but it's also an opportunity for a legislature to do something that it almost never gets a chance to do. And that is, to be pro-consumer, and pro-business at the same time. Because as soon as we passed ours in Nevada, I've used that to sell a number of my clients, who are out of state, on the idea of moving to Nevada. And it was a no-brainer for them. They were media companies, that were facing frivolous defamation suits in their home states, and then decided, well, if they have this umbrella over them in Nevada, why shouldn't they move here? Increasing tax revenues, increasing jobs, and frankly, increasing the prestige of the business environment.

S: All right, so, yeah, if you want to help with this effort, just email us. Put something obvious in the subject like "libel reform," or "anti-SLAPP." LEt us know what state you're in, and what, how you want to be involved. We'll coordinate at our end. Send you the model anti-SLAPP law. And if we actually get to the point where we could have somebody in front of legislators, Marc said he'll be willing to do that. So,

J: Well, I think we should stop at nothing than getting someone in every state in the United States to join this cause with you guys.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

MR: In particular, you know, if anybody's in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania is already flirting with this. I've gone and testified before the Pennsylvania senate. So, if you're in Pennsylvania, that's a domino that's really about to fall, and could use any calls or letters that you could send to your legislators, asking them to support it.

S: Okay, thanks for coming on the show. Thanks for helping us with this. Hopefully, within a few years, we'll have some significant progress.

MR: That'd be great! All right, thanks, guys!

B: Thanks Marc!

S: Thanks Marc. Goodnight.

J: Appreciate it, man.


Science or Fiction (1:06:27)[edit]

Item #1: A new analysis finds that the Milky Way is 50% larger than previous estimates, and has a rippled or corrugated shape. Item #2: Recent estimates indicate that the Milky Way contains more stars than the rest of the local group combined. Item #3: Astronomers have discovered nine new dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:22:08)[edit]

'All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone's feelings... We must run roughshod over all these ancient puerilities, overturn the barriers that reason never erected, give back to the arts and sciences the liberty that is so precious to them.' - Denis Diderot

Announcements (1:23:28)[edit]

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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