SGU Episode 69

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SGU Episode 69
November 15th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 68                      SGU 70

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

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

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: 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 15th, 2006, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, what do you say, Bill?

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello everyone.

S: Good evening, everyone.

E: Good evening.

News Items[edit]

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


S: A few items in the news this week. I know you all have seen the YouTube video about the Qi-Gong Master. Rebecca, I think you blogged about this today, didn't you?

R: I did, yeah. I think it's a really good starter video for burgeoning skeptics to take a look at because there are a lot of little mistakes in the video that are fun to catch out.

S: We have the link on the site, but watch it. Basically, it's an old Chinese guy who is standing in front in a narrow alley in front of a table clothed table. And he moves his hands and makes the kung fu noises and he makes bricks fall over.

R: Which is a very important skill in life.

S: Yes.

R: Making bricks fall over.

S: Right. But of course, the whole point of this is to prove the existence of qi, or qi, however you pronounce it. As Rebecca pointed out, there are lots of details to the way that this demonstration is set up and the way that it is filmed. All of which really serves no apparent purpose in terms of the demonstration itself, but obviously creates a situation in which trickery becomes easy. Most importantly, there could be somebody hiding under the table. And there's no other reason for that table cloth to be there.

R: Yeah, that's the thing I try to stress in my blog. It's something that people just don't really think of very often, and it's what we tend to take advantage of when we're doing magic as a magician. The idea is to present a situation as totally normal, even though there are a few things that might be out of place, but it's incidental, or it seems incidental. But it's important to remember that there really aren't any coincidences. Everything is happening a certain way for a reason. And so I think it's important to remember that when you look at a video like this. Think to yourself, well, if I were going to, say, knock some bricks over with my mind, what would I do? Would I put it on a table? Would I put a table cloth on the table for no apparent reason? Why is that there? Why wouldn't I do it on a glass table? Just to prove there was no trickery. Why wouldn't I show it from different angles?

E: Or on the floor.

S: Or on the ground, yeah.

R: On the ground.

S: You're absolutely right. I mean, there's little details that are there that you're supposed to just take for granted or ignore, but are critical, obviously, to the setup. The one that caught my attention the most was he moves and breaks a glass, but he inexplicably lays a cloth over the glass, again, for no apparent reason. But it does, it would serve the purpose of concealing any mechanism by which it was being moved. Again, like someone under the table just pushing it up with their hand could be concealed by that cloth. Otherwise, why is it there?

R: You can also, one of the benefits of something like YouTube is that you can go back and forth, you can watch it again and again and see the smaller details that you might have missed the first go-around. For instance, on the glass breaking, you can see the table cloth fluttering a bit before it happens. My favorite is when the blocks fall, there are two blocks and the second one that falls, you can see just prior to it falling a little lump appear right behind it, kind of pushing it over as though the table cloth itself suddenly stuck its little thumb up and shoved it over. It's kind of adorable, but it's one of those little details that you can pick up by watching it over again.

S: It's funny to read all the comments, it's like 90 or so comments by viewers about the video. Most of them were pretty skeptical actually, so I think that most of your random viewers watching this thought it was BS and pointed out certain things just like we did. Although there's a few true believers on here as well. Somebody invokes quantum mechanics. You can't dismiss anything because quantum mechanics says anything is possible, and that was discussed for a little bit.

B: Especially at the macro scale.

R: It's great though because it was immediately answered with, no, you're an idiot. While that might not be the proper way to rebut the argument, it is refreshing to see that there are a lot of people on YouTube watching these videos and they're ready to go to bat for the skeptical side.

S: One guy comments, the blue water basin also moves like a bowl of water across the table. Looks as if it's being dragged by a magnet. That was my impression as well. It has that sort of jerky movement across the table. Another guy wrote, it's amazing what you can do with a dude hidden under the table. It's good to know that there's some basic skepticism out there.

Cryotherapy (5:34)[edit]


S: There was an article this week about a new therapy fad. This one is in Great Britain called cryotherapy. You guys heard of this? This has been around for a while in other countries in Europe, but now finally there's a cryotherapy clinic coming to the UK. So gullible British citizens can get their cryotherapy without having to leave the comfort of the isles.

R: This used to be something that was only available to the very poor who couldn't afford heat. Now it's available to the very wealthy. Very exciting.

S: Now basically the therapy involves getting naked, except for your private parts being covered, and you go into a very dry cryo chamber that is minus 120 degrees.

E: Fahrenheit.

R: That's ridiculous.

B: But it's a dry cold.

S: But it's a dry cold. Which is important. If it were a wet cold, forget about it, you'd be dead. Any moisture would obviously instantly crystallize. In fact, they don't allow people into the chamber who sweat a lot. It's one of their-

E: Safety precautions.

S: Safety precautions. Yes, you can't be a big sweater. And you stay in there for like two or three minutes, and this is supposed to revitalize and rejuvenate you.

R: Isn't the idea that it makes your capillaries very small?

E: Says here shrinks the molecules in the body.

R: Oh, the actual molecules.

S: Shrinks the molecules. That's great physics. But elsewhere, the claim is that while you're in there, of course, your blood vessels constrict significantly just as your body's reaction to cold, it's a way of conserving heat, preserving your core body heat. It's also what causes frostbite if you have extended the exposure to cold. Then once you come out of the severe cold, your blood vessels open way up, and this increases the blood flow to your tissues. Well sure it does, because you were just starving your tissues by constricting the blood vessels a moment before. And now they're starved of oxygen and nutrients, and they need more blood flow for a while to compensate for it. That's it.

R: That sounds exactly like the fasting idea of how you fast and then that somehow cleanses you.

B: Well, there is actually a tie in, for years they've done studies on mice and things and showed that calorie restriction can greatly, significantly extend their lives. So everyone's been talking about, well, does it apply to people? And some people are actually on that type of diet, which is very restrictive and very difficult to do. So what they're trying to do is they're trying to find some analog to calorie restriction, something that would provide the similar benefit if there is one in humans, and something, take a shot, take a pill, and have the effect. The tie in comes in with the cold. Recently I read an article that stated that there's some evidence now that show that having your body be cold for certain periods of time makes your body think that, it changes the metabolism of your body in such a way that it actually, they think it could mimic the effect of the calorie restriction, or it actually might be tied to it. It might be tied to the calorie restriction diet or lifestyle and do that.

R: I'm not sure which would be worse, though. I don't think I'd want to do either of those things to extend my life, either.

B: But actually, it's really just like a degree. If you cooled your core by like a degree, it's enough for your body, potentially, for the response to extend your life by a certain amount.

R: Well, on the average, though, because right now what they're doing is they're plunging into negative 100 degree cold.

S: They're not making any connectives. And this therapy has nothing to do with that. This is two to three minutes of minus 120 degrees. And again, the justification for it is improving blood flow to the tissues, which is always nonsense. Unless you have a problem, your body will regulate its blood flow quite nicely. It doesn't need help.

