SGU Episode 58

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SGU Episode 58
August 30th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 57                      SGU 59

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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. Today is Wednesday, August 30th, 2006. This is your host, Stephen Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. With me here tonight, are Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Namaste.

S: ...and Perry DeAngelis.

P: Right.

S: How are you all doing tonight?

P: Good.

J: It's pretty good Steve.

P: Yourself?

S: Very good, very good. We have coming up later in the show, we have an interview with Dr. Kimball Atwood, who is very active and evaluated in the claims of natura pathia or naturopathy. So we'll be talking about that for a while. But first let's go to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Pope to accept ID? (1:00)[edit]


S: There are a couple of Vatican-related news items in the news this past week. The first one is growing speculation that the new Pope is about to accept intelligent design. I'm sure you guys have read about this.

J: Holy Jesus.

P: That would be just beyond terrible if that happened.

S: Yeah.

P: I mean, really.

J: What are the ramifications of that?

S: Well, it's hard to say exactly what the media, obviously, within the scientific community, they would be none. But within, there's over a billion Catholics in the world. It's just one of the major religions from what I hear. And from what I understand, the Pope is a little influential within the Catholic religion.

R: All I have to say is that it's a good thing that the Pope is infallible. Because wait a minute, didn't the last Pope say that evolution was a fact?

P: It's true. Last guy said it was more than a theory.

R: Shouldn't all their heads just explode at this point?

J: Like the [inaudible] guy?

R: Seriously, it's just pathetic. I'm sorry, it's completely pathetic that we even have to worry.

J: Well, is he actually saying it's science? Or is he saying that the church endorses it because it goes with his concept of god?

S: Well, he's not saying anything yet. He's holding some kind of a conference on this issue. And the people who have been following this say that the signs are there. That since this new Pope has come on, that the church has made a lot of comments that point to them moving in this direction. One prominent anti-evolutionist Catholic scientist, Dominic Tassat, told the US National Catholic reporter that they're having a meeting to give a broader extension to the debate as if there was a real debate. Even if the Pope knows where he wants to go and I believe he does, it will take some time. So if he's given any indication of where he wants to go, it's a way from evolution.

J: How mind-numbing is it that these church officials are going to argue about intelligent design and evolution? That makes no sense to me.

P: Yeah, how I'm elapsed Catholic. I haven't been to church in about 20 years. How can I remove myself further?

S: You can get excommunicated.

P: Yeah, that's it.

S: They cast you into the outer darkness.

R: I'm only hoping that the majority of Catholics-

S: Will shrug it off?

R: Yeah, that they're Catholics in name, but when it comes to their everyday life, they're actually thinking for themselves and so on.

S: You can always hope.

P: It's just the PR will be a disaster, though.

S: I think it'll be worse for them than it will be for science to be honest with you. Here's one statement by the Pope in his inaugural sermon he made the following statement. "We are not the accidental product without meaning of evolution." So that might give some ideas to where he's leaning.

R: I don't find it very shocking. Maybe I'm just a horrible cynic.

E: It's interesting that he's going to embrace the theory of intelligent design. Why doesn't he just call it creationism? What is the Pope afraid of? Why does he have to cloak himself with the term intelligent design?

S: It has the patina of science, and Catholics do try to portray themselves as being scholarly. Of the Christian denominations, they do.

P: There's the whole tragedy of it. I did always consider Catholics a little more erudite than many other Christians sects. Certainly, those more fundamental, but this puts a knife in it.

R: With the exception of the Pope, though, especially the current one.

P: I'll wait for the edict, the bull, but-

R: The bull?

E: The paper bull.

P: Certainly it's going to be a paper bull.

E: There's a bunch of paper bull.

Hitler and Stalin possessed by the Devil (4:53)[edit]

S: The other Pope/Catholic item in the news this week. The Pope Benedict XVI, he has an official caster out of demons. And he made the following, this is Father Amorth. And Father Amorth made the following statement on Vatican radio recently. He said: "Of course, the devil exists, and he can not only possess a single person, but also groups and entire populations. I am convinced that the Nazis were all possessed. All you have to do is think about what Hitler and Stalin did. Almost certainly they were possessed by the devil." There you go.

E: So therefore, they're not guilty by reason of possession. They were actually innocent people that were not acting of their own accord.

R: Here's the thing. Imagine though that your job title is caster out of demons. And it is currently 2006. Just put yourself in his shoes for just one second and just think, what would you do to keep your job? You've got to be on the verge. You know that you are a remnant of the middle ages. You have to come up with something. So what are you going to do? Go for the Nazi demon thing.

J: What does the Pope do? Say, here's someone my caster out of demons.

R: I think the Pope is sitting there thinking who is that dude? And his advisor leans over, sir, that's your caster out of demons. And the caster out of demons is sitting there. I'm like, oh my god, I am totally going to lose my job. So you know, he calls up the radio station. Hey, let me tell you about demons.

S: Apparently, apparently Pope Pius XII, who was Pope when Hitler was in charge, tried a long-distance exorcism on Hitler.

E: Wow.

P: How did that work out.

S: Didn't work. Didn't take.

J: Imagine that guy filling out an application for a credit card. Occupation. Caster out of demons. No, for real. I'm not kidding. I do that.

S: So the logical fallacy in that statement, which I feel compelled to point out, is of course the major un-stated premise, which is that people who are not possessed are not capable of committing these horrendous atrocities, which is a very dangerous thing to believe. I mean, we have to understand human nature and why Hitler was what he was, and why it was possible for him to capture a nation for a nation such as Germany during World War II to do the things that they did. To say, just to fluff it all off as demonic possession is to miss the point, to miss the lesson of history and to understand human nature. It's very, very destructive, actually, as much as we'd like to make fun of it, because it is kind of silly.

P: Are you saying it's juvenile, asinine and thoughtless?

S: Yeah.

P: Okay.

R: It's basically the flip side of what happens when someone credits god for doing things that humans are doing. EMTs come upon a terrible accident and save someone's life, and it's declared a miracle that they survived, but it's not a miracle.

S: Thank god. No, thank the guy who saved your life and the science that gave them the tools to do it.

P: And god has never blamed for the accident.

R: That's Satan.

S: That's Satan, yeah.

Pluto no longer a planet (8:12)[edit]


S: Quick follow up from last week, when we recorded the show last week, the United International Astronomers did not yet make their pronouncement on the definition of a planet. They did the next day, and sadly Pluto is no longer a planet. So our solar system is now officially down to eight planets, and at present three, what are going to be called, dwarf planets. Ceres and Pluto are dwarf planets. Charon will remain just a satellite of Pluto.

R: And Xena is the dwarf planet, too.

S: And what, yeah, the body which is designated, although not officially named, Xena.

R: Oh shut up.

S: It's not official yet.

R: Everybody knows what I'm talking about when I say Xena. You don't need to say the body formally known as Xena.

E: Warrior Princess.

P: Yeah, was this your warrior princess? Is that the-

E: Of course. From '93 to '97.

S: And it was unofficially designated as Xena.

P: Alas poor Pluto, we hardly knew ye.

