SGU Episode 919

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SGU Episode 919
February 18th 2023
919 mask-wearing.jpeg

From Science-Based Medicine: A recent Cochrane review, limited in scope and problematic in methodology, does not show that masks do not work, despite common misreporting.

SGU 918                      SGU 920

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

RW: Richard Wiseman, British author

Quote of the Week

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is repetition, as familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.

Daniel Kahneman, Israeli-American psychologist and economist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Cara's dissertation[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 15th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening folks!

S: We're recording a date early back to our usual Wednesday recording because Cara you're going out of town this weekend. Where are you going?

C: I am. So this weekend I am headed to Portland, Oregon for the conference for the American Clinicians Academy on Medical Aid in Dying. It's actually called the National Clinicians Conference on Medical Aid and Dying. However creative. So NCCMAID is going to be in Portland Oregon this weekend. It's sponsored by the American Clinicians Academy on MAID and also Death with Dignity. And I'm going because of course, I think I've mentioned on the show before, my dissertation topic is an existential... Do you guys want to know the actual title of my dissertation?

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: Sure.

E: Absolutely.

C: It is: Choice and dignity in death. An existential hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry into the psychological experience of Medical Aid in dying.

J: What is hermeneutic?

B: Hermeneutic? I know that word.

E: Who's Herman Nudick?

C: Who's Herman? Herman Nudick?

B: I know that's a great word. I learned that couple of years ago.

C: It is a great word. So hermeneutics is a, it's a discipline, it's a process, it's a methodology but also a theory of interpreting text. So you'll often read about it with respect to like biblical texts or like old philosophical texts. So it comes from philosophy but it's often applied in qualitative psychological research as well. So it's existential hermeneutic and phenomenological. These are just different approaches to doing a qualitative as opposed to a quantitative inquiry. Which is something that I did not know existed before I started my PhD. Every study I've done in the past my undergrad thesis, my master's thesis. Any papers that I've ever been a co-author on they were all quantity creative. Classic quantitative science. This degree or this PhD thesis is very different for me. It's qualitative, so I'm not looking at population level data I'm doing deep dives with individual people to try and get the gist, the qualia, the meat out of their experience. Because Medical Aid in Dying is right now, it's just rare. It's only legal in 11 jurisdictions. 10 states and DC and just not that many people utilize it. So yes there are some population level statistics. We can look at the data and go this many people use it and this many people who use it have this type of cancer but to really get into the why of it all and how of it all, a qualitative investigation is a little bit more meaningful given the landscape, so that's what I'm doing.

J: Cool. That sounds awesome Cara.

C: Yeah yeah, I'm excited.

B: You want to know where I heard of hermeneutics?

C: Where?

B: One of my favorite super short stories by Ted Chiang, Catching crumbs from the table. It actually had to do with metahumans in human society that were creating these amazing inventions and discoveries but they were so far advanced that they really couldn't explain the science to normal people. So normal scientists who were almost out of a job at that point because of all these discoveries that the metahumans were making, they created the hermeneutics interpreting the scientific works of metahumans to try to understand what they can from these metahumans that were beyond comprehension. Fascinating short story. Highly, highly recommended. Very very short by the way, five minute read.

C: And what a great use of that term.

B: Yes.

C: Turning it on its ear but also it's exactly what it is. I love that. And I didn't mention to you guys. We had mentioned before we started rolling. Next week I am leaving to do a trip to the Middle East with a group of psychologists, post-docs and trainees at the University where I am doing my internship right now. So we're going to be traveling to Jordan and spending some time in a university there to help train some students. We're going to be spending time in a shelter for women and children who are victims of violence and then we're also going to be spending I'm assuming the bulk of our time is going to be in a Syrian refugee camp. And we don't know yet about the influx of displaced individuals post earthquake. So there may be, obviously we just have to be kind of light on our feet and there may be some changes to our schedule. But we're going to be there mostly offering assessments and interventions like psychological assessments and interventions for these sensitive populations because they just really don't get nearly enough mental health support. So I will tell you guys obviously all about it when I get back. And I think I will be missing one recording.

S: Right right.

C: While I'm away.

S: So this is like Psychologists Without Borders, that sort of thing?

C: A little bit. Well you know that Doctors Without Borders has a psychologist section and that my hope is that once I'm licensed that's kind of one thing I would like to do with my career is spend some time working for Doctors Without Borders.

S: Yeah we'll definitely look forward to a full report when you get back.

C: Yeah.

Quickie with Jay (5:23)[edit]

S: Jay you're going to start us off with a quickie. We're going to give a little bit of an update about all these UFOs the government is shooting down.

E: Boom boom boom like Space Invaders, right?

J: So as you guys know, UFOs have been in the news again and oddly and sadly and and with a huge head of frustration they're growing in interest again. We've seen a lot of things change in the last 20 years since the internet. You get a couple of air balloons up there and the next thing you know the whole world is going nuts like thinking that they're from another planet or whatever. So what has happened recently if you haven't been reading the news is that there was a Chinese balloon, they claimed that it was a weather balloon but the U.S claims that it was a spy balloon. And the U.S shot it down and then there were three other. We can't call them balloons. I'm calling them airships. Three other things that the U.S has recently shot down. People are talking about it. There's been a lot of talk about whether or not these are alien spacecraft for Christ's sake. So what's going on here? So there's a little history behind actually the modern sentiment towards UFOs/UAPs whatever the hell you want to call them. This goes back to a U.S senator named Harry Reid about 15 years ago. Reid was very interested in UFOs and he started allocating budget so the Pentagon would have more more money to spend studying the "issue".

C: Really?

J: Yeah.

C: So that is Harry Reid?

E: Yeah Harry Reid.

S: Yeah, that's true.

E: He has been a long proponent of the extraterrestrial.

C: And it was from an extraterrestrial perspective, not like a we need military like I'm very concerned other you know, this is a-

J: It was kind of like a pet project of his, he was interested-

C: But he was interested because he thought they were aliens?

E: Because of alien, right. Aliens.

C: Not because it's a national security issue.

J: Yes.

E: Right.

J: Good clarification.

J: That's good. It was good, that's a good point. I didn't realize that it was unclear there. Yes this guy seems to be a UFO nut. Okay so in 2020 the U.S Navy released several videos that showed footage of UAPs. You guys remember this? We talked about this on the show. UAP means unidentified anomalous phenomenon-menonenon. So that happened in 2020 and then in 2021 the office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is in the United States, released an assessment of the government's files on UAPs. And in short this report didn't give the true believers the smoking gun that they wanted causing even more suspicion that the US government was hiding something. So there's this massive belief that the US is hiding all of this proof. And it's all coming out now, right Steve?

S: It's all coming in. I did hear an interview with with someone who was representing the government who said about the three, not the Chinese spy balloon but the three subsequent balloons that they shot down or whatever they are. They said that you know we're still investigated, at this point we only know one thing they're not aliens. That's the only thing she was willing to commit to.

J: So now you fast forward to today. US Government, they shutdown the Chinese spy balloon. They shot down these three other unidentified airships and there's a lack of information from the government on all these things because that's what they have to do. Anybody that's reasonable isn't going to be like how can they not tell us every single detail about all this stuff. It's very likely that there's something sensitive when it comes to national security with all this stuff. So they're not going to come out giving all their information which is a ridiculous idea to begin with. Because they're not being incredibly open about everything that there has, and there's any reason to think that probably the most unlikely thing that could happen in the world of physics would be an alien finding Earth, traveling to Earth and then remarkably and ridiculously letting balloons. Is this the height of alien technology? Is balloon technology?

B: Remarkable.

J: Right Bob? I mean if they came here they wouldn't be sending balloons into our atmosphere guys. It would be something cool.

S: But the thing is for the last 50 years or more they've been saying that why haven't they revealed themselves to us. Well they're biding their time. They're softening us up and letting us get used to the idea for 50 years. Of course they always think like they're just about to come out but it never ever happens because they don't exist.

E: See the pattern? See?

J: And as much as I would be horrified if aliens did visit the Earth there would be something extraordinarily remarkable about it and I'm not, I can't say I'm like, I mean am I against it? I don't know. I mean I guess in the big scheme of things I'd rather have it not happen because of the potential threat to the earth.

S: This it would it would either be the best or worst thing that ever happened to us.

E: As Carl Sagan said though. When it happens you'll have no doubt about what is going on.

S: Right.

E: It will not be mistaken for a balloon.

B: No subtle anal probes.

E: No blobsquatch. Right it's not gonna be anything like that. It's gonna be something more like maybe Independence Day for example. In which you have these 15 mile long ships overhead.

B: Although they won't be doing what those ships did because that was really stupid.

E: We hope not.

C: Because it was stupid.

E: We hope not. We hope not.

S: More like Arrival I would say.

J: And then, not that I want to talk about this schmuck but Uri Geller then opens up his mouth and is, I can't even understand what his point is.

B: He's still alive?

J: Yeah he's still alive.

S: But Jay he is a self-professed UFO expert.

J: Yeah.

S: So there you go.

J: I know it, yeah, don't doubt what he says.

C: This is the psychic surgery guy, right?

S: No not psychic surgery.

E: Spoon bender.

S: Spoon bender.

E: And the metal bender.

E: The mediocre close-up magician who presents himself as a psychic.

C: Gotcha gotcha gotcha.

J: Yeah. So what we have here is a very interesting situation where there's a lot of hardware up in the sky. That's basically it. That's what we're dealing with.

S: Yeah but the reports are that at any given moment there are thousands of balloons high altitude balloons with scientific experiments and other civilian stuff going on. As well as government stuff going on but totally benign. At any given time there's thousands up there.

E: Not to mention the runner away party balloon which does happen and does get mistaken as alien craft. Mick West did a video recently on just that in which this, someone was shooting video out of a, someone on a commercial airline. So they what, they traveled about 35-38 000 feet?

B: Something like that.

E: And something went, they had their phone on. They were recording out the window. Something went zipping by, oh my gosh, what was that at 38 000 feet? Well Mick West and his people were able to basically analyze the video and it was a party balloon. In fact they found the website in which the cells that exact party balloon "Happy graduation" or whatever it said on it. But when you're up at that altitude, you're going that fast and you're passing something at those speeds of 400-500 miles per hour and it goes zipping by-yeah you could mistake something like that easily as some sort of alien craft that's zipped by your plane.

