SGU Episode 67

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SGU Episode 67
November 1st 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 66                      SGU 68

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

P: Perry DeAngelis


RW: Richard Wiseman

Quote of the Week

The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.

Paul Broca

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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, November 1st, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey everybody, thanks for joining us.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello everybody.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Will Coleman.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Heidi.

S: Good evening everyone.

R: Good evening.

J: Hey Steve.

S: Thanks again for joining me.

J: What's up?

R: Did everybody have a good Halloween?

S: Yeah, did everybody have a good Halloween?

B: Awesome.

J: Epic.

B: Awesome season.

P: Bob, it pales in comparison to what you do, but we actually decorated our front door with little skulls and orange lights.

B: Isn't that cute?

J: Bob and I went to, we went to the Headless Horsemen attraction in, where is that Bob?

B: Ulster Park, New York.

J: Yeah.

B: Awesome.

J: Incredible.

S: Really? It was good?

J: Incredible.

B: Well, it's multiple haunts. There's a hayride, there's a corn maze, and there's like two haunted houses plus stores and shops and stage shows. It's a huge extravagance.

J: And they had a lot of apple crisp there too, which was yummy.

R: Oh, good stuff. I made a kitty litter cake and it won a prize.

B: Awesome. Congratulations.

R: Thank you. Yeah. It was, there was a contest.

P: From what prestigious institute did you win this prize?

R: My workplace. But there were a lot of entrants and I won movie tickets and a gift certificate to a restaurant.

B: And a box of kitty litter.

P: You sent us a photo, didn't you, Rebecca?

R: Not only did it look fantastic, but it actually tasted really good too. I was very proud.

News Items[edit]

Dr. Novella on the History Channel (2:01)[edit]

  • Dr. Novella was interviewed for a History Channel special on Exorcism.

S: Well, also on Halloween night, there was the premiere of Exorcism, Driving Out the Devil on the History Channel.

P: I tried to drive it out of my TV.

S: Right. Tried to exorcise that show from TiVo? Which I bring up because I was interviewed for that show and it was absolutely terrible. It was awful. I was very disappointed. The Pseudo-History Channel really screwed it up. So it had all of the features of a gullible pseudo-documentary. It really did. The producers clearly knew the story they were going to tell before they did it, before they did the interviews or the research. And they did what they typically do is they interview a lot of people for a long time and then they just pull quotes from them to put together the story they already know that they want to tell. So they did spend some time talking about the history of belief in demonic possession and exorcism, but from a totally neutral or credulous and gullible point of view.

P: Credulous?

S: More credulous than neutral. And they spent a tremendous amount of time interviewing true believers, priests and ministers who exorcise alleged demons and people who believe they've been possessed. And then there was the token skepticism. I think it's like 90 minutes into the two hour show before I even make my first appearance.

P: It was about an hour and a half. Barry Beierstein, I think he got two sentences.

S: Yeah, Barry Beierstein is a Canadian psychologist who I know is a very good guy. They gave him his two seconds of almost meaningless phrases. They also, even though during the production, I always try to get a feel from the producers when they're interviewing me as to where they're going. But again, you never really can tell because they just say whatever they think you want to hear while they're interviewing you. And then he never bears any resemblance to what they're actually going to do.

P: Was it their idea to put the CAT scan series behind you, Steve? Make it look medical?

S: Yeah.

P: That was nice the nice composition of the frame.

S: It's all window dressing.

J: So Steve, what is it? They interviewed you for like three hours and you were on for what, 10 seconds?

S: Yeah, something like that. I probably had 20 seconds of air time, just a few phrases that anybody could have said. But the couple things they did that were really kind of despicable is first of all, they allowed the believers to make claims that then went unchallenged by anyone skeptical or scientific. Even though I asked them during my interview, I said, listen, and during the pre-interview, when they're asking me before they film me, then during, when they were filming me, I said, listen, if there are any specific cases or specific claims that anyone you've interviewed has said, I can address them directly. And they interviewed me pretty much towards the end. In fact, I might have been the last person they interviewed. So they had already interviewed all the gullible people. And there was nothing, they didn't give me any opportunity to address any of the claims. Some of the true believers actually made specific claims about skeptics, saying skeptics have never seen what I have seen, they've never seen. If they would just come to an exorcism and they would believe, and that's crap. Because I've seen all of these alleged exorcisms. I've seen them, I've seen them on videotapes, many of them. Of course, they had lots of alleged possessed people on the show. And it was the same crap where you basically have people acting very, very bad.

P: I can do a much better possession than those people, by the way.

S: Much better, much better, much better.

P: They were pathetic.

S: And the voiceover was like, if you just look into their eyes and you could see that they're evil. It's like, no, you could see that they're morons who can't act.

J: It's good enough for me.

S: And some of the stuff that they talked about and claimed, I remember specifically addressing those points. And they just left them on the cutting room floor. So it's not like they didn't have the information. They deliberately excluded it from the show, which is intellectually dishonest. It's terrible, terrible journalism and documentary.

R: I, for one, am shocked and awed.

J: But Steve, it's all about the money, brother. They want the viewers. They don't care about what they're supposedly reporting on.

S: But listen, so you're doing a show on demonic possession and exorcism. People who are going to want to watch the show are going to want to watch the show. Does it have to stink? I mean, does it have to be credulous for people to watch it?

R: No, it has to be spooky, though. You weren't being spooky enough.

J: What I find interesting is that they even bother to bring in someone like you to comment. Why even do it?

R: Just ask a scientiscian.

S: For cover.

P: No, they do it for cover.

S: It's token skepticism.

P: Token skepticism. They do it so they can say, we're balanced. Look, here's the guy.

J: Have you guys heard of that show Ghost Hunters on Syfy?

S: Yeah.

P: Sure.

J: Well, I didn't even know about the show. And my friend, the friend I keep telling you about that sends me ghost pictures all the time and everything, she's like, well, these guys, they're totally professional and everything. So I asked her before I watched the show myself, I said, well, what's the deal? Who are these guys and everything? She's like, well, they're Roto-Rooter guys. They're plumbers. I'm like, OK. So they're qualified as plumbers.

P: Specialized in haunted sewers?

J: No, they have their TV show, which is basically probably really paying their bills.

R: Yeah, the Saps guys, right?

J: Yeah. So I watched a couple of the episodes.

S: They're experts in crap, so that qualifies them.

R: Did you see what he did there? That was clever.

J: That was good.

S: Go on.

J: But it's not like I have a lot to say other than the show's horrible. The guys are full of crap. They're not performing any kind of science whatsoever. They're loaded with gadgets.

P: Any of a number of ghost shows, the Learning Channel, Discovery Channel, History Channel, it's all the same endless drivel.

J: But you know what their shtick is, Perry? They do this thing where they're like, well, we saw the shadow man. It looked like somebody's shadow that they took a picture of, and it looked a little creepy. And they're like, well, we disproved it because we showed how there's a flash effect or whatever. The guy stands behind someone who has a light source. So they disprove things every once in a while. They have a dose of skepticism and logic in what they're doing. But obviously they're doing that because they want you to think. Because we're paying special attention to the details, and we're actually more legit than all the others.

P: They're trying to manufacture the exceptions that prove the rule.

J: Yeah, absolutely.

S: Yeah, exactly. A lot of documentaries do that. There was this one UFO documentary that did that. They shot down a couple of really obvious fakes and then went into, here are the real ones. That's just pseudo-skepticism. It's just trying to set themselves up.

R: Yeah, I actually saw Sylvia Brown speak once, and she ripped apart things like tarot cards. And she would say things like, oh, and tarot cards. Don't get me started on that nonsense. So anyway, like I was saying to the dead guy.

B: I wonder what tarot card people, what do they disparage?

P: Talking to the dead. Are you crazy?

R: Somebody has to be the bottom of the pseudoscience pile.

P: That's true. I always thought it was crop circles myself.

S: They're pretty far down there.

R: Wait, wait, wait. You know who it is? I'm sorry. Wait, wait. I thought of who's on the bottom of the pile. It's Sylvester Stallone's mother. She does psychic readings based upon your ass. I mean, you guys have seen this, right?

