SGU Episode 565

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SGU Episode 565
7th May 2016
SGU 564 SGU 566
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
GH: George Hrab
Quote of the Week
It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
William Kingdon Clifford
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

11th Anniversary of the SGU (0:38)[edit]

  • May 4

What's the Word (4:43)[edit]

  • Propaganda

S: That picture is propaganda, Jay.


C: Uh oh, I feel a segue coming on.

S: It's total propaganda, right? I can use that word any way I want.

E: Props!

S: Words mean exactly what I want them to mean, right Cara?

C: Yes, exactly. Well, guys, I thought that this week, actually Steve recommended – and I think it's a great recommendation – that we follow up on an email for this week's What's the Word. Now I got an email from Ryan Chufetaly (that's how he says he pronounces it). I think that's right – Chufetaly. And he says, “Hi SGU,” obligatory nice things, nice things, nice things. Blah, blah, blah. And,

“Propaganda is one of many terms with a significant gap in the definition and what much of the public thinks it means. Usually it is utilized by a group or member of one ideology in describing the public statements of an opposing ideology. Further, many people learn about it in history class when studying messages governments send to their citizens during wartime. In the US, this often means Nazi and Japanese propaganda during World War II. Unfortunately, I believe this leads to the assumption that propaganda is by definition false. Most definitions of propaganda I found include any statement designed to further some sort of cause. This definition is troubling, as it would render almost any persuasive speech as propaganda, which is certainly not the common connotation.

So I think if we are to use the word 'propaganda,' we should define it as specifically, least of all so we know what we're talking about, and possibly that we ensure it cannot be accurately used against us. So, I thought I would take a minute to actually look up probably the two most trusted sources, and what their definition of propaganda are.

So I'm citing here Merriam-Webster's dictionary, and also the Oxford dictionaries. And between the two of them, I'm seeing the full definition of propaganda is,

“The spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. Ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause, chiefly derogatory information, and especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. The dissemination of propaganda as a political strategy.”

Now also, there's a secondary definition, which I don't think was meant in Ryan's email, and that is really where the term came from. If you see the word, “propaganda,” and it's capitalized, it is a congregation of the Roman Curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions.” Another way to put that, “A committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic church responsible for foreign missions founded in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV.”

So, propaganda, a term that we use to describe some sort of statement, some sort of idea that is inflated, that is misleading, that is, by definition, at least in the Merriam-Webster's dictionary, false. So, I'm interested ...

S: Well, I don't know that I would agree with that.

C: Interesting

S: So, Ryan said, and I think this is inadvertently created a bit of a false choice. Propaganda is not necessarily false; and if you define it as just persuasive speech, and that's everything.

C: Yes.

S: And I agree. But I think that I wouldn't say that propaganda is just persuasive or just false. I think that biased and misleading is a much better operational definition. It could be completely true, but the point is that you're presenting it in a way that is biased with a purpose of promoting or denigrating some agenda.

C: And it is at this point, it does have a pejorative connotation.

S: Yeah!

C: And I think that that's something that is important to point out. So just to further this a little bit, I wanted to get into the etymology. So then we can talk a little more about operational definitions and why they matter. So propaganda, in 1718, was the direct translation of congregatio de propaganda fivé, which is, “The congregation for propagating the faith.” And that was that committee of cardinals that was established.

Now, the Latin propagade is actually a movement to propagate some practice or ideology. So you can kind of see where that shift happened, and that was first coined in 1790. The modern political use of the term dates specifically from World War I, that's when it was first used. And it wasn't originally pejorative when it was first used. It just meant material or information propagated to advance a cause.

So back in 1929, when we talk about propaganda, we were just talking trying to advance a cause. And in disseminating information. And over time, as we see often happens, the meanings of words and their usages evolve with the culture; and now it does have a strong pejorative meaning. And I don't think you can really talk about propaganda without it having that, like you said, Steve, that kind of biased nature now.

S: Yeah

E: Yeah, it insinuates some level of deception.

C: Deception.

E: Nefarious.

C: Nefarious. Yeah.

E: Yeah, something behind the scenes that you can't immediately see.

C: Exactly. And so I think it's a good word, but I do think it's important, as Ryan points out, that when we do argue, when we are engaging in that high level kind of rhetoric, to have operational definitions of words is so important, because when you get to the point where you're parsing speech, and you're looking for fallacies, and you're trying to build these sorts of assumptions, you have to know what the words you're using mean, and you have to ensure that the audience or the person you're arguing with knows what they mean as well. And some words mean so many things, or they have different shades of grey within them, that if you just define the term at the top, your argument won't generally devolve into semantic quibbles, which can get really frustrating .