S: This is certain symmetry to the eighth, though, but we now have four inner planets, four outer planets so even numbers.

R: Why do you need to be so divisive?

P: It was really just kind of a little ball of ice.

E: Can't we say that scientists have corrected a mistake for so long and is now correctly classifying Pluto instead of saying Pluto is demoted or Pluto is kicked out of the club or sort of this negative connotation.

J: I don't think we should assign any emotional value to it. You have to just go with the science.

R: Oh, you have to you assign emotional value to it. I mean, come on.

J: What, are you going to cry over the fact that they're reclassified Pluto?

R: Yeah, I am. I already did.

S: There is something very romantic about astronomy. I have to say. And the planets and the galaxies and that's I do think that there is a certain, I don't know, human emotion attached to it.

P: But I say F that ball of ice and rock. Good riddance to it.

S: Two weeks ago, weren't you saying bully for Pluto? Now you say F it.

P: I wouldn't have mind it.

S: So tickle.

P: But it's done. It's out.

E: Yeah, the science wasn't out two weeks ago.

P: I've moved on.

R: Perry's affections are fickle.

P: I have new planets now.

E: Like X25.

R: Stop calling Pluto. God. It's a needy.

S: I do have to say that I am wrapping my mind around the notion that we only have eight planets much quicker than I thought I would. It's been a much smoother transition than I could.

R: They say that it takes about half as long as you were together to get over being apart.

P: So that does beg the question, though, Steve, are you going to explain your daughter? Your daughter's. Honey, I've been wrong all these years.

S: I already did.

R: Problem solved.

S: Was very accepting of the fact that Pluto was now a dwarf planet.

J: Well, I'll tell you, this whole thing turns into one of those facts that people will be quizzed on like five years on the street. So is Pluto one of the planets? Everyone will think yes, and no one will know what is in anyway.

R: Well, no, yeah, it'll be like, well, I don't know. They did that thing.

J: I don't think anyone knows about that thing except us.

P: A few people. Few.

R: That's optimistic. You know we have like 4,000 listeners, right?

S: And growing.

P: All 4,000 of our listeners, no.

S: That's right.

P: Thank you.

R: I'm pretty sure 2,000 are my mother, but still. She totally knows.

Madonna and magic water (11:35)[edit]

S: Madonna has managed to voice herself into the news in the last couple of weeks.

P: I'm shocked. Shocked.

S: She and her husband, Guy Richie, have been harassing the British government. You might say petitioning, but I think that harassing is probably a better term, that they have the solution to nuclear waste.

R: That's right.

S: Madonna believes that nuclear waste is the biggest problem in the world today. The planet's not going to be here in 50 years because it's going to be buried in nuclear waste.

R: Science says that the planet's not going to be here in 50 years.

S: But fortunately, she has the solution. She has the magic water. That will, that magically makes all of the radioactivity go away.

R: Can she even hear herself?

E: You had me at magic. I'm convinced.

P: Magic coffee enemas?

S: It's a magical cabala fluid.

J: Does this fluid come out of her husband? What is this?

S: Madonna and her husband are both members of cabala, which is a mystical, Judaic cult, really.

J: You're so mean with the way you say that, Steve.

S: Yeah I know.

J: Such a [inaudible].

P: They're not even good enough for Scientology?

E: Let's see. How about this, Jay? I'll change it. They're second rate numerologists.

R: That's much nicer.

S: So they, whatever, part of their mysticism, I don't know. I think they blessed it or whatever. They have this magical fluid, and they claim that they were able to remove the radioactivity from some lake in Russia.

P: I'd like to test that. We can bring in a barrel of radioactive material into their home.

R: We can put Madonna and Guy Richie in with a, yeah.

S: Perry, they cannot waste their precious time and resources testing this. They have a world to save from nuclear waste. I mean, come on.

R: She could be like the radioactive material girl.

P: It would take nothing. She could squat over a barrel.

J: Remember when she was like new and hot in the 80s, and we were all young or partially unborn if you were Rebecca, but remember when she was cool and all that? And now she's creating like the cure for radioactive material?

R: Well, here's the thing. The thing with Madonna though, she's still every now and again, she's still kind of cool. She crucifies herself on stage and pisses off millions of people, and it's hysterical. But then she goes-

S: She does this. I love the, one official said, I love this quote: "It was like a crank call for scientific mechanisms and principles were just bullocks basically."

R: Can you see them all standing around the lab saying, it's Madonna, she says she has water. What do I do?

P: What happened, her water broke? What? Come on. By the way, I just want to say for the record, I never thought the woman was cool. [inaudible] and folk musics.

R: Oh come on. She was cool.

P: I'm sorry. I'm just telling you.

J: Do I need to start classifying Madonna on my hate list along with Tom Cruise. I mean, I'm starting to wonder here. I have to expand my list.

P: Because they're freaks.

E: Well, at least Madonna's bothering the Britons. Now, I love the Britons. There are brothers and arms, but at least they're not bothering us.

R: And it's, yeah, it's funny to watch. I mean, come on, because nobody takes her seriously. We can all just sit back and laugh. And in an article, she said, I can write the greatest songs and make the most fabulous films and be a fashion icon in conquer the world. But if there isn't a world to conquer, what's the point? And I'm like, I'm like, whoa.

J: Can you refuse any more ego into that sentence?

R: The most fabulous films? Like Desperately Seeking Susan?

J: Okay, she's officially on my list. That's it. Her and Tom Cruise are my, the two people I want to shoot when they want to.

S: We have to call that the Tom Cruise list, because he tops it. The Madonna is now on the Tom Cruise list of crazy celebrities. Right below Mel Gibson.

P: The list is legion.

Primates were prey for raptors (15:40)[edit]

S: All right. We have one more very important scientific follow.

P: Very important.

S: Very important.

E: Okay, pay attention.

P: Why down out there?

S: New research reveals that early men may have been feasted upon by ancient raptors.

J: Oh god.

S: That's a bird Perry.

R: Oh no.

S: So this new study-

E: Time traveling raptors?

S: To continue this very important discussion we've been carrying through this podcast.

R: Birds versus monkeys.

S: This is W. Scott McGraw, who's a researcher, looked at the bones, the remains of food from 12-

E: Look at the bones! Sorry.

S: 1200 African Crowned eagle nests, and of the 1200 remains, 669, that's more than half, belonged to monkeys.

J: There you go, Perry. You've been wrong yet again.

P: I did actually read this bit of fiction. We all know that birds and monkeys never existed at the same time in the history of the planet. So this is all hokum. These raptors never existed with the great apes. End of story.

J: But Perry, please, for the scientific record, because we do have people out there that believe half the stuff we say, it did happen and you're wrong.

S: Perry, this is your opportunity to grasp intellectual integrity, Perry, and admit that you were wrong.

R: Seriously, did the researchers look into the possibility that the birds played dirty. Maybe-

S: Were scavengers?

R: Yeah.

J: Maybe they dressed up like female monkeys.

R: Or maybe they bribed some other monkeys.

S: They characterize the birds as ambush hunters. They snatch them-

R: Aha! See, I told you.

S: -out of the tree.

R: Playing dirty.

