SGU Episode 78

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SGU Episode 78
January 15th 2007
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 77                      SGU 79

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


JW: Jeff Wagg

Quote of the Week

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams

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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 Monday, January 15th, 2007, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hello everyone.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Right.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey, hey.

S: Good evening, all.

B: Hey, Steve.

R: Hey, Steve.

J: Hey, what's up, Steve?

S: You guys all getting psyched for the TAM 5 meeting?

R: Totally psyched.

P: Absolutely. I can't wait.

S: So we are recording this before we all leave for the meeting. This will be posted up while we're at the meeting, and we're going to try to do as much recording as we can while we're there as well, and hopefully we'll start having some of that next week.

P: A good time will be had by all.

J: Except you.

S: Perry, alas, won't be there, but the rest of us will be.

P: Be there emotionally with both my analytical and reactive minds. More on that later.

S: So I have to say, I've recently had to reevaluate my whole stance on miracles.

R: Your whole stance?

S: On the non-existence of miracles after the recent victory of the New England Patriots against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

R: That is not a miracle. Not a miracle.

S: It was absolutely miraculous.

P: Thievery is what that was.

R: It was awesome.

P: It was criminal behavior.

S: And Tom Brady, I'm afraid Tom Brady is a god.

P: Criminal behavior.

J: Steve, this is a science-based podcast.

P: Paying off the referees and other various...

S: I had a momentary lapse after that game. It was absolutely incredible.

R: I couldn't agree more. Also, he's very hot. That's all.

J: You know, this is a little out of schedule, but we did get an email this week, someone I guess you can call it a complaint, said that we do a little bit too much back-slapping and loose talk in the beginning and they want us to jump right in.

P: Really?

J: Do you guys read that one?

R: Yeah, it's true.

S: Yeah, sure. I told them to fast-forward if you don't like the banter.

B: He also said we are unfunny, so that kind of hurt.

J: I would like to tell everyone out there, please, we do this for free because we believe in scepticism and we actually do enjoy doing the show, but we enjoy the show and we do it because we like to joke around and we like to talk to each other.

R: Well, speak for yourself. I hate talking to you people. I'm only here for the paycheck.

P: We should take every criticism we get an email and alter the show constantly based on the feedback that we get.

S: Seriously, we do actually tabulate and listen to all of our feedback, and regarding the witty, humorous banter, it's about 98% pro and 2% negative, so that's what we listen to. So yeah, there's the occasional negative comment, but most people say the show's entertaining and funny, so we do adjust what we do based upon the feedback, but that's where it's pointing.

P: Thanks.

R: Can I just point out that that person wrote in and said that he couldn't get past the 10 minutes of banter and he was angry because we never got around to having Randy on, and if he didn't get past the 10 minutes, then how does he know? So his own email was...

P: Randy spoke.

S: But let's get right to the news.

P: Yes, let's.

News Items[edit]

Stem Cell Debate Continues (3:20)[edit]

  • House votes to fund stem cell research:

    New source of stem cells found in amniotic fluid.

    Article about the chilling effect the Federal ban on stem cell lines has produced.,,1979639,00.html

S: There's been a lot of stem cell news recently. So we've talked about the whole stem cell debate before. I think this is an area where the government is imposing political views and social views onto science, and it's okay to make moral judgements and value judgements, etc. Obviously, I don't think that scientists should have completely free reign to do whatever they want without any morality check, but I think what's been interesting is that a lot of the anti-stem cell research people, those who were opposed to it for a moral view, have all made really ridiculous, unsubstantiated scientific claims about stem cell research in order to defend their position, which is just intellectually dishonest. Just say, listen, I understand the potential for stem cell research, but I have a moral objection to harvesting human cells and leave it at that, but they have to also take the position that, well, stem cell doesn't work for anything, which is a non sequitur because no one's claiming that it does. We're claiming that it's a fruitful area or at least has a lot of potential for future research. So saying that it doesn't currently work for anything is just not relevant to the entire debate. Or they try to downplay its utility or its potential, or they try to say that other sources of stem cells are equivalent to embryonic stem cells, all of which are scientifically inaccurate statements. And this debate really came to a head in 2001 when President Bush essentially banned...

P: August, just before 9-11.

S: Right, it was like the big news of his administration before 9-11. Basically, he put a federal ban on federal funding for stem cell research. He restricted it to existing cell lines, which turned out...

B: Presidential lines.

S: Yes, well, I guess the presidential lines. But it turns out that there were very few of them turned out to be viable. And obviously, in the last five, six years, the technology has progressed. So now we could make better cell lines than the ones that were around in 2001. Well, the debate has never really gone away, but there's been a few things in rapid succession in the news. One is that the fairly recently elected Democratic Congress, at least in the House, has passed a bill essentially reversing the president's ban and providing for federal funding for stem cell research. It still has to pass the Senate. And President Bush has already vowed to veto it if it reaches his desk.

B: Which he did last time, last year, when this happened.

S: Which he did last time. Even when the Republicans still held the Congress, they passed a similar bill. Of note, the House passed the bill with too few votes to override a presidential veto.

P: Even now?

S: Yeah, so if Bush vetoed it, the Congress would not be able to override his veto with the votes they currently have. They'd have to recruit more votes.

P: You're just not going to get this until oh wait.

J: You've got to love a president that vows to fight science.

B: Steve, I dug up a quote from last year when it passed in the House, I believe it was, in July. And Bob Park, who we had on the show last year, had a great quote. I just want to say this one. He said that Mr. Bush vetoed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. This is back in July. The first veto of his presidency was exercised to protect surplus embryonic stem cells in fertility clinics from research. Thus preserving their dignity so they can be put out with the garbage.

S: That's right. That's to me the most irrational thing about the whole thing. We're talking about using embryonic stem cells that are left over essentially from fertility clinics and would otherwise be thrown away. But they're basically committing the slippery slope logical fallacy. And they're saying well we don't want to legalize the use of those embryonic stem cells. Because then that would lead to people harvesting embryonic stem cells just for the sake of doing research or for medical purposes. Which, again, that's the slippery slope argument that if you go one step down this road, it's going to lead inevitably to the ridiculous extreme. Instead of just saying well no, we could just open it up to these embryonic stem cells but still ban specifically harvesting cells just for research. So that's sort of another logical fallacy thrown in there.

P: It's an idiotic low point for the president. It's just terrible. And they can't get enough votes over ride a Vito. He's not alone. It's terrible.

S: Yeah, I mean I think the political winds are shifting away from him but just I guess not enough yet. Well, not enough yet, I agree with you. Now there was an article recently published in The Guardian which is just about the chilling effect that the federal ban has on stem cell research. And this is something that I've heard directly from some of my colleagues who are involved in research. This article focused on Harvard, that other university I hear about in New England.

R: Bitter?

S: Basically, for those of you who may not remember, I work at Yale. So if a researcher wants to do research, privately funded research in the US on stem cells, the ban works as such that no aspect of their research can be touched by federal funding. That means their lab, their equipment, the people that they pay, their paper clips. And you might laugh at that but in recent years, the federal government has become very detailed and picky about the accounting for where money for research goes. Before it used to be that money was a bit fungible. You say this is how much the research is going to cost. You get a bunch of money. And then you might be getting money from several different sources for several different ongoing projects. And you just pay for stuff. You pay for your equipment. You pay for people. You didn't really have to really, in a detailed fashion, allocate how much money from each study is going to how much of each piece of equipment in each person. But now you basically have to do that.

P: You're saying that that's a direct result of the stem cell decision?

