SGU Episode 71

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SGU Episode 71
November 29th 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 70                      SGU 72

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


MC: Mark Crislip

Quote of the Week

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.

Bertrand Russell

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Stephen Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, and today is Wednesday, November 29th, 2006. Joining me this week are Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi everybody.

S: Bob Novella...

B: Hey everyone.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hey everybody.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Good evening all.

B: Hey Steve.

E: Good evening.

R: Hello Steve.

S: Perry is not with us tonight, he's had to take a couple weeks off, Perry's a little under the weather, he's actually in the hospital this week getting some testing done, he's doing fine, but he is not well enough to join us this week, but we hope to have him back in a week or two.

R: We all miss you Perry.

S: We miss you, so I thought I would send Perry a shout out and tell him to get better.

J: Who's going to be sarcastic if Perry's not here?

S: You'll have to take over for him I guess, Jay.

J: Alright, I'll try.

News Items[edit]

Paranormal Computer Storage (1:05)[edit]


S: So Bob, you sent me this story I believe about the new method of storing data, which is somewhat questionable.

B: Yeah, this story struck me, it was interesting, it kind of combined pseudoscience and computer technology, which you don't really see that often, and I remember reading it about a week before this article came out, and I thought it was extremely interesting. This guy, Sainul Ibadin, an engineering student in India, claims that he devised a method of storing 256 gigabytes of data on a plain A4 sheet of paper. Now A4, that's just your normal printer paper, isn't that right, 8.5 by 11 type of paper? I thought it was an awesome advancement, how cool is that, and I didn't really, I just went to the next article I was reading or whatever, and then this article came out, and it turns out that he caused a little bit of a firestorm of controversy on the internet of people evaluating his claims, and it doesn't look good for what he's claiming here. What he does is he's got this rainbow format encoding process that turns the data into colored geometric shapes. Using this method, he claims that he could store 2.7 gigabytes of data in a square inch, and I believe it also, he uses a special type of scanner as well. So a lot of people started banding this about on the internet, and a lot of people had tons of complaints. They emailed him and called him trying to get more information, and he's very closed mouth about any of the details, which of course raises your suspicions even more. One quote, my favorite quote that really caused me to send this to everyone was, some guy said, the storage equivalent of perpetual motion. That's how unfeasible it looks. Now, some of the biggest problems is that, really the bottom line is that there's not, you can't put enough bits on the page that are reliably detectable. You can't put enough of them on there using scanner technology and printing technology. The way, even cutting edge stuff now, you really can't get the information on there in any way that can be read with enough density.

S: So that's why I understand, because my reading of this article is that the ultimate limitation is a technological one in terms of our ability to scan with enough precision and detail.

B: Yeah, that's definitely a big part of the problem. Maybe he came up with this new and brilliant and revolutionary method of encoding information, but that would mean that all the, I don't know how many scientists are actually looking into this, but the thousands of scientists worldwide that are looking into this, this revolution has escaped them somehow. And also that would almost by definition mean that the computational effort required to encode and read this could be huge. Some people did back of the envelope calculations and they said that if you had a 1200 dpi scanner, dots per square inch scanner, you could only really read 18 kilobytes per square inch. Other problems include things like, well, what's the deal with these colored shapes? Why are colored shapes better than just bits, little dots on the page? I assume that a colored shape is made up of many colored little dots on the page, why not just encode the information in the dots? Wouldn't that be even more dense? Even if you had one dot equals one byte, so say this one dot, you can have 256 different shades of color on it that could be read and you had a 2400 dpi scanner on a 10 by 10 paper, that's only 137 megabytes. So anything, any little idea these people come up with just as far short of his claim of 400, almost a half a terabyte of information on one page. And here's another one that struck me. If this guy came up with this new encoding scheme, why not use it for DVDs? Why mess around with paper?

S: Just to play devil's advocate on that last point though, I mean it's possible that this guy is an engineering genius and a marketing buffoon, right? I mean he could have had this idea that using some kind of algorithm geometrically in color or whatever to increase the density of stored information, but the technology doesn't exist to actually employ it and he's not thinking of ways in which it really should be applied.

B: Yeah, I mean that's possible, but based on his, I guess he made some brief description of the type of scanner or technology he's using, it doesn't seem like it could do it.

S: And it sounds like there are some theoretical flaws too, not just application flaws.

B: I guess he could have come up with some incredible encoding scheme, but boy that's really escaping everybody because I mean even with compression, say if you zip up a file, you're not going to get too much more than two or three or four times the amount of information packed in there and he's got many more times than that. So hey, I hope he's right and I hope he did come up with some new scheme to encode information. That would be great, but it just does not look good.

S: And he can't be coy about it. If you've got the breakthrough.

B: No, come on, I mean yeah, come on, fess up, talk about it, don't be closed mouth about it.

S: That's the ultimate test. He's got to deliver the goods if he's going to make the extraordinary claim. I guess that is the first computer based pseudoscience that I can think of. Can you think of any other examples of that?

R: A lot of frauds and hoaxes.

B: Things like stereos and players. Isn't there a lot of...

R: Oh God, the audio stuff.

B: Use this gadget set, oh buy this and it'll sound quality would be so much better. Things like that.

R: We could do an entire show on audio.

S: Yeah, that's audio though. Electronic equipment. I just personally I can't think of any on the top of my head that's a computer based sort of pseudoscience or paranormal claim.

B: No, because the results are in your face. Either it works or it doesn't.

Intelligent Design in the UK (6:53)[edit]


S: The other news item that caught my attention this week is intelligent design again is cropped up in the news again. These intelligent design creationism is never going to go away. And apparently in the United Kingdom, in the UK, they're starting to have some difficulty over there with proponents of ID making a push.

R: It's our number one export.

S: That's right, pseudoscience. From what I understand, they don't have the same kind of constitutional laws in place that we have in the United States. So it really has to be fought legislatively. There's not going to be any constitutional fix over there. So it's a little bit harder to fight apparently. Now there's a chemistry teacher at Liverpool's Blue Coat School, Nick Cohen, who is pushing for the idea of teaching intelligent design in the public school systems. The government so far has rejected it. So they've rejected notion. Secretary Alan Johnson has said that it's not appropriate, but he is now being urged by this guy Nick Cohen and other ID proponents to teach it. Nick Cohen was quoted as saying, "There's a sense that if you criticize Darwin, you must be some kind of religious nutcase." That might have something to do with the fact that it does mean that you're some kind of a religious nutcase, probably 99% of the time. I guess you could be a UFO nutcase, like the Raelians. That was sort of a funny comment. Does he really seriously suggest that people who don't have an ideological agenda and are just pure scientists are promoting creationism or ID? Doesn't exist. And also, I note his constant use of Darwinism and Darwinist and Darwin, if you remember, Eugenie Scott pointed out when we interviewed her a few months back that creationists and ideas like to do that. They like to care rather than say like evolutionary theory, they like to refuse the term Darwinist or Darwinism because it makes it sound like we're revering this one guy and that it's and also it makes it sound like its own ideology rather than a science.

R: Yeah, it's a marketing shtick.

J: Well, they say all the time the religion of Darwin or the religion of evolution.

S: Right. So it's hard to deal with these topics in their completeness every time something comes up. Often topics like intelligent design will come up and we'll mention a specific aspect of the phenomenon in the news and that's usually followed by two or three emails saying, well, you didn't talk about ID at all. You just criticized it, you know. Well, honestly, we can't review all the evidence for these big topics every single time they come up. So I'll just refer you to the previous episodes where we have discussed at length both creationism and intelligent design. It is not a science, it is pure pseudoscience, it does not belong anywhere in the public school system. Certainly not as science.

