SGU Episode 64

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SGU Episode 64
October 11th 2006
Comet earth2.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 63                      SGU 65

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


SV: Stuart Vyse

Quote of the Week

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

Carl Sagan

Download Podcast
Show Notes
SGU Forum


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, October 11th, 2006, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hi there.

S: ... and Jay Novella.

J: Good evening everybody.

S: How is everyone today?

J: Good.

B: Great.

J: How are you doing, Steve?

R: Wonderful.

B: Tired.

S: Good.

R: Tired.

J: What are you tired about, Bob?

B: Some residue from the weekend.

R: Residue.

J: The Halloween, the Halloween Haunt, the corn maze?

B: Yeah, those 15 hour days are killing me. But it's fun.

S: The Haunt is going well?

B: Yeah, we did great. We did 1,200 people last weekend, which is good, which is really good for an opening weekend and for a Haunt in early October. I hope. Cross your fingers.

R: Well, that's a little superstitious for us.

News Items[edit]

Friday 13th (Paraskevidekatriaphobia) (1:03)[edit]


S: By the time this podcast gets up, it will have been Friday the 13th. We were, of course, recording a couple of days beforehand. And, of course, I love these really long Greek phobia words. Paraskevidekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th.

R: You handled that word like a champ, Steve.

S: Yeah, thank you.

J: Bob, what's the fear of the number 13?

R: Triskaidekaphobia.

B: Triskaidekaphobia, yeah.

S: Yeah, that's a little bit easier off the tongue.

B: Yeah, this one was definitely a little trickier. It took me a few tries.

S: Yeah, Paraskevidekatriaphobia. We will be interviewing later in the podcast Stuart Vyse, who wrote the book Magical Thinking and the Psychology of Superstition, just to talk about superstition on Friday the 13th. This is usually the day that a lot of skeptical organizations have superstition parties, basically, just to celebrate their non-superstitiousness in Friday the 13th. We did one of those a few years ago. It was all right.

Comet to hit Earth (2:00)[edit]

S: And I know you guys have heard that the Earth is yet again to be destroyed by a comet hitting the Earth.

R: I heard it's traveling at top speed.

S: At top, top speed. Don't get technical with me.

R: Oh, okay. I'm sorry.

S: Russian astronomer Nikolai Fedorovsky says that there is a giant comet flying at top speed.

R: Top speed.

S: Bound for the Earth.

B: Top speed. So it's coming at the speed of light. Then how do we know it's coming?

J: Yeah, exactly.

S: He says it should hit the planet Earth in late October. So we've got a couple more weeks to go.

R: Oh, like on Halloween, maybe?

B: Before Halloween?

S: Yeah. That's unfortunate timing.

B: That stinks.

J: Steve, this guy couldn't give an exact date and time, even though he knows its trajectory and speed? Well, he says we need more astronomers to join forces and then we could more accurately calculate its trajectory and time of impact.

B: I don't think that's true. It's not a matter of the amount of astronomers. It's just the time. The longer you observe its orbit, the more accurate you can get. It's not a matter of getting 20 guys on the problem.

R: Look, we don't have time. It's moving at top speed, okay? Pay attention.

J: Bob, you might be able to squeak in a couple more haunted corn maze nights, and that's it, man. We're all done.

R: I just hope the world still exists by next week because it's my birthday.

J: Oh, that's right.

B: Here come the birthday emails.

R: I'd better get some birthday emails, and of course, presents are always accepted. You can send them along.

J: You can send them via me. I will prescreen them to make sure nothing weird is going on.

R: Uh-huh, sure.

S: So Nikolai says in his Pravda interview, because Pravda so far has been the only major news outlet to break this story.

R: I'm shocked.

S: He says, I'm not trying to scare anybody. I just want to warn the public that there's going to be devastating tsunamis, earthquakes, avalanches. But he's not trying to scare anybody, though.

R: I just want you to know you're all going to die. Don't panic.

S: No need to panic.

J: All right, so Steve, let's quickly analyze this one. If this was legit, what would be happening right now?

S: Astronomers all over the world around would be calculating its orbit, and we would be getting rapid updates as to the trajectory of this body.

J: And the fact that this is just some obscure news item on Google means that he's totally full of it.

R: Hey, not on Google. It's on Pravda, possibly the most ironically named paper in the world.

S: Yeah, it doesn't have much weight, this story. Hopefully, someone else will just look at this guy's data, try to see if he can see the comet, do some calculations, see if there's any legitimacy to it. Not that it's impossible that we would be hit by a comet. We've been hit by comets before. We'll be hit by them again. But the lack of response by the scientific, especially the astronomical community on this one, to me says that there's probably not much there.

B: Imagine if it was confirmed. Imagine the chaos. Yes, in three weeks, we would be hit by a comet.

S: Well, it doesn't necessarily mean the end of civilization. The Tunguska event was probably a comet of some size. It could be something similar to that.

B: Yeah, but until we actually can pin down what continent and then what part of that continent, people would be pretty anxious, I would think.

S: Where is it going to hit and exactly when?

B: I believe that comets generally have much higher top speed than say your run-of-the-mill asteroid that would hit us. I remember reading about how they, at least maybe comets that come from our Oort cloud, would just come barreling in very fast and we'd have very little time to react. It's not like we'd have, oh, there's a comet, we've got 10 years like you can with an asteroid. With a comet like that, I think it would be very difficult to see until it was relatively close.

S: If it were a newly discovered comet, unless it was hitting us on its way out, it may be that we could see it on its way in, then it swings around the sun and it's going to hit us on the way out. Then we would have more warning. If it's hitting us on the way in before it really gets close enough to the sun to throw off much of a tail and it's coming in really fast, we may have little warning.

B: And even if it was going to hit and we had a month, there's nothing we could possibly do.

R: That'd be the best month ever though. Can you imagine?

B: It would not be boring, that's for sure.

R: All the cake I'd be able to eat.

B: Even if it was like a year away, I don't think we're at any point where we could quickly put something together and try one of the theories that people talk about, deflecting them, blowing them up. One of the more interesting ones, and I think we actually mentioned it on the podcast, was actually parking a big object like a big ship or something next to the object and let the gravitational pull of that object actually change its orbit just enough to make it miss the Earth. Of course it has to be very far away for that to work. Nothing like that would work because I don't think we're taking things like that seriously.

R: I also heard a theory of sending Bruce Willis to it and having him detonate it.

S: Yeah, he'll take care of it, send Bruce up there.

B: And a space shuttle too.

S: With some oil drillers.

R: Ben Affleck, yeah.

S: So you're basically saying send a bunch of bad actors up there, they'll fix the problem.

R: And we'll all be better off even if they don't do it, you know?

S: They won't save us, but at least we'll be rid of them. But if we're going to do that, we should send up Tom Cruise, right? I actually like Bruce Willis, but we should send up Cruise and Travolta.

J: I want Tom Cruise taped to the front of the ship.

R: Now look what you've done, Steve. Now you've started Jay on his Tom Cruise hatred.

Score One for Evolution in Michigan (7:40)[edit]


S: So we got some good news out of Michigan this week. The State Board of Education on Tuesday approved public school curriculum guidelines that basically support the teaching of evolution, but not intelligent design. So that was the decision that we were hoping for.

R: Go Michigan.

B: Somebody pinch me.

S: So the board made their intent very clear that evolution is not, this is the quote John Austin, who is an Ann Arbor Democrat and a board member, said, "The intent of the board needs to be very clear. Evolution is not under stress. It is not untested science."

B: That's the bottom line right there.

S: Yeah, that's exactly correct.

R: And on that topic, Steve, Evan, and I were just last night listening to Michael Shermer, who was on our podcast last week, talking about his new book, Why Darwin Matters. And he's still on the East Coast. You can check out his tour schedule on the Skeptic website, I think. Definitely check it out if you can.