P: Let's just say, let's go on on a limb, no pun intended, and let's say that these monkeys and birds were around at the same time. Okay, fine. What did they do? They found a couple of bones, right? Bird bones and monkey bones. How do they know that the monkeys didn't kill a bird?

S: No, these were found in bird nests, in the nests of-

P: So what? How do you know the monkeys didn't go in there, snap the birds' nests and live in the nests?

R: And also the monkeys had scrawled, oh god, help me in berry juice.

S: Perry, that's actually a very good skeptical question.

P: Of course it is.

S: And the answer is that the primate skulls had talon holes in them.

P: Once again, these are all assumptions. You don't know that there wasn't a king of the monkeys, taken over the other monkeys and using their heads as bowling balls.

R: Yeah, maybe the monkeys killed the birds and used their talons as weapons against each other.

P: And that's another possibility. The possibilities are endless. Occam's razor cut off the ridiculous before you accept the insane.

R: You know what, god put those bones there to test us.

E: Could the monkeys have been dead and the birds just picked them up after they died?

P: Birds are well known scavengers.

S: Not these birds though. Now this professor has re-examined the punctures in the skull of the {{w|Taung Child}]. This is an early, one of the first Australopithecine fossils found. It was thought that the two holes in the skull of this fossil, early human, were probably from a large predatory cat. But he believes that they were from an ancient crowned hawk eagle.

P: Monkeys can bit birds.

S: Alright, let's go on to emails.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Archeological Conspiracies (19:14)[edit]

I got into a discussion with my brother on the subject of strange archaeological finds. He made the statement that there are so many of these stories around that some 'must be true'. At this point my critical thinking alarm went off and I told him that making a blanket statement like that was to be close minded to the possibility that these things have plausible explanations or are outright hoaxes. He seems to subscribe to the 'evil scientists concealing the truth' theory.
Is there any good solid evidence of any of these stories being true? (i.e. modern artifacts found in solid rock, etc. ).
– Chris Hampton
USA, Atlanta, GA
Gullible article on 'out of place artifacts'

S: Email number one. This comes from Chris Hampton from Atlanta, Georgia, who writes: "I got into a discussion with my brother on the subject of strange archaeological finds. He made the statement that there are so many of these stories around that some must be true. At this point my critical thinking alarm went off and I told him that making a blanket statement like that was to be close-minded to the possibility that these things have plausible explanations or outright hoaxes. He seems to subscribe to the evil scientists concealing the truth theory. Is there any good solid evidence of any of these stories being true? I.E. modern artifacts found in solid rock, etc." So the short answer is no. There is no evidence that any of these things are true. I wanted to point out a couple of things. The statement that there are so many stories that some of them must be true is a common logical fallacy that we hear. The sort of the where there is smoke, there must be fire. Again, based on false assumptions, the notion is there are enough UFO sightings. Some of them must be true. If there are enough fantastical alternative medicine claims, there has to be the diamond in the rough somewhere. Some of them-

E: Crop circles have been made, some of them have to be from alien.

S: That assumes that there is some limit to how many false claims there could be. Think about it. If 5% of the UFO sightings have to be real because they can't all be fake, that means there is a million fake or false UFO sightings, just to produce an arbitrary figure in the last 10 or 20 years. So why can't there be a million and fifty thousand or a million and hundred thousand? Why can't they all be hoaxes or frauds or misidentifications or whatever? That's the false assumption in that statement. Of course, they could be. So it's interesting that he mentioned that and wanted to point that out. I did look for the modern artifacts sort of found out of place, the out of place artifacts. And that is a subcategory of archeological pseudoscience. Some of these are like the battery of Babylon. Have you guys heard about that?

R: Yeah, where they found the thing and they thought that it was a battery.

S: It's some kind of clay pot with chambers and they say, oh, it looks like a battery because they can be acid in this chamber. But it's pure speculation. So a lot of these are items that have some either plausible or even known contemporary mundane use. But the pseudo-archaeologist fantasize that it has some high technological application because of some superficial resemblance to some modern piece of technology. So they're not genuine mysteries often. Some of them are, for example, pieces of metal found in coal. And the metal, however, a lot of these were discovered in the 1800s. At the time, they weren't recognized for what they were, which are meteorites. They're just iron, nickel, meteorites. They looked unusually round and they were pitted. They didn't look like the kind of ore that you would find on earth. So it was assumed that maybe they might be worked by man. So here you have worked metal in ancient pre-technological beds. So that was a mystery. But of course, now we recognize these things as being meteorites. So that's basically the level of mysteries that we're talking about here. There are none that are genuine mysteries that are none that defy explanation. There are no demonstrably modern or technological items found embedded in demonstrably ancient strata. That's the bottom line.

Deployed Skeptic (23:03)[edit]

To all
Love the show, not much in the way of entertainment in Afghanistan so there is lots of time to think and listen to the 50 podcasts I stuck on my ipod. I think I am the first ever listener of your show during a mid-air refuel of a C-17. Add that one to your stats. :) Keep up the good work and I look forward to future episodes (if I can ever download them).
- Captain M Forman
Special Operations

S: Next email comes from Captain M. Foreman.

P: I love this email.

S: Great email from Special Operations in Afghanistan. He writes: "Love the show, not much in the way of entertainment in Afghanistan. So there is lots of time to think and listen to the 50 podcasts" Actually, this is number 58 we're up to. "I stuck on my iPod. I think I am the first ever listener of your show during a mid-air refuel of a C17. Add that one to your stats."

E: We did, we looked.

S: "Keep up the good work and I look forward to future episodes if I could ever download them." I just wanted to include that email because it is very nice to hear from one of our men in uniform over in Afghanistan.

R: Very cool.

S: I responded to Captain Foreman let him know how much we appreciate the work he is doing. I thought it would be a good idea to take the opportunity just to thank all of the men and women in uniform who are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

R: And our listening to our show.

S: Absolutely.

P: That's present and future for keeping us free. Thank you

S: So, despite the political divisiveness of these conflicts, the one thing that I think I could say is absolutely true is that although Americans are divided on a lot of things these days, I think the one thing we are absolutely united on is our support for the troops.

P: Amen.

R: And you know, I just want to say any military folk out there in Iraq and Afghanistan, if you want to send in an address, I would love to send out a care package of skeptic fun and maybe porn magazines and whatnot.

S: And a Skepchick Calendar.

R: Sure.

S: Rebecca, you could become the pinup girl of the Iraq war.

R: That would be, I would be okay with that.

P: Might be what that country needs to bring it all together.

S: The Skepchick Calendar.

P: Rebecca, I love that chick.

E: It looks good in burka.

R: Actually, yeah. In the last, in the 2006 calendar, we had a girl dressed up in a scarf. It's a good picture.

J: Dressed all the way up in a scarf?

R: It was just the photo only showed her eyes, actually.

S: Cool.

P: Nice, very nice.

S: So Rebecca, you might be able to add world peace to your long list of accomplishments.

R: I already have actually.

E: Moving on. She's now looking to get Pluto reinstituted.

R: You'd be surprised how few employers actually follow up and check on things like that.

