SGU Episode 62

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SGU Episode 62
27th September 2006

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

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SGU 61                      SGU 63

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


JN: Joe Nickell

JR: James Randi

Quote of the Week

Pseudoscience is like a virus. At low levels, it's no big deal, but when it reaches a certain threshold it becomes sickening.

Phil Plait

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, September 27th 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Right-o.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: I'm under the weather, but I am here, my friends.

S: And Jay Novella.

J: Hola.

S: Rebecca is not with us this evening. She's having some difficulties with her apartment; something about the roof caving in...

E: Or the floor bursting up.

J: Her horrible landlord...

S: She has a slum-lord, basically. Rebecca is in the process of moving to some new digs, so she was just too busy to join us this evening, but we wish her well in her move. The good news is she'll have a better place from which to record the program, so there'll be less street noise in the background.

J: Yeah, so we haven't had a podcast that was just the boys in... months, months, months, right?

S: Yeah, a few months, this July.

E: She went to er... Europe

S: She was in Europe in July.

P: Yeah.

J: See how quick I forget?

S: We have an interview coming up a little bit later with Joe Nickell, paranormal investigator, and our second installment of Randi Speaks. But first, we'll start with some news items.

News Items[edit]

Follow up on Global Warming (1:24)[edit]

NASA: NASA Study Finds World Warmth Edging Ancient Levels

Astronomy & Astrophysics: Meteorites record past solar activity

S: There were a couple of global warming issues in the news this past week.

E: Yeah

S: Global warming is one of those topics that's just not going away—

J: It's a hot topic.

S: Every week there's something.

B: It's not gonna go away for a century

S: The first one is from NASA. A NASA study finds that the world is the warmest it's been in thousands of years; I've seen multiple figures now, but the one that's on their current—the article on their website says nearly 12,000 years. And if it gets just a little bit warmer, it'll be as warm as it's been in the last million years. So we're basically entering a phase where it's as warm as it's been in a very, very long time. Now, of course this doesn't say anything about what the cause of the warning is. This, I take it, is yet more confirmation that we are indeed experiencing a period of global warming. But the other question is "what is the cause of it?" Of course that is the debate: to what degree is it man-made versus to what degree is it normal cycle, or due to external factors.

There was another item though, at the same time, that caught my attention. It's a little tangentially related to global warming, but I thought it was relevant to this. There was a study published looking at the degree of solar activity. This was a study called "Meteorites record past solar activity", and what they basi—using meteorites—this is very interesting actually, because meteorites are not contaminated by terrestrial factors, environmental factors, but they are objects in the solar system, they can use meteorites to investigate the degree of solar activity in the past. And what this was was a survey of meteorites over the last 250 years or so, and what it showed was that in the past century, there has been an increase in solar activity. And in fact, it's been increased in the last half century. Now that caught my attention because I said "huh", you know? Now the scientists who found this result, are they claiming, or do they think that this would be an explanation for global warming? Since we're also getting—the Earth has been getting warmer over the last century. So, I actually emailed the lead author on this study; this was a Finnish study; the lead author is Ilya Usoskin. And I basically asked Ilya what he thinks about the relationship between this data, his data, of solar activity and global warming, and this is what he wrote back:

Thank you for your interest.
As concerning your question, we did not concentrate on this topic in our study. However, what I can say is the following. Solar forcing is considered now as an important factor in global climate changes, although the quantitative level of the solar forcing is still debated. Anyhow, the solar activity was increasing since 1900s until 1950-1960, quite synchronously with many global warming records. However, the solar activity did not grow further since 1960s, remaining on a very high (exceptionally high for the last millennium). This implies that the solar forcing did not grow during the last few decades, and we may expect an essential decrease of the solar activity level in the forthcoming decades, which somehow reduces the solar contribution to the global warming.

My personal point of view is that it would be not correct to believe that the global climate is driven by one single external factor, whether anthropogenic or solar, but by a combination of all factors. And the recent fast warming can be an unfortunate sum of the two independent processes. However, while the solar forcing is constant over the last decades and is expected to decrease in the future, other factors can keep growing. So, measures should be undertaken to control the other factors even though the solar factor might give a short break in the global changes.

B: I wonder why he thinks this solar contribution's gonna decrease.

S: They're just predicting the trends in future solar activity, so the solar activity is reaching a peak, therefore, if it was increasing and now—

B: Right, it's maxing out

S: —it's peaking, maybe we're gonna see a downturn. Which, either way, would be a good thing, to whatever degree it's contributing to global warming, or to whatever degree there is anthropogenic global warming, the fact that we're going to be having less and less of a contribution from the sun is a good thing. So at least, if anything, it might be counteracting the human factor rather than reinforcing it.

J: So Steve, factors like the sun actually can change in a short amount of time?

S: Oh, over decades, over centuries, sure.

J: That seems like a very short amount of time.

S: Well, solar cycles have been known for a while; you know, sun spots and whatnot, the solar weather does affect Earth climate. And then those change over a matter of years.

E: How accurate is the data they collected from the early 1900s, as compared to the data they're collecting, like, today? You know, the instrumentation and stuff obviously is all changed, and I wonder how much reliance there is on that older data?

B: The thing is, though Evan, is that the data from the meteorites can tell them what the activity was, relatively reliably, at any of these times, so it's not like we just have data from the past 50 years. They probably gathered data for many, many decades based on these meteorites. The only restriction was that they needed to know precisely when the meteorite landed. So if we know that this meteor came down in 1900—this meteorite—then they know, OK, in 1900, this is pretty much what the solar activity was.

S: Right. And the same thing for global temperatures; we can use things like ice cores, using basically a single modern technique to look back at historical temperatures. So we're not just relying upon what scientists from 100 years ago were telling us about what the temperature was 100 years ago.

B: Yeah, one of the important things about this study, that I see, is that their results run counter to a lot of the studies that I've read, that said that basically the sun hasn't significantly changed, and it's not having any impact. So when I read this article, it was a surprise to me that there may be some sort of solar contribution, which is actually kinda good news.

S: Which is why I wanted to follow up with him and see how he thought this fit into the whole picture. By the way, he did agree to be interviewed on our show at some point in the future—

B: Oh, good.

S: —we already had an interview for this week, but maybe we can talk to him directly about these issues. Very interesting. I think the whole science of global temperature and global warming is very fascinating. I regret the fact that it's so politicized, and an overall ideology—

E: Right.

S: —but just as a science, it's incredibly fascinating.

B: Now, Steve, one of the key things that we might need to talk about is actually how do these meteors reflect solar activity? And essentially, from reading the article right, is that the cosmic rays actually release this radioactive isotope, titanium 44—

S: Right

B: —while it's still in space, and then after it hits the ground, of course that stops, because it's not really being bombarded by cosmic rays anymore—

S: That's right

B: —and then it stops, and then they know what it was while it was in space.

S: Yeah, very interesting method.

New Pictures of the Face on Mars (8:23)[edit]

European Space Agency: Mars Express - Cydonia - the face on Mars

S: We have two other news items this week. The next one is new images of the so-called 'face on Mars'. Now, briefly, since the, I believe it was the 1970s, when the first images came back of—

B: '76, yeah

S: '76, of the Cydonia region of Mars. There was one of the pictures... had the rough appearance of a human face; kind of a square-ish head; you basically see one eye, what looks like half a nose, half a mouth, and the other half was in shadow—

P: Emphasis on rough appearance.

S: Very rough. In fact, there's a black hole where the nostril would be—

J: A black hole on Mars?

S: —that really enhances the illusion that it's a face. But that black hole is actually a dot of missing data from the photo; it's not actually a structure.

P: Yes, but how unusual that that missing data would be right where the nostril should've been.

