SGU Episode 393

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SGU Episode 393
26th January 2013

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

SGU 392 SGU 394
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
E: Evan Bernstein
BD: Brian Dunning
ZK: Zack Kopplin
LT: Lizzie Li Taylor
Quote of the Week
By doubting we all come at truth.
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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 22nd 2013, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Rebecca Watson.

R: Hello, everyone.

S: Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, everyone.

S: And we have a special guest rogue this week: Brian Dunning.

BD: Hey Hey.

S: Welcome back, Brian.

BD: Thank you very much; great to be here. I am Bob and Jay rolled into one.

S: That's right. Bob and Jay are on special assignment this week; I'll just leave it at that. They are traveling so they cannot join us for the show today unfortunately. Brian will, I'm sure, fill their shoes nicely, but we do have Rebecca, who is going to start us off, as she always does, with This Day in Skepticism.

This Day in Skepticism (0:51)[edit]

Jan 26, 1697: Isaac Newton took one day to solve the Brachistochrone curve

R: I will. OK, so the thing that I'm going to tell you about did not apparently happen on January 26th, the date that this show goes out. But, I read originally that it had occurred on the 26th and after I spent like an hour researching, I confirmed that it actually happened on January 29th, but I'm going to tell you about it anyway because it's awesome. It all started in June of 1696 when the mathematician Jean Bernoulli came up with the problem known as the Brachistochrone curve. So imagine two points, A and B. They are almost horizontal, but A is a little bit higher than B. Now imagine a ball that will roll along a line from A to B. Here's the problem: What is the curve of the line between those two points that would get the ball from A to B the fastest, assuming that it had no speed at the start and is only travelling by the strength of gravity and assuming no friction. The end result basically looks like a crooked happy face, but that's not the solution that Bernoulli was looking for, obviously.

S: That wasn't the answer, "crooked happy face"?

R: Crooked happy face was not the answer, no. He published his problem in Acta Eruditorum, a German science journal. He gave the mathematicians 6 months to solve it, and nobody did. And this was a pretty popular journal; it was the first one in the German area at the time, so it was a pretty big deal. Gottfried Leibniz, the editor of the journal, wrote Bernoulli a letter asking for more time after the 6 months were up, so Bernoulli agreed to extend the deadline by another year. Now Isaac Newton was not a subscriber to that particular journal, and in fact he and Leibniz apparently hated each other because Newton thought Leibniz cribbed his calculus notes and passed them off as his own. So, since Newton hadn't seen the problem and nobody else had solved it, Bernoulli mailed it to him. It arrived on January 29th 1697. Newton got home from his job at the Royal Mint at 4pm. He got the problem, sat down and worked on it for 12 hours straight and then sent the solution to the Royal Society to be published anonymously. So, a problem that Europe's finest mathematicians could not solve in 6 months, Newton solved in 12 hours. Now despite the anonymity, everybody knew who had made them look like chumps. Bernoulli famously said, "tanquam ex ungue leonem" or "we recognise the lion by his claw". Thus marking the first and last time a mathematician has been compared favourably to a predatory animal.

S: But that quote, though, is not confirmed, I read. That's just suspected.

R: It's a good quote though.

E: It sounds good, yeah. Adds to the story, it's good.

S: Too good, right?

R: It's almost too good.

S: What's funny is during this time they were smack talking each other. But they were smack talking each other in 17th-century British politeness, you know?


E: Thouest is an idiot!

S: No, not even, like Bernoulli wrote "So few have appeared to solve our extraordinary problem, even among those who boast that through special methods they have not only penetrated the deepest secrets of geometry but also extended its boundaries in marvelous fashion", etc., etc. And then he specifically called out Newton. And he sent Newton a copy. I mean he was like challeng— that's why Newton did it, and I think, dedicated himself to doing it, because he realised that his honour was being directly challenged.

R: Oh yeah, definitely.

S: By Bernoulli, yeah.

BD: Can I ask about the problem again? Is this like a zip-line, where the weight of the ball causes the string to sag as it moves?

S: No.

BD: Or is this, so the string is like a—it's fixed; it's like a solid ramp.

S: Yes.

R: Yes, it's a solid curve.

BD: I see. So we're talking about the curve at which a string would normally hang just by its own mass, but then it's fixed firm in its position, so the ball will roll along it without making it sag.

R: Yeah, just imagine a valley.

BD: I'm asking because I'm going to solve it myself in the next few hours.

S: Well not necessarily. So, it wouldn't necessarily be the shape that a string would naturally take if it was sagging by gravity. It's whatever mathematical curve creates the line of quickest descent, as they called it, and the answer has actually a specific shape; it's an upside-down cycloid that happens to be the curve that gives you that result. They proved it independently, then they realised "hey, that's an upside down cycloid". That's the answer, yeah.

R: And a cycloid, if you imagine like a bicycle wheel, and you draw a dot somewhere along the wheel and then roll the bicycle. Every time that dot touches, you follow the path of that dot, like touching the ground and then going up into an arc.

E: One point on the outer edge, on the edge of the circle, yeah.

R: Yeah, that's a cycloid.

BD: Stretched-out Slinky.

S: We have to mention that Leibniz was also among those to submit a correct answer.

R: Oh yeah, yeah. He did.

S: There's the famous Leibniz-Newton-who-had-priority-for-the-calculus, you know?

R: Yeah, Leibniz eventually did turn in an answer that got published along with two or one other person.

S: Two other people; Bernoulli's brother was one.

R: Right, who then created a harder problem just to one-up his brother. What was up with the Bernoullis? They were like the Olsen twins of the day.


R: There were three of them though, I think. I can't think of siblings of the day.

BD: They were the Novellas of their day.

R: Oh yeah, good one.

E: Ah, not quite.

S: Very good, very appropriate. Are we Leibniz people here or Newton?

E: Newton.

R: Newton! Are you kidding? Leibniz was a sucker. Did you see how Newton owned him? It took him 12 hours to do that.

S: (laughs)

E: His first name was Gottfried, everyone called him Gilbert. Gilbert.

S: All right. So we're just going to do a hit-and-run on the Newton/Leibniz debate and move on.

R: Suck it, Leibniz.

E: He's not around to defend himself. Poor guy.

News Items[edit]

S: There's a little bit of a theme to the few news items we're going to cover this week. We have actually two very interesting interviews coming up later in the show. We're going to do a few news items; see if you could pick up on the theme that just happened to be running through these items. We're going to start with Evan, you're going to tell us about the Manti Te'o hoax.

Manti Te'o Hoax (7:22)[edit]

Deadspin: Manti Te'o's Dead Girlfriend, the Most Heartbreaking and Inspirational Story of the College Football Season is a Hoax

E: Yeah, Manti Te'o, you might have heard the name being bandied about the media this past week. Manti Te'o was a star football player for Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish; that's American football by the way, not soccer. Notre Dame has a very storied history in college football. They're considered one of the giant sports programs in the country; it's big time. Manti had a tremendous year this year; he finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy, which essentially makes that player the player of the year in the entire country, and he's expected to be one of the top recruits in the National Football League; he has all the makings of this National Football League superstar. During this past season, while Te'o was in the process of accumulating this great season, he was playing under the pain of very personal loss. Both his grandmother died and his girlfriend, a young woman by the name of Lennay Kekua, she also died and Manti had been informed that his grandmother and his girlfriend died within six hours of each other. So Te'o used that emotion to spark his team to a big upset victory that following Saturday, and his story which not only captivated his teammates and his coaches and the entire university, it eventually became a big national story, a story of triumph over this insufferable emotional pain. And his story sort of helped push Notre Dame to the national title game; it sort of kept growing and growing. Now they did eventually lose the title game, but nonetheless, it was a story that anyone with a heart could really appreciate. And in a way this is almost like a story book or the stuff that movie scripts are made out of. Well as it turns out, just last week it was revealed that Te'o's girlfriend never existed in the first place.

S: Right.

