SGU Episode 85

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SGU Episode 85
March 7th 2007
SGU 84 SGU 86
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis

Quote of the Week
The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.
Thomas Henry Huxley
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

News Items[edit]

New study published in JAMA compared popular diet plans (1:25)[edit]


Marilyn Schlitz and the True Believers Strike back at the SGU (10:56)[edit]


S: The next item—now this comes—actually, several of our listeners sent this to us and it was also posted on the message board by a couple of people. There is a podcast—a relatively new podcast out there called "Skeptiko", with a K. Although, it's actually—

P: Booo!

S: Although, it's actually only pretending to be skeptical. I mean, it's not really a skeptical podcast; it's basically being run by believers in the paranormal.

R: It's hysterical; it's like Sylvia Browne wearing a beard and glasses and showing up at TAM (laughs) claiming to be Randi.

P: It is.

E: Calling herself the skeptic psychic or whatever.

R: (laughing) Right.

S: It's a bait and switch. But the reason why they were sending us notification of this is because on one of the episodes, they interviewed Marilyn Schlitz, and Marilyn was on our podcast about a year ago[1]. And they actually included a clip from the Skeptics' Guide—it actually wasn't the episode where we interviewed her, but one a few weeks later, I think, where we mentioned her as we were talking about something. And they used a clip of that, basically to bash me for being a bad skeptic—being a closed-minded evil skeptic.

E: Well, you used the word "kook".

S: I did use the word "kook". So, let me... it's worth reviewing, because it's actually very dangerous

B: You didn't say "kook".

S: I said she has some kooky beliefs, which is different and not

B: Key difference there.

S: I think this is very useful to discuss, because it's very interesting to listen to the pro-paranormal crowd, especially those that try to be scientific, not the really bizarre anti-scientific ones, but the ones who really think that they're being scientific. And how they talk about skeptics it says a lot about the differences in the culture... also sometimes they say things that are eerily reminiscent of the kind of things we might say.

B: Yes.

S: For example, explaining why they believe what they do and their thinking that they need to sociologically explain why skeptics are the way they are. Because obviously, it's not based upon the evidence, right? So—

B: They even—she even says that, Steve; she says, regarding your comments, "where's the evidence?" and I just almost fell out of my car when I heard that.

E/P: (chuckling)

S: So, the comment that they used of mine, which I think they used completely out of context—we were talking about the fact that people who believe in one paranormal thing tend to believe in other paranormal things; they tend to believe in usually a very large number of paranormal things, because they have a different approach. They have a different—I said "world view". And I used Marilyn Schlitz as an example because she had recently been on our show. We were talking to her mainly about psi phenomenon and ESP, but it's not as if she is a practicing scientist who believes in ESP and otherwise has fairly mainstream views. She also believes in a lot of other paranormal things, which I characterize as "other kooky beliefs". For example, she is very compelled by the evidence for distant healing, and she spends a lot of her time researching these things. And I think that that says something about the overall world view and approach people take. There's a reason why skeptics believe in none of these things and so-called either "true believers" or paranormal proponents believe all of them. That was the point I was making. But they used that sentence and they sort of took it out of context to say that 1) that by saying that Marilyn "has some kooky beliefs", that that was an ad hominem attack against her, which is not true.

B: The quote was, "almost an ad hominem attack".

E: (laughs)

S: Almost?

B: Just to be accurate.

S: What does that mean? They also said that I was—

R: It's like that woman who was almost pregnant.

S: Right.


S: That I was dismissing the belief and her research and her credentials and dismissing the evidence, which...

E: She has none.

S: That is completely unfair. That's completely unfair, to say that we're dismissive; either us at the skeptical community in general, that we as a group, that me personally. I mean, seriously.

R: Yeah. The quote that they picked was from a conversation where we were discussing why people are the way they are and nothing to do with specifically what Marilyn has been researching.

S: Right. And it was just one point; it was just the point that these beliefs tend to go together, and guess what? They do. You know, Marilyn does believe a lot of these other things. The people on the show are endorsing a whole host of beliefs, not just one belief in isolation. So, they didn't contradict the actual point that I was making. But to say that we dismiss these things out of hand or "without examining the evidence" is completely intellectually dishonest. I mean, there's a hundred hours of the Skeptics' Guide online that you can listen to to see what we actually say about stuff. And if that's too much time to invest before you come to an opinion, there are dozens of articles that we've published on the New England Skeptical Society website. I mean, we've really pretty thoroughly documented our views on these topics. Bob wrote an article—a three-part article examining the plausibility of ESP. There are comprehensive reviews; we actually interviewed Ray Hyman for a very long time and in detail went over the problems with the actual evidence for ESP and psi phenomenon. So to characterize our approach to this topic as "dismissing it" and "being closed-minded" is really... you know, sloppy—

P: It's absurd.

