SGU Episode 65

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SGU Episode 65
October 18th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 64                      SGU 66

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

'If I was a religious person, I would consider creationism nothing less than blasphemy. Do its adherents imagine that God is a cosmic hoaxer who has created that whole vast fossil record for the sole purpose of misleading mankind?'

Arthur C. Clarke

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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, October 18th, 2006, and this is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everyone!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everybody.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi, everyone.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey, forget about it.

S: How are you guys doing tonight?

B: Good.

J: Great. Hey, today is Rebecca's birthday.

S: Yes.

R: Oh my God, is it? I totally forgot. That's great.

S: Happy birthday, Rebecca.

E: Happy birthday, Rebecca.

J: I had that out there.

R: Thank you.

J: In case, imagine if none of us brought it up, guys. I've been trying to remind myself all day.

R: So this whole show is going to be all the emails we got wishing me happy birthday, right?

S: They'll make one or two of my crap up. How old are you, Rebecca?

R: I'm 26.

S: 26, a spring chicken.

B: You're a fetus. (laughter)

E: Maybe on a cosmic scale.

R: I'm a 26-year-old fetus, yes.

E: And you're a what, Pisces? Is that what you are?

R: I'm a Libra.

E: Oh, Libra. Let me read your horoscope.

R: Which I'm sure was obvious.

E: Keep positive thoughts today.

R: Oh.

E: And fortune moves in your favour. It's a good horoscope.

J: Wow. That's so specific, too, isn't it? I mean, God, that doesn't apply to anybody except Rebecca.

R: No. It's like he looked into my soul.

E: That'll be $10, please.

News Items[edit]

Geller's Heir (1:39)[edit]


S: So, Uri Geller has managed to weasel himself back into the news.

J: I really hate him.

R: Oh, man.

E: Well, we don't hate him so much as loathe him.

R: I don't know. I kind of love him a little.

J: He's a total schmuck.

R: That's why I love him.

S: Uri Geller, of course, is the Israeli alleged psychic whose claim to fame is that he could bend spoons or that he could pretend to bend spoons with his mind. And if you don't believe him, he'll sue you.

R: It's kind of the saddest superpower ever.

S: It is up there. It's not quite as bad as the Scientology superpowers.

R: Oh, yeah. Those were pretty bad.

B: Sensing hunger.

'E: Sensing hunger. (laughter)

R: That's right.

S: He can also make seeds germinate.

J: Yeah, that, and dirt and water, and there you go.

R: See, he's got like a new reality show, right?

S: Yeah, I don't know what's worse, reality television or Uri Geller, but now we've got them both together. Uri Geller is going to have an American Idol type show where he gets to name his heir, his successor, as spoonbender.

J: Oh, my God.

R: His heir to his vast fortune and fame.

J: Whose brainchild was this?

R: As the butt of everyone's jokes. Whose brainchild was it? Whose do you think? He is so full of himself.

J: He said, we will keep the performances that are most riveting and amazing. He also said that viewers with intuitive powers would also be invited to call in and compete. That's it. We've got to do it. We have to call in and compete.

E: Yeah, we have intuitive powers.

J: Oh, my God. That's a great idea, Steve.

S: Get one of us named as Uri Geller's heir. That would be awesome.

J: All right, we've got to tell everybody in our audience, don't let anybody know if one of us ends up on the program, you can't spill the beans.

S: And you've got to vote for us.

R: It'll be a pretty big secret because Google doesn't exist. Hello? No, we need to get an unknown shill to put in the game for us.

S: Yeah, like Randi had Carlos.

R: Yeah. Yeah. So we should pick one of our listeners. We should have a contest to see who can be the most intuitive.

J: No, screw that. Let's get Luna. We'll just pick Luna. All right? We trust him. He's the man.

R: Why do we trust Luna? Luna...

J: Because he's our boy. Because he was the first...

R: The only reason why we know Luna's name is because he's Perry's only fan.

S: But it's true. Well, we could use one of ourselves or we could get a volunteer from either just our listening audience or the forums if you think it could do a good exciting and riveting cold reading and try to get a skeptic named as Uri Geller, spoon-bending hair. That would be great.

R: That would be pretty fantastic.

S: So we'll have to stay tuned for that.

J: So would Luna have to change his last name if he wins to Geller, like Luna Geller, you know?

S: I haven't read the contract. I don't know.

Will Humans Evolve into Two Species? (4:32)[edit]


S: In other news, evolutionary theorist Oliver Curry, you've never heard of this guy before, of the London School of Economics, has announced that he expects that the human species will split into two different species, an upper-class species and a dim-witted under-class species, which is reminiscent, of course, of H.G. Wells' Time Machine.

R: Time Machine.

S: Yeah, they go into the future.

R: What are they? Morlocks?

B: Morlocks and the Eloi?

S: And the Eloi, right.

R: Yeah, I'm excited. I can't wait.

S: Well, you're assuming you're going to be in the upper-class species?

R: Well either that or I'll be in the lower-class and I won't know enough to care.

S: See, I predict the human species is going to split into a skeptical species and a true-believing species.

R: It kind of already has. I won't mate with any of the true believers, so I can only assume that we're considered a separate species now.

J: Does this guy have any kind of rationale behind his statement?

S: This is interesting. This guy, Oliver Curry, has written about it. He's basically a behavioural evolutionist and we've talked on this show before about behavioural evolutionary biology. It's kind of on shaky ground scientifically. It certainly has its skeptics because it's very difficult to do any kind of falsifying tests. And some people think it just amounts to what you call just-so stories. You can weave some story about why we evolve certain behaviour patterns, but there's really no way to subject it to any kind of empirical testing. But he has written quite a bit in this realm and also in the realm of trying to understand models of economics based upon evolutionary behavioural biology.

B: Some of these quotes are just mind-boggling that an evolutionary biologist would come up with this. Here's one. The human race would peak in the year 3000. Peak? Is that kind of like that comment last week that was coming at top speed? What does that possibly mean, peak?

R: The best chunk of this study is that he decided that by the year 3000, the human race would be such that everybody would be in peak physical condition. Like all of the men would be, everybody would be extremely tall and tan.

J: Everyone would be running at top speed.

R: The men would have giant, you know what I'm talking about, they had huge wangs. And the women would have, and I swear to God this is right from the article, the women would have perk breasts and be very physically fit. And you know, all of that sounds really great. And then if you look at who was funding the study, which was the satellite TV channel, it's called Bravo, the men's network or something.

B: So Rebecca, did they do this in the hopes that in a thousand years their ratings will be good? Is that why they're doing that? Well, this guy's got some quotes, some things that need to be addressed with this guy. Some of these quotes, he warns that in 10,000 years time, humans may have paid a genetic price for relying on technology. We're going to be spoiled by gadgets designed to meet our every need. Things like there could be health problems caused by reliance on medicine resulting in weak immune systems. Is this guy a Lamarcus or what? I mean, because we rely on medicine, we're going to have kids that have weak immune systems. What's that all about?