J: Plus, don't forget, guys, there was also a very good Kermit the Frog image up there too, right?[1]

S: Yeah, if you look around, you'll see lots of images, and again, as we've talked about this before, this is just pareidolia, just fitting faces and other familiar images to random data, like geological formations. This was a hot debate between skeptics and believers for many years, and both sides awaited the future Mars probes, and the taking of much more higher-resolution pictures. In 1998, the Mars Global Surveyor took a picture of the same structure, and this picture clearly looks like just a mountain range[2]. I mean, it's—

P: A pile of rocks.

S: A pile of rocks, basically, yeah. And it completely eliminated any notion that this was some kind of an ancient alien artifact on Mars, some kind of a structure.

P: I'm sure all the "Face on Mars" people immediately retreated from their opinions.

S: Right, I mean, if they had any intellectual integrity whatsoever, they would have said "OK, we were wrong; let's move on", but of course, many of them clung to their "Face on Mars" nonsense. Well, now we have from the European Space Agency, they released a three-dimensional reconstruction based on new data of the Cydonia region, and it creates a very nice three-dimensional map of that mountainside, and it is just a mountain; just a mesa, a kind of hill formation. That's clearly natural, it's eroded and natural, nothing artificial or manufactured about it; it doesn't look like a face at all, although you can kinda see where like the nose probably was, and one ridge which probably was the mouth, you know, but that's it. So, yet one more nail in the coffin of the silly "Face on Mars" nonsense.

E: Hoagland? Hoagland, where are you? Hoagland?

B: I did a search on Hoagland to see what kind of reaction he's had, and I'm sure he's going to have one; it might just be too soon for him to have—

J: Oh Bob, we got his official reaction, you didn't hear it?

B: No, no.

J: Here's a recording of it... "OH YEAH?"


B: Well that's his best argument yet.

S: I think you're giving him too much credit, Jay.

P: Yeah, right.

B: His biggest complaint from the late '90s was that the tweaking of the photograph actually manipulated it too much to get rid of the proof, the evidence that it was actually constructed by an intelligence, and this one I'm sure maybe he'll have a similar argument, that the photo's been doctored, or that the manipulation that they normally just do to bring out details probably ruined the effect and stuff, but this looks pretty convincing to me; this is quite a photograph.

S: Now what he's taking about, of course, is the processing of raw image data that all pictures must undergo; if anybody out there has a digital camera, the camera will take the picture in a raw format and then process it to—process that information into an actual picture that you can see as a picture. That's all it's doing. So he's saying "oh look, it's processed", and yeah, it's just a generic processing that all digital pictures undergo, and also it's inconsistent, because the original photo that he was basing his original claims on was processed even more. So if he's going to discount pictures because of processing, the original photo is actually the most suspect. And also, it only makes sense that the higher resolution and detailed photos would be better evidence, but he wants to rely upon the older, less detailed photo, because that's the one where you can imagine seeing what you wanna see.


E: 'Back in the '70s'...

S: Right

E: (singing) Hoagland!


I have monkeys in my pants (13:11)[edit] Endangered Species Rescued from Smuggler's Pants

S: Well, one more news item. Perry, you have—

P: Indeed, indeed.

S: You wanted to talk about—you have some monkey-related news item.

P: Of course. I have a bit of news here that I think will finally put to rest our ongoing debate about who is tougher, birds or monkeys.

J: There was a debate?

P: Recently, a fella by the name of Robert Cusack, no relation to the actor, was stopped at Los Angeles airport. He was going through customs; he had just flown in from Thailand, when suddenly, a couple of birds-of-paradise escaped from his luggage and flew out over the heads of the customs agents. He was an animal smuggler; he was trying to smuggle them into the country, and, you know, of course the agents immediately grabbed him and they said "OK, buddy, do you have anything else to declare at this time?", and he said, and I quote: "I have monkeys in my pants."


P: Further investigation revealed that in fact, he had two loris pygmy monkeys in his underwear!

J: That sick, perverted bastard. Was there a lot of room in there?

P: OK, here's what I wanted to point out-

S: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush?


E: Oh!

P: Though sad, the birds-of-paradise which had escaped his luggage and got into the nice wide-open airport, unfortunately, all the birds-of-paradise died. They couldn't take it; their little feathery bodies, they perished in the airport. The monkeys survived a trip from Thailand to Los Angeles IN HIS UNDERWEAR! And continue to live to this day. Can you think of a more hostile environment?


P: Than these two monkeys survived in.

S: Than a smuggler's pants?

P: And they did. Now, come on, this puts to rest any argument about who's tougher: little birds-of-paradise, or these monkeys?

S: Yeah, but birds-of-paradise are not raptors.

P: Surviving in a man's crotch.

S: These are not predators, these birds-of-paradise.

P: Neither are these loris pygmy monkeys, you know! This isn't King Kong! These are little monkeys.

J: Evan, is he still talking?


P And they SURVIVED!

B: They must have been very little.

P: OK? Thank you!

J: Fascinating news item, Perry. Thank you.

E: Thank you.

P: End of story. So this should put this to rest—

S: I'm sure there will be no further debate on the topic.

J: Absolutely


P: Of course not

E: Wait, I think Rebecca's trying to call in. Can we take that call? No? Oh, all right.

S: Unfortunately, we're out of time for the news, so let's move on to your emails and questions.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Lightning Rods (15:53)[edit]

S: There were two emails in response to Randi's somewhat off-the-cuff comment about lightning rods[3], and I had not realised that they were so controversial. The first one comes from Ashley Zinyk, who does not give a location. She writes:

Hi guys ("guys" is commonly used to address a mixed-gender group in Canada)

S: Thanks for that information; I had asked about the use of 'guys' outside of New England. She wrote:

I think Randi made a mistake in Episode #61, with regard to lightning rods. He said that they don't conduct lightning "unless they're poorly grounded". I tentatively accepted that, and planned to look up further information later. The more I thought about it, though, the less it made sense. My previous idea of how lightning rods worked was that the current flowed harmlessly through a metal conductor instead of through something that might catch fire or explode. But how could a lightning rod work without conducting the lightning? Previous stories of lightning hitting the Sears Tower, the space shuttle, etc. agreed better with the conventional explanation.

S: She then said she looked it up and provided some references (see show notes). There was another email, this one from Glen Viller in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and he wrote a rather long email again, both of the entire content of both emails will be on our notes page, but just to hit the highlights, first he writes:

Greetings Mr Novella, gentleman and the lovely miss Watson,
I am a long-term listener and student of your fabulous podcast. At the very least, you and your cohorts have been the start of many quick searches for corroborating information. This letter is a result of one such search. I was very happy to hear that the Amazing Randi will once again be a regular on a podcast. During your September 20th podcast, one thing that caught my ear was Mr. Randi's theory that a lightning rod, if properly grounded, would not attract a lightning strike, and that they leak off positive charges from the earth, which would neutralize the charges in the atmosphere. I attempted to find information on this over the internet, but was unable to find anything of the sort.