S: Excellent lecture. Very worthwhile.

R: Good lecture. Great book. And it really helps dissect the whole problem with intelligent design and evolution.

S: So it's good to get some occasional good news on the evolution ID front. And I had said after the Dover decision, there will be some ripple effect from that. I think that there will be some temporary good news until the creationists find their feet again in their next strategy. Again, I think ID is dead, basically. I think the Dover decision was so definitive that it basically killed ID as a strategy. I think where they're going to head next is just teach the criticism. Teach the controversy is what was the ID thing. They're going to just teach the criticism of evolution. So they're not going to give them anything positive to teach, like ID. Just teach the negative things about why evolution is wrong. Because that's all they care about anyway. ID isn't a real theory. It's not like they care about it. They only really care about knocking evolution off its perch. So they're just going to cut to the chase with that. Which it will be harder to challenge that legally because they're not promoting anything that's not scientific or that's pseudoscientific. They're just saying something which is really just unnecessary. It's not wrong. It's just unnecessary to single out evolution. To say that we need to teach the scientific criticism of this theory. That's part of science.

B: I think eventually that will fail as well. I think hopefully people will realize that, wait, if you can start knocking evolution, then you could start knocking Big Bang Theory, Gravity. You can go to town on any theory.

R: Next thing you know they're going to be in court arguing against Gravity holding a bunch of helium balloons and saying, see? Explain that.

S: You might be giving them too much credit.

R: I think I might be giving them too many ideas. They're writing this down furiously. Helium, why didn't we think of that?

New Science Curriculum in the UK (10:40)[edit]


S: There's some similar related news. This went out of the UK in terms of teaching science in the United Kingdom. The new GCSE, which Bob informs me, stands for the General Certificate of Secondary Education, which I guess is the official education credentialing body in Great Britain, has a new science curriculum and it's been getting some criticism from scientists and others. Sir Richard Sykes, who's the rector of Imperial College of London, is among the scientists who are attacking the new science standards, essentially saying that it is a dumbed-down syllabus, to quote him. And he says that in recent years most pupils have studied a combined science. So rather than breaking out biology, physics, chemistry, they teach scientific literacy in the 21st century, which sort of combines multiple disciplines. It's an interesting approach, actually. So they basically teach science by focusing on things that are topics in the news today, like global warming and cell phones are mentioned specifically for some reason. But the critics say that it's not going to prepare them for secondary education, for later education rather, for higher education. In order to be competitive, you need real A-level courses in the individual sciences, which is probably true. And the other criticism is that they're teaching about topics that are current and controversial, and it's difficult to teach the process of science when you're dealing with topics that are currently embroiled in political controversy, which I guess could really work both ways. I think if it were done correctly, it could actually be a good way to illustrate how science is supposed to work and to teach how it can be distorted for political ends. I think in practice, the difficulty would be making sure that basically every teacher who follows that curriculum is not just teaching their own personal political view. That's what the critics fear. It's interesting. We talk about science education a lot on the show, which is why this article caught my attention. And I think it's certainly interesting to experiment with new ways to teach science. And I think they're on to some interesting ideas here, but the implementation really would be everything. And I also think that this kind of thing should probably be in addition to the primary sciences, not instead of. I think that's a critical thing. I think you still need to teach physics, biology, and chemistry. But if you then try to tie it all together with simply how to apply science in the real world or in everyday life or confronting the big issues of the 21st century, that could be a really good course. Well, let's go on to your emails.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Corrections (13:24)[edit]

Just a comment on the show from 2 weeks ago, about the loris in the pants. Not to be pedantic, but I want The Skeptics Guide to maintain its biology street cred. Perry, a loris is not a monkey, but belongs in the prosimian group or clade along with the lemurs, pottos, and bushbabies. A clade is an evolutionary branch which includes all members on that branch and only members on that branch. The term 'monkeys' is an artificial grouping, not a clade, usually referring to new world monkeys and old world monkeys as a group and excluding the apes (orangs, chimps, gorillas, gibbons, and humans). The technical term is that the term 'monkeys' represents a paraphyletic grouping. Rebecca might respond that using the example of a loris versus a bird of paradise would be phylogenically like pitting a chimpanzee versus a Komodo dragon (I'm betting against the 'monkey' there!). The loris shares a relatively recent common ancestor with the other primates including chimps just as the Komodo dragon shares a relatively recent ancestor with the birds.

Keep up the good work. Love the show!

Joe Walsh
Cote d'ivoire

Correct, here is a link:

S: First, a couple of corrections. The first is actually unfortunate that Perry is not with us this week. This first one deals with Perry's news item from a couple of weeks ago. This one comes from Joe Walsh, who writes, "Just a comment on the show from two weeks ago about the loris in the pants. Not to be pedantic, but I want this skeptic's guide to maintain its biology street cred."

R: We love pedants.

S: We do. "Perry, a loris is not a monkey, but belongs in the prosymion group or clade along with the lemurs, podos, and bush babies. A clade is an evolutionary branch which includes all members of that branch and only members of that branch. The term monkeys is an artificial grouping, not a clade, usually referring to New World monkeys and Old World monkeys as a group and excluding the apes. The technical term is that the term monkeys represents a paraphyletic grouping. Rebecca might respond that using the example of a loris versus a bird of paradise would be phylogenetically like pitting a chimpanzee versus a Komodo dragon. I'm betting against the monkey there. The loris shares a relatively recent common ancestor with the other primates, including chimps, just as the Komodo dragon shares a relatively recent ancestor with the birds."

B: Relatively recent?

S: Yeah, I had a quibble about that. He says, "Keep up the good work, love the show."

J: So basically, this is a big slam on Perry, correct?

R: Well, no, it's not a slam.

B: It's a subtle slam.

J: Oh, no, I welcome it.

R: He's merely pointing out that Perry's argument was fallacious because he was trying to argue for monkey superiority, but his example didn't actually include a monkey.

S: Well, to be honest, Perry was trying to use a thinly disguised excuse to say the line, I have monkeys in my pants.

J: Oh, okay, that makes sense.

S: Which was worth it. I mean, I've got to admit, if I saw that line, I have monkeys in my pants, I would have worked it into the show somehow. Perry worked that in quite well.

R:' Hell, I work that into my everyday conversation whenever I can.

S: But it is true. I did look it up just to make sure that the loris monkey, the monkey is actually a misnomer, it actually is a prosymion. He also brings up the whole clade thing. Now, cladistics is, and this is interesting because in light of the recent conversations we had about classifying planets, because it gets to the question of how should we classify living things in biology? And the debate now is should we stick with the more classic Linnaean system or should we replace it with a cladistic system? The Linnaean system is not strictly evolutionary. So it breaks things up into groups based upon how they look. Whereas cladistics breaks things up into groups based purely on their evolutionary relationships. So there's a certain purity and a certain modernity to the cladistic approach, but it results in certain things that just are aesthetically unpleasing. For example, humans and chimps would be in the same clade separate from other apes, from gorillas and orangutans.

B: What's wrong with that?

S: And the lungfish would be in a clade with mammals and separate from other fish. Well, yeah, I mean it's really, it does come down to, and I remember that Stephen Jay Gould did not like the whole notion of cladistics.

B: Really?

S: Yeah, because he said that sometimes animals change so much that they hit upon some new strategy of living, whatever, that produces so much morphological change that they deserve their own designation. And that needs to be recognized. Like humans are, we're hominids. And being a hominid is different than the non-hominid apes. And that buys us our own categorization. Even though evolutionarily we're on the same branch with chimpanzees.

B: Yeah, but how does cladistics determine that? I mean, what's the cutoff? There's still some arbitrariness to it, isn't there?