B: There you go.

R: I'm 100% serious.

P: She does buttock readings?

S: She's an ass whisperer?

R: Yes. I'm 100% serious. You send her a photo of your ass, and she will send you back a psychic reading. Obviously, you also have to include your credit card details, but yeah.

P: I mean, what the hell? Did she used to spar with the rock and little punch drunk in their later years?

R: She's clearly not well in the head.

P: Does the ass have to be presented in a open fashion or more casual fashion?

J: Hey, yo, ma, read my ass.

R: I think that's up to the individual, and it probably, whichever one you choose, probably says more about you than any other characteristic of your ass.

P: You're probably right. I'm not a professional ass, I'm sorry, gluteus talker, so I didn't know.

J: I've studied many asses in my life.

Glossolalia (10:54)[edit]

  • SPECT Scan study of glossolalia reveals brain activity while subjects speaking in tongues. user=10&_coverDate=10%2F12%2F2006&_alid=478403489&_rdoc=1&_fmt=summary&_orig=browse&_ sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_ userid=10&md5=079916493e1546cc32f988c5b44092bc

S: Well, on to more serious science. A study published in psychiatry research is investigating the neurological manifestations of glossolalia. And glossolalia is the technical term for speaking in tongues. The alleged ability of certain evangelicals to, when they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they could speak in foreign languages. This is supposed to enable them to. Initially, the tradition of this came from the New Testament, where the disciples of Jesus were able to speak in foreign tongues so that they could spread the word to other nations and other people.

P: Sadly, these tongues are so foreign, they're incomprehensible.

S: Right.

P: Sadly.

S: So they're speaking gibberish that nobody can understand.

R: The angels can understand it.

J: Steve, isn't there always like the person that can interpret it though?

S: Sometimes someone else is inspired with the interpretations. I don't know why they don't just bypass the whole speaking in tongues and just go right to the inspiration of what they want, the spirits or whatever want to say.

P: Many do. Because it's theatrical. You know, you can shake around.

B: It takes a talent. It's a special talent to be able to pull that off convincingly.

J: I've actually heard someone speak in tongues several times.

S: Some people do it better than others. Some people are better at it.

J: The person I know that does it, oddly, when she does it, it sounds like Spanish.

R: Are you sure it's not just Spanish? Because you don't know Spanish.

S: So what they did was they used a SPECT scan. SPECT is an acronym for Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography, which is a way of looking at cerebral blood flow.

P: Of course.

S: You can use that to infer which part of the brain is more active during a certain task. It's actually an older technology. It's not as good as a PET scan, and it's also not as good as functional MRI. Functional MRI is really the technological cutting edge for this kind of application, but they were using SPECT scan probably just because they could. They studied a few individuals, and they had them either speaking in tongues or singing gospel music.

R: Wait, but I thought, doesn't the speaking of tongues just sort of happen randomly? How do they induce it?

S: Well, I don't know how they induced it during the study. It hasn't really been published yet, so they only have the pre-publication notes.

R: What's the SPECT scan like? What do you do to do the SPECT scan? Do you have to stick somebody in a tube?

S: Yeah, you inject them with a radiolabel tracer that then will follow the blood flow, and then it's kind of like a CT scan. Then you get a computer-generated sort of color map of how much blood flow there is in different parts of the brain. One of the things about speaking in tongues is, is it voluntary or involuntary? Because the people claim that it just happens to them, and they feel like someone else takes control of their mouth and is doing the speaking, and they're not doing anything. Interestingly, during this very, very limited study, there were parts of the frontal lobe and the parietal lobes, and the left caudate were most active. But not the language areas were not as active as when they were, say, speaking or singing.

P: Were the dramatic areas lit up?

B: Well, that makes sense. Steve, doesn't that make sense to you, though?

S: Yeah, it does. Some believers are interpreting this as saying, see, they're not doing it voluntarily. It's involuntary, and that supports the claim.

B: But you're not really thinking of syntax and grammar. You're just kind of like going with the flow, you know?

S: Right, right. So yeah, it makes sense it would be neurologically a different phenomenon than actually speaking voluntarily or than singing. Also, the limited number of individuals and makes it very, interpreting it very difficult. And spec scan is one of those squirrely technologies where if you, there's a lot of wiggle room in terms of technically how you do it. It's technically very difficult to do in a way that gives reproducible and valid results. There's also lots of asymmetry that in blood flow, and it's also changes over time based upon what you're doing and what you're thinking, what cognitive tasks are engaged in. So it's kind of one of those things where it's easy to fudge in order to validate a preconceived notion if you're not really meticulously careful about your methodology. Until this is one study, especially with just a few people, is almost worthless for these kinds of questions. You really need to do multiple studies and with lots of people at different centers.

B: Forget the spec scan, do it in fMRI. That's what needs to be done.

S: It's more cutting edge, but it's still susceptible to the same kind of problems in that what part of the brain is active does change moment to moment. So it's easy to kind of get the results that you want if you are not really, really strict about your protocol.

J: Steve, did they test anyone just speaking gibberish not speaking in tongues?

S: No, no.

R: Yeah, that would have made sense.

J: That would be something to look at.

R: I can't believe Jay just came up with a good idea first.

S: Yeah, I mean, there's lots of questions that come up. And that's what I mean. You have to look at it frontwards and backwards and sideways and try to ask multiple hypotheses and questions and then see where everything all tends to line up. So this is too preliminary to interpret in any meaningful way.

Elephant in the Mirror (16:33)[edit]

    Elephants join elite club of animals that can recognize themselves in the mirror

S: Elephants have just been admitted to a very elite club of animals. You guys heard this news?

B: Yeah, very cool.

P: I heard it, but they can recognize themselves in a mirror.

S: They can recognize themselves, yes, in a mirror.

P: How was this discovered? What is the test? I don't know.

B: Well, the unique thing about this experiment was that for the first time they actually got a they used a big elephant sized mirror instead of some little mirror that apparently previous studies were using. And the mirror was like right in like in the cage with the elephant. I guess in previous experiments, the mirror was really tiny and far away and they couldn't really examine it or really see themselves clearly. So that was one of the things that kind of makes this different and more believable.

R: And how do they know that for sure that they knew it was them?

S: One of the things that they did, one of the things that they did was they put an X on her head so that she could only see that the X was on her in the mirror. And she touched it. She looked at herself in the mirror and then touched the X on herself. So she made the connection between that image of the elephant in the mirror with the X on themselves and herself and as a control they painted an X with invisible paint transparent paint. So the sensation would be the same just to control for other factors.

B: And she didn't smell that sense of smell and texture.

S: Yeah, she did not touch that only the one that she could see in the mirror. So that's pretty good.

J: Didn't the elephants also check out check out their own mouth or their trunk or something?

B: Like, yeah, the mouth is like one of the only areas that they really can't see very well, which is another clue that they're actually just taking advantage of this new technology.

S: Right. Now, the other animals in this elite club are the apes, humans, of course, and dolphins, which is pretty much a human figure.

B: What about pigs?

S: No, they were not in the club.

B: Pigs don't do that?

S: No.

B: Wow.

P: Do you think if they put a large size mirror in a small cage with a bear, he wouldn't do the same thing?

B: No.

S: You know, I don't know how many other species they systematically tested, you know.

B: I'd say no.

R: Elephants are extremely clever. I have a friend who used to be a clown with wrangling. And he said that they would just blow you away, like the way they would just become familiar with certain people and recognize you even years after you haven't seen them for a while. They'll still recognize people.

S: So they never forget. Is that what you're saying?

R: I've heard that somewhere. But yeah, very, very clever animals.

S: Very clever.

R: Which makes it all the worse when they keep them pent up in little cages and stuff.

S: Or when they get slaughtered for their ivory.

R: Yeah, that too. Kind of sad. Thanks, now I'm bummed.

Holiday Weight (19:16)[edit]

  • How much weight to people put on over the holidays?

S: Well, the holidays are coming up and everyone worries about putting on extra pounds over the holidays. But Bob, you sent me this one. The risk is not as much as you think.