E: That's science fiction.

B: That's basically what he's saying.

S: That's just nonsense. He doesn't understand really evolutionary biology.

B: Right. And also in my opinion, I think, and a lot of people I think would agree with me that in the very near future, I mean, we're going to be directing our own evolution.

J: That's the point I was going to bring up.

B: Genetic revolution, I mean, natural evolution is dead for humans. I mean, eventually we'll be evolving ourselves the way we want to be evolved. And how could you possibly predict selective pressures, centuries and millennia in the future? It reminds me of a Star Trek episode. They took this creature, they brought it on the holodeck and they wanted to determine could this creature evolve into this other creature? So they evolved it on the holodeck. How could you possibly evolve anything unless you know what the selective pressures are?

J: Yeah, but Bob, you're saying the premise was that a species will evolve on its own like pre-programmed evolution?

B: No. No, but no, it's not pre-programmed, but it's all based on the environment and the pressures that push you in certain directions, which are inherently unpredictable. You can't possibly predict what the pressures are.

S: Yeah, but Jay was saying I think the holodeck example was based upon the assumption that evolutionary, the future course of evolution is based somehow pre-programmed into the species.

B: It's not how I remember that scene.

S: But that is, that was actually, that is a common misconception and that in fact is a pre-Darwinian notion of evolution. That it was somehow, that evolution is somehow carrying out some kind of program leading to either just greater complexity and so-called higher up on the evolutionary ladder or the evolutionary tree or in religious terms achieving some predetermined goal set intrinsically in nature by God. And it was really, the big change with Darwin is that it was, evolution was not carrying out any kind of, anything that's pre-programmed into it. It is just randomly following a select, whatever the local selective pressures are. Which again makes it impossible to project evolutionary trends into the future. So you're absolutely right. But the other thing that he fails to consider is that the human species is really not in a situation conducive to any kind of directed evolutionary change. Primarily because we are a tremendously large and outbred population. We have over six billion people on this planet heading towards seven billion. And we're pretty much interbreeding freely around the world. We are the very definition of an outbred population. And outbred populations are stable. They don't evolve.

R: That was kind of one of the weird things about this study too is that the guy says in a thousand years we're all going to be the same race because of interbreeding. But then he goes on to say, oh, but then suddenly we're going to segregate again.

S: Yeah. It seems contradictory. Seems contradictory.

J: I love how they pick round numbers in the year 3000. Yeah. Okay. Exactly.

R: I bet 2999 they're all just going to be waiting around crossing their fingers.

E: Crossing their beautiful fingers. Perfectly tan fingers.

J: Aren't we just so tall and beautiful?

Scientists find the elusive Element 118 (11:29)[edit]


    Creationist pamphlet mentioned in this segment:

    During the podcast it was mentioned that the weak nuclear force holds protons and neutrons together. It is the strong nuclear force that does this (and also holds quarks together into protons and neutrons). The weak nuclear force is the enegery of beta-decay.

S: Well, there's some serious science news this week. We've "discovered" the elusive element 118.

R: Now, how did they discover? I mean, they knew there was 117, right? They must have figured they all go in order, right?

S: Yeah.

B: Just an extra proton in the nucleus.

E: Yeah, they just shoved another one in there.

B: Steve, I did some research on this. I'd like to talk about it.

S: Go right ahead.

B: A collaboration of researchers from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Russia's Joint Institute for Nuclear Research announced the likely creation of the heaviest atoms ever created in this solar system. It lasted for about a thousandth of a second. And it has exactly 118 protons in its nucleus. And that's what determines the element. It's a number of, the atomic number is the number of protons in the nucleus. The number of neutrons can vary and that determines what the, what the various isotopes are. Now, it's been informally dubbed Ununoctium.

R: Sounds about right.

B: It's, I don't like the sound of it, but hey-

S: That's a pretty short lived element though. I mean, how did you even know it existed if it was-

B: I'll tell you. You're right. It's so short lived that you have to infer its existence from the daughter particles that are created after it's created. So if you can confirm that, oh look, element 116 was created here and then 114 was created here and you follow the train back up and you can infer that yes, 118 must have produced these.

S: Must have existed fleetingly in that process.

B: Right. Now, this is quite, it's an interesting story. They spent over 3,000 hours over a few years bombarding a target made of californium with roughly 10 quintillion atoms of calcium-48. That's a 10 followed by 18 zeros. That's a lot of atoms. And the interesting thing about this is that in 1999, a Berkeley team announced that they created element 118 and two years later they had to retract it because of fraud. Somebody, so because of that, this American-Russian team have been incredibly diligent about documenting, cross-checking no one person has control over significant pieces of the research. It's all double-checked and everything. So much so that they're placing the odds of the results being false at less than one in 10,000. I'm not sure how they're actually determining that, but it's-

R: Do they still need to do it again though? Yes. Do they still need to replicate it before it's...

B: Right. Right. It won't be confirmed and it won't be officially named until somebody else replicates it. But a lot of people are very confident. They really crossed their T's and dotted their I's and it looks I think it'll be confirmed. Eventually it will be confirmed. They really did their homework on this one.

J: So Bob, the chances of me getting a watch made out of this element in the near future is not likely, huh?

B: Well, uh...

S: Well, it's a noble gas, isn't it?

B: It's radioactive.

S: Yeah, but I think that it's, in terms of where it is...

B: It would be under radon, right, the noble gas.

R: They don't make watches out of noble gas. Get over it.

J: Okay, hey I'm asking. I asked.

B: Another interesting thing about this is something that they call the island of stability. Scientists predict that at some point in the periodic table, probably well past 118, I think the number is something like 184 or 186 protons, they predict that there's going to be an island of stability where you've got these elements that have just the right magic ratio of protons to neutrons that make them incredibly stable.

S: So that's interesting. The reason why elements, there's an upper limit to how big an element can get is because protons are all positively charged. Those positive charges repel each other, so there's a tendency for the nucleus to want to break itself apart, but they're held together by the weak nuclear force. And once you get up to around that level in the one-teens is when the repulsive force of the protons is overcoming the attractive force of the weak nuclear force. That's why particles that are that heavy are very radioactive. They tend to shoot off particles because they're just barely holding on to them and why 118 is so fleeting and why it would be difficult to make something even bigger. So I never heard of that, Bob. Can you briefly explain why at an even bigger element there would be some stability that would be able to overcome the repulsive force between the different protons? Is it just the way they would three-dimensionally interlock together or something?

B: Another reason why they're so unstable is actually the way the experiment is carried out. It's such a high energy impact that you're creating an inherently unstable situation because of the high energies involved. There are other techniques and other experiments that you can do that are of much lower energy which would greatly increase the probability of creating a stable element. So part of that is kind of like an artifact of the actual experiment itself that makes it so unstable. They do theorize that there is an upper limit, a finite limit of how big atoms can get, but the impression I got from the reading I've been doing is that they don't think they're really on the cusp of it right now at 118.

