SGU Episode 552

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SGU Episode 552
February 6th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 551                      SGU 553

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Treat beliefs not as sacred possessions to be guarded but rather as testable hypotheses to be discarded when the evidence mounts against them.

Philip Tetlock

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Jay's visit to Sweden

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (3:51)[edit]

  • Lorna Wing
    Lorna Wing was a British psychiatrist who was instrumental in re-defining our conception of Autism.

S: Bob, tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: So, for this week's superhero of science, I'm gonna talk about Dr. Lorna Wingm 1920-2014. She was a British Psychiatrist and physician, and she is also generally considered to be instrumental in changing how we think about autism - perhaps even more than autism.

She is known for reintroducing to the world the work of Dr. Hans Asperger (maybe sounds familiar). He recognized what he called “autistic phychopathy” as essentially the most minimal form of autism. And this very important finding, though, was ignored by scientists, partly because it was published during WWII, and nobody really even knew about it for decades.

Wing discovered it decades later. It wasn't even translated into English. So she had it translated, realized what she really had there, and she wrote her own paper about it in 1981. She called it Asperger's syndrome, because she felt that “autistic psychopathy” would imply violent behaviors. So she renamed it, honoring the doctor who came up with it.

So that was a start. But even more importantly, she took this idea of Asperger's syndrome, and used it as powerful evidence that autism is not a single condition, but a spectrum of disorders filling the gaps between Asperger's at one end of the spectrum, and the most debilitating and heretofore only recognized form of autism at the other end.

So this led to the proper diagnosis of countless people who inhabited that middle segment, that unrecognized region in the middle. And many of them had dramatically different types. They were fairly distinct from each other, but they also shared the same autism roots. And she led to that recognition.

And that of course led to the official reclassification of autism to “autism spectrum disorder” in the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, which is used by professionals in the United States for classifying mental health problems.

So, an amazing contribution from Dr. Lorna Wing really changed our entire conception of what autism is. And so remember Lorna Wing, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing decreased activation in the primary metasensory cortices of the brain.

J: Will do, man.

C: Interesting.

E: Check.

News Items[edit]

Concussions in the NFL (6:18)[edit]

Zika Conspiracy (18:14)[edit]

Spa Death (24:50)[edit]

S: Cara, let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a mud wrap?

C: A mud wrap? No, I've had a scrub.

S: A spa treatment?

C: I've had a scrub at a spa, and I've had plenty of massages, but I've never had a mud wrap. That sounds kind of gross to me.

S: Like I say, they wrap you in mud, and then they wrap cellophane around the mud.

E: And more mud...

S: They wrap you in multiple layers of towels and clothing.

C: Well, the crazy thing is: This stuff is expensive, and I'd rather

S: Yeah

C: pay for somebody to massage me than someone to slap mud on me, and then wrap me in plastic.

S: Yeah, you gotta suck out all the toxins or something.

C: Ooh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I only pay for things in the spa that feel good.

S: And then, you have to sit in a hot room for nine hours during the summer. And, to make sure ...

C: I don't think that's typical.

S: and we're gonna stick your head in a cardboard box.

C: Umm... what?

E: Uh-huh. What's that ....

J: What?

C: What spa is this?

S: Well, this is a spa in Quebec that, this was their treatment. It was kind of like a spiritual treatment. And what I just described, that's what they were offering to their clients. One client in particular, Chantal Levigne did this for nine hours in the summer. Mud, cellophane, multiple layers, head in a box, and, she became profoundly dehydrated (which shouldn't be a shock to anybody),

C: Yeah

S: had to be rushed to the hospital, where her organs started shutting down one by one, and then she eventually died.

C: Oh no ...

S: To me, this is not a spa treatment, this is a form of torture,

B: Yes.

S: that predictably resulted in a horrible medical outcome. Unfortunately, sadly, an actual person died from this. So recently, the spa workers that were involved with this episode were sentenced to prison for their negligence. They received between two and three years in prison,

J: What?

S: which seems like a slap on the wrist to me, to be honest with you,

E: Oh my gosh.

S: given that what they did resulted in somebody's death. This isn't the first time that that kind of thing happened. I think we spoke about this.

B: Yes, we have.

S: In 2011, James Ray, yeah, was a guru, they had a sweat lodge kind of thing.

B: Yep

S: But, yeah, had three people die from dehydration because of a sweat lodge.

C: Hmm

S: So, couple of points I want to make about this. One, obviously, don't subject yourself to extreme treatments just because some guru or spa person is telling you that it's a good idea. Anything that would make you that dehydrated is dangerous. Dehydration's not good for your body. In fact, you're talking about sports, it's not uncommon for coaches to push their athletes too far, especially if it's hot weather, and their athletes sweat a lot.