B: Right. I mean, it was a tenuous connection.

R: I can't imagine that if that kind of science of lowering your body temperature to extend life were to become more, well, publicized, then they would probably grab ahold of it.

B: Oh, yes. I'm surprised they didn't mention it. I'm surprised they didn't mention it.

S: The form of this article, this is a Daily Mail news article, and it follows the formula of mainstream lay press reporting on these kinds of fringe claims. It's like, wow, look at this amazing thing. Is this science? Or is this madness?

E: But the reporter actually went in there. He's the one doing it, subjected himself to it.

S: Right, which is really a bad thing to do. Because basically then what he does is he says, so I went to investigate it myself. What he did wasn't an investigation. It was just inserting his own personal anecdotal experience, which is totally worthless. So we say, well, he then uncritically relays all of the claims of the proponents, doesn't really get any good response to that. There's a little bit of token skepticism, which doesn't matter, but this scientist says it doesn't work. However, all these people say that it's wonderful. And I tried it, and you know what, whatever, this little thing cleared up. So it's really completely misleading. It equates this fringe snake oil nonsense with legitimate science. And they also do something else which is very, very typical. In an attempt to justify this therapy, they list other situations in which extreme cold is used therapeutically, as if this would somehow lend credence to this. And one of the examples is freezing lesions or tumors. So like if you have a wart on your leg, you can freeze it off. Well, see, that's using extreme cold therapeutically.

R: That's brilliant. Because it kills it.

S: You're using extreme cold to kill tissue. How is that at all analogous? I mean, just it's so intellectually sloppy.

R: That's like saying that I made my life better by freezing my ex-husband in a lake. Improved everything about my life. Perfect.

S: Oh, well. So the formula was terrible. In the end, it's just promoting snake oil. That's what the article did. I didn't kill my ex-husband, by the way. I just need to put that out there.

S: That's good to know.

R: I don't actually have one.

E: Anymore.

R: I just, I don't want anybody to write in or call the police. That's all.

E: Case closed.

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

    play the chicken:

Questions and E-mails ()[edit]

S: So a local, here in Connecticut, a local casino has just installed a Chicken Tac-Toe. And they are giving away $10,000 to anyone who could beat a chicken at tic-tac-toe.

R: I can't wait.

J: Now, Steve, if you actually beat the chicken, can you eat the chicken?

S: No, I think they just give you the 10 grand.

R: But for 10 grand, you could probably buy your own chicken.

J: So what's the rub?

S: Well, this is an old carny gag, basically, playing the chicken at tic-tac-toe. This has been around for a long time.

R: They used to have one in Chinatown in New York.

E: They still do.

S: Yeah, they still do.

R: I don't think they do still.

S: Mostly, as of a couple years ago, there was an article that said that they did. I don't know if there's one very, very recently.

R: I don't think it's there anymore.

E: I remember back when I was a kid hearing about this. I mean, I had to be eight or nine years old hearing about this old trick or whatever.

J: Can you beat the chicken, though? Is it possible?

S: Well, this is now very popular within casinos, both in Vegas, Atlantic City, and now here in Connecticut. The rules are that the chicken always goes first, which of course gives them a slight advantage. So the best you could really hope to do, unless the chicken makes a mistake, the best you could hope to do is a draw, which you don't win anything. You have to actually beat the chicken.

R: You can beat the chicken in the same way that you can beat the slot machine, which is whenever the casino lets you.

S: Yeah, right. They say that they have one or two or three winners a week, which is just enough to keep people coming. That's basically it. It's just like playing the slot machine. You'll hit it totally at random. It's complete luck. There's no way you can actually beat the chicken at playing tic-tac-toe.

J: The only way to win a game like that is if your opponent makes a drastic mistake.

E: But what's actually going on here? Are you really playing tic-tac-toe against a chicken, or is it the appearance that you're playing tic-tac-toe against a chicken and someone else is controlling the game?

R: It's not that it's someone else. It's something else. You're playing against a logarithm. You're playing against literally it's like a slot machine.

J: But Rebecca, how do they make it look like it's the chicken making the decisions, though?

E: Right.

R: Well, I can't go into all that. I need to go down and take a look at the particular model, which I want to do hopefully next weekend.

S: I mean, they teach the chicken to peck at lights or something. That's all.

R: Yeah. It's just if you can find online, if you were to, say, pose as a casino manager, and I'm not recommending this, but if you were to do so, you could look into purchasing one of these games for yourself and you would find out that they do guarantee you a certain amount of payback, which you can set just like they can set slot machines. And in case you don't know, a slot machine can be adapted to pay out, say, once every ten tries or once every thousand tries. And different slot machines are set at different rates depending on where they are in the casino, how much they want to give away. And the chicken game is the exact same thing. The people who are selling the chicken game to the casinos are promising them the exact same thing. You set an exact amount of money that you can get back. And you cannot train a chicken to do that. Well it's just like any carny game. There's always a nice story to go along with it, to sell it. And in this case, it's kind of funny because they claim that this chicken was trained on an Arkansas ranch called like Feathers University or something adorable like that. And the trainer uses proven tactics developed by B.F. Skinner. And it's just the recognizable name that they drop in to lend it an air of credibility when in fact, it's utter BS, utter BS.

S: In fact, they have like 20 chickens, they just rotate them, you know.

R: Right. They have to.

E: Rotisserie chickens.

R: You know, they'd be shut down by the SPCA.

S: You can play against a chicken on the computer just a virtual chicken. That's a lot cheaper.

R: That's not the same.

S: It's not the same. But I did that. I played the virtual chicken about 30 or 40 times just to see.

R: 30 or 40 times?

S: It's tic-tac-toe.

R: Don't you have a job?

S: Yeah, it took like all three minutes.

B: Rebecca, how many times did you watch that video?

R: Okay, that's enough. That's my job though. Come on. Tic-tac-toe.

S: So I beat it a few times but the thing is, it didn't let me beat it the same way more than once. And most of the times were a draw.

R: I have to clarify that despite that skeptical breakdown of the chick-tac-toe, I have to say that it's a brilliant idea and I love the idea of playing a game against a chicken and losing.

S: Right.

R: I think it's brilliant.

S: It's a good bit. Let's go on to your emails and questions.

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

S: The first email comes from Mark in Orlando, Florida, and he writes, "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. Ramachandran's book, Phantoms in the Brain. There is a small snippet in chapter 5, which is about blind spots, in which he briefly makes the claim that angel, ghost, UFO, etc. sightings by sane people may be caused by Charles Binet 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 Binet hallucinations?" Well, basically what these types of hallucinations are, this is generated in people who have poor or very low vision at baseline. So essentially the vision part of their brain is not getting a lot of information from the eyes and deprived of the stimulation, that part of the brain tends to just generate random images. And these could be either unformed blobs or they could be formed and look like characters, like Chinese characters, or they could actually also be of like horses and people and animals, sort of running across their visual field, etc. The interesting thing about these though, I don't know that that, I guess it's possible, although this is not very common, and one of the features of this kind of hallucination is that the people know they're not real, they intuitively just recognize that this, what they're seeing is not out there in the real world. So that wouldn't really be a good explanation for someone believing that they're seeing something like a UFO or a ghost or an angel, not that, there are other types of hallucinations which are better candidates for explanations for this phenomena. There are some types of hallucinations where you can't distinguish them, you actually do think that they're real.

