SGU Episode 9

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SGU Episode 9
10th August 2005

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SGU 8 SGU 10
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis


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Show Notes


Introduction[edit]

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is August 10th, 2005. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society and with me, again, tonight, are Perry DeAngelis...

P: Hello.

S: Bob Novella...

B: Hello.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Salutations.

News Items[edit]

Bush on Intelligent Design (0:26)[edit]

S: So, our president is up to it again. In the last few days he made a comment, essentially saying that he endorses the teaching of Intelligent Design alongside evolution in public schools. Essentially, echoing the position of the intelligent design proponents to teach the controversy. That kids will be best served if they hear both sides of the issue and he also, in the same interview, professed his own personal belief that God created the world. I'm sure you guys have heard this–about this quite a bit in the past week.

B: Yeah. I've heard–I've heard a lot about it. That least piece I'm not too familiar. Wha–cause I carefully scrutinized his wording and it was a little ambiguous, ya know, teaching the controversy not specifically saying, "Lets put this in the science class side by side with evolution." And he probably believes that but he didn't say that. But what did he say about God creating the earth? Do you have a quote in front of you?

S: Yes. The quote is,
I personally believe God created the earth.

P: But wait a minute, has the president disavowed evolution? That's the question. The Catholic Church believes God created the earth. They also believe in evolution. Has the president disavowed evolution?

B: Catholics aren't creationists.

P: So what? That's still a key question. It's a key question. Does the president believe or does he not believe in evolution? It's a key question.

S: I have not seen or heard any quotes that he specifically says evolution doesn't happen.

P: Neither have I.

S: Your point is well taken that he could be a–a theological evolutionist.

P: Right.

S: There's a whole spectrum from young earth creationists who think that God created the world ten thousand years ago and no evolution of any kind occurred to sort of deistic evolutionists who believe, completely, that all life evolved over billions of years from just cells and proteins...

P: Right. Those...

S: primordial soup, but that God guided the process.

P: Even if the president does believe in evolution, even if he does, even if it's a theological question to him, this is still a serious problem in president Bush's makeup. The guy is–he's almost a religious zealot. It's a real problem.

S: It's a problem for the president of the free world. Yeah. Absolutely.

P: Abso–It absolutely is. And this is a tremendously dark spot on his record in my opinion.

S: I think it goes hand in hand with his stance against stem cell research and his faith based initiative. I mean this is clearly part of his overall agenda.

P: I hope the congress is going to bulldoze his stem cell legislation. I hope they're gonna bowl over it.

B: Guys, I heard a great quote. I heard a great–great quote.
9/11 was a faith based initiative.

S: (laughter)

P: Yeah.

E: (laughter)

S: Although not the kind of faith that Bush endorses.

P: Yeah. Another black hole. Faith based initiatives. I mean, they're an outrage. Separation of church and state. It's–Whenever the president and the government nears religion he veers off course.

S: Right.

P: He really veers off course. I mean, it's bad. It's bad.

S: And it's not only the violation of separation of church and state. Regardless of what you think about the religious aspects of intelligent design, even if–the intelligent design proponents are often coy and saying that they're not talking about God it's just an intell–it's some kind of generic intelligent designer, they're careful to remove anything overtly religious from their writings. But, even if we give them a pass on that sort of coyness it still is true that intelligent design is not a scientific theory. It's not a scientific theory because it cannot be tested. It's not testable. It's not falsifiable.

P: It's not science.

S: And the proponents don't do anything that even resembles actual science.

B: And that's the bottom line, right? It's not science.

S: So it does not. belong. in science. classrooms.

P: Right. Teach it in Sunday school. Not biology.

S: The one–The most compelling thing that the intelligent design people, and Bush echoing their sentiments, have to say is sort of teach the controversy, again I don't think that intelligent design should be taught as science in a science classroom, but I certainly endorse people knowing why intelligent design is not science and using it as an example of logical fallacies and of, sort of, pathological science. How could we do that without teaching intelligent design? Or without sort of violating the principle of separation of church and state? Pri–I–I would guess perhaps by teaching it more in a logic or philosophy class. Not a science class as science. So they're– but that position sounds very reasonable, fair, and compelling. Really–unless you understand that it's not science, which, I think, your average person probably does not.

E: Right.

S: It's hard to see the flaw in that argument. So, I think that Bush is very–politically savvy enough to realize that his statements would probably be looked upon favorably by most Americans. Polls certainly indicate that.

E: And certainly his constituency.

S: And certainly the vast majority of his constituency, yes.

B: Has anyone–has any reporter done any follow up with this? Or has it just, pretty much, died right there and nothing futher. No one's brought this up saying, "Could you expand on this point?" Nobody's said anything, have they?

E: Nooo...

P: Even the democrats haven't picked it up.

S: Yeah. I really haven't heard a lot about it.

P: They're not–they haven't picked it up. They're not running with it. I think they think it's dangerous.

E: Right.

B: They could.

E: Well,

B: Well, they feel–yeah, they feel alienated enough from the religious part of their...

P: I really–I don't think. Their cost benefit analysis is not favorable on this one.

B: Right.

E: That's right. They need to move on to other more productive things as far as they're concerned.

S: But on a–somewhat of a lighter note Bush's science adviser John Marburger III differed from the president. He wrote that intelligent design is not a scientific theory. Basically hitting the key point on the head.

P: Thank goodness.

S: I don't know what that means to White House policy but at least his science adviser understands the issue, at least as far as that statement is concerned.

P: Amen.

Science or Fiction: Historical Figures with Medical Ailments (7:15)[edit]

S: Well, why don't we transition from that to Science or Fiction?

VO: It's time to play Science OR Fiction.

S: This is a weekly segment. Each week I will come up with three, either science news items or science facts. Two of them are genuine and one is fictitious - one is made up. And I challenge my skeptical colleagues to figure out which one is fake.

E: Challenge accepted.

S: Alright. So, there is a theme to the three items this week. The theme is: historical figures with medical ailments. I am going to give you three historical figures and a disease that they are alleged to have had. I'll warn you ahead of time that the disease may not have been absolutely proven, meaning that there was not a biological, pathological diagnosis made at the time. Some of these diagnoses may have been made by reviewing historical documents.