C: Right because when you hear hooves think aliens.

E: But my point is even these party balloons can get up to the altitudes, cruising altitudes for commercial planes which approaches not quite but up to 40 000 feet.

News Items[edit]

On-Demand Male Contraceptive (13:18)[edit]

S: All right Cara tell us about this male contraceptive.

C: Yes. Okay so (laughter) Male contraceptives. This is quite a controversial, I don't know, is it controversial? I'm curious just I want to pull you peoples. When was the last time that a male contraceptive hit the market?

E: You mean like a new invention a new-

B: 12 years ago?

E: A new product?

C: Hit the market. That actually hit the market.

J: A decade ago.

B: Actually hit it?

C: Male contraceptive.

E: You mean the prophylactic, the condom?

B: Any kind.

C: Yes. Yes Evan, it was the condom.

B: 20 years?

C: No. The condom.

B: Oh, Jesus.

E: Condoms has been around for thousands a years.

B: That was the last time?

C: Yeah probably 100 like a couple hundred years ago yes when they started to be marketed.

B: I've read of multiple attempts but I guess none of them.

C: Multiple attempts, no successes. Yeah so the condom and what is the other option available to men?

B: Abstinence?

E: Vasectomy.

C: Abstinence (laughs).

B: Which works very well thank you.

C: The condom and vasectomy are basically the two options available to sperm producing individuals to prevent pregnancy. So all of the contraceptive options that are, not all, but condoms and vasectomy are there for those with the uterus, right? So it's really incumbent on the individual who can get pregnant to take the steps to prevent the pregnancy. At least that's how the system has worked for a very very long time. But of course there are a lot of scientists who are interested in developing male contraceptives. And so before I talk about this new possibility that we may see on the horizon which is the news article that I'm citing I actually did a little bit of a dive into what else is in the works. And so there's some kind of interesting things that are being studied right now. Probably the most promising is a hormonal option that was developed I think at the University of Washington and it's a gel. They said it's about the consistency of hand sanitizer. It's a clear gel.

E: Is it a spermicide?

C: No. It's to be rubbed on the shoulders.

E: Interesting. So it's topical.

C: It's a topical gel that actually because it's a hormonal gel it actually interrupts the signals between the brain and the testes and basically reduces the sperm count. And once it gets below a certain threshold then pregnancy is no longer possible. Now the problem or maybe one of the downsides of an approachment is that it's you have to use it daily for a long period of time before it becomes effective.

E: You build it up.

C: Just like the pill, right? You can't just take the pill once, you have to take that every day, it's the only way it'll work. But that looks like we're probably about, how long do you think we are from that probably hitting the market?

J: A very long time.

C: Maybe about five to ten years.

B: What's the projected efficacy?

C: They're still working on the efficacy. They know that it's safe, they're working on the efficacy now. And so it's still in clinical trials. We're still far off target. What may actually come to market faster though is not a drug. It's a non-hormonal approach that's not technically a drug. It would technically be called a medical device and FDA approval for medical devices is just faster than it is, the process is faster than drug trials are. So it may be that even though this is less far along it has the potential to hit the market sooner and it's actually a hydrogel kind of like a little plug that gets inserted into the vas deferens. And it's sort of an alternative to vasectomy because even though vasectomy is fast and cheap and relatively low risk it's not always reversible. Whereas this hydrogel would be reversible. So it'd be basically like plugging the vas deferens, now sperm that's produced and and kind of working its way out is going to be blocked before it gets to the urethra and yeah that reduces the risk of pregnancy there. So that may make it to market before even the topical. There are also pills that are being developed and there are injections that are being developed. Now they all have their pluses and their minuses. Part of the reason why do you guys think we don't have a male birth control?

J: Well I would think that it's because because men don't want to-

E: Don't want to limit their-

J: It's a selfish thing, you know?

C: Yeah but what's selfish? Why? What about birth control [inaudible].

J: They don't want to be inconvenienced.

C: So you think it's about a convenience? But do you think that's enough reason that something wouldn't have made it to market yet?

J: I honestly don't know I mean I would just think first that there would be it would be a selfish thing where they're conscious or unconscious by men.

E: Or they've done research showing that 99.99 of men don't want anything to do with this.

C: Okay.

E: Something like a marketing or for economic reasons it wouldn't it would never pay off.

C: That's a really open question still right now actually. And then uh Bob I heard you and I don't think you were trying to be funny but what did you say in the background there?

B: It's hard? It's hard to do.

S: It's difficult.

C: It's difficult. It's difficult to develop a male birth control because they're very different systems. So individuals who produce sperm produce literally millions of them a day and the testosterone cycle is just different. Individuals who produce eggs have a monthly cycle and there's a window of ovulation and there's also a window of the ability to to ovulate. Physically there are years in which those who produce eggs produce eggs and ovulate and after which they they go through menopause and they no longer can get pregnant. And also let's talk about risk benefit and this is the part that actually peeves me a little bit but I get it at the same time. Who carries the highest risk when it comes to pregnancy?

B: What do you mean? Women.

E: I mean wouldn't it be women?

C: Yeah the person who's going to carry-

E: Yes the egg-

C: Exactly. So who carries the highest risk? The person who actually has a risk of potential harm or death from the pregnancy itself.

E: Sure.

C: And the men or those producing sperm do not carry that risk unfortunately. If you're looking at them as individual discrete entities the onus and the burden has always been on those who actually carry the child and so the choices have always been on those who carry the child. But a lot of researchers are starting to say we need to stop looking at individual people as discrete entities and we need to start looking at couples as dyads. Because yes the risk benefit analysis, the bar has to be really high. We're talking almost no side effects because most men wouldn't put up with any side effects because why take that risk if the benefit is not there, right? They're not carrying the child.

B: Right, right.

C: And so that's always been the calculus but now a lot of researchers are calling for a more dyad focused approach. That some of the risk benefit that's being borne by the person producing sperm is to protect the person who carries the child because it's a dyad now as opposed to just looking at the individual. So lots to consider as I dive into you the this kind of newest flavor of what they're calling a male contraceptive. And they're actually calling it an on-demand male contraceptive and that's why this is sort of really enticing. We are very far away from this ever potentially hitting the market. This has only been studied in mice. So keep that in mind this is an experimental study we have not even gone to human trials yet. But it's really cool. So this drug is actually basically it targets, there's an enzyme called soluble adenyl cyclase. An adenolol cyclase, soluble adenolol cyclase is sort of like the signal that tells sperm to swim. So if it's blocked the sperm stops swimming. And when sperm don't swim sperm don't fertilize eggs. And they found that this worked, when they gave it to the mice it worked within 30 minutes to an hour and it was a hundred percent effective within the first two hours. And then the effectiveness starts to weigh. I think it dropped down to 91 within hour three and then after 24 hours the sperm was completely normal again. So the hope here, and this is pie in the sky because we have no idea if this is going to work in people. We have no idea if this is going to have all sorts of side effects but the hope here is a single non-hormonal pill that works in under an hour and lasts 6 to 12 hours. And this has so many good things going for it if it works. Number one, as the person who has the potential to carry the child you observe your sexual partner take the pill in front of you. It has that same thing that condoms have where it's like I don't need to trust that you've been doing this every day because I just saw you do it and I know how it works.

B: And you can't slyly not take the pill in mid-act.

C: Right exactly like I guess you could but obviously it's gonna really give that kind of sense of comfort to the partner. And also it's fully reversible. In the mice so far it doesn't seem to have long-term effects. They do know that men, like actual human men who are infertile who had their adenyl cyclase enzymes switched off permanently as like a I guess a experimental treatment they had an increased rate of kidney stones. But the researchers are like yeah but that was a permanent change to the enzyme. This is impermanent it's only going to be when they take the pill so they're not even all that concerned about that. But we're sort of jumping ahead because we're still just talking about mice. They hope that they're going to hold human trials within three years so we're still probably talking about a decade away from an actual product to be on the market. But if it can pass all of the steps which is a huge huge if it's really interesting this idea of an on-demand pill. And going back to what you were talking about Evan, will men take this? I think they'd be much more likely to take this type of birth control. Viagra is a big big seller and so I think pharmaceutical companies would actually bite because it's also hard to get pharmaceutical companies interested in contraceptive products for those who produce sperm because there is a big question of are they even going to use it and are they going to use it appropriately. Because we always talk about even with birth control pills now. It's 90 whatever seven percent effective when used as directed.

E: Well, right.

C: You have to take it.

E: But isn't there a threshold? I mean it's one thing to put on a condom. It's another thing to rub medicine onto you that's going to impact your hormones. So these are two different things.

C: Wildly different, absolutely.

E: And therefore people, a sperm producing person might think, maybe have some reservations about it.

C: Absolutely. And I mean it's so cringy and I find myself always having to bite my tongue as somebody who has been on birth control my entire life and dealt with the ridiculous side effects that can come from birth control that it's just like a necessary evil that so many of us are willing to take. And then I have to remember it's because ultimately, sadly, biologically we also carry the vast majority of the risk. But it would be nice if we started to see that an appreciation of the fact that that risk is actually shared and that those who produce sperm, their life is affected too.

E: Oh yes.

C: Sadly it's probably a little bit easier for them to issue responsibility in that situation but absolutely their life is affected too. And so kind of moving into that view of the dyad could be a new way to approach this problem. But hey this on-demand pill sounds really cool. So fingers crossed because I think just the more options available that are safe and effective the better.

E: That's for sure.

S: Yeah I think it's a complicated question in terms of why but I think you hit upon one major reason is that since women are the ones who are at risk of getting pregnant they need to know.

C: Absolutely we need to know. And so it is really worrisome. Even if a guy told me that he had, I mean not anymore since I don't have of a uterus but back in the day even if a partner told me that he had a vasectomy, I might be more like okay I believe you. But maybe I'll want to see the paperwork. But he was like yeah I rubbed this gel on my shoulders every day don't worry you can't get pregnant I'd be like uh-huh, you're still using it a condom.

E: Well because I mean there are other reasons to use console.

C: Also, yes absolutely there are other reasons to use condoms.

E: Disease mitigation.

C: I more mean, do whatever, I'm talking about a situation in which those reasons are less of a concern. I just don't know if I would trust that that a dude would do that every day. There's no way for me to know.

S: Yeah yeah. All right thanks Cara.

C: Yep.

