SGU Episode 55

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SGU Episode 55
9th August 2006
SGU 54 SGU 56
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
SS: Steve Salerno
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is Wednesday, Aug 9th, 2006. Joining me tonight, the skeptical rogues: Bob Novella...

B: Happy 25th birthday, PC!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello!

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi everybody!

S: and Jay Novella...

J: Quite well this evening, top drawer!

R: What was that?

S: Bob, what was that geek reference you just gave us?

B: Today, well, the 12th is the 25th anniversary of the modern personal computer released by IBM in '81.

News Items[edit]

James Randi's Birthday (00:50)[edit]

S: Well speaking of birthdays...

R: Ha!

S: August 7th was the birthday of James Randi!

B: Hey!

R: Hey, happy birthday, Randi!

J: Happy birthday!

E: Happy birthday Mr. Randi!

S: Big happy birthday from all of us to James "The Amazing" Randi! (Even though he does not go by "The Amazing" anymore.) He has turned 78. 78 and still, still investigating...

J: Still kickin' hard!

S: Still kickin.

R: That's right.

S: Still promoting skepticism far and wide.

J: And Still doing it better than anybody else on the planet.

E: Good man.

S: He is. He is.

The Archimedes Palimpsest (01:20)[edit]

S: Now, Rebecca, you blogged this week about "The Archimedes Palimpsest". I have to say by the way: I love that word "palimpsest", I use it whenever I get a chance.

R: It's a good word, and usually you don't, you don't get a lot of chances to use it, so....

S: I know, when do you get a chance to say it? But what..

R: So you should work that in as much as humanly possibly during this ahh..

J: I admit that I have no idea what that word means.

R: Well, let me tell you. Laughs. Ahh, It is actually, It is a word that describes a process that monks used to do to old books, basically. They would take goat skins or... or whatever and scrape off the top layer of writing, cut the sheets in half, and turn them 90 degrees and bind them together again and write over top of them. And that way they could, they could reuse and recycle. See, they were very environmentally conscious. They ah...

E: Yeah, that's why they did it...

R: Yeah.

J: Monks did a lot of cool things to books. They also illuminated books, which, I didn't know what it was. I thought it was something else and then someone finally told me what it meant, and it's.. It's pretty cool... pretty cool thing. But, I thought illuminating a book meant that they kinda just added in artwork and stuff, but they actually... What does it actually mean? It means that they put in actual um...

S: It's those really fancy letters at the beginning of sentences.

J: Yeah.

R: Yeah.

S: And the word, the palimpsest, refers to any writing that is done over older writing. So sort of obscuring or wiping away the previous or older writing.

R: Right. And, so the Archimedes palimpsest, it came about when um, Archimedes wrote some... some stuff, obviously, and .... laughs I'm getting really technical so stay with me..

E: Mm hm.

R: The original scrolls of ah, papyrus that he used had been lost, but people over time copied them down, and handed them down, recopied them. Eventually someone ah, hand wrote a copy onto some goat skin ah, parchment, and assembled it into a book around, ah, I think about 1000 AD. And around 1200 AD, a Christian monk, basically turned it into the palimpsest. He hand wrote prayers over top of the Archimedes text. And therefore turning what was basically a science textbook into a religious textbook. Um so...

E: Hmm.

R: It doesn't get much better than that. That prayer book was then used for religious study for upwards of like 6 centuries. It managed to survive, possibly because it was turned into a prayer book. Um, that may have been, that may have saved it from burning over the years. And it wasn't until 1906, I believe, that the manuscript was discovered in a library, in a church library in Istanbul. A ah, researcher found it and recognized the faint lettering as that of Archimedes. And so he studied it, but he didn't really have a lot to work with, so I mean.. I don't think he really had more than a magnifying glass. And um, so eventually, he did what he could, but eventually the book was lost for another couple of decades. Um, at some point, someone took the book and added pictures to it and gold leaf portraits in order to hopefully improve the value they, they created this forgery, not, probably not even realizing the true worth of the book, ah, which was that Archimedes' text was hidden underneath. And, around the 1930's, a French collector of antiques found it again, bought it, kept it in his home for 7 decades. Eventually in the '90's, um in '91, I think, it showed up at a Christie's auction in Paris. And it ended up auctioning off for something like $2,000,000 to an anonymous person, who picked it up and donated it to a museum. The Walter's art museum in Baltimore Maryland, where finally, real researchers with real equipment have had a chance to examine it. So they have been doing that since 1998, and only very recently was it discovered that they could use um, certain ah, imaging techniques to scan the book, and make Archimedes' text actually glow, ah, so that it would show over top of the uh, monk's writings. And so that they can now finally begin to study it in full. It's an incredible journey that this book has undergone from, um, you're talking about 200 BC, up until last Friday, when they finally got a chance to, to see it in full.

S: Yeah, it's amazing.

B: Have they... Have they revealed what he wrote?

R: I don't think that that's been published yet. I think that they're...

S: Yeah, They're still, they're still working on it. I think it'll take a while to put it together and translate it... Just for some background Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek mathematician, credited with revolutionizing geometry and even anticipating Calculus.

R: You may remember him from screaming "Eureka!"...

B: "Eureka!"

R: .... in the bathtub when he figured out buoyancy.

S: Right.

B: Now you know, maybe we would have known about this a long time ago if that monk from 600 years ago had just put a little post-it note inside that said "Hey, Archimedes wrote this underneath the religious text!"

