Fate of the Feedback
Time again to go out to the mailbox, have a look inside, and see what listeners are saying about the show. And then, to realize that it's not the year 1500 anymore, and nobody sends feedback that way anymore; thus I must go back inside, turn the computer back on, and open up Facebook and Twitter and my email to see the actual feedback. Today we're going to read and discuss some commentary by you, the listeners, on subjects from free range chickens, to Tarzan of the Apes, to the placebo effect, cupping, and a proposed explanation for the Wow! signal of 1977.
Let's get started with some feedback on an episode from way back in 2007. I've heard this exact piece of feedback several times in recent months, which I attribute to more people listening to the premium feed or all the back episodes on the USB drive. Little did I know that it would cause the sloppier early episodes to come back and bite me:
So this is really a case of applying modern Skeptoid standards to the really old episodes. When the show first started it hadn't really found its niche yet, and I wouldn't say that it was the same kind of show that it is today. In the early days, some of the episodes did include my own personal opinion about some things. In this particular case I was not talking about science-based evidence about chickens' state of mind, though I would agree today that that would have been a more interesting show. Instead I talked about my personal experiences growing up with chickens. Looking back at what was said on the show, I did not claim that my personal opinions constituted proof about what chickens thought. They weren't misrepresented, they just weren't what today's Skeptoid listener would expect to get from a show. So I agree with David that my experiences were not evidence, but I disagree that they were presented as if they were. A number of other listeners have written in with the same comment over the years, so I've updated the web transcript for the chicken episode with a link to this explanation.
Here's one that actually really intrigued me, and it's from the episode on feral children said to have been raised by animals, in which I mentioned that the fictional Tarzan was raised by gorillas:
I almost put this comment into a corrections episode rather than a feedback episode, but it yields more interesting conversation, and is not definitively a correction. I had to go and get a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original Tarzan of the Apes. Sure enough, Burroughs described the unnamed species of Tarzan's family as "A huge, fierce, terrible beast of a species closely allied to the gorilla, yet more intelligent." At one point, Tarzan must fight to the death a beast that he at first mistakes for one of his own kind, but discovers to be a gorilla named Bolgani:
As Tarzan takes place in West Africa, and orangutans are not found on that continent, it seems unlikely that Burroughs intended Tarzan's family to be of that species. Chimps and bonobos are not mentioned in the book and are not consistent with being "more than a match" for a giant gorilla, so all the evidence suggests that Burroughs' species was a fictional one.
Moving on, now to the recent episode summarizing the concepts in my new film Principles of Curiosity (free online at principlesofcuriosity.com), wherein one of the subjects discussed was the application of these principles to determining the validity of cupping, the alternative medicine technique of sucking great circular hickies onto muscles, often the shoulders, with the promise of improving athletic performance. It's clear that cupping has neither demonstrated clinical value nor plausible theoretical underpinnings, yet we keep seeing it on a few elite athletes. In the episode I mentioned that any value it may have is likely the placebo effect.
So, yeah, Torsten is absolutely right. Regression to the mean is simply the idea that people naturally recover from injury and illness. Whether we do something or do nothing, our bodies tend to recover, as they've evolved to do. That's how our species made it to the twentieth century.
If an athlete's shoulder muscle is sore, it will be fine in a few days, in almost every case. Cupping it makes no difference, but the athlete is likely to attribute the recovery to that, since that's what was done. In this case, regression to the mean is the actual cause of the recovery. But suppose the athlete feels less soreness soon after the cupping, or the next day; this might be attributable to the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you do receive actual relief from symptoms that you would otherwise be experiencing, such as pain, nausea, or fatigue. But the actual physical recovery from the condition is due to regression to the mean.
Cupping — or any other alternative medicine treatment — by definition does neither: no recovery, and no relief. If it did, it would then be called medicine.
At least 500,000 of you — and that number is accurate, with no exaggeration, to within a factor of 50,000 — emailed, tweeted, or Facebook messaged me in early June of 2017 with news that the famous Wow! signal, received from deep space in 1977, has finally been solved. Quick background in case you don't know what this is: It was a really strong signal from deep space received by a team looking for potential signals from alien civilizations. But they couldn't repeat the observation. We've tried listening in the same place many times and never heard anything. Lots of possible explanations have been proposed for what might have caused the signal, but they've all had some weaknesses and none have ever panned out. So it's officially unexplained.
Then in June of 2017, all the science news outlets broke the story that it had finally been proven. A comet had passed over that part of the sky, emitting a radio signal at just the right frequency. Pretty much every news agency in the world reported it, and consequently, many Skeptoid listeners wrote that I needed to update my 2012 episode about it. One representative tweet gave a link to the astronomy site that seemed to be the one breaking the news and asked me "A comet after all?"
I showed this to an astronomer friend of mine who's pretty well connected, Dr. Andrew Fraknoi. To my surprise, he'd never even heard of the group that made this comet discovery, The Center for Planetary Science, or the journal in which their research was published, the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences. Those are both pretty bad signs.
So turning to what the astronomy community had to say about the comet identification, I found that it wasn't good. Comets don't emit that kind of radio signal, the comet wasn't at the right place in the sky, and a comet would have produced signals in both of the radio telescope's receivers instead of just the one that it was received in. In short, the only people who were convinced by the Center for Planetary Science's press release were mass media news outlets who lacked the relevant expertise to properly analyze it.
Look, I can't say this often enough. Whenever you hear in the mass media that some famous old mystery has "finally" been solved — whether it's the Wow! signal, or what happened to Amelia Earhart, or who Jack the Ripper was, or anything like that — your default go-to reaction should be caution and skepticism. Give it a few days, and then go out to your favorite science bloggers, and find out where the science community landed once the dust had settled. Mass media is always going to trumpet the sensational headlines. They're not going to care about the less interesting correction a few days later, but the science bloggers will. If it's sensational and surprising, you should always be skeptical.
So please keep the feedback coming. Best is to email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you disagree with an episode's conclusions? Do you think I missed the mark on reporting what the science community's current best understanding is on a particular subject? Do have something absolutely fascinating to add to an episode that will make every listener fall backwards out of their seat? — because that's what we're going for here. Whatever it is, let's talk about it on the next listener feedback episode.
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