SGU Episode 59

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SGU Episode 59
September 5th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 58                      SGU 60

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

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 Tuesday, September 5th, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. And with me this evening are Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everybody.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Monkeys can beat up birds.

S: ... and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, my friends of planet Earth.

R: What kind of greeting is that, Perry? Get over it.

P: Well, I was just floating here in the aether and I couldn't think of anything witty to say, so I said that.

R: You're obsessed.

P: (chuckling) Yes.

R: I think you need to get help.

S: Your bird denial is starting to become disturbing, Perry.

P: I'm obsessed with the aether, birds, and monkeys.

R: See, I'm a huge monkey fan, and yet, I have to say you're sounding very birdist. And it's disturbing.

P: It's possible. It's possible. I-I-I won't deny it.

S: So, Jay wanted me to inform everyone that he is on a special skeptical assignment in Mexico this week.

P: Really? What's the nature of the assignment?

S: He will give us a complete report when he gets back.

E: Good.

P: I'll look forward to that.

S: Actually, while he's down there, he also got engaged today. So, congratulations, Jay.

P: Oh, congratulations.

R/E: Congratulations.

E: It's very good news. Very good.

R: I guess that's paranormal right there.

S: Absolutely!

E: Sorry, ladies. He's off the block. You know, keep listening; keep listening. Don't go anywhere.

S: He got engaged to the woman who does the voice-over introducing our show.

P: That's right; that's right.

R: How sweet.

P: That English lass.

S: It's true.

E: We've had some comments about her, I believe.

R: Yeah.

P: Yeah, we have. Not nearly as many, though, as we have had about Rebecca.

S: No.

E: Oh, goodness no.

P: I understand you got a few more marriage proposals this week; is that accurate, Rebecca?

R: (chuckles) I don't know; they don't all go to me. Is it accurate, Steve?

S: I don't know why they're sending them to me, you know?

R: (chuckles) They're sending them to you?

P: If you're gonna propose to Rebecca and you can't even route your e-mails correctly, you're not even in the running! That's ridiculous!

E: Get it straight, people: Steve is not Rebecca's father, OK? You don't have to ask his permission.

S: But I thought, I am going to give you away, though. Right, Rebecca?

R: Oh, yeah, sure.

P: Very good. Very good.

News Items[edit]

Famous Ghost Hunter, Ed Warren, Dies (2:33)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [1]


    NESS article on the Warrens -

S: Well in sadder news, famous ghost hunter Ed Warren has passed away. Ed Warren is really an icon of the ghost hunting community. He and his wife Lorraine had been ghost hunting for decades.

P: Oh well it's over 50 years. Over 50 years. Long, long time.

S: In New England, there are probably hundreds of ghost hunting societies. Usually made up of a handful of people who go around to houses with their-

P: They're transitory. They come. They go. You know.

S: Almost all of them. In fact, I don't think I ever encountered one that didn't have an ex Warren member in it.

P: It's sad to say that. The Warrens I left a trail of burned and bitter parapsychologists behind them.

S: That's true. Typically the story was, they got hooked by a lecture that Ed and Lorraine Warren were giving at a college or some place. They went to some of their classes that they would hold. They went on some investigations. Then they got disillusioned with the way the Warrens did things and decided to strike out on their own as entrepreneurial ghost hunters. And yet another ghost hunting society was born.

P: What I have to say about Ed Warren and Lorraine Warren is this. In the very earliest days when Steve and I and his brother Bob were getting involved in skepticism just after we started, what was then the Connecticut Skeptical Society? We were talking about the ways to go about doing things. And one of the things we talked about doing was investigating Ed and Lorraine Warren. And I remember very distinctly at the time. Now gosh, what did it, Steve? Twelve years ago?

S: Ten.

E: Ten.

P: Ten years ago when we were talking about it and we were, I remember how nervous we were because Ed and Lorraine Warren were big fish and we thought we'd screw it up and who were we and they wouldn't even talk to us. And I'll tell you, that's a lesson I have never forgotten because once we did contact them and we did do the investigation we found out that they were so much less than their reputation allowed.

S: Yeah, I mean, they were just, they were just a cookie old couple.

P: Making a lot of money giving lectures about ghosts. Ed was not an intellectual. He was an entertainer. He was good at what he did. They had a nice presentation with their slides and everything.

S: A little museum in the basement.

P: A little museum in the basement complete with Dungeons and Dragons books, a haunted raggedy doll.

R: Dungeons and Dragons books? You guys must have gotten along really well.

P: Yeah, it was wonderful.

E: Oh, sure.

P: Ed warned us he said, be careful, if you touch anything, let me know so I can, what was it to a cleansing ritual on you?

E: He'll bathe us in the Christ's light.

P: Christ's light.

R: That guy.

P: Oh, Lorraine fancied herself and it was it? An empath?

S: Clairvoyant.

P: Thank you, Clairvoyant. So she could go in somewhere and just sort of have an innate sense that it was haunted.

E: Funny almost everywhere she went it was haunted.

S: That's right. Almost. Most famous case was the Amityville Horror case, which they heartily endorsed.

P: And you see them portrayed in that film? Forget about it. They are nothing like their portrayed in movies.

S: I know, it's so funny to watch.

P: Nothing. Their portrayal, their Hollywood portrayal. When you've met them person.

R: And wasn't, was it Amityville turn, it wasn't that proven to be a hoax?

S: Yeah, yeah. I mean, they sat around and cooked it up over dinner. Ed was very eager to get scientific validation for his claims. And he thought he was going to get that through us.

P: He did.

S: He was very disappointed when we didn't buy his claims. He was.

P: He wanted us to go on an investigation with him, but some of the younger, more savvy people around him really did block that from ever actually happening. Actually going.

E: He shared with us a few tidbits of evidence. Well, the so-called evidence.

S: The biggest one was the, the white lady of Eastern Cemetery.

P: Of Union Cemetery.

S: Union Cemetery. Is that in Eastern?

E: Yes, Eastern Connecticut.

S: Union Cemetery in Eastern. So this was, the white lady is a, a local ghost story about a woman. Does the tale include that she died on her wedding day or something? She's often pictured in a white dress.

P: Typical ghostly, floating, aetherial.

R: No matter when she died, it was definitely before Labor Day.

S: That's right.

E: Yeah, it must have been.

S: Ed, in Union Cemetery by himself with a video camera captured this compelling video of the white lady of Union Cemetery and he showed us the tape.

P: He did.

S: The tape was of a, of a white humanoid figure moving among the gravestones, but it was at the perfect distance so that it was provocative, but you couldn't really tell what it was.

P: Like every piece of paranormal footage. Just far enough away it was in distinct. It was blurry.

R: Well, come on. Let's be fair, Perry. Have you ever called a ghost on camera?

P: I will admit I have not.

S: That's not true about, Perry. It's not true. We did.

P: That's not true we did.

S: Perry and I got a nice ghost right next to the two of us in the carousel, which was an alleged haunted restaurant where the Warrens held their meetings for quite sometime.

P: Yes. Yes we did.

S: It was a great camera court ghost sitting right next to the two of us.

P: Yep. We were able to manufacture ghost pictures just as compelling as the ones you see.

R: Can you, do you have this, this photos? Can you post it on the notes page?

S: Yeah, we'll post it. We'll post it.