S: Really?

B: Yeah, I haven't come across anything saying that they're inherently unstable because of the weak nuclear force and we can't get much bigger than 118. But we'll see how far it can go. Because they really think they're just lapping at the shores of this island of stability and if they really found it, that would be a truly incredible discovery.

E: Hey Bob, why is 117 undiscovered?

B: I guess they just haven't been able to produce it in an experiment.

S: I don't think 117 remains undiscovered. Actually the research we're looking at says that 117 is the immediate decay product of 118. It's called Ununseptium. It's 117. Now as an aside, there's a widely distributed creationist tract that claims that god must exist because the protons in a nucleus should fly apart because of their positive charge. So it must be the power of God that holds the nucleus of every atom together.

R: Like God's not got anything better to do.

E: God of the gaps.

S: Why didn't he just make the weak nuclear force?

E: He did.

B: That's pathetic.

S: I think the next time I'm in front of a creationist, I think I'm going to say, you know what, after all this time, why the hell doesn't God just freaking show himself to us?

S: Because then you would believe too easy. It would be too easy. Faith wouldn't mean anything.

R: Yeah, like Douglas Adams said, the Babel fish was so amazing that it proved that there was a God so that he ceased to exist. See, I can out-geek all of you.

B: No, I can out-geek you even more. I'll give you the exact quote. God disappears in a puff of illogic. Or a puff of logic. Great quote. Great quote.

S: Well, let's move on to emails.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Rebecca and the 7th Fleet (18:14)[edit]

Happy Birthday Rebecca, From all of your fans in the 7th Fleet.

In your request for forward deployed military listeners, I am part of the 7th fleet stationed in Japan and am often in one interesting place or another. The most interesting place I have been listening to your pod cast is in a submarine near (under) the Indian Ocean. I eagerly await your show as a weekly 'escape to reality'. With any luck I will be at the Amaz!ng Meeting. Thank you for your support.


STG1 Jonathan Edmiston

S: The first email comes from Jonathan Edmiston, who writes, "Happy birthday, Rebecca, from all of your fans in the Seventh Fleet."

R: Yay!

E: Yay, the Seventh Fleet.

R: That's great, because I got a happy birthday and a letter from the military, which is what I had requested a while ago.

B: Rebecca, I want to know, when did you diss the Sixth Fleet? What happened to them?

S: That's a long story.

B: Okay.

S: He writes, "In your request for forward deployed military listeners, I am part of the Seventh Fleet stationed in Japan, and I'm often in one interesting place or another. The most interesting place I have been listening to your podcast is in a submarine near or under the Indian Ocean. I eagerly await your show as a weekly escape to reality. With any luck, I will be at the amazing meeting. Thank you for your support."

R: That's awesome.

S: That is awesome.

E: This is great, though. I mean, we have people listening in the skies over Afghanistan and underneath the waters of the oceans of the Earth. I mean, how great is that?

R: It's totally cool. And I hope Jonathan does make it to TAM, because I'm definitely going to be there, and I think some of you guys are, too.

S: Some of us are going to be there. I'm definitely going to be there.

Moon Robots (19:24)[edit]

Love the podcast!

Now that the Mars Face has been debunked, they're moving on to robots on the moon!

Scott Sitarek
Royal Oak, MI

S: Question number two comes from Scott Sidorek from Royal Oak, Michigan. And Scott writes, "Love the podcast. Now that the Mars phase has been debunked, they're moving on to robots on the moon." And then he gives a link, and this is hilarious.

R: I love robots.

J: It's awesome.

S: This is to a website called Data's Head. And this is, yes, this is a reference to Star Trek's Data, who was a robot.

E: Android.

S: There was one episode, yeah Android, a humaniform robot. And there was one episode where they found his head from the future, and they had the information from it in order to save the Earth and reality. So they're basically, and you go to this website, we'll have, of course, the URL in the notes page. And they're looking at photographs from the moon. They zoom way in at, so far that you're just looking at blocky, low-res, blurred images. And then they hallucinate all kinds of things on these images. I mean, it's really, it is like a Rorschach test.

E: Right.

R: Do they see any cool robots, or is it just lame robots like Data?

E: Like C-3PO.

S: Well, that's the quote unquote data set. So like there's one picture, which to me looks literally like two rocks, two blobs. And the caption is, two apparently metal-cased or forged objects from the rim of Shorty Crater. They look like rocks.

R: Maybe they're transformers that are rocks until you get close, and then they go, transform, and they jump up and make...

S: Maybe, maybe.

E: That reminds me of the Simpsons episode when Bart throws a rock through Mr. Burns' window, and Mr. Burns says, oh, look, a pigeon has petrified in mid-flight.

S: That's about as logical.

E: Exactly.

S: The other picture is referred to as a mechanical housing. It took me a while to figure out if these guys were for real or not, because sometimes it could be sometimes these things could be hoaxes or satire. It's really hard to tell the difference between good satire and real true believers, because the true believers are just so off the wall. You can't satirize them, because you can't make up stuff that's more silly than what they're really claiming. So it makes satire impossible.

R: I'm going to write them an email and suggest that the entire moon is a transformer.

S: So in this one picture, there is a rock.

E: Moon-a-tron.

S: And the rock is described as a human head. Now, it looks like a rock. And yeah, there's a couple of shadows that are next to each other that you could say. With pareidolia, your brain makes it look a little bit like a human face, but there's no detail with which you could say it's anything other than a rock that just happens to vaguely resemble a human face. Now, these claims are apparently endorsed by none other than Hoagland. Yeah, Hoagland from Face on Mars fame.

R: I'm not surprised.

J: Of course, because what these people did before thousands of millions of years ago, is they sprinkled around all over the planet. They just sprinkled around human heads things that look like human heads all over the planet. I'm going to find, I'm going to look at some pictures of Mars, of the rocks, and I'm going to find something that looks like a human ass. And I'm going to start a website.



S: Now, of course, NASA recovered all of these artifacts and they're just hiding it from the rest of the world.

E: That's a big hanger with all the things they've got to hide in there. The fake moon landing, the face on this planet, the rocks on that planet.

S: About three dozen crashed flying saucers. Those aliens don't know how to fly those things.

E: No, but they use a heck of a scotch tape in those, in their ships.

S: With hieroglyphics on them. Shaped like little duckies in bunny rabbits.

R: What?

E: The scotch tape of the recovery of the wreckage from Area 51.

S: No, no, no, no. This is part, this is not Area 51, this is part of the mythology of the crashed saucer at Roswell.

E: Roswell, thank you.