S: Basically he's asking for a reference to support Randi's statement. Well, actually, at the time, what Randi said about lightning rods, again, that lightning rods are not meant to attract lightning, but to prevent lightning strikes by neutralizing the static charge in whatever they're attached to, that's exactly how I learned it in high school, and that's how I always understood it as well. In addition to the fact that it was a common misunderstanding, or myth, that lightning rods were intended to attract lightning. But I did some digging; I wanted to go back to the original sources and see what the references say. I actually found—as the listeners may or may not know, I work at Yale, and Yale has the collection of Benjamin Franklin letters, but I was able to access an online store of all of Benjamin Franklin's letters, and I searched through them to find his discussions of lightning rods, because, you know, he invented the things, although he called them 'points'. Again, we'll have this reference, but quite clearly, Franklin did a number of experiments where he showed that if lightning rods come to a fine point, then what happens is that the chance of the structure to which they are attached being struck by an arc or a lightning discharge is decreased, and the strength of the strike is decreased. If, however, the lightning rods are blunted, then they do not serve that purpose; they do not function. More recently, and again I have some more recent physics links to go over this, the story's a little bit more complicated. What happens is—so, if you have a lightning rod, which is basically a long metal or iron rod, attached to a building—usually it's at the top or above a building—and then through a conducting wire, like a copper wire, to a rod that's buried under the ground. And it actually serves both purposes. Again, the point does need to be fairly sharp, and what happens is, in a cloud you basically have a separation of positive and negative charge in the cloud, and you have a—so, there's negative charge building up on the bottom of a cloud, there's positive static charge on the surface of the earth, and then there's a forceful, or sudden, discharge of electricity to neutralize these opposing static charges. What a lightning rod does is it allows that charge to leak off slowly over time and to disperse into the earth, which is why it does have to be properly grounded, and therefore that electrostatic pressure is relieved without a lightning strike. So that is exactly what Randi was saying, and that is what Benjamin Franklin studied, and that is correct. However, the newer resources said that if the lightning does strike anyway—because it doesn't reduce the chance of a strike to zero, it just reduces it to some degree—that the lightning will tend to strike the rod, and conduct its charge through the wire and into the ground, and the electricity will be dispersed into the ground instead of into the building that it strikes. So it reduces the chance of a strike, but if a strike does occur, it does attract it and disperse it into the ground. So kind of both answers, in the end, are correct. But that's actually consistent with what Randi was saying, and what I remember from my physics class. So that's the story of lightning rods. It's always more complicated than it at first seems. Science always seems to have that extra layer of complexity when you really dig down to it. But it's—thought that was very interesting.

J: I always find it interesting when we stumble across something like this where it seems to me very obviously that a lightning rod gets hit by lightning; you see pictures of it, you know, it just—

S: One thing I always thought too, which I'm pretty sure is correct, is that if you've ever flown in a jet plane, they have these little lightning rods at the end of the wings. If the only purpose of lightning rods was to attract a strike, you certainly wouldn't put it on the wing of a jet plane. That's where they keep all their fuel, by the way. The fuel is usually stored inside the wing. The purpose of those is to bleed off static charge from the plane, so the plane does not attract lightning. It's to prevent strikes from occurring.

Psychic Astrology (22:07)[edit]

S: All right. One more email before we go on to our interview. This one comes from Erich (pronounces 'Eritch') Meatleg, which I thought that was an interesting last name, Meatleg—who gives his location as "an American living in Japan".

P: What's the guy's name?

E: Erich Meatleg

S: Erich - E-R-I-C-H, I don't know if that's 'Eric' or 'Eritch'. And his last name is Meatleg. Meat-leg.

P: (in disbelief) No it's not!

S: That's what he wrote! That's what he wrote. What can I tell you?

P: That's his handle.

S: Maybe.

P: Right, go ahead.

S: Maybe.

E: Maybe it's "Me-at-leg".

P: Very big, very big.


S: It's his nom-de-email. I'm not gonna read—he wrote a very long email. I'm not gonna read the whole thing, and again it will of course be on our notes page. He writes:

Hi guys and goddess!

S: Now, you know—

J: Aw, man

(general sounds of dismay)

E: Don't call Jay a goddess, please.

B: Yeah, please, don't.

S: It's just embarrassing, it really is. All right, listen, listen, guys. Rebecca's not on this show, so we can talk behind her back. Now—and I'm talking to all of our male listeners out there—we've gotta lighten up on the whole goddess business—

P: What's going on?

S: —with Rebecca, it's really getting out of control.

J: Well, what we need to let them know, Steve, is she's intolerable as it is.


J: Don't give her anything to make our lives more difficult.

P: It does also make you all look like a bunch of pathetic geeks.

S: Well, that's more to my point. Now, Rebecca is the Skepchick, so she's pretty much the voice of female skeptics, you know, more or less.

B,J,E&P: Absolutely, absolutely

S: And quite honestly, her vision of the skeptical movement is that it's overpopulated with middle-aged, or older, pathetic, desperate, nerdy guys.

J: I totally resemble that.

S: And every one of these emails just reinforces that stereotype, so I think we need to start working to reverse that a little bit.

B: So what do you want them to do? You want them to write in and say "Hey guys, and whoever that broad is on the show", or—

S: I don't know, maybe we could become a little bit more dapper, and—

P: Maybe we can reduce her to a demi-goddess.

S: (laughs) Demi-goddess?

E: "Hi guys and doll". How's that?

B: Skeptical rogues and roguette?

S: Rogues and the roguettes? (laughs)

J: Steve, let's let the listeners come up with what they want. Let's see what they do.

S: OK, all right; we'll see what we get. He writes:

First off, big fan of the show. I recently discovered it and have worked my way back to the BCER (Before the Common Era of Rebecca). I have been too busy with a major art project to write until now, so here are a couple of things.

S: I'm gonna skip to the question that I want to answer. He basically had an experience he wants us to think about. He writes:

I was a sophomore in college and I began my sophomore year in January having sat out at the fall semester for financial reasons. I was attending Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, which is a small private school with a student body of about 550 students or less. Some of my fellow sophomore classmates had mentioned in passing the name of a freshmen girl that apparently had some kind of ESP related to astrology (a double-whammy of magic crap!). One day I met her at the local Quicktrip (a midwestern convenience store) and I decided to test her out. I had never spoken to her before, but I recognized her due to the size of the school and the fact that we had seen each other in the cafeteria almost every day. I clearly remember walking up to her (henceforth I will call her Jane) and our first conversation went something like this:

P: You Jane, me Meatleg.


S: Is that how it goes?

P: Sorry, guys, sorry.

Me: Hi, how's it going?
Jane: Fine, how are you?
Me: Good. Nice eyebrows (she had dyed them a bright, unnatural yellow).

S: I guess she was going for that unnatural look

Jane: Thanks.
Then came the test time so I sprung the magic question.
Me: So, what is my sign?

Without hesitation, and true to school legend she immediately spit out "Virgo". Needless to say I was impressed, and as I said "Wow" and turned to walk away she blurted out "September 10th". THAT was the real shocker right there. On our first conversation and with limited exposure to my personality or any kind of real interaction with me, Jane was able to deduce not only my astrological sign, but also my exact birthday. This was the rumor that other students had reported to me as a quick quirk of her character.

P: That's it, Randi. Get the check book out.

S: That's it. He goes on, but that's the basic question. So what he basically wants to know is—he doesn't know what to make of this experience, he doesn't believe in the supernatural, but this was just an extraordinary experience he had in his life. What do you guys think about that?

J: Well I think obviously she found out that guy's birthday through one of his friends, or some channel; she found out what the date was. Of course.

P: Yeah, the thing that came to my mind is—remember, he said he saw her every day in the cafeteria, so somebody gave her the heads-up that this guy was skeptical of her abilities, and she did a quick study on him, or someone gave her the info, and bing, bang, boom!

E: He also gave her the info, as soon as she guessed Virgo, or whatever, he said "wow", obviously acknowledging that she was right, and then she says September 10th. You know, and the number 10 is interesting, because it's pretty much the middle of the month, which is I think, an old trick of mentalists, right?

S: Yeah, 'cause that's likely to be as close to something.

E: Right

S: Now, the other possibilities are that: one, she could've gotten lucky, there's only 365 days in a year, so it's not totally outrageous, and absolute lucky coincidences on that level should happen to us at some point in our lives, and this was his time, you know. So that's one possibility. I do agree that she was tipped off about him is a very, very likely possibility. It's also possible that she had this reputation because she had figured out some way of knowing her classmate's birthdays. Maybe people had IDs accessible, or something, or she was able to get that information easily.