Questions and E-mails (9:42)[edit]

S: Well, there's a lot of emails to go over this week. The number of emails we've been getting has been increasing in proportion with our audience which is great. We love them. Keep them coming. And again, I do read them all and I apologize that I cannot personally respond to all the emails. It's actually getting challenging to decide which emails to choose from. There are so many good ones.

R: There are a lot of really good emails.

S: Excellent topics, excellent questions. I wish we had time to deal with all of them but we have to pick and choose.

Corrections and Clarifications (10:10)[edit]

Nick Pope is not a former minister of defense, but was just the head of the Ministry of Defence UFO project.

Passing reference was made to that notion that people use only 10% of our brains. This was tongue-in-cheek, but we should have specifically pointed out that this is a myth.

S: Let's start first with a couple of small corrections and clarifications from recent podcasts. Last week we talked about Nick Pope who is a former head of the Ministry of Defense UFO project promoting his new UFO book. We mistakenly said that he was a former Minister of Defense and he never was the Minister of Defense. That was a misinterpretation of the article that we were referencing which characterized him as the chief at the Ministry of Defense. But he actually was only the chief of this UFO project. He was not the chief of the Ministry of Defense.

B: That wasn't very clear, was it?

R: He was the chief crazy.

S: But we screwed that up. He was not the chief. He was not the M.O.D. He was just at the M.O.D. And several people corrected that and thank you for doing so. And also another email pointed out that in a recent podcast, I think it was two or three weeks ago, we made a very passing tongue-in-cheek reference to the whole 10 percent, people only use 10 percent of their brains myth.

E: Yep. It's actually 11.

S: I frequently hear the reference to 12 percent for some reason.

E: Really?

S: So 10 or 12 are the two most common numbers that I hear. Again, we make a lot of these side comments and I don't always pick up on it. I was surprised that one listener actually thought that we believed that. We sort of let it go by without addressing it. So fair enough. We did not talk about it. I think we've talked about this before on the show, though.

R: Yeah, we've mentioned it before.

S: It's hard to constantly reference things that we've spoken about before. So for the record, that is a complete myth that we only use 10 percent of our brains. We use 100 percent of our brains. And I will link to an article that I wrote on that topic on the NES website for those who are interested. And we'll try to be better about at least giving you the proper reference when we make these side comments so the audience is not left with the wrong impression.

R: Yeah, it's a lot tougher over the air as opposed to in writing when we can just have a little link or something. It's tougher to remember to always say that.

J: Do we really use 100 percent of the brain matter that we have right now?

E: Unless you have brain damage.

J: No, but in other words, isn't there a lot of areas in the brain that you're not using even if they're super small?

B: Maybe not using at any given time, but every little bit has its function and should be used at some point, I would think.

S: Yeah, that is a good question. We don't use all of our brain to maximal capacity all the time, but we do use most of our brain pretty much all the time to some degree, and we use all of it at some time. There's no parts of our brain which are completely unused, and I think we actually did refer to this if not last week, the week before. That doesn't necessarily mean that every single neuron is dedicated and fully utilized, because we still need to have the capacity to store new memories, right? As we get older, those neurons that are not being reinforced, that are not in pathways that are being used, do tend to die off, which is called pruning. On a cellular level, we do tend to prune some neurons that are not already recruited into memory pathways.

R: I thought that's what happened when you left your brain in the bath too long.

S: That will happen too.

E: That's why it's all wrinkly, looks the way it does.

S: That would make you more intelligent if your brain got more wrinkly.

R: That's true.

S: Increase your surface area.

R: I'm going to start my own pseudoscience based on that idea.

S: Yeah, that's as good as anything else out there.

J: Raisin brain.

S: But that also correlates with a decreased capacity for learning, so it's hard to characterize those neurons as unnecessary not being used, and they actually directly correlate with our ability to learn and be intellectually nimble. The bottom line is we use it all. Nothing is sitting there going unused.

Einstein (14:18)[edit]

Dr. Novella,

I just got around to listening to the Nov 21 podcast. I must disagree with your reasons behind Einstein's Special Relativity theory being one of the great paradigm changing discoveries. I would agree that it was a monumental and paradigm shifting discovery, and that Einstein is arguably the greatest scientist of all time. But your reasoning that only Einstein and his great genius could have given us this theory is flawed. It sounded to me like you used an argument from incredulity instead of historical research. You also got some of your facts incorrect. Many scientists today believe it was only a matter of time before the Special Relativity theory was discovered. Einstein was in the right place at the right time, and without his paper it still would have been discovered within 5 or 10 years. He was not the first person to suggest space and time were variables. By 1905, the French physicist Henri Poincare already published many of the salient points of Special Relativity. Some argue the credit of the discovery should have gone to Poincare; Einstein himself was quoted as saying 'there is no doubt that the Special Theory of Relativity, if we regard its development in retrospect, was ripe for discovery in 1905'.

You said Einstein's theory was 'thinking outside of anything that any human before him had ever conceived'. Please research this history, and if you agree, please say something on the podcast and give some credit where credit is due, most notably to Poincare Lorentz.

-Tom Evans

S: Question number two comes from Tom Evans, who had an interesting feedback on my discussion of Einstein and special relativity. My choice for one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs was Einstein, because he was the first one to have a vision of the cosmos where time and space were variables. And Tom writes: "I just got around to listening to the November 21st podcast, I must disagree with your reasons behind Einstein's special relativity theory being one of the greatest paradigm changing discoveries. I would agree that it was a monumental and paradigm shifting discovery and that Einstein is arguably the greatest scientist of all time, but your reasoning that only Einstein and his great genius could have given us this theory is flawed. It sounded to me like you used an argument from incredulity instead of historical research. You also got some of your facts incorrect. Many scientists today believe it was only a matter of time before the special relativity theory was discovered. Einstein was in the right place at the right time and without his paper it still would have been discovered within five or ten years. He was not the first person to suggest space and time were variables. By 1905 the French physicist Henri Poincaré already published many of the salient points of special relativity. Some argue the credit of the discovery should have gone to Poincaré. Einstein himself was quoted as saying there is no doubt that the special theory of relativity if we regard its development in retrospect was right for discovery in 1905. You said Einstein's theory was thinking outside of anything that any human before him had ever conceived. Please research this history and if you agree please say something on the podcast and give some credit where credit is due, most notably Poincaré and Lorenz." So Tom makes some good points although I do disagree a little bit with his characterizations of Poincaré's and Lorenz's contributions. So first I'll say that I completely agree that the discovery of special relativity and general relativity for what it's worth was inevitable. The universe is the universe, right? So by that nature all sort of fundamental scientific discoveries as long as we keep doing research are probably inevitable that assumes that science works. So I completely agree with that. I also agree that the time was right and that if Einstein hadn't done it either some person or combination of people would have put it together eventually. But I do think that Einstein was way ahead of the curve. Five to ten years, a decade is a long time in physics and saying that he beat his colleagues by ten years is significant, it does not diminish how profound that his discovery was. Also we did mention briefly Lorenz, he had the Lorenz transformation so he's the one who basically made Maxwell's equations work by mathematically having it so that time and space were variable but again he applied those transformations only to Maxwell's equations. He did not make the leap, which is the leap that I'm crediting Einstein with, of applying it to actual space and time in the physical universe. Henri Poincaré, similarly he was entertaining notions of variability of time but he did not develop a cosmology in which time and space were variable and in fact he didn't accept Einstein's theory when it was first proposed because it was so far-reaching. Because it said the entire universe is built this way. So I stand by my statement that Einstein made that leap, sure the ideas were out there in one form or another, you're absolutely correct in that respect and it would have been put together by other people but Einstein is the first one to actually conceive of a cosmology in which that was the case, not just fuddling around with mathematical equations. It does bring up another point though that I really think is important to make and that is our tendency to romanticize scientific discovery and it's interesting because this is something that I have spoken about before, I don't remember if I've actually spoken about it on this podcast, but I feel like I did fall into that myself. The tendency to romanticize scientific discovery is very compelling, we're storytelling animals, we like stories which have a clean message and a clean ending and we tend to simplify them over time in order to emphasize those themes and stories can become apocryphal in that way. The specific point I wanted to make about scientific discovery is that it's very rarely and it's increasingly rare as the institution of science has matured and developed, almost to the point of being unheard of these days, where a scientific discovery is made by a sole person who completely on their own has an insight or a set of insights. Almost always when you dig into the history of any scientific discovery, even though it may be attached to a person, there is a host of people who contributed to the ideas that led to that scientific discovery. Science is far and away a community effort where people are...

