SGU Episode 605

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SGU Episode 605
February 11th 2017
SGU 604 SGU 606
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
MO: Maureen Ohlhausen
Quote of the Week
I believe that we are a story-driven species and that we understand how things are put together, in the context of narrative. It's a shame that science hasn't been taught that way, in a long time. It's usually the fact completely devoid of any human experience or any idea of how the scientist came to that conclusion.
Ann Druyan
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Incredible comeback at Superbowl game
  • Hindsight bias in explaining game and in explaining election results

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

What's the Word (11:50)[edit]

  • Impedance

S: Cara, What's the Word this week?

C: The word this week is impedance. Impedance is a deceptively complicated word.

(Cara and Evan laugh)

C: So, let's get into it.

E: Simple

C: All right, Merriam-Webster, right off the bat, simplest definition you could come up with, "Something that impedes." Okay, sure. But that's not the impedance that we're talking about. We're talking about the quote,

"apparent opposition in an electrical circuit to the flow of an alternating current, that's analogous to the actual electrical resistance to the direct current. And that's the ratio of effective electro-motor force to the effective current. The ratio, or in other words, the ratio of the pressure to the volume of displacement at a given surface, in a sound transmitting medium."

Okay, so that was one in a circuit, that was it in a sound transmitting medium. Oxford says something similar.

"The effective resistance of an electric circuit or component to alternating current, arising from the combined effects of omic resistance and reactance."

Okay, that probably means nothing to a lot of people, so I think it's important to break it down. And the best way to break it down is to ensure that we understand the basic difference between AC and DC. Everybody here on the show likely does, but that doesn't mean that everybody listening does. So, if you remember the famous fights between Tesla and Edison, you may remember

E: Yeah

C: direct current

S: Oh yeah

C: and alternating current.

B: Yeah

C: Direct current came about first. It was the gold standard. And it's what a lot of people thought that most of our electrical infrastructure was going to be built upon. It was Edison's baby. He made a lot of money off of it. And then alternating current came about. They said it couldn't be done. Tesla figured out how to do it. And it really threw a wrench in a lot of things. Ultimately, our lives are much better for it.

The main difference is really implicit in the name, right? Direct current flows in one direction, directly. Alternating current switches and goes back, switches and goes back. It changes direction periodically.

S: You know what the frequency is?

C: Uh, oh wait! Something some - (growls).

E: It's in Hertz.

C: It's sixty? Sixty Hertz.

S: Sixty.

C: Is that right?

S: Sixty Hertz.

C: Yeah

E: Yeah, sixty

C: That's ambiant

J: All right, Cara!

C: That's in your - yes!

E: Well done.

S: And you know that if you deal with electrical equipment, which I do all the time,

C: Yeah

S: you know that because, if you're anywhere around technology, there is a sixty Hertz

C: Sixty Hertz in a ways

S: artefact

C: Yep

S: Yeah, there's sixty Hertz noise everywhere.

E: Yeah

C: That's how I remember it, from working in electric physiology, because we're looking at microvolts, right? We're looking at little

S: Yep

C: tiny measurements. And you would have sixty Hertz noise, and everything. So you would have to build a Faraday cage, and you'd have to subtract it from

S: Yeah, there's a filter. You have a sixty Hertz filter, basically.

C: Yeah, (Inaudible), yeah.

S: Filters out, yeah.

C: So yeah. So that's a main difference. Obviously, I could dig into this much deeper, but that's kind of a general difference between alternating current and direct currents. So, what is impedance then? Well impedance is necessary, as you heard in those definitions. Impedance is a measurement that we use in alternating current systems. In direct current systems, it's pretty easy to just call it resistance.

So when you look at a basic circuit, electrons flow from the power source all the way through. And it continues to cycle. And then you'll sometimes see things built in like capacitors and resistors, and all these different things that help stop the current, slow down the current, hold on to the current, and to change the outcome. If a resistor is in a DC current, or in a DC circuit, you can measure its resistance. It's that simple.

But in an alternating current circuit, because of the way that the electricity flows, and because there are a lot of other factors to measure, we actually measure overall resistance. So not just from the resistor itself, but from the capacitors, from everything that's there. We measure that as something called impedance. Now, I'm not gonna give you any sort of calculations. I think that we don't need them for the level of understanding what the word impedance means. But just know that impedance is the total resistance of a circuit using alternating current.