P: And it also, Steve, do you recall on that white lady footage, weren't there demons?

S: Well, there was shadows and I think that that was, he interpreted the shadows as demons maybe clawing at her or something.

P: Trying to pull her down. Is that what it was?

S: I also recall that he would not give us a copy of that tape to investigate firsthand. He was very clutchy with that.

E: That's right.

P: He said it would be, he couldn't be sure if someone would exploit it and make money off it without him getting money, basically.

R: So did you guys figure out what it was? Was it a ghost? I'm curious.

S: Okay, we were not, we were not given the actual evidence to examine. And what we were allowed a viewing and our viewing was as I described. It was, could have easily been a person in a sheet. I mean, for the detail that was on the videotape.

P: We were, however, given another videotape of a young man dematerializing.

S: Although, yeah, this was not filmed by Ed, but by one member of his group.

P: Right. We did investigate that and we exposed that as a hoax, which you can read about on our website.

S: The Warrens did give us that tape physically. So we had a physical copy of the tape to examine and Evan, who does this for a living, had some experts examine the tape and Evan, do you remember what you guys found?

E: Yeah, basically what had happened was there was someone standing within the frame of the picture. Someone hit the pause button on the camcorder. The person stepped out of frame. They hit the pause button again and resumed recording. So it effectively looked like somebody as Ed Warren, if I can quote him, that guy disappeared.

P: Was real I Dream of Jeannie stuff.

R: Wow. I was about to say that was a, that's a bewitched trick.

S: The interesting thing though is that they all insisted that there was nobody near the camera when that happened as if that was somehow compelling.

R:' Now, how can you tell when you look at the tape, how can you tell that the tape was paused and then started again?

S: It's a good question. Evan?

R: Thank you.

E: It is a good question. So with our, with our sophisticated tech machines that we have at my place of work, we are able to extract some extra video information that lies just outside the border of your television screen as if you're looking at it. There's more picture information around there. You just don't see it on your typical television set unless you have the right equipment, unless you have the right equipment to reveal that, that additional video footage or area of the screen, which we do.

R: So what is it, what does it show?

E: It shows somebody walked over to the side, was standing by the side of the camera and kind of put their hand up against the camera. You can kind of see their arm there as if they're getting ready to do something to the camera. When the person disappeared, so did the person who was standing there next to the side of the camera. Also there were some other telltale signs. There were some candles flickering in the background and also when the person disappeared off the candle flicker was not in sync with the prior frame.

S: There were discontinuities at the disappearance. There were audible discontinuities in the footfalls and then again, there were visual ones in the candle flickers.

P: And we interviewed the young man who dematerialized allegedly and we said, what do you remember? Who said, I don't remember nothing. I walked in a room, I scratched my head and I walked out.

S: Yeah.

E: Right.

S: He doesn't remember disappearing.

P: And then also there was a ghost light if you remember.

S: Yes.

P: Ghost hunters loved their ghost lights, all kinds of blobs and orbs and rods and all kinds of-

R: Are you mean in still photos?

P: Yes, but this one was in the video. It was a little blob of light behind his head and they said, oh look, it's a ghost light just as he dematerialized. And again, when it was examined closer, you could see in fact it was the glare off headlights coming down the road.

E: That's right. Just reflecting through the window and you could tell from the pace of it and certainly how it got a little brighter and then faded off. It was obviously a car headlight driving by the house and some of the light just spilled into the house and reflected off of a shiny surface that was right there on the picture.

R: Well, isn't it just possible that it could have been a ghost car?

E: Oh, sure, absolutely. I mean, oh, there are ghost cars everywhere.

P: It could have been, could have been. Yeah, and if he had given us that white lady tape, we would have examined it much closer. I'm sure we'd have something to say about it.

S: The bottom line is that is basically the quality of the evidence that's coming out of the "ghost hunting" community. I remember the other story that Ed told us, what we're talking about Ed Warren. This is like the fish that got away story. Remember, they told us that they were at a haunting that there was a cameraman there from one of the local news stations and they recorded, he described all kinds of fantastical things, doors disappearing, large objects moving by themselves, people levitating. And we were like, wow, that's great. You got along the film, what we'd love to see it. It's like, well, you know what? What happened? The reporter who videotaped all of this going on, they needed to use that film for the evening news and they taped over it. Oh, there you go.

P: Damn, darn.

R: It's like, wow I had this solid evidence of a ghost, but then I put it in the VCR and it was like an episode of major dad.

P: Here's a piece of video footage that will make me millions and famous and I recorded over it.

E: We recorded over it.

P: The opening of the new grocery downtown.

S: The real evidence was always just out of reach, just around the corner, never quite in grasp.

P: I mean, these were people that I've been doing this for decades.

E: Decades and making quite a fortune.

P: And their most compelling evidence stunk.

E: It was no evidence at all.

S: Perry and I had to run in with the Warrens on camera.

P: We did.

S: With the local, I can't remember what the station was.

P: Channel 12 I believe. Extremely local.

S: And this was after we had written our critical article of their evidence and they didn't like us anymore. And it was the same thing, where they, Ed could get pretty nasty once you come out as being skeptical of his claims. He also did the typical ploy, which a lot of these gullible researchers do is that they basically present new evidence that has not been vetted or examined in any way on camera. Here's this new photo that was handed to us by some guy. And again, it showed some wispy image that looked like a ghost. And it's like, well, we've never examined that before. And neither has anybody else nor has any scientists. So what can you make of it? We don't even know who took it and what the history was. Can we see the negatives? Can we see the camera? Nothing.

R: So you're saying you can't explain it?

E: Scientists cannot explain this.

S: Scientists don't spring new, unreviewed evidence on other scientists in public and say, ha ha, explain this.

R: I'm pretty sure that's how penicillin was discovered. I think it was on Mari Povitch.

P: You remember Steve? You had a phone conversation with Ed nearing the publication of the article, I believe, and he said he was worried that you were going to make him look like a chump.

S: Yeah, he did. He said, you're going to make me look like a chump, aren't you?

E: So he was psychic.

R: Oh, well, now I feel bad for him.

S: Yeah, it was a little pathetic.

P: It was a little pathetic.

S: And I think he was fighting with another member of his group. Because basically, this is when it came down to Ed wanted to take us on an investigation. And we wanted to go on an investigation, but his number two guy wouldn't let him. So I said, well, Ed, I have to go with my article without having gone on an investigation with you, is trying to like sort of egg him on and get him to do it. And he said he just couldn't do it. And I said, well, OK, well, we're going to go with what we have.

P: Apparently, he didn't have much control over his own organization.

S: Well, this was a tough situation for him. But it was a fun time, I have to say. It was sort of good for us early on in our skeptical careers to go up against the likes of Ed and Lorraine Warren. And I actually thought he was a nice guy, in a way. I think we actually did have fun with them. And then he was a bit of an icon. So in a way, he'll be missed.

P: He will be.

S: But his legacy of gullible ghost hunting will live on.

E: Oh, OK.

S: But on the NESS site, we can read the article we wrote right after our investigation of him. That's up there.

E: Yep. Enjoy.

Researcher proves telephone telepathy. (16:35)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [2]

  • ESP Researcher Rupert Sheldrake claims to have proven telephone telepathy.

