SGU Episode 540

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to navigation Jump to search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs: transcription, proofreading, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
How to Contribute

SGU Episode 540
November 14th 2015
Fossilized brain.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 539                      SGU 541

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


SS: Simon Singh

Quote of the Week

We ignore public understanding of science at our peril

Eugenie Clark

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Star Wars Prequels, and Jupiter Ascending

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

What's the Word (3:02)[edit]

  • Formication

S: We're gonna mix things up a little bit this week. We're gonna actually gonna start with a What's the Word.

C: What's the Word this week you guys? You ready for it? You have to listen really, really carefully.

E: Okay.

C: Formication,

E: Hold the phone, now!

J: Hey!!

E: I wasn't listening carefully.

C: One more time! I'm gonna say it really clearly: Formmmication.

B: So F-O-R-M-I or A.

C: M-I

B: Yeah

S: If that happens on the west coast, is that Califormication?

(Rogues laugh)

B: Oh, god! Nice!

C: Yeah, right? This is one of those fun science words that sound super dirty, even though it's not. Although it is kind of dirty, but not in a sexual way. (Laughs)

S: It is just one letter off, yeah.

C: It's one letter off! What do you guys think it means?

S: I know what it means.

B: Something about ...

C: Steve always knows what it means!

S: Well they're medical terms! You keep picking medical ...

C: I know, I keep picking medical terms 'cause they're so good.

J: Break it down.

B: Something about a dirt.

J: What's “form,” Bob? Formi...

C: Ooh, you're so cold.

S: Yeah


C: You're not getting any warmer.

B: That's not helpin'.

C: All right. So I will give you – no, I won't give you the etymology first. I'll just go ahead and define it. It is a tactile hallucination, or parasthesia,

J: Whoa!

C: specifically refers to the feeling that something (most often insects) are crawling all over, or under your skin.

J: Ohh!

E: Oh, the heebie-jeebies.

B: But what about this?

C: Yeah

B: Cara, what about this? What about that buzzing you feel that you are convinced is your phone vibrating, and your phone isn't even on you. (Cara laughs) Is that formication?

S: No

C: That's not

B: Why?

C: actually formication.

B: Okay

C: This is very specifically a tactile hallucination of the feeling of creepy crawlies; very specifically has an insect-type feeling, and it is often a symptom of disorder of the spinal cord or peripheral nerves, or even more commonly, a side-effect of cocaine or amphetamine use. And you can also see it associated sometimes with psychiatric disorders.

S: Or alcohol withdrawl.

C: Or alcohol withdrawl! Yeah, so formication first appeared in the literature in 1707. We then later saw it in the 1797 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, And they were describing the conditions – Steve, help me out with the pronunciation of this – R-A-P-H-A-N-I-A – poisoning by ingestion of seeds of the wild raddish raphish

S: Yes, or course. Raphania. (Pronounced the way it looks)

C: There we go. All right. So, in the 1797 edition of Encylopedia Brittanica, they're describing raphania, and they say that it includes a symptom, quote, “A formication or sensation of ants or other small insects creeping on the parts.” And then they fully defined it as its own entry in 1890 in the same encyclopedia, saying that it's a quote, “Variety of itching, often encountered in the exema of elderly people. It is described as exactly like the crawling of myriads of animals over the skin.” So, where does this come from?

S: Formisidae.

C: Formisidae! Which is the family name in taxonomy of the ant!

B: Whoa!

S: And what do ants inject in you when they bite you?

E: Venom

C: I don't know.

S: Formic acid.

(Cara shrieks)

B: Ah! Nice!

C: Yeah, so it's the feeling specifically of ants crawling over your skin, which of course, you may not particularly be able to point to it being ants, but it feels like a lot

E: Remember that Star Trek episode when Scotty stuck his hand into the situation with the screw driver, and he said, Scottish accent) “Ah! Ants crawling all over me arm, it feels like.”

S: Yeah. Yeah yeah.

C: Yeah, he could have said, “Oh my gosh! I'm suffering from formication.”

E: Why didn't he?

S: Right

C: Because then people would have misheard it.

E: Ah, Roddenberry would have

S: When Paula Trades put his hand in the pain box,

B: Yeah!

S: Yeah

E: Ooh! (Laughs)

C: Have you guys ever had this experience?

(Chorus of uh's)

J: How did I know that it was real or not, though? What if I thought it was real?

