SGU Episode 68
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|SGU Episode 68|
|8th November 2012|
|SGU 67||SGU 69|
|S: Steven Novella|
|R: Rebecca Watson|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
| P: Perry DeAngelis
|Quote of the Week|
|For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 News Items
- 3 Questions and Emails
- 4 Science or Fiction (1:00:41)
- 5 Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:34)
- 6 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:09:12)
- 7 Announcements (1:09:35)
- 8 References
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
Kent Hovind Convicted of tax fraud (0:41)
UFO Mockumentary (5:07)
- MediaSyndicate: Did Astronaut Cooper Know About a 1956 UFO Incident?
S: In other news, a filmmaker, R.J. Thomas, is producing a parody of the cheesy UFO documentaries from the 1970s and 80s called The Top-Secret UFO Project—I guess that's kind of a generic enough name. And... it seems as if this this going to be largely about the ideas of Gordon Cooper. Gordon Cooper was an astronaut in the U.S. space program, was the first person to orbit the Earth twice, and he was—he's a strong believer in UFOs. And he believed that he saw UFOs while in orbit. It's interesting; whenever you read a lot of the news articles about Cooper, he always... sort of prominently portray that he if anyone should know about UFOs, he would, 'cuz he's been in outer space.
J: Yeah, right.
S: It's a—it's kind of a lame argument from authority.
R: No, I mean, it's a good point; I've been to the beach, and that's why I'm technically a marine biologist.
S: That's right. And I know how to swim, so I'm an expert on the Loch Ness Monster.
R: There you go.
J: Steve, didn't he say on TV that all the astronauts are covering up sightings and government conspiracy garbage?
S: Yeah. Yeah. You have to believe in the government cover-up if you're a UFO aficionado these days. Those two things go hand in hand.
P: Yeah. Fits in nicely.
J: I think it's funny, though, that all the rigorous testing that they put them through; I know it's an immense amount of physical testing. It's also an enormous amount of emotional stress testing, and I'm sure that, to become an astronaut, you have to be fairly intelligent. But this guy's made it through all of those rigors and he still is a total baboon.
S: Well, since you bring it up, intelligence doesn't really correlate with belief in science over the pseudoscience. Actually, in general, greater intelligence positively correlates with belief in the supernatural or pseudoscience. So, more intelligent people are more likely to believe in things than UFOs [sic]
P: Why is that?
S: Well, you know, it's a very interesting question; I'm not sure it's been definitively answered. I think the reasonable speculation is that you have to have a certain amount of curiosity and thoughtfulness to even think about things like, "are we being visited by aliens?" I also think that getting a general education, getting a popular sort-of science education—it's just not enough these days. And in fact, until you really get to, like, a post-graduate expert level in some topic, the education that you get really won't prepare you to separate science from pseudoscience. Unless you have skeptical training; unless you know how to actually think about these things and become knowledgeable of the ways in which we deceive ourselves, the pitfalls of logic that we tend to fall into. So you could be extremely intelligent and still be a total credulous, you know, ass—
P: That's actually a good segue into our next story, Steve.
Bigfoot scientist (8:19)
Learn While you Sleep (17:56)
Dolphin with Leg (23:17)
Questions and Emails
Edgar Cayce (30:32)
S: Well, let's move on to some of your questions and emails. The first one comes from Bart Farkas, from Cochrane, Alberta, in Canada. And Bart writes:
I listen to your podcast weekly, I am an active skeptic as you are.Thanks and keep up the good work.
Anyhow, I am wondering about this Edgar Cayce fellow. So many people point to him as being a true psychic, and the anecdotal claims seem impressive. He even seems to have not benefited financially from his abilities, which is also an interesting wrinkle.
That said, I don't believe it, I am just wondering who, if anyone, has completed any comprehensive skeptical review of Edgar Cayce's abilities/prophecies etc.?
What's your opinion on it?
R: Everybody (chuckling) ...has debunked him.
P: Check the library.
S: Yeah, he's like Skepticism 101. All right, you're—
R: James Randi debunked him in Flim-Flam... one of his finest books.