S: It's intellectually sloppy.

P: It's absurd.

S: It's unfair, and it's actually interesting, because if you pull back and say, "what is really the essence of our criticism of the pro-paranormal crowd?" It's basically that they're a little too credulous; they are not appropriately skeptical; they don't have an appreciation for the pitfalls of human thinking and memory and logic.

B: That's key, right there.

S: They tend to be, at times, use methodologies which are not rigorous enough; they are... the worst of them are intellectually sloppy, use logical fallacies. And commonly what happens is when we criticize them for, basically, poor scholarship and poor science, then they say, "that's not true" and then they defend themselves by employing logical fallacies and sloppy scholarship.

E: Other than that, they're great!


E: They're right on target.

R: You know, I think you could boil all that down to one simple thing, which is just: there's no evidence.

S: Yeah, although that's an over-simplification, in that there is evidence, but the evidence has serious problems and is not compelling. Like, we talked about Dean Radin's evaluation of the pear research[link needed]; this .02%. You know, they point to that as evidence.

R: OK, then switch "no" to "insufficient".


S: Yeah, it's not compelling; it's not sufficient; it's not compelling; there are problems with the evidence—

P: Pathetically lacking.

S: So, we, in detail, go over that evidence. Let me give you one other example of... which struck me as this real hypocrisy that I was talking about. So, right on the heels—right on the heels of accusing me of an ad hominem attack and being dismissive, Marilyn basically said—her response to that was that I lack emotional intelligence.

B: That was nasty.

S: Which was... an ad hominem attack.

E: (laughs)

R: But Steve, you know it's true.

B: That's right! I didn't pick up on that one.

S: Come on! That was blatant hypocrisy. She basically went right from saying... She actually was trying not to get too upset about it; she said she didn't take it personally; blah blah blah. It was more the interviewer was being more negative. But basically—

P: He was prodding her.

S: —they went from talking about that to making a blatant ad hominem attack, so. Which, not that I care about, but again it's just... come on, be consistent at least.

R: If they're going to cherry-pick quotes from the show, there are so many better ad hominem attacks... (laughs)

S: I know!

R: I mean... I can give you some now, like "Sylvia Browne is a hag." There. Take that out... (laughs)


R: —and say that that's the only reason why I don't like her. (laughs) There's your ad hominem attack.

B: Steve, I got a couple points.

S: Go ahead, Bob.

B: Just a couple points from listening to this nasty little thing a couple times. One was... first off, I think that these guys—these two people—you know, Marilyn Schlitz and Alex Tsakiris—I believe you pronounce his name—they need tougher skin.

S: Yeah.

B: Alex was saying... he calls what Steve said "personal attacks" and "resorting to this kind of smear". Marilyn—

S: Smear. Cry me a river. Come on.

B: Marilyn called it "dismissing by character assassination", what you said, and "going for almost an ad hominem attack". Now, here's Steve's exact quote: "she also believes in a lot of kooky things—a whole suite of kooky things". Now that quote—they're calling these character assassination? Personal attacks? Come on; toughen up a little bit.

S: The other thing—yeah, you're right, Bob; and you know what? Just to extend that a little bit, if they—and this is from pretty hard-core skeptical person group and show, but quite honestly, if you just talk to rank-and-file scientists who aren't involved in "skepticism", they would absolutely eviscerate those kind of people and that kind of research. They would do it in no uncertain terms in a very dismissive attitude. So actually... which is not really a defense, it's just saying that science is a very critical endeavor, you know? It's not just all positive.

B: Right.

S: You have to hack away what doesn't work.

B: Your colleagues are there to take you down. That is their goal!

P: Right.

E: Yeah.

S: Right.

B: And one more little thing here. Marilyn goes on at one point talking about her discourse analysis of skeptic proponent debate. Apparently for her post-doc fellowship, she did... I don't know if it was a paper or some study that she did on this discourse analysis—basically, she analyzes skeptical arguments to find patterns and markers that signify things like dismissal. So, the fact that these exist, though, say nothing about the quality of the arguments, so I'm not sure why she even brought that up. I mean, shouldn't she have been looking for markers like, say, logical fallacies commonly found in skeptical discourse? Good luck finding them in Steve's arguments. But let me get to her quote, though. She says—regarding Steve's quote, she says that there's some markers of a dismissal, "an attempt to undermine me, where he says 'maybe she has a PhD; maybe she's a serious scientist', so he's automatically bracketing some doubt around my credentials or qualities." Now I think she needs to do a little more discourse analysis, because that's not what Steve said, and this is a critical difference. Steve said, "she may have a PhD", not "maybe". "She may have a PhD; may be a serious researcher, but she also believes a lot of kooky things." Now, the whole point of what Steve said was not to impugn her credentials, but to she that having a PhD does not mean you're a critical thinker. She totally misinterpreted what he said.