If they don't hydrate sufficiently, you could actually damage your kidneys. Kidneys are very sensitive to dehydration. They don't function very much. It's a responsibility of anybody who's doing anything like this to make sure that they're not putting the people under their care at any health risk. But you're putting your hands in somebody who is a quack, you know what I mean? They have no medical training. They're just a “guru” who's giving you bizarre treatment.

I think you have to think very carefully about the qualifications, and whether or not they are gonna be able to keep you safe through this. Clearly, I mean, this happens on a regular basis, so it's not like these are completely isolated incidents.

And there's also a lot of milder manifestations of this. I wrote not too long ago about hot yoga. You guys ever hear of hot yoga?

J: Oh yeah.

C: Oh yeah, Mr. Bickrum recently got sued for a major sexual harassment suit, the guy who invented hot yoga.

S: Yeah

C: Bickram yoga.

S: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it's basically exercising in an oppressively hot environment, you know. And that's supposed to somehow be invigorating. But again, it's like, it's not a good idea, 'cause it's just, you're gonna get dehydrated. You're gonna get overheated. You're gonna get heat stroke. I'd like to exercise with a fan on me to be honest with you.

C: Oh, yeah. I don't like it when it's hot in the gym.

E: You're supposed to be hydrating during workout.

S: Yeah, you gotta

E: Constantly.

S: hydrate, and you gotta cool down. Ya gotta keep cool and hydrated. This is the opposite.

C: Bickram's victim of sexual harassment just got a seven million dollar award.

S: Whoa, that's serious. That's not a slap on the wrist.

C: That's really serious. Yeah, that is not at all. Ugh! Hot yoga? That sounds horrible.

S: Yeah, but it's a fad. There's no science behind it. That's the other thing: People just make shit up, right? It's just, the guy who invented it, how did he invent it? There's no evidence or science or research that says that there's any advantage to this, it's just, “Hey, this is different, and people say they like the way it feels,” but there's good, basic medical reasons to suspect that this is not a good idea.

E: They wrap it in a new age sort of

S: Yeah

E: wrapping to it to make it more appealing to people

S: Right. Right, right.

E: who are allured by such eye candy.

J: Steve, is there any benefit to exercising in elevated temperatures, as far as the workout, or the quality of the workout?

S: No.

C: 'Cause people talk about sweating more.

E: We talked about that.

C: You wear the sauna suits, and then they just go sit in a hot room, like, in a trash bag, and then they just sweat a lot. I think it's that you like, actually, physically weigh less after you lose a bunch of water weight, but that's not healthy.

S: Yeah, it's not good for you at all.

B: It's not. I mean, if you want to make weight for a wrestling tournament,

E: Oh, gosh.

B: It would work.

C: Yeah, that would make a little more sense. I don't think it's healthy.

B: No, not healthy, but

C: It blows my mind

E: It's not a lifestyle, no.

C: “I lost five pounds!” And I'm like, “Yeah, but you don't look any different, 'cause you just lost a bunch of water weight.”

S: That's a gimmick too, yeah. It's the, “Look! You've lost weight!” It's just, “Yeah, you just shrunk your tissue from dehydration.” It's just not a good way to lose weight either.

E: Nope

S: Your muscles need water to function.

(Commercial at 30:47)

Planetary Defense System (32:31)[edit]

Lab-Grown Meat (42:37)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (49:03)[edit]

Answer to last week: Lightning on Jupiter

What's the Word (51:07)[edit]

  • Epistasis

S: All right, Cara, what's the word?

C: Ooh! What is the word? Ooh, the word today is a fun one because, how many times have you guys read a word over and over in an article or in a textbook, and then you kind of just invented how you should say it in your head? And then later, when you looked up the real pronunciation, it was completely than what you thought?

S: Six?

C: That's always fun.

B: Never.

C: (Chuckles) Yeah, six, exactly six. So the word today is epistasis, which I have always read as epi-stasis.

B: Yeah, that's how I would pronounce it.

S: Yeah

E: Yeah

C: Yeah, but then I looked it up, and there is no pronunciation guide anywhere on the internet that says epi-stasis. There's like fifty

S: Ep-i-stisis

C: Ep-i-stisis

S: Wow

C: Yeah, it's a word, right?

S: It's almost like epistaxis, which is pronounced epi-staxis, except it's

C: Yeah

S: It's one letter off

C: The wiki page even says, “Not to be confused with epistaxis.”

S: Yeah

C: So, yeah. Epistasis

S: Which is a nose bleed, by the way.