C: Uh, then I'd be worried.

E: Formication.

C: Yup

S: Formication, yep. Yeah, that's cool.

C: Yep

S: I've always loved that word, formication.

C: I love words – there're a lot of cool science words that sound totally dirty, but aren't. I may do a series on those.

News Items[edit]

Low Calorie Sweeteners (6:48)[edit]

S: Alright, so we have some interesting news items this week. We're gonna start with one about low-calorie sweetners. You know, like, aspartame, sucralose--

E: Stevia?

S: Stevia...I hate stevia.

E: That stuff'll kill ya. (laughter)

S: So there was a recent, systematic review of pretty much all of the studies looking at any information about using so-called low-energy sweeteners, or LES, and changes in total energy intake or in weight and body mass. Very interesting because this has been controversial over many years and it's a good, sort of, review of the different kinds of scientific evidence and how we use them.

So, here's the question: if you drink diet soda sweetened with aspartame or sucralose, versus drinking sugar-sweetened drinks, versus drinking, let's say, water, what's the net effect on your calorie intake and your weight? Right, now the common-sense, sort of knee-jerk response is, "Well, if you're replacing 3- or 400 calories of sugar-sweetened drinks per day with zero-calorie drinks, you should be skipping out on 3- or 400 calories." You know, it seems pretty obvious.

But, of course, life is always more complicated than that. Because the body is complicated and there's all kinds of feedback mechanisms and unintended consequences. It turns out that the answer may be far more complicated. For example, psychologically, people may think, "Oh, I'm having a diet soda; I can afford to have that cheesecake." (laughter) You know, it's called compensation.

E: To rationalize it.

S: Yeah, you compensate by increasing your caloric intake elsewhere because you feel like you've earned it, because you're--

C: It's like how, at Starbuck's, I get non-fat milk so I can add whip! (laughter)

S: So, compensation definitely exists; the question is how much? Is it enough to offset the reduction in the sugar that you're missing out on?

There are some biological mechanisms as well. For example, the GI tract has sweet receptors. What are they doing? Does that affect your appetite?

J: Why does that have sweet receptors?

S: Well, because the GI system detects things like what you eat and affects your behavior. It send signals--hormonal signals--to your brain. It's also--there's this idea of learning: that you're tricking the brain by giving it something sweet that doesn't have calories that your brain then begins to disassociate the sensation of sweetness with caloric intake. And that can result in you craving more calories overall.

E: Right.

S: Right? Does that make sense?

E: Yeah.

S: That's the question and it may not be as obvious as it at first seems. So there have been several kinds of studies looking at this question, and you've probably seen headlines over the last 10 years: "Diet sodas make you obese," or whatever. Everytime one of these studies comes out, the press presents it as if this is the final, definitive word on whether or not low-energy sweeteners are good or bad for you.

C: And, also, sometimes they're funded by, like, "THE AMERICAN BEVERAGE ASSOCIATION." (laughter) I've seen that happen a couple times recently and you're like, "I don't know about that."

J: (affected) "Isn't it delicious?" (laughter)

S: There are animal studies. Animal studies have the advantage of we can control everything that they do and everything that they consume. These are mostly done in rats. You can either feed them--you can sweeten their water with either sugar or low-energy sweeteners, or you can force the pills down their throat, and then you give them food that is sweetened, like, it's a little bit of sweetener in it.

And what these studies generally find is that, if you force-feed rats a lot of low-energy sweeteners, they may actually over-consume lightly sweetened food. So that's--most of the headlines that you see, and it says, you know, "Low-energy sweeteners make you obese," probably most of them were rat studies.

A couple of problems with these studies: one is that, you know, rats aren't people and the laborotory situations that they're putting the rats in are very contrived. There may be lots of reasons why the rats will consume more feed that have nothing to do with human behavior. That data may be suggestive but it really isn't definitive in terms of its application to people.

The next type of study is observational. Right, so you're not randomizing people to eating low-energy sweetener or not, you're just seeing what they're doing and what their weight is. Or you might do cohort studies where you follow them going forward. And those generally show conflicting results.

C: It seems like there would be so many confabulating factors there.