S: It's pure evolutionary branching. It's fuzzy in that all species are fuzzy, but that's something that's equal to both systems. The other example would be birds, which he brings up. I mean, birds would be in a subgroup of dinosaurs, not a class equal to mammals and reptiles, right? Birds would just be a little subbranch of dinosaurs, not their own class.

B: I'm still don't see why cladistics necessarily has to group it that way.

S: That's how it works.

R: Yeah, but it seems like you're picking just any amount of branches to group together. Like how do you decide how many branches and how far back, how big to make your clade? Does that make sense?

B: Right, yeah. I think that's what I'm saying.

S: Yeah, but that's a separate question. You're talking about how many branchings do you include in some kind of a meta-category. We're going to give a name to this branch and all of its subbranchings. But the difference between this, it's not just a matter of that. It's not just a matter of where you draw your lines. It's also a matter of how you position them. No matter where you draw the lines, birds evolved from dinosaurs. In a cladistic system, the birds would have to be a subgroup of dinosaurs. No matter where you draw your lines. Gould and others have argued that birds are different enough from reptiles, that they deserve to be their own class. Cladistics does not allow for the degree of change, only the relationships.

R: Obviously, Gould was some dirty kind of bird lover then. Too bad Perry's not here to say that.

S: There's no right or wrong answer. You make choices about what things matter more. What's more important, to have a strictly evolutionary categorization or to have one that reflects the degree of morphological and biological differences? It's a trade-off, and you can't have it both ways because evolution is messy. Same thing with planets. The formation of the solar system is too complex to have really clean categories about what's a planet and what's a dwarf and what's a planetoid and what's a moon. You just do the best you can and you make your choices. But all choices have strong points and weak points.

B: If you could somehow magically have the complete tree of life, of everything, and that's how it would be structured. You would have dinosaurs and then you'd have an off-branch, you'd have the birds, and that's how they evolve. That's the relationship. Regardless of how much the end product changed morphologically, that would be useful if you could...

S: Of course.

B: I don't know, I'd go with cladistics.

J: Well Bob, it's just, you know what, the thing is I think they're both useful. I think tracking them both ways, depending on how you need to use the data.

S: That's basically what's happening now, that both systems are coexisting based upon sometimes personal choice and other times context and how they're being used. Certainly having an exquisitely drawn evolutionary tree is of value, and that's always going to exist and be something that evolutionary biologists are going to work on, regardless of the labeling system we choose to label species. But there is also a certain utility to the Linnaean system in terms of recognizing separate groups that deserve to be recognized.

R: Plus the Linnaean system has the great mnemonic. King Philip came over for really good sex, is that what it was?

B: Well I never heard that mnemonic.

J: You know Bob, I'm working on my own system, which is which animal can kick which other animal's ass.

S: Yeah, the throwdown system?

R: But isn't it sad, Jay, isn't it sad to be at the bottom of your own system?

B: Oh, nice.

Corrections (21:08)[edit]

As the self-appointed Resident Brazil Specialist, I must correct what was said in this latest podcast about the girl who cried pieces of glass.

She absolutely wasn't brazillian; she wasn't even south american.
With a little googling, I found out her name (Hasnah Mohamed Meselmani), and her nationality: she was Lebanese, and the case took place in 1996.

From the Message Boards

Again, correct: Although the story was original broke on Brazilian television, hence the confusion.

S: There's one other quick correction. Actually I pulled this one off the message boards. This one comes from Gilnay, who's on our message boards, and he wrote, "As the self-appointed resident Brazil specialist, I must correct what was said in the latest podcast about the girl who cried pieces of glass. She absolutely wasn't Brazilian, she wasn't even South American. With a little Googling, I found out her name, Hasnah Mohamed Meselmani, and her nationality, she was Lebanese, and the case took place in 1996." And he's correct. Again, I went to the original article that I was referring to, and it was an article about Joe Nichols' investigation of this girl's claims about crying pieces of glass. And the reason why I said Brazil was because the story was broken on Brazilian television. So it was a news item in Brazil, on Brazilian television. But the girl was Lebanese. I don't know if she was in Brazil at the time or whatever, but that's where Brazil came in. But thanks for the correction.

Water Cycle (22:10)[edit]

My children were taught in science that the amount of water on the earth is a constant and has been forever. It may change from being frozen, vapor in the form of clouds, or deep under ground, but there's always the same amount of water (I presume measured by mass of water molecules?).

I wondered when my kids informed me of this, and now I'm wondering again because my mother was at an ecology lecture where she was told the same and it amazed her so that she had to share it with me.

My question: I believe that water vapor is a byproduct of certain combustions - like when hydrogen is burned as a fuel. Isn't this using a chemical reaction to create water molecules where before there were only hydrogen and oxygen. On the other side of the equation, I believe I have heard of separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of water molecules to obtain oxygen.

If water is a byproduct of a chemical reaction burning hydrogen, and we can separate water into it's component elements, how can the amount of water on earth remain constant?

Are the ecologists giving us bad information?

Jon Giltner

S: Question number two comes from John Giltner, who writes, "My children were taught in science that the amount of water on the earth is a constant and has been forever. It may change from being frozen, vapor in the form of clouds, or deep underground, but there's always the same amount of water. I wondered when my kids informed me of this, and now I'm wondering again, because my mother was at an ecology lecture where she was told the same, and it amazed her, and it amazed her so that she had to share it with me. My question, I believe that water vapor is a byproduct of certain combustions, like when hydrogen is burned as a fuel. Isn't this causing a chemical reaction to create water molecules, where before there were only hydrogen and oxygen? On the other side of the question, I believe I have heard of separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms of water molecules to obtain oxygen." So basically he's asking, are the ecologists giving us bad information? And the short answer is yes. Anyone who's claiming that the amount of water on the earth is exactly the same. Some even go as far as to say that the water molecules that are on the earth today have always been here, and it's just going through this endless water cycle, but the molecules never change. That's just nonsense. Water is being made and destroyed all the time.

B: And when he talks about the amount being a constant, what about comets?

S: Exactly.

B: I mean, we were inundated with comets at some point in our early history.

S: All the time. Water is falling to the earth all the time.

J: But it's also evaporating off, too. We're losing atmosphere all the time.

S: That's true, and also water is getting subducted. It's getting dragged down into the mantle because of subduction. So water is falling to the earth. It's being dragged underneath the earth.

B: Chemically changed.

S: Plants use sunlight to make energy, and guess what? They use up water, too. And water is made and destroyed in the life cycles of plants and animals.

J: Steve, when water goes down into the mantle, does it ever come back out? In other words, when a volcano erupts, is there moisture in there as well?

S: Definitely when volcanoes erupt, one of the things that come out is water vapor. But that's a good question, and I don't know that there's a final answer to that. In fact, I read about a year ago a geologist had tried to calculate all of the additions and subtractions of water that are occurring on the earth basically because of this subduction process. I can't rememebr the exact date, but it was something to the effect that in 100 million years, something in that order of magnitude, that all the earth's water would be gone, that we're basically losing water at a steady rate. I hadn't heard any follow-up to that. Maybe I could try to get some follow-up on that and see what the community had to say about that. So I don't know that we know fully.

R:That's kind of scary.

S: We know what the net effect of all of the changes in water are on the earth.

R: What if we were running out of water? Would we be able to manufacture it?

S: Theoretically we could because all you need is hydrogen. There's no free hydrogen on the earth. We can get hydrogen with lots of other stuff. We need oxygen, and we kind of need oxygen. We wouldn't want to suck all the oxygen out of our atmosphere just to make water. Well, actually I've read a couple of science fiction books actually that talk about how would you get massive amounts of water onto a planet. Let's say we want to terraform Mars to make it habitable one day.

B: Hit it with comets.