S: The Skeptic Dictionary has a very thorough debunking of him on their website; we'll have the link to that. I found that to be pretty good. So, Edgar Cayce, who died in 1945, was a... trance psychic. He would go into—he was called "The Sleeping Prophet"—he would go into these trance-like states and he would just spout out random prophecies and his devoted listeners would write everything down. It was very Nostradamus-esque in that his statements were so vague that they could be applied to anything. But occasionally he would get more specific, and whenever he did, his predictions were completely worthless.
R: Really wrong. Like, my favorite is when he said, "1933 would be a very good year."
S: Right. (laughs)
R: It really was, for Hitler. (laughs) It was a great year for Hitler.
S: Had to be a good year for somebody.
P: How did our friend from Alberta, who's an active skeptic, come up with the idea that the guy's claims have validity?
R: Well, I think it's the sort of thing where the guy's been dead for so long that he's had plenty of time for people to forget all of the failures and remember the successes and blow them up. And if you look on his Wikipedia entry—I was just looking at this earlier today—it's outrageous. It was written by a true believer. And this is the sort of information that people are getting, sadly.
S: Well, we have to fix that.
R: So, yeah, actually, to all of our listeners, go to Wikipedia, look up Edgar Cayce, and start editing, 'cuz it's really bad.
S: He still has his devoted followers. That's why—
S: —it is as you say. So, one of my favorite predictions of his that did not come true—he predicted that in 1958, the United States would discover some sort of death ray that was used on Atlantis.
R: (laughing) Yeah, that's right.
S: (laughing) Right; exactly.
R: Somebody suggested that this was supposed to be the invention of the laser. Because, you know, we all have death rays in our homes, reading our CDs and DVDs.
P: I mean, the death ray; OK, but Atlantis?
S: Cayce was a big fan of Atlantis; he expanded the mythology of Atlantis tremendously; he's the first one to come up with the energy crystals. Atlanteans somehow used their energy crystals to do stuff.
R: He claimed to be able to heal people, but he couldn't save at least two of his own family members who died—I think his brother and he had a newborn son who died.
S: Right, right.
R: So, not very successful.
S: A lot of his followers do a lot of ad-hoc justifications for his failures. Like, he and a dowser predicted that they were going to find buried treasure someplace and they went there and it wasn't there. So his followers said, "well, maybe the buried treasure was already dug up." Or—
B: There you go.
S: —"in the future, there will be buried treasure."
R: His sons even wrote a book all about his failed prophecies, essentially attempting to basically talk about what was just beyond his psychic reach. So they tried to actually turn it to their favor somehow.
R: The thing about Cayce—he was incredibly prolific in that he did just thousands and thousands of readings.
P: Why not?
R: Yeah. And more than you could possibly imagine; he spent all of his time doing readings. And so, with that vast amount of stuff, he was bound to churn out a few hits, you know. And so of course, that's what gets passed along and stays with us.
S: I like his snake-oil cures that he recommended. He was the first one, apparently, to recommend Laetrile for cancer. Laetrile, that wonder drug that's being suppressed by the evil medical establishment.
R: Isn't it arsenic or something?
R: Cyanide; right.
S: He also would prescribe bedbug juice for "dropsy". Dropsy, that really terrible medical problem that still plagues us today.
B: What the hell's bedbug juice?
R: (laughing) And what's dropsy?
S: Right; exactly.
B: What's "prescribe" mean?
P: That mean you drop stuff all the time?
R: (laughs) Dropsy...
S: Don't listen to the anecdotal evidence; we'll give you links to detailed analyses of his so-called prophecies. He didn't do better than any other psychic who has ever lived.
Quantum Love - Question 1(35:47)
S: Question number two comes from Donovan Dillon, didn't give his location, and he writes, after some much-deserved praise, he asks two questions. Question number one.
I find that when I tell my girlfriend (from watching one too many documentaries) that love is nothing more than a series of hormones released, yada yada yada, that I don't get as much loving attention as when I keep it as this mystical wonderful thing. How do you, as skeptics, balance your science and skeptic backgrounds with the world around you that is full of things like Christmas Holidays, Love, Romance and all that jazz? Do you take it home with you, or leave it at work? Are their things that you keep mystical and don't challenge or is everything fair game?