E, P: Okay.

S: But, I–the two that are real I would say that the evi–the historical evidence is very compelling. I would say greater than ninety percent. In my opinion.

P: Okay.

S: So, not iron clad fact but very, very likely. And one I just completely made up. So one, in fact, has no reality to it whatsoever.

P: Alright.

S: You guys ready?

B: I bet Napoleon's in there somewhere.

S: Nope.

(laughter)

B: Ahh...

S: No Napoleon.

E: I think Lou Gehrig is going to be in there somewhere.

(laughter)

B: Good one.

E: Thank you.

S: What did he have, again? Lou Gehrig?

(laughter)

E: He had Babe Ruth disease.

S: Babe Ruth disease? I'll give you an example, one I'm not going to include. For example, many physicians believe that Joan of Arc had a form of right temporal lobe epilepsy.

E: True.

S: During these epileptic seizures people will often have religious visions or experiences. So it's possible that some of her descriptions of the visions and episodes that she had may have, in fact, been just right temporal lobe seizures and people with that form of epilepsy have what is known as hyper-religiosity. They are very religious people. So that's more in the realm of speculation but it's sort of interesting speculation about her.

B: Well, Steve, that's a very interesting point because, I think, it's very intriguing that there's actually a part of your brain that induces these intense religious experiences.

S: It's very interesting.

B: You've gotta ask, "Well, why is that there?" Why would that be in your head? Why is that such an important thing that evolved? What kind of selective pressures were on that? But...

S: Well since you bring it up, I mean we have to segue into that a little bit just to finish that point. I've actually had religious people argue that it's–that God put it there because he wanted us to believe in him.

B: Right.

P: Right.

S: But from an evolutionary biology point of view there's a lot of evidence to suggest that human beings are hardwired, and our closest relatives like chimpanzees, are hardwired, to surrender a bit of our will and our selves to higher authority whether that's just the leader of the pack or the leader of the tribe. And that–even to the point of sacrificing ourselves for the greater good of our–something bigger than us. Our family, our tribe, our people.

B: Yeah. For societal cohesion, right? So that the community is more integrated.

S: That kind of altruism, sacrificing yourself for the greater good of your relations actually carries with it an evolutionary advantage, in terms of passing more copies of your own genes on to future generations. So, you don't have to hypothesize that God put that in our brains. That–there are reasonable hypotheses about– evolutionarily why something like that would have evolved and then we give it cultural context. Every culture gives it a slightly different context, but there's some, sort of, common themes, in terms of the religious contexts, that people give. The basic hard-wiring, sense that there's something bigger than us, that we are part of. Anyway, back to Science or Fiction. So, item number one. Magician Harry Houdini had a collagen disorder that made him unusually flexible, aiding in his escape artistry. Number two, remember comment on them after I'm done with all three. Number two, Adolf Hitler suffered from a severe form of Parkinson's disease that made him mentally rigid and inflexible. And item number three, Vincent Van Gogh suffered from an inner ear disorder that gave him persistent ringing in the ear, resulting in him famously cutting off his ear. Those are the three.

E: Oo.

B: Kay.

P: (laughter) Uhhhh... pass.

B: I'll start, I guess.

S: Alright, Bob.

B: Well Hitler and Parkinson's, I have heard about that. You could see in some of his speeches you could see a tremor in the hand and if you study his behavior later in the war you can see how rigid he was in his thinking. So, I think, that's pretty well supported. Van Gogh and his ear ringing, I–sounds like Ménière's disease to me. From–my mother had–actually has had that and from what she says it's pretty annoying. I could see someone just going nuts and just lopping off their ear. That makes more sense than the first one. Houdini having a collagen disorder. Now–I could see, maybe if it was tendons and ligaments or something else but I don't think collagen–a collagen disorder would give you hyper-flexibility so I'm going to say that one is false.

S: Okay. Who wants to go next. But I'll–I'll say for the record, not to try to influence your choice, that people who a–who have collagen disorders are hyper-flexible.

P: I have a collagen disorder, don't I?

S: You have the opposite, though.

(laughter)

P: I was going to say, I have a collagen disorder made me rigid.

S: Yeah, well it's more of a fibroblast disorder but...

(laughter)

P: That's exactly what I was thinking.

S: You've probably seen pictures of like the guys in the side show freak shows who, like, could bend there arms all in half and...

P: Yeah.

S: put their arms behind their head. They're extremely flexible.

B: How does the collagen...?

S: The collagen's not just in the skin, Bob. It's a protein that's a major structural protein in all–ligaments tendons and support structures and everything.

B: Okay.

S: So that aspect of it, I mean I'm not telling you that he had it, I'm just saying that–the–yes–that people with collagen disorders are actually–are hyper-flexible.

B: Okay.

E: I happen to agree with Bob. The first one, I think, is the made up one.

S: Okay. Two votes for Harry Houdini.

P: Yeah. I'm gonna–I'm gonna go with Van Gogh. I don't think he cut his ear off because it was ringing.

S: Okay.

P: I think his problems were deeper than that.

B: Let me add a little more then. I do remember reading something about Houdini being able to dislocate his shoulder at will, which helped get straight jackets. As you could imagine...

P: Are you trying to talk yourself out of your answer?

B: great aid. No.

(laughter)

B: I'm just trying to think of another tack here. I think...

P: You already gave your answer. You're done.

B: Yeah. Well, yeah. I still think it's false. I–just because you can dislocate your shoulder at will I don't think necessarily think it has to be a collagen disorder. But, I'm still going with it, I guess.

S: Right. Okay. Well, you all agree that Adolf Hitler had Parkinson's disease.

P: (laughter) We do.

E: Jawohl!

P: He had something going on there.

S: That is, in fact, true.

P: Yeah. He was stiff and there was other things.

S: Very well established. There are–There is historical footage of him with a clear Parkinsonian tremor in his hands. Interestingly, the propaganda guys for Hitler were very good, very thorough at eliminating any footage of him showing his Parkinsonism, but a couple of strips of film did slip into his, the record.