B: Shoulders of giants.

S: Not just in this linear fashion, I remember reading a history of quantum mechanics written at a time when a lot of the people involved were still alive and they said, we were all part of the same community of scientists, we were sending letters back and forth, etc., to the point where it almost became hard to remember whose idea things were. It's like any sort of dynamic creative process, it actually sometimes becomes hard to piece together who exactly had which idea.

The Top 10 Ghost Photos (20:01)[edit]

The Skeptics' Guide reviews the best photo evidence of ghosts

S: The next question, I believe this was, I forget who did this, but this was posted on our message board, was just a link to the top 10 ghost photos. These are alleged to be the 10 most impressive pieces of photographic evidence for ghosts. Now Bob, I put you on the specific task of researching these photos and what have you discovered?

B: Oh crap, I didn't do any research. No, I got a bunch of research here. Steve, I wanted to go over some common artifacts first and then hit most of the pictures one by one.

S: Sure.

B: Ghost photographs are generally considered to be the gold standard of ghost evidence. You could tell 100 stories, but nothing really has a punch like a good ghost picture. I guess a video would be better. Video is platinum standard, the pictures are gold standard.

S: To people who believe in ghosts, not to the scientific community.

B: Yes, absolutely. There's so many good ghost pictures out there that are interesting and makes you think, wow, what is that thing? A lot of these pictures are really photographic artifacts. I just want to go over quickly some of the more common ones. Ghost orbs or ghost globules, kind of like these spherical glowing balls of light that can be caused by many things like dust in the camera, condensation on the lens, drops of rain, even insects. Joe Nickell notes in his book, Camera Clues, even shiny surfaces that you didn't notice can be a source of these orbs. Vortices is another one. This includes things like a camera strap that's in front of the camera lens, but you don't see it. It's kind of out of focus and blurry, and it could be white even if the strap was black because of the flash. You see a lot of those out there. Ghost fog, it really just looks like fog that can be caused by many different things such as real fog, cigarette smoke, the breath of the photographer. That was a new one I hadn't thought of before. Flashback, light being reflected back of the lens. I remember reading the Warrens website about how to take good ghost photographs, and they said, use a flash, the brighter the better. I wonder why they said that.

S: And when we pointed that out to them, they took it off their website.

B: And then the other one is a transparent ghost-like ethereal image, which can be caused by a double exposure or very long exposures. That's a quick list of a lot of these artifacts that could be inadvertent or they could be intentional. A lot of them, though, are inadvertent. And the big red flag, the big red flag for ghost photographs is most of the time they will say, wow, I didn't even see this until after the picture was developed. When somebody says that, that flag should raise up and say, oh, okay, wait a second, this is probably an artifact. So let's go through some of these. So we'll have the link, I'm sure, on the notes page. I'll start from the top to the bottom, and I won't hit everyone, but I'll hit a lot of them.

R: Give us the highlights.

S: Yeah.

B: Okay, the top one, number 10. This is arguably one of the most famous ghost photographs. This is the Brown Lady, which is a ghost that supposedly haunts Rainman Hall in Norfolk, England. And it's supposed to be the ghost of Lady Townsend who married Charles Townsend, who was a real nasty guy who punished her for infidelity and kept her in Rainman Hall for the rest of her life, couldn't even see her kids until she died in 1726. And there were some sightings of her over the years. Even King George IV claimed to have seen her. Another eyewitness said that he saw her and her eyes were gouged out. So interesting image. The image you see here was taken by two photographers on assignment for Country Life magazine. And apparently they did see it as it was apparently coming down the stairway. Now, Joe Nickell examined this photograph, and his conclusion was that it was two images composited together.

S: Did he think it was direct deliberate fraud or just an accidental double exposure?

B: He didn't elaborate. The source that I read did not have him elaborate on that. He examined the photograph, and that was his conclusion.

S: But there is evidence that this is two images composited together.

B: I think that's pretty much what Joe was claiming, although anything beyond that I wasn't able to find. So my verdict on that one is that it is most likely a double exposure.

S: In my experience, the most interesting ghost photographs are double exposures.

B: Right. Yeah, absolutely. There's nothing like a human shape, a transparent human shape, much more compelling than a glob of light or a streak of light. Now why a ghost would be wearing clothes is another question. So let's go to nine real quick.

S: We call that ghost clothes.

R: They're ghosts, not exhibitionists. What do you want?

B: All right, so number nine. This one's interesting in that it's very recent. This is from the late 2003 in Hampton Court Palace near London. They've got on video something, someone or something opening one of these fire doors and then closing it. And it was all over the news, if you remember, a few years ago. A lot of people thought it was extremely compelling. And again, Joe Nickell examined this one. He got his hands on a high resolution electronic copy.

R: This guy is everywhere.

B: He wrote that it reveals a solid figure with shadow patterns consistent with an earthly figure photographed in ambient light. I took a look at the video and it looks like a person in a robe. I mean, they don't look translucent. I mean, I don't know what the deal is with that one.

S: He's a creepy looking guy in a robe.

R: Yeah, he's wearing a robe.

B: So this isn't very compelling either. So my verdict on this one is that it's either a hoax or a misinterpretation. OK, I'm going to go down to seven real quick. It shows, it looks like a ghostly figure on a bed. This is, let me pull my notes on this one here. The bedridden boy, it's called, was taken in 1999. It's thought that it might be a ghost of a young man who died in the house in the 1800s after being struck by a train. Now, if you look at this one, this has the hallmarks of a long exposure, a camera that was just set up and left. I mean, look at the bright light by the bedside. I mean, it's just too bright. And if you look closely, I think you can even see some movement where he might have gotten down onto the bed. To me, this is just my verdict on this one is that it's a long exposure.

S: It's a prolonged exposure of somebody moving so that they're blurred out and ghostly.

B: Right. And it looks like they at one point laid on the bed for enough time to get to build up enough of an image of that. But obvious long exposure, at least in my estimation. Let's see. Two more to go. Number two, jump down to number four.

S: Hang on, number four I know. Number four is the backseat driver that this.

B: Yes. Let's see what you do.

S: This was widely debunked already. This was has been demonstrated on examination of the original negatives. So this is a picture of a guy in a car, I think, leaving his mother's funeral.

B: Mother-in-law.

S: Mother-in-law's funeral and the mother-in-law sitting in the backseat. So this is at the funeral and it was it was demonstrated that this was a double exposure, that this was a picture taken of her very recently when she was still alive. And then the film did not advance properly. And so it got double exposed onto the next picture, which was at her funeral.