R: Well, that's just it. That's.. that's the... It's kind of ironic, in that: If it had just remained as Archimedes' text, there is a very good chance that it would have been destroyed. We'll never know how many have been lost over the years, either through that or through burning, just being destroyed. But to have this one incredible treasure, that has gone through such an outrageous journey, to finally get here.

S: Well, we have Steve Salerno coming up on our show in just a little while. We interviewed him just about a year ago. He's coming back to give us an update on the self help movement, but before that let's do a few emails.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Falsifiable Claims (07:45)[edit]

S: First email comes from "Matt Bristol", uh, who gives his location just as "The USA".

E: Yeah!

S: And Matt writes...

E: Hah... Sorry...

S: "Is it possible to logically prove that if a statement about the existence of something is non-falsifiable, then the existence of such a thing is also not physically possible?" He asks a second question: "Another item: Science hasn't established a strong basis for every single action of every single person in the universe in every single moment. We all have to act before having a complete chain of reasoning based on perfect premises. This tragic in the case of politicians. Obviously, it is best to have as much reasoning as possible prior to acting. Do any of The Skeptics' Guide hosts think that they have an ultimate rational basis for any of their beliefs or actions? If so, I'd love to hear it." Well, let's get to the first question. The simple answer to the question "If something is non-falsifiable, does that mean that it is also impossible?" is basically what he is asking. And the short answer to that is "No". There are plenty of things which are, which are possible, there is nothing that makes them impossible, but it's simply ah, not amenable to testing. There is no way for us to know it.

J: Like the Big Bang, right?

S: Ah, well that, no, I would not include the Big Bang. The Big Bang...

B: Indirectly...

S: Yeah, you can infer the existence of the Big Bang, and inference is a perfectly legitimate method of science. One of my favorite examples, I think Carl Sagan came up with this example, is that perhaps every elementary particle in our universe is in and of itself a miniature universe, and perhaps our entire universe is simply an elementary particle in a far far grander universe. There is nothing that makes that impossible. That could be true. We'll simply will never know, because there is no way for us to possibly know that. And the number of such possibilities are limitless. So, the short answer to that question is "No". Regarding the second question: "Do we basically have an rational ultimate basis for any of our beliefs and actions?" I would have... I would say that the short answer to that one is "Yes", although there is a lot of complexity there. I mean so, it seems that the unstated major premise of the question is that unless you have a quote-unquote "strong basis for every single action of every single person in the universe at every single moment" that short of that infinite perfect knowledge, there is no reason, or there is no rational basis for any beliefs or actions. And I think that that is a false premise. You can base your knowledge on the evidence that is available. Ultimately everything is based upon certain assumptions but those assumptions can be reasonable. And you can acknowledge what the imitations and the assumptions are in your knowledge. I mean, that's how science works. Science does not deal with absolute metaphysical certitude. It's just the best approximation of the truth that we have so far using methods that are internally valid and are tested systematically against reality. So that it hopefully has some relationship to reality. And I think it's reasonable to call that "rational" even though it is not omniscient.

R: Well, I was a little confused by the question because of my first thought was, you know.. He's asking if I can name any action that I know I have a rational... rational reason for doing. And yeah! I mean, I have to pee so I go into the bathroom and I use the toilet.

S: Right haha.

E: Hot!

R: What's not rational about that?

J: Thank god!

R: Or I'm hungry so I have some chips. I don't, I don't understand... "any action"? I mean, of course you can have a rational basis for an action.

S: Yeah, and I don't know what he means by "ultimate basis". It's like, is he gonna question the very reality of hunger, of the need to pee, of...

R: Right..

S: ... really obvious simple mundane realities, you know I...

R: I mean if you want to be a ... get all s-, you know, solip-sist-ic... wow. Is that a word?

S: Solipsistic.

R: Can I say that? Yeah, there ya go...

S: I don't know, can you?

R: Hahaha!

J: How ya doin' there, boosey?

R: If you wanna do that, then, then, yeah you've got problems, but otherwise...

E: Is he suggesting that there might not be objective reality?

S: Perhaps.

J: I... I read that... This guy's... I read Matt's emails. I couldn't understand a word he was sayin'.

R: Well, you're not very bright though...

J: I couldn't understa- My brain does not go that deep. I can't go that far with it..

S: It sounds a little, It sounds a little postmodernist. You know, I am not sure that's where he is going, but the whole.. One of the points of postmodernism is this notion that: If you keep asking "well, what's the premise of a claim or of a belief, or of a piece of evidence?", and you keep going back, and back, and back, that everything that we believe in science ultimately just leads back to assumptions or first principals, and there is no ultimate objectivity to anything. Which, you know, has a certain truth to it, but then they conclude from that: therefore science has no special relationship to reality, or no validity. That it's really all just ultimately a subjective choice that people make. And that conclusion, I think, is false. I think it's obviously false. Again, if you use very very mundane examples: I can't prove the objective reality of the seat that I am sitting on, without referring ultimately to some assumption. But it is certainly reasonable and rational to behave as if the chair is real. Any any ultimate hypothesis or any ultimate view of the universe that does not include this chair being real are not falsifiable, and are therefore are really of no value.