J: Rebecca is meeting with Madonna next week to go over this whole water thing.

S: One more email before we go on to our interview.

Abiogenesis pseudoscience? (25:49)[edit]

On the last podcast you all were discussing the hypothesis for an abiogenic origin for petroleum. After a really good overview (from Perry, was it?) Rebecca mentioned that pseudoscience can invade any field, and that was the general consensus. I would quibble that abiogenic-originated petroleum is not a psedoscience.
It may very well be wrong, but what is pseudoscience about that? It's based on the very real evidence that some of the molecules in petroleum can be created without a biological component to the process. As one of you stated, it looks like the available and observable evidence would not support the amount of petroleum we see, and that largely the hypothesis doesn't fit as well as the hypothesis (hence now probably theory) for the biological origin of petroleum.

I suppose that conspiracy theories have surrounded it, so it trips the 'pseudoscience trigger' in you, but a perfectly reasonable hypothesis that does not require anything magical that happens to be disproven, is not pseudoscience. In fact, it's the best kind of science, it's a hypothesis that is testable (or at least disprovable through observation).
- Matt Dick

S: This one comes from Matt Dick in Chicago and Matt writes: "On the last podcast, you all were discussing the hypothesis for an a-biogenic origin for petroleum. After a really good interview, Rebecca mentioned that pseudoscience can invade any field and that was the general consensus. I would cripple that a-biogenic originated petroleum as not a pseudoscience. I may very well be wrong, but what is pseudoscientific about that? It's based on the very real evidence that some of the molecules in petroleum can be created without a biological component to the process. As one of you stated, it looks like the available and observable evidence would not support the amount of petroleum we see and that largely the hypothesis doesn't fit well as the hypothesis hence now probably theory for the biological origin of petroleum. I suppose that conspiracy theories have surrounded it so it trips the pseudoscience trigger in you, but a perfectly reasonable hypothesis that does not require anything magical that happens to be disproven is not pseudoscience. In fact, it's the best kind of science. It's a hypothesis that is testable or at least disprovable through observation." So not to go to talk again about the a-biogenesis of oil thing, but to talk about what this question brings up is the difference between science and pseudoscience.

R: Yeah, Steve, I don't know. I kind of feel like he has a good point, but when it comes to a disproven hypothesis that's then been disproven soundly but then is taken and pumped up and had extra conspiracy theories and whatnot thrown on to it, that's when it becomes pseudoscience. It's like undead science. It's theories that should be dead but are instead wandering the earth as zombie theories.

S: Right, right. I agree, I think he's committing a bit of a false dichotomy and this is something that we have talked about before, but it's worth going over again. The notion that science and pseudoscience is not this pristine dichotomy. It's actually a spectrum and there's lots of ways to be pseudoscientific. He was basically assuming that you have to be magical or paranormal or basically unscientific in order to be "pseudoscientific" and that's not true. Pseudoscience can just be really bad science. At some point it becomes so bad that it doesn't really even deserve the designation of legitimate science anymore. But the terminology is vague for that reason. We basically tend to call anything that falls below a certain threshold as pseudoscience, but there's a lot of territory below that threshold and there's a lot of distinctions to be made. I tried to come up with my science, pseudoscience rating system, a 1 to 10 scale. One being solid science sufficiently well established to be considered a scientific fact and 10 being demonstrably observed pure magical thinking and nonsense with gradations in between. So we're going to tweak this rating scale and we'll put it on the notes page and maybe on the forums as well and maybe we'll use that in the future to rank pseudoscience to be more precise.

P: The claims in general, it's good.

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

Interview with Kimball Atwood, MD (28:28)[edit]

  • Kimball C. Atwood IV, MD is an anesthesiologist and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, and an Associate Editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. He has been active in exposing the pseudoscientific practices and philosophies of naturopathy. He is also an advisor to Naturowatch, a website with scientific information about naturopathy ( He is also the Chairman of the Committee on the Quality of Medical Practice of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

    Articles by Dr. Atwood
    Naturopathy: A Critical Appraisal:
    On Considering Alternative Medicine:

S: Joining us now is Dr. Kimball Atwood. Kim, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

KA: Thank you Steve. Glad to be here.

S: Dr. Atwood is an anesthesiologist and clinical assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. He is one of the associate editors of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. You're also an advisor on the natural watch, a website dedicated to basically being a watch dog on the naturopathy, which is what we're going to be talking to you about tonight. And I also found that you were, are you still the chairman of the committee on the quality of medical practice of the Massachusetts Medical Society?

KA: No, I am no longer that. I was that for a couple of years ending a couple of years ago.

S: So Dr. Atwood is a colleague of mine. I'm also, if I've never mentioned this before on the show, I'm also an editor of the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine and associate editor. So we worked together on that journal. And his focus is naturopathy or naturopathy. He has been involved with attempts by a naturopath to get licensure in Massachusetts, which is where you live, correct?

KA: That's right.

S: So tell, for you know, for our audience, can you give us a quick overview of what is naturopathy? What actually is it?

KA: Let me start by saying that I'm going to limit the discussion to a group of naturopaths who refer to themselves as naturopathic physicians. They are distinguished from others who are sometimes called traditional naturopaths in that the group of interest is a group that has developed what I like to call the trappings of legitimacy in the modern world. Namely, they have actual campuses for their schools and the students go there and live there and take courses for four years as opposed to merely sending away for a correspondence course or nowadays some sort of an online course. At the end of that time, they receive a degree which is typically called ND or naturopathic doctor. It's a bit confusing because some of the traditional naturopaths also claim to have that degree. Nevertheless, it's the naturopathic physicians or naturopathic doctors as they call themselves, who are vying for licensure recognition as legitimate primary health care providers throughout the United States. Both of those groups emanate from a tradition that probably began most notably in Germany the late 19th century because of a notion that one could cure tuberculosis by jumping into frigid river water, particularly the river Danube, and that was known at the time as the one cure. Later, some of the followers moved to this country and one in particular Benedict Lust, L-U-S-T and being kind of the founder of naturopathy in the United States. At this point, the naturopaths who believe that they are worthy of licensure as primary care physicians, say that what they do is practice a form of medicine that is a harmony, a combination of what might be called conventional medicine on the one hand and what they refer to as natural medicine on the other. What they mean by natural medicine is essentially an eclectic hodgepodge of non-scientifically or modern medicine-based diagnostic and therapeutic methods such as homeopathy, affirmative water, which can nowadays manifest itself as putting cold, wet blankets over people. Also many of the other currently somewhat popular non-standard methods, including acupuncture, manipulation that's almost indistinguishable, probably from chiropractic, certain features of osteopathy such as cranio-sacral therapy.

R: And what's cranio-sacral therapy? Sorry.

KA: Yes, cranio-sacral therapy is a method that is based on the idea that there are special rhythms that are distinguished from either respiratory variations or cardiac pulsations that exist throughout essentially the central nervous system. They're very subtle and they can only be detected by the learned fingers of the expert practitioner. They're not detectable by any scientific instrument, for example.

R: Of course.