B: And not only that, not only that, people have written that they had seen earlier incarnations of this of this picture. And if you look closely, you can clearly see that this the person's shoulder and the scarf kind of overlaps the front of the passenger side door. So it was striking. So this has been actually cleaned up and made even more compelling as it goes as it goes. So let's see. Number two, the let's see, the title on this one is and the sea gave up the dead, which were in it. This one, the S.S. Watertown was an oil tanker in the 1920s. Two men were cleaning an empty cargo hold and they were overcome with fumes and died. And after that, a lot of sailors said that they they kind of saw their faces in the of the two men in the water when after they after they docked and went back to see the the captain took a bunch of pictures and one of them. And then he locked the camera in a safe. And then one one of the pictures had these two faces in it. Now, I see two possibilities here. The most overwhelming possibility is simple pareidolia, where you're you're seeing images your brain kind of locks in on an image of an from something indistinct and vague and says and makes it into something that you're familiar with. You see that all the time you know, the man the man in the the mountain, the faces in clouds or the ceiling. This is similar. These faces are interesting. They're they're fairly distinct even for something that invokes pareidolia here. But it seems like a likely option. I mean, this is very chaotic background here. And you just happen to have a scene that that's that produced these shadows where the eyes are and a shadow under under the nose.

E: It reminds me of the face on Mars.

B: Yeah, it actually it actually does. And another somebody else, somebody else came up with another potential explanation for this one. He said those old, really old school cameras back that they had in the 1920s were the way they were designed it was very easy to get a double exposure on the very first picture. He thought it was interesting that this guy took six pictures and only one showed showed a face. So my verdict on that one is most likely just just pareidolia and just the chance, alignment of these shapes that approximates a human face.

J: Bob, wait, that picture you just talked about, the thing that's even stranger is there these two gigantic shapes that both look like arrows.

B: Oh, wow. Yeah, that's just a arrow showing you the face. I actually don't need, a lot of times you need help pointing out some of these faces or weird things in pictures, but these are pretty obvious.

S: That's that's a big clue, though, for pareidolia. Whenever you need to be have it pointed out to you and then it sort of clicks right in place, that's a good clue that you're dealing with pareidolia.

B: And the way those things work, once it clicks into place, it doesn't go anywhere. It's pretty much stays there. OK, number one, the title here, Come on, Baby, light my fire. It shows a little girl on a seems like a some sort of balcony with a raging fire behind her. This one is probably one of the creepiest looking.

R: This is a creepy photo.

S: This is this is taken in November 1995. The Wem Town Hall in Shropshire, England was engulfed in flames. It burned to the ground. Tony O'Reilly took some pictures across the street using a telephoto lens, and this is what he got. Small girl standing on this balcony thing in a doorway. And of course, people are saying that in 1677, a fire destroyed a lot of wooden houses in that area. And it was said to have been caused by a 14 year old girl. Her name was Jane Churm, who died in the fire. I did some research on this one. I found some interesting things out. If you look at the picture, what you all that you really have here is is the approximation of a head and face. If you look at the body, there's really there's a suggestion of a body, but there really isn't. If you look at the the body, there's a sash. It looks like she's got some kind of sash or belt on that really makes you think that, OK, there's you know, there's her hips.

S: I thought that was her arm.

E: A shadow of her arm against her body.

B: To me, it's it's going straight across. And it actually if you look at some of these things, this sash seems to go across and include the door that she appears to be behind. It just doesn't make sense. And other things kind of some things make you think she's very close. Another things make you think she's really far away. So she really doesn't have a body. If you look at the picture-

S: Of course ghosts don't have bodies.

B: No, I mean, there's really nothing except that. If that sash wasn't there, you would pretty much say, oh, look, a disembodied head. You really wouldn't even think that there's a body.

J: Why couldn't it just be a girl in the picture, though?

B: Because there's a raging inferno behind her.

J: If I just look at the picture and don't read any of the the text below it, I wouldn't have even known there was a fire there.

S: It just looks like a white light behind her. You have the context of the picture. So but you're right, Bob, if you look when you first look at it, it looks like there's a full person standing there. But when you actually look at the details, there actually isn't a body below the neck.

B: Exactly.

S: It's there's a an iron like railing or something. And her neck and head are above it and below it there's really nothing.

R: That kind of makes it creepier.

B: It does.

S: But it would be interesting to see like pictures before and after this, because you would wonder, is this just a billow of smoke?

B: I think I know what it is. No, I think I know what it is.

S: Caught in a pareidolia of a face.

E: Yeah, like the the face of Satan in the smoke of the rubble of the World Trade Center.

B: I found today and Richard M. on a J-Ref forum claims that a firefighter video from a slightly different angle shows that what what we see is her face and head is actually a burning beam. I haven't seen the video. I couldn't find anything else on it, but that does not surprise me that somebody it's fortunate that somebody got a different angle of the same scene. And he said it's a burning beam. So and that seems extremely much more likely.

S: But we need to get a lick of that video.

B: I'll do some more search for that, see if I could find it. But it doesn't surprise me. So my verdict on that one is pareidolia as well, a fairly compelling and creepy one, but pareidolia nonetheless. Yeah.

E: Very neat.

S: Well, again, it goes to show you that you need to have very strict criteria for what serves as evidence, because here we have what appears to the casual viewer as a very compelling compilation of ghost photographs. When you actually look in detail at each one, it evaporates under a close skeptical scrutiny because they're not using any standards of evidence. And by standards, I mean some way of of having some objective criteria to know what's real and what isn't real. In fact each photograph is different. What makes it look interesting is different. There's no standard criteria for what a ghost photograph is supposed to look like. It's basically anything that gives you the willies is a ghost photograph. That's really the only criteria.

B: And I think part of the problem, Steve, is the fact that by their very nature, photographs are poor evidence. A photograph should never really convince you of anything of this nature because of all the effects we covered, all the potential artifacts, pareidolia, all these different things. And don't forget Photoshop, especially these days with Photoshop. How can you possibly trust any photograph? I mean, it's just bad evidence. I cannot conceive of any picture that would convince me that ghost exist. We would need something much more compelling than any hundred photographs could could show me.

S: Any single photograph. I would be open to the possibility of sort of multiple convergent photographic-

B: Under controlled, yes.

S: Controlled circumstance.

E: Reoccurring at a different time.

S: Where you could validate the authenticity of the photograph and eliminate the possibility of manipulation, et cetera, et cetera. Then at least it would be interesting. It wouldn't establish an entire new phenomenon, but it'd be interesting.

B: Something that you would you would say, all right, this is interesting. Let's follow up on this. But still, even that it's too easy.

Neurolink (35:32)[edit]

Hey there,
I found out about you guys via Rebecca Watsons blog that I found out via both of which are glorious, (of course). Anyhow I will do the adoration thing when I have more time but I just wanted to quickly find out about this thing that my dad wants me to do called 'neurolink'. I am 18 as a side note, so my parents are still a bit bossy. Now I think it sounds a bit dud but what do you think? Here's the link
Thanks oh most inspiring ones!!

Annie Tepstra

S: Let's do one more email before we move on to our interview. This one comes from Annie Tepstra from Australia, and Annie writes, "Hey there, I found out about you guys via Rebecca Watson's blog that I found out via, both of which are glorious, of course."

R: Thank you.

S: "Anyhow, I will do the adoration thing when I have more time. But I just wanted to quickly find out about this thing that my dad wants me to do called NeuroLink. I am 18 as a side note. So my parents are still a bit bossy. Now, I think it sounds a bit dud. But what do you think? Here's the link." And obviously we provide the link. "Thanks. Oh, inspiring ones. Annie from Australia, she writes, PS, skeptic would be even more glorious if it was updated more often, which is a snobby way of begging the fair Watson to please, please write more." Get on that, Rebecca.

R: A post a day?

E: You don't do enough.

R: Not enough? All right, I'll try.