FDA (13:53)[edit]

S: Let's move on to question number two. This one comes from "Mike Spalding". Also from the the United States. Mike writes: "During several shows you've discussed the need to regulate supplements. The problem seems to be that people use these in response to exaggerated claims by the manufacturers. But people often choose to buy items based on hype. That is their choice. People also do research, talk to their doctor, listen to skeptics when making a buying decision. Note the popularity of reviews, consumer's reports etc.. This is also their choice. The problem with regulation is not just that you restrict choice to the 'right choices', but that you actually kill lots more people. Not being able to use a drug that can save your life is the worst side effect of regulation." And then he says "for documentation".. he references an article which again of course will be ... on this email on the notes page. In that article is the claim... And this is why I wanted to come back to this issue, because he is now making some specific claims: that regulation... FDA regulation... Again, the Food and Drug Administration regulation of drugs in this country delays the entry into the market of newer drugs, and that people die who basically could have been saved by the earlier introduction of those drugs. So if a drug is delayed by 5 years, and that drug saves 10,000 people a year, the FDA killed 50,000 people.

R: Mmm..

S: the express claim of that article. The flaw in that argument is that it's not counting all the people who die by drugs that are not safe getting to the market prematurely. So, if it takes 5 years after marketing or 10 years after marketing to figure out that a drug actually was killing people, and the review process would have prevented that drug from hitting the market, then that's lives saved. They're taking an equation but they are only counting one of the numbers. They are only counting the lives lost based upon the delay of entry of drugs to the market, but they are not counting the lives lost by the failure to prevent unsafe drugs form hitting the market. So it is completely invalid to make that argument. The other thing that we didn't talk about before that this article specifically states: They say why we don't need the FDA. And every one of the reasons is invalid in my opinion. Though I want to focus on one. They basically say that .... Consumer reports, and essentially independent consumer protection organizations and professional organizations could test the drugs to see that they are safe and effective, and that they would do a better job than the FDA does. And there are a couple of really good reasons to think that that is completely false. I think that that is basically a libertarian wishful thinking. Without really any basis in reality. And again, I have nothing against libertarianism as a philosophy, or politically, just I think it is starting with a position and making any claim that supports it, even if it makes no rational sense. So the problem with that is that, you know, research costs, even conservatively: tens of millions of dollars. To consumer reports, and independent organizations just simply do not have the resources to do that kind of research. And also it -- research requires the cooperation of multiple academic institutions and researchers. Again, it is not the kind of the thing that you know, a magazine is going to be able to do. It's not like testing toasters. You know..

R: Hmm..

S: ...or even cars. It's very complicated to do clinical research and there has to be some standardized... some standardization in terms of record keeping and procedures etc.. So, unfortunately, I don't think that anything other than a system such as the FDA would make that happen.

R: And Steve, I also really quick just wanted to address one other point that I saw on that site, which was that, they said that all the testing that the FDA makes the pharmaceutical companies go through ends up causing them to spend a lot of money which is making them jack up their prices making it too expensive for consumers. Which I am pretty sure is just false. Like, for instance, I looked up a few numbers and in 2004, pharmaceutical manufacturers spent about $800,000,000 on drug safety monitoring. Which is about 0.3% of sales...

S: Mmm hmm

R: gain FDA approval. Point three percent. Compared to, in the same year they spent 15.6% of sales on research and development of new drugs, and they spend about 30% of sales just on promotion and marketing.

S: Right.

R: So I mean, we are talking a difference of billions of dollars. It's really a drop in the bucket for drug safety monitoring.

S: Right, but it is a lot of money. It is billions of dollars. The other thing is that the government... And other people have made this point: Why doesn't the FDA do the testing? Well that's not the kind of organization they are. But the... essentially you're gonna shift billions, tens of billions, or maybe even hundreds of billions of dollars worth of research onto someone else away from the drug company. The drug companies can afford it, because they are making a lot of money off of their drugs.

R: It's actually $800,000,000. Just to correct you. It's not billions on drug safety monitoring.

S: Yeah, but on research and development...

R: Oh, on research and development, yeah...

S: which is more what the point of the article was: that they need to be spending this money on research and development, not on jumping through the FDA's hoops. But, you know, a lot of research and development is doing the clinical trials to know what's save and what works. That's an important part of the whole process. Essentially you're gonna be shifting the cost of all that into a government bureaucracy, which is... You know, I'd rather have the free market do it, spend the money, invest the money and then make it back in sales. Obviously, there is a lot of controversy about the behavior of the pharmaceutical industry, but the bottom line is they're spending the money on research, and that system, I think, is better than having the government do it.

R: Although, don't the National Institutes of Health...

S: No..

R: ...aren't they government based?

S: Yes, they are, but they specifically do not fund drug studies. Because their policy is that it is the drug company's job to do that, so they will not do it. And there were a couple of points in this article that I actually agreed with. One was that the FDA gags companies from making claims about drugs that.. for which there is copious scientific evidence, but which hasn't been specifically FDA approved. And the example they gave was that of Aspirin preventing heart attacks and strokes. And you know what? Other people have leveled that criticism and I agree with that. I think that the FDA needs to loosen up the regulations, and I do think that what they probably should do is institute some kind of review process where they review -- they have experts review existing evidence and say "OK, It's alright now for the company to say that Aspirin prevents heart attacks." Everybody knows it. I mean it's been proven. It's very clearly established. They just haven't done it through an FDA, you know, application. They haven't gone through the specific regulatory steps that the FDA requires. And there's lots of other examples about drugs that can prevent certain kinds of cancer that basically are very -- have a very positive effect on promoting public health. I think that, you know, these gag restrictions have to be.. There has to be a process to lift them, and for the FDA to review this evidence. I think that is a legitimate criticism. And that's where I think the regulations are too strict.

