SGU Episode 90

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SGU Episode 90
April 10th 2007
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 89                      SGU 91

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

P: Perry DeAngelis


JC: Jack Chudnicki

Quote of the Week

'I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.'

Wilson Mizner

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, April 10th, 2007, and this is your host, Stephen Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. Joining me this evening are Bob Novella...

B: Hey everybody.

S: Perry DeAngelis...

P: Righto.

S: Jay Novella...

P: That's right.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Happy birthday to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, everyone. Founded in 1866. Happy birthday.

S: Our lovely Rebecca Watson is off tonight. She's unable to join us this evening, but we do have a special guest. We have a guest panelist this evening, one of our listeners, and an old-time friend, of the New England Skeptical Society, Jack Chudnicki. Jack, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

JC: Thanks, Steve.

J: Hey, Jack.

JC: Hey, guys.

P: Jack, is it true that at one time I performed psychic surgery on you?

JC: Ah, was it on me? Yes, I believe it is.

P: I found a giant tumor, remember, in your gut, and I believe I excised it.

JC: That is true. And you know, it hasn't returned since then. I've been much better, thank you.

P: You're quite welcome.

S: It was therapeutic touch, not psychic surgery.

P: I believe, whatever. Does it really matter?

S: No.

JC: Steve, whatever it is, it worked.

P: That's right, that's right, that's right.

P: Evan, I want to thank you for that birthday notice for the ASPCN.

E: Well, we are all lovers of animals here on this show to varying degrees, but I think we do.

P: I think we've proven that time and again.

S: Now, Jay, you have a correction from last week.

J: Yeah, last week I mentioned that Shakespeare created the prefix un.

S: Right, you were speaking off the cuff, as it were.

J: Well, I wasn't totally off the cuff. I got the information from someone that I know that shouldn't have the information correct or I thought. And then after the show, I got an email from someone that just wanted to know my source, and I was already in the midst of doing it. The prefix un was not created by Shakespeare. It predates Shakespeare. I guess it goes way back to Latin. And one of the things that one of the people wrote to me said that Chaucer used it, and he predates Shakespeare by 300 years. The thing that Shakespeare did do was create many, many, many words that use the prefix. So he did create words using the prefix. He just didn't create the concept of the prefix.

P: Such as unpossible.

J: Right.

S: We have a few news items this week.

News Items[edit]

Quantum Computer? (2:40)[edit]


S: The first one, actually, Jack, you sent this one into us. This is a report of a company that claims that they have a working quantum computer. Now, we've mentioned quantum computing on the show a couple of times before. I believe there was at least one science or fiction that involved it. The basic concept behind quantum computers is using quantum effects in order to create computers that can do algorithms, et cetera. And they can function potentially thousands, millions of times faster than existing computers. But the technology to exploit quantum effects and use it in a computer, the reports that we've been reading makes it seem like it's many years off, maybe 20 years off or something. It's far enough out that no one's really sure how long it's going to take. Well, now a company claims that they have quantum computing now.

B: Well, Steve, there's a key distinction, though. There's been lots of labs that have created basic quantum computers that have solved very simple problems. But the key claim with this company, though, is that they are creating the first commercial quantum computer.

S: Yeah. I mean, you're right. And we've actually, in fact, that one science or fiction was the quantum computer that could do the calculation without even being turned on yet. Remember that one from a while ago? So yeah, I mean, they have been able to produce computing effects in a lab setting, but not produce a computer that could actually run applications, right? And so this guy's claiming that he has a computer that can use quantum computing to actually run applications.

J: Well, what is quantum computing, specifically, Bob?

P: Yeah, I hate that word quantum. I really do. So many rogues and blaggards hide behind that word. Stick in front of anything. Quantum this, quantum that. I agree with you, Bob, but I mean...

S: But you're right, Perry. It's like Deepak Chopra and quantum healing. That's all nonsense.

P: Exactly.

S: But quantum computing is an actual legitimate concept. It's a technology concept. And the earliest we're at the beginning stages of this. Again, what this is, this is notable because he's claiming to basically have a product which seems to be a decade or more ahead of everybody else.

B: A lot of the experts agree that it seems to be too advanced for what they thought was possible at this time. Jay, to answer your question real fast, one of the key concepts behind quantum computing is the concept of a qubit. Now, you're all familiar with bits, binary digits. That's how classical computers represent data. It's either a zero or a one. A qubit, however, can not only be a one or a zero. It could also be a superposition of both one and a zero. That's one of the things that makes quantum computers so different is this concept of a qubit. This quantum computer that this company claims to have created is supposed to have 16 qubits, which I believe is the most qubits that any quantum computer to date has ever had. 16 qubits will apparently allow a quantum computer to perform about 64,000 operations instantaneously. Now, the goal is to reach many hundreds and even thousands of qubits.

P: That's Matrix World.

B: Once a quantum computer reaches that goal, then conventional computers will truly be left in the dust.

E: Well, are the computer manufacturers actually working? Are they actually working on real quantum computers?

B: Absolutely.

S: This is Jordy Rose, the founder of the D-Wave Systems. That's the company we're talking about. This is an article in the New York Times talking about a recent demonstration that he did. He had a black box, which he said was a quantum computer, and it was able to do things like solve Sudoku puzzles.

B: And determine the optimal seating arrangement for wedding guests.

S: Right, or search for protein in a database to find a close match. So basic things like that. But the problem here is that, yeah, so the black box did these tasks, but nobody knows what's going on inside. He hasn't told anybody how he's doing it, how the computer allegedly works.

B: Not in any detail.

S: And no one has seen the guts.

J: I think there's a cat in the box.

S: So nobody knows if his claims are real. And until he shows at least enough to convince the scientific community that his claims are legitimate, his claims deserve a certain amount of skepticism. It kind of smells a little bit of the sort of Pons and Fleischman cold fusion fiasco. Or this guy could be trying to just lure investors into his project and making claims that maybe are not legitimate yet. But we don't know.

J: Is he actually trying to obfuscate? Is he hiding things?

S: He's making claims that he's not supporting with evidence.

P: And he didn't go through the process.

J: Then the Raelians are obviously backing him. There's something fishy here.

S: He didn't publish the steps leading up to it. These kind of technological jumps usually don't happen in a vacuum.

JC: It is kind of a far-fetched claim to have a functioning quantum computer at that scale today. And there's a lot of people who have no idea how to do it. And these guys claim, oh yeah, sure, we have it working. But you can't look to see how we did it.

E: Is he afraid that someone's going to steal his model?

B: I think that's part of it. And that's probably why he's so reticent. Later this year, I think second quarter 2007, the computer is going to be available for many people to vet and to go over and to examine and to use with some of these real-world applications.

JC: Well, something solved the problems. You don't know what was in there.

J: What do you think? He's got a midget in the box, Bob? What are you saying? What are you getting at?

JC: A laptop.

S: The test that he demonstrated actually represented much less computing power than your average desktop computer. So it wouldn't be far-fetched that there was a more conventional computer inside.

P: Let's wait until it's vetted and see if it holds up as well as the Jesus Osuaries.

