SGU Episode 515

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SGU Episode 515
May 23rd 2015
SGU 514 SGU 516
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (0:31)[edit]

  • Mary Sherman Morgan: The first female rocket scientist and developed the fuel used for the first U.S satellite launch.

S: But Bob, you're gonna start with a Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: All right, guys, for this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm going to be talking about chemical engineer Mary Sherman Morgan, who is considered the first female rocket scientist, who also helped develop a new fuel critical to the United States' first satellite in space. Ever hear of her? Probably not!

J: Don't think so!

B: Morgan was born in 1921, and she died in 2004. At her funeral, one of her mom's old colleagues whispered to her surprised son George, he said, “Your mom single-handedly saved the America Space Program, and nobody knows it but a handful of old men.” So, that of course

(Evan laughs)

B: came as a surprise to George, because his mom's history was pretty much a blank slate to him for three reasons: First of all, she was a woman. And if you've been paying any attention at all, important contributions from women scientists are not generally well known. And second, she also worked on top secret science projects, which has another obvious layer of secrecy on top of that. And on top of all that, Mary Morgan was fiercely private, did not like sharing anything about her past at all.

When George learned some of this, and he put together her obituary for the L.A. Times, they rejected it, because they couldn't confirm anything he said independently. Flat out rejected it. So, what he did was he wrote her biography. He found that his mom quit college to work during World War II. And after that, she was hired by a North American Aviation as their first woman in a technical position. And this is all without a college degree.

She eventually joined a team of nine hundred analysts, eight hundred and ninety-nine of them were guys. So she was the only woman among them. Also, at that time, if you remember, in the fifties, this is after, around the time that Sputnik, that Russia launched Sputnik, the first satellite ever, in orbit around the Earth. So the United States essentially came to the company, pretty much in a panic. Like I said, the Russians had put their first satellite in orbit, and they needed help producing enough power to get their first satellite in orbit. They had done a lot of work, but one of the remaining problems was a fuel that was powerful enough.

So she and a team of a few others, who I guess are really forgotten superheroes, 'cause I don't even know who they are. But her and her team succeeded even where famous rocket scientist Werner von Braun had failed. They created a fuel combination called Hydine, which had twelve percent greater thrust, and higher efficiency, which is called “specific impulse.” And it was that fuel that was used on January 31st, 1958, when the Juno 1 rocket delivered the first American satellite, called the Explorer 1, into orbit.

So, remember Mary Morgan; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing, um, you know, geeky rocket science stuff.

(Evan laughs)

S: I like the fact, Bob, that she wanted to name her fuel “Bagel,” instead of

B: Yes!

S: they hydine.

B: Yes,

S: Because you combine it with liquid oxygen, which they call “locks.” It's sort of in locks and bagels.

(Evan laughs)

B: Yes, I loved her whimsy. And she suggested Bagel, and they smacked it down, like, “No!

S: They're calling it hydine.

B: We're calling it hydine!” Which reminds me of Cyberdyne, of course.

J: Cyberdyne, yeah, right?

(Bob laughs)

E: Check this out: Her son, who wrote the story of Mary Sherman Morgan, called “Rocket Girl,” was published by Prometheus Books, in 2013.

B: Oh!

E: Our friends at Prometheus

B: Wow! Yes!

S: Cool

B: Fantastic.

B: Lots of good science and skeptic books come out of there.

Movie Review (4:23)[edit]

(Commercial at 30:30)

News Items[edit]

Federal Anti-SLAPP (31:35)[edit]

S: All right, let's try to get through a few news items, guys. So, guys, did you hear that two congressmen have proposed a federal Anti-SLAPP statute.

E: Yeah!

B: That's awesome.

E: Oh boy.

J: That is fantastic news.

S: Yeah, well hopefully, it'll all work out, but there's a lot of things that can go wrong. So, here's the quick skinny: A SLAPP, or S-L-A-P-P is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It essentially refers to a libel, slander, or defamation lawsuit that is frivolous, but is designed to suppress somebody's free speech by threatening them with a lawsuit that could cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Most people don't have that kind of resources, so they will take down a blog post, or podcast, or whatever it is that person issuing the lawsuit wants to suppress. Anti SLAPP laws are laws that make it so that you can't do that. That basically, the defendant, the target of a frivolous lawsuit for libel, has a process of getting themselves out of the lawsuit without having to spend too much money, and might even be able to recover fees at the end.

So, one of the features is that you can effectively ask for a summary judgment prior to costly and lengthy aspects of the trial, like discovery.