Skeptics Track Record (21:27)[edit]

S: One more email this week. This one comes from "Nigel Whitehall" from Pennsylvania. And Nigel writes: "I have been avidly listening to your podcast for the past few months and it makes my time on the gym treadmill fly fast .. or fly past. I am curious if there has been anything that occurred in the past 30 to 40 years that a skeptic circa 1966 would have found hard to believe but has turned out to be fact or at least generally accepted as scientifically true." This is a question that I have actually thought about before. Specifically, "How are we doing?" You know, skeptics, we put our nickle down quite a bit. We say that something is likely to be true or likely not to be true based upon the preponderance of the evidence. And if you just look back historically at stands that skeptics have taken over the years, our critics would have you believe that we are standing in the way of progress, and poo-pooing ideas that later turn out to be true. But in fact, when you look back historically over organized skepticism, we pretty much have a nearly 100% hit rate. I mean, we are almost always right about the big issues. Now, I will -- for fairness, I'll say that that's partly because we are shooting fish in a barrel. Because a lot of the things that we attack are absurd. It's an easy call. We're often not taking close calls on legitimate scientific controversies, where it's more of a 50/50 deal. We're criticizing things that are -- it's an easy call to say that it's not true. I did put together a quick list of .. I wanted to find some pseudosciences that were around in 1966. One of the sources that I used was Martin Gardener's wonderful book "Fads and Fallacies". This was written in 1957, so it is a little bit before '66. Obviously, the issues that he dealt with in that book, one of the first books of the truly skeptical books, would be -- Obviously those were issues at that time. One thing that was interesting is how little the list has changed! That a lot of the things that he wrote about are issues that we're dealing with today. Here is a quick list of some from that book and others that were clearly around at that time: Homeopathy, Chiropractic, UFOs, alien abductions, ESP, Atlantis, the Bermuda triangle, pyramidology, the hollow earth, Velikovsky, Dynetics, perpetual motion machines, and Lysenkoism. Just a quick list. That same list is around today!

E: Oh yeah.

S: This is this... Maybe not Lysenkoism, but pretty much everything else.

R: Wait... is that turning into a wolf man?

E: Yes.

S: Was the Russian Geneticist who used ideas of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. That was his -- that's how he thought evolution worked. And...

R: Ah. Nothing to do with werewolves then.

S: Nah. That became the standard science of the Soviet Union. So ya know it was sort of was politics deciding what science was legitimate.

R: Ah.

S: So, none of the things that Gardener wrote about really 50, 40 so years, almost 50 years ago have gone away. These things are all still around. And in the last 50 years, none of these paranormal or fringe topics have gathered enough evidence to convince the scientific community that they're legitimate. You know, it's 50 years later and ESP is still bunk. There still are no museums with artifacts of Atlantis in it. Ah, no one has been able to show that pyramids have special power. Ah, you know, homeopathy still has not been proven legitimate scientifically.

J: (crying) That's not true!

B: Sorry Steve.

S: And this is, I think it was the 60's right? When the Hill case started the alien abduction phenomenon?

E: Betty Hill? Betty and Barney?

S: Betty and Barney Hill?

E: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

E: Yep, we also had the, ah ah the Pa -- what was it? The Patterson film was in the 60's.

S: Right the Bigfoot.

E: Bigfoot Bigfoot.

S: Add Bigfoot to the list.

E: Well, there was Ye -- You know, sure there was Yeti, and other you know, forms of Bigfoot.

S: The Loch Ness Monster goes back to the beginning ...

E: Yeah.

S: ...of the century. The 20th century. So...

R: I'd like to participate in this but I can't really remember back that far, 'cause ah... wasn't born... yet...

E: Yeeeah...

R: Sorry.

E: Okay.

S: Well, It's a little bit before our time too, although...

E: No excuse!

R: Oh, okay... sure...

S: But I would like to do is challenge our listeners to come up with something.. some claim or topic that skeptics were skeptical of in the 1960's that was later proven to be legitimate. And I'm not talking about the generic scientific skepticism that all new ideas garner. Um, like yeah sure plate tectonics was met with skepticism until it was proven, but only, you know, the normal standard type of skepticism that all new scientific ideas garner. I'm talking about you know, hard and fast skepticism where the idea was ridiculed as either paranormal or ridiculous or pseudo-scientific. So far I have yet to see any topic that started out in that category and then later became a legitimate science. But, if anyone out there can think of any one, any, any such topic, email it in, and we'll be happy to talk about it.

Interview with Steve Salerno (26:46)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on to our interview.

Interview music

S: Joining us now is Steve Salerno. Steve, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide!

SS: Thanks for having me back.

S: Steve is the author of "Sham: How the Self Help Movement Made America Helpless". He also writes a "Sham" blog and has written numerous articles for prominent magazines like the National Review. We'll have some links on our notes page, of course. This is Steve's second appearance on The Skeptic's Guide. You were actually on episode number 8, almost exactly one year ago. So welcome back.

SS: Great to be here.

S: Steve, why don't you start by giving us an update. What's happened in the last year in the self-help industry?

SS: Well, it's been an interesting year. And I think, possibly the most interesting thing that happened is not directly viewed as self help but it is the whole James Fry debacle. Fry of course, wrote the book, allegedly a memoir, "A Million Little Pieces", that was later revealed to be "A Million Little Lies", as I think ah, one of the reviewers layer put it. Ah, but Fry's book when it first came out, when everybody was assuming it was a true story, was hailed as this model of inspirational thinking about a person, you know facing up to his demons and really reaching deep inside himself, and like, be all you can be, you know, coming out whole at the end.