B: But his point is, though, that brute speed right now isn't as important as the fact that his quantum computer did actually perform these calculations. And supposedly, his technology is very well suited for scalability, such that over the course of the next 12 months, he's going to create increasingly more robust quantum chip designs. And by 2008, I believe, he's planning on having one that can do about 1,000 qubits. So if it's as scalable as he claims, that would be pretty interesting.

S: So this guy, Rose, is saying that he's not going through the peer-reviewed published process that the marketplace will judge the value of his material. And in that sense, he's right. If he can deliver the goods, if it actually works, then he will have proven his point. If he can't...

J: Right. In the meantime, he's got 44 million bucks to play with.

JC: You know, if this thing really worked, and if he just patented it, that's a patent that would be worth a billion dollars easy. If you had the basis... It's like being the inventor of the transistor and having the patents on that, you know?

S: Absolutely. Absolutely.

J: Well, I hope it's true. I really do.

S: But there's a lot of red flags, though. I mean, seriously. When people have the black box, you can't look inside. They're making claims that seem to be a couple of generations ahead of where everybody else is. There's no trail. You know, it's like Iran curing AIDS without any kind of research trail. It's just... It doesn't...

P: It's suspicious, to say the least.

S: It's suspicious.

E: The modern-day dynamizer.

S: Not quite that bad, but we'll keep an eye on it. And it'll be interesting to see how that plays out.

Fermilab Flub (10:29)[edit]


S: The next news item also is in the area of physics. The Fermilab, which is a very prestigious physics lab, was contracted to build components for the Large Hadron Collider. And they made a boo-boo. They made a couple of calculation errors. And apparently these were so-called elementary mistakes in the design of the magnets that they were contracted to build did not get picked up on the multiple engineering reviews that occurred before these things were put in place. And basically, I think what my reading of what happened is that they did not calculate the forces properly. They made an error in figuring out how much force would be involved. So they didn't build the thing strong enough to handle the forces. And when they turned it on, it basically blew up.

E: Oops.

J: It didn't really blow up, Steve. There wasn't any combustion happening. It wasn't like a fiery explosion.

P: It fell apart. It sort of collapsed.

S: It got ripped apart.

P: You forget to carry a two, and there's four billion out the window.

E: It's like when they went to land one of those...

P: It's true.

JC: It's like the Mars probe.

E: Yeah, exactly. One of the Mars probes. They count metric versus classic.

S: Engineers are supposed to be good at this thing. That's the quote from one guy from CERN. There was a hell of a bang. The tunnel housing the machine filled with helium and dust, and we had to call in the fire brigade to evacuate the place. The people working on the test were frightened to death, but they were all in a safe place, so no one was hurt. Well, that's good. No one was hurt.

P: Yeah, that is good.

S: It was bad.

P: Peter O'Donnell, the director of the lab, said, "We are dumbfounded that we missed some very simple balance of forces. Not only was it missed in the engineering design, but also in the four engineering reviews carried out between 98 and 2002. I mean, cheapers.

B: Now, for you conspiracy nuts out there, this is pretty interesting. Fermilab was contracted by CERN to create these magnets. Now, Fermilab also has researchers running the Tevertron, which is the biggest running collider on the planet, I believe. And they're looking for one of the holy grails of particle physics, the Higgs boson, the hypothetical particle that confers mass to all matter. Now, whoever finds this Higgs boson will just go down in history. And it turns out that this delay that CERN is now going through might be just the right amount of time that Fermilab needs for its Tevertron to find the Higgs boson.

S: Isn't that convenient? Interesting. But the axiom goes, never blame on malice what can be more easily explained through incompetence.

B: You expect more from them though.

S: So it's actually, you do, but you know what? It's very easy for me to imagine how that kind of thing can happen. Because you assume that people are doing their job, when you're reviewing the specs you should repeat all the math and everything, but you could certainly see how somebody would get lazy.

P: Four engineering reviews. Well, let me ask you, Steve.

S: I'm sure they did the math correctly. They didn't bother to recheck the math, obviously. And you could just, you could easily see how that could happen.

P: If you were in charge of Fermilab, would you fire these people?

E: Hmm.

S: It depends on how irrepleacable they are.

E: Yeah, that's just it. I don't know how many of these people are out there to be...

B: Yeah, just a black eye for Fermilab. But if they discover the Higgs boson, it'll all be forgotten.

S: Well, it'll be tainted, though. It'll be tainted. Because they sabotaged their competition.

B: It's just very ironic.

S: It's bad. It's all very bad, unfortunately. It slows down the progress of science.

JC: That certain explosion, there was helium everywhere. So I wonder if those guys sounded like chipmunks when they were calling up 9-1-1.

More Dieting News (14:23)[edit]

  • Dieting does not work

    No advantage to low glycemic diet.

S: There were a couple of dieting-related news items in the last couple of weeks that I wanted to talk about. We've talked about the diet fads in the dieting industry before on this show. Basically the bottom line is, our position, is that the only real proven way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume.

P: Eat less, move more?

S: That formula, calories in versus calories out, is it. That's the bottom line, and there's no way around that formula. I noticed a couple of recent articles that basically support that position, that fad diets don't work and that you basically just have to exercise and eat less. There was one study out of UCLA, and they report basically that dieting does not work. Not that any particular diet doesn't work, but that dieting in and of itself doesn't work. They say that you can initially lose 5-10% of your weight on any number of diets. Basically, they all work about the same, and once you make the decision to diet and start thinking about your eating, yeah, you're probably going to lose some weight. But almost everybody gains it back. The diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the vast majority of the people that do it. So basically what they're saying is you have to just change your habits forever.

E: Lifestyle change, yeah.

S: Yeah, you can't go on a diet. It's kind of stating the obvious, but the thing is there is a multi-billion dollar industry that's dedicated to convincing people that that's not true, that there are ways around the calories in versus calorie out formula.

P: Steve, isn't this also the study that found that vegetarianism causes Alzheimer's and makes you infertile?

S: No, again, Perry, you're referring to your Fantasyland article, the journal of Perry's fantasies.

J: Steve, I've read this many times where they say it's unhealthy to lose weight and then gain it back.

P: Yo-yoing, yeah.

J: Why is that bad? Why would it be bad to lose 15 pounds and put it back on?

B: You're losing water and you're losing some muscle and you're losing some fat. And then, of course, when you gain that weight back, you're gaining primarily fat back so that at the end of the day, you pretty much can weigh the same except that now you have more fat and less muscle. And that seems to make intuitive sense, although I've never seen any studies on that. Now, one of the things they learned from doing these studies was that dieting was actually one of the best predictors of future weight gain. The fact that you may have been on a diet before any of these studies were done was one of the best indicators that you would more than likely gain weight in the future. I just thought that was pretty funny.

J: Wow.