KA: The brain gauge has managed to detect them. And somehow by gentle manipulation, usually of the cranium, these rhythms when they get out of balance can be rebalanced in such a way as to enact all sorts of wonderful results, including curing learning disorders and even according to some curing mental retardation and other things.

R: All from a nice head massage, huh?

KA: Exactly. And finally, probably the last but not least, in fact, probably the most important of the naturopathic claims currently is that they are experts in the use of what they call natural remedies, which means substances derived from animal vegetable or mineral sources, including virtually everything except, and there are even some exceptions to that exception, synthetic pharmaceuticals. So all the so-called nutritional supplements and herbal remedies that are bandied about now in the popular domain, echinacea, and all the other ones that you can think of. Naturopath's claim to be the real experts on, and in fact, fashion themselves as the very experts that the public needs now in light of disheve, a lot that essentially allows these agents to be sold with not nearly the rigorous kind of study and restrictions, and that sort of thing that real pharmaceuticals require.

S: Yeah, basically you could tell supplements broadly defined within the United States without any FDA oversight, without any really governmental regulation. But naturopaths specifically claim in their own pamphlets and propaganda that certainly had individual practitioners make this claim directly to me that they are experts in nutrition. So they are definitely trying to sell themselves as nutrition experts and then include under the umbrella of that supplements and herbal remedies and things that are not strictly nutritional, but that are considered, "natural", very broadly and not scientifically defined.

P: Well, that list that list, Dr. Atwood, just gave of naturopathes and what they claim was quite exhaustive. It sounds like they don't let one little bit of hoke them escape their grasp.

KA: That's right, as a matter of fact, if there's anything that characterizes them, it's an exuberant rush to embrace everything that the word hoke them in healthcare is a good label for. And then of course, it's also usually stated in the same sorts of terms that lots of so-called complementary and alternative medical practitioners use as far as science is concerned. And that is that to the extent that they feel that science supports what they say, then they want to trumpet that. The other hand, if science seems to oppose what they believe, then they manage to find numerous reasons why it should be dismissed.

S: Yeah, so it's, head I win, tails you lose basically. If the science seems to support something that they use and they trumpet that, and if it doesn't, it's because it can't be studied scientifically.

P: It's the same old pseudo-scientific march we have encountered countless times.

KA: I would add, and I'm sure this is true for some, for many other fields and practitioners of the camp mold, but it's especially true for naturopath. And disturbingly so, because they've caught the ear of officials in faith legislatures and at the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine and other such lofty places, also the Medicare coverage advisory committee has hired a couple of them. What they are also guilty of is simply claiming in a very kind of bold way that many of their claims are scientifically based. When in fact, they're not at all. And the, the big book in naturopathic medicine is called the Tech Book of Natural Medicine. It's a two-volume more than 2,000-page, tome that proudly states on its back cover that it lists more than 10,000 references to peer-reviewed literature and blah, blah, blah, blah. Among other acts of tedium that I'm sorry to have been involved in to a certain extent over the last few years has been the occasional investigation of that statement. What I can tell you without the slightest reservation is that you can go to virtually any page in that textbook. And if you actually peruse the citations that are offered, they essentially do not support the claim that has been made. Typically, they're either restatements of the same opinion by somebody else or a study that, in many cases, has absolutely nothing to do with whatever the claim is.

S: They're not citing primary research, which establishes the claim that they're making, which is the implication given by having a reference.

KA: Right. Or even if they are citing primary research, which they sometimes do, it either is not really clinically relevant. In other words, it might be, for example, an in vitro very small in vitro finding about some little thing in biochemistry or something.

S: In vitro meaning in a test tube, not in people.

KA: Right. I'll give you a specific example. The textbook claims that fish oils are effective at either preventing or treating probably 15 different unrelated medical problems in response to a challenge by a reader of one of the articles I wrote in MedScape General Medicine. I looked to see, for example, just what the evidence was that, for example omega-3 fatty acids can prevent or alter the course of asthma, atherosclerosis, Crohn's disease, depression, diabetes, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and high blood pressure. So if you look at the high blood pressure claim, for example, what you find is this statement, and I'm quoting, "over 60 double-blind studies have demonstrated that either fish oil or flac seed oil are very effective in lowering blood pressure." And the textbook offers four citations to support that state. Without going into detail, I can tell you that the first two have nothing to do with it whatsoever. The third actually does have something to do with it. It's a review article of several primary articles looking at omega-3 fatty acids in various aspects of cardiovascular disease, including hypertension. And what it found was, in some of them, the studies were positive, and in some of them, they were negative. And overall, the systolic blood pressure has typically been reduced by, and now I'm quoting from this particular review, "three to six millimeters per mercury and diastolic pressure by two to four millimeters of mercury", not very much. The fourth citation is also the second review of that same issue, fish oils in high blood pressure. And it found something similar, although a little bit less even, was the effect on blood pressure. And it turns out that first of all, none of the studies were double-blind, although you may recall that the quote that I gave was, over 60 double-blind studies had demonstrated. And moreover, the most number of studies that you've been conclude from these two reviews that, by the way, reviewed several of the same primary papers, the most positive studies that you've been get out of looking at both of them as a total of sevens. I don't know where the number 60 came from. More recent looks at that whole issue, fish oils and hypertension, hypertension being high blood pressure. Show that, at best, the effect is so small as to be certainly clinically insignificant. That's really the typical kind of thing that you find when you look at the citations in the textbook in natural medicine.

R: That's completely fascinating to me, just speaking as someone who used to be a mega-hippie in Seattle. And I really, I was working as an activist in Seattle, which is one of the hippiest towns I think I've ever lived in, and I was a vegetarian. And I had to go to a natural food store once, and I was talking to a naturopath about something, some random malady I had. And he was helping me out, and he said, oh, and you're a vegetarian, right? Well, you really have to take flaxseed oil. There's just it's the absolute. Everybody takes it, you can't not take it if you're a vegetarian, or you will be completely unhealthy in your death. And I actually believed him, and even to this day, I always assumed that it was good for you. I never actually took it just because it was too fatty, and I, my own vanity took a precedence over what I thought might be my own health. But yeah, up until this moment, I actually just always assumed that it really was very good for you.

S: Well, what this example, I think, is it brings up a lot of times on this show, we talk about something as either scientific or unscientific. And what we mean by that is there are a few things, but one of the things we mean by that is just being intellectually rigorous and honest. Just common sense things. Like if you say these studies exist, they actually exist. And the practitioners are the true believers that we criticize for being "unscientific". It's because they do things like this. They don't actually fairly and intellectually honestly represent the evidence that exists when making their claims. And naturopaths are no exception to that. They are intellectually not rigorous, and they are in fact often quite dishonest.