S: Yeah, that's the weakness of observational studies--is that they're confabulating. And the authors of this new review argued that you can't make cause-and-effect claims because it's quite possible that people who are overweight choose to drink diet drinks because they're trying to lose weight. You know, they're not overweight because they're drinking the soda; they're drinking the soda because they're overweight. So, yeah, the confounding factors make it impossible, really, to make any kind of cause-and-effect conclusion from those studies.

So now we get to the most clinically relevant types of studies, where you do experiments on people and you randomize them, and you might even blind them to whether or not they're drinking sugar-sweetened or low-energy-sweetener-sweetened beverages, and then follow their behavior. And those studies find, in this systematic review, that drinking low-energy sweetener results in a decrease in caloric intake and weight.

C: Oh, wow!

S: So those studies are broken down into short- and long-term. Short term studies are basically one meal. Right, you give people--you pre-load them with either sugar, or water or aspartame, and then you let them eat as much of a meal as they want and you see how much they eat.

C: So that's just caloric intake. You can't look at weight after one meal, right?

S: Yeah, that's just energy intake, exactly.

C: Okay.

S: And they find that there is compensation; that people do eat more if they drank the low-energy sweetened beverage, but not enough to make up for the decrease in the sugar calories. And so there still is a net decrease in caloric intake. And they said any effects of having had the low-energy sweetener probably wouldn't last much beyond that next meal, anyway, so this data is helpful.

But there are also long-term studies. Long-term studies last anywhere from days to three years. The longest studies last up to three years. Looking at people, again randomized, and perhaps even blinded to whether or not they were drinking sugar-sweetened, low-energy-sweetener sweetened, and then also compared to just drinking water. And they found, long-term, again, there was an overall decrease in energy intake and an overall decrease in weight with the low-energy sweetener--even when compared to water, which is what I found most surprising in this data.

C: Oh, wow!

S: Because there's no calorie difference between the two; between water--zero-calorie water and zero-calorie diet soda. But still there was a little bit of an advantage to the sweetened zero-calorie beverage. But there was a clear advantage over drinking sugar. Which, again, one of those situations where the science confirms your initial assessment, the sort of common-sense assessment that says, "Yeah, not drinking 500 calories of sugar a day is a good thing for your energy intake and your overall weight.

So, whatever compensatory mechanisms are in there, whether they're psychological or biological, they're not offsetting the reduction in calories by avoiding the sugar. It's still a good idea, you know, to not drink sugary drinks if you're trying to manage your weight.

B: Of course.

C: But what if when you get--when you're accidentally served a Diet coke, as opposed to a regular Coke at a restaurant, it tastes like you've been poisoned!

S: So you just don't like the flavor of it.

E: ...or the surprise.

C: I cannot handle it. It's disgusting. It's so gross. I don't know, I think it's one of those things where it's like an acquired taste, and I've not--

S: It is, it's an acquired taste, in my experience, and I've had many other people make this observation to me. I think there are just differences in people's tastes, so that could be just genetic for you. But many people have the experience that, at first, they don't like it, it doesn't taste sweet enough, or something, there's just something not right about it. And then, after a while, they can't stand going back to sugar-sweetened drinks because they taste so syrupy and heavy and thick, and they prefer the diet drinks.

C: Yeah.

S: That was my personal experience. I can't stand sugar-sweetened drinks now. I only drink the calorie-free ones. And other people have made the same observation to me. So I think, yeah, the taste thing is personal and also acquired. And also, before we begin getting emails about this, the evidence does not support that there's any cancer risk, or any other health risk from aspartame or sucralose; they're totally fine. We are not gonna do a deep dive on that--

E: (laughing) Oh, gosh.

S: --just to say, "Don't believe the Internet." There's just a lot of misinformation about them on the Internet. The data actually doesn't support any health risk--

E: Dosage matters!

S: Yeah.

C: (chuckles)

S: Like, in the studies, even like with saccharine--saccharine got a bad rap as causing cancer, but the amount they were giving the rats in those studies was orders of magnitude more than you would ever consume. And the FDA, and also the European Union and other regulatory agencies set safety limits on how much you can consume by body weight, and it's typically, again, it's about a couple of orders of magnitude more than what a typical person would consume, so, it's just not something worth worrying about.

You can drink your diet sodas; you don't have to worry that they're making you fat, according to this latest systematic review. They really did look at--they tried to look at every single study published, of any kind on this question; it was pretty, pretty thorough. Not saying there isn't room for even more rigorous clinical studies, but the data's pretty rigorous, you know, that we have so far.