B: This was a surprise to me. It's another example of conventional wisdom being completely wrong. How many times? I don't know about you guys, but I've always heard for years that the average person gains about five pounds during the holidays. And I think I've told dozens of people that thinking I mean, I think I just read it somewhere and maybe I didn't check my sources or whatever. But now a study coming out of the New England Journal of Medicine followed a group of 200 adults and found, along with other studies, they found that it's really just like little over a pound. The average person gains a little bit over a pound over the holidays. But say between October and January, it's not nearly as much as most people believed. And of course the more active you were, the less you gained, the less active you were, the more you gained.

P: All the standard things. Yeah, no, I think that's a widely held belief, Bob. But I also think that because it's widely held, I think people are probably more conscious of their eating habits around the holidays.

R: I think that maybe there's a big difference between. I think some people are working out more and losing weight and then everybody else is gaining outrageous amounts of weight. And they're just taking the average.

S: But it does go on to say that even though you're only gaining one or two pounds, that's probably your weight gain for the year. And it's most adults gain a pound or so a year that that could be that their long term weight gain can be mainly due to the weight they gained during the holidays.

B: Don't don't forget, though, also it's not just like it's just not during the holidays, you're eating more. So you're gaining weight. There's also the whole metabolism effect. You know, after 30, your metabolism is slowing down and you lose muscle and you gain fat. So your ratio of muscle to fat also shifts. So that that's a big factor, too. Not just holiday weight gain that changes over the years.

P: Another pleasantry of aging.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Physiologically, there's not much good about aging, actually.

R: Man, you guys are really cheering me up. Slaughtered elephants.

S: You do get more wise as you get older, apparently.

P: And then you get hit with Alzheimer's and you rub your feces on the wall.

J: Some of us do that now.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Skepticism Myths (21:39)[edit]

An article criticizing Skeptics and pointing out various 'myths' that they proffer. How do you guys react to this?

It seems to be a fair bit of straw manning.

From the SGU forums

S: Well, let's let's move on to your your emails. We have an interview coming up in just a moment with Richard Wiseman, a very cool guy. But first, we're going to do a few emails. The first one comes from Havermeyer. This is actually posted on our forums. And he wrote "An article criticizing skeptics and pointing out various myths that they proffer. How do you guys react to this? It seems to be a fair bit of straw manning." I think he pretty much got that exactly correct. He gave the language, of course, will be on our notes page. So the article is apparently, "debunking" common myths of skeptics and skepticism and science. But they're not really true myths. They're just straw men. In other words, they're things that no scientist or skeptic really believes. They're just sort of easy made up things that they they made up so they could shoot them down easily.

R: Give us a good example.

S: Here's some examples. And we may it may take more than one podcast to go over all of these. So we'll just do a couple this week and we may come back to it later. Because actually, what these act what this actually is a good list of are misconceptions that true believers have about skeptics. It's not myths that skeptics actually believe themselves. So in that way, it's actually a useful list for us to go through and debunk this false debunking. Myth number one, theories cannot be proved. They can only be disproved. And then sometimes he has corollaries. If the data do not match the predictions, the theory should be abandoned. And in this way, we converge on the truth. And then he goes on to debunk this what's called naive falsification that theories can only be falsified. It's just it's an oversimplified view of how scientific knowledge works and progresses. Theories can be, "proved" from a scientific point of view, which basically just means that they survived multiple attempts at falsification. And at some point, a theory has survived enough attempts at falsifying it that it becomes established as probably true.

B: And or even or even, God forbid, a fact.

S: Yeah. And then if that if that if the probability of it being true rises beyond some fuzzy point, it deserves the rank of a scientific fact. But even scientific facts can be later disproved if new evidence or new ways of thinking about things come to light. But the probability just becomes so small that as as Isaac Asimov, I believe, said that it would be obscene to withhold provisional assent.

B: Was that, wasn't that Gould?

S: Was that Gould or was that was he quote was he quoting Asimov? And I actually Gould did write that, but I'm not sure if it's original to him or if he was quoting someone else.

R: Someone will write in.

S: Someone will write in and tell us.

R: 20 people will write in and tell us.

S: Some theories are so well established it would be obscene to withhold provisional assent. That's scientific proof. But it is true that also that the ability to be falsified is not the only criteria for a scientific hypothesis. He actually gets this wrong by saying that theories don't have to be falsifiable in order to be scientific. Well, it's actually more that falsification is a necessary but insufficient criteria for being a scientific theory. There are other things that are that are also required.

B: My favorite non falsifiable hypothesis is that God put all the fossils and all the evidence for a long geological history on the earth. But like to confuse us or he just made it seem like evolution occurred or something like that.

R: God created everything a second ago.

B: Right. How do you falsify that?

S: Now, the second myth is science is a self-correcting system, which he says is a myth. The author of this web page actually couldn't find his name on actually on this web page. And he has a corollary to that. And here's where so here's the straw man that he uses to to debunk the myth. An integral part of the self-correcting system is the peer review process. So now he's actually debunking here is peer review, not that science is self-correcting, although he is linking the two erroneously. And then he just gives a couple of references, which shows that there are problems with the peer review process. Sure. Peer review is a is a driven by people. And it's only as good as the people that are involved with the process. And, yep, reviewers biases creep into the review. Absolutely. And then things sneak by peer reviewers. And it's not the only mechanism by which science is self-correcting. There's many other mechanisms by which science is self-correcting. Far more important than peer review is replication, is the fact that studies have to be replicated and not only replicated in their design themselves. So in other words, if 60 or so years ago we discovered that DNA is the molecule in which genetic information is stored, those experiments are replicated many times. But actually there have been thousands and thousands of experiments that are based upon the fact that DNA is the source of genetic information or heritable information. And every one of those those studies that derives from that also in a way is testing the underlying assumption. So science builds upon itself. And in that way, it is also self-corrected because if an idea turned out to be wrong, all of the things that you attempt to derive to derive from it wouldn't work. They wouldn't fit together. They would fail. That would bring into question the original assumptions. So things get tested and retested over and over and over and over again. So here he's trying to shoot down the whole notion of science as progressive and self-correcting by narrowly attacking this one process which actually works reasonably well but has absolutely recognized and clear-cut limitations.

P: Along the lines of what you were saying about what believers think about skeptics, which is I think painted very well, there's a recent review on iTunes that addressed this and it stuck with me. It was from Gabe and he said, the reason I started listening to this podcast was is I was hoping to find something that would made me laugh with it's complete avoidance of reality. I was way of base in my assumtion that skeptics were misinformed outcasts of society as some television shows would paint them. And then he goes on with some compliments about the show.

S: This is a review of our podcast is what you're reading.

J: We might be outcasts, but we're not misinformed.

R: We're very well informed outcasts of society.

P: By the end of the thing, he says he take our word over his local news programs.

J: Wow.

S: That's nice. He was open-minded enough to actually listen to our show and judge us based on what we actually did, not on the preconceived notions of what skeptics were like.

P: I'm not sure why one would look to skeptics for an avoidance of reality.

S: The bottom line is if you are a believer, then skeptics are deniers. And if you are a denier, skeptics are true believers. It's all relative on that axis.

P: True.

S: And skepticism, in fact, is a balance between denial and true belief.

R: You just warped my reality, Steve.

S: That's what I do. That's my job.

J: I thought he was just speaking in tongues.

Michael J. Fox Smear (29:12)[edit]

The smear against Michael J. Fox comes from Rush Limbaugh, who made baseless accusations against the actor. It's very disappointing to hear this smear repeated on your show. This is why ultra-right wing media types do this stuff: they get this garbage repeated everywhere in the media. You just did their work for them.