When you look at the actual etymology of the word impedance, it really does translate to hindrance. The first time it was used in full was in 1886, as that real definition, resistance due to induction in an electrical circuit. But if you start to break it down, you actually see that the word has these individual roots. Like, when we look at impede, what do you think impede literally translates to in Latin?

J: To get in the way of.

E: Stop. Block.

C: So what does pede mean?

S: A walk.

C: Pede.

E: Oh, walk.

S: Yeah

C: Feet. It's literally to shackle the feet.

S: Shackle the feet.

B: Cool

C: To impede is to shackle the feet.

J: All right.

C: Which makes sense.

E: Okay

C: That's how you hinder.

E: Sure

C: That's how you detain. And so over all, impedance is this hindrance, this resistance. Pretty interesting.

News Items[edit]

Super Bowl Drones (16:31)[edit]

GM Wheat (24:15)[edit]

Security Chips ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Baritone Trombone

Name That Logical Fallacy (46:49)[edit]

I want to know if the following is a formal logical fallacy or an appeal of some sort. It goes like this, 'Because you were wrong on this one point, you are wrong on all of your points.' The person arguing dismisses all arguments on a particular topic because they poked a hole in one of them. I have seen this online with some Trump supporters making the following argument: 'The Left' said Trump was like Hitler. Hitler had death camps. Trump doesn't have death camps. Therefore, Trump isn't Hitler, and every other criticism levelled at Trump can be dismissed in one fell swoop. What do you guys think? Jonathan Jarry Montreal, Canada

Commercial at 55:00

Interview with Maureen Ohlhausen (56:15)[edit]

(Interview music)

S: We are joined now by acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen of the Federal Trade Commission. Maureen, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

MO: Excellent, thank you. I'm really delighted to join you.

S: So, for our listeners, who may not be intimately familiar with the FTC, and many of which are not even from the United States, can you tell us a little bit about what the FTC is, and how you conceive its core mission?

MO: The Federal Trade Commission is an independent bipartisan agency. We have five members, no more than three are from the same political party. And the current presidential administration picks who the Chair is. Our core mission is protecting consumers in two ways:

We police against unfair and deceptive acts or practices - that's our Consumer Protection Authority. And we also have Anti-Trust Authority, where we ensure that consumers get the benefits of competitive markets.

S: Yeah, I think the Anti-Trust mission is less well known than the anti-fraud and consumer protection angle. That's interesting. I read some of your recent articles and speeches, and let's talk about the anti-trust thing first, only because I think that would be fairly quick. The philosophy that you have articulated so far is one of regulatory humility. Tell us about that.

MO: So, regulatory humility is my name for the idea that we need to act with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge. The ability to predict the future, we are not always very good at predicting. And we want to be sure that we're addressing real harm, that we've got good evidence of that. Typically in the anti-trust area, we're looking for economic evidence, and that whatever remedy we impose will ultimately make consumers better off. By protecting competition, rather than shutting off new forms of competition that may develop in the marketplace.

S: So, when in doubt, don't act, rather than impose regulations that maybe have unintended consequences?

MO: Exactly. So I often talk about the need to address real harms, rather than speculative harms. And there are harms that may not have occurred yet that aren't truly speculative. If we know a lot about the market, there are certain markets where have a very good understanding of how market competition plays out, and economics can predict fairly well what might happen say, if there was a merger between the two closest competitors in a marketplace.

S: Um hmm

MO: So we certainly can take action, and should take action there, and do very frequently when it's presented to us. But in areas where we have less knowledge, where there's less certainty, where there's a lot more prediction, we should act with greater caution.

S: And you've also said that you're a strong believer in the free markets to sort things out. Is that right?

MO: Absolutely! I think that the free market is the first line of defence for consumers. Competition makes other forms of consumer protection less necessary. We may need it from time to time, but a competitive market often presents consumers with more information, better products, greater innovation, more convenience. And so keeping markets competitive is a very, very important mission that protects consumers' interests over all.

S: Let's turn to more of the fraud prevention, and again, protecting consumers by giving them adequate information. So part of the motivation for this interview was the recent FTC decision regarding the regulation of homeopathic products, which we were very happy about, actually. I don't know if you are well aware of the fact that I am the editor of Science-Based Medicine, and you actually quoted us in the decision.

