SGU Episode 392

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SGU Episode 392
19th Jan 2013

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SGU 391                      SGU 393

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


M: Massimo Polidoro

Quote of the Week

No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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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 Tuesday, January 15th 2013, 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: How's everyone tonight?

S: Good, how are you, Evan?

R: Super.

J: Good. Ev', what's up?

E: Fine. Thank you, thank you, fine.

S: Evan, I noticed you stopped your foreign language hellos.

R: That's true.

E: Well, are you saying that I should have kept that up as a regular segment? It was more of like an experiment.

S: No. I just noticed that you stopped.

B: It's a long-ass experiment

R: We were just wondering if you ran out of languages.


J: Evan, what are you experimenting with now?

E: (laughing) I'm not necessarily experimenting with anything right now, but, Steve, I'm glad you mentioned it. You sort of rekindled my memory on that. Perhaps I will bring that back, or try something a little bit different.

S: I wasn't trying to encourage you, I was just making an observation.

E: Very astute. Nothing gets by you, Doctor.

This Day in Skepticism (1:05)[edit]

R: Speaking of segments, this day in history, on January 19th in 1915, one Georges Claude patented the electrodes used for neon lights, which was what allowed him to perfect the neon sign that quickly became ubiquitous.

B: Very ubiquitous.


R: Yeah, and for a while he had monopoly on it because he was so good at the neon sign making. Do you guys know what the first neon signs made in the United States were?

J: Yeah, for beer.

E: Eat at Joe's.

R: Unfortunately it's—

B: Open

R: It's way more boring than any of those. Well, maybe not more boring than "Open." Good guess, Bob. But, it was for a car dealership called Packard. So the signs just read "Packard." Boring. But they cost $1,250 each. Quite pricey.

B: Wow.

E: Wow.

R: They were extremely—

B: They must have been a sight, though.

R: Apparently, yeah.

B: I can imagine.

R: People would just stop and stare at them for hours because people were dumb back then. (laughter) Easily amused.

J: Speaking of cool things that cost thousands of dollars, just on a side note, Kingston came out with a one terabyte thumb drive, costs $2,000.

B: Yes. I saw that.

E: Two thousand dollars!

B: Two grand! Oh, my god.

E: Where are you gonna put that thing? Duhaaa. Doh.

J: It's a terabyte, guys. It's a terabyte. I would wear it around your neck.

E: I would lose that in about three days, I think.

R: Easily, yeah.

E: I should not have that device.

B: I would Velcro it to my body. I would not lose that.

R: I can't even have a one terabyte external hard drive because I'll lose it. God forbid. Yeah. Thumb drive gone.

S: Let's get back to neon lights, because I'm more fascinated by those. So do you guys know how neon lights work?

J: Sure I do.

E: Gases.

S: All right, go ahead, Jay.

J: Well, you have electricity.

S: Um hm.

E: Very good.

J: And it hyper-stimulates the gas

S: (laughing) Hyper-stimulates?

J: Yes. It stimulates the gas in there, which is neon gas, and the particles hit, they hit each other, right, from their moving really fast they hit each other and they produce light when they hit each other.

S: No. Good try, good try.

R: That sounded really good, though.

E: Yeah, it was pretty plausible.

S: The electrical current, which has to be at a very high voltage, it ionizes the gas. It strips an electron out of the outer shell of the neon gas.

J: That's what I said. Yup.

S: Yup. So then you have ionized gas, and with the, electrons essentially get kicked up into a higher energy state. And then, but that's unstable. So when they come back down to a lower energy state they give off a photon of energy, that's how they get rid of that energy and because the electron shells are quantal, right, it's a quantum, you have to go from one very specific state to another very specific energy state. It gives off the exact same amount of energy in each photon and that equals a frequency of light, and so neon gives off, always gives off that exact same frequency of orange-y red light. Other gases of course will give off different energies and they give off different colors. Right.

J: That's right, exactly right, Steve, that's good

E: Argon.

S: Thank you, Jay.

B: That's kind of how a laser works, in a sense. Where you have the population version where the electrons jump to higher levels and then they spit out the electrons when they go back to their ground state. But they're all in the same frequency, though, a very very specific frequency, and it's like a collimated beam, so that's what makes a laser light. Similar.

S: Right.

J: So, Steve, are you saying that the electrons rock down to Electric Avenue, and then they take it higher?

S: That's exactly what happens, Jay. Now,

B: Oh. My. God.

E: You should write a song about that, Jay.

S: You can tell what gas is in

R: I gotta give that one credit, actually. That was good.

B: Wait, yeah.

R: That was really good.

B: Didn't you just like totally riff off of that?

J: I'm a fan, you know.

R: Credit where it's due.

S: So you can tell what kind of gas is in a neon tube, they're not, of course, all neon, based upon what color it is. So helium, for example, gives off an orange-y white light, neon of course is the orange-red, argon is a violet pale lavender blue, krypton (gotta love krypton) grayish, then a really pretty blue light is given off by mercury vapor. But mercury vapor also serves another purpose. Do you guys understand the difference between a neon light and a fluorescent light?

J: Absolutely.


S: So, this is interesting, too.

E: There's fluoride in the fluorescent light.

S: No. So a fluorescent light is essentially a neon light that has mercury vapor

J: Mercury vapor.


S: As the gas, and it's charged enough so that the mercury vapor gives off ultra-violet light.

R and J: Ultra-violet, yeah.

E: Ultra. Ultra-violet.

S: And then you can coat the inside of the glass

J: Insides


S: with a fluorescent substance. The ultra-violet light from the mercury vapor hits that and

J: It hits it, yeah.

S: that fluoresces in whatever color it is. So that you can

B: That. Yeah, that, yeah.

J: That's good stuff right there, Steve.

E: Wow. So a one-terabyte thumb drive.

(Everyone pretty much loses it)

J: Yup. How 'bout that, Evan. You could literally put your entire music catalog in your thumb drive and take it with you. Not that you'd need it But you'd have it.

B: Wait, wait, literally? How big is your library?

R: You could literally put an entire textbook about neon lights on a terabyte.

E: Argon and fluorescents. Fascinating stuff.

S: Multiple.

J: That is cool, though, Steve, and I wanna test you one year from now to see if you remember all that stuff you just read to us.

S: Okay. Do it.


B: I can hear Steve talking to Siri: "Siri, remind me in three hundred and sixty-three days to look up fluorescence again and neon lights."

E: All I'm hearing is Electric Avenue in my head.

J: All right, so who's the guy that sang the song? Who remembers his name?

E: The Jamaican guy, ummm

R: Yeah.

B: Wink Martindale.

E: Eddie something. Eddie…

J: Oh, you're so close!

R: Eddie Capitan.

J: That song was written by... Eddy Grant.

S: Eddy Grant.

E: Eddy Grant.

J: I almost forgot him.

R: Never heard of 'im.

E: Grant.

B: Is that Amy Grant's brother?

S: Jay, did you know that when you ask a question and nobody has the right answer, that you're supposed to wait a very specific amount of time before you give the answer yourself? You know how long that is?

J: How long is that?

B: Three seconds.

S: Three seconds. That's right. Wait three seconds.

E: That's the courtesy window?

R: I think it depends on how funny we're being about the wrong answers.


E: Right.

S: That's true. That's a variable that's often not included.

News Items[edit]

Predicting Murders (7:36)[edit]

S: But Jay, you're gonna tell us about predicting murders. But not just predicting murders, predicting murders like in the movie Minority Report. Even though it has absolutely nothing to do with that, but go ahead.

J: So, yes. Richard Berk, who is a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania has developed software that's making predictions about future criminal behavior. Up until now, the way that this was typically done was that parole officers would have the record of that criminal, or whoever it was that was committing the crime. They'd figure out, okay, how dangerous is this person, how many times have they committed crimes, and all that. And that person on their own with seemingly not much of a standard would just say, okay, I think that they need about this much supervision and they give them, it's like a halfway house type of deal where they're like, okay, you need to live here or you need to come in and check with me every week or every month or whatever. That variable, though, doesn't really help much. And it's not effective. Or so Richard Berk thinks.