E: Yeah. Te'o says he's the victim of a very elaborate hoax and that he's really embarrassed beyond belief that he has fallen for it, but really not everyone is buying that and there are a lot of reasons to believe that Te'o—

BD: How could he not be? (laughs)

E: —Te'o was complicit in this—Yeah, how could he not be? I mean, he spoke on camera directly about having conversations with this person, meeting her, over the course of years. Yet really this—she never actually existed, and—but how did it get to the point where the story sort of took on a life of its own and became this national—had this national following to it? Not only for Teo but also about the woman he loved and really having to play through this pain and all this? Let me put it to you this way. Only a handful of reporters and bloggers truly understood what the bigger and more important aspect of this story was, and that is the media absolutely failed to do its diligence in uncovering the facts behind this story. And, through their compliance, and what I think is their wanting for this story to be true because it is such a great story in itself, the media absolutely collectively failed us all in performing their most basic functions.

S: Yeah, I agree; I think the real story here is that it exposes this massive failure on the part of mainstream media journalism to do basic fact checking. It's just the culture of reporting has degraded, in my opinion. There were multiple holes in this story: there was no death certificate for this girl, she was never at the university she allegedly was attending, any attempt to get a second source, to verify any of the details of the story would have exposed the whole thing and multiple, multiple reporters just told the story at face value without confirming anything. And I think they're just going to gloss over this and keep on going the way they are, you know, not really have the soul-searching lesson that it should be teaching them.

E: Yeah. We have to credit the folks at the sports website and authors Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey; they're the ones who were the first ones to really look into the facts behind the claims here and the ones who revealed to the world that this was made up; that this woman, that his girlfriend never actually existed. To put it in their own words, and I quote: "As Te'o's celebrity swelled, so did the pile of inspirational stories about his triumph over loss, each ensuing story seemed to add yet another wrinkle to the narrative and details ran athwart one another." Right? So, there was a lot of problems with the stories, and nobody decided to put either a timeline together or like you said Steve, even just check the basic facts. OK, who was this woman? Why is there no death certificate? Did she really attend the school? And we're talking major, major media here. ESPN, Sports Illustrated magazine, New York Times, Fox Sports, New York Post. One article said that there were no less than 21 major media outlets that ran the story or stories about it during the course of the year and none of them ever dared to find out which parts of the story were true and which ones were fiction.

S: Yeah, let's be clear. This wasn't an anomaly. This wasn't one that just snuck past the goal posts. This was a systemic failure. Right? I don't think I'm overstating it, the implication of this.

E: No, and your use of the goal post terminology was perfect, Steve. Spot on.

BD: I'm not sure that I would say... I think this one was probably unique in just how many hands it slipped through, but I think most stories are going to slip through some—slipping through fingers or slipping through goal posts? Whatever we're doing.

E: Both.

BD: In what I do, I'm sitting here spending a full week immersed in the story and I go through—I follow up hundreds of little leads, but it's impossible to verify everything, and especially if you're going on—if you're using as one of your sources somebody who you trust, for example if I find something on Scientific American, for time constraints I usually don't bother to double-check it; that's good enough for me.

R: If you're doing a whole feature on one person and a huge part of that feature is their dying girlfriend, surely you would look into it.

BD: Well if she's dead, what are you going to do? We can't call her up, I mean it's not something that there's an immediately convenient way to verify.

S: Sure, get the death certificate.

R: And you could call her up, because for—like, this was going on while she was supposedly still alive, like she was...

S: Also she allegedly was in a car accident months earlier. That's how the leukaemia was discovered that eventually killed this fictitious girl.

E: Right yeah, she was dying of leukaemia.

S: There would have been a police report. That police report didn't exist. He met her at a university she never attended. So I agree with you Brian, in that the lines of journalism have been blurred, and I think—like, I write a daily blog, pretty much. The number of news stories I cover a week—you're at the other end of the spectrum: you put a whole week into one story, I write about a dozen stories over the course of a week, and this is my hobby. This is my part-time vocation; this is not my full-time job. So, I rely upon journalists, most of the time, to do their job about basic facts. I investigate the literature, the science, but I can't be—I'm not going to—I don't have the time to do basic leg-work journalism of getting two sources for every important fact for a story. I'm assuming that the journalists are doing that, or even if I don't assume that, all I could do is really say, "Well, if the reports are true, this is what they're saying." But a full-time journalist, that's their job; this is what they're supposed to be doing with their time, is verifying basic facts, getting two sources on anything that's interesting or important, and they're not doing that; they're just taking stories at face value. That level of reporting where the failure is failure is happening here. And just you know, 99 times out of 100 it doesn't come to light or people are basically telling the truth—but we've talked about the fact that whenever you actually know the nitty-gritty details of a story, the news media report it completely wrong. Well, that's because they're reporting every story wrong. It's just that you only know about it when it's something where you independently know what the details are. This is just a dramatic episode exposing the fact that they're not doing their job.

E: Yeah, you can almost forgive a reporter for actually doing the leg work, and although they may report it wrong, incorrectly, and may not get all the nuances down and so forth, they've at least done some leg work and strived to make some effort to be correct here. But I don't know; they have just been derelict in their most basic duties.

S: Yeah, and these are their own standards. I'm not making things up, journalistic standards, you know? The cliché is, "if your mother tells you that she loves you, get a second source on it." That's the hard-nosed journalist's cliché about how they're supposed to question everything. Clearly they weren't doing that here. It's their own standards that they're not living up to. It's a sad story too, we could speculate endlessly about what happened here. I think that this is a hoax that got away from these guys. Because I think that it started before Te'o was a national figure.

E: Yeah, this dates back to 2009 when they put the timeline together.

S: Yeah, and then it got out of control. He became famous; suddenly they're getting national media attention and this hoax is going on, so they tried to shut it down by killing her off. I mean, I think that's what happened.

BD: You know, that's the interesting part of this story, too, is kind of the post-failure analysis: look at—dig at it forensically and see what the whole genesis of this was, because it's very interesting that it started before he was famous and before it made any obvious sense to create such a hoax story.

S: Right. Right, right.

R: In addition to the fact that this was just a plain case of reporters not doing their job, I do think that stardom plays into this, particularly with sports stars. I mean, this is not the only story in the past couple of weeks to pop up of a professional athlete—or well, he's not a professional athlete, but he probably will be. A famous athlete. Who got away with something completely ridiculous under the nose of tons of journalists who should have been asking questions. Of course I'm talking about Lance Armstrong. There were a few reporters, like the Sunday Times crew, that have been after him for years and years and years and have been bullied by him and by other reporters who just wanted to believe Lance Armstrong and weren't asking the tough questions and were just letting it go. But at least it's good to see that reporters like that, who actually did their jobs, the guys at the Sunday Times, getting their day. But there's so many others that just aren't doing their job, and I think because they buy into this idea of celebrity, because they want to believe the story that the celebrity is selling and I think that that's a big one with this football player as well.

E: Just one last indictment of the media regarding this story, Steve, if I may. There was an article[1] today on from a page called The Gatekeeper, and his name is Mark Leccese, and here's what he had to say about this, I found this really interesting. The day after Deadspin broke the hoax story, the bosses at Sports Illustrated asked one of their reporters—his name is Pete Thamel who did the October 1st cover story for Sports Illustrated which involved Te'o—they asked him to give an account of his reporting, which he did and included a transcript of his interviews with Te'o. And Thamel, this reporter for Sports Illustrated described checking the story after his interviews in the Notre Dame campus and he found that there were some red flags. When he went back and checked, he solved the red-flag problem by making changes to his copy, right? So in a sense, you know, he sort of...

S: Cheated.

E: Maybe realised at that point—Right! "Jeez, I guess that I didn't do what I was supposed to do here, let me change a few things."

S: Yeah, he fixed the anomalies instead of following up on them as if they were meaningful.

E: And he essentially ignored some solid pieces of evidence that were there that clearly stated that this girl Kekua did not exist.

River on Mars (19:47)[edit]

Slashgear: Scientists Uncover Massive River on Mars

S: Well let's move on, very different kind of story. Have you guys seen the pictures of the river on Mars?