Rob Zuber
Pittsburgh, PA

S: The next email comes from Rob Zuber from Pittsburgh, PA, Pennsylvania. Rob writes, "The smear against Michael J. Fox comes from Rush Limbaugh, who made baseless accusations against the actor. It's very disappointing to hear the smear repeated on your show. This is why ultra-right-wing media types do this stuff. They get this garbage repeated everywhere in the media. You just did their work for them." And Rob is referring to last week's episode when we were interviewing our guest, Michael Stebbins, and we solicited from him his reaction to the Michael J. Fox ad where he is advocating for stem cell research and Michael J. Fox suffers from Parkinson's disease. And Rush Limbaugh had criticized Michael J. Fox by saying that he didn't take his medication in order to exaggerate his symptoms. So I emailed Rob back with this. I disagree with his his point. He's basically saying that we shouldn't have brought it up because we're spreading this this false accusation.

R: I'm pretty sure that we didn't scoop that story as Rush Limbaugh has millions of listeners and it was already all over the news beforehand. So I don't think that-

S: Actually we're up over eight thousand listeners now and we're growing every day. But it's still perils in comparison to the 20 million listeners that Rush Limbaugh has. Plus, it was repeated on major news outlets like This Week and others. So we're not spreading. We're not doing his work for him. We try not to give attention to things that would otherwise otherwise be obscure and totally ignored. But this does not qualify. And the other thing is we brought it up not to just spread it, but to but to analyze it.

R: And it's pretty much what we do.

S: I will say, though, that since last week, I had an opportunity to to actually see and hear clips of Rush Limbaugh's what he actually said. And it was actually far worse than what I thought. And having seen that, I think I took it easy on him last week. What Rush Limbaugh actually said was that when during the ad that Michael J. Fox was deliberately gyrating and moving around and while Rush Limbaugh is saying this, he's mimicking Michael J. Fox.

B: How do you how do you know that?

S: Because it was on camera.

P: It's right. He rushes on camera.

S: So you can actually see him while he's doing the radio show. So Rush Limbaugh was mocking a patient with Parkinson's disease who is being hyperkinetic, saying that Fox is doing those movements deliberately to make the disease seem worse than it was.

J: So is he showboating or do you think he has a legitimate beef?

S: Limbaugh? No, Limbaugh is a total ass. When I saw and heard him say that, it actually made me really furious because what first of all, what he's saying is absolutely wrong. It's totally ignorant. And I don't know if Limbaugh is actually ignorant about Parkinson's disease or he just doesn't care because he wanted to make a point. But nobody needs to exaggerate the severity of this neurological disorder. And I'm again, I'm a neurologist. I treat patients with this disease. It is a very severe life affecting disease that patients have to struggle with every day and to try to and to to mock or mimic a patient with this disease is totally reprehensible. And to say that it has to be exaggerated is ridiculous. It's absurd. And the other thing is the severity of the disease where Michael J. Fox is basically as he takes his medication and he gets very hyperkinetic and then he slowly calms down. He has what he calls a little pocket where he may have 15 or 20 minutes where he's pretty good. And then he then he would become frozen, underactive. He has to take another dose and then he becomes hyperactive again. And he just cycles through that all day. That's his day. That's his life. So it would have been challenging to film him at a time when he wasn't either over or under active. And that would have been going out of your way to obscure the severity of the disease. You know, just filming him at a time when he actually could move and talk is not exaggerating the disease. But let's let's go on to our last email.

Face on Earth (33:17)[edit]

I read about this today. A natural rock formation that puts the face on Mars to shame. ?f=q&hl=en&q=medicine%2Bhat,%2Balberta&ie=UTF8&z=16&ll=50.010083,-110.113006&spn=0.009432,0.026951&t=k&om=1%20

Gary McKeown

S: This one comes from Gary McCune from Sweden. And he writes, "I read about this today, a natural rock formation that puts the face on Mars to shame." And he provides the link, which of course will pass along. And I looked at this and just to make sure this was legitimate, I actually this is something you could see on Google Earth. If you have that, you could actually go to the coordinates and you could see it for yourself. So you could tell it wasn't it was not altered in any way. And it's basically a what looks like a female face with African looking features in profile and with like wearing a headdress. And it blows away any other pareidolia human face rock formation I have seen anywhere else.

B: That's pretty cool. That's very cool.

S: You get much, much more impressive than than the face on Mars or anything else. It really is incredible.

B: I think I even see a booger in her nose. It's really accurate.

S: Well, the other thing that's funny, you look at it, there's a there's a road, an access road that ends right where her ears should be. And it looks like she's wearing listening to an iPod.

B: Oh, man, which is kind of low if she had low ears, maybe. But that's awesome.

S: The reason why this is interesting to us as skeptics is because people think that they see ghosts in photographs or Jesus in the clouds or a face on Mars. And it's basically our brain taking random information that is just reminiscent of a human face. And then it's actually processing that visual information and fitting it to the thing that we like to look at the most, which is the human face. And it's actually emphasizing contrast and lines and light and shadow to make the image more compelling and to fix it in our mind. So it is actually an optical illusion. Yes, those features are there, but it looks like a face to the extent that it does largely because of an optical illusion that our brain does. And that's that phenomenon is called pareidolia.

B: Do you think that there's some Martians looking at this, wondering if the intelligent forces created it?

S: That's the face on Earth. Yeah, that is the face on Earth. Well, let's go on to our interview.

Interview with Richard Wiseman (35:38)[edit]


    Professor Richard Wiseman started his working life as an award-winning professional magician, and was one of the youngest members of The Magic Circle. He then obtained a first class honours degree in Psychology from University College London and a doctorate in psychology from the University of Edinburgh.
    For the past twelve years he has been the head of a research unit at the University of Hertfordshire, and in 2002 was awarded Britain's first Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology.
    Prof Wiseman has established an international reputation for his research into unusual areas of psychology, including deception, luck and the paranormal. He has published over 40 papers in refereed academic journals.
    He is the author of numerous books, including The Luck Factor, Parapschology, and Deception and Self Deception.

S: Joining us now is Professor Richard Wiseman. Richard, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

RW: Pleasure to be here.

S: And Richard, for those of you who don't know, is a professor of the public understanding of psychology. In fact, you're the first professor with that title, is that correct?

RW: I am the first, the only and the most eminent.

R: Does that mean you made that up?

RW: That's correct. They asked me for a job title and that just came to me. And it's great. They asked me to do whatever I wanted to do. Fantastic.

S: And that's at the University of Hertfordshire.

RW: Indeed, yes.

S: And you're also the author of many excellent books, including most recently The Luck Factor, about why people are lucky or appear to be. Parapsychology and Deception and Self-Deception, things that we talk about quite frequently on this show. And most importantly, at least for the time being, you are doing a show in which you perform science on stage. And you're coming to New York in November. Why don't you tell us about that?

RW: Absolutely. It's a show that I perform with Simon Singh, who is another science author, wrote Fermist Last Theorem and the Big Bang and so on. And a few years ago, we decided to put science on stage to be doing sort of turning back the clock, because in Victorian times, certainly in the UK, people would go out to the theatre and see eminent scientists doing the latest sort of experiments on stage as a form of entertainment. And that's what we do. It's called theatre of science and we do sometimes very, very dangerous stunts. The one that we're best known for and the one we're bringing across to New York is putting a million volts live across the stage. So we could be generating six foot bolts of lightning, which each one is absolutely lethal. So it's going to be fun.

S: Have you killed anybody yet during that?

RW: We've tried. We really have tried. We challenge people to heckle us during the show and then we let them know that they could die. No, it is lethal. It's about a million volts, 20 amps. We've built the equipment so that it's not safe in that sense. The strike zone is about two metres from the test of the coils that we have on stage. The audience are about 20 centimetres outside of that strike range, the front row. So it's kind of exciting. It's putting a bit of a buzz back into theatre. And then one of us goes into a Faraday cage. That cage is placed in the middle of the coils and they get hit by these bolts of lightning. And it sounds great. It produces a lot of ozone, makes people feel very ill. If you have a pacemaker, it doesn't work afterwards.

R: What's your insurance deductible like?

RW: It's around about 12 million pounds per performance is what we're covered for, which is the deaths of three audience members.

R: It's good to know that's about how much I'm worth when I hear that.

RW: Absolutely. That was one of the issues we had with the insurers. They came up with that figure. The performers themselves, we can't insure ourselves for it, so we sign away liability every night before we do it. So we just really have to make certain the cables are in the right places and trust the physics.

