SGU Episode 74

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SGU Episode 74
December 20th 2006
Carl sagan.gif
SGU 73 SGU 75
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis

Quote of the Week
-The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.
-In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
1987 CSICOP Keynote Address
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 20, 2006, and this is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Happy last day of fall, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: In his glorious return, finally back... oh, this is my second show.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Well, hello, everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hi, everybody.

S: And Jay Novella.

J: (English accent) Top drawer, folks. Top drawer.

S: So, astute listeners may have realized that we have a full boat tonight. This is the first time we've had all six rogues on the show at the same time.

P: It's like a Christmas special!

S: (laughs) It's a holiday miracle is what it is.

E: It is.

R: I can't wait 'til Farah Fawcett shows up.


J: So, the reason why we've never all been on before is that Skype just released a patch that allows us to have more than five people on at once.

P: Right.

S: Upped the limit to nine. Tomorrow, as Bob alluded, is the first day of winter, the winter solstice for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. And for our listeners in the Southern Hemisphere, it's the first day of summer. It's better to be in the Southern Hemisphere.

P: How 'bout that.

E: Yeah. Wish we were there.

R: It's a—it's an optimistic day because that's when the days start getting longer again.

S: Yes, it's the return of light, which is why there's a lot of holiday celebrations this time of year.

P: How does the sun know?

S: Although, ironically—

P: Is the sun closer or farther away in the winter?

E: We're closer to the sun in the winter.

P: Heyyyyy, very good.

B: About three million miles, I think.

R: You can't fool these guys.

P: The difference in temperature, by the way, has to do with the angle of the sun, not nearness or farness.

B: Very good; very good, Perry.

E: Angle of the earth.

S: You've mastered grade-school science. Great.

R: Awww.

P: Thank you.

J: Somebody get Perry an extra cookie.

P: I never claimed to have gotten beyond grade school. I don't think it's a reason to belittle me.

News Items[edit]

Remembering Carl Sagan (2:06)[edit]

  • Today is the 10 year anniversary of Carl Sagan's death.

Some recent Sylvia Browne gaffes: (10:12)[edit]


Study shows vegetarians have higher IQ's (24:46)[edit]


Questions and E-mails[edit]

Santa Claus (31:06)[edit]

With the upcoming holiday season, I'm running into a problem at home. The more I think about it, the more I do not want my child to 'believe' in Santa Claus. She is only a year and a half old, so it is not a big issue this year, but it will be next year. When I mentioned to my wife that I would like Skyla (my daughter) to know the truth about Santa, she started crying and bringing up all those wonderful memories of her parents lying to her. What is the reasonable thing to do here? Is there a middle ground we can take? Any suggestions.

By the way, 'The skeptics guide to the universe' is by far my favorite podcast of all. Keep up the good work.

Arno van Werven
Dania, Florida, USA


Hello! Thank-you for your show! SGU is by far my favorite podcast.I take great satisifaction in overpowering a station labeled as 'RELIGUS' on my car radio's LCD display with my i-pod's FM transmitter while listening to your show.

My question is as follows: Both my wife and I are skeptics and extremely agnostic. However, we do enjoy celebrating the holidays in a very secular sense; i.e. setting up a tree, exchanging gifts, playing holiday music, lighting the menorah etc.

We have 4 wonderful children who we have lead on to believe in Santa Claus. Being skeptical by nature I admittedly have mixed feelings about this. Our rational is that it was fun for us to believe as kids ourselves. For myself I might also argue that learning of the non-existance of SC began my road from religiousity/gulibility to skepticism.

I am not really out to have my mind changed but would LOVE to hear some skeptical opinions on the subject of Santa Claus and kids.

Thanks and keep up the good work!

Michael Bukowski-Thall DVM
Maine USA

Facilitated Communication (38:45)[edit]

Dear Dr. Novella,

First of all I have to thank-you for the amazingly prompt reply to my last e-mail, suffice it to say - you made my day! The podcasts are still fantastic, keep up the good work. I do have a question considering autism or more specifically 'facilitated communication' as I recently saw a CNN special about said topic and I was surprised to see no skeptical rebuttal at all which confused me as I remember reading a debunking on the SWIFT commentary. What's the deal here? Or more specifically my question is - is facilitated communication real or not? I think this would make a good topic for your show. Warmest Regards,

Mike Kozlowskyj
Ontario, Canada

American Psychological Association position paper on FC:

Martin Gardener article on FC:

Randi Speaks (48:26)[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: Special Expertise