J: What does that mean, Steve?

S: Well, discovery, you know, is when both sides can gather evidence. And that can take a lot of time and money, to do that.

J: And summary judgment is what?

S: Summary judgment is when you ask the judge, “All right, even, assuming these facts, which both sides agree with, the plaintiff can't possibly win. They can't, no reasonable jury would say, conclude that they made their case. And so, since there's no facts in dispute, and the plaintiff can't win on the facts that everyone agrees on, you can just shut the case down right now.

B: Yeah, there's even problems with that. I mean, you could just say, “Oh, there are facts in dispute.” And you could make it a nasty process.

S: Well, yes. Yeah, yeah. There's always ways to try to prolong it, you know. But this shifts the balance in the favor of the defendant. So, essentially, it creates, rather than the defendant having the burden of proof, essentially, in order to shut it down, the good thing about libel laws in the US is that plaintiffs have the ultimate burden of proof, and it's a very high burden. And they have a, it's very unlikely for them to win the suit, unless it's actual defamation. Which means that the person who is engaged in the speech either was knowingly lying, or had a flagrant disregard for the truth. That they lied, or didn't care about the truth, with malicious intent, and that it caused harm.

So, the plaintiff has to prove all those three things. But that doesn't really mean much at the end of the day, that that burden of proof his high, because they can still force the defendant to spend two hundred thousand dollars before they lose their case, you know. And that's the point. If you have money, if you have legal resources, you could shut down anyone's free speech by SLAPPing them with a suit like this.

So, the defendant needs the ability to extricate themselves quickly and cheaply from the suit, and also, there needs to be a disincentive for bringing these kind of frivolous suits, or suits designed to suppress freedom of speech, by giving the defendant an automatic way to ask to have their legal fees paid by the plaintiff, if it was shown that the plaintiff's case has no merit.

Let's see, a handful of states in the United States have effective anti-SLAPP laws. Those are California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Texas, and the District of Columbia. Interestingly, Florida just passed one of their own, although it hasn't gone into effect yes, and we still need to see how that's gonna work out.

But now, two congressmen have proposed a federal anti-SLAPP law, which would, this would apply to federal cases. And interestingly, they included a provision in there, where if you are sued in state court, you can still apply to the federal anti-SLAPP statute, which means that the defendant could automatically federalize a state defamatory case.

E: Sure. You gotta give 'em an option for that recourse.

S: You don't have to. That's actually a radical part of this law. It might be the thing

E: That's excellent part though.

S: that kills it. Well, think about it.

E: Well, I hope not.

S: Well, here's the thing: It's good, if you're a defendant, sued in a terrible state, that has laws that favor the plaintiff, you could bring your case to the federal level, and have the protection of this federal anti-SLAPP statute. That's good. The downside is,

B: Inundation

S: yeah, the federal courts can get overwhelmed with these cases.

E: Not unless they fast track 'em.

S: Well, it remains to be seen how it's all gonna sort out. If this is a sufficient disincentive to bring these suits, then that would all work out, if there aren't a lot of them. But if there still are a lot of these suits, that could overwhelm the federal courts, and it also dilute out the advantage of being in a federal court, if they're having to, you know, you want the judge to have the leisure to really look at the merits. You don't want them to be making decisions based upon other things, you know, like expediency.

E: If you're not a person of means, what other option would you have at that point?

S: Well, if you have a state

E: Go through the state process?

S: Well, if the state has a good anti-SLAPP law, you're good, you know.

E: If they do, but we're talking about forty-somethin' states that don't.

S: Yeah, I know. I agree. So, I think that this law is better than nothing. I think it's flawed, perhaps, but I think that it would be a good blanket anti-SLAPP protection in the United States, which is incredibly needed, and I still, we still need to fight for good anti-SLAPP laws in every state.

E: Sure, that's not, right, you're right.

S: We need that double layer of protection, I think would be better, because, you know, hey, if we're just being covered by one federal law, and that changes, or that gets watered down, or whatever, then you're screwed, you know what I mean? I think you

E: Right

S: having state laws covering the state cases, the federal law covering federal cases, and then, it's a tricky legal concept, whether or not the state cases can be brought to federal court. But in any case, the bottom line is that without this major reform that we need, your free speech is completely at the mercy of anybody with money who doesn't like what you say, and that's a crock.

E: Terrible.

S: That's terrible. And of course, part of the reason that we got so interested in this is because the SGU, and me personally, is being sued with what I consider to be a SLAPP suit. And it's incredibly expensive. We have been asking our listeners for support, to help us pay our legal fees, and we've been getting very generous donations. But so far it's covered about twenty percent of our legal bills. And we are in six figure territory, in terms of how much we are spending to defend ourselves from this lawsuit.