S: And it's important to note that pseudoscientists and science deniers will deliberately use vague definitions or words in order to create deception, in order to mislead. For example, creationists, specifically intelligent design proponents, they will very deliberately misuse the word “information.” They won't define it specifically or operationally. They will just use it in a vague way. And they'll shift their definition as needed in order to evade arguments.

So this is a tactic of pseudoscientists to use vague or shifting definitions, which enable them to squirm out of being backed into a corner. So that's why it's so important. I guess maybe we should define “operational definition” too. An operational definition just means that it's a way of defining something so that it's very specific. Like if you have A and B, then you have it, then that's the definition.

You can go through a process and determine very specifically if something fits the definition or not. So there are very specific different operational definitions of information. You've got to pick one, and you gotta use it, like mathematical definitions. But they're using it, and it's just a vague colloquial sense, and so they could shift around as needed. And it's basically, words are precise so your thoughts can be precise; and when people use an imprecisely definition, it's because their thinking is imprecise.

C: It's true, and it's something where I think the whole purpose of the segment, “What's the Word,”

S: Yeah!

C: is there to try and describe the difference. Because sometimes words do mean two different things in two different contexts. The perfect example is the word, “theory.” And you see it all the time,

S: Yeah

C: again, with intelligent design advocates trying to use the word “theory” in a colloquial kind of societal sense, when they're talking about the scientific definition. But they're utilizing the societal definition. And so it's really important that we know the difference between those things when they do exist.

S: And they're doing it for propaganda purposes.

C: Ah! It's true.

(Evan and Cara laugh)

S: All right, thanks, Cara.

C: Yep.

S: Let's move on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Repealing Canadian Censorship of Science (12:52)[edit]

S: So, there has been a change of government in Canada. I know the US is the midst of our campaign, which, don't get me started. (Cracks up) A travesty, but whatever. (Rogues laugh) In Canada, the Harper administration has been replaced by the Trudeau administration. And one of the things that Trudeau has already reversed was Harper's policy of essentially restricting or censoring publicly or federally funded scientists from talking about their research, which was widely criticized policy.

But what's interesting is that now that Harper is out of power, the scientists are in fact able to speak a little bit more freely about how bad it was. And it was a lot worse than I thought. It really was oppressive. So, Nature has a very in depth report on it; we'll link to that. Actually, we're linking to my blog post about it, which has a link to the Nature article in it, as well as other back story links.

And it's a very in depth report that interviews a number of scientists in Canada who were affected by this. And it is really stunning how oppressive the regulations were. So, again, essentially, the Harper administration said that federally funded scientists can't talk directly to the media about their research. So in practice, what that meant is; so previously, if a journalist needed a quote, or needed a brief explanation or conversation on what the scientists are, to write about a story, they'd call them up, and they would talk to them.

But with the new regulations, they would have to go through a bureaucrat, right? They would have to talk to a government official. And essentially, they would have to go through multiple layers of speaking to officials, to the point where they would never really get to anybody prior to their deadline, which I think was by design.

So what happened is that reporters essentially stopped even trying to make contact with the scientists. So they effectively cut off the press from federally funded scientists by putting in this onerous layer of bureaucratic red tape.

But it's actually worse than that, 'cause the scientists report that, for example, when they went to meetings, there literally would be a burly government agent babysitting them,

E: They hell?

S: making sure that they didn't talk out of turn, that they didn't talk about their research, or say anything they weren't supposed to.

E: The gestapo, what the hell?

S: It's like the KGB. I mean, one of them said that during the soviet era, when soviet scientists would visit, when they had these humorless KGB agents shadowing them everywhere, that's exactly what it was like for them. That's what it reminded them of. It was just really oppressive.

C: Jeez.

S: It was horrible for morale, everyone's morale was destroyed. They had totally cut them off from the media. And it was terrible. Now, Harper justified this by saying that, “Oh, well sometimes these federally funded scientists, their research involved lawsuits against the government,” or whatever, you know? So therefore we can't have them talking about research that might impact a court case. I don't know why this suddenly was a problem, when it never apparently was a problem before.

E: (Chuckling) Right.

S: But essentially, what his critics said, well, the point of this was to protect industry, was to protect companies, and to protect their ideology. So they didn't want, in one instance, researchers found that fish farming resulted in the propagation of viruses, which could then infect fish swimming in the ocean, you know, ocean populations. So that's a pretty significant environmental concern, you know? We have to be aware of that, that this is a potential risk of fish farming, so we can do something about it. And they were prevented from about those findings to anybody, because they didn't want to hurt the fish farming industry, or whatever.

