SGU Episode 559

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SGU Episode 559
March 26th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 558                      SGU 560

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.

Dara Ó Briain

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Cara Santa Maria,

C: Howdy!

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, folks.

Boatie McBoatface (0:26)[edit]

What's the Word (4:26)[edit]

  • Equilux

S: Actually, Cara, you're gonna start us off with What's the Word!

C: I am! And this word is, I guess, somewhat serious. It was recommended by – let me just see – Harmen, who wrote in to say, “Hey, maybe you guys should talk about the equilux, not to be confused with the equinox,” even though it's fully to be confused with the equinox.

E: Or the electrolux.

C: Or the electrolux, exactly. I'm not talking about a vacuum cleaner, I'm talking about a day on the calendar. Now, you guys know about the equinox. It's Latin for equis and nox.

E: Yes

C: You put them together and it makes “equal nox,” which is “equal night.” (Evan laughs) And we talk about the equinox as a specific day on the calendar when basically, there are these two equinopical points, and it's because of the tilt in the Earth's axis. So, the equator, which is how we Southern people say it. How do you guys say it again?

S: E-quay-ter.

E: E-quay-ter?

B: E-quay-ter.

C: Yeah, I say Ee-quator. (Her stress is on the first syllable, while the others put the stress on the second) Deal with it. I do. A lot of people in the South say E-quay-ter.

B: That's weird.

E: Okay.

C: That's how you can point us out.

E: That's your thing!

C: I know, it's our thing. We say ee-quator, and in-surance.

S: And um-brella. (Stress is on first syllable in all three words)

C: So there's the ecliptic, which is what kind of is the plane that all of these celestial objects move around, and then there's also the ee-quator – the e-quay-tor – which is that sort of line that we think of around Earth. And what happens is that two days in the year, they actually intersect. So there's the autumnal equinox, and there's the vernal, which is like the pedantic way to say the “spring” equinox.

And most people think that on the equinoxes, that that is when we have equal day and equal night. But that's not quite true. You will see the sun directly overhead in mid-day on the equinoxes. It'll rise exactly out of the East. It'll set exactly out of the West, and that's a little bit shifted throughout the rest of the year. But the length of the day, and the length of the night are not actually equal, they're just nearly equal.

So, we actually have another term there called the equilux. And the equilux is the day in which the length of dark and the length of light are as close to equal as possible. And the interesting thing is that the equilux is different depending on where you live on the planet.

Now, I did a little digging, and I figured out exactly why, on the equinox, we can't call it the equilux; and that's because of the shape of the sun, and the size of the sun. So it appears a disk in the sky, and it's got a radius of around sixteen arc minutes, because I remember what that means. The top of it actually lights up the sky before the very center, which is the point at which we calculate whether or not the sun has risen or set.

So because of that, on the equinox, there's a little bit more sun, maybe about ten extra minutes of sun than there is dark, because the sun is peaking its head up, and starting to light up the sky. So you actually have to go to the equilux, and the only way to figure out what your equilux is, is to look it up, because it's gonna be different depending on where you live. Interesting, right?

B: Cool, yeah. I never heard of that term.

E: Did not know that, no?

C: Kind of a new way to be – as I said – totally pedantic, is to correct people (laughs)

E: Yeah!

C: when they say that the equinox is equal day and equal night.

B: Almost!

S: Cool.

C: Yep!

S: So, Cara, an arc minute is one sixtieth of a degree of arc. You know, a degree of arc is one three hundred and sixtieth of a circle. Then you divide up one

C: Minute, I see.

S: degree into a minute, like the minutes of an hour.

E: Seconds

B: And there's also arc seconds, as well!

S: And there are arc seconds, yeah.

C: Oh, that's just a brilliant way to do it.

B: Yeah, I love it!

C: Use the time on a clock.

S: Right, exactly.

C: Yeah, it's smart. Okay.

E: Easy to understand.

