SGU Episode 271

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SGU Episode 271
22nd September 2010
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 270                      SGU 272

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


SS: Simon Singh

Quote of the Week

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

Albert Einstein

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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, September 22nd 2010, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: Hey everybody

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hello everyone

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys

S: And Evan Bernstein

E: Happy equinox!

J: Sure

R: Is it?

E: That would be the Autumnal equinox

S: Autumnal. Do not try to stand eggs on their ends though on this one

R: No, this is the one you can stand chickens on their heads, I think


S: Right

E: I can't stand chickens

B: Now wait, Autumnal equinox, does that mean the- that means the sun is over the tropic of Capricorn? Or Cancer?

E: The equator

S: That's right

E: The solstices are the tropics

B: Ah

J: Ok

S: It means we're entering the bottom half of the analemma, that's what it means

B: Yeah

R: The what?

B: The figure eight the sun makes in the sky throughout the year. Remember that, Steve?

S: Yep

E: That's cool

News Items[edit]

Losing Your Religion (1:02)[edit]

Neurologica: The Long Awaited CDC Trial on Thimerosal and Autism
Penn State university news: Losing your religion deemed unhealthy

S: Rebecca, can you tell us about this crappy study looking at health and religion?

R: I would love to, Steve. Yes, sociologists at Penn State have published a study that suggests people who leave strict religious groups are unhealthier than members who stay in those groups. Now, it's self-reported data the researchers pulled from a survey that's been conducted annually, or biannually, since 1972, and encompasses more than 30,000 total cases. 40% of members of strict religious groups apparently reported that they were in excellent health, and this was compared to 25% of those who switched religions who said they were in excellent health, and 20% of those who left religion entirely who said they were in excellent health. The researchers came up with some ideas as to why they think this happened. I'm a little skeptical of some of their guesses

E: Very good, very good

R: Mildly. One of the first things mentioned in the press release was that strict groups often discourage unhealthy behaviors, like alcohol and tobacco use. But, of course, we have another study that shows that moderate alcohol use is healthier than abstaining, and also these groups don't necessarily restrict things like bad food, and things like that. And there are plenty of other things that could make you unhealthier in those groups.

S: Yeah, but remember, this was just people's perceptions about their health, not really any direct measure of their health. So even if it is healthy to drink moderate amounts of alcohol, if people think it's unhealthy, they may report their health as being worse. Right, this is all about what people think about their own health.

R: Yeah, the mere fact that this is self-reported data puts everything kind of into question, I think. Especially when- that's not to say that self-reported data is useless, but when we're talking about health, and we're making broad conclusions about the health of people who leave religious groups, I mean, shouldn't we at least have actual, verifiable, evidence of what their health is like? And yeah, we don't have that here, we just have peoples diagnosing themselves.

S: Yeah, "Do you feel healthy?". That's basically…

R: Right

S: … the information we have

R: The researchers go on to also suggest that maybe these groups provide more hope and positive thinking. Which again, I think is BS. I think that it can vary greatly depending on what religion we're talking about, what members we're talking about, there are certain members of these strict religious groups that, you know- I mean positive thinking doesn't really work very well if you're, for instance, in a fundamentalist Mormon sect, and you happen to be a 13 year old girl. That can be kind of a downer. But of course, these aren't the people that are being surveyed, I'm sure. So I find that a bit troublesome, but when they're talking bout that point, they expand on it a bit by saying that when you leave a group, you can lose friends and social support, and that, I think, makes sense. When people leave groups, like thinking of the Amish, or Mormons, or Scientologists, these groups actively force you to cut all ties with your loved ones, your friends and your family, so that it means you're left destitute, possibly, especially if you were a woman who was married to someone who provided all your income, you're left with nothing, and on your own. So that can have a serious effect on your health. But all that says to me really, is that we need to focus on improving resources for people who leave cults and other strict religious groups, helping people in the de-conversion process, and offering them a network and a safety net. That's the only thing that I took from this study that was any worth at all, and even that was tenuous.

S: Yeah, there are a number of ways to look at this study. I think this is one of the studies where scientists are looking where the light is good, not necessarily that this is a great study design, but you have this data sitting there - it's tempting to comb through it, pull out correlations and publish it, right? It's kind of a quick and easy publication. So I think that's what they're doing. And then they're running the entire gamut of possible cause and effect relationships to explain this correlation they found. They also said that it's possible that people who become unhealthy can't keep up with the social demands of the religion, and then fall out of it for that reason.

R: Right

S: So they're basically throwing everything out there, yeah

R: And people who fall out because of poor health, they said, because they're not able to go to the meetings and participate anymore

S: Yeah

R: Or they just get angry that all the praying isn't working

S: Yeah, right. There's so many confounding studies in a study like this, it's hard to say anything. And I think the researchers know that, but again, the data was there, so that's why they pulled it. And also, statistically I'm a little bit dubious of the fact they found a statistically significant effect only for the strictest groups. Does that mean they looked at other religious groups and the effect was not statistically significant? And did they account for multiple comparisons? I'm not sure about that

R: Yeah, and to be clear, you know, we're not talking about- they're not talking about just atheists in general, they're not saying atheists are unhealthy, they're talking about these people who leave these fundamentalist, these strict religious groups, so it doesn't really- I'm a bit afraid of this getting reported in a way that…

S: Yeah

R: You know, that takes it out of context and expands it to include all non-believers, which it simply doesn't address

S: This was actually switchers, not necessarily people who become atheists, this is people who could switch to a different religion.

R: Right, they split it up between those two. They did say that there was a statistically significant difference between switchers and people who left religion entirely, that being a 5% difference. Well, 25% saying they were in excellent health, who switched religion, and 20% who left religion entirely. They said that was statistically significant, but it is slight, when you're looking at the huge difference between members who remained in the group, and those who left.

S: I did look at just what else has been published on this question, and it seems to me, just looking at 20 or so studies in PubMed, that there does seem to be a consistency in the published studies that having a social network has health advantages, and losing your social network is a bad thing. But when you separate that variable out from religiosity, that the religiosity itself doesn't seem to have a health benefit, it's just having the social network that goes along with being religious, that's the thing

R: Right, and that's basically what I said

B: That's what it all boils down to

R: Yeah, is that we need to provide- if anything we could take from this, it's that we need to provide a better social network, a better support network for people who leave



R: There's always Facebook, it's true

S: Right

The Man Who Fell to Earth (8:45)[edit]

MSNBC: Witnesses: Person falls from sky, then vanishes

S: Evan, did you ever see the movie 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'?

E: (laughs) With David Bowie, right?

S: David Bowie, yeah

E: Oh boy

R: Why did you just ask Evan? I've seen that

S: 'Cause Evan is gonna tell us about some guy who really did fall to earth

R: Oh

E: Well, maybe, possibly. According to NBC news, the headline reads "Person falls from the sky, and then vanishes". Alright, now we need a little-

J: What?

E: -we need a little theme music for this, I think, that would be appropriate for this story

B: Obviously

E: Yes

(Music: It's Raining Men)

J: Oh my god

B: Oh boy

J: I was so happily in total denial of that song I forgot it, thanks Ev

E: Welcome back (laughs) " Person falls from the sky, then vanishes"

B: Omg

E: Last week-

S: Is there a video?

E: Of the person falling from the sky and vanishing?

S: No

E: No. But there is video of one witness who they interviewed-

S: Oh, they have a witness

E: -who gives her account, her testimonial, of what she saw. And she, on behalf of her co-workers, was interviewed, and therefore several people in this New Jersey township claim they saw a person falling from the sky with no parachute, but frankly, an extensive search by police and authorities turned up no evidence.

S: Right

E: Regardless, the woman was convinced, "100% sure" she says, that a person fell from the sky, was in free-fall, and went down behind the tree-lines into a wooded area, just off in the distance, but upon search, nothing was turned up.

J: Ok, first of all, how could she be 100% that that person didn't have a 'chute? The only thing she could know is that the person didn't open a 'chute

R: (laughs) It's a good point

E: (laughs) That's true

R: Maybe he's made of ice, and when he landed, the ice melted

J: That's right. Or he was-

B: I got it, he was a scuba diver


E: Lost?

R: I saw that on Monk

E: Oh yeah, remember that? That old story? Yeah, so I searched around some more to see if there's any follow-up, if they've found something over the course of the last 5, 6 days since this actually happened, and there has been no follow-up they've not found anything, they've not found a body-

S: Yeah, they couldn't find anything, although sometimes with these stories-

E: Or a box or anything

S: -only the local news carries the follow-up, the national news doesn't carry the follow-up. So if somebody local to this story has some follow-up, let us know, but I couldn't find anything either.