S: No, I'm not saying that. I don't know how much it is. Honestly, I don't know. I don't know if it's just the government cracking down on accounting for their money. But you combine these two things, the fact that you have to account for every penny and no penny can touch anything that's being used for the stem cell research. It really makes it difficult to impossible to carry out privately funded stem cell research in a university lab where you're also doing other things. So it really has an effect that goes far beyond just saying there's no federal money but you could be funded to the hilt with private money for stem cell research.

P: What do you think about it in general, Steve? Do you think it's a good idea that they're cracking down on the money?

S: Yes and no.

P: On the accountability?

S: It's going to certainly keep people more honest and reduce fraud, but at the same time it just creates a lot more bureaucratic work for people who are probably basically being honest anyway. It's just a lot more red tape to do federally funded research. So it's a mixed bag, in my opinion. Now the other stem cell thing in the news recently, which is good news, is that scientists have published that they have discovered stem cells in amniotic fluid. So this is essentially a new source of stem cells. But it's worth noting that not all stem cells are stem cells. The federal ban is on embryonic stem cells, stem cells that are derived specifically from embryos. There are also adult-derived stem cells, which are also very interesting and also may yield incredible things. But they are universally considered to not have the same potential that embryonic stem cells have. The key about stem cells also, just for the quick background, is that they have yet to differentiate into specific tissue types. So they still retain all of their possibilities. They haven't gone down any lines. They haven't turned into liver cells or heart cells or brain cells yet. They're just sort of these, what we call, totipotent, undifferentiated cells that could become anything.

R: You call them what?

B: Totipotent.

S: Totipotent.

R: Totipotent. That's a word.

J: Did you just make that up?

S: No, that's the technical term for it.

R: I think you made that up. Totipotent.

S: That's the technical term for it.

R: OK. Totipotent.

B: Steve, I thought this was very interesting. And when I really read the article carefully, maybe you're misinterpreting it, but it really seemed interesting to me. Couple of the things I gleaned from the article was that these new amniotic fluid stem cells have a lot of advantages over other non-embryonic stem cells, like umbilical cord stem cells, fat tissue, and bone marrow derived, in that they are truly pluripotent, which I guess is like one step under totipotent.

S: Yes, that's right.

B: In that they're capable of turning into almost any tissue.

S: To many things as opposed to anything, right.

B: OK. So there's that advantage. And then the other advantage is that they divide very well, doubling every 36 hours. So this, in my mind, puts them just one step just below embryonic stem cells.

S: That's right. The early news is that they're better than adult-derived stem cells, but perhaps not quite as good as embryonic stem cells.

B: But what about this, though? This really caught my eye. Apparently, Steve, these amniotic fluid-derived stem cells have advantages over embryonic stem cells. Tell me how accurate this is. It said that there's, well, first off, there's no moral obstacle over harming human life.

S: Of course, that's the biggie.

B: That's a biggie. But this other one was that they do not form tumors like embryonic stem cells can.

S: Yeah, well, that's still early to say, but that's one of the things that they may be more stable, and they may have less of a potential. Which, of course, is the big downside to stem cell therapies in general, is that, yes, they can grow and they can turn into anything, but they could also turn into tumors and cancer. And perhaps the amniotic stem cells, they may be a little bit less pluripotent than embryonic stem cells, but maybe they're a little bit more stable, a little bit less liable to become tumors or cancer.

J: So, Steve, the ones that can turn into cancerous cells, would you consider them poopy-pony?

P: Crappy, but your diabetes is cured, but now you have cancer.

S: Right. That's a major technical hurdle for stem cell therapy.

P: Yeah, I would say so.

B: But even for a best-case scenario for these amniotic fluid stem cells, even the best case, the bottom line, I think, is that we still need to keep studying all the different cell types, because at least according to a lead author of the study, Anthony Attalla, he's the director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine, he says that we need to keep studying all these different cell types to see what works best for each application at the end. So it's not like, oh, this one looks the best, let's put all our money here. I think we should be studying all of them.

S: No, absolutely, and probably in the future, we'll find that embryonic cells are best for this, amniotic cells are best for that, adulterized stem cells are best for something else, and we'll go from there. Yeah, absolutely.

P: It still sounds like good news.

S: It's good news. It's very promising. I mean, again, it remains to be seen where it will all lead. Not every promising new avenue of research yields gold, but it's very promising.

P: According to the news, it does.

J: Steve, is this considered to be a lot less of a conspiracy? Are people up in arms about this new type of stem cell they found yet?

S: I haven't heard any complaints yet.

B: No, I think what people will be saying is that, see, we don't need embryonic stem cells, let's focus on these.

S: I am already hearing that. People are saying, you see, it was good that we delayed the science of embryonic stem cells because now science has delivered us a morally non-controversial source of stem cells. So there are some people already beating that drum. Well, let's move on.

Randi Revises Psychic Challenge (15:34)[edit]

  • With an Interview with Jeff Wagg, the director of the JREF and the Challenge.

S: The Skeptics Guide is produced in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation, and of course, James Randi contributes his James Randi Speaks five-minute commentary every episode for the last six months or so, which we are very pleased to have. So I'm just going to report on a bit of James Randi news. The James Randi Educational Foundation has altered their rules for executing the million-dollar psychic challenge. Now, we've spoken about this on the show before. We've spoken to James Randi on the show about it before. Basically, if you have a supernatural or paranormal or occult claim, and you feel that you can prove it under test conditions, then the JREF will test your claim, and if you can pass a simple test...

B: A test that's mutually agreed upon.

S: That's mutually agreed upon.

B: Which is important.

S: Then you could win a million dollars. Now, we actually tracked down Jeff Wegg, who directs the million-dollar psychic challenge for the JREF. He's already in Las Vegas getting ready for TAM5, and we called him at his hotel in Las Vegas. So let's go to Jeff now. So joining us now is Jeff Wegg from the James Randi Educational Foundation. Jeff, thanks for joining us.

JW: Oh, thanks for having me.

S: So Jeff, we asked you to join us on the show to talk to us about the recent changes in Randi's million-dollar psychic challenge. So can you sum them up for us?

JW: Yes, and I'm so glad this is out in public now. We've been talking about this for months, and it's been hard to keep it under wraps, and Randi slipped a couple of times, but now it's official and we can talk about it. The bottom line is this. We spent a lot of time going through challenge applications at the JREF. We hit a couple dozen, and they're mostly from crazy people. That's the short of it. We have a lot of people applying who just don't have a firm grasp on reality. And it takes up an awful lot of time, and a lot of the times we can't even tell where they came from because they don't include a return address or stuff like that. So it's not doing anyone any good. If we test a crazy person and they fail, okay, what have we proven? Nothing. We've exposed a crazy person. Yay. It doesn't do any good for us or them. If they should happen to win, then maybe we would have discovered something, but we really don't think that that's likely. So what we're trying to do is spend our energies actually doing something useful. And the idea came about what if instead of having a challenge open to everyone, we just went after the big targets and we did it aggressively. Now the other thing about these crazy people, they're not really hurting anybody. They're just in their own little worlds, and they probably need some professional help, but we're not the ones to offer that. But there are a lot of people out there who are actually doing real damage. They're the ones you see on television, and they pretty much get a free pass. Sylvia Brown is probably the biggest example. She accepted Randy's challenge in 2001, September of 2001, and then just decided that she wasn't going to follow through, and she shouldn't be allowed to get away with that. So we're going to take the energy and resources we were putting into dealing with the daily grind of going through the same old hard to read, incomplete, silly application, and we're going to take that energy and aggressively go after people and hound them and continue to say, Sylvia, why won't you take this million dollars? If you don't need the million dollars, there are plenty of charities who could use this million dollars. Please take it from us and use it for a charity. If you have the ability to take that million dollars from us and use it for a charity and you don't do it, why not?

