SGU Episode 516

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SGU Episode 516
May 30th 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 515                      SGU 517

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Science is not a boy's game, it's not a girl's game. It's everyone's game. It's about where we are and where we're going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain't stopped yet. There's more exploration to come.

Nichelle Nichols

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • FIFA officials arrested for major corruption charges

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:45)[edit]

  • Georges Méliès: influential filmmaker who made the first science fiction film ever

News Items[edit]

Swindler's List: Scam Charities (9:13)[edit]

S: All right, so, Jay, your news item is actually a Swindler's List, your series on scams.

J: That's right. I haven't done one in a long time, but something really juicy came across my desk, and I wanted to tell you guys about it. Charitable organizations are supposed to do what?

S: Charity?

J: Right, but …

E: Help people, and not for profit.

J: Yeah, they raise funds, and they give as much of that money away to the people that are in need, whatever the particular charity is.

B: I think the assumption, Jay, is that whatever they give, the vast majority, whether it's sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety percent of that stuff is gonna go where you intend it to go.

J: And there's a lot of companies that try to do that, Bob. You know, I want to make sure I say that out of the gate. You know, of course, all charitable organizations are not corrupt, but there are a lot that are. And if anything, the numbers are growing.

Let me give you an example: Like, you have a lot of cancer foundations, and children-based foundations. So there is a significant corrupt underbelly – I always like that word, the underbelly, you know? It exists

(Evan laughs)

J: That exists, that essentially are existing just to produce money for the top echelon of people. Very similar to the FIFA crowd there. So there's one particular story that I read, I thought was fascinating, about this guy named James Renolds. He used to work for the American Cancer Society in the early '80's, and he was a manager of one of their offices. And he was fired for poor record-keeping, and he actually stole a vintage car that had been donated by someone, to raise money.

So, the guy donates a car, he steals the car, instead of selling it, or auctioning it off, and actually giving the money to those that have cancer, and are in need.

E: Yeah

J: So the company didn't like that, and they let him go. And what he did was, he immediately went and started, that same year, and started his own charitable organization, and he called it the Cancer Fund of America. And this was the beginning of several companies that he would start, charity-based companies.

In May of this year, so fast forwarding quite a number of years, USA's Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, had leveled charges very recently (this month, in fact) against Renolds, and several people who work for him, so his upper echelon of employees. The FTC stated that the organization had stolen a hundred and eighty-seven million dollars

E: Ugh, is that all?

J: between 2008 and 2012. And that money was collected as donations. They spent the money on a shit load of things. High salaries for friends and family, expensive trips, new cars, college tuitions, luxury cruises, sporting events, concert tickets, and a lot of other stuff, like mundane things, like gym memberships, and dating site memberships, and all, you know, spending company money like crazy. They actually only turned around and donated three percent of the collected donations.

B: Ugh!

J: Three. Percent.

E: Three percent.

J: And their scam was very simple. If you think about it, they sent patients things that were donated to the organization, and kept most of the cash. So listen to this particular story. There's a sixty-seven year old cancer patient who was dying. His wife called the organization for help, and they ended up receiving a box filled with cups, paper plates, napkins, and some kids' toys, all of which

B: Thank you, that's helpful.

J: was reported to have been donated to this cancer foundation. They didn't actually spend money, they just turned around and resent stuff that was given to the organization.

E: (Angry) Geez!

J: This guy's wife, you know, of course, he died very soon after this. But his wife literally threw the box in the garbage. You know, it was like, and they both took it like it was a slap in the face. Like, how horrible can this, disconnected can this company be, sending them paper plates and napkins? Oh yeah, this guy is dying of cancer, and he needs paper plates.

Other lies that came from Renolds and his crew included things like, they said that, this is what they were telling the government, or reporting to the IRS, that they were giving out urgent pain medication to critically ill cancer patients, right? The medication ended up being Ibuprofin, you know, over the counter medication. Very, very inexpensive,

B: Oh my god!

J: Other services they claim to provide were like, free rides to patients to and from chemotherapy. Guess what? Didn't exist. No free rides. The whole thing was a lie.

E: The proverbial ride.

J: Renold's other company, the Breast Cancer Society, they claim that they ship thirty-six million dollars in medical supplies overseas, to those in need, back in 2011. IRS investigated, found out none of those things that they said that they shipped were ever purchased by the company. The Breast Cancer Society never purchased the thirty-six million dollars' worth of stuff. So therefore, they kept the money. They were just lying to the government.

