SGU Episode 73

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SGU Episode 73
13th Dec 2006
SGU 72 SGU 74
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
AW: Alan Wallace
Quote of the Week
Coincidence is the science of the true believer.
Chet Raymo
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 13, 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

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

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 fir—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]

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]

Question #1 By reproducing the nano-scale structure of butterfly wings, engineers have designed the most efficient photovoltaic cells to date.

Question #2 A German scientist has designed a nuclear power plant that will produce virtually no nuclear waste.

Question #3 Study finds that genes may predict the chance of women cheating on their partners.

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?

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

Coincidence is the science of the true believer.

Announcements (1:19:34)[edit]

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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