E: Beautiful pictures.

BD: I have heard all about this and not seen a single picture.

S: "Scientists uncover massive river on Mars" declares the articles. This is in Slashgear. So the European Space Agency discovered a 1500-kilometre river in the upper Reull Vallis region of Mars and there are some very stunning 3D images of this area. You could see the craters, that's how you know it's not the Earth; there's like way more craters than you would have on the Earth. Little mountain range; there's this massive river snaking along as rivers do, with tributaries coming off of it, and tributaries of those tributaries. It's clearly a riverbed. It's clearly an ancient dry riverbed on the surface of Mars. It's estimated that this is between 1.8 and 3.5 million years old. Very stunning evidence that there definitely was liquid water on the surface of Mars in the past. And two or so million years ago.

E: Not that long ago.

S: Not that long ago, considering the 4-billion year history of the solar system. Very interesting. But what caught my eye too is the title of the article, "Massive river on Mars". It's actually a riverbed, not a river, and the picture that accompanies the article has false colour in order to signify the altitude and the riverbed is a nice sea blue. It looks—

E: Yeah, very convenient.

R: How could that possibly be misinterpreted?

S: Yeah, how could that possibly—"A massive river" and there's a picture of what looks like a river with water flowing through it. I mean, really? How many people are going to see that and think there's flowing water on the surface of Mars today?

E: Plenty, plenty. Although Steve, when I saw it, I did not think—that did not jump to my mind first, only after the fact I was like, "Oh yeah, look what they did here, how very convenient."

S: Yeah of course, if you're familiar with this whole issue of the question of water on Mars, obviously you're going to know instantly what this is, and you can tell that it's a false-colour image if you're used to looking at those kinds of things. But I mean, this is designed to misinform, to give a false impression, you know? The title and the picture combined, at first glance anyone who's not already pretty savvy to this sort of thing is going to think there's a friggin' river on the surface of Mars. It's ridiculous.

BD: I have a question.

S: Yeah?

E: There's a boat.

BD: We've had good pictures of the surface of Mars for a long time; in fact it's been several years, I think, since you've been able to use Google Earth in Google Mars mode. Why has nobody seen this before? How could we have such a cosmic discovery at this late date?

S: This has been seen before. I think is just better quality images; there's 3D images and it's processed in such a way that the river and the tributaries really pop, so I think it's just a really good picture of it. But it's not like this is news, that there are riverbeds on the surface of Mars, that—this has been known for a while.

BD: So the news is just "this is when someone decided to paint in the blue".

S: Yeah right. Yeah right, exactly.

E: Sort of, yeah.

S: You know, the pictures keep getting better, our technology keeps getting better and it really is a gorgeous picture.

R: What's the consensus here? Is this just poor science communication or is this a deliberate screw-up?

S: I don't know.

E: Good question.

S: I don't know for this particular outlet or the outlets that were doing this if the headline writer is not the person who wrote the article. But it's not really made plain in the article either, so the person who wrote the article was—maybe didn't know what the headline was going to be. Gotta read deep down into the article, yeah, it all becomes clear, but nobody—either they didn't consider the impact of the headline and that picture, or it was deliberate just to get people to read it.

R: I mean, what about the picture itself though; from NASA's standpoint, I mean, you're working in PR, is that the photo you give to the newspapers, because also, there's a beautiful photo that's brown; it's all shades of brown.

S: Yeah.

R: Do you not realise—does NASA not sit back and think "oh, this is going to be misinterpreted." Because regardless of the headline, when people see that they'll be like "oh my god it's a river".

S: I think it could be a coincidence—

E: It's the European Space Agency, not NASA.

R: Oh, not NASA.

S: It could be coincidence because red is high and blue is low; it's just that the spectrum, it just so happened. I guess it could be the other way and red could have been low, but that's a typical false-colour algorithm to use. Maybe they tweaked it until it looked pretty, not realising that it looked pretty because the river looked like a river. I don't know. But you're right, that would have been another level, if someone in the PR office of the European Space Agency said "this could be misleading, if we send this out to a scientifically illiterate public." Or maybe their headlines were more accurate, but they didn't count on the fact that this is going to be mistranslated a couple of steps down the media line.

R: At which point, they should all lose their jobs.

S: Right (laughs)

R: If they didn't realise that this was going to be mistranslated and they work in PR.

S: Right. So yeah, a couple of levels of communication failure as well, I think, with this story.

Neanderthal Baby (25:17)[edit]

The Crimson: HMS Professor Quashes Neanderthal Cloning Rumors

S: And Rebecca, you're going to finish up the news section with another story that again, might have—has a similar theme to the last two.

R: No. No, this has nothing to do with any of that. Nope. This is the story of a Daily Mail headline that read "Wanted: an adventurous woman to give birth to Neanderthal man."

S: Completely accurate.

E: What's wrong with that?

R: I'm not done.

E: That could have come from the journal Nature as far as I'm concerned.

BD: Why are they excluding men?

R: That was only the first half of the headline. The second half being "Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby."

E: Oh come on, I mean...

R: You've really, you've got to hand it to the Mail, because few outlets can pack that many mistruths into one headline.

BD: I think the cave baby needs a father too.

R: So they write—the Daily Mail writes:

Professor George Church of Harvard Medical School believes that he can reconstruct Neanderthal DNA. His ambitious plan requires a human volunteer willing to allow the DNA to be put into stem cells, then a human embryo. Professor Church's plan would begin by artificially creating Neanderthal DNA based on genetic code found in fossil remains. He would put this DNA into stem cells. These would be injected into cells from a human embryo in the early stages of life. It is thought that the stem cells would steer the development of the hybrid embryo along Neanderthal lines rather than human ones.[2]

So that's the bit from the Daily Mail. So this story actually began when Germany's paper of note, Der Spiegel...

S: (hammed-up German accent) Der Spiegel!

E: Ja wohl!

R: Ahem, thank you. ...Published an interview with Church about his research. And English tabloids and bloggers picked up on a translation of an interview, and they just ran with it, which resulted in this explosion of excitement over the possibility of a Neanderthal baby and endless arguments over the ethics of cloning a person, like "what about the 90% of clones that are malformed monsters?" And "what about the baby's freedom to grow up outside of a laboratory?" And "what about cloning more Neanderthals so that Neanderthal has friends?" Or "what if she's teased all her life?" Or "what if she inspires Pauly Shore to make Encino Man 2?"

E: Oh gosh, no.

R: So many moral quandaries. But unfortunately, all of this speculation is based on just a bad translation. Church is not some Dr. Moreau character with plans to impregnate a woman with a Neanderthal baby. He told Der Spiegel that one day in the future it's likely that the technology to clone a Neanderthal will be possible and that we may want to start thinking about the consequences of that now. And somehow that got translated into "crazed professor seeks fertile human female to birth ancient being." In fact, Church has since pointed out that his work doesn't even involve Neanderthals in any way. He focuses on the use of genetics in health care and the development of synthetic fuels and other materials that will better our lives. One of his current research areas is developing the ability to edit human genomes, which is pretty awesome in and of itself.

E: It is, yeah.

R: He doesn't really need all of this to-do about an Neanderthal baby that never existed. In an interview with the Boston Herald recently, he said that he is not planning to run away from all this ridiculous publicity though, and that he would use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology, which is pretty cool of him.

E: It's good.

R: Because that's the sort of stuff that we talk about on SGU all the time, and all the time on this very episode. Good science that gets completely misinterpreted by an overeager, undereducated media and then passed along to the masses.

S: But it's a teaching moment. But my question is: when he says mistranslation, was this a mistranslation from English to German back to English? Or was this a mistranslation of a non-science journalist trying to understand what this guy's science is saying or is it a combination of both?

R: Language is what I picked up from his explanations of it. That it is English to German to English, somewhere in there, that's where it went wrong.