His scam was simple and elegant, but I don't want to mislead you. It was elaborate in a lot of ways as well. He was very clever in what he was doing. He was preying on the elderly. So, what would happen would be, his telemarketers would find someone that ends up making a donation, was very likely that they were gonna be elderly, and then they would call back, representing other companies, Renold's other companies, and keep hitting them up for donations. And a lot of times, these people could not afford to give donations. They were sweet-talked into it. Literally, like, fast-talked into making the donations. And then,

E: Yeah

J: a lot of times, these people were not even sure what was happening. Extremely elderly people, that are getting government money just to survive, and didn't really understand what was taking place over the phone. Who knows what kind of illegitimate conversations that they had. They would pretend to, the company names were crafted to sound like other companies that are legitimate. And his scams continued to go on and on, meaning that he just kept trying all different things. There was a lot of details to this guy's story that I found very interesting.

So, while reading about this, I stumbled on, the Tampa Bay Times created a list of the worst charities, America's worst charities, right? So this is, where you can find this. And man, do you want to get mad? If you do,

B: Yeah, I do!

J: go to this website. So, several of Renold's companies are in this list, but there's a top, there's forty-eight people at forty-eight companies on this list, like, the number one is called The Kids' Wish Network, right? So you could go to the website, and take a look. They raised 137.9 million, they paid out 2.5 percent of the 137 million. And then, if you click in, and you read the details about the Kids' Wish Network, I mean, just reading it makes me sick to my stomach.

The scam that they pulled in the name of kids that need help is so horrendous, just go to the website and read it. You know, and then you have the Cancer Fund of America, that's Renold's company. The Children's Wish Foundation International, that's number three.

S: Yeah, they do a lot of sound-alikes, 'cause they're trying to make you think that's the Make a Wish Foundation, which is a legitimate

B: Yes!

S: charity.

E: Uh huh.

J: You know, the Fire Fighter's Charitable Foundation, number four. International Union of Police Associations, AFLCIO. You know, and you read the percentages. You know, one percent, seven percent, point-five percent, two point two percent of the actual monies taken in were donated to anyone in need.

And they're taking in tens of millions of dollars, all those companies that I listed, the top five, were above sixty thousand, and way up, from sixty thousand to a hundred and thirty-seven – I'm sorry, sixty million to a hundred and thirty-seven million dollars taken in. And they're giving away fractions of the money.

S: Yeah

J: You know, lesson learned. I'm sure a lot of our listeners already knew this, but you gotta be very careful. Please do investigate any company that you're gonna donate money to, please investigate it. The resources are there online for you to find it. You know, you could just type in the name of the company, or type in the name of the company, space, “scam,” or anything like that. You know, use key words like that, that'll help you get other information, other than what that company wants you to see.

S: Yeah, but the problem is, it's the pressure in the moment donation, you know, where people ask you, “Oh, give to this charity.” And you're out somewhere, you know. It's hard to sometimes, to say “no,” but you really, I hate to say this, but you really should only contribute, especially anything significant, to charities that you investigated.

E: Yeah, you research them ahead

S: Yeah

E: of time, know where you want to make a contribution, and then you go

S: Yeah, which means then, that you're saying, “No” to the out -

E: To the impulse

S: Yeah, to the impulse donation, 'cause …

J: Yeah, you feel, it's the guilt though

S: Then you don't have any opportunity to check 'em out.

B: One good thing to check out is whether they use professional fundraisers, 'cause from what I could tell, a lot of the legit charities don't use professional fundraisers, because they cost tons of money! And so they do it in house, I guess, and it's a lot cheaper. So that would be a red flag, if they have professional fundraisers. They have to admit it.

J: That's a good point, Bob. What's interesting is, a lot of these companies were reported to higher … these third party fundraising companies, that all they do is run fundraisers. And they would be giving, like, seventy to eighty to ninety percent of the donations that were taken in just to pay the fundraising company.

S: If you're running an organization like that, in my opinion, you are a sociopath, right?

B: Yeah

S: These people, that's beyond just being unethical. You've got to be a real psychopath to do that sort of thing, that level of scam.

J: Yeah

S: In my opinion.

B: Disgusting.