The other last interesting thing I want to talk about is that you read so many self-help books and nutrition gurus, they're, you know, talking about this diet advice or that, or how to avoid aspartame, et cetera, and they usually justify their recommendation with wild extrapolations from basic science. You know, it's like, "We have sweetness receptors in our gut and that causes A to B to C to D, and therefore it's not good for you."

E: There you go.

S: It's like, yeah, but you know we rarely can take our basic science knowledge and then extrapolate four or five steps to net health effects. You can't do that. That almost never works out. You have to study in people what the net health effects are. Because like here, yeah, sure, those mechanisms are in play, but they're just less than the effect of eating less sugar. It all comes down to magnitude. Even if the effects are real and there isn't something compensating for it, it just may not be clinically relevant. So, until you do the clinical studies, you just can't make those kinds of statements. But that is like almost the entire nutrition industry. You know, self-help industry's based upon these wild extrapolations from basic science. That is just not reliable.

Making Metals Stronger (18:28)[edit]

Mafia hitman claims to be missing piece in JFK assassination (23:47)[edit]

Fossilized Brains (32:14)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (37:43)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Architectural Instrument

(Commecial at 41:27)

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Anxiety (42:49)[edit]

I would like to begin this message by telling you that I love the show and have been a loyal subscriber since 2008. However, Jay mentioned something in the last episode that I would like to correct. He stated that people who needed anxiolytic medication didn't have the 'brass balls' to do things such as go to space and that they allowed their emotions to overcome them in such a way that they would be unsuitable for such a rigorous environment as the ISS. I would like to point out that Isaac Newton's notebooks record his anxiety, fears, and depression during his college years, as well as suicidal thoughts. Nicola Tesla almost certainly suffered from social anxiety. Scientists often work in collaborative teams these days, but there are many quiet, meticulous, solitary tasks that a person with anxiety is exceptionally good at completing. Our tendency to double and triple check things can be a good trait for lab work, as does the anxious brain's tendency to keep churning our every word and action after the fact. I know that it is a common trope in pop culture to portray those of us who suffer from what is essentially a lack of seretonin as nervous wrecks, but I assure you, we are quite capable. There are many medications that can remediate this chemical imbalance and settle our thoughts, but the anxious person can offer something to a team, just as it benefits with both introverts and extroverts, or autistic and other neuro-atypical people. Jay, I'm sure you didn't mean to stigmatize anyone or to downplay the accomplishments of those with psychiatric illnesses. And there is a concern about being stranded and without the trusty SSRIs, a la The Martian, where it might be harder to function. But, in the future, remember that every team needs diversity. People whose brains function differently can be an asset as well as a risk. Sincerely, Someone who worries an awful lot

Question #2: Meat Consumption (48:45)[edit]

Toni, I tried to find some specific statistics on meat consumption. 2010 statistics from the USDA 'Results: Overall meat consumption has continued to rise in the U.S., European Union, and developed world. Despite a shift toward higher poultry consumption, red meat still represents the largest proportion of meat consumed in the U.S (58%). Twenty-two percent of the meat consumed in the U.S. is processed. According to NHANES 2003–2004, total meat intake averaged 128 g/day. The type and quantities of meat reported varied by education, race, age, and gender.' 22% of 128g/day = 28 grams of processed meat per day on average, less than the 50grams in the study. Given this, I think we gave a reasonable bottom line interpretation of the implications of the study. Regarding meat and total health outcomes, I did refer to it on the show, here's the link: I did link in the show notes to my blog article which contains this link and others. Regards, Steve Dear Steve, 'Given this, I think we gave a reasonable bottom line interpretation of the implications of the study.' Yes, indeed. The statistic you provided puts the WHO study into context. Now I'm a vegetarian thinking, if only people would eat more processed meat.. But, as I clearly have no case anymore, I concede my position and thank you for taking the time to respond. This was fun. Kind regards, Toni

Interview with Simon Singh (51:23)[edit]

(Interview music)

S: Well, we're sitting here at TAM 2015 with our good friend, Simon Singh. Simon, welcome back to the SGU.

SS: Nice to be back. (He has a British accent)

S: So, get us up to date. What's been going on in your life?

SS: So I – gosh, like everybody else who's kind of active in scepticism, I've been doin' lots of things that distracted me from what I should be doing, which is writing books.

