SGU Episode 73

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SGU Episode 73
13th Dec 2006
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 72                      SGU 74

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


AW: Alan Wallace

Quote of the Week

Coincidence is the science of the true believer.

Chet Raymo

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, December 13th, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. And joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hey, everyone.

S: And making his triumphant return, Perry DeAngelis.

P: Yaaay!

S: Perry, welcome back.

B: Welcome back, Perry.

P: Thank you. Hello, everybody.

S: How are you feeling?

P: I'm feeling much better; thank you very much. It's good to be back with the skeptical rogues and all the rest of you. I did spend a couple of gruesome weeks in the hospital. I was trundling in the thread between life and death, but I'm back now.

R: Your two fans were very worried.

S: (chuckles) They both were very worried.

P: It's a vibrant forum going back and forth between me and those two guys. And I'd like to say a special thanks to Nandes; he's the one who started a "get well" thread about me on the forums. All such well wishes always help when you're ailing. So thanks Nandes and all the rest of you who wrote. As I told them on there, I really am—really am feeling much better. Went to the hospital; I had—some systems were shut down; my kidneys, and... I wasn't eating. I was transitioning, as I said, basically between life and death. But they were able to pull me back at the hospital, at Yale Medical Center—Steve's hospital of record, and I feel much better now.

S: Excellent.

P: I lost some significant weight; they fo—we did find a serious underlying condition, which is pulmonary venous hypertension, but we're aware of it now, so there's a treatment course now. And you know, it's good to be aware of what's been troubling me these past—actually couple of years. So we're going to work on that now; we're going to get better and stronger, and... we're back!

S: Well, it's great to have you back.

E: Amen.

R: We're all happy to hear it.

P: Thank you. Moving on...

News Items[edit]

Tree Octopus (2:10)[edit]

Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus

University of Connecticut: Researchers find kids need better online academic skills

S: So moving on to the Pacific Northwest tree octopus. Are you guys familiar with this very exotic and rare animal?

R: Let's get top the really important stuff.

S: Have you ever seen pictures of the tree octopus?

R: Yes.

B: Pretty compelling.

R: Oh, yeah.

R: It's kind of adorable.

E: It looks like an octopus in a tree.

S: It does. It does. It's an endangered species. This was kind of a science project. For those of you out there who may not have guessed by now, the tree octopus is an internet hoax, if you will. There's no such thing as a tree octopus. But there are some sites online, which, of course, we'll have the links to, which show lots of pictures and stories about the tree octopus and why it's an endangered species and what you could do about it. And science teachers at UConn use this to test the internet savvy and the internet skepticism of their students.

R: And how did the students fare?

S: Well.

E: A hundred percent.

S: A hundred percent failed to recognize that it was a hoax. So they literally bought it hook, line and sinker, which the test was meant to test their skills at evaluating the credibility of internet sites. These are seventh grade students. And the other interesting thing is after these are 25 students, all 25 rated the site as very credible. Most struggled when asked to prove to produce proof or even clues that the website was false. They didn't know how to go about doing that. And some of the students still insisted vehemently that the Pacific Northwest tree octopus really exists, even after they were shown that it was a hoax.

E: That's the most remarkable part of that to me.

R: That's a little scary.

S: And these students were identified as their school's most proficient online readers. So these were not the bottom of the barrel. These were the cream of the crop.

R: It kind of reminds me of the spaghetti harvest.

S: Yeah, the spaghetti harvest.

R: Only those were adults that got taken in. So I guess we can't be too harsh.

S: The bottom line is the internet is a tremendous source of information and knowledge. I do not know how I lived prior to the internet. I, in fact, am skeptical that I did live before the internet.

R: I don't think anyone actually existed.

B: I think it was called a library.

S: What now?

P: It was. Remember the encyclopedia?

R: Oh, you mean in the meat space?

E: Used in all through college.

S: But the internet is a double edged sword in that there's a lot of misinformation on the internet. In fact, it's probably mostly misinformation. And it's good that-

R: I wouldn't call pornography misinformation per se.

P: The misinformation is sandwiched between the pornography.

R: Okay. That's why I didn't notice it.

S: If you take out the pornography, most of what's left is misinformation. So it is good that academia, if you will, is focusing its attention on this issue and identifying it as a problem. And hopefully we'll start teaching the public and students how to be more skeptical online.

P: It's interesting. I mean, before the internet, did academia spend time teaching students which books were nonsense?

S: That's part of just scholarship skills, knowing how to evaluate. And I remember that vaguely from even my high school, even grade school days. Trying to decide what sources are credible, what books are serious and would be reliable for research. And this now needs to extend to the internet.

E: It says here, one percent to ten percent of students, depending on the school, said they always check the accuracy of information they read online. Only one percent. One to ten percent.

S: That's low at the low end.

E: It's astonishingly low.

P: And it's not always straightforward how to check the accuracy.

S: Right.

P: That takes some doing itself.

S: It takes some digging.

P: That's a skill set.

S: Sometimes I do a lot of digging before I decide if something's real or not.

P: Absolutely.

Iran's Holocaust Denial (6:06)[edit]

S: Moving on all the way to Iran. And President Ahmadinejad, as he promised, held a conference on the Holocaust.

R: Speaking of sadly misinformed, go on.

S: Well, I don't think he's misinformed at all.

R: No, I meant Perry.

S: Oh, yes, yes. Well, that means no.

P: I'm sorry?

S: Actually, I thought the most pithy statement on this was was written by George Will, who said that Ahmadinejad denies that the Holocaust happened and vows to complete it. So he is a Holocaust denier. And this is he's held a conference where he invited all of the revisionists and Holocaust deniers and pseudoscientists.

P: David Duke was there to honor the US.

S: Together to talk about how the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy. And didn't really happen. So it's a classic example of politics and ideology trumping scholarship science, in this case, history that the Holocaust actually happened.

R: It's one of the more insidious, I think, conspiracy theories out there.

S: It is.

R: It just really helps foster the rampant bigotry that we have out there already.

E: Yep. Couched in bigotry and hatred and anti-Semitism. I mean, there's no two ways around it.

P: Well, you have to you your goal of the president of Iran is to destroy Israel. And if you're going to make that your public out of the closet statement, well, then you want a little science to back it up. You want to say these people are foul. They have no reason for existence. They're all liars and cheats. And now it's not a lot easier for us to nuke them.

S: That's the ultimate. That's the ultimate Holocaust denial is that when push comes to shove, they say, well, that's mainly it's all based upon the eyewitness accounts of Jews. And they're all liars. So we could comfortably dismiss all of their eyewitness reports and all the evidence that that entails.

P: Well, one final thing on this conference. It was good to see the premiere of Germany. Her name escapes me. Merkel. She was out so strongly condemning this ridiculous conference today. And I mean, that was good to see. I mean, this is the prime minister of Germany. I mean, that's not good authority on the nonsense. That disgraceful conference. I don't know what is, but that was good. That was good to see.

S: 12 European countries have outlawed Holocaust denial, including Germany and Austria. And I take exception to that. I don't think that we should outlaw stupidity. I think you especially in this sense, you just you should deal with it through scholarship and direct confrontation.

B: We don't have enough prisons.

E: It effectively is giving it gave Iran the purpose, if you can call it that. And Steve, about what you're saying there, in that they're saying because Europe arrest people who do want to talk about it, come to Iran, come to our conference. We don't arrest people for talking about or discussing such things. It gives it like this air of credibility.

R: Like they're suppressing the truth.

P: I'm having a Mohammed was a fraud conference in Tehran next week. There there's such a-

R: Good luck with that.

P: -believers on free speech.

R: We actually we talked about this topic way back when what's his face got arrested in Germany.

S: Yeah, we did.

R: And yeah, I think the point still remains that the fact that they're having this conference, it gives us the ability to recognize where the bigotry is and to publicly show why they're completely wrong in all the crap that they're spewing. If we didn't let them say it, then we wouldn't be able to combat it nearly as easily.

S: That's a good point.