S: But it also seems that the Der Spiegel journalists did misunderstand what he was saying because he was talking totally speculatively: "Maybe some day we could even theoretically do this. Somebody, not me; I'm not doing this research." Maybe he didn't make that clear and they thought he was talking about research that he's actually involved with. It's like a telephone game, right? You know, there's several steps here before it finally got to the Daily Mail and looking for a surrogate mother for a Neanderthal baby.

R: Yeah, I think Der Spiegel is definitely going to have to take a lot of the blame for this.

S: Yeah.

BD: So I guess I don't get to throw bones in the yard with my Neanderthal son.

R: Not yet.

E: Well, not yet.

Special Report: Nikola Tesla (30:22)[edit]

Brian Dunning reports on the mysterious Tesla

S: All right, Brian, you're going to give us more of a special report than a news report. You're just dying to unload your awesome knowledge about Nikola Tesla.

BD: My lack of knowledge about Tesla. I just—the Skeptoid episode that I did last week; it was titled "The Cult of Nikola Tesla". It's all about how conspiracy theorists in particular—but so many people—have liked to deify Tesla, make him into so much more than he actually was. And of course that's disrespectful to what he actually did and who he actually was, in addition to being flat-out wrong. Now I had always known that this had been something of a phenomenon, but I'd never really sat down to study it thoroughly until I did this episode, and there was just so much in there that surprised me that I just wanted to share some of it with you guys tonight. What do you guys think of when you think of Nikola Tesla? What technology comes to mind?

S: Alternating current.

E: Tesla coil.

BD: Alternating current, yeah. And did he invent that?

S: Well, that's what I always thought.

R: Well, he did a huge amount of the work.

BD: Yeah, I always thought he invented it.

E: He gets credit for it on the shows.

S: He developed it; I don't know if he—

R: Well yeah, he did a huge amount of development on it.

S: He has a lots of patents for it, right?

R: He invented it in the same way that Edison invented the light bulb.

BD: Probably, yeah. There was actually guys who had test electrical grids distributing AC before Tesla was born. I had no idea that he was so not the inventor of alternating current, nor even the concept of distributing it that way. I didn't get to spend a lot of time digging in to specifically how his particular patents worked, and what was it exactly that was new about what he brought to AC, but there was obviously plenty in there substantial enough to get him all the patents and everything. And the other thing that I've known Tesla for was the induction motor, which the big breakthrough of the induction motor was that it lets you run the motor directly from AC without having to first convert it to DC at a loss and run it that way. So that was a big deal, but also he was not even the first one to build an induction motor. There was this guy Galileo Ferraris, who I presume is Italian.

S: (laughs) I would think so.

E: Uh, could be.

BD: Who built one two years before Tesla did, and this was when Tesla was still a very young man, when he was still living in what was for a time Yugoslavia before he came to the United States. So he had that idea in his head, probably independently developed, but certainly not the inventor of the concept, and by the time he got to the whole famous story of him working for Edison and they had the big fight over money and falling out and all of this and Edison was a jerk and all of that, and all of that is probably fairly true as the urban legends say. But he had had this idea for the induction motor and AC in his head, and George Westinghouse was actively looking for patents on those things. It wasn't like Tesla went to Westinghouse and said "here's this cool thing." Westinghouse already knew about him and was looking for someone who had these patents. So I'm not trying to belittle anything that Tesla did, but I was amazed at how few of the urban legends about him are true.

S: Well, I think that the broader concept here is that whenever you hear a story that this person or this group of people invented this technology, that's almost always a massively oversimplified version of events, that all of these technological developments had antecedents, had competetors, had somebody who was working on a version of it. But somebody emerges as the person who just brings it to public conciousness, and then the history books boil that all down to "he invented it." So, we know that there were other people working on the airplane before the Wright brothers; there's even I think it's Brazilians, right?—who claim that they have precedence over the Wright brothers. There's other people who were working on the telephone and the phonograph, all of these things; the simple story of Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. No. When the technology is ready, you have multiple people working on it; ideas are being taken from different sources, but it's the person who peeks through this sort of magic threshold first, they get all the credit. So I know—I have heard a lot about Nikola Tesla, he was, no doubt, he was a genius. I mean as an electrical engineer he developed many things—he does have I think 700 patents to his name. My understanding was that he put all of the pieces together in terms of developing the transformers, all the—he made the technology feasible and put it all together so that you could actually have a system of distributing alternating current that would be practical for the country to adopt. That's what he did. And what Edison did was that he had the direct current version of that, a system by which you could distribute direct current. AC was the superior technology and it won out. That much of the story is true.

BD: And the final thing that I had been most impressed about and had always wanted to know about was... there was a popular movie, was it—what was the battle between the two magicians couple of years ago, that movie. You know what I'm talking about?

S: The Prestige?

E: The Prestige.

BD: Was it that where one of them went and visited Tesla in Colorado Springs and he had all the light bulbs all laid out in the field and caused them all to magically turn on with no wires? But that's kind of a legend that we've all heard about how he had this big giant field of light bulbs sitting in the ground with no wires and he just caused them all to turn on. And that is apparently completely the fabrication of a biographer named John O'Neil. Tesla was talking about doing something like that. He did at least one experiment where he did something like this from about 10 feet away, but the light bulb was conventionally wired; it was the power that was being transmitted from one Tesla coil to another over a very short distance and then the light bulbs all had to be conventionally wired to that, but this idea of doing it with 200 light bulbs from 26 miles away, there's no evidence that that ever happened. In fact, there's pretty good evidence that it didn't.

Who's That Noisy? (36:55)[edit]

Answer to last week: Knife on glass

S: All right, I think we have enough time for—to get caught up on Who's That Noisy. Evan, do you really have to play the one from last week again, do you think?

R: Please don't play it.

E: Uh, I do.

R: Just remind people, it was horrible.

S: All right, turn your volume down.

R: Yeah, I'm taking off my headphones.

E: All right, last week's Who's That Noisy. Get ready, here we go.

(high pitched squeak)

BD: That was it?

S: That was it.

E: It's done.

BD: You guys built up some big thing; I was all cringing in my seat here; that was nothing.

E: Well if you heard it last week, it was almost piercing. It's like chewing tin foil, as I think Jay described it, which is true. That is the sound of a knife running its edge along a bottle.

R: Why would you play that?

E: Of all things.

R: Why would you play that?

E: Yeah, why would I play that? Well, because there was a news item not too long ago related to this, and I want to send thanks out to one of our listeners, listener John Kelly who sent this along to our attention. Thank you, John. This came from Newcastle University back in October of 2012 and this press release[3] is titled "Nasty noises: Why do we recoil at unpleasant sounds?"

R: Like when somebody says "two thousand and twelve".

E: Yee, gosh, ugh.

S: I said "twenty thirteen" this week.

R: I'm proud of you.

S: That was for you, Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

S: So that's the most annoying sound in the world. Is that what you're telling us?

E: Yes, according to researchers led by Dr...

S: Zoidberg?

E: Sukhbinder Kumar is his name, at Newcastle University, and he led a team of scientists who realised that heightened activity between the emotional and auditory parts of the brain explains why the sound of, for example, chalk on blackboard or a knife on a bottle is so unpleasant. So it has to do with the interaction between the region of the brain that processes sound, which is the auditory cortex, and the amygdala, which is active in the processing of negative emotions when we hear unpleasant sounds.

S: Uh yeah, so a sound being pleasant or unpleasant is purely a neurological phenomenon. There's nothing inherently annoying about that noise; that's the way our brains interpret it.

BD: It wasn't that bad. I've soiled my armour, guys. It's nothing.

R: Ew.


E: All right. Listener Sidney Wise, we selected your name at random of all the listeners who got it correct this week, and you are now in the final drawing at the end of the year.

BD: I want to ask Sidney what the heck is he doing around his house that he recognised that sound.

E: Well a couple of people remembered the article in particular that this referred to. So, well done, Sidney.

S: And Evan, you have a puzzle for this week, huh?

E: Uh yes, we came up with a good puzzle for this week. Here is this week's puzzle:

I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys?

S: This is a classic statistics puzzle that's very counter-intuitive. That's all that I'll say about it.