Creationist Talking Points (19:11)[edit]

Twitter Demons (32:55)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (36:18)[edit]

  • Answer to last week:

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Bird Feeders (39:05)[edit]

Recently we put up a bird feeder in our yard. This prompted a discussion between myself and my husband about the effect of bird feeders on a bird population. I have heard that if you start feeding birds you should not stop as the birds learn to rely on the constant food supply and, if it is removed, have difficulty obtaining food the usual way. My thinking is that the easily obtained energy birds receive via the feeders is almost always a benefit as they do not have to exert a lot of energy obtaining it and, if it is no longer there, they have still had the benefit of that easy food energy. We had hoped to come to Nexus this year, but there are no longer direct flights from Edmonton to New York City. Maybe next year! Thanks, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta Nancy

Interview with Paul Braterman (47:44)[edit]

  • I am a retired chemistry professor, now science writer, in Glasgow, committee member of British Centre for Science Education, heavily involved in promoting and defending science, in Skeptics and Humanists, regular contributor to 21st Floor, to Panda's Thumb a couple of times, to BCSE's analyses of creationist activity in the UK, and, on a variety of topics, as a result of contacts I made while working in the US, to the New Mexico Committee for excellence in science education house organ, the Beacon. My formal networks: British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), [a small group doing much the same work as our friends, NCSE, whom you mention, are doing in the US; we got Sue Blackmore to sign the CrISIS campaign letter to the Education Secretary], Glasgow Brights, New Mexicans for Science and Reason, Oxford University. From NCSE:

Science or Fiction (1:04:45)[edit]

Item #1: Biologists have engineered double-helix DNA that has six instead of four nucleotides. Item #2: Recent research suggests that infants are able to understand abstract relationships even before they develop language. Item #3: Italian physicists have announced the discovery of the Majoranon, the first elementary particle that is its own antiparticle.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:47)[edit]

S: Well, Evan, do you have a quote

E: Yeah

S: for us?

E: I do have a quote. And here it is:

'Science is not a boy's game, it's not a girl's game. It's everyone's game. It's about where we are and where we're going. Space travel benefits us here on Earth. And we ain't stopped yet. There's more exploration to come.

And those words were spoken by Nichelle Nichols!

S: Lieutenant Uhura!

E: That's right!

S: Very nice.

B: Awesome.

E: Yep, she's, yeah, well, I mean, do I even have to say it? Lieutenant Uhura, the USS Enterprise? Popular Star Trek television series? And the motion pictures and the fans, and all that? I mean, come on! What else do I have to say?

Oh, how about this? And did you know that Nichol's brother Thomas was a member of the Heaven's Gate cult.

S: Really!

E: Yeah, he died on the 20

S: Oh, I think I remember that

E: March 26, 1997, in the cult's mass suicide. He was one of them.

S: Wow!

B: Oh wow!

E: He was a member for eleven years. Prior to that, he left a final video message, saying, “I'm the happiest person in the world.” And I don't know, is he the happiest person off of the world, now, I suppose.

B: Now, he's the deadest person in the world.

E: Or one of them.

B: That's interesting, but I think one of the most interesting footnotes to her Star Trek career is when she was actually considering leaving the show, she was gonna leave Star Trek. I'm not sure what season this was, but she was considering leaving, and she somehow, she was meeting Martin Luther King Jr., and mentioned it, and he's like, “No! Please don't leave the show. You are working on a TV show, showing a diverse

E: Yeah!

B: society in the future, where everyone gets along. That's fantastic! Just stay on, and continue doing it, even if you're not necessarily doing the things you would like to do on the show. It's such a big boon.”

S: Yeah

B: And she did.

S: It wasn't perfect, but it was one step,

B: Yep!

S: you know. I agree, take that step, and then take another, you know?

E: Her character was one of the first African American female characters on American television not portrayed as a servant. Think about that!

S: Right

E: Talk about a typecast situation. And, yeah, I mean, she just actually busted that ceiling wide open, thank goodness.

B: Not to mention the kiss with Captain Kirk.

E: Well, that ...

J: That was, you know,

E: a story in itself.

J: a ground breaker. You know, Roddenberry was definitely trying to have a racially diverse cast, and there's a lot of firsts in that show.

S: And species diverse.

J: Yep, yeah, definitely. You know, Captain Kirk had sex with those aliens for a reason, and that was a subtext there.

(Bob laughs)

E: Yeah, the four vagina'd woman from Omicron Persei Three or something?

S: It was still, you know, but yeah, but still white dudes were in control. All the top positions

E: Well, let's not get crazy!