E: The later ones. The later ones. Right.

S: And there were–have been some good articles written examining his personality and his decision making process and does reflect a form of Parkinson's that–it does result in this sort of obsessive, rigid adherence to courses of action, inability to change your mind or change your course of action. Which...

P: Thank goodness.

S: it's that kind of inflexibility that ultimately doomed Hitler at the end. That and the A-bomb. But...

P: (laughter)

S: Eventually we would have defeated him even if he didn't go crazy essentially and kill off his generals and remain...

P: He didn't listen?

S: persistently followed insane courses of action.

P: The main thing is he did not–he didn't listen to them. He made his own military decisions. Many–very often against the will of his generals.

S: And there was a lot of paranoia. He did kill off a lot of his senior people because he was afraid that they were planning to kill him.

P: Not like Stalin.

E: And they were and they did. They did have assassination plans.

P: Not like Stalin. Stalin killed a lot more senior generals than Hitler ever did.

S: He did. But it's interesting to think of how much the course of history was influenced by a disease.

P: True. True.

S: What would have happened if Hitler didn't have that disorder?

P: Right.

S: We'll never know, but it's interesting to think about. Okay, so, let's go on to number three. Vincent Van Gogh. In fact there have been several hypotheses about Van Gogh. I think the most common public story is that he was hearing voices. That he basically went a little psychotic or crazy, but in–there have been some, at least one good article published in the neurological literature reviewing his writings where he pretty clearly describes a ringing in the ear and that basically driving him to distraction. Driving him crazy. And–which probably was Ménière's disease, Bob, that was probably the correct diagnosis, although, again, that much is a little bit of speculation. And he did cut off his ear, probably in misguided attempt to stop the ringing in his ear. Of course it didn't work.

P: But he had a lot of other things going on, like I said.

S: Yeah. He was nutty.

P: He was nutty.

S: You're right. He was nutty. And that's why it was so easy to think that he was just psychotic.

P: Right.

S: But, in fact, that–the cutting off of his ear was probably a response to the tinnitus, the ringing in the ears that he...

P: Okay.

S: described in his writings. The one about Harry Houdini I made up. Now, a lot of that, Bob, was based upon the rumor that he could dislocate his shoulder at will and some people–there is a rumor, kind of the mythology of Houdini does also include the fact that he was really incredibly flexible. It's all BS actually. I could not find any verification of that. In fact, he–his escape artistry was largely trickery.

B: Yeah. That's true.

S: It was illusion. It was illusion.

B: A lot of it was.

S: Certainly, certainly he was extremely skilled and talented and could do things that were not mere illusion, that actually required some physical skill. But, in essence, most of what he did was escape artist trickery. That same kind of thing that Penn and Teller do on stage today.

B: So you're saying that he could not–there's no evidence that he can–he could dislocate his shoulder at will.

S: That's right.

B: There's nothing to support that? Okay.

S: And–Yeah–But again these kind of myths are–that's kind of the mystique of the magician. That they're using more difficult, arcane or fantastical techniques than they really are. When in fact they're just cheating. That–They're doing something that anyone can learn how to do and maybe it requires some practice and manual dexterity but no super human feats.

B: Right.

S: It serves their–if you think they're doing their trick through some kind of super human or extraordinary feat you won't look for the simple cheat as much.

B: Right. I mean, I remember one story, I have nothing–no evidence to back it up but I did read somewhere years ago that one of his famous escapes was from a, I guess, was it a London prison? And it turned out that in all the hubbub and activity they did not lock his cage.

S: They forgot to lock his cage.

B: ...jail cell and he just kinda opened it up and there was no–there wasn't even any trickery involved in that. It was just sheer stupidity on their part. Now, again, I'm not–I don't have any evidence to back that up but I did–my memory seems reliable.

(laughter)

S: Yeah well that was–now that wasn't part of the movie. The Hollywood version of Houdini. They just left out how he actually escaped from the prison.

P: The best thing about Houdini is the fact that after his mother died and he went to all those...

B: Yes.

P: séances and–in his day he then became a great debunker. And, boy, debunked them mercilessly because they didn't deliver on his mother.

E: Yeah. He figured out their tricks. He knew exactly what they were doing.

P: He didn't believe it.

E: He became very, very, apparently upset about it and wanted to do something to get back at these charlatans.

S: Well, actually, Perry, I think, that that again is a common myth, that he initially interacted with the spiritualists because he was looking to contact his mother and then became disillusioned when they failed. In fact, that was never the case.

E: What?

S: He was an atheist. He never believed in life after death. Never pursued spiritualists. He was angry at the spiritualists because they were using his escape artist tricks to convince people that there were metaphysical happenings. So like during a séance when the lights were out they would–and apparently they were tied to the chair or they were in a closet or something, they would use escape artist tricks in order to get out or escape or free a limb or whatever and then create the manifestations, the bell ringing or the rapping or whatever.

B: Or cracking their knuckles.

S: He knew–That was the famous sisters who were cracking their knuckles, but he was–he knew that they were faking because he was a magician. They were using his tricks. Some of the–they were using the standard trickery of the escape artist magician culture to convince people that they were performing miracles. That's why he was angry.

P: He never went to a séance to contact his mother?

S: Never. That was Hollywood. Never. That's not part of the...

B: That was Tony Curtis, Perry. That was Tony Curtis.

S: That was Stony Curtis. [sic]

B: Stony Curtis.

(laughter)

S: But–And some thing with–when he died, he and his wife had that secret password and everything.

E: The Halloween message.

B: The rosebud.