So what they're doing now is he has taken 60,000 crimes, and he did very smart research on them and he was looking into the patterns that exist. What Professor Richard Berk found was that a huge factor in somebody's predictability of future crimes isn't a crime that they committed when they were 30 but it was the crime or crimes that they committed when they were in their formative years, when they were young adult, teenagers. That's a really significant predictor of what they're gonna do for the rest of their life. So, if you're a 30-year-old, the last ten years, fifteen years, according to Berk, are irrelevant. It's much more important to take a deep dive into the person's upbringing and all the things that they did when they were young. Which I found to be very interesting. It speaks a lot about how, you know, I don't want to get into the whole nature versus nurture discussion, but you think if you provide a good household for your children and you steer them in the right direction you could be saving them from criminal life of the future, right? Two states in the United States have adopted this software already. Baltimore and Philadelphia are now using it, and D.C's soon to pick it up and start using it as well. He said that his software is replacing the quote-unquote ad hoc decision-making and should identify eight out of one hundred murders.

S: That's not a lot.

J: No

E: Well

B: But it's something

J: But, that's eight more people than what would be predicted by a parole officer. This thing— I'll go back to what you said, though, Steve, one huge thing about this article is how freaking lame the Daily Mail is. Not that I have any expectations from these guys. But, I mean, it's so crystal clear that they're using a famous movie that everybody knows, throwing in the title of their article just to get people to read it, and it worked on me.

E: Worked on me, too.

J: Yeah, but this is the media using Hollywood to support their readership and show interest. I found this to be a very interesting article and I probably would have read something more clever anyway. It's just laziness on the author in my opinion.

S: Yeah, and there's 5 pictures from the movie Minority Report in this article.

B: Oh, my god.

S: Seriously, it's in the title, it's all over the article, all these pictures, you know. It has nothing to do ... in the movie, which would be a good one for us to review by the way,

E: Absolutely.

S: Very good portrayal of near future technology. But anyway, there were three quote-unquote precogs who literally predicted a specific person committing a specific murder at a specific time and place, has absolutely nothing to do with what they're talking about here, which is statistically predicting who is likely to commit a murder again, based on some computer algorithm, taking into consideration evidence-based factors. Two totally different things.

J: Yup.

S: You're right.

B: Lame!

S: Very typical, you know. I agree, the lazy science reporters have to always find some movie angle that somehow relates to whatever new technology or breakthrough or thing they're talking about. Right, so right, Bob, so every time there's any metamaterial breakthrough, it's—

B: Uh!

S: —a Harry Potter invisibility cloak.

B: That's their go-to analogy. The comparison. They can't not say it.

E: Yeah, do they feel that the audience isn't sophisticated enough to understand what they might be talking about otherwise unless they have some sort of—

S: No! It's just cheap headlines.

B: No, they want a hook. It's all about being a hook. They want to hook you in. Something to make you read it. No matter what it takes.

J: Sure. Evan, think about it, they spend $100 million or whatever to make Harry Potter and everybody knows about it and most people enjoy it and like it and they're just throwing it out there, like—

R: I think it makes people more likely to read it and less likely to understand it.

S: Right.

J: Yeah.

S: Right.

E: Yes.

S: So what's the point?

E: The opposite effect, yes.

S: Interestingly, the one movie analogy to technology that I think is actually legitimate that I've never seen a news reporter actually make is transparent aluminum.

J: Right.

E: That's right.

S: There have been several companies or whatever, researchers that have come out with some form of something that's based on some aluminum alloy that's transparent and hard — it is freakin' transparent aluminum from the Star Trek movies and they never make that analogy. I don't understand that.

R: I guess 'cause nobody saw those movies.

S: I guess not.

J: Yes, we did!


B: The Voyage Home, that's like, probably like, hugely popular.

R: Was that the one with the whales?

S: Yup.

E: Yes.

R: Yeah, I like that, that was my favorite.

J: There you go, all right.

E: There was a lot to like in that movie.

B: G-e-e-ek! (laughter)

R: Oh my god, I'm such a geek.

S: The other thing that struck me about

E: Wasn't directed by William Shatner. That's a great thing to like about that movie.

S: The other thing that struck me about this article, and it wasn't mentioned in the article — this is the kind of thing, kind of analogy they should have made — is this is sabermetrics, right? This is Moneyball. You guys see the movie Moneyball?

E: Yes. Great movie

S: That would have been the better movie to tie this to. So this is the same thing. Instead of a Gestalt gut feeling, experience, using parole officers and judges, whatever, to say, yeah, is this guy likely to be a criminal again or not, they use an algorithm based on evidence of predictive factors. That's the perfect analogy to Moneyball where instead of using scouts and coaches and owners to see who's the really talented player out there, they use actual statistics to predict their effect on the chance of winning games.

R: Yeah, but that wasn't a science fiction movie. That was something that's already happening, so maybe it's not as big of a draw. 'Cause it's not like oh, here's something that we only dreamed of ten years ago in the movies, but now it's real. You know. So I think that that's why

S: Yeah, I know, but they're going for the cheap headlines, even though it is—

R: Yes.

S: It is confusing and it actually distracts from the actual content of the science. I'm talking about making an actual meaningful analogy to something else that helps people understand and put it into context.

R: Right.

S: Which is what they're not doing.

J: Yeah, but Steve, they're going by the Rotten Tomatoes rating. Okay?


Lead and Crime (14:49)[edit]

S: The next news item is one that we got perhaps the most emails about in the last couple of weeks. Have you guys seen the Mother Jones article on the connection between lead and crime rates?

J: Yeah. I'm really happy we're talking about it because I'm not crystal clear on what the truth is here.

S: So this is an interesting one. Not the first time a reporter has done a deep dive on this, where they looked at the research over the last 20 years, looking at the association between lead exposure in the environment and crime rates. And specifically, lead in gasoline, because that was responsible for a major peak in environmental lead, which was then banned in the U.S. and most countries, and then subsequently declined. So we have this nice curve, this nice mountain, right, on a graph, where in the late 1930s, early 1940s, you have the introduction of leaded gasoline, which was introduced to reduce pings and improve performance in big cars. That peaks around 1970 and then early 1970s it was phased out and then banned, and so it falls way off. That graph looks remarkably similar to crime rates throughout the country, but shifted by 23 years. There are a number of researchers now who claim that this correlation holds up really well, no matter how you look at it. You look at it state-by-state, even city-by-city, and in other countries, that this correlation between the introduction and removal of leaded gasoline is shifted 23 years from crime waves, later on.

When I was first asked to review this article, obviously I approached it with typical skepticism, but, especially this kind of thing, it seems a little simplistic, blaming something as complex as crime on one environmental cause and just the whole notion of the environmental cause of problems like this is very attractive to the media, but they tend to be overblown, these kinds of things. But, I have to say, I looked into this as deeply as I could and independently went through the published literature, as much of it as I could, and it seems to be a fairly strong consensus that there actually is an association.

What we do know is that lead definitely is a neuro-toxin. It causes acute lead poisoning. It's fairly easy to identify: it cause seizures and encephalopathy. It may be harder to detect chronic lead poisoning, which definitely exists and causes a decrease in IQ. It's been associated with a decrease in executive functions, so you get symptoms like ADHD, which itself is associated with higher crime rates, criminality, inability to modulate one's behavior, higher aggression. So you end up— and the effect is greater on boys than girls, which also mirrors the crime situation. So you end up with a lot of men who&mdash and this is especially hits lower socio-economic groups, both because of just the geography, just where they are, but also there are studies which show that people in a lower socio-economic group don't have the resources to get diagnosed and treated for lead toxicity so they're more likely to have the adverse effects from it. So you have this perfect storm of low socio-economic group, low IQ, high aggression, leads to crime. One question that remains though, is what is the, if there is a contribution to crime from lead, what is it? What is the percentage? And it kinda depends on how you look on it. The one review article that I read cited the figure of 20% of crime at its peak, like around 1990s when the crime peaked, so about, again, 20 or so years after leaded gasoline peaked. At the peak it may have been responsible for as much as 20% of crime that was going on in this country.

J: Wow.

B: Wow.