S: Let's address this first question before I read the second question.
R: Donovan, Donovan, Donovan, that is so not the way to go about getting nookie, seriously.
R: You don't just say it's a bunch of hormones, you know.
B: Yeah, don't trivialise those things to your girlfriend. But also, I would disagree with his terminology. I don't see those things as mystical, they're not really mystical, they are explainable, so they're not...
S: Bob, I think that's his point though. He's saying as a skeptic we know these things are mystical, but that's not getting me any monkey love, when you pretend that they are mystical then the women, that loosens them up.
R: You see, no Donovan is going about this the wrong way, Donovan, I'm going to give you this gift, grab your pen.
J: Here we go, and something else...
R: Next time you're chilling on the couch with your girlfriend, I want you to turn to her and say, "baby, looking in your deep blue eyes stimulates the immediate response of my love-related neuro-physical systems, converging on the widespread regions of the chordate."
S: That does it every time.
R: Isn't that much better? (laughs)
R: "Baby, you put the dope in dopamine."
S: The dope in dopamine?
P: That's OK, that's OK.
R: See it's all about how you present it, Donovan, that's all it is.
S: Something about moanin' for serotonin?
B: Oh, nice!
P: You could do that.
R: Well done, Steve.
B: Did you just think of that one?
S: I did, I did.
B: Oh, you... you must have prepared that one.
R: (laughing) He's been waiting to use that the past 10 years.
B: Oh man, good one.
S: The way I approach these issues, if you're hyper-reductionist about the state of reality and our existence in the universe, it's all about perspective. If you think we're just a speck of insignificance in this vast multiverse, it could be quite depressing. The fact is, we are humans, humans are what they are. There's nothing with embracing the human condition and human existence and we make our own meaning, whatever that is so you might as well view the world and the universe from a human perspective and embrace what we are. I love my daughters more than anything in the world, I have an incredible emotional reaction to them in many different ways that only another parent could really understand and I know full well that this is an evolved, biochemical reaction to induce me to pass my genes on to the next generation and nothing more, but it does not...
B: And to care for them.
S: Well yeah, to nurture the survival of my genetic progeny. But it doesn't matter, those emotions are still just as real to me, they're just as profound, it is part of what it is to be human and just embrace that and enjoy it and live and enjoy your life and the two things are not incompatible at all, sex is still sex, regardless of how and why it evolved, so I don't see the conflict there at all actually.
P: Right, absolutely.
J: Well, he might be coming more from the idea that he might be a little too robotic and stiff and his girlfriend is commenting on that, I think you've got to read between the lines here.
S: All right, I'll say something else, Carl Sagan made a comment once, I can't remember what the venue was, again if there's anybody who knows how to put awe in science, he did. He said about his wife, "of all the times and places, of all the billions of years and all the different, the vastness of the universe, that you and I came together at the same time is the greatest joy of my life," I'm hugely paraphrasing, but that's how he put it. So he made this notion of our place in the universe into a very romantic idea about he and his wife sharing this very, very narrow slice of reality together and how wonderful that was for him. So you could do it man, you could make the scientific skepticism work with romance or wonder.
R: You've just got to be smooth like Sagan.
S: He's smooth.
P: (laughs) It's like anything else, you just can't carry it to an excess, that's all. Keep it in perspective.
J: Rebecca, I just came up with a career for you. It's incredible.
J: You should become an instructor of romance to your posse.
S: Skeptical romance?
R: Yeah, dating advice, no, no, no see it's a good idea though because then people could write in and ask me relationship advice and I'll deliver it with the scientific skeptic spin.
S: There you go, a new career for you.
R: I like it (laughs).
Quantum Love - Question 2 (41:12)
S: Quickly, let's go on to his second question. His second question is this:
On your last episode, you had an interview with a very nice English chap
Yes, that was Richard Wiseman.
who had done some joint experiments with a woman and the woman got different results then he did. She explained her varying results as the result of the intention of the observer, that the observer predetermined the outcome, which sounds fairly hokey, I agree. Now, jump over to quantum mechanics, and I am not suggesting that this at proves the woman wasn't out of her tree, but what are your views on the experiments that have behavior of electrons being influenced by the observer?