J: Steve, so you know when people go into an isolation tank, is that the same type of hallucination?

S: Well you can't have visual hallucinations if you do that, yeah. And it is very similar. Visual hallucinations can be generated at different parts in the hard wiring for vision also and they have sort of different characteristics.

B: So this type of hallucination does not really apply to any of these phenomena?

S: I don't think it's a good explanation for it. I have not seen and could not find any studies trying to link it to any kind of paranormal phenomenon or reporting of these experiences. The medical literature is more interested in distinguishing it from psychotic disorders, people who hallucinate and believe them or are bothered by what they're hallucinating. Also, I don't think it's really a necessary hypothesis because it's much more likely and it would be much more common, because this could happen in any person, to have more what we call an illusion. In medical terminology, a hallucination is an image that's not there at all. And an illusion is when you misperceive a stimuli that is there. So if you misperceive something, that's an illusion. Illusions, I think, are better candidates for this. You see a light in the corner of your eye or UFOs, obviously you misinterpret a cloud or a light or a distant object or whatever. Those are actually better characterized as illusions. I think that those are also better explanations for those phenomenon.

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

S: Let's go on to the second email. This one comes from Cameron Frazier from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And Cameron writes, "Hello, esteemed skeptics, I have been a faithful listener since your first interview with James Randi in episode seven. You are without a doubt my favorite podcast." Well, thanks. "My question for discussion comes from a paper proposal of 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. Whatever research sources is at this link", and then he gets a 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 the subject which show it to be fanciful or incorrect? I passed on my skeptical comment to the students, but I would like to follow it up with some suggestions for further research." Well, this is an old story, the whole chiropractic for otitis media. There's a few wrinkles here. So one part of the claim is that children, usually infants or toddlers, will get better faster from an ear infection if they get chiropractic manipulation. There is zero evidence to support that. There have been only a couple of small studies and the data is negative. So there is one review article published looking at the scant data that does exist and it said that the data does not support this. So the evidence, negative. Plausibility is zero. I mean, there's no plausibility here either. What some chiropractors say is that the manipulation helps the lymphatic drainage from the inner ear or the middle ear. And that really isn't very plausible either. And there's also no evidence to suggest that manipulation would increase the drainage. The reason why this is one of the things that is targeted by chiropractors is because it's very common. Most of the time it gets better by itself, just like lower back pain. And most of the time, children with otitis media don't need to be treated medically. In fact, at the same time over the last 10 or 15 years or so, there has been an actually quite a vigorous literature in the pediatrics literature looking at optimizing the treatment of otitis media and basically trying to decide when a child should be treated with antibiotics or not. Now, the key here is that antibiotics only treat bacterial infections, right? Antibiotics kill bacteria. They don't have any effect on viruses. Well, most otitis media is viral, so antibiotics won't help. So there has been a huge effort in the last decade or so to actually decrease the use of antibiotics with otitis media.

R: But then going to chiropractic is kind of not the answer. I shudder to think of somebody messing with a child's spine.

S: Yeah.

J: Steve, they don't actually do any manipulation of the bones in the ear, right?

S: No. No. They don't actually go near the ear. That's correct.

E: They don't need to, apparently.

R: That would be ridiculous.

J: So manipulating somebody's back is actually supposed to help drainage in the ear?

S: Well, some say that, but again, you get various philosophies within chiropractors. The straight chiropractors will just tell you that it's increasing the flow of innate intelligence, which is their name for life force or life energy, which is helping the body heal itself. That's their basic schtick. We're helping the body heal itself, but really by freeing up the flow of this life energy.

R: That's the subluxation.

S: Right, that's subluxation.

J: Doesn't sleeping chicken soup help the body heal itself?

R: That too, but also breaking your back.

S: So what I told Cameron, I just emailed it back and gave him the review article link, but also to ask the student, so how would you feel if a pharmaceutical company was marketing a new drug? And they said, well, there's no data to suggest that it actually works. We have no idea how it could even possibly work. There's no prior plausibility. It's not risk free. And if you end up needing a real treatment, we're going to withhold that from you. Would you say that, okay, let's market this new drug? No, of course not. You would say that that's corporate greed and fraud, but it's okay when chiropractors make the exact same set of claims about their intervention.

R: Yeah. I always wonder how much of the alternative medicine crowd stems from mostly just a fear, like a paranoid fear of big corporations, particularly big pharma. I think people just inherently don't trust them, and so they flock to this alternative.

S: Yeah, that's certainly part of their rhetoric, whether they believe it or not. There's a very anti-corporate rhetoric in there, as well as healthcare freedoms. We could decide these things for ourselves. We don't need doctors to tell us what to do. They're just part of the big medical establishment. They're in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies.

J: Those pesky doctors.

S: Yeah, that is a big part of it. When they sell their ideas politically to politicians, if they're selling it to a Republican or a conservative, they'll play up those libertarian themes. If they're selling it on the left, then they play up more of this woo-woo spirituality kind of themes.

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

S: The next question comes from Kevin Simpson in Berkshire, UK, and Kevin writes, "Love the podcast. I finally feel I have some like-minded friends. There is a debate I often hear started, but that is very quickly shied away from. It's fascinating for me, so I am usually left frustrated by the lack of candor. Here it is. Is religion a mental illness?" I can't read his entire email, but let me hit some of his main points here. "Mental illness may be a bit harsh, and most religious people may take immediate offense." I think they probably will. "Maybe instead of mental illness, we should say aberrant brainwiring." I don't think that's going to help. "I know, for example, that certain types of epilepsy instill feelings of religion and in some cases cause people to believe they're God. Also, some brain tumors can cause similar effects. I'm fascinated by this because I recently read about some experiments in which non-religious volunteers of brains were subjected to very strong localized magnetic fields, and again, religious feelings were instilled as well, as feelings that someone with great or sinister powers were standing next to the subject or touching them. I've also read certain drugs having these effects. 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. Has evolution resulted in a race of sick people?" Well, this is an interesting question. It does bring up a lot of points. My short answer is I would say an emphatic no, but there's a lot of reasons why. First of all, we have to decide how we're going to define mental illness. That's, I think, at the heart of this. Now, there's no absolutely crystal clear definition. It's one of those things where when you try to define it, you realize that it's going to have fuzzy edges no matter how much you try to nail it down. But the core is that it's a deficiency. It is something that the brain should be able to do, but it can't do, and that this is producing demonstrable harm to the person. That's the basic definition of a mental illness. Some people don't like the word illness because that may imply more of a biological disorder. I think that's coveling. You could use disorder if you prefer. Some people object less to the use of the word disorder, but it's basically the same definition. So there's the problem that there's no real deficit here. This is a cultural belief. People tend to believe what their culture teaches them when it comes to their religious belief. Most people stick with the religion they're born into. Cultural beliefs are by definition actually, in fact, ruled out as criteria for mental illnesses in the Diagnostic Handbook of Mental Illnesses. A thought pattern to qualify as a mental illness should be something that comes from within that person. If it's just something that's taught to them, it's not their problem. It's just that they're absorbing the culture.