S: That in the debris there were beams with hieroglyphics on them. And it turns out that the debris was from Project Mogul, which was a secret spy balloon basically, with just a little balsa wood and paper device underneath it, reflective dish. And the story goes that they had to make some on-site repairs, and they got some children's tape from a local store that had like duckies and bunny rabbits on it. And that's what the UFO believers were interpreting as hieroglyphics.

R: I didn't realize, I never heard that. It's funny.

S: It's hilarious. I met a guy at a UFO convention that I was, you know.

E: What, did you lose a bet you have to go there?

S: Perry and I have gone to a couple of these where you just sort of be a fly on the wall and just mosey up to conversations and listen in and smile and nod and oh my God, you will not believe what these people talk about when they think they're among their own. So this guy was telling us how he interpreted translated these hieroglyphics. He translated the bunny rabbit hieroglyphics. And it was like the most ridiculous thing, something about travel well, adventurer. It was like this cartoonish nonsense.

J: Steve, he busts out with, Bunny rabbit hops over hill. Funny rabbit says hi to little wolf guy.

B: What could it mean?

J: What could it mean?

S: Duck season, rabbit season.

Vegetarians and Sacred Cows (24:51)[edit]

Hey guys,

A few times in the podcast you've labeled vegetarianism a Sacred Cow and compared it to various pseudo-sciences like homeopathy. This is a mistake of categorization, if nothing else, regardless of your views on meat-eating.

Vegetarianism, in most of its forms, is an ethical claim, not a scientific one. It is not a statement of fact. Homeopathy is demonstrably wrong, but vegetarianism is no more right or wrong then any other ethical claim, from any objective point of view. Arguments for or against either are arrangements of history, emotion, practicality, and so on, but neither,
strictly speaking, can be tested for Rightness in any meaningful way.

The larger issue for the skeptic comes from determining how to apply scientific reasoning skills to build an internally consistent ethical framework that's (at the very least) free from contradiction and logical error. It seems to me that it's easy to build such a framework that includes vegetarianism. Furthermore, it is silly to call any such ethical
framework a Sacred Cow unless you're also willing to view other similarly constructed frameworks in the same way, even if they contain ethical propositions most of us think are obvious.

To the extent that vegetarians make testable claims -- that meat-eaters are less healthy, for example -- they deserve a skeptic's full scrutiny. But even here, although this is a different question from the one I'm writing to discuss, it appears vegetarians are on firm ground, which makes your immediate dismissal of the position even more curious.

Anyway, the show is freaking awesome, of course. Keep up the great work!

[1] Of course, there are philosophers who would disagree with me, but I think they're mostly practicing a sort of religion in which they really, really want it to be true that there are obvious moral precepts set in motion at the Big Bang or other similar nonsense. But even if you don't find my philosophy convincing, we're still not discussing science.

Wayne Burkett

S: Next email comes from Wayne Burkett who writes, "Hi guys, a few times in the podcast you've labeled the vegetarianism a sacred cow and compared it to various pseudosciences like homeopathy. This is a mistake of categorization, if nothing else, regardless of your views on eating meat. Vegetarianism in most of its forms is an ethical claim, not a scientific one. It is not a statement of fact. Homeopathy is demonstrably wrong, but vegetarianism is no more right or wrong than any other ethical claim." He then basically talks about that for another paragraph. And just to skip ahead, then he goes on to say also, "To the extent that vegetarians make testable claims that meat eaters are less healthy, for example, they deserve a skeptic's full scrutiny. But even there, although this is a different question from the one I'm writing to discuss, it appears vegetarians are on firm ground. It makes your immediate dismissal of the position even more curious. Anyway, the show is freaking awesome, of course. Keep up the great work."

E: Thanks, Wayne.

S: Thank you, Wayne. So this actually, I actually wrote back to Wayne who exchanged a couple more emails with me about this. But basically, I know that the topic has come up previously in the show, but really only in the context that I can recall to discuss the fact that Rebecca is a vegetarian.

R: Yeah, I don't think we ever really got into it.

S: No, but we never really talked about it.

R: I've never really been interested in talking about it, because I tend to be one of those people who just sort of eats what I eat and let other people eat what they eat and then, you know?

E: Perhaps Perry mentioned something in one episode and made some sort of comparison.

S: Perry teased Rebecca about it, but you didn't make any claims.

J: No, no, it was just the whole thing about eating meat. He just said you got to eat meat, red meat, baby.

R: Yeah, Perry's big thing is that I'm weak and I'm going to die if I don't eat meat, but that can hardly be taken as the podcast's official position on vegetarianism.

S: That's right. But Wayne is correct in that claims which are moral or ethical choices are not subject to the same kind of scientific skepticism that factual claims are. And some people are vegetarians because it's just a lifestyle choice or they believe that it's a moral choice regarding eating animals or not eating animals. And that's right. If that's fine, if they want to make that ethical choice, that is not something which would be subject to scientific analysis. But there are those that do make health claims regarding vegetarianism, and that's actually a fairly complicated area. First of all, because there's multiple different types of vegetarianism, it's not really a black and white issue. There's certain degrees of strictness regarding what is allowed and what is not allowed.

R: Yeah, you've got like your vegetarians, ovolactose vegetarians who eat milk and eggs.

S: Some eat fish, some don't.

J: Yeah, then you have the ones that all they eat is tree bark.

R: There's the fruitarians. Fruitarians only eat fruit and the raw vegans who won't even cook their vegetables.

J: Where do they get protein if they only eat fruit?

R: They just die. The fruitarians are just, there's really no saving the fruitarians.

S: Then there's the breatharians who live on air.

E: Yeah, remember them? They won an Ig Nobel Award, I think, a few years ago.

S: A few years ago they did.

R: They've taken it to a whole new level. But yeah, I think vegetarianism will make specific claims every now and again, people who are vegetarians. And that's kind of the reason why I never like to really get into big arguments about it. I think that everything is kind of debatable on this. It all pretty much just depends, both for the health angle and also for some of the other claims. I think including what you might describe as a moral or ethical claim that eating meat is wrong and so you don't want to do it. Even that, I think, can be approached skeptically in that there's really something to be said for what is the worth of a particular animal's life. For instance, killing a cow compared to all of the, say, rats that die in the fields when you plow them. Or the land you take away from wildlife to make the fields to grow the grains that you eat. It's a very, very complex issue and I don't think it's one that can be easily debated.

S: Yeah, you can examine the logic for internal consistency. Or again, some vegetarians may make the naturalist fallacy of saying that man wasn't meant to eat meat, which is factually incorrect. And is also irrelevant. Whatever we were, "meant to eat" doesn't necessarily need to apply to modern civilization.

R: We're not meant to live in skyscrapers either.