S: I looked into NeuroLink. These things are a dime a dozen. There's a lot of neuroscience, pseudoscience these days. Pseudoscience is like to follow the cutting edge because it sounds sexy. It's very marketable and people don't understand it. So the edge of science is the perfect place for marketing pseudoscience, especially if you're selling false hope. It's just great. So I'll read you from the NeuroLink website. NeuroLink's philosophy is rooted in the neurophysiological principle that the brain governs optimum function of all the body's systems. A neurophysiological principle. It's not a scientific theory, mind you. It's just a philosophical principle. So basically, this is old school. They're arguing that the brain is what the body can be perfectly healthy as long as the brain is connected to it and it's sending its nice, you know, life giving signals to the body. This is chiropractic and different vitalistic philosophies. Just with neurophysiological jargon thrown in there, it's snake oil. There's absolutely no legitimacy to this whatsoever. The brain does not keep the body healthy, in fact. The brain has very specific control over certain aspects of the body. And there is a neuroendocrine system. So our emotions can cause the release of certain hormones and hormones can affect our emotions and things like that. And our sleep-wake cycle. But our liver functions quite nicely without any feedback from the brain. And our other vital organs, our kidneys, et cetera, don't depend on the brain for their physiological function or their health. I think we pointed out in a prior podcast that people who are completely brain dead don't have their organs shut down one at a time because the brain's not there to keep them alive. So this is pure pseudoscience. This is slick marketing. And you could tell your mommy and daddy that I said so.

R: Did you just say mommy and daddy?

S: I did. What do they say in Australia?

E: Mom and dad.

S: Mom and dad. Tell your mom and dad.

B: Parental units.

S: Tell your parental units that they should stop trying to force pseudoscience on you. But I have gotten several emails now from younger individuals who are still under the tyranny of their parents, who are concerned about their parents forcing pseudoscience on them, usually alternative medicine. And you have basically the skeptical children of true believer parents. And they wonder, what do I do about it? How do I survive? How do I save my siblings? And it's difficult.

J: Move out.

S: It's tough, yeah. It's you have to transition to that next phase of life where you basically stick up for yourself and rely more upon yourself.

R: It's an inspiring thought, though, to think of somebody who's thinking for themselves despite their parents' beliefs.

S: It is. It is very inspiring. So keep listening.

Interview with Mark Crislip (39:32)[edit]

  • Host of Quackcast - a biweekly (roughly) podcast on quackery and alternative medicine.

S: Joining us now is Mark Chrislip. Mark, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

MC: Thank you.

S: Dr. Chrislip is an infectious disease physician, and he is joining us tonight to talk about his relatively new podcast called QuackCast. Why don't you tell us about that?

MC: Well, I started it because it didn't seem like there was a lot of stuff in the skeptical world on alternative medicine. And QuackWatch is a great website. And so I don't want to say I stole their name, but I initially wanted to call it Medical Retardation, but I found that that name was already used. That's just to my surprise. Oh, that's a good podcast. And it seems to be going well so far. I think I now have two listeners.

R: Oh, congratulations.

J: How long have you been doing it?

MC: Oh, four months, maybe.

S: And you have eight or nine episodes, I think, at this time.

MC: Yeah, I'm up to 11.

J: Well, let me give you some advice right out of the gate. Get someone like Rebecca to join the show.


J: You will probably, if you have two listeners now, you'll at least double your audience.

R: I'm sorry to disappoint, but there isn't anyone like me. There's just me.

S: That's true. We did get the last one, and we broke them all.

R: Anyway.

B: We kept the receipt, though.

S: So when did you get interested in critiquing alternative medicine?

MC: You know, Oregon is a great place to live, and people are very nice, but they're also very gullible. I did my training in LA, and everyone thinks LA is the quack capital of the United States, but it's actually Portland, Oregon, my home city. And my hospital is surrounded by chiropractors and naturopaths, and the medical students get trained at the university with complete lack of critical thinking about alternative medicine. And they come down and rotate at my hospital, and the residents seem equally ignorant. And so it sort of was bothering me that no one really knew about it or thought about it in a critical way. And so I just figured I have a Zaphod Beeblebrox like arrogance. Why not do a quack cast as well? So I did it for fun.

S: And you clearly I've listened to your episodes, and you don't pull your punches, certainly. And in fact, you seem to revel in being, as you say, arrogant and critical. And I think that it's interesting that you've basically decided to go full-core press on the ridicule end and just be honest. And in fact, it seems almost self-deprecating about it, which is, I think, an interesting tactic to take. And is this the first time you've decided to take that kind of editorial tone, or have you done other credit?

MC: That's been my style for years. So I give a lot of lectures at my hospitals and teach the residents. And my style basically is sarcastic and with critical thinking involved. So this is basically who I am.

R: What sort of feedback do you get on that?

MC: For most of the house staff, it's an acquired taste, I think. But most of the house staff and docs I know love it. But I've been where I am for 16 years now, so I'm sort of a fixture in the environment. And people are used to it. But it works well, for the most part. I don't offend too many people. You make people laugh, you can get away with an awful lot.

S: That's true. Humor gives you a certain amount of a free pass on a certain amount of sarcasm.

MC: And if you make fun of yourself, too, you can go a long way with what you're going to say.

S: You've developed that style in lectures and then carried it over to the podcast.

MC: Yeah, my medical student evaluation is to have five flips of flippant in a glib. So this has been going on a long time.

R: Nice.

S: So the interest came mainly because the part of the country that you practice in, you feel inundated.

MC: And you know, when I was in training, well, I wasn't so much inundated by it because I don't think very many people use alternative medicine. I ask every patient, and I bet you one out of 100 actually does a little hardcore quackery. It's very unusual. But there's a lot of it around. And there's not a lot of critical thinking about the topic is what sort of annoys me. Plus, it's one of the few areas of skepticism where people actually die from it. I mean, the only reason to die, if you believe in Bigfoot, is if you're out and you fall off a cliff looking for one. But people, I've seen people die from alternative medicine. I've seen people get strokes. I've seen people get infections. I mean, it is actively harmful for people. And I don't like people getting hurt. And so I figured I want the residents to know that this stuff is stupid and that people can get killed and hurt from it. It's very sort of a moral thing at some level.

J: There's one thing where people use it to get money out of other people. But definitely, I totally agree with you that when people start to lose their health or their lives, that's where it really becomes an issue.

MC: Yeah, and it can. It leads to that, either through positive or negative using of alternative medicine. Plus, it's stupid.

S: Yeah, either through, there's direct harm.

MC: Yeah.

S: And there's also a lot of indirect harm, even for things like homeopathy, which are in and of themselves innocuous. And sometimes it's hard to convince people or let them understand what the indirect harm is. But I agree with you, as a physician it's easy for us to see. The most obvious thing is the delay in proper treatment of something. But I've also seen people expend a tremendous amount of emotional capital in a false hope. And I've seen how absolutely destructive it could be when they realize that their false hope was unfounded. And in fact, on top of being severely ill, they were victimized.

MC: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

B: Talk about a one-two punch.

S: I agree. It is, I mean, as a physician, I find that it is not only sort of an educational mandate, but also sort of a moral, ethical mandate to promote ethical and scientific medicine. And tell me if you've shared this experience. I'm actually dismayed and surprised by the lack of outrage, frankly, among my fellow physicians with regard to the charlatans and the quackery that's being, that's infiltrating the medical system these days. Do you have that same experience?

MC: Yeah, most people look at me as the local crank and zealot on this and a couple other issues. So they smile, but I think at least they pay attention. But people are rarely upset that people are being screwed out of their life and health and fortunes by superstition and nonsense.

S: Why do you think that is?

MC: I think people like superstition and nonsense.

J: I think we're hardwired to like it.

MC: Yeah, I just the last 10 years, I've become increasingly convinced that rational thought is a rare and precious commodity in human beings that we don't know how to exhibit except under extreme duress.