R: I really feel that calling it a mental illness also places people who are religious in some sort of victim status. I think that's not the way to go about eradicating religion. If that's your goal, then calling it a mental illness isn't going to make that happen.

S: I agree. They'll just put them on the defensive.

R: Right. And you've got a bunch of people suffering for it.

J: Steve, we're hardwired for religion.

S: Yeah, I'm going to get to that in a minute because he did make that point, although I think he misinterprets the significance of that. Before I talk about that, I also wanted to point out that it's difficult to call something an illness that most of humanity has as a feature, and especially with cognitive function. There is this very important question as to what is "normal". What's normal for a human being? How are our brains supposed to work? Mostly, we figure that out just based upon what we're really saying is what's average. How do most people's brains behave, and then we just consider that from a medical point of view normal, not necessarily from a sociological point of view or from a moral point of view, but if we're trying to decide what's illness and what's healthy. Probably healthy and unhealthy is a better way to look at it than normal or abnormal. I think that there's a severe problem in definition if you're going to say that the vast majority of the human race has a particular cognitive illness or deficit because those definitions are based upon what is frequent or average in the human population.

J: Steve, I have an interesting question for you. Do you think it is more advantageous for survival for someone to believe in a religion?

S: Well, he does bring up an interesting point regarding the fact that yes, our brains do appear to be hardwired for some kind of religious experience or belief. People can have profound religious experiences during seizures. People who have non-dominant temporal lobe epilepsy tend to have hyper religiosity that's actually a diagnostic feature of that condition. They really obsess about religion. They feel like they're in the presence of God or some profound being or the universe or something. I think there's no question that we're hardwired for this. It is part of the human condition. It is part of what we are. It's really important to understand that. What is the putative evolutionary advantage of this? I think that we're wandering into this area of evolutionary psychology where it's hard to do real empirical tests to sort out the advantage of it. You can sort of weave some convincing tales about the kind of advantages that could flow from this. My personal take on it is that it probably has to do with cohesion in the tribal unit. We know from observing primates and also human culture that it's very common for a leader to emerge and the members, especially with male bonding, male chimpanzees will follow a leader chimpanzee, the alpha male, into combat, into life and death situations. I think there's a certain amount of you have to surrender your personal will to your leader, to your group, to a concept that's greater than you. That I think is all a setup for the cultural phenomenon of religion. The only other point I wanted to make about this question before we move on is that you have to be really careful before you extend the definition of mental illness to things like political beliefs or religious beliefs or anything that really wouldn't be a specific cognitive dysfunction. That actually plays right into the hands of the mental illness denial community and they're out there. They exist. They're out there. This is exactly what they warn against. See? If you allow the concept of mental illness to exist, before long people are going to be using it as a way to oppress things like religious beliefs or political opinions, which I think is nonsense, but that means we do have to keep our definition very, very medical and clinical and not extend it to people who just think differently than we do. All right. Well, we have an interview coming up with Seth Shostak. Let's go to that interview now.

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?

S: Joining us now is Seth Shostak. Seth, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

SS: Thanks very much.

S: Dr. Shostak is a SETI Institute senior astronomer, so you have been involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for quite a few years now. What got you into that branch of astronomy?

SS: Well, actually, I was interested in SETI, I think, ever since I was a grad student because I was a radio astronomer, grad student, so I was using big antennas to study galaxies. While I was doing that, I was reading a book that had just been published by a guy by the name of Joseph Shklovsky and Carl Sagan, as Carl Sagan translated, and I realized that the antennas I was using to study galaxies could also be used to pick up transmissions from other worlds. It seemed like a very exciting topic. I didn't do much about it for a while, but that's what got me started.

S: If you can, if you can give us a brief summary, where does the whole SETI project stand at this point? How much looking have we done? I assume the results are negative, otherwise we would have heard by now, but how much looking or how thorough has the search been so far?

SS: Well, the search has not been conducted continuously. It's been sort of an intermittent project up until fairly recently when some people have been building telescopes that can be dedicated 24/7 to SETI. See, that hasn't been the case. In any case, the amount of sky that's been searched depends a little bit on what you consider to be the meaning of the word searched. It sounds like a presidential semantic discussion, but in fact, what I'm saying is that the whole sky has been looked at at some level, but you know, you're scanning the whole sky and you're looking at this particular direction and you may not come back to that particular direction for years, so you look at it once and maybe only for one second. The number of star systems that have been looked at fairly carefully is less than 1,000 in the radio and optical astronomers doing SETI experiments have looked at a few thousand. So it's a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of the amount of real estate that's out there. So not surprising that we haven't picked up anything so far.

S: Right. And don't you also have to consider the amount of radio spectra that you're looking at as well?

SS: Yes, you should. One should. You know, depending on your personal predilections here, but yeah, the amount of spectrum cover, the sensitivity level which polarizations and just that and the other the characteristics of the signal. There are many, many unknowns, but some people think, well, this is an old project and you guys haven't found anything that must mean something, but it doesn't mean anything, not yet. It's too early to say it means anything.

S: Right. You're still scratching the surface.

SS: Right.

S: So would you say, make any kind of statistical statement about how populated our galaxy or maybe our region of the galaxy is based upon the results so far, or is even that not possible?

SS: I don't think it means very much. Our radio searches have actually checked out the nearest 750 star systems that seem to be possible candidates. So 750 stars out of 300 billion stars doesn't tell you too much. All you can say is that there obviously aren't hundreds of millions of civilizations in the galaxy because it would take that many before you would find some in the the nearest couple of hundred stars. That's not a surprise. That would be an incredibly crowded galaxy.

B: Seth, what makes a star a good candidate?

SS: Well, we used to think that it had to be something like the sun and that it had to have no companions. In other words, it wasn't born in a litter. It was born as a single child. Now, because the thought was that if you had the double star systems, and by the way, about half of all stars are double star systems, that any planets around a double star system would get tugged first this way and then the other way, and eventually they just get kicked out of the system. So it was thought that, no, those aren't good candidates. That sort of ruled out half of all stars. But as we have learned in the past oh, five or ten years, that's actually, it's just not true. It turns out you can have planets around double systems. In fact, some planets have been found around double stars. So in fact, the bottom line is that really 99% of all stars could have planets with life. We don't know that they do, but 99% you can't rule them out a priori. You can't say this star just doesn't make it. There are some stars you can, the very big stars, but all the others could have life.