C: Yeah, so it's small.

S: It's small, yeah.

C: Small, but it actually lights up the sky on average ten minutes longer than the calculations would tell you that it would if you're measuring from the center of the sun over the horizon.

News Items[edit]

Supernova Shock Wave (8:35)[edit]

Desk Exercise (13:30)[edit]

Angry Suns (22:11)[edit]

(Commercial at 34:03)

Moderate Drinkers and Health (35:27)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, you're gonna tell us about another medical item, this one having to do with the alleged protective effect of drinking alcohol.

C: Yes, so new study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs was actually just published yesterday, as of this recording, online March 22nd, 2016. And it is a study involving researchers from Boston and Australia and San Francisco, and British Columbian, Canada - lotta people involved in this.

And what they wanted to do is a big meta analysis (we've talked about meta-analyses before on the show) and try their best to answer the age-old question: Do moderate drinkers have a reduced mortality risk?

So we've all heard these studies that show that if you drink a glass of wine a night, it can actually improve your cardiovascular outcomes. If you drink just a little, but not too much, it's actually better for you than not drinking at all. And I think that that's one of those news articles that we very commonly will read, and go, “Oh, yeah. I love anything I read that just reaffirms the behavior I already have.”

E: Ten percent of my brain agrees.

C: Exactly! Whereas when I read this, of course, my personal biases were like, “Yes! I knew they were wrong all along! And the fact that I don't drink is better!”

E: That's right.

C: But, let's start ...

E: Justifies your anti-social behavior. Go ahead.

C: Exactly. And I love that you said that too, because honestly, that is a big part of why I don't ... (Cara and Evan laugh). So, it really comes down to a big question that the researchers were asking: How were these studies done? These hundreds of studies that exist in the literature, many of which actually support the assertion that if you drink some, it's better than not drinking at all. How did they qualify who is a non-drinker, and who is a moderate drinker? And what did – you know, as you start to tease away all of the details of these hundreds of studies, what do we come up with?

So ultimately, they looked at a systematic review of a population – across all these studies, this is the end value, this is the number of actual participants across all these studies: Three million, nine hundred ninety-eight thousand, six hundred twenty-six individuals. This is a lot of data.

And of that group, three hundred sixty-seven thousand, one hundred three deaths were recorded. And what they decided to do is go through and throw out any study that they didn't find met certain standards. And after they threw out all of those studies, they were still left with something like eighty-seven studies that they decided to do the meta-analysis on. And then they started to tease out a lot of basic, I guess – what would you call it? Demographic data, to fully understand who were these study participants, and how were they researched? Because, again, we're going back to what they call a “J-shaped” curve.

So imagine a J, a lot of times when we look at relationships, we see different styles of curves. Sometimes we'll see a linear relationship where less is more health, or more is worse health, or vice versa. A J-shaped curve, just like it sounds, shows that there is some risk to health if you don't drink at all, less risk to health if you drink a little bit, and then way more risk to health if you drink a lot. That's what that J would define.

And the interesting thing is, as they looked through these eighty-seven studies, they found over and over that was the result. The literature is there, and even when they reanalyzed the data, they found the same outcome. And so they started wondering, “Why is that?” Is it because there is a true protective mechanism to drinking a glass of wine with your dinner every night? Or is it because the way that we're defining what a moderate drinker is, versus somebody who abstains, is not very clear?

And the more that they started to dig into the histories of the subjects, they started realizing that the people in the abstinence group were oftentimes people who used to have a history of drinking, who now choose to abstain because either they're in a program, or because they have a really ill health effects because of that.

They also found that a common reason that people call themselves “abstinent,” that say they don't drink at all, is because they're already suffering from some sort of ill health effect in which drinking would exacerbate their illness. So there's already a confound there, that would contribute to increased mortality. And they realized that when they adjusted for individuals in the abstinence group who either had never had alcohol, or who had had a very limited history of alcohol consumption – so they threw out all of these people that had a history, that were in a program, or that were very, very sick otherwise, with some sort of comorbid thing, that all of a sudden, that relationship became linear, and the J-curve went away.