S: Mmmhmm.

SS: And the interesting thing to me was that when, when it was revealed to be fake in a lot of its key detail, originally Oprah and a lot of other relatively high ranking people, that are very definitely in the self help camp, they rallied to his defense. And their logic was telling because they said "Look, it doesn't really matter if it is true or not, because it's a metaphor, it is inspiring, and all that really matters at the end of the day is that people are able to draw some sort of inspiration from this mans story". And it occurred to me this, that that is a metaphor for how the whole self help industry operates. And nobody seems to care whether this stuff is true, whether it is based in science, whether it can hurt anybody, whether there are any sort of valid studies that, that, that, validate the utility of some of these programs that they are putting out there. All that matters is that it sounds good, and that is what people run to. And the funny thing is Americans, you know the statistics that I use in my book that this an 8.6 billion dollar industry. They are already outdated. We're up to 10 billion already with projections for 12 billion by 2008. Pardon me saying this on your show, but people don't want to hear the skeptical reality based side of it. They want to keep living in this fantasy. So, if I had to point to one event that has happened in the last year, that would probably be the keynote event that happened since the publication of the book.

S: Yeah.

R: Steve, do you think that Oprah gets any kudos for changing her mind and ripping James Fry a new one?

SS: Well I... haha, absolutely. I admire the fact that she did step up to the plate afterwards, but you know you've got to realize a lot of pressure had been brought to bear. And I think that the initial reaction sometimes is very significant and the initial reaction was lets rally behind the flag. Um, it's only when it became clear that this was not going to go away, ah, that a lot of the people, the rats began deserting the sinking ship. And that's not -- I am not comparing Oprah with a rat, I'm simply saying that she felt duty bound at that point to at least ah, for the sake of public face-saving to, to confront him on the show. But... Plus, it made a for a hell of a TV show! You know, that moment ...

R: Yeah.

... of confrontation when she looks right at him and tells him off. You know.

J: Definitely.

R: That was pretty fantastic.

J: And plus South Park did a pa-, huge parody which was brilliant.

SS: I didn't see it.

J: It's one of their most, I would say, controversial shows. Just by the content. But they really slammed the whole thing. They slammed the whole process about how Oprah um, basically took this guy to task and you know, how like, what you said, like, she really was overly serious about it. She made a much bigger deal out of it than I think a lot of people expected her to.

SS: Well, you know, she -- I think the phrase that I use in the book, and I always mispronounce it. But it's a wonderful French phrase: ???? I think it is how it is supposed to be said, or something like that. She's the kingmaker. She's the power behind the throne. Ah, So she really, She made James Fry, because the book had been out for a while before she finally found it and ah, anointed it. But she did the same thing with Dr. Phil. Dr. Phil is Dr. Phil today because Oprah found him and made him what he is. And the funny think is, I think I might have said this the first time around, but here is guy who by his own admission was quote, (Doing an impression of Dr. Phil's voice) "The worst marital therapist it the history of the world." I mean, he said that in an interview with CNN. When he was..

R: You did that scary well.

SS: He burned out of private practice, and went into jury consulting because he thought he was terrible. He was very bad at it. But what's he doing now? Essentially he is doing marriage counseling via book. Literary marriage counseling and his TV shows. He's playing it all for theater. He would not have this platform, had Oprah Winfrey not you know, given him the Oprah touch!

S: Getting back to Fry for a second, I think that your statement is very true that this is metaphor for the self help industry in general. And I think as we discussed last time, they really do not care about the truth. And a lot of

SS: Yeah.

S: A lot of the the empowerment message is that reality is malleable; It;s what you believe that is what is important and the details of reality are secondary to just believing in yourself.

SS: What a wonderful segway. I was just -- I was watching John Cheney, of course the long time Temple University basketball coach, eho is an iconic figure certainly in sports circles. He was at the dedication of an exhibit, a memorial to him at the basketball hall of fame. And of course, he felt obliged in his speech to say that you know, "I'm living proof that you can be anything you want to be in life.", which is one of my favorite bogus phrases.

S: Right.

SS: Now, I heard him say that, and I did a little research into Cheney's background. Here's a guy who -- he played amateur basketball at a fairly high level, but he did not make the NBA. And I am sure he wouldn't mind coaching in the NBA. So, didn't he want to be Michael Jordan? What happened John? I thought you could do anything you want. You know, and, and, people will say, "Well, come on Steve, you know he doesn't mean it literally". But the point is that he said it literally, and people take it literally. And this is the paradox of self help. If you look at the stuff they say literally, it's plainly absurd. But if you sort of cut them a little slack, and say well "it's not meant to be taken literally." then it doesn't resonate; it has no value. I mean, if John Cheney came out and said "Well, you can probably do a lot of the stuff you try to do, but you may not be able to, but who knows, you may wind up a bum in the street", you know, who's going to buy that book?

S: Right.

SS: So the point is, they have to keep coming out with the big lie - the grandiose promise even knowing that it doesn't even apply in their own lives half the time.

S: But do you think that it's ah, -- it's basically a mutual lie, in that the audience knows it's a lie too? And so...

SS: Yeah. And they're -- It's this cooperation in the suspension of disbelief...

S: Mmmhmm.