S: And we're finding that most of the star systems that we look at have some planets around them as well, isn't that correct?

SS: Well, not most. About five or ten percent of the stars that are looked at do have planets. But if if you had better instruments, then that percentage would definitely go up. And I think that your conclusion is probably right. Actually if you had the best possible instruments, I suspect you would find that the majority of stars have planets. We still don't know that, but in another couple years we'll know what that percentage is. And most of the smart money is on it being the overwhelming majority of stars have planets. So far we haven't looked with the resolution enough to see an Earth-sized planet around another star, correct?

SS: That's right. We don't have the equipment to find Earth-sized planets around other stars, except in a few very special cases. We haven't found any of those yet. The smallest planet we found around another star is about five times the mass of the Earth. So that's not huge, but it's a lot heftier than our planet. But the Kepler mission, which will be launched by NASA in the fall of 2008, that will, in fact, be able to find planets the size of Earth or even smaller, things the size of Mars, for example. So in a couple years we'll know if Earth-sized planets are a dime a dozen or whether they cost a lot more than that.

B: Seth, what method will that satellite be using to detect the Earth-sized planets?

SS: Well, the way that thing works, it's just a telescope. It's launched into space that stares at one spot on the sky, a spot on the sky that's actually about the size of a the Big Dipper, that kind of thing, a couple of square degrees, many square degrees, maybe. And it looks at about 100,000 bright stars in that region, and it just stares at them for four years. But what it does is every a couple of seconds or every couple of minutes, it measures the brightness of all those stars. If there are a lot of planets out there, then some of those planets, just by chance, will be oriented in such a way that they'll pass in front of one of those stars, right, when they're orbiting it, and block a little bit of the light, maybe one part in a thousand or one part in 10,000 of the light from that star, just the way Mercury did last week. It blocked a little bit of the light from the sun, right? There was a transit of Mercury on November 8th. Well, we're looking for transits around other stars with this telescope, and the expectation is that you'll find a couple of dozen planets the size of Earth. We'll see if that's true, but this will be the conclusive test.

S: Isn't there also a project, the sun blotter, the one that sort of blocks out a star so that a nearby planet could be seen, isn't that in the works?

SS: Well, yeah, there are other kinds of telescopes that indeed have little metal discs and things like that to kind of block out the light from the star so you can see if there are any planets around it. But those aren't in the immediate offing. Those telescopes have sort of been put on hold by the new NASA administrator, so you won't see those in the next four or five years, maybe a little later than that.

B: How would that work? Wouldn't you actually block out any potential planets as well as blocking out the star itself? I mean, the separation.

SS: Yeah, but it depends on how much magnification you've got on your telescope. If you've got enough magnification, the planet will be outside the little occulting disc as it's called, the little star blocker. So you have to do this also in infrared. In other words, you don't look at visible light, you have to look at infrared light because in visible light, planets are maybe one billionth as bright as the star. That's such an enormous range, it's very hard to beat that. But in the infrared, it turns out the stars are dimmer but the planets are brighter, so you have to use that particular trick. And that means that the telescope also has to be launched far from Earth to get away from all the dust that's in the inner solar system that produces a lot of infrared. So these are all technical considerations. That scheme will work, but it's it's down the road, maybe a decade away.

S: But sooner than that, you have the Allen Array coming online, when's that slated to come online?

SS: Well, the Allen Telescope Array currently has 20 working antennas. There are like 34 antennas actually up at this site. By the spring, the idea is that there will be like 40, 42 of them and that they will all be working. So we'll start using it in the late spring, early summer, somewhere around there. But the completed array is supposed to have 350 of these 20-foot diameter antennas, right? These are big things. If you put them in your backyard, they probably get complaints from the neighbors, okay? But where we've got them located, the only neighbors are cows and they don't complain much. All 350, requires more money and since SETI is all funded by private finances, that's the hold up there. We just need more money.

S: And that's going to be full-time dedicated to SETI research, right?

SS: Yes, that can be used 24/7, looking for signals and that's a tremendous improvement because that means, well gosh darn, the dash blast blankety hack instead of trying to get some time on somebody else's telescope for a few weeks every year, and I get to use it all the time, that speeds everything up by at least a factor of 10. And then of course, because of the design, it'll actually speed things up by a couple of hundred and then it'll get faster after that.

S: So is there like a Moore's law of SETI where you're looking at more and more sky over time?

SS: There is. In fact, SETI follows Moore's law. SETI has doubled in speed every 18 months since 1960 and that's Moore's law. Of course, Moore's law is an economic law for computers but it also applies to SETI because when you get right down to it, SETI is just sort of digital electronics. That's mostly what it's about. So it's not surprising that the speed of our searches double every 18 months. That's why SETI is so interesting because whatever you did last year is completely dwarfed by what you're doing this year, right? It keeps getting better, it keeps getting faster anyhow. Who knows if it gets better, we'll know that if we ever find anything. But it does get faster and it does follow Moore's law, yeah.

S: Let's talk for a second about what happens when you pick up a candidate signal. So you hear a radio signal that, I assume you have multiple layers of screening. What makes a signal interesting, that a signal might be alien?

SS: Well, what we look for are what are called a narrow band components to the signal. That is, a lot of radio energy in a small spot on the radio dial. And that wouldn't be very interesting to listen to. It would just sound like a constant tone or maybe a slowly beeping tone. But those are the kinds of signals that are easiest to find. And those signals exist we broadcast a lot of that. AM radio certainly has what's called a carrier, so does television. We have a lot of energy in a small part of the spectrum. Almost any signal, other than kind of spread spectrum stuff, would have that kind of a characteristic. So since that's the easiest thing to find, by far, that's 10,000 times easier to find than the message. Well, that's what we look for first. We try and find out that there's actually there's a transmitter on the air. And if we find that, then we would go back and build a much bigger instrument that would be required to find the message.

B: But not only that, isn't it also true that that kind of signal is also unnatural? It's something that nature just doesn't, you don't find in nature. It's most likely artificial if you find something like that.

SS: Well, it is. It's that's part of the deal, that a signal like that is not made by nature, as far as we know. The narrowest signals that nature makes, and those are made by what are called interstellar masers, there may be a hundred hertz, a couple of hundred hertz wide. The kind of signals we're looking for are one hertz wide. That's kind of a technical point, but it means we're looking for something that, as far as we know, nature doesn't make. Now, if it turns out we find a signal and it's natural, well, that'll be an interesting discovery, won't it? May not be ET, but at least it'll be interesting.

S: Now, you said that if you find the carrier signal, you would have to actually, like, build a new kind of telescope powerful enough to find the message itself. So we'd have to wait for years while we would be honed in on it?