S: Yeah. Right.

E: Yeah, well, she got defensive.

P: Misinterpreted it? She—

S: Making my point, actually, in doing so. She said a couple of other things during the interview that are worth pointing out. She invoked quantum mechanics—

B: Oh, my God; she pulled the quantum card; I couldn't believe it.

S: —to say that we don't know how things really work...

B: I was waiting for it, actually. OK.

S: So she was saying that, you know, we don't really know how the universe works; that quantum mechanics is mysterious. So, basically making an argument from ignorance, that "we don't know stuff", so that we can't make reasoned judgments about whether or not any of these things are likely to be true or not. We have to just sort of wallow in our ignorance.

E: Complete relativism.

S: She also was very coy, you know; saying—she actually backed away from her beliefs, saying that "I don't believe everything that I research." Fair enough; you don't necessarily have to have a belief in it, but in her writings, she certainly does say that there's compelling evidence for these things, and she thinks it's compelling enough to dedicate her research career to a lot of these things.

B: That's key; whether she believes or not, she's devoting valuable time to these topics, and she's gotta think that there's—and she said that she believes a lot of these things have greater potential for breakthrough, and that's part of the problem is that we in science disagree. We disagree!

S: Right. And that's what we're talking about. Not talking about religious belief, we're talking about how much stock do you put in all of this, right? She also... typical tactic is to just defend curiosity, say. "I'm just being curious about these things; I'm just doing research—

E: And open-minded.

S: —and asking questions; I'm open-minded about these things." Right. And the implication is that we're not curious and we're not doing research and we're not, you know, open to these things. And that—

P: What's the old cliché? There's a difference between having and open mind and a hole in your head?

S: Well, there's a few. "Not so open that your brains fall out". I actually had to write an article about just this whole being open-minded thing, and the other skeptics have done a good job writing about that too, because it is such a common refrain among the true believers, to dismiss our skepticism as being "closed-minded". It's nonsense. You know, I am absolutely open, and we've said this before, too. Again, if they really checked out our beliefs, we've said—listen, I'll believe any of these things as long as the evidence is proportional to the claim that's being made. Our problem is not our world view; it's not that we're closed-minded, that we're defending a status quo or scientific mainstream; it's that the evidence stinks! That's our problem with this.

B: Right. We don't want to beat a dead horse. That horse has been long dead.

P: I mean, it's true. Why would I possibly care if there was some hairy guy walking around in the woods? If there's Bigfoot; who cares? It'd be interesting.

B: That'd be great to have a huge mammal like that—

P: I don't disbelieve it because—

S: That's not even necessarily paranormal; that's just...

B/P: Right.

S: Surviving species of hominid.

P: I disbelieve it because there's no evidence—No evidence that withstands even cursory scrutiny.

E: She also mentions that we don't... we're apparently closed to other cultures and...

S: Oh yeah. She pulled the "respect for multi-cultural world views" stuff, too.

B: Right, and Tsakiris did the same thing. Here's a quote I wrote down of his, where he says that... I think it was after he said... described Steve's discourse as unscientific, OK. But he says, "where's the science in dismissing someone else's work because their 'kooky beliefs'? Who's to judge, especially when we take beliefs that are common across cultures and are shared by the majority of people on the planet. As a scientist, I would think you'd be curious." And you know, maybe a hundred years ago; maybe sixty years ago, but you get to a point where you're like, "no, I'm not curious any more; there's nothing there; move on; show is over; nothing to see here".

S: Right, right. Yeah, they... you could play the curiosity card infinitely. It's really... very cynical, in a way. Also, same thing with, like, respect for other world views. And basically, they were committing the logical fallacy of the argument ad populi.

B: Ah.

S: It's popular; a lot of people believe in this thing, so we should take it seriously. And again, that's sloppy thinking, and that's why we criticize the people who argue this way. They both did that.

B: I don't think you should respect all other beliefs.

S: Yeah! Some are wrong.

E: That's exactly right.

B: Some... are kooky.

S: We respect logic and evidence, you know? Logic and evidence trumps what a lot of people believe, or whatever. Or the alternate views of other cultures.

B: (grunts)

S: I want to make one other comment, since we're kinda talking about attacks on skeptics this week; it's kind of a theme that will crop up a couple of times. This week, on my blog, Neurologica Blog, which you can get to from either the Skeptics' Guide home page or the NESS home page. I'm devoting my blog for the week on answering typical arguments against common skeptical beliefs or statements.