J: That's awesome.

JW: How can you call yourself an ethical person for not taking that million and using it to help burn children or whoever you might pick?

S: Plus you could silence the critics and the skeptics once and for all. Just prove that your powers are legitimate.

J: So, Jeff, are you going to go to media outlets and do this? Are you going to have it in newspapers and on TV?

R: Yeah, this sounds really good just because I know a lot of people are hoping to see more of Randy out and about. Do you think that that's a reality, is Randy, are we going to be seeing him more on TV?

JW: I believe so. Randy spent all week on the phone and doing interviews. When you called, I was busy answering press inquiries to come to TAM. This announcement has really brought people out of the woodwork. The media is starting to pay attention. Now it's our job to capitalize on this.

S: It's good timing with TAM, I guess, too.

JW: It is. It worked out in the Wired article that came out this week, really helped us. We had no idea when it was coming out, but he's apparently a friend of ours because he did it perfectly.

R: Oh, yeah. Fantastic article. Very pro-JREF.

JW: Great article. Very accurate.

B: Jeff, this is Bob. How are you?

JW: Hi, Bob.

B: Question for you. I think this is a great idea, just putting all your time and energy on the big boys. But one thing I see, though, is that I think what's going to happen is you're really not going to be doing this test anymore. You're really not going to be carrying out the test. I think it seems to me that it would be only very rarely that you'd get a big name who's actually willing to do it. Do you anticipate that?

JW: Yes. And that brings up another question that we've given people. Some farmer in New Mexico can douse for water. And he writes to Randy and says, see, I'm the real thing and you won't test me because you're afraid of me. You know dousing is real. Well, our answer to that is we have two criteria by which we will test you. One is you need a media presence. The other is you need some qualification. Well, there's an easy way to gain both of those things. And that's to apply for one of the many other challenges that other skeptics across the country have offered. If you can pass their test, you're more than welcome to try for ours. We'll say that flat out. The Tampa Bay skeptics, I believe, have a $1,000, maybe a $10,000 prize, very similar to ours. They don't have the restrictions we have. They'll be more free to test people. If you can pass theirs, that in our eyes will give you the credentials you need to apply for our challenge.

S: Yeah, I was going to suggest that, which is actually not too different than what he's doing, he had been doing, which is farming out a lot of the screening tests to local groups. We've done it for him several times. So it sounds good. I think it's a good idea to continue to do that. You may even want to formalize that by making at least a reference network for other or local skeptical organizations that are willing to do the screening tests or testing for those who don't have the public profile to warrant James Randi's direct.

P: Like Steve said, Jeff, we have tested a few people preliminarily for the JREF, and they were diagnosable. I think sanity is a reasonable hurdle to have to cross.

JW: And again, you read over when Kramer was doing the challenge, he very dutifully posted everything, all the correspondence with all the challenge applicants. So anyone who cares to look at the forums at and click on challenge applications, you can see what we deal with. And when you peruse those, you see that these people, they're not normal people with special abilities. They're just not normal people. And they're people who are really in a state of distress.

S: And often very, very self-deluded.

P: Yeah, they're abnormal people with normal abilities. That's what they are. You know, that's what they are.

JW: We're actually helping promote their delusions because if we take them seriously, right, it feeds us and it becomes a problem. And then when they finally do get to testing, which happens very rarely because most of them can't fill out the form or agree to a double-blind protocol. You know, that goes way over their heads. When they fail, they're convinced that we're evil or there were solar flares or sunspots. You know, you've heard all the stories.

R: I like to blame most of my failures on evil or solar flares.

J: Jeff, do you have any story, one of the better ones you can share with us without naming names?

JW: I do have one. The first interesting one that I dealt with was the gentleman who claimed that, and I have to word this very carefully, an egg could detect the imminent intention of death on another egg in its cohort. What that means is if you took an egg out of a package of a dozen eggs and intended to boil it, another egg in that dozen would sense that and react. And he had invented a device that would detect that reaction.

R: Don't we have videos supposedly showing this? I seem to recall seeing a bit of that. And I watch the videos a lot.

JW: He filmed the video online, and he has an egg hooked up with electrodes. I mean, imagine 50 sci-fi, and you know what his bad gizmo looks like. He put the egg in the water, and after a certain amount of time, the device started screaming, and you were given the impression that it was the egg screaming in horror about its cohort egg. How these eggs knew they were in the same dozen as beyond me, but we don't get into speculation. We just want people to do what they can say.

P: Right.

JW: But it turned out that this device he was using was actually something he had invented to detect when plants needed water. So that raised all kinds of questions to me. And I'll tell you another story since this is being taped, you can edit what you want. But my favorite story from the Kramer era was a guy called, Kramer had cute names for everybody, and I stopped doing that when I took over because I didn't want to make fun of these people. I wanted this to be much more serious. And he called this guy, Walk the Line. And this guy's ability was to make things appear along a railrack. So he would walk along the railroad tracks, and his presence would make things appear. So suddenly he'd look down and be a hamburger wrapper on the ground. And he'd walk a few more steps, and there's a tire.

R: And then if he kept walking, eventually he would make a train appear, right?

JW: You know, we're laughing at the funny, and I find it funny too. But in reality, this is a severely deluded guy. And that was one of those cases that made me think, what are we doing here? Nobody is listening to this guy thinking, oh, psychics are real. So it is a waste of our time, and it does him disservice to actually proceed with things like this. But at the same time, the challenge had to be open in order to prevent people from saying, well, I'm the real thing, and you won't test me. New strategy seems to account for everything now. It's brand new, and we're going to have to see what happens.

S: But even Randy said early on in the challenge that he had lots of frauds and charlatans were taking the test, but he weeded them out over time. And as the years went by, the percentage of just nutcases went up and up. So eventually, it was just severely deluded people and no real interesting contestants. Well, Jeff, thank you once again for joining us to explain all of that. And just for the audience, you are at Las Vegas right now and getting ready for TAM 5.

JW: I am at the Riviera Hotel, and I'm about to go out to dinner with some of the speakers for TAM. So TAM, as far as I'm concerned, has started. Where are you guys?

S: We'll be there in a few days.

R: I'll be there tomorrow.

J: Jeff, I'll be drinking with you at 1 o'clock on Thursday.

S: All right, Jeff.

JW: Okay, thanks very much.

J: See you then.

R: See you, Jeff.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Government Conspiracies (26:53)[edit]

Steven, Bob, Rebecca, Jay, Perry, and Evan (whew!),

I'll start off as most do by thanking you for a wonderful podcast. Having just recently discovered the show, I promptly signed up for a 1 year membership to support your work and began working my way through previous episodes. On to my question (apologies if it's been discussed before and I haven't yet gotten to it!):

What advice do you have for skeptics and critical thinkers for evaluating 'conspiracy theories' with regard to the government? And by this, I don't mean the complete idiocy that takes the form of moon landing hoax conspiracies or flying saucers and the like. I mean the more prevalent 'theories' such as information suppression, cover-ups, clandestine deals, corruption, all the way up to more extreme things like 9/11 involvement, election fixing, etc. Personally speaking, I find no shortage of clear and well-publicized issues that anger me about the current administration. However, the items reported in the news are often not enough some people and other things are talked about as though they were fact. It can often be very difficult to tell where the facts end and the theories and 'woo-woo' begin. When I challenge people on their claims, I'm called either naive or some sort of crypto-republican or Bush apologist. And of course I'm reminded that our government (both parties) has a history of cover-ups, scandals, and conspiracies so perhaps this casts things in a different light?