C: Yes, interesting. So this makes the third definition I'm gonna read to you extra funny. So, wait for that.

S: Okay

C: The first definition is the one that I think the listener who recommended this was looking for, which is a genetics definition. It's probably the most often used that I've come across in the literature. So, this is a form of interaction between non-alellic genes in which one combination of those genes has a dominant effect over other combinations, which makes no sense. So, more clearly, let me tell you.

It's when one gene locus (so, one part of a gene, on one little spot) masks, or modifies the phenotype of another gene locus. So when we think back to learning genetics, we usually learn Dalean genetics, those classical Ponet squares, where we're talking about a seed that's either smooth or wrinkly, and it can be a dominant or a recessive trait. And we do it with a little Ponet cross, and we figure it out, that the offspring have a one to two to one ratio of the homozygous or heterozygous traits.

Maybe you're not even following me here, but think back to middle school biology. What we're talking about when we talk about epistasis is when two genes are not independent of one another. They actually have an effect over each other, where the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts. The one gene can actually mask the other gene. One gene can affect the other gene. And so the phenotype, or the outcome, the way that the organism looks, or that the organism acts is based upon this combination of the two genes. Does that make sense to everybody?

S: Yeah

J: Yeah.

C: Okay

S: So it's not simply Mendelian, it's a complicated interaction.

C: It's a complicated interaction. A good example that I came across was, you might have a gene for red hair, and another person has a gene for brown hair, but if you both have the gene for baldness, you're not gonna have red hair or brown hair. You're gonna have no hair.

So that's a good example of these genes interacting with other genes, and kind of trumping them in that way, or changing them in that way.

But now, in medicine, there are two definitions: One is the one that you just used, Steve, the stoppage of a secretion or a discharge. So epistasis is that secretion or discharge stopping. The second one: The scum that forms on a urine specimen when it's standing.

B: Whoa.

E: Eew!

J: Ah!

C: Which is why it's so funny to me that it's pronounced e-piss-stasis.

(Bob laughs)

S: You need a word for that?

C: Yeah, apparently that's like a legit word.

S: Just call is pee-scum.

C: Pee-scum! Well, next time, you can say to them, “Hmm, too much epistasis on the sample.” (Laughs) What are you talking about?

E: Pissed on what now?

C: (Laughing) Yeah! So, yeah, this word actually comes from medical Latin. Epistasis really means the checking of a discharge, which makes sense, right, with the stopping of the secretion or the discharge, like the nose bleed. That comes from the Greek epistasis, which is a stopping or a stoppage or a halting. So, if you break it down, “epi” is “upon,” which we see that all the time in science words. And then “stasis,” or stusis, is a stopping or a standing, which makes sense, right? Stasis.

E: Static.

C: Yeah, it's static, exactly. Its genetic usage was actually coined in 1909 by William Batsen. He's a British geneticist who lived between 1861 and 1926. And he established the term “epistasis” to explain that genetic interaction of two independent traits.

S: Cool

C: Pretty interesting, yeah.

S: Yeah, I like it when the science words have multiple meanings. But I would have bet anything it was epi-stasis.

C: Me too! It blew my mind, because I was like. “I know that I'm not wrong.” And I checked both the North American and the English pronunciations

S: Yeah

C: across the

S: That's just a British

C: E-piss-stasis, e-piss-stasis.

S: Yeah, usually, you put the accent on that syllable, but it's the word “stasis” that gets stuck in our mind. We want to say “stasis” 'cause we're used to that ...

B: Right, right, right.

S: Epi-stasis.

C: Yeah, like homeostasis.

S: Yeah

C: You wouldn't say homeos-tasis.

S: Yeah, homeo....

C: It's weird.

E: Alluminium, oh, wait, that's ... some people do pronounce that.

B: So who decided its pronunciation?

C: Well, I don't know, but everybody agrees on it.

B: Somebody did.

E: Society, maybe.

C: Probably good old ...

E: Then it gets accepted.

C: good old William Bateson. He was British. So maybe when he coined the term, the pronunciation stuck across the board.

(Commercial at 56:32)

Science or Fiction (57:13)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers at MIT have created a new RFID chip that is virtually impossible to hack. Item #2: A new study contradicts prior conclusions, finding there is no evidence that radiation from X-rays and CT scans cause cancer. Item #3: A newly published computer simulation supports the conclusion that both Jupiter and Saturn significantly protect the inner solar system from comets, making life on Earth possible.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:19:27)[edit]

Treat beliefs not as sacred possessions to be guarded but rather as testable hypotheses to be discarded when the evidence mounts against them. Philip Tetlock

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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