S: Or be on podcasts, I guess. But the bottom line, very oversimplified, broad brush stroke overview from a medical point of view is that yes, if you don't eat any meat and you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, then you're probably going to have a good cholesterol profile unless you just are genetically screwed. Some people just genetically have bad cholesterol and there's nothing you can do about it. So there are definitely advantages in terms of cholesterol management to having that type of diet. But you can have a perfectly healthy diet and include lean meats and certain amounts of meats and, of course, fish in that diet. So you don't have to be a strict vegetarian in order to have that. And vegetarians, depending on how restrictive their diet is, there's lots of downsides to it as well. Because you could be missing some key nutrients from your diet. So unless you're very, very careful about the kind of foods that you include or supplement in certain ways, there are health risks at that end as well. So I think you could be a healthy or unhealthy vegetarian. You could be a healthy or unhealthy meat eater. And I don't think that there's really any home run health claim on the vegetarian side.

J: Steve, is it bad that I've exclusively eaten for the past three days spaghetti and meatballs?

S: You are a spaghetti and meatball-arian.

R: That's a pretty good diet, actually. That's got like all the food groups.

S: Except vegetables.

R: Meatballs are a vegetable, right?

S: Meatballs are a vegetable? I wish.

R: I thought they grow on trees.

Vitamin Supplements (31:16)[edit]

Dr. Novella (and pals):

A comment on the latest podcast (about putting the chocolate chip cookie in pill form) reminded me of this question I've had.

As both a Doctor and a skeptic, what is your position on taking daily vitamin supplements?

Thanks. And keep up the great work on the enjoyable and informative podcast.

Greenville SC
Neil Shurley

S: The next email comes from Neil Shirley from Greenville, South Carolina. "Dr. Novella and pals, a comment on the latest podcast about putting the chocolate chip cookie in pill form reminded me of this question I've had. As both a doctor and a skeptic, what is your position on taking daily vitamin supplements? Thanks and keep up the great work on the enjoyable and informative podcast."

E: Thank you, Neil.

S: Thank you, Neil. This is one of those long, complicated questions I'm going to boil down to its bare essentials. The bottom line is there is no evidence that demonstrates that routine vitamin supplementation has any health benefits. However, there is evidence that specific vitamins have specific health benefits for specific populations. For example, women who are planning on getting pregnant or who are pregnant should take folic acid. Thiamine, there is some evidence that it may help in nerve regeneration. So it may help a little bit with your carpal tunnel syndrome. B2 and coenzyme Q10 may help with migraine headaches. So very specific claims, there is evidence. However, if you're healthy and you have a good diet, there's no evidence that taking routine supplements have any health benefits.

B: How many people are healthy and have a good diet?

S: Well, yeah. So you could say that if your diet stinks, then you can make up for that to some degree by taking a supplement as insurance that you're not missing some key nutrients. And that's a reasonable position. It's not evidence-based, but it's not illogical or unreasonable. I would say that you're better off having a good diet than just having a crappy diet and taking a vitamin. And I think even the gurus mostly agree with that statement, unless they're specifically selling their own brand of vitamins. The other thing is that although there's no evidence to support long-term benefit, we really don't have great data to say what the effects of taking supplements are for 30 or 40 years on life expectancy. So there is a lack of data. So it's hard to prove that there's no benefit. So in the absence of the proof of no benefit, is it reasonable to take some supplementation in the hopes that 20 years from now we will have figured out that there was some benefit all along? Again, not a totally unreasonable position, but just not based on current evidence. I would say don't go broke buying fancy, expensive supplements. There's no reason to think or evidence that they're any better than the local grocery store brand. And don't believe the hype is the advice that I would give you. But there's some wiggle room for some differences of opinion there.

R: Steve, why don't they have chewable Flintstone vitamins for adults?

S: Well, you could just take the chewable Flintstone vitamins.

R: But they're clearly for children.

S: Well, the only thing you really need to be concerned about is whether or not the vitamin contains iron. Children can take iron. Women who are menstruating can take iron. Women who are not menstruating and adult men should not supplement their iron.

R: Really? Because actually I take an iron supplement because a doctor told me I was anemic and I should.

S: Yeah, well there you go. That's not routine supplementation. That's targeted supplementation. Women who menstruate and who are a little anemic probably need some extra iron. That's perfectly reasonable.

J: But real men can pump iron.

S: Men, we can recycle 100% of our iron. The little bit that we get from our food is plenty. We really don't need to supplement. In fact, you can oversupplement iron. It's also interesting, while we're talking about this one last point, is that the number one thing that children overdose on is vitamins. And children can be seriously harmed by iron overdoses from taking vitamins.

R: So my God, why do we make it look and taste like candy?

S: Yeah, right.

R: Suddenly I'm horrified. You have to keep it out of reach of kids because they will just eat them like candy and they could overdose on it. That's why it's the number one overdose. So that's just that word of caution. Lock it away with your other medications.

J: So limit your Barney Rubble intake.

S: That's right.

R: Yeah, I guess so.

J: Steve, related topic. Is it healthy for men to give blood periodically just for the sake of giving blood?

S: There is some evidence that that may be a good thing in order to prevent iron buildup, but that really has not been well established, that just routinely donating blood or phlebotomy, removing blood for most people is necessary or healthy. There are certain people who have iron deposition disorders, where that's actually the treatment is to just remove blood periodically to keep the iron from building up. Normally we handle our iron just fine.

Follow up on the Star Registry (36:07)[edit]

In your discussion of star naming in last week's show, one of your panelists said that he thought it was basically harmless. I wanted to point out two real costs. Though I'm a school psychologist by profession, I also work as an instructor at our local school district's planetarium. Over the years, I've been approached after programs several times by students or members of the public who have purchased star names, or been given them as gifts. In one case, it was a girl of about 8 who received the gift from her parents. Her teacher wanted to know if I could point out 'her' star during the program. In the second case, it was a couple who had lost a child, and the family had purchased a star in the dead child's name as a memorial. They also wanted to see their daughter's star.

In both cases I had to weigh my response against the hopes and wishes of these innocent victims. In both cases, I was honest and told them that the star names they had received were not official, and that since our planetarium only shows the 1500 or so brightest stars, it was likely that their 'stars' were not even displayed in our planetarium sky. I also gave them my opinion that the star naming companies were doing a disservice to the public in taking money to name something for which they had no naming rights, and I briefly explained how star names (or in most cases catalog numbers) were assigned, and how they were not handled by companies taking money from the public.

The costs are in terms of the false hopes and memorials these people are being sold, and also in the money collected by the ISR and other such companies, that will never go to benefit astronomy or science education. Our planetarium is struggling as school district budgets are being cut. I suggest that people wishing to buy a star name consider instead a donation to a local science education facility, like a planetarium or a museum. The ISR is a nefarious profiteering scheme, with a budget to hire lawyers to go after anyone who publicly decries their dishonest practices.

John Rummel
Madison, WI

Dear members of the Skeptics Guide,

First, congratulations on the great job you're doing with your podcast! I really enjoy it and I eagerly await every new episode ... but I guess you get to read this in every other email ;-).