P: Maybe she worked in the office.

S: She could have worked in the office. It's also completely possible that she committed to memory the birthdates of all 550 of her classmates. That is not that extraordinary a feat; I know people who can do that. When we were younger, we took a memory course; there are mnemonic tools you can use where you can commit some kind of—especially some piece of finite piece of information like birthdays, where you're dealing with months and days, and assigning that piece of information to 550 faces, actually would probably take someone a few hours, but is completely within human ability. It's certainly a more likely explanation than she's a psychic astrologer.

J: Yeah, I think we need to address the idea that it's much, much more likely that any of these took place, other than her actually having psychic ability. And also, I'd like to add that if she really did have psychic ability, if she was that good, just look at someone and name their exact birthday—

E: Why isn't she guessing lottery numbers?

J: Yeah, you know, not even that, though, Evan. Let's just say that that's her magic thing; she can do that. Then where is she now? Why isn't she showing the world that she can do it. Who wouldn't show off if they could do that?

S: Yeah. She would've taken Randi for his million dollars.

J: Yeah

E: And more than that.

P: Maybe she's like Captain Healey, you know. Has a genie but won't use the power.


E: (sings "I Dream of Jeannie" theme tune)

S: Well anyway, or it could be something that we haven't even thought of. It's obviously impossible for us to explain exactly how something was done in the past. We can't study, or scientifically investigate, a story about something that happened in the past. This guy's memory of what happened is likely distorted by time. He may be leaving out or forgetting or distorting details that would be important to understanding the method that was used. All we can do is give alternative hypotheses, and employ Occam's razor. All right, that's our email for this week. We have a very interesting interview coming up with Joe Nickell, so let's go to the interview now.

Interview with Joe Nickell (30:07)[edit]


S: Joining us now is Joe Nickell. Joe, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

JN: Pleasure.

S: Joe was on our podcast just about a year ago, one of the early episodes. Joe Nickell is a paranormal investigator; he is a senior research fellow at CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. He writes the "Investigative Files" column for Skeptical Inquirer; he's an associate dean at the Center For Inquiry institute; he's the author of over 20 books, including Inquest on the Shroud, Secrets of the Supernatural, The UFO Invasion, the Secrets of the Side Shows, his latest book, out in 2006, is Lake Monster Mysteries, and, Joe, you told me before we were on air that you have more than one book coming out in the works. Why don't you tell us about those.

JN: I do. Well, I have one coming out for sure, and that's called Relics of the Christ, and that's actually in press, University Press of Kentucky. I have another book under submission; we'll see if it's approved. And I've started yet another one, and I have more on the drawing board, it's... (laughs)

S: You're a busy beaver.

JN: I am. The Relics of the Christ is kind of exciting for me because it gave me a chance to update my old nemesis, the Shroud of Turin, also to look into all the other relics associated with Jesus and his family and his disciples and followers. It's a long list of the holy lands and the Titulus and True Cross, and the James ossuary, and so on, and the blood of San Gennaro. I've worked hard, and this is different places; I was in Italy a couple of years ago, and was able to do some research, and it's all... this will be the definitive look, I hope, at all the relics of the Christ.

S: Well, let's talk about the Shroud of Turin for a moment. So, again for our listeners, the Shroud of Turin is claimed by some believers to be the actual burial crowd of Jesus—burial shroud of Jesus Christ. And that it bears some kind of supernatural imprint of his image. And of course, you've investigated those claims, and you quote-unquote "debunked" them, and showed that the evidence all points to a medieval forgery. Now you tell us there's been some update; has there been some more research on the shroud recently?

JN: Well, it never ends. You know, the (laughs) pro-shroud faction keeps conjuring up rationalisations to get around the powerful evidence of radiocarbon dating, and a bishop's report that a forger confessed, the finding of tempera paint on the shroud, and so forth. And before his death, Ray Rogers had claimed that the carbon dating was done—the samples were taken from an area of the shroud that had actually been repaired. Now, this comes as a surprise to people who know that when the carbon dating was done, it was sampled; they had a textile expert there to make sure it was a good spot to take the sample. But Rogers imagines it must have been repaired, because he claimed to have found traces of cotton, and traces of rose matter there on little snippets that were left over. He claimed to have found those traces were unique on the shroud; they're not found anywhere else, and could only explain that it was a re-woven, or repaired area. In fact, of course, I rushed forward to show that traces of cotton and rose matter were found elsewhere on the shroud, and the rose matter, being a pigment, is sort of bad news. But this is the sort of way that they continue to look for—you know, to keep hope alive, and to try to convert the facts to their ends.

S: Right, 'cause they have their conclusion; they know it's legitimate. They're working backwards.

JN: I think that what happens is that the pro-shroud people start with the answer they want, and work backwards to the evidence. Whereas, clearly, those trying to get at the bottom of the mystery started with the facts, and let them lead pretty clearly to the inescapable conclusion that it's a medieval forgery.

S: Right, so they're trying to dismiss the carbon dating. Anything else new in the pro-shroud camp?

JN: Well, they're working as we speak. (chuckles) But nothing of any real seriousness, other than, of course, the companion cloth that's now being touted in Oviedo, Spain, that they're claiming was the Sudarium, the "face-cloth", the napkin, mentioned by John. Of course, if there really had been a face-cloth, then the face on the shroud of Turin would've been blank.

S: Right.

JN: But they imagine that they can see correspondences between quote-unquote "blood-stains" on the two cloths, and it's just another example of starting with an answer and trying to fit it in. The Oviedo cloth has reportedly been carbon dated to a medieval date, but the carbon dating... a couple of different samples were sent in, and they really weren't very secured and very... done under the best conditions, but taken at face value, it looks like it's more bad news for the Shroud of—

S: Yeah, right, right. I was interested to read, I think it was one of your articles on the shroud, that there was actually quite an industry of fake shrouds around this time, around this medieval time; that these were popping up all over the place, and this was just one of them.

JN: Well, there were, in Europe alone, by one count, there were more than 40 genuine shrouds. Now I know you quick thinkers there are saying: at least 39 of those—

S: At least.

JN: —must be fake.

E: (laughs) At least.

JN: Perhaps more.

B: So we're just skeptical of one extra shroud than everybody else?

JN: Right, the shroud of Turin, of course, is unique in that it's an image shroud, and it bears the front and back imprints of an apparently crucified man, and it's fair to say it's a pretty good piece of artistic work. It certainly fooled a lot of modern people. But, it does have serious flaws, in every way it reveals its medieval origins; it shows up at a late period, looking just like artists in the meantime had imagined Jesus would look. You can show that the iconography of the shroud image is consistent with Gothic art.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm

JN: I went to some pains in my book to show that, and detail that in some length. The cloth is a striped herringbone twill, and yes, that's consistent with the medieval date; there are not any specimens of that weave in linen cloth, let alone shrouds, from the time of Jesus. You know, not to mention the forger's reported confession. The bishop wrote a letter to Pope Clement saying that the truth had been attested by the artist who had painted it.

S: Right, it's pretty "case closed"; the evidence is overwhelming.

JN: I think absolutely science has won that battle. But unfortunately, the propagandists are winning maybe the propaganda battle.

E: Hey Joe, does the Vatican take a stance on this? Do they have an opinion as to the shroud?

