SGU Episode 76

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SGU Episode 76
January 3rd 2007
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 75                      SGU 77

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

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 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, January 3rd, 2007, and this is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, and joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Good evening.

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello everybody.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Happy 2007.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Happy New Year.

S: Happy New Year everyone.

J: Happy New Year.

R: Happy New Year.

P: Thank you.

S: How are you all doing?

R: Good times.

P: Thank you.

B: Good.

E: Fine.

R: Super.

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:

S: This is also the beginning of a new year and one of the things that we like to do is to look back over the previous year specifically at psychic predictions and how the psychics fared for their predictions for 2006. And as usual, they didn't do very well.

E: That was my prediction when the year started is that they wouldn't do very well.

R: Oh, look at you. You should be up for a million dollars.

E: I could think of some good ways to spend that.

S: So a lot of psychics and others try to bolster their street cred and try to get media attention by claiming that they've made stunning predictions that come true. What they typically do is either make a long laundry list of predictions. So using the gunshot approach, as we say, and hoping that a few of them will turn out to be correct and they point to the correct predictions and ignore the ones that they missed.

P: Because they hope one of them will be correct.

S: Or they make vague predictions. Predictions that are vague enough that they could fit something that happens into it.

E: War will escalate in Iraq.

P: No, it's worse than that, a'la Nostradamus. The horseman will ride with the fireball. Ah, World War II. Come on.

S: Or they'll make very high probability predictions. So those are what they do. They make many predictions, high probability predictions or vague predictions.

E: California will have an earthquake.

S: Right. Without saying when or without saying what the, how severe it's going to be. Interestingly found that Pat Robertson's in the prediction game.

R: Oh man, he is such a jackass.

E: Now, now, now, now, now you're insulting jackass, you're insulting jackasses.

R: That's true. I apologize to jackasses everywhere because Pat Robertson is so far below them that it's not even funny. What's his most recent thing that everybody in some urban center is going to die, right? But he can't say whether it's nuclear or not.

S: This is going to be a major mass killing in late in 2007. This is his prediction for the next year. He says, I'm quoting, I'm not necessarily saying it's going to be nuclear, but he said the Lord didn't say nuclear, but I do believe it will be something like that.

R: So it's like the Lord gave him some specifics, but not enough that might help.

J: Right. Like God doesn't know, right? Now Steve, this guy, how many, is this the guy that had sex with prostitutes?

S: No, no, no. That's Jimmy Swagger. This is the 700 Club.

R: This is Pat Robertson, the man who thinks he can leg press two billion pounds.

J: Oh, is he, who's the one that saw 500 foot Jesus in the desert?

R: What?

J: Is that him?

B: Yeah. I remember that. But yeah, I think it was 900 foot.

E: We're confusing our jackasses here.

J: Sorry.

R: Wait, 900, no, no, no. 900 foot Jesus is a DJ. Everybody who's cool knows that.

J: Rebecca, the DJ picked it because this idiot said he saw 900 foot Jesus in the desert.

R: All right, all right. You win.

S: Let's look back at some of his recent, his previous predictions. For 2005, Robertson predicted that Bush would have victory after victory in his second term. He said Social Security reform proposals would be approved. There we go. And that Bush would nominate some conservative judges to the federal courts.

E: He didn't say by whom they'd be approved.

S: So he got the conservative judges correct. That was kind of a high probability guess. Totally wrong on everything else. This article about him, it says, in quotes, I have a relatively good track record. Sometimes I miss. But I wasn't sure if that was Pat Robertson talking or God talking.

P: Exactly. How could he miss with Jesus on board? I don't get it.

S: And for 2006, he said in May of 2006, Robertson said God told him that storms and possibly a tsunami were to crash into America's coastline in 2006. So one of them were lying.

P: Right.

S: Even though the U.S. was not hit with the tsunami, Robertson on Tuesday cited last spring's heavy rains and flooding into England as partly fulfilling the prediction.

J: No, no, he did it.

S: Old retrofitting.

E: Is the prediction half empty or half full? You know, that's how you look at it.

J: Oh, my God. A tsunami. Trillions of gallons of water will smash into a coastline. It rained a half an inch last night. Get a life.

S: Right. So basically, you could not have if you count some heavy rains you could not possibly have gotten that prediction wrong.

B: I got a few here that are funny. Here's one from Psychic Hope, her from her predictions for 2006. Saddam Hussein is sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

J: That's true. Pretty much.

E: His life ended. Prison of death.

P: Albeit brief. Albeit brief.

B: Here's another one from my category called duh. Musicians and actors and people made of major creative fields joined together to assist the people of third world countries. Well, what are the odds of that happening?

