SGU Episode 76

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SGU Episode 76
January 3rd 2007
SGU 75 SGU 77
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 fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.
George Bernard Shaw
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

News Items[edit]

Announcing the NeuroLogica Blog (0:48)[edit]

  • Dr. Novella has started a daily blog on Neuroscience, Skepticism, and Critical Thinking

S: So the first news item for this first show of 2007 is that I have started a new blog.

R: Wow!

J: Yay, Steve!

E: What's a blog?

R: That's fantastic.

S: (chuckles) It's the NeuroLogica blog. Of course, the links will be on the Skeptics' Guide site and also the NESS site, and it's going to be about—it's a daily blog; it'll be about neuroscience, skepticism, and critical thinking. So, kind of an even mix of just general skeptical stuff; the kind of things we talk about on this show, but also I'll be spending a lot of time talking about neurology and neuroscience, which is my specialty. I already have, I think, six or seven entries in there—as Jay and I were working on the site, I wanted to put up some entries, but January 1st is its official start date, and I'll try to keep it daily from that point forward. So check it out.

B: Steve, are you going to maintain multiple entries as you have now?

S: What do you mean?

B: I was kinda surprised to see a blog with so many different sections to it. You know, like so many different things that you're blogging on. But I guess a lot of it had to do with the end-of-the-year news and stuff.

S: All of skepticism is fair game for the blog. And there'll probably be half that and half neuroscience. But it'll be—I'm just getting started, so I'm sure it'll evolve over time as well.

Psychic Predictions for 2006 (2:06)[edit]

  • Pat Robertson-s Predictions:
    Fred Fasset-s Predictions:
    Elizabeth Baron-s Predictions:

Evolution in Cobb County (16:38)[edit]

  • Case Closed
    Anti-Evolution stickers gone for good in Cobb County, Georgia

Homeopathy in Scotland (18:00)[edit]


    Previous episode where we discuss homeopathy at length:
    Two articles by Dr. Novella about homeopathy:

The Final Word on Monkeys vs. Birds (20:56)[edit]

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Salt Lamps (24:31)[edit]

Hi guys!

I've been listening to the podcast for several months now and enjoy it immensely. Happy to hear you're gaining the popularity you deserve.

I received the most ridiculous present for Christmas this year and immediately thought of the skeptic's guide. My brother's girlfriend got the entire family Himalayan Salt Lamps. At first I thought it was just another funky looking light fixture. But upon reading the included pamphlet I was bombarded by the most pseudo-science I've ever personally encountered in my entire life. I've included scans for your enjoyment but my personal favorite how it 'can reorganize the epidermal layer of our skin'. You can imagine my horror when I learned the girlfriend is actually the one who wrote the pamphlet and sells the lamps for $25 a piece. On the bright side, it's a decent light and I enjoy joking that it's one of the Sankara Stones from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Keep up the great work and good luck in the coming year.

Review article of ionizers and asthma:

UFO's (28:01)[edit]

Recent UFO Flap:,0,5874175.column?coll=chi-newsnationworldiraq-hed

French Space Agency releases UFO data:

S: The next e-mail comes from Philippe Chartouni in Lebanon, and he writes:

Dear All,

Newly arrived to your show, I quickly became addicted. I have one question that you may have addressed before. Is there any UFO story that is worth considering or pursuing? If such story exists, then there may be room for (skeptic) dreams that we sometimes need.

Thank you for this very much enriching and entertaining show.

So he's basically saying he wants to know if he can hold out any hope that we're being visited by aliens.

P: No.

S: (chuckles)

E: Oh yeah; you can hold all the hope you want.

P: By the way, there's UFOs constantly, right? All the time there's things in the sky that can't be identified. But—

R: Well, yeah. Let's... let's define UFO. "Unidentified Flying Object".

P: But what he's talking about is not just that. He means extraterrestrial craft. To that, there's—

R: Which is not entirely out of the question. I mean, it could happen. But the fact is that we just haven't seen any definitive evidence thus far.