SS: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, because you need as I say, maybe 10,000 times as much sensitivity as you would require to find the signal in the first place. So, yeah, it's going to be years. It's a bit like, I don't know, anybody saw the movie Contact? They find a signal and then they get these instructions, build this machine, right? It takes them years to build the machine. Well, it's going to take us years to build the machine that could find the message. But I think funding wouldn't be a problem. You would get to do it, you would do it, right?

B: And it's something we can build. Can we achieve something that's 10,000 times as sensitive at this point?

SS: You could do it. I mean, yeah-

B: It's just a matter of money?

SS: It's just a matter of money, yeah, you can do it.

S: So what's your fantasy about what the signal would contain? I'm sure you've thought about it.

SS: Yeah, well, I don't know what it will contain. I mean, they're not going to send an empty signal, just a constant tone. It's going to be a message in there. And what is it likely to be?

B: It's 5 o'clock.

SS: Yeah, it might be, but probably not. They're well aware that it's going to be a one-way message, because they're likely to be hundreds, maybe 1,000 light years away. Two-way communication is going to be very, very tedious. So whatever message they're sending, assuming it's deliberately transmitted, not just a signal that we picked up because they've got a very powerful radar or whatever, but if it's deliberately sent, I think they'll send lots and lots of information at once.

B: That also ties in a little bit into some people say, why are we broadcasting? Aren't we afraid that we might contact some aggressive aliens? But even if we did, they're 1,000 light years away. How much of a risk really is it that they're going to come rushing over here at close to the speed of light to take over this puny little rock?

SS: Yeah, well, that's right. But now you're talking alien sociology, of course. We don't know a whole lot about that. But it is true. And if you want to worry about that, then you should shut down the television networks, after all, and the military radars and the airport radars.

B: But also, you hear a lot of people saying all these aliens are watching I Love Lucy. And but the fact is though, that the signal is so weak as it spreads out that they most likely wouldn't be able to enjoy any episodes. It would just be so attenuated that there'd really be nothing for them to really hold on to and decipher. Isn't that correct?

SS: Well, it depends on how much they want to spit on their antenna. In fact, I just wrote an article for last week, which in fact looked at the question whether they could pick up I Love Lucy with the kind of antennas that we're planning to build. And the answer is, it's very hard. In fact, it would have to be, you really need a couple of thousand acres worth of antennas if you want to pick up even the carrier signal, even the fact that I Love Lucy is on the air. If you want to see Ricky and Lucy messing it up, then you're going to have to build a much, much bigger antenna than that. So it's quite hard. It's not impossible. Doesn't violate the laws of physics to pick up I Love Lucy from 100 light years away. But you're going to have to spend a lot of money on the antenna.

S: I did read recently about the plan to build an alien TV antenna, so basically something that could actually listen to inadvertent sort of leaking TV-like waves from the closest, closest stars.

SS: Yeah, well, that was the reason that I wrote this article for, because of that story. There was a fellow at Harvard who had claimed that these new antennas would be able to pick up ET's television. Well, not if their television is like ours, they won't. It's just too weak.

S: SETI has its critics. In fact, I remember even early on in my skeptical career, I got into a written debate with another skeptic who was claiming that it wasn't legitimate science, and I was defending it. So do you hear a lot of that from either your fellow astronomers or from scientific community in general, that this is either frivolous or not serious science?

SS: Sometimes, but actually not so much from other scientists. You will hear that, but it's usually not from scientists, because in fact, the SETI project, the SETI endeavor, I should say, not any specific project, but the whole idea of SETI has been reviewed several times by the astronomical community. And they always come down on the side of, well, it may be a long shot, but the results would be so gosh darn interesting that it's really worth a candle. I mean, it isn't terribly expensive compared to just about anything else we do. And the consequences could be profound. So it always gets a thumbs up. I don't know that I've ever heard any scientists say, this is a waste of time. Even the biologists, some of whom seem to think that intelligence would be a very rare development, that you would get life on a lot of planets, but not too much intelligence. There's some who think that. Even they still believe that it's worth doing the project, because you don't know. And if you don't try, you're never going to find out anything.

S: It's like playing the cosmic lottery. It doesn't cost very much, and the payback is potentially huge, even if the probability is low.

SS: Right.

B: That ties into another interesting comment. Well, not very interesting, but comments that I hear. A lot of times, people say that the government's suppressing evidence of contact to prevent panic. And I think that's just silly, because I think before you guys, I read in one of the articles, in one of the interviews you did that, before even the scientists were absolutely convinced that it was a true extraterrestrial signal, everybody would know about it. Everybody would be talking about it. Everybody would be reporting about it. So you really couldn't, you could never really bottle that up. Seth, what do you think the world reaction would be to some sort of incontrovertible evidence that it's an intelligent communication from another star system? How would people react?

SS: Yeah, well, nobody knows, actually. Several people have looked at this. A lot of people have looked at this. And I got to look at it, because I've got to write something about it, too, in the next month or two. And the trouble is, the usual approach here, is you say, well, let's look for an historical analog. Let's look for something that happened in the past that's more or less comparable to finding a signal from another society, another culture of thinking beings. And the trouble is that there aren't any very good historical analogs. So it's a bit of a guess. I mean, people say, well, consider Copernicus, right? He sort of changed everything by saying, well, the Earth is not the center of the universe. The sun is. But OK, that affected people in a philosophical way. It affected religion. And I suspect that that's what this kind of a discovery would do as well. But it's still a little different than finding out humans are not the smartest things in the galaxy. I think that that's going to have consequences. But it's not that there's any danger, right? It's just the danger we create for ourselves, perhaps.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. I agree. I don't think anybody really knows how society in general is going to react. I hope I live to see that reaction.

B: But yeah, I agree that you can't really know. But I don't think, as some do, that there would be worldwide panic. And that's why this information is being suppressed. I mean, I just think that's highly unlikely that people would just freak out.

SS: Yeah, no, I don't think the government's pressing the news that, for example, aliens have landed here. That's the usual story. Not that they're out there, but that the government has picked up debris in New Mexico or somewhere else and has it stacked up at Area 51 or some other warehouse. Well, that would be great, because that would mean, well, maybe they'll release it. We need to study it. But to begin with, I don't think people would riot in the streets if they heard this news, because a third of them already believe this is happening.

S: Right, right.

SS: So beyond that, you've got all the other governments in the world, and they have to be in collusion here. Either that or the aliens only land in the American southwest, because they like our Tex-Mex cuisine.

B: I know what I'd do. I'd throw a party. That would be awesome.

SS: Yeah, well, I think you'd get the Nobel Prize. I mean, you'd have thousands of academics working away on this stuff if there were any truth to it. I mean, that's a fact.

S: So you don't have men in black looking over your shoulder waiting for a decision to make.

SS: No, I wish we did. At least they would show the government was interested. We might be able to get some money.