J: Richard, how do you properly ground yourself for a shock like that?

RW: I'm not certain. I mean, I'm a psychologist, so I can tell you why we do it. It's not good, is it? I often think that. Every night I stand there and think, why am I doing this? I have no idea what we're doing here. The equipment is built by a company called HVFX, who do lots of special effects for theater and film. They assure me that it's absolutely safe. They assure me that all the leads are in the right places. But to be absolutely honest, I couldn't tell you the physics of it. This isn't part of the show. I don't go out in front of an audience and explain it. I have no idea what I'm doing. But fundamentally, that's the case.

S: But you started your working career as a professional magician, so you have some experience being a stage magician, right? Do you bring a lot of that into the show?

RW: Absolutely. In fact, the idea for the electricity stunt came from a quote from Houdini, which said that if you want to guarantee an audience, just make it be known that at a certain time, a certain place, you'll be doing something that if it goes wrong, someone will die. And lots of people will tell that, and it proved to be the case. I mean, when we originally tried to get funders for the show in this country, everyone said no one is going to come to a science show. This is completely mad. There's no interest in it. And then we sold out for a complete run in the West End, and then we added extra nights. They sold out as well. I think that's primarily because we are doing something genuinely edgy. And then also because I think there is actually an appetite for science if you wrap it up in the way that magicians do, which is to say that this stuff is fun, it's intriguing, there's a sense of mystery here. But come along and see what you think.

J: I think it's a brilliant idea. I love it.

RW: That's very kind.

R: Do you think there'll be a difference in how American audiences take it as opposed to the UK?

RW: I'm really not certain on that. I've spoken quite a lot in the States, and primarily it's kind of the same. I mean, you lose some cultural references, you add others. I think, and I hope it'll be the same, we attract an audience. We've done various evaluations. And half of our audience have absolutely no background in science at all. And so what we're saying to sometimes the people who are involved in the arts community is come along. If you don't understand anything about science, that's great. And then the other half really are quite scientifically literate, and they get something out of it as well. And I hope we will get that kind of split in the States.

P: I think the desire to watch people almost kill themselves is universal.

RW: Absolutely. We could tour the world, and I think people would turn up if there's a chance of one of us dying.

P: Absolutely.

S: How much actual science are you trying to teach on stage, or is it really, would you say, purely entertainment, or what's the mix?

RW: It really varies per item. And we change that mix. I'm sure we will change it during the run. We change it on a nightly basis. So, for example, some of it is just having a good time. There's very little science in some of the items. So one of the things which we might be doing is a live lie detector test. We get somebody out to the audience. We rig them up so we can see their physiology being projected behind them. And we get them to lie or tell the truth. Now, it's kind of fun because we can ask them all sorts of questions, particularly if they're partners in the audience about whether they've cheated on them and so on. And then that's kind of fun. There's not much science there. Other times Simon will be doing some pretty heavy probability theory when he looks at gambling and so on. And then other times it's just about beauty. I mean, we did some work over here with a UK contortionist called Delia de Sol who bends her body into these impossible shapes. And so we did an MRI scan to look at how the ligaments are working when that happens. And so we explain that. And then she comes out. She's part of the show. She performs. You see this very beautiful routine, but now you understand what's going on. So it adds to the beauty and the wonder of what you're seeing.

S: And that's actually a good point because it's a cliché that I strongly disagree with that being a reductionist, looking at something scientifically detracts from the beauty of something. But I think that actually understanding the nature of things enhances the beauty and the awe. And it sounds like that's what you're going for with those kind of demonstrations.

RW: That's part of it with those ones. I mean, I talk about the psychology of magic. And I think the magicians love watching other magicians. They're the ones that are very skilled because you see far more than a normal audience member. You understand just how hard this stuff is. And so in the show I make a coin disappear and it's the simplest piece of sleight of hand, the first thing you learn as a magician. But then I unpack that. I say, look, this is how the psychology works here. This is how I'm controlling your attention or whether you laugh or not at particular moments and so on. And we keep on going. We keep on deconstructing that vanish of the coin. So at the end, the audience are kind of empowered. They look at this and realize actually there's far more going on, even at the simplest level in terms of magic.

P: Penn and Teller do a lot of that in their show. So they deconstruct some of their magic, just some of it.

RW: Absolutely. You realize the thinking, the skill, the practice that goes into it. I think it's a very unusual approach to doing something on stage. But I think for science, for skeptics, it works.

S: So you're going to be in New York all of November, is that correct?

RW: I wish that were the case. It's not. We are there the 9th through to the 12th of November. So it's a really short run. It's part of the science and arts festival. And it's kind of a toe-dip into the off-Broadway situation, see how we go down. And it's just an exciting thing to be doing.

S: And where do you go after that? Are you touring around the world or is this just a one-time trip to New York?

RW: No. Both Simon, myself and Delia are all enormously busy doing day jobs. And so just trying to clear enough time in the diary even for this run has been tricky. So we will be back in the UK. We'll probably be up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August with a new show. Although we just found out that the stunt we wanted to do is illegal. (laughter)

R: Did it involve goats because I think I've seen that.

RW: It didn't involve goats. It did involve a live firearm which we can't discharge in a public space. So that was a bit tricky. But we have other ideas so we'll probably be up there in August.

J: Well, I'm going to try to make it to the show.

RW: That would be good. And if you're there, let me know because we always have one member of the audience each night who takes a very special role in the show. I don't want to go into too much detail. But it's part of examining your self-identity and lowering your self-esteem.

R: I don't know if that's possible for Jay, actually.

J: My self-esteem can't get any lower than it is right now.

R: So to all of our listeners out there, if it weren't enough that there's going to be a beautiful contortionist and the possibility that Richard might be killed, Jay's going to be there.

RW: Absolutely. Yeah, this is. It doesn't get any better than that, let's be honest.

R: Oh, and also I'm going to be there.

J: Rebecca, you'll be there to pick up the pieces of me.

S: So get your tickets now before they run out.

R: And we should have a link to the ticket ordering page on our website.

P: We will.

S: We'll have all the necessary links. Well, Richard, you have had a long career dealing with parapsychology and those things as reading through some of the research that you've been involved with. And I note that you have done a few studies with Marilyn Schlitz, who we've actually had on our show before.

RW: Oh, yeah.

R: The Gansfeld, right?

S: More the staring experiments.

RW: That's right.

S: What was your experience like with her?

RW: Oh, she's dreadful. She's awful. I can't believe you had her on the show completely. That was a rare occurrence. No, Marilyn's lovely and she has a very different way of looking at the world to me. I mean, she's quite a strong psi proponent. She believes in this stuff and I'm very skeptical about it. And this was a few years ago now, probably about almost 10 years ago. We did run these experiments that looked at this sense of staring, the idea that if someone stared at you from behind, you turned around and could detect that. And Marilyn had got significant results. According to her studies, there was something paranormal going on. According to mine, there wasn't. I was just at a chance. And so rather than argue about it, which has happened a lot over the last 100 years for skeptics and proponents, we thought we'd come together and run some joint experiments, which is what we've been doing over the years. So the studies are identical in terms of design and participants and where they're run. But half the trials were run by Marilyn, half by me. Early on, we did get some differences. Marilyn's trials were significant and mine weren't. The most recent and largest of the studies, we've both been at chance. And so it's a real mixed bag in terms of the findings. But I think what's important is that sense of collaboration. Often skeptics cut themselves off from the proponent community and it can get really quite nasty. What we wanted to do was kind of come together and say, all right, can we try and work this thing out in a kind of collaborative way?

S: Yeah, I think that's good. And we've actually done that multiple times in the past as well. We've made efforts to collaborate with researchers, even though they may have been believers. Although our experience, I don't know if you had the same experience, if you do a really tight study and the results are negative, then the believers get a little upset sometimes in the end. And sometimes they don't accept those results with good cheer, has been our experience.