R: Where is it?

E: New Jersey. Steve, when you were searching around for more information on the follow-up to this story, I'm not sure if you typed in google the headline "Person falls from sky then vanishes", I did, and you know what I found? Besides the NBC story, here are the other top hits, er, let's see. A site called, in which they said it's very strange-

R: Wait, let me guess what their theory is

E: Alright

R: It was a ghost


R: Am I right?

E: They said "maybe some teleportation accident"

J: Of course

S: Yeah, there you go

R: Yeah

E: Possibly

B: I didn't think of that, wow

S: See, I thought it was a superhero just learning to fly, and they haven't quite figured their powers out yet-

R: Oh wait, no, no, no-

S: -but they managed to kick it in before they hit the ground, right after they got below the tree line

R: I've got it, I've got it, I've got it. It was the girl from Portal, she jumped out, shot a portal in the ground and just popped out somewhere else.

J: Yep, and then

S: There you go

J: She ran out of charges and she couldn't portal out of there, so there it is

E: Mystery solved

B: How about a bird dropping a doll?

R: What, like a Real Doll?

E: That's a big doll

B: Yeah, you know, and you thought it was further away, but it was really closer, and, I don't know, I'm just-

R: Could be, could be

J: It's more plausible than-

S: Are you saying, Bob, that maybe these eye-witnesses are not accurate 100% in the details of what they thought they saw?

E: (laughs)

B: That's exactly what I'm saying

S: That's the story here, is the 100% confidence these witnesses have, if a person fell in the general vicinity of where they thought they fell, there probably would be some physical evidence. And apparently, the reports indicate that the search was pretty thorough, lack of evidence is always hard to hang your hat on that, but still…

E: Right, you think they would've found something, whatever it was. A container that fell from a plane, perhaps-

S: A dummy

B: A big blood spot, something

S: Broken branches

E: Broken branches, exactly. There would've been something to corroborate the story

R: I believe that my ice-cube man theory still holds here


E: Fell and melted away

B: If they saw something, what could it have been? You know, like if we had to say 'Ok, something did fall from the sky, go below the tree-line'. The things that they could have not perceived correctly are speed and distance. Right?

S: And size

E&B: And size

S: All three are independent variables

R: What if it was like a flock of birds, a small flock of birds diving together

S: Yeah

E: Diving down

R: Yeah

B: A very small rock


R: Only inches from her face. Maybe it was a drug drop, they dropped a big duffle bag of money and drugs, or something, and then the-

S: And someone picked it up

R: -drug dealers were waiting there to grab it. And it was the perfect crime except for these two ladies. If these two ladies are killed in the next several weeks, we'll know.

S: It's true that it could be something unusual, just not a person dropping from a plane, right?

E: Yeah, but we like to, you know, when we don't know what's going on, or we're not really sure, we'll put in place something that is extremely familiar, like what else could be falling from the sky? It must have been a skydiver, right?

S: The availability heuristic, we reach for what we know.

Dirty Electricity (14:19)[edit]

ScienceBasedMedicine: CFLs, Dirty Electricity and Bad Science

S: Have you guys heard of 'dirty electricity'?

B: Um, no

J: Yeah, I have.

S: Have you?

J: It's the electricity that feeds my porn collection

S: Right

B: Oh god

J: On my external hard drive, no?

S: This is more internet fear mongering about stuff you probably don't have to worry about. There's a couple of issues here. One is just the notion of electromagnetic frequencies, EMF radiation in our environment, for our appliances, our light bulbs, our computer screens. And this issue has been around for a while, and it's cropped up recently in relation, specifically, to compact fluorescent light bulbs. In Canada, specifically, the Canadian government actually has, I think, pretty much banned the sale of incandescent bulbs

B: Really?

S: Yeah

B: They banned them?

S: Yeah, so you have to buy CFLs, or some other energy efficient option. And this is I think also under discussion in the US, doing similar things, phasing out incandescent bulbs, and other countries have done this, and I think this has stoked the flames of the fear mongering regarding CFLs. So there's actually a few issues I came across, I actually wrote about this pretty extensively on Science Based Medicine today, but very quickly, a couple of issues that come up with CFLs. One are that they contain a tiny amount of mercury, between 1.4 and 4mg of mercury in the bulb. However, if you don't break the bulb, there is no mercury exposure. So there's no risk, there's no mercury exposure, if you shatter the bulb, you may in fact get exposed to a tiny amount of mercury. But again, the amount you would get exposed to – even in a worst-case scenario – is much less than you would get exposed to by eating a tuna fish sandwich. So again it's negligible. Some people have raised concerns about mercury in the environment, because you have to dispose- you either have to recycle these, or they have to be disposed of a certain way, and people are just throwing them out and they're winding up in landfills. But interestingly, if you calculate the amount of electricity that's saved by a compact fluorescent light bulb over an incandescent bulb, and you consider how much electricity is being made by coal burning power plants, which does emit a little bit of mercury into the atmosphere. Actually less mercury gets into the environment from a CFL than from the coal you would have to burn for the extra electricity from an incandescent bulb.

J: Really

S: Yeah

E: There you go

S: So, it's a bit of a pain when you have to dispose them. But otherwise, it's not really an issue. There's also a concern that some people claim that CFLs cause headaches, although there's no evidence to document that.

E: Lots of things cause headaches

S: Yeah, everything causes headaches, right? Because headaches are so common. It's like every single drug has headache listed as a side-effect, because it's just part of the background noise in reporting side-effects. But the older fluorescent bulbs used to have a flicker rate of about 60 hertz, 60 cycles per second. And some people could see, perceive, that flicker rate, it could cause eyestrain and headaches. But the newer fluorescent bulbs use a different technology, they're electronically ballasted, versus the older ones, which were magnetically ballasted, and they cycle at 10-40,000Hz-

J: Whoa

S: -which is not perceptible, and does not cause eye-strain or headaches, so there's no flicker with CFLs, basically. But the big claims that are circulating are about this 'dirty electricity' now. Interestingly, almost every source that I saw on this, whether a website that's providing information or news reports, or the video that's circulating on Facebook[1] that prompted about a dozen emails this week, links to, or references, one Canadian researcher, Magda Havas, as the 'expert' who claims that this 'dirty electricity' from CFLs and other sources are causing health problems. Now, from my reading, I think this woman, Magda Havas, she's like the only researcher who's really saying- making the claims that she's making. Her research, at least what she's put forward, and what she's published, is crap. She sounds like a lone crank to me, who's out there on the fringe, but unfortunately, she keeps cropping up as the expert, right?

B: The lone expert

S: The lone expert

E: We need a sound effect for that

B: Please

E: Alright, I'm gonna come up with it. I don't have it tonight-

S: Ok

B: Aw

E: -but next time we use 'lone crank as an expert'

S: One website I was reading said that "Well on one hand, the World Health Organisation reviewed 25,000 articles on non-ionising radiation, and concluded there was no evidence of any health consequences. But on the other hand, we have this expert who says there is a risk, and that's Magda Havas" they say it's this one woman that keeps cropping up. "Therefore, who knows; the experts disagree, so I don't know"

B: Magda or the who. Who is it?

S: Yeah, right, there's one person who's the only person who's sounding the alarms about this, or an expert panel who exhaustively reviewed 25,000 studies over 30 years.

E: (contemplatively) Hmmmm

S: Hmm

E: Hmmm, it's close, it's close

S: (laughs) Yeah. Now, she claims, for example, that 'dirty electricity' causes type three diabetes.[2]

J: Which is what?

B: Three?

S: It doesn't exist! It's her- it doesn't exist, she made it up.

E: Type three!


B: Oh my god

E: That's awesome

S: It increases blood-sugar, and her evidence for this is one study that she published – which is really just a case series of four patients, of four cases.[3] So it's not controlled, it's not blinded, you know, the evidence is comple- it's virtually anecdotal, it's so uncontrolled. And that's it, I mean that's the kind of study- you shouldn't be going to the press talking about type three diabetes based on that kind of flimsy evidence

B: Wow

E: Oh my gosh, making up a disease-

S: That is the most preliminary of preliminary data, that's the kind of thing where you could say 'Alright, this warrants another study', that's about it. And-

B: Right, and it probably doesn't

S: -the plausibility here is vanishingly small, so, you know, she is to EMF health concerns, what Jacques Benveniste was to homeopathy. You know, just one lab, one person out there generating this data, it's not very impressive, but making a lot of noise and getting undue attention for-

B: N-rays!

