Episode 27 – Questions with Skeptoid

Brian Dunning

Brian Dunning

For this episode, we took a suggestion from one of our listeners.  Nathan from Western Maine writes:

For almost a year now I have been listening to the podcast called “Skeptoid,” recorded and published by a good skeptic fellow named Brian Dunning.  He researches and reports on subjects like alternative medicine and paranormal occurrences in a weekly podcast that lasts about ten minutes, and attacks them with good science.  I’ve learned a lot about the scientific method, clinical testing, fishy reporting, and just plain common sense from listening to this, and I really enjoy it.  I also use the episodes in my class from time to time, and there’s a lot of educational value in them.  I thought Brian would make an interesting guest for the Lab Out Loud, and I suggest you try to contact him.

So we welcome Brian Dunning to the show – the man behind Skeptoid.  Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena “is a weekly pro-science, anti-pseudoscience podcast.”  Brian talks to us about Skeptoid, using the scientific method, and using skepticism in the science classroom.

Preview from the Show:

One thing that I like to do is try to apply the scientific method to things that you generally don’t do in school, which is stuff that’s in popular culture… Things that are on television, things that are on the Discovery channel, Sci Fi channel, National Geographic channel – all of the paranormal channels, for example.  There’s so much that’s being promoted in the media these days, and nobody ever takes a critical look at it, and nobody ever tries to apply the scientific method to that.  So I like to find interesting things from history, interesting things that a lot of people generally know about – and not only explain those phenomena in an interesting way, but also use the scientific method to explain what’s actually going on.

They are hijacking scientific-sounding terms and terminology, and words that impress people.  So many things are sold today with the claim that “quantum physics supports this.”  And of course, who understands quantum theory?  Who is qualified?  What Joe-blow on the street is qualified to understand quantum theory, and why that’s an implausible theory for that explanation for the claim…  It’s a serious, serious threat to scientific literacy because it works.  It works so much of the time – I mean look at the book “The Secret”.  Complete nonsense, and it’s sold because it’s got a “chapter in there that says “quantum theory explains how this works.”  And I’m sorry – no matter how critical or scientific most people think they are, very few people know enough to refute that claim.

[What might be some examples that educators might use in the classroom?]
Here’s one.  There’s a lot of paranoia about mercury poisoning that you can get from the fillings in your teeth.  Most dentists use – and historically have used – what’s called an amalgam filling in teeth, and mercury is one of the ingredients.  Of course when we say “mercury”, you think “oh my gosh, mercury is a horrible neurotoxin,” and that’s true – it is.  But you can say the same thing of chlorine, but of course that’s one of the main examples of salt – which is not harmful at all.  Almost every element, when it’s in the right combination with other elements, is not dangerous, it’s not poisonous.  And this is the case with the mercury found in amalgam fillings.  So there’s one group of anti-science nuts – I’m not sure what their motivation is, because a lot of them are dentists.  They put out this video – it’s called the infamous “Smoking Teeth” video.  …They’ve taken a tooth that’s been extracted, so they’re holding it with tweezers, and they dip it in water, and they put it under a light in front of a fluorescent screen, and you can see this vapor rising off of the tooth.  And they say: “That’s mercury.”  That’s mercury that, everyone in the world who has mercury fillings in their teeth – they’ve got mercury that’s being constantly released out of their fillings into their body…  The smoking teeth video is so fun, because it touches on so many aspects of science.  You just mentioned the health one, well what is it that mercury does to the body?  And in what forms is mercury a neurotoxin?   In what form can if cause neurological damage?  And then what I found was most fascinating – it’s the most obvious point about this little smoking teeth video is – what’s the relative weight of mercury vapor, compared to air?”  It’s heavier.  It’s much heavier.  Mercury vapor would never rise – it would fall to the floor like carbon dioxide.

Links:

  • Skeptoid Episode Guide
  • Subscribe to the Skeptoid
  • Skeptoid on Facebook and MySpace
  • Follow Skeptoid on Twitter
  • Answering Student Questions
  • The “Smoking Teeth” Video

Direct download: LOL27.mp3

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