SGU Episode 77

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to navigation Jump to search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs: proofreading, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
How to Contribute

SGU Episode 77
January 10th 2007
Polar bear.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 76                      SGU 78

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


SW: Spencer Weart

Quote of the Week

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not "Eureka!" but "That's funny."

Isaac Asimov

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: 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 10th, 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: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Good evening.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hello, everyone.

S: How are we all doing this evening?

B: Good, Steve.

P: Good.

E: Okay.

R: Couldn't be better.

S: We have our first interview of the year coming up later in the show with Dr. Spencer Wirt, who is the author of the book, The Discovery of Global Warming. We've been having a lot of questions on that particular topic, and we wanted to address it in some more detail, so we got an expert on to help talk us through it.

News Items[edit]

Enviga (1:00)[edit]

  • Coke claims new product has 'negative calories'

S: We have a few news items this week. Bob, you wanted to talk about Coca-Cola's new product called Enviga. Is that how you pronounce it? Envega?

B: I think. I think that's what it's called. Yeah, this is interesting. This really caught my attention. They released recently for national distribution a new product called Enviga that has negative calories. Like I said, it's called Enviga. It's being marketed by both Coca-Cola and Nestle.

P: Negative calories means it takes more calories to drink than it puts on?

B: Well, apparently, it's supposed to help you burn more calories. I believe a can has about five calories, but since it's supposed to actually...

E: Doesn't water do that?

R: Yeah. Water does, and teas, and coffee.

B: Well, the main ingredient, the thing here that really gets this thing going is the caffeine. This is essentially sparkling green tea with added caffeine, and the calorie-burning power from what I've gathered is the combination of the caffeine and something called EGCG, which is an antioxidant naturally found in green tea. Now, the Enviga website claims that healthy subjects in the lean-to-normal weight range can experience an average increase in calorie burning by 60 to 100 calories. Now, my first question here is why were the test subjects in the lean-to-normal weight range?

R: Yeah, what about the fatties? That's who's going to...

'E: Maybe those were the only one that yielded the positive data, and the other guys didn't show that they lost any weight and burned any calories by drinking the thing.

B: Well, I was just going to say, that just seemed like a big red flag to me. Why wouldn't you just get overweight people and see... These are the people that you would think would be interested in it. So that's my first question, why is that the case? Secondly, they...

S: Well, listen, this is typical, though, of weight loss products. It's basically a bunch of stuff and caffeine. The bunch of stuff is irrelevant. The bunch of stuff is for marketing, it's to make it sound glitzy. Ooh, it's got green tea extract. That's the supplement of the week, that's what people are looking for. But the caffeine is the goods. That's why whenever you have all of these over-the-counter or whatever weight-loss gimmicks, it's the caffeine that's doing it, it increases the metabolism. It's really a bad, unhealthy way to lose weight, by the way, because the effects are temporary and in the long run, it's actually where you're worse off.

R: Well, a small amount of caffeine is good for you, right, Steve?

E: They're not guaranteeing any kind of weight loss for you.

B: No, they are very careful. They are very careful. You won't find weight loss anywhere in the advertising. They pretty much say you'll basically be burning more calories. Even though the claim isn't very spectacular, they claim a loss of 60 to 100 calories for every three of the 12-ounce cans that you drink. So that boils down to, what, 20 to 33 calories per can. That seems pretty piddly to me, 20 to 33 calories. So I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and that's 105 to 175 cans per pound, 3500 calories per pound. Wouldn't you lose more than a pound just lifting 175 cans to your mouth over and over?

S: Another interesting source of calorie burning is that if you drink it cold, your body has to spend calories to heat it up to body temperature as well. But that only amounts to, that's like 10 or 15 calories, probably, and I don't know if they're counting that in their calculation.

P: Hey, it all matters.

R: Well, I get the feeling that a lot of people will, the people who are drinking it probably will lose weight because before they were probably drinking Coke, and then you switch from something that's very high calorie to something that's no calorie.

B: If you drink no more Coke, not Diet Coke, which is regular Coke or Pepsi, and you substitute it with this, then you will definitely over the course of a year, I mean that could translate into 10 pounds. I don't think many people are going to be doing that. But the cost, though, per pound of weight loss would be anywhere between $136 to $227 per pound. That's what it's going to cost you. I've got some good quotes here from a doctor. Here's Dr. David Katz. Steve, maybe you might even know this guy. He's an associate professor at Yale University School of Public Health.

S: Yeah, I know the guy.

B: He says that the Enviga's calorie burning claims are based on insufficient research. It's putting market hype ahead of science. And he further says that the science here is not ready for prime time. There's a hint in animal research and in very early studies that this EGCG can boost metabolism a little bit. But we don't know if that contributes to weight control. And then I think, Steve, you mentioned just a moment ago that also worrisome is the amount of caffeine that you're going to be ingesting. That's 300 calories. If you drink the three cans like they recommend, that's 300 milligrams of caffeine. And that could potentially increase metabolisms, it says here, to dangerous levels. The caffeine intake of 300 milligrams per day is a level that can cause jitteriness, elevated heart rate, anxiety. And this is a quote from Leslie Bonsai, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. My advice is don't count on anything like Enviga to help you lose weight. Just eat less and move more, bottom line.

P: That's the classic. Does anybody remember Jolt Cola?

B: Oh, yeah.

P: All the sugar and twice the caffeine. That's how they used to advertise it in the 80s.

B: I heard stories of people making coffee with not the Jolt Cola, but with caffeinated water when that was popular. Can you imagine coffee with caffeinated water together? Nice.

R: Did you say that there were 300 milligrams of caffeine in one can? Or in the three cans?

B: It's 100. It's 100 milligrams per can, 300 for the suggested three cans that they recommend you drink a day.

R: Okay. Because that's on the cusp. I mean, 300 milligrams of caffeine a day isn't going to kill you. It's like three or four cups of coffee, basically.

B: Yeah, well, at least what this director of sports nutrition is saying that could cause jitteriness and elevated heart rate and anxiety.

P: It could.

B: But, I mean, I can picture people drinking four and five cans of this hey, negative calories. I'll just sit on this couch all day and drink five cans of this.

R: Well, yeah, obviously.

B: And then, of course, I'll have my cake and everything else.

FTC Fines Weight Loss Pill Firms (7:20)[edit]


S: Speaking of weight loss of hype and gimmicks, the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, recently fined several different makers of weight loss products $25 million, that was collectively, for making false or misleading claims in their advertising. Now, again, in the United States, in 1994, Congress passed a law which basically took supplements out of the control of the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. And so basically, they could market it to the public without the need for any evidence of safety or effectiveness. But that put it in the hands of the FTC to say, but if they actually commit advertising or commercial fraud in their advertising, the Federal Trade Commission could still go after them after the fact. So it's not a perfect system, but at least there are some mechanisms in place by which to rein in these companies. It amounts to a slap on the wrist, given this is a multi-billion dollar industry essentially built upon false claims. A $25 million fine every now and then is the cost of doing business. It's not really inhibiting the market at all. They're doing their best. The FTC is trying to crack down on these companies. So some of these companies, as you were talking about with Enviga, you can make these pseudo health claims. It encourages your body to burn calories, which is not the same thing as saying that it treats obesity. If you say that, then you're saying it's treating a disease, and that's where the FDA gets involved. So some of these companies were making claims about osteoporosis and Alzheimer's disease, even suggesting that it might help you fight off cancer, and that's where the FTC came in. But sometimes it was just making the claim that it will, based upon testimonials without any signs to back it up, that it will definitely cause you to lose weight. So the bottom line is with all of these products is, and again, I'm not as familiar with the regulations in other countries other than the United States. I know that Australia actually has quite good regulations in this arena. Europe is better than US in some ways and worse in other ways. It's not perfect anywhere. So it's unfortunately up to the consumer, basically, to be skeptical of all these claims.