Questions and Emails (10:08)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on to your emails. First, I'd like to say there was a couple of question raised on our message about where the notes are for the episodes. And just to clarify, every episode does have have a Notes page, and on the on our home page at, the current week's episode and last week's episode is on the home page, and the link to episode info, that's the Notes page. And if you go to the archive of shows, the far-right column where it says "info"; that's the Notes page for each episode, so just—there was some confusion about that, so just wanted to clarify that. As always, we are receiving a steady stream—in fact, an increasing stream of emails. They're all wonderful; keep them coming.

Science and the Supernatural (11:06)[edit]

S: We have a longer than usual interview this week coming up with Alan Wallace, so we're just going to do one email this week. This one comes from Sean Castrillo in New Orleans. How ya doing, Sean; hope you're doing well down in New Orleans. He writes:

Hello Everyone,
I enjoy listening to the podcast each week and it is, by far, my favorite of all the podcasts out there.

E: Mine too. Mine too.

R: Aw shucks.

P: Goes without saying, basically.

S: Let me get to his question; I'll skip over the rest of his praise.

R: No, go back and say the first part again.

My question for the panel to discuss is this: Is there any potential evidence, experience or phenomenon that you would deem supernatural, if you were to encounter it? Why do I ask this? Well, I have not been able to come up with anything while I ponder it. Anything I come up with on my own would just have me thinking that whatever it was, was something that science had not yet explained. Example: If the skies were to open up and a giant man were to appear claiming to be God, I would not automatically assume it was God. It may be a sufficiently advanced civilization attempting to fool us or mass hallucinations. The only thing I think comes close would be if someone were to accurately and, in detail, predict the future 100 percent of the time. And still, I would try to find the scientific answer to why this was happening. Ghosts, mind-reading, etc. If anyone were able to demonstrate any of these phenomena with reasonable evidence, I would still say there was a scientific and not supernatural explanation for them. So, to the panel: Is there anything that would indicate to you that it was supernatural in origin or is everything explainable within the physical world even if we cannot explain it yet?

P: The ubiquitous marriage proposals that Rebecca gets is clear sign of the supernatural at work.

R: That is so not supernatural; that's all natural. All natural, baby.

P: Completely bizarre and beyond explanation.

E: I think it's an example of the power of suggestion, myself.


S: Mass psychosis?

B: Ohh! Good one, Evan.

R: You know... how did this suddenly turn into a slam against me? Amazing.

E: I'm saying that this whole snowballing thing has... this thing is snowballing... Uh, you know, for—

S: It's definitely taken on a life of its own. Well, let's—let's get back to the question.

R: (laughs)

P: Excuse me. We're addressing the question; thank you very much.

R: Anyway...

P: That's fine.

S: It is a very interesting question. It gets back, basically, to philosophy of science and epistemology, and in a way, Sean has hit upon something in that really, there—you cannot ever prove that something is supernatural, right? Any phenomenon that exists either cannot yet be explained, which we cannot assume it is therefore unexplainable.

P: Right; unexplained doesn't mean unexplainable.

S: Or we can at least come up with some hypothesis about how it could be explained within the physical universe.

R: Well, yeah, I mean, that's just it; you're talking to people who consider themselves skeptics, and as such, are going to apply skepticism to just about everything, or everything in a perfect world. And so, you know, if a magical leprechaun were to suddenly materialize in front of me, I wouldn't say, "oh, wow, magic;" I'd grab the little bugger (giggles) and I would immediately start performing tests on him (giggles) to figure out what that's all about.

E: Shake him for his pot of gold.

R: (laughs) Then I would find his magical gold (giggles) and also his lucky charms.

S: What this gets down to is, what is the definition of supernatural? Now, you can have an operative definition, which basically says anything which we can't explain with the physical sciences is therefore, by definition, supernatural. But that's not a good definition, because there are things that we can't explain that are still not supernatural. So, how—how do we distinguish explained but natural from unexplained versus supernatural, and the bottom line is, we can't, by definition, because it's unexplained. And you can, if you're willing to hypothesize things like super-advanced alien species that can time travel and create, you know, holograms of anything that we might want to see or directly jack into our brains and induce experiences at will, then the bottom line is, you can't distinguish unexplained natural from unexplained supernatural. So, the point really is, is that science cannot deal with the supernatural, because it cannot be subjected to any kind of empirical testing or hypothesis testing or falsification. So the bigger question is—is then, if we did live in a paranormal universe—first of all, what would that mean; what does supernatural or paranormal mean?

P: Of course.

S: And if we did, how would we know?

R: Yeah, I mean, it would really mean that you've got a new set of laws to work under.

S: Right.

P: Exactly.

S: Right. You could just say there are laws that we don't know yet. Although, you could say that what it means is that there are phenomenon that do not obey the laws of our universe; that are outside the laws of our universe, in which case, I would argue that we as creatures within the universe, cannot know about such things. Or, that the laws of the universe are not immutable; that they can be violated at will—

E: Manipulated.

S: Yeah. And the only thing that that would result in is that science would run up against problems, mysteries, unexplained phenomenon that it could not explain. And that repeat—and not because they're unexplainable in principle; it's just that we cannot achieve any progress scientifically against them, because the materialistic knowable assumptions of science are just not able to deal with it. So far, if you look at the meta-experiment of the last 300 years of science, we haven't run up against things which have persistently defied our attempts at trying to explain them naturalistically. That doesn't mean we can explain everything, or that we can explain everything quickly. So far, the natural world seems to be continuing to yield to our scientific investigations. And if there were supernatural aspects to the universe, it would not; it would not yield to the scientific methodology.

B: Steve, what about people that would say to you at the point; at this point, that "well, that's why we're not making progress at scientifically nailing down, you know, ESP or ghosts or whatever, is because you can't pin it down scientifically, so that shows that that's paranormal."

R: Well, no, that's because they're claiming that that paranormal quote-unquote "ability" has a real effect in the material world. And once you claim that, that means that it can be tested, and really that means it's not technically paranormal. That means that if it's got an effect in the real world, it's got something that we can study. I mean, at this point—

B: Absolutely I agree, but Steve, you might want to change how you said that, though—

S: Well, the other false premise there, Bob, in what you just said, is that those phenomenon actually exist as phenomenon. And what I'm saying is they don't.

B/R: Right.

S: ESP does not exist as—so before you try to explain something, you have to prove that it actually exists. So far we haven't proven the existence of ESP.

P: The people who advocate ESP—exactly; they've brought forth no evidence to even show that it functions on any level.

S: But if, however, ESP could be demonstrated to exist; demonstrably, repeatedly, it—clearly; you know, there is a phenomenon there that will not go away; that definitely exists and yet defied every attempt at explaining it scientifically; in fact that we couldn't even begin to think about how we could explain it, you still wouldn't know that it was supernatural; it would just be something that's beyond our current understanding of science. But if, after centuries, it still refused to yield, at least then, it's still an argument from ignorance; it's still a "god of the gaps" argument. But at least then you would have some reason to say "well maybe, you know, our science is not able to deal with this because it's a phenomenon outside the laws as we know them." But we're not even anywhere close to that on anything.

P: No. Not on anything "supernatural", quote-unquote. Absolutely not.

S: They haven't even gotten up to bat; they haven't even shown that it exists as a phenomenon. Well, let's go to our interview.

Interview with B. Alan Wallace (19:15)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Dr. Alan Wallace. Alan, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

AW: Thank you, Stephen.

S: Dr. Wallace is a practitioner of Buddhism who also has taught Buddhist theory and meditation throughout Europe and America since 1976. So you've been at this for quite some time.

AW: Yeah, I'm getting along in the two.

S: And you also have an undergraduate degree in physics and the philosophy of science at Amherst College.

AW: Correct.

S: And you came to my attention because you've written some articles and some interviews were written about you in and elsewhere. And again, for our listeners, we'll have all of these on the notes page. And you've written a lot about the current state of neuroscience and how it relates to consciousness. And you have a different take on consciousness than the conventional view within the scientific community. Can you summarize that for us?

