Ask Me Anything, 2023 Edition, Part 2
Today we have Part 2 of our year-end Ask Me Anything series, where listeners send in their questions about anything they want to ask, and I answer them right here on the show. Last week was general questions about me and about the show, and today we have specific questions about particular pseudosciences. We've got a lot of them, so without any further ado, let's dive right in.
Let's get started with an old favorite subject:
I don't know that skeptics take pseudoarchaeology more seriously, and the reason is simply limited resources. It's true that the rise of the Internet and of TV networks like HISTORY Channel have promoted pseudoarchaeology more aggressively and to more people — it used to be that you'd have to go out and buy Chariots of the Gods — but this is also the case with nearly every pseudoscience out there. It spreads more easily, and marketers have learned they can make lots of money off of it.
For skeptics to make a proportionate response, we'd have to step up our educational efforts on every pseudoscience including pseudoarchaeology, and that's just not possible without more of us.
I did ask a friend, Dr. Kenny Feder, an emeritus professor of archaeology and author of books on pseudoarchaeology. He confirms more students are aware of pseudoarchaeology claims these days because of TikTok et. al., and professors are more concerned about it than in the past. But again, this is the case with every pseudoscience. We can recognize that the risk to students is greater, but it's just not possible to step up our efforts because we've always been going 100%.
Is Bigfoot Real?
Next, a very important question from Tyler:
Well Tyler, the philosopher Bertrand Russell once gave an analogy now called Russell's Teapot, where he said there's a teapot in orbit between the Earth and Mars. Where's the burden of proof: Is it on him to prove that it exists; or are the rest of us required to disprove it? It's a preposterous claim, so we should consider it false unless he comes up with the proof.
There is no proof that Bigfoot exists — and it's an even more preposterous claim than Russell's Teapot. If the teapot were real, it would still be very hard for us to spot it way out there in space, but it would be very easy for us to spot Bigfoot. He's right here. A large sustainable population of giant hairy monsters right in our backyards, and yet not one has ever left a poop, a hair, a body, or any kind of tangible, testable evidence at all. All animals that do exist leave all of those things. So I think you'll probably be safe on your next camping trip.
Nuclear Explosions as Interstellar Beacons?
Next we have a question from John:
It's a good idea, but it almost certainly wouldn't work. The highest energy radiation, basically X-rays and gamma rays, are what you might hope to see. Radiation follows the inverse square law, meaning its intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the source. It drops off very fast, and over such extreme distances as interstellar, there isn't really any left to be detected.
Here's one example, and thanks to Jussi for the math, which I won't repeat here. A 100 Mt bomb (that's twice as big as the largest ever detonated) has about 5% of its energy released in the form of X-rays and gamma rays. A 1 m2 detector 1 light year away would, on average, receive about one single photon of energy from that nuclear blast. The nearest exoplanet, Proxima Centauri b, is more than four times that far away, and we've still never built a nuclear device anywhere near as powerful as the one in Jussi's example.
Stars give off incalculably more energy than nuclear explosions. Even a star's light reflected from a planet is exponentially greater. So nuclear explosions just aren't the beacon we might hope they could be.
Here's a question from Harold:
Radiation hormesis is a very interesting topic, and if you want a deep dive, check out the full Skeptoid episode on it, #539 from 2016. It's the idea that very small doses of radiation can challenge your body just enough to toughen it up against larger doses; similar to the concept of how vaccines work. In the episode, we go into the various models that governments use to establish radiation safety limits using dose-response curves, and a lot of other stuff. But I can summarize the conclusions for you right here: Radiation hormesis is not entirely implausible, however, any beneficial effect that extremely low doses of radiation might have would be below the noise threshold in the data. So a lot of articles will say hormesis does happen, but criticism of those articles always points out that the effect is too small to be distinguishable from noise.
The second part of the answer has to do with the fact — and it is indeed a real fact — that workers at nuclear power plants tend to have lower mortality and morbidity rates than the general population. Some authors have attempted to attribute this to hormesis, and to portray it as evidence that the low doses of radiation received by nuclear plant workers has a prophylactic effect, protecting them from cancer. This, however, is absolutely false. Their lower mortality is actually due to something called the Healthy Worker Effect, and it applies to all workers, not just those at nuclear power plants. People with good jobs tend to have better healthcare, a higher standard of living, and all the other things that correlate with improved overall health.