S: One study found that 50% of dieters weighed more than 11 pounds over their starting weight five years after the diet. So it is a bad predictor. It also does say, Jay, just to answer your question, that scientists do not fully understand how such weight cycling leads to adverse health effects. So there are documented ill health effects, but they're not really sure how that happens. The other study compared different diets, and basically this was a comparison of a high carb versus a low carb diet. Now, we reported recently on another study which compared, it was a real life comparison of some of the popular diets, like the Adkins diet versus others, and it showed that the people who were on the Adkins diet lost the most weight over the year of the study. But actually, again, like what we just talked about, people in the study lost the weight early on in the first three to four months, and then they gained some of that weight back, and they were actually in the process of gaining the weight back towards the end of the study. And the weight loss was very modest, like 10 pounds over a year for people who were significantly overweight. This study was conducted at the Eugene Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and they just compared a high glucose or a glycemic diet to a low glycemic diet. The new thing about this diet is that it's really the first large well-controlled study where they gave their subjects all of the food that they were supposed to eat. So they weren't just telling them how to eat. It wasn't a real life comparison. They wanted to know not how these diets behave in the real world, but is there any physiological difference to eating a high glycemic versus a low glycemic diet?

P: Steve, does glycemic in this case mean sugar or it means carbs?

S: Carbs, carbohydrates. Yeah, it's not just sugar. It's also starches. Carbohydrates.

E: I love carbohydrates.

J: It's all sugar, Steve, right?

S: No, starches are not sugar, and they're carbohydrates.

J: But your body converts them to sugar, doesn't it?

S: Yeah, yes.

E: But they're not sugar?

S: In terms of what you're eating. So breads and pasta and grains and those kind of things, those are all carbohydrates too.

E: It's all good.

S: So that's the one thing is that they really wanted to control as much as possible what people were actually eating. They made the diets as equal as they could in terms of the appeal and fiber and volume and, of course, caloric intake. But they differed only in the high glucose diet was 60% in the low glucose and the low one was 40% glucose, which is not super low, admittedly. This is a moderately low, this is a 40% carbohydrate diet, not the super low carbohydrate diet, like 15% or 10% or something. At any rate, they also did another thing, which is very interesting, is that they used some biochemical markers to actually assess if the subjects were sticking to the diet or if they were cheating, so they did not rely upon self-reporting. And so they were able to show that, yes, both groups did cheat, about 16% in one group, 17% in the other, so it was very comparable. So there was no difference in them basically eating food and not being prepared for them as part of the study. So this is, so far, the best controlled study in terms of what the people were actually getting. And what they found was that there was zero difference between the 60% carb diet and the 40% carb diet. So this is significant evidence against the notion that adjusting the proportion of macronutrients, specifically in this case carbohydrates, makes any difference to weight loss. Again, weight loss is about calories. It's not about where the calories are coming from.

P: Interesting. Good study.

S: It was a well-done study.

P: Not relying on self-reporting seems like a very good control measure.

S: And the other thing is, my impression of this whole body of research, which I've been trying to follow closely for the last few years, is that the nutritionists, the people who are doing the real academic, cutting-edge nutrition research, they know this. This is what the research is showing. Yes, things like glycemic index and the kind of fat that you eat makes a difference in terms of diabetic health and heart health, etc. But in terms of weight loss and weight gain, it's all about calories. The popular low-carb diet or low-fat diet, whatever, that is all existing outside of the actual research that's being done.

P: Does anyone here know how a calorie is calculated?

J: Yeah, I do.

P: How, Jay?

J: The amount of energy it takes to increase one cubic centimeter of water one degree.

JC: Was it one gram of water or something?

S: Yeah, but that's a calorie in physics. That's a unit of energy. A calorie in diet is actually a kilocalorie. It's actually a thousand of those calories.

J: I would have gotten to that if you...

S: Oh, sorry, Jay.

E: It's all right. Steve just sped up the process.

S: He paused. I had to leap into the pause. All right, next news item.

Time Travel (22:13)[edit]


S: A physicist claims that he is on the brink of a breakthrough in a time travel experiment, and he just needs $20,000 to complete the experiment.

E: That's all?

P: If he could only get a quantum computer.

E: That'll take $44 million.

J: So, Steve, is the scientist legit? Is this guy for real?

S: The scientist is John Kramer. He's a physicist at the University of Washington, and he says all we need to keep going is maybe $20,000, but nobody seems interested in funding this project. Now, what he's doing is he's trying to set up an experiment to coax photons of light to travel back in time a bit. He's not talking about sending a person back in time or anything like that. He's just trying to establish the principle within physics, I guess specifically quantum mechanics, that photons of light can actually go back in time. It would certainly be very interesting.

B: Not only that they can, but the fact that they do, and that's part of their makeup. He has an interpretation of quantum mechanics that he calls the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, where he posits that light can in a way communicate with itself back in time, and he uses this to explain quantum entanglement and the double slit experiment and other paradoxes. So I see this time travel experiment as an extension of that belief.

S: Yeah, and this contradicts specifically the arrow of time hypothesis of Stephen Hawking, which doesn't make it wrong. It just means he is sort of going out on a theoretical limb, which is fine, and I think it would be especially in the area of quantum physics. It is really, I think, stretching the human ability to grapple with nature at its most fundamental level, and we need people who are thinking in new directions and thinking in ways that seem unconventional. Also, he has a testable hypothesis. He wants to do experiments. He's not just making these hand-waving explanations about what he thinks is going on. He's an experimentalist.

E: That's good.

J: We want guys like him doing stuff like this.

S: Yeah, who knows what it will lead to.

P: Am I naive in my thinking when I say to myself, perhaps, when I say to myself that time travel will never be conquered, at least going in the past, because if it ever were, we'd have future guys walking around now.

B: Isn't that the classic Stephen Hawking argument? What did he call it? The chronology [inaudible]?

S: It always has to be that the universe conspires to keep us from traveling back in time, because it would cause paradoxes. That was one thing that Hawking said, which may be true. And the other thing is we're talking about sending photons back in time.

P: I know, I know.

S: Hawking says that, yeah, there may be some way, some real exotic sort of conditions that you can create that theoretically can allow for the transmission of some fundamental particles or energy back in time, but sending a macroscopic object back in time is probably impossible. And I don't think that this guy's experiments, Kramer's experiments, would change that fundamental probability.

P: He's not even claiming that.

S: No, no.

JC: Well, I mean, how do we know that there aren't guys from the future walking around, you know?

B: I saw some weird dude at the grocery store.

JC: They're with the aliens.

P: They could be keeping themselves secret like the aliens in The Big Feet. It's true. It's true.

S: You could render that idea unfalsifiable, sure.

P: It's not a bad theory. It's not a bad theory.

More on Meta-analysis (25:47)[edit]

S: One more quick news item, and I just wanted to report on this, because we just recently talked about the whole idea of a meta-analysis, and I just happened to see an article published, again, analysing how meta-analyses are used. So basically, a meta-analysis is when you pool together multiple studies to try to see what does all the data taken together show, a positive effect or a negative effect? And one of the problems with a meta-analysis is that if there is any publication bias, then that will throw off the results of a meta-analysis. In other words, you're looking at whether or not a homeopathic remedy is useful for headaches. And there are 20 studies that are published, and some are positive, some are negative. You pool it all together. What if the chances of getting a study published are more likely if it's positive than if it's negative? That is a publication bias. And that would then foreskew the meta-analysis towards a positive result. In fact, it's generally considered that there is a positive publication bias within the literature, that journals are much more likely to publish an article that shows a positive effect than a negative effect. There's also the so-called file drawer effect, which means that researchers are more likely to submit a paper if it's positive, and they're more likely to put a negative paper into the file drawer, which means that there's a submission bias as well. Now, statisticians use a technique called asymmetry analysis where they try to take that into account. They say if the journals in general publish 60% positive and 40% negative papers, so we're going to assume that there's that publication bias in our meta-analysis and make a statistical fudge to take that into account. What this new paper is looking at is that specific thing, is looking at the use of statistical methods to adjust for this sort of asymmetry in publication. And what they basically concluded was that the methods that are being used are not adequate, that the publication bias is still a significant problem for meta-analysis, and bias is the outcomes of those meta-analyses, and that the asymmetry analysis is not adequate to account for that.