J: Wait, when did when was this prediction made?

B: These are these are supposed to have happened in 2006. So I assume the end of 2005 she made these.

J: Yeah, but didn't that happen like about four or five times already?

B: I know. It's funny. Here's another guy. I never heard of this guy. Almeen. He's a mystic. And of course, the website describes him as Almeen is considered a leading mystic of the 21st century. He had two gems here. One of them was the emergence of 600 Atlantean speaking people from the inner earth. That would be interesting from the inner earth. This one just kind of blew my mind. The entering into physicality of the New Jerusalem and the installation of the sacred government under the goddess of creation called the Emanuella. Wow.

J: At least he's pretty specific.

B: Yeah. Hard to mistake that.

P: I thought Atlanteans though. Excuse me. I thought Atlanteans came from the ocean.

E: They come from Georgia.

P: Not the inner earth.

S: They sank down there I guess.

R: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't always underwater. At one point it was above water and then it sank. Get with it.

P: And kept sinking till it was down in the middle of the earth.

R: Yeah. I mean.

P: Oh, okay.

R: Duh.

E: Hollow Earth.

P: Maybe that was like on a Justice League or something and I missed.

S: Here's Elizabeth Barron's predictions for 2006. She's another psychic, alleged psychic. She said when asked specifically about terrorism in the US, she said there are many acts of terrorism in America which are not being told by the media that they are acts of terrorism. Okay. It just goes on on that vein forever. So in other words, if there's acts of terrorism, then she was right. And if there weren't, then the media is lying about it. About Saddam Hussein, she was also, by the way, Saddam Hussein was executed a few days ago. And she wrote that there will be delays upon delays and we should be very cautious because this guy could escape very easily. Alrighty. Well, she didn't say he was going to escape. She said that he could escape. So this is how they weasel their way out of this.

P: Right.

E: Oh, hatch doors all over these predictions. I mean, they escape hatches everywhere.

B: Steve, Barron's also had some predictions about earthquakes, which I did a little research on. She said that there will be six major earthquakes, two will be in America. Now, according to the National Earthquake Information Center, US Geological Survey, worldwide there were. Now, how do you define major earthquake? That's an important point. Well, I actually did a search and I got some cryptic response from Google that said that a major earthquake is defined as anything in the seven range. So seven point zero to seven nine nine. I guess you could maybe make an argument. Maybe that's what it is considered a major earthquake if you're in the sevens on the Richter scale. But if it is, if that's the case, then there were nine there were nine last year worldwide. So she was off by 50 percent. But if you include six six to six point nine, there were seventy nine of those. So she'd be way off there. Now, for the US, you predicted there would be two in America. We we had no sevens and no eights or nines. We did have six earthquakes in the six range, six point zero to six point nine. So she's pretty.

S: Yeah, she also she's a terrible track record. She said the stock market would go down, down, down. Wrong. The avian flu will spread to the United States. Some of her predictions are not really predictions. They're just sort of, I don't know, obvious statements. Stem cell replacement must be looked at and looked at as a way of healing many. It's like a fortune cookie fortune there.

B: And she made it sound like, doesn't she make it sound like in a couple of spots that it's a therapy that you can go to your doctor for. She made it sound like it does it cures cancer. But well, yeah, well, maybe. But the jury's still out on that yet. And she's making it sound like-

E: It's not even a prediction.

P: It's just noise.

S: Now, Jay, you had sent me Sylvia Brown's predictions, but these are for the next hundred years.

J: I recommend that everyone listening to this goes to the link and just reads. She has 40 predictions on her site and every single one of them is hysterical.

E: Is it her awful voice reading them?

J: No, no, it's just a list of them. And Bob, Bob and I talked earlier today and we picked a few of our favorites. So let me tell you-

P: Next hundred years.

J: What number two on there? She said this is one of Bob's favorites, robotic houses controlled by computerized switchboard. And so I'm talking to Bob and I'm like, Bob, first of all, many houses are already controlled by computers. This is not a prediction anymore. And switchboards. Who uses a switchboard? That's like from the 60s, a switchboard. I picture a freaking operators.

S: Some of these predictions like science fiction from the 1930s.

E: Yeah, that's exactly right.

S: Here's one. By 2055, most people will be living in domed cities due to poor atmospheric conditions. Domed cities? That's a hundred years old. That's nonsense.

B: Can you imagine doming a city with that would involve?

S: It's really sad.