And he references the double-slit experiments and gives a Wikipedia link.
R: Didn't we actually talk about this when we had Marilyn on? She brought up the quantum... bit.
S: Did she? I don't—this has come up before, I think, but—again, just very quickly, to shoot this down: The notion that the observer affects the outcome or that—in a quantum way, or that reality somehow doesn't exist until an observer observes it is really a complete mis-reading of quantum mechanics. And I was a little surprised that he referenced the double-slit experiments rather than some other more recent experiments, which I think are actually hokey. But, the double-slit experiments, very quickly—if you shine a light through a single slit, you get a pattern—just a single pattern on the wall. If you shine a light beam through two slits that are close together, you get an interference pattern. And this was the first piece of evidence that light actually behaves like a wave.
B: 'Cuz only waves can make an interference pattern.
S: Yeah. An interference pattern that is exactly like—literally like waves in water interfering with each other. The same thing. Any waves. These happen to be light waves. Prior to this, it was thought that light was basically a particle, which it is. The particle/wave duality of light.
S: So, the thing is, though, when you say "observer", what that really means—it's not that somebody—whatever's going on in the mind of the experimenter affects the outcome of the experiment; that's completely not true. All it means is that light is a wave until it has to interact with something, anything. When it interacts with something like the film you're using to record the pattern of light, then that forces it to—the probability wave to collapse to an actual particle and then interact with whatever it's interacting with. So, that's the phenomenon that we're talking about, in terms of quantum mechanics. That fundamental particles exist as a probability wave until they're forced to interact with their environment in any way. And of course, it's hard to keep them from interacting, you know; eventually, things are going to interact with other things, and they collapse. Whether or not there's any intelligent being present or not, looking or not looking. So, the whole observer phenomenon is a complete mis-interpretation of quantum mechanics.
B: Yeah, Steve; the way I see that—I think there's an emotional appeal for these people to think that you need an intelligence; that an intelligence or a mind is the key factor in collapsing the wave functions. And to me, that's equivalent to putting humans back on that pedestal that science threw us off of a long time ago. And the real culprit, as you said, was the decoherence, which is just the interaction with the environment; you don't need a mind in the loop is the bottom line.
S: That's right.
Distribution of Pseudoscience (44:29)
I've been listening to the podcast for about 15 episodes now, and I want to let you know that you're doing a great job. The issues are interesting and informative, the panel members are great at debunking the stuff that gets published in the mass and fringe media, and it's an entertaining show. I'm just a bit in the dark on the Rebecca-Jay animosity, but I guess not all topics need to be analysed on air ;-) As an Irish person who has lived in the US, UK and now Germany, I would particularly like to hear your thoughts on how cultural influences dictate credulous belief patterns. A particular example is the Intelligent Design debate, which seems to be a purely American phenomenon. Here in Europe the creationists are regarded as slightly barmy, but it seems that a large proportion of the US population takes it seriously. This is not to say that Europeans are more skeptical - I know plenty of Germans who believe in ghosts and other such nonsense, it's just different nonsense. It would interest to me to know if anyone has taken the trouble to map out the regional patterns followed by various religions and superstitions. I would expect that global acceptance of, say, quantum mechanics is more *uniformly* distributed throughout the globe than that of ouija boards, tarot cards, voodoo, ID etc. No doubt something to do with repeatability... A sober analysis of this data might convince some otherwise credulous people that their beliefs have rather shaky foundations? I'd love to hear your thoughts, keep up the good work.
Macartan CassidyHeidelberg, Germany
Workplace Skepticism (51:52)
S: Let's do one more email, then we'll go on to Science or Fiction. This one comes from David Schroder from Pretoria, South Africa—I think this is our second South African email.
B: Does that rhyme with "chow-da"?
S: Well, he actually sent a pronunciation guide, and it's "Shrowda" is how... it's spelled S-C-H-R-O-D-E-R, but he said pronounced S-H-R-O-W-D-A. Shrowda.
B: I never would have guessed that pronunciation.
S: Yeah. Well, it's good that he sent it along.