AW: Yeah, but rather than immediately going to a conclusion of what I think is most important and kind of what I'm really kind of promoting, is not a worldview or belief system or some particular form of religion, but rather opening up the very sense of empiricism in the scientific context to start taking the first-person experience of mental phenomena very, very seriously and devising rigorous means for observing mental phenomena, as the natural sciences have already devised extremely rigorous means of observing physical phenomena, as in physics, chemistry and biological phenomena, as in the life sciences. But the great lacuna here from my perspective is that the cognitive sciences, while they've become extremely expert in studying mental phenomena indirectly by way of behavior, by facial expression, interrogation and so forth, and studying mental phenomena indirectly by studying the neural bases or causes of mental states and phenomena, ever since William James or if we wanted to go back, we could go back to Descartes or even Aristotle, the West has not really developed, particularly science has not developed very sophisticated means for directly observing and investigating mental phenomena from the first-person perspective. And so this is where I think the contemplative traditions of the world and what I'm most familiar with, Buddhism, may have a lot to contribute here. And when one emphasizes that, the actual direct observation of mental phenomena and devising a very, very sophisticated, rigorous means of observing, penetrating, probing the nature of consciousness, different states of consciousness and a wide range of mental phenomena, then one quite naturally comes out with a different view of the nature and origin of consciousness than if all of your methods of inquiry are confined to studying mental states, states of consciousness, mental processes by way of physical expressions and physical causes. So I think the primary emphasis here should be on methodology rather than just kind of taking conclusions, because then it looks like we're right back to just kind of one theory versus another theory or religion versus science, which is really not what I'm interested in.

S: So how is studying different mental states different than, say, psychology? Why isn't psychology the study of different mental states?

AW: Psychology certainly is.

S: So what's different about what you're proposing?

AW: Well, psychology, if we include clinical psychology, psychotherapy, and then this wide range of cognitive psychology, affective psychology, behavioral psychology, and so forth, all of these different modes of academic and clinical psychology all have something in common. And that is they're all trying to understand the mind, mental states, processes, conscious and unconscious states of consciousness by way of physical phenomena. Whether it's the psychoanalyst interrogating his or her client, whether it's a person working in the field of psychophysics, again it's working with somebody else's mental states, cognitive psychology, affective psychology, all of these, and for that matter cognitive neuroscience, are all studying mental phenomena indirectly, again by way of behavioral expressions and neural causes. But so often and very oddly to my mind, they're treating the actual kind of space or domain or realm of experience of mental phenomena themselves as if this were a kind of a black box situation. I'm using that word technically, a black box situation being one in which in principle you can't peer into the black box, which is kind of a hidden realm of reality. You can only send in stimuli and you can receive output. But contemplatives all over the world from India, Tibet, Greece and Europe and so forth have known for thousands of years that in fact a wide range of mental phenomena can be probed and understood from a first person perspective by actually looking at mental phenomena themselves. Now here's the catch and that is when you observe mental phenomena, and I'm referring to mental images, thoughts, dreams, memories, fantasies and so forth, when you actually observe them directly, then you note, one of the first things you note, which Descartes noted, was they don't seem to have any physical attributes at all. For example, a mental image of your mother's face, for example, doesn't have mass, it doesn't have a spatial location, it doesn't move through space. In fact it doesn't have any physical characteristics at all. So let's imagine right now you generate an image of your mother's face. As you observe it, it has no physical characteristics. Now bring out the whole battery of measurements that we have from all of the sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, and you'll find that that image of your mother's mental face can't be detected, cannot be measured with any of the instruments that are designed across the whole swath of scientific inquiry. None of those instruments can actually detect that image of your mother's face.

S: But neuroscience has tools that could image the correlates of activity in the brain that correspond to you imagining your mother's face. Why is that not adequate?

AW: Well, your phrasing is interesting. I think you spoke well, but even there I'd want to caveat. You said, and in principle you're quite right, the cognitive neurosciences using fMRI, EEG, and so forth are able, as you said, to measure, detect with great precision the correlates that correspond to that mental image of the mother's face. But again, now we have to raise the issue, what do you mean by corresponds to? Number one, they're not equivalent. Christophe Koch, who's doing some of the finest research, probably the cutting edge research on the neurocorrelates of consciousness, the NCC, commented just recently that the more he looks into this matter, it looks like mental images, mental experience, subjective experience, is simply irreducible to the neurocorrelates. That is, by understanding the neurocorrelates, you don't understand the mental phenomena themselves. By understanding the mental phenomena, you certainly don't get a clue about the neurocorrelates. And so when we say the word correspond, I think we have to unpack that. And that is, there are two ways of looking at it. One is, when we speak of a correlate, of a brain function and a mental experience, one way of understanding a correspondence or correlation is that they are in fact equivalent, the two. For example, the mental image of your mother and whatever's happening in your cortex at that time, which is very clearly correlated to that mental image. One possibility is that the two are in fact identical and you're simply looking at one phenomenon, one entity, from two different perspectives. The first person perspective seeing the image, the third person perspective seeing the electrochemical events in the brain corresponding to that mental image. But in fact there's no evidence that they are one and the same. And Christophe Coq is suggesting they're probably not one and the same. Where we have an overwhelming amount of utterly compelling evidence, which I embrace wholeheartedly, is that these neural events, the neurocorrelates, actually had a causal role in generating or at least contributing to the generation of subjective experience. But if that kind of correlation is not a correlation of identity, it's a causal relationship and in fact there's a time lag. Generally speaking, the neuroscientists that I work with, and I'm working with about four or five teams of them right now in various projects, I think the general consensus here is that the time lag is roughly 100 milliseconds. So you'll see a neural event, insofar as this can be gauged, about 100 milliseconds, so a tenth of a second or so, after the neurocorrelate occurs, then you'll have the subjective experience that is related to its preceding causal neural event. But that leaves something of a mystery, of the nature of the mental phenomenon itself, and frankly it remains an open question whether the neural events themselves are both necessary and sufficient for generating subjective mental experience.

S: I think I would have to disagree with you on your ultimate conclusion of that. I think that, first of all, I think we have established that it is necessary in every way you choose to look at it. The brain activity does have to be present for the subjective experience to exist. So far, no one has been able to document any situation in which somebody can have an experience without some kind of corresponding brain activity. And also anything that we think of as our awareness or consciousness or the mind can be localized to a part of the brain, and you could turn it off by turning off that part of the brain. So if you look at it forwards or backwards, it seems that the brain not only causes the subjective experience, that it's also sufficient to explain it.

AW: Well, yes and no. I think everything you said is very well based on empirical evidence, but I think you're overinterpreting the evidence in the following way.

S: In what way?

AW: First of all, brain functions. Are they necessary for the generation of any type of any state of consciousness? There are people in artificial intelligence that will say no, even if they don't have conscious computers yet. As you well know, there's a lot of speculation from MIT and other major, major research institutions that you don't need a brain to generate states of consciousness or any type of...

S: Well, frankly though, that's a non-sequitur, because all you're saying is that you have a computer brain that potentially could create a state of consciousness.

AW: It's not a non-sequitur. I'm just taking this step by step. Is the human brain necessary? Is the brain necessary?

S: But I didn't say the human brain was necessary for any state of consciousness. The human brain is necessary for a human consciousness. A computer brain might be able to create artificial computer consciousness, but that has nothing to do with the relationship between the human brain and human consciousness.

AW: No, I'm speaking as a philosopher and speaking more generally here. There's no disagreement with what you're saying, but as a philosopher, I'm trying to speak as precisely as I can, because I think what happens a lot is that language is used somewhat sloppily, and then we draw conclusions that are not warranted by the empirical facts.

S: But you accept my clarification, then.

AW: Yes, and all I'm saying is that generally, is a brain necessary for the generation of conscious and mental states? The answer is we don't know. We don't know.

S: But so far, something is necessary. Something physical is necessary.

AW: That's so open that nobody could disagree with that.

S: But I mean that something physical is necessary, because so far, no one has been able to document the existence of any kind of mental or consciousness state without some physical object creating it, being necessary for it, and correlated to it.

AW: I want to take this step by step. In fact, I don't agree with that point.

S: So then what's an example of it? Then give me an example.