S: Right

SS: So, a couple of years ago, I set up a little foundation called Good Thinking, or the Good Thinking Society.

S: Been following your work, very … yeah

SS: Well, we had a slow start, but we've now got Michael Marshal, or Marsh from

J: Yeah, we know Marsh

SS: liberal – (inaudible 52:08) society sceptics. He's now working full time. We've got Laura Thomason. He's working part time. A very active sceptic. Johnny Shan's been working part time. I try to put in as many days as I can. And it's great to have this little hub where we can take on our own projects, we can investigate things, we're doing some undercover videos, we're making complaints against various alternative therapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, yeah.

And also, the other part of it is helping others. So, if there are skeptics who are investigating things, and they want some back up, some support, we've got some experiences and guidance, to kind of help them out with those problems.

S: Yeah, that's great, because we meet a lot of skeptics who are very enthusiastic, and they want to help, go and do stuff. I get it. That's exactly where we were when we started this out twenty years ago. It was like, “Let's do stuff, let's do investigations or whatever.” But it's hard, and it's complicated, and you don't necessarily have a lot of the background to do the kind of job that is sort of ironclad, you know?

SS: But sometimes, those people have what we don't have. So, for example, in our little group, at Good Thinking, we don't have any experts in dentistry. None of us are dentists, but there are dentists who we found, who are concerned about some of the practices within their

S: Right

SS: profession. And so they can come to us with their concerns, we can come back to them and say, “Well, look, what's the best way to address this? Let's look at the regulations in the general dental council in the UK.” And so, one of our projects has been working with dentists to look at their colleagues who may be scare-mongering about mercury fillings, and so on. So, sometimes it's about matching skill sets in one area with the skill sets we may have at Good Thinking.

S: The skeptical community's always very complicated in terms of how it's organized, or how it's not organized. That's, what you guys are doing are what I think what we really need, is just providing resources so that people can be more effective in their activism.

SS: Yeah, and also, when people get into trouble, as well.

S: Yeah

SS: And that's not because they've done something wrong, or they've done it in the wrong way. There's a chap Mark Hillbrook,

E: Yes

SS: who wouldn't even identify himself as a sceptic. He was just concerned about psychics. So he went to see a show by Sally Morgan. She's our biggest psychic.

E: Oh yeah

S: Yeah

SS: He just handed out flyers, which just said, “What would a real psychic look like?”

E: No, I like that.

SS: So, would a psychic give you vague readings, or would they be specific? Would they ask questions, or give you answers? It was very much a kind of, “This is how to spot a

S: Right

SS: real psychic.” And if Sally's real, then she'll tick all the boxes, and you'll be fine. For doing this, which he was doing this, I think he was doing it in Machester. Sally's son-in-law and her husband came out and really put the fright in his on. (Inaudible cross-talk 54:58) Yeah, yeah. Well, that's it. So, after it happened once, instead of kind of backing down, Mark went back a second time, and videoed what happened. And it was really quite physical, it was really aggressive, it was very abusive, it was, “You're gonna end up under a bus. We know where you work.” Et cetera.

So Mark just didn't know what to do, this stage. He came to us. He was then threatened with libel.

E: That's right

SS: After what happened to him, he was, yeah, anyway. So, we got friends, and we got solicitors, and barristers that help out with this. So we spent about four months helping him get out of this libel accusation, which was ridiculous.

J: But what was the actual accusation?

SS: Well, I think it was about what was in the flyer. The flyer was perhaps accusing Sally of not being a real psychic. But it wasn't about her at all.

J: I get that, but isn't it okay to accuse someone of not being a – fake psychic?

S: You mean real psychic.

J: Yeah

SS: (Hesitates) It's libel as you all know yourselves, full of grey areas, you know. It's murky. I would say that the claimants in this case didn't have a foot to stand on.

J: Yeah, because she would have to prove that she's a psychic in order to prove that he said something that's libellous.

SS: Not necessarily, not necessarily, because someone may be a fraudulent psychic. In fact, they may not know they have powers, but may try and exploit that to make money. Or they may believe that they are a genuine psychic. So there are all sorts of different boundaries there. But the bottom line was (and this leaflet was absolutely fine). So we battered away that libel action, and then we put this video online, and we showed what was happening, and I think a lot of people who had been Sally Morgan fans in the past were able to see that it's not such a cozy industry. There's a slightly darker side to what goes on.