RW: Yeah, it depends on the proponent. I mean, most people who make their living being a psychic, I mean, certainly when I've tested them in the past, when they've turned out to be a chance, as they all have with my results, with my studies, I've yet to have one turn around and go, oh my goodness, I've been kidding myself, I'm not psychic. That doesn't happen. I think with someone like Marilyn, it's a lot more sophisticated because it's about putting together an experiment and then you green advance what you're going to say, results turn out one way or another. So it's very different to working with a psychic or a medium.

S: But from reading her writings, it sounds like she just invented a new phenomenon to explain the difference in results, this so-called experimenter effect, where it's the preconceptions of the experimenter that ultimately determined the outcome, which it seemed to me was her way of trying to rescue a paranormal effect from essentially negative data. And I don't know if that's your interpretation as well. Also, let me ask you, all BS aside, what do you really think was the cause of why she had positive results and why you did not have positive results?

RW: I don't think we know. The idea of the experimenter effect has been around a very, very long time. I think Ryan originally came up with some similar ideas in the 30s, because in parapsychology, even amongst the believers, there's only a small number of people that consistently get positive results, and we don't know what's happening there. Yes, of course, they could be fraudulent. They could be running sloppy studies. Maybe they just got lucky. But we're not going to know until we start some sort of collaboration with the folks in the field that are sensible. There are a lot of kind of rabid proponents that I wouldn't work with, because I think we're just wasting everyone's time. I don't trust them. Marilyn's not like that, and I think we should search out more of those sorts of people and engage in those sorts of collaborative exercises.

S: I agree with that, but I'm not sure I buy the fact that in the end, it's ever really going to resolve anything, because your collaboration with Marilyn didn't really change her mind. It didn't really resolve anything. In the end, the skeptics got negative results, and we didn't believe in psi beforehand, and we don't believe in psi afterwards. Marilyn got at least positive results sometimes, and she still believes in psi like she did beforehand. So what was resolved with all of this?

RW: Well, I think with this particular set of results, it's kind of patchy, so I would agree with you. But certainly, conceptually, let's imagine that she'd always got wildly significant results and I hadn't. Well, then there's something really curious going on. Or if she would carry out some joint studies and she was at flat chance consistently, then it perhaps would be a challenge to her beliefs. So I think, conceptually, this is a way forward, because it really minimizes that whole thing which you referred to before about when the proponents don't get positive results, they suddenly come up with an excuse, or they're carrying out sloppy studies. By collaborating with a skeptic, you minimize those possibilities. You don't eliminate them, you minimize them.

S: Just to push this a little bit further, because I can imagine what our listeners are thinking at this point, that you're being very polite, but the bottom line is probably her methods were sloppy, and that's why she got results, and your methods were better. That would be the interpretation favored by, say, Occam's razor, rather than, are you being coy by saying we really don't know what the difference is, or do you suspect that it just comes down to methods?

RW: I really don't know. I mean, when one looks at her studies and other studies like them, it seems to me there's not any obvious flaws in there. I mean, with some parapsychology studies I've looked at over the years, they're appalling. You look at them and you say, oh, that's obvious why there was a flaw in the study, and some of the remote viewing work was like that. With some of Marilyn's work, that wasn't the case, and you could either go delving deeper and deeper into the studies and say, well, exactly what did you do, and there's not enough detail here, and maybe the two people could communicate via normal means and so on, or you could say, well, let's take it at face value. Let's assume there is something going on here, and let's run some studies to find out if that's actually the case, and then it's that latter part that I went on.

S: The final point, and Ray Hyman made this point when we interviewed him, about this same topic, is that the written papers may not reflect what's actually happening in the lab, and you have to actually go physically be there and see what they're doing, and when you do that you discover that their methodology is not as tight as it should be. But the bottom line is, if it can't be replicated, that's the ultimate test in science, because as you say, you can't really know what's happening, and you can't really know what the cause would be for one experimenter using an apparently same protocol getting different results from another experimenter. But if they can't be replicated, then the general assumption within the scientific community when you're dealing with non-controversial, non-paranormal topics is that there's no effect. That if there were a real effect, it could be replicated. So would it be reasonable just to conclude scientifically that the failure to replicate her results is adequate evidence of an absence of an effect?

RW: I don't think you can ever argue that ESP or whatever doesn't exist, because there always may be another set of conditions where you can run the experiment and find it. You can simply argue, on the evidence we have, is there overwhelming proof that it does exist? Now I would argue there's not, because of that replication issue, that there are some parapsychologists that yes, consistently get positive results, there are many that don't, and there are lots of, "neutral" scientists that can't replicate those studies. And what you see over time in parapsychology is this jumping from one set of methods to another. So in the 70s, remote viewing was big. In the 80s, early 90s, it was all about what was called the Gansfeld. Then there was the staring effect. There's a jumping around. There's not this consistent building of knowledge. So I am very skeptical about parapsychology. I don't find the evidence at all overwhelming. I think it's curious. But I certainly wouldn't want to argue there is a genuine effect sloshing around in that.

S: You're absolutely right from a logical point of view. You can't ever prove a negative, and science never determines that. I deal with this often in medicine. You can't ever conclude from a negative study that there's no effect, only that any effect that does exist has to be smaller than the power of the studies to detect it. But in the same way, could we not say about, and it seems like you're agreeing with this, but at some point, have we accumulated enough data to say that not only is there no evidence for psi, but the evidence strongly suggests that if there is an effect, it has to be insignificant or minuscule. Otherwise, you could use that logic to argue for endlessly testing the same hypotheses with different protocols over and over and over again, which I think is what's been happening in the last hundred years. Wouldn't you agree?

RW: Absolutely. I think one of the interesting issues is when do you stop looking? It's not an issue that many parapsychologists face up to. Instead, what happens is when their cherished protocol doesn't work any longer, they just jump ship to another one that seems to be a little bit more successful. I think that's one issue. The other issue is, as you say, the evidence at best is for a small and unreliable effect, which might be theoretically really interesting, but actually the application of it nowadays with the communication industry being what it is, may be absolutely useless. And so I think there are serious questions to be asked of the field, and for me the big one is, when do you stop looking? Just how many null results do you have to get before you go, hold on a second, we're not going to go on another fishing expedition. And that depends on all sorts of complex factors. I mean, lots of parapsychologists have had strong personal experiences which convinces them that there is something to it, or maybe they've run an experiment with a statistically significant result that they're convinced was watertight, and that alone will keep them searching again and again because they have an inner conviction.

S: Right, and what I think this is all really telling us is about human psychology, which I'm sure you appreciate as a psychologist. And that's where, as skeptics, that's what we're interested in, is what is this telling us about the human nature and how we make our models of the world, and how could people be so terribly wrong for so long? You've carried out a number of ghost experiments, or you at least have looked into why people believe in ghosts. Can you tell us about your experience with that?

RW: I can. They came from a rather odd phone call from Hampton Court Palace, which is a properly operating royal palace just south of London. And they phoned me up and said, we think we've got a ghost because lots of our visitors are reporting strange experiences in what's called the haunted gallery. So it was a kind of clue in the title there. And could you come and do an investigation? And I thought about it. I thought, what can I do? I don't believe in ghosts. I'm not going to spend night after night camping out there trying to take a photograph of something that doesn't exist. That's not my idea of a good time. But, clearly, people are having weird experiences. And that's what I went to investigate. So I carried out some research there, up in Edinburgh and Scotland as well, where we've been looking at why do people consistently have weird experiences in places that have a reputation for being haunted. And we're starting to see that there are certain aspects of our environment in terms of, for example, what's called infrasound, which is low frequency sound waves, that do appear to be impact on people, that make them feel very uneasy in certain spaces. So it's really looking at normal explanations, if you like, for alleged ghostly phenomena.

S: I noticed just looking at your website, you have listed in there also the magnetic fields. And there have been a couple of experiments which show that perhaps electromagnetic discharges maybe from plate tectonic kind of activity might actually have an effect on the brain. Have you been at all involved in those experiments?