P: You mean they should use a larger amount?

S: Oh, they should assume that the publication bias is greater?

P: Is greater.

S: Yeah, I mean, I'm not sure if it was just as simple as that. It may be that, or it's just that it's inaccurate or it doesn't appropriately correct for the problem.

P: Okay.

S: So I'll have the link to that. It was just reported. It's actually just a press release. It's not actually online yet, so I couldn't have the link at present, but hopefully I'll have it on the show notes by the time the show airs. So it's interesting. It's getting another taking meta-analysis down another notch, because it does seem that you can basically almost prove anything you want to with a meta-analysis. There are so many choices that you make in how you gather the data and analyse the data that you can kind of bias it one way or another, and they certainly are no substitute for a single, large, definitive, well-designed trial.

P: You think meta-analyses themselves should be cast out, Steve?

S: No, I think they serve a role. They're just hard to do, and they have to be looked at as preliminary. I don't think that they will ever or should ever have the weight of a single, large, definitive trial. So it's just evidence. It just needs to be put into its proper context, and this kind of analysis helps us understand what context to put it in.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Chiropractic Confusion (29:18)[edit]

Dear Skeptics,

The interview with David Seaman, DC, has left me confused. When I was a kid and my parents took me to the Chiropractor, I thought he was just a doctor who specialized in the back. Since then I've heard about the woo-woo origins of Chiropractic, and figured that all chiropractors were quacks.

I think I learned from the interview that modern Chiropractors are physical therapists who specialize in bones and muscles of the back, and that the woo-woo chiropractors are to chiropractic what homeopaths are the pharmacology. But if that's the case, why wasn't that emphasized during the interview; why are modern Chiropractors still targets of the skeptical community?

I'm not saying that I believe in Chiropractic, but that maybe Chiropractic is not what we skeptics tend to believe it is. What you think?

Philadelphia, USA

S: Well, let's move on to your emails. The first one comes from Fibo from Philadelphia, USA, and he writes...

P: I'd just like to say I love this guy.

S: You're easy, Perry. He says-

P: Well, he had some very nice things to say about moi on the forums. I happen to love him.

S: "The interview with David Seaman, D.C., has left me confused. When I was a kid and my parents took me to the chiropractor, I thought he was just a doctor who specialized in the back. Since then, I've heard about the woo-woo origins of chiropractic and figured that all chiropractors were quacks. I think I learned from the interview that modern chiropractors are physical therapists who specialize in bones and muscles of the back, and that the woo-woo chiropractors are to chiropractic what homeopaths are to pharmacology. But if that's the case, why wasn't that emphasized during the interview? Why are modern chiropractors still targets of the skeptical community? I'm not saying that I believe in chiropractic, but that maybe chiropractic is not what we skeptics tend to believe it is. What do you think, Fibo." I wanted to address this just to maybe clear up whatever lingering confusion there was from the interview. The problem is that you're trying to put all chiropractors into one box. The premise of your question is, what are chiropractors? Are they legitimate or are they quacks or what? The problem is, and I think we did discuss this with Dr. Seaman, is that the term chiropractic or chiropractor is used to refer to a very diverse profession, a very diverse group of people. Included within them are total woo-woo quacks, those who believe that you can manipulate the spine and alter the flow of life energy and that you can cure basically anything by doing this, that one end of the spectrum. Then there are those who...

P: So-called straights.

S: So-called straights. And there are mixers who believe that to some degree from anywhere from 0 to 99%. They may mostly buy into it, they may buy into it a little bit, they may change the jargon to say, well, it's nerve impulses, not life energy, but they still basically do the same thing. Or they may completely reject it. They also mix in a lot of other things. They mix in homeopathy, acupuncture, herbal remedies, applied kinesiology, magnet therapy, and lots of other things. The problem is we don't really have reliable numbers on the percentage of chiropractors who use these other modalities into what percentage. You can only really infer it by those few surveys that have been done by looking at advertising on the internet, by talking to chiropractors, et cetera. The sense that I have and that a lot of my colleagues in the health fraud or the alternative medicine skeptical community have is that the percentage of chiropractors who are either straight or who use a significant proportion of disproven alternative modalities like homeopathy or acupuncture is pretty high. It's like 80 to 90%. The percentage of chiropractors who directly reject subluxation theory and the more alternative aspects of chiropractic are really only a few percent. But chiropractors like David Seaman and others have argued that those chiropractors who think of themselves as scientific think that the rate is more like 30 or 40% are scientific. We don't really have any objective numbers to answer that question objectively, so I don't know. But when we criticize chiropractors, I always try to make sure that I'm clarifying it at least to enough of a degree to say those chiropractors who espouse this philosophy, this belief, or that some or most chiropractors. You can't really talk about all chiropractors in one breath because they're just too diverse. That will be a continuing source of confusion as long as such a diverse group is still referred to by that single unfortunate label.

P: Steve, is there anything that chiropractors do that you cannot find an MD who does the same thing? I didn't ask that properly. What I'm trying to say is...

S: I hear what you're saying. Do chiropractors do anything unique to them?

P: Right.

S: And the answer to that is no. Anything legitimate that chiropractors do, there are other people other than chiropractors who do it.

P: You can find an MD to do it.

S: Spinal manipulative therapy is like the one real hardcore chiropractic intervention.

P: So why choose a chiropractor? Why risk it? Why say, oh I don't know if he's going to be a 90%, a 10%? Just go to an MD.

S: That certainly is one option. You could choose a physiatrist. Physiatrists are probably the closest medical specialty to what chiropractors do. They're rehab physicians. Many physiatrists do spinal manipulative therapy and use other similar physical methods.

P: I would have thought it's an orthopedist. What exactly is a physiatrist?

S: Orthopedists are surgeons. They operate. Physiatrists are not surgeons. They're rehab specialists, rehabilitation specialists. They're also physical therapists. They also work closely with physical therapists, and some physical therapists will do manipulative therapy as well. There are also osteopathic physicians who may incorporate manipulative therapy into their care. If chiropractors did confine themselves to that proportion of what they do that is reasonable and based on science, then I would have no problem with them. I do think, and I did start this conversation with David. I don't think we really got too far into it. I think that the ultimate solution, and I don't think this may never happen, but I think really the best solution would be to have chiropractors essentially merge with mainstream scientific medicine. Basically make it a subspecialty of MDs, of physicians. You could still do all the legitimate stuff that you want to do as a chiropractor. You could still be a physical sports medicine, physical therapy, rehab, whatever. You could even specialize in back pain. To be quite honest with you, I would love to have specialists in back pain that really had all the modalities at their fingertips and could really be comprehensive care of back pain because it really is a difficult problem. It's nothing easy about treating chronic back pain. But historically there's so much animosity there that chiropractors don't want to have anything to do with MDs basically.