P: In the US, until the Congress passes the Supplemental Safety Act, which is a long-languishing Supplemental Safety Act, then we're going to be at their mercy. Everything else is intrigue. You have to pass that bill.

Hawking in Space (9:55)[edit]


S: Have you guys heard about Stephen Hawking's latest plans?

B: He's really into this.

S: Yeah. Stephen Hawking, who is the British physicist who has suffered from motor neuron disease for a very long time, now plans to go to space. He wants to go up into space.

P: Bam! Right to the moon! He does.

S: He's going to orbit first. He's planning a zero-gravity flight this year. So there are these planes that NASA uses to train astronauts for zero gravity.

B: And they're called the Vomit Comet.

S: The Vomit Comet. It basically flies in a parabolic arc, and as it's in that arc, it's not accelerating. It's basically in freefall for minutes at a time.

B: That long? I don't think it's quite that long.

R: I think you get 90 seconds.

S: 90 seconds. Minute and a half.

R: I think. That's off the top of my head.

E: Is that how they filmed the movie Apollo 13 with those weightless scenes?

B: Absolutely.

E: Those weightless scenes?

B: They did. What a great idea that was.

E: Wow. That's a good movie.

P: The plane gives you weightlessness for about 25 seconds.

S: Is that it? Just 25 seconds?

B: It's not that long.

P: It's about 25 seconds. I'm reading it.

B: If you watch that movie, you won't see any scenes when they're floating that are longer than about that time.

S: Yeah, that's right. They had to film it at 25 seconds of the time. He's planning that this year, and then he wants to go to space in 2009. We were talking about this before, that physically you wonder if he's going to be able to take it.

B: Yeah, that's what occurred to me. Don't you need a certain level, a certain amount of muscle tone to actually do well in that Vomit Comet?

E: Is this the forces?

S: Well, it's the acceleration.

E: Being hurled into space.

S: 3, 4, 5 G's is a lot of forces.

P: It's exactly 45 degrees. It goes up 45, over the top, down 45, and it does that 40 to 60 times each time it goes up. That results in 25 seconds of weightlessness each time it does that.

B: I would love to do that. Can you imagine 25 seconds? Actually, I have experienced that.

E: My guess is that he'll go unconscious.

S: That's usually what happens if you're not physically able to stand it. You can't get the blood pressure up to your brain and you fall unconscious. Flight suits help with that. Flight suits actually produce pressure, counter pressure, around your tissues. It's actually really simple. The most basic concept of a flight suit is that there's water in there, fluid in there, something fluid, and that as the G-forces push that fluid down, which produces a counter force to keep your fluids, the pressure inside your body up so that you can maintain your perfusion pressure.

B: The key is to keep the blood in your brain and not have it sink down to your lower extremities.

P: That's a minimum of 16 minutes of weightlessness on each flight. That's a lot.

B: That's wicked. I tell you though, I experienced weightlessness extended when I jumped out of that plane. People think that when you're weightless momentarily, say on a roller coaster, you get that kind of funny feeling in your stomach. It goes away after a few seconds, that does go away. That was an incredible, that was the most exhilarating thing I've ever done.

R: You went skydiving, I assume, you weren't trying to commit suicide.

B: No. Well, it was a failed suicide attempt, but I still enjoyed the trip down.

E: He was fighting a Russian spy in the plane in the 1980s and they both fell out, well, the rest explains itself.

R: A lot of people though, on that note, you might not realize it, but you can actually take a flight, a zero-G flight. It costs like five grand or something and they'll take you up and you can...

E: That seems reasonable.

R: Yeah. I mean, if I had five grand laying around, I'd be up there.

B: On the Vomit Comet itself or some other plane?

R: I don't know. Is the Vomit Comet a trademarked brand name?

P: No, it's a company called Incredible Adventures that does it.

R: Yeah, there are a couple of companies like that.

P: Yeah, probably a couple.

R: If you just Google zero-G, you can probably find it.

B: Well, I also went on a glider, they tow you up in a glider with no engine, these really long wings, and we did some acrobatic maneuvers where I experienced zero-G as well, and that was quite a trip. That's like the most incredible roller coaster you could imagine.

P: This company charges $5,500 for a single flight.

B: Oh, wow.

E: Some first-class tickets are more than that.

P: It's true.

E: A first-class ticket to Japan is probably more than that.

P: It's true.

R: Shop around. I found one for $4,500.

P: There you go.

S: Now, do you take off and land in the same airport? Because if you had to travel to Japan, you could go on the Vomit Comet and kill two birds with one stone.

R: I don't think they like to load a lot of luggage on there. They tend to shift at dorm flight.

P: Also for this one, you've got to go to Moscow.

R: This one leaves from Fort Lauderdale, so you can visit the JREF and then go on your trip.

E: Can you pay as you exit?

S: You leave something behind. Let's go on to your emails.

Questions and E-mails (15:12)[edit]

Corrections and Clarifications (15:15)[edit]

900 Foot Jesus

The 900 Foot Jesus was seen by the Reverend Oral Roberts in the 1980s. He believed that if he didn't raise enough money, that Jesus would take him away. Unfortunately, he raised the money he needed, and we'll never know if Jesus would have taken him away.

William Brinkman
United States


Dr. Novella,

I have really enjoyed your show over the last year and a half. It just seems to be getting better every show. However, I believe that you may be misinformed (at least partially) on the action of capsaicin. There are receptors in primary sensory nerves that are sensitive to capsaicin called TRPV1. The sense of pain from hot peppers is not due to death of neurons.

Here is the wiki on capsaicin:


Nature 389, 816 - 824 (23 October 1997)

Thanks again for a great show!

Jason Rall

Article indicating that both the pain and subsequent relief are at least partially due to the death of neurons.
Topical capsaicin in humans: parallel loss of epidermal nerve fibers and pain sensation. Pain. 1999 May;81(1-2):135-45.

S: First, we have a couple of corrections and clarifications. One's not actually, it turns out, a correction. But first, this one comes from William Brinkman, who just gives his location as the United States. And William writes, "The 900-foot Jesus was seen by Reverend Oral Roberts in the 1980s. He believed that if he didn't raise enough money that Jesus would take him away. Unfortunately, he raised the money he needed and will never know if Jesus would have taken him away." So this is in response to our discussion last week. I think it was Jay who says, we were talking about Pat Robertson, and Jay asked, wasn't that the guy, the televangelist who said he saw a 900-foot Jesus? But a few people wrote in to correct us that it was, in fact, Oral Roberts, not Pat Robertson.

B: Yeah, I thought it was Pat as well.

S: Well, the Roberts is the same.

B: Thank you for the correction.

S: Yep. Thanks for the correction.

E: I think Rebecca called him a jackass, so I think you owe him an apology.

E: Say, repeat after me. I apologize. Go ahead.

S: The other correction, again, I got a few of these, then I'm going to read you one. This was sent in by Jason Rall. This is in response to kind of a side discussion we had about capsaicin. And he writes, "I really enjoyed your show over the last year and a half. It just seems to be getting better every show." Well, thanks.

P: Quite right.