B: Oh yeah?!


E: That's a classic.

S: For example, use of Occam's razor.

B: Yep, that was good.

S: The notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Etc.

P: Hear, hear.

S: Those topics that we typically use to defend skepticism and to criticize believe which lack evidence or logic are really being attacked by certain segments of the true believer and pro-paranormal society. I mean, there's actually a website that links to Skeptiko; has a lot of articles that are really just attacking these foundations of skepticism, attacking skeptics. A lot of people attack James Randi; if you're high-profile, you'll get targeted. So anyway, as part of this, I'm sort of... companion to this week's podcast, I'm writing fairly extensive blog entries[2] about that, so take a look at it.

Modern Day Witch Trial (27:30)[edit]

S: One more news item before we go on to e-mails. There is a teacher in New York that was suspended—or she was fired, actually, right?

E: Yeah.

S: For promoting witchcraft. And now she's suing the school system, basically, for I guess, violating her civil rights for doing—

P: Was she a Wiccan?

R: I think it said that she was Jewish.

E: She looks like a yenta; that's what I was going to say.

S: No, that's right; she was Jewish. She's Jewish. Yeah, she was Catholic—

R: No, but I think she converted to Judaism.

E: Yeah, she did. That's right; she did.

S: This is Lauren Berrios. Lauren Berrios. A Catholic—

P: She was a Jewish witch?

S: —who converted to Judaism. Well, they said that she wore long fingernails and dark makeup.

E: (gasps) A witch!

R: She's a witch!

S: Sometimes, she dressed in black.

B: A witch!

R: Yeah.

P: (dramatically) Living God.

S: They fired her for promoting witchcraft because she had her students read... Harry Potter

E: Harry Potter. Where have we heard this before?

P: (more dramatically) Whaaaat?! Burn her!

R: She told us that Jesus died because he was weak and stupid.


E: Oh, boy.

S: So...

R: It's from The Onion.

P: Thank you.

S: She says—she believes that the books did not mesh with the principal's religious values, and that... these books, they were removing them from the curriculum, from the classroom and then finally fired her.

B: But she—they fired her in 2002. What took so long?

E: Yeah, it was several years ago. I don't know why it's taken this long to come to circle, but...

S: The wheels of justice grind slowly sometimes.

P: Did they throw her into the gym pool and see if she sank?

B: Ha-ha...

E: Throw her off a cliff to see if she'd fly away on her broomstick?

B: Very small pebbles!

P: (chuckles)

S: These stories crop up every now and then. They always do amuse me, that... some people in the fundamentalist community really takes very superficial signs as either being in league with witchcraft or Satan or whatever.

E: But Steve, in Hampton Bays, New York? That's not exactly, you know... we're not exactly talking—

S: Not the Bible Belt.

E: The Bible Belt; right. Exactly. So, that in itself, I think, is unusual.

R: Well, Salem, Massachusetts isn't in the Bible Belt either.

E: No, but...

R: Well, I guess it was—

P: There was a time when people thought if you played Dungeons & Dragons, you worshiped Satan, and it's all such nonsense.

B: Remember we went into the museum in...

P: At the Warren's.

B: At the Warren's, and they had all these artifacts that they collected from their various—

P: (chuckling) They had some D&D books in their museum.

B: —their various escapades, and one of them was a GM—it was a D&D book. And we were laughing when we saw that. Wow.

P: Ed and Lorraine Warren. I'll never forget when she looked at us with all the feeling in the world and she said, "what happened to you boys? Was it the science thing?"

(all laughing)

E: "Was it the science?"

P: She did! Remember that?

B: Oh, yeah.

R: Perry... Perry, show me on the doll where science touched you.

(all laughing)

P: (chuckles) Yeah, right.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Billy Meier Defender (30:31)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on to your e-mails. The first one comes from Michael Horn, who is the authorized American media representative for the Billy Meier contacts. I've had some e-mail exchanges with Mr. Horn previously, and this is actually... the follow-up e-mail, and he writes:

Dear Steven,

I noticed that you still have inaccurate info up re Meier. Perhaps you'd like to update your info and note what has happened to all the skeptical challenges in the last several years. These article cover some of it:

he gives a couple of links. And then he gives me another article and says

And this should disabuse you of your thing-on-a-string [theory]

Well, this is—I have a funny story to tell about this whole exchange. I'm going to go over some of the pieces of it that are, I think, most amusing. And I include it this week, again, because Michael Horn sort of made his career from attacking skeptics, and... One thing that he does is, you know, really irritating. He basically will make an open challenge to skeptics and then, after a certain amount of time, he says, "skeptics prove UFOs exist" or "Billy Meier is real" because we didn't answer his challenge, you know.