S: In other news, shifting gears a little bit to ESP. You guys all know who Rupert Sheldrake is, of course, right? He's a famous ESP researcher. He's a guy who believes that people know when others are staring at them. I think he's done some of the Ganzfeld experiment. Now he's claiming that he has proven that people can psychically know when someone is about to call them.

P: Proven mind you. Proven.

S: Telephone telepathy.

R: I wish they were true because my phone rang just a few minutes ago and it was really loud.

P: Did you know who was going to call you before they called?

R: I didn't even know they were going to call. If I knew, they were going to call, I would have turned off the phone, see?

S: When someone calls me, I know who it is before I pick up. It's called caller ID.

P: I wonder if he factored the caller ID and it was experiment.

R: I think his whole investigation began when friends just started answering the phone. Hey, Sheldrake. And he's like, oh.

E: Sheldrake.

S: So he claims he's done 570 trials involving 63 participants with a 40% hit rate. This is where you have, there's four possible outcomes. So the researchers are given the names and numbers of four acquaintances or friends of the subject. And so any one of those four can call. Then they tell the one person to call and they asked the participant, who's about to call you? And so by chance alone, as you get 25%, he's claiming a 40% hit rate. And he also says, and we videotaped it to say you could know that the procedure works, but they only videotaped four occurrences. So not the 570.

P: That's a lot of tape.

S: They only videotaped four. n=4.

E: I see.

S: It's hard to do statistics on the small numbers.

E: Is Randi trembling that the million dollars is at risk here?

S: Well, as always, these experiments, when replicated by scientists who don't believe at all the Boo-Boo nonsense, that Sheldrake believes in, somehow just don't get the same results that he does.

R: Fascinating.

S: And I believe that when we were interviewing Ray Hyman, you talked about Sheldrake and others that we're doing, I think he was specifically talking about the Ganzfeld experiments. So even when it looks good on paper, when you actually go to the lab and watch them do what they're doing, their technique, their methods are terribly flawed. They're not blinding the way that they say they are. And there's all kinds of ways for sensory leakage to occur and for the results to be falsely positive. It's just more ESP research spinning their wheels. It's not really accomplishing anything because they never can be reliably replicated.

R: But to be fair, I look forward to the additional studies that are going to come from this that will eventually prove that telepathy is real.

E: As long as my tax dollars aren't paying for it, that's fine. Go nuts with private money. Really.

S: How long does the government's not paying for it?

R: I do wonder how in depth we'll be able to look over exactly what their methods were so we can figure out where they went wrong. If they went wrong, I mean, who knows. Maybe they discovered telepathy.

S: Could be the first ones. He also claims that people have email telepathy. People know what email is he going to get.

E: I know when smoke signals are coming from over the hill.

P: Why not?

S: But that would seem that would be a relatively easy one to replicate the whole email thing.

E: Hey, I'm about to get spam.

R: I don't know who's emailing me, but I'm pretty sure they're Nigerian.

E: Exactly. I have to hold $15.7 million. All I have to do is give them all my information.

S: Yeah, the Nigerian scam is actually if you follow that through all the way to the conclusion they make you fly to Nigeria and then they kidnap you in the airport and then hold you for ransom from your family.

P: Excellent. Is that still ongoing?

S: Oh sure.

R: Oh, yeah.

E: I got one two days ago. I printed it out at work and showed some people.

R: I get them every day. If you ever want to pass some time, look up baiting on the internet and you can find all sorts of hilarious sites about people leading these scam artists on. And there's one in particular where he actually got the scam artist to send him a lump of gold to prove that he had found some sort of gold mine that he was claiming.

P: That is fun. I baited a guy for a dozen emails. I kept asking him more. I didn't give him to send me anything though.

R: You have to be careful I guess the stuff like that. Like setting up a PO box because you don't want them to have your real information.

E: Hey, but with this new email telepathy, you can avoid such scams effectively, more effectively.

Humans evolved to be superstitious (21:23)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [3]

  • Psychologist claims humans evolved to be superstitious,,2-2342599,00.html

S: Well, from parapsychology to psychology, Professor Bruce Hood of the University of Bristol said-

P: That's in England.

S: That's in England, Bristol. Humans have evolved into accepting superstition, such as witches and other things. So he basically is a evolutionary psychologist of sorts, which is a little bit controversial in terms of what kind of conclusion you should really can come to. But he is saying that superstition evolved as an adaptive strategy. And this is nothing really, really new. The environment in which humans evolved, having sort of down and dirty rules of thumb for figuring out how the world works, also called heuristics, is pretty effective and adaptive. But when you apply these to a complex technological society, they could lead to false beliefs, such as superstitions. And there are also some specific strategies that people evolved, like, imbuing inanimate objects with sentimentality.

R: Yeah one of Hood's examples really struck a chord with me because it wasn't something that I had previously identified as a sort of superstition. But when I was a kid, I had this bunny blanket, and I carried it everywhere, and I loved it to death until it was ratty and disgusting. For Christmas one year, my mom got me a brand new one, exactly the same, to replace the ratty one, and I refused to even touch it. It was like, evil bunny. And I would like jam it into the bottom of my toy box. I didn't even want to look at it. And that was, I never really thought of it before, but you know, what's the point? It was exact in every single way. And he did a similar test where he took a kid's favorite toy, told them that he would put it through, that he would clone it basically, and that he would create one that was exactly the same in every way, and give it back to them, and the kids didn't want it. Even though it was actually the same toy, they didn't want it anymore. So that was kind of cool.

S: And so an adult version of that is asked, when asked, people will not agree to have their wedding ring replaced with an exact replica. Because something about the original has a certain sentimental value to it, and it is akin to superstition. Although it's the same mental process, but I think it's fairly benign manifestation of it.

R: Right, yeah.

P: He says at one point in his, in the article, or the article says about him, it says: "Credulous minds may have evolved for several reasons. It was once less dangerous to accept things that were not true than it was to reject real facts, such as the threat posed by nearby predators." What does that mean? Isn't accepting things that were not true the same as rejecting real facts?

S: Well, for example, if there's something rustling in the bushes and you think that could be a tiger, you're probably better off assuming that it is, rather than being skeptical and checking it out for yourself. So that's what we mean by the simplified heuristics that work well in the down and dirty, quick decision making of the jungle, if you will. But don't necessarily hold up well when you're talking about more complicated pattern-seeking behaviors. I think that's what he's referring to.

P: I see.

S: Which is not the first person to propose this. Again, this is nothing truly new. It's an interesting concept. It's one of those evolutionary stories that there's no real way to falsify it. Which is why some people say it's not really doing science. How do you test the notion of the survival advantage of something that happened in our evolutionary past?

P: Well, I don't see any advantage to being credulous in the modern world. He makes the point of it can give you a false sense of control, which is pleasing, which will lessen stress. Okay. I guess. But I'll tell you, being rational and reasonable and having a grasp of what is actual is very empowering.

S: I agree.

E: Here. Here.

S: Well, let's go on to your emails.

Questions and E-mails (25:45)[edit]

Korean Fan Deaths (25:58)[edit]

Hey everyone,

I'm a big fan of the show, and I recently encountered a topic that you might be interested in discussing on the show.