S: There's not even any mildly compelling or interesting evidence, in my opinion.

R: I mean, if you think of all the sophistication it would take for another alien being to contact us, why would they be abducting... you know, hicks in the country instead of trying to actually make real contact with us and communicate with us.

P: And the limitations of interstellar are... significant.

J: Yeah, but the fact is, it's statistically likely that aliens exist and therefore, you know, it is possible that we could be visited someday, so I would say the answer to the question is yes, there could be some evidence that comes up that would be worthwhile investigating. Of course.

B: Yeah, but is there any UFO story existing—we're assuming it's an existing UFO story and the answer to that, I think, would be no.

P: Not even remotely.

S: Well, of course when you ask UFO proponents to give us their best evidence, they usually point to what we refer to as the three-foot stack, which is basically a very large volume of low-quality evidence. But if you ask for... say, "what's the best case? What's the best case or set of cases for the hypothesis that we're being visited by alien spacecraft?", the classic ones that often get pointed out, for example, are the crashed saucer at Roswell, which has been thoroughly debunked; that clearly was Project Mogul, which was a balloon reflector used to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons testing. There were pictures of the crashed debris; it was, you know, balsa wood, aluminum foil and tape—and Scotch tape. But the story has evolved over the years and over the decades into the current mythology that we have now. There are also other stories more recently like the lights over Phoenix, which were shown to be flares dropped by Air Force jets, the UFO over Mexico City was like this classic flying saucer dangling from a string. The Billy Meier evidence is all really pathetic, low-quality, childish hoaxes. I mean, literally, saucers swinging pendulum-style from a string and it gets worse from there. There isn't a single case that has withstood careful investigation and scrutiny. It's all very low-quality. In addition to the ones where there is some video or physical evidence, there are numerous sightings, but the sightings are all either points of light or blobs of light which cannot be meaningfully characterized. Maybe the person making the observation doesn't know what they're looking at and therefore it's unidentified, but no one is observing things that look like spaceships. Frequently, astronomical objects are misinterpreted as unidentified flying objects; Venus is quite common. Interestingly enough, things even as simple as the moon are often mistaken for UFOs.

P: There's no perception; when you look up into the sky and you see something, there's no way to tell how far something is, how close it is, how fast it's moving... how slowly it's moving... there's nothing; there's no...

E: But the moon?

P: —point of reference.

E: I mean, really—I really... I know that people mistake for alien craft, but—

B: And Venus.

E: —how is that possible? Yeah, but even more so... the moon.

R: One of our listeners made a... One of our listeners made a really good point. He said that if you... you know, sometimes you're watching a nature documentary, and they say, "look at this insect and see how cleverly he disguises himself as a plant." But when you're looking at it, you're saying, "no! it's a bug. I can see it's a bug." But if you were to just walk past it in the woods, you would have no idea it's there. So it's difficult when we talk about it and say "yeah, someone mistook the moon for a UFO"—

J: Yeah, because it's such a recognizeable object.

E: It just seems like the least likely candidate to be mistaken as a UFO. The absolute least.

R: (laughs) It does seem very odd. But that's the thing; it seems like that from our viewpoint, but when you're in the moment, and when you've had a few to drink and you're out and you're with friends and you look up in the sky, and... (laughs)

P: Well, if you're going to factor alcohol into these sightings, sure.

R: (laughs) Well, not necessarily. But I'm saying that there are a lot of situations where a person will look in the sky and see the moon, and—

P: You'd probably have to drink a whole bottle of wine to mistake the moon for... for...

R: (laughs) Don't start. Don't start. (chuckles)

J: Rebecca, honestly. Come on, Rebecca. I hope I'm not insulting any listeners when I say this, but: what type of baboon confuses the moon for a spaceship?

P: Take it easy on our monkey cousins.

R: No. OK, well, no; I will tell you that just this evening, just this evening, I was riding my bike along the river. I'm in Boston; I was riding along the Charles River, and the moon was behind some clouds, and it looked really amazing over the river. It did not look like the moon. The clouds had kind of diffused it and spread the light out to the point where it looked really eerie and weird, and—

J: I reiterate: (chuckles) What kind of baboon could possibly misperceive the moon for a—do-do-do-do—flying UFO? No.