And, the plaintiff is trying to expand the case, to make it even more expensive. They're doing everything they can to compound and expand this case.

E: Yeah, they're trying to choke us out, basically.

S: Yeah

E: At this point, that's all they can do. They don't have any merit.

S: That's what it seems like. You know, it's not clear whether or not our case falls under any anti-SLAPP jurisdiction. I'm not gonna get into too many of the details of the case, for obvious reasons, but we're trying to apply anti-SLAPP legislation to it. But it's not, it hasn't been decided yet. Let me just say that.

Yeah, it's just ridiculous. Nobody should have to go through what we're going through, just for exercising their free speech. And the other thing that's clear, so there have been two other cases that I want to bring up, recently. This is not just about us. I mean, this, I really think that, first of all, this is an important issue for everybody. You know, everyone who values their free speech. But I also think that the skeptical community in particular has a stake in this because this is what we do! Critical analysis is what we do.

And to give you two recent examples, researchers, Harvard professor Peter Cohen, and other researchers, were just sued by a supplement manufacturer for an article they published in the scientific literature,

B: Wow

S: examining the efficacy and safety of a stimulant found in certain dietary supplements.

E: Holy crap! You can't even make a professional opinion about these things now?

S: I mean, it's ridiculous! It's completely

B: Wow

S: obscene. But now they're, a company is suing scientists for publishing science which is inconvenient to their sales.

E: Whoa

S: Think about that.

E: We're on a bad, bad track here

S: Right

E: with that one, definitely.

J: Now, could you, just imagine the chilling effect there, about how

S: Yeah

J: being slammed with such a massive lawsuit will shut other people up, but now we can't speak out against ... and this is every company. Every big, major company does this, from wacky supplement companies, to pharmaceutical companies,

S: Yeah

J: to insurance companies. It's not just the pseudoscientists that do this. I'm open and happy to admit, the laws need to change.

S: Yeah, absolutely. Another case I want to bring to your attention, just 'cause I think it's important to the skeptical community, Stephanie Gatormsin, that's the Operations Director for the Richard Dawkins Foundation. She published a video critical of a faith healer, Ada Miller, Miller was presenting himself as a quote-unquote “medical professional.” Typical faith healer nonsense. And Miller's response was to sue Stephanie, for the same list of, you know, “This is defamatory,” blah blah blah. Also trying to get her for using parts of his video in her YouTube video response, which is fair use. But he's trying to go after her for that as well.

So, very disgusting, again, just trying to shut down the free exchange of ideas in the marketplace of ideas, right? The framers of our constitution understood that having a free marketplace of ideas was vital to society. That's what the freedom of speech is all about. But it doesn't really exist until we have effective anti-SLAPP laws. That's the bottom line.

E: That's why it's the number one bill of rights. (Chuckles) It starts there!

S: It's the first amendment, that's right, along with other things. But, yeah, absolutely. So, this is something that we can fix! It's totally fixable.

E: Yep

S: So, write your congressman, write your senator, say that you support this federal anti-SLAPP law. Find out if your state has a good anti-SLAPP law. I listed the ones that do. If not, then we have a model state anti-SLAPP statute that we could send you. We've already had a lot of people offer to pass them along to their representatives in the state, especially if you have good connections, let us know. We're gonna really try. I've contacted my representative. Essentially, we're gearing up for the next legislative season, and really make a push to get anti-SLAPP laws passed in every state, and at the federal level, so that we can continue to do our job.

E: Yep, amen. Oh, sorry.

(Bob chuckles)

S: And in the meantime, though, we're getting buried with legal costs, so we still would appreciate any support you can give us. Go to, and you'll see our legal defense fund there. All right, let's go on.

Anti-Bacterial Soap and Cancer (43:27)[edit]

Light-Based Computing (47:08)[edit]

Online Timelapse (55:00)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (1:02:35)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Edison Dolls

Science or Fiction (1:05:15)[edit]

Item #1: Fusion researchers have found that inserting small grains of lithium into fusion plasma resulted in sustained temperatures and pressures capable of producing fusion. Item #2: A review of DNA studies finds that about half of the tree species in the Appalacians can trace their close relatives to eastern Asia. Item #3: A new survey finds that 18% of college freshman women endured at least one rape or attempted rape during their freshman year.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:47)[edit]

"I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day." - Douglas Adams

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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