So we were able to help him. And then, also, once we got rid of the libel action, we recruited sire sceptics all over the country to leaflet at psychic events every day in October right up to Hallowe'en. And when British psychics went over to Norway, then the Norwegian sceptics leafleted in Norway too. So that was a great example of how we could help coordinate

S: Coordinate, yeah

SS: something. Sometimes, the things we do, really, you couldn't do as a sceptic working on your own.

S: Right

SS: It takes an organization. So, for example, we've been looking at all of the regional health authorities, and the funding that they have for homeopathy. And over the years, that funding's been coming down and down and down as they've realized that it's very hard to justify funding homeopathy when there's no evidence for it.

And so we focused on the ones that continue to fund homeopathy, and been looking at their decision-making processes. And in the case of Liverpool, we identified a fundamental flaw in the way they decided to fund homeopathy. We challenged that decision, working with solicitors again. And the solicitors, I think, put forward a very strong case. Liverpool acknowledged what we'd accused them of was correct. They've now decided to review that decision. And we're hoping that when they remake that decision later this year, they will no longer fund homeopathy. And that will be a major cut in (inaudible 58:24)

S: So, let's talk about homeopathy

SS: Yeah

S: for a minute. 'Cause I do think (and I've thought this for years) that if there's any established, funded pseudoscience that is vulnerable, it's homeopathy, because it is sort of the easiest to explain to a non-scientist, to the general public, why it's utter nonsense. And most of the public who believes in homeopathy, they don't understand what it really is. They think it's herbalism or just natural remedies or whatever. So the gap, all ya gotta do is fill that gap, and then people are like, “Oh, that's what it is? Well that's nonsense.” 'Cause it's so patently absurd.

SS: Maybe. (Laughs)

S: Well, we all know that people can people can believe patently absurd things.

SS: It's interesting.

S: I do think it's just – it's not easy. I'm not even gonna say we notorious, but I do think it's one of the more vulnerable pseudosciences because there's no equivocating about it. It's impossible. It is magic. It is nonsense. And it makes our job a little bit easier.

SS: I agree. If we can't win homeopathy

S: Yeah

SS: then it's much harder to win on many other cases.

S: Yeah

SS: But I saw you do something very interesting yesterday, where you were getting people to argue against you, where you would defend homeopathy.

S: Yeah, right.

SS: And you would show people how easy it is for homeopaths to just fend their position with false arguments

S: Yep

SS: or with

J: You just need a strategy.

SS: Yeah

J: Gallop or whatever.

SS: Yeah. And I've done the same thing in Sceptics In the Pub events in the UK. You go in there, and say, “Well, I'm gonna talk to you about homeopathy.” And you know that pretty much everyone in the room already thinks that homeopathy is nonsense. So instead, I said, “Why on Earth do you think it's nonsense? You know, it doesn't look too bad to me.” And I try and counter every single one of their arguments. And I can do a pretty good job because I've done all the ...

S: You've heard it

SS: And I think that shows why so many reasonable, sensible people think homeopathy works, because there are kind of semi-reasonable, semi-logical arguments that

S: Yeah

SS: suggest that it does work. And I remember, there was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Brian Josephson, who invented the Josephson Junction. So he got the Nobel Prize back in the seventies. And since then, he's had a very strong interest in supporting things like telepathy and so on. And it's unusual, it's odd, but he's a lovely, sweet guy. I think he's a little bit naive. But I think he wants to support the underdog. I think, when he came up with the idea of a Josephson Junction, people thought he was maybe a bit crazy, and he turned out to be absolutely right.

J: What is that?

SS: Uh, god. It's a semi-conductor junction where you do various things, the voltages and different layers. It's not quantum tunneling, that's something else. But I'll look it up, and I'll get back to you. (Chuckles)

B: Yes. My understanding, I can't do any better than that.

SS: But it's – yeah, people thought he was crazy, and it wasn't crazy. He won a Nobel Prize for it. So I think when he hears crazy ideas, he doesn't want to dismiss them. He wants to investigate.

J: Just to see if there's a kernel there, yeah.

SS: Yeah

E: That's okay. I mean, is he really being thorough in his investigations? I mean, why hasn't he been able to pick up on all the research that has been done that turns out to be negative?