JN: Well, the Vatican's opinion is sort of (chuckles) like it is on so many other things, the Vatican is not going to run rough-shod over the faithful. We see this in Mexico, where, for example, the image of Guadalupe, surely the Vatican must know what we all know, that the image of Guadalupe is rendered in paint; it's not miraculously bestowed. The person who supposedly—the virgin Mary appeared to and bestowed it to, Juan Diego, is pretty much either fictitious, or cannot really be proven to have been a historical figure. And that's—some of those facts are attested to by the former curator of the Basilica of Guadalupe, in Mexico. But of course, as soon as he said such things, they got rid of him, and I have no idea where he is right now. He must be in—

E: Interesting

JN: —Siberia or someplace, but he was gotten rid of, and they managed—the church managed, to canonize the apparently non-existent Juan Diego as a Saint. So why would they do that? Well, because that's what the Mexicans wanted.

S: Good for business.

JN: You couldn't run counter to that, and the shroud of Turin—the Vatican was forthcoming insofar as doing tests, and did get the British museum in to supervise it. And the radiocarbon laboratories did the dating, and that's been done. But the Vatican allows the faithful to sort of continue to believe what they want, and isn't going to lead the parade of skepticism.

S: Right, they're often coy, because they don't have to either endorse or reject it. They're just non-committal, therefore they're not committing themselves to known pseudoscience, but by not taking a stance they know that the faithful are going to believe what they want to believe, and that serves their purposes well.

JN: Yeah, and they do that with just a lot of things. You know, weeping statues; you'll often find that a local priest or bishop is pretty much as skeptical as I am, quite often. But they'll say things like "well, the church doesn't endorse this weeping statue", and takes a very cautious stand towards these things, however, if it helps the faithful come forward and renew their faith or so forth. So it's the sort of end-justifies-the-means approach that I am critical of.

S: Right

P: I trust you're yet to find a heartbeat in any of the statues you've been checking, Joe.

JN: (laughs) That picture of me with my stethoscope,[4] and that-

P: That's just wonderful.

JN: I had no idea, of course, when I did that how widely that would be circulated, and how much my skeptical colleagues would chuckle over it.

S: It's iconic.

P: It really is

(general sounds of agreement from all)

JN: Yeah, this was when I was down at Georgia at the shrine there at Conyers, Georgia, where Nancy Fowler claimed to be in monthly contact with the holy virgin Mary, and the local TV station asked if I would go, and I did go undercover and check out a variety of phenomena, and one of those was that statues on the premises had heartbeats. And there were a lot of things happening there, like taking photographs of the sun and getting these pictures of a sort of arched doorway effect, which looked very remarkable, a so-called 'golden door' effect that we skeptics came to know so well. And that was just caused by an artifact of the Polaroid OneStep camera[5]. Rosaries turning to gold and it turned out be tarnish in some cases, or they were rubbing off the cheap silver plate, and the brass was showing through. People being perfectly sincere, but rushing to judgement, expecting due to the climate there, sort of a heightened expectation of something miraculous. So when anything at all happened, it got a miraculous interpretation.

S: Right. Do you talk about the stigmata at all? Any cases of stigmata that you've investigated?

JN: I have written about stigmata quite a bit. Just a few years ago in Niagra Falls, Canada—or actually at Niagra the lake, Canada, I was at a site where a stigmatist named Lilian Burnas was, on a monthly basis, exhibiting this stigmata to a relatively small crowd of the faithful. But she would come out and was already streaming blood when she walked out in front of the crowd. And you could see that there were no markings on the bottoms of her feet, no markings on the palm of her hand, just the tops of her feet and backs of her hand, and little nicks around her forehead, all... just the kind of marks you could make with a little nick here and there. Clearly, not through and through wounds, so they were not convincing to me, and of course the blood flow ceased in very short order, as it would be expected to. I shook her bloody hand and got a very good look at her wounds, and convinced that it was not a miracle.[6]

S: Right. It occurs in such a fashion that it could have been easily faked, basically.

JN: Right. And at best, whatever it was, it was not the convincing wounds of Christ, and no wound in the side, and not through-and-through nail wounds, and so obviously not anything to take seriously. Consistent with superficial, self-inflicted wounds.

S: And speaking of icons, you mentioned that the Shroud of Turin appears in the Gothic style, basically the iconic graphic style of that time, of the middle ages. And that reminds me of a broader principle that you've illustrated in other venues, for example, in alleged aliens who are visiting the Earth. And also we now have 50 years, 60 years of a UFO phenomenon to look back on. And it's interesting when you do look back at the '50s and '60s, that the way the aliens look and behave and the kind of things they say and do fits the culture of the time, and we now have enough distance historically to sort of see that. The phenomenon's very much embedded in the time and culture. And you actually did an alien iconography, where you followed the reported form of aliens as they were basically reported by those who claimed to have been initially just encounters, and later on, abductions.

JN: Right, I did an alien timeline, and did sort of Walt Disney-esque cartoon drawings of the different types of aliens[7], starting in 1947 with some little green men, and showing the sort of imaginative variety of alien types over the years, of hairy dwarves, and cyclopean figures, and robotic forms and blobs and just all manner. Just as people would imagine; if I asked someone to imagine an alien creature, it would be all over the place. But then, with the Betty and Barney Hill case, you began to get the little big-eyed, big-headed humanoid, and that type came back and back until now, if you go into a toy store and you look at aliens, you see pretty much that's the standard model. Very unlikely that if life developed on some distant planet, that it would look so much like us. We tend to make the various entities that we're interested in in our own image. (laughs) And so Bigfoot is our big, stupid cousin from the past, and ET is our futuristic relative coming from the future back to save us. These are forms of us. Of course, ghosts are transparent forms of us; angels are us with wings, and of course, vampires are us with an attitude.

S: Yeah, it's interesting, I mean, it's not just that the little gray aliens look... they have no business looking as human as they do, they look like—they have those features that we psychologically associate with greater intelligence. So they look like more advanced, intelligent versions of humans, which would be an awful cosmic coincidence if that's what aliens ended up looking like.

JN: Right, a sort of naïve view of evolutionary biology that they'll have these vestigial bodies as they're no longer going to be lumberjacks or anything. Future man is gonna somehow dwindle away because he's not doing any work, but he's got a big head, with a big brain that's getting bigger and bigger. Sort of a naïve view of what really happens, and that's pretty tell-tale, I think.

S: Yeah.

JN: And of course that model existed in science fiction before it—that's an interesting thing in itself, that flying saucers were in some of these pulp magazines like Amazing Stories back in the '30s and '40s, were there before they started appearing for real. And what happened, is that as soon as people saw the first things in the sky after that, that they couldn't identify, they kind of imposed on what they saw a model for what they were supposed to look like.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm

P: Joe, you recently did a piece on Dorothy Allison, who, I guess made a psychic sketch of John Mark Karr, or at least the murderer of JonBenét Ramsey, the alleged murderer. What can you tell us about that?

JN: Well, as soon as Karr showed up, claiming that he was the murderer of JonBenét Ramsey, or apparently claiming that, I was convinced he was a false claimant, and have witnesses that about 20 seconds after he made the claim, I was skeptical of it.

S: Yeah, that was our reaction too, actually.

JN: But I got reactions from people, got phone calls from people who were saying, "Well, I guess you skeptics are about ready to give up," you know... (laughs)

E: They had their finger on the button waiting for this moment?

JN: Well, I really did get such calls, and Randi did, and others got calls from people saying, you know... and of course it was all over the blogosphere, and people were saying, "my goodness, how remarkably like this earlier sketch Dorothy Allison had done of her imagined killer, and how much this guy looked like"—and I looked at the pictures, and thought it looked nothing like the guy, really.

S: Yeah, I agree. It was a generic, creepy, middle-aged white guy.

JN: Yeah, and so, because I have some facial recognition skills, being a portrait artist[8] and so forth, in fact, because I had more recently been taking caricature lessons, I was motivated by this incident to create right there, as sort of homage to James Randi, I created the new field of forensic caricaturing.