AW: I'm going to go step by step here. I'm not going to be rushed. And so first of all, just philosophically, a brain is not necessary for the generation. That is, we don't know. Maybe it is. I mean, I feel rather dubious about computers actually being conscious. But I don't rule it out in principle. I want to keep an open mind. I don't think there's any evidence that any computer is conscious thus far. There is a problem there, and that is if a computer were to be conscious, how would you know it? Because what is missing, one of the missing links here, is an instrument for which there's a name, but there's no reality. And what a psychometer would do, it would be like a Geiger counter for states of consciousness. So that would be a very nifty instrument. I wish such existed.

S: But such an instrument probably never will exist, however.

AW: Why do you say that?

S: I agree with the basic premise, which I know you've stated in many of your articles, that consciousness is a subjective experience. There's no question about that. We can experience consciousness. It doesn't really have any physical existence as such outside of our subjective experience. Although it exists within a physical matrix, and we could measure that. We could measure everything about the electrical activity of the brain. We can image the neurons metabolizing and firing, and that correlates so intimately with our subjective experience of consciousness. And again, every way it's been looked at, the correlation holds up to the point that we can infer that consciousness is a phenomenon of the brain.

AW: And not everybody agrees, but certainly the mainstream science, the mainstream research, is going exactly there. It would be very nifty. There is a missing link, though, and that is a psychometer. So since we don't have that, it's not clear to me how researchers in artificial intelligence would ever know that their computer or the robot actually is conscious.

S: I agree with that. We may never know.

AW: Yeah. And so we don't know that, and we don't really know, although I have a strong assumption, that minerals aren't conscious. And we don't know whether plants, including the fly-eating plants, it would be nice to know whether they're conscious, but I don't know that either. But we don't know, actually, when an unborn fetus becomes conscious. Likewise, at the other end of life, if a person is suffering from Alzheimer's or goes into a vegetative state and so forth, we don't know when they lose consciousness.

S: Well, it's not black and white. I mean, would you agree it's a continuum?

AW: I would agree with that, yeah.

S: There's no objective demarcation line. There's different levels of consciousness.

AW: Well, there's no objective line at all that is apart from behavior. That is, somebody tells you, hey, Jack, I'm conscious, or displays something that looks an awful lot like behavior that you and I experience when we're suffering or when we're experiencing pleasure.

S: We can infer the existence of consciousness based upon behavior and what people can report, what they could think, say, feel and do.

AW: Right. And I'm using the word consciousness in, I think, a very generous sense. And that is, I am completely convinced that, for example, dogs and cats and even rodents are conscious. I mean, conscious in the sense that they feel something. They had some subjective experience of pleasure or pain. They want the pleasure. They don't want the pain. And so it goes down pretty far. Now, how far does it go down to a hydra, which is the most fundamental microorganism that has a nervous system, a rudimentary nervous system? Is that necessary? Or is an amoeba that has no nervous system, simply a single cell, is that sufficient? Or how about a virus or an RNA molecule? And once again, when we get on the borders, it becomes very, very dubious exactly where you draw the line.

S: Agreed.

AW: So the necessary causes we don't know. That is, you start out with a real live conscious human being that's every bit as conscious as we are, we assume, and then you just start damaging the brain. The assumption here is they're shutting down and when you damage the brain sufficiently with a sledgehammer or just stop its blood flow and so forth, then all mental activity ceases and consciousness is completely vanished.

S: Right.

AW: So it's a good working hypothesis, given the methodologies that are being used, which are all physically based. But of course, if there's any, if there's any type of consciousness that is not physically based, then your methods that are limited to studying consciousness by way of physical basis, in principle, have no possibility of accessing them. The notion that it's impossible for any state of consciousness to arise without some type of a physical substrate is in fact an untestable hypothesis. So I don't see that as a, technically speaking, and I have a lot of background in philosophy of science, a scientific theory as opposed to a philosophical hypothesis or a religious belief is one that must be testable empirically and preferably, following the lead of Karl Popper, it must lend itself to repudiation. So I put the question to you, and that is, in the spirit of true skepticism, a skeptic is skeptical not only of other people's beliefs but of one's own assumptions. Otherwise one is just a dogmatist. The Pope is a skeptic. And so can you envision a scientific experiment, a rigorous mainstream scientific experiment, that actually could in principle repudiate the hypothesis that all possible states of consciousness must have a physical basis for their generation? How would you repudiate that? Can you design an experiment?

S: Well, the short answer is no, but it's because you're stating it in a way, it's kind of a straw man, because what you're saying is, can you prove that it's impossible and science does not operate that way?

AW: Oh no, but science repudiates theories all the time. I radically beg to differ. For example, the luminiferous ether was widely accepted, almost universally accepted by physicists until even Lord Kelvin was still banking on it in the year 1900. But it was quite unequivocally repudiated with negative evidence in 1887 by the Michelson-Morley experiment. Everybody had assumed that there must be a mechanical explanation for the propagation of electromagnetic fields through empty space, because they were assuming there was a mechanical explanation for everything, and an electromagnetic field couldn't be an exception. And everybody could have said prior to this ingenious experiment by Michelson-Morley at what became Case Western University, but they were ingenious enough that they actually came up with an experiment that could show the negative result, and in so doing, they obliterated that theory. In 1939, Einstein said, all theories pertaining to the luminiferous ether, as widely as ubiquitously as they were accepted in the 19th century, all led nowhere. And so to say that this is a straw man, I think, is simply unfair. It's not true to the whole history of science, which repudiated theory after theory after theory, becoming negative evidence or positive evidence.

S: Yeah, of course, I'm not saying that you can't have negative evidence, or you cannot prove that a theory is wrong. I'm just trying to be precise, as you suggested before. And actually, since you mentioned the ether, they didn't prove that the ether was impossible, and that's the point, the subtle distinction I'm trying to make. What they actually showed in the sequence of experiments was that the Earth was not at rest with respect to the ether, and it's also not moving with respect to the ether. And the most parsimonious explanation for that is that there is no ether. And then Einstein later rendered the notion of an ether unnecessary. So it's not that we've proven that something such as an ether is impossible. It's just incompatible with the evidence, and it's unnecessary. What I would say, bringing this back to the mind, is that it's not really philosophically appropriate to say that science must prove it impossible that consciousness can exist without physicality, or therefore they are forced to accept it as a possibility. Rather, I think that's shifting the burden inappropriately. What I would say is, I would characterize it rather by saying that so far, just so far, which is always the way science would approach such problems, all the evidence is consistent with anything, any phenomenon that can be meaningfully described as consciousness has a physical correlate to it. So no one has been able to demonstrate that consciousness in fact exists without a physical correlate. And that's really all I'm saying. I also think that it's sufficient to explain consciousness. So what I would say is that immaterial consciousness, just like the ether, is simply unnecessary.

AW: The point you made, I think, is still a bit misleading. And that is, from the time that William James was getting his medical education in the 1860s at Harvard, he was already being told, and you can imagine how little they knew about the brain back then. He was already being told that the mind is just an epithelm of the brain. Your mental processes, your thoughts, your desires, your volitions and so forth, are purely ephemeral. That is, they are epithelm, they have no causal efficacy. And so long before there was any really compelling evidence for this, he was already being taught this in the medical schools. And by the time eventually the behaviors came in and eventually neuroscience really started coming up to its strength, all of this is based upon the premise that of course all mental states are dependent upon physical processes. And so none of the experiments through the 20th century in mainstream science had been putting that to the test. They'd been assuming it. But there's something, again, there's something implicit in this whole conversation. And that is, we're ignoring the rest of the planet. It's a kind of a Eurocentric view that is still oddly very common among even very sophisticated thinkers like Daniel Dennett, let alone less sophisticated thinkers like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, thinking that after all, science is the only way we can know about anything. But the historical fact is that from the time of the Pernicus it was full 300 years before the scientific study of the mind even began. And by then people like Lord Kelvin and many others thought that our understanding of the physical universe was pretty well complete. And so if you're trying to understand mental phenomena as a whole domain of natural world, and this is what I'm very keen on, I'm not interested in introducing supernatural elements into the natural world. Number one, I mean, even if it's true, it's not an issue that science can wrap itself around. Descartes put the mind out of nature by giving the immortal soul infused as it was a hypodermic into the human brain. And so the soul had this kind of quasi-supernatural quality. And of course that's been thrown out by now. And I would say good riddance to bad rubbish. But to equate the natural at this point with physical, and anything that is not physical must be supernatural, would be really comfortable if you still lived in the 19th century. But if one has been following 20th century physics, how physical...