KA: Yes, that's certainly true. There are many more examples of that. On the website of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, which is the national organization for this group that considers itself to be trained to be primary care physicians, are several physician papers, almost any one of which could be cited as an example of what you just said, but one in particular that's both amusing and unfortunately dangerous is the one about treatment of streptococcal pharyngitis, which essentially says that naturopaths have been successfully treating streptococcal pharyngitis for close to 100 years with a combination of natural remedies and compresses or whatever it is with a very low incidence of post-spectacoccal sequelae. And what they mean by that, of course, is a very low incidence of acute rheumatic fever. They go on to say in that same physician paper that by the way, we know when to refer somebody who we believe needs actual antibiotics. And they say exactly when that would be, and what it is is that if the person hasn't responded to their administrations in approximately one week, then they will refer in some cases aboard, if it's in Oregon, for example, where they have a much wider scope of practice, then they will claim nationally they probably prescribe or can prescribe penicillin themselves. But the trouble with all of that is that the whole reason for using penicillin streptococcal pharyngitis is not to cure the sore throat. In fact, it has almost no effect on the natural history of the sore throat itself, which lasts typically three to four days, no matter what you do. The reason for giving penicillin as was shown quite convincingly even back in the 50s is that it prevents post-streptococcal rheumatic fever. It's because of the advent of penicillin in the late 1940s and its widespread use in the 50s that we virtually never see anymore. And we don't see it anymore because the cohort of children growing up in the 50s didn't get it. They didn't get it because they got penicillin when they had strep throats. The trouble with the naturopathic position paper is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that almost all the patients will get better from the sore throat within a week because that always happens. And on the other hand, some small percentage of them, historically, it's anywhere from sort of one to four percent of people with a untreated strept end up with rheumatic fever two to four weeks later. And it's a subtle diagnosis that naturopaths probably are ill-equipped to make. They've been told that their administrations are virtually infallible. And so they are unlikely to believe even if faced with something like that that might have anything to do with what they did or didn't do a few weeks prior to the time.

P: Dr., Just out of curiosity, what does it take to become a naturopath? Is that like ten years of postgraduate study or will a GED do?

KA: The formal requirements for the group that I'm talking about are college followed by a four-year school. And it's an on-campus school. There are four, maybe about to be five in the United States and one in Canada that are approved. The most conspicuous among them are Bastyr University, its B-A-S-T-Y-R, near Seattle and Washington. And the National College of Nature, Patrick Medicine, which is in Portland, Oregon. They don't have residency programs in a sense that medical doctors would think of those. There are now beginning to be some rudimentary residency-type programs in the field, some are one year, some are two years. But they also don't resemble the kinds of rigorous residency that medical doctors have to go through.

S: What's the current status of licensure in the United States? How many states have licensure for naturopath?

KA: I have to tell you that I may not be absolutely up to date. The answer two years ago was 13.

S: The last count I had was 15. But that number was a couple years old.

E: It's going in the wrong direction. I think we can agree on that.

KA: Absolutely. And I have to say that one of the things that the naturopaths are incredibly good at, and I saw it with my own eyes, is playing the political game. They are very bad at thinking about how nature works, even though they claim to be experts on natural this and that. But they're very good at sizing up how politics works.

P: We have spoken many times of the tragedy of the level of scientific literacy among our politicians, federal, state, and local in the United States. It's a disgrace.

KA: That is certainly true.

S: It's just not licensure in general. The issue is, as you mentioned before, the naturopaths, they make the argument that they need to be licensed for quality control. And that's how they sell it to your legislatures. But in reality, really, there's nothing to do with quality control. Because once they're licensed, they're really in control of their own licensure. Isn't that right?

KA: That's exactly right.

S: It's a self-regulating body that it just lends a false sense of legitimacy to what they're doing and nothing else.

KA: That's correct. In addition to that, it does for them what the very thing that they complain is the reason that people like me are opposed to their licensure, which has nothing to do by the way with why I'm opposed to their licensure. But it is that they think that I'm trying along with other medical doctors to wage a turf battle with them. In fact, one of the things that they like about the licensure for themselves is that they automatically get to win the turf battle that they are constantly fighting against their so-called traditional naturopaths.

S: What about other countries? Naturopathy abroad.

KA: Canada has licensed naturopaths. If you get Terry Pollywood's frequent emails about this or that, or if you work or even are active in the health fraud discussion list, you'll see tons of stuff about it there. There are notable naturopaths in the sense of you can find their writings online, that sort of thing in both the Great Britain and in Australia. But I confess to not knowing what the laws or the licensing statuses are in those places. As far as, for example, the European continent is concerned, other than Germany, which undoubtedly has naturopaths, because that was from where they originally emanated. This is an interesting little aside. They were favored by the Nazis. So definitely there are naturopaths in Germany. And Germany, as you probably also know, is kind of a hotbed of other health shakhanarees, such as homeopathy, which is a Hahnemann also emanated originally from Germany. Herbal medicine, that sort of thing. Lots of that stuff is popular in Germany.

S: I did find a New Zealand society of naturopaths, and just looking at the modalities that they use. They have listed homeopathy, iridology, which we've spoken about before. Facial kinetics, which is just massage, massage, herbal medicine, bowing technique, which is also massage. But I think they're incorporating some life energy component. Holistic pulsing.

KA: What's it called?

S: Pulsing. I guess they use the pulse for diagnosis and therapy. Reflexology.

KA: Oh, yeah.

E: Of course.

S: Urine analysis.

R: Yeah.

S: And hemovue, hemovue, which is take a drop of blood. Just look at the blood and diagnose all kinds of things, just from looking at it.

KA: Those things that all exist here in one form or another for the most part are taught to what I call the educated naturopaths. Yes. Iridology or iridology, I once heard Stephen Barrett say, oh, the real pronunciation is irodology.

E: Does it really matter?

KA: Of course that. Yeah, that's taught at the best year. Applied kinhesiology. You all probably know what that is. It's kind of a chiropractic favorite is offered in continuing education courses that are formally approved by the Oregon Board of naturopaths examiners, for example, and there are lots of other things.

P: Like flim flam, charlatans, snake oil, bunco, shamartis, quacker, I'm sure it's all taught there.

E: A rose by any other names.

KA: As we're talking about this, by the way, I realize that one of the key elements of naturopathy that I failed to mention at the very beginning, and if there's any one thing that almost is the thing that they can really call their own, it's the detoxification schemes, mainly in their case, fasting and enemas.

S: Right.

KA: And those things have been around for a long time and have not lessened in the slightest even as the group that I'm talking about claims to to be scientifically based and have arrived in the modern world of that sort of thing.

S: Right. So that's basically the notion that these unspecified environmental toxins are assaulting our bodies and causing our ills and diseases, and that you can treat and cure these diseases by purging our bodies of these toxins in some way. Choose your medicine. As you said, as it's coffee enemas or raw thing as another mechanism. Squeezing the toxins out of the muscles or whatever.

KA: Of course, for the most part, people who believe in that don't specify what the toxins are, but we're lucky to have such a field now that has become formally represented by its textbook and its schools and that sort of thing. So we now are told that the toxins among other things are immunizations, pharmaceuticals used by medical doctors, any preservative that you might want to mention. And that sort of thing. Yeah, I mentioned before that the Nazis liked naturopaths in the early years of naturopathy. Naturopaths coming from Germany had kind of a, kind of a tutonic disciplinarian view of the world in general and also the world of disease and health and that sort of thing. And they railed against things like smallpox vaccinations and the germ theory of disease, for example, because they were absolutely convinced that people got ill essentially because they abused themselves all the time. It served them right to get ill. As a matter of fact, getting ill, for example, getting smallpox was vastly preferable to be vaccinated against it because essentially it taught your body really how to deal with such things. But it's ironic that over time, naturopathy has evolved into this field that is now embraced by, as we heard a little while ago, the hippie culture. And it's fairly obvious that the reason for that is that the old toxin thing which in the old days taught the toxins, the toxins were syphilis and smallpox and-

S: Were self-inflicted.