We were very happy with the fact that you said, "Okay, homeopathic products need to now require evidence for the claims that they're making on the label." So my question for you is, what were your personal thoughts about that specific decision by the FTC? And how far do you think that's gonna go? How much is the FTC really gonna be able to hold the homeopathy industry to that kind of standard?

MO: The FTC decided to take a look at homeopathic products given the vast growth of these products' popularity in the marketplace. So we did a workshop in 2015, and we followed that by a report with the policy statement. And the idea of what we said in the policy statement, the basic theme of the policy statement was, "If an entity is going to make claims about a product's ability to treat diseases, then it has to have adequate substantiation to show that that product works for that." And that is the standard we apply across all products, homeopathic or otherwise, very consistently.

And so in this policy statement, we said, "Well that same standard should apply to homeopathic products. It applies to over the counter drugs. It applies to dietary supplements. It applies to other products that are put forward, making claims about health benefits to consumers." So we said, "That same standard should apply to homeopathic products." But the challenge with homeopathic products is that they are based on a medical theory from the 1700's. And there are no valid studies using current scientific methods showing that these products are effective.

So what do you do there? How do you deal with that? My view is always, we should not be taking choices away from consumers. We should be giving consumers the information they need to make good choices for themselves, or at least have the information at hand. So that is what we worked on through this policy statement. We said, "Well, if you're going to make these types of health benefit claims, curing, or treating some medical conditions, you have to either have that scientific evidence showing that's effective, or you have convey to consumers the fact that these claims are based on these theories for which there are no valid current scientific study showing that they're effective." So, consumers have that information.

Then they want to go ahead and try the product anyway, they just have a different belief, that's fine. But we wanted to be sure they had that information.

S: So, yeah, that's where it gets interesting. And I understand that it may not be within the FTC's mandate to, again, to as you say, take choices away from consumers. But homeopathy's a very interesting test case, because the scientific community is pretty united in their opinion that it is one hundred percent pure snake oil. There really isn't any possible effect from homeopathic product. It's literally a magic potion.

So is there ever a context where essentially, the entire industry is a hundred percent fraudulent, that they're, so what is the benefit to a consumer of having the choice to buy a homeopathic product. Or put another way, is there ever a situation in which a consumer is not harmed by buying a demonstrably worthless health product?

MO: Well, one of the things that we do when we're evaluating health claims about products, to say what type of evidence is necessary to a substantiated claim, so we look at - and this is across products - we look at the type of claim, the product, the consequences of a false claim, the benefits of a truthful claim, the cost of developing substantiation for the claim, and the amount of substantiation experts believe is reasonable.

So using that sliding scale, for example, the FTC has taken action against products that were false cancer treatment products, right? Cancer,

S: Um hmm

MO: cures. And we said, "Well, in that case, the consequence of a false claim is very serious." You have someone avoiding getting effective cancer treatment because they think, the time it was shark's

S: Yeah

MO: cartilage would work. So we challenged that. And then we say, "Well, was the product itself harmful? Did it carry some kind of risk with it?" So I think that that is where we might actually go ahead. We don't have that authority to ban products. I mean, we're not the Food and Drug Administration.

S: Right

MO: But we could bring enforcement actions. And I think that for homeopathic products, our policy statement, I will say, is only limited to disease conditions that resolve spontaneously, with or without specific treatment. So that's the kind of thing, like you've got pink-eye, or you have a little rash, or something like that. We're not, our policy statement doesn't apply to serious disease claims. And that could be in a different, that would certainly be in a different category, because the risks of the false claim would be much higher than for something that, if untreated, would resolve on its own, perhaps taking a little bit longer time.

S: Yeah, so definitely, the harm is greater, the more serious the illness that is being claimed. But if you apply the principle of humility, that you were endorsing, where we don't really know what's going to happen, maybe we have to be more cautious. I could argue in this case that the downstream harm of essentially selling magical potions in the pharmacy alongside drugs, even with implied claims, is huge, because then people learn bizarre notions about health and disease.

And I know from talking to many, many people about this, there's an implied endorsement. They think, "Well, hey, they couldn't be selling it packaged in this way in the pharmacy if it were complete nonsense." But in fact, that's an incorrect assumption. They are doing that. So I guess my point is that there's a lot of downstream harm that comes, even if they are selling homeopathic products for more benign conditions, like let's say the flu.