S: Yeah, which is significant. But still it means 80% of crime is not related to lead. It's due to other things. But you could also look at it as what was the contribution of lead to the increase and subsequent decrease in crime over this period of time, and those estimates vary widely, but hover around 50%. I think the article itself in Mother Jones was pretty good, and it was by Kevin Drumm. He did mention all the usual caveats that you should mention, that this is correlational data, it cannot establish cause and effect. These kinds of studies are horrifically complicated. There can always be factors out there that we're not accounting for. Lead exposure may just be a marker for something else that we're not even— that we don't know to even control for at this point in time. So you can't really prove that it's the causative agent here. And this seems to be the consensus of all the researchers that I read. So the other question, then, is, is there anything that we need to do about this now? If this is all from leaded gasoline and it's already been banned

E: Yeah, what about all the other lead in the environment that we...

S: Yes

J: Like lead pencils.

E: It's all around us. Well, you know.

S: Or lead D&D figures, so I don't want to (garbled)

E: There's that. There's lead ammunition.

S: (laughs) Yeah. That kind of lead can be very dangerous. So one primary source of lead is lead paint, which was also banned. But old buildings may still have it. Especially on window sills. So leaded windows. Lead is sweet, so young toddlers, young kids, may lick it or put it in their mouth, and it's sweet, so that they may eat it.

E: Yeah, those Chinese toys.

S: yeah, Chinese toys.

E: Watch out for those.

S: Anyone renovating an old house, it's not like asbestos, you know. You're renovating, it's banned, there's no new sources of it but if you're renovating an old house you may actually increase the exposure to the lead. And so that needs to be taken into consideration. It needs to be done properly by contractors who know how to deal with that. The other issue is, and this is probably a harder issue, is lead in the soil. 'Cause all that lead that we put into the air in that lead gasoline went somewhere, and eventually just settled in the soil and now it's still there. But cleaning up lead from soil would be a much bigger problem.

B: Yeah. Huge.

E: Ooo. We need a microorganism that will eat the lead and turn it into

S: Gold! (laughter) Yeah, no, I thought of that, too, Evan. We need a bacteria that will eat up the lead.

B: Or nano machines.

J: Well, how much is out there, Steve, do they even have an idea?

S: Yeah, it's a lot. It's enough that it probably is still affecting people. And I just read 2reports, both of which concluded that for every billion dollars we spend getting lead out of the environment, there will probably— it will probably save society ten billion dollars. Time times as much, or more—

B: Whoa!

E: Wow.

S: later on, if you're talking about the cost of crime, and all the negative consequences of

R: It's a shame that we're normally so poor at making short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits like that. See global warming.

S: Yeah, right.

J: So, Steve, is the lead that's out there in the dirt, I mean is this why I'm having differences with my f'ing boss?


S: It could be, Jay, I don't know, are you eating dirt?

E: But if you were to do it in such a way so that you concentrate on the higher population areas, right, you get more bang for your buck.

S: The most bang for your buck.

E: Rate of return. So, that should be looked into.

S: Yeah, interesting. While I was researching this, I also researched a lot about the issue of the role of lead toxicity in the fall of Rome. Have you guys ever heard that?

B: Whoa.

J: Yeah, well, that was from their containers, right? They were drinking wine out of lead goblets and containers.

E: Oh, and they went mad?

B: I thought it had to do with guys with beards or something.

E: They went all Caligula on us.

R: Guys with beards?

S: So, as you might imagine, it's more complicated.

B: Barbarians?


R: I'm like, their beards had lead in them?


S: Are you talking about the Vikings with the Scottish accents? Those guys? Yeah, I can't remember now, but an author even wrote a book about blaming the fall of Rome on lead toxicity.

E: What, they used it in the pipes for the water that they uh...

S: So that's one, one thing is that they did make pipes out of lead. That's where the term "plumber" comes from. You know, Pb is lead. The root is for lead.

B: Holy crap.

S: But, here's the thing. Romans at the time knew that lead was poisonous.

R: They were just super dumb. They also had vomitoriums, fyi.

S: They did.

E: So those were handy.

S: But a lot of water pipes were made out of terra cotta, specifically to avoid too much lead. The water running through too much lead. And they had the slaves, of course, do all the lead mining, so they would live horrible short toxic lives.

J: God, I didn't even know, I had no idea that they knew.

E: That's how they knew.

J: I thought that the whole thing was that they had no idea.

S: No, they knew. And they just thought that in the small amounts that they were getting it probably wasn't a problem.

B: Wrong!

S: But it was. They did have leaded wine, and had lead additives in the food, again, maybe for the sweetness.

E: Sweetener.

B: I'll take my wine unleaded, please.

S: Unleaded wine? But I did read an article calling into question the scholarship of that claim that it was a deliberate additive. And they concluded that from contemporary writings, that they probably were just storing wine in various containers, lead, bronze, something else, and lead was just really easy to work with. It was a by-product of their silver mining, so they had lots of it. So it was probably not a deliberate thing. It was just they were storing wine in these lead containers and, hey it kind of made it taste good, too. And then they actually specifically mentioned Caligula, Evan, it's funny you mentioned his name. The Roman aristocracy may have had a progressively lowering of their IQ over the years, and that may have contributed to the fall of Rome. But again, like with crime, the fall of Rome is a complex historical event. You can't blame it on any one thing. And probably impossible to tease apart now what contribution lead toxicity made to the decadence and fall of Rome.

E: Right. One thing led to another.


B: God!

E: I thought that's where you were going, Steve. I really did.

R: That joke was (garbled)

S: Right

B: Nice.

Biggest Thing in the Universe (25:27)[edit]

S: Well, Bob, you're gonna tell us about the biggest thing in the universe.

B: Yes. An international team of astronomers based in the U.K. claimed to actually have discovered the biggest or largest known structure in the universe, and no, it's not Jay's shoe collection. It's a cluster of 73 quasars spanning a staggering 4 billion light years. Four billion! That's, does anyone know how many millimeters that is?


B: I do. It's 38 octillion millimeters, in case you were wondering. So, you guys, I don't think we've ever really dove deep into quasars. I'm sure you guys know what they are. They are pretty amazing things. They're essentially young active galaxies who central core is feeding its super-massive black hole at the center at such a rate that it turns itself into pretty much the most powerful luminous and energetic thing in the universe. You can imagine this titanic swirling accretion disk around this super-massive black hole, and because there's a huge gravitational gradient, there's lots of friction, so things get really hot, so it spews out all this radiation that we can easily see from billions of light years away. Pretty amazing. Quasar stands for Quasi-Stellar Radio Source.

E: I didn't know that.

B: I think we first thought it was a type of star since it seemed kind of point-like and there was no obvious extension beyond that, like you'd see in a normal galaxy, and that's because the core is just so bright, it just outshines the rest of the galaxy.

S: Yeah, and at first, we didn't know that they weren't in our galaxy. They could have been really close.

B: Right. They were so redshifted, they had no idea what the hell they were looking at, and then when they accounted for the redshift, they said "oh my god, there's so much expanding space-time between us and these things". It shifted everything, it's redshifted everything so much; they had never seen anything redshifted that much. These are actually a thousand times brighter than the Milky Way, so they're just—

E: Wow

B: —incredibly, incredibly luminous. So this discovery raises a couple questions. One's a little silly, one's serious. First of all, one of the first things I thought, if it's so big, why haven't we seen it until now?


B: And, I didn't actually find a great answer to that, but I suspect it's kind of subtle. We're only talking about 70-some-odd quasars. We're not talking about a huge number of objects here. But second, and most important, 3 billion light years, or 38 octillion millimeters, is so big for a structure it's making scientists reconsider one of the most basic ideas about space, and that's the Cosmological principle. And that means that if you examine the part of the universe that you're able to observe, then that's a good enough sample to be confident that that's what the rest of the universe looks like. So, that has held us well for many generations, but now, now I'm not so sure how valid that is. This thing is so big, in fact, that it seems to me like it'll have to be reconciled with the cosmological principle. And calculations they did based on this principle and some other theories suggest that the biggest structure should only be about 1.2 billion light years across. So this thing is much bigger than it really should be. So it seems like a very interesting opportunity to learn something new about this.

S: Bob, I know the answer to this, but this is bigger than even the biggest galaxy supercluster. Is what you're saying.