S: Yeah, like I say, it was a step. By modern standards, you would look back at it and go, “It was still hugely skewed towards caucasian males.” But, yeah, later

B: But it was the '60's. Women captains, women admirals, it just got, and eventually, a woman that was the captain of the, it wasn't an Enterprise,

S: Yeah, Voyager.

B: Yeah, Voyager. It wasn't called the Enterprise, but it was still a Starfleet, the main ship of an entire series, and that was fantastic.

S: Yeah, absolutely. You guys watch Mad Men?

B: No!

E: No

J: Some of the first season.

E: No. After I start watching Breaking Bad,

S: It just ended, but, yeah, so it's a depiction of the '60's, and I think they did a good job of showing how horrifically sexist it was. I mean, you take for granted

B: Oh my god!

(Evan laughs)

S: But it was, it's amazing how far removed we are from that, even with one generation.

E: Sure

S: You think about the characters in that movie

E: Two generations.

S: That's our parents' generation. You know, that's when we were kids.

E: Yeah, fifty years ago.

S: It was, oh my god! It was, you imagine anything like that happening today, and it would be completely unacceptable, at least in most places.

B: Yeah

S: But it is amazing to think. Still, I'm not saying we're there yet, obviously still have a ways to go.

B: No,

S: But it was, what a dramatic difference, just reminding-

E: Right

S: slaps you in the face with how different it is.

B: I saw the first couple episodes, and yeah, it is a slap in the face. And you're right, we're not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But one thing is undeniable: We've come a long way, and it gives me so much hope for the next generation, the next twenty or thirty years. They're gonna look back at how it is today, and be like, “Damn guys. What the hell were you thinking?”

S: Right

B: In a lot of ways, I think that, of course, that's gonna happen.

S: I hope so.

B: So I think we're on a good trajectory here, that still definitely needs some work. But still happy where we seem to be going.

S: Right. Right, right.

E: Future's bright.

S: I talk to my daughters about their culture, their peers and everything. And they're pretty progressive. I mean, you know? For example, they literally, to them, being gay or transgender or whatever is like being left handed.

(Bob laughs)

S: It literally means nothing.

B: Awesome! Awesome.

S: You know? The idea that anybody could be discriminated against because of their sexual preference is abhorrent to them! It's totally, they don't get it. It's totally

B: Yep

S: outside of their ability to understand. So, which is great, which is fantastic.

B: But Steve, don't you think sometimes, that, you know, say, when we're in our seventies and eighties, and what are gonna be the hold outs? The things that we don't really want to let go about how we think things should be, that to our kids and grandkids, are gonna be like, “Dad! What the hell!”

S: Yeah

B: Just get with the program!

S: Are there gonna be any? Are there gonna be any?

B: Right!

S: And if there are, what would they be? That's very interesting. I've thought about that.

B: Yeah

S: But, you know, is it gonna be loss of privacy, or, I don't know, what's it gonna be?

J: That's funny that you brought that up. George just had this one his podcast, he was talking about something very similar. You know, what are the things gonna be in the future that we look back on and say, “What the hell were we thinking?” You know?

S: But Bob is saying the opposite. What are our kids gonna, they're gonna think we're old fogies because we're not on board with what? What social change, that they're going to embrace, that we're gonna think is, “these kids today” kind of thing.

J: Yeah

(Bob chuckles)

S: I don't know.

B: Yeah

E: The Charlie game? I don't know.

S: I mean, honestly, I think that, just 'cause of where we're from, we're pretty progressive. So, I just, maybe our listeners can suggest something to us, as to what that might be. Maybe it's a thing we haven't thought about yet, 'cause

B: Right

S: it's a trend that hasn't really come to fruition yet. But, I don't know.

E: Eh, some will say it's vegetarianism. You know, how we

S: Maybe. Yeah, it may, it's true, Evan. It might be that we hold on to our hamburgers, (laughs) for those of us who still consume meat on occasion.

E: I'll eat the lab-grown meat, if it tastes great, if it passes all the tests. Why not?

S: It would solve all of our problems, wouldn't it? That lab-grown meat?

E: Well, they're on their way.

S: I like the Hitchhiker's Guide solution, where they genetically engineer a cow that wants to be killed and eaten.


E: That's great! Perfect! “Kill me! Kill me!”

B: “I've been force fed for weeks! Would you care to eat?”


E: “Please! Have seconds!”

J: God, the guy was a genius.

B: Oh man, that was the best.

S: All right, well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Thanks, Steve.

E: Hey! Good to be with you.

B: Hey!

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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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