Sorry that this question has turned out to be so political, but really my question is more generic. How might scientific methods or critical thinking be applied to these kinds of claims?

Jeret Lemontt
Santa Barbara, CA

S: Well, let's move on to your emails and questions. This first one comes from Jarrett Lamont in Santa Barbara, California, and he writes, "Stephen, Bob, Rebecca, Jay, Perry, and Evan. I'll start off as most do by thanking you for a wonderful podcast. Having just recently discovered the show, I promptly signed up for a one-year membership to support your work and began working my way through previous episodes. On to my question. What advice do you have for skeptics and critical thinkers for evaluating conspiracy theories with regard to the government? And by this, I don't mean the complete idiocy that takes the form of moon landing hoax conspiracies or flying saucers and the like. I mean the more prevalent theories such as information suppression, cover-ups, clandestine deals, corruption, all the way up to the more extreme things like 9-11 involvement, election fixing, etc. Personally speaking, I find no shortage of clear and well-publicized issues that anger me about the current administration. However, the items reported in the news are often not enough some people and other things are talked about as though they were fact. It can often be very difficult to tell where the facts end and the theories and woo-woo begin. When I challenge people on their claims, I'm called either naive or some sort of crypto-republican or Bush apologist. And of course, I'm reminded that our government, both parties, has a history of cover-up scandals and conspiracies, so perhaps this cast things in a different light." So this is actually a really good question. We deal quite a bit with the conspiracy theorists. It is a major category of, as he says, woo-woo or pseudoscience. I think we all have a little bit of a conspiracy theorist inside of us, so how do we know when the reasonable notions of cover-ups and conspiracies end and the real extreme grand conspiracies begin? I think there are a few reality checks that you can give yourself. The first one is, if your belief in a government conspiracy or cover-up happens to precisely coincide with your political views, you need to ratchet up the skepticism a little bit. Just be more suspicious when things seem to support views you already hold, especially if they're very emotionally held political views. Second, if you find yourself thinking that everybody who disagrees with you is naive, that's also a red flag. The accusation of being "naive" is cheap. It's an easy way to dismiss disconfirming evidence or opinions or other opinions. It's like saying you don't have faith. It's like saying you're closed-minded. To conspiracy theorists, the dismissiveness is you're naive. You're hoodwinked. You believe everything you hear. It's the same thing. It's just an ad hominem dismissive type of attitude. Be careful about that. You have to evaluate the claims based upon plausibility. How big and how deep and how huge does this conspiracy have to go in order for it to make sense? You also have to consider, realistically, where's the mainstream media in all of this? There are news outlets that pretty much cater to every point of view and every opinion. You could argue about does it lean this way or does it lean that way, but the bottom line is if the Bush administration, for example, were perpetrating some kind of hoax or cover-up or conspiracy, believe me, the New York Times would be doing everything they could to break that story.

P: CNN. And they do it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The news cycle never stops.

S: And if a Democrat were doing the same thing, Fox News would be there to pull the rug out from under them. Every political point of view has its media outlets these days. So if you have to then broaden the conspiracy to involve all the mainstream media, that's another red flag. But it is true that cover-ups occur. If you ever have two people in a room agreeing to commit fraud or a crime, that's a conspiracy. That happens. Sure it does. It really ultimately comes down to the size and scope that makes it either plausible or implausible. But the individual has to be careful about the thinking, the logic that goes with it. If you find yourself dismissing disconfirming evidence as part of the conspiracy or explaining away the lack of evidence, well, of course there's no evidence for that because it's a cover-up. Those are the kind of things where you basically start insulating your belief from any possibility of disconfirming it. That's when you're getting trapped inside a conspiracy theory.

Herbs, Hags, and Kids (31:22)[edit]

First off I want to say I love your podcast, you are by far the best one out of many that I subscribe to and hope you can answer a few questions of mine.

I have three separate questions for the panel, first, I just finished listening to episode number 48 with Steve Mirsky,(another great podcaster I listen to) where you guys just touched on herbal remedies such as Ginko Biloba and how full of B.S. much of it is. Could you guys perhaps go down the list of some of the more popular ones and debunk some of their claims, if not anything else do it for my mother, who is a fanatic for them, some truth would be nice.

My second question is one for myself, I subscribe to a podcast called mysterious universe, not for the science, but for the muse of entertainment it brings. One subject that has come up a few times is of shadow people or 'old hag syndrome' where a person is lying awake and unable to move and witnessing a shadow figure climbing over them. I would love to hear to skeptical/ truth on this matter and what is exactly happening during these reported events.

My last question is, who's kids do I keep hearing in the background of some of the episodes? Just one of those annoying little questions I keep wondering for no apparent reason.

Thank you guys, I look forward to more and please to Rebecca that no, I will not marry her so please stop proposing.

Ian Horner
San Diego, California

Some Ginkgo references:

S: So the next question comes from Ian Horner from San Diego, California. And first I'd just like to say that Ian is probably still licking his wounds over San Diego's epic upset yesterday at the hands of the New England Patriots.

B: Back to that.

J: Totally got me.

S: Anyway, poor Ian writes, "First off, I want to say I love your podcast. You are by far the best one out of many that I subscribe to and hope you can answer a few questions of mine." Well, after that, how could we not? He further writes, "I have three separate questions for the panel. I can't guarantee we're going to get to all three of them." I think we're going to. Well, we might. We might get to all three of them. "First, I just finished listening to episode number 48 with Steve Mersky where you guys just touched on herbal remedies such as Ginkgo biloba and how full of BS much of it is. Could you guys perhaps go down the list of some of the more popular ones and debunk some of their claims? If not anything else, do it for my mother who is a fanatic for them. Some truth would be nice." Well, let's deal with this one before I read the rest of his email. Quickly, we do make a lot of swipes at herbal remedies and herbs in general, and we have talked about it on the podcast before, but again, just to give my quick overview, the thing about herbs is there's nothing supernatural or implausible about the fact that any particular herb can have a medicinal effect. But the truth of the matter is that herbs are drugs. There's nothing magical about them. The fact that they're "natural" is irrelevant. It's meaningless. They're drugs. They're drugs that have not been purified, identified, etc., quantified. In most plants, there's hundreds of chemicals in there with varying degrees of potency. We don't have time to go over every single one. Maybe over multiple podcasts, we'll come back to different ones. But since you brought up ginkgo biloba, I can give you the skinny on this one. The only thing about herbs is that they're just untested. They're not studied to the degree that prescription drugs are. At least in this country, in the United States, their laws are such that there's really no quality control in place. But the story of ginkgo biloba is very telling. Most of the companies that are selling or promoting ginkgo biloba will mention the fact that it's been used as a traditional remedy in the Far East, in China, for example. It's been used for hundreds or thousands of years. This is supposed to lend some sort of credibility to it. A lot of defenders of herbal remedies will say, well, these things have been used for a long time, so native peoples have sorted out what works and what doesn't work. Maybe there is some legitimacy to that for herbs or plants that have some obvious physiological effect. Most societies and civilizations found the hallucinogens in their environment. They did that actually quite effectively, because there's an obvious effect there. But subtle effects or epidemiological effects, you just can't sort that out without modern scientific controlled clinical trials and epidemiological statistics. You can't just sort it out through trial and error. But the interesting thing is that ginkgo biloba was used in these ancient eastern cultures for things other than what it is being sold for now. Now ginkgo is sold as a memory enhancer. It might help or delay Alzheimer's disease. And in healthy people, it may promote mental focus and promote memory, especially like an aging population. But it was not used for that by the ancient culture. So even that argument, not only is it dubious, it's actually factually incorrect. The whole notion that ginkgo might be useful for memory was invented in 1964 by a German pharmacologist who wanted to sell it. And he really had no historical basis for it. Now the basis for the claim, the way it's justified now is two things. One is that ginkgo biloba is a mild blood thinner and that it's also an antioxidant. But here's the thing. There are other blood thinners that work in a very similar way to ginkgo biloba already on the market. One of them is aspirin. Aspirin does the same thing that ginkgo does. It's actually a stronger antiplatelet blood thinner than ginkgo is. And it's probably one of the most studied drugs in the world. Now if ginkgo improves blood flow to the brain and therefore brain function by thinning the blood, why wouldn't aspirin do that? And believe me, it's been studied and these effects are just not present. It may be useful in the same way that aspirin is in treating vascular disorders, but then why not just take aspirin in known amounts? It's been exquisitely studied. We have literally hundreds of thousands of people entered in clinical trials with aspirin, looking at its safety and effectiveness as an antiplatelet therapy. Why go to something like ginkgo, which is completely you don't know what dose you're going to get. You don't know what's the right dose. And this is a very finely tuned thing that we're dealing with. So it may have that effect, but it's a really, really poor cousin to aspirin, if that's true. And as an antioxidant, well, antioxidants are fine as far as they go, but you know what? They've been hugely studied too. We now have about 20 years of clinical research with antioxidants in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and all the neurodegenerative disorders. And the bottom line is, although theoretically it's a fine idea, they just haven't been shown to work in any of these diseases. There may be some subtle longer-term effect.