S: "However, I believe that you may be misinformed, at least partially, on the action of capsaicin. There are receptors in primary sensory nerves that are sensitive to capsaicin called TRPV1. The sense of pain from hot peppers is not due to death of neurons." Then he gives a couple of links to substantiate this. So Jason and the others who wrote basically the same thing are, and a lot of people actually reference the same Wikipedia entry, so I think a lot of people are deriving their information from that. That is true as far as it goes that the capsaicin molecule does bind to receptors which can cause pain, and then downgrading those receptors over time is at least partially responsible for the decrease in pain, which is the therapeutic effect for which capsaicin is used. However, that's not the whole story. There are, and I'll have a, I actually couldn't get an actual link, but I have the full reference to an article, and there are several which have established this in the last seven or eight years, that capsaicin actually does cause the death of neurons, of sensory neurons, and that this is at least partially the cause of both the pain when it's acutely experienced and also the chronic sensory loss or pain loss downstream. So both are true. It is partly death of neurons. It's partly due to the immediate binding on these receptors.

B: Steve, are you going to update the Wikipedia entry on that?

S: Yeah, maybe I will. That's a good point. I'll add that reference to it because that is a little bit out of date.

B: Don't forget to mention the podcast.

R: Yeah, just slip that into the article on capsaicin.

Shoot the Moon (18:12)[edit]

Hi Guys,
Only a 'baboon' could mistake the Moon for a UFO huh? Well I'm delighted to be able to supply solid video evidence against this outragous notion! Being able to back up Rebecca, too, just makes it all the sweeter!

Rebecca: you are absolutely correct, and if I were you, I wouldn't be putting up with such close-minded thinking!

You see, a number of years ago, 2002 I think, I was intending to film the Moon as it rose above the River Tay, in Scotland for a small movie project known as 'being bored in charge of a video camera.'

What I filmed was this:

I didn't think I was going to get anything at all because of the clouds, but a small break in the cloud did indeed appear at the right time. Now because the clouds were appearing in streaks, only the centre portion of the Moon was visible. Chopping the top and bottom of off the moon meant that only a rectangular portion in the middle was actually visible. And because there was evidently a large amount of dust in the atmosphere at the time, the result was bright red. The whole apparation lasted for a few minutes.

Now I know full well that this was the Moon; I'd planned for it at that place and that time using some astronomy software. I defy anyone to have casually glanced at this apparently bright red rectangle hovering over the river for a minute and immediately thought of the Moon!

Anyway, thanks for the podcasts which keep me entertained on my walks to work in the morning!

Steve Hammond

P.S. Always amusing when someone across the pond attempts a Scottish accent!

S: We had a lot of other responses to this. This is not so much of a correction as just other people weighing in on our moon debate last week.

P: Oh man, they wouldn't shut up about it.

S: I know.

E: It's not a debate.

R: And they were almost all entirely on my side.

P: They were. There were a lot of drunks out there. A lot of lusses.

R: Embarrassing for you guys.

P: A lot of lusses.

S: I have to observe that 100% of the emails that we got said that Rebecca was the sole person to defend the notion that it's easy to misidentify the moon, when in fact I also took that position. But it's interesting that everybody missed that who wrote an email on it. It's interesting.

R: I think I was just the rabid one.

S: I guess so. This one comes from Steve Hammond in Scotland. I think this is our first Scotland email that we're reading on the air.

E: I don't think so.

R: No.

E: It can't be.

R: We're big in Scotland.

S: He writes, hi guys.

E: Hello.

S: He writes, hi guys. "Only a baboon could mistake the moon for a UFO, huh? Well I'm delighted to be able to supply solid video evidence against this outrageous notion. Being able to back up Rebecca too just makes it all the sweeter."

E: Right there.

P: Oh, come on.

E: There's the right... Steve, you can start. Keep going.

S: He says, "You see, a number of years ago, 2002, I think, I was intending to film the moon as it rose above the River Tay in Scotland for a small movie project known as Being Bored in Charge of a Video Camera." And he said, when I filmed this, and he gives a link which of course will be on the notes page, "I didn't think I was going to get anything at all because of the clouds, but a small break in the cloud did indeed appear at the right time. Now because the clouds were appearing in streaks, only the center portion of the moon was visible. Chopping the top and bottom off the moon meant that only a rectangular portion in the middle was actually visible. And because there was evidently a large amount of dust in the atmosphere at the time, the result was bright red. The whole apparition lasted a few minutes. Now I know full well that this was the moon. I'd planned for it at that place and that time using some astronomy software. I'd defy anyone to have casually glanced at this apparently bright red rectangle hovering over the river for a minute and immediately thought of the moon. He says, anyways, thanks for the podcast which keep me entertained on my walks to work in the morning. He also says, PS, always amusing when someone across the pond attempts a Scottish accent."

R: Let's never do that again.

S: Hey laddie.

E: All right.

P: But I ruined the gulf.

R: That video was really amazing. If ever the moon did not look like the moon, it was in his video.

S: That's true. I mean, I looked at it. It is this red rectangle, streaky kind of red rectangle.

R: Very cool.

S: So I mean, you guys are wrong on this one. You really do have to tone it down.

E: No. Hang on. Hang on. I'm going to jump in right here. We're talking about mistaking the moon for a UFO, not for something, not for an airplane, not for something else.

R: You guys also said that it's insane that anybody could look at the moon and not know immediately that it's the moon. You weren't just saying that it's crazy that people are immediately thinking that it's a UFO.

E: I'll go back and listen to myself and see if I said that. I don't think I said that.

S: Well, yeah. But there are, there are two parts to this. One is recognizing it as the moon. The other one is saying, I can't recognize that, therefore it's a UFO. So I think we can all agree that the leap to a UFO is gullible, not skeptical, naive. But just not being able to recognize that it's the moon is not as amazing as it may seem. In fact, I dug and dug and I could not find this reference, but I read about a year ago an article by a female astronomer. If anybody is familiar with this, please send me the reference. I couldn't dig it up. But this is an astronomer who related an experience where she failed to identify the moon in the sky because of the unusual viewing conditions.

R: Well, Steve, I'm not sure if this is what you mean, but Dr. Jill Tarter, the director of SETI, actually admitted-

S: Yeah, that's it. I think that's it.

R: Is that what you're thinking of?

S: Yeah.

R: Yeah. She was on an ABC special on UFOs and she admitted that she was on a nighttime plane ride and she and her husband looked out the window and observed a large bright light and they said, this is incredible. What are we even seeing? And eventually figured out that it was the moon.

P: Rebecca, how long had the two of you been drinking together that night? I'm just curious. Two hours, three?

R: That's clever. I saw what you just did there.

P: Was she blind, drunk, pseudo-

B: Rebecca, she did in fact, though, conclude that it was the moon at some point.

S: Yeah.

R: Yes. But her first thought was, what is that? Is that a UFO?

E: That's her anecdote. I'll give you my anecdote.

R: We're talking about anecdotes. That's the whole point of the discussion is anecdotes.

E: If I'm looking up at the sky and I see a light that I can't identify and it's not obviously the moon, one of the first thoughts that races through my mind is, gee, could that be the moon? Let me try to take a closer look, because the moon is the second most recognizable object in the sky next to the sun during the daytime.

R: Well, congratulations.

E: Well, thank you, but my-

P: You mean that big bright one over there? That's the moon donkey.

R: Okay, I'm sorry, I'm not getting your nerd stuff.

S: That was-

P: Thank you.

S: Shrek.

R: Explain your nerd reference.

P: Thank you.

S: Shrek.

R: Okay.

P: Come on.