Mask Update (26:59)[edit]

S: So guys I want to give you a bit of a update on wearing masks to prevent covid.

B: Oh boy.

S: Yeah. The question that seems to never go away. Now I'm writing about this because there was a recent Cochrane systematic review of a blinded controlled trials. And they concluded that the evidence is not sufficient to conclude that masks work.

E: So the conclusion was inconclusive?

S: No that's the way you have to state it. They basically said they don't work.

C: Or that we don't have enough evidence to say that they work?

B: What are you talking about?

S: Yeah what am I talking about? So this study of course has gone all over the right wing media and has is now the go-to link for all people on the anti-masker or masking skeptic side.

C: It's so sad there's a word for it. Anti-masker.

S: Yeah. So I've had this link thrown at me a dozen times in the last couple of weeks just in the comments on various blog posts. But it's a good example of how to like evaluate a study to decide is what this really saying and how does this fit into the overall picture of the evidence. I think the most common way the study is misrepresented, and this has been by both journalists and commenters as people in the street, is that it shows that mask mandates don't work. Actually didn't even look at the data on mask mandates. But you might be saying but Steve if masks don't work how could mask mandates work? They're actually two completely different questions. It's possible that masks work but mandates don't. It's also possible that masks don't work but mandates do, because it changes people's behavior in other ways.

B: Right.

S: People who wear masks may also socially distance or avoid crowds or they might think this means the epidemic is bad otherwise there wouldn't be a mandate so I better engage in this other good behavior. So that's why. But having said that let's just back up a little bit and put this one study into perspective. So let's talk a little bit about the different kinds of evidence. If we're going to ask the question do masks work. Specifically do masks reduce the risk of contracting covid-19 we could broaden that to do they work to reduce the risk of catching respiratory viruses. We could focus that a little bit more and say respiratory viruses that spread through droplets versus aerosolized spread. So the droplets would be the way covid-19 spreads. We could look at just physically what's happening with masks. We could look at controlled studies. We could look at observational studies. We could look at epidemiological data like population based data. So let's look at these different kinds of evidence and see what we find. So first of all does wearing a face mask reduce the spread of droplets? And therefore the spread of viruses and people who are sick and are breathing and coughing or whatever. And the answer is clearly yes. So if we just look at like does it affect the droplet spread the answer is yes. Surgical masks work better than cloth masks. N95 masks work better than surgical masks in terms of just reducing droplets. The spray of droplets is much reduced. So just from a basic science plausibility perspective it seems like it should reduce the risk of spreading infected droplets. Does it work to actually reduce the risk of contracting respiratory illnesses or covid-19. Here the data is mixed and it depends on how you look at it. Well why would it be mixed? Either it works or it doesn't work. Well, how do we define works in a research study. There has to be a statistically significant effect. And one of the ways that an effect size may be too small to reach statistical significance is that the thing that you're treating is too rare. Because there's there is there's only so much of an effect size to have. That's basically what in my opinion why antidepressants clearly work for major depression but it's hard to show that they work from mild to moderate depression.

C: I also think it's a function of the they're being heterogeneity in the population of people that they're trying to treat.

S: Yeah absolutely. But just on the, well there's much less of an effect size to have therefore you need many more people, much larger studies to reach statistical significance. So just it's an artifact of just the baseline. Pre-covid, and we talked about this interestingly pre-covid, the data on masks in the general population generally did not show statistical significance because if you're just walking around the general population your risk of catching a respiratory virus is so low. Just that baseline, there's not much of a benefit to get from wearing a mask and therefore it's hard to detect even if it was highly effective you would need to do massive studies to show it. Statistically significantly.

B: Expensive, massive studies.

S: That's one thing we have to think about. What was the risk of the population that they were studying? What was the baseline risk? If it was low then that might obscure the effectiveness of the masks. We also have to ask well how are they determining whether the masks are effective or not? Meaning, are they counting self-reported cases of the flu or covid or whatever? Are they only doing laboratory confirmed cases? Are they using epidemiological data, population based data to see just how many people are getting admitted to hospitals or are being diagnosed with it. What is their end point that they're using. And then you can ask okay well are you are you tracking are people wearing the masks properly? If masks work when worn properly but everyone's wearing it around their chin then as a public health intervention they don't work, right? So what are you trying to ask? Are you doing an intention to treat analysis where you're saying what's the efficacy of telling people to wear a mask versus what's the efficacy of people actually wearing a mask properly. So because all these different studies are actually asking different questions and looking at different kinds of data, looking at the data in different ways they come up with different answers. All right so what kind of studies did this recent Cochrane review look at. So first it looked at very heterogeneous set of situations. A lot of times the studies were involved were in hospital settings, some were in the general population. Some were not during the pandemic, some were during other respiratory virus outbreaks, so not during covid-19. Some were of covid-19. But they did restrict it to controlled interventions which is good but it also excludes a lot of data. Because a lot of the studies they included looked at situations where there was a low Baseline risk of getting an illness, meaning it wasn't during a pandemic. They probably would not show a statistically significant effect. The lead author on the trial by the way is a guy who's basically already on record as being dubious of mask wearing. Also dubious of the flu vaccine. This guy Tom Jefferson.

C: That's really worrisome.

S: Yeah it's very worrisome.

E: So he had a bit of an agenda to it?

S: Yeah. Not the most objective guy to be put in charge of this review.

C: And the truth is when you're doing a meta-analysis or like a huge systematic review you can't blind yourself to it. You can't. There's going to be bias in how you interpret because when you do a systematic review or meta-analysis you are the arbiter of what goes into the analysis and what gets thrown out because the data is not good enough.

S: Yeah and it certainly seemed like a lot of cherry picking to me to be honest with you. I wrote about this on Science-Based Medicine so you could go you go very deep into the analysis of it. So it's really not a great study. It really didn't address the question. It didn't address the question of mandates. It really used a biased sampling I think of studies looking at ones where we don't expect masks to show a statistically significant effect. The only one they've really looked at in a hospital setting where people would be at high risk compared surgical masks to N95s but not to no mask.

B: What? Why wouldn't that be tossed? Geez.

S: Well you could see why they wouldn't do that. You wouldn't randomize people to not wearing any mask during a pandemic but that's fine. But then you can't conclude that masks don't work because it could mean that the difference between a surgical mask and an N95 was not enough in order to see a statistically significant difference. Plus we're talking about healthcare professionals who let me tell you are careful in other ways. Having been in a room with a patient with documented covid I could tell you we're damn careful. And I managed to get through all of my inpatient service over two years without getting covid from the hospital because of all the things that we do and I could 100% see why I wouldn't make that much of a difference if you wore one kind of mask or another although we all we always wore N95s. So this is like a typical thing, you obscure an effect because you're doing a lot of other things. It's like the healthy population effect. You're basically minimizing your risk or you're taking a whole bunch of other effective treatments. The one treatment you're trying to isolate is going to be diluted out, you're not going to see a statistically significant effect. So it really wasn't a great review but it also did not look at all kinds of data, especially the kinds of data that show that masks do work. So for example let's look at the data on mask mandates, which is really what we're talking about here right. We want to know what should the what should policies be around it. And the data there is actually the among the most solid that mask mandates work. United States alone, we have 50 states, that's 50 experiments. And you could compare a lot of data about states that like otherwise had similar populations or similar exposures or whatever. And you could look not only can you compare one state with a mandate to another one without a mandate. You can compare a state to itself pre and post mandate and also after lifting the mandate. So it's like multiple times over and over again we get to see in multiple different states what happens when we initiate a mandate. What happens when we ease up the regulations. And there's a very clear signal that infection rates and hospitalizations plummet when you have a mask mandate in place. And they go back up when you remove it. And the data shows that pretty clearly. It's almost to the point of well who cares if it's the mask almost because it's the clearly.

B: Something's working.

S: Clearly the policy works. We also have the fact that the flu basically went away for two years during the covid pandemic. That whatever we were doing completely prevented the spread of the flu. Like 99%, the numbers dropped to almost flatline.

C: And then am I wrong or did it come roaring back?

S: It came roaring back. Mainly because we lifted the restrictions. People are not doing the things that we were doing during the pandemic. But also we lost two years of exposure so we're a little bit more of a vulnerable population. So there's a there's actually a rebound effect.

C: But it was probably a behavioral rebound effect too.

S: Yeah, maybe.

C: Where people would be so tired of being smart and careful that now they're just like not at all.

S: And if you look at population based data it also shows a pretty robust effect. About a 19% decrease in the reproduction number, the R number of spreading the virus around. So pretty robust data to show that masks work physically, they work at a population level, they work at a mandate level. Especially when combined with social distancing. And also here's another thing the review only looked at the person wearing the mask getting sick. It did not at all look at the effect of people who are sick wearing masks. But we know that it works both ways and it's most effective when everyone's masked. Including the spreader and the spreadee. But the data did not look at that at all. So again it's another big hole in the data here.

C: I mean that's like the general usage in in most Asian countries. That's kind of obviously, you don't want to get sick all the time but you also you know wouldn't have a good quality of life if you had to wear a mask 24/7. So to be safe when you're sick wear a mask.

S: Definitely when you're sick.

E: Or stay home.

S: When you're sick, yeah.

E: Don't go to the office.

S: Isolate and wear a mask, absolutely.When you're in crafts it's also, during a pandemic it's also a good idea to wear a mask or during flu season or whatever. If you're a vulnerable population you should be more aggressive in wearing a mask and distancing. So I think if you look at all the data not just this one crappy review which really isn't a very good review and is very narrow and it's the way it was looking at the data and its conclusions. It doesn't show that masks don't work. But I think what we can conclude if we look at all the data is that wearing a mask when you're in public during a high risk of spread reduces the risk of getting a respiratory virus and of spreading a respiratory virus if you're somebody who's carrying. Also during a pandemic of a respiratory virus mask mandates are an effective public health measure, that's a pretty clear thing. And if you look at all the data I think that there is a dose response curve where N95 masks work the best and cloth masks not so much, surgical masks somewhere in the middle. But the most important thing is how you're wearing the mask. It has to cover your nose and the mouth and it has to have a good fit. Assuming it's like the kind of mask that's a mask that's effective in preventing droplet spread at all, right? So it can't just be like this wispy cloth mask. It has to be a good mask and you've got to wear it properly. Especially when you combine it with social distancing, it's extremely effective. But of course the anti-maskers now have their Cochrane review that they could point to, to make their dubious claims. Which they are all over the internet now. Which is unfortunate.