B: Well, that's actually my biggest pet peeve with this, is that, I just had a problem with "biggest" or "largest" when describing a structure, because, I don't have a huge problem with it, but to me "longest" would kinda be more appropriate. 'Cause, to me, I still think that superclusters are the biggest structures. Superclusters are essentially clusters of clusters of galaxies. And up until now, at least they were considered to be the biggest things ever found. And they can, these things are incredible. They can have thousands or perhaps a million galaxies, I found, in the Universe Today website. A million galaxies in them, like the Virgo supercluster that the Milky Way is in. So, now granted, they're usually not much bigger than 250 million light years across, which is only, what, about a sixteenth of the length of this quasar grouping. But we're comparing 73 bright galaxies to hundreds of thousands, or perhaps a million. So I guess the word "biggest" is ambiguous. But still, it's amazing, over 4 billion light years across. I'm just kind of surprised that there's a gravitational influence between all of these. I didn't calculate the spacing between— the average spacing, what they would have to be. And it's kind of complicated, it's not a line, of course, it's kind of this complicated structure. Somewhat complicated. But still, that's an amazing size, and it's so big it's actually bigger than we thought things could get, so it's fascinating to see. It'll be fascinating to see what comes out of it.

Million Dollar Challenge (30:11)[edit]

S: So, Evan, more people are attacking our beloved million dollar James Randi paranormal challenge.

E: Yeah, the latest one is by a fellow named Steve Volk. Anyone ever heard of Steve Volk.

J: No.

R: Nope.

E: No. 'Course you haven't, because he writes about the paranormal. And he floats along unnoticed in the paranormal soup that's out there with thousands of other like-minded authors. He's a free-lance writer, journalist, and he's made appearances on radio shows, usually in the Pennsylvania area, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and he was recently on Joe Rogan's podcast

J: Oh-ho-o. Of course.

E: Yeah. He's been on Coast-to-Coast. So, I don't know, so maybe a few people have heard of him. But in any case, he wrote a book about the paranormal, and it's called Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Paranormal and Couldn't.[1]

B: How hard did he try?

S: And he failed, yeah.

E: He saw a ghost as a kid and he hasn't been regular ever since. That's the gist of the book. And if you think about it, it's kind of an argument from ignorance, right? "So, I can't explain it, therefore it must be the paranormal."

B: Exactly, exactly.

E: Yeah. Well. And Mr. Volk has a blog called Steve Volk: The Generalist. And let's see, on January 9th, he posted a blog titled The Joke of the James Randi Challenge: In Defense of Sheldrake. He dubbed Randi the "cranky elf of the skeptical movement."

B: Oh god

R: I think Randi would accept that, actually.


R: The cranky elf of the skeptics. Yeah, I think he would like it.

E: Volk wants to let us know that he wants to address in this blogpost what is likely the worst, least credible thing that Randi promotes, which is his long-running challenge in which he vows to give $1 million to anyone who can prove paranormal claims in a controlled test. He says the challenge has been "muddled by the very boundaries of science allowing Randi-ites", I guess that's us, Randi-ites "to say paranormal claims don't hold up to scientific scrutiny while conceding, when pressed, that the challenge isn't science". I think Volk entirely misses the point here.

S: Yeah.

E: The challenge is an effort to design a statistically sound protocol for any given extraordinary claim which greatly minimizes bias and/or fraud.

R: He seems to want the challenge to, the million dollars to be given to anybody whose results are statistically significant in a scientific sense. Like if you were to do this, and publish it in a journal, that should get the million dollars. But he forgets the fact that the whole point in the challenge is to find proof that the paranormal exists, and that proof needs to go beyond a reasonable doubt, which is why the test protocols, which are agreed upon by those parties before they move forward, and there have been plenty of people have applied to take this test who have agreed to these protocols, yes, I can do this with the regularity stated in the protocols.

S: Let's take a look at this another way. Like if you want to use a p-value of .05, which is a traditional cut-off for statistical significance in a scientific publication, that means Randi would be giving a million dollars to every twentieth applicant—

R: Yeah.

S: —of the million dollar challenge, which is obviously not practical. So essentially, what Volk says is in order to demonstrate paranormal abilities and equating this to, this is why he invoked the name of Sheldrake, the kind of psi experiments of Sheldrake or Dean Radin or Daryl Bem, that in order to demonstrate that to the threshold that the million dollar challenge is using, you would need to conduct years of research and thousands of trials. Again, completely missing the point. The point of the million dollar challenge is not to conduct publishable scientific research, it's not to look for subtle effects that would require lots of trials, and it's not just trying to point the way to future research where we publish preliminary findings or findings with— where one paper in and of itself— even if you use a .01 or a .001, a one in a thousand chance, that can't be the ultimate cutoff used to dole out a million dollars. And, Rebecca, what you said is right as well, it's very telling of the examples that Volk gives to support his points. So he, for example, is whining about the fact that the preliminary test is usually set to a one-in-a-thousand threshold, and the final test is set to a one-in-a-million threshold. So if you're gonna win the million dollars, there's a million-to-one chance that you'll do it by chance alone. Although, Banachek is considering lowering those thresholds a little bit, like to one-in-a-hundred or one-in-a-hundred thousand, which is still, no one's ever gonna get that by chance. But in any case, he makes a claim that an applicant demonstrated their ability to statistical significance and yet still failed the challenge, and then he gives a link to an example of that. What he linked to was this study that was actually conducted by Richard Wiseman. He never mentions the fact that it's not Randi doing these studies. And the threshold for that test was set at fifty-to-one. Fifty-to-one, which is like right in the middle of statistical significance for a publishable study. And she failed to reach the fifty-to-one threshold. Further, this was the girl with the x-ray eyes, who claims a hundred percent accuracy.

E: That's a great point, Steve. The claimants, and Volk misses this entirely, they are often claiming these huge, high rates of success: eighty percent, ninety percent, one hundred percent. So can we keep it in that context of what the claimants are actually saying they can do compared to the kind of tests that JREF works, you know, to devise with these claimants?

S: Yeah, often the thresholds are set much lower than what they claim they do every day.

B: Hey, guys. There's another side to this coin, though. Don't forget it's not just a matter of weeding out statistical anomalies. One of the things that Randi is probably one of the best people at is weeding out fraud. Something that publishing science is not necessarily designed to do because it's relatively rare, and eventually, it'll come out. The fraud will come out, even if you get it published and peer-reviewed, it'll happen. So that's another aspect to this that I think is a really great reason that warrants such intense p-values.

J: It's a big wham fest. Like the guy thinks that Randi's holding back the money and skewing results or putting people up to poor tests to show that they're wrong when they're right or they have, that they don't have the ability to do these things. But he clearly can't even make an assessment on what's happening because he doesn't get it. And he can't make an assessment on what the people are displaying, what their claim is versus what the test is. He doesn't get that protocol at all. He doesn't get that there has to be a protocol and it has to be difficult or you're not proving anything.

S: Right. And the final thing is, he's trying to say that they're muddying the line, the borders of the definition of science. It's like, no, the definition is fuzzy in this application. The JREF, the million dollar challenge, is using scientific methodology, multiple trials, proper blinding, statistical analysis, in order to evaluate these claims. But it's not doing a rigorous scientific study, the kind of thing that would get published. That's the difference. So it is scientific methods, but it's not scientific research. It's evaluating a specific claim. And the thresholds are set, not only to minimize the chance of somebody winning a million dollars by a lucky guess, but also to make sure— to minimize the false negative, to give them the chance of properly demonstrating their powers. You come up with some threshold that balances those two. And the claimants agree to it ahead of time. They think they're gonna win. They believe that they can do this. They even give them a dry run half the time, say, yeah, my powers are working, this is great, this is gonna work, and then boom, it doesn't work. So what it really is demonstrating is that the powers that the claimants are claiming, the applicants are claiming, vanishes under proper observing conditions because they're not freaking real. That's what it's demonstrating. Not scientifically proving anything. It's just demonstrating that phenomenon, the self delusion of these people. They all have their post hoc excuses for why it fails, it's all lame. But, and it is a publicity stunt. The guy's saying "Oh, this is just a publicity stunt." Duh. Yes, this is a publicity stunt. (laughter) This is demonstrating quite clearly for the public that these people can't do what they say they can do. That's what it's doing. It's not doing scientific research. But, you're right, Jay, it's a wham fest, that's all it is.

E: Call a whambulance.

[For Steve Volk's rebuttal to this segment see his blog Spanking the Skeptics

Turkey Bans Evolution Books (39:12)[edit]

S: Speaking of which, Rebecca, how's evolution teaching going in Turkey?