This summer, I roomed with a visiting student from Korea for summer school. Every night before we went to bed, he would shut off the fan in our room. I thought this was a bit odd, but I ignored it until I learned that his behavior was motivated by a widely believed South Korean urban myth called 'fan death' (more details at Many South Koreans apparently believe that a fan left running overnight can suffocate people by sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

I was astonished to discover that this was why he had been turning off the fan, particularly because he is an engineering student. I managed to convince him that it wasn't true, but I began to wonder how so many people could believe something so patently absurd. Why do you think this is and can you think of any analogous examples of widely believed American myths?

Los Angeles

S: Email number one.

R: Wait. Are we going to go on to any of the marriage proposals emails? Because I'm curious.

P: Those are private.

S: I'll send them to you privately. They may be in here somewhere. We'll have to say. This one comes from Alan, Los Angeles and he writes: "Hi everyone. I'm a big fan of the show and I recently encountered a topic that you might be interested in discussing on the show this summer. I roamed with a visiting student from Korea for summer school. Every night before we went to bed, he would shut off the fan in our room. I thought this was a bit odd, but I ignored it until I learned that his behavior was motivated by a widely believed South Korean urban myth called fan death. For more details, you can check out the Wikipedia entry. Many South Koreans apparently believe that a fan left running overnight can suffocate people by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. I was astonished to discover that this was why he had been turning off the fan, particularly because he is an engineering student. I managed to convince him that it wasn't true, but I began to wonder how so many people could believe something so patently absurd. Why do you think this is and can you think of any analogous examples of widely believed American myths?"

P: Well, it's a matter of evolution. We're all to be afraid of the fan.

S: It is amazing sometimes how so many people could believe things that are so absurd.

R: I also heard a variation on it, which is hypothermia, as in fans lower your body temperature, but it's not enough to free to wake up, but it's enough to expose you or something.

S: To kill you.

R: Kind of.

S: Yeah, I mean, obviously the fan death is a silly myth. It's more interesting, but again, why so many people believe it? Are there American myths that are similar? Sure, there are. There's a ton of them. Urban myths, I mean, just go to, whichever one of this.

R: Snopes.

S: My favorite one is always the kidney one, the guy who gets picked up in a hotel bar by this sexy young woman who goes up to his room, and then he wakes up the next morning in a bathtub filled with ice with a cut across his back.

R: That's not a myth. That happens to my uncle's friend.

S: Your friend of your uncle's second cousin's.

R: His mother.

S: Goes to the hospital to discover that his kidney had been removed.

P: Good god.

S: So yeah, a lot of people believe that without thinking of through, like what are you going to do with an unmatched kidney, you know? Or the thing that gets me is if you're going to steal someone's kidney, why not just kill them and take all their organs?

R: Because you're not cold-blooded, Steve.

S: Why take one kidney?

P: Because I'm a robber. Not a murderer.

R: Yeah, seriously. Why are you so wasteful, Steve? If I kill somebody, I'm going to use every bit of them.

S: That's what I mean. Why wouldn't they just kill them in every organ? Take their eyes, their heart, their lungs, their both kidneys.

P: Kind of heartless blob do you think these people are?

S: There's another Asian myth that I heard of. You guys have heard of the genitalia shrinking fears? That will occasionally-

R: You mean like when you drink Mountain Dew? I've heard the Mountain Dew one. Like yellow number five.

S: There's just apparent, an intermittent phobia that will go through Asian communities where the men think that their penises are shrinking. And they'll go to the physician, convinced that it's shrinking away to nothing.

R: Does this happen during the winter?

S: Funny little aside to this, the way to keep the penis from shrinking away to nothing is to hold on to it.

R: Is it to rub a lotion into it?

S: And there are cases of guys who would have their family members on like a round Robin marathon penis holding session until they can get to the cure from the physician or whoever.

R: That's traumatic. I can't even imagine.

P: I have to go hold Uncle Vinnie's penis? What are you talking about?

R: Getting back to the fan problem thing. I think one of the reasons why it started was because there were some reports of people dying in a room and they couldn't really figure out why, but there was like an electric fan in the room. And so maybe there were some people who were dying of electrocutions, something like that.

S: Maybe they just have a heart attack.

E: Or carbon dioxide.

R: Yeah, or heat stroke, something like that. And so I think it's just one of those things where there's something that seems like a rash of something happening and there's no immediate explanation. So people kind of jump to a conclusion, and I think that was maybe the start of the thing.

S: It's possible. But you know, you don't even need that. These things just get started.

E: Yeah, they do.

S: On flimsier misunderstandings than that.

R: Well, I know. I've seen stories in 1997 that Korea, Harold, had stories of like 10 people dying from seemingly from electric fans. So when it's reported in the media like that, it-

S: Well, sure, once it gets to that level, it then it perpetuates it. But that's like the rat in the fried chicken or the rattlesnakes in the coat.

P: The finger in the taco.

R: No, that one happened. That one happened.

S: The finger in the chili happened. But these things get reported by reporters.

P: The finger in the chili was fraud.

S: That was fraud. When you go, you call the reporter to try to get follow up on it. They don't know who would happen to. It would happen to a friend of a friend. I mean, it's all still just hearsay. Because it gets printed in the [inaudible] doesn't mean that there's any source to it. So it's still just a rumor. It's just a rumor perpetuated by the mass media.

P: You're saying they don't vet these stories properly?

S: Well, don't make such accusations lightly.

Homeopathy Double Standard (31:53)[edit]

The link below leads to an article from the UK, about homeopathic remedies and a new law that allows the homeopathy industry to claim efficacy for curing real medical conditions. Ridiculous!,,174-2337904,00.html

By the way, the podcast is outstanding! Definitely one of the better skeptical shows out there. Keep up the great work Dr. Novella and company.

Best regards,
Frank Latendresse
Montreal, Canada

S: Email number two comes from Frank Latendresse from Montreal, Canada, and Frank writes: "The link below leads to an article from the UK about homeopathic remedies in a new law that allows the homeopathy industry to claim efficacy for curing real medical conditions. Ridiculous. By the way, the podcast is outstanding. Definitely one of the better skeptical shows out there." Better?

E: It's a typo.

S: "Keep up the great work."

R: Definitely the most modest.

S: "Keep up the great work. Dr. Novella and company." Well, thank you, Frank.

R: And company?

E: That's you and Perry.

S: That's you guys.

R: Wait. Excuse me, I am not included in "and company".

E: According to Frank, you are.

R: I am not at all the rest in the Gilligan Island song.

E: Oh, you are the Marianne.

S: Not the ginger?

P: You're both. Wrapped up in one.

E: Oh, okay. Oh what the heck, throw Mrs. Howell in there.

R: I'll admit I'm a little Miss Howell.

S: We've had this double standard now. For 12 years in the United States. And it seems that the purveyors of nonsense are being successful in other countries and doing it as well.

R: Well, actually, I think I think homeopathy has always had a stronger foothold than the UK than in US.

S: It does.

P: Europe.

S: Europe in general and in the UK largely because it is endorsed by the Royal family. They are enthusiastic users of homeopathic remedies. For the first time, homeopathic treatment will be allowed to claim efficacy measured by their own methods, not by the much tougher standards applied to conventional medicine. And we'll be able to list on their labels what conditions they are supposed to treat. So that's the new bit. That's the difference. Which again, is a double standard. They get to say that they can cure cancer because on their magical low standard tests, they figure out that it can cure cancer. But not being held to the regular standards that scientific remedies are held to. Without really any justification, as if there's some real difference in logic and evidence when you're dealing with one thing versus the other. I mean, either you have the evidence or you don't. Either it's logically valid or it isn't.