JN: But what I did was—

J: It sounds funny, but I think it's a great idea. I'm looking at their sketches right now and they're really—

JN: It's a serious idea, and they're not really grotesque caricatures like you could do for really humor. But what I did was I just took the two pictures, Dorothy Allison's drawing that she had a police artist do with her direction, and a picture of Karr, and just drew exaggerated versions of them in a style that would illustrate, and you could list the differences, but you could just see them much clearer by just doing a caricature and just exaggerating it.


JN: And next thing I knew, I'd written a little piece on it, and published it here and there.[9]

S: But what it shows is that the believers, of course, were saying, "well look at the remarkable similarities", but they were making the classic mistake that they always make, and thar is seeing similarities when they're only vague and ambiguous. And what you were doing is saying, "if you're going to say that these actually match, you have to match them in sufficient detail that it's actually predictive and probative." And when you actually look at the little details, they don't match. I think that overall principle, we see over and over again.

P: It's more after-the-fact matching, which you called "retro-fitting" in your piece here, Joe.

JN: Yes, retro-fitting really worked (chuckles). Once you've said some things, or done something, and then you know the true facts, you can just fit it right up. The police psychics do this a lot with their so-called "clues" that they give police, which, you know, they may say "I see water; I see the number seven", and so on, this isn't, of course, helpful to police at all who somehow muddle through, and police work, or the luck of someone walking a dog or whatever, find the missing dead body and then in comes the psychic, saying "now remember, I mentioned water, and the body was found near a creek" or a lake, or a stream, or a pond, or a water tower, or riverside drive, or—

P: A sink.


JN: And remember that number seven?

J: A wet towel.


JN: That's right.

S: A tree sprouting water?

JN: But remember the number seven; there were seven people in the search party, or it was off highway seven, or the sheriff's license plate had a seven in it or something.

P: Right

JN: It would be funny, were it not so tragic, and did it not so demonstrably waste police resources time and again. But I remember, I've had a police commander telling me once, rather seriously, saying, "look, it's well and good to be skeptical of the psychics and so forth, but when you're on the spot as the police commander, and you can't find someone who's missing, and parents are begging you, and it's in the newspaper stuff, and a psychic gets attention by claiming they know something, it's not so easy to withstand the pressure". Of course, some police are quite credulous, and buy in to psychics, really. Far as I know, Dorothy Allison never solved a crime, but you would think otherwise to listen to the propaganda that still comes out from believers.

P: Joe, did any of those eager callers phone you back when Mark Karr's confession fell apart?

JN: No! I even called one and tried. (laughs) As it began to fall apart publicly, they apparently didn't wanna hear any more about it and didn't want to gloat at my expense any more.

P: (laughs)

JN: Hunkered down, and that was the last I heard.

S: So Joe, we were talking earlier; you said you were recently in Peru on an investigation. What was that about?

JN: I finally got there. I had been wanting to go to Peru, for actually decades, because of the giant Nazca drawings there. In 1982, I had shown that the Nazca drawings, which were made by the ancient Nazca culture, and quite large figures of birds and other animals, so large you could only see them from the air. And I had an idea to make one, and in '82, with some relatives, about six of us in all, we made, over a two-day period, we made a giant condor, just 440 feet long, humungous figure. We used simple materials and showed that, contrary to the claims of ancient astronaut aficionados, that it is possible to make these drawings using simple means, and no aliens need apply. It was very successful; Scientific American called the replication quote "remarkable in its exactness to the original". So it was a very good project, but I had not been to Peru, and I was a little bothered by it because I am very much a hands-on guy. I would've liked to have gone there, but being a very poor fellow at the time, really couldn't afford to just fly off to Peru. But I was able, at the time, to go to the Mojave desert, in California, and see the giant ground drawings there, so I had seen giant ground drawings, and I had pictures of the Nazca drawings, and a lot of information, and I was able to use that and make the figure. Then started talking with National Geographic about making a figure, and they needed me to make the figure before my Peru trip, and I thought 'here we go again'. (laughs) I would like to go to Peru and see the drawings and then make a figure—that would make sense—but their schedule required me to do it before I went to Peru, so they begged me to come out of retirement. There aren't many of us giant Nazca drawing makers around.

P: A rare skill.


JN: We're a very small and endangered population. I really thought they would like the giant spider, and realised the spider was only maybe about a third as big as the condor. So I did agree, and I flew out to California ranch, and I did make the giant spider, and made it in a day. About mid-way, the producer came up when we were getting ready to take a break and go to lunch, and the producer said—she was up on a cherry picker way up in the air; they were filming this as I made it. And they said, "this is looking really good. Would you like to come up for a look?" I fixed my eyes on hers and said "no, that would be cheating".

S: Right

JN: The Nascas didn't have giant cherry pickers to view from. And she said, "yes, quite right."


JN: So, I made it and stood inside the giant arachnid, and got a picture, and now I'm known as "spider-man"!

S: Spider-man.


JN: And then went on to Peru, and we commissioned a plane to take us out over the desert pampas, and it was just a great thrill for me, you know, a long time dream come true to get to fly over these giant drawings and just actually see the condor and the spider and the monkey and so forth. I was convinced after that that the Nazcas certainly did something simpler than what we did. I had sort of used overkill, and plotted lots of points off of a center line, and it was clear to me that they had not done that. And so when I did the spider, I did it in a simpler way, and was pretty confident of what I was doing. And I may, someday, make one more. I've got an idea for yet another way to do it, maybe even simpler yet.

S: Maybe you could do a Nazca caricature, and combine all of your—

JN: Hey! That's an idea!

S: Have you ever made a crop circle, by the way?

JN: I have made crop circles[10].

S: 'Cause I would think that would be kind of similar.

JN: Rather than sneak out at night and risk being shot, and also I think rather unethical to go destroy part of a farmer's field, we made one once out in a field and paid the farmer for the damage. (chuckles) And he was quite amused with the whole thing. People imagine these things to be much harder than they are. With crop circles, for example, people who have done any kind of geometric drawings with a straight edge and a compass, maybe done a little drawing in a high school geometry class or something. And if you can do it on paper, you can enlarge it on the ground.

S: (agreeing) mm-hmm. I remember we were at a lecture once, you guys remember this? And the topic of crop circles came up, and one of the believers, credulous people in the audience, made the comment that, "some of those crop circles have perfect circles, and that's just impossible, there's no way to do that." What do you mean, like a stake and a rope? This person's never worked with a compass? I mean, they were so willing to believe that these were magical, or supernatural, or alien phenomenon because she couldn't imagine how they could possibly make a perfect circle, but—

JN: And that's it. It's really the lack of experience, but those of us who sort of are used to rolling up our shirt sleeves and trying things, you know, kind of "let's go give that a whirl," and who occasionally learn things the hard way in so doing. But you find that things are not so difficult sometimes.

S: Joe, we're almost out of time, but I did want to ask you one more question. I did let the members of our message board know that we were going to be interviewing tonight, and one of them sent in this question. This is from Freamon, again from the Skeptics' Guide message boards, he wrote:

What has been your most challenging investigation of the paranormal? I have heard a couple of your past interviews, and you mentioned a parallel staircase that explained ghostly footsteps. Has there ever been anything particularly challenging, or required deep investigation to get to the source of the problem, and have you ever had a situation where the explanation has been normal but surprising phenomenon?