E: Shame.

S: And again it's like, it takes you this long to explain why it doesn't say what they say it's saying.

E: Right.

B: So what do you say when someone throws a link at you and you don't want to spend 20 minutes?

S: Well now I just linked to my Science-Based Medicine article.

E: That's Science-Based Medicine, baby. Go there. I go there. It's one of my first go-to's when it comes to these kind of questions.

S: One sentence reply and a link. Partly why I wrote it because I wanted to just have it there. But yeah, it's tricky. And of course a lot of people email me you go how do I know if this study is legitimate or not? It's tricky, it's hard.

E: That is a fair question.

S: It's not easy, there's no one simple trick to know if it's good or not. There's a bunch of red flags you could look at but you have to have a basic working knowledge of how evidence works. How scientific evidence works.

E: And just because something's Cochrane don't it's not necessary appropriate.

S: There's a lot of crap.

E: Lancet!

S: A lot of crap comes out of the Cochrane reviews.

E: Lancet, we've seen problems with that, we've seen, it happens everywhere so you can't just go by the publication.

C: It's such a hard thing about reading complicated scientific literature. It's at a certain point you have to kind of have done the work to be a scientist to be able to read complicated scientific literature.

B: That's when you defer to consensus.

E: Right and therefore almost everybody is non-qualified. And you have to defer to the experts.

C: There is a certain point where unfortunately we have to say, how do you, these are some tools and tricks but ultimately what is the gold standard, have the skill to read the article. Which you're never going to be able to do because you spent your entire career training for something else.

S: And even experts can get it wrong if they have a bias. Because you could say where do you set your threshold of evidence? You could always arbitrarily set it higher and think I'm just requiring good evidence, evidentiary standards. But if you are biased in where you set that standard you could make anything seem negative. Because everything's always relative.

C: Which is why it's also so important to have a good understanding of philosophy not just science.

S: That's true.

J: Good point Cara.

E: And be aware of your own biases.

Rogue Blackhole (44:05)[edit]

S: All right Bob tell us about this rogue black hole tearing through the universe.

B: So what do you call-

E: What?

B: -what do you call a supermassive black hole combined with Steve's co-hosts?

S: Rogue black hole.

E: Supermassive black hole rogue.

B: Which is what astronomers have likely discovered because it seems to be creating stars in its wake as it rushes away from its former home galaxy. This is from researchers from Canada, Australia and the USA. Specifically Pieter van Dokkum, professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University. Steve tell him I said hi.

S: Will do.

B: Supermassive black holes they're, we've talked about them before. They're among the most massive black holes in existence from hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of our sun. With potential event horizons rivaling the scale of our solar system. Truly magnificent things. You may hear the term ultra massive black holes. Some astronomers use that to refer to black holes greater than 5 billion although it's not standard but I think it should be because I like it.

E: Is there an uber massive black hole?

B: No, there isn't. Ultra would be nice if that became if I came into uh wide use. So super massive black holes, they're commonly found domicile that the centers of galaxies. That's pretty much where you always hear of them. But there are scenarios that could allow them to be unceremoniously ejected elevating themselves to rogue status. And this can happen in multiple ways but all of those ways start with a galaxy merger. And these happen all the time. Our very own Milky Way has undergone at least five major mergers in history that we can detect. Sure there have been more. All right so now so we're talking about merging galaxies to start off this this talk about rogue supermassive black holes. So where's the fun in two merging galaxies. It's really not in the stars. It's really the real action, the real action happens when the two central black holes come close enough during the merger to start their ever-shrinking orbital dance. That dance releases gravitational waves which are stolen from their angular and their linear momentum drawing them ever closer and closer ending in a merger. And that merger emits the now famous and distinctive chirp that our gravitational wave detectors can now see. Did you know that this orbit emerging process can also result in what's called a black hole kick? Ever hear of a black hole kick? I had not.

E: No.

B: Or it's also called the gravitational radiation recoil. Fascinating. That can happen when a black hole, when two black holes that emerge they have certain asymmetries. Say from like mass is one example. That can cause the gravitational radiation that's released to be in a preferred direction and kind of acting like a rocket of sorts and that could fairly easily cause a newly merged black hole to reach escape velocity from a low mass globular cluster. If you look at these globular clusters a lot of them don't have central black holes. This may be the reason why they don't but they're low mass and it's kind of relatively easy to be ejected it. Very rarely something happens that's it's a black hole kick but it's called the super kick and it's it's a much more energetic one as you could imagine. And that could cause a supermassive black hole to get to, get this, 5 000 kilometers per second is how fast it could eject a supermassive black hole. This isn't like a planet. This is like a supermassive black hole traveling like I'm gonna start going at 5 000 kilometers per second, thank you. Flying out of having enough escape velocity to escape a large galaxy becoming a rogue. So how cool is that.

E: It depends, is that thing going to destroy us? That's not cool.

B: But the thing is as cool as that is and I wanted to go in a little detail because that's so fascinating that's very rare. The most likely cause of a rogue supermassive black hole is probably the same binary pair that are merging and doing their dance but sometimes they orbit each other so long it could be a billion years potentially. They turn, it becomes a threesome when yet another galaxy merger happens and then you have three supermassive black holes in orbit. And these three body interactions, they're obviously fun but sometimes one of them gets jealous and the next thing you know one of them is hightailing it out of the out of the galaxy at high velocity to become a rogue supermassive black hole. That's how they think it it happens most often. Okay so then how do you detect one of these guys. It's not easy-

E: Stars.

B: Yeah but if you're ejected from a galaxy, what's really around you? You're not going to have all these stars zipping around you like we're there at the center. So it's not easy to detect them but it's doable. One way is to see its interaction with the CGM. Now it's a new initialism for you CGM and it does not stand for computer generated meatballs. It stands for circumgalactic medium.

C: I like that.

B: I don't remember we're coming across that before. A circumgalactic medium. And that's the area that immediately surrounds a galaxy. There's the the diffuse gas that's between the stars just doesn't end at the edge of the apparent galaxy. It doesn't end right there. It slowly thins out like Earth's atmosphere. It slowly thins out so you can have a huge area around a galaxy that's about 200 times more dense than the truly extra galactic space that's much farther out. So you've got this dense but hard to detect area and so what the researchers found from the Hubble Space Telescope images was essentially an unidentified linear feature in the CGM. It's a line basically. So they hypothesize that this line or linear feature could be the wake of a rogue black hole that was essentially plowing through the relatively dense ionized gas in this circumgalactic medium. So you got that? It's ejected from the galaxy, it's going through this circumgalactic medium and it's creating a wake. It's so massive that it's creating a wake even within this relatively you know kind of diffuse gas. It's creating a wake behind it that's detected as this linear feature this line within the CGM. So that's what they detected. But detecting a linear feature in a hubble space image isn't very persuasive in and of itself so of course you had to look deeper. So they looked for another feature that their models predict uh in the wake and one of those and what's predicted was these knots of shocked gas that can cool and form stars. So this gas is plowed into and within the wake itself you can have these areas of shocked gas that kind of does that just cools down and has changed in some ways so that it can cool and form stars. So not only when they looked, not only did they find these star knots which I love that word. I think I made it up myself but I may have come across it. So they found these star are nuts but not only that they were the right age and they had the right metallicity and even the dust quantities that they detected were all expected when they went to their models and they've determined what should they have. They were pretty much right around where they needed to be. So fairly, more than fairly convincing, that's pretty convincing. But of course they wanted to be even more confident so they realized that they would have to look back at the galaxy itself and they realized that if a supermassive black hole was ejected at high velocity from the center of a galaxy there should be detectable morphological changes within the galaxy. It's going to leave a path. It's going to have some effect and when they looked at the galaxy that's exactly what they found. They found these weird patterns and things happen to the galaxy that could have been happened by a supermassive black hole being ejected. It kind of made sense. So what else was left for them to do? Well one other thing that all good scientists should do is they you look at other possible explanations. And they looked at them for example black hole jets could potentially cause some of what they're seeing. Black hole jets could cause shocked gas in the CGM and it could also create stars but they looked at that and they ruled out the jets. There were many many reasons why the black hole jets couldn't explain what they were seeing. So a black hole, a rogue black hole interpretation fits the observations better than anything else. So what are they going to do in the future. It's interesting advance and interesting paper but it's not perfect. What could make it better? And what could make this better is to prove this rogue supermassive black hole theory is unambiguous evidence of the black hole itself. In all of this stuff I've talked about never found the smoking gun, there's the actual supermassive black hole itself. And if they did find it that would pretty much later rest. It would be like yep this is it. They found a supermassive, they found a rogue supermassive black hole. This is fairly definitive at this point even though they're, I think they're quite certain now but I think they would definitely be maximally certain if they found that. And that would be really cool because a rogue billion solar mass black hole cruising through space giving birth to stars in its wake is just kind of awesome and I want these things to be real so I hope they are.

E: Okay but not too close to us.

B: We're safe, we're safe. That would be cool though if in any of the mergers that the milky way had that we had another supermassive black hole that was ejected. And imagine if we if we found it at some point like look over there, there's a supermassive black hole that was probably ejected from the milky way, that would have been cool. But I think most of our mergers have been with dwarf galaxies so I don't think they would have exceptionally huge supermassive black holes. But still it would be cool.

S: I wonder what percentage of the intergalactic stars were formed intergalactically by things like that versus just ejected from galaxies.

B: Well I mean they couldn't get too far away because once you're outside the CGM though then there probably wouldn't be enough of the gas available to cause a wake that would get formed into those star knots. I think you'd have to be within the CGM to make that happen. At any in extra galactic stars, that's what you're talking about?

S: Yeah.

B: They're just probably rogue stars that were ejected-

S: That was also my [inaudible].

Who's That Noisy? (54:42)[edit]

S: All right Jay it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: All right guys last week I played this noisy:

[electric stuttering]

So as predicted an unbelievable amount of people emailed me to give me the almost completely correct answer of what this noise is. There's a little details in there that most people don't know. I didn't know it before I researched this. So Evil Eye sends in he says: "The original emergency alert system tone when it had a different name." So that is not correct.

S: I could see why he would say that though.