S: The rosebud. Of course, Hollywood changed that, too, to make it seem like it actually came out. But, that was just another way, like a final way of debunking the spiritualists. And, in fact, he was appointed as chairman of the committee to investigate spiritualists by Scientific American. This is back in the day when Scientific American really was the skeptical debunking organization. Now there's a dedicated skeptical movement and Scientific American is still closely allied with that tradition. In fact, they're they're the only popular science journal that has a regular skeptical column in it. But, back in the day of Houdini they were it. And they set about to debunk the spiritualists and Houdini was the one who showed them how to do it. He basically filled the same role at that time that James Randi does today. Randi's a magician. He knows–he got into this because he saw faith healers using the same tricks that he was learning about right out of the magician books and realized that they were using it to pretend–to bilk money from people and to pretend that they were performing miracles. It's often–often why magicians like Randi, Houdini, Penn and Teller, make very good skeptics. In fact, I just read an article, I'm not sure if one of you guys sent it to me, basically saying that magicians have a good–a well developed sense of human psychology. Of how people believe and how they deceive themselves. Of course they do. It's their stock and trade.

E: That's right.

More News[edit]

New Claims of the Discovery of Atlantis (24:00)[edit]

S: So recently there has been an article published by–I think by a man called Robert Sarmast claiming to have found Atlantis. Evan I believe you sent me this piece. Can you tell us a little something about this?

E: I did. I did. The source for this is the Financial Mirror which is the island of Cyprus's leading business newspaper according to their website. Despite that I continued to read the article regarding this and Robert Sarmast is a–is a U.S. citizen. He's a–he had a career in architecture that's his–that's his background and passion for ancient history, mythology, and lost civilizations and so forth. According to this he has found something very interesting off the southeast coast of Cyprus, in the Mediterranean Sea, of course. And I'll read from the article here that it's,
It was no coincidence that his team discovered a three kilometer long straight wall intersected at right angles by another wall. This is 1.5 kilometers below sea level, 80 kilometers of the coast of Cyprus.

S: Mm hmm.

E: Now this fellow has been looking for Atlantis for, well, from what I could tell many, many years. He has–seems to be very impassioned about this. He is pulling out all stops to try and find some shred of evidence that would play to his preconceived notion that the great society of Atlantis did exist eleven thousand years ago and so forth. We've all heard the story of the great lost civilization and continent of Atlantis. And here's what the article continues to say. He apparently adds that,
This will silence any remaining skepticism about his long standing claims that modern Cyprus is the remains of a much larger and now partly sunken mass which fits Plato's description of the ancient lands of Atlantis.
So he thinks he's found the evidence. This wall that is off the coast of Cyprus under the water.

P: I'm convinced.

E: Yeah.

S: I'm silenced.

P: I will be forever silent on this topic.

E: There's nothing more to say.

S: Well, the fact that this is endorsed by the Cyprus tourism organization–may have something to do with their enthusiasm for these claims. And also he's looking–apparently partnering with the TMC Entertainment Group out of Los Angeles to undertake a two hour documentary. To finance his next expedition. So, this guy's a self-promoter. And there are local financial interests involved. Does he really think that there's an entire city under the Mediterranean and we haven't found it?

E: Boy, ya know...

S: That's hardly out in the depths of the Atlantic. The Mediterranean Sea is pretty well mapped.

E: Well, and that's where–anyone who's familiar with the origins, the first mention of Atlantis knows that it goes back to Plato.

S: Mm hmm.

E: And to two of his–two of his works, Timaeus and Critias, in which, essentially, Plato creates an example for his class so that he can talk further about the great–what a great society is and he makes up, he invents a conversation that occurred between Timaeus and Critias two people that apparently didn't even live at the same time in real history.

S: Right.

E: They lived a hundred fifty years apart from each other.

S: Right.

E: But Plato just put them together so he could make his point about...

S: Yeah. It's like writing about a fictitious conversation between Einstein and Galileo.

E: Right. That's exactly correct.

S: And then, somebody later thinking that it was meant to be an historically accurate document.

E: Exactly. Exactly. Where there is abso–Where the entire story itself is made up. And yet this myth has–has survived since 370 B.C.

S: Right. Well, I mean, there's a lot of mythology surrounding Atlantis that's inaccurate. If you go back to Plato's original mention, I think, the modern Atlantis myth is that Atlantis was this extremely advanced utopian society. In fact, Plato did not use Atlantis as an example of a utopian society. He used it as an example of evil empire. The utopian society in his example was Athens. Athens was the shining city on the hill, and then these–these invaders from this evil empire out there in Atlantis were the ones that were threatening Athens. But they–modern mythology made up–Atlantis mythology has sort of reversed all of that and now reinterprets Atlantis as the utopian society. But also Plato's description of Atlantis was as "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" which is what separates the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean.

E: The Straits of Gibraltar.

S: Right. So that would put it outside of the Mediterranean...

E: Correct.

S: as opposed to Sarmast who's now saying that it's within the Mediterranean. Assum–If Plato were–meant to be accurate, we don't think he did. Scholars think that by–saying, "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" is just a poetic way of saying really far away. Beyond our local geography. Beyond anything you would recognize. Because at that time beyond the Atlantic Ocean basically was just the edges of the earth. I mean it was just out there. It was beyond what was mapped. So it's just like saying, "Really, really far away."

P: And the average depth of the Mediterranean is about forty-seven hundred feet. This guy thinks the whole city is down there at the bottom? That's the...

S: Yeah. Well, I think, it's a pretty well trodden...

P: It is.

S: stretch of sea. It's not like there's some trench in the middle of the Atlantic that–it could be missed. We could sonar map and et cetera. I think if there were a city if there were a city under there we'd know about it. Also, there are a lot of legitimate greek ruins in the Mediterranean. A lot of–there's a lot of serious archeology going on in the area. So again I wouldn't be surprised if they did find some archeological–Greek archeological ruins. But the other thing that's interesting about Sarmast's claims is that he's basing his discovery on sonar. Now sonar is just infamous for being misinterpreted in this way. Because you get–sonar images produce these sort of vague, blob-like images that are really good for prompting the imagination. It's like an inkblot test. You can basically see whatever it is you want to see. It reminds me of this–the investigators who used sonar to look for Nessy, in Loch Ness.

E: Right.

S: And they came–of course they found what they were looking for. They had these blurry sonar images of a vague outline that they said were–here's a fin and here's a piece of the neck...

P: Just like bigfoot pictures.

S: Just like the bigfoot pictures, ghost pictures, and alien pictures, everything.