R: Hey, sit on your high horse if that makes you feel better, but we've all had times looked at something and mistook it for something else. That's all I'm saying.

B: Yeah, but also, Jay, the other point is that a lot of times, people don't realize that the moon appears to follow you as you're traveling along, and that might be like, "whoa, but it followed me wherever I went".

R: Yeah, I mean, there are a lot of strange things with the moon, and also the way the moon looks really large sometimes, and sometimes—

B: On the horizon.

R: —it looks very small; there are a lot of optical illusions with the moon. You know, something that's so obvious in the sky can be very odd.

P: You would have to be a drunken ass or a mo-ron to mistake the moon for an alien craft! End of story.

R: All right.

P: Thank you.

S: You guys are missing the point. First of all, the moon can look even more bizarre if it's late at night and the horns of a crescent moon are pointing in the direction that's not what you're used to looking at. And if it's through a haze, it can look like just a weirdly shaped blob of light. And then they are leaping from a blob of light to "I don't know what that blob of light is; maybe it's a spaceship." Right? Most of these things—it's a point of light or it's a blob of light and they can't identify what it is or they think it's moving strangely because of their poor perspective. And then they leap from that to "it must be an alien spaceship". No one's actually seeing a detailed... you know, ship hovering that anybody seeing it would clearly identify the details as that of a spaceship. Right?

E: I think you have to go out of your way to abandon common sense to look up and say something in the sky that is possibly the moon that I look at every night. It's a light and that could be an alien spaceship. You really have to, I think, work hard to try to draw that conclusion, frankly.

R: I don't think it's as big a jump as you think. That's all.

S: The basic fallacy that people are committing is just failing to obey Occam's Razor and making the argument from ignorance. "I can't explain what that blob of light is, therefore it's an extraterrestrial craft."

B: Well, they want to believe it. They want to believe it so much, it's so easy to make the leap.

P: Sure. The writer of the letter wants to believe.

Intelligent Forces (37:02)[edit]

S: Let's go on to e-mail number three. This is a brief one; this one comes from Simon in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada, and Simon writes:

Hi all, love the show. I just found this site and thought I'd pass it along as it is very funny. I hope you haven't seen it before. Keep up the good work.

The website is Intelligent Forces; I'll have the link on the Notes page, and it's basically a spoof on Intelligent Design. The theory that an intelligence in the universe actually attracts and holds all things together is just as viable. So it's really just—I mean, it takes—the site... you have to read it a little bit before you realize that it's a spoof. It's not... it pretends to be serious and legitimate, but... it is quite humorous. So take a look at it; I'll give you the link.

Chelation Therapy (37:48)[edit]

What's Chelation? Is it safe? Is it helpful?

I've recently discovered your podcast a couple weeks ago, and am thoroughly impressed. I'm working my way backwards through your episodes but have not yet encountered the topic of 'chelation'.

My grandparents, who I've always regarded (and still do) as a couple of the most intelligent people I know, have been undergoing regular chelation treatments for the past few years.

When they first told me about it a couple years ago I thought it was a little strange but figured they knew what they were doing. I didn't give it any thought until I became a skeptic a couple weeks ago (which caused me to find your podcast, sorry if you confused the cause and effect for a sec).

Getting regular chemical transfusions doesn't sound too safe to me, should I talk to them about it? Is it safe? Is it helpful?

Keep up the great work!

Jonathan Abrams
Ottawa, Canada

P.S. I recommend that you mention Richard Dawkins' great new book The God Delusion. It's really helped me to come to terms with my latent atheism, and it has completely changed my life (your podcast has helped with adjusting too (I don't know any atheists personally).