So now, the question that we're asking is: Is moderate alcohol better for your health? Or is it just that in the past, all of the studies that looked at people who abstained from alcohol were including people who are already at a higher risk for mortality. It's pretty interesting. It's a whole new way to look at the data. And of course, reinforces what I thought all along, which is: No alcohol is better for you than some alcohol.

J: It never made sense to me that a little bit of alcohol could help you. I didn't really understand why ...

C: Well, I think a lot of people claimed it was the risveritol thing, right? But the risveritol thing drives me crazy, because it is a hallmark of the singularity-obsessed Curzweillian people who think that there are certain compounds that you eat or drink, that in high enough doses will help you have increased longevity. It's again, that thing that we

S: Yeah

C: talked about last week with, if you see something happening in a mouse, or you see something happening in a petri dish, you can't really apply it to the whole human organism. And I see it all the time! I have friends like this who are like, “I'm gonna live forever! I'm gonna download my consciousness. I eat really clean. I take risveritol every day. And it's gonna make me live a really long life.” And I'm like, “First of all, I doubt it. And second of all, why would you want to live forever?” I guess that's a whole other can of worms.

B: Oh, we got it.

(Rogues laugh)

E: Come on. Here we go.

C: That sounds terrible!

S: Yeah, and I've read that actually for a number of years, when the first studies started coming out where they really tried to control for the currently not drinking group, right? 'Cause it does contain ex-drinkers, or people who -

C: Heavy ex-drinkers

S: yeah, or people

B: Yeah

S: who are not drinking for health reasons. And when you control for that, the alleged protective effect goes away. One, I think important lesson here is to be very skeptical of observational studies. When you do these kind of studies where you're just looking for correlations, it's hard to interpret them, because it's not an experimental study, right? You're not controlling for variables, you're just controlling for the ones you can think of. And if there's one variable you're not thinking of, it can completely alter the results

C: Yeah

S: of your data. And this is a great example of that, where it's like, “Oh! How we defined the 'not drinking' group ...” It's the same thing with weight. There's this other J-curve for weight, where people who are at an quote-unquote “ideal” weight seem to be less healthy than people who are a little overweight.

C: Hm, that's weird.

S: And it's the same exact thing. Is that a protective effect of being a little overweight? So people speculate that when you get sick, it's good to have a little buffer, or when you get older, or whatever. But it also could be that people who are in the ideal weight category, some of them may be contaminated by people who are thin because they're sick.

C: Yeah, that's true.

S: And unless you control for that, unless you control for that, it's hard to know if there's protective effect of being a little overweight, or if it's just that they don't contain as many people who are thin because they're sick. So it's hard.

C: Yeah

S: Observational studies are hard. There are so many potential confounding factors, and you can only control for the ones that you can think of. Whereas when you do an experimental study, you can isolate the variable. You can't isolate the variables with observational studies.

C: And it's important that you mention that, because there's actually a quote in the Live Science article that I read that linked me out to the article in the literature, the actual scientific study, of one of the authors. And he said, “One of the biggest limitations in this area of research is that there have been no randomized, gold standard type of studies,”

S: Yeah

C: “the kind that we would use to evaluate a new pharmaceutical product, for example.” Like, alcohol has been around for so long! And there's never been an instance where individuals are trying to figure out “should we legalize alcohol?” Should alcohol be able to be prescribed? There's been, I guess, no reason, and it's been very difficult to be able to devise a study where you really do give somebody O'Dool's for ten years, versus

S: Yeah

C: alcohol, and compare the difference. It's not, it just hasn't happened. So the only thing that we have to work with are these correlational mortality studies.

S: Yeah, and I'm not saying that you can't get good data from that, but you have to triangulate multiple different studies, and it could take decades.