JR: Hello, this is James Randi. With the assistance of Chris, a volunteer who drops by at least twice a week to help us organize our library, we are going through the almost 2,000 volumes that we have in there now. Inevitably, as you might expect, we found that we had more than one copy of some books that were in two different categories. We trimmed that down, rather considerably. And of course, all the extras are going off to Michael Shermer in California for his library. But this process seems to bring your concentrated attention—or at least my concentrated attention—on some individual volumes that either I hadn't noticed before or I hadn't noticed in quite some time. For example, I have five out of the six volumes of That's Incredible!, based on the television series created by Alan Landsburg, of some years ago; I'm sure you'll remember that. And it's really quite revealing to read back through some of these entries. I'll add in here the fact that we're missing number four out of the six, so if anyone happens to have a paperback copy of That's Incredible! volume four, we'd very much like to acquire that.

Leafing through these books tended to bring back some old memories of episodes we'd seen on That's Incredible!, which I always used to refer to and still occasionally do as "That's Inedible!". One episode that got my attention—host John Davidson introduced an archer, a middle-aged gentleman with a regular bow, a target bow, and a target was set up, as at an archery range. Now I'm an archer from way back, so I'm rather familiar with this process, and I saw that A) the bow wasn't terribly strong, perhaps 25 or 30 pounds or so. That's the way we archers talk about them; that's the number of pounds it takes to pull it fully all the way back to your ear, when preparing to launch an arrow, of course. Now the real star of this particular episode was somebody who stood about halfway between the archer and the target. The idea was that the archer would launch an arrow at the target, and this gentleman would reach out and catch the arrow before it got there. This would appear to be a pretty daring stunt, because after all, a guy could get pierced. Not only that, how did he have such quick reflexes to be able to grab that arrow in mid-flight? It wasn't much of a mystery to this practiced eye. I saw that the arrows were not quite, uh, traditional, let's say. They were specialized arrows, called "flu-flu"—that's F-L-U-hyphen-F-L-U. And these are specifically designed to hunt birds. You see, birds have a habit of flying, and when the archer is out in the field and wants to bring down a bird for one reason or another, the risk is that the arrow gets away, misses the bird of course, and ends up half a mile away. That's why flu-flu arrows were designed. Instead of the usual three feathers at the far end of the arrow, which would be found on a target arrow or on a hunting arrow, the flu-flu arrow can have as many as six feathers, and they're very much larger than the traditional three. This means, in effect, that the arrow will travel at the regular velocity as it leaves the bow and then rapidly slow down, if it has missed the bird, of course, or in this case, to make it easier to catch. Yes, that was exactly the gimmick. The arrow was easy to catch because it literally slowed down just about the point when it passed the interceptor. He was able to snatch out quickly and grab it with very little trouble. Now I happen to have experience as an archer, therefore I knew this. But I think that very few viewers of That's Incredible!—that particular episode—would have that particular expertise. Therefore, Landsburg and his boys got away with it.

Exactly the same thing applies when we're speaking about fortune tellers, psychics, metal benders; whatever. What's often needed is a special expertise. In that case, the expertise of a conjurer. A professional magician. In case you haven't noticed, I happen to qualify in that direction. So when you hear people saying, "Oh, what does that fella know? He's only a magician.", I ask you to consider: isn't that exactly the profession that's needed to catch somebody who might be performing tricks? Could that be? This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (53:36)[edit]

Question #1: Study finds that women who eat dairy are 5 times as likely to miscarry as women on a vegan diet. Question #2: Scientists successfully test a vaccine against obesity in rats. Question #3: Scientists study the effects of antimatter as a cancer fighting tool.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:03:51)[edit]

Last 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?

Answer: An original deck of Rorschach cards

This Week's puzzle

He was born in a creek
And he died in a different creek
As a boy, he'd appear to make furniture tip over and instruments rise
off the ground
As a young man, he took his abilities about and abroad
His slate of feats stunned the US crowds, and European heads of states
He often spoke with his wife, especially when she wasn't around
He drew the applause and accolades of scientists such as Alfred Russell
And he drew jeers and accusations form the likes of Charles Darwin
He stood trial, he was found guilty of fraud, yet he escaped prison
He was once a millionaire, but he died broken and penniless
His death bed confession spoke volumes beyond his paupers grave
He was in fact, a fake.

Who was he?

Quote of the Week (1:08:30)[edit]

'The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.'- Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World'In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.'- Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP Keynote Address

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.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • This is the first episode in which all six rogues (Steve, Bob, Jay, Rebecca, Evan, and Perry) take part. In previous episodes, only five could participate at once because of a limitation in Skype's group calling.


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