S: The only point is you may have underestimated the degree to which the moon can look very odd and that people might not directly-

P: What did P.T. Barnum say about the public?

S: But we all agree that it's not appropriate to leap to the conclusion that something that you can't identify is a UFO, because it could be the whole point. It could be the moon, it could be Venus, it could be an unusual viewing condition of something astronomical. All right, let's go on to the next one.

True Believer Skeletons (24:27)[edit]

Heya guys (non-gender specific from where I'm from), let me begin by saying that not only is your podcast 'numero uno' in my opinion but that you are without a doubt the greatest collective of skeptic minds that I have been exposed to in my lifetime.

My question for you however is about not so skeptical beliefs that you may have held previously in your lifetime. Are there any major psuedoscientific or 'true believer' style notions that you have given credence to or truly believed yourselves in the past? Come on guys be honest, and I'm not talking about Santa Claus-esque fantasies, were any of you believers in psychics, dowsing, extra-terrestrial visitations, ESP etc?

Christian Polson-Brown
Perth, Australia

S: This one comes from Christian Poulsen-Brown in Perth, Australia, and he writes, "Hey, you guys, non-gender specific from where I'm from, let me begin by saying that not only is your podcast numero uno in my opinion, but that you are without a doubt the greatest collective of skeptic minds that I have been exposed to in my lifetime, without a doubt."

P: Goes without saying.

R: Until that moon discussion.

S: Right, right.

R: Sorry, go on.

S: I actually think he's damning us with faint praise, but anyway. He says, "My question for you, however, is about not so skeptical beliefs that you may have held previously in your lifetime. Are there any major pseudoscientific or true-believer style notions that you have given credence to or abruptly believed yourselves in the past? Come on, guys, be honest, and I'm not talking about Santa Claus-esque fantasies. Were any of you believers in psychics, dowsing, extraterrestrials, visitations, ESP, et cetera?" So who's going to fess up first?

P: You know, of course it all depends. Now he did rule out, OK, Santa Claus at five, fine, but what age are we talking about? When I was a teenager, I think I've already stated on this program, I used to watch Stupid in Search of with Mr. Spock, and I believed a lot, Bigfoot, UFOs, all that crap. I believed in it. And then maybe when I was, oh, I don't know, 20 or so, out the window, and in a big heap, it all went out together quick. With me, it probably started with religion. That one I chucked early on, and then the rest quickly went after that. But when I was a teenager, I believed in all kinds of crap. So there you go.

R: That's what being a teenager is for, believing in a bunch of crap.

E: My experience is kind of similar to Perry's, in which I did. I was brought up in a Jewish household, Jewish customs and rituals, bar mitzvah, the whole thing. Certainly that was leading up to my 13th birthday, and certainly as I was a teenager, I believed in just about every pseudoscientific and fantastic notion out there. I don't know. I guess I kind of blame that on myself for not grasping the science education during my formative high school years, when I really should have. I should have cracked harder on my science education, I think. Maybe it would have saved me sooner. But in any case, when I was done with college, I found skepticism, thanks to the help of Dr. Novella, and here I am.

R: I believed in things like naturopathy just, I'd say, like four or five years ago, I guess, when I was in Seattle.

P: You're a youngin', Rebecca.

R: That I am.

P: You're still a youngin', yeah. Seriously.

R: I'm 26.

P: Compared to the rest of us, you are a whippersnapper.

B: A zygote.

R: I was beyond the standard age for throwing all the junk out the window, though, because I had already gotten rid of the religion and the obvious...

S: Was that because, Rebecca, was that because you just didn't know what it was really about, naturopathy? Or was it, did you, were you really harboring some pseudoscientific beliefs?

R: I could say that about homeopathy, that I thought that worked just because I didn't know what it was about. But naturopathy, I really thought that science doesn't know everything. Western medicine can't solve everything, and sometimes you need to eat an herb and then you'll be fine. I honestly believed that.

S: I find that that is the last holdout of a lot of skeptics, a lot of people who are even otherwise skeptical, just the notion of natural medicine is so appealing that they adhere to that. And also, the negative sort of conspiracy thinking about the medical establishment is also just so common, even among skeptics, that it's [inaudible].

R: Yeah, and also, I think it's one of the last things, because it has a real basis in fact, there are certain plants from which we derive certain medicines, and so it almost makes a kind of sense, like, well, maybe medicine just hasn't figured out how to properly use this plant yet. I mean, it happens all the time, we find some new thing that we can transform into pill form. So it's within the realm of possibility that there's something out there that we can eat that will make us feel better, but you kind of forget about all the side effects that can happen.

P: A lot of infinitesimals and all the rest of it.

R: The fact that, yeah, the dosage won't be worth it, you know.

P: I'll tell you though, when I was younger, I used to think, I used to generally accept that the road to skepticism which is paved with a lot of, I mean, I don't know anyone who's 10 and is a skeptic, maybe they're out there, but I don't know them. So you have to undergo some changes to get here, but I used to think that the last give and the toughest give was always religion, but as I get older, I don't think that's the case.

B: I think it's up there. I mean, it was one of the last things to go for me.

P: It was for the novellas, I know. Steve has said the same thing, but I think as I get older, I mean, it's so emotional. I think once people, like, there's a crack, it explodes and they cast it aside very quickly. I think-

S: It can be ingrained at a very young age, and those are always going to be the hardest things to get rid of. It depends on what your path is. I think a lot of people have taken different paths to being nonbelievers. Some people have had a negative experience with religion, and they reject that first because of their experience with it. I think I had the opposite experience where I had a very positive experience. Bob and I and Jay were all raised Catholic. It was a very low-key it was nothing fanatical or weird, and it was just part of our culture and our family, and it was generally a positive experience.

B: But I wouldn't say, though, Steve, I would not say that we were very religious, not even going to church every week. I mean, every now and then.

S: It was very modest. It was just part of the background fabric of our culture and our family. But to a degree, it was part of our identity, and-

P: Of our Italian heritage.

S: Yeah. We came to skepticism through our love of science. For me, the first real skeptical issue for me was creationism, and that's when I learned the extent to which people could deceive themselves and can wrap their minds up in logical fallacies, and that led me on a path of subjecting the same sort of criteria and understanding it to everything, and that's where all the in search of beliefs went out the window like Bigfoot, ESP, and UFOs, and then you apply it to religious beliefs, and that goes away over time as well. But it did take longer, because you can retreat to things like faith, which is not based on evidence or science. You could make it into more of a moral thing or a cultural thing. It has a lot more hooks in you than just a factual belief.

P: A very close friend of mine, who is a fairly sound skeptic now, his last gift was religion, and he said basically it's because he was taught that if you weren't religious, you were a "bad person". And he didn't want to identify with being a bad person. That was tough.

B: Plus atheists are pretty much reviled. I mean, they're like the last holdout. You will see, my prediction is that you will see almost anyone could be elected president. I don't care you name any minority. They will be elected as president before an atheist will possibly be elected. I recently heard about a study, they polled a lot of minority groups and regular people, and everybody was down on atheists. Everybody.

S: We will have a gay black Jewish woman before we have an atheist in the office.

P: It's true.

S: That's what the polling data shows. That's like the last minority that it's acceptable to be prejudiced or bigoted against.

R: Real quick, Perry mentioned earlier that he's never heard of a 10-year-old skeptic. Can I just ask our listeners, if you know a 10-year-old skeptic, if you are a 10-year-old skeptic, can you write in? Because I'd like to hear from you.

P: Absolutely.

R: I'd like to see if Perry's...