S: -being the lone person out there

J: Does she have a degree in anything? Or is she-

S: She's a PhD, yeah, she's a PhD. For whatever reason, she's become an advocate. She's a staunch advocate. Remember recently we talked about wifi in the public schools?[4]

B,E&J: Yeah

S: Again, she was the expert pushing the 'wifi is causing all these problems'

J: Oh, Ok, so she's got- her angle is anything electricity-based-

S: Yes, right, exactly

B: (singing?) Electrons are bad

S: And it's just terrible that the media is giving her so much attention, and not putting it into perspective

B: Right, that's the big problem here

S: Right. This is not to promote CFLs, I mean, I think they're fine, they're probably a stop-gap technology

B: They are, LEDs are gonna take over, so it's-

S: I think so

E: LED lights are nice

B: Huh?

S: I think so

E: Nice lights

B: Yeah, it's-

S: But the one technological hurdle for LEDs is that they're unidirectional, instead of omnidirectional

E: Directional

B: I've seen fixes to that, that's a minor issue

S: But I don't know why they're not more available then, is it they just haven't queued up manufacturing yet? Or are people not buying into them for some reason?

B: I don't know, is it the price? Or just the quality of the white light itself that they still haven't really fine-tuned right, I'm not sure

S: Well they don't put out- again, they put out very narrow frequency of light, as opposed to a broad frequency, that's why they use so little energy, right? But the way around that, which is also true for CFLs, is that you coat the surrounding glass with something which then does emit more of a broad spectrum of light

B: Right

S: Right now they're perfect for directional lighting, right? So, at least here, using them in traffic lights, because they last forever, they last a really long time, they don't use a lot of electricity, and traffic light can be pointing in one direction, that's ok. They're great for flashlights

B: They are, they're so bright, you can't even look at 'em

E: Yeah

S: Yeah, great, it's a nice, clean, very diffuse beam, it's really nice.

B: I want a Star Trek light panel


B: Nevermind

S: But you know, I was reading one site, and they said that the main inefficiency of incandescent bulbs is that they waste electricity as heat.

B: Oh yeah

S: But if you- in the winter, if you're heating your home, that actually neutralizes the money saving of using CFLs over incandescent bulbs

B: (laughs loudly)

S: Because the heat of the bulbs is heating your house

B: How awesome is that? The inefficiency of the bulb. (laughs) That's great

Origins of Moons (23:14)[edit]

BBC: Massive blast 'created Mars moon'

S: Alright, Bob, you're gonna tell us about the origin of moons, specifically Phobos, but more in general as well.

B: Yeah, Phobos and Deimos

S: "Day-mus", isn't it "Day-mus"?

B: Er, you know, I came across multiple pronunciations of that, so I- whatever-

E: "Di-moess"

B: I don't know which one, I didn't find anyone authoritative enough, so…

S: Ok, "Day-mus", "Di-moess"

B: Well it's mainly about Phobos anyway, but the two enigmatic moons orbiting Mars. Phobos is arguably much cooler than the other one-

S: (laughs)

B: It's named after the Greek god Phobos, which of course means 'fear', so I wondered what would fear of the moon would be – phobosphobia? It orbits only-


B: Eh, shut-up, it orbits only 5,800 miles from the centre of Mars, so it's closer to its primary than any other known moon. It's also one of the least reflective bodies in the solar system – I did not know that – a very low albedo. It also orbits Mars faster than Mars rotates, which we've mentioned before[link needed].

S: Yeah

B: Tidal deceleration is slowing it down, meaning that it will eventually rain down on Mars in pieces in about 40million years – give or take a week or so. The origin of these two moons have always been hard to pin down - as it is for any moon, really. Moons are thought to be created in any of a number of different ways, they could form in place, just like the parent planet, when the solar system is forming. They could be debris from an impact of a planet with another object, this debris then settles into orbit and then coalesces into one or more moons. This is how we believe our moon was created, what a day that must have been. Moons can also be gravitationally captured objects, that just pass too close to a planet and 'Whoops, I'm in a new orbit now'. So this is what many scientists believed about Phobos and the other moon. Perhaps they were captured from the nearby Mars/Jupiter main asteroid belt in our solar system, that seemed to be the most prevalent theory, especially when it was shown that, spectrally, that the surface of Phobos was very similar to the asteroids – the asteroids found in the middle of the Mars/Jupiter asteroid belt, in that it seemed to be rich in carbon materials.

S: So Bob, those are the only three theories of moon origins, then, right?

B: No, the other one-

S: Forming in place, captured, or thrown up from an impact, anything else?

B: Yeah, there's one more-

E: Neal Adams

B: (laughs) –one more I came across was a planetary body rotating so fast that a bit of it kind of breaks away and becomes

S: (inaudible)

E: Comes away

B: and becomes- right, so you'll see that in lists of different ways moons are formed. I don't know if they've ever conclusively shown that, but that's just another possibility that people will talk about-

S: Ok

B: Although it's like-

E: A theory

B; It's a very, very, minor player. So now, however, we have what appears to be solid evidence pointing to another genesis for these moons. The evidence comes from two recent and independent analyses by Mars Express and NASA's Mars Global Surveyor missions. One important new finding was that a new, detailed study of the spectral signature of Phobos implies a material that's not found in the asteroid belts, so that was basically strike one against the capture theory. It just seems now that Phobos is not made out of similar material, I don't know, it disagrees with previous studies, but I think this one was more detailed and more reliable, but maybe we'll see about that. So what's it made from then? It looks like there's a lot of clay minerals called phyllosilicates, now these are created only when water was involved. So that means that Phobos may have come from Mars itself then, since Mars was known to have water in its early days, so maybe Phobos came from Mars itself, which would give- which would bolster the whole impact moon formation theory. Another finding was this surprisingly low density of Phobos itself, just 1.86 grams per cubic centimeter. This means that the interior must be incredibly porous. If you total up all the number of voids, it would make a significant total of the volume of the moon. In fact, Dr Rosenblatt of the Royal Observatory of Belgium said "This number is significantly lower than the density of meteoritic material associated with asteroids. It implies a sponge-like structure with voids making up 25-45% in Phobos's interior". Wow, that is a lot

S: Yeah, now Bob, we've previously discussed, however, that that could be that Phobos is basically a rubble pile, loosely held together.[link needed] And that could be because it was ejecta thrown up from the surface of Mars, but it could also be that something just smashed into it, enough to break it apart, but a lot of the pieces still clung together gravitationally

B: Right, yep

S: But there's a lot of voids in between the pieces-

B: That is true

S: -so if it were a captured asteroid, that were then smashed apart later, that would still be compatible with that. Is that right?

B: Yes it would, yes it would. So there are two ways you can look at that, yeah, and both of those are accurate. So you can kind of say that's strike two against it, but that one's kinda iffy. So is there a strike three? Well, if we look at the orbits of the moons, they are both close to the equatorial plane of Mars, and nearly circular, so what are the odds of two randomly captured asteroids doing that? Not very great, I would think. So kind of strike three, but no-one's out, because we apparently still don't have conclusive evidence. For example, spongy moons, like Steve said, they could have been caused by captured asteroids that just broke apart and then re-accreted, forming the voids. Because the voids can be explained by this matter kind of coalescing together like we said. But those pesky scientists want more data, so when are we gonna get more data? Well there's a Russian mission in the works called 'Fobos-Grunt', and if that mission succeeds, scientists will actually have 100-200g of Phobos material in their hands to analyze it. And that might happen – if all goes well – in July 2014, so maybe we'll get some more information about this and conclusively, or almost conclusively, figure out where the hell those moons came from. [5]

S: Yeah, more data's always cool

J: Cool

S: So, I have a question though, when a moon forms from ejecta from a massive impact, like our moon, and perhaps Phobos, and maybe Deimos, why does it wind up in the plane of the rotation of the planet, and in a nearly circular orbit?

B: Yeah, I thought of the same thing. I'm not sure why that would be…

E: You mean as opposed to going round the poles of the planet?

S: Well yeah, why- or having a very elliptical orbit, so is there a selective process involved meaning that only the ejecta that winds up in a stable circular orbit is what survives as a moon?