S: That's what you mean by physical. How are you defining physical?

AW: What's that?

S: How are you defining physical?

AW: My very point here is that the very notion or category of physical, which you've been using very... Well, maybe not casually because I can't read your mind, but I do read a lot and I do talk a lot. And I find a lot of scientists, especially biologists, use the word very casually. So we could go back to Aristotle. We could pick up with Descartes and Galileo. We could move on through Newton and on through Maxwell and then get to Max Planck and then on to Heisenberg and Einstein and so forth. And then into string theory and quantum field theory. And by the time we followed that 400-year trajectory, just from Copernicus right on to the present day, the very notion or category of physical has been a moving target. When you bring a system of measurement to bear in studying quantum mechanics, and you're going to be measuring something, that something prior to your measurement is called, it can be only described as a probability function or probability wave, then a Heismic was adamant that this is not some objective, real entity out there waiting to be measured. It's purely an abstract mathematical algorithm that has no objective reference whatsoever. I mean, it's a complete abstraction. But nevertheless, you bring your good chunky system of measurement there. You make a measurement and then somehow in a way that's never been explained for the last 70 years, the measurement problem happens and that is you make a measurement and you transform somehow in some mysterious way a complete mathematical abstraction, a probability wave, the Schrödinger-Weibler equation collapses, and now you've got an electron or a proton or any other elementary particle that can do things. But how is it that a mathematical abstraction can actually be measured by a physical system of measurement?

S: But are you saying these things don't have any physical reality?

AW: I'm saying that, well, it begs the question, what exactly do we mean by physical reality? hat is, they've lost every quality of being tangible. That is, they do not have spatial dimension. They don't have mass. They don't move through space. And so all of the 19th century notions of the physical have evaporated and the cognitive sciences, and this includes all of psychology and all of the neurosciences, is based upon 19th century physics. Now this isn't to say, and somebody gave me a silly challenge in the letter back to me, saying, oh, shucks, we're using fMRI and that's very, very modern technology. Of course it is, but what does it measure? It measures blood flow, for heaven's sakes. And the EEG is measuring electromagnetic fields. Well, we've known about that for more than a century. And so the sheer fact of the matter is that people going through an undergraduate and a graduate degree of education in any of the cognitive sciences, from brain science all the way through psychology, they are not required to take any 20th century physics at all, which means that their understanding of physics in terms of what is the physical, what's really out there, is still based upon the type of physics that people believed in when they drove to and from their laboratories on a horse and buggy.

S: Yeah, but you could say the same thing is true about evolution.

AW: It's very true. Absolutely true.

S: Quantum theories are not relevant to the interaction of electrons in the brain. So far, no one has demonstrated that quantum effects are meaningful when it comes to brain function or neuronal function.

S: Are you skeptical? But I thought you folks were skeptics. And that you should be skeptical of that point. I mean, the study of this, I mean, I'm friends with Anton Seilinger, who's doing some of the best research, he's probably the most world-renowned experimental quantum physicist, obviously, in the world. And I just had lunch with him a couple of months ago when I was in Vienna. And he told me that, number one, this is an open question. He's now got a molecule with 16 atoms of carbon. So it's a rather large molecule in which he's been able to demonstrate using the double slit experiment. Such a large molecule is displaying all of the same weirdness that they did 20 or 30 years ago with single electrons in the delayed choice experiments and so forth. So he told me unequivocally that in terms of quantum mechanics, there is no limitation in size.

S: That is not the consensus view, though.

AW: You better think this up again because he's absolutely on the forefront. I challenge you to tell me any physicist who is doing more sophisticated, cutting-edge research in the forefront of quantum mechanics.

S: Listen, we're not going to be able to come to a definitive conclusion about the cutting edge of quantum theory because there is no consensus about that.

AW: Oh, but Anton Seilinger holds Evan Schwarting as chair at the University of Vienna. I don't know anybody that thinks he's anything other than superb. He's been on the front page of Scientific American.

S: Arguments from authority aside, the bottom line is this is too cutting-edge to use this as any kind of premise to draw further conclusions because there is broad disagreement about the implications of the observations that you're talking about.

AW: Everything you said, when you use the word authority, everything you said thus far is based upon authority because I doubt that you've been doing the research in neuroscience.

S: There's a difference between the consensus of opinion and one guy, no matter who it is.

AW: Yeah, but when you said unequivocally, you just demonstrated, I think, an extraordinary lack of skepticism when you say we know that quantum mechanics is irrelevant for brain function.

S: I did not say that. I said so far no one has demonstrated that it is relevant. That is very different.

AW: You might want to play the take back. My memory is fallible, but in any case, we don't need to quibble about the past. I would say this is an open question.

S: So, but even if we grant that it's an open question, it seems like what you're trying to say is that neuroscientists, the conclusions that they're drawing are not valid because they don't understand quantum mechanics, so they're not incorporating that into their study.

AW: No, you're reading more into what I said than I actually said.

S: Well then, what was the relevance of saying that they're using horse and buggy physics to do their neuroscience? What was the relevance of that?

AW: Number one, it's a historical fact, and it's an educational fact that they are not trained in 20th century physics, and their assumptions about the physical are still, when I read their stuff, it's still, whether it's Searle, Bennett, or whether it's Richard Dawkins or his other brain scientists actually, when they re-heard of the physical, they give a pretty clear impression that they haven't really taken into account anything in 20th century physics. That may be a mistake, but maybe they should be more skeptical about relying upon 19th century physics since the physicists themselves don't still rely exclusively on 19th century physics.

S: Let's assume that they are. We can agree maybe that's an open question. Let's say we don't know for sure what the relevance of quantum effects are in the brain. How is that relevant to the broader discussion here about whether or not brain activity is sufficient and adequate to explain the phenomenon of consciousness? You seem to be implying that that leads to the conclusion that it may not be.

AW: I think it leads to the conclusion that this is worthy of research and not to be treated in an open-shut case. And I'm saying that we should be growing up out of the 19th century into the 21st century about what we mean by physical. That hasn't happened. I think there should be more collaboration between people who really know how to run cutting-edge research in quantum mechanics and people who do cutting-edge research in brain science. That hasn't happened. Without all of that happening, a lot of assumptions are being made and the skepticism is being directed towards Cartesian dualists. If you want to find a straw man, that's about the biggest straw that I can find anywhere around. Rather than just doing really good science, it keeps on being skeptical of its own assumptions. I've quoted many times this marvelous statement by Richard Feynman, which I can't quote verbatim here, but I've quoted it in numerous times. You may have seen it in one of my writings where he said when he's portraying the scientific ideal of skepticism, he's saying scientists following this ideal like to focus on those areas where they may be wrong. And they focus on those especially. They gave overwhelming emphasis to those areas where they may be wrong because he said only by so doing can we recognize uncorroborated assumptions and learn at the fastest possible rate. And so is it possible, and not to present this as a straw man, is it possible that there may be states, number one, that the brain is not sufficient for the generation of consciousness, that it's necessary in living human beings, that it's for me right now to see color and so forth, is my visual cortex necessary? No question. But now let's look at another area that it would be worthwhile to be skeptical about, and that is what I think there's very clear proof for, or there's very strong evidence, I won't use the word absolute, very strong evidence that there's a causal relationship in these neuro-correlates and they're subsequent, because again it's a timeline of about 100 milliseconds, they're subsequent mental events, so visual perception, memory, whatever it may be. Now equivalence, which again I find so often this word is used, and I think without empirical corroboration, and that is the statement that the neural event and the corresponding mental event, which has been demonstrated time and time again to be in effect, in fact the mental event is nothing other than the brain, the brain event.