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Perry doesn't have kids, so I think that number's a little bit high. For me, I would say seven or eight is the point at which they could actually start doing some real reality testing and then turn to the sort of obligate-

R: Let's hear from the young skeptic in our audience.

E: I've heard Randy say in interviews before, he was about 10 years old when he abandoned his faith.

P: It's impressive.

B: Can you imagine a little 10-year-old skeptic, Randy Jr.?

E: Randall's...

S: I'll tell you what, my experience is my seven-year-old daughter, Julia, is in love with science already, and she's quite skeptical in her attitude. She knows that Bigfoot doesn't exist and that people fool themselves, but she still will engage freely in fantasy thinking.

P: Yeah, that's what I just said. Wasn't it you who very recently said that no matter what you think is going on, the kid is in their own fantasy world?

S: They are, because those two things exist side by side at that age. They can rationalize things, but they still have these active fantasy lives that are real to them. She still totally believes in Santa Claus, and she has no problem with maintaining those side by side. That's my oldest child, a seven, so I don't have intimate experience older than that. The conventional wisdom is that seven is when you start to get more of an adult type of reality testing in place.

B: Sorry, I just wanted to relate one of my favorite quotes of my daughter when she was six. It literally made my year when she came out with this quote out of the blue, unprompted by me, I was putting her to bed, and I don't know where it came from, but she said, I don't want to be Christian anymore. How could God make the earth? What was most insightful, I thought, was her quote. She said, what about God's parents and their parents? What about them? I thought for a six-year-old, I thought that was pretty damn good. When I was six years old, that never even occurred to me to think, wait, how could he know?

R: You might win an awesome young skeptic contest right there, though listeners might not even bother writing it in now, because they might just take it.

E: Did you take a page out of Randy's book and respond to her?

S: That was good enough, believe me, that was good enough. But still, that's a good point, though. Our listeners, give us your anecdotes about the youngest real skeptic that you know of your life.

P: Please. Yeah, please.

S: Let's go on to our interview.

Interview with Spencer Weart (35:55)[edit]

  • Dr. Weart is the author of the book The Discovery of Global Warming.
    He is also the Director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland, USA. Originally trained as a physicist, he is now a noted historian specializing in the history of modern physics and geophysics.

    His site, a complete history of the controversies:
    with a links page:

    NOAA says 2006 warmest on record for US, partly due to the 'long-term warming trend, which has been linked to increases in greenhouse gases':

    Professional climate scientists' blog on current news and

    Union of Concerned Scientists report on Exxonmobil's publicity campaign and lobbying:

    An institution leading denial since the 1980s, although even they now admit that 'the climate change risk is real':

S: Joining us now is Dr. Spencer Wirt. Spencer, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

SW: Hi, glad to be here.

S: Dr. Wirt is the author of the book, The Discovery of Global Warming. He's also the director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. And he is the author of the website,, which has a lot more information about climate change, the topic that we'll be talking about tonight. And of course, all this information will be on our notes page. So Spencer, just to get us started, can you give us an overview of where you think the science of global warming is today?

SW: It's curious, because this is almost the opposite of the situation you normally cover on these podcasts. In this case, the really weird stuff, the stuff that's hard to believe and bizarre and so on, is what the entire scientific community believes. People who are saying, no, no, everything's normal, you guys are crazy, you're just doing it for the money and so on, or the small group of sort of outsiders, so the kind of the relationship between the scientific community and the crackpots has been reversed, because the entire scientific community now is convinced that very strange and unexpected, what would have been unexpected, things are happening, and science is very straightforward. We're putting fossil fuel gases and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the world is getting warmer. We're putting up more gases and the world is going to continue to get warmer, simple as that.

S: Yeah. So the skeptics are the crackpots when it comes to global warming is what you're saying.

SW: We have to say now that you can't even call them skeptics anymore, you have to call them denialists or contrarians or whatever. There are skeptics in the scientific community and the skeptics in the scientific community are saying, well, maybe it's just a bad risk and not a terrible risk.

S: Just to sort of establish the baseline here, it seems to me that no one, not even the global warming skeptics or deniers, are saying that the earth isn't warming, that that's measurable and pretty well established that we are in a period of warming.

SW: That's right, until about five years or so ago they denied that, but by now you can just walk outside. I'm in Washington now, I was up in New York a few days ago, and in both places I saw cherry trees blooming. You just can't deny that anymore, it's there.

S: Yeah, I heard about that. And 2006 is the warmest year on record.

SW: For the United States, yeah, it's the second warmest in the globe as a whole.

B: Second?

SW: Well, it about ties with the warmest, it's about a tie, it might be slightly behind the warmest.

E: When was the warmest?

SW: The last ten years have all been among the 25 warmest since records began.

S: I've also heard, again, even those who deny global warming say that human activity is contributing to it. So it seems that their position at this point is that it's only contributing to it a small and insignificant amount. Is that your assessment?

SW: Or that they say, well, we can't be sure that it's contributing. Well, there's a couple of denialist views. One is to say, well, it might be all part of a natural climate cycle, you don't know, maybe it's contributing, maybe it's not, we just don't know. And the other viewpoint that some people have is, well, yeah, and warming is good for you, we like the warming.

S: Right, so they're saying, yes, it's warming, yes, we're causing it, but it's not a bad thing. Or we don't know if it's a bad thing or not.

SW: They're denying the predictions of serious consequences, serious adverse consequences. So those are kind of the two viewpoints. And I must say, the ones who deny there are serious adverse consequences are really a minority of the minority. So the mainstream among the denialists is to say, well, it's all too uncertain, how do you know? We don't know anything about it. The climate is so uncertain. You can't even predict the weather two days ahead, that kind of stuff.

S: Do you feel that there are any points on their side that are legitimate? Or do you, put another way, are any of the scientists or the politicians who are beating the drum of concern over global warming, are they overstating the case in any way as far as you know?

SW: Oh, yeah, certainly many people are overstating the case, but if you take the mainstream scientific view, they will say that, well, some of these people are just going too far and saying that it's urgent, it's terrible, it's a disaster, we have to take steps at once. Lots of scientists will say, well, it's probably not that bad. I think also the denialists have a point in that the climate is uncertain. And the mainstream view of scientists says, yeah, we're not really sure, the climate system is very complicated, computer models are not completely pinned down yet. We might be really, really lucky, and it won't really warn much at all, stuff to kick in that we don't know about, and maybe we'll really luck out. On the other hand, maybe we'll be unlucky, and it's just as likely that stuff will kick in and things will be much worse than is predicted. So the denialists have a point in that there's a lot of uncertainty, but the problem is that if you're uncertain, does that mean you do nothing? I mean I don't know whether my house is going to bring down, in fact, it probably won't, but I'm still going to pay something for fire insurance. And in this case, it's like they're saying, well, there's a 50% chance your house is going to catch fire at some point, so you're going to buy fire insurance?

S: Right. So there's uncertainty, but it could be worse than projections, just as easily as it could be better than projections.

SW: The current consensus projection is from one to five degrees centigrade warming. So one degree is not so bad, and maybe we'll be really lucky, and it's actually zero degrees. On the other hand, five degrees centigrade, which is about eight degrees Fahrenheit, is really bad, and there's a significant chance it'll be even worse than that, which would be a complete disaster. And I'm just talking like the end of the century. I'm not even talking about our grandchildren's time, I'm talking about our children's time.

S: Yeah, so that one to five is over the next hundred years.

SW: That's right. Or maybe even 70 years. I mean, the one to five is for doubling of the carbon dioxide, and that will happen before the end of this century. We're not even talking about the year 2100, we're talking about maybe 2080 or 2090. I mean, our children will still be alive.