S: I listened to you a while ago on Coast to Coast, and Art Bell asked you that question. He was convinced, of course. I don't know if he really believes this or if this is just his schtick, but if you did find a signal, the government would swoop in and would take total control of the situation. And your response was, well, the last time we found an interesting candidate, the New York Times called me before the government did.

SS: The government never called, actually. Not even the local government. I know people in the local government. I knew the mayor back then, and I kept waiting for him to show some interest, but he didn't. I think he had a ballgame to go to or something.

S: Do you ever get harassed by the UFO crowd? Because some of them say, of course, it's pointless to listen out there when they're already here. Do you hear much from them?

SS: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I do. A lot of people say that you're wasting your time. They're here. Or they don't like my skeptical attitude about UFOs, because I honestly don't think we are being visited. If I thought that, I would be working on that project, because that would be a little more interesting than finding a signal to find an alien. So I do get some abusive email, I'll put it that way.

E: Is it one of their arguments, though, that there's an equal amount of evidence, effectively, that's working for the SETI project, as there is in their theories of UFOs?

SS: Well, that's a fair enough statement, but there's a slight difference here. We're not claiming we found the aliens. They are. They're claiming they're here. We don't make that claim. We don't say, well, we've got a signal, but we're not going to show you all the evidence here, because the government has it secreted away. We don't make that claim. We say, nope, we haven't found them yet.

S: Well, since you bring up your skepticism, let's talk for a minute, before we run out of time, about your radio show, Are We Alone? Now, that's a broadcast radio show that is then turned into a podcast, is that correct? Or is that just recorded as a podcast?

SS: Well, the show is actually broadcast on Sirius Satellite Radio, right?

S: I see.

SS: Four times a week, and we record it. We do it in advance, and then we edit it into a podcast, as well. I mean, it's just the same file.

S: But that's an excellent show, by the way. I've been enjoying it. And you have what you call your Skeptical Sunday, once a month or so, on that show. But so how did you decide to have that skeptical segment on your program?

SS: Well, I think that that is the consequence of being in this business, and getting so many people who are accusing you of hiding information, or being disingenuous about what you're doing, or saying that it's a waste of time, because indeed, the aliens already abducted my sister from unauthorized experiments. And why aren't you looking at that? And I get asked about it all the time. It's hard to give a talk about SETI, a public talk, without getting at least a few questions about, well, what were the lights over Phoenix? And what about this big craft that I saw? And of course, I also get that on late night radio, when I'm occasionally on the Coast to Coast radio show. A lot of people wanna know about that. The public's very interested in this. I have no problem with that, actually. I find it interesting, too. I had UFO books when I was a kid. I had I look at the pictures of these flying saucers, and they look like hubcaps thrown up in the air to me, but you know, nonetheless, I was very interested.

R: No doubt they were.

SS: Yeah, so it was an actual interest. And the producer of our show, Molly Bentley, and I decided, well, why don't we take this stuff on once a month? And to be honest, those are maybe the most fun shows we do in some sense.

S: Obviously, we think it's a lot of fun, too. That's what we do here every week. But yeah, I mean, I agree with you. I think I wish more scientists understood the public understanding of science really requires in this modern age, dealing head on with pseudoscience and with all of the stuff out there that's pretending to be science, but really isn't. And I think if you ignore that it's hard to really communicate with the public about it, because as you say, you're gonna get questions about it, and that's what's captured their imagination.

SS: No, that's right. And in fact there's been a tendency in the study community to keep the UFO crowd at arm's length, because they're a little worried about their scientific credibility if they look like they're catering to the UFO crowd. I think that's slightly wrong myself, because after all, these are not malevolent people. They believe something's happening. While I don't think that the evidence is very convincing, I mean, they're, after all, they are folks, too. They're just as interested in this stuff as most others. In fact, maybe they're more interested in the whole idea of life beyond Earth than most people. And so I think that you owe them at least the chance to ask you questions, tell their story, and deal with it as best you can. I try to do that during talks. When people ask these questions, I try to not be too flip. It's easy to be flip after the 112th time that you've heard that could aliens have come 500 light years and in the last 50 feet over at Roswell, New Mexico, and made a navigating error, slam into the dirt, you know?

S: Well, thanks for being on the Skeptics Guide. Maybe after you find a signal, we'll have you come back on so you can talk about that.

SS: That was great.

B: Thank you, Seth.

SS: Okay, thank you all.

E: Thanks Seth.

S: Take care.

SS: Bye.

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]

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

Answer Item
Fiction Neandertals
Science Phantom limb pain
Muscles gene
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two are genuine and one is fictitious, and then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake, and you all can play along. There's no theme this week, just three random news items. Is everyone ready?

J: Yes.

E: Yes.

S: Alrighty. Item number one, newly sequenced Neanderthal DNA surprised scientists by suggesting that Neanderthal man evolved from Homo sapiens. Item number two, scientists have shown that giving amputees with phantom limb pain a virtual limb in a computer simulation decreases their pain significantly. Item number three, scientists have discovered and now tested a gene that produces the same enhanced performance in muscles as does training and exercise.

J: Wow.

S: Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: I remember reading something about Neanderthals in the news in the past week, but I don't think that was it, but I can't really remember. I'm gonna go with that one as the fiction, because I don't think that was quite it. The other one seemed plausible.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see, the virtual phantom limb, with the phantom limb pain, that sounds totally plausible. Now, tell me the third one again, Steve.

S: Scientists have discovered and now tested a gene that produces the same enhanced performance in muscles as does training and exercise.

B: Well, geez, isn't that old news? I've read about that. This kid was born with a knocked out gene, and the kid's like totally diesel, and he's like two years old.

S: No, I'm not referring to that. No, but that still sounds more plausible than one. It's funny, I was reading an article about Neanderthals in the news, and I didn't quite finish the article, and I bet I missed the good bit, but I'm gonna go with the Neanderthal. That doesn't sound right.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I'll agree that Neanderthal evolving from Homo sapien is fiction.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, me too, definitely that one.

B: I mean, weren't they around longer than Homo sapiens?

S: Well, I'll tell you.

R: Tell us, Steve.

E: Enlighten us.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Let's start with number three. Scientists have discovered and now tested a gene that produces the same enhanced performance in muscles as does training and exercise. This one is science.

J: Awesome.

B: Awesome.

S: They've now tested it in mice, so they've produced a mutant strain of mice that activates this gene, which basically ramps up muscle activity.

B: Oh, so they weren't knockout mice, then? They were actually just activated the gene, okay.

S: So, and one of the things that it does is it increases the amount of glycogen that gets stored in the muscle, so the muscle, it's basically turning on a liver gene in muscle is kind of how they described it, so that the muscles will store more glycogen, and therefore they have more energy available to them, and the mice that were altered in this way had two to three times the endurance as normal mice, and their endurance was similar to mice that had been trained and exercised.

J: They want to pump you up.

S: This research is done at Dartmouth by doctors Lee Whitters, Christine Richardson, and Laura Berre. Our genetically altered mouse appears to have already been in an exercise program, says Lee Whitters.