S: Yeah, you could steer comets onto the planet, and then each comet impact would add a certain amount of water to it. You do that enough, and it starts to add up. It'd be trickier doing that to the earth because we're pretty precise about where we cause the comets to land.

J: I read an article that they came up with a process to, I think, get oxygen and water out of moon rock.

S: That's right. You can. You can suck some water out of moon rock. Not a lot, but any amount of water actually might have implications for just logistically in terms of like flying to the moon and using the moon as a base. If you can get some water, then you don't have to bring 100% of your water to the moon.

The Moon and Stars (26:05)[edit]

I'm just flabbergasted and here's why: and here's the link to the folks who are selling land on the moon: Can this really be done? Can anybody really 'own' the moon or is this just some fun conversation piece to share with friends and nobody actually owns part of the moon?

Scott Breitbach

Similar scam - the international star registry:

S: Speaking about the moon, we got another email dealing specifically with that. This one comes from Scott Breitbach, who obligingly told me how to pronounce his name.

R: Smart man.

S: "I'm just flabbergasted, and here's why." He gives a URL. "Basically, here's a link to the folks who are selling land on the moon. Can this really be done? Can anybody really own the moon? Or is it just some fun conversation piece to share with friends that nobody actually owns part of the moon?" Well, I think it's neither legitimate nor fun. I think it's a ripoff, is what it is. Basically, in 1980, an American called Dennis Hope filed a petition of ownership to some countries in the UN and said, By the way, I own the moon, Mars, all the planets and all the moons in the solar system, okay? Nobody responded to him because he's a nut job. He basically took the lack of response as, okay, so no one objects, therefore I own the moon and everything in the solar system. Okay, it's settled. Now, he sold the rights to the moon to this company, Moon Estates, and they're selling off pieces of the moon. It's totally bogus. They don't own the moon. There's no legitimacy to this whatsoever. You could think about it in a benign way. You're paying for a piece of paper that says you own a piece of the moon, so some people might do it realizing that they're just paying for the idea, the piece of paper. But it's still, I mean, their website is as if it's serious, which I think is unethical in my opinion. It reminded me also of the International Star Registry. You guys heard about this?

R: I hate these bastards.

S: Oh, yeah. So these guys, they do the same thing. They basically, this is, in my opinion, this has all the earmarks of an actual deliberate scam. There's nothing innocent or whimsical about this. They say you can name a star, and it will be registered with the International Star Registry, which is nothing. It's just somebody who made it up. Yeah, they just made it up. It's not official by anything.

B: It sounds official.

S: It just sounds official, right. We could make it up tomorrow. We can come up with the Intergalactic Star Registry and start writing people's names in a book and attaching them to some star somewhere.

R: You can buy a droplet of the Atlantic Ocean. I'm going to sell you.

S: And then I think they also, what they registered with the Library of Congress, but again, anybody can do that. You can register anything with the Library of Congress. It's just, again, the ways of producing fake legitimacy.

R: Like getting a patent. They'll take just about anybody.

J: But I think the moon thing is definitely a lot more presumptuous than naming a star because there's virtually, I wouldn't want to say infinite, but there's pretty much, according to the way humans think, there's an infinite number of stars out there.

B: Well, actually I think it's closer to 66-tillion, but go ahead.

S: It's not infinite. The known universe is finite, but it's a pretty big number.

J: You know what I'm talking about.

S: Billions and billions.

J: Everybody can own a billion freaking stars and name it whatever they want before we'd even come close to running out. But the point is, the name a star thing, that's kind of romantic. You give it to a girl. You give it to your boyfriend. It's a sign of affection or whatever. It's cute. Selling the moon property, I mean, humans are going to be on the moon probably within our lifetime. And it really comes down to, how are you going to enforce it? Let's say the U.S. government or the Soviet Union goes up and they start building structures on the moon that just by coincidence happens to be on some of your property. What are you going to do about it, Pat?

R: You go up there with a shotgun.

J: Yeah. You get off my land, you know?

R: Exactly.

J: Give it up. Come on.

S: I thought about that. Is anyone actually going to press a claim to owning a piece of the moon based upon their piece of paper from this bogus company? I'm sure it would be dismissed out of hand because there's just nothing legally to it.

J: Yeah, but you're not hurting anyone by doing that. To me, that's really just a fun thing. I don't know. Do people really take it seriously?

R: It's really not, though.

S: But some people do it and they think it's legit. They think it's being registered with something official.

J: Do they think that someday humans are going to live around a star named Frankie?

R: No, but they go to the observatories and they say, oh, can you show me my star? And the astronomer's there just like, what the hell? That's not your star. Sometimes there's not even a star at the coordinates.

J: We need to get Phil in on this. Phil will tell us what time it is.

R: Phil will give you the full breakdown. He hates these guys.

S: He's written about it. He's very critical of it. We're talking about Phil Plait, by the way, the bad astronomer.

B: Jay, I was wrong. I was wrong. There's not sixty-six-tillion stars. Seventy, my notes tell me here.

J: Oh, you see? There's even more. Closer to infinity.

B: Seven with twenty-two zeros after it.

S: Is that all?

B: Yeah, that's it.

J: That's in the known universe, Bob. I'm talking the multiverse, baby.

B: Multiverse.

R: Don't start.

Name That Logical Fallacy (31:27)[edit]

  • Logical Fallacies

The Creation Science Museum of Canada
Submitted by Manny G. on our forums

'Many types of bacteria swim through water by spinning a rubber-like 'tail' called a flagellum. Because it's rubber-like and because the semi-solid 'hook' holds it at an angle, the flagellum takes on a corkscrew shape, acting like a propeller in the water.

This is like you being able to spin you head around, and around, and around! So how does it do it? Scientists are pushing the limits of modern technology to be able to dissect these bacteria to see just how on earth they spin their tails. It turns out that the bacteria has something that is just like an electric motor built inside of it!
When we take a look inside the bacterial flagellum, we see a stator (the C ring, held in place by the STUDS), a rotor (the M & S rings), the drive shaft (the ROD), the bushing or bearing (the L & P rings), it even has what many have called the 'universal joint', the hook - which is what changes the direction of the rotational force.

But what of the bacterial motor? It is no different than the electric motor! How could it have evolved? If any one of those parts isn't quite evolved, the whole system breaks down, our bacteria can't get around and it dies! If any one of those parts suffers a change in its attempt to 'evolve', it no longer does its original job, the whole motor fails, the bacteria dies!

In modern times we think something is a superior technology if it's smaller, faster, more energy efficient. Well, this motor is so small 8,000,000 of them can fit on the tip of one of your hairs! An electric motor cannot reproduce, or find its own energy, or repair itself! The bacteria can do all of these.

Where there is design, there is a designer.'

S: Well, we have a name-not-logical fallacy this week. This one actually was posted on the website on our forums by Manny G. This one comes from the Creation Science Museum of Canada. It's a bit long when I read a couple pieces of it. This one is about intelligent design. And on the site they have little models of flagellum. And they write, "Many types of bacteria swim through water by spinning a rubber-like tail called a flagellum. Because it's rubber-like and because its semi-solid hook holds it at an angle, the flagellum takes on a corkscrew shape acting like a propeller in the water. This is like you being able to spin your head around and around and around. So how does it do it? Scientists are pushing the limits of modern technology to be able to dissect these bacteria to see just how on earth they spin their tails. It turns out that the bacteria has something that is just like an electric motor built inside of itself." It goes on to say, "When we look inside of bacterial flagellum, we see a stator, a rotor, and a driveshaft, the bushing or bearings. But what of the bacterial motor? It is no different than the electric motor. How could it have evolved? If any one of these parts isn't quite evolved, the whole system breaks down. Our bacteria can't get around and it dies. If any one of those parts suffers a change in its attempt to evolve, it no longer does its original job. The whole motor fails. The bacteria dies. In modern times, we think something is a superior technology if it's smaller, faster, more efficient. Well, this motor is so small, 8 million of them can fit in the tip of your hairs. An electric motor cannot reproduce or find its own energy or repair itself. The bacteria can do all of these. Where there is design, there is a designer."