R: I'm always amazed at how evidence is demonized by these frauds, how effective they are doing that. And you ask for evidence in the most basic functions of your life. You buy a computer, does it work? Well, let's turn it on and see. You don't just read the box and say, oh, it says it'll work. So, okay, no, you want to know. So why not with the really important things? Why not with cancer?

E: Because you're not using the good evidence like anecdotal evidence.

R: All my friends say this computer works, I guess it must work.

S: You're absolutely right. And it's because of the very successful propaganda campaign that confused people into thinking that science is this sort of magical thing and you could either agree with science, but you don't have to. You can use these alternate methods of knowing whether or not something works. And when really all it is is just systematically looking at the evidence using common sense, using valid logic. That's it. And there is no alternative to that.

R: Science is just a pure form of what you do every goddamn day.

S: That's right.

P: But like you said, they've been very effective in pretending that science is just another way of knowing along with the Akashic file and intuition and other ways of knowing. It's just another way.

E: And you should have the freedom to choose which one you want to.

S: That's right. Because all of the package is a healthcare freedom. The Brits are not too happy about it. At least not the physicians and scientists. Michael Baum, a cancer surgeon and former professor of surgery said: "This is like licensing a witch's brew as medicine, so long as the bat wings are sterile."

P: Here, here.

E: Well said.

S: Another quote that I like Evan Harris, the liberal democratic science spokesman said: "The multimillion pound homeopathy industry should not be allowed to make health claims for its products without proper evidence of effectiveness, especially when reliance on ineffective homeopathic remedies made to lay access to proper diagnosis and treatment of serious conditions."

E: Exactly right.

S: But then you know, the true believers dismiss these basic common sense statements like that as being protectionist and elitist and-

P: Same old dance.

E: They go on the defensive at that point.

S: Well, thanks for sending that in Frank and we're sorry to hear that the nonsense is winning over at the UK as well.

P: Fight it. Fight the good fight.

Science in America (36:32)[edit]

In your August 18th podcast, the panel commented on the recent Michigan State University study of nations' attitudes toward evolution. I think the derogatory comments that you made of Americans were unduly negative, e.g. 'I want to blow this country. It's just disgusting.'

In a 2001 NSF survey, Americans actually scored higher than Europeans in seven out of thirteen science questions:

In contradiction to one panel member's conclusion, i.e. that Americans are 'backward baboons,' I would say the NSF quiz shows Americans better understand what matters most to them (genetics, medicine, and technology) instead of what matters most to the MSU investigators (evolution.)

It might be true that Americans' disbelief in evolution is largely a result of the greater role of religion in our society. If that's the case, scientists cannot realistically expect people to reject their faith to accept a theory that has no real consequences -- positive or negative -- on their lives. Unlike Christian Scientists' rejection of modern medicine, the rejection of evolution has no serious ramifications.

While there can be no doubt that scientific literacy in this country is too low, the public would be better served if those who make public education their goal would end their fixation on one polarizing (but relatively unimportant) scientific topic at the expense of other, more important ones. Derogatory comments about the supposed stupidity of an entire nation are equally unhelpful to the cause.

Urbana, Illinois

S: The next email comes from Brent in Urbana, Illinois and Brent writes: "In your August 18th podcast, a panel commented on a recent Michigan State University study of nations attitudes towards evolution. I think the derogatory comments that you made of Americans were unduly negative. E.G., I want to blow this country. It's just disgusting. In a 2001 NSF survey, Americans actually scored higher than Europeans in seven out of 13 science questions." And we get the link. "In contradiction to one panel members conclusions, i.e. that Americans are backward baboons." I think that was you Perry.

P: Possible.

E: There you go with the pro monkey.

R: Why would he malign baboons?

S: So Perry thinks very highly of monkeys.

E: Perry is fascinated with primates.

S: "I would say the NSF quiz shows Americans better understand what matters most to them, genetics, medicine and technology, instead of what matters most to the MSU investigators, evolution." Then he goes on in that vein. So he basically thinks that the Americans know important science more and that evolution isn't all that important. So it shows that our good judgment in knowing which things are important within the realm of science.

R: I'd say speaking personally, it's true that we're not completely lost when it comes to science. And we do have some amount of education nationwide when it comes to science. But that doesn't mean that it should be okay that this many people feel that way about evolution, which is important. It's very important that people have a basic understanding of how life evolves.

S: Well, the two things to talk about here, one is, well, yeah, sure, we set a lot of derogatory things about Americans. I thought it was understood it was tongue and cheek since we all are Americans. We were basically just making fun of ourselves. But it's also true that there is an anti-evolution movement in the US that is almost unrivaled in the world, except for I think Turkey, right? They did worse than we did. And that is shameful, regardless of our comparison to any other country or regardless of how we do with other science. But the other issue is Brent was comparing our Americans' understandings of different kinds of science. And I don't think that the data that he was referencing actually supports the point that he wants to make. Let's look at some of these questions. First of all, it was 7 out of 13 Americans scored a little bit higher than Europeans. One of them was almost though a dead tie. I think we did better by one point. So it's really, it was dead even. His point was that Americans did better on practical health and technological questions and not on the more abstract or evolutionary questions. And I disagree with that from looking at these answers. Let's go through them. One is the center of the earth is very hot. That was 80% Americans, 88% Europeans. All radioactivity is man-made, 76 Americans, 53 Europeans. That's interesting difference. Why we would get so much higher on radioactivity. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants, 87 Americans, 80 Europeans. So there, why is that all oxygen comes from plants? Why is that any more practical than understanding evolution? It is the father's gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. Again, we did better than you're 65 US 48 Europe. Again, interesting but not really many practical applications to that.

R: Well Steve, to be fair, I don't think you can judge based on practical applications.

S: That was Brent's criteria. Right?

P: He's referring to what the guy said in his email.

R: Oh, ok.

S: Here's one, lasers work by focusing sound waves, 45% US 35% Europe. So yeah, okay, so we did better than the Europeans on that one and that's a technology one. But still only 45% which is the other thing. Just beating out the Europeans is not the only criteria. Still less than 50% knew that lasers work by focusing light, not sound waves. Electrons are smaller than atoms, 48% US 41% Europe. Again, that's abstract as evolution. Why is it there's no practical application there? Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria, 51% US 40% Europe. That is a very practical question, not knowing. That's in fact one of the only ones on this list that really I think it does have practical immediate applications to individuals. But still only 51%, only about half of Americans know that antibiotics don't kill viruses. So even when we beat the Europeans, we still do really, really bad, which was our point. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move into the future, 79 US 82 Europe. Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals, 53 US 69 Europe. So that was the evolution question. Again, only about half of Americans and tourists that statement. The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs, 48% US 59% Europe. Keep in mind. These are 50, 50 questions. These are true false questions. So 50% got them right. That's random guessing. It doesn't mean that nobody knew the right answer, but still.

P: Why are they guessing? Only ever saw the episode of Flintstones? Come on.

S: Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. 65% US 64% Europe. So that's another very practical question. But 65, 64 we hardly get a point for that one. That's a dead heat. Does the earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the earth?

E: Oh, come on.