P: People used to go on about antioxidants.

S: I mean, you asked me in 1995, I'm like, yeah, antioxidants, it's a great idea. You know, oxidative stress damages cells. Antioxidants prevents the damage. It's a really fruitful area of research. And then we did the research and it just didn't pan out. It just doesn't have that much of a clinical effect. So the other thing that ginkgo biloba is a good example of is the course that research in these things takes over the historical time. So there has been lots of clinical trials with ginkgo biloba, but they're all, the vast majority of them are small, poorly designed, poorly controlled with mixed results. The proponents will focus on all the positive studies without really assessing the quality of those studies. And they do meta-analyses to try to add some statistical power to those studies. And up until very recently, the promoters and the believers in ginkgo biloba were using that data to suggest that it probably has a beneficial effect for memory, although they always say the standard phrase, but further clinical trials are needed. Well, guess what? Those further clinical trials are now being done. There was one published about a year or two ago in JAMA. I have a link to that. That's the Journal of the American Medical Association. And this was a reasonably sized placebo controlled trial of ginkgo biloba in healthy adults. And it was shown to have absolutely no beneficial effect on memory or cognition or any measure that was used.

P: I am shocked.

S: But it's one study. But the thing is, it's the best designed study we have to date. So again, the promoters are saying, well, it wasn't for long enough, it wasn't for a high enough dose, although it was for the dose and duration that people are selling it for. So that's hypocritical. And they're saying, well, one study doesn't trump the hundreds of positive studies. Well, but the best study does trump a lot of lower quality studies. The NIH is currently undergoing even a much larger study with thousands of subjects for ginkgo biloba in early Alzheimer's disease. We'll probably have these results sometime in 2008. We'll see what that shows. If that shows an effect, and I'll be the first one to say, hey, now there's evidence, now there's reason, something to base a claim on. If it shows no effect, which I suspect, just given the data that we have so far, the unfortunate thing is, at least in this country, it's not going to affect the industry because the industry doesn't need research under current regulation to sell their products. They'll just make further excuses for it. But what it will show to those who are scientifically inclined is that hundreds of low quality studies can be wrong. Have they been wrong historically? This may be one more case that shows that they could be wrong. It shows you how weak the research is until you get to really carefully designed clinical trials. And that's a pretty good representative of most of the popular herbal remedies that are out there, but they each have their own story that maybe we'll get to in the future.

P: So the main draw for these herbal remedies is that they're, it sounds to me, is that they're all natural.

S: That's the main marketing draw, yeah.

P: I mean, that's the main draw. Like Randy says, so are pebbles and birch and I'm not going to eat that.

S: That's right.

B: So is arsenic.

P: Yeah, it's so little to go on. It's ridiculous.

J: The thing that I really, when I talk to people about this, I constantly say to them, you're not getting a consistent dose. It hasn't been studied for interactions with other drugs that you're taking. None of the R&D has been done behind them. They're literally taking these plants, varying degree of health and quality and all those different things. They're chopping them up, they're putting them into pills and they're having you take them, but there's no consistency. There's none of the safety precautions put in place.

S: That's right, but they're being bamboozled by the marketing. They say, it's not a drug, it's natural, non-separator. That's just wrong. Or they're saying these things have been used by thousands of years by ancient cultures or traditional people. Again, usually not for the indications that they're being promoted for now. And again, that's no proof of safety. There are lots of negative health effects that you can't notice. The end user wouldn't notice. They're statistical. They're only the kind of thing you can notice by carefully tracking lots of people who are taking it. It's a very, very, very small reassurance that it's not horribly unsafe. But it's compelling. The marketing works. It's unfortunate.

P: On some people.

S: Let's get to a second question. So Ian asks, "My second question is one for myself. I subscribe to a podcast called Mysterious Universe, not for the science, but for the muse of entertainment it brings. One subject that has come up a few times is of shadow people or old hag syndrome, where a person is lying awake and unable to move and witnessing a shadow figure climbing over them. I would love to hear the skeptical truth on this matter and what is exactly happening during these reported events."

J: I've had a drunken girl crawl on top of me that was not good looking, and I would consider her very similar to that.

R: Thank you for that, Jay.

B: Okay.

S: Jay, that's the closely related drunken hag syndrome.

J: Oh! I keep confusing these things. I'm sorry.

S: Not to be confused with the old hag syndrome. Bob, go ahead.

B: Well, we covered this, I forget, last year at some point. We covered it.

P: And as a society, Bob, we've been doing it for over a decade, starting with the Warrens.

B: Right. Yeah, one of the first articles I wrote for our newsletter involved this. I just wrote a quick paragraph to sum it up. Old hag syndrome is one of the many culturally dependent interpretations of a waking dream. These hallucinations, called hypnogosia, occur when we are partially asleep and awake at the same time, and so can involve visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations. Often people are paralyzed during these experiences. Sleep paralysis is a byproduct of REM sleep and is necessary so we don't act out our dreams and injure ourselves. Other cultures have other interpretations, such as sexual demon or incubus, which was common during the Middle Ages. Many people today interpret it as ghostly visitations or even UFO abductions. So that's the bottom line on that.

S: I had one of these just the other day.

B: Oh.

S: I get them. I get them. About 15% of the, "normal", neurologically normal population get these occasionally. I get them whenever I'm extremely sleep deprived or if I wake up early in the morning and then go back to sleep. And basically you're just trapped in between being awake and being asleep. You definitely are paralyzed. There's always a sense of a malevolent presence in the room with you. And I frequently try to awaken myself and get up, and I just keep dreaming that I'm getting up and I'm really not moving. And it's a very unpleasant, surreal experience. And I could definitely see how if you didn't know what it was, you would think that something scary and paranormal was going on.

R: And you know, just a few months ago, researchers actually made this happen, stimulating people's brains in order to cause them to sense a shadow person that mimics their movements. So yeah, it was really kind of a freaky test that they did, though. The patients just thought that there was a person constantly shadowing them. And this was just in the middle of the day, which is...