JN: Hmm, well that's a very good question. Some things stand out over the more than 30 years now that I've been doing this. I had no idea when I was looking in to cases of spontaneous human combustion exactly where some of those would go, and intrigued to find out that there was something called a wick effect that we picked up. I worked with a forensic analyst, and we saw this speculation, this wick effect, in the literature and examined some cases where that absolutely seemed to be the explanation.[11] And of course people on the other side, promoting the mystery of spontaneous human combustion, laughed at the skeptics for this notion that your body fat could be absorbed into clothing or a carpet or something, and fuel the fire to burn still more of the body, but in fact that's now—a fire expert has absolutely, using a carcass of a pig, and under controlled conditions, has shown that in fact it works. So that's the interesting and exciting. Many cases that I've done that I just had no idea where they were going. As to difficult, they're difficult in different ways. The Shroud of Turin was difficult in that it just required just so much stuff to get into. It's a subject you can't look at lightly; you have to be prepared to just immerse yourself in it for years. It's certainly been rewarding to look at cases and—

S: Yeah, and you're very successful at it, too.

JN: An unexpected one was the Flatwoods monster in West Virginia, and I was not prepared for what that answer would be, but I'm quite confident that those boys saw a barn owl that night, and it scared them to death.[12] Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

S: Well, Joe, it was great having you on again. Thanks for coming back.

JN: Always a pleasure.

B: Thanks, Joe.

E: Thank you, Joe.

S: We'll have to make this a regular thing.

JN: I'm available.


S: All right. We know where to find you.

E: Absolutely.

S: All right, bye-bye.

P: Good-night.

J: 'night.

E: Good-night, Joe.

Randi Speaks: Left Behind (1:02:36)[edit]

S: And now it's time for 'Randi Speaks'.

JR: Hello, this is James Randi. Sitting in my office here in Fort Lauderdale and looking at number 12 in the 'Left Behind' series, 'Glorious Appearing'. This is something that I spoke about on Swift; I think a couple of weeks ago. I can't get away from it. The book is so fascinating in its idiocy. I turned to a section earlier today—let me see, yeah, down near the end of the book. The authors got a conversation going between somebody and somebody. I don't know; doesn't make much difference. Oh, it's between Chang and Chaim? Duh! Anyway, the conversation goes like this:

"Let me get this straight, Christians who died before the Rapture were resurrected at the time of the Rapture?"
"Old Testament saints will be resurrected when?"
"Soon, during the interval between the glorious appearing, and the millennium."
"And tribulation martyrs?"
"At the same time. Old Testament saints and tribulation martyrs will live and reign with Christ in the millennial kingdom."
"Well what about other people who have become believers during the millennium?
"They will be resurrected at the end of the millennium.
"Even though they're alive?
"And the unredeemed won't be resurrected until after the millennium either, for the great white throne judgement.
Chaim smiled. "Now you know as much as I do". "So" said Rayford "my wife and son, who were raptured, were in that army of heaven behind Jesus?"
"But my daughter and son-in-law, who were martyred during the tribulation, will soon be resurrected"
"So we'll get to see our friends and loved ones soon."

JR: Come on, friends! What is this? It doesn't make any sense! It never did make any sense! It's written as for juveniles, but I guess those are the people who bought the tens of millions of copies of these books. Incredible, isn't it? Well, I can tell you for sure now, I'm certainly going to be left behind, with all of you other folks, I'm sure. My life is just full of wonderment. I'm always carrying on in Swift about things like, oh, magnets in the soles of your shoes, or a magical chip of some kind that you lay on top of CDs in order to improve their quality. I could laugh at things like this if it weren't for the fact that millions upon millions of people buy these products and services. And why is that? It's simply because they're not educated. They're not sophisticated enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality. And there's another element here: bravery. A certain amount of courage is required in order to face up to the fact that you may not get to live forever. Wow, you mean I'm gonna die some time? Yeah, 'fraid so, gonna die. Maybe, besides having a better education and an instruction somewhere along the line in the difference between the real and fantasy, we also need to adopt some bravery; some courage to face up to the real world around us. I'm periodically being told by people who have adopted a rational point of view that they're really much happier that way. They're able to handle real situations in a real world. They've been relieved of the mythology and the nonsense that they've been educated in. And being relieved of that should be doing a favor for them. Remember, we're not asking them to do anything for us. We're doing them a favor. As for the goofs who read 'Glorious Appearing', or any other 'Left Behind' series stories, there's no hope for them at all. I think we really have to abandon them because we can't do anything for them. Now, we should try. The reason is that they vote, and that's gotta be a sobering reason. Think about it. As I leave here today, I have a suggestion. If there are any subjects you'd like me to handle in these five minute segments, that we assume will go on forever and ever. I'd like to hear from you. You can write to me at; that will do it, and that's Randi, R-A-N-D-I, of course, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can. I hope that I'll be able to satisfy your needs, so suggest any subject that comes to mind that you'd like me to discuss. And you may even send along a few suggestions and/or questions. I'd be happy to answer those for you. Thanks for being with me today, as usual, this is James Randi, and we thank you for the use of the hall.

Science or Fiction (1:07:38)[edit]

(jingle) It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Every week I come up with three news items or facts, two are real, and one is fake. And I challenge my skeptical rogues to tell me which is the fake. Are you guys ready for the three items?

J: Absolutely.

S: All right. Item number one: A newly published study shows that high levels of testosterone kill brain cells. Item number two: A newly published review of prior research shows that the most effective method for getting people to adopt healthful behavior, such as quitting smoking, is to use both fear and shame. And item number three: Researchers have discovered that tarantulas can produce silk from their feet. Bob, why don't you go first?

B: OK. Silk from spiders' feet.

S: Yes, previously, of course, it was thought that spiders only produced silk from their spinnerets in their abdomen.

B: I'm OK with that. Number two: use fear and shame to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. I mean fear and shame, I mean, yeah.

S: Yeah, quit smoking or you're gonna die from lung cancer.

B: That would work. Oh wait, Steve's supporting that one, so maybe I won't pick it. Let's see, testosterone kills brain cells, I could see that. I mean... one!

S: OK, you think one is the fiction.

J: Bob, out of all the years that you and I have been fans of spiders, I never read anything about silk coming out of their feet. So I'm gonna go next—I'm gonna go next, and I'm taking number three.

S: OK, Evan?

E: Tarantula's fake.

S: Tarantula's fake.

J: (laughs)

E: There you go.

S: Short and to the point. Perry?

P: Well, since none of these have anything to do with monkeys, with the possible exception of testosterone, yeah. I mean, you know, the second one, fear and shame? That's what drives humanity, isn't it? It's perfectly believable. Testosterone, big dumb mugs? Sure. I don't know how you can make silk without spinnerets, so unless their spinnerets are on their feet, the third one is fake.

B: Sorry, guys.

S: Well, so you all agree that fear and shame is effective.

B: (agreeing) mm-hmm

P: Of course!

E: It's a fact.

J: I love it.

S: (chuckles) And in fact, that one is fiction!

P: Ooooh.

S: I got you all.

B: Aw, Jesus!

P: What? Get outta here!

E: That rarely happens.

J: Wah-waah

P: That's nonsense.

B: Holy crap.

S: The truth is actually the exact opposite. What this study shows is that fear and shame is the least effective method of getting people to change their behavior.

J: Wow.

S: It in fact does not work well at all.

J: OK, but I have to ask this question now. Bob!

B: What?

J: Did you know about the—

B: Yeah.

J: —tarantulas' feet?

B: Yes, yes I did.

J: And I'd like to thank you right now for not sharing that tidbit with me.

S: (chuckles) So, just to finish the first item, this was published in the Economic and Social Research Council, and it shows that positive, informative strategies, which help people set specific health and environmental goals, are far more effective when it comes to encouraging behavior change than negative strategies, which employ messages of fear, guilt or regret. This is a review of 129 different studies over 25 years.[13]

E: Nah, that's not enough data.

J: (laughs)

B: Yeah, 130's the magic number. What were they thinking?

E: At least.