B: Whoa.

P: (laughs)

S: Just for a little bit of background, Billy Meier is the Swiss farmer who has basically hoaxed, in my opinion, for thirty years, that he has been in contact with UFOs from the Pleiades. And... again, I thought—I know we talked briefly about this before, but I had thought he died out in the '70s, but in fact, he's still around; he's still making claims, and in fact, he has a little UFO cult—

P: They never go away, Steve.

S: Yeah, so he has a UFO cult following him now, and Michael Horn is his American contact, and... So, I wanna tell a few stories about my contact with Michael Horn, because it is really hilarious. One of the pieces of evidence that Billy Meier offered for his contact with aliens was a photograph of two women. And he claimed that—there was a blond woman that was an alien that was named Asket, A-S-K-E-T. From the DAL universe. And a brunette was an alien named Nera. So—

R: This is getting sexy.

S: Yeah! Two young, attractive women, a blond and a brunette, Asket and Nera, and they were from a different universe, whatever that means.

B: (chuckling) Yeah.

R: (purrs)

S: (laughs)

P: I'll ask, baby!

S: But decided to take human form, I guess, for the encounter. I don't know if that's their native form; if they really look human; who knows. Now, these photos were met with, of course, with extreme skepticism, and for good reason. First of all, they appear—they look like people. You know, not aliens. Not only that, but you know, it's kind of like a campy sci-fi notion that the aliens are going to come here and look like people. Certainly—

R: Sexy people.

S: Yeah, sexy, sexy people. It's vastly improbable that they would have evolved to look anything remotely human, you know, on another planet.

E: Clever, clever disguise.

B: Another universe!

S: That might have been what he was going for, in fact. That's just completely untenable. So, in anyway, it's all too convenient. "Here's my picture of my aliens. It's a couple of chicks." You know, how about some actual aliens? So of course, you know—

R: Sexy chicks.

S: All a bit convenient. And you know, also looking back on it, look at the photos now, and it's not only a couple of young women, it's women with like 1970s hairdo and makeup, you know?

B: Well, they're a little behind the times in this other universe, you know.

S: (laughs) Yeah, I guess so. It's like Australia or something, right?


E: Awww.

R: You know, we have a lot of Australian listeners who are not gonna appreciate that.

E: We do, we do.

S: I know; I'm kidding, I'm kidding. So these pictures are fuzzy; the background—it's like there's a curtain behind them; it's not like they're in a spaceship or anything. There's actually nothing in the photo that you could use to validate it or to say that it has... it's useful as evidence. It's just a shi—it's a picture of two girls. That's all it is. Worthless as evidence. Well—

E: Wearing "Disco Rules" T-shirts.

S: But the story gets so much better than that. In 1998, Kal Korff thought he had discovered the actresses who actually were Asket and Nera. He found a video of an early 1970 Dean Martin television show containing two girls who were backup dancers who looked suspiciously like Asket and Nera. And in fact, in one scene, they were standing in front of a curtain that looks like the curtain on the photo.

E: Hmmm.

P: Dean Martin worked with aliens?

B: Ha. You took it from me, Perry.


S: Basically, Korff—Kal Korff convincingly proved, or demonstrated, that this photo—that Billy Meier basically took a picture of his television set when—

B: This guy's slick. He is slick.

S: —when this variety show was on. And this is like the level of his evidence, right? So, even a lot of hardcore UFO believers dismissed it. But, you know, but it gets better. During the—during—before this time, even after Kal Korff's exposure of the photograph, Meier's inner circle of defenders would not let it go. And this one guy, Deardoff, D-E-A-R-D-O-F-F, wrote a letter in a UFO newsgroup in which he argued that the picture didn't match the women, and he did this really detailed analysis of the distance between their eyes and facial ratios and stuff. Of course, he's measuring it off a picture of a television, you know, but... And it was all nonsense. But he concluded that it was not them... was like a superficial only resemblance but it was—the picture was not of these two—

E: The phrenology did not match up.

S: Right, right. Basically. So, it's a good example of how, like, if you cherry-pick your evidence, and you could like focus on minute details and look for little anomalies, and sort of miss, literally, the big picture, you can come to whatever conclusion you want. Well. The story gets even better. In the last few years, on a UFO site, they had an interview with Billy Meier, and he came clean. Billy Meier, the man himself, says the following. He says the photos which he has been representing as Asket and Nera are in fact, photos of American TV actresses.

R: Ohhh.

S: But—

B: That's the end of the story, then. We're done.