RW: I have a little bit. It's not my area of expertise. We've been involved with physicists with those. I'm not a big fan of the electromagnetic ideas. The infrasound, the low frequency sound waves that can be caused by winds across an open window or by low rumbling traffic, I think there's a lot more going on there. And we conducted an experiment a few years ago, actually, on the South Bank in the Thames, which is a very well-known sort of art centre, where we had a classical music concert, and half the time we piped in infrasound without the audience knowing. And at the end of each piece of music, asked them to rate how they felt. And when this infrasound was present in the room, even though they didn't know it was there, you could see much more intense emotions amongst the audience. So I think there is something to that. And this is a good example of how often sceptics can kind of just say, oh, there's nothing to it. Ghosts don't exist. You're wasting your time. But actually, I think there is a science and a psychology to understand here. And that's why I conduct these sorts of studies.

S: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And it sounds like those were external factors that you were looking at. Have you ever investigated internal factors? For example, what do you think about Baker, who is a psychologist who recently passed away, and Joe Nickell have been strong proponents of the fantasy-prone personality type? Are you familiar with that at all?

RW: Oh, absolutely. And there is some truth to it. About half the people who have come to take part in our experiments have reported strong belief in ghosts and a lot of ghostly experiences, and I suspect are, "fantasy-prone". What's interesting is when you let them out into an area and say, Okay, well, where do you experience something weird? Often those experiences will stack up in certain places, so there is something about those places. And also, what's great about the studies is that they do attract some very strange, fantasy-prone people, so I can remember with the Hampton Court study, the ghost at Hampton Court is supposed to be Katherine Howard, who is one of Henry VIII's ex-wives from the 16th century. And so when we camped out there, along comes this woman who says, I'm here to help out with your experiment, and I thought it would be helpful because I'm the reincarnation of Katherine Howard, so I can tell you exactly what's going to go on. And that was great to have around for seven days. As you could imagine. It was a real bundle of laughs. So we are a magnet for weirdness, but it's kind of fun. I mean, it's either this or I get a proper job, so it's great.

P: I think that a lot of this work you do, Richard, sounds great and very important. The sort of a priori skepticism you mentioned before, oh, there's no ghost, why are you bothering is something that skeptics really have to guard against. Richard, I also noticed from your website you've been involved in something called the Superstition Survey. What can you tell us about that?

RW: That came off of the research into luck, and the research into luck was heavily connected with skepticism, because the problem with skepticism is that often we say to people, the psychics, they're not genuine, the mediums, they're frauds. We're giving a very negative message. We're saying that by understanding more about the world, some of the things that make you feel good, like going to a psychic or a medium, really are kind of useless experiences. I wanted to do was kind of turn that on its head, say if you understand more about something that's apparently magical, you can actually live a more positive life. And that's when the idea of the luck work came to me, that we studied the lives of about a thousand exceptionally lucky and unlucky people for a 10-year period. We could see lucky people were creating their own luck by the way they were thinking and behaving, and so I wrote a book about how to be lucky, how to think and behave like a lucky person. And that has really made inroads away from just people who naturally read science books and more into the self-help industry, but it's putting some sort of rational and scientific thinking out there. And the superstition work came off the back of that, looking at the levels of superstition in society, whether superstitions were good for you, bad for you, and so on. We found that some superstitions, for example, touching wood or crossing your fingers, actually could make you feel better about the world, and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What you really want to avoid are the ones that make you feel anxious, like walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror. Often it's the kind of neurotic types that are really buying into those.

S: Richard, I feel like we're just barely scratching the surface. I think we're going to have to get you back on our show sometime in the future. And of course we always love interviewing people who have a British accent.

RW: I don't normally. I'm just putting it on for you guys. I'm from the East Coast, and I'm going to be trying to keep up this British accent. Both Simon and I are during the whole theatre of science run.

R: That's impressive.

RW: I know, it's amazing, isn't it? We've been rehearsing hard, but we'll be doing that. So yes, come along. You should come along and see if we slip up on the accent.

R: I actually have to tell you, I thought it was kind of fake, but I wasn't going to say anything.

S: Well, Richard, again, thank you very much. We greatly enjoyed it.

RW: My pleasure. It was lots of fun. You have a very nice accent.

R: Thank you, Richard.

S: And good luck with your show. Again, you'll be in New York the November 9th to 12th. And look on our page for links, all the relevant links.

RW: Absolutely. Theatre for the new city. People can get tickets on TheatreMania. They're selling incredibly quickly, so people have to get online now.

S: Thanks again.

J: Thanks, Richard.

R: Thanks, Richard.

P: Bye-bye.

Randi Speaks (1:03:39)[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: Alice Cooper and Metal Detectors

S: And now, Randi speaks.

JR: Hello, this is James Randi. Back in 1974, I joined the Alice Cooper tour as an executioner and as a mad dentist. I was not listed with the show under my name because I didn't want to be anybody's second banana, so to speak. I was always dressed in a wild costume and/or a mask. So there wasn't much chance my mother would happen to wander into a performance of Alice Cooper and catch me on stage. It all came about in a most peculiar manner. I was seated with some magician friends on 34th Street in the old Al Flosso's magic shop on the second floor. And the phone rang. Al answered the phone, put his hand over the mouthpiece and turned to us. "Any you guys want to work for a rock artist?" Well, I was between gigs at the time, so I brightened up and said, "Yeah? What does he want us to do?" Al turned back to the phone, then put his hand over the mouthpiece, and said, "they want to talk to you to see if they can work up some stunts". Well, that sounded pretty good to me, so I took a chance. I said, "Al, tell them that I want a hundred dollars to go down and talk to them." Almost immediately, Al turned back to me and he said, "you're on", and I said, "I'm outta here". I walked down 6th Avenue into the Village; I knew where the place was. But I was quite surprised by the ambiance in his office. Now I didn't know who Alice Cooper was; I didn't have the faintest idea. This was something I just didn't follow. While waiting for my interview, however, I read some of the publicity on the walls and it dawned on me: this guy is a showman. What really sold me was that there were potted plants all over the place. And every one of them was very, very dead. As I was soon to learn, that was sort of in character for the Alice Cooper show.

Well, we worked out a couple of stunts that we could do with Alice. The money they offered me was simply fabulous. And after a few weeks of getting the props ready, we shipped out on what was going to be a 90-day tour that actually extended over a hundred-and-something days. It was called "The Billion Dollar Babies". That's billion with a "B". Cooper was a really nice guy; very, very easy to get along with. Good sense of humor, and he didn't take himself too seriously for a rock star.

We, of course, traveled by private jet, and in those days, the security regulations were such that you had to be sort of checked going through to the boarding area, but it wasn't terribly serious. Every now and then they'd crack down on things that were being carried on the body that might be weapons. Though, of course, this didn't bother us because we had a private jet and we took of and landed in executive airports around the country. In fact, around the world. However, the time arrived when we had to put the airplane in—it was a 737—for maintenance. That meant that for one day, we had to travel as ordinary people on ordinary jets. Well, I leave you to imagine the sensation that Alice Cooper, not in full makeup, but certainly in full costume, would make getting on an airplane. And, true to form, I decided to play a bit of a gag on Alice Cooper.

Of course he was festooned in metal; he had rings everywhere; he had belts and straps; things that would set any detection machine crazy. On this particular occasion, as we had to go through security, I went through; some of the other fellows went through. Minor pauses, of course, to empty metal from the pocket. And then, Alice showed up. He shed about 30 pounds of metal, I'm sure, in the basket before he passed through the security area. But something very peculiar happened. I was on the far side of the security area waiting for him to come through. And no matter how much metal he would shed, every time he went to go through the gate, you'd hear the sound (whistles tone). Now there seemed to be something wrong with the security device because the red light didn't also light at the same time that the little buzzer went (whistles) And Cooper was just about down to his underwear when I finally said to him, "you know, Alice, that's really peculiar. Every time you try to go through the gate there, it goes (whistles)" Well, he almost killed me. You see, it was James "The Amazing" Randi who was making the sound (whistles). It wasn't the alarm system at all. In any case, we made up almost immediately and I had a very, very good and long relationship with Alice Cooper. In fact, I chopped his head off with a guillotine every night. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:08:49)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have resurrected a 5 million year old retrovirus.[1]
Item #2: Newly published study apparently confirms a link between microwave cooking certain foods, such as potatoes, and cancer risk.[2]
Item #3: New study strongly correlates salt intake and obesity.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Microwaving potatoes
Science Retrovirus
Salt and obesity
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Microwaving potatoes
Salt and obesity
Microwaving potatoes
Salt and obesity

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

S: Every week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine and one is fictitious. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake, and you, of course, can play along. Is everyone ready?