B: Well, I found tons of false analogies in there. False analogies this is like being able to spin your head around and around. This is just like an electric motor. It's no different from an electric motor. All just false analogies. The other one that popped out was, of course, how could it have evolved? Argument from ignorance right there. So those are the ones that popped out real quick.

S: Yeah, there's a ton more as well.

B: I picked up false dichotomy.

S: Yeah, either it evolved or it was designed, in other words.

J: Yeah.

B: Well, what's the third option?

S: Well, actually, in that case, I would say that's a false dichotomy because it's not because there are other options but because it's not a dichotomy.

R: I thought the false dichotomy would have been either it was designed or it would have died. It wouldn't have been able to evolve.

S: Yeah, if it changed, it would die. That's kind of a false dichotomy. It's limiting the choices of what could possibly happen. Also, there's a lot of false assumptions in there as well. If there was one change to the piece of the motor, the flagellum wouldn't work and it would die. Well, first of all, that's an assumption. There are bacteria that don't have flagellum, and bacteria might be able to find some other way of surviving even if the flagellum didn't work. You can't assume that it would die. The reason you can make major changes to some genes without killing the host is because there's duplication. And that's a major mechanism of evolution is that genes, entire genes get duplicated.

B: It's got all this redundancy.

S: So now I have two sets of genes for flagellum. So one could do its old job and this new one is free to evolve in novel directions and come up with all kinds of new cool stuff. And at the end, I think what I was alluding to, it's either designed or it didn't evolve. It looks designed. And actually, Shermer spoke about this too last night, the idea that while it is designed, it's just designed by evolution. And there are others in there as well. They make or imply sort of the argument from personal incredulity. It's like, look how fantastic the flagellum is. It's so tiny and so efficient.

B: Yeah, it's a marvel of evolution.

S: Yeah, it's a marvel. How could it possibly have come about? So they also, interestingly, they say they actually break their own analogy here. They say an electric motor cannot reproduce or find its own energy or repair itself. But the bacteria can do all of these things. That's right. That's why a bacteria can't evolve and an electric motor can't because bacteria can reproduce and use energy.

R: So apparently what you're saying is an electric motor is an inanimate object. Huh. Interesting.

S: So it's funny that they broke their own analogy at the end of their discussion there.

R: I'm guessing they think that when you build a car, you go to a field and you pluck an engine out of the ground.

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

Interview with Stuart Vyse (36:15)[edit]

  • Stuart Vyse is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College.

    He is the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, (Oxford University Press, 1997) which has been published in Japanese and German and received the 1999 William James Book Award.

S: Joining us now is Dr. Stuart Vyse. Stuart, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

SV: Glad to be here.

S: Dr. Vyse is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College, and he is the author of the book, Believing in Magic, the Psychology of Superstition, which is published by Oxford University Press. And that came out in 1997, correct?

SV: Correct. That's it.

S: And it's an excellent book, and you've lectured to our group on it before. It's an excellent talk. So why don't you give us a summary of what the psychology of superstition is?

SV: Well, there are a number of reasons why people are superstitious. I think a lot of it comes down to the need for the sense of control, that despite the fact that we have control over lots of things in our everyday lives, there are tons of really important things that happen to us that we can't completely control. And when the stakes are high, like you're interviewing for a job or you have a really big exam, SATs, it's really important that you do well. And despite all the preparation that you may put into it, people feel anxious and uncertain. And those are the circumstances in which superstitions are likely to emerge. Of course, you had to learn it somewhere, too. Someone had to introduce you to these things for the most part. And so there's a lot of socialization also that is part of it.

S: So basically, we want to think that we can control the weather, so we invent these magical things we can do to control the weather.

SV: That's right. And sometimes it seems like it works. We do something, and the thing we're hoping for actually does happen. And so, of course, that just reinforces it.

B: You would think that even rudimentary critical thinking skills would kick in and think, well, just me doing this jig, how could that possibly affect the weather? Why do these people just not consider that? It just seems like they're turning down their intelligence meter to make themselves feel better, or they just don't think about things like that normally anyway. I mean, why does that happen?

SV: I think it's a combination of all of that. One, they may not really be the kind of people who critically evaluate what they're doing on a regular basis. The second thing is that I think that what they're interested in, the thing they're anxious about sort of trumps everything else. There are a lot of people who say, I know this is silly, but I "don't want to take a chance". I mean, I love that phrase. But they say, I know it can't really work, but in the rare possibility that it would work, I'd hate to have not done it. And so it's an interesting thing. You see people being both rational and irrational in the same moment, and yet it happens.

B: What about things like obsessive-compulsive personality? Would that obsessive-compulsive disorder, is it like a light version of that disorder for some of these?

SV: It certainly is similar. I treat OCD in the book, and I think obsessive-compulsive disorder is the closest thing to superstition. However, I think it's kind of far beyond the everyday superstition. You have to remember that there are millions of people who are engaging in these superstitions every day. I think OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a far more intense sort of thing. It looks the same, and it has that anxiety aspect to it underneath it. It's an anxiety-based disorder and an attempt to cope with that anxiety through these rituals that they do.

J: Stuart, don't you think that people do it kind of as a habit as well, once they get into it?

SV: Absolutely. No, it is a habit. I mean, there's a lot of learning that is involved, both in terms of learning from other people. The basic classic superstitions, the only way you can acquire them is if someone teaches them to you. Some of them, I really think it's a crime to teach people. For example, Friday the 13th, what is the possible upside of learning that Friday the 13th is unlucky? I struggle to come up with that, but there's a lot of learning from other people. But then it also, once you engage in overt behavior of doing these superstitions, then of course it becomes a habit like anything else, and it has a sort of soothing feature to it.

S: Now, you've wrote about in your book the fact that professional athletes are notoriously into many superstitions.

SV: Right, absolutely.

J: I see it a lot in baseball.

S: What are some of the common ones?

SV: There are some like, for example, if the pitcher has a no-hitter going, you're not supposed to speak to him when he's in the dugout because you could jinx the no-hitter. So it's a funny thing, the pitcher's doing really well as the game progresses, and then no one's actually talking to him as he's sitting in the dugout. It's an odd circumstance. Rally caps you know of. But baseball is rife with people who have personal superstitions that are unique to them. I wrote a lot in the book about Wade Boggs eating chicken. When he was a player both with the Yankees and the Red Sox, he believed that eating chicken got him hits, and he ate chicken before every single baseball game. So it's really kind of impossible to know whether chicken gave him hits or not because he never didn't eat chicken, and so you have nothing to compare it to. But it seemed to work to him, and so he did. There's a lot of that. There's a lot of personal superstitions that players develop, and the circumstances are perfect. It's a very uncertain game, especially hitting in baseball is a very uncertain activity. The best players only hit every third time to the plate, and yet there's a lot at stake. These people are making big money, and the games are important, and so superstitions emerge.

R: You know sir, fairly recently Richard Wiseman did some studies that he thought showed people who feel that they're lucky actually do end up being luckier, and people who feel that they're unlucky end up being unluckier, usually because the lucky people tended to notice opportunities more often, and the unlucky people tended to miss opportunities. Have you looked into any results like that?