S: Right, but so far that's adequate to explain all of the phenomena.

AW: Oh, that's not adequate at all because it's a cause, look, they can't be equivalent if there's a time lag. That is, what is clearly demonstrated is the causal relationship.

S: I disagree with that, it takes time for nerves to conduct the signal and for the phenomenon to exist. You know, 100 milliseconds is about what it takes for neurons to conduct electricity. I don't think that that is evidence that the brain model of consciousness is insufficient.

AW: No, that's not the question.

S: There are no mysteries that we need to go beyond the current model for to solve.

AW: I find that profoundly unskeptical.

S: It's not unskeptical, I'm just saying, so what's the mystery? What's the mystery that the brain model doesn't address?

AW: All right, why don't we do that? And that is, I'm going to go back to this and tell you can show me a single experiment that demonstrates equivalence rather than a causal relationship. Can you? That's a simple question.

S: That's inappropriately shifting the burden. Can you tell me an experiment that can distinguish a world in which consciousness has existence outside of the brain from one in which the causal relationship is sufficient?

AW: I want to be skeptical on our common ground before giving something outside. For example, it's so often said that mental phenomena are emergent properties of the brain, just like wetness is an emergent property of water. Well, we can demonstrate that the wetness of water exists simultaneously with the molecules of H2O. It's not a causal relationship. They are simultaneous. In fact, the wetness is simply a quality of the water, but it's not an effect of the H2O molecules. Does that agree?

S: Yeah, I see where you're going, but I think you're making a distinction without a difference.

AW: I don't know even what that means. The distinction without a difference is not English, but I can understand.

S: In other words, you're making some kind of, you're distinguishing between the wetness of water and consciousness as a phenomenon of the brain.

AW: No, no, no.

S: There's no difference in that they're both physical properties of the physical.

AW: Okay, now here we go. Finally, we get to something I think we have a clear disagreement on, and that is the wetness of water is a physical property of water, and it can be measured by any number of instruments, including the human finger. Agreed?

S: I agree. I agree with that.

AW: Okay, let's pause right there. The wetness of water is something not found in the individual molecules. It's an emergent property. Now we have mental phenomenon. Go back to the mental image of your mother. There is not a physical instrument on the planet that can tell you, that can detect that mental image. They do have instruments capable of measuring the wetness.

S: I would say that's true, but irrelevant, and it's an arbitrary criteria. Let me finish my thought. It's an arbitrary criteria that you're introducing, and there's no a priori reason to assume that we need to be able to directly measure something in order for it to be a property that we can examine scientifically. Science can work by intelligent inference, and we can infer the existence of the mental image because a conscious being could report that they have the mental image, and we could see that it correlates, again, every which way you look at it, with the brain phenomenon.

AW: Well, I think that's kind of a novel approach. I mean, the notion that there are physical phenomena that are unmeasurable, I'm not quite sure about it. I don't know any physicists who would agree with that, frankly. What would you say about the ontological status of a probability wave? Is that probability function physical, and if so, what makes it physical?

S: It's physical because it can interact with things in the universe.

AW: So you're saying by definition, anything that interacts in the universe must be physical?

S: I would say that is a property of things in the universe, yeah.

AW: Is that a definition, or is that empirical fact?

S: I wouldn't say. Well, it's probably not a sufficient definition, or it's not an all-inclusive definition.

AW: But it's one that I encounter a lot, and I find extremely dubious in terms of 21st century physics. I mean, to simply, on the one hand, to say that there can be no possibility of states of consciousness or mental processes that are not physical.

S: Which I never said.

AW: And then to say the physical is defined as anything that interacts in the universe. Well, the answer to that is, pardon me, duh, because you've already defined the whole universe as being physical. So if consciousness doesn't interact with the universe, then it's not physical, it doesn't exist. And so this is not science. This is like Aristotelian metaphysics.

S: Words such as physical, I agree, are inadequate to deal with concepts that are as slippery as quantum mechanics. But we know that this wave, probability wave, exists in the physical universe because we can measure it, because it can interact with stuff. If it didn't interact with anything, how would we possibly know it existed? Which really gets down to ultimately how science works only with what it can know exists.

AW: Having said that, the mental image of your mother, is that something physically detectable?

S: I would say, I have to say no, it does not have a physical existence. It's a subjective experience. And a lot of neuroscientists have, in fact, characterized it as an illusion.

AW: Well, of course, that's the easy way out. Anything you can't put a handle on, just call it an illusion, then you can sweep it onto the road.

S: Well, it's an illusion in that it's an experience that our brain is generating for us that we can only know through our experience.

AW: Why call it an illusion when we introspectively are aware of mental phenomena, such as mental images, that they're illusory. It's kind of like, well, okay, join the club. All of the appearances to the five physical senses are illusory.

S: It seems to me that you're trying to say that because a mental image, for example, is a subjective experience that cannot be measured externally in any scientific way or physical way, we can only infer it by somebody saying, yes, I see a mental image of my mother.

AW: Well, just take it on faith. It's not even inference, it's just taking on faith. Maybe they're lying to you. And inference is something where you have to coach it reasoning. This is just sheer faith.

S: Well, we can infer it because if we can, at the same time, use an fMRI to see that, yeah, the same part of your brain lights up whenever you say you see a mental image of your mother.

AW: Oh, wait a minute. You're being very unskeptical here. And that is, I could go into your lab. I could be like one of these undergraduates that gets hired for $10 an hour, goes into the neuroscience lab at Harvard, and they say, please generate an image of an apple. Now do it of a mother. Now think of some concert, some symphony you've heard in the past. And I could say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, and I do that. And I could be lying all the way through.

S: But that just makes psychological science difficult, not impossible. It makes it difficult. You have to study multiple people to get some kind of statistical significance.

AW: And you can hope that they're not lying to you, and you can hope that they're not being self-deceived. At the same time, there's this kind of this background noise that Bennett, especially in Churchland and before then the behaviors are kind of promoting, that everything you experience introspectively is all illusory. Well, that's one way of sweeping under the rug a blatant fact. And that is when you actually do introspectively observe mental phenomena, they have no physical characteristics. When you bring in your systems of measurement, whether it's MRI and EEG and so forth, you do not detect these subjective mental experiences themselves, although you have great expertise, growing expertise, in identifying the neural causes of those subjectively experienced mental events.

S: One of the functions of the brain is to produce subjective experiences. And if that were true, then everything you're saying is true. Therefore, what you're saying does not in any way invalidate that the brain is a biological organ that produces subjective experiences.

AW: You're going back to the first principles. And again, I think everything should be open to skepticism here, but let's keep on target here. And that isn't from what you've said. Mental phenomena are not physical. But, by the way, they do interact with the brain. So now you've gotten yourself into a quagmire. You just said they're not physical, but earlier you said anything that can interact in the universe is physical.

S: I think you're playing it on words. Does it interact with the brain in the same way that quantum particles interact with other particles? It's a phenomenon of the brain.

AW: But this is an article of faith. You have to have empirical evidence for writing it.

S: It's not an article of faith. It's a model that explains all observable data.

AW: This is outrageously unskeptical, and that is a model that explains everything. Give me a break here. They have made no progress in terms of actually solving the hard problem.

S: It explains all the data that we currently have.

AW: In terms of the hard problem that David Chalmers pointed out, it explains nothing. Look, the cells in your kneecap don't generate mental phenomena. They don't generate images of your mother's face. Those in the brain do. How come? There is no explanation for that. So let's not kid ourselves. To say that 15 years into the research we already have a model that explains everything is just wildly unskeptical.

S: I didn't say it explains everything. I said it explains all the data we currently have. In other words, there's no phenomenon that's been observed that we can't explain with a biological model of the brain. There is no mystery that needs to be solved or phenomenon that can't be explained. We have to go to some entirely different paradigm in order to explain the phenomena.

