SGU Episode 69

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SGU Episode 69
November 15th 2006
SGU 68 SGU 70
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
SS: Seth Shostak
Quote of the Week
I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape.
Desmond Morris
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

News Items[edit]

Qi-Gong master on You Tube (00:37)[edit]


Cryotherapy (5:34)[edit]


Chicken Tac-Toe (12:06)[edit]

    play the chicken:

Questions and E-mails ()[edit]

E-mail #1 (17:26)[edit]

I love the podcast, I subscribe to many but yours is the only one I listen to devotedly. You guys do really great fun work. I'm currently reading Dr. V.S. Ramachandran's book 'Phantoms in the Brain.' There is a small snipit in chapter five, which is about blind spots, in which Dr. Ramachandran briefly makes the claim that angel, ghost, UFO etc. sightings by sane people may be caused by Charles Bonnet hallucination. He mentions it in this one paragraph and then doesn't bring the point back up again, but the notion intrigued me. Has there been any research on this topic, and how common are Charles Bonnet hallucinations?

Marc D'Antin
Orlando, FL USA

E-mail #2 (20:58)[edit]

Hello esteemed skeptics

I have been a faithful listener since your first interview with James Randi (episode 7). You are without doubt my favorite podcast and I always look forward to the end of the week when iTunes tells me there's a new episode available. You are in no small part responsible for my *successful* deconversion from mindless faith; I feel I am much more critically responsible and attuned to logically fallacious arguments thanks to your work.

My question for discussion comes from a paper proposal one of my first-year English students submitted for their persuasive research assignment. She is arguing for the effectiveness and adoption of chiropractic to cure ear infections (Otitis Media) as opposed to antibiotics. One of her research sources is at this link:

Naturally, my first reaction was skeptical--how can bone and tissue manipulation do a better job of curing an infection than antibiotics--but I don't feel I can adequately support my position with simple skepticism. Are there any sources/studies on this subject which show it to be fanciful or incorrect? I passed on my skeptical comments to the student, but I would like to follow it up with some suggestions for further research.

Thanks very much,

Cameron Fraser (FRAY-ZERR)
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

E-mail #3 (26:31)[edit]

Hi all,

Love the podcast - I finally feel I have some like-minded friends.

Why didn't we hear Randi speak in the last Pocast?

There's a debate I often hear started but then is very quickly shied away from. It's fascinating for me so I'm usually left frustrated by the lack of candour.

Here it is: Is religion a mental illness?

'Mental illness' may be a bit harsh and most religious people take immediate offence. Maybe instead of 'mental illness' we should say 'aberrant brain wiring'. I know for example (I'm sure Dr Novella, will correct me here) that certain types of epilepsy instil feelings of religion and some cases cause people to believe they're god. Also some brain tumours can cause similar effects.

I'm fascinated by this because I recently read about some experiments in which non-religious volunteers' brains were subjected to very strong localised magnetic fields and again, religious feelings were instilled as well as feelings that someone with great or sinister powers was standing next to the subjects or touching them.

I've also read about certain drugs having these effects.

To me, there is a lot of evidence that religion is an aberrant state of mind; but the fact is the vast majority of the population are sufferers.

Evolution seems to have let us down here. There were obviously evolutionary advantages for religious people and so they survived to breed.To the point where the religious 'illness' is now very widespread. As examples, these religion-inspired evolutionary advantages probably resulted from inadvertent food hygiene: those who believed, for the wrong reasons, that you shouldn't eat x, y or z or should wash thoroughly before eating, had the advantage over those who just ate anything from anywhere, became weak or ill and didn't breed.

Has evolution resulted in a race of sick people?

Keep up the good work,
Kevin Simpson
Berkshire, UK

Interview with Seth Shostak (34:27)[edit]

  • Dr. Shostak is a SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute Senior Astronomer.

    He has a BA in physics from Princeton and a PhD in astronomy from Caltech, and is involved with the Institute's SETI research. But he's also responsible for much of the outreach activities of the Institute. He is science editor for 'The Explorer', gives more than 50 talks annually for both academic and general audiences, and writes magazine articles (and books) about SETI.

    He is the host for the SETI Institute's weekly radio program Are We Alone?

Randi Speaks (1:00:51)[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: Johnny Carson

S: And now, Randi speaks.