S: And he writes,
Good day all, I am a huge fan of your show, and feel that I am slowly obtaining a PhD in Scepticism.
Didn't we just end up with that?
After listening to each episode I discuss what I have learned with all my friends and family, so even though you may only have 8 000 or so people downloading your podcasts, your information does get out to at least 4 or 5 times that many people.
Well, I hope so.
First, for your amusement, here is a link to a supposed secret covenant that doctors like you, Steve, supposedly belong to. It is hilarious, but does make me wonder what these imbeciles can possibly come up with next.
I'll have the link to that—I'm not going to talk about it. I looked at it; I read through that link. It sounds like someone with like a paranoid schizophrenia just ranting about this. It really is just nonsense; it's not worth going into in detail; it's just a conspiracy theory paranoid—you know, stream of consciousness. On to his question; he writes,
On a recent episode you discussed how to deal with family members and friends that are either non-sceptics, or firmly believe in a pseudo-science. Thank you for dealing with this issue; your information was very valuable. Would it be possible for you to share your feelings about scepticism and dealing with scepticism within the workplace, and any experiences that you may have had? I work at a reputable book publisher, and one of my tasks is to evaluate new manuscripts that we receive. Sometimes, a superior will pass a manuscript on to me and ask for my opinion, and this puts me in a difficult situation when the manuscript I am supposed to evaluate concerns something pseudo-scientific.
He writes, just skipping down to the end,
Thank you very much for your show, and I hope that it will continue for many years to come. I will not send a marriage proposal to Rebecca, but I would like to tell her that I wish that there were more women like her in this world.
R: Aww, that's nice. Thank you.
P: Very nice. Very nice.
S: So, I don't know about you guys—I mean, I certainly do confront this on a regular basis—
P: With your patients or your colleagues, Steve?
S: More with patients, occasionally with colleagues.
S: That non-scientific or non-skeptical beliefs creeping into the workplace, and do you—how do you deal with that? Personally, maybe it's a little bit easier for me than the rank-and-file skeptic, because I'm kind of out of the closet as a pretty hardened skeptic; it's hard for me to pretend otherwise. I feel that I have never had to apologize for my staunch defense of science or my stance that, especially within the context of medicine, that it should be based on sound solid scholarship and science. So I don't feel I ever have to be apologetic about that. What I do think is that you just—you should learn how to be pro-science and to state what you believe without being unnecessarily confrontational or critical and definitively avoid any kind of ad hominem or personal attacks.
P: Right. A little diplomacy.
S: Right. Right. But you don't have to pretend that it's OK with you; that pseudoscience is OK or that—
S: You can say, "listen, I believe in a scientific approach to these things; this is the information that I have. I understand there's a lot of sometimes misinformation about this", etc. You could do it in a very non-confrontational way and I think it works out fine.
R: Yeah. I work in an office and I have to pick my battles, 'cuz you know, sometimes I just can't be the person who constantly says, "well, you know that's crap, right?" Just today I overheard two women in my office talking about Airborne, the vitamins that you get that are supposed to cure the common cold, but they don't actually say that any more. And they were talking about how great it is and how they're going to go buy it and I'm just like, "you know"...
P: And you dove over there like a gazelle and set them straight; is that right?
R: (laughs) Ehhh, I let it go. (laughs) Like you know, there's really no point to that one. But when the email forwards come around, I am always the first to respond to all with the appropriate Snopes link and—
S: Right, right.
R: There's a running gag in my office that my word is "actually". The word "actually" is my word, because every time we're standing around in a group and somebody says something stupid, I always pop in, "actually..."
S: It's hard not to say that. I find myself saying that a lot as well.
R: 'Cuz it's the nicest way to start: "well, actually, you'd think that, wouldn't you, but..." (laughs)
J: I used to be... I used to look for the fight a lot more; I find lately that I've just learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time, because I found out that most people don't change their minds, that it's very hard to educate people that are true believers.
S: Well, if they're really hard true believers, yes. But you know what, Jay? What I found is that nobody ever tells you right at that moment that they've changed their mind. But what you find is that you've planted a seed of doubt or thought in them.
S: And then down the road—it may even be months later, it germinated; whatever. You find that you actually had a tremendous influence on their beliefs. So don't give up because there's no immediate response.