S: What are the assumptions in that projection? Is that at our current rate of carbon production, or is that also including the projections for the increase?

SW: The biggest uncertainty in the whole thing is what we will do about it. That's assuming not even the business as usual, which is exponential increase. That's assuming that we'll take modest steps. If people just if the Chinese just go madly ahead and burn all their coal and so on, then it'll even be worse than that. On the other hand, if we take strong steps, then we can hit the lower limit. That's really the biggest uncertainty is what are we going to do.

S: There are those who are saying that it's probably already too late. Do you find yourself in that camp, or do you think that we have time to make corrections?

SW: Well, it is too late to avoid any warming. The warming is here. And not only that, but there's about a 20-year delay built into the system because the oceans are cold and it takes a long time to warm them up. So we've already, with the gases, if we stop emitting gases now, if everybody just shuts down, the world is still going to get somewhat warmer. It can't be avoided. But it's not too late to prevent the worst consequences. I mean, if we just keep on producing as we are for the next century, then the consequences will be terrible. And certainly not too late to stop that. We can take steps that will probably, if we're not too unlucky, will avoid having real disaster.

S: Can you summarize quickly for us the one or two main lines of evidence that tell us that the current period of warming that we're experiencing is man-made or due to so-called forcing of the environment from man-made factors?

SW: Well, not really because there's one of the problems, which has made that it takes such a long time to realize this, is that you can't really convince yourself unless you look at a lot of different lines of evidence. Any one of them won't convince you, and it's kind of the convergence of a whole bunch of different ones that brings it together. But I think for many scientists, the most convincing thing came along about 10 years, 10, 20 years ago, the heroic effort of the Soviets and some others to drill down through the Antarctic ice core, two kilometres down, three, four kilometres, and extracted ice that goes back not just to the last glacial cycle but to the last four glacial cycles over 400,000 years, and they found that carbon dioxide and temperature just went up and down in steps, so it's clear that the carbon dioxide and the temperature system are very intimately interconnected. I think that was perhaps the most convincing line of evidence, but of course, that came along, by the time that came along, most scientists were already convinced because of other kinds of evidence.

S: Have you seen the movie Inconvenient Truth, by the way?

SW: Yeah, uh-huh. Actually, I saw Elgort give this talk many years ago. He's been giving this talk for a long time. I saw him give it when I was just giving it with slides.

S: Yeah, you saw his slideshow before it was a movie. We get a lot of questions about this, so what's your opinion? How's his science in that presentation, in that show?

SW: I think, and I think this is, again, the view that you'll find. People who are interested in this should look at a blog called Real Climate, one word,, which is a blog put together by real climate scientists. My conclusion, which I agree with, is that he has the science mostly right, but he goes a little beyond, not explicitly, but when he shows Hurricane Katrina, he doesn't say it, but he kind of implies that we know that this was caused by global warming, and we don't. He shows the sea levels rising, and he doesn't say how fast that'll come. These pictures of sea level rising, it's very dramatic, but that's not going to happen for 100 or 200 years. Without saying it explicitly, the pictures he shows present a somewhat more alarmist picture, and some people think that this is dangerous because it makes people think, oh, it's a horrible thing, and they sort of bury their head in the sand, nothing we can do about it. Whereas it's not, these terrible things he shows are 100, 200 years off, we have time to do something about them. That's the only objection people have to it. Everything else in there is absolutely solid.

S: Right, right. Plus, if you oversell it, you kind of give ammunition to the critics.

SW: That's what people worry about, and there are other people who say, well the only thing that will wake up the public is to hit them over the head with a 2x4, twice.

R: And do you agree with that? Do you think that overall this was an Al Gore's movie as a benefit?

SW: Oh yeah, oh yeah. It has obviously woken up a lot of people. People have been very impressed by it. As I say, if I were to do it, I would have gone a little easier on some of the graphics, different people will be impressed by different things. I mean, on my own website, I try to be very objective and take kind of a scientific viewpoint without doing any kind of exaggeration at all. That attracts a certain kind of people, and then there's other people who you have to show them drowning polar bears, and that's the only thing that will catch their attention.

E: I've been obviously following this and reading some articles lately online, and there are those that are saying that global warming is, at least partially, due to the fact of solar activity of one kind or another. How good is the science behind those reports?

SW: Well, this has been a very interesting development, an interesting, incidentally, my original training was in solar physics, so I've been following this quite closely. And up through the 1980s, this was the main denialist line, which was to say that, well, the temperature's been increasing through the 20th century, and so has solar activity. In fact, it tracked pretty well, and that was fairly convincing. And then, in around the 1980s, solar activity stopped increasing, and the temperature kept going up. So what people now think is that solar activity does have some effect on the climate, and it's maybe a 10 percent effect, a 30 percent effect. It's clear that, well, it's not clear, but it seems plausible some of the climate variations may have been due to solar variations. We're not really sure, because nobody can identify a mechanism why that should have happened, but there is some kind of correlation there. And it's also clear that even solar variations bigger than anything we have seen tracking back through as far as you can track, which is fairly far back with indirect methods, even the biggest solar variations become small compared with what we're doing to the climate system now. And in terms of just forcing, you can calculate how many watts of extra energy you get from adding so much greenhouse gases, and sometime around the 1980s, we've passed the point where that just greatly exceeds any effect you can get from the sun. So there will continue to be solar variations, they'll continue to cause climate fluctuations, but they'll just kind of be waves on the top of this big rising tide of the greenhouse warming.

S: Now, another aspect of this whole debate has been how our current administration has handled it. Obviously, our view just generically is that science and scientists should always be allowed to just leak over the evidence and the logic takes them, and that it should never be subjugated to a political agenda. There's a group I'm sure you're familiar with, the Union of Concerned Scientists, who have been saying quite a bit recently that the Bush administration has been attempting to politically influence the reporting and the actual conduct of climate science. What do you feel about that?

SW: Oh, there's even been a reporter in the New York Times, they've found memos and it's very explicit, yeah. You can go to the Union of Concerned Scientists website and see reports where they reproduce actual memos from lobbying agencies and so forth. It's not a question of one group saying it, it's just they and Andy Revkin and other reporters of the New York Times have been very effective in bringing out facts, the current administration's efforts to deny certain scientific things. Incidentally, not only in the area of global warming, I don't think President Bush yet has said that he's convinced that evolution, Darwinian evolution is a fact.

S: No, he hasn't, as far as I have heard.

SW: So there's a whole book called The Republican War on Science, well, I wouldn't say it's Republicans, I wouldn't say it's war, but certainly the current administration has the worst relationship with the scientific community of any administration in American history by far.

S: Yeah, that book was written by Chris Mooney and we interviewed him about a year ago, we talked about a lot of these same issues. But do you think given both the political winds and the avalanche of scientific evidence, are they starting to come around, is the Bush administration, they're willing to say that global warming is real now?

SW: Oh yes, oh yes. In fact, in the news today that the National Oceanographic Administration, NOAA, the Weather Prediction Agency, which made news a few years ago when some of their bureaucrats attempted to stifle climate scientists, this same agency just yesterday morning, or this morning I think, came out and said that 2006 was the warmest year on record in the continental United States, one. Two, that this is part of a long-scale warming trend, and three, that this has linked to the admission of, this has been linked to the admission of greenhouse gases. They just couldn't bring themselves to say it is linked, they kind of say, well some people have linked it. But Bush himself has finally came out, I think just a year ago, and said that yes, the world's warming and yes, humans are partly responsible for it. So even Bush somehow managed to say it. That doesn't mean of course that they're willing to do anything about it.