R: Not so great.

J: Aw

E: But it's Turkey.

S: The one country that has a greater belief in creationism than the U.S. Right?

R: Turkey is, of course, the home of the Atlas of Creation by Adnan Oktar. Beautiful, absolutely beautifully done books, if you can ever get your hands on one I highly recommend it. Filled with ridiculous inaccuracies.

S: Isn't that the book that showed like a fishing lure as a real specimen.[2]

R: Yes. I believe I've got the right one. I apologize if it's the wrong one, but, yeah.

J: They showed a fishing lure as a what?

S: As if it were a real insect or something.

R: Yeah, there's a series of photos showing animals that they claim haven't evolved at all, and one was a fishing lure.

E: (laughing) Did they have a rubber ducky? (laughter) Look at this duck!

S: Some good scholarship

R: One of those blow-up clowns.


R: Yeah, so, bad news out of Turkey. The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey, its a very large organization that was originally formed as a council to guide the Ministry of Defense. So it's very large now, more than 2,500 researchers work at 15 different research institutes and centers. They also have a publishing arm, and up until recently that publishing arm carried books on all kinds of scientific disciplines. But recently books that involved anything to do with evolution and Darwin are suddenly listed as out of stock, and apparently they have no plans to restock them. So it has now become incredibly difficult, apparently, for people in Turkey to get their hands on books by people like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, James Watson, Alan Moorehead. These are all... vanished.

S: Yeah, it's unfortunate, and the thing is, of course, it feeds on itself, this kind of ignorance, because if people growing up in Turkey cannot learn about evolution they'll grow up not knowing about evolution. And be more receptive, of course, to creationist ideas. I think that that's happened to some extent in this country as well. Especially in parts of the country where the teaching of evolution is not popular. Guess what. People don't understand the theory of evolution, so why would they object when politicians and preachers tell them that evolution is bunk. They don't know enough to counter creationist arguments.

R: None of news reports I read involved school textbooks, although admittedly some of those links were, in those articles were originally in Turkish and I was struggling through Google Translate. But in the recent past they have had some nutso things in Turkish text books that are actually given to kids. Things about how Charles Darwin was Jewish and using that as the basis for anti-semitic attacks on him. Like actually in books that Turkish children receive.[3] This news story is about books that adults would be reading, but it doesn't look good for kids either.

Quickie With Bob: Apophis Update (42:31)[edit]

S: All right, well before we go on to Who's That Noisy, I would like a Quickie With Bob.

B: Ooo. Thank you, Steve. This is your Quickie With Bob. Apparently even the potentially real doomsday scenarios are dropping by the wayside, even those based on science. Scientists have concluded that the asteroid Apophis will not hit the earth. Not only in 2029, but also not in the, its 2036 fly-by, which is very nice. If you may remember, way back in 2004, when we first heard of Apophis, scientists were saying that there was about a 2.7% chance it would hit Earth in 2029. As often happens, though, when you find a new asteroid or comet, new data that scientists examine, even if it's from an old archive that everyone forgot about, can give you critical new data to further refine projected orbits, and this is exactly what happened with Apophis when the scientists ruled out 2029 a little while back. Still, though, 2036 was still potentially a big problem, especially if the asteroid passed through the so-called keyhole, which we've mentioned, which is the location near Earth, which would have given Apophis just the boost it needed to come back around seven years later and hit us with the equivalent of about a half a gigaton of force, which is not an extinction-level event, but still not a good day at all. That would have been pretty nasty. So most recently, scientists have combined the older data with this most recent fly-by data from earlier this month, and they determined that there is less than one-in-a-million chance of Apophis hitting the earth in 2036. So it is, can be very confident in saying that it's not gonna happen. One surprise for me was that Apophis was actually 20% bigger than they had thought. The albedo, or the coefficient of reflectivity, of Apophis was not what they expected and that skewed their size estimates.

S: Yeah, so it's inherently dimmer, which means it must be bigger to be giving off the amount of light that we're seeing.

B: It's going to be the closest approach of an asteroid the size of Apophis ever. 19,400 miles away. That's actually within the orbit of satellites and there's some concern that some satellites are gonna be destroyed. Thanks for listening, guys. This has been your Quickie With Bob, and I hope it was good for you, too.

S: All right, thanks, Bob.

Who's That Noisy? (44:40)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: John of God

S: Evan, get us up to date on Who's That Noisy?

E: Okay, folks. I will replay for you last week's Who's That Noisy. Here we go.

Man with deep voice, speaking Portuguese.

E: Do any of you speak Portuguese?

J: No.

R: Nope.

S: I recognize "Dios"

E: Let's see. That was a gentleman by the name of Jo&atildeo Teixeira de Faria, also known as Jo&atildeo de Deus, or John of God. One of the more popular faith healers in Brazil, since the early 1970s. He claims that he channels more than 30 doctor entities in order for him to perform the miracles, cures. But in 1998 he claimed that he had cured 15 million people in 35 years of practice. Which I think James Randi had once done the math on that and said that's a person every 21 seconds, you know, 24/7. (laughs) So. That's quite a—

S: Well he's probably done some mass healings in there.

E: It would have to be.

J: Yeah, like countries?

E: In one day.

R: One thing you gotta say for the guy, he's very efficient.

S: Right.

E: Extremely efficient, yes. And well known. And it turns out we actually have a lot of listeners in Brazil, many of them chimed in, who obviously had a big advantage to understanding last week's Who's That Noisy. And the winner, by a random drawing of the correct guesses, is Roberto Berges from Brazil. So well done, your name goes into the drawing for the final drawing at the end of the year. Drawn and the final winner will join us for a segment of Science or Fiction.

S: Which will be in English.

E: Well, let's hope so. We have another Who's That Noisy this week. Jay?

J: Yes, sir.

E: Jay, you wanna turn your volume down just a little bit. You are not gonna like this, okay?

J: Go ahead.

A sound like two metallic items being rubbed together.

J: (fake crying) Why?

R: Nobody likes that. People— no one in our audience likes that.

J: Humans don't like it

R: No one liked that.

E: I would say "Do you wanna hear it again?" but

R: No

E: I'm sure you don't. This one, I can't wait for the reveal next week on this one, it's gonna be extremely interesting. We have a new email address by which you will send in your email guesses for Who's That Noisy? It is, or you can go ahead and post on our forums Tell us what you think that sound is and get your name into the hopper and try to be the winner for next week.

J: Get in the hoppuh.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Interview with Massimo Polidoro (47:20)[edit]

S: Well, we're sitting here now with Massimo Polidoro. Massimo, welcome back to The Skeptics' Guide.

M: Well, thank you.

S: And you're one of our old-time friends in the skeptical movement. We had you come speak for us in Connecticut when we were just getting started, before—

M: Oh, yes.

S: Before podcasting even existed.


J: When was that, Steve, remember the year?

S: The late 90s, '97,

E: '98, '99.

B: PP. Pre-podcasting.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: And you are a member of the Italian Skeptics.

M: Um hm.

S: What's your official title in that organization?

M: Yah, I'm the Executive Director.

S: So that's like the head honcho.

M: Yeah.

S: Okay. And how's that going? How's the Italian skeptical movement doing?

M: Well, the Italian skeptical movement now is, it was born in 1989, so it's old.

S: Yeah.

M: We have huge support from the scientific community, Nobel Prize winners that are members. And in the media, we are very lucky to be called upon on a daily basis. We're on the TV, we're on the newspapers constantly. But the

B: I'm jealous. (laughter)

M: But the problem at the moment is that the financial crisis, that it's over Europe and Italy, is reducing resources for people, and they're making choices, and so our memberships are slowing down. So we are trying to find ways, alternative ways, to support our group because we don't get any financial support from the government resources or other.

S: You're entirely membership driven?

M: Yeah. Yah.

S: And that's just drying up because people don't have disposable income.

M: Exactly.

S: They're buying food and stuff like that.


J: So what are the big things you're working on in the skeptical community? Like, do you have like a Bigfoot thing going on? Do you have homeopathy going on? What are the big things in your area that you deal with?

M: Well, we don't have any more big psychics, for example. You know, they've disappeared.

E: Really?

J: Wow!

E: Do you think because of your efforts in part?