B: Here's a couple that I like. The third floor of houses will have a rollback roofs to allow hovercrafts to come and go. Wait a second, hovercrafts don't hover more than a few feet off the ground. How are they going to hover to the top of the roof of your house? Wouldn't it be like an airplane? Hovercrafts just don't do that.

E: Not in my domed city.

B: This is a good one. Treatment for depression and mood disorders will come from a control chamber that emits sensory stimulation. What is that, an orgasmatron?

R: Don't even say something like that in the context of Sylvia Brown. That makes me vomit in my mouth. And when I vomit in my mouth, I can't continue on with the podcast. Just so you know.

J: This is new exercise equipment that you sit or stand in and it literally stimulates your muscles with electricity to achieve the same effect as physical exercise. Okay, hello.

S: It's already been shown not to work.

J: Yeah, they already exist and they don't work.

E: She saw it at a 3am infomercial and said, hey, that sounds good.

S: This is going for the totally obvious. A moon base is created for people to visit and as a stopping place for further trips. What does that even mean? A moon base?

J: But little did the people know the moon is actually a flying saucer.

S: So within the next hundred years, we're going to have a moon base. Wow, she's really going out on a limb on that one.

P: Yeah, that is a way out.

B: I like also the confusion of technology she has here. A virtual reality headset will stimulate brain waves so people can learn whole libraries of information within hours. Well, hello, what does virtual reality have to do with any of that stuff? Jay, what did you say when I was talking to you the way you put it?

J: I put it like, okay, so someone's going to invent a way to display information that will allow us to learn information million times faster, just by arranging pixels in a certain order. It makes absolutely no sense. If you're watching it, so I was telling Bob, it's going to be like in The Matrix, it's going to be like, it's going to be super sped up bullshit. I understand now.

S: Yeah, like that one she pulled right from The Matrix and she just threw in the term virtual reality there because it sounds futuristic, but she doesn't even know what it is, apparently.

E: Sounds like Sylvia watches a lot of TV.

J: All right, how about this one creeped me out. People will be able to simply walk out of their bodies upon death.

S: But we'll never be able to know it.

J: Hello?

P: We'll be able to? This is a new thing?

J: Walk out meaning what?

E: Shed your skin.

J: Wait, okay, forget it. I didn't want to talk about that.

S: The question I had is why do this? Why make predictions for the next hundred years? The only thing I can imagine-

B: She can't fail.

E: Or if you do, you're not around to suffer the scorn.

S: I think she's going for the whole Nostradamus legacy thing here. I think she's hoping that 50 years from now, people will retrofit some things into her predictions and make her into the next Nostradamus.

E: Good luck. She wishes.

S: Hey, you never know. Think about it. Look at Edward Casey. This guy was a total charlatan, a total nobody. He's got followers, and over time, he's going to be built up into much more of a figure. Think of Nostradamus. The guy was just a charlatan of his time. He was just a quack. And now he's got this mythic figure just because his name has survived through time. So who knows? A hundred years from now, Sylvia Brown could have the stature of Nostradamus.

P: The guy's on the History Channel, Nostradamus, for heaven's sakes.

S: So I'm officially putting Sylvia Brown in league with Tom Cruise.

B: Wow.

J: After reading that...

E: You're insulting both of them simultaneously. That's great.

J: Yeah, they're my two most hated now. That's it. These two. Top.

E: You hear that, Sylvia? You just made the list.

R: The J-list.

P: Maybe we can interview her.

E: Yeah, for $700 for a half hour.

P: I wouldn't pay that harlot two cents.

J: Hey, Perry, you can't call her that.

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

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

S: A couple more quick news items before we go on to your emails. A while back, a few years ago, in Cobb County, Georgia, the school board required the placing of a sticker inside biology textbooks that basically was a disclaimer saying that evolution is just a theory and is not a proven scientific fact. Well, they were required to remove those stickers. A few years ago. And since then, they have been appealing the federal decision to try to get them put back in.

E: Oh, I thought appealing the stickers, sorry.

S: The families have been also suing the school board. So what happened on December 20th was that the school officials agreed to drop their four-year-long attempt to appeal this decision. So they're dropping any attempt to put back the stickers in the textbooks. They're also paying $167,000 in legal fees to the plaintiffs.

B: Awesome.

E: Wow.

B: Beautiful.

S: They totally caved. This is a quote from Debbie Seagrave, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Georgia affiliate, who said, the case is done and they have agreed to never again to put stickers in the books. So this is just a period at the end of this tiny chapter in the creationism anti-evolution movement. It's good to see.

E: Happy news.

S: We celebrate it when and where we make progress, although they never go away. We'll always have to fight this fight. It's good to see that we could win some battles.