B: Yeah, but these people, these people, they're on a lot of your colleagues, they're on the front lines. I mean, they're seeing what's happening. You'd think it would really come home to them that, wow this stuff really doesn't work and people are dying. They see it all the time. You would think, you would think that.

MC: Well, the actual people who die are probably few and far between. I've probably seen three or four who died as a direct result of alternative medicine in 15 years. No, it's not. And so their actual deaths are few. And if you only see one every 10 years, it's not going to make much of an impact on you.

J: Which forms of alternative medicine do you both, Steve included, do you find to be the worst?

MC: Worst in what way? The stupidest is homeopathy.

J: Taking people away from proper medical care and on that is the most dangerous.

MC: Oh, probably chiropractic because it's the most used.

S: In this country certainly chiropractic is the most widely used, has risks which are largely ignored by the chiropractic community. And also, I think a lot of chiropractors, so you can't make blanket statements about all chiropractors, of course, because they're so diverse in their beliefs and their practices. But a lot of them, the indirect harm from that comes from them sort of poisoning the minds of their patients against scientific medicine.

J: So chiropractic is a gateway drug.

MC: Yeah, that's a good way to phrase it. And I just get irritated about things like vaccination, something like two thirds of chiropractors and naturopaths are against vaccination. The reason we get to live to 80 is flush toilets, vaccination and good vaccine or good nutrition. And you know, to not vaccinate people because it's evil is, I think, appalling.

S: That's right. Although they're a little, some of them are coy in their opposition to vaccination.

MC: It should be a choice.

S: Have you gotten much feedback on your podcast?

MC: Just two positives and a negative so far.

R: Then you're ahead of the game.

J: Was the negative because they didn't agree with your editorial tone?

MC: No, the negative was I just can't believe it and that was it. I don't know what he could or could not believe. The other two seem to like the style in which I present the information.

S: It is a refreshing and entertaining style.

MC: Thank you.

S: But it's we've had this discussion and we've had a lot of feedback about our own tone. And I think that the skeptics in general face this question. What tone do you take? But you had a very interesting quote on your website, which I think is, I agree with and I think argues for some appropriate balance between the two extremes. And it's a quote from Thomas Jefferson, who said, "Ridicule is the only weapon that can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them." It's interesting because every now and then we may actually ridicule something on this show. And I think that's the question. Should you ridicule the ridiculous?

MC: I think you do. I like to call it evidence-based ridicule. So if I'm going to ridicule something, it should be not as sort of an ad hominim attack, though I do love those (laughter) but on the basis that here's the way the world is put together based on a thousand years of enlightenment science, this is why it's stupid. And I think if you're basing your ridicule on the data and on the science, it's not, I don't think that's the same as saying, oh yeah, you're fat. So I try and keep the evidence there to support anything that I would say that would be sarcastic or otherwise pointing out the ridiculousness of someone's deeply held beliefs. Thomas Jefferson was talking about religion there, though, not alternative medicine.

S: Keeping an open mind doesn't mean you don't eventually come to a conclusion based upon logic and evidence, and it doesn't mean that all propositions are equal.

MC: I guess I'm also trying to always figure out who my audience is, because sort of in my mind, since I spend most of my days talking to colleagues in residence.

S: Speaking of just podcasts in general, you actually have another podcast, the Infectious Disease podcast. How long have you been doing that?

MC: That one's been a year and three months. I started that August of 05, or July of 05.

R: Now, I imagine that's a pretty specific audience, but you got to that.

MC: Yeah, that's directed at infectious disease doctors in residence.

S: You actually have CME credits for that.

MC: Yeah, thank you, CME. That's much more straight ahead. I basically look at anything interesting and try and get about 30 minutes worth of updates in my field for anyone who wants to listen and get continued medical education for it. I've found that for my own personal education to be invaluable, but yeah, it's been fun.

R: Do listeners ever send you in photos of rashes and ask you to help them out?

J: Oh, I got an itch, oh my god.

MC: I've gotten to docs sending me some emails, but I don't want to see any rashes.

R: Okay, good to know.

S: So Mark, you plan on doing the podcast for a long time?

MC: Yeah, there's no end of gullibility, so I'll probably churn one out every three or four weeks. I'm in the middle of writing. Unlike the ID ones, which I can do pretty much off the top of my head because I know the field well, this I actually have to write scripts for, and that takes a good two or three weeks of careful, or maybe not so careful writing of what it is I want to say and how sarcastic I want to be. It's surprisingly hard work.

S: They're actually quite informative. You actually go over specific studies and what the results were and the problems if there were any with them. Regardless of the editorial tone, they're actually quite informative.

MC: Evidence based sarcasm.

S: Right. Absolutely.

J: What do you think of the bird flu?

MC: I don't know yet.

B: How screwed are we?

MC: Well, it depends. I don't know. The worry is it's going to jump from birds to human like the 1919 pandemic did. And if it did and if it recapitulates that particular pandemic, it is going to be an unbelievable disaster. But if we're lucky, if it jumps from birds to humans, it may lose its aggressiveness and maybe we won't be up creek without a paddle. I don't know.

B: I was just going to say that. Isn't the consensus that it's pretty much inevitable? It's going to happen.

MC: The question is whether it's this strain. I always expect that all the emphasis is being put on the current strain, so we'll get blindsided with a new strain of influenza next year that we weren't looking for and get wiped out from that one.

B: The key, I think, as I see it, is for groups like the CDC, is containment.

MC: I feel very confident after the response to Katrina that that will go very smoothly. I have great confidence in our government's ability to deal with massive disasters. I am very, very nice to the respiratory therapists and I tell them that ventilator is mine. When the time comes, I don't care who's on it, that's my ventilator.

S: Do you think we'll be able to mobilize a vaccine in time given the current state of things?

MC: I don't really know. Recently there was a report that while they're building a vaccine that is effective, the current H5N1 is already mutating to a different strain. We're stuck piling probably to a strain, if history repeats itself, that we won't be able to affect. Because every year's influenza vaccine is for last year's strain, I don't see why it wouldn't happen with this as well.

S: We would have to make the vaccine after it transformed to human transmission. How long does that take from scratch to make a new vaccine, like six months or so?

MC: About six months. The problem is that every vaccine represents a chicken egg and, of course, chickens are most susceptible to bird flu. That's always a nice combination. They said at the meetings this year that genetic production of the vaccine is in the pipeline and hopefully they should be able to turn that vaccine in just weeks or months once they get that stuff up and running. It seems real close from what they said at the meetings, but I don't have any inside scoop on that stuff.

B: Shouldn't they be investing billions of dollars in that technology? It's kind of important.

S: Bob, that's your answer to everything. I think you said about that about three things last week that we need to invest billions of dollars into.

B: There are certain things that we should invest billions of dollars in. Absolutely. You disagree?

MC: I'm always in favor of money spent on infectious diseases.

B: The key is let me decide what to spend the money on. That's the key right there.

R: I think we can all agree on that.

J: Sure.

B: So Mark, should I buy that black market Tamiflu on eBay I'm seeing or what?

MC: Well, that depends where it came from. I mean, most of the world, it's counterfeit antibiotics, so what you get will probably not have anything in it.

B: But Tamiflu, say I had access to legitimate Tamiflu, is that even worth pursuing?

MC: I don't know. The current strain seems to be so aggressively fatal when people get it that you'll probably die between your bed and the medicine cabinet.

R: So sleep tight.

MC: I mean, I think this thing is so rapid currently that I don't think Tamiflu is going to do much.

J: Mark, you have a crazy line of work in my opinion, but we can talk about that next time you come on the show. What was the grossest thing you ever saw?

B: Yeah, I want to hear this.

MC: In what respect? You mean as-

S: As infectious disease?