AW: I think you get yourself into an article that you've not really acknowledged. And that is this one. It's very simple. Here I'm going to re-articulate a simple point. And that is mental phenomena that we actually experience, and this includes sensory appearances or sensory qualia, do not appear to be physical. And yet they certainly do seem to impact, for example, behavior. I mean, behavior is a physical phenomenon. And the ideas that I have, the hopes that I have, these are clearly influencing. I think you'd have to be wildly anti-empirical to deny that our thoughts, our motives, our hopes and fears, our sufferings and our joys don't influence, that is, as we subjectively experience them, don't influence behavior.

S: Of course they do. No one's just agreeing with that.

AW: Okay, very good. And moreover, you've said that these mental phenomena, such as ideas, mental images and so forth, are not physical, and yet they influence behavior, which means they influence physical things, correct?

S: That's because they have a physical substrate in that neurons firing are what's causing that mental image.

AW: You're dealing with so many assumptions about which you've shown no skepticism at all in this whole conversation. I'm just trying to take this step by step, which I think is what's scientific. Rather than going back to your approach, I think it's much more Aristotelian. You've got these absolute convictions that the brain is absolutely sufficient, and everything flows from that. That's very Aristotelian, and I'm trying to take a much more...

S: I'm not beginning there. That's not my premise. That's the conclusion after all of the science that has been done so far.

AW: That's the assumption that was already widespread in the 1860s, so let's be historically accurate here.

S: But historically, the ghost in the machine preceded the neuronal model of consciousness, and it was only evidence that led to the death of the ghost in the machine and the existence of the model that we have now. Listen, Alan, we're way over time.

AW: We are.

S: I'm sorry to cut this short. Alan, thank you for joining us.

AW: You're most welcome. I enjoyed the conversation.

S: We appreciate you giving us the time.

R: Thanks, Alan.

P: Thank you very much. Good night.

AW: Bye-bye.

S: Take care.

Randi Speaks (1:02:04)[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: Communication

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. This next five minutes will be full of complaining, kvetching, bitching; whatever you want to describe it as, but I've got a lot of things about which I'd like to complain. Last night I took home my new cell phone; it's a Samsung SGH-T609, which sounds impressive, but... really isn't. Even though the instruction booklet runs 210 pages. Now you might think that that would be, well, informative. Wouldn't you think? I found it almost useless in trying to set up my telephone service. I found that most of the instructions here began, "number 1: in Idle mode"—and idle is spelled with a capital I—"press the so-and-so key" or whatever. But nowhere in the book is the Idle mode described. It's only mentioned that you should be in that mode when you start to perform the operations called for, whether it means that you just lie back and take it easy and relax, I don't know. But nowhere is there a description of what Idle mode consists of. Going to the index and looking up Idle mode, we find... nothing. Similarly, when you're entering text, addresses, names, or whatever into your phone book that's contained within the telephone, every now and then you press the wrong key and you get the wrong letter on your little screen. Well, that happened right off the very top, and I decided I better change that. So I tried to figure out how to do a delete, but that's not in the index. Nowhere in the book does it describe to you how to delete one of those letters. Mind you, I found out through experimentation, but it was a good 15 minutes or so before I caught on to how it was done.

Now why am I making such a big fuss about this? Well, let's go back to my teenage years. That's a long way back. I got one of my very first jobs—a summer job 'cause I was going to high school at the time—with a very large marketing firm. I was to rewrite instructions, mostly for Japanese cameras and other electronic devices. No, I don't read, nor do I speak Japanese. But I would get a copy of a booklet, for example, for a movie camera. Note, however, that this was well before Super 8, so these were very, very simple machines. One camera, with the instruction booklet that I was given, had instructions in Spanish, German, French, English, and Japanese. Well, as soon as I examined the English version of the instructions, I knew that we were in deep trouble. Now this was in the very early days of relationships between the United States and Canada and Japan. Exchanges of goods were just getting started after the war. We could naturally expect that there would be some differences and some difficulties, and that was what my job consisted of: rewriting the English instructions so that they would be properly phrased and easily understandable to the English-speaking consumer. Right off the bat, one of the things I discovered that certainly had to be changed was the use of the expression "Lo!"—that's L-O with an exclamation point following it. One that particularly sticks in my mind was the expression "Lo! Here are focar prane." Yes, that's the way it was pronounced; that's the way it was written. What they were trying to indicate was that a certain symbol—it's a small circle with a vertical line drawn through it—indicated the focal plane of the camera, from which accurate distance measurements could be made for accurate work. That I got straightened out right away. But there were other difficulties, too. You see, with this camera, the film had to be re-wound into the cassette that it was bought in, in the first place, before the back of the camera was opened. That's the way it worked in those days. But the instructions could be pretty fatal, for they said very clearly, "back of camera must be opened before rewinding!", exclamation point. Looking at those same instructions in the other languages that I could read, I saw that they said, "back of camera must not be opened before rewinding film". It took a couple of days to do it, but I rewrote it, typed it all out very carefully, and sent it in to the merchandising company. A couple of months later, I checked to see that those corrections had been made and I was told, to my great surprise, that they had not been made, because they had been written by the president of the camera manufacturing company in Japan, and he would be embarrassed if those words were rewritten. Yes, for this week it's a bit off-topic and I must admit that I've gone beyond my five minutes, but I'm still very much interested in information transfer. Communicating with other persons. I think we can't be too careful about that, especially in the field which involves us. Thank you for the extra minute. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:07:49)[edit]

Item #1: By reproducing the nano-scale structure of butterfly wings, engineers have designed the most efficient photovoltaic cells to date.[1]
Item #2: A German scientist has designed a nuclear power plant that will produce virtually no nuclear waste.[2]
Item #3: Study finds that genes may predict the chance of women cheating on their partners.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Photovoltaic cells
Science No waste power plant
Cheating genes
Host Result
' clever
Rogue Guess
No waste power plant
Cheating genes
Cheating genes

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 I challenge the skeptical rogues to tell me which one is the fake, and of course you all can play along at home.

E: Challenge accepted.

S: Item number one. By reproducing the nanoscale structure of butterfly wings, engineers have designed the most efficient photovoltaic cells to date. Item number two. A German scientist has designed a nuclear power plant that will produce virtually no nuclear waste. And item number three. A new study finds that genes may predict the chance of a woman cheating on their partner.

P: Are these designer genes, Steve?

S: That's one interpretation. Perry, why don't you go first, since you're back.

P: Oh, of course.

R: Since you're getting all sassy.

Perry's Response[edit]

P: So designer genes, nuclear-wasted butterflies. Is that what we're dealing with here?

S: That's right.

P: One of these is fake. Butterfly wings with the photo, that's reasonable. Genes can tell if your woman's going to step out on you. OK. Genes can do all kinds of funky things. Now, nuclear power without waste? I'm a little skeptical. So I'm going to say that that's fake.

S: OK. Rebecca, why don't you go next?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: You know, I'm going to go with the genes and the cheating on the spouse, because it seems kind of likely, it seems like the sort of thing you might make up, just to throw us out.

S: All righty. Evan?

R: That's my very scientific opinion.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I'll agree with Rebecca that study finding that genes predict the chance of women cheating on their partners is fiction. The other two are in fact. Fact.

R: Well said.

E: Thank you.

S: OK.

E: I read it.

S: Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see. The one that seems least likely to me is the scientists reproducing the nanoscale structure of butterfly wings. I mean, that's just the principle of iridescence, when you see a thin film of oil on a parking lot and you see the colors. You've got the wavelengths of light bouncing off the top layer and the bottom layer.

P: And you see Jesus's face.

B: So that's just the principle. I'm not sure how that translates into an efficient solar cell. So that makes the least sense to me.

S: So you're saying that one is fiction.

B: That is fiction, yeah.

R: I like the sound of that one, though.

P: Are you disputing that Jesus's face shows up in oil slicks, Bob?

R: Yeah, that's what he's talking about.

S: Perry, sometimes it's the Virgin Mary. Come on. All right. Let's do number two first.

P: Go ahead. Number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: A German scientist has designed a nuclear power plant that will produce virtually no nuclear waste. That is science. Sustainable.

P: That would be science fiction.

S: Sustainable nuclear energy moves a step closer. Now, this is a German scientist.

B: Sustainable?