SS: ...that we all participate in because it just sounds so darn good. It sounds good. Everybody needs a reason to wake up tomorrow morning and think that you can be be better than what you were today. And if people just said that. If just said "strive". If people just said "try a little harder", you know, I wouldn't have such a problem with it. But it's the fact that they make these elaborate extremely overblown promises... And see the subtle damage here is that the people who do buy into that are setting themselves up for a fall, because we can't all win American Idol. And yet if you watch some of these people who, you know, they sing worse than I do, and I'm pretty bad. And they've been led to believe their whole lives that they're gonna be the next Clay Aiken or whatever it is. And you know, they're absolutely crushed when they realize at age 29 that they have to give up the dream 'cause nobody told them the truth all along. We all just kept patting them on the back.

J: I know I was crushed when I realized I wasn't gonna win American Idol.

R: Awwww.

SS: Haha, I thought you were gonna say when you realized that you couldn't be the next Clay Aiken.

J: You know Steve,

SS: That's another whole subject there.. Yeah?

J: For the sake of science, I'm going to ah, reveal something... that I wouldn't normally tell the 4,000 people that listen to our show, but my girlfriend actually dragged me to go see the American Idol concert. And ...

R: Hahaha!

J: And the exact thing we're talking about hap-- Wait, we'll get into that later Rebecca, I'm sure. But,

R: Hah!

J: for now, let me finish my point...

R: Sorry, go on.

J: What happened was: The very first person came out... It was like "Mandisa" or whatever...

SS: Yeah yeah yeah...

J: .. and she gave a little speech about how "you just have to believe", and "god has a plan for everybody" and "if you believe hard enough, anything can happen". And I'm sitting there and I turn to my girlfriend and I said "B.S." I said "Come on, are you kidding me? Like, every 12 year girl in this audience that I happen to be sitting next to is listening to that." And I was wondering to myself "How much are they believing?" You know, that's the fantasy.

SS: The other thing they're doing is they're taking a result and reasoning backwards and saying it as if it were... How should... Well look, the best way to say it is with an example. It's as if you pointed to Bill Gates, who was a college dropout and said, "See? It's a good idea to drop out of college."

S: Right.

SS: You can't take one person like Mandisa or Clay Aiken or, or, who's the guy whose always mugging in the camera? Constantine Maroulis? Was that the...

S: Mmmhmm.

J: Oh Constantine... that bozo...

SS: Yeah yeah, he's always pursing his lips and trying to look sexy, but...

R: I can't believe you guys know all the names! Haha! Sorry, go on... Haha! Am I the only one here who has no idea who you are talking about?

J: Rebecca, cut it out. You're one of the only people in New England, that has his face tattooed to your butt, so cut it out.

R: Hahaha! It's not a tattoo!

SS: You can;t take somebody who did make it, probably despite tremendous odds, and use them as validation of the fact anybody can make it. Because, for every one out of a million who does, there's the other 999,000 plus who don't. And most of us are gonna be in the 999,000. Especially if we are talking about these amazingly heroic achievements like becoming president or winning American Idol. That's reserved for the very very few. But you can't sell books with that message.

S: Right. That's -- For our audience, that's the Post hoc ergo propter hoc...

SS: There you go.. Right.

S: ... logical fallacy.

SS: Right.. I knew I knew that.

S: Starting with the end result, say well "They did X and it resulted in a good outcome, and therefore X caused the outcome, and if you do X (Which is taking it one step further), you can get the same great outcome as well." And in fact, a lot of the self help books, are based upon that exact logical fallacy. Like "The Seven Common Traits of Successful People" is making that fallacy. It's just...

SS: Right.

S: ... correlating you know, random attributes with people who were successful, but it may have absolutely nothing to do with their success.

R: Steve...

J: Well, the simple reality check is that 99.999% of us lead very mundane lives.

S: Most people are mediocre by definition.

SS: Right right right. Try to sell that book.

R: Steve, you you think...

SS: To inject a serious point to take us away from American Idol...

J: Noooo....

SS: of my pet peeves is that this is used in alternative medicine. And alternative medicine and self help and that whole constellation of beliefs, you know, and the fact that you have within you the power to cure anything that's wrong with you, or fix anything that you lack is in increasingly has been been co-opted by the alternative medicine movement. And that's what really becomes dangerous. Because they have one person analytically who didn't die from whatever it is that they are doing, and they use that person as a model for the idea that it is a good thing to do that.

S: Absolutely.

SS: And that;s very dangerous reasoning.

S: I think the two movements are very intimately intertwined. And a lot of the alternative medicine movement incorporates the empowerment message...

SS: Right. Exactly.

S: Of the self help movement. And taking it to very magical extremes.

SS: Right.

S: And people... it's natural to feel helpless in the face of chronic illness or severe illnesses, especially if you are mystified by the high tech incomprehensible medical system.

SS: Mmmhmm.

S: So what the alternative medicine movement does is says "Nope. We can empower you to heal yourself; to take your health into your own hands, and to give you a sense of control." And they very successfully incorporate that empowerment...

SS: Right.

S: ... jargon into that.

J: Steve, if you don't mind, let me play devil's advocate real quick. Cause, I sometimes think that some of our listeners are thinking something I want to say. Like, under what circumstance would you say that a self help book or tape or something that people would buy to make themselves feel better. What would qualify that as a good thing? Or something that they would benefit from?