J: Yeah, of course, that seems to make the most sense, right? Like if there was a cloud of dust around the planet, there is an orbit that is where a moon would end up, right? There's like a 'sweet-spot' for the moon to be. Isn't that correct?

B: Well, I don't know. I don't know if you could say that, I mean, what about planets that have dozens of moons, how many sweet spots can a planet have? I don't think so, I think it depends on a lot of variables.

S; It has to be in a stable orbit, otherwise it wouldn't still be around, but not necessarily so nearly circular.

B: Right

S: I can kinda see why it would be nearer the plane of rotation, because the planet is rotating, something hits it – is that going to throw material out in the plane of the planet's rotation too?

B: It depends on the impact angle, it depends totally on how it's impacted.

S: Yeah, I guess so

B: When they did calculations on how the Moon was possibly formed, there was only one specific angle that would produce the Moon outside of the Roche limit, you know, far enough from the Earth so that it doesn't, you know, the orbit doesn't decay and have it rain down back on the planet. Other angles had the ejecta fly really far from the Earth and never re-coalesce, so there's not that many angles that this object could hit to produce something like the Moon, and we got lucky because slightly different angles, it could've been a completely different story. We had no moon, or two- actually they think-

S: It still leaves me- I don't know if I'm missing something, or if there's something missing from the story, but it still leaves me a little uneasy that it resulted in such a nice orbit, you know what I mean?

Halfalogue (31:51)[edit]

Assoc. for Psychological Science: ‘Halfalogue’: Overheard Cell-Phone Conversations Are Not Only Annoying but Reduce Our Attention

S: Jay, you're going to tell us why listening to somebody talk on a cell phone is so annoying.

J: Yeah, other than just the stupid things that people talk about, there actually is a-

S: Yeah, isn't what other people talk about really stupid?

J: (laughs)

E: Eugh, can't stand it

J: It's actually some- there is now some scientific proof why hearing one side of a conversation is actually a significant distraction. So, a new study recently published finds out why hearing just one side of a conversation is much more distracting than hearing both sides, and how it reduces our attention to tasks that we may be performing. The study was conducted by Lauren Emberson, a psychology PhD candidate at Cornell University, and the experiment recorded two pairs of female college roommates as they had a cell phone conversation. So she recorded each conversation both as a dialogue where both people could be heard, and as a 'halflogue' which is– that's a word I never heard of before, but there is something called a 'halflogue', or a 'halfalogue', where only one side of the conversation could be heard

S: Yeah, half of a dialogue

J: Yep, so this simulates hearing a cell phone conversation– which is something we all hear, or a telephone conversation – which is something that happens to most of us a lot. She then tested volunteers who were performing attention-heavy tasks on a computer, by playing both the dialogue, and then the halfalogue to them, and when they heard only half of the conversation – this is really cool, but their ability to perform the task significantly went down. So she thinks the reason why, is because the brain can filter out predictable input, like repetitive background noise, or something that you would hear commonly, we learn to filter those things out because, as you know, our senses all are combined in our head, and that's where our reality is created, and we have to shun a lot of things that are unnecessary, you know? It could be-

B: Filter, yeah

J: Yeah, filter it out so that we can focus down on the more important things. So your brain, from moment-to-moment, is assessing what's important and what's not important, and kind of turning up the volume on this thing, and turning down the volume on that thing. And that allows our brain to focus on things that are important. And she's saying that things that are unpredictable are probably the important things.

S: (agreeing) Mm-hmm

J: Right? So an unpredictable thing, for example, and we always go back to the life or death thing, but like a tiger running up and growling is an unpredictable, nonrepetitive event-

S: Or a man falling from the sky

J: There you go

E: Ooh

S: Very unpredictable

J: So this basically means that people are forced to pay attention, or pay more attention, to unpredictable stimuli, so she says that we basically can't help ourselves.

S: The other thing is, another way to look at this, I think, is that you're trying to fill in the other half of the conversation.

B: Yeah, I think you're waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it's not dropping, and it's like causing stress-

S: It's not necessarily even stress, it's just using up CPU cycles. I mean, the thing that I think is a consistent phenomenon that's coming out of this kind of research, is that when we're performing tasks, we're actually using a significant portion of our brain processing power.

B: Ten percent!


E: At least

S: And only, seriously, like 100%, and when you divert part of that brain processing to some other task, it takes away from your performance. No matter how you choose to measure that in these kind of studies, anything you do that uses up processing, reduces your performance on a cognitive task.

J: Definitely, have you guys ever done something incredibly– that takes an incredible amount of focus, like when I'm programming, or back in the day when I was doing much more intensive programming, I would have to be in a state – like my state of mind would almost change, like my focus would drill down to the point where the whole room evaporates. And if I got disturbed, I'd have to reload that stuff to get myself back to where I was in order to kind of be floating in that zone where I could be programming. And I think what Steve just described, that's the state, like you're absorbed with what you're doing.

S: It also means that multi-tasking is BS

B: Exactly

S: People can't multi-task. You can't devote 100% of your attention to two things, you devote 50% to each, and your performance goes down by 50% when you do that, that's just the way it is. Unless you're Data

E: At best

J: Yeah, I wanted to ask you guys about this. When I'm on the phone, driving in my car, I'm wearing my headset, I'm not holding my phone, I'm just talking. It's no different than having a conversation with someone else in the car, right?

E: Eh

S: No, it is. Having a conversation with a person in the car is not as distracting as having a conversation over the phone, and there is not- we've talked about this before[link needed], but just to quickly summarize that, it's not clear why that is, but some of the hypotheses are, one is that the person is an extra pair of eyes, so while both of your attention may be distracted by the conversation, you have two people's attention to bring to bear on noticing if, for example, someone's steering into your lane

B: It's true

S: Another hypothesis is that you have the visual cues to go along with the auditory portion of the conversation, that means it's less distracting. The other thing is – especially with all but the latest, most recent cell phone technology, now with the 3G phones, we have more bandwidth, I definitely notice the difference, I can easily understand what's being said on the end of a 3G phone . But for every previous cell phone I've ever used, the sound quality is right at the edge of my ability to understand what is being said, and that's deliberate. That was deliberate in order to minimize bandwidth use. They increased the bandwidth right up to the point at which you could just barely understand what was being said, and that means that you have to concentrate a lot harder, and that's more distracting.

J: Yeah, that's annoying, it is.

S: Yeah

J: It really is.

Who's That Noisy? (37:57)[edit]

S: Well Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy

E: And here is last week's Who's That Noisy:

(waves of white noise)

S: Interesting

E: And there were some good guesses, I must say

J&S: (mocking) I must say

E: On the message boards, however none of them exactly correct. The closest guess was an earthquake, that was about as close as it came. It was actually a volcanic eruption, but not just any volcanic eruption, that is supposedly, and from what I could research online, appears to be the only recorded audio of the Mount St Helen's explosion

B: Oh, wow

E: From May, 1980

S: So that recording is through the air?

E: Yep, someone grabbed a crummy tape recorder of the day- at the time, stuck it out their window, basically, after they were hearing the rumble- the initial tremors and rumbling in the distance, and that's what they got.

S: Oh, cool, Mount St Helen's eruption

E: That Noisy was provided by one of our listeners, John Mennich (?) from London

S: Thanks John

E: Thank you for that, John. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, that was very good

J: I still don't get it though, it just sounded like an incredibly low, bassy-

S: So I guess it was a lot of rumbling at a distance, right? Just the earth shaking from the explosion of the mountain, but at a distance.

E: Ok, from the excerpt of the person who captured the recording, he said the entire tape is eight minutes long, the quality was poor, but that was the only tape recorder that they owned at the time. They recorded about two minutes after they heard the first boom. In total, there were about 10 booms over a period of about 10 minutes. The booms were picked up on seismometers, but no audio was recorded by any official recording station, USGS, or anyone else. These were low frequency shock-waves that were those thuds that you were hearing, the waves were being reflected off of the atmosphere, bouncing back to the ground in sort of this – as they described it – a donut-shaped ring, 50-300 miles around the area of the mountain, so that – figure this – if you were within 50 miles from the mountain, you didn't hear anything, but if you were in the ring, 50-300 miles around the mountain, you were able to hear it.

S: Oh, interesting

E: Isn't that interesting? Very cool stuff

S: Yeah, 'cause it had to reflect off the atmosphere

E: Yep

S: Evan, what have you got for this week?