SS: He was providing a platform for homeopaths, and I said, went to meet him one day, and I said, “Look, this is why it's not just harmless discussion, because people will take this seriously, and patients will make decisions based on what they hear, and they will be influenced. And they will maybe take one path of medication rather than another, and people can die as a result of this.” So I was saying, “This isn't just intellectual speculation.

B: Right

SS: This is peoples' health.” And at the end of the hour, I thought I'd won him over. He was kind of nodding a lot, and he could see what I was saying. And I think he thinks I'm a nice guy. I think he's a nice guy. We're both reasonable people. We both care about patients. But forty-eight hours later, I got an email from him. And somebody else had spoken to him for an hour, and he changed his mind again.

E: Ugh!

SS: So, again, that's the problem when it comes to patience and homeopathy. We can put forward very strong arguments, but a day later …

S: But – that's correct. But when we're talking about regulations, then that's different. 'Cause now you're talking about, you're on a different level. You don't have

SS: Yeah

S: to convince the general public. You're having a discussions at hopefully a higher level. Not that politicians don't make dumb decisions, but at least you could say, “All right, let's transparently talk to scientific experts and come up with some way of deciding whether or not this is worth funding, or should be funded, should be part of the NHS,” right? And then – so, there's a standard.

SS: Yeah

S: You can apply a standard in a regulatory context. And I think that's why homeopathy's vulnerable. And I think you have been making progress in the NHS.

SS: Yeah, absolutely. We've been charting – imagine the amounts of money that's been spent on homeopathy, we've been charting the number of prescriptions, and it's a very rapid decline.

S: Yeah

SS: And now, there are only, literally, handful of regional health authorities – they're called CCG's. And the few remaining funders of homeopathy, and I think it's only a matter of time before they back down.

S: Yeah

SS: And because – and again, I think it's, what other patients are beginning to realize is that they're losing out on their treatments.

S: Right

SS: 'Cause for every million Pounds that get spent on homeopathy,

S: Right

SS: that's a million Pounds that's not being spent on nurses,

S: real medicine

SS: and counseling, and effective drugs, and so on. So, we're getting there. And I remember when James Randi came to London about ten years ago, he gave a talk at Comway Hall. And he was a little bit negative about whether we would ever win the battle against homeopathy. But that week, one of the homeopathic hospitals – we used to have five homeopathic hospitals in the UK.

B: Unbelievable.

SS: That week, one had just closed. And we were just seeing a decline

B: Yeah

SS: in the number of …

J: Is that because they ran out of water?


SS: A global warming problem, yeah. So, and the good news is that that trend has continued.

B: Yeah, that's good.

SS: Two more hospitals have closed.

B: Yep, absolutely.

SS: And those CCG's, those local areas that still fund homeopathy are really just around those hospitals. And I think they're gonna go soon.

S: And in this country, the FDA, which basically given homeopathy a free pass for the last sixty years, has said, “Hey, we're reevaluating our regulation of homeopathy.” And what we've learned in the process of investigating this is that actually, the FDA has the authority to fully regulate homeopathic products as drugs. They just simply choose not to.

And they made that decision sixty years ago because it was too small potatoes for them. It was only prescribed by a few homeopaths. It wasn't really a big, over-the-counter market. And so they said, “Well, okay, we'll just let them regulate themselves,” was what they decided to do. “We won't spend our limited resources regulating this tiny, little thing.”

But now, sixty years later, it's a multi-billion dollar industry. It's a huge over-the-counter industry. And like, “Ah, maybe we should reconsider,” actually doing our jobs, and regulate against – so, we have an opportunity. I don't know what's gonna happen, but I never thought we'd get this opportunity.

SS: It's the same thing in the UK. A bit of a free pass was given to homeopathy when it was a small cottage industry. And there's a special regu– oh god, I'm terrible with regulations. But we've got a couple of people in the sceptic movement, particularly a chap called Allen Haness of the Nightingale Collaboration. He just pores through pages and pages of regulations, and can give you chapter and verse on homeopathy, and how it's regulated. And so we're now thinking about

B: Right

SS: What is the weakness in homeopathy. And the extra complexity is having to fit in with European law,

S: Yeah

SS: which is not necessarily a bad thing, because European law on trading and fair trading is pretty strong. It's stronger than the old British law used to be. So that's a good thing. But we still, when we look at these regulations, we have to bear in mind what the European regulations say. But we're gonna get there. We're gonna get that Allen's key in trying to figure out what regulations are gonna be relevant.