S: What do you think would be the most important thing or short list of things that we would need to do to reverse this trend?

SW: There are any number of steps that people can take and the fact is we have to do a whole bunch of them. You have to take, in order to eat papaya you have to do it one slice at a time, and you don't have to do everything, but there are a number of steps that you have to take. Some of them are cheap and in fact some of them are making money. The first thing to do obviously is to stop subsidizing it. The world spent, somebody estimated the world spent a quarter of a billion dollars to pay people to emit fossil fuels. These are the subsidies for automobiles and for oil and gas and coal and so forth. There's an enormous amount of money that we're paying these companies. So we can save a lot of money just by withdrawing these subsidies. We can also save a lot of money with energy efficiency. Famously, as I speak, I'm doing it by the light of a fluorescent, compact fluorescent bulb, which is going to save me money and also saves greenhouse gases. But there's a lot of money we can save just by making things more efficient and in terms of government activity that would mean, for example, fuel standards for cars. However, we have to do all this and that's free, that's fun actually. But then there's some other things we have to do which will actually cost us some money. You can either do it with regulation or you can do it by taxes, but you have to find some mechanism to encourage people to stop emitting selection house gases or you can just put what they call a cap and trade system where you sell the right to emit greenhouse gases. The U.S. government could just declare that there will be a lower limit on the price of gasoline. Then after you do all that, and that's what we do now, then in the meantime you have to spend a lot of money on search because none of that is enough and by 10 or 20 years now we have to have other things in place like sequestering carbon dioxide that's emitted by coal-fired plants. We can do that now but it's not very economical. If we spend enough money on research then 20 or 30 years we'll be in, we have to start building the plants now so we can take advantage of it. You do research on solar panels, you do research on greater fuel efficiency and so forth and so forth.

S: Right, so we pretty much have to do everything.

SW: You didn't ask me about the denialists. You mainly deal with cracks on this show, right?

S: Well, we deal with a lot of different things. We do deal with fringe and controversial science and some of these sort of politically controversial issues. Let's talk about it. Yeah, let's go.

SW: It's important to realize where these denialists come from and they come mainly from two places. Number one, they're people who do it for pay and I am not afraid publicly to say that some of these people are simply dishonest. There is no question that some of them who are reputable scientists are consciously manipulating the data and that as they do this they are in the pay of ExxonMobil and other companies. Then the other group of people who do this are people who are so ideologically committed that they just can't believe anything that contradicts their ideology. These are people who have unfortunately come to see the greenhouse issue as something having with the environmentalism. They associate environmentalism with government regulation. Anything that requires government regulation has got to be wrong and bad and a hoax and therefore they're just incapable of evaluating the evidence. So those are the two main classes of denialists.

S: So they put their ideology ahead of the science, basically.

SW: Well, their ideology gets in the way of the science. They're incapable of seeing science that conflicts with their ideology.

S: Well, Spencer, it was a pleasure having you on the Skeptics Guide. We enjoyed speaking with you.

SW: Okay. It was a pleasure indeed.

S: Thanks for giving us your time.

E: Thank you.

R: Thanks, Spencer.

Randi Speaks (55:38)[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: Coincidence

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. Today I'd like to talk to you a little bit about coincidence. I'm often asked about the subject; people say to me, "how can you possibly explain..." and then they give me some coincidence that they've experienced in their lives or, more frequently, that somebody else has told them about. My brief response to such an inquiry is that if a remarkable coincidence or two didn't happen to you every now and then, that in itself would be remarkable. But as you well know, people just don't seem to understand statistics or probability. Many years ago my good friend Martin Gardner told me about a column he had done for Scientific American, one of the regular columns that he supplied them with during his heyday, and this was an April 1st column, so they should have been ready for it, but readers really weren't. Martin introduced his fictitious character—at least one hopes fictitious—Dr. Matrix. And he told readers that during an interview with Dr. Matrix, he had been told that the millionth digit of pi was five. This fact had been arrived at by Dr. Matrix, or so he claimed, by numerology and astrology; a good combination, I'm sure you'll agree. Well, that column was published in Scientific American, and it caused the usual number of chuckles and also some silly letters saying "how do you do this by numerology and astrology", but we can bypass those. The really remarkable result was that a mathematician at MIT wrote to Martin a couple of years after the column had appeared and said, "guess what? We put it into the computer and lo and behold, the millionth digit of pi is five." What are the chances? Exactly one in ten. Of course, it depends on where you start counting places of decimals: after the "3." or beginning with the three. There are several possibilities of error and... let's say... variations here.

My paternal grandfather was very fond of telling me a story—not a personal story in this case, but one that he said had happened to a friend of his who worked at the same company where he did. This friend said that he rear-ended a car—I believe they were both Fords. And when they exchanged pertinent information, they found out that, wow, the cars that had collided were in exactly the same relationship that they'd been on the assembly line many years before, because the vehicle identification numbers were consecutive. Now I don't know if this was true; I don't know that granddad knew whether or not it was really true. But suppose for a moment that it was true. In the first place, cars even, aside from trucks or bicycles or motorcycles, were not specified when looking for this coincidence. Consecutive license plate numbers or drivers' license numbers would have been equally acceptable, I'm sure, as a remarkable coincidence. So we have to consider that, again, if this was actually true, there are manypossibilities for it to be true, because we haven't defined the parameters in advance.

Recently I made mention on Swift of the fact that many media personalities have fallen for the woo-woo stuff. Glenn Beck of CNN certainly fell for John Edward's line of nonsense just recently. I pointed out that Katie Couric, formerly with the NBC Today Show, accepted John Edward as well. And Diane Rehm of PBS—NPR I should say, more correctly—has certainly fallen for this sort of thing several times in her interviews. But during a repeat visit of Edward's to the NBC Today show while Katie Couric was there, he told her something really remarkable that she considered to be remarkable too. He said that during his previous appearance there, she had denied that she had a brother who had committed suicide, or some statement equally pertinent. Edward revealed that he had done a bit of research. Parking his car a couple of months after that, he had been approached by a parking attendant who told him that Edward had obviously been picking up on his vibrations because his brother had committed suicide. And, said Edward, it was remarkable because, if you drew a direct line through Edward and Katie Couric to where the parking lot was, half a mile away in Manhattan, it would come to just the place where this parking attendant was working. Folks, when you've got people believing crap like this, you don't have a hard time being a psychic. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:01:03)[edit]

Question #1: Men are struck by lightening four times as often as women. Question #2: Since people have been putting artificial satellites into orbit, over 40 satellites have been damaged or destroyed by meteors. Question #3: The crack of a whip is made by the tip exceeding the speed of sound, causing a small sonic boom Question #4: Russian scientists thawed out a salamander they believe to have been frozen for 90 years, and it was still alive.

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics and my listeners at home to tell me which one is the fake. The theme for this week is Amazing Science Facts, and there are four items this week. I know you guys get confused.

R: Okay, one of them is fiction, right?

S: One of the four is fiction, the other three are true, yet amazing science facts. Ready?

R: Amazing.