P: (laughter)

B: That's just pareidolia where you're seeing an identifiable, distinct image in just randomness like the canals of Mars are another great one.

E: Pattern recognition. Face in the clouds.

P: Right.

S: The face on Mars is a good example. But the sonar is just custom made for this because you can just look at reams and reams and reams of sonar until see a vague shape that you can interpret as whatever it is you were looking for. So it's just–I think it's humorous that this guy think he's finding stuff with sonar that more sophisticated methods have not found.

E: He describes a hill that he discovered using this sonar technology and I'll quote him here.
The hill as a whole looks like a walled hillside territory and this hillside territory matches Plato's description of the Acropolis Hill with perfect precision. Even the dimensions are exactly perfect. So if all these things are coincidental, I mean, we have the worlds greatest coincidence going on.

S: Eh, hardly.

P: (laughter)

E: Thank you Mr Sarmast.

S: It's also–historians agree that, serious historians, that Plato was not making a factual historical claim. First of all, how would Plato, of all people, know about some ancient island society that lived thousands of years before him? How did this information magically come to him? It certainly was not the common belief of the time. He was not an investigate archaeologist or anything. And if he were making that claim, it would have sparked quite a bit of controversy at the–at his time. Contemporary to him. And no one batted an eyebrow because everyone understood that it was just a made up example for his morality story. So it's just silly and a lot of people also make the false connection they say, "Well they found Troy." Initially the thought that Troy was a legendary or fictitious city and then they–the ruins of Troy were found, but they miss the fact that Troy was written about by Homer, not Plato, who was writing about actual mythology, or stories of the time. Plato is a philosopher that was writing a hypothetical story to make some certain philosophical points and basically was saying, "a long time ago on an island far, far away there was this evil empire."

E: That's right. Our good friend Dr. Kenny Feder likens it to the Star Wars story.[1]

S: Yeah.

E: And he's–he says to–in which the small rebellion overthrows the evil super galactic empire that's effectively the story of Atlantis but there's about as much–there's equal proof that Star Wars is real that the story of Atlantis is real. And they're–they're fiction. They're work–they're works of fiction. It's just so interesting how a small–a detail out of a piece of fiction like that that Plato came up with totally blossomed into this–into this myth that has just really–not only survived the ages but it's gained momentum.

S: There's certainly something about it that has a common appeal. The idea–I guess the idea of this ancient, advanced civilization just is romantic. It's very romantic and people are drawn to it. It's also a really fun touchstone to have as a skeptic, because I–it's so demonstrably wrong that it's just wonderful when psychics and channelers and mediums claim to have been from Atlantis or to talk to people from Atlantis. Like I'm reminded of Ramtha. This woman J.Z. Knight who bilks money from people by claiming to be channeling the spirit of a thirty thousand year old man from Atlantis. Well right there you know she's full of it. Well not that–not that we needed that tidbit but it's just–just–it just always add a nice little extra demonstrable piece of BS to the claims of lots of psychics and mediums. I believe Edgar Cayce–didn't he have–wasn't there some Atlantis connection with him as well? Edgar Cayce was the, so called, sleeping prophet who would go into trances and...

P: (inaudible)

E: Some of his trances he would–he would tend to, I guess, describe the technology that the folks of Atlantis...

S: Yeah.

E: had at the time and apparently it was pretty similar to the technology of Edgar Cayce's time.

S: Right. Right.

E: The 1920's and the 1930's.

S: He wasn't describing technology that we would recognize.

E: Right. And funny no one prior to Edgar Cayce mentioned anything about the technology, such as flying ships and electricity prior to those actual real discoveries.

S: Prior to them already being part of the culture. Which is–brings up and interesting theme when you're talking either about Atlantis–Atlantian technology or the UFO mythology. It always follows the culture of the time and you can sort of see how it's a cultural mythology. There's never the introduction of something which is clearly outside of the context of the contemporary culture. In other words there's never the introduction of any new technology, new scientific information, new facts that were not previously known. It's always this pure–this well documented cultural continuity, and when you look back, especially at like forty or fifty years ago, that's a good time. You look back forty or fifty years ago to the–to what the UFO people were saying it seems really quaint and silly to us and, in fact, reflects what we think of as campy 1950's science fiction movies because that was the culture. But to them women from Venus was a plausible idea. To us it seems silly, but that's what the UFO people were saying back then.

B: And fifty years from now they'll be saying the same thing about our time period.

S: Yeah. About the–those quaint little gray aliens that everybody claimed they were being abducted by.

Abducted by Susan Clancy: A New Book on the Psychology of the Abduction Phenomenon (37:25)[edit]

S: Well, and speaking of alien abductions there was a book published recently, by author Susan Clancy called Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. Bob I know you've heard about this.

B: Yeah, this book seems very interesting to me. I've written a few things about some of the things that she touches upon and–so I've read the review and it seems very interesting. I can't wait until it comes out in October. But Dr. Clancy just to give a synopsis of what she's saying here is that–she's a–first of all she's a psychologist at Harvard and...

S: John Mack's alma mater right? John Mack is a psychiatrist who believed that a number of his patients were the victims of abductions. And–although his colleagues generally believe that he essentially got caught up in their own delusions and was not using scientific rigor.

P: At Harvard (inaudible)

B: I hope he reads this book.

S: Yeah. He was a Harvard man. He was from Harvard. Well, he's not going to read it because he's dead.

P: Right.

B: Okay.

P: Deceased.

S: He was hit by a car in England. I think London.

B: Really? Mack died? When?

S: Yeah. John Mack was killed by a car.

P: Early reports...

E: This was a year ago.

S: Yeah. One two years ago.

E: That was a year ago. It was a year ago.

P: It wasn't that long ago. An early–early report said the car was driven by an alien.

S: Right.

E: Oh, I heard...

P: They have since been disproved.

S, E: (laughter)

P: Since been dispelled. No doubt by skeptical organizations.