J: I could too. I thought about it and I definitely, it's almost for some reason this sound is like saying flood, tornado, you know what I mean? It has an emergency kind of ring to it but that that is not correct. Another listener named Bonnie Jean wrote in and said: "That's the sound dial up internet made when it was connecting" I could see why you would think that but that is also not correct. So I'm going to go right to the the winner now because I just like I said, everybody and their dog got this one correct in one way or the other. So let me give you the winning entry was, the winning entry was sent in by a listener named Chris and Chris said: "Isn't that the noise the computer speaker used to make when your mobile phone went off near it?"

S: Yes. That's right.

E: So interference, right.

J: To explain what Chris is saying. So in the early version of cell phones, we're talking about versions one and two I believe, the clamshell one was it was a popular phone at the time. Or the Nokia, that little Nokia phone.

E: The original flip phone?

J: Yeah the Nokia that I'm referring to isn't the flip phone but it's basically those first small phones that we had and compared to what we have today they were complete garbage. So what would happen is before a text or the phone rang that noise, this noise would be heard [plays Noisy] and what that is is it's actually quite interesting. So I got a wonderful explanation from a listener named Michael Roblewski and Michael said: "Hi everyone this is my first time answering. As a guy in his 40s this brings back mixed memories. This answer comes courtesy from my dad Nick who spent the majority of his career working with mobile phones based stations in Australia. I may have misinterpreted some parts of the explanation so that's on me." So here's his explanation: "Essentially this noisy occurs when a mobile phone is measuring the signal strength and handing it off to different base stations while determining the best base station to connect to. While searching for the strongest available signal the phone making the call tries to push through competing signals starting at maximum power before making a connection then reducing it to a level that still carries a stable connection." This is why we hear and felt the pulsing or that noise that I played. "The sound from the noisy are commonly associated with the old gsm network. Subsequent networks still operate in the same way but at much higher frequencies so we don't notice it occurring." In essence back in I mean what were we talking about here guys like the early 2000s?

E: Oh yes.

J: 2007-ish I think when we all had these early versions of cell phones in our hands.

S: Even the 90s, late 90s.

J: I think the thing that needed to happen though was you needed to be near something that had a speaker. The noise didn't happen over the phone, it would come through whatever speaker you had and at that time, if you remember, a lot of us had computer speakers. I don't really, I don't have a computer speaker anymore I have headphones and I have more advanced gear than what we were using almost 20 years ago. And then you would hear that pulsing noise come through the speaker of your monitor speaker or the speakers that you have on your desk or even on your TV, it just depends on what was around that could pick up that that extra strong pulse signal that was being sent to establish a connection. So very interesting. There's a lot of science behind this. It's not just your cell phone making noise. There's a really interesting explanation behind the whole thing which I found to be kind of fun. I never knew what the hell it was just kind of took it for granted and then when it suddenly went away. All of a sudden that sound is not a part of our landscape anymore and we all kind of just forgot about it. Those of us who did hear it back in the day who had phones back then. So sounds come and go.

E: They do, like the dial up bod connector, the modem connector from what? 1994? That whole sound.

J: Yeah, the late 90s. That sound-

E: Yeah, ask someone who's 20 years old today to tell us what that sound is. They won't know.

J: You know and I forgot to say the guy's name last week that sent in the noisy that was sent in by Jeffrey Tune. Thank you Jeffrey. Very cool noise, thanks for the reminiscing sound.

New Noisy (59:37)[edit]

J: I have a new sound for you guys this week. The noisy for this week was sent in by a listener named Phil Wyman.

[repetitive clunking]

J: If you think you know what this week's Noisy is or if you heard something cool. Somebody out there heard something cool. Somewhere. Email me at

Announcements (1:00:07)[edit]

J: Steve.

S: Yes.

J: So after much discussion among the SGU crew we have picked a date for a very interesting show that we are doing. And this show is for our patrons. The first hour of this show is going to be specifically just for our patrons where we will do patron secret stuff that only the patrons will know. And then the next five hours will be open to the public. This is a live streaming event. It's not quite an endurance show that like we've done in the past. We've done 24 hours, we've done 12 hours. This is going to be a six hour live stream.

E: Yes.

J: And the bulk of the material that will be in this live stream is going to be offbeat stuff that the SGU is doing. It's not going to be us talking about what we typically talk about which are news items and things like that. We will be recording one podcast during that six hour time period. All the other stuff that we do is going to be other stuff. Stuff that you may not have heard us do before or discussions that you've never had us have. It'll be a lot more like the Friday live stream except more on rails. We'll have things more mapped out. And we'll have bits that we've created and things like that. So we're writing the show right now. We absolutely are going to have some guests which I am not ready to announce but things are in the works.

E: I'm going to eat a ghost pepper. And then cry.

J: Evan I love you too much to let you ever do that. I saw a video of a guy do that and he almost he looked like he was being dehydrated from the inside.

S: Evan you said it now you got to do it. You can't tease the audience with that.

J: Oh god don't ever eat those things, why do people do that?

E: I will eat what appears to be a ghost pepper.

B: Oh, nice.

E: Made from real cherry candies.

J: Evan you will not be eating a ghost pepper in front of me in the same room. I don't want to be near a human when they go through that.

E: You'll have sympathetic burning pain for the person going through that.

J: I will be in excruciating mental anguish watching someone do what. Oh god it's terrible I don't know why people do it.

E: Can't even think about.

J: Forget about it.

E: But the point is you're going to see things that are special. Unique. Never done before.

J:Yeah, we'll do some fun stuff. We'll do some wacky stuff and we want to make people laugh and just have fun and so I'm really looking forward to it. So the date. The date is going to be May 20th. May 20th will start somewhere around 11 A.M eastern time just so people from different time zones will have a chance to tune in. All of these things are unlikely to change but but if they do we'll let you know. So May 20th starting 11 A.M eastern time we will be doing a six hour show. Remember the first hour will be patron only. If you're interested then become a patron and you can join us for that first hour.

S: Thank you Jay. All right guys well we have a great interview coming up with Richard Wiseman, so let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Richard Wiseman (1:03:02)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Professor Richard Wiseman. Richard welcome back to the SGU.

RW: A pleasure. Always a pleasure to be here.

B: Yay Richard's here!

E: Yay.

S: We're going to chat about a bunch of stuff. But we are having you on now because of your latest book which I believe you published under the nom de plume of Dickie Wise, is that correct?

RW: Dickie Wise is my new name. Yes, that's right. I'll be doing all my future books-

S: Under Dickie Wise?

RW: We should tell folks, yeah, so an MC one said to me, do you mind how you introduced, I said no, they said ladies and gentlemen please welcome Dickie Wise. And I walked onto the sound of my own footsteps. I walked off to the sound of my own footsteps actually. So after that whenever presenter said do you mind how you introduce I've always actually looked quite closely at what they're going to say about me. Because of the Dickie Wise incident.

E: They thought they were being funny I assume?

RW: Yeah they were being quite funny, in the sense that they enjoyed it and at least two people in the audience laughed. (Bob laughs)

E: Okay well what beat their expectations.

RW: And the problem is those are two or three people in the audience that knew me, I have become Dicky Wise to them and this was a couple of years ago and and I will always be Dickie Wise. So even now I'm regretting telling you this. The next Skeptics conference I'm gonna be Dicky Wise, aren't I?

S: Yeah what were you thinking of telling us?

RW: I know, I know.

J: Richard I promise never to call you Dicky Wise.

RW: Thank you. Not to my face. But behind my back I will always be Dickie Wise.

S: I make no such promises. So the book is called Hocus Pocus. It does say professor Richard Wiseman presents Hocus Pocus magic mystery and the mind. And it's a comic series. Very lovely illustrations and each story tells the story of a historical magician or alleged psychic or medium or whatever and sort of gives you a behind the scenes look what they were actually doing.

RW: Absolutely. It was a lovely sort of lockdown project. Worked with Jordan Culver and Rick Werther these really sort of talented comic book artists. I was just trying to find a new way of doing skepticism. And I'd seen their work, incredible, bringing something to life. And of course with comics is wonderfully visual but also you can travel through time, you can travel from one place to another. And so we sat down. We created five issues, won them around, ghosts another round, prophecy and so on. And then we had to have favorite stories like haunting of Borley Rectory or seances and so on. And we just found a way of making that work within the comic book genre and then someone's been kind enough Vanishing Inc and Magic publisher it's been kind enough to put them all together in a single volume. So very excited about it.

S: Yeah it's a really pretty book.

RW: Thank you.

S: I like the illustrations. And it is obviously, there are skeptical lessons in each story. You learn about how the Fox sisters were cracking their toes.

RW: Yeah, yeah. And the low of large numbers is in there when we get to sort of acts of prophecy and it's interactive magic tricks as well. And it really just was that thing of I don't think there's been a skeptical comic before. And when I was a kid certainly I wasn't a fan of reading, I absolutely hated going to libraries and reading but I loved comics and so this sort of visual way of bringing skepticism alive, it isn't just for kids I mean it works for adults as well. So that's what really got me excited. We do need to find new ways of doing skepticism I think.

S: Now do you see this at the target audience being a younger audience for this? Or you think this can cut across?

RW: I think it cuts across. I mean they've been published separately as comics and adults have bought them and enjoyed them. But also I think it is the sort of thing that you'd give to, I guess sort of 12 upwards, something like that. And it doesn't pull punches in terms of the skepticism and the factual content. It's all in there. And I think it's very well researched. So far no one's managed to find a factual error. But it is that notion of, there is a massive audience for graphic novels. And there's no communities that's very well served by skepticism. There's a lot of supernatural ghostly believer-ish stuff and we thought let's try and address the balance and get out there and say you know what, some of the skeptical stories about some of the tricks of the trade and how we kid ourselves actually they're just as exciting as the this is the spooky stuff.

S: Yeah it's a good medium for explaining a lot of the stuff that goes on, because the picture's worth a thousand words. It's easier to show than to tell a lot of, like what's happening on stage and how some of these tricks work.

RW: Yeah I think so. And if you have got people that are happier with visual images and I'm I'm like that. I think visually. In meetings I never write a single word a piece of paper. Everything is always little scribbled notes and doodles and and so on. I think it just appeals to that and it's because it's full color it feels quite kind of graphic as it were. And it is that when you work with comic book people, they just have a different way of telling stories. Because as I say they can zoom through time. Or they can suddenly zoom up on a particular detail. Or we can see a pair of eyes and see the person sweating or whatever it is. So it was a very very different way of storytelling. At least the way I was used to. So it was a fun project to work on.