Homeopathy in Scotland (18:00)[edit]


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

S: The next news item comes from Scotland. And this is a recent publication that surveyed patients, thousands of patients in Scotland, to try to get a handle on how many physicians were prescribing either homeopathic remedies or herbal remedies. So the survey suggests that as many as 60% of Scottish doctors are prescribing either homeopathic or herbal remedies. Actually, it was more for homeopathic. About 49% has prescribed at least some homeopathic remedies and about 38% some herbal remedy.

J: Oh my god.

E: If it's not homeopathic, it's crap.

S: Although only about 5% of the Scottish physicians were responsible for the vast majority of the prescriptions, which is actually that's not too dissimilar to the United States where there are about 4% or 5% or so of physicians will prescribe homeopathic remedies and the rest do not.

E: Hang on, Steve. Can you actually prescribe a homeopathic? I mean, do you really need a prescription to do that?

S: Yes.

J: Yeah, oh, absolutely.

E: Here's a glass of water. Do you need a prescription for that?

S: Well, in the United States, at the time, early on in the FDA's history, the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency that regulates drugs, so in the early days of the FDA, the homeopathy lobby in this country was at its peak and they actually got a law passed through Congress to grandfather in the homeopathic pharmacopeia into the FDA as approved drugs. They actually are approved by the FDA. It's scary.

E: That's brutal.

S: Yeah, it was like in the 1930s or something, but that's the legacy now that we have.

J: Does that clear your mind that the FDA approved water?

S: Yeah, it's nonsense. Again, occasionally the topic of homeopathy comes up because there's some news item associated with it where you don't have the opportunity to go into it in detail. So on the links page, there's a link to a previous episode where we talked about it in detail. That was episode number 59. And also an article that I wrote which is a pretty good overview of homeopathy. And as you're hearing my fellow skeptics say, homeopathic remedies are literally placebos or just water. They're diluted beyond any active ingredient being retained in the snake oil.

J: It's the vibrations.

S: Right, but it has the vibrations.

E: Dude.

S: And if you look at all of the evidence, it shows that it basically doesn't work. But it's always been popular in Great Britain. That's really where the focus of its popularity is. It's never been as popular in America as it has been in Europe in general and in the United Kingdom specifically.

E: The royal family has a homeopathic position on staff at all times.

S: Right, and that's probably a big reason for it. The royal family has been a long time proponents of homeopathy. So that's really propelled it forward in that kind of way.

E: Bloody hell.

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

P: Yes, I have one other news item I'd like to touch on before we move on. And yes, this concerns Steve and my semi-continuing debate on monkeys versus birds.

E: I love this debate.

P: Now, here on January 3rd, 2007, I have what I think everyone will agree is the definitive answer to this debate. I've been in contact recently with a doctor who remains unnamed in Africa, excuse me, in the Congo who runs a monkey preserve. And he's made some very interesting audio tapes regarding these matters.

R: He sound a little biased to me, that's all I'm saying. Go on, I'm sorry.

P: Excuse me. And he made a particular audio tape that I really think will put the nail in this particular coffin. And I'd like to play this for you. I'll just do some quick setup. The situation that he recorded was a monkey who found in his tree, his home tree, a rather large bird one morning, really a sizeable bird. And what happened when the monkey encountered the bird and approached him? All right, so let's play that for you now. And we'll see how that encounter went. So please listen up. [plays audio] We can see that when he encountered that bird, he clobbered him, grabbed him, he put up a brief fight, and he threw him out of the tree. And the bird was destroyed.

E: There's a problem. Go ahead, Jay. You go first.

J: You bought this one hook, line, and sinker?

P: Excuse me. This was sent to me by this unnamed doctor from the Congo.

E: Dr. Blank. My point is, was that the bird talking at the end of that recording?

J: Yes, it was.

E: So if that's the case, then perhaps the bird does have an advantage over the bird.

R: Yeah, I didn't hear the monkey talk.

P: You've never heard of mima birds?

R: Did you hear the monkey talk?

S: It sounded suspiciously like Foghorn Leghorn.

R: It kind of did, didn't it?

S: Well, Perry, that's irrefutable evidence. I've got to hand it to you. What can I say?

J: Yeah, very good, Perry.

P: It's irrefutable evidence.

J: Okay, so officially, the monkeys versus bird case is closed.

P: It's closed! Monkeys on top, so sayeth the doctor.

S: Pending further evidence, of course. As in all scientific controversies, we will bend. As new evidence comes to light, we may have to modify our conclusion.

E: Was it Dr. Livingston, I presume?

S: Perry, I'll have to take you at your word, due to your credibility and credentials, that that is complete legitimate audio that we heard there.