J: Yeah, you have a crazy job.

R: That just looks like something you saw on YouTube.

B: Any necrotizing fasciitis? Come on.

MC: That's kind of running the mill for me. Actually sights don't bother me so much as smells. And actually, one of the worst smells I ever saw was one of the things that got me interested in alternative medicine. It was an awful case. It was a young girl, like 24, who had a horrible tumor that she refused to let them imputate. And she took alternative medicine and her whole leg turned basically rotten.

B: Necrotic?

MC: Yeah. And it was pretty funky. And she died a couple of days later and she could have been cured with an amputation. That smell, I can still...

S: It haunts you still.

MC: Yeah. I mean medicine does have a lot of things that you remember vividly years and years later. And that's one of the ones. The grossest thing was probably mega-infestation, if a guy who had been beaten about the head and was laying in the park for like four or five days before he brought in the maggots between his skull and his scalp. And it looked like he had been lying in the bowl of rice for a couple of days.

R: Oh, geez.

MC: That one was...

J: But Mark, honestly...

MC: Aren't you glad you asked?

R: Yeah, good question, guys.

J: Mark, you're the guy when the leg is stinking and the guy comes in with the crap in his head. You're the guy they call to fix them.

MC: Well, yeah.

J: Like, you picked his career, man.

MC: Yeah, I did. That's a good job, actually. It's a lot of fun.

J: No, thank god for you but you're crazy.

S: Well, on that note, Mark, it was a pleasure talking with you.

MC: Thank you.

S: Appreciate you coming on the show. Good luck with the podcast.

B: Thanks, Mark.

MC: I can see a lot of things you're going to edit out in post-production.

S: One or two.

MC: Okay, good. All right.

S: Take care.

MC: Thank you.

R: Thank you, Mark.

MC: Bye.

Randi Speaks (58:02)[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: Mentalism

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. As I prepare this to send to you folks, I'm heading off to see Steve Shaw. Now that name may not be familiar to you. You may know him better as Banachek. He's going to be performing his beautiful mentalism act in Boca Raton, somewhat north of me here in Fort Lauderdale. As always, it's going to be a joy to see Steve at work. And I take a certain amount of pride in knowing that I'm responsible, to a limited extent, for his success. He is now, arguably, the most famous and most proficient in the North American continent. His calendar certainly attests to that fact. But, as most of you know, there's something else about Steve that makes him an outstanding performer. He produces all of these wonderful effect of mentalism, and at the conclusion, he tells his audience that everything they've seen is just trickery. Of course, the question here is, does that take away from the performance? I don't think so, nor does Steve. Though, as I'm sure you'll all know, there will be people in Steve's audience who will leave the theater and shrug to themselves, "I wonder why he had to tell us that, because what he's done is obviously the real thing". These are folks for whom no amount of evidence will ever suffice to prove to them that what they've seen is only a series of tricks. Very clever tricks; very, very clever tricks indeed, but tricks. Personally, I have a hard time watching magic shows or mentalism shows, as I'm going to see in another hour or so, because it's difficult to get into the mood of just enjoying the audience reaction and the effects that are produced, rather than try to figure out the trickery. In fact, at a Copperfield show some years ago, here in Fort Lauderdale, I sat with Andrew Harter, who is known as Andrew Mayne in his magician mode. And we would remark to one another, "wow, that was sensational", when, to the rest of the audience, it didn't look as if anything had really happened. We were seeing the moment of truth, you see, and that's what was important to us. Our neighbors in the audience must still think, even to this day, that they sat beside a couple of nuts. Banachek's performance is remarkable in another respect. He has never lost sight of the fact that it's his obligation to tell people in his audience that they have been fooled by a series of tricks. Now that probably arose from the fact that he was one of the two Alpha kids that I sent into a parapsychological laboratory many, many years ago with simple instructions. If you're ever asked that you're doing tricks, say "yes, and James Randi sent us." Of course, as I had predicted to the kids in advance, they would never be asked that question by the parapsychologists. That, in itself, is an interesting fact, that the parapsychologists will not ask that kind of question. And I think that it indicates they want a positive result, regardless of whether or not it's a genuine one. There are some parapsychologists, such as Susan Blackmore and Richard Wiseman, of course, to which this does not apply. Those are genuine researchers who really want to get at the truth. But that's a rather rare commodity in the field of parapsychology. Steve, or Banachek, will tell you any time you want to ask him, it was quite an easy job to fool those parapsychologists, because they were so anxious to have positive results to report. As a matter of fact, during the Alpha experiment, the kids would phone me, right after a session with the parapsychologists, report to me what had happened. And I'd immediately sit down and write a letter saying, "you know, if the kids ever decide to do this"—and I would describe just what had happened—"here's what I suggest you should do." The kids would subsequently report to me that the scientists had come to them with the statement, "just look what this fellow, James Randi, is saying about our competence." And though the kids might expect it, they never got asked the fatal question, "are you doing tricks?" They never heard that inquiry. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:02:49)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have cracked the ancient code of a 2 thousand year old astronomical calculator, revealing technological sophistication previously unknown to the ancient world.[1]
Item #2: A biochemist claims to have finally solved the long mystery of the unique quality of the Stradivarius violins.[2]
Item #3: Scientists have rediscovered a 500 year old alchemical formula for curing bacterial infections that actually works.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Bacterial infections
Science Astronomical calculator
Stradivarius violins
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Astronomical calculator
Stradivarius violins
Bacterial infections
Bacterial infections

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 skeptical rogues to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme for this week. I like themes.

R: Hooray.

S: The theme is ancient mysteries. You all ready?

J: I'm so good at these, yeah, let's go.

S: Number one, scientists have cracked the ancient code of a 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator revealing technological sophistication previously unknown to the ancient world. Item number two, a biochemist claims to have finally solved the long mystery of the unique quality of the Stradivarius violins. And item number three, scientists have rediscovered a 500-year-old alchemical formula for curing bacterial infections that actually works. Jay, why don't you go first?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Okay, first question is, you said the first one was like a calculator?

S: An astronomical calculator or computer.

J: It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever.

S: It actually processes information in order to make astronomical predictions when there's going to be a full moon, blah, blah, blah.

J: Okay, it's a device.

S: Yes, a device.

J: The violin thing, the guy can tell why they sound so good. I will go with the first one as false.

S: The astronomical calculator?

J: Yeah.

S: Okay, Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: The one about the violin. That one sounds plausible, so I'll say that one's fiction. There you go.

S: Okay. Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: The problem is all of these are plausible. There's no brain hyperdimensional matrix baloney in any of this stuff.

S: That would be too easy.

J: You're still pissed off about that, aren't you, Bob?

B: I can't believe somebody suggested that. Okay, geez, I have no idea. Let me get my coin out. Scientists cracked the code of an ancient calculator. I've seen these huge constructs. They're not like little calculators. These are huge things. I've seen them, and they can be used to give some pretty good approximations as to when these celestial events are going to happen, so that seems damn plausible to me. I've heard of lots of scientists solving the mystery of the unique sound of Stradivarius's or Stradivarii, so the fact that somebody else came up with another thing doesn't really surprise me either. I mean, I don't know what would prevent an alchemist from centuries ago to throw together some chemicals that just happens to work against killing bacteria.

J: So you have no answer at this point.

E: They're all right.

B: I'll take four, number four. I'll go with three, I guess.

S: Okay, Rebecca?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: I'll go with that one too, and I'll keep it short just to make up for that rambling nonsense that just happened.