KA: Right. And we're self-inflicted and all that stuff.

R: I'm pretty sure syphilis isn't self-inflicted unless something's changed.

S: Well, it is in the way that it's your behavior.

KA: Which is what your own damn fault.

R: Oh, look at me with that [inaudible].

KA: The point is it's your own damn fault for standing in front of-

E: Is that mean it was your own fault that he had syphilis? Shame on him.

KA: But now it's so easily has kind of segwayed and it's used by terminology in a seamless way. It has segwayed into this kind of caricature of environmentalism. All of the toxins in the hair and the preservatives and food and everything else are now those are the enemy and you no longer need to.

S: It's very anti-corporate, which is very hippie.

KA: Absolutely.

S: So the big corporations are assaulting us with these toxins.

P: So, Doc, you're saying that basically hippies, Nazis and naturopathy are roughly equivalent.

R: Hey, hey, hey. Watch it.

P: I'm just trying to get it clear, I'm just trying to understand.

R: Watch it. Watch it. It seems to me it's just the culture kind of reacting to what's going on because...

KA: Right. Exactly. It appeals to a certain kind of social and political view. And, yeah, I mean, it's fascinating because it felt a lot of non-scientifically based health claims are like that. All the language of early traditional Chinese medicine, as some of you undoubtedly know, has to do with armies and warriors and emperors and it's all kind of metaphorical in that sense.

S: Well, that's a good point to end on. Kim, thanks for being on our show. We appreciate it.

KA: You're very welcome.

E: Thank you.

KA: It's my pleasure.

S: Take care.

P: Good night, Dr.

R: Good night.

KA: Okay, bye.

S: Let's move on to science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (59:27)[edit]

Item #1: Oxford physicists propose resurrecting the ether to explain current mysteries about the structure of the cosmos.[1]
Item #2: Scientists have bred a strain of permanently happy mice to use in depression research.[2]
Item #3: Researchers at the University of Montreal claim to have found the ‘God spot’ – the single location in the human brain responsible for religious belief.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction God spot
Science Ether
Happy mice
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Happy mice
God spot

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are real and one is fake. And then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptical rogues to try to figure out which one is the fake. You guys ready?

P: You betcha.

S: Here we go.

E: Ho ho ho.

S: Number one, Oxford physicists propose resurrecting the ether to explain current mysteries about the structure of the cosmos. Item number two, scientists have bred a strain of permanently happy mice to use in depression research. And item number three, researchers at the University of Montreal claim to have found the God spot, the single location in the human brain responsible for religious belief. So is it the ether, the happy mice or the God spot? Evan, why don't you go first?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I think that number two is fiction.

S: Okay. You don't like the happy mice?

R: How could he not like happy mice?

E: I don't know. It just doesn't sound right to me in a certain way. The resurrection of the ether and so forth. That's okay. I can sort of see that creeping up. The God spot, I'm pretty. I think I have the most confidence in because there probably is a biological component to that. Just that middle one, permanently happy mice. I don't know. A little too cartoony. So number two is fiction.

S: They calling them the Mickey and Minnie.

E: I don't even. See? My point has been made.

S: Perry.

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Look, everyone knows that mice are born happy, live happy and die happy. Mice are happy. It's clearly true. The God spot, of course. By the way, it's not in the brain. It's down. And then the ether any, there could not possibly be. You said there were scientists, Steve?

S: Oxford physicist.

P: There is no way. That some physicist is rebirthing life into the ether. I mean, come on.

J: You stupid monkeys.

P: I mean, that's steampunk.

E: [inaudible] from Harvard, not Oxford.

P: That one is fiction.

S: Okay, Rebecca.

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: I like the idea of permanently happy mice. Although I picture them making the mice and saying, oh my God, we've made these mice so happy. Now we can help these depressed people by giving them the happy mice. Because then how could you not be happy when you have happy mice? I'm really not with it tonight. I apologize.

P: You should have passed.

R: Oh, screw you. The God spot thing, I'm pretty sure that I saw something about this recently, but I didn't actually read the article. So I'm kind of kicking myself now, but I get the feeling that there's some trick question thing going on there. I'm going to say that that's the false one, even though I think it's the true one.

J: All right, we got the idea, Rebecca.

R: I'm going to take myself out. I'm thinking the Steve's trying to fake us out somehow. So I'm going with the God spot.

S: All right, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Happy mice. Of course, they can make happy mice. I mean, why wouldn't they be able to do that? There is no ether. They'll never be an ether. There's no hyperspace.

S: Ether, say it again.

J: Ether, ether, whatever. It doesn't exist. Never will. That one's fake. Everybody knows it.

S: Okay. Well, you guys spread yourself out. So I couldn't get all of you this time. I thought I might do that.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Let's start with the happy mice. The happy mice is science. Researchers breed permanently happy mice. They have been studying a gene called Trek-1, which can affect the flow of a brain chemical called serotonin. So which is the happy hormone, as everyone knows, the happy neurotransmitter. And publishing in the journal, nature neuroscience, which is quite prestigious, by making a mutation in the Trek-1 gene, they were able to breed these permanently happy mice. They said, the researchers said depression is a devastating illness, which affects around 10% of people at some point in their life. This is Guy Debenel from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, principal author on the paper. And he said current treatments fail for a third of the patients. So I mean, the opposite of the hope is with this, that by studying the changes in brain chemistry and by the studying the effects of mutations in this gene, that this might lead to new targets for antidepressant drugs and improved treatments.

P: Does that mean that these mice are all Trekkies? Oh!

S: Yeah, I didn't think that everyone was going to miss that. Let's go on to item number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Oxford Physicist proposed resurrecting the ether to explain current mysteries about the structure of the cosmos. Now, when I first read this, my reaction was pretty much the same as Perry and Jays. The ether, that's been gone for about 150 years. Actually, it was the Michelson-Morley famous experiment of 1887 that proved conclusively that there is no all-pervading ether in space. And this was one of the things that led to the special theory of relativity, which is basically the notion that everything space and time are relative, that there is no universal frame of reference. Initially, the ether was the idea that, well, it's sound propagates through air, that light, which is also a wave, must also propagate through something. So let's say that light propagates through electromagnetic waves, propagates through the ether. But they basically proved that there was no ether. And relativity is the notion that there is no fixed reference points like an ether through which light moves. Light, in fact, moves at the same speed to every reference. So there is no privileged or fixed frame of reference. Well, now physicists at Oxford are proposing to resurrect the notion of a fixed point of reference, reincarnating the notion of the ether, not in the exact same form as Michelson-Morley, to solve the puzzle of dark matter. And they basically, by positing a field, an ether-like field that pervades space time. So if you removed everything else in the universe, the ether is what would be left behind. This is Dr. Zollsnick. "The ether field isn't to do with light, but rather is something that boosts the gravitational pull of stars and galaxies, making them seem heavier. It does this by increasing the flexibility of space time itself."