P: Did you hear how hard he threw that bird down?

S: You could hear the beak flip. You could actually hear the beak flip.

R: I think you could, yeah.

P: You could, yes.

J: Steve, increase Perry's medication, please.

E: I like the background music, though. It was very...

R: Oh, man.

P: I assume that that was just some of the soothing music he plays to keep the monkeys calm.

J: And now your emails.

S: Let's go on to your emails.

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:

S: The first email comes from Joe in Indiana, and Joe writes, "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."

B: Is it pronounced Himalayan? Never mind.

S: "At first, I thought it was just another funky-looking light fixture. But upon reading the included pamphlet, I was bombarded by the most pseudoscience I've ever personally encountered in my entire life. I've included scans for your enjoyment, but my personal favorite is how it can reorganize the epidermal layer of your 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 lamp, but 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, Joe." Thanks a lot, Joe. Well, the salt lamps, whether they're of the Himalayan variety or otherwise, have been around for a while.

P: That's the silliest thing to come out of the Himalayas since the abominable snowman.

S: So the basic principle here is that these heated chunks of salt basically, these salt rocks, release negative ions, and negative ions are supposed to attach to and remove impurities and toxins from the air and purify the air. But it's nonsense.

P: It is?

S: The premise that these devices are releasing negative ions into the air is false. They don't appreciably change the concentration of positive or negative ions in the room in which they're in. If they were releasing negative ions, they would just be attracted back again to the salt rock, because that would leave a positive charge behind. So you would need to be having a charged device or having a device that was actually generating energy and that was designed to put out negative ions. Just heating up a rock is not going to do that. So the premise is false, and just putting negative ions in the air doesn't have any demonstrated health benefits. In fact, that actually has been looked at specifically for asthma, which is the most common claim that's made for these, although obviously now it seems that people have attached an expanding array of health claims to these things. There have actually been studies of ionizers or things that generate negative ions that actually do do that.

E: Sure, a sharper image solves several kinds.

S: The review of these articles, which I'll have a link to, shows that they basically have no benefit. So false premise, unsubstantiated claims, and evidence of lack of efficacy for some of the specific claims that are made for it.

E: But go ahead and buy it if you really want.

S: They're kind of funky looking, actually, if you have that kind of decor. I guess that could be interesting. But I hate when there are things that are either decorative or have some kind of non-utilitarian function. If you like the way these lamps look, you can't get them just for the way they look because somebody is selling them with pseudoscientific claims. So they ruin it for you.

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. (laughter)

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.

S: Let's go on to email number three. This is a brief one. This one comes from Simon in Medicine Head, Alberta, Canada. Simon writes, "Hi all, love the show. Just found this site and thought I'd pass it along as it is very funny. 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. 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. It's really just... The site, you have to read it a little bit before you realize that it's a spoof. 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:

S: The last email comes from Jonathan Abrams from Ottawa, Canada, another Canadian. And Jonathan writes, "What's chelation? Is it safe? Is it helpful?" That's his question. It gives a little bit of background. "I've recently discovered your podcast a couple weeks ago and am thoroughly impressed. I'm working my way back through your episodes". We have not covered it before, as far as I can recall. "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 of weeks ago. 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." Well, chelation therapy is total nonsense. It's been around for a long time. I'll have a link to a very thorough article on it by my friend, Saul Green, but let me give you the quick skinny on chelation therapy. It's actually a legitimate therapy for heavy metal poisoning. If you get mercury poisoning, you could be given chelating agents, which will bind to the mercury and cause it to precipitate out and get it out of your body.

J: Or if you go to a Metallica concert. Yep, go on.

S: That's right. This is FDA approved for this purpose. Certain chelating agents are. Although I'll add, the specific chelating agent that's used most commonly for heavy metal poisoning is different than the agents used by the chelation therapists, the ones that are using it for illegitimate purposes. The basic theory is that hardening of the arteries, arthroscleric plaques have calcium as an important structural component and that if you took the or leached or chelated the calcium out of those plaques, that they would basically disintegrate and fall apart and that this would therefore cure hardening of the arteries. I mean, they've gone through several various different mechanisms over the years. As each one gets disproved, they sort of morph it into a slightly different mechanism. And then that one gets disproved and they still won't give up their claims. And they're further arguing that this treatment can be used instead of bypass surgery for coronary artery disease or angioplasty that it will cure peripheral vascular disease and prevent strokes. So the bottom line is that every mechanism that has been proposed as to how it might work has been shown not to be true. In addition to that, if you look at all of the clinical trials that have been done so far, they are basically negative. All of the double-blind placebo-controlled trials are negative. There have been a couple of recent ones looking at peripheral vascular disease in Canada and in the United States, which show that the perceived benefit of chelation therapy was no better than placebo. Although it's interesting to note that both the placebo arm and the chelation arm both thought that their symptoms of basically leg cramping and other symptoms of poor blood flow down into the legs improved significantly on treatment. But what this goes to show you is that with such subjective symptoms that the placebo effect can be quite marked and therefore all of the previous or earlier trials that show that there might be some benefit from chelation therapy but did not have a placebo arm are basically worthless. That the improvement in those studies could simply be attributed to the placebo effect and not any effect from the chelation therapy. So what the proponents are doing are basically that they are relying upon the weaker evidence to maintain their claims and they're denying or ignoring the higher quality evidence. And that's always a good sign of pseudoscience and quackery when you're cherry-picking the worst evidence in order to make your case.