B: So this is the first time that you've done a full book that was illustrated? Are there no paragraphs? Is it just all comics straight through?

RW: It's yeah, so it was originally done as five separate comics which we did really in the UK. And then they put together a single book and it is a graphic novel. We do put an introduction in there and I think there's probably one page of explanatory notes of reading at the back. But no no no, it is a, it's wall-to-wall graphic it's a comic.

B: So you've done lots of, you've done a lot of books. And we've done just a couple so how can you describe the things that make it its own beast. Because now it's completely different. How is it different? Describe what was anything shocking when you went through the process like wow this is different than I anticipated, what was it like?

RW: It's a good question. It's that visual elements. So I'm like you folks, I'm just used to writing paragraphs and describing a situation. And Jordan and Rick don't think like that. So if you're kind of saying, let's look at the psychic horse. JB Rhine famously tested a horse that he thought was psychic. Well Jordan instantly said okay we start from a distance we see a farmhouse we zoom in, we zoom in, we zoom in. Now we see the horse and of course you don't do that when you write. You don't kind of go look at the distance, a farmhouse there. Now we zoom. And now we're with the horse. And then we turn to one side and as JB Rhine was from ESP cards and now the horse starts to talk because in their world animals can talk. There's no problem with doing that. And then once the JB Rhine is debunked we we zoom in on his eyes and we see the the kind of fear in there. So it's just a different language. And in fact when it came to representing magic it was fascinating because they would do it in snapshots and those are exactly the snapshots that magicians tried to sear into your mind. So you've got a box, you show it empty. You click your fingers, something appears. The three key snapshots are empty box, clicking fingers, something appearing. And they instantly got that visual language that magicians use to make those tricks work. That I think what you're looking at is how we represent strips of activity in the mind. I think we do it primarily visually. We don't do it verbally. And it's just these snap, these keys, keyframes in the film and then we fill in the rest of the story in between. So it actually became really interesting psychologically.

S: Yeah. That's interesting, I mean stage magic is obviously visual. You may be talking to the audience to put ideas in their head but mainly it's a visual medium. And so it does translate very well to the page.

RW: Yeah I think that's, so magicians want you to forget certain parts of the narrative and they do that by making those parts seem unimportant. And that's done visually. So if you're going to show a box empty, you do it in this showy way and this kind of dramatic pose. And then closing up that box is done quickly in a way which it's forgotten about. Because that's might be where the action is on the magic trick. And so I was working with them. You just realize I see. Okay this is how you folks think. And we put lots of interactives in there. So there's a dark room seance but when you shine a flashlight through the page you see the the tricks that reveal, the sounds tricks. There's lots of interactives where the character can actually predict the future or predict your choice and and so on. It's all the things that we can't do with the written word. So it's a really interesting project to work.

J: Richard are you in the book. Are you drawn in the nook as a narrator?

RW: Yes. Yeah. Often you need a little voice and I start out each. So there are five comics in here. Each one deals with the topic so it might be ghosts or seances, prophecy and levitation. And each of them start with me opening a folder, sort of top secret folder from the house of mystery. And then some notes fall out and we go and explore the stories from that. So I'm the sort of linking character. And they did make me look about 150 years old. So that was nice. So it's, it's also, it's full of in jokes as well in terms of magic and skepticism in there with all cameo roles and so on. So it's, it was just entirely different to doing the sorts of books that you folks and I'm used to. Which is very, well, print-based. And different way looking at the world.

E: So has Netflix called you yet to retain the rights for this? So that they can make a mini series?

RW: They have signed up Dickie Wise (laughter) No, not yet.

E: Because they've done that with other comics and other things. They've translated them into into these series.

RW: Yeah yeah. I mean it would be great. It's kind of astonishing to think that I don't think there's been a skeptical comic before now and skeptics are fairly Innovative lot. So yeah it's just nice to explore that genre and that medium. And to take the material, the Fox sisters, Borley Rectory, whatever it is, JB Rhine and so on, Nostradamus. And just translate it into this very different visual form. Which I hope will bring in new folks into the movement.

S: Richard let's talk about what else is going on. So what else have you been up to after getting this book out? I've been up to lots. I have a new podcast called Richard Wiseman's On Your Mind, which is a psychology based podcast. The weekly. And we are putting out the first episodes about lying. Then we looked at laughter. And the one that came out today was about sleep. So different psychological topics. And unlike you folks I hadn't done a podcast before so it was kind of fun to work out how that worked. So I've been chatting with science journalist Marley Chesterton, it's quite a well-known science journalist in the UK. And we just banter, we try to have fun and we tried to do it all in about 25 minutes. It's harder than, you folks make it sound very easy. But there's quite a lot going on with it, isn't it? To make it interesting and give it legs and so on. So yeah that's another big project I've been involved in.

S: Yeah as you will discover if you keep it up, it's a lot of work to keep it going.

RW: Yes.

S: And it's a very saturated marketplace now.

RW: Yeah. I did realize that I mean it's kind of everything I know about psychology being put out there with a few stories. So and that's been, it's been nice. And we hit the number one science slot over here when the first episodes came out.

E: Great.

S: That's awesome.

RW: So that was very nice.

S: Each one's a single topic episode?

RW: Single topic, absolutely, yeah. I can't remember what we're ordering now but there's ghosts in there, there's magic in there, there's going to be ESP we haven't recorded that one yet. So there's some skeptical topics but mostly it's the sort of self-development stuff. It's motivation, persuasion, all those sorts of things. So it's been fun to sit there and talk about stuff and then realize that it's wrong and then have to go back and re-record it which has been primarily my experience. I realized that you're halfway through a story and think actually I don't think that's right. Can I just check that journal article. So yeah, it's been good. So I've been doing that. And then what else has been happening? The other- I had a strange experience actually the other day. I went down to London and I'm a creature habit when I'm in London. So I normally arrive very late in the evening. And I always go and buy a pint of milk. So I've got milk the next morning when I wake up, for my coffee. So I did that. I wake up the next morning. I unscrew the top of the milk and I don't know what it's like in America but in the UK we have a kind of seal on the milk. And I looked and it was gone and about a third of the point was down. And I thought oh my goodness I didn't check when I bought this from the supermarket. I think someone's been in the supermarket drinking the milk. And I thought I'm going to be a good citizen because that does occasionally happen over here. I'm going to be a good citizen. I'm going to go around and tell the manager that I think somebody have been drinking their milk. So I went around to the supermarket. I asked to see the manager, they're walking towards me. It's about 9:30 in the morning. And it's then I remember that I had a bowl of cereal the night before. (laughter)

B: Oh my god.

RW: So I'm standing there with a pint of milk. The manager is walking towards-

E: Half a pint of milk.

RW: Yeah exactly. Yes, less than a pint of milk. Two-thirds maximally of a pint of milk. Manager's walking towards and I thought it's moments like this of being a psychologist and the quick thinking magician will save the situation.

E: Right.

RW: Yeah. So I turned around and walked out.

E: You kind of covered your head.

B: Sorry, never mind.

RW: Yeah, don't worry. Nothing, nothing. And so just walked out. But yeah, it's just very easy to trip yourself up, I find. Particularly you arrive at a place in around about midnight and quite sleepy when you have your bowl of cereal. I think there's a lesson there for all of us just not certain what it is.

S: You were sleep eating.

J: Oh my god.

RW: Well. So yes, so my life continues to be a catalog of of weird experiences of my own making.

S: Yeah but seriously I mean having spoken to a lot of people who are true believers and a lot of paranormal stuff. That's the level of evidence they bring. Because they would say a ghost drink their milk. What's the other explanation? Are you sure. I don't remember drinking the milk, and I bought it, they would give you a whole story building a case for white ghosts drank their milk. And that's the level of evidence.

E: Or if you're in Iceland or something an elf did it or a troll came, so it's culturally based.

RW: I would be open to either of those explanations as opposed to me drinking the milk and just forgotten about it uh the next morning. But no you're right, there was a whole load of things that psycho research did called jots. Which is when you're looking for an objects and you can't find it in your house like your car keys. And then you turn around and they're somewhere really obvious. Like on the kitchen table. And you can't believe you didn't see them. And they started to look at this as a paranormal experience. And I just think it's it's an interesting psychological experience because I think we've all had that notion of looking everywhere, oh my goodness, they were right in front of me. So I think there's something interesting psychologically going on there. And sometimes with skepticism we throw the baby out with the bath water. That we just go, there's an obvious explanation but I some of the psychology behind this stuff is I think quite interesting and sometimes it comes from parapsychology. When you think back of inattentional blindness, the famous gorilla basketball clip. That originated in the 1950s experiment within the parapsychology. Somebody dressed up as a ghost in a white sheet, ran around and no one noticed them.

E: Clever.

RW: It was years before then that became a topic within psychology. So I think there's some interesting stuff to unpack within the parapsychology. Even if it's not psychic or supernatural.

S: Yeah they certainly get involved with a lot of that kind of phenomena in their research because they're looking for anomalies. Anomalies are I think have a psychological neuroscientific explanation. So they actually end up documenting a lot of interesting psychological phenomena. But they didn't recognize it as such. With that study, the ghost walking through the quad of a university. They didn't go from there. They just huh that's odd, nobody noticed my fake ghost walking through this highly populated area. But they, but because they weren't, they're not neuroscientists or they're not thinking in that way they missed it. They missed the very interesting phenomena. Had to be rediscovered later by a psychologist.

RW: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So it's Tony Cornell that did it. I knew Tony very well, he's no longer with us unfortunately. And so you're absolutely right. What Tony was interested in was if ghosts are around so much because he believed in this stuff to some extent. If ghosts are around why is no one reporting them. So he went out and dressed up as one and then his explanation was well actually we're just not noticing them. And you are right, he doesn't look at the psychology of it. To him that's kind of case closed. So it is interesting. But time and again you do get these, that I think because they work in the fringes, they're working with anomalies. Actually something very innovative bubbles up there and it gets just overlooked. And it's probably sitting in all those parapsychology journals if anyone cares to go through them.

S: Yeah I think the same is true of the UFO phenomenon as well. They're not aliens but it is an interesting phenomenon. It's interesting that so many people can be seeing things that they can't identify and it tells you a lot about perception. About the way we construct perception. It's just a different lesson than the one that they're interested in but it is interesting that the true believers end up documenting most of the of the raw data. Because they're tireless and cataloging whatever. Whatever the anomaly is.