B: To continue, Dr. Clancy interviewed dozens of people that claim to have been abducted and as part of a series of memory tests that she was running. Part of the reason for this was that–the reason why she focused on abduction memories was to explain–she's interested in the psychology of experiences that transform people and she basically wants to know just more about–why do people believe these weird things? So that was kind of her impetus in this, I believe. And she touches on a lot of things that are–that should be of interest to–to skeptical thinkers. So many areas. Primarily she hits on sleep paralysis which is very important. Sleep paralysis is, I think, it's widely held, I believe, by a lot of skeptics that sleep paralysis is the cause of a lot of these paranormal events that people ascribe to ghosts or alien abductions or things like that. And it–sleep paralysis is essentially an event that happens while you're in REM sleep, rapid eye movement, and it–while you're dreaming your body paralyzes you–the motor neurons in your brain inhibits any–any movement except for your eyes, of course, to prevent you from acting out your dreams. Which you would do if you were not paralyzed. And they've actually done studies on–these bizarre studies on cats where they–they somehow fried the center of the brain–the part of the brain that inhibits motor movement during sleep and cats would, while they're asleep, act out their dreams.

S: Do you know the name of that-the nucleus that they lesion to do that?

B: Yeah. The uh...

S: The locus coeruleus in the brain stem.

B: Ok. Yeah.

S: That's a little trivia for you guys.

B: Used to know that. Hate when I forget stuff like that. But–So it's during sleep–sleep paralysis occurs during these events when you wake up from a dream, another word for it is waking dream. During these events you feel paralysed but you're kinda, still in this pseudo-dream state. In that state lots of bizarre things can happen because you're essentially dreaming while you're awake and this is what happens to a lot of these people who are abducted. This is what she believes and what her studies kind of point to. That this is a major contributing factor to this.

S: Yeah. We've spoken about that before on the Skeptics' Guide. I believe I spoke about the fact that I've actually had waking dreams[2].

B: Oh yes.

S: Produced by–extreme sleep deprivation so I can describe them first hand. Very, very weird, powerful experiences so it's worthy of study. Also, just a note while we're on the topic of sleep paralysis, Whitley Strieber, who is a science fiction writer who is sort of promoting the idea that he was abducted by aliens...

B: What was his famous book? I forget the title.

S: Con–that wasn't it–Communion. Communion. Yeah.

B: Communion.

S: He–in one of his subsequent books basically just recounted the stories of hundreds of people with abduction tales, and those stories were reviewed by, I believe it was Joe Nickell who wrote–who wrote and Jim Baker, who is a psychologist, reviewed all of the accounts and fully seventy percent of them fit really well into the description of a waking dream. So by that survey we're talking about seventy percent of the abduction phenomenon being explainable on the basis of this neurological phenomenon. This sleep paralysis or waking dream.

B: Well a lot of people say, "Well, how come these people are seeing aliens?" And that's purely cultural.

S: Right.

B: Centuries ago people–people were still people. People still had these waking dreams or they would experience hypnagogia is another term for it and they of course didn't see aliens because nobody even thought of aliens back then. They would see demons called succubi and these witches that would sit on your chest and prevent you from breathing and things.

S: And I believe the Scandinavians have a legend about the sea hag who would sit on your chest and suck away your energy. It was basically the same experience just with a different cultural icon.

B: Right. Every culture–every culture actually has some mention or other. I think in Japan its...

S: Really? What did the Inuit culture have?

B: Wasn't it some–some big, nooo...

P: Like the wendigo?

S: The wendigo. (laughter) I was just challenging you, Bob. I just figured I'd throw out an obscure culture and see if you knew what they had.

B: Okay. Many cultures. Many cultures have...

S: We'll look that up and see if we can figure out what the Inuit mythology that fits waking dreams might have been.

B: Japan had one and I think the name of the being that they ascribed it to was something like Zanzibar–something that sounds like that (ed: kanashibari?). But I–I literally read like five or six cultures that all have very–very similar ideas on this weird being that would enter your room and cause these bizarre experiences to happen. And another interesting thing that Dr. Clancy found out that–was a lot of these people that had these, so called, abduction experiences already had some interest in the paranormal...

S: Mm hmm.

B: or the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors so they were prone to believe in something bizarre like this. And a lot of times these people would try to find some deeper meaning in this. Try to find out what really happened and they would go to a therapist and a lot of these therapists use, ya know, hypnosis or even chemicals to induce these highly suggestive states and we know that in these states confabulation can occur where you just kind of stream of consciousness create these–these stories that you come to believe as true memories and are in fact indistinguishable from real memories.

S: Right.

B: And uh, bam, you've got–you've got your false memory syndrome and things that–it's really a shame that these therapists aren't more savvy as to–as to actually what they're doing. They're creating these memories...

S: Oh, it's malpractice. It's total incompetence. You basically have a professional who's professing to have some expertise and to be helping people and what they're basically doing is using a discredited method which is known to create false memories, known to essentially create confabulation and then they put people in this state, they ask suggestive questions and the standard abduction scenario emerges under hypnosis. They then convince these people they've been abducted. It becomes one more piece of evidence for those people–those investigators who collect it–becomes part of the mythology. And it's really just a BS machine. I mean they're just creating these false stories. I mean, basically it is no different than the therapists who were using coercive and unprofessional techniques to convince young women with eating disorders that they were raped and had repressed memories. It's the same thing so it's hypnosis and abduction scenario. But it's blatant incompetence in my opinion. No excuse for it.

B: And one–one final point here to drive it home–Dr. Clancy did a study in 2002 with–with Richard McNally and did another test on these people that have abduction memories and she–it looks like she had some controls as well, people who did not have any abduction memories. And she did–she did a word association test where she would list–you know, here's five words and then a few minutes later she would say, "Well, was this word on the list? And was this word on the list?" and she would throw a related word that was not on the list like–say–let's see sugar candy sour bitter and then she would say, "Was the word sweet on the list?" And the people that had abduction memories were more likely than non-abducted people to–to actually have a memory that sweet was indeed on the list when in fact it wasn't. So these people–these people are prone to–to not–to associate the event with something really supernatural and to actually form false memories themselves.

S: And that–you could take that one step further and, I think, that this–again also, I think, by the psychologist...