C: And that's what these researchers really tried to do! You know,

S: Yeah

C: I think it's an interesting attempt, because they said, “There's a ton of literature out there.” Hundreds and hundreds of studies. Like I said, almost, what was that? Four million study participants? That's an end-value that's very high.

S: Yeah

C: And they were like, “Let's actually look at the data. Instead of just grouping all of this stuff together, and looking at the overall outcomes, let's dive into the data and say, 'Who are these people? What are their backgrounds? What demographic data ...'”

S: Gotta do that.

C: '”'on them.'” Yeah, if we don't have enough, throw the study out. If it looks like there are confounds there, and we can't figure out – get to the root of it, throw the study out. What are we left with, and what does the data actually show us? So, not saying this is the gold standard, but it's one step closer, I think, to better understanding this question. And it does kind of reinforce reason and skepticism, that ...

S: It does make sense.

C: It makes sense. And nobody's really been able to say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why drinking somewhat would be more protective than not drinking.

S: Okay, let's move on.

Who's That Noisy (46:02)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Tron

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Shouting 'Fire' In a Crowded Theater (49:15)[edit]

S: All right, well, we have one question this week. Actually, a number of people emailed us about shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. And as always, there's an interesting story behind this. So, when we had our discussion about free speech, we did mention that as the iconic example of speech which is not protected, because it endangers people specifically. And that is not literally true. There's actually an interesting story there.

But I do think that it's complicated as an example, but let me give you the background. So this is, again, it's iconic to say, “Oh well, you can't shout 'fire' in a crowded theater.” The assumption there is in the original quote is, “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” Obviously, if there is a fire, that's fine, you're just telling people there's actually a fire.

E: That's a good point.

S: This goes back to Oliver Wendel Holmes, a Supreme Court Justice, in a 1919 case, Schenk versus United States. It was an incidental statement. It had nothing to do with the case itself. Holmes basically said that falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is not protected. But the case, by the way, the Schenk versus US case, Schenk was a socialist who was protesting drafting soldiers for World War I. He was not inciting to violence, or even civil disobedience, it was just a political opinion about the fact his opinion, that the draft was not a good idea.

And the government arrested him, and put him on trial for endangering the welfare of the United States. And he was actually convicted of that, and went to jail. And Holmes was writing for the majority – 'cause the Supreme Court upheld the conviction. This was under the Espionage Act. So, by modern standards, this was a horrible decision that quite clearly violates free speech. This was the Espionage Act was used to, in several cases, to silence what were clearly personal, political opinions. And the government shut them down, claiming that criticism of the government.

So the standard that was established by the Schenk versus the United States case was that speech that represents a clear and present danger is not protected under the First Amendment. So that was the standard until it was overturned in 1969. But even Holmes, at the time, Oliver Wendel Holmes, soon after that decision, he changed his mind, and he came to regret that decision, and really regret that quote, like, that was one of his most famous quotes. And he detested that that was the case.

He also says that it was actually misinterpreted. He was saying that in times of war, we have to suspend the usual protections. And then it became interpreted as, “those protections don't exist.” So it didn't really even intend it that way. But in any case, in a 1969 case, the Supreme Court overturned that standard. This was the Brandenburg versus Ohio. So this is, some people might think this is going too far in the other direction, but this is now the decision.

The court held that even speech advocating violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan is protected under the First Amendment. So that effectively replaced the “clear and present” danger standard with an “imminent lawless action” standard. That decision, which is still the case now, still the standard that is the law, is that speech is protected unless you are immediately inciting people to commit act which are in and of themselves against the law. It can't just be that it is putting them at risk for something bad happening, right? So, falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater would not meet that standard, because there's nothing inherently lawless about the riot that would ensue, or the panic, I should say. So, inciting people to just some general

B: Mayhem

S: Yeah, mayhem, is protected, to general violence, even to violence against groups apparently, that's all protected speech. It only crosses over the line if you say

B: Murder him!