S: The psychological community's been moving in this direction in any case. I mean, it's not a surprise that studies over the last 25 years have shown this because people who are familiar with those studies know this, right? Already sensed that this was where the literature was headed, using positive reinforcement, and social norming, and things like that, are more effective than just trying to scare people out of it. Now, the implications as a physician—has interesting implications, because as physicians, we often will tell people that, you know, smoking causes cancer and heart attacks, and so you should quit. And it's kind of a rational argument. We think that people will change their behavior based upon that message. And in fact, the studies suggest that those kinds of strategies are not so successful, and maybe we need to think about other ways of communicating these to patients. So, Bob, you've seen this study—

B: Yes

S: You were telling me that the tarantulas produce silk from their feet. And Jay, of course, you're right; you know, there wasn't any previous information about tarantulas producing silk from their feet, because this is new! This was just discovered.[14]

P: Then they must have spinnerets on their feet!

B: That's something you can... spinnerets.

S: Or they have something that—it may not necessarily be spinnerets, but they have some glands which are excreting silk. Now, what's really interesting about this is that it's changing our thinking about how the whole spider silk thing evolved. This opens the possibility that perhaps spiders initially evolved the ability to excrete this silky substance on their feet because it increases their traction on smooth or slippery surfaces, and then only later evolved the adaptation for using it to spin into strings that they can use to trap enemies, to suspend themselves, to build webs, et cetera. So, changing our thinking of spider evolution.

J: That's awesome. I'll have to read about it.

S: And number one is about the high levels of testosterone killing brain cells is also true. This study basically was looking at high levels of testosterone. Not necessarily meaning that the normal levels that you would see in a guy compared to a woman. This doesn't mean that men are dumb because their testosterone is killing their brain cells. This study comes out of Yale University, actually; my place of employment. And it basically showed that artificially high levels of testosterone, like the kind of levels you will get from taking anabolic steroids, could actually cause what's called apoptosis.[15]

B: Cell death.

S: Apoptosis is when cells—it's like a pre-programmed cell death. Cells induce their own death; they just splice and spill their contents into the surrounding milieu and are dead. So that's a bad thing. So, high levels of testosterone causes apoptosis in neuronal cells.

J: 'Roids are bad, 'mkay?

B: I hate it when that happens.

S: 'Roids are bad, right, that's the bottom line there.

J: So I lose again!

S: Nobody got that correct; I got all of you that time; a clean sweep.

E: Well done, doctor.

B: That was good, Steve.

E: Very good.

P: It was outrageous.


E: Monkeys in the pants? Really?

P: I have monkeeeeys in my pants.

S: In my pants! That is a line that will live in infamy! I have monkeys in my pants.

P: In my pants, right next to my Meatleg!


J: Careful.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:14:25)[edit]

S: All right. We have a skeptical puzzle from last week. Last week's puzzle was the following. This comes from Alden Johnson from Port Ludlow, Washington, and he sent in:

To use a marine lock, like those on the Panama Canal, a boat enters the lock and the gates are closed. Water is then allowed to flow into (or out of) the lock to raise (or lower) the boat to a new level. Consider two different boats cycling through the lock: a cruise ship which barely fits into the lock and a kayak. Which requires more water to flow into or out of the lock to cycle the vessel to the new level?

S: So, which requires more water to flow into or out of the lock? The cruise ship or the kayak?

J: In my opinion, the kayak.

S: How come?

J: Because it's smaller. It doesn't displace as much water.

S: That is the frequent misconception, and that's why this can be tricky. In fact, it's the same amount, regardless of the size of the ship. So think about it this way: imagine, if you will, the cube of the lock, filled to some level with water and with a ship in it displacing water. It doesn't really matter how much water's in there—or rather, it doesn't matter how much of that water is being displaced by the boat. In order to raise it from a low level to a high level—and again, in the examples we're assuming that the starting and ending levels are the same. You have to imagine you're filling the lock with a different color water and it's all flowing into the bottom. The amount of water that you would have to fill the bottom of the lock with in order to raise the water level to the upper level will be the same in either case. Can you imagine that? It doesn't matter how much of that water is being displaced by the boat, the amount of water you have to add is the same. Or that you would take away.

J: Well, I can't visualise it, but I'll take your word for it. All right.

S: Evan, you have a new puzzle for us this week. Let's hear it.

E: OK. Here you go, folks:

A ash-bark perpetual motion machine was conceived a very long time ago.
Who proposed it?

E: Now, here's a hint, here's a hint for you: the answer lies within the statement I just read itself, so...

S: OK.

E: Rack your brains and try to come up with it.

J: It was obvious; it's Mr Ashbark.

E: Enjoy.


S: Thanks, Evan.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:43)[edit]

S: Well, that's our show for this week. As we've been doing in the last few weeks, we're gonna end with a skeptical quote of the week. Bob?

B: Yeah, I found a good one by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, regarding pseudoscience.

J: I love him.

B: Yes, good guy. He said:

Pseudoscience is like a virus. At low levels, it's no big deal, but when it reaches a certain threshold it becomes sickening.

B: Which I think is a good way to describe pseudoscience. That's pretty much it. A lot of them are like that, you know? You hear about it and you're like, "oh, gimme a break!" and you're not too upset. But when everybody starts talking about it, you're like, "oh my god, I just feel like puking when I hear about this thing."

J: (laughs) That's a cool quote, Bob.

E: Yep, very good.

S: A It's a good quote from Phil, who's a great guy.

E: Yes he is.

S: All right. Well, that's our show for this week.

E: Good show.

S: Everyone, thanks for joining me again; always a pleasure.

J: Thank you Steve.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, 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]

  • NASA study suggests the Earth is now warmer than it has been for 12,000 years (NASA link)
  • A study of Titanium 44 found in meteorites indicates that solar activity has increased significantly during the 20th century, peaking around the 1960s and remaining very high (Press release)
  • Lightning rods serve a dual purpose. If they come to a fine point, they reduce the risk of lightning strikes by relieving electrostatic pressure. However, if lightning does strike, then the rod will attract it and disperse the charge into the ground, rather than the building it is attached to
  • Jet planes commonly store fuel in the wings
  • Artificially high levels of testosterone, e.g. from anabolic steroids, can cause apoptosis in neuronal cells[15]
  • A review of 129 studies over 25 years found that positive, informative strategies are more effective in changing behavior than negative strategies, e.g. employing fear, guilt or regret[13]
  • Tarantulas can produce silk from their feet[14]


  1. Photobucket: Kermit the Frog on Mars
  2. Wikipedia: Cydonia – Face on Mars: Later imagery
  3. SGU Episode 61: Randi to join Skeptics' Guide
  4. From Joe Nickell's 'Personas': Paranormal Investigator, including photos
  5. Joe Nickell (1996), Miracle Photographs, Skeptical Inquirer, vol 20.2 Mar/Apr
  6. Joe Nickell (2004) The Stigmata of Lilian Bernas. Skeptical Inquirer, vol 28.2 Mar/Apr
  7. From Joe Nickell's 'Personas': iconographer
  8. From Joe Nickell's 'Personas': Portraitist
  9. The Sketchy Skills of a Psychic Sleuth, Joe Nickell
  10. From Joe Nickell's 'Personas': Cereologist
  11. From Joe Nickell's 'Personas': "Spontaneous Human Combustion" Expert
  12. Joe Nickell (2000), The Flatwoods UFO Monster. Skeptical Inquirer, vol 24.6 Nov/Dec
  13. 13.0 13.1 Positive Strategies Encourage Behaviour Change
  14. 14.0 14.1 Nature: Biomaterials: Silk-like secretion from tarantula feet
  15. 15.0 15.1 Yale news: Elevated Testosterone Kills Nerve Cells
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