Good review article of chelation therapy:

Randi Speaks (44:53)[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: Optical Illusions

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. I was just speaking with Jerry Andrus, the illusionist and our very, very good friend who will be at TAM 5, as I'm sure you all know. Jerry turns out these absolutely remarkable—mind-boggling is the only way to describe them—optical illusions. I've seen many a strong scientist in tears trying to figure out what's happening to his sensory input. All as a result of Jerry Andrus' evil influence. Jerry reminded me of an episode that happened some years ago when he was sent over to Japan to prepare a special there on his optical illusions. Now as I've mentioned before, magicians have peculiar expertise. It can be very, very limited, but it's very strong in the direction that it takes. We know two things with great certainty: A) how people can be fooled; B) how they fool themselves.

Well, on this particular episode, Jerry had a meeting with the producers and directors at his home in Oregon, and they agreed to the contract and such and everything was all well-done and well-organized and well on its way. But then when he actually got over there and into the studio, things took a different turn. Jerry ran into the dreaded lighting director. Now, a lot of magic tricks and certainly optical illusions depend very much on the lighting. This lighting director was well-trained and obviously knew what he was doing, but when it came to Jerry's effects, he was out of his depth. Some of the effects that Jerry had shown the folks back in Oregon were just not going to work unless they listened to him rather than the lighting director, who was intent on following the book rules: "this is the way you light a scene of this kind." Well, Jerry just let him go right ahead, because he didn't seem to want to listen, and after all, he had a lot of autonomy there; he was an important man to the production of this television special. He wasn't one who was likely to take advice. One of the major illusions that I won't get into the details of what it was got all set up; it was all ready to go and they tried it on camera. It was a total fiasco. Jerry pointed out that the lighting had to be diffuse; it couldn't cast shadows or the effect wouldn't work. But the lighting director argued with him. "No, that's the way we light scenes in Japan." Jerry, gentle soul that he is, didn't want to argue with the man, but he simply took it upon himself to put a diffusing screen in there, and lo and behold, the illusion worked perfectly. Now this didn't please the lighting director at all, because he'd been one-upped, so to speak, and you don't do that with an Asian population.

However, when I did my TV special in Seoul, Korea some years back, I encountered the producer, whose name was Nam, and I told him in so many words, based on Jerry Andrus' experience—his bad experience with lighting directors, that I should be listened to and I had good opinions. I knew how these things worked or didn't work. Well, Nam not only listened, he got a lot of input from me and in some occasions, as when he went to Indonesia to film one of the fakers over there who was using some high-voltage equipment to produce miracles, Nam informed me that I couldn't be included in the crew because this fellow had specifically forbidden me to show up on the site. I talked to Nam at length and told him what he should do and how he should go about investigating the matter. And he listened. Oh, did he listen. When he came back to Seoul and they showed me the footage he'd obtained, I threw my arms around him and gave him a big hug. He certainly deserved it. Nam had listened to what I'd told him. He'd done some innovation of his own, and he recognized that the way of thinking, not the thoughts but the way of thinking that I had taught him was the way to go about it. Here in America, one of the exceptions to the rule, the general rule of people having expertise that wouldn't quite work was the late Ernie Kovacs. I did a couple of shows with Ernie and in every case, he simply told everyone, "listen to this man; he knows how the thing works." Well, they did listen; Ernie was happy; I was happy, and apparently the audience was happy too. At least we didn't get any complaints. So, expertise is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. No, I don't have the Ph.D., but when it comes to my expertise, my subject of expertise, I do know what I'm talking about. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (50:01)[edit]

Question #1: Study demonstrates the ability to change the buying preferences of subjects by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain. Question #2: New study shows that humans are actually quite good at tracking by sense of smell alone. Question #3: Astronomers think they may have seen the very first stars in the universe.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:01:34)[edit]

This Week's puzzle
I read red lines on a white background
But occasionally, the background is not white
I interpret stress patterns
But by nature, I struggle to stay upright
I analyze vessels and the directions they travel
But their movements mean nothing
And though its lone job is to protect you
I have the power to see beyond this purpose

What is my profession?

Quote of the Week (1:02:57)[edit]

'The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.'- George Bernard Shaw

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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