E: Ok, here we go, let's play up this week's brand new, freshly recorded Who's That Noisy

(Atmospheric music – single, sustained note)

Science, you are accused of going too far, of befouling, pollutment, and the intoxifaction of men's minds

E: That's it

S: Well, thank you, Evan

E: Yeah, so enjoy that, and give it your best guess. Good luck everyone.

S: Great. Well, let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Simon Singh (41:02)[edit]


J: Ok, we're sitting here with Simon Singh, it's TAM8 2010. First of all, welcome, Simon, we've all been following you aggressively on the internet. We've basically watched your story unfold. My first question is, I'm really curious to know, how has your life changed since the law suit?

SS: Well I think, where was I? Gosh, it's a long time ago since it started. So when the law suit started, I'd just finished a book with Edzard Ernst, Trick or Treatment, and we were out promoting, and we were doing what authors do, you run round giving talks and so on. And I guess a year or so later, I would have started writing another book, or I would have started researching another book, I would've got involved in another project. So I suppose what the libel suit did, was it just stopped me from doing anything else, because there's a lot of money at stake, there's a lot of reputation at stake, so you have to focus everything on the libel suit. So life changed in a way that what I'd normally be doing was put on ice, life changed 'cause I kind of got involved in politics, I got involved in how do you change things? How do you work with government? How do you work with politicians? How do you start a campaign? How you start a campaign is you get a lot of bloggers and podcasters involved, and they do a great job of spreading the word. So I got involved in that kind of political activism, and that was kind of how my life changed, and then the big thing was I became a father earlier this year.

E: Oh, outstanding

J: Congratulations

SS: Thank you very much. So life's changed in many ways in the last few months.

J: So in those first few months when you realized, Ok, you're getting sued, and you start to wrap your head around what the consequences potentially could be, were you surprised by the blogosphere exploding, and the support that you got?

SS: Yeah, I mean to start with, there was very little coverage, because my lawyer said to me "look, don't say anything, because if you say anything, the other side will scrutinize it, and that will just cost more money, more time. So don't say anything, and we'll follow the legal route". But a year later, when I got the very bad ruling on meaning from Justice Eady at the High Court. At that stage, it looked so terrible for me, that I was going to have to prove something that I'd never meant, something that was very difficult to prove, i.e. that they were being dishonest, something that I'd never intended to say, and which I didn't think was- still don't think was in the article, and I think other people now agree. When things got that bad, I started doing a little bit of talking about the case, but everybody else suddenly realized that this is something that had to be discussed. So that's when the Twittersphere, Facebook groups and so on, really helped. I remember the week after- no, it was actually just three or four days after the appeal, that preliminary hearing, David Allen Green at the blog of Jack of Kent had arranged to have a little get together in a pub, and I said "Look, let's just cancel it, because no-one's gonna turn up, and it's just gonna be us sad people sat round a table being depressed about the fact the case is going really badly" and he said "No, no, we're gonna go ahead with this, 'cause you don't know how many bloggers are following the case". And he was absolutely right, the room was packed with three or four hundred bloggers-

B: Oh, wow

SS: -journalists, scientists, skeptics. We had an MP turning up, we had a performer and writer called Dave Gorman who has a huge following in Britain, he turned up. We had Nick Cohen, the Observer political journalist turning up. All of these people suddenly rallied round, and that was the point at which, if I was gonna cave in, I would've caved in, and everybody in that room said "Look, if you wanna cave in, fine. We absolutely understand, if we were in your position, we may do the same thing. But if you don’t cave in, then we're gonna be behind you all the way". And I got an email, I remember I got an email from Phil Plait and James Randi, saying "We've got your back". And to know that there's that sort of support around you is phenomenal.

E: Did you realize that there was something much, much bigger was at stake here? That it was kinda transcending just your case and becoming something more of a national dialogue?

SS: Soon after that, I think that began to emerge, because I suddenly realized that the many other libel cases involving science, Ben Goldacre was being sued at that time,[6] his case hadn't been resolved. There was another case emerged, which was a Danish scientist called Henrik Thomsen, who was being sued for libel, Peter Wilmshurst's case suddenly emerged, he was being sued for libel, an eminent cardiologist.[7] Professor Francisco Lacerda, a Swedish linguist was being sued for criticizing some lie detection technology[8]. So there was clearly a problem, that scientists, journalists, doctors were having their ideas constrained. And then there was a parliamentary enquiry into libel going on in the meantime, and they were going to start reporting on their findings. Two organizations called Index on Censorship and English Pen were doing their own investigation into laws of libel. So all of these things, in a kind of perfect storm of libel activism, and I think that's really important, because there's been problems in the past with English libel. There was a very famous case called McLibel, where two campaigners were sued for libel by McDonalds, and these people had no money, they had to defend themselves entirely, they had to spend hours and hours in libraries doing their own legal research. I think it was the longest libel case in British history, and they eventually took it to the European Court of human rights - they'd lost in London, but the European courts said "Ok, you lost in London, but it wasn't a fair trial. You were two people with no money against a global, multi-billion dollar corporation. That's not a fair trial. So everybody said "This is terrible, it should never happen again", and then everybody forgot about it, and life just continued. Whereas in this case, what's happened in the last 24 months, is that there's been so much happening, it was impossible for anybody to ignore, the momentum was so great, with all of these different reports and campaigns, and different cases, that something had to change.

E: And what about the time you've lost since then. Is there any compensation for that lost time?

SS: No. No, that's the other thing, you don't get that time back, you don't get that time with your family back, and you don't get the money you would've earned back. So Ben Goldacre told me about this, because obviously he was sued before I was sued. He was sued for criticizing a vitamin salesman, a German vitamin salesman, Matthias Rath who was promoting the use of vitamins in South Africa to treat HIV. Ben wrote about this, very, very laudably, and raised it as an issue in a national newspaper, and in that case, Ben wasn't sued personally, it was the Guardian that was being sued. So Ben didn't have to worry about a huge legal bill, but he had to worry about the fact that he lost 18 months of his career. You know, which again is a massive… anybody who loses 18 months of their work-life and social life, it's a penalty.

J: So, they sued you, and if you lose, even though they're suing you, you still have to pay?

SS: Yeah, I have to pay their legal- the loser has to pay- and that's the other thing, we haven't talked about damages here. I don't know what sort of damages were at stake, but they weren't that- I don't think they were that much, we're looking at $10,000, a few tens of thousand dollars. I say not much (laughs), obviously my scale of what's a lot has changed a lot in the last two years. But the really damaging thing is the legal costs, that's what scares people in libel, and it's the fact that the lo- and it's even worse than that, every time I say something, I realize it's a worse scenario. In Britain, lawyers can enter into a 'no win no fee' agreement, so if somebody sues me for libel, fine. I have to think what happens if I lose? Ok, I have to provide my own legal bills, and I have to pay the other side's legal bills. If their lawyer has entered into a 'no win no fee' agreement, their lawyer can demand double payment, because they can say "look, I took a risk, defending this case, or prosecuting this case, we won, I could've walked away with nothing. As we won, I want double". So you end up paying-

B: Twice nothing is still nothing


SS: You end up paying double their legal costs to reward their lawyer. So, again, another part of the libel reform campaign, is to remove these 'no win no fee' agreements, or to at least limit the uplift in the-

J: It just seems so… almost premeditated, like lawyers saying "Now I want double", like, why? You're taking the risk, why do you…

SS: The way it works I gather- the BCA had a 'no win no fee' agreement, and I had a 'no win no fee' agreement for little parts of my case as it went along, and I'm not saying this is the way that the British Chiropractic Association works at all, I have no idea what's going on inside their heads. But some billionaire somewhere wants to sue a blogger for something that's been written about the billionaire, the billionaire says "Right, I'm gonna sue you, and this is gonna run up a million dollars in legal bills, and what's more, my lawyer is prepared to defend me 'no win no fee'. So my legal bills at the end of this will actually be $2million if I win."

E: A double threat

SS: That's right, and of course, the person bringing the threat, brings the threat because they think that they're probably gonna win, and in the English libel law – because everything is stacked against the writer, the author – claimants nearly always win. So they're almost definitely gonna win, and now there's a $2million bill at stake. And of course a lawyer comes in and says "Sure, I'll do it 'no win no fee', because I'm probably gonna win this case anyway". So the 'no win no fee' was supposed to be there for the poor, impoverished defendant. But it tends to be the richer, wealthier client that tends to have these 'no win no fee's as a way of trying to intimidate the other side.

