Transcript

265:

Fake Science
Transcript

Originally aired 05.21.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/265

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it is another hour of high-minded radio broadcasting distributed by Public Radio International, which is to say, it's This American Life, which is to say, hello. It's post time.

It's opening day at Arlington Racetrack just outside Chicago. And maybe because of the rain, maybe because not that many adults can come out to the track in the middle of a weekday, there are just four guys, regulars, in one of the rooms reserved for regulars. Four guys in a spacious room with what have to be 20 television monitors.

Roger Vice

The way we measure these horses is very mathematical and very scientific.

Ira Glass

This is Roger Vice. Really, that's his name, Mr. Vice. A guy who makes his living betting on the horses. The kind of disciplined guy who gives the impression that maybe his goatee and his clothes never get messy.

Roger Vice

What I do is, each race-- you see all these marks on my program? These are a tracking of where the horse was on the turn. OK? So I keep track of where every horse was on that turn. I keep track of the wind-- the direction, the velocity. I time every race.

Ira Glass

Mr. Vice shows me a product called Thoro-Graph which is basically a computerized analysis and printout of speed ratings and histories for each horse, and a cheat sheet that he made for himself with other data which gets surprisingly precise and technical.

Roger Vice

So if a horse is three wide, you think about the laws of physics, the horse that's three wide is running a greater distance. OK? We factor that in mathematically.

Mike

We disagree a lot. In fact, all of these guys disagree with me most of the time.

Ira Glass

Mike is retired from the Post Office, and his table is the messiest one in the room. Three of the guys here on opening day, Craig, Jeff, and Mr. Vice, all do this very technical analysis to make their bets. Mike is the outcast.

Mike

I have my own system. My system-- I find that betting favorites, in the long run, you end up losing money. Most of my horses are in the 20, 30 to one shots range. So I don't bet a lot of races here every day.

Ira Glass

Betting only long shots makes him really different from Jeff, who puts a lot of bets out there looking for a small percentage return. And from Craig, who plays more favorites, and who overhears Mike describing his system to me and then turns to me and says, you ever read the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? That's Mike's system. And in the eighth race, I get to see Mike's system in action.

Mike

Well, this is my best bet of the day is Intrinsic Worth in the eighth.

Ira Glass

And why? Why is that your best bet?

Mike

I like the trainer. Honestly, but I might not even bet on him because he might be too short for me.

Ira Glass

The odds won't be good enough.

Mike

Right. If the odds are not good enough, I'm going to lay off the race.

Ira Glass

We watch the race on the TV monitors. Intrinsic Worth is wearing the number five and comes out of the gate poorly.

Mike

The five broke bad. Right now he's running-- where is he running, fifth? He's out of the picture right now. I'm sure he's running last.

Ira Glass

And then, to make a short story very short, in the final stretch number five comes in from 20 lengths back.

Mike

Right now, it looks like--

Man 1

Look at this horse. The horse is flying. Here comes the five flying. If he broke bit, he's going to win the race.

Ira Glass

And then it's over.

Mike

See? There it is. The five, from 20 lengths back, won the race.

Man 2

Your horse?

Mike

The horse that I told you. He looked like much the best in the race, and he was much the best. He went off at five to two, which means you get $7 back for $2 bets.

Ira Glass

Which for Mike was not even enough to place a bet. And this is why he and his system are taking a beating today. He picked the right horse. He was confident. But he didn't get long shot odds. So he didn't put in a bet, and he didn't make any money. These other guys in the same situation, they would have bet. They're like a group of scientists who all look at the same data and then all come to completely different conclusions, which when you think about it, is about as different from the way that regular scientists work as you can get.

Roger Vice

What I think's most interesting about horse racing is that it gives you a chance for analysis. You're analyzing a group of horses, a group of trainers, a group of jockeys, the patterns that the horses have run, and you make a decision. And every 25 minutes, there's a new decision to be made. And if you're right, you can make money with it.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, people who are using the tools of analysis, the scientific reasoning of real science in settings where scientists don't really belong. It's fake science. We all do it every day in all sorts of situations. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in four acts, "Spook Science," "Government Science," "Beauty Science," and last, but not least, "Radio Science." Four acts of people tossing around questionable data, making logical jumps that they really should think twice about, in short, acting like you and me. And if you've got any question at all about the truth of that last statement, well, stay tuned.

Act One. Spook Science.

Ira Glass

Act One, Spook Science. Jake Warga heard of a group in Seattle that is trying to use whatever scientific methods it can find to hunt for ghosts. He tells this story.

Jake Warga

I've been invited to spend the night in a cabin deep in the woods, no electricity, no phones, with a group of ghost hunters. They've been asked there by the owner who thinks it's haunted.

Patricia Woolard

There's three buildings, three or four buildings, on this campsite. The resident has experienced some things, and she sent me some pictures. There's a cemetery near the residence.

Jake Warga

Patricia Woolard is Vice President of AGHOST, which stands for Amateur Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma. Ross is the president.

Patricia Woolard

Ross and I are the only two people that really know the history of this place. And one of the cabins at one time housed a body for several months, someone who died, that was not able to be buried because she died in the winter.