E: It is. Yes we will. Go ahead and give us your answer, is the official email for sending in your Who's That Noisy answers or your puzzle answers in this case, or you can post them on our forums at Good luck, everyone.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Correction: Vomitorium (40:34)[edit]

S: Thanks Evan. One quick correction or amplification from last week. Brian, do you know what a vomitorium is?

BD: I have a son who is obsessed with random facts and "vomitorium" has always been one of his favourite words, so I know two definitions. He has found that one of them is what you would expect, a room that you're supposed to vomit in, in ancient Greece or wherever they enjoyed doing that sort of thing, college.

E: Rome, yeah.

BD: And the other is the exits for a stadium.

S: Right.

BD: It vomits fort the people as they leave.

R: Apparently it's just the exit, but they vomited a lot when they were walking out of the stadiums.

E: Must have been some bad shows going on in those arenas.

S: Last week, Rebecca, I believe it was you who threw out a casual refrence to a vomitorium, and that of course...

R: Trying to zing the Romans.

S: Right, that unleashed our hordes, our pedantic hordes as they say, and they pointed out that the notion that there were special rooms for vomiting after meals or whatever is a complete myth, that no such thing in the history of Greece or Rome or whatever. However, there was the practice of vomiting, and sometimes voluntarily, sometimes to extend the meal, so they did vomit. They just didn't have a room for it, they would go to the bathroom, you know, or they would just do it in a bucket.

R: Like a sensible person.

BD: There are some people I know who should have a whole room dedicated for it.

S: Right, it's just a mistake that people made, the word vomitorium—and again, yeah, it's the same root: to bring forth quickly, which refers to, for example, the many entrances and exits to the stadium, to the Colosseum, which could apparently—50,000 people could fill that place in 15 minutes. That's how efficient all different the entrances and exits were, and those were the vomitorium. So, over the years—

BD: Vomitoria.

S: The vomitoria, thank you. Each one was a vomitorium. And over the years, certain scholars conflated these two facts, the word "vomitorium" and the fact that Romans sometimes used to vomit voluntarily, and they made the incorrect assumption that the vomitorium must be where they did that, must be where they vomited, but it's just a trick of the Latin.

R: We're in good company though, according to Wikipedia, Aldous Huxley may have been the first to use the misinterpretation in the book Antic Hay.

E: Or he was being sarcastic, maybe?

R: "There strode in, like a Goth into the elegant marble vomitorium of Petronius Arbiter, a haggard and dishevelled person."

S: The existence of rooms dedicated to vomiting in the Roman Empire, ancient Rome is a myth. We have two interviews coming up, so let's go on to them now.

Interview with Lizzie Li Taylor (43:17)[edit]

The translator and voice of Skeptoid Chinese

S: We are joined now by Lizzie Taylor. Lizzie, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

LT: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

S: And Brian, you brought Lizzie to my attention. We're on the show to talk to the both of you in this segment about a recent project you've been working on, so why don't you just tell us about that?

BD: Yeah, for a long time, I have wanted to get Skeptoid out to a Chinese audience. All of the languages obviously would be great, but to do it properly you have to really take it seriously and you really have to have all of your ducks in a row. There's a lot of backend programming to get all the websites integrated and everything, everything needs to be transcribed; everything needs to be all connected up. So what I did was I went out to find a Chinese speaking host and I got 5 test recordings from different Chinese-speaking women who were able to transcribe and translate and record the show, and I sent these to a focus group of people that I had in China that included a whole big group of students. And they overwhelmingly voted Lizzie's voice as the one that they most preferred. And just by great fortune, Lizzie happens to live very close to me and she works in the translation industry, so she's got access to all sorts of resources for translating technical words, science words, weird things that we talk about on Skeptoid. So that's where we are; we're about 10 episodes in to the show and we're now live in China. And this is what Chinese listeners hear. Give them the intro, Lizzie.

LT: (Chinese version of the Skeptoid intro)

BD: Isn't that awesome?

S: It's funny Brian, because when I listen to your show, that's exactly what I hear.


S: Blah blah blah Skeptoid, blah blah Skeptoid. It's uncanny. No, that's really fascinating, and Lizzie—so you're a professional translator; this is what you do for a living?

LT: Yeah, it's my major. I was not a science major, I was a translation and interpretation major, so I am a freelance translator.

S: Did you have an interest in skepticism or science before Brian contacted you?

LT: Actually, because I'm a girl, maybe—I was always like an art major, so—or a linguistic major; I wasn't science—I wasn't really in to a lot of science; the only show I was watching was the Big Bang Theory.

E: Eh, good enough.

BD: That's a good start.

LT: But I got really interested once I started the project because all of the topics—it's not like dry, hard to understand topics, they're like more to do with daily life and it's really interesting, I think.

S: So, observing that women are more into art than science is kind of a loaded observation to make on the show for a lot of reasons. Is that—Do you feel that in China that's the case, that girls or women in China are not encouraged to go into science, is that perceived of as a male profession?

LT: I think mostly when they choose their major for universities, they probably more tend to art or languages or history or politics. More I think because maybe we are better at memorising things. We don't like to study the unknown. And I think just in general, so...

S: Do you have any feeling for how the podcast is doing right now in China? How is it being received?

LT: I only have sent it to my cousins and they all love it. And because we only have 10 now, we're just starting, so I haven't really started to spread out and ask peoples' opinion.

BD: I can tell you from looking at the numbers what has happened was we started off with a huge peak and it has fairly quickly tapered down to about 10% of what it peaked at. Now that sounds terrible; that sounds like you know, "oh it was a novelty for a moment and then faded away", but looking at the listeners who are inside China it has grown steadily, so that initial peak that we had was American people basically tuning in because "oh, the novelty of hearing Chinese version of Skeptoid", probably mostly existing Skeptoid listeners. So the growth, when you look at just the raw numbers doesn't look too impressive, but the country filtered is very exciting, I think.

S: There's this artificial peak of your curious listeners.

BD: Yeah, exactly.

E: What about the censors or censorship that we hear about going on in China. How does Skeptoid work, either through or around, or is it just like too low profile right now for them even to be taking notice at this point?

LT: I think the topics that we choose are like general scientific topics that they're not like sensitive religious or political topics, so I think we're fine so far.

BD: Yeah, that's one of the many challenges for doing this show is making sure which topics we choose are going to be ones that are not going to get us in any kind of trouble with the whole great firewall of China, but B) also interesting to the Chinese audience. And that's something that's been really surprising to me. A lot of the urban legends, things that are United States-centric or Europe-centric are unheard-of and uninteresting to some Chinese listeners, but anything that takes place in Australia, Russia or anywhere in Asia, they're much more receptive to those and they've heard of them more often. And of course, we've got the whole range of general food trends and things like that that are universal.

S: So they don't like hearing you making fun of stupid Americans?

BD: I think that would be a great topic, actually. Making fun of stupid Americans.

S: But isn't that like any American-centric mythology or urban legend; wouldn't that sort of be the implicit thing with that?

BD: Well no, I'm talking about like the Amityville Horror was a great story for the American Skeptoid because everyone knows that story, but nobody in China has ever heard of that.

S: So they just don't care.

BD: They just don't care, yeah. And we need to pick topics that are universal or of world-wide interest.

S: Yeah, so you're not doing every episode, you're hand-picking episodes to translate.

BD: Oh no yeah, I'm fortunate to be 300 and something episodes ahead on that, so that I've got plenty to hand-pick from so we're being very careful with that. Let me ask you a question, Lizzie. Since you've got a few months experience with Skeptoid now and you kind of have a good idea of what it's about, what are some episodes—what are some subjects that you would suggest, that you think that the Chinese audience needs to hear? What kinds of superstitions do we have in China that we should do an episode about?

LT: I think it's mainly about ghosts, like people are afraid of death, of dead people. They show a lot of respect to dead people, so there's all kinds of things like what you should do if you... at night you shouldn't look back and stuff like that, because we don't have—we don't teach about God or ghosts in class, so we don't really talk about it. It's all like from your grandparents or from your friends, so some people really believe in that.