R: Yes.

S: All right, here we go.

J: It's time.

S: Number one, scientists have resurrected a five-million-year-old retrovirus. Number two-

R: That was stupid.

S: Newly published study apparently confirms the link between microwave cooking certain foods, such as potatoes, and cancer risk. Item number three, a new study strongly correlates salt intake and obesity. Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: All right, salt and obesity, that makes sense. What was the first one again? Sorry.

P: Retrovirus.

R: Oh, yeah, yeah.

S: Five-million-year-old retrovirus.

S: You know, that is just the stupid sort of thing that scientists would do in the first five minutes of the movie, so I think that's true. I think the microwaving, I'm going to go with the potato thing being false.

S: Microwaving potatoes is a cancer risk?

R: Yeah, I believe that microwaving potatoes is the greatest thing on the planet and could never be bad for you.

S: Okay. Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Five-million-year-old retrovirus, yes. Potatoes in the microwave causing cancer? That doesn't sound right to me. But three sounds even less likely, so I'm going to go with the salt intake and obesity correlation.

S: Okay. Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Right. Yeah, some things are best left frozen solid and dead, like retrovirus. Now, they're saying that a potato cooked in the oven is okay, but in the microwave it becomes cancerous?

S: Yes.

P: Yeah, that's...

B: It becomes a carcinogen.

P: Salt and obesity, that sounds okay to me. It makes you retain water anyway. Yeah, I'm going to go with the potatoes.

S: Okay. Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: I have a question. What do you mean by retrovirus?

S: A retrovirus.

R: It means a virus from the 70s.

J: It has a big afro?

P: That, Rebecca, has such a sense of humor.

S: It's a virus that is able to make DNA from its own RNA.

J: And how is that virus different, say, from the common cold?

S: Those viruses, either RNA or DNA viruses, they use a cell's machinery to replicate themselves, but they don't create DNA and insert it into the host's DNA.

J: Okay. I am going to take... I don't think the salt link to obesity is true.

S: Okay.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: So we got two for the salt and obesity, and two for the microwave cooking causes cancer.

P: Right.

S: So everyone... No one had a problem with the five-million-year-old retrovirus. All right. That's two bad, that's the one I was hoping to get you guys.

J: Yeah, come on.

B: Why, Steve?

S: I don't know.

B: Even if I didn't read about it, I wouldn't...

P: The dragon mammoths are part of the ice. I mean, come on.

S: Five million years is pretty old.

P: It's old.

S: It's quite a breakthrough, actually. Do you guys have any idea how they might have resurrected this five-million-year-old virus?

J: Yeah, they heated it up with a hairdryer.

R: In the microwave with the potatoes?

B: No, they shook it and said, wake up!

P: They salted it and it melted.

S: It's really interesting.

R: We're full of them tonight. We could do this all night.

S: The fact that it is a retrovirus is key to how they were able to...

P: It was inside somebody's DNA. It was in some creature's DNA.

S: Yeah, like a human's.

P: That's right.

S: So this is actually one of the very important lines of molecular evidence for evolution. Retroviruses can make DNA from them. They insert a DNA copy of their information into the host so that they get replicated when the host makes copies of its own DNA. But sometimes these get carried, these get permanently placed within the DNA and passed on, and then mutations occur which make them inactive. So you basically have these inactive relics of old retroviruses gunking up our DNA. In fact, 8% of our DNA is made up of these dead old retroviruses.

B: Well, maybe the intelligent designer kind of wanted these things in there.

S: Well, in terms of the evidence for evolution, the reason why this is so critical is because these are just these random useless bits of old viruses stuck in our DNA. But again, they follow an exquisite evolutionary pattern. We share more of them with chimpanzees, and less and less as you get farther and farther away from us evolutionarily. This retrovirus which they are calling Phoenix, for obvious reasons, was an ancestor of a large family of mobile DNA elements. And they were basically able to look at multiple of them that were basically copies and therefore derived from the original mobile element. And they said, what are all the sequences that they have in common? And by doing that, they were able to factor out the mutations that inactivated it. Does that make sense? And then reconstruct what it must have looked like originally.

J: So Steve, how bad ass is it?

R: Could it kill me? Cause sniffles?

S: It doesn't say, and I don't know that we know.

J: I'm dying to know, Steve. The potato, come on, talk to me.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Let's do number three first. The new study strongly correlates salt intake and obesity. That is science, that is true. Remember, it's a correlation, it's not a cause and effect, but it does strongly correlate. Actually, the speculation is that people who eat more salt get thirsty, they therefore drink more fluid, and the fluid that they drink is adding more calories. So if you eat salt, it makes you thirsty, and you drink coke, and you get 200 calories from the extra coke that you're drinking, then that extra calories is what leads to the obesity. Salt itself contains no calories. There's no calories in salt itself.

R: What about the things that have all the salt? It's not like they're licking salt licks, they're getting french fries that are covered in grease.

S: That's a very good point. That's the first thing I thought of too. Is it because they're eating potato chips? That brings us to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: A newly published study apparently confirms the link between microwave cooking certain foods such as potatoes and cancer risk. That is fiction.

P: Of course.

S: In fact, the exact opposite is true.

R: Potatoes cure cancer?

P: That's what cures cancer.

R: Microwave potatoes cure cancer? You heard it here first.

S: Here's the actual thing. Microwave pre-cooking of french fries reduces cancer chemicals in the french fries. It's not that they cure cancer.

R: I like mine better.

S: The cancer forming chemicals in french fries is decreased if you pre-cook them in the microwave before frying them.

P: So it makes french fries slightly healthier.

S: Slightly less unhealthy, right.

P: Okay. And then you bury them in salt in next case.

S: So that wasn't even split but you guys did a good job.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:16:02)[edit]

Last Week's Puzzle

Let's assume that I am not a skeptical person. I have a symptom, and I want to take a homeopathic remedy to cure it. I go to a homeopathic website, type in my symptom, and they suggest I take an elixir with Aconitum Napellus as the active ingredient.

Based on that information, can you guess what symptom I am trying to cure?



S: Well let's give the answer to last week's skeptical puzzle. Evan is our puzzle master. He's not with us this week so I'll read the puzzle he got from last week. He wrote, let's assume that I am not a skeptical person. I have a symptom and I want to take a homeopathic remedy to cure it. I go to a homeopathic website, type in my symptom, and they suggest I take an elixir with Aconitum Napellus as the active ingredient. Based on that information can you guess what symptom I am trying to cure? Did anybody guess gullibility? Because that is the answer. Gullibility. Well somebody guessed stupidity. That was Larry Kuhn. That was close. Harmless guessed foolish. So they were kind of dancing around the answer. Manny G guessed belief. So no one specifically said gullibility but we got a belief, a stupidity, and foolishness. So those were close answers on the forms. So that is our show for this week. Thanks everyone for joining us.

J: Thanks Steve.

R: Thank you Steve.

S: Thank you guys.

R: Thanks to Richard Wiseman for hanging out with us.

J: Definitely. What a cool guy. What a good guy.

P: He was good. And as always thanks to James Randi.

R: Of course.

P: For his wisdom.

S: I appreciate his additions to our show.

Quote of the Week (1:17:18)[edit]

The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.- Paul Broca

S: As always we are going to close with a quote from Bob. Bob, what is our skeptical quote this week?

B: This quote ties into the Awaken article we discussed earlier by Paul Broca. And the quote is, "The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable."

S: Very astute. Well thanks again guys for joining me.

J: Thanks Steve.

R: Thanks Steve.

J: Have a good night.

B: Yeah, good episode.

S: You too.

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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