E: Steve, could part of the problem also be money in that an insurance company would possibly pay a chiropractor less, right? So therefore insurance companies might want to push their clients to go see chiropractic instead of real doctors. There's two aspects to that. One thing is that do insurance companies prefer to send the people that they cover to alternative practitioners who are cheaper than MDs even though they're not legitimate and they don't work? The answer to that is yes. They would be happy to pay for whatever is cheapest and they don't care if it works or not. The other component though is when you actually compare the cost of chiropractic care to care by a physical therapist or an MD, there's no advantage. It actually is more expensive in some studies than non-chiropractic care. Part of it is, again, it's the philosophy of the chiropractor. If those chiropractors say, like David Seaman who was saying, I'm going to treat you for one to two weeks for acute care and that's it and then we're done, that's cheaper. But if they suck them into longer term care, then the cost could be anything. Again, sometimes they'll say you need lifetime preventive adjustments.

E: You showed me a book once, Steve, or it was in one of your articles you put the cover of the book on there, How to Make a Patient for Life.

S: Right. This is one of the things that we referred to briefly. There are practice building seminars for chiropractors where they basically tell them how to suck people into becoming lifetime patients. That end of the spectrum really is just a scam, basically. I think the straight chiropractors have a lot of cultish features in terms of what they believe and how insulated they are in their beliefs.

JC: Now, guys, do you think that the average person knows what chiropractor is all about? I think a lot of people just probably think that it's just a doctor that specializes in back pain.

S: No, there's a lot of complexities to the whole story and I think the public, by and large, is not aware of the ins and outs of it.

Death Star Conspiracy (37:32)[edit]

Hi all,
Just thought you all might enjoy this send up of the 911 conspiracy theories:

Matthew Kaplan
USA / France

S: Let's go on to the second email. This one comes from Matthew Kaplan who gives his location as USA/France. So I guess he travells back and forth.

E: Canadian?

S: He writes, "Hi all, just thought you all might enjoy this send up of the 9/11 conspiracy theories." And then he gives a website. Now, this is a very funny article published on WebCertity. And the name of it is, Uncomfortable Questions, Was the Death Star Attack an Inside Job? We'll have the link.

P: Interesting.

S: Did you guys have a chance to read this? It's really funny. It talks about the Star Wars movie and the attack in the first movie on the rebel base where Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star. And talks about it as if it were from an imperial citizen wondering how this band of rebels could have possibly destroyed the greatest weapon that the Empire ever developed. And what's funny about it, it's very clever. It's satire at its best. It really shows how you can use satire to expose the absurdity of someone's position or arguments. So I think what's most clever about it is that it shows how from a naive position that you can throw doubt onto anything. And that details that, so the article's written from the point of view of somebody who doesn't know the backstory, right? Who like didn't see the movie. Somebody who's actually like an imperial citizen who doesn't know the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and all the things that happened. He just knows this kind of superficial details, the kind of things that like they say that we would know about what happened on 9/11. And then from that naive position he draws all these correlations and asks all these questions that makes it seem like there's some inside conspiracy going on. Now, of course, reading the article, if you've seen the movies, you know that the questions are all nonsense because we know the backstory. We know what really went on. So again, I think it does a really good job of showing how when you are starting from a position basically of ignorance of not knowing what really went on and just looking at superficial details, you can make anything seem sinister just by sort of asking these naive questions. And that's what conspiracy theorists do. So give it a read. It's funny, especially if you like Star Wars. But when you read it, I mean, it does expose the kind of thought processes that conspiracy theorists go through. And I think in that way, it is satire at its best.

JC: My favorite part of that is the picture of Emperor Palpatine reading the pet bantha to young students while this is all happening.

S: Young Sith students, yeah.

E: A little parody on what George Bush was doing.

Hugh Ross and Testable Creationism (40:29)[edit]

Hello all! Wonderful show. I look forward to your podcast every week.<Enter obligatory comment regarding Rebbecca here>.

Steven, have you read Hugh Ross' 'testable model' regarding Creationism in his book 'Creation as Science'? This model is being shoved down my throat by my Creationist friend and, not being a scientist, I have no way to prove it right or wrong. I've chosen thus far to just smile and tell him I don't know enough about it; but I would love to know your thoughts as a skeptic and scientist.

I assume the model has not followed peer review, as it was released via a book. He does, however, have a credible education in physics and astronomy. Ross' education carries some real weight in an argument; but that doesn't make his theory correct.

Here are some links:

What are your thoughts?

Thank you and good job all!
Greg Lloyd

Dr. Novella's blog entry about this:

S: The next email comes from Greg Lloyd in the U.S. And he writes, "Hello, all. Wonderful show. I look forward to your podcast every week. Stephen, have you read Hugh Ross testable model regarding creationism in his book, Creation as Science? This model is being shoved down my throat by my creationist friend and not being a scientist I have no way to prove it right or wrong. I've chosen thus far to just smile and tell him I didn't know enough about it. But I would love to know your thoughts as a skeptic and scientist. I assume the model has not followed peer review as it was released via a book. He does, however, have a credible education in physics and astronomy. Ross's education carries some real weight in an argument, but that doesn't make his theory correct." And he gives some links. Well, yeah, we'll have the link on our notes page. This is to Hugh Ross's website, Reasons to Believe. And what he's trying to argue for here is a testable creation model. There's a lot of nonsense in here. We don't really have time to go into all of it. But there was a couple of things I want to cover because I think we haven't spoken about them specifically before. So we have criticized creationism and intelligent design on the premise that it's not science because they do not make testable hypotheses. And if your hypotheses are not testable, then you're not science, period. So I guess Hugh Ross decided that he needed to correct that deficiency by trying to phrase creationism as a testable hypothesis. First of all, Hugh Ross is an old Earth creationist. Creationism is sort of a big umbrella that includes people from young Earth creationists who think the Earth is literally 6,000 or 10,000 years old. Old Earth creationists like Hugh Ross think the Earth is billions of years old, but that the life on Earth was created by God. And there are even those who think that life evolved, but it was sort of pushed forward by God or that it unfolded in a way intended by God. So there's a huge spectrum of what could technically be called creationism. ugh Ross is an old Earth creationist. But what he does here, he makes a classic mistake of pseudoscientist, and he really demonstrates his utter and complete lack of understanding of what science is, how it works, and what a testable hypothesis is. He gives 20 ways in which the creation model, still telling that they use the word model and not theory, can be tested. But he's not making any predictions. That's the problem. He's not saying that if creation were true, this is what we would predict from that, and this is how we can test it. That's how science works. What he's doing is taking stuff we already know and then retro-dicting, or basically just shoehorning what we already know into creationism. That's not what science means about making predictions, about having a testable model. And of course, all of his specific components are wrong in that they do not support creationism, and they certainly do not distinguish. And this is the other thing he doesn't get, that if you're going to say that this piece of information supports creationism, then it has to be something that's compatible with creationism and not evolution. And none of the things that he lists are incompatible, either they're a false premise, they're wrong, or they're not incompatible with evolution. For example, he lists the Cambrian explosion, as if that is somehow outside of evolutionary theory. The Cambrian explosion was the first appearance of multicellular life. It took millions of years. That was very rapid geologically. Once the first multicellular animals started to appear, they basically were filling a new niche, and they rapidly diversified. So you had this explosion of animals and multicellular plants and animals. Also, part of this "explosion" was that when they first evolved hard parts that fossilize, then you're going to see the sudden appearance of many types of animals that fossilize in the fossil record. It's like the fossil record turns on. But that doesn't mean that there wasn't a longer period of evolving through soft body organisms before it got to that point. So anyway, that's a false premise. It doesn't distinguish between creation and evolution. It's also not something that was predicted by creation, that there would have been something like the Cambrian explosion in the fossil record. The frequency and extent of mass extinctions, again, how does that flow from creationism?