I have a follow-up on the people who sell land on the moon.
I'm about to finish my study in aerospace engineering in Stuttgart, Germany and we had a lecture dealing with space legislation not too long ago. It was held by Dr. Bernhard Schmid-Tedd, Head of Legal and Business Support of the German space agency (DLR), who also advised the UN in space legislation.

Dr. Schmid-Tedd also mentioned Dennis Hope who is selling lunar property alongside with a German called Martin Jrgens who is also selling pieces of the Moon and is claiming that he has the older rights to it. Mr. Jrgens claims that he inherited the moon from one of his ancestors who got it as an award from Prussian King Friedrich II. in 1756. (You see, we got our share of crackpots, too)

You referred to Mr. Hope as a rip-off and a nut-job but then dismissed him - in my opinion - too easy by just saying he does not own the moon. Which is of course correct, but you failed to give reasons.

Those people fool their victims by misinterpreting the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (signed and ratified by 98 nations) which states in Art. II that: outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means. (

The moon-estate guys will tell you, that the people drafting the treaty - thinking only about the cold war at that time - forgot to include companies and ordinary citizens. And therefore, it's perfectly legitimate what they are doing.

Well, here are the points, that were mentioned in the lecture:
- public international law overrides national law, even if the national law is older. The Outer Space Treaty is international law.
- the prohibition of national appropriation (Art. II) includes appropriation by civil law
- Art. IV states that non-governmental actions need approval and and permanent control
- basic property is derived from national jurisdiction
- real estate property rights require national sovereignty
- states have to behave in accordance with the agreement. That implies: They must not allow actions of trespass and take action on sustained violations of public international law by one of its citizens

Which means, that it is not only unethical to sell land on the moon, but also illegal. But as long as the damage is under a certain threshold we won't see anyone punished for ripping of people with a more or less nicely printed peace of worthless paper!

Dr. Novella, you wondered if someone would actually press the claim to his property on the moon. Well, the following anecdote is told at our institute:
Some guy bought just that piece of moon were one of the rovers from the Apollo Program was abandoned. Then he wrote a letter to NASA demanding parking charge for the rover. And NASA came up with the most hilarious of all replies: Well, just get someone to tow away our rover.

So keep up the good work!

With best regards from Esslingen, Germany,

Oliver Zeile

S: The next email, we have a couple emails following up on the Star Registry segment that we did on the last show. These are both two long emails and I'll have their full content on our notes page, but I just wanted to read a segment from one of them. This one comes from Oliver Zeil from Esslingen, Germany. So I think this is our first German email. By the way, we were talking about our worldwide distribution. We have officially received emails from all seven continents in the world. So we are a world-spanning podcast. And he writes, "First congratulations on the great job you're doing with your podcast. I really enjoy it and I eagerly await every new episode. I have a follow-up on the people who sell land on the moon." Again, it's a long email. I just want to cut to the chase on this. He says, he's talking about Mr. Hope and the others who are selling land on the moon that it is a scam and he wanted to give us some more specific legal reasons why it is a scam. And he writes, "Those people fool their victims by misinterpreting the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed and ratified by 98 nations, which states in Article 2 that outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." So basically they're misinterpreting this treaty. And he has some specific points as to how they're doing this. And again, if you're interested, you can read it on the notes page. But what it comes down to is that this treaty does apply to personal property. So no one can personally own the moon because you can only do that in the context of your government. And since governments are not allowed to allow you to own the moon, you can't do it. So that's the bottom line. But what this email reminded me of is that no matter what we talk about, unless I happen to be talking about my very narrow subspecialty within neurology, there's guaranteed to be someone out there who knows more about the topic than we do. Because I think we have 7,000 listeners now, 7,000 regular listeners. We've been increasing our audience size pretty steadily. And I think it's safe to say, based upon our feedback and our message board and our emails, that our listeners are pretty uniformly intelligent and erudite. And a lot of them have areas of expertise. And almost anything we talk about, somebody sends me an email with more information to enrich our discussion of the topic and keep them coming because we definitely love to hear them.

R: And also take it to the message board, definitely, because it's a great place to share things like that.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And many of our listeners continue the conversations that we start on this show on the message board. So it's a good place to get into more detail, if you wish. So again, thanks for sending in those emails. We'd love to see them.

Name That Logical Fallacy (39:00)[edit]

  • Logical Fallacies

Submitted by Manny G. on our forums

4. Population Statistics...World population growth rate in recent times is about 2% per year. Practicable application of growth rate throughout human history would be about half that number. Wars, disease, famine, etc. have wiped out approximately one third of the population on average every 82 years. Starting with eight people, and applying these growth rates since the Flood of Noah's day (about 4500 years ago) would give a total human population at just under six billion people. However, application on an evolutionary time scale runs into major difficulties. Starting with one 'couple' just 41,000 years ago would give us a total population of 2 x 1089. 9 The universe does not have space to hold so many bodies.

9. Design in Living Systems...A living cell is so awesomely complex that its interdependent components stagger the imagination and defy evolutionary explanations. A minimal cell contains over 60,000 proteins of 100 different configurations.16 The chance of this assemblage occurring by chance is 1 in 10 4,478,296.

S: Well, let's go on. We have one name that fallacy this week, name that logical fallacy. Last week, I pulled one from our message board submitted by Manny G. And Manny G has a follow-up, a second one, which I'm going to use since it's perfectly good. This comes from another creationist website. This comes from And I'll have the specific link, of course, on our notes page. And it's a jot list of points alleged evidence for creation. I'm just going to pull two of them out, and then we could talk about the logical fallacies in them. The first one is population statistics. "World population growth rate in recent times is about 2% per year. Practicable application of growth rate throughout human history would be about half that number. Wars, disease, famine, et cetera have wiped out approximately one-third of the population on average for every 82 years. Starting with eight people and applying these growth rates since the flood of Noah's day about 4,500 years ago would give a total human population of just under six billion people. The number application on an evolutionary time scale runs into major difficulties. Starting with one couple just 41,000 years ago would give us a total population of 2 times 10 to the 89th. The universe does not have enough space to hold so many bodies." So he's basically saying that the world humans can't have been around for 40,000 plus years because if we were, there should be, we should have overpopulated the world, overpopulated the universe, let alone the world.

B: How about resources? Don't resources play a factor in this?

S: Of course.

B: I mean, the population's not going to keep going up because resources aren't infinite, but what fallacy is that?

'E: Argument for final consequences.

S: No, it's a false assumption or you can also look at it as an unstated major premise.

B: Or a straw man, maybe.