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. I thought that you folks might enjoy hearing a couple of stories about my involvement with the Johnny Carson show, technically known as The Tonight Show. Johnny had sort of a hard-and-fast rule; he never wanted to meet any of the artists before the program. He preferred to meet them at the desk, on the air. I don't know whether he made many exceptions to that rule, but with me he certainly did. About ten minutes before we were ready to launch the taping, I'd expect to hear a light tap on the door, open it, and there would be Johnny. He'd slip inside and begin to discuss with me what I would prefer to have mentioned during the session. More often than not, however, it was just that he wanted to chat about what I'd been doing. A few times I received comments from the floor director and others on staff to the effect that "gee, I guess you know where the body's buried, huh?" Because that was very unusual behavior for Johnny. Twice that I remember, he was also waiting for me outside the artists' entrance/exit on the lot, seated in his white Corvette. He'd roll down the window, gesture me over to the car, I'd get in and sit beside him while we chatted. But one thing I particularly remember about those sessions. As you probably know, Johnny Carson was a very heavy smoker. He actually smoked all during the taping, though he managed to do it sort of off-camera so that, though the studio audience could see him, the people at home couldn't. Of course, that's after it became unpopular to see a TV host smoking on the air. But when we'd sit in his car following a broadcast taping, he would never smoke. Though as I was leaving, he was always reaching for a cigarette. It was his courteous way, and I certainly appreciated that fact.

On one of his visits to my dressing room before the show that I previously mentioned, he asked me, somewhat bemused, if I knew anything about a marking that he'd found on the bottom of the coffee cup that always sat before him during the broadcast. You may remember that. Well, I knew what was coming and I was prepared to confess. Yes, I told him, it was I who had written the three of diamonds on the bottom of his coffee cup. You see, this was part of a trick that I was prepared to perform for him on the show, but it was a trick that never took place. Somehow we substituted something else. The trick had consisted of, if it had ever taken place, him managing to select one out of three cards that he'd taken at random out of the deck. One of the other guests would then be asked to pick up one of those three cards, face down, and then I would announce that I'd made a prediction of which card was to be selected, in advance of the program. This required me to have written, in advance, the names of the three different cards that I was going to arrange to have on the table face down by one means or another, in different places that they could be accessed. For example, the words "ace of diamonds" might be written along the side of the pencil that Johnny was always playing with, and the name of another card could be written underneath his chair, where he would never notice it inadvertently. That's how the name of that particular playing card got to be written underneath his coffee cup. He had merely figured out that it appeared there a few nights after I'd been a guest on the show and he rather suspected me, quite rightly.

On one of his visits to my dressing room before the show, Johnny asked me straight out, "what's with Kreskin?" Now, Kreskin, you may remember, is not a breakfast food, though it certainly sounds like one. This was a mentalist who was very popular on television for quite a few years there. And was a frequent guest on Johnny's show. I asked him, "what do you mean, 'what's with Kreskin'?" and he explained to me that during the previous week he'd had him on the show as a guest and Kreskin had decided to confide in him. He showed him a very tiny ornamental table, placed his hand on top of it, and lo and behold, it clung to his hand as he pulled away. And Kreskin had told Johnny Carson that this was genuine and said, "you know, John? I just don't know how this happens." Johnny was so insulted that he told me, "that's the last time Kreskin's appearing on this show." And indeed, it was. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:05:54)[edit]

Question #1: New sequenced Neandertal DNA surprised scientists by suggesting that Neandertal man evolved from Homo Sapiens. Question #2: Scientists have shown that giving amputees with phantom limb pain a virtual limb in a computer simulation decreases their pain. Question #3: Scientists have discovered and now tested a gene that produces the same enhanced performance in muscles as does training and exercise.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:15:13)[edit]

This Week's puzzle
He began in Lebanon, and ended in Belfast.
He tinkered in clocks, and invented saws.
His consumption almost got the best of him, until he used the healing
power of his own mind.
He would often have new thoughts pertaining to the health of mind,
body, and spirit.
His main friends would go to the park to seek his advice.
He had a great distrust of doctors and the disease theory.
He believed disease was only a disturbance of the mind.
He believed everything in the natural world had an origin in the
spiritual world.
He called himself a doctor, though he had no formal education or
He peddled the wares, to show the world his methods were sound.
He is still revered today, and his theories continue to influence New
Age thinking.

Who was he?

Last Week's puzzle

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?

Answer: Physiognomy

Quote of the Week (1:18:12)[edit]

'I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape.'- Desmond Morris

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 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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