Like, Homeopathic Arnica for the Flu, or Ossilicoxinum. I mean, that's like fairy dust diluted out of existence. It's basically a magic potion. It's being sold, there's a certain implied endorsement of that by the government, because it's allowed to be sold. Do you ever account for this sort of meta-harm that could come from industries like this, that are allowed to operate and sell products with implied health claims?

MO: Well, your question raises a couple issues.

S: Yeah

MO: First, I want to point out, we are not the only actor in this space. And in 1988, the FDA issued a compliance policy guide entitled, "Conditions Underwhich Homeopathic Drugs May Be Marketed." And it permitted marketers to distribute over the counter homeopathic products without demonstrating their effectiveness, as long as they are limited to these self-limiting disease conditions. But also require them to have at least one major over the counter indication for use.

So the FDA's were, on the one hand, requiring some indication for use. So we have to act with that regulatory guidance from our sister agency in mind. So with that being the case, and of course, the First Amendment, it would be difficult, I think, for us to absolutely prohibit the sale of these products. So instead, we've taken the path of trying to give consumers additional information. And one of the things that we're going to do, moving forward, is look at the impression of the homeopathic advertising to ensure that it adequately conveys to consumers the extremely limited nature of the health claim being asserted, and that it is based on these theories that have no modern, scientific basis.

I mean, if consumers understand all of that, and they still want to move ahead, and buy the product, ultimately, it resolves to, the ability of the consumer to make that choice for him or herself.

J: Has any of the changes that you guys have made had any measurable impact?

MO: It's still early days. So this only came out in, I think it was November

S: Yup.

MO: of 2016. And the first thing that we're doing is working towards educating the industry, and retailers about what is expected here. So we're working with the industry on a voluntary basis to foster compliance. And then we're going to continue that effort. And then at some point, we might consider enforcement actions if we think the homeopathic drug industry, right? This doesn't, I also want to be clear, this is for over the counter products. This doesn't apply to the practice of medicine or

S: Yeah

MO: homeopathic medicine, what someone can do in their doctor's office. So we're educating Industry, will monitor for compliance. And then, down the road, consider what steps might be necessary.

C: Can I ask, what does that compliance actually involve? What is the real world effect? What can consumers expect to see on the bottle that is different than it was previously?

MO: Right. So they're going to have to see on the bottle, and possibly in any other advertising that would make the health claim. So there's going to have to be a disclaimer that effectively communicates, first, that there's no scientific evidence that the product works, and second, that the product's claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700's that aren't accepted by most modern, medical experts.

And then we'll look to make sure that the disclosures stand out, and that they're in close proximity to the product's message about effectiveness. Individual producers, manufacturers, will have to decide how they want to make that disclaimer, but we have to make sure that it is effective.

S: I'm gonna pivot a little bit away from homeopathy, because I want to dive a little bit deeper on this issue of, it sounds like, and from reading some of your decisions, that a lot hinges on trying to anticipate what a typical consumer might think, based upon the kind of advertising that's being made. And I specifically want to talk about your statement regarding the Pom Wonderful decision, which was the Pomegranate Juice products.

For quick background, they claim that they're loaded with antioxidants, and then there's a lot of implied claims about the effectiveness of antioxidants. Can you summarise your opinion in this case?

MO: So that was the case in which the agency challenged claims that Pom Wonderful had made about the health benefits of pomegranate juice. And our concerns were that these were being kind of over-represented, right? There was some evidence, but how convincing was that evidence to show that pomegranate juice could treat heart disease, and other serious ailments.

Ultimately, we found that some of the ads (not all of the ads) but some of their ads did convey a much stronger claim than they were able to substantiate using the scientific studies that existed at the time about pomegranate juice. And so the Commission ultimately found liability for false and misleading claims in these ads. And I agreed that a certain subset of those ads did convey these false and misleading claims.

Where I differed from my colleagues, though, was where they said, as a remedy for these claims, that the company had to have two randomised, controlled, clinical trials. And two RCT's is the standard for drugs in the US. But this is not a drug. This is a safe product, a juice. So going back, I read to you the factors that we consider about the level of substantiation that we need. And one of the things is the product itself, and whether it's a risky product.