S: Which makes it into a straw man, right? Because no evolutionist is taking that position, but it's more of just the false premise that populations will grow without any upper limit. And of course, you could say this not just about humans, you could say this about every species on the earth, right? Why aren't there 10 to the 89th whales or anything? It's because most of the time, most species exist in some equilibrium with their environment based upon resources and predators, etc. And their populations are in a steady state, not growing. Human populations are growing out of control because we hit upon things like agriculture and technology and civilization. So it's actually a fairly recent few thousand years old unnatural, "unnatural" phenomenon, unique to human civilization. Even after, even in the dark ages we ran up against population limits because of the harsh winters. And when we invented a tighter weave of fabric populations in Europe quadrupled fairly quickly. So throughout human history, we've been running up against these limits of resources and the environment, etc. That have been keeping our population relatively low and in a steady state. So it's just a ridiculous assumption to say that that our populations should have been progressing as it has in modern times indefinitely back into our evolutionary history. The second one point is called design in living systems. "A living cell is so awesomely complex that its interdependent components stagger the imagination and defy evolutionary explanations. A minimal cell contains over 60,000 proteins of 100 different configurations. The chance of this assemblage occurring by chance is 1 in 10 to the some incredible number."

B: So I've got the comment here where he says staggering the imagination and defying evolutionary explanations. That's clearly an appeal to ignorance.

S: The defy evolutionary explanations is an appeal to ignorance. I would say that the stagger of the imagination is the argument for personal incredulity. Argument for personal incredulity. It's so unbelievable. I can't imagine how it could happen.

B: And the other one, towards the end there, the chance of this assemblage occurring by chance is 1 in Googleplex, whatever the hell it is. That's a straw man. No one is making that claim.

S: That's true.

B: It's not chance.

S: It's not chance. It's cumulative.

R: Right.

B: Aggregation or whatever.

S: Yeah. So that's at least three. And then I would also say that the 60,000 proteins of 100 different configurations is just, is a false premise because actually there are more simple cells than that. But that's a minor point.

Randi Speaks (43:42)[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: Homeopathy/Uri Gellar

S: And now, Randi Speaks

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. Earlier this evening I was picking up a prescription at my local pharmacy, and I noticed that they had taped down to the counter something that every customer who came along would just have to notice. It was an extract from the United States Code, section 1001, title 18. And this is a somewhat abbreviated version of it. It says

(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, [in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States,] knowingly and willfully—

(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;
(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or
(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;

shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 5 years, or if the offense involves international or domestic terrorism, imprisoned not more than 8 years, or both.

And it goes on to say that Subsection (A), which I just read to you, shall apply only to administrative matters including a matter related to the procurement of property or services, personnel or employment practices, or support services. Now this rather interested me. You know, I just had to wonder whether that law of the United States Code could be made to apply to such things as homeopathic medicines, which were sold right by the counter at the pharmacy that I visited earlier this evening. Certainly they are materially false, fictitious, and/or fraudulent statements or representations being made. That's very obvious. As for those false writings or documents, that's contained in the instructions and the claims being made for the homeopathic compounds. I just think this might be a very interesting thing to pursue, a matter that perhaps some lawyers would like to look into.

On another matter altogether, our present intern, Chris, is re-vamping and rather expanding the JREF library, at great cost to his intellect and his patience, I'm sure. That's quite a job to undertake. Finding a place for one book, which is titled Uri Geller: Magician or Mystic?, written by a Jonathon Margolis. He found folded within the pages a very brief note from Jonathon Margolis which had been sent to me along with the first copy of the book after it was published in England back in 1998. This book, which runs almost 300 pages, is a perfect example of one of those leaning-over-backwards and completely fawning biographical sketches of Geller. Everything Geller says in the book is accepted as being true, and of course we skeptics are looked upon as close-minded and very strange people. In any case, I thought I should relate to you an event that happened with the author in our office. He had come to visit this arch-skeptic in order to have my input on what he was going to publish. Well, that almost happened, but not quite. Certainly what he subsequently reported didn't represent much of the truth of what had actually happened in our library. As an example, when Mr. Margolis took the opportunity of stepping out to the washroom for a moment or two, our good friend Andrew Harter stepped over to where he had his bag on a chair, looked inside and saw some spoons. Andrew extracted a few of the spoons, bent them into curlicues, and carefully placed them back inside the bag. Those spoons were never referred to after that, since Margolis never took them out of the bag. He went on his way back to England and, no doubt, subsequently found the curled-up spoons in that bag. You would think that we had demonstrated to him that a small lack of attention on his part, a small lapse in his careful observation of what he thought we might be doing could have also told him that maybe Geller had fooled him. But then, he was Jonathon Margolis, an author, and not likely to be fooled. Or so he thought. This is James Randi. See you next week.

Science or Fiction (48:38)[edit]

Item #1: New study suggests that doctors generally do not change their practice even in response to studies published in major medical journals[1]
Item #2: New study shows that elderly patients are being undermedicated.[2]
Item #3: New study shows that a computer-driven system is better than human physicians at ventilator weaning.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Doctors do not change their practice
Science Undermedicated patients
Computer-driven ventilator
Host Result
Steve sweep
Rogue Guess
Undermedicated patients
Computer-driven ventilator
Undermedicated patients
Undermedicated patients

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 and one is fake, and I challenge my audience and the panel of skeptics to sniff out the fake. We have a theme for this week. The theme is modern medicine. You guys ready?

R: Yes.

E: Ready, Alex.

S: Okay, number one. A new study suggests that doctors generally do not change their practice, even in response to studies published in major medical journals. Item number two. A new study shows that elderly patients are being under-medicated. And item number three. A new study shows that a computer-driven system is better than human physicians at ventilator weaning, basically getting somebody independent of a respiratory ventilator. Bob, why don't you go first?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Thanks.

S: Hey, you got the highest percentage. You go first.

B: Doctors do not change practice due to studies. I could see that. I mean, I could see them stuck in their ways, and they think, well, all right, that's just a study. It's not necessarily confirmed. That seems totally plausible to me. Elderly patients under-medicated. Okay, I'm going to go to three. The, what, computer-assisted ventilator weaning?

S: Computer-driven.

B: Computer-driven. That sounds pretty good to me. Therefore, I will go with two is false.

S: Patients are under-medicated.

B: Right.

S: Okay, Rebecca.

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Yeah, I'm between two and three as well. Three does seem plausible. It seems like most of the elderly people I've met are over-medicated.

J: These are people you're dating, right?

B: Yeah, those elderly 28-year-olds.

R: So funny. Actually, I'm going to go with number three.

S: Okay, Evan. Number three being the ventilator.

R: The ventilator.

S: Computer-driven ventilator weaning.

R: Right, sorry.

S: Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I'll agree with Bob that number two is false. The under-medicated elderly is false.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Steve, can you clarify the doctors changing their practice? You said that they tend to not change their practice?

S: That's right. They tend to not change their practice even in response to studies published in major medical journals.

J: So can I safely assume on that one that they are reading the studies, they are keeping themselves up to date as far as reading about it, and they're still-

B: I don't think you can make that assumption. I wouldn't.