S: Yeah, but what that was looking at was the brain has a model of your own self and embedded in the universe, in the world around you. So you know where you begin, where you end, and where the universe is. And you have a sense that you are in the universe. And if you disrupt that, then your image of yourself, you don't recognize it as yourself. So you think there's this other entity constantly right behind you or shadowing you. But it's actually your brain's echo or image of your body. So it's basically disruption of that part of the brain. Very, very interesting research. Quickly, "My last question is, whose kids do I keep hearing in the background of some of the episodes? Just one of those annoying little questions I keep wondering for no apparent reason."

R: Those are mine.

J: Those are Rebecca's cat.

S: Those are my two daughters, Julia and Autumn. I do mostly record the show after I put them to bed, but occasionally have to record at some other time. And they're noisy little girls, what can I say? They may occasionally be talking or screaming or whatever in the background.

Skepticism a Movement? (45:14)[edit]

The question from the last podcast (1/13/06) about when you became a skeptic sounded uncomfortably to me like discussions I have heard about when I came to Christ or when I came to organic food. I don't mean to slander you all (I listen to the podcast religiously (oops!)) and I think you are great. But I don't think that scepticism is something you come to or are converted to. My friends refer to me as a skeptic but I don't think of myself as such. I just believe in using what intelligence I have coupled with the information available to view the world critically and with clear sight. Let us be honest: if we were living 300 years ago we all might well believe in ghosts and we would all believe that the earth is the center of the universe. We know today that there are no ghosts to an extent the same way we know that the atom consists of a positive nucleus surrounded by a swarm of negative electrons: somebody who did the research told us. Looking at scepticism as some kind of movement desirable in itself leads to what you briefly discussed at the beginning of the global warming segment, i.e., people who ignore reasonable evidence get some credibility just because they are skeptics.

Don Jennings
Torrance, CA, USA

S: The next question comes from Don Jennings from Torrance, California. Got a lot of disappointed Californians. The question comes from the last episode, and he's referring to the episode from 01.13.06, about when you become a skeptic sounded...

P: That would be 01.13.07.

S: Oh, you're right. He wrote 06, but it is 07. "About when you become a skeptic sounded uncomfortably to me like discussions I have heard about when I came to Christ or when I came to organic food. I don't mean to slander you all. I listen to the podcast religiously." Oops. "And I think you are great. But I don't think that scepticism is something you come to or are converted to. My friends refer to me as a skeptic, but I don't think of myself as such. I just believe in using what intelligence I have coupled with the information available to view the world critically and with clear sight." Well, I got news for you, Don. You are a skeptic. But let me go on. "Let us be honest. If we were living 300 years ago, we all might well believe in ghosts and we would all believe that the Earth is the center of the universe." I agree. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and that's why we have the benefit of the perspective that we do. But let me go on. "We know today that there are no ghosts to an extent the same way we know that the atom consists of a positive nucleus surrounded by a swarm of negative electrons. Somebody who did the research told us. Looking at scepticism as some kind of movement desirable in itself leads to what you briefly discussed at the beginning of the global warming segment, i.e. people who ignore reasonable evidence get some credibility just because they are skeptics." We've had a number of questions that in one form or another basically make this same point. And that essentially sometimes we slip into the language of talking about scepticism and skeptics and the skeptical movement. But I do think that there is some legitimacy to that in that there are people who value an honest pursuit of science and scientific truth for its own sake that value an understanding of the mechanisms of self-deception, how we deceive ourselves. Think that you believe in scientific integrity and high quality of scholarship who believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And those that suite of beliefs and values tend to go together. And we loosely and collectively refer to that as scepticism or scientific scepticism and people who basically behave that way as skeptics. And I think that that's legitimate and we recognize that it's not a monolithic belief system or movement and that there's a lot of individuality within there. And also I think a very critical difference between a religious belief or others who use identity for its own sake is that we're not actually advocating a belief or a set of beliefs. We're advocating a methodology. We're advocating just critical thinking, whatever that leads to, which means that you wouldn't ignore evidence because that's not the method we're advocating. We're advocating listening to the evidence and being careful about your logic and your arguments and accepting whatever the logic and evidence supports. So I think that that is where the analogy that Don is trying to draw falls down.

Scientology (48:41)[edit]

Thank you for all the hard work you put into each podcast.

I am interested in your views on Scientology (I hope I am spelling it correctly!). Obviously, I know that none of you believe in Xemu (sic). But I am more intrested in how this cult is able to attract followers.

I am sure that you get plenty of show topics from listeners, but I think a show about Scientologies' beliefs, and how the cult operates would be an informative show.

I just started listening in November, and I have not been able to listen to all the back episodes, so please forgive me if you have already done a show on this topic. If you have done this topic already, could you let me know the show number?

Thank you again, and I am happy to be one of your 10,000 listeners.

Also, tell RW that I cannot send her a proposal as I am happly married with three kids. Sorry.

William Watkinson
Detroit, MI

S: One more email before we before we go on. This one comes from William Watkinson in Detroit, Michigan. And he writes, "Thank you all for the hard work you put into each podcast. I'm interested in your views on Scientology. Obviously, I know that none of you believe in" and he wrote Xemu, but he really meant Xenu with an N. "But I am more interested in how that this class is able to attract followers. I'm sure that you get plenty of show topics from listeners, but I think a show about Scientology's beliefs and how the cult operates would be an informative show." And he goes on to talk about other things. But let's just go on to his question. So we have talked about Scientology on the show before, but there's always more to say about it. I mean, it's a very interesting, interesting topic. We did have, we have with us this evening, Perry DeAngelis, and Perry was actually our man in the street investigating a local chapter of Scientology right here in New Haven, Connecticut. Perry, why don't you tell us about your experience?

P: Yeah, I went in there seven or eight years ago. I just wanted to see, what it was like, what was going on. And of course, it was it was pathetic. Once I finally found the little entrance, I went upstairs and it was like a little sales office. So I don't know, maybe like a real estate office or something. Had a bunch of photographs on the wall. I guess L. Ron Hubbard had a hobby of taking photographs and had a big wall. It said writing with light, all these crummy photos of fields and barns. And I mean, the guy was he was really really sensationalized everywhere you went. There were books and pamphlets all over the place anyway. So I went in there and I said I'd like to find out what this is about. So the first thing they do is you go in as they they hit you with their 200 question questionnaire, right? It's a personality profile and they want to.

J: Did you flub it, though? Did you deliberately lie about it?

P: I did not deliberately.

S: No, you were honest. You were honest because you wanted to see what they were going to say about it.

P: It was pretty simplistic stuff stuff like, do you talk slow? You know, it was a long it was a slog to get through. Anyway, I got through it. I handed it in. They said, OK, well, we need to sort of analyse this. And in the meantime, here, sit down and watch this video. And basically it was about a 45 minute video. And it it went into the basics of their philosophy about engrams. The basic philosophy of Scientology comes from Dianetics. But the basic the basic thing is that you have two minds. One is your analytical mind, which takes in information, analyses it, stores it, thinks about it. The other mind is called your reactive mind. And your reactive mind is the problem. That's the one that stores, they say, emotional and physical pain. And it stores it in these sort of mental pictures that they call engrams. OK, so everyone's walking around with these engrams because you've got these pain stored up in your mind and your reactive mind. And the goal of Dianetics, by extension, the Church of Scientology, is to clear those out. OK, it's to make you "a clear". And basically, it says that these engrams are created any time you have something negative happen to you and you are in some form of diminished capacity. So after I saw the video, they they took me in the back and they sat me down with a young lady, really a kid. And she had the results of my test in front of her. And she started reading it and she said, well you have some high points and you have some low points. I briefly talked about my high points.