J: It's like legal gambling, gimme a break

B: Wow

J: It really is weird when you hear that, it just doesn't make any sense.

SS: It gets worse (laughs), it gets worse. The worst side of it, and this is hard to explain, but what you can also do is take out insurance, just in case you lose. So the billionaire comes in, and the billionaire's probably gonna win, but the billionaire says "Well, just in case I lose, I'm gonna take out an insurance policy. And the insurance policy could cost a quarter of a million dollars. Again, if the billionaire wins, the other side has to pay that insurance policy.

J&R: Wow

SS: So somebody can continually pile up more and more pressure on what might be a blogger, what might be an academic, what might be an academic journal. The editor of the British Medical Journal, one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, says quite openly, that there are things she would like to publish, which she feels she should publish, but which she can't publish, because it could destroy her journal. Other editors have told me about papers they would like to remove, because they know that the data is incorrect, or the analysis is poor, and so on, but they can't remove the paper, because in a way that might libel the author, and the author might then sue the journal. Yeah, I look at what happens here in America, and you understand free speech. You have a system whereby the libel laws are much more tolerant of debate and discussion, and I look around, and I don't see a civilization that's crumbling.

(general sounds of agreement)

SS: I don't see corporations crumbling, so this is an example of a model that works. Now, I'm not saying that the English libel system needs to move all the way towards the American balance you have between- and the problem here is the balance between reputation and the right to free speech. Now, we all have reputations, and we should have a right to protect that reputation from slurs and inaccuracies. But on the other hand, people should have the right to be able to put forward their views. And the balance is different in different countries, and so we may not want to move all the way to the balance you have here, but we've gotta get away from this situation whereby if anybody wants to sue somebody else for libel, they'll bring that case to London. Because they know it's gonna be incredibly expensive and scary, and they know that the odds are stacked hugely in their favor. And that's why, in a way, this is an odd, perverse libel case in a little country 3, 4, 5,000 miles away. But if you're an American blogger, you could end up being hauled to Britain, or if you're an American publisher, or an American academic, lots of examples of this, of American publications ending up in the London high court. We had a session this morning on grass-roots activism, and skeptics in the pub, and the local skeptics groups you have in America, and around the world. This was an example of grass-roots activism really making a difference. And scientists making a difference. You know, free speech affects non-governmental organizations, it affects biographers, historians. It affects huge numbers of people, but when doctors get up and say I can't tell the public the truth, and that doesn't just affect my right to free speech, it affects the public's right to know important stuff. That's when I think the politicians took notice.

J: So, if you could rewind time, would you have changed your article to avoid this entire thing, or would you live through it.

SS: Oh no, I… see…

B: Maybe it's too soon to make that stand

SS: No, no, no, no, no. I mean, in hindsight, this story has a happy ending, and if the libel laws change, it will have a phenomenally happy ending. And the stress has been worth it, because chiropractics in Britain no longer make some of the claims they made two years ago, they've changed their websites, they've changed their publicity materials. So they seem to have taken on board what I was saying, and so there's been a greater scrutiny. So I think lots of good things have come out of writing that article. And when you sit down to write an article, I stand by everything I've written. What caused the problem, was one judge's interpretation of one or two particular words, which nobody can really think about when you're writing an article. You know, I read that article, I thought it was perfectly clear and perfectly fair. Edzard Ernst, my co-author of the book, would've read that article – because we often exchange materials, is there anything here that you'd add? And so on – he saw nothing wrong with it . The Guardian editor, who commissioned the article, saw nothing wrong with it. The sub-editor saw nothing wrong with it. There would've been a lawyer who read the article before it- none of us saw anything wrong with that article.

E: This one judge

SS: Yeah, and so… that's what caused- and in a way, I kinda feel sorry for the British Chiropractic association, because had that one judge not ruled in that way, the British Chiropractic association would've lost a lot sooner. And it would've been a lot less painful for them as well.

J: The irony is that it was a big win on many levels, and it really does look like governmental changes are going to take place, policy changes are going to take place.

SS: And that will be a victory for free speech on a global level

E: Oh, sure

SS: I'm going to TAM Australia in November, and I was in Australia, I think, it was last Summer. I remember it very well because my wife told me I was going to be a father, I was very excited. So I was in Sydney, and I'd just given an interview, I think, to a journalist who worked for the Melbourne Age. Melbourne Age, one of the biggest newspapers in Australia, run by a giant corporation, I think Fairfax media, interviewed by a chap, I think Nick Miller, who's their health correspondent, and we talked about homeopathy, we had a long exchange about homeopathy, and so on. And then he wrote his article, and the lawyer said "look, you can't say that". Now, I know I said nothing libellous, because at that stage I'd learnt a lot about libel, and I knew exactly that I wanted to be well on the safe side of causing any trouble. But his lawyer said "yeah, take all of that out, take all of that out, and take all of that out". So instead, Nick Miller wrote an additional column about how difficult it was to be a health journalist in Australia, being scared of a libel high court 12,000 miles away. And so now, if our libel laws change the way they need to change, Nick Miller in Australia, on the other side of the world, won't need to be so scared about writing stuff that's perfectly plain and obvious, and which the public should know about. We're talking about chiropractic, we're talking about homeopathy, and it sounds as though this'll be… free speech in order to criticize alternative therapies, but that's not the case at all. Peter Wilmshurst is being sued by a large American health device company, it's about having the chance to criticize large pharmaceutical companies, and alternative therapies, and anybody else who deserves fair, robust criticism.

E: It's not like you're spreading lies, it's not like you're telling falsehoods about what it is they're doing

SS: No, I try not to do that


E: Right?

B: Yeah, it seems non-sensical, but that's what we have

J: I remember when Rebecca first told us- actually, I think she told us right before we started recording a show, we're going back a ways now. And we all had such an incredible emotional reaction to it. I was riveted hearing what she had to say, I'd never heard your name before

SS: Right, right

J: And I'm like, I didn't care who you were, I'm like "I'm behind this guy".

E: Oh, it struck a chord, it strikes a nerve inside of you

J: We got totally pissed off, we were like totally offended, we were like, you know, almost freaking out about it, and then I find out that everybody's pissed off, everyone's concerned, emotionally involved and engaged with this, it's such an interesting thing to watch unfold.

SS: I've followed all of that. I'd get up in the morning and look at the web, I'd look at the people who twittered or blogged, and sometimes it was just messages of support- I say just messages of support, they were incredibly valuable. But sometimes it was people who had seen a new research paper on chiropractic, and they'd taken it apart. And I could then look at that, and that would help us in our defense, in terms of trying to understand what the latest research was. All of this was fantastically valuable, Peter Wilmshurst, there's this thing called the 'chilling effect' of libel. The chilling effect of libel is not that you write something and you get sued for libel, but that you don't even write it in the first place, or you self-censor. And that's the chilling effect of libel. But Peter Wilmshurst, the cardiologist I mentioned earlier, his lawyer said it's actually the killing effect of libel, 'cause if you don't have the opportunity to discuss openly these risks, then it's patients who suffer.

J: Simon, it's a pleasure to meet you. We were worried the hell about you


J: For real, we had no idea- nobody knew how this was going to turn out. You know, like I said, we were following it, I gotta tell you I was shocked and elated that things turned out the way that they did, and I think I've never said this to anyone: You changed the world. You did.


E: And wait till you'll be able- when your child is old enough to understand, and you're able to talk to him or her – is it a son or a daughter?

J: "Right before you were born"

SS: He was in- my wife's a journalist as well, she's very supportive, because she's a journalist, she understood, she stood by me for the whole two years, and backed me completely. But she was about eight and a half months pregnant when we went to the court of appeals, so little Harry was inside her, at the court of appeal. And then two weeks later, I went to parliament, we had a mass lobby, and the politicians said they'd never seen so many people turn up for a mass lobby. Ordinary people, skeptics and so on, we all turned up to show our support, right? I stood up and I spoke, I said, when I left the house today, I looked at my baby, little Harry, he was six, seven days old, and I looked at Harry, and I said "Daddy's gonna go to parliament to change a law" and he looked at me, and I could see it in his eyes, he was thinking "What are the Conservative party gonna do about libel reform?"