S: So we have Jay for astronomical calculator, Evan for Stradivarius, and then Bob and Rebecca for the alchemical formula. So let's take them in order.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: The astronomical calculator is science. This is a really cool thing. This is an international team have been working on this 2,000-year-old, what they're calling computer, I mean those computations or calculations, that was built to predict astronomical events. This is called the Antikythera mechanism, because that's the name of the island that it was found on. This is a Greek device. It's a wooden and bronze case containing more than 30 gears. It was found by divers exploring a shipwreck off the island of Antikythera at the turn of the 20th century, as they've been working on this for 100 years.

B: It's intact?

S: They've been trying to, well, it was intact enough. It didn't function, so they've been trying to reconstruct it so that it actually functions. And the detailed work on the gears and the mechanism show that it was able to track astronomical movements with remarkable precision. And it actually represents a level of technology that was previously unknown at that time in the ancient world, in Greece. Professor Edmonds said, this device is just extraordinary, the only thing of its kind. The design is beautiful, the astronomy is exactly right. The way the mechanics are designed just makes your jaw drop. Whoever has done this has done it extremely well. So that's very interesting. Some genius from a couple thousand years ago put that thing together.

E: Or mad scientist.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: The next one is about the Stradivarius, and this one is also science. You're right, Bob, I think it was you who said that every couple of years somebody comes out with their theory for why the Stradivarius was uniquely beautiful in its sound. In fact, I did a little research, a little searching, and I found multiple news items about this. The most recent one was from 2003, so just three years ago. This is published on BBC News. Scientists from Columbia and Tennessee universities in the U.S. said that the sun's declining output at the time that the Stradivarius violins were being made made trees grow slower and therefore the wood was denser, it was the increased density of the wood that made the sound more rich and fulsome. But it turns out that that may not be the case. So this was published recently in the current issue of Nature Magazine. This was a professor emeritus, Joseph Nagevery, from Texas A&M, and he apparently has been working on this problem for 30 years. And he now claims that his research proves unquestionably that the wood of the great masters was subjected to an aggressive chemical treatment and that the chemicals, most likely some sort of oxidizing agents, had a crucial role in creating the great sound of the Stradivarius and the Guarneri. It's another type of violin. He says, like many discoveries, this one could have been accidental. Perhaps the violin makers were not even aware of the acoustical effects of the chemicals. Nature is pretty prestigious, appears to be a fairly definitive discovery. I guess it doesn't rule out other factors as well, but it's funny that this has been such an enduring scientific mystery for so many centuries.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: And of course that means that the alchemists identifying or rediscovering a 500-year-old alchemical formula for curing bacterial infections that actually works is fiction. However, it's not that far off from a real story. Scientists have actually solved a 500-year-old alchemical mystery. This is another Nature article. Researchers have found using chemical and X-ray diffraction analysis that Hessian crucible makers used an advanced material only properly identified and named in the 20th century. So they had come upon a way of making crucibles that's the dishes in which you mix chemicals that could withstand a lot of heat and chemicals without corroding or breaking down. Then it was actually, it was not known for a long time how they did it. They kept their technology as a trade secret and the information was lost. And now 500 years later, it's being rediscovered. Dr. Marcos Martinin-Torres of the UCL Institute of Archaeology who led the study explained, "Our analysis of the 50 Hessian and non-Hessian crucibles revealed that the secret component in their manufacture is an aluminum silicate known as mullite." So that was the rediscovered ancient alchemical secret. But the bit about the antibiotic I made up.

E: Ancient alchemical secret, eh?

B: Now is it something that we can take advantage of or is it just a curiosity?

S: That's a good question. The article didn't go into that. I don't know if this is something that already exists technologically. They just didn't know how they did it or if this is actually a new piece of information that we could use. That's a good question. So Bob and Rebecca, congratulations.

R: Thank you.

J: Well met.

R: Yet another win.

S: Yet another one. You guys are keeping your percentages going.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:11:21)[edit]

Last Week's puzzle

Albert Einstein
John Locke (philosopher)
Herbert Hoover (31st US president)
Robert Boyle (father of modern chemistry)
Gen. George S. Patton

Each of these famous people have had a hand in this pseudoscience.

Name the pseudoscience.

Answer: Dowsing
Winner: Larry Keim

This Week's puzzle
This person had good motives in mind when he proposed that mans
activities occur in predictable waves. He took stock in this belief, and
in his own bullish way, brought his philosophy to bear. Perhaps he
should have invested more time in his research, for he could have used
some corrections to realize his theory would crash.

Who is this person?

S: Evan.

E: Hi.

S: Give us, please read last week's puzzle and then give us the answer. Last week's puzzle is as such. Albert Einstein, John Locke, Herbert Hoover, Robert Boyle, and General George S. Patton. Each of these famous people have had a hand in this pseudoscience. Name the pseudoscience.

S: And the answer is?

E: And the answer I was looking for, and I'll explain that in a minute, is that they all in varying degrees had a less than skeptical opinion regarding dowsing, if you can believe it.

S: Dowsing, yes.

E: Now, there were a couple different answers that came through on the message boards, including some suggestions were alchemy, intelligent design, and the folks who did that had put their references up there and gave the quotes and so forth as to why they thought. And I guess those could be conceived. But note I said each of these famous people have had a hand in the pseudoscience. The hand being the key word there as to what I was going after with dowsing, which is of course attributable to the ideomotor effect, slight, very slight movements of the hand to achieve the desired effect.

S: Clever, Mr. Bernstein.

E: Well, thank you. And so-

S: You had one email and one person on the message board get it right.

E: Yes. So on November 27th, a gentleman named Larry Keam, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly, submitted an email and was the first to correctly suggest that it was dowsing. So congratulations, Larry. You were first.

R: Congratulations.

E: However, as far as the message boards go, Reality Rain Check was the first one to get it right on the message boards the next day. And Reality Rain Check did a very good job of citing those references and finding them. So you can go and check the message board from episode 70 and you can take a look at what each of those people, how they each had a hand, as they say, in dowsing.

S: So that does bring up the point, though, that although there may be more than one technically correct answer, that this is also a puzzle and is also a clue to distinguish what the preferred answer is. So the people who gave answers which were reasonable, they still didn't figure out what the puzzle piece of it was. And the reason why I say that is because Cosmic Vagabond has broke his winning streak by giving the incorrect answer this week. Although his answer was perfectly reasonable, it wasn't the one you were going for.

E: Exactly. Exactly correct. Thank you, Steve.

S: Can you read this week's puzzle?

E: I can. This person had good motives in mind when he proposed that man's activities occur in predictable waves. He took stock in this belief, and in his own bullish way he brought his philosophy to bear. Perhaps he should have invested more time in his research, for he could have used some corrections to realize his theory would crash. Who is this person? Good luck, folks.

S: Okay. Interesting as always.

Quote of the Week (1:14:31)[edit]

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite.- Bertrand Russell

S: And as always, we have been ending our podcast with a skeptical quote provided by Bob.

B: Yes, I have one from Bertrand Russell, British philosopher, logician, essayist, and social critic. He said, "What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out, which is the exact opposite."

S: Absolutely.

J: That's a cool quote.

E: Very good.

S: It is. Very pithy. Thank you all again, as usual, for joining me.

B: Good episode.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Very good.

J: Thanks.

S: And thanks for everyone out there. Again, a quick reminder. We will all be at TAM 5 this year in January. That's January 18th through the 21st. So check the JREF webpage. It's still not too late to sign up for that. We hope to see you there. And Rebecca, how are those calendars coming?

R: They just came from the printer. I am covered in hundreds of them right now, and they will be shipping out in the next few days. If you already ordered them, check your mailbox beginning next week if you're in the U.S., maybe a little longer if you're international. We'd still stand to sell a few more, though. So if you haven't gotten yours, you can go to and pick up yours.

S: Excellent. Thanks again, everyone.

J: Thanks, Steve.

R: Thank you.

E: Thank you. Good night.

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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