BD: How many people, how many people think that ghosts are real and might be something that would jump out and scare them?

LT: I think a lot of my friends, they—if they have relatives passed away, they sometimes expect to see them in the house, you know, after a funeral and something—they always think they can feel something, they can hear something during their sleep. So I think most people believe that, the spirits, or maybe the ghosts.

BD: That's great, well we'll throw some more of the existing ghost episodes of Skeptoid into your list.


S: Now Lizzie, if you want a real challenge, I have another project for you. You have to find four Chinese-speaking friends and then do a—you have to act out the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. You have to get one person to be each of us.

R: Yeah, translate an hour and a half worth of material every week.

S: Right, and be able to get all the banter and all the jokes.

R: Conversational English.

S: Yeah.

R: Terrible jokes.

E: The inside humour, yep.

BD: You know you guys, that's a really interesting point. I was singularly fortunate that my show format just happens to be something that can be readily translated and reproduced for a different audience. That was just luck. A show like yours, let's say hypothetically was even an equally good or better than Skeptoid.

S: Hypothetically, yeah.

BD: That's my joke. Like you say, it's about your personalities and it would be really hard—it would be really hard to translate that. So if we're looking at this giant overall project that we're all on the same team as, which is spreading critical thinking to as many people as possible, I think a project like this is one of the few that's available for reaching foreign countries.

S: Yeah I agree, it would be nigh impossible to do a translation of our podcast just because of the format. It would be like dubbing a movie, I mean it would be that level of work.

BD: Or the American version of Top Gear.

S: (laughs) Well, Lizzie, it's been really fascinating talking with you and keep up the good work. This is definitely spreading the word and Brian, you too, I think this is a great idea, a great project.

BD: Yeah, thank you.

LT: Thank you so much.

Interview with Zack Kopplin (53:05)[edit]

Louisiana student who is fighting back against creationism in his home state.

S: Joining us now is Zack Kopplin. Zack, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

ZK: Thank you so much for having me on.

S: And Zack is a Louisiana resident; he is currently a history major at Rice University but we're talking to Zack tonight because he has become a bit of an activist against the teaching of creationism in his home state and elsewhere. So, Zack tell us how you got involved with this whole thing.

ZK: So back in 2008 I watched, the summer before my sophomore year in high school, as a creationism law, the Louisiana Science Education Act, made its way through the Louisiana legislature. And I didn't believe it was going to pass; it was 2008 and we finished—the Scopes trial was in 1925 and I thought that was long over and done but it wasn't. Despite that, I still assumed that my Brown University biology major governor who's a Rhodes scholar would not sign this law. And so I watched in disbelief as not only did the law pass, but Governor Jindal actually signed it and has since defended and supported it. And so I've always been really mad that this law happened and wanted to take it on, and by my senior year of high school I realized no one else was taking it on; it had to be me.

S: So you had some hard life lessons there, so lesson number 1: Politics trumps science. Lesson number 2: people don't give a crap.


S: So now you're with us, right? So now you're at the point where we are; we're like, "if someone's going to do something, right? Who's going to do it?"

BD: So go onto a podcast and gripe about it.

S: (laughs) Right.

E: Could do that.

ZK: I hope it's more about go on the podcast and maybe advocate. That might help more, maybe a happier outlook.


S: That's what he meant; he meant advocate.

BD: When I said gripe, I mean cheerfully, positively advocate.

ZK: All right, awesome.

S: So what did you do about this? it's like something's got to be done, so what did you do?

ZK: So I assume that most listeners and you all know who Dr. Barbara Forrest is. And for anyone who doesn't know, she was a star witness at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial which evaluated intelligent design, and she also lives in Louisiana as a professor, just right down the road from me. So I sent her an email; I had a senior project in high school that I had to do to graduate, and I sent her an email asking, "hey, I want to repeal this creationism law I know you know (inaudible)". I'd read her blog before and I asked, "will you help me repeal this law?" And she was all for it; we met and started working on the repeal.

S: And how did that go?

ZK: We built up a lot of support in our first year. We had about 43, 44 Nobel laureate scientists. When we came in to committee, we had the American Association for the Advancement of Science; we had thousands of clergy members in the clergy (inaudible) project, the City of New Orleans. The city council unanimously voted to urge the state to repeal this law, so we came up with incredible support and we were voted down 5 to 1.

S: In committee.

ZK: In committee. One of the senators, Senator Julie Quinn, she's no longer one, but she was a senator on the Senate Education Committee at the time, explained that she was tired of hearing from people with little letters behind their names, like basically so these Nobel laureates who are only people with little letters behind their names.

R: Yeah, what do those letters even mean? Nobody knows!

E: It's all gobbledygook.

R: What are you hiding, scientists?

ZK: Well Harold Kroto (inaudible) he got knighted for discovering the buckyball, or like any of these Nobel laureates who have done immeasurable things, to basically set the foundation of the way we live right now. Yeah, they've done nothing, I guess. But she had two little letters that she made sure we knew, they were J and D.

S: So you've been trying to essentially repeal the Louisiana state law that allows teachers to introduce supplemental material in science classrooms, which essentially is a back-door way of introducing creationist material, and what you found, and this is always the test; we were always—so we knew it was a bad law; we knew it was back-door creationism, but we were waiting to see how bad it would be in implementation. And what you found out was that science teachers were actually using this as an excuse not only to bring in creationist material, but to get rid of the standard science textbooks.

ZK: Yes, so what happened was the summer that I wanted to repeal this law, I watched as in our local newspaper and on Barbara's website and on the National Centre for Science Education's website, they reported that there was a school board meeting in Livingston Parish, where Barbara actually lived, where there wasn't just—because the law just allows teachers to bring in materials—the entire school board were discussing how they could not just bring in materials, but actually use this law to make creationism a whole part of their curriculum. And they were talking about how this law was for "critical thinking and creationism" and there's one quote, I forget exactly how it goes but it was something like "we don't want litigation but we need to take a stand for Jesus and risk it anyway". And so it's just like this came out, and I realised that this law is actually being used and it's absolutely absurd. And so the other thing that I wanted to mention: we'd sort of gotten in to how this law worked; you said supplemental materials; these supplemental materials are specifically meant to "critique things that are controversial, like evolution and climate change" specifically highlighted. They highlighted evolution, climate change, the one I mess up on is like origin of the Earth, origin of species, something like that. And then the last one is human cloning. And maybe we should mention that one for a little bit because since when is there a scientific controversy at all, or even a political controversy over the science about human cloning? There's not a political controversy over the science; we could probably clone humans. There's an ethical controversy but...

BD: Well I'm thinking that's the point. It sounds to me like they just threw that in there to make it look like this is a list of debatable topics.

ZK: Exactly; that's exactly what they did. But it's one of the ones where they didn't even know enough about how things worked to recognize that that's not what should have been thrown in.

BD: I'd say that it's probably not the only one on that list that they didn't know enough about.

S: So let's talk strategy for a minute. So obviously repealing the law would be a good thing in a way, because it would at least take care of the problem for now in Louisiana. But the real progress that's been made in this battle has been getting the Supreme Court to declare such laws unconstitutional, and that requires somebody to challenge the law. Have you thought of working along those lines?

ZK: So the problem with a legal challenge is just that it's easier to go the repeal method, actually, because the way this law is set up, we have to have a plaintiff who has standing; we have to have a kid who comes out and challenges the law. First, they have to know that their rights are being violated, then they have to know exactly how to respond if they realise that their rights are being violated. And finally, which is the highest bar of all, is they have to have the courage to do something about it.

S: Yeah.

ZK: The example I really give about this is the kind of courage it would take is... I mean, for many people who know the story of David Fowler, which is he came out in a similar issue and found himself kicked out of his house; needed police security at his own high school graduation. A lot of these kids in Louisiana are going to look at this and say, "if we challenge this creationism law, our parents are going to throw us out of the house." And they don't want to do that, and so it's a really high bar to pass. That's one problem; the second is that it's written in a very crafty way that makes this kind of accountability very, very tough. I can't go into— while I would love to go into a school and say OK I can look to see if they're teaching creationism, it's very hard for me to do that and there's a lot of schools in the state.