P: They'll repeat something that you said and they won't even give you credit for it. It doesn't matter.
S: Right. They won't even realize it was you that said it. It just became part of their thinking about it now.
P: Right. You've given them the food for thought.
R: The important thing is to just not become the jerk that everybody doesn't want to talk to because you're always shooting them down. So that's why I pick my battles, because I know that—and it's kind of funny now, because when they talk around me, they do kind of watch themselves a little more, and some of them actually have changed their behaviors, in that they say, "hey, I heard this thing—oh, you know what? It's probably bunk. You're going to go to Snopes, aren't you? Hold on; let me check." And they'll go and they'll find out, and they'll be like, "yeah, OK." So that's kind of funny 'cuz they're doing it themselves, but it's mostly because I'm pretty easy-going about it, and I don't rub it in their faces when they're wrong, you know?
J: Yeah. You have to be careful because you could be stepping on someone's amazingly important belief system that they have, and... You know, David's situation, though—what I gleaned out of his letter to us was that, every once in a while, there might be a situation where a book comes across his desk that he really doesn't agree with or he finds flaws in the science, and if I was in his position, I would very much feel compelled to say something about... something that is written down like that that many, many people are going to digest—I would feel very strongly about correcting it; letting my boss know that I'm finding fault with it.
R: Right. And it depends on what his job is—
P: Well, exactly.
R: —and whether or not he can afford to lose it.
P: That's what I was thinking, Rebecca. And I don't know what his business is, so I don't know what mechanisms are in place for him to bring these things to light. You know, if it's his place—
R: It really depends; yeah.
P: —if anybody would listen, and how much he needs the job and so forth. You're right.
J: Well, I just... I would have a moral problem with letting a book go across my desk that I possibly could have prevented if it's filled with pseudoscience.
R: Speaking as someone who works in marketing, you get over it. (laughs) That was a joke. That was a joke.
J: You know what I would also do? Another thing I've found very entertaining was giving people cold readings.
J: Using a technique like that as a way of not only entertaining your co-workers and family, but also at the same time educating them, showing them that you can fool them and you're definitely not a psychic.
B: Well, yeah; the one problem with that, though, is that they will believe you are psychic—some of them will, at least.
P: Course. "You don't know your own powers".
S: I... yeah, I wouldn't do it to a true believer, but I've done it to people who are just interested and not really familiar with what cold reading is, and they were otherwise scientific or smart people. And it works; you could do very, very simple cold readings and you could be very impressive. Like, "there's a woman in your life; her name begins with 'M'". "My girlfriend's name is Mary! How did you know that?" You know, it's very simple just to do a quick—sometimes a quickie demonstration is better than an hour-long lecture, so I've found that as well.
J: I told you that time, the girl at work. I was giving her a cold reading; she was buying it hook, line and sinker, and she's a total true believer. And then I said to her, "and you never told me about the secret" and she looked at me and went, "how did you know about that?"
B: Oh, my God.
R: It's classic.
B: That would work on every human on the planet.
S: Right, right, yeah. Everyone has a secret.
Science or Fiction (1:00:41)
Question number one. Researchers have restored sight to blind mice by transplanting stem cells into their eyes. Question number two. Vaccination with embryonic stem cells has been shown to protect against lung cancer in mice. Question number three. Stem cells have been successfully used to reduce the effects of dwarfism by allowing for longer arm and leg bone growth. And question number four. Researchers are using autologous stem cell transplants to repair the damage of heart attacks and reduce heart failure.
Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:34)
Perhaps it was Socrates
Or Plato, his pupil
One of their theories Appeared to be a scruple
Perhaps it was Hippocrates Or maybe by Homer
It may have looked like philosophy But it was a misnomer
More believers would follow Tolerant and exacting
Such a theory, so shallow They must have been acting
To the 21st century This belief still is held
In the face of integrity It flies un-repelled
What is it?
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:09:12)
For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
B: Carl Sagan.
Voiceover: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. You can also check out our other podcast the SGU 5x5 as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions and other feedback please use the contact us form on the website or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoyed this episode then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune or your portal of choice.