S: But here's what happened. Here's what happened. He took the pictures in the early 1970s of the real Asket and Nera. Being poor—he was too poor, apparently, to have the film developed. But, as luck would have it, a mysterious figure came out of nowhere and offered to develop his film for free. Now because he was so poor—

R: That's nice. Like a celestial Rite-Aid.

E: Yeah, or photo-mat.

S: Yeah, he handed the film over to this guy, and a few days later, the gentleman returned the photos, developed, to him.

R: A few days?

S: He now knows—

E: 70s!

S: —that this guy was one of the infamous Men in Black.

E: (gasps)

R: Ohh.

S: And what they did was they found lookalike American actresses, took pictures of them, and then substituted the pictures of the lookalike American actresses for the real Asket and Nera.

R: OK, that makes sense, actually. Yeah.

S: They then waited patiently for over two decades to use this to damage Meier's credibility. Can you believe it? The diabolical scheming of these guys.

E: Hey, when is it appropriate to start using the word "kook"? I'm just curious.


P: Now just wait a minute.

S: Evan, we are so far beyond "kook". Now listen—we left "kook" minutes ago. But anyway. Now, you might ask the que—why didn't—if Meier, like, physically was meeting with Asket and Nera, why didn't he notice the substitution? Well, in fact—

B: That's a good question.

S: Why didn't the aliens warn him about all this? But he says, well, in fact, he was warned. He was warned in the 1980s. However, he forgot.

R: Oh, yeah.

P: 'Cause they erased his memory with the pen!

S: Now, but the aliens didn't know—actually, the aliens would have wanted him to know this, that his credibility was being sabotaged. He forgot about the whole thing, and because the alien didn't know that he forgot, they didn't know to remind him.

R: Oh, yeah.

S: Until very recently.

B: (chuckling) Until very recently.

S/E: Yeah.

S: So, until very re... so, now they reminded him; it's like, "oh, that's right; I forgot."

R: Oh, thank you, alien.

S: That's what happened. It was the Men in Black with the substitute lookalike photo of the American actresses.

R: Thank you, hot alien chicks.

S: That has got to be—that has got to be the lamest cover story I have ever heard in my life.

B: Lamest? It's diagnosable.

S: It is; it's diagnosable, but—

R: Steve, do you have, like, a flowchart in front of you—

(all laughing)

B: Right!

E: I was gonna say—

R: I'm actually a little lost. (laughs)

E: Men in Black? How about men in white coats?

B: Yeah.

R: I think I got a little lost after the hot chicks. (laughs)

S: Now, Michael Horn is claiming I'm not giving Billy Meier a fair shake... by criticizing—

E: Yeah, you closed-minded skeptic, you.

S: Oh, my goodness. And, of course, Deardoff, the guy who did all the little micro-analysis of the pictures, even according to Meier's cover story, he is now totally wrong. So just shows you how that kind of analysis is totally worthless.

B: (laughs) Yeah, right!

S: All right. That's story one. The other thing he was referring to, the thing on a string. One of the first videos that Billy Meier showed to the world was of a classic flying saucer. You know, the flying saucer?


S: You know, swinging back and forth around a tree. Again, it's fuzzy; you can't tell how big it is; you can't tell how big the tree is; you can't tell how far away it is. But all you can see is this really childish flying saucer, you know, dangling from a string. It's childish. Childish.

E: To the lay observer.

S: To... I mean, literally...

R: Maybe that's what they want you to think.

P: Is it penduluming back and forth?

S: The pendulum. Now Michael Horn insists that that is—that that video cannot be of a model hanging—dangling from a string. And again, you know, he cites all of this ridiculous micro-analysis when, you know, you can just look at it and see that it's dangling from a string like a pendulum. So, I'm like, "OK, Michael". I took still photographs of the model in various positions—and others have done this, too, but I did it just to prove a point, right? And not—so, the ship follow the arc just like it should if it's swinging from a string as in a pendulum. It's following a pendulum arc, and... then Michael said, "yes, but... if it were dangling from a string, whatever it was suspending from should be in the frame. It should be in the frame. So why don't we see it?"

R: Yeah, 'cause how can you suspend something from a string without showing your hand in the picture?

E: Yeah, I don't know...

S: Well, first of all, the picture is of sufficiently poor quality that there could be something there that we're not seeing. But, actually, I did a very simple thing. I drew a perpendicular line through the central axis of each still photo of the flying saucer. And then—and I did that like five or six different places in the pendulum arc. And guess what? The lines roughly intersect way above the frame of the shot.

E: That doesn't prove anything.

S: Right.

R: Yeah, Steve; that's just math. OK?

S: (laughs) I'll have all the pictures and everything on the notes page. I mean, it's—you can judge for yourself. I mean, it's really obvious.