S: Wilfred van Rooijen. I'm probably totally butchered that last name.

B: How do you spell it?

S: R-O-O-I-J-E-N, Ruijen. And this is actually his Ph.D. thesis. He's going to get his Ph.D. for this work. And he conducted research at the Reactor Institute in Delft, and he focused on the nuclear fuel cycle. And basically what he came up with is designs for a fuel cycle using gas cooling. Gas-cooled fast reactor. And this is a fourth generation type of nuclear reactor. Basically, you can start with uranium. The cycle creates the heavier isotopes, and then it can fission them. So it can fission the plutonium and the americum and the other heavier isotopes that come out. Which would normally be nuclear waste. To the point where what you're left with has almost no radioactivity in it. It basically used up all of the nuclear waste in these subsequent nuclear cycles.

P: So that's it. We're free of Mideast tyranny.

S: Unfortunately, it's going to take some decades to get these online.

P: Oh, I see.

S: The other good thing about these cycles, you can also take the nuclear waste from other nuclear power plants and feed it into this thing.

B: That's not a new idea, though. I read about that in Scientific American.

S: Yeah, but this is actually even beyond that, Bob. You're right. These so-called closed nuclear fuel cycles have existed before. This one's even more sophisticated with even less waste at the end.

E: Homer Simpson would be proud.

S: But this concept isn't new, Bob. You're absolutely correct. So unfortunately, they're still saying, this is a design. It's not the actual physical thing itself. And it's going to take some time to get these. It could take up to 50 years before we actually are generating electricity with these kind of nuclear power plants. It depends on how much priority we put in them, frankly. As Bob said, we've got to put billions of dollars into this thing.

B: Well, maybe not that.

E: The United States hasn't built a nuclear facility in 30 years.

S: 30 years.

P: It's things like this. This is why when we discussed a couple of weeks ago, there's not going to be oil riots. We will find a way through.

S: That's right.

P: I'm optimistic.

S: The thing that people always underestimate is ingenuity. But yeah, it's a matter of when it's going to happen and is it going to happen quickly enough to prevent problems.

P: When we start seeing the bottom of the barrel, they'll pop up everywhere. They'll be like dandelions.

S: I have to be with Perry on this one. I think that we'll have time to react.

R: Hell just froze over.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Number three, genes may help predict infidelity study reports is science.

B: Science.

E: No, it's not.

S: Absolutely. Very, very interesting research. They looked at couples and their genetics, and what they found was a very strong statistically significant correlation between the degree to which the men and female shared what's called the MHC, or major histocombatability complex.

P: Exactly, exactly.

S: So the more alike they were, the more probable it was that the woman would be attracted to other guys, would think about hooking up with other guys, and would actually cheat on their spouse or their significant other.

R: Wait, the more alike what?

S: This complex of genes, the MHC, or major histocompatibility complex, this is a very important set of genes that basically are part of the immune system, and it's what helps tell the immune system which cells are self or yourself, and which cells are not self or foreign or from other people. So the thinking is that this may be an evolutionary mechanism to minimize the risk of recessive genes matching up, that women somehow sense the genetic compatibility with their male partners and are more likely to cheat if they're too close. That's very speculative, but that's one idea that was raised. The other interesting wrinkles with this is that the same correlation did not hold true with the males, so males apparently don't care, and it also did not predict general satisfaction with the relationship. So the relationship, they could still be happy with their partner and think everything is great. It seems to just be...

P: Or miserable.

S: Or miserable. It was just specific for their tendency to mess around, which is interesting. Needs replication and all that. I mean, this is still preliminary.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Which means that reproducing the nanoscale structure of butterfly wings to produce an efficient photovoltaic cell is fiction. Bob got this one right.

P: Nobody got that right.

S: Bob got it right.

B: Come on.

P: That's too bad.

B: I'm not swayed by fancy words like Rebecca.

S: And Bob got it right for the exactly correct reason. However, this is...

P: Because he's a poindexter doofus.

E: The word nano was in there.

S: Hang on. This is based upon a real study, though. Replication of butterfly wing scales provides new technique for producing complex photonic structures. So they are reproducing at the nanoscale the structure of butterfly wings, but not to produce photovoltaic cells. That's nonsense. But to produce things like photonic integrated circuits. Basically...

E: That's what I was thinking.

S: Optical waveguides, optical splitters. Basically nanoscale structures that can do stuff with light. Bend it this way and that way. But not photovoltaics.

B: Makes sense.

S: Good job, Bob.

R: Good job.

E: Well done, Bob.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:16:29)[edit]

Last Week's puzzle Take a mylar coat. Put it in a machine and mix it up. Lay it out.

What's left is something that was once believed to exist, yet has never been found.

What is it? Answer: carmot (anagram of mylar coat with "lay" taken out)

This Week's puzzle

If I have 3 items that are multicolored, 5 that are black and white, and 2 that are red, black and white, what do I have?

S: All right, Evan. Tell us who won last week's puzzle.

E: I won last week's puzzle. I was the only one to get it right.

P: All right.

R: Wow.

E: Yeah. Sorry. No winners last week's puzzle. You know, the week prior was one of my easier puzzles I think I threw out there. This one was tough, definitely. So here it is. You take a Mylar coat, put it in a machine and mix it up. Lay it out. What's left is something that was once believed to exist yet has never been found. What is it? Well, in order to find out the answer to this puzzle, you have to realize that Mylar coat is an anagram. Take the letters, mix it up, so put it in a machine and mix it up, such as a computer. The trick is, in the sentence, lay it out, you take the letters L-A-Y out of the Mylar coat anagram.

R: Tricky.

E: And you're left with C-A-R-M-O-T, which is, of course, that's right, the ingredient rumoured to believe to have been the active ingredient in the philosopher's stone, as we all know.

P: How very very devious.

S: That was a very tricky one.

E: It was a tough puzzle.

B: They didn't mention that in Harry Potter.

S: Very tricky.

R: Do you have an easier one this week?

E: I think I do.

R: Lay it on us.

E: I came up with this week's puzzle rather quickly, so I hope it's easier than last week's. Here we go. If I have three items that are multicolored, five that are black and white, and two that are red, black, and white, what do I have?

R: A good juggling routine? Thank you. I'll be here all week.

S: Thanks for the warning. All right. Very good, Evan. You're getting better at these, you really are.

E: I'm glad you're enjoying them.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:18:35)[edit]

Coincidence is the science of the true believer.

S: Bob, close us out with a good skeptical quote.

B: I've got a quote from Chet Ramo. He said, "Coincidence is the science of the true believer."

S: And who is Chet Ramo?

B: I have no idea.

E: He owes me money.

S: Well, thank you, Chet.

E: Thanks, Chet, and keep listening.

R: I'm so glad that you're quoting the great thinkers of our time.

B: Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

S: Actually, Chet Ramo, if this is the same Chet Ramo, has written books such as Skeptics and True Believers, Walking Zero, Discovering Cosmic Space and Time Along the Prime Meridian, The Soul of the Night, An Astronomical Pilgrimage, and other fine titles. So he's a skeptical author.

R: Well, there you go. Not a hobo in the corner. Disregard that.

S: Thank you all for joining me again this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

S: It's a pleasure, as always. Perry, welcome back again.

E: Welcome back, Perry.

R: This was only slightly painful.

Announcements (1:19:34)[edit]

S: One quick notice from Jay, our webmaster. We have had numerous requests for photos, banners for websites, and for flyers, et cetera. So we are now putting together a media page on our website. And we will have on the media page all of those things, web banners that you could download and put on your website to advertise the Skeptics Guide, flyers that you could print out and then hand out at your college or wherever you may be, and other resources for our listeners to help promote the show and for the media. So take a look for that link to the media page from our home page.

B: Good job, Jay.

S: Thank you, Jay. Jay really has been tireless at working as a webmaster for the Skeptics Guide without any remuneration whatsoever.

P: No.

S: Just like the rest of us.

P: And very little acknowledgement.

S: And he only whines constantly. So we really appreciate it. Well, thanks again, everyone.

E: Thank you, Steve.

R: Thanks you Steve.

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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