S: Number one, men are struck by lightning four times as often as women. Item number two, since people have been putting artificial satellites into orbit, over 40 satellites have been damaged or destroyed by meteors. Item number three, the crack of a whip is made by the tip, exceeding the speed of sound, causing a small sonic boom. And item number four, Russian scientists thought out a salamander. They believe to have been frozen for 90 years, and it was still alive. Evan, why don't you go first?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Men struck by lightning four times as likely as women. Well, are there four times as many men golfers as there are women golfers? My guess would be the correlate statistic. If it's not Scottish. Satellites, 40 of them have been struck by meteors. Reasonable. Crack of the whip breaking the sound barrier. And the last one, Steve, Russian scientists have thought of fish that's 90 years old.

S: Salamander.

E: Sorry, salamander.

S: They believe it was frozen for 90 years.

E: I am going to say that 40 satellites being struck by meteors is fiction. Sounds cool. I think it's fiction.

S: Okay. Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: I agree with Evan.

S: Okay.

P: Next.

S: Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: One of these I absolutely know is true. One seems, another one seems plausible. The other two seem plausible. The salamander frozen for 90 years just doesn't seem right to me. I'm not aware of any ability they have to survive that that length of time. They might have some regenerative capabilities. You know, you cut off a limb that grows back type of thing that you see in certain animals. But I think 90 years is just too long for something like a salamander to come back.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Oh, man. I kind of like the salamander story, so I want that to be true. He'd be like Encino Man, right?

S: Kind of.

B: But he'd be able to act.

R: That's the first thing that came to my head.

E: I don't know. I watch good movies.

R: Salamander version of Brendan Fraser.

P: Encino Man suck.

R: I'm going to go with the, I think I'm going to go with the satellite thing too.

S: Okay, so three for the satellites and one for the salamander.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: So everyone agrees that men are struck by lightning four times as often as women.

B: Yeah, they just seem more foolhardy.

R: I like the golf course.

P: They seem taller.

E: Thanks you.

S: That is true. That is science. It is totally due to men waving metal around outside more than women do.

P: See?

S: They engage in activities which would put them more at risk for that than women do.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Everyone also agrees that number three is true. The crack of a whip is made by the tip exceeding the speed of sound causing a small sonic boom. That is also science. That is true. Does anybody remember?

E: Sagan.

S: Sagan, yes. That was on Cosmos.

B: Really? That was on Cosmos?

S: Yes. You better get that one correct.

B: Is that where we learned that?

S: That was the first time I heard that.

E: I saw it. I watched it a few days ago.

P: I got that from a BDSM website myself.

R: That's the most educational BDSM website I've ever heard of.

E: Is that a science site?

P: We'll discuss it later.

E: All right.

Steve Explains Item #4[edit]

S: And number four, Russian scientists thought out a salamander they believed to have been frozen for 90 years and it was still alive. That one is science.

R: Encino salamanders.

S: Salamanders and frogs can be frozen solid and then recover later when they thaw out.

E: Just ask McDonald's.

S: Yeah, they often survive the winters by just freezing.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Which means that number two, since people have been putting artificial satellites into orbit, over 40 satellites have been damaged or destroyed by meteors is fiction. Does anybody want to hazard a guess as to what the true number is?

E: Twelve.

B: How about zero?

R: Yeah, I was going to say.

S: Zero is a good guess. But it's not true. The true number is one. There's been a single satellite struck by a meteor. This was the Olympus satellite, European Space Agency's Olympus satellite in 1993 was destroyed by a meteor. That's the only case so far.

E: Aren't there all kinds of very, very small things, you know?

S: Yeah, there's space junk all over the place, but that's why I said it's a meteor specifically, not by collisions with other space junk.

E: Does a meteor have to be a specific size?

S: No, it's just something...

R: The Leonid meteoroids are like grains of sand, aren't they?

B: Yeah, generally the ones you see glowing in the sky, they're like a grain of sand. But last time I checked, they're tracking 7,000 objects, seven pieces of objects that are orbiting the Earth and varying in size from big satellites to... God, what's the tiniest thing they can track? I don't know if it's like a few inches across...

R: Is it a golf ball that was hit off of a space station?

B: Yeah, there was stuff like that.

E: Or some of those bolts they lost on the last spacewalk.

B: They don't track anything much smaller than that. I don't think they can get that much smaller. But one of the 7,000 is a lot. I remember reading years ago that there was five, and then the next time I checked, five years later, it's like, oh, now they're up to 7,000. The big danger with all this orbiting junk is that you have this cascade effect. You have a certain point, if you have a lot of junk introduced at once, or you reach, say, a critical mass, and it just starts spreading throughout low Earth orbit, hitting everything else, making more and more debris, and eventually you have, over a very short period of time, a lot more debris, making it so inhospitable there that you really can't put anything in orbit. That's the big fear of having all this space junk, that you would have this effect.

S: We've got to put up a big magnet to collect it all up.

P: More importantly, who got it right tonight, Steve?

S: That was everyone but Bob.

R: Everyone but Bob. Interesting.

B: That doesn't happen very often.

P: Bob is descending rapidly.

B: Rapidly? Have you looked at the chart, Mr. 24%?

P: Other of us are ascending rapidly.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:22)[edit]

This Week's Puzzle
I have something that was said to have existed in the first century
That was first written about in the eighth century
That was actually produced in the 14th century
That was almost destroyed in the 16th century
And proven to be a hoax in the 20th century
What do I have?

Last 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?

Mike from the SGU boards was the first to give the correct answer

S: Evan, do you have a puzzle for us this week?

E: Yeah, but can I share the answer to last week's puzzle?

S: Yes, you can.

E: Excellent. Okay, so for those of you who missed last week's puzzle, here it is again. 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. So what is my profession? And the answer is... I am a sclerologist. And congratulations to Mike on the message boards.

P: What now?

B: They study the white of the eye?

E: Yes. S-C-L-E-R-O-L-O-J-I-S-T.

B: The sclera.

P: That's the opposite of an iridologist.

B: So there are people that study just the sclera.

E: Yep, that's right. And they claim they can analyze all sorts of ailments and problems with you based on what's going on with your sclera. Right.

P: That really is iridology reversed.

S: It is. Yes.

P: They claim they can do all that with your iris.

S: That's right.

E: That's right. And the reflexologists...

P: And it's all crap.

S: It's just all a cold reading.

P: Yeah, exactly.

S: So good job, Mike.

P: Staring into my eyes.

E: Congratulations.

S: Alright, now give us this week's puzzle.

P: Please.

E: Okay. If I have something that is said to have existed in the first century, that was first written about in the eighth century, that was actually produced in the fourteenth century, that was almost totally lost in the sixteenth century, and that was proven to be a hoax in the twentieth century, what do I have? Good luck, everyone.

S: Okay, thanks, Evan.

E: Thank you.

Quote of the Week (1:10:21)[edit]

'The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny.'- Isaac Asimov

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

B: Of course. I've got a quote from one of my favorite authors, Isaac Asimov. I've enjoyed this one for years. I've just rediscovered it recently. He said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not Eureka, but that's funny."

S: That's right.

R: That is funny.

S: It is funny.

E: Isaac Asimov.

P: That's a good man.

E: One of the co-founders of the modern skeptical movement.

S: That's true. He's an icon. Well, thanks for joining me, everyone. It was a pleasure.

B: Good episode.

R: Yeah. Thank you, Steve.

S: Always a good time.

E: Good time.

S: Always a good time. Next week, the Skeptics Guide hosts will be at TAM5, the Amazing Meeting 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada. We hope to see a lot of our listeners there. Both Rebecca and I will be giving lectures on Sunday morning, so if you are going, try to stay through Sunday morning to hear us speak. Then we will still be posting up an episode next week, and we'll be making a lot of recordings, hopefully, from TAM5 and hope to report on it when we get back.

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.


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png