B: (inaudible)

S: Yeah. That Jim Baker wrote, you know, again reviewing a lot of the recorded abduction tales believes these people are not just prone to this sort of confabulation but also what he calls fantasy prone. Now fantasy prone personality type is someone who was more likely to have imaginary friends when they were children, to have had visions, to believe in a host of paranormal things, to believe that they have seen or experience ghosts or spirits. A lot of these things go hand in hand. Interestingly we had a lecture a year ago by a neurologist, Terence Hines, who is doing some very interesting work where he believes he may have uncovered an actual, like, neurological hardwiring difference in some people who actually have the ability to–I don't know what would be a good way to describe it. I think like, turn off their reality-testing hardware in their brain. To actually...

B: Wow.

S: when fantasizing about something to actually inhibit that part of their brain that would tell them that it's not real. To actually...

B: That's kind of like a waking dream, in a sense.

S: to actually believe it. No it's actually–I wouldn't make that analogy. I think it's a different phenomenon because waking dream really is a fusion between two different states. A waking state and a sleeping state. This is a pure waking state but there are certain–there are certain hardware in our brain that we can't inhibit. For example, the experiment that he did was–if you see a word in a language that you can speak and can read you can't inhibit your ability to read that word. And that–in testing comes out as a certain delay in your response time. So, if you're shown flashcards with the word "red" written in green ink and you're told to say the color of the ink, to say "green", it takes you a fraction of a second to inhibit your hardwiring tendency to say the word, "red" the word that the letters spell out. If it's written in a language that you don't read that delay is not there. And, in fact, this test has reliably been used to sniff out spies so you can give a suspected Russian spy that test using Russian words and if they can speak Russian there'll be a delay, and if they don't speak Russian there won't be a delay, for example. And until recently no one has ever, ever been able to create research conditions in which that delay went away. It didn't seem that human beings had the ability to suppress that hardwiring loop. That processing just has to happen. Until Hines and, I think it was some of his colleagues–that this is not–I don't think this has yet been published and peer reviewed but basically what he is finding is that in a certain percentage of the population, 2-3% of the population, under hypnosis they can make that effect go away. Which suggests that their brains are actually hardwired differently and that they have the ability to inhibit certain pathways that most people cannot. It would be interesting to see if these people are also excessively fantasy prone. So we may–in a small subset of people we may actually be dealing with people whose brains are literally wired differently than the rest of us. Although, that–in addition to that there are people who do not have this effect but are probably just predisposed to vivid fantasies, to the point where they actually take on a reality or a life of their own.

P: Well, Steve, you're a neurologist, what do you think the likelihood is of a subset of people are just wired differently?

S: Well, in his–his research is very compelling. This test has been used for decades. It's a very standardized, well recognized test. Psychologists know how to carry it out reliably. The results are very reproducible and very reliable. And if you can reproducibly make that effect go away, that means something. That is a genuine discovery. So, I think that it's very compelling.

P: What would your hypothesis be as to how that subset was created? Why it exists?

S: Well it's just–it's just random variation. Every human trait–every trait in any species varies on a bell curve and there are subsets and subpopulations so our hardwiring I'm sure varies and every way it's possible to vary and they have just an alternate–either one part of their brain is more dominant than another part or there is some kind of pathway that exists and enables them to inhibit this processing loop.

B: It can be very subtle. I mean, it doesn't have to be this major difference. It could be a very subtle difference.

S: Yeah. Yeah. I–It would have to be–this experiment is designed to look at a very subtle phenomenon.

B: But Steve, you mentioned–you mentioned that they–these people have a way of, you know, turning off reality testing and the point I tried to insert there was that it's similar to–maybe not a waking dream but when you are in fact dreaming and that pink elephant walks in front of you you don't think, "what–my that's quite odd." You don't think that because your reality testing is kind of shut down. I mean your frontal lobe–isn't your frontal lobe pretty much very quiescent at that point and that's one of the reasons why there is–it doesn't seem out of place for you to have a, ya know, a pink elephant trot by you?

S: Yeah. That much is true and it's interesting. So the dream state is actually a different state of consciousness than the waking state. Different parts of your brain are active when you're dreaming. Basically it's–all the parts of your brain that are active when you're awake–I mean–say that the other way–When you're awake all the parts of your brain are active. When you're sleeping some of the parts of the parts of your brain are not active.

B: And some very active.

S: And those parts of the brain have to–do have to do with certain dominant hemisphere functions like reading. It's very difficult to read while you're asleep. And also the mechanisms of...

B: Really?

S: reality testing. Yeah. Try that if you're ever...

B: I've tried it many times.

S: think of it while you're dreaming that it's really hard to actually read while you're dreaming.

P: (laughter)

B: I mean many times I've had lucid dreams where you actually wake up in your dream and you realize, "Hey, I'm in bed asleep right now and everything that I see and experience is a creation of my mind." And it's a very interesting experience, I recommend it, and Steve, I believe you'd actually had a hand full.

S: I've had them. Most people, I think have had basically you–you realize that you're dreaming while you're dreaming. And what happens there–what happens there is simply that your reality testing kicks in enough for you to realize that you're dreaming. It's a very unstable state.

B: It is.

S: It's very unstable. Your tendency is...

B: It's very tough to maintain.

S: Right. You'll either fully wake up or you'll dream that you wake up which basically means that you lose the lucidity you again lose the ability to realize that you're dreaming.

B: Yeah. If any–you can–you've gotta really be careful and not get too over excited which can happen when you're in an environment that you have a lot of control over or some sort of control like, you know, flying, making people appear, you know, getting naked with movie stars, you know it's hard not to get excited.

(laughter)

B: And when you do get excited invariably you wake up or you dream you wake up and you're like, "Damn." But um, of course I lost the point I was trying to make.

P: (laughter) Okay. You got off about naked movie stars, Bob. Why don't you go along that train of thought there.

B: Yeah. I know.

E: That's enough to distract anyone.

P: We'll go, we'll keep on that.