RW: It is interesting. So if you look at the bottom effect, these kind of very general personality statements. The original work on that was done in the 40s. And what many people don't know is that in that study they gave this general personality statements to people and they said, given how accurately. And someone said seven or eight out of ten. A few weeks later they got that group back and they said to them can you, they told them exactly why the study worked. These are all general statements, everyone endorses them. And they said to them can you remember what number you gave them. And people misremembered. They said I only said four or five out of ten. And that is the first documented evidence of what's called the hindsight bias. That we misremember what we said in the original time around in order to look better later on. But again it completely gets passed over in the literature. And it's not until the 70s that you get biases and the hindsight buyers come back that suddenly that becomes a massive massive topi. So yeah I think skeptics, and skeptics done a lot of that work. There's a lot of pioneering work to be done.

S: But I do think skeptics can be at the nexus there because we are trying to find scientific explanations for the anomalies that the true believers are documenting. And yeah you could be a lazy skeptic and just write it off but if you are trying to find a really good explanation for it that sort of leads you to often to neuroscientific explanations.

RW: I mean look at the early eyewitness testimony stuff, Hodgson and Davey 1890 something. They were doing the very first eyewitness testimony experiments. That was all in seance phenomena so getting people to come to fake seances and they were then publishing these fantastic accounts of things that never occurred. So yeah yeah, I think it's it's it's quite a rich scene to sort of look for. A phenomena which is psychologists we haven't perhaps recognized yet but are sitting out there. I don't know how we get on to this, I just, I think we started with the milk incident.

S: It all began with the milk incident.

E: That horribly embarrassing episode.

J: But Richard to continue with the milk thing.

RW: Yes.

J: You did go into the supermarket with the milk, right?

RW: Correct.

J: So what did you do with the milk after you left the supermarket?

E: Oh good good question.

RW: I consumed the milk with a slightly confused mindset and I was sort of thinking how did that happen and I know what it is, as I say, I'm a creature of habit. I normally don't touch the milk. It was very late when I got in and I wasn't really fully, it wasn't mindful eating should we say. I was just kind of woofing down the the cereal. So yeah I consumed the evidence that obviously was an embarrassment to me. And I've never been able to look at a pint of milk again. It's such a terrible terrible experience.

E: A sour experience, yes.

RW: Yes, yeah. It was embarrassing, it's got to be said. It could have been worse.

S: You broke you're routine and sometimes that's enough.

RW: Yes that's right. Yes it was more than enough in this instance. So yeah it was, that's one of the most interesting things happened to me such as my life over the last couple of months.

S: The Dickie Wise milk incident, we'll call that.

B: Milk hubub.

RW: If in 50 years time somebody discovers that this is a major psychological phenomenon I want that to be the name of it, the Dicky Wise-

E: The Dcky Wise effect?

RW: Yeah, when undergraduates are doing research into this. Oh, the Dickie Wise effect. So yes. You heard it first here folks.

E: Yes. He wrote that comic book. Who's Richard Wiseman? I want to read Dicky Wise.

S: Okay Richard I mean this was a lot of fun the guy. I've enjoyed the book, it's on my coffee table. Thank you for the copy. It's very lovely. You could buy this-

RW: So you could buy on Vanishing Inc is the American publisher. And in fact it's the publisher, Magic publisher, but they will ship all over the world and that's the only place to get it. So yeah Vanishing Inc, yeah.

S: And you could see about the comics on hocuspocuscomic.squarespace. You're actually using squarespace.

RW: We're using squarespace, yeah. And I think actually if you look at Vanishing Inc, they've got lots of videos there and then people can see how beautiful it is. So yeah, that's been a lot of fun, it's now what time is it here, my goodness it's twenty to one.

S: Oh boy.

E: Time for milk.

RW: Time for milk. Time for mindless milk in the morning, I'll be furious. Yes so thank you, thank you for keeping me awake and it's always-

S: Good catching up with you Richard. Take care.


Science or Fiction (1:27:03)[edit]

Theme: Death

Item #1: The six feet standard for grave depth dates to 1665 when the Lord Mayor of London ordered all graves to be dug "at least six feet deep" as an anti-plague measure.[6]
Item #2: The term "mortician" was invented by the funeral industry in 1895, to replace "undertaker", based on a contest in Embalmer's Monthly.[7]
Item #3: Lincoln was the first public figure in the US to be embalmed, and is responsible for the popularity of this process, which is now mandated (with exceptions) in 48 states.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Lincoln embalmed/embalming mandated
Science Six feet anti-plague standard
Term "mortician" invented
Host Result
Steve sweep
Rogue Guess
Six feet anti-plague standard
Term "mortician" invented
Term "mortician" invented
Six feet anti-plague standard

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two real and one fake. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics tell me which one they think is the fake. We have a theme this week, Bob I think you're gonna like the theme. The theme is death.

B: Whoa.

J: Just like that, huh?

S: That's it. All right, here we go. Item number one: The six foot standard for grave depth dates to 1665 when the Lord mayor of London ordered all graves to be dug at least six feet deep as an anti-plague measure. Item number two: The term mortician was invented by the funeral industry in 1895 to replace undertaker based on a contest in Embalmers Monthly. And item number three: Lincoln was the first public figure in the U.S to be embalmed and is responsible for the popularity of this process which is now mandated with exceptions in 48 states. Evan go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Oh boy. This is good Steve, I like this. Six foot standard for graved up. okay 1665 the Lord mayor of London ordered all graves to be dug at least six feet deep. Well, okay, it doesn't make it a standard but that's fine. Anti-plague measure, I don't know about this one. This, at first I know nothing about this particular one. Never heard this before. That means nothing, I get that. But I would have thought the depth had to do with the natural sort of disturbances that occurred above the six foot line. There's less going on or to do with the temperature or something it's six feet rather than some English person making a proclamation that sort of just caught on anti-plague measure? I mean didn't they burn those bodies and stuff, if they thought they had plague. They threw them in the plague pit and lit it on fire. So I don't know about that one. Then the term mortician was invented by the funeral industry. This I kind of believe, the only thing weird about this a contest in Embalmers Monthly. Now clearly it was a quarterly not a monthly. (laughter) I mean it, that one's too funny in a morbid way to-

S: If they did that today they would be called "Death McDeathFace".

E: Exactly, right? Oh gosh, the funeral industry. I believe that one's right. Lincoln, all right, was he the first public figure in the U.S to be embalmed? Perhaps that could be right. And responsible for the popularity of the process? Well Lincoln was just an enormous figure in history. And certainly at that time that was going on. Mandated with exceptions in 48 states. I guess I'll go with my instinct. I don't think that first one about the Lord mayor of London is correct. I'll say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right the first one here about the burying people at six feet, it's a standard. And you're saying that it dates back to 1665 when they decided that it should be done because of the plague. It's an anti-plague measure. That makes a lot of sense. I thought it had to do with grave robbing. And then wouldn't animals also dig up the bodies if they were like a foot deep, you know what I mean?

E: That's what I mentioned I said disturbances that occur at above the six foot.

J: I mean I suppose that the six foot standard could have started with the plague. The second one about the term mortician being invented by the funeral industry. I mean I could see that too. I mean branding is a big deal. Undertaker is definitely a lot more dark than the word mortician. Bob do you have a preference between the two?

B: Yeah I mean if I want, if I were going for a creepy vibe I definitely, you're right I would go an undertaker.

J: Yeah a contest in Embalmers Monthly.

E: Really, I know that is hilarious.

J: That's so awesome. I want that to be true. I want that to be so true, it's so cool. And then the last one. Lincoln was the first public figure in the U.S to be embalmed.I mean I wouldn't be surprised if that's true. And I see no reason to think why that wouldn't be true. I mean so okay, just because of them Embalmers Monthly I gotta say that one's a fiction.

E: Wow, interesting.

S: Okay Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: These are all interesting. Nothing is obvious here so I'm just gonna roll with it. The grave depth six feet. Yeah I mean sure that's possible. I mean that seems to be going back more than I would like though. 1665. I would guess it would be the standard at least in the United States. I mean I don't know what the standard is anywhere else or even how much of a standard it really is. And six feet. I dug a grave last October (Jay laughs) in my graveyard.

E: Oh in your graveyard. Okay.

B: And screw that. Six feet! Six feet! I was lucky I made down two feet. It was so hard. So wow six feet ridiculous.

E: Six feet, three feet wide.

J: [inaudible] that's hours of work.

E: And six feet long.

B: Right. You see people in a movie digging a grave lalala all right six feet. No.

E: No.

B: There's no lalala by digging a grave.

E: They have have a machine for that now called the backhoe.

B: Yeah okay so we go to the third one. Lincoln, yeah first one a bomb. Sure I guess. I mean that's no red flags there. The second one though mortician and undertaker. This made me think of The Return of the Living Dead. Awesome character. One of my favorite zombie movies. It was like the first fast zombies that I can remember. Send more paramedics but they had an undertaker mortician dude. I don't know the actor's name. He was fantastic. Loved him to death. He made the comment that there's not a lot of book learning for morticians. It's more of a passed on thing. You are mentored and that's where you're going to learn a lot of your techniques. And sure, using a zombie movie as in like it's definitive in any way is ridiculous. But I don't care I'm just gonna roll with it because all of these seem possible. And Embalmers Monthly? Come on. That's just ridiculous. I mean every month, here's more information on embalming. That's what really was really and that's why the mortician in Return Living Dead would be like no there's no one Embalmers Monthly. I would teach you, not some stupid monthly thing. So fiction. Number two.

S: Okay and Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah I weirdly know a lot about death. Obviously this is I'm looking at a I have two journals in front of me right now. I have Death Studies which I read regularly. And I have Omega, the Journal of Death and Dying. This is like my academic area and I actually have a friend who's a mortician who I've interviewed multiple times on my podcast. So I can say that I feel very strongly that Lincoln was the first public figure in the U.S to be embalmed. I also- the reason I feel this very strongly is because modern embalming in the U.S is an invention of the Civil War. It did not exist prior to the Civil War in the U.S. And so that timeline makes sense. Which also kind of makes sense with the mortician thing. The funeral industry is a very strong, it's a very powerful and it basically cropped up around the Civil War. And so it's sort of makes sense that the word mortician would be a sales tactic to me. I would not be surprised. And I don't know what you were talking about Bob with this. It's true, historically yes there's a lot of family and institutional knowledge that gets passed down but most people who actually are full morticians, they have degrees in mortuary science.