R: I'm glad we got that email because I had never heard of chelation. That's a brand new load of crap that I had never heard of before.

S: It's kind of past its heyday already but it's still out there.

R: Wow.

S: It's actually the center of another controversy which I'll state very quickly which I'm reminded of partly because Stephen Strauss who was the head of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine recently resigned his post. I don't know who's taking his place yet. But there are some supporters of chelation therapy which are trying to get the NIH to support a large clinical trial of chelation therapy. And some of my colleagues and I have been arguing especially Wallace Sampson who's been on the show before as well as Kimball Atwood who's also been interviewed on the show are being very active and arguing that the trial is actually unethical because this treatment has already been proven not to work. It's also, by the way, not that safe a treatment. It does require IV infusions of a powerful drug and it does actually take important minerals out of your body. I've personally treated one patient who was suffering neurological complications from low blood calcium from chelation therapy. So it's not a safe treatment. And even besides that, it's already been proven adequately not to work. Therefore, it's unethical to study it in human subjects.

E: Does the FDA have anything to say about this?

S: The FDA has approved these agents for trials in humans but again, they're not concerned with what is being studied or what clinical effect is being looked at.

E: But do they have anything to contribute as far as this new set of trials that they're trying to...

S: The FDA has said that these drugs do not work for atherosclerosis or for heart disease or for vascular disease. But the FDA does not regulate the practice of medicine. What the FDA does and what similar agencies in other countries do is that they approve drugs so that they can be marketed for a specific indication. But once a drug is on the market, then it's up to the medical community to decide how best to use it. So that is not something that's regulated by the FDA. The FDA does get involved in approving human drug trials, but there's also a separate mechanism for that. There's human investigation committees and ethical committees that basically approve human trials. In addition to that, the FDA may give an agent or a drug, like an investigational new drug indication, basically saying that they can use this to do FDA trials, trials that can then be used in order to apply for FDA approval for a specific indication. So again, just to get back to chelation therapy, the bottom line there is just say no to chelation therapy. It doesn't work. The mechanisms have been shown not to be true. And even to the point where arguing for further research is probably unethical.

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]

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

Answer Item
Fiction Buying preferences
Science Tracking by smell
First stars
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Buying preferences
Buying preferences
Buying preferences
Buying preferences
Buying preferences

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are real and one is fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake, and you guys can play along at home, or in your car, or in your submarine, or wherever you happen to listen to these podcasts. Are you guys ready?

J: Yes.

R: Yes.

S: Alright, number one. A new study demonstrates the ability to change the buying preferences of subjects by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain. Item number two, new study shows that humans are actually quite good at tracking by sense of smell alone. And item number three, astronomers think they have seen the very first stars in the universe. Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Oh, no. Wait, so I have to find out which one's false, right?

S: Right, which one's the fake?

R: You know, you do switch it up every now and again. I feel like I need to point that out every now and again.

S: It's the same game that guys play in a strip joint. Which one's the fake?

J: What?

R: That was so inappropriate, first of all. Second of all, what kind of strip joints are you going to, Steve? The ones I go to, you go and you pay your money and you stare at the naked ladies. No trivia.

S: And they're all fake, right?

J: I need to hear these again. I forgot them already.

R: Okay, okay, okay, okay. So the first one is something about magnets, right? That's suspicious to me because magnets are often used.

S: Study demonstrates the ability to change the buying preferences of subjects by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain.

R: That sounds suspiciously like bullshit to me. So I'm going to go with that one.

S: Alrighty, Bob?

R: I don't like magnets.

