SGU Episode 536

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SGU Episode 536
October 17th 2015
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SGU 535                      SGU 537

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


GH: George Hrab

Quote of the Week

Supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that's the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until humans go extinct.

Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Elissa B. Anderson's passing.
  • Comforting atheists in grief

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (9:18)[edit]

  • Alice Catherine Evans: Showed the benefit of pasteurizing milk for the prevention of a host of illnesses

S: But first, the Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: Yeah, Steve, so for this week in the Forgotten Superheroes of Science segment, I'm gonna talk about Alice Evans, who was an American microbiologist. She was the first to connect the fact that there's harmful bacteria in milk that also influences human illness. And she strongly urged for the pasteurization of milk, and seemed fairly instrumental in achieving that.

So Evans received a BS in bacteriology from Cornell University in 1909. And she worked primarily for the dairy division of the US Department of Agriculture. Now, she studied bacteria in cows' udders that are transferred to the milk! And sometimes, cows got what's called Bang's disease. It goes by various names. I think it's from the bacillus subordis microorganism. But it's also considered – it was not considered harmful to humans.

But she kind of suspected that it might cause some problems in people, specifically something that's called undulent fever. And it turns out, after her research, that she was right. So she reported this in 1918, in the Journal of Infection Diseases. But the scientists of the day were skeptical. They did not really believe her. And part of that reason, probably a good chunk of that reason was because she was a woman, at that time. Remember, this is the late 1918, 1919. So that clearly had to be a factor.

But also, she was not only a woman, she was a woman without a PhD, So, you know, how could she discover something so significant, that eluded so many other people. So even during this time, the skepticism, she warned them. She's like, “Hey, this milk should be pasteurized to protect people from the host of diseases.” And it wasn't just undulent fever.

And then finally, in the twenties, years later, other scientists made the same findings. Then of course, they were much more believable, because they were, you know, real scientists, and men, of course. So her efforts clearly led to the pasteurization of milk in around 1930.

Milk seems kind of innocuous. Hey, it's milk. How bad could that be? But that's easy to say in this modern day, because in its raw form, which was of, course, everywhere back then, it's really dangerous! It causes three times the hospitalizations of any other disease outbreak caused by food. The CDC seriously considers it one of the world's most dangerous foods because of that. They even said that between, in this modern day, between 1998 and 2011, seventy-nine percent of dairy outbreaks were directly related to raw milk or cheese, which is amazing to think, even back, even then.

If you look at it, pasteurization could prevent not just that fever, but also diptheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and more. And it also, pasteurization can kill esteria, E Coli, salmonella, and many more of those as well. So, clearly, it was a huge, huge boon to something that so many people consume, the world over.

So, remember Catherine Evans; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing the effect of HTST milk on the mycells of casine protein.

GH: Wow, I always assumed that pasteurization of milk was like, right away, like, with Louis Pasteur was doing that.

S: Yeah, I thought that too. But it's not too.

E: Yeah

B: It was,

GH: What was the first thing pasteurized then?

S: Beer and wine.

GH: Really!

J: Ah, of course!

E: Oh, that makes sense!

J: Perfect sense!

S: That was in 1864. So that was almost sixty-six years before they applied it to milk. Yeah, I didn't realize it was such a gap there. I thought it was pretty much right as soon as Pasteur figured out pasteurization.

B: Well, they thought, like I said, they thought the milk was, “Oh, this is safe! It's not a problem.” But she showed, she's the first one to show that, no, this is clearly a problem. It's

S: Yeah

B: causing these issues. We gotta deal with it.

S: And still, today, there is a raw milk movement. People think,

E: Yes

S: “Oh, you're killing the milk!” Whatever.

(Evan laughs)

GH: No, it's udder stupidity.

S: Udder stupidity.

E: Ugh!! (Stupid noises)

J: Steve, what is the absolute worst thing that can happen to you from drinking raw milk?

S: Death?

B: You could die, you could die.

E: Death?

B: It's not a significant probability, Jay. I think in the outbreak that they tracked in the late nineties and early 2000's, I think there was only a few that actually died, but you can get some nasty diseases. She actually contracted – I think accidentally – this undulent fever that raw milk can cause. She was sick! It affected her health for twenty years. I mean, and think of the things that I mentioned: Diptheria, tuberculosis, salmonella, E. Coli. I mean, that's ...

S: Sal? Sal.

B: Huge – yes, sal. Those are some big, big, big, big benefits.

GH: I'm tryin' to picture her, in like, in the corner of her office, once they start pasteurizing milk in the thirties, ten years after she suggested it; just the look on her face, like, “Really? Really, guys? Yeah, great. Thanks.

S: Yeah

GH: Thank you, great.

B: Yep. What took ya so long?

GH: Thank you.”

S: Oh boy. How many people unnecessarily got sick, or died, because of sexism, just because she wasn't taken seriously enough.

E: Right?

S: You know, and delayed using a procedure that had existed for sixty-six years! You know.

J: There you have it. Sexism kills.


S: All right, thanks Bob.

News Items[edit]

Stellar Mystery (14:35)[edit]

(Commercial at 27:10)

Hallucinations (28:37)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (42:48)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Han Solo's DL44

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Core Sci-Fi (46:18)[edit]

I think if was Episode 532/533 or right close to that but Jay made the joke about having a dream (nightmare for Cara) about her having to watch 30 straight hours of the core science fiction tv shows and movies. I am 29 so just a few years younger, but I lucked out growing up with a family that had movie night and with a father that loved science fiction (for reference I teach high school science and love science fiction). I was wondering what all you guys would include as the core science fiction. I have a fall break coming up with school and would love to make sure I fill in the voids of films that I haven't seen during that break. Thanks again for a great show everyone! Lucas Jones Savannah, TN

(Commercial at 1:08:17)

Science or Fiction (1:09:28)[edit]

Item #1: The word 'democracy' (or some version of the word) appears in the Constitution 11 times. Item #2: The Constitution does not require the Speaker of the House to be a member of Congress, so theoretically the House could elect anyone as their Speaker. Item #3: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did not sign the Constitution. Item #4: The Constitution was “penned” by Jacob Shallus, A Pennsylvania General Assembly clerk, who remarkably misspelled 'Pennsylvania' in the document. -

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:21:16)[edit]

"Supernatural explanations always mean the end of inquiry: that's the way God wants it, end of story. Science, on the other hand, is never satisfied: our studies of the universe will continue until humans go extinct." - Jerry A. Coyne, Why Evolution Is True

Shoutout to Astronomy Blogger (1:22:18)[edit]

NECSS 2016 Announcement (1:23:01)[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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