C: Oof!

S: So it was really, really, really horrible, and from reading the accounts, one other thing that struck me – obviously this was all terrible – is that all of the middle men, right, all of the mid-position people in the government basically had to become complicit in all of this. So what's a bit disturbing is how quickly everyone fell into line with these gestapo tactics.

E: You don't wanna lose your job!

S: Well I know that, but it's scary how quickly you can impose this kind of oppression onto a system, you know? If you think that people wouldn't put up with it, but ... I'm not being judgmental. I mean, you can't judge people when you're not in their situation. You have to put food on the table for your kids, et cetera, or whatever.

But this one administration was able to just clamp down on science communication, and that was it. And everyone fell.

E: No whistle-blowers!

S: No, everyone fell in line.

E: No activists.

S: There were people who quit in protest. Yeah, there were those people who did that, absolutely.

E: Oh, I don't know if they were loud enough in their protests, because, you know ...

S: This is an issue that goes far beyond Canada, and beyond this one administration. Obviously this can happen in many places. Now essentially, people in power want to control information, 'cause information is power, right? And scientific information is very powerful. And so people in power want to control it. They want the science to say what they want it to say, you know?

J: Steve, isn't it though, at first I thought you get the money, then you get the guns, and then you get the women, right?

S: Then you get the power, then you get the women. That's right.


S: Yeah, but when the government, obviously in a perfect, ideal world, you would want the government to be informed by science and evidence, right? You'd have to have complete hands-off of the conduction of science. Scientists have to be free to do good, quality, transparent science; and then that information, I think, belongs to the people, right? The people are funding it. Harper's not paying for this research out of his own pocket. The public is funding this research. Their research belongs to the public, in my opinion.

E: Come on! Open it up!

S: Yeah. So, and then part of that – and I think in the US, if your research is funded by the government, you have to talk to the public about it, you know what I mean? That's like a requirement. You have to include in your grant, how are you going to educate the people about the findings of your research

C: Yeah

S: that has been funded by them, you know? And that's great. We need to keep moving in that direction. You know, you do have to be vigilant. It is amazing. Every country, the US, Canada, everywhere, you have to be vigilant about democracy and transparency because it could be lost so quickly I mean, I think we have a fairly robust system, but, I mean, just look at recent events.

J: And the consequences are and can be

S: Yeah

J: profound.

C: And it really is the stuff of horror movies. It's the stuff of sci-fi. There's a reason that we see themes over and over in our fiction.

S: Yeah

C: Because it's so close to truth, and it could so easily run that way. I just keep thinking about Orphan Black when you're talking about this.

S: Yeah

C: I just keep thinking about, that's basically the main plot, is that there's this huge conspiracy to cover this science that's happening. And we see that it can happen.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: Ugh! Chills!

S: It's terrible. It just takes a little bit of complacency, right? Or somebody who knows how to push the public's buttons.

E: (Chuckles) Is that code?

S: You know, we all know what I'm talking about.

E: (Laughs) Wink wink, nod nod.

S: It is amazing. All right, anyway.

E: Yo, you trumpet that one, Steve. (Rogue laugh) Well done.

Bulletproof Biohacking (21:08)[edit]

Origin of Gravitational Waves (32:10)[edit]

(Commercial at 38:54)

Slime Mold Learning (40:37)[edit]

Who's That Noisy? (52:13)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Digital Signal

NECSS Coming Up (56:22)[edit]

  • George Hrab joins in for this segment

Questions and Emails (1:02:59)[edit]

  • Talc and Cancer
I came across this story this evening while reading CBC: A discussion on this might be interesting on multiple levels. If there is a scientifically supported link between this product and cancer, then the lawsuit is, arguably, justifiable. If there is not, then this is pandering to the natural fallacy in that the jurors are responding to 'big company give innocent people cancer [you have to read that in stereotypical 'caveman' voice for full effect]. However, of the talcum powder *does* have a proven link to cancer….wait, how could it?!?! It's natural, isn't it? The natural fallacy gets turned on its head. I am not saying I know either way – I'm just reading a lot of reports that say talcum powder gives cancer 1200 more lawsuits pending'. (I'm also a seasoned half -marathon runner, in the tropics, and talcum powder is a necessary go-to for … chaffing … would love to hear a deep dive into the science behind the claims). Cheers, Trevor Taiwan/Canada Ps – in regards to your last episode about the rather upsetting case of the boy that died of meningitis, I assure you the 'state' has no power whatsoever. The 'province', however…. ;-)

Science or Fiction (1:14:25)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:31:00)[edit]

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

William Kingdon Clifford, mathematician and philosopher (4 May 1845-1879)

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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