S: Yeah. There was something else though that you did that was successful and that was opposing getting rid of the standard science textbooks in the state.

ZK: That was interesting. That was when I was just getting started. It was in November when we first heard about this, and the local creationist group, Louisiana Family Forum, who's is an affiliate of Focus on the Family nationally, had apparently been sending in complaints about the science textbooks being too favourable to evolution all summer and had gotten the state board of education to hold this meeting to re-evaluate whether they're going to approve these textbooks. And so I got in touch with Barbara; I got in touch with her group, the Louisiana Science Coalition and I had been sort of working with them, laying the groundwork for this appeal and I got an email during school one day; it was Wednesday and it said "hey, creationists are trying to throw out our science textbooks. Be at this meeting Friday to help stop that." So it was like no warning and what we found out is that not just was there no warning, but it appeared like we had been set up. Two members of this committee on the textbooks were also the two sponsors of the Louisiana Science Education Act itself. It was looking pretty grim for us at that point. We expected that the entire board had been stacked and we would lose completely. Despite that, I showed up and dozens of other science advocates showed up. We testified and it turns out the board was not stacked. We won 8 to 4 in that vote in that meeting and so we passed the first round. We eventually, over even more creationist objections, where one of my favourite stories is, there's an old creationist, a retired judge, who has been involved in a lot of the stuff in Louisiana and also in Texas. He went and testified before the state board of education, he pulled out a t-shirt with natural selection on this, and it basically said, this is the t-shirt that Dylan Klebold wore when he shot these kids and that's why we think that...

BD: Nooo.

E: Oh my gosh.

R: Wow.

ZK: Yeah.

BD: Wow.

ZK: It was an incredible moment, to watch that happen. Despite his strong testimony about Columbine and natural selection though, the textbooks got approved. And so we won that battle and the creationists didn't like that very much and so for the last two years and quite possibly this year again, they tried an end-run around our victory and tried to basically take away all authority from the state board of eduction to approve textbooks at all. And so it's just every inch we gain, we have to fight to hold it.

R: Zack, I'd like to ask you a job interview question. I'm wondering where you see yourself in ten years.

ZK: I would hope that I'm doing the exact same thing. I mean, my life plan honestly right now is just: find a way to financially support the activism I want to do.

E: I can't think of a faster way to reach the Dark Ages than to try to destroy the teaching of science to our children, I really, I don't say that lightly, I think that's absolutely true.

ZK: I mean, I think it literally is the way to reach the Dark Ages. I mean, the Dark Ages where there wan't really that much scientific advancement.

E: Exactly.

S: It's actually a knock against the Dark Ages, which weren't that bad. This is worse.


S: All right, Zack, it was a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for all the work that you're doing. It's really encouraging to see a young man like yourself being so passionate about science and trying to debunk nonsense.

ZK: Thank you so much for having me on. It was a lot of fun.

Science or Fiction (1:04:15)[edit]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week?

BD: Yes.

R: Yep.

E: Sure thing.

S: OK. Actually, I misstated last week; so all of the regular rogues are at two-thirds or 66% for the year. Brian, this is your first one this year so you have a clean slate.

R: This is your chance to rocket to the lead.

BD: I can't append to my previous record of 1-0?

S: If you wish, but we do also keep annual statistics, and overall, so that will count to your overall.

E: It's like a new season, Brian.

S: Yeah. All right, well, here we go. Item number one: Scientists have found functional quadruple helix DNA in humans. Item number two: In a 15-year follow up study of laparoscopic gastric banding for obesity, the longest study to date, the procedure was found to produce no significant long-term weight loss. And Item number three: A new analysis finds that, as a source of electricity, current photovoltaics are about 30 times more land-use efficient than even the highest yield biofuel crops. Brian, why don't you go first for us this week?

BD: Thank you for that. All right, I'll take them in reverse order here. A new analysis finds that as a source for electricity, current photovoltaics are 30 times more land-use efficient than the highest yield biofuel crops. More land-use efficient. It seems plausible right off the bat, just because it doesn't take up a whole lot of space to have a set of solar panels, but if we're talking about the entire cycle, the mining that needs to go into it, for finding the minerals and so forth used in the solar panel... Do we get to know if this includes that or—we probably get no hints and no help?

S: So by land-use efficient, what I mean is the amount of electricity you can get out of one acre of photovoltaics, it would take you 30 acres of the most efficient biofuel crop to get the same amount of electricity, and yes, this includes absolutely everything from soup to nuts.

BD: OK. I'm perfectly satisfied with that, in fact I'd even suspect 30 times more land-use efficient is low, so I'm good with that one. Number two: in a 15 year follow-up study of laproscopic gastric banding for obesity found to produce no significant long-term weight loss. I do not buy that. This is not something that I've researched or looked into. I know a handful of people who have had this done for that time period or less and they all definitely kept off tons of weight. So that one's difficult for me, but I don't have any data to go on. So that leaves number one. Functional quadruple helix DNA in humans. "Functional" meaning it's not just some cell for whatever reason has mutated extra copies of DNA floating about in it?

S: It's doing something.

BD: It's doing something. I think the DNA's going to do something if it's there. Um. So I'm happy with that one, so I would say one is science, three is science and two is fiction. I'm going for number two.

S: OK. Rebecca?

R: Yeah, Brian made some really good points. I hate to base it on anecdote, but like Brian said, that's all I really have on the laproscopic surgery thing. I know people who have had it; it's been very successful. It's not easy; it's very very difficult, and it's not a ticket to perfect health. It's not an immediate giant weight loss and then you're like perfectly fit. Yeah, no significant long-term weight loss. Yeah, I think that sounds really wrong to me; I'll be really surprised if that's true. This is good, Steve, because I haven't heard of any of these, so well done. I'm going to have to go with the laproscopic thing just because I don't know much about quadruple helix DNA. That sounds wacky but possible to me. Yeah, with current photovoltaics, biofuel crops are taking up so much room that I can believe that. So yeah, I'm going to go with the laproscopic band one as fiction as well.

BD: So you're going with GWB, GWB.


BD: Good call.

S: OK, and Evan.

E: Um, a quadruple helix DNA, a functional one. I wonder if that means they had found a non-functioning one prior perhaps and now they've recently either discovered that wait, it actually is functioning, or they were looking at the non-functioning ones and said let's look for some functioning ones and they may have found one, so I think that one's right. Photovoltaics 30 times more land-use efficient. I don't see what's wrong with that. Plausible, like Brian said. Which leads me back to the laproscopic gastric banding. Uh... Brian, you convince Rebecca at least to an extent. To more of an extent you've convinced me, and I will go with you as well on this.

S: All right, so you guys are all in agreement, so I guess I could start with number one. Scientists have found functional quadruple helix DNA in humans. You guys all think this one is science, and this one is... science.

BD: Yay!

R: Cool.

S: This one's interesting. That caught my eye.

E: So does that mean there was non-functioning ones?

S: No it's the first one that they've—they've known about this, this is the first time that they've proven that it exists in human cells. Biochemists have been able to synthesise it themselves and they've seen it in other types of cells, but now researchers publishing in Nature Chemistry have proven that it exists in human cells. This is so-called G-quadruplex DNA, the G stands for guanine. These are strands of DNA that have a lot of guanine and I guess that is the bit that's helping the four strands bind together. Most functional DNA is a double helix, the so-called Watson and Crick famous double helix of DNA; two complementary strands that bind together. I guess two of those can themselves bind together forming the quadruplex DNA. The researchers think that this may play a role in some cancers, and it may have to do with cell proliferation and therefore this could potentially be a therapeutic target if they could figure out precisely what role this is playing. So yes, very interesting.

BD: Is it a normal thing, or is it some kind of a mutation?

E: Do we all have it?