S: Okay. Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Humans are good at tracking using the sense of smell. I'm going to say that's true. The first stars, I hope you're not subtly tweaking this story and that it really wasn't the first stars but some sort of stellar objects because I don't know if they're really seeing the first stars but maybe the first galaxies. So I hope you're not doing that but one did sound pretty cracky to me. So I'm going to say one is false. The buying preference is using a magnetic field.

R: Stick with the winner. That's a good tactic.

S: Evan?

R: The winner being me. Sorry, go on.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Look, I'm forced to agree with my slightly inebriated colleagues.

R: Let's not mention the inebriation on the air. That is a cleverly disguised...

E: Sorry.

R: Go on.

P: I don't think we'll have to mention it. It's mentioning itself.

E: The buying habits of people cannot be influenced by magnets of any kind, even MRIs. That one is obviously fiction. Thank you.

S: Okay. Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Yeah, the only body part that magnets have shown to affect so far are... No, it can't affect the brain. That's not true.

S: Okay, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: You guys, you see the predicament I'm in here?

E: No.

J: If, since you all pick the magnet one, if I don't pick it and I do pick the correct one, I will be the only one that picks the right one.

P: It would be amazing.

J: It would be totally amazing. However, I am totally compelled to pick the magnet one because it seems so stupid. So here I am in 2007 hoping not to lose. But I've got to go with the magnet one because it just doesn't seem right, Steve.

R: Get it off to a good start there, Jay.

S: All right.

P: We must stand together.

R: Jay, did you want to bet some bacon on that? Just curious.

J: No, not this year.

R: Okay.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Let's start with number three. Astronomers think they may have seen the very first stars in the universe. This one is science.

E: Nice.

S: And Bob, you're right. I am referring to what you think I'm referring to. So they have seen these extremely large and very intrinsically bright objects at about 13 billion light years away. The universe is somewhere around 13.7 billion years old, so something that's 13 billion light years away is also 13 billion years in the past and is therefore at the very beginning of the universe. These may be the very first stars that form. They also may be black holes gobbling up a lot of the dense material in the early universe.

B: So then they would be quasars then?

S: Something like that. A little math therefore shows that these newfound objects are indeed the infants of the universe, but what are they? If they are stars, they are about ten times more massive than theories suggest the first stars would have been. So they're still mysterious objects. That's why I said they think they may have found the first stars. That is one of the hypotheses, but other things are also possible. But this is pretty cool. They are using techniques with existing telescopes to look back to the very beginning of the universe. It's very nifty.

J: So Steve, I'm confused about this because do we know where the supposed center of the universe is?

S: There is no center of the universe.

B: Everywhere is a center, Jay.

J: I know that. I've read that too, Bob, but what I mean is how do they determine whether or not these are the ones that would be considered the first?

B: Well, it's the age, really.

S: Yeah, it's just the age, Jay. If you're looking 13 billion light years distant, you are looking 13 billion years in the past. So we are looking at the universe as it was 700 million years after the Big Bang.

B: Assuming those calculations are correct when the Big Bang happened, of course.

J: Okay, all right. So that one was fake.

S: That was science.

J: That was science, yes.

P: Next.

S: Let's go to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: New study shows that humans are actually quite good at tracking by sense of smell alone. That one is also science.

J: One for one. Can we start over?

S: Hang on. They actually made a trail of chocolate smell. I don't know why they chose essence of chocolate. I guess they figured people would be good at tracking it. And they laid it along a field on a piece of string. And then they had subjects with, like, foot and knee pads on so they couldn't feel the ground, and blindfolded, and with earmuffs on so they couldn't hear anything. So, again, just tried to limit them to their sense of smell. Then they had them crawl along the ground, sniffing the ground, and following the trail of chocolate smell. And they were actually able to do it quite well, much better than anybody thought. The old thinking is that humans lost, primates in general, in fact, lost a lot of the sensitivity, the sophistication and discrimination of our sense of smell.

P: Well, we lost the wet noses that are generally associated with good smellers.

S: Yeah, but I don't think that doesn't really correlate with the good ability to smell. I mean, that's not what causes it. In fact, genetically, canines, for example, have many, many more genes dedicated to the development of the olfactory system of smell than do primates.

B: Steve, I read something interesting about that. I don't know my sources, so take it for what it's worth. I read that the genes that encode olfaction for humans, about 70 to 80 percent of them are mutated beyond function. Does that sound true to you?

S: Well, there's a lot of genes that we had in the past that have become dysfunctional over time, because there was no selective pressure to maintain them, because we were relying less and less on our smell when we were standing more upright. So the smell is a useful sense for tracking and things like that when you have your nose to the ground and you're sniffing, like dogs will often do.