S: But then the key was what the shtick is that your high points, Scientology can help you make them higher. And your low points, Scientology can help you fix those. So no matter what the result of that test, Scientology can help you with all of it.

P: And my low points in this case was that I was cold blooded and heartless. And she told me that and she said, I have no understanding of my fellow human beings and I can't relate to them on any meaningful level. And indeed, Scientology could help me with.

S: So she basically said that you're a sociopath.

P: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly correct. Seriously, it said I was a sociopath. So she was reading the thing anyway, and I was trying to look over and see what she had in her hand. I asked her if I could see it. And she said she thought about it for a second, just a little unsure of herself. She said, OK. And she handed it to me. And not only did I get the results of my test back, I also got she handed me her script that she's supposed to read to new applicants. So I immediately I kept it and I got out of there pretty quickly after that because I wanted to. And basically the script goes on to tell you it's really a marketing ploy. It tells you how to if they object and if they say, well, can I hear more about my high point? You say, well, don't really worry about those. These are your low points. These are how we can fix you. It says if they start to agree with you to to play up on that, don't let them object to you. Never be apologetic or halfhearted about what you're doing. Always say things like scientology can help you with that. That can be changed with Scientology. That can be improved with Scientology.

R: Did it say anything about the superpowers?

P: No, I even you know, Rebecca, I even asked this young lady about that specifically. I said what do you what do you think about all that stuff? What do you think about Xenu and the volcano and the laser beams? And she said I don't know anything about that. As if she'd never heard about Xenu.

S: And of course, that's one of the primary features that makes it a cult or it's one of the cult aspects of Scientology. They don't disclose their real belief system upfront. They get you in the door with the pseudo psychobabble nonsense. But then once you get deeper and deeper into it, then you learn, well, it's actually no, that's actually not true. It's that we're being inhabited by the distressed ghosts of murdered aliens from millions of years ago.

R: They don't really tell you that until you're really, really deep into it. So there's a very good chance that she hadn't ever heard of Xenu.

S: Yeah, probably not.

P: At the end, though, it tells you in this little thing she gave me tells her how to feed you to the sales staff, how to go over there. I don't have anything to do with that. But this lady can tell you about our courses and services that we offer and go over there and talk to her. And then you're supposed to be fed to that lady. I didn't bother.

S: It's a pretty mechanical, manipulative sales pitch, basically. That was scripted out.

P: And pathetic, I mean, really. Very, very simple, very simplistic.

Randi Speaks (55:59)[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: That's My Line.

JR: Hello. This is James Randi. I was reminded the other day of an encounter that I had back in 1980 with a gentleman named James Hydrick. Hydrick dressed in sort of... black pajamas; he thought he was a kung fu expert of some kind and perhaps he did have some experience in that line, but he had learned a very special trick. It got him on the program that I've always called "That's Inedible!"—I think the name was actually "That's Incredible!", but John Davidson was taken in completely by him, as he was by many other people. Hydrick could move small objects on a tabletop, apparently merely by concentrating on them. He could also turn the pages, or a page at a time, in a telephone directory, just simply by lurching toward the thing and making strange gestures. Well, it wasn't much of a puzzle if you had any knowledge of the conjuring techniques. Hydrick was simply blowing; blowing along the table and that would raise the page and turn it over. I must admit, however, that he was very good at it. He had the ability to hide the fact that he was blowing by fixing his lips in what we call a "vent" position. That's a ventriloquist's position. The ventriloquist uses this particular mouth structure or shape in order to be able to speak without moving his lips.

In 1980, Goodson-Todman Productions came up with a new show format. It was called "That's My Line". No, not "What's My Line"; "That's My Line". It was rather short-lived; I think it only lasted for one season. I was on the very first two episodes. Bob Barker was the emcee of the show. On the first episode, I appeared as Adam Jersin—that's Adam J-E-R-S-I-N, which is an anagram for James Randi, if you work on it carefully. They tried not to show extreme close-ups of me so I might not be recognized, but I posed as a psychic, and I was able to fool the audience into believing that I had some sort of psychic powers. But then Bob Barker revealed the whole thing and everybody was much happier. I certainly was. My second appearance on that show was to confront James Hydrick with his trick of blowing telephone pages over. That was quite an adventure. Mark Goodson was the director on the show and he just about went nuts. You must understand that this was a very big studio in the Los Angeles area; very large audience was accommodated and we had to make very special preparations for Mr. Hydrick. I got to the studio very early that day, before Hydrick arrived, and I demonstrated to Mark Goodson that the air conditioning would have to be turned off, which was rather a disastrous decision to have to make because it was a large building; there were lots of hot lights going and the audience would probably be a bit uncomfortable. As it turned out, they were. I simply turned a Styrofoam cup on its side and I showed Mark Goodson that the cup would run around in circles merely because of the natural ambiance of the studio with its moving air conditioning currents. So we turned the whole system off. That had to be done a good hour before Hydrick arrived to do his demonstration. Hydrick did his regular demo of turning the page of the telephone book, and then it was my turn. I stepped over to the table and distributed some Styrofoam peanuts, the kind of thing that you use to package delicate objects, all around the table. Hydrick was stymied. He couldn't blow, or the Styrofoam tablets would run in all directions, of course, and it would be very obvious what he was doing. Because he hummed and hawed for such a long period of time, Mark Goodson had to tell the audience that they could go out to lunch and come back in about an hour. But, meanwhile, the whole staff, all of the crew, the cameramen, the editors, the whole business had to be on duty in case Hydrick suddenly decided that he was possessed of psychic powers again. Well, the upshot of the thing was that Hydrick couldn't do anything. When the audience came back in again, they didn't see a demonstration of any kind. Except that I duplicated the Hydrick trick simply by blowing. And I think I did it rather well. Shortly after that, Hydrick vanished from sight. It turned out he'd been arrested; he was a very sad character and had a long history of such misdemeanors. Look it up on our website. This is James Randi.

Science or Fiction (1:01:00)[edit]

Question #1: Scientists have discovered a possible 'off switch' for HIV.

Question #2: Researchers have found that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia by as much as four years.

Question #3: Scientist have used a new technique to date a modern human skull that was discovered 50 years ago, and the new dating shows that humans migrated out of Africa as early as 150,000 years ago.

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine and one is fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptical rogues to tell me which one is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week's items?

R: Yes.

S: Alright, here we go. Item number one, scientists have discovered a possible off switch for HIV. That's the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Item number two, researchers have found that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia by as much as four years. And item number three, scientists have used a new technique to date a modern human skull, meaning a modern homo sapiens, that was discovered 50 years ago. And the new dating shows that humans migrated out of Africa as early as 150,000 years ago. Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Oh man. Okay, so...

S: Off switch for HIV, bilingual delays dementia, or newly dated skull pushes back the out of Africa thing by 250,000 years.

R: Okay, bilingual dementia, that sounds right. I think that's true. Off switch for HIV, I seem to recall there being something in the news about that, but I'm not sure and I could be thinking of something else entirely. So I think that might be true. I'm going to go with the dating of the human skull. I think that that's fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Three is fiction.

R: Okay, short and sweet.

S: Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, I think I'm going to go with that one as well.

S: Alright, Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Yes, I've already punched this into the computer and got the absolute answer. It's number three.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Alright, so you guys all agree that the dating of the human skull is the fiction, which means that you all think that scientists have discovered a possible off switch for HIV is true, and that one is indeed science.