S: You cannot. I'll tell you that that component was not looked at, so you can't assume that.

J: Okay, then I'll go with number-

S: It could be, in other words, that they're not reading the journals. That would be consistent with the data.

J: Okay. I'm going to go with the elderly under-medicated.

R: Oh, man, just me?

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay. So Rebecca is alone in thinking that the computer-driven system is better at weaning humans off the ventilator is fake, and everyone else thinks that the elderly being under-medicated is fake, and everybody agrees that number one is that doctors don't change their practice in response to medical journals is true. Let's start with number three.

R: Uh-oh.

S: The computer-driven system is better than human physicians at ventilator weaning. This one is science. This is science. And this is something that I've been following for a while, not this specific thing, but just the use of computers as expert systems as basically assisting physicians in practicing medicine. And this is actually really, really interesting. So you have a patient who is on a ventilator for whatever reason. They have heart failure or they had some kind of lung problem, and then they get to the point where their medical problems are stable and taken care of, and now you just need to wean them off the ventilator. You need to build up their strength and get them independent from the ventilator again. And typically this is managed by a physician, maybe with help from the intensive care nursing staff or a respiratory therapist or a pulmonary specialist. And they compared that, just whatever the usual model was in various hospitals, to a computer program that just automatically reduced the amount of support that the ventilator was giving the patient and exercising the patient over time. And what they found is that the computer-assisted or computer-driven model did much better. So this study was carried out at five medical surgical ICUs throughout Europe and was published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. They looked at 74 patients weaned by computer and 70 in the usual process, and they found that the computer-driven system required only 7.5 days to wean patients off of the ventilator and the physician-driven system took 12 days. So that's pretty significant. That's cutting five days off of an ICU stay.

B: I've got a question though, Steve. How many doctors are changing their practice due to that computer-assisted ventilator wean?

R: In other words, get on with it.

S: We'll get there. We'll get there. So I think the reason why there's such an advantage is that you can make changes much more rapidly and continuously with a computer constantly monitoring the system and making a feedback adjustment as opposed to – because physicians, you can't stand over the patient's 24-7 making moment-to-moment decisions. So I think it's probably just because it's quick. It's more real-time feedback that's being given. So that's interesting.

B: I would think the algorithm to determine how to wean them should be fairly straightforward. I mean, it can't be too difficult to determine.

S: Right. It's basically just having a good algorithm to use. That's one of those situations where physicians are using an algorithm anyway. Some medical decision-making is algorithm-driven. If A, then B, and you have decision trees. Others are much more free-form. It's hard to boil down to an algorithm. And those that are algorithm-driven are where computers will shine, will be the most helpful. And I think this is just an example of that.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Let's go to number one, since you wanted to look at number one. Number one was, a new study suggests that doctors generally do not change their practice, even in response to studies published in major medical journals. And this one is fiction. You're all wrong. I got you.

E: Maybe you're all wrong.

B: Aren't you proud of yourself?

S: In fact, the study showed the exact opposite.

E: Good.

S: That physicians rapidly change their practice in response to articles published in major medical journals, which actually somewhat contradicts earlier studies, which show that physicians, they do change their practice, but they're slow to incorporate their changes. It may take years, several years, for practice changes to filter into medical practice. ut the difference is, apparently, the difference between negative and positive data. In other words, when a study shows that an intervention doesn't work or has previously unrecognized risks, physicians are very quick to drop the practice.

B: Yeah, they're malpractice.

S: When a study shows that there's a new treatment that works, part of it may be the fear of liability, et cetera. But I think it's also just my personal take on it is that there's the dictum of first do no harm, first of all. And often we try things that are speculative or somewhat still haven't been proven. And then when a definitive negative study comes out, it's like, OK, this doesn't work. So you just stop doing it. Whereas with studies which show that there is a new technique that you can incorporate into your practice, physicians are slower to incorporate these new techniques. So that makes sense. Just it's easier to stop doing something than it is to learn a new way to do things or to incorporate something new into your practice. It makes sense. But eventually they do respond to major high profile studies.

J: That's good to know.

S: It is. It is good validation of evidence based medicine. It's also my primary criticism of non evidence based health practices is that they don't stop doing stuff when studies show that they don't work.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Which means that the last one, item number two, new study shows that elderly patients are being under medicated is science. That one is true.

B: Give me a break.

S: Now, you may ask, what does it mean to be under medicated? It basically means the definition of this for the purpose of this study.

B: They're not taking the recommended dosage or they're not on the meds they should be on.

S: That's right. They're not taking medications that they should be on. On average, the geriatric aged patients in this study were missing one medication from their regimen that by the best practice evidence they should be on. For example, if somebody has risk factors for heart attack or heart disease, they should be on an anti platelet agent like aspirin and they're not taking aspirin. That would be an under medication. And the percentage was about 64 percent of geriatric patients were being under medicated. Only 13 percent were being neither under or over medicated. However, the same study also showed that 65 percent or almost exactly the same number were also being over medicated, meaning that they were taking medications that either they didn't need to be on that were redundant to other medications that they were taking or were inappropriate for their age group, which should be used only with caution in the elderly population. So mistakes were being made both ways. But this is the first study to really document such a high rate of under medication across the board in that population. So that means that nobody got it right this week.

J: Wow.

E: Well, you didn't get it right either, Steve.

S: It was a tough one. This week was tough.

Skeptical Puzzle (59:07)[edit]

New Puzzle:

I have 4 lines
I can supposedly detect witches
I was once described as 'an organ'
I was used by Julius Caesar in his judgments of people
I am said to have regions named for the planets, the moon, and the sun
It is said I can reveal the homosexuality of a person
It is said I help detect illness in children

What am I?

S: We have a skeptical puzzle this week. Evan, you sent us the puzzle. Why don't you read it for us?

E: I did, in fact. And here it is. I have four lines. I can supposedly detect witches. I was once described as an organ. I was used by Julius Caesar in his judgments of people. I am said to have regions named for the planets, the moon and the sun. It's said I can reveal the homosexuality of a person. And it is said I help detect illness in children. What am I?

S: Interesting.

E: Give it your best guess.

S: So that is our show for the week. And as always, we're going to end with a quote.

Quote of the Week (59:53)[edit]

'If I was a religious person, I would consider creationism nothing less than blasphemy. Do its adherents imagine that God is a cosmic hoaxer who has created that whole vast fossil record for the sole purpose of misleading mankind?'-Arthur C. Clarke

S: Bob, you want to read us our quote for the week?

B: This is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke. "If I was a religious person, I would consider creationism nothing less than blasphemy. Do which adherents imagine that God is a cosmic hoaxer who has created that whole vast fossil record for the sole purpose of misleading mankind?" And that's it.

S: Some of them apparently do. Well, thanks again, everyone. Rebecca, happy birthday.

R: Thank you.

E: Happy birthday.

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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