E: Also, did the saucer stay within the frame of the camera? Did it ever, like, leave the frame or was it always within the...

S: It was always within the frame of the camera—

E: Red flag.

S: Yeah. The anchor point is above the frame so that you wouldn't see what it was dangling from. Now he's like citing some analysis by some guy who says that the ship moves in such a way that's not consistent with a pendulum—well, yeah, it bounces around a little bit. You know, it's not like in a perfect pendulum. Yeah. But accounting for a little bit of bouncing—I mean, come on.

E: Yes. The person holding the pole attached to the string to the thing was not perfectly still. Correct.

S: I mean, you know.

P: Perhaps he sneezed.

E: Ed Wood would have been very proud of his—

S: Ed Wood would have been very proud. Ed Wood would have been proud. Absolutely. The third one is...

P: Plan Zero from outer space.

S: Billy Meier—Plan Zero.

B: Plan Nine.


E: What-evah.

S: The third thing that was really funny was... Michael Horn claims that Billy Meier is now a prognosticator à la Nostradamus.

E: Sure, why not?

S: That he has made—he has confirmed predictions. So I'm like, "all right, Michael. Give me your best shot. I'm not going to read through a thousand things; I'm not going to read a hundred pages. Just give me his one best prediction and I'll look into that." And he sent me this prediction. It says, "the danger of accidents in nuclear reactors will increase throughout the world. Regarding the subject, France in particular must be extraordinarily careful in every way. For one prophecy warns of an accident near the city of Lyon, which can be prevented as long as the responsible individual takes the right steps. The prophecy can be changed." So, first of all, that's vague as hell. And has the escape hatch of "it could be avoided", right? What's he talking about? And then Michael said, "and then this happened". Like, some indeterminate time later, there was some kind of nuclear event happened in one of the reactors in France. Now France has a lot of nuclear reactors—

E: A lot. They are big on it.

S: So, if I were going to predict a nuclear incident—

E: Yep, that would be—

S: —it would be in France.

E: You bet. Or Russia.

S: Now, I looked at the year in question, and there were like thirty or forty incidents that year, and the one that Michael Horn was citing as evidence that the prophecy came true wasn't even the most dramatic one. I mean... they're graded in steps of how severe they were—there were even more severe ones. So, this is just using a vague prediction with a high-probability hit and the escape hatch, and there hasn't been a major nuclear event in France. There's just... the background of events that happen. So that proves absolutely nothing.

P: That was the creme de la creme of the predictions?

S: That was it.

E: That was the best one he could offer.

S: That was the best one he can offer. So...

P: (French accent) And that prediction, she stinks!

S: The Asket and Nera photos are laughable; the flying saucer dangling pendulum-style from a string is childish

P: Stupid!

S: And the prophecy is worthless. So I do—Michael, you're right; I do have to update our web entry on Billy Meier. It needs to be a lot more scathing, negative and critical than what we have up there right now.

P: I mean, maybe this Horn guy is actually Michael using a pseudonym or something. I mean...

S: Billy Meier.

P: Billy Meier using a pseudonym. I mean, come on!

S: He's going around harassing everybody; he's been harassing Randi; he's been harassing the CFI West—

P: (groans)

S: —Jim Underdown and those guys over there. You know, this is his life.

P: Who could be moved by that guy's evidence? I mean, jeepers!

E: Hey, note to Skeptiko: feel free to use these segments in any way you see...

R: Kook... tastic.

S: Maybe Skeptiko could...

R: Kook-tacular.

S: ... could interview—they could interview Michael Horn. That would be—

E: Oh, yeah. Go for him, guys. Go get him.

R: Kook-zilla.

E: (sings Twilight Zone theme)

Name That Logical Fallacy (46:23)[edit]

  • Personal Incredulity and Conspiracy Theories

S: So this week, we have a Name That Logical Fallacy. We haven't done this in a while, usually just because we run out of time, and it happened—it's usually the segment that gets jettisoned, but I'm going to try to make it a higher priority, since a lot of people have been asking for it on e-mail and on the boards. So, this one was sent in by Symon Roberts from Washington state, United States, and Symon sent us this e-mail:

I'm a big fan of the show, been listening to the archives in order and am up to around episode 45. I consider myself to be a pretty skeptical person, but perhaps I am too skeptical. Although I don't typically buy into grand conspiracies, I find myself sometimes skeptical of your criticisms thereof. It seems to me that although it is logically plausible that most if not all grand conspiracies would collapse under their own weight, it seems at least slightly fallacious to say that they can't be true simply because you can't imagine how they would be perpetuated and kept secret. This strikes me as nothing more than an argument from personal incredulity. I think that even the best skeptics must guard at all times against fallacious thinking, after all, none of us are infallible. Thanks for the podcast. Keep up the good work.