SS: Let me be clear clear first, I'm not saying "this is by definition bad". I'm saying that the whole whole premise of writing "Sham" was "It's unproven, and yet it is presented as if it's been clinically validated." In other words, the language in the books is not at all the constrained conservative language of science. It is the language magic as we just said. And so, I am not saying it can't help people. Of all of the flack I have taken for the book, the most strident criticism has come from the alcoholics anonymous camp.

S: Mmmhmm.

SS: And their attack on me says "You say that AA does not do any good." That's not what I am saying. I am saying that they haven't proven what good they do do. And I think that they've drastically overstated the good that they do, and they play fast and loose with numbers, and use very cagey language. And if you are dealing with a problem like alcoholism, which in this country according to the National Institutes of Health, has a total economic footprint of $185 billion a year. Folks, we need to know what works.

J: Yeah.

SS: We can't fall back on easy answers from two guys who basically pulled this dogma, I'll be polite here: out of a hat.

J: Heh.

SS: You know, Dr. Bob, and Bill W. they had no credentials to design a program like this, and yet it's achieved the status of being again, a cultural icon. So, to answer you... That's a very long winded way of saying "Just show me the proof". Show me the proof that should be deserved in an enterprise of this size and pervasiveness.

S: And the burden of proof is on them. Because basically what you are saying about alcoholics anonymous is generally true in that: They make this stuff up. They don't base it on anything. Maybe just some naive life experience, but they basically make it up. It' crafted... It evolves out of what's come before...

SS: Right.

S: ...what's worked before, and they do not subject it to skepticism, to scientific scrutiny, to peer review of any kind. They bypass the scientific community, the scientific method. They go right to bookstore shelves.

SS: And they rigorously fight it. And people have said to me "It's free. It's not like they're making money on it." Well, that's fine but still society is loosing money and lives, and people who could otherwise possibly conker this addiction if they really want to, it's being attenuated. They're not fixing it because instead they're just immersing themselves in this panacea that really doesn't do anything, or at least hasn't proven that it does anything. And that's what concerns me.

S: So Steve, you wrote me before the show about some -- about the Reverend Al Sharpton?

SS: Yeah.

S: Tell us about that. It sounds like an interesting story.

SS: There was a conference in Dallas, the last week in July and I just thought it was amazing that the Reverend Sharpton felt compelled to criticise the prosperous black mega-churches, there are about 65 of em now in the US now, mostly in the south, for preaching a sermon of self-help. And what's interesting about that, you know, this gets a little tricky, but the self-help that these churches are preaching is real self-help. You know, self-help as I explain in the book, it was not always synonymous with psycho-babel. It actually has a long tradition of usage in connection mostly with legal matters. Legal self help, like steps you can take to enforce something without going to court. You can do it directly. And even in the psychiatric profession, there is self-help that's used in talking about mental health patients. It's ways that they can live more productive, self-sufficient lives. So the message that these black churches were preaching is real self-help. Like, how... and they're praising people for it. They're praising black people who used to live lives where they were to some degree dependent on the state, welfare, whatever, entitlement programs, who have now pulled themselves out of that and have reached a stage in life where they have assimilated. They're part of the regular old American melting pot. He's criticizing that and the vehicle that he is using to criticize it is the bogus self-help, where he's telling people that they're supposed to feel victimized, and they're supposed to feel dis-empowered. So what he's doing is he's taking the term self-help bastardizing it and using it to feed his own demagoguery, and you know, reestablish his power over the people. Because I think he sees a fair amount of his constituents slipping away from him as they become more prosperous. And I just thought that was kind of ironic.

S: It's incredible! I mean he...

J: He's gotta... He's gotta use these things to reel his people back in.

SS: Well, you know, what's happening is that the black vote is not as monolithic as it once was. And um, like in the last election, although it was overwhelming democratic, and by the way there is no political message at all in what I am saying, I'm simply looking at statistics and some trends. Black -- There are more black people voting republican. And it is becoming even more fractionalized even in the way they vote for democrats. Um, and I think this is a concern because it used to be that the black demagogue could solidify black voters and deliver them almost as a unit into the liberal liberal democratic party, and I think they see that power slipping away from them. And of course, if they don't have that power to be able to deliver this kind of voting block to the democrats, then they as individuals loose power, and I don't think that the Sharptons, and the Jacksons and some of the other people that were at that conference like that very much, so that's why it's happening.

S: How incredibly revealing! That here you have ah, you know, the black community is actually improving itself through hard work, and..

SS: Right.

S: you say, real self-help. But they're doing it , they're becoming successful, and their so-called leaders like Al Sharpron are upset...

J: Uhhhh..

S: ... at their success because they're not buying into his defeatist victimization message, which is only necessary to empower him, not to.. not to...

SS: Yeah, and he, he trotted out the phrase, I think, I think what he dismissed it as was again, "Uncle Tom Foolery". Um...

J: Hah.

SS: So, you know, again, a lot of people will fall back on the cliches and the freighted words when they're trying to get a message across. This isn't self help, and in politics, generally -- I didn't want to get to political. I hope that wouldn't be the gist of what I was saying. But it is just very Ironic to me that there's real self-help where people actually go out and do stuff, and then there is this kind of whiny self-obsessed, "Oh, my god..." you know, "What if that ax falls out of the ceiling?" kind of self help. And you have national leaders who prefer the whiny self-help to the type that actually gets something done. And it's just.. It's amazing to me.

J: I think it's very.. I think it's indicative of our government. Of the mindset of our politicians too. Maybe we don't want to go there in this conversation but..