R: Interesting.

P: What? This guy is a doctor? What is he a veterinarian?

E: He's a naturopath.

R: He made the mortal sin of disagreeing with Perry.

P: He's a chiropractor?

E: He's a phrenologist.

S: Now, of course, the big problem with this notion is that it does away with the a constant special relativity by forming an absolute frame of reference.

P: It's stupid. That's the problem with this.

S: Dr. Carroll-

R: I don't think the problem is that it is stupid, Perry.

P: Trust me, honey. It's stupid. Thank you.

R: Your argument is foolproof.

P: THE ETHER? I mean, it's been gone for 150 years.

S: Yeah, but that's the nature of cosmology. I mean, Einstein came up with the cosmological constant. Then he said that was the biggest mistake of his career. That was what that was, 50, 60 years ago. But now, cosmologists are resurrecting the notion of an expanding universe, an expanding force, an accelerating or expansive force in the universe. So it would not be without precedent. But here, but the physicists say this. They say a couple of things that are worth noe. One, this is Ferrera, who says, "the onus is definitely on us to pin this theory down so it doesn't look like yet another fantastical explanation." So they're properly placing the burden of proof on themselves. When asked about the whole problem with the frame of reference and special relativity. Another one of the physicists, Carol, said: "Interestingly, this controversial aspect should make it easy to test for experimentally."

P: If the ether turns out to be true, I'll move to Iran and become a Muslim and I'll raise birds. Okay? That's my, I'm putting it out there right now.

S: We're going to hold you to it, Perry.

R: Oh my god.

P: I'm right. If it's not true, I'm flying over there down the doctor, he's a living baboon.

R: So either way, we get a good job.

P: That's right.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Number three.

R: So yeah, let's not detract from the focal point here is that number three is right.

S: That Rebecca got lucky.

R: Uh-huh. Lucky. Did you not hear it? Did you not hear it? When I detailed my process of picking out the-

S: Didn't actually read the article. There was an article on the God's spot in the news this week, but I reversed the findings.

R: See, I knew it.

S: So the way I read it was that research at the University of Montreal claimed to have found that God's spot, the single location in the human brain responsible for religious belief, when in actuality the title of the paper is that the brain scan of nuns finds no single God's spot in the brain. In fact, they disproved the notion of a God's spot. Or just one part or one region of the brain that is by itself responsible for the experience of religion, or belief in God. In fact, the mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions, ones that also function for the functions of self-consciousness, emotion, reality testing, and body representation. So these are largely frontal lobe and limbic areas, the parts of the brain that are most greatly expanded in humans compared to our closest living relatives like chimpanzees.

R: So what you're saying I was right?

S: That's correct.

P: I recall your explanation being something about how you were out of it this evening.

E: To succeed despite being out of it, that's really true.

R: Well, it's just that I couldn't express what I was trying to say, but I could still think it. You see?

P: To err is human to stumble into it is Rebecca. Good job.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:10:21)[edit]

Last week's Puzzle:

A man, a chemist, a pastor by trade
In search of a cure he thought he had made

For the prevention and cure of scurvy, he wrote
His newest discovery he had hoped to gloat

The public's belief in this product was fast
Dermatitis and rheumatism would be things of the past.

As time passed on, and the ills still remained
The product itself would garnish new fame

Still the pharmacies sold it, it would become a tradition
People bought it by the hundreds, the thousands, and millions

For that man long ago we must give our thanks,
While he tinkered with elements, currents, and plants

And though he did not rid the world of rickets or piles
To billions of people, we attribute their smiles.

Who was he and what was his discovery?

S: Well, let's give the answer to last week's puzzle. No new puzzle this week, but we're going to give the answer to last week's puzzle. This one was written by Evan, who was with us here today.

J: Oh, hello Evan. If that it was your real name.

S: Read the puzzle once again and give us the answer.

E: A man, a chemist, a pastor by trade. In search of a cure he thought he had made. For the prevention and cure of scurvy he wrote, his newest discovery, he had hoped to gloat. The public's belief in this product was fast. Dermatitis and rheumatisms would be things of the past. As time passed on and the ills still remained, the product itself would garnish new fame. Still the pharmacies sold it, it would become a tradition. People bought it by the hundreds, the thousands and millions. For that man long ago we must give our thanks, while he tinkered with elements, currents and plants, and though he did not rid the world of rickets or piles, to billions of people we attribute their smiles. So who was he and what was his discovery?

P: Evan, you're no rapper or doctor Sus.

R: Was he sir Mixalot?

E: Excuse me, I derived my inspiration from the legendary Paul Harvey. Thank you very much.

P: Oh my god.

S: And the answer is...

E: And the answer is Joseph Priestley.

S: And his invention?

E: His invention was carbonated water.

S: Carbonated water.

J: So, let's get to the important part. Still the pharmacies sold it, it would become a tradition. People bought it by the hundreds, the thousands and millions.

R: That do not rhyme.

J: Dr. Sus would smack your teeth right out of your mouth if he was still alive.

P: I like carbonated water, Evan, I do. I like carbonated water.

J: It's true.

P: Spread on my due.

J: Sweet god.

P: I like it mixed up.

R: So did anybody get the answer right? Did we get any...?

S: No, no correct answers on this one.

P: No correct answers?

J: Because they fall asleep halfway through the freaking poem.

E: Oh, come on. Please. This is classic.

R: I have an idea for this week's puzzle. I think we should test the remote viewing abilities of our listeners.

S: Excellent.

R: I have a playing card, and I'm going to sit it on my window sill, face down. No, I'll put a face out. We'll play fair. And I live in Boston. That's the only hint you get. And so, listeners, go ahead and remote view. It's a normal playing card from a normal deck laying on my window sill.

E: Oh, it's not the two of cups or a...

R: No, no, no, no tricky stuff like that. It's not the Joker, it's not the rules. It's just your normal average playing card. Write in and tell me what it is. And if you first person to get it right gets mentioned.

S: Alrighty.

J: Three of diamonds.

E: That's what I was going to say.

R: That's your last hint, it's not the three of diamonds.

S: What are the odds that somebody could just randomly guess?

J: One in 51?

R: Oh yeah, another one in 51.

S: Alright, well we are mercifully out of time. Thank you all for joining me again.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thank you.

S: Always a pleasure.

J: Hey Steve, why don't you ask our listeners to go on iTunes and leave us good feedback?

R: Well I think more importantly those of you who are downloading the show, episode by episode off the site, it's much easier to just get iTunes and go on there and you can subscribe. And it will automatically download each episode for you and we get better ratings for that.

S: Or you can download it from Yahoo Podcasts or one of the other customers. iTunes is far, is far the most popular.

J: And they can join us on MySpace as well.

P: We're all over the place, we're taking over the net.

R: And the forum, let's not forget the forum.

S: And then visit us on our forums, lots of lively discussions. Thanks again for joining me everyone.

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 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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