M: In part that may be, because whenever one of these try to come up with some stunt or with some new demonstration, we immediately, we're all over the place trying to see if this was real, or to explain what was going on, so, they probably find it more difficult now to come up.

J: Right. That's awesome.

E: Instead, you're just putting scientists in jail for not conveying the information the way they want it conveyed.[see episode 381]

M: (laughing) Exactly. Right.

E: Which is very unfortunate.

S: How has that story, the 6 Italian scientists who essentially were convicted of manslaughter for failing to properly predict or warn about the L'Aquila earthquake, how has that story been perceived in Italy?

M: It's very fresh, so there's still no reaction from the general public. What is coming out right now is that actually there was, there were warnings, that something else may come up with the earthquakes from scientists. And the head of the civil protection decided not to divulge the information. "Let's not say that." And that's a political position, not a scientific one.

S: Right. So there was, I was curious about that because that hasn't come out in the American press. They were focusing on just that they didn't predict the earthquake and that they were reassuring. But no one mentioned that they specifically withheld information.

M: No, I just read that this morning.

S: Okay. Since we recorded our last show, for our listeners. So you're saying that they, there's new information that they deliberately decided to withhold, is it another opinion about the risk of an impending earthquake or actual scientific data?

M: There were actually, from what appears, scientific data. But those who were in a political position decided not to distribute this information.

S: And why was that, they didn't want to start a panic?

M: Mmmm. Yah, that's the reason, probably.

E: But the scientists don't report to the public, they report to government, and it's up to the government how much information they want to divulge to the public. So the process is that the scientists did not report to the government.

S: Is that the case? The scientists didn't report to the government, or the government got the report . . .

M: No, the scientists did the report.

S: The government representatives decided not to divulge.

M: Yeah, yeah.

S: But the 6 who were convicted, I know there was one government agent who was convicted, but it was 6 scientists, so, those scientists are not guilty of anything then. They gave the information to the regulators.

M: From what I read this morning, yes.

E: So the scientists did not withhold the information from—

S: The government did

E: —the people they were supposed to report to. That's a big distinction.

S: But how definitive could that information have been? It may have been information that an earthquake may be likely, but even still, we can't really know if it was gonna happen or not.

M: Right. Right. In any case, yes, you're right. It's absurd that something like this could be in court.

S: So, it is interesting to see how skeptical movements, organizations are functioning in other countries. You know, obviously we're very close to how it's functioning in the United States. So Jay asked you, what kind of topics are you confronting. It's actually interesting that the psychics are on the wane in Italy. They're certainly thriving here in the U.S. So what are the big topics?

M: The big topics, as always, homeopathy, yeah, the alternative medicines

S: Alternative medicine?

M: Yeah.

S: How about creationism? Is that

M: No.

S: That's really not there at all?

M: A few years ago, again, with Berlusconi government, the Ministry of Education tried to pass a law by which it was to be teached in school, creationism ideas . There was a huge upheaval from the scientific community and that was cancelled.

J: That's amazing, and I respect it a lot. The idea that in a place where I consider to be heavily religious. Which it is, I mean, the Pope lives in—

M: Well, maybe that's because it is not that religious.

J: Yeah, but that's, it's interesting that you're bringing this information, because I would just make that assumption unconsciously. Oh, yeah. But the fact that the general public and the scientific community seems to be more advanced than we are in the United States, would you say that there are more agnostics and atheists? Maybe we need to recalibrate our understanding of the populace in Italy.

M: Well, you know, having the Vatican right inside our house and seeing every day, every day's attempts to interfere social life and decision, political decision. I see, for example, that the atheist group in Italy is much stronger than we are. They're getting a lot of support from their members and much more money than we have. They don't do anything. They just exist.

S: What group is this?

M: The atheists.

J: That's interesting.

M: They don't have any activity. Well, maybe a lecture once in a while.

S: But there's more passion there.

M: Yeah.

S: But that's similar to the experience here as well. There seems to be more passion on that end of the spectrum.

M: Yes.

S: But it sounds like, also, if I'm inferring this correctly from what you're saying, is that the skeptical community has a very positive relationship with the scientific community in general, and they're just considered to be sort of part of what science is all about. You know, popularizing science to the public.

M: Yeah. Yeah. Luckily we were— the idea of forming this group, CICAP, came from Piero Angela. He's an enormously popular journalist in Italy. Science journalist. He is like Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan to Italians. He can't walk in the street, everybody knows him. And, 'cause he started like in the late 60s on TV and since then he has had a TV show, prime time, the main channel, in Italy.

J: That's great.

M: Today as well, still. So he was the one who started our group, and he had all the scientific connections in the world, and when you mention "We deal with paranormal things" "(bored) okay, yeah." "Piero Angela started it." "(excited) Okay! Okay! Now I understand! If he's in the room."


M: The name's enough, yes.

S: Yeah, that basically was our Carl Sagan. But he obviously passed away in 1996, and our movement really has grown tremendously since then, and we don't really have the Carl Sagan at this point in time. We do have lots of leading lights, like James Randi, of course

J: Neil deGrasse Tyson.

S: Yeah, but so, Randi's a magician and he runs the JREF and he's awesome, but he's not a scientist, he's not a journalist; Neil deGrasse Tyson is trying to popularize science, but he's kinda distanced himself from the skeptical movement. He really hasn't embraced skepticism as an identity or as an agenda.

J: I see what you're saying. So like with Carl Sagan, he was a skeptic and a scientist, and—

S: Carl Sagan, he was, yeah, he was a popularizer and a scientist and a skeptic and we don't have that trifecta anymore. At least not that I can think of. So it's, that's probably part of the difference. I think it's also culture. My experience has been generally that the mainstream scientific community here in the United States is a little aloof towards the skeptical movement. I don't know if it's because they conflate us with atheists, or if they just think that if you deal with the paranormal that's weird, even if you're being skeptical of it.

M: You're wasting time, yes.

S: Yeah, it's a waste of time.

B: Yeah, why are you giving it any attention? It's so silly. I don't wanna waste my time on that, I wanna focus on real science. I think that's representative of a lot of their attitudes. So it looks like we were hurt, in a sense, by, we didn't have a founder that was so significantly plugged in from the very very beginning. Sagan was there, but it seems like in Italy it was just more of a, I mean he's, he had more of a central role and started from an awesome foundation and then that just went from there and that seems to be why there's such a major difference.

M: It's interesting how he became a skeptic, because he was just a science journalist, and then he decided to do a six-part report on parapsychology. Because at the time it was 1978. Parapsychology was thought to be a science.

J: It was huge.

E: Burgeoning new frontier.

M: And so he came to the United States and met with Randi, and CSICOP had just been formed. With all the, Ray Hyman (inaudible) everybody. And he understood finally what was real about that. And when he got back to Italy he said we need a committee like that one. To check up on the news and see if they are ... and then it took him 10 years to found it.

S: What are the kinds of activities that you're doing now that is your main avenue for outreach? I know you do a lot of conferences.

M: Yah. We just had our national conference in Volterra, Tuscany. Beautiful place.

E: Yes, ah...

M: And we do that every two years, but every year we have like 40, 50, or 60 lectures, all over the country, because we have local groups as well. In many regions. We have local groups that organize their own conferences and meetings.

S: What's the relationship between the national group and the local groups?

M: There's a group of people in a region that are members of our committee and would like to start a group they just contact us and we see who they are, if they're trustable, if they have some academics in it ...

S: So they're chapters.

M: Yes, chapters, yes.

S: They're not independent.

M: No, no they're not.

S: Yeah, that's also very different than the U.S. where the local groups are all completely independent.

M: Yeah. Yeah.

S: And there isn't really any national organization that has chapters. But that's all just contingent on, it's historical.

M: Yes, exactly.

S: There's not really any reason for it, per se. It's just the way they decided to do things. Actually I think the local chapter approach may be a little more efficient.

M: Yeah, we can unite forces, unite strengths to do major objectives together. And every year we have a course, a workshop let's say, that goes on every month. We can align to investigate mysteries.

S: Well, Massimo, it's always a pleasure to meet you. I'm glad we ran into you at this conference.

M: My pleasure. Really. It's a pleasure.

S: Definitely let us know next time, whenever you're in the U.S, you gotta let us know.

M: Absolutely. Thank you.