S: 75% US 67% Europe. Only 75% that why is that 95% plus percent?

E: Yeah, why is it?

S: Does the earth go around one in four people in this country and one in three people in Europe think that the sun goes around the earth?

P: How many of the science teachers we tested got that wrong, Steve?

S: Yeah, that's true, we actually, we asked in the next question, how long does it take for the earth to go around the sun? 54%, it's one year, by the way, 54% US 56% Europe. 54% that's again, just about half the people realize that a year is the time it takes for the earth to go around the sun. You know, nothing to brag about. I don't think Brent made his point with this particular set of data, to be honest with you.

P: Certainly not.

E: It is interesting data, though. That's for sure.

S: It's very interesting.

P: It's sobering.

S: Sobering. But that's why we and all the other science podcasts that we see on iTunes and other places exist. I mean, there are lots of venues now to get this kind of information out to the public. But you wonder how much of the public is really availing themselves of it, as opposed to say watching mindless television. That's not really-

P: American Idol things like that.

S: Yeah, right.

R: Hey now, don't knock mindless television.

E: Excuse me. 35 million Americans cannot be wrong there.

P: Apparently 35 million Americans are vacuous.

Is Recycling Bunk? (43:35)[edit]

In a few episodes back, you asked everyone about which fallacy they wish were actually true. Rebecca mentioned that she wished that recycling was. Did I miss something earlier? Is it really bunk, I'm skeptical.

Edward Karoly
Apex, North Carolina

Some articles on recycling:

Famous 'Recycling is Garbage' Times article -

Rebuttal -

S: The last question comes from Edward Carole from Apex North Carolina, Edward writes: "In a few episodes back, you asked everyone about which fallacy they wish were actually true. Rebecca mentioned that she wished that recycling was. Did I miss something earlier? Is it really bunk? I'm skeptical." Well, we've had a couple other questions too about the whole recycling bit.

R: Yeah, I got knocked down a lot for saying recycling, mostly because a lot of people just thought it wasn't exciting enough. But yeah, also from a few people who doubted what I was saying, yeah, recycling, I've been following the recycling debate since I was in college studying environmental science. It's never really been as clear cut as I would like it to be, one direction or the other. But at this point, it's looking to me like it's pretty worthless on the whole, in that mostly that we're kind of trading off. It seems like we're saving certain resources while spending other resources. And people aren't really taking all of the costs and benefits into consideration when they're trying to decide whether or not recycling is a good thing or not.

P: Yeah, Penn and Teller certainly skewered it.

S: They did, but you know, I really tried to wrap my head around this topic. I've read as much they could about it in preparation for this podcast because I've always had sort of an uneasy skepticism about recycling. And I found a few things. First, I agree with you that the data, the objective data, does it save resources or not? Does it cost more or less or what? It is as fuzzy as, say, is trying to figure out if biofuels are cost effective or not. It all depends on how you add it up and what cost you account or what cost you don't count. I also found that the vast majority of the information that's available on recycling is ideological. It was either from the government at multiple levels, either like federal, state, or local level, which was basically just propaganda about why you should recycle. Or it was from environmental or pro recycling groups. So when the website is it's hard to know that they're being totally objective. However, I found that most of the skeptical sites were just as ideological and that they're basically libertarian anti-government regulation think tanks.

R: I found that the bulk of the critics seem to be libertarian economists.

S: Libertarian economists.

R: Yeah, the bulk of them appear to be libertarian economists who are looking at it in terms of literally the cost of recycling because thinking that all of the materials will translate into appropriate costs, if that makes sense. And then judging it that way and finding that recycling does on the whole cost us more.

S: Well, so there are a few major issues that keep coming up with it. And I can sort of give you my distillation of the two sides of the issue. The first one that most commonly comes up is landfill space. But it seems at this point, both sides basically agree that that's not the issue. There's plenty of landfill space out there. The space is a commodity. It costs more in population dense areas and less in population light areas. And it's not really the issue. So everyone agrees that's kind of a false issue. It comes down mainly to is it cost effective. And again, it was hard to get a straight answer from the research that I did. But it seems that in population dense areas where the landfill land is expensive, it actually can get to cost effectiveness. In other words, the cost per ton of recycling can actually be less than the cost per ton of land-filling. That also depends on how mature the recycling program is in the area. Usually when cities first start to recycle, they do it very inefficiently, but then they figure out how to do it more efficiently over time. And the costs come way down. So there are, it does seem that there are places where it actually costs less per ton to recycle than to landfill. But that's generally-

R: Well, Steve, we have to look at all of the costs that are being considered too. Because I saw a lot of the same statistics. And a number of them were leaving out some major factors like the fact that they're being subsidized by the government and things like that. And when you leave out those costs, sometimes often recycling gets left pretty far behind.

S: Yeah, no, I agree. But on the other side, they'll say, yeah, but you're leaving out the costs like for the environmental cleanup of getting virgin resources and etc. So again, there's sort of these hidden costs that you can counter, not count on both sides, which is why it was frustrating for me, because I felt I couldn't get just the objective data.

R: Yeah, that's very difficult.

S: Yeah, so it was so ideologically obfuscated and fogged that it was hard to even know what the facts are. Let alone deciding based upon those facts, does it make sense?

R: See, and it appears to be that at this point in time, things are so up in the air that at this point, I don't think that recycling is worth it. Because when we take into account as much information as we can, it still seems kind of like a coin flip. Well, okay, we'll save on this, but we're going to lose all of this. And basically things are just balancing out into the point where it just doesn't appear to be worth it. But it does seem like it could be a process that we could refine in the future and figure out how to do it properly. Like right now, recycling aluminum cans, both sides seem to agree that recycling aluminum cans can be worthwhile.

S: Yeah, and when you talk about "recycling", you have to talk about recycling what. Recycling aluminum, I think everyone agrees that it's cost effective. It costs less to recycle aluminum than to mine box site and refine it.

P: My recollection is that Penn and Teller said that was the one.

S: Yeah, even the most anti-recycling sites I found yeah, aluminum, right. That one works. So fine. And that's why the libertarians say, well, let the free market decide what's worthwhile to recycle and what's not worthwhile to recycle, which is a legitimate point. And maybe we are evolving to the point where we can sort of relax the subsidies and the government regulations and just let the free market take over. And some sites argued, well, we just needed the government to kickstart the industry. And now we can try to get it to be self perpetuating and cost effective. It does seem that some industries voluntarily use some recycled materials because it's cost effective for them like cardboard, for example, may actually be cost effective because you don't have to bleach it and stuff. And glass two, I mean, you can make the beads out of the glass and that may be some raw material. There's interesting points on both sides. Some of the anti-recycling sites said that, well, paper products come from tree pulp, which we grow as a renewable resource. So we're not really saving any resources by recycling. But the other side said, that's true, but the demand for wood pulp is growing. Although we are growing the trees for the pulp, that's just another agricultural product. You need the land to do it. And the farm tree land is displacing wild land just as if you would cut it down to grow a wheat field. It's the same thing. So as demand increases, we need other sources of wood pulp and recycling is just another commodity, just another source of pulp that will reduce the growth of the demand for virgin wood pulp. So there's logical legitimate points on both sides. And I think ultimately, we may be in this transitional phase. Same thing also with the biofuels. We may be in this phase where it's not cost effective, but it's allowing us to develop the technologies that eventually will become cost effective. And we would never have gotten to that point if we didn't pass through this transitional phase. So in the end, I did soften up my skepticism of recycling a bit after all the reading that I did. I think that we maybe should start to transition into more just letting the see what the market forces do and probably the cost effective bits will survive on their own.