J: He says Genesis is perfect fit with the fossil record.

S: Yeah, that's just a complete misreading of the fossil record. Molecular clock rates. So here's what he's saying about the molecular clock rates. This is the other component of this article that is utter nonsense. What he says is that mutations could not possibly account for the evolution of life. Now, one thing that he does is semi-legitimate in that he says we know what the basic mutation rate is, so we know how fast mutations can occur and how many differences there are between species. So could this mutation rate account for the rate of the evolution of life that's been documented in the fossil record and in our genetic diversity? And he does what he calls a crude mathematical model and comes up with the fact that we would have needed many more animals over a much greater period of time in order for life to have evolved.

B: But it's not just mutation rate.

S: Yeah, right, of course, Bob. You hit upon the flaw in his calculations that he's assuming that mutations are the only thing.

P: Well at first when you started talking about this guy, Steve, I said to myself, well, let's give him an E for effort. I mean, at least he's trying to turn creation into a test. But after listening to your explanations, he's not even doing that.

S: No, no, he's not.

P: It's total garbage. It's garbage.

S: So what Bob was referring to is the fact that actually, once you get a certain complexity in the genome and you have sexual reproduction, actually a lot of biodiversity occurs through recombination, through the mixing of genes from different individuals, not through mutation. So he's assuming that all the biodiversity is coming from mutations alone when actually most of it comes from from recombination. So that's a flaw, a flawed premise from which he started. So his calculations are meaningless. The other thing he's doing here is he's saying that God create there was not one creation that God created things over time.

P: Why, was he lazy?

S: This is where he's he calls this God's step by step creation. So, again, he really is just rendering the theory unfalsifiable by saying that God created things over time so that they would appear in a more or less evolutionary pattern, which is nonsense. And just again, just really just renders his his model technically unfalsifiable. His attempt to argue that it's that it's that it's testable is false and backwards. He gets it totally backwards. Again, just reveals a profound, profound ignorance of the process of science, but is helpful as a model for teaching how science is supposed to work. It's actually the one useful thing that creationists do is provide endless examples of what science is not and therefore facilitate and sometimes teaching what science is.

P: You simply cannot put a white coat on this smelly pile of crap.

JC: You have to give him credit. He did manage to piss off both the scientific establishment and the creationists because they don't like his sort of take on a creationism either.

S: Well, he pissed off the younger creationists. Because he's because he allows for an old earth. He also does try to get some credibility by by arguing against some of their more absurd positions. Like the the Grand Canyon was created in a day.

J: This guy, he's kind of like the the chiropractor guy that wants to be legit.

E: Yeah, giving him way too much credit.

S: This is the only this guy he has religious views and he's desperately trying to dress them up as science, but he's too ignorant of science to do it well or he's just he has to be intellectually dishonest because his task is impossible. You can't make an unscientific or non-scientific scientific notion scientific. So given an impossible task, your only option is to fake is to be intellectually dishonest. So he is.

E: And a fine job he's doing.

S: And a fine job he's doing.

Near Death Experiences (49:27)[edit]

Dear Steven, Robert, Rebecca, Perry, Evan, and Jay:

Hey you guys... In all 88 episodes you have not, to my knowledge, discussed my favorite pseudo-science of all: NDE's- Near Death Experiences!

As a reformed Art Bell cultist during the 90's, you've pretty much finished up my de-programing and returned me to the world of the living. However, one story has still stuck with me all these years and I have to admit, it still fascinates me beyond words despite the complete lack of empirical evidence.

I'm speaking of Danion Brinkley. Author of 'Saved by the Light' and 'At Peace in the Light' in which he chronicles his story of being struck by lightning while speaking on the telephone as it passed through an underground line. After which, he was pronounced dead at the scene only to revive on a hospital gurney some thirty minutes later with a sheet pulled over his head and a tag on his toe.

I don't believe these particular events are in dispute, however his recounting of where he was during that half hour is quite extraordinary. Since we have a practicing neurologist on the panel, I would be most interested to hear his discussion on the matter. Of course, everyone else will no doubt have their opinions, as well.

Please do a little background research on Danion and bring the subject up on a future show. (I have autographed copies of his books you can borrow!) I'll be the first to download it!


Jason Ferney
Kansas City, MO

S: The next email comes from Jason Fernie in Kansas City, Missouri. And Jason writes, "Dear Steve at all. Hey, you guys, in all 88 episodes, you have not to my knowledge discussed my favorite pseudoscience of all near death experiences. As a reformed Art Bell cultist during the 90s. You've pretty much finished up my deep programming and returned me to the world of the living. However, one story is still stuck with me all these years and I have to admit it still fascinates me beyond words, despite the complete lack of empirical evidence. I'm speaking of Daniel Brinkley, author of Saved by the Light and at Peace in the Light, in which he chronicles his story of being struck by lightning while speaking on the telephone as it passed through an underground line, after which he was pronounced dead at the scene only to revive on a hospital gurney some 30 minutes later with a sheet pulled over his head and a toe tag on. I don't believe these particular events are in dispute. However, his recounting of where he was during that half hour was quite extraordinary. Since we have a practising neurologist on the panel, I would be most interested to hear his discussion on the matter. Of course, everyone else will no doubt have their opinions as well." The whole notion of near death experience is very interesting. Basically, what multiple people have reported is that after recovering from a near death experience, whether they had a heart attack or a heart stop, they had to get CPR or they had a drowning or whatever, that they report a story where they felt like they were floating above their body. They may have seen a tunnel with a light. They may remember encounters with lost loved ones, family members who had died before them. This has been interpreted as the spirit having left the body, gone to heaven or wherever, and then sucks back into the body when the resuscitation is successful and the person is brought back to life. However, all of the components of the typical near death experience are pretty easily explainable neurologically. For example, the floating above the body. That can be reproduced chemically and electrically. There's a part of the brain that gives you your sense of being in your body. If you turn that off or disrupt it, then you feel like you're floating above your body. You don't just have a sense of being out of your body. You actually see your body. You feel like you are floating above yourself. You see your body in the room, in the world.

E: Your brain is creating that image?

S: Yes.

B: Is it based on memory or is it based on what your eyes are seeing in your body?