S: No; apparently, different phases of the replication of DNA it can form these quadruplex strands.

BD: So in normal function that's not a healthy thing? OK.

S: Right, in normal function but again there's the question of is this the point where things are going wrong in some cancers and it's sort of triggering out-of-control replication? Because it is when the cells are replicating, when the DNA's replicating that it seems to go through this phase, this quadruplex phase. But yeah, it's not an aberration; it's a part of the natural cycle of things. Yeah, very interesting. Let's go to number two: in a fifteen year follow-up study of laproscopic gastric banding for obesity, longest study to date, the procedure was found to produce no significant long-term weight loss. You guys all think this one is the fiction, and this one is... the fiction.

BD: Yay!

R: Well done, Brian.

S: Very good everyone, good job. Good job. But there was a fifteen-year study and the longest to date. These are patients treated in Australia, that was just published. It's considered a landmark study that showed that it's quite effective. Yeah, your anecdotal experience is accurate. People who get this done lose weight and they keep it off because it's a sort of permanent anatomical change, and it works.

BD: I'm always telling people to pay more attention to anecdotes.

S: (laughs) That's right, you've always said that.

E: Yes, forget all that scientific evidence. Go with the anecdotes.

S: But despite the anecdotes, you still do have to study it scientifically because otherwise you really don't know what role it plays but the science is supporting that. Yeah it works, people have good outcomes. The more complications of obesity that you have like diabetes, the more medical benefit there is to getting the procedure done. So yeah, it's working. The procedure actually works long-term.

R: Yeah it seems like, I've been trying to think all this time, what would it take for it to not work? Because I mean, it's making your stomach smaller so you can't consume the calories you would need to maintain your current weight. I think that the only—the big downside to it generally is that—is health-related is complications from the surgery, right?

BD: Yeah, they can slip off. Lap bands are fairly easily removable, aren't they?

S: Yeah. This technology has been advancing quite a bit over the last 10 to 15 years, actually. So it's getting safer, less invasive while maintaining its effectiveness. It's actually a pretty reasonable option at this point if you're of a certain size. It's not worth it unless you're in a certain range of obesity. And interestingly, this may be changing, but if you get too big then you're no longer a candidate just because the surgical risk goes to high, becomes too high. I guess the one possibility is, Rebecca, is how could it fail? Perhaps it would be possible to stretch the stomach back out in other ways. You know, if you were pushing how much you could eat, maybe people could still manage to get in a lot of calories even if it was spread out throughout the day.

R: Anecdotally, from what I hear from my friends, that is a horribly painful thing.

S: Yeah.

E: Oh.

R: Like you eat too many calories once and then you don't do it again because it's... really it's not easy. I think some people think of it as like "oh you know it's a quick thing for weight loss." Like lipo or something, but...

S: No it's tough.

S: Yeah, so I think if you wanted to stretch out that stomach again, it would take some serious dedication.

E: Electro-shock therapy. You go to reach for the food, zzt! Give you a little shock.

S: But bottom line is it actually works pretty well.

R: Cool.

S: All this means that a new analysis finds that as a source of electricity, current photovoltaics are about 30 times more land-use efficient than even the highest-yield biofuel crops is science. Yeah, you guys sussed this out pretty well. Biofuel crops are fairly inefficient use of land and the 30—it's actually 29 was the precise number—that's for the best biofuel crops we have. At the low en like corn, it's more like 200 times more efficient. And this is for current photovoltaics, which are getting better all the time. There's just constant incremental improvements and with lots of interesting possibilities on the way for photovoltaics, even now you're better off filling that acre with solar panels than trying to actually grow crops. And this was specifically as a source of electricity. What they were interested in was electric vehicles. If you're going to find a way to power all those electric cars that we're putting on the roads, how should we do it? Where should that energy come from? Should we grow more biofuels or should we hang more photovoltaics? So that's the question they were asking, not burning the ethanol directly in a gasoline car, right? In a combustion engine. But in an electric car. That's why I had to clarify as a source of electricity. And also, you can put photovoltaics anywhere. You don't have to put them on cropland. You could put them obviously on land that is not being used or in cities on your rooftop, you know.

BD: And this particular study, this was just considering land use; it wasn't dollar efficiency, right?

S: No, they actually looked at multiple outcomes. But again, I can only cram so much into the sentence. So it's—photovoltaics are also more efficient in terms of greenhouse gas emissions; it's also cost effective, and it also used the least amount of fossil fuel feeding into the system. So again, you asked, Brian, very very correctly, does this consider the whole chain all the way up and down the line? And the answer is yes. So for both of these the fossil fuel gets expended as fertilizer, tractors moving it around, or in the production of photovoltaics, the mining of the minerals, etc. That photovoltaics used less fossil fuels, except for the most—the highest-yield biofuels like the switch grass that basically don't need any fossil fuel fertilisers, so that was the only one where it was more efficient than the photovoltaics, but every other crop the photovoltaics beat it out in that respect as well. So almost, I can't say all, but almost across the board, the photovoltaics were better, were superior to the biofuel crops. All right, well, good job, you guys. Very well done.

R: Thank you.

BD: We're awesome.

S: Brian, you kept your 100% record, absolutely.

E: Thanks for blazing the trail there, Brian.

BD: Indeed.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:57)[edit]

S: Evan, you're going to cover for Jay this week for the closing quote.

E: Yeah. I hope I do Jay some justice with this closing quote. So, here we go:

By doubting we all come at truth.

E: That's it. That's the whole quote.

S: Very good. Very pithy.

E: Marcus Tullius Cicero. Anyone?

BD: You're supposed to say: Kaikero!

S: Kaikero. (laughs)

E: Kaikero! Aaah, Cicero was a Roman philosopher, a statesman, a lawyer, an orator, a political theorist, a consul and a constitutionalist, amongst many other things.

S: Evan, but was he a vomiteur?

E: Oh, most certainly in all meanings and aspects of that particular...

S: He vomited forth philosophy and wisdom.

E: Of course.

R: As he was walking out of the Colosseum.

S: Right. All right, well, Brian, thanks for joining us this week. Thanks for covering for Bob and Jay.

BD: Always fun. Thanks for having me.

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

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thank you, Doctor.

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

BD: And this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. (imitating theme music) Do do do de do do.

Voiceover: 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]

  • In 1696, Jean Bernoullis' challenged mathematicians to solve his mathematical problem, the Brachistochrone curve. After 6 months and no solutions, Bernoulli sent the problem to Newton, who solved it in 12 hours.
  • The European Space Agency have released a new photo of a 1500km dry river bed on Mars, estimated to be 1.8-3.5m years old.
  • According to Newcastle researcher, Kumar, aversive noises result in heightened activity between the amygdala and auditory cortex.[3]
  • Vomitoria were not places to purge during feasts, but the entrances to Roman amphiteatres and stadiums.
    • The Colosseum vomitoria are said to have seated 50,000 people in 15 minutes
  • Scientists have found functional quadruple helix DNA in humans that may play role in cell proliferation, and could be used in cancer therapy. (see BBC news)
  • A 15-year follow up study of laparoscopic gastric banding for obesity, the longest study to date, reports a significant long-term weight loss. (see Monash press release)
  • A new analysis finds that, as a source of electricity, current photovoltaics are about 29 times more land-use efficient than even the highest yield biofuel crops. They are cost effective and release less greenhouse emissions. Only the Highest yield biofuels are more efficient than photovoltaics in terms of fossil fuel consumption. (see abstract)

Tesla Trivia

  • Tesla was not the inventor of AC, it was tested before he was born. He obtained the patents, and developed system of distribution.
  • He was not the first to build an induction motor – Galileo Ferraris built 2 yrs earlier.


  1. Manti Te’o hoax a failure by major media
  2. Daily Mail: Wanted: 'Adventurous woman' to give birth to Neanderthal man - Harvard professor seeks mother for cloned cave baby
  3. 3.0 3.1 Newcastle University: Nasty noises: Why do we recoil at unpleasant sounds?
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