S: Take care.

J: Thanks, Massimo.

Science or Fiction (1:00:13)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with 3 science news items or facts, 2 genuine and 1 fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fakerooni. All right, three items, no theme. Item number one: A recent study finds that subjects' memory for Facebook posts were significantly greater than for book entries or even faces. Item number two: New research finds that some children diagnosed at a young age with autism may outgrow the diagnosis entirely. And item number three: A new study finds that graphic cigarette warnings have minimal effect, and are no more effective than text-only warnings. I believe Bob and Evan have a 100% for the year so far. Is that correct?

E: I think you're right.

S: All right. Bob, go first.

B: Okay. Let's see. A recent study that subjects' memory for Facebook posts significantly greater than for book entries or faces. Book entries or faces. Interesting. Hmm, I don’t know about that one. Let's see, let's go to the second one. Children diagnosed at a young age, autism, may outgrow it, interesting, ooooh, that would be— I haven't really heard about that before. I could kinda see that, perhaps, if it's, if they're diagnosed on the spectrum, the more normal end of the spectrum, yeah, maybe, that would be great if they could actually overcome that, even a slight amount of autism. Wow. I don't know what to think about that one either. Let's go to three. Let's see, graphic cigarette warnings have minimal effect and are no more effective than text-only. Yeah. I can kind of see that. I would think buying pack after pack after pack that you wouldn't even notice it anymore, even look at it. I'm gonna also agree with the autism one. I think that might be possible. Not if it's like a really bad case of autism, but for some cases I'm sure. I mean they're widened that net so much now, I'm sure some people could actually slip through later in life possibly. So, that's gonna mean that the Facebook one is fiction.

S: Okay. Evan.

E: Memory for Facebook posts was significantly greater than for book entries or faces. I was inclined to, I'm inclined to think that one's correct in this aspect. You read the posts, I think there's something inherent about reading words that makes an impression in your brain, perhaps even greater than that of the picture of a face. Thinking that that one might be right. The next one, children diagnosed at a young age with autism may outgrow the diagnosis entirely. I have read things about children that have outgrown the disease, I don't know about entirely. The last one, graphic cigarette warnings have minimal effect. I think cigarette use overall in the United States is down from prior years. Has the graphic warnings had any effect is part of that. I don't know. I don't, I don't know why, exactly why that is the case. There's something not right about the Facebook one you mentioned, Steve. I think I'm gonna go with that one as well as being the fiction.

S: Okay. Rebecca?

R: All right. First of all, what does "book entries" mean?

S: Passage from a book.

R: Okay. That's a weird way to put that. Everything about that one is weird. Why, it's weird that they would study, that they would compare their memory for Facebook posts against their memory for faces because it's my understanding that those are two different parts of the brain entirely that are doing that. And so, like there's a very specific chunk of your brain meats that are focused on human faces. But the idea that Facebook posts, comparing it to book entries makes sense, but maybe it's something where they're like, a Facebook post includes the person's face, so they're studying a passage plus a face and comparing it to just a passage or just a face. I guess, maybe, I don't know. Anyway, I think this study is dumb. That's what I'm saying. But, that said, I can believe it, because Facebook posts, I presume that they had people look at their friends' Facebook posts, although it doesn't say that, but their friends' Facebook posts would be saying something about their lives, and there'd be more connection to it. You know, their brains would make more connections to a post about their friends' lives than a random passage from a book that they might not have read, that they might not understand, that they might not even be interested in. That one seems fine to me, I guess. Children outgrowing autism. This one is suspicious to me only because it confirmed the probably commonly, I think fairly commonly held stereotype which is that there's so many kids today that are being, kind of like ADHD was 10 years ago, 15 years ago. It's this idea that oh, they're just diagnosing tons of kids with autism and then they're just not paying attention in class or whatever. And so eventually they grow up and you realize they didn't have autism. So, that's suspicious to me because it, it plays into that idea, but I don't necessarily think it's true. Graphic cigarette warnings having minimal effect, that one is very suspicious to me as well. Because I feel like in other countries compared to America, I feel like they've had better success with defeating the tobacco lobbies. And I feel that they're done a better job of decreasing smoking using packaging. So one of those is, the text-only warnings, the other is those highly disturbing photos. And now I know in some places they're considering forcing cigarettes to remove all the branding from their packages. So I feel like the graphic warnings have had an effect. So I don't know. It's between those last two. I'm gonna go with the cigarette warnings. I do think that they've had an effect 'cause I don't think that other countries would be adopting it and exploring other packaging-related options if it hadn't been a success.

S: Okay. Jay?

J: The one about the Facebook posts, I think I agree with that one because I'm just, while you guys were talking about the science or fiction stuff, I was thinking about that. Just scrolling through my head, and like, I actually can remember posts that people made much better than I can remember what their profile picture is on Facebook. So using myself as the experiment, I think that one is true for some reason. I don't know, maybe I'm having like an emotional connection to some people's posts, and I don't care much about the pictures that they have up. The one about autism, I also think that one is true, just because, from my understanding there are a lot of children that do very well with getting special education and their parents helping them work on the type of autism that they have and their deficits that they have to deal with. Because of those two being strongly believable, not knowing that much about the cigarette warning and the pictures and all that, I would, I could see how this is wrong. I think I do remember reading something along the lines of it being a very healthy campaign that's doing the job. So I'm not remembering correctly or not, but I'm just gonna go, you know Rebecca selected it, I think it's a good one to go with as the fake.

S: And the die says?

J: Here's the roll: (clink). Number one.

S: Okay. So the random one chose the Facebook. All right so Bob, Evan and the random die believe that the Facebook is the fiction.

E: Come on random die.

S: Rebecca and Jay think that the graphic cigarette warning is the fiction. So let's start with number two, new research finds that some children diagnosed at a young age with autism may outgrow the diagnosis entirely. You all think that one is correct, and that one is . . . science.

J: All right.

R: Woot

S: So, yeah, this was suggested in prior studies. The problem was that prior studies were questioned because they said well how do you know that the children really met the criteria for the diagnosis of autism early on? Maybe there was, the kids who quote-unquote lost their diagnosis never had it in the first place. So this study was a prospective study where they confirmed that the children at the start of the study had, met the criteria. Although they were, they were at the mild end of the spectrum, and they followed them over time with age-matched typical developing peers. And some of them actually did lose, eventually lost their diagnosis of autism. They had no, they were essentially no different than their matched peers, at some point. So it is possible, they haven't yet analyzed the data to look for differences in interventions. Not really talking about biological interventions, just, which are all bogus, by the way, like, as Jay was saying, training, exercises, getting them to develop skills to compensate for their issues, et cetera. You know it's possible that this could be a huge support for intensive therapy at a young age, for children with the diagnosis, because they may actually be able to grow out of it. Their brains may be plastic enough that they could develop the social skills or whatever else it is that they're having difficulty with. So that's encouraging.

J: Great. That's awesome.

E: It's very encouraging. Good stuff.

S: All right, let's go back to number one. A recent study finds that subjects memory for Facebook posts were significantly greater than for book entries or faces. Bob and Evan think this one is the fiction. And this one is . . .

J: Wait, wait. Bob, Evan. Would you guys care to make a wager? Against me and Rebecca?

E: A wager?

J: Yeah. We'll put a little money on the table, maybe.

E: Er... Money?

J: All right. Not money. Quatludes.

E: Okay. Quatludes. Bob, how many do you have?

S; All right. So I will give you each a starting grant of 1,000 quatludes.

R: Oh, my god.

E: Oh, that's good.

R: This whole thing is getting way too complicated.

(laughter and garbled comments)

S: You're free to wager the 1,000 quatludes that I have granted you.

J: I'll bet 50.

E: All right, I'll match 50.

R: I'll bet a thousand fake monies.


E: No, quatludes, Rebecca. I'm putting 50 in on the bet.

J: Okay, Bob?

E: I'll stand by my bet.

B: I'll go with 50, what the hell.

E: All right.

J: All right, so, Rebecca, collectively, it's 50 each for all of us. So, go ahead. Continue, Steve.

S: They didn't match you Rebecca, so 50's the most they're gonna cover.

R: Alright

S: So it's 50 each, okay. And, the Facebook one is . . . science.

(excited noises)

E: I blame the random die!