S: It's a combination. It's a combination of what you do see and also what you feel and also just an internal model you have of yourself. Your brain has a model of yourself. There's a part of your brain that says, yep, here is me. Here's where I am. I'm in myself and myself is in the universe. Lots of funky things can go wrong with that. There's a shadow anomaly where people think that there's somebody following them all the time. It's just an echo of their internal picture of themselves. here's a shadow self following them everywhere. All of the things are just disruptions in this very interesting part of the brain that gives us our sense of being inside of our bodies and being part of the world. We can reliably point to that part of the brain, disrupt it somehow, and create this experience. You can also pretty reliably create this experience with certain drugs. Also, some patients who have epilepsy and have seizures in this part of the brain can have similar experiences. In fact, I had a patient myself who had the absolutely typical textbook near-death experience during their seizures. Every time they had a seizure, they had an out-of-body near-death experience.

P: Did the patient think that he was having a mystical experience, Steve?

S: He had what we call hyperreligiosity, which is sometimes just like Joan of Arc. There's actually some speculation that Joan of Arc may have had epilepsy, and that was part of her visions and her hyperreligiosity. It's interesting that there's also parts of the brain where when you have a seizure in that part of the brain, it can make you feel as if you were in the presence of God or the universe or whatever, and that people who have epilepsy in that part of the brain tend to also have this hyperreligiosity. He knew that they were his seizures, and yet still it had a profound spiritual effect on him. We're just hardwired for that feeling.

P: Just out of curiosity, did you try and dissuade him?

S: Well, I talked to him about the fact that that experience was his seizure, and he did understand that. I also just talked abstractly about typically what happens in patients who have epilepsy with that kind of seizure, which is appropriate for the therapeutic relationship.

J: Steve, was there medication to help him?

S: Well, yeah, he was treated with anti-seizure medication, and he stopped having seizures.

P: How about that?

S: Anyway, it's pretty profound evidence that this is a brain phenomenon, not a spiritual phenomenon, not an out-of-body phenomenon. It's an experience that your brain has.

P: Absolutely. If you can reproduce it, case closed.

S: Yeah. There are lots of reports of people who report seeing the CPR undergoing on themselves, and they may remember details of what happens and then report those details later, and that would seem to validate the notion that they were actually there while the CPR was happening, that they were seeing what was actually going on.

B: The same with Daniel Brinkley. He said he saw the EMTs working on him from up above, but also there were some other interesting aspects to what he saw. Not only the dark tunnel, but a crystal city, a cathedral of knowledge where 13 angels shared 100 revelations with him about the future. Some supposedly came true. I listened to this guy, and I tell you, he was somewhat compelling to listen to. I can see how you can get swept into his narrative and to buy it.

S: Yeah, and imagine if you were a believer how compelling it would be.

B: Oh, forget it.

S: None of these things have been validated scientifically, and it's easy to see how these stories would be generated. You can pick up a lot of ancillary details that you might not be aware of and then incorporate them into your vague memory that happened at a period of time when your brain is only partially functioning and not really able to generate a full wakefulness.

B: Steve, I think that's what happened with this guy. He said all this happened to him in 28 minutes, but he was paralysed for days and days. He was partially paralysed for weeks and months. It took him two years to learn to feed himself and to walk again, and that's a lot of downtime where he had lots of time to think, and I bet, my guess would be that if you could somehow communicate with him soon after his first brush with death, that his story would be very different and much less elaborate than how he presents it today.

S: Yeah, exactly right. I blogged recently about the fact that we form our memories of events around the emotion and the meaning that we think those events happen, and then the details just morph over time in order to emphasize the emotion and the meaning that we impart to that event. So if you think you had an out-of-body experience, your memory of the details will change over time. And you'll actually start to remember that maybe the nurse who was taking care of you after the fact, you'll remember seeing them in the room when you were getting your CPR. You just fuse those memories together, and it'll become completely distorted.

B: There's one quote I want to throw out there that I read on the website about this guy. It just really struck me and annoyed me. It said that after lying dead, dead for 28 minutes, now of course he wasn't really dead, most likely clinically dead.

S: He was only mostly dead.

E: We're not talking Good Friday here.

B: After lying dead for 28 minutes on the hospital stretcher, Daniel had to navigate back to his stiffening body. Yeah, like rigor mortis is sitting in and this guy sits up. Come on, stiffening body?

S: Yeah, yeah, that's nonsense. I mean, the fact that it's actually, we talked about incompetence before with the Fermilab thing, and some things you may be surprised that can happen even to experts. It's actually not that hard to pronounce somebody dead who's not dead. And it happens more often than you might think.

J: I've done it like four times.

S: If the heart really slows down and the breaths become very shallow, to a moderately detailed exam, somebody could look dead. But the heart could be beating just enough to be keeping their brain alive. They might be taking some shallow breaths. You don't need to breathe that much to get enough oxygen in your blood to keep the cells alive, again, over a period of time. And then obviously it was enough that it kept his tissues going until eventually he woke up. But he was not dead. He was never dead. He was never dead. Certainly it would not even be enough time for rigor mortis to end. No one has ever come back from rigor mortis. Near-death experiences are near-death. No one is ever actually dead where their cells were rotting away.

J: Mostly dead.

S: Which means that throughout these experiences, their brain cells are still capable of functioning to some degree, enough to create experiences and memories that they later get woven into this out-of-body or near-death experience story.

Science or Fiction (59:21)[edit]

Question #1: A new study shows that the number of male births in the US and Japan have been decreasing for the past 30 years.Item #2: New study suggests that human evolution is not only continuing, it is accelerating.

Question #2: New study suggests that human evolution is not only continuing, it is accelerating.

Question #3: New study shows that smoking actually has a protective effect against certain types of cancer.

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine and one is fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everyone ready?

P: Oh, I am.

J: Yes.

S: Jack, a lot of pressure on you, Jack. This is your first science or fiction.

E: Hey, Jack.

JC: Oh, geez. I could be at [inaudible]

J: You're actually my guide. Statistically, Jack could be in the lead.

E: You can refuse to answer, too.

S: All right, here we go.

JC: I probably have like a one in three chance.

S: Number one, a new study shows that the number of male births in the US and Japan have been decreasing for the past 30 years. Item number two, new study suggests that human evolution is not only continuing, it is accelerating. And item number three, a new study shows that smoking actually has a protective effect against certain types of cancer. Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see, number of male births have been decreasing in the US and Japan in the past 30 years. Evolution is accelerating. Smoking has a protective effect. Accelerating evolution, I can't buy that one.

J: What do you say, Bob?

B: It's too easy. Decreasing male births, that's slightly more believable. I'm going to go with one, decreasing male births.

S: With the male births plummet. Okay. All right, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I'm tempted to agree with Bob here about the male birth rate decreasing. So I will say that that is fiction.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Well, I think this one is pretty easy, to be honest with you guys. I'm going to pick the evolution one because we're not evolving anymore.

S: Okay, Perry?

Perry's Response[edit]

P: Yeah, this one's pretty easy. Smoking can protect it, of course. Smoking is one of the healthiest things you can do. I advocated all forms of illness and malady. So that one's clearly true. Evolution accelerating, absolutely. In fact, two weeks ago, I was a goldfish. So I'm going to have to say that decreasing the males, yeah, false.