So, Symon is talking here, of course, about the argument from personal incredulity, which is basically saying that something isn't true or can't be true because I can't imagine it, or I can't imagine how it could be true. The most common example of this is creationists, who will typically say that, you know, "I can't imagine creatures as complex as humans evolving over time", which is, again, not a valid argument. They're just basically saying that nature is somehow limited to their imagination.

P: "I'm too ignorant to understand the science, therefore I can't imagine it."

S: Yeah.

P: Thank you.

S: In this case, the argument with grand conspiracies that we've made in the past is that they tend to collapse under their own weight, meaning that the more people that have to be involved in a conspiracy, the greater the probability that one of those people are going to betray the conspiracy; they're going to leak. If you—a conspiracy among three or four people, you know, there's a reasonable probability that you can keep it, although sometimes that doesn't work. But ten people, a hundred people, a thousand, ten thousand; you know, at some point, there are so many people that would have to be involved, just the sheer probability of everyone keeping the secret becomes impossible. The probability becomes vanishingly small, and that's what we mean by, "collapsing under its own weight". So in this particular case, and I e-mailed Symon back on this, and I think he basically agrees with me, that this really isn't an argument from personal incredulity. So, at times we may have said words similar to, "I can't imagine how a conspiracy like that could possibly function, but we then went on to explain it in de—so we weren't relying on our personal incredulity, we were saying that basically it collapses under its own weight. It's just too difficult for so many people to keep the conspiracy, especially one that's so huge. You know, one that... would have such tremendous implications.

R: And the thing is, they don't have any explanation for how to overcome that incredulity.

S: Right.

R: If somebody says to us, "I don't see how it's possible that the eye could evolve naturally", that's an argument from incredulity, and we can combat that by saying, "here is the step-by-step guide".

S: Yeah. Right. Exactly.

R: And if they still reject it, then that is fallacious. But when we say, "we can't understand how so many people could be involved in this conspiracy", they have nothing to say to that.

S: Couple of things that they would say, which themselves are not very compelling. One is, "well, everyone keeps the secret because if they didn't, they would be killed". Which—

R: Right.

S: —is really just moving it back a step, just saying that the people managing the conspiracy have so much reach and so much power, that they could keep all of these people in line. Which really isn't an answer. Part of the problem is that, you know, not everybody would have the same motivation to keep the conspiracy; you would need to involve a lot of people who are pretty far down the food chain, and would probably have more to gain by not keeping the conspiracy. Then they often simultaneously argue that 1), the people who have exposed the conspiracy are running around saying there's a conspiracy, but if anyone else did that, they would be killed, and therefore they're living in fear. So those two things probably would not co-exist side by side. 'Cause you know, why wouldn't they just kill the conspiracy theorist if they had that much power and that much reach? It doesn't save the grand conspiracy from being unwieldy and unmanageable and from being too big to possibly exist for a long period of time without anyone breaking the secret. So, as a general principle, there's a difference between saying that something is a certain way and saying that something is wrong because it's a certain way. Right? So this applies to multiple logical fallacies. In this case, we could say, "this is incredible, but that's not why it's wrong. It's incredible and it's wrong because of these specific reasons." Just like we might say someone's a kook. That's not why they're wrong, so it's not an ad hominem logical fallacy if we followed up with a detailed analysis of why they're wrong, and by the way, they also happen to be a kook. That's different than saying they're wrong because they have this negative quality or "this is wrong because it seems incredible to me". That's the difference between just talking in an entertaining fashion as we do sometimes and actually committing a logical fallacy.

Science or Fiction (52:17)[edit]

Question #1: Scientists are exploring an area of the Atlantic sea floor thousands of kilometers in area where the earth-s crust appears to be missing. Question #2: Neuroscientists use fMRI scanning to show how toothbrushing can cause seizures. Question #3: Plant biologists have genetically engineered a variety of green bean plant that grows over 8 ft. tall and sporting beans over 1 foot long.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:00:45)[edit]

This Week's Puzzle

A pirate's victim, swimming in rye, bound with ropes, would make a perfect one of these.

Last Week's Puzzle

I am holding five objects in my hand
All five objects are the same size and shape
Each object has a number of things on them
These things are all exactly the same
The first object has zero things
The seconds has four
The third has six
The fourth has four
The fifth has ten

What am I holding?

Answer: Zener ESP cards
Winner: Iandbert

Quote of the Week (1:04:16)[edit]

The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence.

Thomas H. Huxley

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


  1. SGU Episode 39: Interview with Marilyn Schlitz
  2. Neurologica Blog: Revenge of the Woo Woo and the Skeptics Strike Back
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