R: I took all of your quaaludes.


E: Only 50 of the quatludes.

B: You would kill me on that, and I think you did it on purpose, Steve. There was another news item that had to do with recognizing faces and how people can learn your emotional state better through body language.

S: Yeah, I saw that one, too. But I talked about that one already, like months ago.

B: You did?

S: Yeah.

B: This just came out. I just read it 45 minutes ago.

S: No, I saw it. I saw that study a month ago. Anyway

E: I miss my quatludes.

S: It was probably just another study that showed the same thing, or maybe it was, now its been published and that was a presentation, I don't know. But I saw that study already. But yeah, this study is interesting and surprising.

R: Really? I don't find it that surprising. What's surprising about it?

S: What I found surprising was the faces thing, because—

B: Me, too.

S: —we have such a good memory for human faces. But, the point that they made, this was not real entries, this was not their friends, this was not like the picture next to the entry. They just, they studied subjects' ability to recall a passage taken from a book versus brief posts on Facebook versus pictures of people. And they were much better able to remember, by a factor of 2.5 times greater memory for the Facebook entries than for the faces. Which is a significant effect; not a tiny effect. The speculation here is, and not explicitly studied, but what they think is the Facebook entries are written in natural language. How we speak. And not only that, but they're telling a story; they're gossipy. It's optimized for the way our brains process information. So-called mind-ready format. So our brains find it really easy to remember gossipy little nuggets like that. In a natural talking-like kind of language, not the more formal language of a book. And that kind of memory apparently is even better than our memory for faces. Which kind of makes sense, you know, we're story-telling animals. So these little story nuggets are the kind of thing that we would remember. But all this means that a new study finds that graphic cigarette warnings have minimal effect and are no more effective than text-only warnings is fiction. This is a complicated area of research, but the study that I was inspired by was one showing the opposite, that graphic warnings are more effective than text-only warnings. And it also showed that they were consistently effective across different demographic groups. Prior research suggested that minorities did not, for whatever reason, do not respond as well to these kind of warnings as do other populations. So, this is the first to show that these kind of graphic warnings are equally effective, regardless of demographic group. Now, overall, I still think the overall effect is still pretty low, though. The study was looking at, the outcomes that they were looking at was the perceived impact, the credibility of the warning and the intention to quit. And not, did they actually quit and for how long.

R: It's interesting that they looked at quitting, though, because for me the biggest steps you can take is to just prevent people from beginning smoking.

S: Yeah.

R: And I feel like measures like this could help.

S: Yeah, I agree with that. It's a lot easier to not start. To pick up that first pack and go, okay, yup, I don't want that. But once you're hooked, it's really really hard to get people to change their behavior. And yeah, no, I think it's Australia in fact, Rebecca, that's considering the, probably other countries as well, but I remembered about Australia's considering the law to remove all branding. So you basically have black or white on the packages.

R: Yeah, I saw a petition in the U.K.

S: Yeah?

R: About it, yeah. But, yeah. I'd love to see that. 'Cause that's, that would be a huge thing towards stopping people from starting smoking. (garbled)

S: Yeah, and all advertising.

R: Yeah

S: Forget about just TV, just should be magazines should not be full of cigarette ads.

R: Yeah.

S: Get rid of all advertising.

J: So, guys, is this actually, you think, the beginning of the end? Like is this the slippery slope of the actual banning of cigarettes?

S: No. I don't think so. I don't think they're gonna go there. I mean, we had the Volstead Act here, you know, the banning of alcohol. That was a social experiment that was deemed a massive failure, and I think—

R: Marijuana, as well. I mean, prohibition doesn't work.

E: Tends not to, yeah.

S: I think you keep it legal but you just remove all the incentives. And just make sure that it can't be promoted as something that's cool or whatever. And make sure that people are fully informed. Yeah, this is really dangerous to your health, you don't wanna do this. You know, it's legal, if you wanna do it anyway, there it is. But we're not gonna make it easy for you and we're not gonna certainly do anything to encourage you to do it.

J: I was at a gas station and I happened to see how expensive a pack goes for, and I was blown away! It was almost like $10!

S: Yeah, it's expensive. Expensive, and it's disproportionately used by the poor.

E: Crazy.

S: People who could least afford it. It's crazy.

E: Yeah, it's a sin tax.

S: No, I mean it's partly heavily taxed as a disincentive.

J: That's right. Yeah, that's what I figured, that the bulk of it was tax money.

S: So, everyone's at 75% now.

J: All right! And I'm up 50 quatludes.

E: I'm down. Right, I was gonna say.

S: Rebecca and Jay have 1,050. Bob and Evan have 950 quatludes. We'll have to keep track of that throughout the year

R: Yeah. We'll have to do that. (laughter)

E: It's not like we can reach across and take them back.

S: So, Bob, it's over. You don't have to worry about it anymore. About keeping your hundred percent record for the year.

J: I was already bored of it.

E: Strive for 95%.

B: I'm so relieved. Thank god.

(Steve laughs)

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:53)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, give us a quote.

J: This quote was sent in by Rob Cameron from San Marcos, California. And the quote is:

No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

(shouts) Ralph Waldo-o-o-o Emerson

(laughter and garbled comments)

E: Where is Ralph Waldo Emerson?


NECSS (1:17:18)[edit]

J: NECSS, guys. Evan, you going to NECSS?

E: NECSS? I'll be at NECSS, absolutely!

J: Bob, you think you can manage or what? You coming this year?


J: Yeah.

B: Yeah, if I don't have to wash my hair or anything. Yeah, I'll be there.

E: Or put on deodorant.

J: Rebecca, what about you?

R: Oh yeah. With bells on.

J: 'Cause I was thinking about going to Steve's, the class he's giving on Friday. The workshop. Him and Geo. And just make fun of him, make funny noises and

S: (laughing) And heckle us from the back?

R: Or we could just go drink, Jay. That's also an option.


J: Rebecca, on Thursday night, we'll get drunk and we'll stay up all night and go to their 11 a.m.

E: Oh, yeah.

R: All right. I'm gonna bring my sleeping bag.

E: Stinking of gin, yes. That'll be pleasant.

Podcast UFO (1:18:00)[edit]

S: And Evan, you've been slumming on some other podcast, I hear.

E: So the folks at Podcast UFO hunted us down. (laughs) Actually, the fellow Martin, who's the host of the show, is a listener of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, and he likes the work we do. Although he happens to believe in, that UFOs are alien visitors, or at least he is open to the possibility that this is the case, based on all the sightings and stuff that go unexplained. So, he claims to have an open mind about these things. He invited us on. I accepted the invitation, and that will air this coming Sunday. Podcast UFO is what it's called.

S: Did you take him to school, Evan?

E: You know, in a very nice way, I did. In fact, he said to me when it was ...

S: You're too nice.

E: Well, what he said to me, is when it was over he says "Wow, you were much nicer than Seth Shostak was."


R: Seth is like everybody's granddad.

S: Seth is such a nice guy.

R: Yeah.

S: All right, well, thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thank you, doctor.

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

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. 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 leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.

Today I Learned...[edit]

  • Georges Claude introduced the 1st neon signs to the US. These were for a car dealership, and simply read "Packard", at a cost of $1,250 each.
  • Different colours in 'neon' lights are caused by different gases:
    • Helium: orange/white
    • Neon: orange/red
    • Argon: violet pale lavender blue
    • Krypton: grayish
    • Mercury vapor: blue
  • There appears to be a correlation between the introduction and removal of leaded gasoline and crime waves that is shifted by 23 years. At the peak it may have been responsible for as much as 20% of crime in the US
  • The largest known structure in the universe is a cluster of 73 quasars spanning a staggering 4 billion light years, and a thousand times brighter than the Milky Way
  • Atlas of Creation by Adnan Oktar showed a fishing lure as a real specimen.
  • Research suggests that autistic children may outgrow their diagnosis
  • A study has found that random Facebook posts were more memorable than both pictures of faces or book passages. This is assumed to be due to their 'mind-ready' format.


  1. Steve Volk (2011) Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Paranormal and Couldn't (Google books link)
  2. PZ Myers (2008) Well, fly fishing is a science, Pharyngula
  3. Steve Mirsky, (2013) Why Is This Darwin Different from All Other Darwins?, Scientific American
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