SV: Well, I've seen his stuff, and I think it's very interesting. I think it's undoubtedly true. I think there's also some interpretive things going on there. We're all familiar with the confirmation bias, and if you see yourself as being a lucky person, then you're going to see and remember those instances where you seem to have been lucky more often. So I think there's something to that, and I hate to say that there's anything good about being superstitious, but I do think that for the positive superstitions, the ones aimed at bringing about good luck, that they probably do build confidence, and they probably are a way of coping with anxiety for these people. Again, I'm not encouraging anyone to do it, because there are other ways I'm sure to cope with that anxiety than to believe in a rabbit's foot or some ritual that you might perform.

R: It's like the Dumbo effect, right? You think something gives you the power, so you just kind of go with that. Speaking as a poker player, I think that I've seen that where somebody has their lucky object, and it gives them more confidence, and it intimidates other people as well, because they kind of buy into it as well. So it's kind of funny the way these things can sort of actually affect real life.

S: Yeah, so from one point of view, it is confirmation bias. It's just noticing the correlations that you think are supposed to be there. But on the other hand, it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that, again, if you think that you are destined for happiness and good things to happen to you, you kind of make them happen to you. And if you're a depressed, negative individual, that's going to have a negative impact. I think that reminded me of what psychologists sometimes do, which is the as-if strategy. If you want your life to be this way, if you want to be this kind of person, then just act as if that's the way it is. If you want to be a lucky person, just act as if you are lucky. So that's basically the same thing, but psychologists sort of have a way of conceptualizing it that doesn't include any superstition.

SV: That's right. Sort of a role-playing.

S: So I think that's what all this amounts to is just the self-fulfilling kind of prophecy of having a positive versus a negative attitude. The picture dug out, I was going to say about that. That also, I think, brings up the fact that there could be a lot of cultural pressure to adhere to superstitions because even if you don't buy the whole jinx thing, you don't want to be the player that talks to the pitcher and then have him blow his no-hitter. Even if it's not true, you know everyone else is going to blame you for being the jinx.

SV: Absolutely.

S: So it creates a lot of cultural pressure for that. Do you talk about that?

SV: I'm not sure I covered that actually in the book, but since then I have. The point that you're making is quite valid. I think that there's a bonding experience, especially for team members. The shared superstition is more than a hope for luck. It is in fact a sort of team bonding thing that we do together. Often the dugout is a place where there's nothing you can do. You're just sitting there. There's somebody up to bat that can do something, but you can't. So this is also a time filler and a way of bonding with the other teammates. So yes, there would be pressure to go along with it even if you don't believe just because you don't want to be that player.

S: I guess also if it is a bonding experience you may do it not because you feel pressure, but just because you want the bonding experience. It's just a ritual of the game and of your shared experience, even though you're not engaging in the magical thinking part that goes along with it.

SV: Exactly. One of the other superstitions that I think is similar in this regard is knocking on wood. People rarely in my experience knock on wood when they're alone.

B: Ha! That's right!

SV: It's really more a communication of a shared wish. If this happens to me, knock, knock, knock. You're communicating something about your deep desire for this thing to happen and it's a very social thing. It's not in fact the same as many superstitions. A lot of these things that people do that are true superstitions that are personal to themselves only, they won't even tell other people about it because they're ashamed of the fact that they're superstitious. There is still a taboo to a degree admitting that you're superstitious. These people are less likely to say anything, whereas knocking on wood is something that we all do, that is done socially and is meant to be a social thing.

S: Do you think there still is, if anything, a social taboo against believing in superstition that in general people realize or think that it seems silly?

SV: If you just ask somebody point blank, are you superstitious? There are some people who will be forthright and say, yes, I am, but I think there are a number of people who would be reluctant to admit it. Or if they do, they say they're just a little bit. There's an attempt to minimize it. As a result, I think that a lot of the Gallup poll data about how many people are superstitious probably is a somewhat of an underestimate of what the real numbers are.

J: Are we somewhat hardwired to fall into these superstitious traps?

SV: To a degree. I think that we are tremendous learners. We do seek relationships and try to problem solve in any circumstance where we're confronted with a problem. It seems only natural that some of the connections we make are false ones, that they will appear to be real cause and effect relationships when in fact they're not. Yeah, I think we are. I think that our rapid ability to find patterns and create relationships and to acquire new behavior as a result of those creates a situation where superstitions are likely to occur.

S: Do you buy the conventional wisdom that seems to be emerging that as you say that these sort of simplistic heuristics that we evolved were well adapted to maybe the simplistic environment in which we evolved, but they don't really adapt to the complex technological scientific society in which we now find ourselves?

SV: I'm not sure. I'm not sure about that. I think that our environments have probably always been fairly complex. This is all speculation anyway, but I believe that it is just in our nature to sort of over pattern, over analyze the environment and in a search those things that are important.

B: It's like pareidolia, finding meaningful images in just random shapes, seeing a face in the clouds. It's similar to that. You're just pattern seeking.

SV: Exactly. We'd prefer to have a pattern than not. It's like rats will, as I'm sure you've heard, rats will press a lever just to find out when the shock is going to come, even though pressing the lever has no effect on the shock at all. Just to know when it's coming gives that animal a sense of control over the environment even though it can't stop it. I think that's the kind of thing that we're talking about where we're looking for any kind of order in the environment that gives us a sense of predictability.

S: Certain doom is better than uncertainty.

SV: That's right.

S: As a physician, I've experienced that personally in that I've had patients express directly or in their reactions that they would rather be told they have a horrible diagnosis than to be told that I don't know what they have. Sometimes they have to spend some time convincing them that they're actually better off not knowing than knowing they have some horrible diagnosis. They're more afraid of the uncertainty. It's interesting. It's very interesting psychology. You told me before that you do teach at the college level. You told me that some of your courses directly involve a lot of the skeptical issues that we deal with. You give a freshman seminar on psychology and critical thinking. Why don't you tell us about that?

SV: We've implemented a system a lot of colleges have of freshman seminars where the freshmen get to have a small class right away. I thought this would be a great circumstance to get them early and teach them some critical thinking skills and a little bit of psychology at the same time. One of the things I think is really important for people to learn and isn't being taught enough is the basic fallacies and the tools for good arguments. I use a basic critical thinking textbook for that and work with the students. The culmination of it is that I have them do a real Oxford style debate on a topic that they choose. After they've chosen a topic, they don't know whether they're going to have to take the affirmative or the negative viewpoint. They only learn which side of the argument they're going to have to take by flipping a coin. It's very dramatic, by the way. We do it in class and the students are there and they don't know what they're going to do. We flip the coin and it happens. Then they have to come in later and do the argument. It's a very good exercise. I don't think enough college courses or courses in general teach debate as a real skill, as a formal thing. It's a very useful thing for them to learn.

S: In my experience, almost nobody really knows how to do it anymore. I get into debates almost on a daily basis, even if they're just in writing on email. Most people don't know the first thing about how to actually construct an argument and what legitimate logic is versus logical fallacies. Most arguments, especially in the realm that we're dealing with, the paranormal and pseudoscience, they basically amount to just a string of logical fallacies.

SV: It becomes a very useful tool for them if they can make the transition to actually seeing them in everyday life. It's not easy. It's a skill you have to practice, too. I can't tell you how wonderful the feeling is when in the middle of this hot going debate in the classroom, some kid says, you can't say that. That's just a false correlation there or whatever. You're affirming the consequence. You can't say that. I just beam when I hear that sort of thing. That's great.

S: You could play name that logical fallacy.

SV: That's right. I try to carry through with some of these things in my courses because not enough of it is being done. I also teach intro psych, which is a large lecture. You get lots of fresh young minds there. I do quite a bit with critical thinking there, too. I show them a video on facilitated communication, which is an excellent example of how important critical thinking is and scientific reasoning.

S: Just for our listeners, facilitated communication was a movement mainly in the 80s and into the 90s that involved communicating with children or people who were severely mentally handicapped or autistic and could not communicate. The therapists believed that they could communicate with them by holding their hand or facilitating their hand and then they would point to letters on a board or keys on a typewriter and that they could communicate in that fashion. But it turned out that the facilitator was doing all the communicating. They were completely deceiving themselves into doing it.