So if you have a product like a juice that somebody could just add to their diet, and it could have some benefits, and there has been some clinical evidence showing that it has benefits, my view was that a drug level standard for that, a 2 RCT standard was too high a standard, because what would likely happen is then, the producers of different food products might not invest in the science to substantiate these claims if they had to do it to such a high level. But the risks to consumers of drinking the juice was rather low.

So my view was that one randomised, controlled trial was sufficient. We didn't need two to show it. And so when this got argued before the DC circuit, the court agreed with my view, that the two RCT standard, which is for drugs, was too high a standard to impose on a safe product, like a food.

S: Yeah, so that's, again, that's interesting, and I want to explore that a little bit further, 'cause, from the scientist / physician end, we're involved with protecting the consumer from health fraud as well, but we have, I think, a slightly different approach. There was one sentence you made in your statement about this, that you said, essentially, it seems unlikely that a consumer would interpret a claim that a food or a supplement, that because it's effective in preventing a disease, that it could be used to treat that disease. And you thought that that was over-interpreting.

But I have to disagree with you, because in my extensive experience, that's exactly what people do. They completely conflate claims made for prevention and treatment. In fact, I have prescribed to patients preventive treatments that they used incorrectly. I said, "You take this to prevent something," and they took it to treat it once it occurred. So even with correct instruction from the physician, that is a very common mistake that people make.

So, first of all, what do you think about that? And again, it seems like you want to error on the side of, "Well, unless we have extrinsic evidence," right? "Unless we can prove that consumers are going to interpret it this way, we should assume that they're going to be reasonable and not interpret that way." But is that asking for too high a standard of evidence? Who's gonna do those studies to show that the average, reasonable consumer is going to misinterpret those claims that way?

MO: Again, I think a lot of this has to be tied to the claim itself, and to the underlying product. Also, the cost of doing the tests and the benefits of the truthful claim, and the risks of the false claim. So I don't think there's a single answer in that regard. So, for example, in nutrition science, one of the things that we have seen is that that has migrated quite a bit over time, right?

S: Right

MO: You know? Eggs are bad! Eggs are fine! This, margarine is what you want! Nope! Margarine is bad for you, right? So, I think that this is kind of a fast moving area, or has been an area with a lot of change in it. And one of the problems in the food area is, if you make the standard very high, it is not like the pharmaceutical area, where you have a patent for that molecule, or that drug that you've created, and all the individual drug company's investment can be recouped through selling that patented product for x number of years.

When you make the standard for foods too high, like too many tests, what happens is, you reduce the incentive for anyone in the industry to engage in that research, because it's very expensive for you to engage in it. Say, you want to make a claim about health benefits of carrots. So you're the carrot guy, you invest all the money to make this claim. "Carrots are a safe product. We don't have to worry about that. They're part of a normal diet." But you invest all of this, and then what happens is, you can't keep the benefit of that, if you show carrots have this extra benefit. Every other carrot manufacturer comes in.

So one of the things I think we need to keep in mind as we're thinking about things is very much carefully, the types of claims, and those kinds of things. So, maybe this is a very roundabout answer just to say there is no way to just say, "Well, we know in one case it may be this, and it applies to everything." Each product, each claim, each risk, you need to look at it on more of this kind of sliding scale, putting all those pieces together.

So, as for who the reasonable consumer is, we have, that's what we try to pitch it at. At the FTC, that's the standard. What would the average consumer take away? You always have more knowledgeable and less knowledgeable consumers, and the concern is if you are always pitching it at the less knowledgeable consumers, what you're going to do is have less information put into the marketplace.

S: Maureen Ohlhausen, acting Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, thank you so much for giving us your time. It was a fascinating discussion.

MO: Great, thanks so much, Steve.

Commercial at 1:19:14

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Scientists report the first discovery of a white dwarf pulsar, the only one known, just 380 light years from Earth. Item #2: Hebrew University archaeologists report that they have uncovered a 12th Dead Sea scroll cave with intact jars containing previously undiscovered scrolls. Item #3: A new study finds that, with a little provocation, two-thirds of subjects engaged in trolling behavior in online comments.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'I believe that we are a story-driven species and that we understand how things are put together, in the context of narrative. It's a shame that science hasn't been taught that way, in a long time. It's usually the fact completely devoid of any human experience or any idea of how the scientist came to that conclusion.' - Ann Druyan

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


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