P: Yeah, but I mean so we could smell a little chocolate on the ground, and we did a little better than predicted. Okay, that's kind of interesting, but we still stink at it compared to a hound.

S: We're not as good as a hound. Your hounds were much quicker, much better at it than people were.

J: So Perry, our sense of smell stinks?

P: Absolutely. I remember hearing when I was a kid that that thing that's up in your olfactory sense is if you unwrap a human, it's the size of a postage stamp, and if you unwrap a dog, it's the size of a handkerchief. I don't know what they were talking about, but does that sound right to you, Steve?

S: The surface area of receptors that sense the chemicals that give us odour.

B: Yeah, it's really, they're not just better than us. They are far and away so much better than us, something like two orders of magnitude.

S: But they did allow some of the subjects to practice at it, and they said they actually got pretty good. They were able to do it quicker and quicker. So you just have to have your nose to the ground.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Which means that number one, a study demonstrates the ability to change the buying preferences of subjects by magnetically stimulating certain regions of the brain is fiction.

E: It's patently false.

J: I don't remember the last time I got one right.

S: Seems like you guys all got hung up on the fact that you can't magnetically stimulate the brain. That, however, is not true. You can magnetically stimulate the brain. You can use basically a magnetic field to induce electrical currents in different regions of the brain. That has been done. So I guess I was assuming too much knowledge on your parts.

J: Oh, wait a minute, Steve-

B: We all win, and he gives us a diss.

J: Are you trying to take my sweet, sweet victory away from me?

S: You guys, congratulations. You all got it right.

R: Go us, yay!

S: This was based on, I have to start you guys off with an easy one this year. This was based on a real study, however. It wasn't inducing buying preferences, but what they're trying to do is see if they could figure out how to predict the buying preferences of subjects by using functional MRI scans. So this is a part of a new field of neuroeconomics, where they're actually trying to present people with marketing strategies, for example, and look at their fMRI scan and see what parts of their brain light up, and then how does that correlate to their later buying preferences. So they're actually trying to develop this study to try to better hone marketing strategies by actually looking at the neurological response that it generates in people with functional MRI scan.

B: Who thought those two words would be put together? Neuroeconomics.

S: Right, but I extrapolated that from just reversing it and magnetically stimulating those regions of the brain, which is not impossible.

R: You can't fool us, Steve.

S: It's not impossible.

R: Stop trying to fool us, Steve.

S: You guys all saw through it. You did. Did a good job.

P: We read you like an open book.

R: Open book.

S: Listen, Mr. 22% over there.

P: Please. Please, just so you don't feel like morons.

J: Hey, guys, so I propose that for 2007 we hit the reset button on this running score.

R: I'm going to blackball that, actually. I'm going to suggest that we...

J: Reset button.

B: So am I. I say we stay as it is.

R: Stay the course. That's what I say.

S: Well, thank you for your unbiased recommendations, guys.

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?

S: Evan.

E: Hi.

S: You have a puzzle for the first episode of 2007.

E: Oh, I do. I do.

S: All right, let's hear it.

E: 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 analyse 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? Good luck, everyone.

S: All right. Thanks, Evan.

E: Enjoy.

S: Your puzzles are getting very interesting.

R: Thank you for not rhyming, Evan.

S: You still owe us a rap. You still need to rap a puzzle.

R: I do want to hear a rap still.

E: A rap? Oh my god.

R: A funky, cool rap.

E: All right, I guess sometime in 2007 I'll have to come up with something.

S: It doesn't have to be a gangster rap, just some kind of rap.

R: Hip hop? It could be trip hop, even.

E: I'm with it. I'm hip. Tukka tukka tukka tukka tukka.

R: Oh, my God. That's adorable.

E: Thank you. The way you're not cool.

B: Oh, man.

S: Well, that is our first show for 2007.

P: Oh, God.

S: Thank you, everyone, for joining me.

P: Such as it was.

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: Bob, you have a quote to close out the show for us?

B: Yes, this is a quote by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw that I liked. He said, "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic 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."

S: That's a nice quote.

R: Well said.

E: Well done, George. Can we interview him?

S: We could try. So I'll point out for our listeners that most of us, everyone except for Perry, is going to be at the TAM5, the Amazing Meeting 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 18th to 21st. I think there is still room. So if you haven't made your reservations yet, check out the JREF site and join us. It's going to be a fun time. You might actually learn something or two. I understand there's going to be some skeptical lectures there at the same time.

P: If you're not careful, you might learn something before we're done.

S: All right, guys. Thanks for joining me.

J: Have a good night, everybody.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: Night, guys.

R: Happy New Year.

S: Happy New Year, everyone.

P: Happy New Year.

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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