P: How about that? Click that sucker off.

S: So this is a pretty good discovery. I mean, they're learning more and more about how HIV works, and the virus can go into a hibernation state where it basically waits until it can be reactivated and wreak havoc, and they're trying to figure out how to basically alter proteins in the virus that will cause it to go into this inactive or hibernating state, essentially to trick it into turning off. The hope is that it will lead to new treatments that would essentially stop the virus from doing its dirty work.

P: Steve, it's my impression that because HIV is so political that it gets a lot of coverage and therefore it gets a lot of money and a lot of big minds working on it. Is that accurate?

S: Yeah, there's a lot of money into HIV research. Part of it was that it was certainly a very high-profile disease. It's easier to get money for high-profile diseases. Certainly the government wants to look as if they're doing research into high-profile diseases. It means there's a lot of people out there beating the bushes and writing letters and trying to promote our research, so yeah. And sometimes it can be hard to get sufficient funding for so-called orphan diseases or rare diseases that don't have either famous people shilling for them or have large patient populations promoting them. So absolutely, HIV has benefited, if you will, from its high profile.

P: From its huge advocacy, yeah.

S: So that one is science.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: You all also agree that researchers have found that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia by as many as four years, and that is also science.

B: That's pretty cool.

P: Using your brain delays dementia, doesn't it, Steve? Keeping mentally active.

B: Right.

S: Yes.

B: That's kind of part of it.

S: It's true. There's been other lines of research that show that people who stay mentally active, that seems to have some sort of protective effect against the onset of dementia. So this would be in line with earlier research. This, of course, is just looking specifically at being bilingual. The interesting thing about being bilingual is that it really does engage a lot of your cortex. If you're speaking a second language, especially if you've learned that second language after four years of age, you're using more cortex, more bilateral, both sides of your brain in order to speak, and less just the dedicated language area of your brain. So it is more of a demanding task than speaking a language that you learned before you were four years old.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: So that means that everyone got it correct this week.

R: Again? Wow.

S: Yeah, you guys are doing well. I guess you're tapped into my news sources or something.

P: You're also starting with Rebecca and Bob now.

S: I've got to reverse the order next time. So number three, scientists have used a new technique to date a modern human skull that was discovered 50 years ago. That much is true. There's a human skull found in South Africa that was discovered 50 years ago. It's a homo sapiens. But they really weren't able to date it well. Now they've used a new dating technique. They're basically dating the dirt that it was found in, not the skull itself. They've dated it to 36,000 years old. Actually, there's been a few finds recently. There's also been basically at this critical window of early homo sapiens. A lot of this research has been focused on trying to settle an ongoing debate between the so-called multi-regional hypothesis, which is basically that fully modern human beings evolved in parallel in multiple different parts of the world at the same time, through genetic exchange of material, not parallel evolution per se, but they were distinct populations that maintained themselves as distinct populations but were sharing genetic information across these populations as they were evolving into modern humans. That's the multi-regional hypothesis. The out-of-Africa hypothesis is that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread to Europe and Asia. The out-of-Africa hypothesis has been gaining a lot of steam in the last 10 or 20 years. It's definitely the dominant theory at this point in time. It's approaching consensus at this point. Now, there's been a couple of new studies. This is one of them that greatly supports the out-of-Africa hypothesis but also pushes the date up to about this 40,000-year range, so later than we thought. We thought maybe that they had migrated out of Africa as long ago as 100,000 years, and the new dating of the skull moves it up to around the 40,000-year age. There was another find of human remains, I believe this one was in Siberia, that dates to about 40-something thousand years ago, again showing that not just humans but this particular population of early humans with a certain artifact showing that they had the same technology, basically showing that this population that was in Africa this late also was making its first appearance in Europe again around the same time. So really supporting not only the out-of-Africa hypothesis but moving the date up to about 40,000 years.

P: It's very intelligently designed, the whole thing.

S: So congratulations, you guys all got it again. You guys have a good record so far.

P: I'm as smart as Bob.

S: I think I'm going to have to definitely step up the difficulty a little bit.

J: Yeah, Steve, me getting two in a row? Come on, something's wrong.

S: Well, although Evan was not with us this week, he's going to join us now to tell us both the answer to last week's puzzle and the new puzzle. So Evan, thanks for joining us.

J: Hi, Evan.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:09:03)[edit]

This Week's Puzzle
The French and the Germans both agree
And so do Chinese, from twelve hundred BC
It only takes 10, placed upon 3
Peer through one eye and you will soon see
Designed to impress children as young as three
It dazzles adults, especially those that believe
All it takes is a skeptic to add fabric you see
The magic disappears, and this trick is history

What is it?

Last 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?

Answer: The Shroud of Turin

Winner: Mike from the message board
Correction - Rich Ludwig was credited on the show but he did not get the answer correct (oops).

E: Sure, no problem, thank you.

S: So can you read last week's puzzle for us?

E: Sure. Okay, last week's puzzle. 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, that was proven to be a hoax in the twentieth century, what do I have?

S: And the answer is?

E: The answer is, of course, as most people got, the Shroud of Turin.

S: Shroud of Turin. That was kind of an easy one this week, but it was still a good one. I liked it.

E: Yeah.

S: It had a certain poetry to it. So, Evan, there were lots of correct answers, but who got it first?

E: Rich Ludwig emailed it in, so congratulations to Rich.

J: Yay, Rich, good work, man.

E: And, of course, a lot of people sent emails and on the boards had the correct answer.

P: But Rich was first.

E: A lot of people out there know they're Shroud of Turin. Knowledge.

S: Well, give us this week's puzzle. This one, I think, is a little bit harder.

E: Oh, it is. It is. Put on your thinking caps, everyone. The French and the Germans both agree, and so do Chinese, from 1200 BC. It only takes ten, placed upon three, peer through one eye, and you will soon see. Designed to impress children as young as three, it dazzles adults, especially those that believe. All it takes is a skeptic to add fabric, you see. The magic disappears, and this trick is history. What is it?

R: That was a real challenge getting through that. I'm kidding. Very well done.

J: Evan, you are disappointing me. You were supposed to rap your next rhyming poem.

E: I didn't promise that.

R: But we promised.

S: Sometime this year.

E: I never promised when I would make a rap. But I did say probably sometime this year that would occur, so stay tuned, folks.

P: We've got a long way to go.

E: And rap enthusiasts, both of you out there.

J: Rap enthusiasts? Oh, my God.

S: Oh, God, Evan, you are so white. All right, Bob, give us a quote to close out the show.

Quote of the Week (1:11:36)[edit]

'Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.'- John Adams

B: I got one. This is from John Adams, a quote that Ronald Reagan famously mangled. He said, "Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

J: What did Ronald Reagan say?

B: He said, facts are stupid things. (laughter)

R: That's funny because it's true.

J: This coming from a guy that made movies with monkeys.

S: Homer said, "Facts. You could prove anything even remotely true with facts."

E: Good old John Adams.

P: Good man.

S: Well, that is our show for this week. We all, or most of us, prepare to leave for Las Vegas and TAM5.

P: Everyone have a great time at TAM. I won't be able to make it this year.

S: Thank you, Perry.

P: I'm sure you'll all have a good time.

S: We're looking forward to it.

R: We'll miss you, Perry.

S: Then thanks for joining me again this week, guys. Always a pleasure.

R: Thank you, Steve.

J: Yeah, you too, Steve. We'll see you. Whoever's going to TAM, please look for us, come up to us, let us know who you are. We're really looking forward to meeting you.

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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