Wristbands for Motion Sickness?
Here's a question from Ray:
Man, this led me into a research rabbit role. There are a TON of publications claiming efficacy beyond placebo for wristbands, of which there are two basic kinds: acupressure and acustimulation, which is the one you're describing. Both target a hypothetical acupuncture point on the wrist, traditionally believed to be associated with nausea, called P6. There are also plenty of papers testing both against placebo and finding no difference between them. Most studies look at pregnancy, chemotherapy, or postoperative related nausea, rather than motion sickness. But anyway, here is a really quick synthesis of all that's out there.
If you have no prior history of motion sickness, risk is low, and the side effects of drug treatments are probably not worth it. In this case, it is recommended to go ahead and try the alternative therapies: basically either wristband (there's definitely no reason to get the electrical one over the acupressure one), or ginger tablet supplementation, pretreating with 1 to 2 grams.
If you do have a history of motion sickness, then definitely go for the drug treatments (unless you can't tolerate them, of course). The gold standard is the scopolamine patch, pretreating at least 4 hours and swapping it out after three days. Or use the over the counter antihistamine drugs, Bonine or Dramamine, both of which are as effective as scopolamine but give most people worse drowsiness. Nonsedating antihistamines such as Claritin and Alavert are not effective against motion sickness.
Red Light Therapy
Now here's a question from Robert:
Nope, it does nothing at all — at least, nothing that's supported by either evidence or plausible theory. Although it's often called laser therapy, it's just red light, usually just LEDs. The easiest warning sign to spot is that when something is claimed to treat everything, that usually means it treats nothing. And here is a list of alleged benefits I found on just two chiropractors' websites: Diminishes age spots, stimulates collagen production, increases blood circulation, reduces joint pain, reduces inflammation, speeds the healing of wounds, boosts muscle recovery, increases testosterone production, eases joint stiffness, eases chiropractic adjustments, stimulates cells, causes cells to produce more ATP and to regenerate faster, increases production of Nitric Oxide, reduces high blood pressure, minimizes the appearance of pores, lines, and wrinkles, regulates your immune system, fights infection, stimulates hair growth, reduces bruising and swelling, protects against cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes, prevents cell damage, treats acne, improves post-exercise recovery, releases endorphins, protects skin from UV damage, repairs skin from UV damage, improves mitochondrial health and function, and — best of all — it has no side effects, except to perform what doctors call a wallet extraction. Interesting that when you use it for one thing, and it does 97 other things, to still say that it has no side effects.
Colonizing the Galaxy with Robots
You're basically describing one popular theory, not for colonizing the universe, but as an explanation for why Earth does not appear to have ever been visited by aliens. This idea was advanced in a famous 1975 paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. It posits that the universe is so vast, that if life has developed anywhere, it will therefore have developed on a massive number of planets; and thus, every possible way to explore space must therefore have been tried many, many times.
Your proposal with self-replicating robots would necessarily eventually take over their entire galaxy, by at least some of the countless civilizations to have tried it. So, the theory states that since we don't have alien robots self-replicating themselves all over the Earth, that means that nobody anywhere has ever tried this, and the only way that could be possible is that there is no life anywhere — except here on Earth.
The reason I don't personally find this theory compelling is that it assumes the problems of interstellar flight, even for robots, are solvable. The energy requirements for traveling such incredible distances are enormous, even for robots that are as dormant as possible. Thermodynamics shows that they always have to be expending some energy. I find the problems of interstellar travel to be a better explanation for our lack of alien visitors; but anyway, within a few decades, we'll have eyes on enough exoplanetary spectra to probably know for sure.
And with that, we close out this Ask Me Anything episode, and along with it, we close out another calendar year. Next time we do one of these, I'll email a call for questions to all the premium members, so if you're not one already, that's another benefit in joining. And remember, anytime you encounter some new product or claim that seems to violate what we know about the way the world works, or that offers a magically easy solution to a complicated problem, you should always be skeptical.
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