SS: So I could pull on as many emotional heart strings as possible to get these parties on board. But yeah, he really had his first few days right in the middle of the libel battle

J: Well, thanks for coming on the show, and we definitely will see you in Australia

E&B: Yes

SS: My pleasure, and thanks for all of your support, and thanks for all of the support from the listeners as well, it's very much appreciated

E: Least we could do, least we could do

J: Thanks Simon

Science or Fiction (1:00:58)[edit]


S: Each week I come up with three science news items, or facts, two real and one fake, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everyone ready for this week?


R: Yes!

J: Yes, I am!

E: Sometimes it's four items

R: Don't mock Steve's excitement

S: Sometimes

R: A little enthusiasm never hurt

S: Alright, here we go. We'll see how enthused you are after you hear them

B: Mockers go first

S: Number 1: 'An engineer recently became the first person to achieve sustained human-powered flight with an ornithopter', number 2: 'A new study indicates that commonly used sunless tanning products directly increase the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma'. And item number 3: 'Recent satellite images demonstrate Mercury's long gaseous comet-like tail'. Rebecca, go first.

R: Ok, 'ornithopter', that's a great word. I'm just gonna- I'm gonna use that in conversation later whether this is the true one or not. However, I think that it is true, because… I have no reason other than I really like 'ornithopter', so… deal with it, it's true. 'Sunless tanning products directly increase the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma'. That would be a bitch, wouldn't it? There's just no way to not be pasty-white, apparently, without getting cancer. That makes sense, it's a chemical, you're putting it directly all over your skin, I'm not really sure what basal cell means, but- yeah, it makes sense that, you know, this chemical could put you at risk. However, I do often see the risks of things you don't actually ingest blown out of proportion, so- and it's not like you're drinking the sunless tanning product, I don't think. I don't think that's how it works, I've never used it myself but- and then ' satellite images demonstrate Mercury's long comet-like tail'. I didn't know Mercury had a tail, is that the newsy part, Steve? That it exists? Or was that known, and it's just that we have images of it now?

S: I think it's self-explanatory

R: Don't- don't take that tone with me, Steve. It's between those two for me, the last two, I'm going to say… I'm going to say that the sunless tanning products do not in fact cause carcinoma.

S: Ok, Bob?

B: Ok, an engineer, first person to achieve sustained flight, um… yeah, I'm gonna go with that one, with the way- with material science these days, I'm sure they produced something that was incredibly light that can be human-powered for a long enough duration to have 'sustained human-powered flight'. The third one, yeah, that's very unusual, I guess I've never heard of this, but maybe there's some sort of out-gassing going on on Mercury, and the solar wind is sort of picking that up and pushing it away from the sun, so it kinda looks like a comet-like tail. And I'm sure it's very, very attenuated gas, but I'm sure the satellite can pick it up, I'm sure it's pretty sensitive. So, I can kinda see that too, although pretty interesting. Yeah, the second one here about the sunless tanning products causing carcinoma, my first thought was that, well, you're really just dying the skin, you're not really increasing the amount of melanin that gives you a tan, which would give you false confidence, and you'd stay out in the sun more, which would increase the odds, but you're saying directly increasing, which just applying it, applying it to the skin apparently – if I'm interpreting this correctly – is causing it. So, and that's just kind of weird, that that chemical itself will cause it. So I'm gonna say, I'm gonna say that one is fiction.

S: Ok, Evan?

E: The engineer achieving sustained human-powered flight with the ornithopter, that's extremely cool, and therefore must be true. I'll jump to number- to the last one


J: (in mocking, authoritative voice) And therefore, it must be true

S: There you go

E: Yeah, I once saw a sign: "Cool = True". 'Recent satellite images demonstrate Mercury's long gaseous comet-like tail', this is the first time I'm hearing that Mercury has a long gaseous comet-like tail. I don't know what to make of that one. The middle one about the sunless tanning products increasing the risk of basal cell carcinoma, it's between those two. Yeah, carcinoma. That one's fiction.

S: Ok, Jay?

J: The ornithopter one reminds me of Dune, right? Isn't that what they call the spaceship – not the spaceship, but the flying thing in Dune?[9] Anyway-

B: I had an ornithopter when I was a kid, I had a wind-up, like propeller- like a rubber-band wind-up bird, remember that, Jay?

J: Yeah, and the freakin' thing flew like crazy! It was amazing, but I'm trying to imagine one human-sized, and people are heavy, you know? The thing would have to be huge, and then how's the person gonna flap these gigantic wings? But at the same time, I know that they're making like really, really light man-powered crafts right now. But this is also, like Evan, this is one of those things where everyone's saying this is so god-damn cool, I wanna believe it, and it is awesome. And if it is true, I gotta see video of it, that's- ok, so next one. The sunless tanning causing cancer, that was made fun of in a movie.

E: Which one?

J: There was some movie, like there was like, it had 3,000 as a factor for how much sun it blocks, but it also causes cancer, and it was this blue paste, I remember that. I think it was from Robocop, or something like that-[10]

E: Huh!

B: Ah-hah, yeah

J: Remember that? But I can see, I could see this having some weird effect on the skin, but at the same time, I think it would've come out a long time ago, 'cause these things have been popular for a long time, and those Jersey Shore kids would've caught cancer all over their frikkin' body with this stuff.

E: I dunno, I didn't even know what that was until about three weeks ago.

J: By that fact alone, Evan, is why I like you

E: Thank you (laughs)

J: And 'Recent satellite images demonstrate Mercury's long gaseous comet-like tail', just thinking about this as a Science or Fiction item, what would the- if this one's fake, then what's fake about it? That it doesn't have a tail? So that kind of eliminates three from the list, and then if I compare it with one or two, then it has to be two, the developing basal cell carcinoma is the fake.

S: Alright, so you guys are all in agreement this week. So I guess I'll take these in order, number one, 'An engineer recently became the first person to achieve sustained human-powered flight with an ornithopter'. That one is … science.

E: Cool

J: Steve, did you see video of it?

S: Yeah, there's video on the link that I provide [see above]. The Snowbird is the name of the plane, the ornithopter, then engineer is Todd Reichert, an Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace.

J: Way to go, Todd!

S: So, yeah, it's funny, because whenever you see the montage of all the failed attempts at human-powered flight-

B: (laughs)

E: I love those

S: -that you must've seen a hundred times

E: Yeah

S: It's mostly ornithopters, right? Which specifically means that there's a wing-flapping component to it, as opposed to a fixed wing. But now finally, someone has actually achieved it. " wing-flapping device sustained both altitude and airspeed for 19.3 seconds, and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour."

E: It's like the Wright brothers' first flight

S: (laughs) Yeah, it's kinda like the Wright brothers, yeah, a similar kind of order of magnitude. Pretty cool. Right, let's go on to number two: 'A new study indicates that commonly used sunless tanning products directly increase the risk of developing basal cell carcinoma'. You guys all think this one is the fiction.

E: Uh-huh

S: And this one is … the fiction

(general sounds of jubilation)

J: Good job, guys!

S: Good job

B: Steve sucks!


S: You all got it

E: Now, wait a minute

R: Poor Steve

J: We really kicked your (inaudible)

S: But there were-

R: That'll teach you to be enthusiastic at the start

J: That's right

S: There were actually two recent studies involving sunless tanning products. Interestingly, one study looked at the risk of developing sunburns and also UV exposure in general among adolescents who use these products, and those who don't. And what they found was that adolescents that use sunless tanning products actually were exposed to more UV light, and were more likely to have had a sunburn in the last year, so Bob, I think you said that it could give you a false sense of confidence that you can go out in the sun, and then you expose yourself to more. Or it could just be that people who use sunless tanning products wanna get a suntan, so they'll do it any way they can, they'll use this product, they'll also use tanning booths, they'll also go out in the sun, right?

B: Right

S: So it could be either of those factors. However, there was another study, published in a separate journal, looking at counseling people on the use of sunless tanning products instead of either using, say, a tanning booth or getting sun exposure outside, and then they followed them up for a year, and they found that, for those people who started using the sunless tanning products, they had a reduced risk of sunburn or exposure to UV light. So these are two different populations, one was self-selected, and the other one was people who were specifically counseled on the health benefits of avoiding UV exposure, and using sunless tanning as an alternative. So there you go, it can go either way.

J: So Steve

S: Yep?

J: I have a question for you, I don't know if you know the answer. Why do people turn orange when they use this?

S: Because it's imperfect. You know, it doesn't duplicate a good-looking tan well, it's the closest that they can get to it.

J: Did you ever see one of those pictures of someone just honkin' orange? Like you're just like, what?