S: All we need the FDA to do is something they have the authority to do, which is to require evidence for efficacy before allowing each thing to be

J: That would kill it!

S: That's it! If they require evidence for efficacy, it's dead. And I don't know what the chances are that they'll do that. It seems like we have a huge thing … I can't imagine why they wouldn't do it, except out of just completely misguided political correctness, or industry influence, or whatever. But there's no way they could – they know. They know it's BS. They know it's nonsense, and they know what their job is. God I would just hope we can pressure them to do it.

J: Imagine if that happened, how much

S: Yeah

J: It's such a massive win.

B: But more than that, Jay, they've got such a sweetheart deal. You say, the FDA said, “Oh, let them regulate themselves.” They've got a book.

S: Yeah

B: Here's the drugs! They can open up a blank page, and they write in what a new drug, and then that's all they gotta do.

S: Yeah

J: That's unbearable

S: Homeopathic pharmopea, and it's supplements. They just supplement it, and there ya go. It's now FDA approved.

SS: I think one of the things we don't like in the UK is there's an organization called NICE, which is the National Institute for Clinical Evidence. And they review drugs and treatments and interventions all the time. And they, we know they've been keen to review homeopathy. And unfortunately, the department of health hasn't requested that review to be done. That could be the influence of someone like Prince Charles.

S: Yeah

J: Yep

SS: God, for several years, it's been known that Prince Charles was writing to government ministers about a range of issues. And for years, those letters were confidential. And there have been appeals to various courts to have those communications disclosed. And some of them have been revealed, just a few months ago.

E: Yeah, and how revealing are they?

SS: Well, he was certainly lobbying on behalf of herbal medicines. We know that was clear. We don't know what else was said in the years prior to that, or the years since then, or what was said in face to face meetings,

B: Right

SS: or what was said by his representatives, and so on. But that may be one of the reasons why NICE, this National Institute for Clinical Excellence hasn't got involved in homeopathy. But yeah, we're looking

B: Yeah

SS: for what could we do in terms of regulation. Who has the authority to make these kinds of … The other area we're looking at is advertising, because you shouldn't be able to make a claim

S: Right

SS: that's not backed by evidence.

E: Right

SS: And the advertising standards agency in the UK is pretty good.

S: Yeah

SS: They're very good at analyzing evidence, they're very good at looking at claims from all sorts of areas. Where they're weak is they don't actually have any teeth.

S: Yeah

SS: So, let's say a big supermarket's making some claim, and you report it to the ASA, the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA make a judgment. The supermarket doesn't want to look bad. So it changes what it's doing. In fact, it tries to preempt that by not having a complaint in the first place.

J: Right

SS: Image is very, very important. When you've got a thousand homeopaths, who have no concept of what evidence is in the first place,

S: Yeah

SS: and have no realization that they should be honest in their advertising. When the ASA rule against them, nothing happens, because the homeopaths

S: don't care!

SS: They've actually campaigned against the Advertising Standards Authority, and saying that they're some kind of government agency trying to close our homeopathy, and they should be ignored, and so on. So what would be great in Britain would be if the ASA had more teeth.

J: Right

SS: Or, were also better funded, 'cause to chase down a thousand homeopaths is a lot of work.

B: Yeah

SS: They've got other things to worry about, apart from homeopaths, so funding is a big issue for them.

S: Thanks for joining us Simon. It's always …

J: Good to see you Simon

SS: Good to see you again. Cheers.

B: Thank you.

Science or Fiction (1:09:51)[edit]

Item #1: A new report describes a method for adding quantum dots to standard lithium ion batteries, allowing a cell phone to fully charge in 30 seconds. Item #2: A study looking at medications stored aboard the ISS finds that, on average, drugs in microgravity degrade at twice the normal rate. Item #3: Scientists have created the first porous liquid, a liquid with holes, allowing it to dissolve large amounts of gas.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:15)[edit]

"We ignore public understanding of science at our peril" - Eugenie Clark

(Membership drive at 1:25:48)

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.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Jay has an anxiety disorder, and so do other members of Steve's family. Cara has a depressive disorder. Mentioned during the email about anxiety.
  • Cara says that she drives a fully electric car during the Science or Fiction segment


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png