B: Oh, yes, reading. And one of the triggers–you try to develop these triggers to induce lucidity in your dream and you do a dream test. And what–there's various things you could do. You can jump up in the air and if you could make yourself fall slightly more slower or faster than physics dictates you should fall then that's a pretty good clue that you are in fact dreaming, cause there's no way you're going to be able to do that in real life.

S: Yeah. These are just ways to trigger your reality testing.

B: Right. And the best way, they best way to it is to read something. Get anything. A poster, a book, open the book up look at some words, turn away, and look back at the writing and invariably, the text will be different. It's completely different. So that probably ties into what you were saying, Steve, where it's hard to read in the dream.

S: Right.

B: Things are change–words are changing around all the time which would make it very difficult to read.

S: It's interesting. It's–cause we're not used to thin–our brains seamlessly create the illusion of the mind and the self for us that it's–it's difficult to think about the fact there are parts of our brain that are responsible for some specific functions like reality testing. Most people probably aren't aware of the fact that there's a part of our brain that, in fact, does that. And part of the reason that we know that it does that is because it can get turned off. And then when it gets turned off it can create psychosis in waking state or–it's a normal part of the dream state where fantastical bizarre things happen. And they make sense to you in the dream cause you're not–the part of your brain that should tell you, "That doesn't make sense," is not functioning at the time.

B: Right.

S: It's asleep. That part of your brain's asleep.

B: How many times did you wake up and you say," What the hell was I thinking?" Ya know?

P: (laughter)

S: Yeah.

B: How could I not possibly imagine that that was okay?

S: Right. Cause it's a different–it's a different state of awareness that's produced by a different set of parts of your brain working together.

B: Right. But just a quick aside on the lucid dreaming. I really recommend that. Look up lucid dreaming on the internet. It's really a fascinating experience. It's bizarre in that once you have–once you become lucid in the dream the dream world looks even more realistic than you could imagine. I remember walking around and looking at my brother in my dream thinking, "Wow. This is just a creation of my mind and it's just so realistic." I even knocked on a piece of wood and listened to the echo and just marveled at the fidelity of the experience. It was very, very cool.

S: It's interesting. I wonder what that says about the future of virtual reality, when we can essentially plug experiences into our brain. Will they be indistinguishable from real reality, and I think the suggestion is that they will be.

B: Absolutely.

S: I mean your brain–if you make those neurons fire artificially versus through sensory input the brain doesn't know the difference. Those neurons fire, creates a very believable experience to you.

B: Well, but reality is–is a construct. Your mind is building–creates your reality I mean one aspect of perception, vision, is–is an incredible construct. It's–vision is a creation. It's not a tape recorder passively recording what's going on. Your mind creates–creates your visual world for you to such a degree. If you–I once saw a picture of what the image on your retina really looks like and it was this small, upside down kinda indistinct blurry image–the tiny center of it was somewhat more in focus than the other parts but you'd be amazed at how–what a paltry thing it was. And your mind takes that and creates this magnificent three dimensional world from these two little postage stamp sized two dimensional images and it's just amazing what it does.

S: Right.

B: What it creates from that.

S: There's a lot of processing going on to create the illusion of depth and contrast and things like that. And that's the source of all visual–optical illusions. Optical illusions are basically ways of tricking that processing into thinking that there's depth when there isn't or contrast when there isn't or whatever so that–taking advantage of the–the methods that the brain uses to process that information...

B: Right.

S: and create the illusion of three dimensionality et cetera.

B: And I–I read an article about this gentleman who was blind for most of his life and was given sight through some operation and you'd think, "Wow. He's got his vision back. Great for him." But actually it was actually a terrible thing for him because–because he did not–his brain did not have to process visual images his whole life it really wasn't up to the task.

S: Well, it never developed it.

B: Right. It never developed. I kind of forget if it was–if he had a few years of vision...

S: But not enough.

B: But not enough.

S: Your optical cortex only develops in response to visual stimuli so if you're blind from birth your–the brain–the seeing part of your brain never develops...

B: Right.

S: and then there's nothing that could be done to make you not blind.

B: But he–he must have had some–some years of vision because wha–he did have some sort of vision but it was this real–this kind of chaotic thing that that was not a pleasant experience for him. And–but surprisingly he was–he was immune to illusions because his brain wasn't constructing this nice reality–visual reality for him.

S: Wasn't doing the processing.

B: Right. It wasn't–so there was no processing to trick because the processing just wasn't really quite there for him.

S: But the downside was the vision wasn't very useful for him.

B: No.

S: It was just a–sort of a unprocessed chaos of signals that the brain didn't know how to deal with.

B: Which–but wouldn't–I wouldn't–I would actually–think it would be cool to actually experience that for a brief–a brief time to see what does this raw image look like.

S: Yeah.

B: I mean, ya know, just to see, "Oh, wow! I mean look at all this noise and static and stuff floating around there that..." I think you could better appreciate...

S: Yeah.

B: what you're visual centers of your brain create for you. I'm done.

Conclusion (1:01:30)[edit]

S: Well, that is–that is all the time we have for this week. Just to say once again that book by Susan Clancy is Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens from Harvard University Press. Looks like it's going to be a good read. Bob, you said that's coming out in October? Is that what you read?

B: Yes.

S: So that–definitely look forward to getting that book when it comes out. Well, thank you again for joining us this week on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Perry, Bob, Evan, thanks for–thanks for joining me.

B: Our pleasure.

P: Excellent. See you next week.

E: You're welcome.

S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a production of the New England Skeptical Society. For more information on this and other episodes see our website at www.theness.com.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Adolf Hitler probably had a severe form of Parkinson's disease that affected his thinking.
  • Joan of Arc probably had seizures in her right temporal lobe causing religious visions and hyper-religiosity.
  • Vincent Van Gogh probably cut off his ear in an attempt to silence it from a constant ringing he experienced.
  • The locus ceruleus is responsible for paralysing motor neurons during sleep so we don't act out our dreams.
  • It is impossible to inhibit one's ability to read. This has been exploited to detect spies.

References[edit]

  1. CCSU Professor Debunks Atlantis Myth On National Geographic Channel Show
  2. SGU Episode 6: ParaCon
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