'S: Okay. Jack, after listening to the rogue's keen analysis of the science of fiction this week, what do you think?

Jack's Response[edit]

JC: I'm going to go out on a limb and go with the cigarettes protecting against cancer.

S: Okay, as being fiction. All right.

JC: Correct.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Let's start with number one. A new study shows that the number of male births in the US and Japan have been decreasing for the past 30 years. I believe Bob, Evan, and Perry all chose this one as fiction. And this one is fact. This one is science. This one is science. This is a University of Pittsburgh study shows in the past 30 years, the number of births has decreased each year in the US and Japan by basically reviewing all birth records. They note that the decline in births is equivalent to 135,000 fewer white males in the US and 127,000 fewer males in Japan over the past three decades. The pattern of decline in the ratio of male to female births remains largely unexplained. But they think there may be some environmental factor at work. Very interesting.

E: Environmental factor.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Now, Jay, you think that the second one, new studies suggest that human evolution is not only continuing, it is accelerating. You believe that that one is fiction.

J: Well, can I just...

E: You should change your answer, Jay.

J: No, I just don't get it. We're not evolving anymore. Isn't it the obvious one?

P: Steve will get to it.

S: It is the obvious one. That's why that one is science. That one is true.

B: Three? I read about three. What are you talking about?

S: So this is interesting. Actually, I believe I've reported on something along these lines before, specifically about the evolution of intelligence. In fact, there are certain genes that correlate with greater intelligence. These are genes involved in brain development that are actually increasing in frequency over historical time, which I found surprising. For the same reason that you guys do that, I thought that we were a large, outbred population that was stable and not changing over time. And in fact, if true, if this really pans out, this would be extremely surprising and would actually cause a "radical reappraisal" of evolutionary change in the context of large populations like homo sapiens.

JC: Since there's like six billion people around now, just by the very fact that there is a larger population, wouldn't that allow for more variation within the population?

S: Yes, it allows for more variation than we are a so-called outbred population. But the question is, can new genes or new variations of genes propagate through such a large population? And can selective pressures effectively work upon them? The conventional thinking is that you really need sort of small isolated populations for significant evolution to occur. But not that it's impossible in large populations. I mean, there still is gene sorting and sort of changes in gene frequencies over time can take place. If genes actually are advantageous, then you still will see that. But you won't see significant or rapid evolutionary change, more just like sort of changes in gene frequency over time. But basically there was a look at fossil records of humans over the last couple hundred thousand years. And they also looked at genetic information over more recent time, looking at gene frequencies. And they suggest that humans, that the homo sapien lineage has actually been continuing to change since its inception a couple hundred thousand years ago. And that in fact, if anything, the pace of that change has been accelerating. So this is pretty, pretty radical.

P: Steve, does this mean we're all heading for the Tolosian form, the big brain ball headed guys?

S: It's basically the X-Men. I think their mutant abilities are going to start popping out any day now.

P: I want the big head. Oh, I want the big brain head thing.

S: So this research is being carried out mainly by Gregory Cochran of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. So granted, this is a pretty new type of research, and it still has yet to really go through the meat grinder of scientific peer review. So we have to see how this all pans out, but that's what his research strongly suggests.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means that number three, a new study shows that smoking actually has a protective effect against certain types of cancer, is fiction. Now, the real article on which I based that fiction is a new study which shows that smoking and caffeine have a protective effect against the development of Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, and this is actually not the first study to show a possible protective effect for smoking from a neurodegenerative disorder. Previous studies have shown that there's also possibly a similar effect for Alzheimer's disease, which is another neurodegenerative disorder. So it's not really certain what the effect is, what the biochemical basis of the effect is. And it's interesting that this new study also correlated it with caffeine, although it's hard to really draw a firm cause and effect conclusion from that. But you know, nicotine's a drug, and it can certainly have effects. It'll all have to be bad. It could have some effects that turn out to be protective. So it's not implausible. I certainly don't recommend that anyone start smoking, because these diseases are certainly less common than the diseases that cancer increases your risk for. The number one, two, and three killers, at least in this country, are heart attacks, cancer, and stroke. And smoking increases your risk of all three of those things.

JC: Well, I guess if you die from one of those three, you're much less likely to develop Parkinson's.

S: That's actually an interesting point. I don't think that that was a factor in this study, but that is one of those statistical things that researchers have to learn about early, that an intervention which causes people to die early may actually seem to have a protective effect against diseases which occur later. So that's one of the pitfalls of doing correlation studies and epidemiological studies, one of the things that you have to look out for.

E: That's what Bob Perry and I were thinking when we guessed the other way.

P: Clearly.

S: I'm sure. So Jack, your first time out, you are the sole victor.

JC: 100%.

S: You are the sole victor.

E: We just wanted to make Jack feel well.

S: Honestly, had you read that, or did you guess, or how'd you come to it?

JC: No, no, I just, I guess.

P: You had like a one in three chance.

JC: Yeah, I mean I had a one in three chance, and it seemed like the most ridiculous one of the bunch.

E: And Jay, you should have changed your answer after you heard the first one was wrong.

J: No, I really thought I had it right there. I was wrong.

P: Clearly.

S: That was the tricky one this week.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:08:48)[edit]

This Week's Puzzle

I wrote 3768 lines of code using 4 different languages to be spread over a thousand years.

Who am I ?

Last Week's Puzzle
Please be still my beating heart
For the best kiss of my life
That tingling on my skin does start
In vain my stress can cause much strife

What am I describing?

Answer: Polygraph
Winner: None

S: Evan, read last week's puzzle.

E: Last week's puzzle was the following. Please be still, my beating heart, for the best kiss of my life. That tingling on my skin does start. In vain, my stress can cause much strife. What am I describing? And I am in fact describing a polygraph test.

P: Did anyone get it, Evan?

E: No, nobody got it.

P: That's two weeks in a row, huh?

E: Yeah. Yeah, that's two weeks in a row. I thought for sure someone would pick up on that. So here's the, right here in Wikipedia, the first sentence under polygraph. A polygraph, commonly yet incorrectly referred to as a lie detector, is a device that measures and records several physiological variables, such as blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity, while the subject is asked a series of questions. Hence the four lines of the poem I put together, having to do with each of those, blood pressure, pulse, respiration, skin conductivity. The answer is the polygraph. So no winners this week.

S: What's your puzzle for this week?

E: Here is this week's puzzle. I wrote 3,768 lines of code using four different languages to be spread over a thousand years. Who am I? So chew on that for a while and good luck, everyone.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Quote of the Week (1:10:14)[edit]

'I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.'- Wilson Mizner

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

B: Yes, I have a quote from Wilson Mizner, American playwright. He said, "I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education."

S: Excellent. Well, thanks everyone for joining me again. It was a great show. Jack, thanks for standing in for Rebecca. We appreciate you being our first listener guest.

P: Excellent.

S: We had fun. Maybe we'll do it again.

JC: Anytime, guys. Sure.

P: Good night. Good night, all.

S: Good night, everyone.

S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


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