R: I believe there's an episode of Law and Order about that for those of you like me who get all your information from television. Just make a note.

J: Stuart, do you think that superstition is one of the core elements to why religion is so strong with humans?

SV: Well, I don't know. I think that, let's put it this way, I get at it the other way around, which is to say that people who are rational thinkers and who value science are probably likely not to believe in either thing. I would say that superstition and religion can be either friends or not. There are an awful lot of religious people who are quite anti-superstition. I think all the combinations are possible. But I would say that if you are a rationalist and someone who values scientific thinking, then you're probably going to be a little bit soft on both those things, on both religion and superstition. But I don't know, I'm not sure. I think that some of the mechanisms are similar. Obviously, people tend to be the same religion as their parents often, and so obviously there's socialization and learning from your parents involved, and that's how you become superstitious too. But beyond that, I don't know what the connection between the two is.

S: Connecting the logical fallacies with superstition, again, I think I remember you speaking about this during your lecture to us, was that the core logical fallacy of superstition is often that A always correlates with B, except when it doesn't. And people express it that way. I always win when I wear my lucky shirt, except when I don't. And that, of course, that logic enables you to incorporate any data into your superstition. Or I think the flip side of that was to say, I always win when I wear this shirt, and then until they lose, oh, now it's flipped. Now it's now the unlucky shirt.

J: Isn't that convenient?

SV: You studied the book very well. That's exactly right. I'm amazed. Yes. There's this sort of wind shift strategy where the shirt is good until it loses, and then it's terrible. And there definitely are people who have that pattern. The other one is also the case that people make exceptions. I did an experiment earlier, several years ago, in which students were playing a video game, and they had to follow a pattern and find out how they got rewards, how they earned points. It was a very simple video game with a matrix. And they would make up these stories. I mean, the fact is that it was random. I had a random number generator, and sometimes they would get a point, and sometimes they wouldn't. But they would develop these patterns, and in some cases they would develop sequences of patterns. And so one student, for example, said, well, you always get a point if you go this way, except when you don't get a point, it's because you should have gone that way. So you're right. There's either sort of an exception-making pattern where you fill in the blank with what you should have done, or you just sort of give up as soon as it ends. Those are both very common.

S: Yeah, and I love that experiment. I remember when you talked about it, and most people fell into that pattern, except for a few who did some controlled experiments and realized that it was random. Isn't that right?

SV: Yeah, they were like the stars. They were only a couple, unfortunately. But they actually systematically tried certain things. They would hold something constant and do it over and over and over again and see what happened. They would shift and hold this constant and do it over. And with real experimentation, they were able to say, hey, you know what, I don't think there's any pattern here. It's just random.

B: And only a couple did that?

SV: Only a couple.

B: Out of how many?

SV: Out of like 20, I think I had two. I mean, it was very rare.

S: 10%. That has become, ever since I heard about you doing that experiment, that has become my example to represent this notion that basically you will fall into this self-deceptive pattern of confirmation bias and pattern seeking unless you specifically impose some scientific methodology on how you think about or how you approach the data. So it's basically like a microcosm for why we need science in the sense of the world.

SV: That's true.

S: Wonderful.

SV: And it's not something that everybody's going to know how to do. I mean, I felt that these students who did it had some skill, had learned somehow that I need to do this strategy in order to test the hypothesis. And I don't think that that's being taught enough.

S: That's right. I unfortunately agree with you on that. Well, Stuart, it was wonderful having you on. We appreciate you spending some time with us.

SV: Great to be here.

B: Thank you.

R: Happy Friday the 13th.

S: Be safe on Friday the 13th.

SV: I'll try.

J: Yeah, Stuart, I'd wish you good luck on the sale of the book, but I don't want to insult you. (laughter)

SV: That's okay.

S: Is there going to be a newer edition coming out sometime?

SV: I hope so. Yeah, I would like to do a revised edition.

S: Yeah, well, they definitely keep us updated. If you do, we'll get you back on.

SV: Will do. Thanks.

S: All right, take care.

R: Thanks, Stuart.

J: Thanks.

Randi Speaks (1:01:22)[edit]

  • The Uncompromising Observations of a Veteran Skeptic

    Each week James Randi gives a skeptical commentary in his own unique style.

    This week's topic: Aromatherapy

S: And now, Randi Speaks.

JR: Hello, this is James Randi. Some of our listeners have sent in ideas as to subjects I might address and Karen in Melbourne, Australia has suggested aromatherapy. Karen and the rest of you folks, aromatherapy is just one of the siliest notions I have ever heard of. What they do is they present you with all kinds of oils and aromas that are, admittedly, quite pleasant. These are distributed by various means, leaving them open in evaporating dishes in your living room or plugging them into the wall so that the room is suffused with cinnamon or garlic or whatever you wish. Now, I can easily forgo the garlic; I guess most of us could, but cinnamon is rather attractive to me. It's the claim that's made for aromatherapy that really gets to me, however. It says that this cures diseases and relieves conditions. Well, if you've got a really smelly house, perhaps it does. But let's face the hard facts here. Your olfactory organ—that's your nose, in case you didn't know it—is very sensitive; it'll pick up all kinds of good information about the world around us, but it's simply a myth that diseases and medical conditions can be relieved by means of the olfactory glands. Yes, having a nice aroma in the air might help you to a certain extent, might make you feel better; it might make your environment a little pleasanter. That does not imply—it doesn't mean that any medical cures are on their way. As with most of these things, very simple double-blind tests would determine whether or not there is any medical advantage to be had through aromatherapy. And, as with all of these claims, that sort of test is not involved in the evaluation of such claims. Now don't ask me how, but I was reminded from Karen's request for something about aromatherapy of something else entirely different. I recall that when I was attending grade school in Toronto, Canada, where I was born and almost raised, there existed a pair of schoolyard bullies, who gave all of the kids a very hard time. I pulled a bit of a gag on them that—well, I hope that neither one of them is listening to this, or they might want to seek me out for a certain reprimand, if you know what I mean. These two kids were typical bullies, in that they would literally empty the other kids' pockets out, take their lunch money, if there was any there, and anything valuable they had on them. In those days, as today, there was no point in going to teachers or the principal or anybody else around and complaining about it. You had to handle it yourself, and I did. Now, just a wee bit of history. At that time, and I believe still in Canada, there was a type of chewing gum sold that was called Thrills. I don't know why; it wasn't much of a thrill, I can assure you. Thrills were sort of elongated Chiclets and they were a dark lavender in color. These two bullies were quite partial to them, I was told. And that gave me my approach for a really good joke and some revenge. Working with my friend Gary, I found a way that we could get even very easily. We bought a packet of Feen-A-Mint, which is a very powerful laxative; I believe it used as active ingredient the chemical phenolphthalein. Believe me, it really worked well. Gary discovered that if you very lightly sanded the surface of the Feen-A-Mint chewing gum, which was just about exactly the same size, you could roughen it so that it could be colored. So we mixed together some red and blue drawing ink, to closely approximate the color of the Thrills chewing gum, then used ordinary paraffin to polish up the surface of these Chiclet-like confections. Sure enough, arriving at the schoolyard very early one morning, the two bullies spotted us, went into my pockets and found this packet of apparently Thrills chewing gum. They split the entire box between the two of them and had a huge wad of gum in their mouths that they were chewing away on very happily. Lo and behold, just before school let out that day, the two bullies had to ask to be excused. I won't get into the details, but one of them didn't make it down the hall. This is James Randi. See you next week.