B: Wow.

S: So, obviously they're hoping that this will translate to humans, and that it could be used to treat things like muscle diseases, of course, and also as we get older, our muscles become weaker and atrophy, and this may help, you basically could treat the geriatric population to keep their muscle performance better, and of course, athletes.

R: The lazy.

J: Yeah, the fat lazy.

S: High performance athletes.

E: Computer people.

S: People are too lazy to exercise, so.

B: Now, Steve, did they put a gene in overdrive, or did they just activate? I mean, what's different about the gene?

S: They said the switching on of this liver gene in muscles is a shift in the conception of the biochemistry of muscle metabolism, since many enzyme genes are thought to be only active in just one tissue. So, yeah, that's what they did, and they're hoping that what they could learn from this is they could develop a pill that could basically achieve the same effect pharmacologically.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Now, number two was scientists use virtual reality to treat the pain of phantom limb pain. This one is also science. This is a very interesting idea. So, phantom limb pain happens when some people who have limb amputated, they may still feel as if the limb is still there, and that phantom limb may be very painful. Sometimes it feels to them as if the limb is in a very uncomfortable or clenched or contorted position, or it may just be producing pain. It's interesting in terms of where does this pain come from. Actually, I think it was an earlier science fiction, wasn't it, that the studies showed that it actually comes from the nerves themselves. So, this is interesting, this is, because now what we're basically doing is tricking the brain into thinking through visual, virtual reality cues that there actually is a limb there. They also can manipulate their virtual limb by using their other hand or whatever, some other interface. So, they can see it's there, they can manipulate it, and that somehow modulates the feedback or the way the brain is interpreting the signals in such a way that it may relieve their sense that that phantom limb is clenched or just decrease the amount of pain that they're experiencing from it.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All of this means that number one is fiction, that newly sequenced Neanderthal DNA, it's not pure fiction, hang on.

E: Excuse me.

B: Don't sound so disappointed.

S: It's only mostly fiction.

E: Oh, okay, new category, folks.

S: It is fiction.

E: Science or mostly fiction.

R: Didn't they mate with homo sapiens?

S: No, so you were right, Rebecca, you did read something about sequencing the Neanderthal genome, which is what I-

R: I'm not good with detail.

B: They found like a, they sequenced like a million base pairs or something.

J: We all got it right. We all got it right.

S: You all got it right.

J: It's just avoiding the inevitable. We busted it.

S: No, I said it's, number one is fiction. I lofted you guys a softball this week and you all got it right.

R: Oh, a softball.

J: Oh, come on.

B: It was fairly soft.

S: So, this is a paper published on November 17th, 2006, issue of the journal Science. Team of researchers led by Edward Rubin at the Berkeley Labs genomics division. So, they've developed a Neanderthal metagenomic library, which they use to characterize more than 65,000 DNA base pairs of Neanderthal origin. This is cool because they can get DNA from Neanderthal fossilized bones, from the more recent ones, like say about 35 or 40,000 years ago. What they discovered, not surprisingly, is that the sequences that they've done so far are 99.5% identical with that of humans. So, there's not much of a difference between Neanderthals and humans. Of course, that 0.5% can have a huge developmental effect. It also shows that based on the results that we have so far, that the last shared or common ancestor between Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis was 700,000 years ago. That is a long time. Which means that humans and Neanderthals lived in close proximity for a long time, maybe 100,000 years or so, without interbreeding. So, that's about how long Homo sapiens. So, they basically both evolved in Africa, but Neanderthal moved out into Europe and Asia first, and then Homo sapiens maybe, I think it's around 100 to 150,000 years ago, they moved out into, or maybe even more recently than that, into Europe. And so, they would have been in close proximity with Neanderthals. And there's been evidence going back and forth. Did they interbreed? Did they not interbreed? And there's actually evidence on both sides to suggest that. And the bottom line is that therefore, there probably was some occasional minor interbreeding, but nothing significant.

R: Hooking up after parties.

S: Right, just the occasional straying.

J: Steve, did you honestly think that you would get any of us on that one?

S: I knew that this one that was a stretch, the whole notion that Neanderthal evolved from Homo sapiens. I was hoping to maybe trigger a vague memory like Rebecca had, and sucker one. Or the other thing is sometimes I sucker you guys in, you think that sounds, that's the off the wall one, that's the one that must be true. You guys have done that in the past.

R: We're onto your game.

S: But you guys did a good job this week.

E: Yeah, this is like the chicken tack toe kind of game.

S: Congratulations.

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

S: Well, we have a skeptical puzzle for this week, but first, Evan, will you tell us the answer to last week's puzzle?

E: Sure, shall I go ahead and read last week's puzzle?

J: No, you don't have to, just tell us the answer.

E: You sure? It was a poem.

S: Read it.

B: Read that poem.

E: 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 unrepelled. So what is it?

S: Well, your rhyming is getting much better.

J: Much better, Evan.

E: Thank you. I called in a little help online for the rhyming on this one. And the answer is physiognomy, or physionomy. And we did have a correct answer.

S: Oh, we did?

E: Cosmic vagabond, again.

J: From the boards, right?

E: Exactly. Yes, was the first to come up with the correct answer.

J: Very good, very good.

E: He said it was a preliminary guess. He wasn't too confident in it. But it did fit well with certain portions of the puzzle and so forth.

J: And Evan, what's his prize?

S: You just got it.

R: Absolutely nothing.

E: Exactly.

J: Got it.

E: For those of you who don't know, physiognomy is the interpretation of outward appearance, especially the features of the face, to discover a person's predominant temper and character. So thank you, Cosmic Vagabond. Hopefully we'll stump you with this week's puzzle.

S: Well, let's hear it.

E: Here we go. It's not a poem, but I think you'll find it fun. 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 health of body, mind, 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 training. 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? So good luck, folks. Enjoy.

J: Evan, that doesn't rhyme at all.

E: No, I said it would not be a rhyme. A poem.

R: It's free verse.

E: Thank you.

J: That's the worst poem I've ever heard.

S: Well, thank you, Evan.

E: It's a new age poem. Yes.

S: Thank you for the puzzle.

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

B: Sure. This is a quote from Desmond Morris, zoologist and ethologist. He said, "I viewed my fellow man not as a fallen angel, but as a risen ape."

S: Very good.

J: That is cool. Very cool. Bob, you just wrote that.

R: Steve, I just want to make a quick announcement about the SkepChick calendars. They are being printed right now and will be being shipped out shortly. And I wanted our international listeners to know that if you wrote in, or if you ordered a calendar, but there wasn't a comment box to say that you listened to the podcast and you want it signed, go ahead and send me an email at and let me know your name and everything, and I'll put you down to sign the calendar for you.

S: Well, thanks everyone for joining me again. Always a pleasure.

J: Thank you Steve.

B: Good episode.

E: Thank you, doctor.

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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