R: See, and this is why the thing that I chose is the thing I most wanted to be true was better than your stuff, because mine has a chance of actually becoming true.

P: Recycling.

S: It eventually will be if you think about it because the technology will improve, we'll just get better at doing it. Plus also, the cost of all of the original sources are going to go up.

R: Well, that's the theory.

S: Demand goes up.

R: If you look at things like oil though in the past 150 years, the price really hasn't gone up that much.

S: You're right. It won't right until we start to run out. No one knows when that' going to be.

R: Yeah but they keep saying it's going to happen and then it never do. So it's definitely one of those things you can't run out.

P: We've discuss that in the past. No panic in the streets. But is it just me or all the passion in the recycling debate seems to be on the pro side?

S: I disagree.

R: Yeah, I disagree too.

S: If you go to the really anti recycling sites, they're just as passionate and I get just the same kind of propaganda vibe off them as I do against the real pro environmental sites. There are a few sites that were very moderate in the middle and they basically said, what I'm saying, which is sort of a, yeah, it's kind of in the middle, but it's, probably not all bad and you need to give it a chance kind of thing, kind of a soft endorsement.

R: And I think you're seeing more of the passion on the pro recycling side because that's basically what's pushed on us from the time that we're kids. That's what the government sponsors.

S: Because the government has bought that side. And the government propaganda says it's wonderful and it's utopian.

E: Media perpetuates it.

R: And it doesn't make it less wrong because of that.

S: Partly because it's their job to increase compliance because this is something you need the people to do. So you have to sell it in sort of this simplistic way. We talked about this exact same thing with vaccines. The government has to sell the idea of vaccines because compliance is an issue. So it makes them sort of sugarcoat the whole issue, which is actually really scientifically very complex. All right.

Name That Logical Fallacy (54:17)[edit]

  • Logical Fallacies

'Most, if not all, of these adolescents must have acquired HIV from perinatal infection for the following reasons: sexual transmission of HIV depends on an average of 1000 sexual contacts, and only 1 in 250 Americans carries HIV (Table 1). Thus, all positive teenagers would have had to achieve an absurd 1000 contacts with a positive partner, or an even more absurd 250,000 sexual contacts with random Americans to acquire HIV by sexual transmission.'

Submitted by Chris Noble

S: Well, we have one logical name that logical fallacy this week. This one was sent to me by our long time listener Chris Noble.

R: Hi Chris.

S: This is a quote from Duseberg. Duseberg is the scientist. The chemist who is an HIV denier. He denies that HIV causes AIDS.

P: Unfortunate name.

S: And he writes: "Most if not all of these adolescents must have acquired HIV from perinatal infection." So he's talking about HIV positive adolescents. "For the following reasons, sexual transmission of HIV depends on an average of 1,000 sexual contacts and only 1 in 250 Americans carries HIV. Thus all positive teenagers would have had to achieve an absurd 1,000 contacts with a positive partner or an even more absurd 250,000 sexual contacts with random Americans to acquire HIV by sexual transmission. So what is the fallacy in that statement?"

E: Bad math.

S: That's all. It's bad math. It is a statistical fallacy. The logical fallacy is the misuse of statistics.

R: Good call Evan.

S: What is the misuse?

E: Pretty obvious.

S: How is he misusing? What bit of mathematical logic is he employing in this?

E: HIV depends on an average of 1,000 sexual contacts and only 1 in 250 Americans carry HIV. He's making some correlations here that just don't add up.

S: So what he's saying is because the transmission rate, if you have sex with someone's HIV positive, there's a 1 in 1,000 chance that you're going to get HIV. So if you have HIV, he's saying therefore on average, people who have HIV have had sex a thousand times with HIV positive people. Since 1 in 250 people have HIV, if you had sex with random people, then you would have to have sex with 250,000 people on average before contracting and attracting HIV. The problem is, this is the lottery fallacy. Creationists make this. A lot of correlations in creationists in HIV deniers. It's called the lottery fallacy, not because people invoke it when thinking about the lottery, but that the lottery is often given as an example to a more intuitive example of why it's wrong. And if you were saying, because the chances of winning a lottery are 100 million to 1, on average, people who won bought 100 million tickets. Of course not, because there's 100 million people who didn't win the lottery. And there's thousands of people who have sex who don't get HIV. And he's not counting all the people who don't contract HIV from having sex. If you count all of those people, then you get more or more reasonable figure. He's trying to say that these adolescents have had sex thousands of times rather than saying that thousands of adolescents had sex once. It's the same thing, right? So it's just really absurd statistical logical fallacy. But this is now the Bible within the HIV denying community, these kinds of nonsense.

R: And that's called the lottery fallacy, did you say?

S: Informal, yeah.

R: What's its fancy Latin name?

S: It's just, it's the abuse of statistics fallacies, the actual fallacy. The lottery is sort of the example that is often used. Abuse of statistics. And that's about the level of intellectual integrity that you're getting from the HIV denial community. By the way, I went on to the message board where this was being discussed that Chris Noble pointed me to. Boy, oh boy. If you, that is a treasure trove of logical fallacies. People on that list, they are living in a different universe.

R: Oh so not our message board.

S: No, not our. This is not, this one is dedicated to HIV re-thinkers, they call it.

R: I definitely could not read that.

S: Oh my goodness. You have to take a stiff drink before you go on there. It is incredible. It's all paranoia, anti-government anti-science the government's wrong because of the government. They're lying to us because the government lies, that's just the way it is. Are you guys ready for science or fiction?

P: Oh yeah.

S: Let's go.

Science or Fiction (58:36)[edit]

Item #1: A newly published survey of dinosaur fossils indicates that dinosaur species were already largely in decline before they were wiped out by a meteorite collision 65 million years ago.[4]
Item #2: Despite the common saying, 'monkey see, monkey do,' imitation has only previously been described in humans and apes. A recent study, however, demonstrates for the first time monkey imitation.[5]
Item #3: Ornithologists have discovered that urban members of certain bird species are much more resistant to stress than their rural counterparts.[6]

Answer Item
Fiction Dinos declined before meteorite
Science Monkey imitation shown
Urban birds > rural birds
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Monkey imitation shown
Monkey imitation shown
Dinos declined before meteorite

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two genuine and one fictitious and I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptical rogues to tell me which one is the fake. And you at home can play along or in your car or while you're refueling your C71 or whatever.

E: Yes.

S: Item number one. A newly published survey of dinosaur fossils indicates that dinosaur species were already largely in decline before they were wiped out by a meteorite collision 65 million years ago. Item number two. Despite the common saying monkey sea monkey do, imitation has only previously been described in humans and apes. A recent study however demonstrates for the first time monkey imitation. And item number three, ornithologists have discovered that urban members of certain bird species are much more resistant to stress than their rural counterparts, meaning members of the same species. Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Oh man. I have no idea. What's up with the second one? With imitation? I feel like other parrots imitate things.