Science or Fiction (1:06:29)[edit]

Item #1: Research indicates that brief internet counseling is effective in the treatment of depression, as effective as traditional psychotherapies.[1]
Item #2: Robot gardener - a robot designed at the university of Illinois, will move up and down the rows of a crop field, recognize weeds by sight, and then cut and spray them.[2]
Item #3: Sony just announced plans to release a new version of their popular playstation that they claim can be played 'hands free,' with the use of the mind alone.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Playstation
Science Robot gardener
Internet counseling
Host Result
' win
Rogue Guess
Robot gardener

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, one is fictiscious. Now I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to tell me which is the fake. We have a theme for this week. The theme is robots and computers. I know you love themes.

R: I love robots.

J: I said it first.

B: Yeah, so do I. Robots are awesome.

J: Okay, let's stop right now. Who has a robot on their desk right now?

R: Me.

J: I know I do.

R: I have the robot devil on my desk.

B: Ooh, that sounds interesting.

S: I have one on my kitchen floor.

R: A robot devil?

S: No, a robot raptor. All right, you guys ready? Number one, research indicates that brief internet counseling is effective in the treatment of depression, as effective as traditional psychotherapies. Number two, this one is the robot gardener. A robot designed at the University of Illinois will move up and down the rows of a crop field, recognize weeds by sight, and then cut and spray them. And item number three, Sony has just announced plans to release a new version of their popular PlayStation that they claim can be played hands-free with the use of the mind alone. Bob, why don't you go first?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see, robot crop detector. That sounds very likely to me with the pattern recognition. It's getting fairly advanced. There's certain numbers of weeds that you're looking for and certain shapes, so that sounds very likely. Brief internet counseling is effective compared to psychotherapy.

S: Traditional psychotherapies, yeah.

B: I'm going to say that's true as well, mainly because three just doesn't do it for me. Sony PlayStation, they're using the whole mind thing to do PlayStation. I mean, it's been in the news a lot where you hook it up to your thoughts, and depending on your brain patterns, you can move a cursor up and down. I don't think anyone's doing anything really complicated yet with that, which is what you would require for PlayStation, and people would not like to train themselves to actually just move a stupid pong thing up and down. They wouldn't enjoy that, so I would say that's baloney.

S: All righty, Rebecca?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: I agree in that that sounds completely ridiculous, but that's why I'm going to say it's probably true, because it just sounds so stupid that it's probably true. I'm going to go with number two.

S: The robot gardener?

R: The gardening thing, yeah. That sounds fishy.

S: All righty, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Oh, I'm playing PlayStation with my mind right now. The last I read, the PlayStation, I think it was, they can do it by tracking your eyes. So I don't think the mind reading one is either you're being unclear or whatever, but I don't believe that one.

B: Right, hands-free is getting popular, but not using the mind yet, I guess.

S: So you think that one's fake as well.

J: Yes, I do.

Steve Explains Item 1#[edit]

S: So you all agree that internet counseling is effective as traditional psychotherapies in treating depression, and that one is science. That one is true. Internet of long-term benefit for depression. This was research done at the Australian National University, and they found that brief internet-based interventions for depression are immediately effective and have significant positive long-term benefit that may be as effective as active psychotherapies. The finds are yet to be published as we're recording this, but the studies were done by Professors Helen Christensen and Andrew McKinnon and Dr. Kathy Griffiths at the Center for Mental Health Research. So that's neat because obviously internet counseling would be certainly convenient and cost-effective, and so that would be another option to have. And also the fact that a brief intervention could have some long-lasting effects is also a good thing. One of the downsides of therapy is that it takes a long time. So the interesting thing about that, and the reason why this was maybe a little counterintuitive to counselors or the medical profession, is that there seemed to be a benefit to the physical closeness, that being physically present with somebody had an important therapeutic role. So the question is what does this really say about the psychology and the socialization of the internet? More and more people are connecting over the internet. Perry met his wife over the internet, and that's not an uncommon story these days. And maybe human connectedness doesn't need the real physical closeness. Maybe the virtual contacts that we make over the internet are just as emotionally impactful to us as more physical connections. So that's interesting.

R: That is interesting.

Steve Explains Item 2#[edit]

S: Rebecca, you thought that the robot gardener was bogus.

R: Yeah.

S: That one is also science. That one is true. This is a solar robot, which uses a system of, it uses 20-20 vision, and it goes on a search and destroy mission for weeds. The purpose of this is to reduce the use of herbicide. It's still actually spraying the weeds, so it cuts it and then sprays the stump. But by spraying a small amount directly on the plant, that uses up much less herbicide, and its distribution is much more controlled than if you had to spray an entire field.

B: And some herbicides can be very expensive, so that saves tons of money.

S: Yes, that's true.

R: How expensive are weed-killing robots, though? I mean, that's got to be kind of pricey.

B: Well after 30 years, you make your money back.

S: I'm sure if it goes into wider spread use, it could be cost-effective.

B: Yeah, absolutely.

S: It uses a GPS for navigation. It has two small cameras, so it has depth perception. This was engineered by Lee Tien, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois. He wrote, if he sees a weed, he can actually tell how far away it is, which I guess would be helpful in going up to it. You know, agriculture is big business. I'm sure the cost-effectiveness of this will be worked out.

Steve Explains Item #[edit]

S: The third item about Sony PlayStation using just the mind is fiction. That one I made up, but this is based on a real news item that I wanted to touch on. This one, teenager moves video icons just by imagination. So this was the first playing of a video game with the mind alone, although this is not yet ready for the Sony PlayStation yet. Just as a 14-year-old who suffers from epilepsy and has some physical impairment is the first one to play a video game with his mind alone. He's basically playing a Space Invaders-like game. Space Invaders, you basically just have to move the ship back and forth and fire only using signals from his brain to make the movements. But it did require the implantation of a chip, so it's not like a cap you could put on. That's really the stage that we're going to have to get to before you're going to see it in your PlayStation.

R: So I wonder what exactly did he have to think about to make it move, do you know?

S: Yeah, I don't know. I mean, there's a number of research protocols for this, and I don't know what they actually think about.

B: Isn't it just enhancing or suppressing, alpha waves and beta wave frequencies?

R: Yeah, but how do you do that consciously?

B: You could train yourself. You'd be surprised.

S: It actually does require the feedback. It's almost at first random getting it to move, and then when it moves, okay whatever you were just doing, just keep doing that to get it to move in that same direction. Now, they've also done this for replaced limbs, so you can actually, like, think about closing your robotic hand and it closes. That's a little bit more straightforward because you're thinking about your hand closing, even though it doesn't have the same sensation of being your arm that your biological arm would have. We don't have the sensory feedback. That's another step that we need to get to, but first boy to play a video game with his mind. So this is the first little baby step on our way to being fully immersed in game worlds for playing just with our minds.

J: So Bob and I are wrong then?

R: No, you're right. But you get a point taken away just for saying that.

J: No, but he just said the kid could, they did it.

B: But it's not PlayStation today.

S: Yeah, but it's not a Sony PlayStation coming out next year.

J: Oh, I thought that maybe Sony did this with him.

S: No, no, no, no, no. That part I made totally up. It was just inspired by this story about the computer chip in the Space Invaders game.

B: This is still in the lab. It's not ready for consumers.

S: All right. Well, that's it for this week, guys. Thanks for joining me.

R: Yeah, thank you.

B: Good episode.

S: Always a pleasure.

J: Always a good one, guys.

Quote of the Week (1:15:12)[edit]

'Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.'- Carl Sagan

B: We're going to end as usual with our skeptical quote. Bob is our Quote Master, and his choice for this week is the following. "Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." And I know you guys all know who said that, because we talked about it before the show. But that was said by the immortal Carl Sagan. In my opinion, the most eloquent scientific skeptic that has ever lived, at least so far. I'm sure his quotes will be cropping up at the end of our shows in the future.

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.


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