S: yeah, murder him. “I want you to right now commit this act which in and of itself is against the law.”

B: Damn.

S: Well, yeah. Now you're part of a crime. Now that speech ... so, there's other, obviously, limitations on free speech. Any speech which is part of, like, if you're having a conversation in which you're coordinating conspiracy to commit a crime, that's not protected speech, you know.

E: Oh.

S: That's speech committed in the process of a furthering

B: Yeah

S: plans for

E: Hey, Jay

S: a criminal activity.

E: Jay, forget that thing I told you earlier, okay?

S: Yeah

E: All right.

S: But here's the thing: Again, it's interesting. That's the standard now. So I do think that most of the time, when I've heard people invoke the, “Well, you can't cry 'fire' in a crowded theater,” I don't think they're trying to make the case that that's the actual legal line. I think they're just trying to say that there are exceptions to free speech, you know what I mean? They're just trying to say, “Oh, well not all speech is protected. There's a line that you can cross where the speech is something bad is happening as a consequence of that.” I don't think people are saying that legally, this is exactly where the line is.

It's unfortunate that that's become the iconic example, because it's not literally true. That's not where the line is. And the line is now the imminent lawless act standard, not the clear and present danger standard. Again, it's important to know that, but I don't think people are making a legal argument at that level of detail. I think that they're just trying to say, “Well, sure, there's free speech, but you shouldn't use speech in a reckless way like this.”

B: Right

S: You know what I mean?

E: It's become a colloquialism,

S: Yeah

E: and an interpretation.

C: I also think that a lot of people, as we said, looking back on that first Supreme Court decision, it was like, by today's standards a crazy decision.

S: Yeah

C: I think that this is just a better gold standard for people to say like, if I were to draw my line in the sand, a lot of people would agree that that's where it is, and it's not with the Patriot Act, and it's not with some of the new standards of imminent danger kind of surrounding hyper-paranoia around terrorism, and things like that. Some people, depending on where you are on the political spectrum,

S: Yeah

C: may or may not agree with the more recent standard, but with what we think of as a more historical standard, which as you clarified for us, is actually the opposite. Most people agree, let's maybe not incite some sort of mass trampling.

S: Yeah, that's a good point. I think that some people may not even be making a legal argument, but are rather making a moral argument.

C: Exactly.

S: They're not saying this is against the law, they're just saying “That's not right,” you know. It's pretty reckless. If you knowingly falsely shout “fire” in a crowded public space, because you're trying to incite a panic, that's just a dick move, right? You're just an asshole! It may not be technically illegal, but damn, you know.

And even, I was reading a lot of background to this. There's this one website, organization that is a First Amendment organization. It's like, Their whole existence is to promote free speech. And even they said, when discussing this issue, it's like, “Yeah, so it's not strictly illegal. The government can't imprison you for doing that, but that doesn't mean that the theater can't kick you out for doing that.”

C: Yeah

E: Fore sure, that's right, yeah.

S: So it doesn't mean that it's a good idea, or that ... let's say you got up in front of a theater – this is their example, just to make this point. You got up in front of a theater during the middle of a movie, and calmly started espousing your political opinions. You don't have a right to do that. The theater has every right to kick you out, because you're disrupting their movie, and that is not -

C: not a public place!

E: Right

C: It's a private place.

S: It's not a violation of your free speech. That doesn't mean that you can

C: Yeah

S: be disruptive, that you can invade other spaces, or whatever.

C: But, if you do that on a public square, and somebody does try to remove you, or try to arrest you, you absolutely

S: Sure

C: have a right.

E: Sure

S: Or if the government is trying to silence your criticism of the government, this is obviously what this is mainly about, right?

C: Yeah

S: That's where the Supreme Court is giving a lot of leeway to the private citizen, which I totally agree with.

E: Agreed.