SS: Well, I had a post about that very thing on the Sham blog the other day, that we kind of really need to reexamine the whole thing. I mean I try -- Although I have written for NRO, and a lot of the message of the book has somehow been embraced more by the right wing interests. I really try to steer clear of that and really what I am doing is very much what I think you guys do. I'm saying "Show me the proof." In other words..

S: Right.

SS: ... looking at everything critically rather than just buying into the givens. Um, so that's how that came up. But yeah, the other day on the blog I said that same thing. That maybe we just need to rethink this whole thing and start over, you know.. Uh..

J: Steve...

SS: .. from both sides.

J: Do you uh-- Do you read a lot of the self-help books and then um, find books that re legitimate scientifically that can achieve what the other book is claiming? Do you ever do that? Like you compare...

SS: Well see now you're getting into that dichotomy I was just talking about. I would prefer not to single out single books, but I will say that the career type books, that end of it. Now I'm not talking the "get rich fast" type books, I'm talking about the career books that for example tell you specifically how to put together a resume, what to watch for, ah, questions that you should be very careful in answering, what to wear, what not to wear. Things that have some sort of specific actionable advice in them.

S: Mmmhmm.

SS: Um, but that's just common sense. I mean it shouldn't take somebody like me or you or whoever else to point out these things. That you're better off with a book that gives you specifics than with a book that, that puts the whole thing back on a positive mental attitude, which, which is not the answer a lot of the -- I don't care how positive you are, there are certain things you're not going to do if you don't have the competency.

J: Right.

S: Last time we didn't talk about "life coaches", although...

SS: Right.

S: ...the term came up, and I've... been hearing about them more in the past year. Where do they fit into the whole spectrum of self-help.

SS: Well, the phrase I use in the book is that "Life-coaching is the Dodge City of Sham". And it is probably the fastest growing wing. Ah, there's a lot of people in business, highly placed people, who -- It's very funny. They got to this station in life by being very independent minded and being gunslingers, and they suddenly now feel that they can't make decisions about whether you how, to have the Ranch dressing or the Italian creamy sauce without calling in a life-coach to consult. Um, I think that a lot of it has to do with backstabbing -- backstopping yourself. In other words, having somebody else to scapegoat. It's that we want somebody to tell us that it's okay. We want somebody to confirm what we already think we want to do anyway. Because it's interesting that if you interview life-coaches, as I have, they'll tell you it's not their place to tell somebody "You're wrong." that what they're there to do is to kind of -- like a workout coach would do. Like a personal trainer. You know, they kinds grunt with you and they spur you on, and if you think about it, that;s not what a really good coach should do. A really good coach, if she knows you're he- or she knows you're headed to disaster, they should tell you that. They should tell you "Look, you now, you're not going to be the next American Idol, so stop with the singing lessons already." Or "You can't take over that company because your stock is in the tank as it is." You know, but a lot of coaches wont do this. They just want to pat you on the back. And the reason they do that is 'cause you keep paying them. As long as they keep telling you what you want to hear, then you'll keep paying the money and the whole cycle keeps on for perpetuity.

S: So they're more like cheerleaders than coaches.

SS: That's would I would say. Now, there are.. again, that doesn't apply to all. There are life coaches that come out of specific usually - I am not a big fan of the academy, but there are life coaches that come out of specific academic programs like the Wharton School of Business, that I think you have better odds of getting some actionable advice from. They may actually tell you "Hey, you know, you wanna be careful there because that's not your area of competency.", or whatever. But there's no regulation. There's no regulation. The largest organization of life coaches is just a fraternal body, it has no credentialing and it has no power to censure anyone. So It's just one big clique of people who claim to be able to help other people. There is no schooling that you have to go to in most cases, and there are some really predatory aspects of this. Like when you get into the people who call themselves relationship therapists. I talk about this one case in my book where this guy was effectively - he was

Science or Fiction (1:01:16)[edit]

Question #1 New study confirms previous study showing that infants as young as 6 months old have a basic understanding of arithmetic. Question #2 New study demonstrates that some plants can induce specific mutations in order to direct their own evolution in response to environmental stress Question #3 Medical researchers have developed a method to allow patients to breath through their abdomens.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:09:39)[edit]

Last Week's puzzle:

You have just made a cup of coffee but haven't put the milk in yet. The doorbell rings so it may take a couple of minutes before you can drink it. If you like your coffee hot, is it better to add the milk before answering the door or after you return.

From: Roel Winters Belgium

Answer: Pour the milk in first. The rate of heat transfer is proportional to the difference in temperature. So the hot coffee will lose heat quicker than the slightly cooled coffee after pouring in the milk.

New Puzzle:

He was born in the late 1800's in the eastern region of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Ukraine). After fighting in WWI he studied medicine in Vienna. By age 21, he began a private practice as an "analytic psychiatrist" and was considered a pioneer in the study of human sexuality.

During his research, he believed he had discovered a "unique energetic life force". He claimed it was present in all of nature, and was a death defying entity. He attempted to apply his "life force" theory to research in medical endeavors such as cancer treatment, although he was largely ignored and often criticized by the mainstream scientific community - criticism he took as personal attacks.

He immigrated to the United States just as World War II was beginning. His advocacy of the alleged therapeutic benefits of his life force based inventions (such as a life force detector) caused him legal trouble with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He died on at the age of 60 in a US Federal Penitentiary. He was jailed for criminal contempt because he refused to obey an injunction against selling quack medical devices.

Who was he, and what was the name of the life force he claimed to have discovered?

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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