S: So let me clarify that. This is not mimicry. What parrots do is mimicry. By imitation I specifically mean, this is what is meant in the literature that is learning a new behavior by copying the behavior in a member of your own species. There's actual neurological hard-wiring that is hardwired for the imitation as a learning process that goes along with it. So it's not mimicry.

R: I'm going to say that that one's fuzz. The second one.

S: Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Uh, yeah. Imitation not munkoid. You know, I don't know if I can go along with that. My monkey cousins have often imitated beaten up birds. Give them right in the left. Unlike birds all you can do is stand around and peck. Dinos in decline before the meteor. Ok. And what was that third one about the birds? What was it?

S: So city birds can resist stress much better than the countrified birds.

P: Because the life in a big city-

S: Is so stressful, right.

P: Pigeons are walking around.

S: Pigeons are all stressed out in the city.

P: They're getting, and that would make sense too. I need to choose again for my monkey cousins, but, I guess number two sounds like the, that's the least chance of being real.

S: Alrighty, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I think I agree with both Rebecca and Perry.

R: Oh man, I'm gonna have to change mine.

E: Although something's telling me that number one is the curve ball here. I mean, that just sounds too reasonable for this particular game that we play. So I'm on the fence between one and two. I think three is correct Steve, because, I know you, you're an amateur, bird watcher and bird specialist.

P: Emphasis on the word amateur.

E: Well you just don't make it, you just don't make it in a professional way. But you know a lot about birds and stuff, and I think you would have known where to get that fact. And I'll take that as gospel. Oh, why don't I say number one is wrong.

S: Number one, okay.

R: I was actually between two and three. Interesting.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: So you all agree that urban birds can handle stress better than their rural counterpart. That is in fact science.

P: Of course it is. See some of those New York pigeons? Those guys are, there's some cool customer.

S: That is, that is in fact true. Let's go on to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Evan, you thought this one was fiction.

E: Yeah, but I'm on the fence about it.

S: But you're on the fence. Do you want to change your answer?

R: Oh, the old prisoner's dilemma.

E: I have, if I change, I have a better success if I change answer.

S: Of course you do.

E: So statistically I should change my answer, but, but my pride is with choice number one. That's what I'll keep it.

S: Number one is fiction. That is the fiction. You are correct, Evan.

P: Very good.

S: What the new study, in fact, shows is that there are probably yet to be discovered many dinosaur species that the golden age of dinosaur fossil hunting is still in front of us. It also confirms the notion that the dinosaur populations, dinosaur species, were thriving and doing just well when the meteor struck. This was a point of controversy for quite some time actually, and there were those paleontologists who thought that dinosaur numbers were declining and that the meteorite was the coup de grâce. It was the final blow, but they were actually already teetering on extinction. But that turns out to be probably just an artifact in the fossil record. Gould actually described this quite well in one of his books. The fact that the probability of finding a fossil closer to the surface in there for earlier in time is less, just on a statistical basis, that the rarer species are the least likely you are to find them closer to the surface. That would create this artificial mathematical notion that there were fewer and fewer species as you approach the KT boundary, the point at which dinosaurs suddenly became extinct. More thorough examinations of dinosaur bearing fossil strata showed that, in fact, dinosaurs are doing quite well. They were not in decline, and this study now confirms that resolution to that debate. So the opposite of what I said.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Which means that number two was science. And I did not realize I see that until I read the study, because I thought that imitation had also been described in monkeys. But nope, just humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, humans and apes. But now a recent study, which was published in the Public Library Of Science Biology, PLOS Biology: "Neonatal Imitation in Rhesus Macaques". Again, good old, what would we, what would monkey research be without the rhesus monkeys?

E: I know.

S: And they do demonstrate for the first time, rhesus monkeys imitating behavior of their adults and actually learning those behaviors from that monkey see monkey do is, in fact, turns out to be correct.

R: Interesting.

P: Good old monkeys.

S: So congrats Evan for getting that one correct.

E: Thanks. Thanks. I went with my gut. What did we learn here? Sometimes you go with your gut. Except when you don't.

S: Now last week, Rebecca challenged our listeners to remote view a playing card that she has on display in her Boston apartment. But we wanted to give our listeners a little bit more time. So we're not going to reveal the playing card until next week.

R: I wanted to point out that my apartment is up on the second floor. So please don't come to Boston and try to peep through my window. It's not going to work.

E: I guess I'm going to change my answer based on that.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:06:25)[edit]

New Puzzle:

He says that the power of the mind is like an iceberg, 90% of it lies beneath the surface.
He says that this 90% of the mind's power is the subconscious.
He says the subconscious listens and absorbs experiences - much like a sponge soaks up water.
He says we need only talk to our subconscious to make ourselves happy, relaxed, strong, or whatever else we desire.
He says the absorptive qualities of subconsciousness will make these things come true.
He says the subconscious speaks back to us and that we need to listen to it.
He calls this instinct and intuition.
He says instinct and intuition are psychic gifts.
And he says by listening to these psychic gifts, we use more power of our minds than Albert Einstein ever used his.

Who is this deep thinker?

S: We also do have a new puzzle for this week in Evan, who was our new puzzle master, is going to read his puzzle for this week. Go ahead, Evan.

E: Here we go. He says that the power of the mind is like an iceberg. 90% of it lies beneath the surface. He says that 90% of the mind's power is the subconscious. He says the subconscious listens and absorbs experiences, much like a sponge, soaks up water. He says we need only talk to our subconscious to make ourselves happy, relaxed, strong, or whatever else we desire. He says the absorptive qualities of subconsciousness will make these things come true. He says the subconscious speaks back to us and that we need to listen to it. He calls this instinct and intuition. He says instinct and intuition are psychic gifts. And he says by listening to these psychic gifts, we use more power of our minds than Albert Einstein ever used his. Who is this deep thinker?

R: I'm a little disappointed that one didn't rhyme.

E: No, no, no.

P: No more rhymes.

E: No, I didn't say that. I'm going to just we'll break out the poetry again another time.

P: Fine. Fine.

E: So wrap your minds around that for a while.

P: Leave you to think on that deep thinker. Tap into your subconscious and maybe you can pull out the answer.

E: That's right.

S: Well guys, thanks for joining me this week. It was another fun episode.

R: Thank you Steve.

S: Always a pleasure.

E: Thanks Steve.

S: Hopefully next week we'll report from Jay about his Mexican investigation.

E: Yep.

R: Indeed. Oh, oh wait, I just want to say happy birthday to my mom. Today's her birthday.

P: Happy birthday, mother Rebecca.

R: Mother Rebecca, that's not her name, but okay.

E: Mrs. Watson.

R: Mrs. Watson is fine.

S: Well, happy birthday.

P: Happy birthday.

E: Happy birthday and thank you for for giving us Rebecca.

P: Let's not crazy. Let's not crazy.

E: Oh, I'm crazy.

R: I'm her gift to the world.

P: As I say.

S: All right. Well, thanks again 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.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[7]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



  1. [url_from_show_notes _publication_: _article_title_]
  2. [url_from_show_notes _publication_: _article_title_]
  3. [url_from_show_notes _publication_: _article_title_]
  4. [url_from_SoF_show_notes _publication_: _article_title_]
  5. PLOS Biology: Neonatal Imitation in Rhesus Macaques
  6. [url_from_SoF_show_notes _publication_: _article_title_]
  7. [url_for_TIL publication: title]


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