C: It is interesting though, it's not that different, right? So technically, it's legal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, although it's a dick move.

S: Yeah

C: But I don't think it's legal – you tell me if I'm wrong – to yell “bomb”

E: in an airport.

C: in an airport.

E: Or hijack.

C: Because now,

S: Yeah

C: all of a sudden, we're dealing with that not imminent danger – no, we're dealing with the imminent danger, and the conspiracy, and the hi-

S: No, I think you would have a First Amendment case to say, “Hey, that's my free speech.”

C: You might, but your life would be hell leading up to that court trial.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: (Laughs) I don't think I would recommend it.

S: But the question then becomes: Does that give the airport probable cause to put you in a room and do a cavity search?

C: Ooh, probably.

S: That's – yeah, then that's different. I think that they would say, “Yeah, that's probable cause,” you know.

C: But Homeland Security might actually be able to detain you. Like, Homeland Security is a federal police force, no?

S: But I don't think they could jail you for that.

C: Hmm, interesting.

E: You'd miss your flight.

C: You'd definitely miss your flight.

S: Yeah, they might put you on a No-fly list, and I don't know if that case has ever gone to the Supreme Court. Something similar to that. You're not being jailed, you're not being convicted of espionage. But basically, for being an idiot or an ass, your privilege of flying planes or whatever, some privilege like that is being restricted. Could you claim, “Hey, that's infringing upon my free speech? I want to be able to fly planes

E: Oh boy.

S: and shout, 'This is a hijack' whenever I want to? Or 'There's a bomb on this plane,' even though I know it's not, just because I like causing panic wherever I go?” I mean, that's a ...

(Evan laughs)

C: That's the line! That is the line, because legally

E: Oh my

C: should you

E: gosh!

C: be protected?

S: Yeah

C: I mean, that's really what it comes down to.

S: Supreme Court says “Yes, it's protected.” But there's obviously practical issues there, where I think that the airline would say, “Okay, that's fine. We're not gonna jail you for exercising your free speech, but we're not gonna sell you tickets on to our airline any more,

C: Yeah

S: because that's being disruptive to our other passengers, who have a right to take a flight without some jerk standing up and yelling 'bomb,'” you know.

C: But I do think that you're kind of giving Homeland Security more credit. I would not be surprised if you were fully detained against your rights, and against your will for multiple

S: Yeah

C: hours for doing something like that, and you would actually have a legal argument on your hands.

S: But being detained for probable cause, you can get away with that. But you have a certain window.

C: That's true.

S: At some point, then it's like, you gotta charge me, or release me, but you have ...

C: It's an unlawful imprisonment.

S: Yeah, but how long. It's long enough for you to miss your plane, for sure. I think they can get away with holding you for that.

C: Long enough to get a finger up the butt.

(Steve chuckles)

B: Oh, baby!

(Evan laughs)

J: You have to pay for that?

(Cara and Bob laugh)

C: That's free! You just gotta say “bomb!”

E: It's a bomb!

S: One other legal wrinkle, since you bring up the issue of a bomb in an airport: Shouting bomb in an airport could be construed as making a false report of a bomb threat to the authorities. People have been arrested and potentially jailed for that. You can't make a false report to police. That's not protected speech. And so then you run to that area.

So it does get legally complicated, but I think the bottom line remains that yes, free speech is highly protected, and the law errs on the side of freedom of speech, but there are lines, both morally and legally.

Science or Fiction (1:02:10)[edit]

Item #1: Astronomers reports that they have found galaxies so bright, at over 100 trillion solar luminosities, there is no current classification for them. Item #2: Scientists have produced a genetically modified maggot that secrets a protein that promotes wound healing. Item #3: A new study finds that treating toxoplasmosis infection significantly reduces the symptoms of anxiety in 40% of patients.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:51)[edit]

'Just because science doesn't know everything doesn't mean you can fill in the gaps with whatever fairy tale most appeals to you.' - Dara Ó Briain

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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