R: Guys, be careful to not fall for the toupée fallacy here, because I'm sure that there are plenty of really good sunless tanners out there, and people who know how to apply them. And you don't notice it, because it looks natural. But yeah, the bright orange girl, like in the middle of winter, of course you're gonna notice her and say 'oh god, sunless tanning's awful'

S: Yeah, you're right. It might also be just the expense. Maybe the more expensive products are better, and the cheap ones are the ones that make you look orange. I don't know, that would be my guess though.

B: Whatever happened years ago, I remember seeing on the show Beyond 2000, they talked about an injection that would give you a real, melanin tan.

S: Guess it never got past the FDA

E: Ha

B: I was looking forward to that for years, and it never materialized

R: What's the point of that, though, like-

E: Maybe you can get it in Thailand

R: -why don't you just go out in the sun?

B: No, the point is, you don't get the sun damage

R: Oh

B: You don't have to get the skin-

S: No vitamin D

B: When you- because when you get a tan, it's basically a by-product of skin damage, but if you can get a shot, and get the melanin, then there's no real damage. You get the protection, and you don't have the damage, so it would be win-win!

S: At the bottom of this article, is an advert for 'Perfect Tan', which advertises 'no streaks, no smell, and no orange'.

R: There you go

S: It's a selling point, the 'no orange' bit. Which means that 'Recent satellite images demonstrate Mercury's long gaseous comet-like tail' is … science.

E: What? 'Long gaseous comet-like tail'

S: Ta-daa

B: How awesome is that?

S: Yeah, so this has been known for a while, that Mercury does have a wispy, little bit of an atmosphere, and the intense solar wind that close to the sun does blow it away from Mercury, just like a comet. And this has been imaged with probes that- like the MESSENGER probe that was sent to Mercury. The new bit is that it was imaged for the first time from near-Earth satellites, the STEREO satellites specifically, just ahead of, and behind the Earth's orbit. So there are two satellites synched up. And- so you can get stereoscopic images, I guess. They're also getting progressively farther apart, since they're in different orbits, and they're primarily used to image the sun, but whenever Mercury passes in their field of view, they also get a look at Mercury. And what's really cool, is that these images are available online, and a physician from Australia, called Ian Musgrave, who's actually a medical researcher, saw one of the images from the STEREO satellites, and noticed the comet-like tail visible behind Mercury, so then he called up some actual astronomers, I think at Boston University, to double check it, and they confirmed his observation. So here's an example of sort of a citizen scientist making a discovery with publicly available data. Which I think is cool in and of itself. What do you think this comet-like tail of Mercury is made of?

R: Gas

S: Yeah, what kind of gas

J: Gases

B: Aw, man, it's a good question

E: Er

J: Well, I'm gonna just guess and say water vapor

S: That would be a bad guess

B: Yeah,

E: It's not methane

R: Helium

J: Hydrogen

S: Sodium

E: Really?

J: Oh really? Who would think of salt?

S: That's sodium chloride, it's sodium

J: Settle down


S: It's out-gassing from something, I don't think they know exactly what

B: So, but, yeah, it's not like it's just whipping away the atmosphere, I mean, this is an out-gassing event that's being replenished by the interior-

S: Yeah

B: -of, yeah, the planet. And it's not like the Earth's- the Earth's atmosphere wouldn't last that long-

J: No, it wouldn't

B: -in a similar scenario

J: Yeah

S: Now, actually, let me clarify that. It was previously observed that the comet-like tail of Mercury was sodium, but the new observations are not consistent with sodium, so it's something else in addition to sodium, and they're not sure what it is. But Mercury does have a long sodium tail, and then maybe something else too, right? But there's some kind of out-gassing from Mercury that's causing that

E: Cool

B: Did you see the picture? Is it cool?

S: Yeah, ah, you know, it's a blurry smudge with a tail behind it, you know.[11] Pretty long, it's like, you know, compared to the size of Mercury.

J: What do you think pretty long is, Steve, about two and a half inches?

E: (laughs)

J: Nothing, Rebecca?

R: I got nothin', just gonna let that one hang

S: (laughs) So good job, everyone.

J: Ah, that was easy

R: Thanks

B: (laughs)

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:45)[edit]

S: Jay, do you have a quote for us?

J: Why, yes I do. Are you ready? Here's my quote: "BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM, BAM!"` Rebecca, who is that?

R: Er, that would be-

B: Bamm-Bamm

R: That would be a faith-healer healing a woman, giving a woman a brand new hip

J: Absolutely correct. Did you guys hear about that? Rebecca Tweeted about this faith-healer who basically, you know, he's doing the whole bit, the whole over-the-top yelling bit, and then this woman comes up, says she needs a hip-replacement surgery, and he yells at her "BAM BAM BAM", like that, over and over again to replace her hip. So basically, he was punching her with Jesus.

R: And it worked, she did a little dance afterwards, so therefore I'm sure she had a brand new hip without the bother of any surgery. Lucky girl. Oh, until the cameras were off and she collapsed and had to go back into her wheelchair. But, you know, who cares about that

S: Jay, do you have any announcements?

J: I have a quote announcement

S: Yeah

R: A quote announcement?

E: A quote announcement

J: Yeah, I'm gonna do my quote

S: Oh, that wasn't your quote?

E: Oh

R: I thought that was your quote

J: Ok, so here's one of the wisest people of all time:

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.


J: Anyone wanna take a guess at who said that?

B: Einstein?

E: George Carlin

J: Right!

E: Really

J: Say it, Bob,

B: Yeah baby, EINSTEIN!


Announcements (1:17:12)[edit]

S: I do have an announcement, in the UK, February … lets see, 5th and 6th, just Saturday and Sunday, there is a conference, the QED conference, which stands for, what does that stand for?

E: Queen of Denmark

R: Quod erat demonstrandum?

B: That which was to be demonstrated

S: Question, Explore, Discover. That's what their- Question, Explore, Discover. It's kinda like NECSS, in that it's a few of the UK local skeptic groups getting together and holding a big conference. The Greater Manchester Skeptic's society, and the Merseyside Skeptic's society.

E: Mersey

S: Yep. And, it will be held in the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester, you can go to for information. The line-up includes George Hrab, Eugenie Scott, Simon Singh and they actually roped me into going as well, so I'll be there too.

R: Oh

J: Steve, if you're going, I think I'll go with you. But not as a guest. If you're going to England, I'm going with you

S: You're welcome to come

J: Just by coincidence, I was on the Inkredulous podcast, which is hosted by Andy Wilson, who is hysterically funny, and you can go to download that episode at Thanks a lot for having me on, Andy.

S: Was it redonculous?

J: We had a great time. There was drinking involved, and lots of swearing, it was good.

S: Ok, well, thanks for joining me again this week guys

R: Thank you, Steve

E: Outstanding

B: You're welcome, it feels like we just started

E: Strangely

S: It does, so until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.

Today I Learned…[edit]

  • CFLs cycle at 10-40,000Hz, and contain 1.4-4mg of mercury, less than the amount released into the environment from the coal burned for the extra electricity needed for an incandescent bulb
  • Phobos is closer to its primary than any other known moon, orbiting at 5,800 miles from the centre of Mars. It is also one of the least reflective bodies in the solar system
  • An engineer recently became the first person to achieve sustained human-powered flight with an ornithopter. It remained airborne for 19.3 seconds and covered a distance of 145 metres at an average speed of 25.6 kilometres per hour (PhysOrg article)
  • Mercury has a long gaseous comet-like tail composed of sodium and an as-yet unidentified substance (PhysOrg article)


  1. Facebook video from CBC: 'Be Green' with Geeta Nadkarni
  2. Diabetes and Electrosensitivity
  3. Havas (2008) 'Dirty Electricity Elevates Blood Sugar Among Electrically Sensitive Diabetics and May Explain Brittle Diabetes'. Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, 27: 135–146 (pdf available to download from
  4. SGU Episode 266: Banning Wifi[link needed], see also 5X5 Episode 104 – Wifi
  5. UPDATE: The Fobos-Grunt launched in November 2011 but did not reach Phobos, remaining in low Earth orbit and returning to Earth in January 2012
  6. See episode 165: Ben Goldacre wins HIV libel case
  7. Sense about Science: British cardiologist sued by American company for a Canadian article
  8. Sense about Science: Reporting the truth on lie detectors
  9. Dune Wiki: Ornithopter
  10. Robocop Wiki: Sunblock 5000
  11. NASA: STEREO sees Mercury's tail
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