B: Yeah I know that, I know.

C: It's an actual thing.

B: I wanted to give a shout out to the movie.

E: What's that woman on YouTube.

C: Caitlin Doughtyn I've interviewed her multiple times.

E: She's very very good.

C: Yeah she's, yeah check out Talk Nerdy there's a bunch of interviews in there. I think that the one that's bugging me, the one that feels very wives taley to me is the Lord mayor of London one. The 1665 six foot standard. I bet you that's like there are so many different examples of six feet all over the place in literature. I don't know that just, that one bugs me. That one just feels it's anachronistic or just silly. I don't know, I don't think it's true so I feel that that's the fiction.

E: I feel 100% better about my choice.

C: I could be wrong but that one just feels the least-

E: That's okay, if you were wrong I'd rather be wrong together with someone. It is different.

S: So Cara you don't get the journal Dying Monthly?

C: No but I do get Death Studies which by the way is quarterly.

S: Death Quarterly?

E: See? That's what I said.

C: Death Studies is quarterly.

S: All right well you all agree on number three so we'll start there.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Lincoln was the first public figure in the U.S to be embalmed and is responsible for the popularity of this process which is now mandated with exceptions in 48 states. You all think this one is science and this one is... the second week in a row that I swept you!

E: No. No!

C: Oh no way.

E: No it's not.

S: Yes it is the fiction.

E: No it's not.

J: Which one is the fiction?

S: The third one. The one that you all thought was science.

C: Oh, interesting. So who was the first public figure to be embalmed?

S: So that part was correct.

C: Oh. (laughs)

S: What's incorrect-

C: No, the popularity of the process is just, it's the funeral industry. It's the war.

S: The part that is the fiction is that it's not mandated in any state. And that Funeral Directors as they're now called have to tell you that embalming is completely voluntary.

C: I know that's true and I didn't even notice that that was part of it.

S: Yeah, a little bit of a distraction there with the Lincoln part.

C: Yeah I know that that's true. I've talked about this publicly. Bodies are quasi-property. You do not have to get embalmed. There are places where you have to, where you can't do a green burial. There are places where you have to be in a sealed casket.

S: The only regulation because this is all state by state in the United States. But the only regulation is for bodies that are crossing state lines.

E: Yeah there's transportation.

S: And that's only with some of the states. Some this is not even federal, some states require that if you're going to ship a body out of the state or into the state that it has to be embalmed.

C: And even that doesn't make sense because they don't pose a risk.

S: Yeah they don't.

C: Embalming doesn't do anything.

S: There are regulations about burial but they they where you can bury them and whether or not a funeral director has to be involved but they mostly involve people who have an infection, died of something contagious.

C: Well and also what you can be buried in. I know in California for example there's only a handful of places where you can have a "green burial".

S: Yeah.

C: Where you're in wicker or in in no casket at all right. It's really stupid.

S: But no States just straight up mandate it.

C: Yeah and I fucking knew that too and I just didn't even read that part of it.

E: Oh you could have grabbed the whole glory this week to yourself.

C: It's a three partner and two of it are correct.

S: Yep, but not the big one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right which means that-

E: Frustrating.

S: The six foot standard for grave depth dates to 1665 when the Lord mayor of London ordered all graves to be dug at least six feet deep as an empty plague measure. That is science. Every piece of that is correct. This is something, now exactly where six feet comes from nobody knows. Why six feet, there's a lot of theories about why six feet. It was just I think as deep as you could plausibly dig. I didn't expect to get an anecdote about grave digging from Bob during this segment but apparently we did. But you're correct Bob.

E: You made a confession.

B: You are correct that it is really hard to dig six feet down. Which is why even today that's rarely done. Most of the states that regulate it will allow, they want at least two feet of dirt over the casket. And if the casket two feet so that's four feet so that's really the minimum. But the whole six feet under, like six feet being the standard depth of graves comes from this edict. And it was a bunch of anti-plague measures. This was one of them. They thought it would reduce the miasma coming from the bodies and causing the Bubonic plague. Even though they didn't, once they were buried even at two feet, there was no risk of spreading the diseases.

C: What about in the water? How where's the water [inaudible].

E: I thought they burned those.

C: I know.

S: Yeah they probably did burn a lot. Remember there were multiple-

C: Is there a lot of risk of burying a plague body because it gets in the water?

E: And those burial reserved for wealthy individuals. People you know paupers' graves and stuff, they didn't care about six feet or two feet or whatever.

S: Oh yeah that's why it had to be mandated because people were not otherwise doing it. It would be really expensive to hire people to dig a hole that deep.

E: Super expensive.

S: Because it's hard as Bob was saying. So none of those deaths are enough to get into the water table which is 2030 feet deep, so it's not an issue. An extra two feet doesn't matter it really was just the miasma thing about the plague. That was the only reason why they did that. And again we're not really sure why they chose six feet, but that's what they came up with.

C: Weren't most of the bodies that are, I could be wrong but in the catacombs in Paris, weren't most of those plague bodies?

S: So remember there were multiple waves of the plague. It wasn't one event.

C: Yeah yeah yeah.

S: And this was a one of towards the end of the waves that was hitting London.

E: That was the other part is I thought the year was off. 1665 is late.

S: It is late.

C: [inaudible] like the 1900s.

S: Yes talking about 13th-14th century when it was like.

J: So Steve is there a definitive beginning to this though?

S: Well this is the only thing historically on the record of yes it has to be six feet and it was in writing so that's why it's historical.

C: I mean it probably pre-dates, I don't know, do you think that that's where all of the etymology of the phrase-

S: Yes, yeah.

C: Six feet under meaning death.

S: Six feet being associated with graves comes from this-

C: Oh, interesting.

S: -that's the thing.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Okay, item number two: the term mortician was invented by the funeral industry in 1895 to replace undertaker based on a contest in Embalmers Monthly is awesome science.

B: Oh my god.

S: That is absolutely true.

E: Embalmers Monthly.

S: Embalmers Monthly, I had to include it when I read that. And yeah they just, there was just a rebranding because thought undertaker was too dark. But again now they call themselves Funeral Directors is the more modern term but mortician comes from that. Was just a in a contest in a magazine. That's the one that they chose.

J: Think about how psyched that person was that they picked their word.

S: Yeah. And that of course is where Morticia Adams gets her name.

E: Oh yes.

S: Yeah this is kind of a part of life that we all are familiar with. And yet there's a lot of details about it that you may not know.

C: There's so much stuff that people don't know and that's what a lot of predatory funeral, and they pray on you because you don't know anything.

S: And you're not thinking straight because your loved one just died. The worst time to make a bunch of decisions, yeah.

E: Right.

B: For me it's the expense of just this ornate beautifully crafted high quality wooden coffin that's going to be four feet under the ground and never seen again. Are you kidding. I'm telling you guys bury me into cardboard.

C: Well and the ludicrousness of like it being basically hermetically sealed.

S: That's ridiculous.

C: It's ridiculous.

S: That's a total scam.

C: That's the thing that like when I talk to, I'm glad you brought her up Evan, when I talked to Caitlin Doughty quite a bit about this and about sort of these are the things that you should know the things that you probably don't know one. Of the things that her non-profit funerary practice does is help educate people on how you can have a funeral for a thousand dollars or less. Because if you cremate, there are ways to cremate, there way like all of these things that you can do yourself that people don't realize you can do yourself. You can have awake in your home, you can transport the body yourself. There are all these things that you can do but people think oh my god somebody died. I have to call the authorities immediately or I'm gonna get in trouble.

S: Yeah.

C: And like they just don't know what they're rights are.

S: In most states you do not need to even involve a funeral director.

C: Yeah you can get a death certificate. There's a lot of different ways to get a death certificate and she shows you how you can do a very beautiful service at home and then a cremation without any bells and whistles for about a grand.

E: People don't like thinking about it generally speaking.

S: But some people do. I mean I work with people who think about it all the time because I work with people who are planning their deaths and who do medical aid in dying and I think it's really cool to see how people who pre-plan this stuff really think about their loved ones and how to reduce the burden on their loved ones.

E: Of course.

C: Very specific instructions on what kind of party to have and it's kind of cool, I don't know, I love it.

S: So by the way about Lincoln. The reason why he was embalmed was because the body had to be transported from Washington to Illinois.

C: Well that's the reason that embalming started.

S: Yeah. People had to be sent home.

C: Because soldiers on the battlefield would die and they had to be shipped like multiple states away.

S: Yeah which takes time. And he wasn't buried for three weeks after he died so-

C: Yeah you could wait a while when a body's involved.

S: Right.

E: Then there's the crazy story about the people who tried to steal his body. That's a whole other thing but that really happened too-

J: Wow, I didn't know that.

E: -try to break into it, yeah, they tried to break into his catacomb or whatever you call it.

C: Not surprised.

S: Mausoleum?

E: Mausoleum.

S: Yeah.

E: Almost got away with it too.

S: His autopsy was botched, did you know that they would sound the bullet? They would basically take a rod, go through the bullet hole to see how deep it was until they hit the bullet. And the guy actually made a new track through the brain.

C: Of course. Brain's pretty squishy.

S: Yeah. And anyway it was of course this all relates to the fact that for 20 years following Lincoln's death there were all sorts of conspiracy theories how it wasn't a lone gunman. It was a conspiracy. It was just like with JFK. And then there were anomalies with the autopsy and with this and with that. How did Wilkes Booth apparently get up there with a gun and everything. It's just that yeah powerful guy dies, there's gonna be conspiracy theories.

C: Well, murdered yeah.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:45:58)[edit]

A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.

Daniel Kahneman (1934-present), Israeli-American psychologist and economist

S: All right Evan, do you have a quote for tonight?

E: I do and Craig Good provided this week's quote. Hello Craig, it's nice to hear from you as always. Thank you for this. "A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth." Daniel Kahneman.

S: He was probably talking about the availability heuristic, when he wrote that.

E: Hello. Yes.

S: Familiarity makes people think something is true, absolutely. All right well thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure man.

E: Thank you Steve.

J: Yes.

E: Except for science or fiction, thank you.


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

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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