Jake Warga

The location is an old mining camp going way back to the early 1900s. At one point, it was a Bible camp during the summer. And there were rumors of child abuse. And in the early '30s, a woman died of TB, but the ground was too hard to break for a grave. They decided to wait until first thaw. So they put the body in a small cabin on the property. They had her children take shifts and stay vigil by the body just in case she came back. They did this for over a month until the ground thawed and, I guess, it became clear she wasn't coming back.

Ross Allison

I've got them all labeled from EVP. So I have all my tape recorders. I have about three or four tape recorders in there with extra tapes. And then we have our meters case.

Jake Warga

AGHOST's President, Ross Allison, is going over about seven silver cases he has loaded with electronic gear. Ghost hunters love gadgets. Luckily, Ross's day job is at a photo/electronics retailer.

Ross Allison

And our wireless infrared sensors.

Jake Warga

So you believe in ghosts?

Ross Allison

I would like to. There's a part of me that, yes, I do believe in ghosts. Inside of me, I really want to believe that there's something out there, that death is not the end. Being in this field and wanting to be able to pursue it in the correct manner, you do have to be skeptical. We basically just go in, document everything that's happened, and state our case on the website, and let you decide for yourselves. Well, could this place be haunted?

Jake Warga

This place is like a horror movie set of itself, complete with creaking doors and wind chimes. And just like in the movies, it's starting to get dark.

Ross Allison

All right, as everybody gets ready, make sure they have a flashlight on them. Because again, there's not going to be any power. So it would be interesting to find out if we get any EMF readings up here. Because I don't even get cell phone reception here.

Jake Warga

EMF, by the way, stands for electromagnetic field. Spirits are apparently energy that can be detected with devices that measure electricity in the air. The EMF detectors they're using are sold as devices for telling where the wires in your walls are. But cameras are the most popular ghost hunting tool because they can capture orbs. Orbs are the little circles of light that sometimes show up in photographs or videos. Most people think they're particles of dust or stray light hitting the lens. Ghost hunters believe they might be the energy of spirits. And most everyone is wearing a cassette recorder to record the voices of the dead. The theory is that deep in the background hiss of a recording hide unexplained voices. Basically, if I went out to a cemetery, started recording and asking questions out into the air that, upon playing back the tapes, really cranking up the silent spots, I should get responses.

Ghost Hunter 1

Let's see. This one was when I got-- I was up by myself, and I asked out in the air, is anyone still here? And I get a response.

Ghost Hunter 1 On Tape

Is anyone still here?

Ghost

I'm here.

Ghost Hunter 1 On Tape

Is anyone still here?

Ghost

I'm here.

Jake Warga

The voice is saying, I'm here.

Ghost Hunter 1 On Tape

Is anyone still here?

Ghost

I'm here.

Jake Warga

What are you doing here?

Kendra

OK, we are hooking up a mike.

Stephanie

I'm hooking up my microphone because I record everything that I say and do.

Jake Warga

Stephanie is our psychic, but not like you might think. No crystal balls or late night TV commercials. She's studying for her real estate license. She's just a part of the group and sensing things is her role. We don't tell her about the history of the site.

Stephanie

I do get the sense that somebody died on this property. But I haven't determined if it's by their choice, or if it's natural or--

Jake Warga

I'm waiting outside the small cabin, listening on a wireless mike I have on Stephanie. I try not to pee myself because they're in the cabin that has the body.

Stephanie

And we don't mean you--

Kendra

This door won't stay open.

Stephanie

--any harm. I am sensing a very foul odor in this area. Very foul.

Ross Allison

Not now, but--

Stephanie

No. Is there anyone here with us? Is there anything you'd like to say? But I still get that really foul odor in here. OK, I'm ready.

Jake Warga

They leave the cabin and start up a path into the woods. Huge pine trees surround us.

Stephanie

I want to stop here please. You know what? I know this is really crazy. I totally got a vision of a body. That never happens to me. Like an actual body.

Jake Warga

She describes what she sees. Short woman with curly hair in the style of the 1930s. Later, going through old photos with the owner, Stephanie points to one photo. "Fern [? Killins," ?] it reads. That's her. That's the woman. It turns out that Fern is the woman who died of TB, whose body was left in that cabin for a month. Stephanie is confused about why she saw the body until she discovers, just around a bank of trees, the cemetery where Fern is buried.

Stephanie

I'm hearing the voice of a little girl that continuously says something about playing. Are you coming to play? Or did you come to play?

Patricia Woolard

Who blocked the camera?

Ross Allison

I did, sorry.

Stephanie

I would like to ask who's in spirit to come forward please. And you need to know that you are very safe right now. I got a reference to a guest house, an immediate guest house. I feel like we're not alone right now.

Jake Warga

Patricia's taking photos at the other end of the small cemetery.

Patricia Woolard

Well, you kind of get used to being in the dark. Out in the woods, you have to deal with animals and stuff like that too.

Jake Warga

I mean, I can handle a chipmunk. But seeing a body? I mean this is so Blair Witch. We are tromping through the woods.

Patricia Woolard

I know it's like oop, uh oh, be careful. Oh, be careful. Oh my God. You're going to kill yourself.

Jake Warga

I'm not very graceful.

Patricia Woolard

It's all right. My father dealt with dealing with MS, and it was a progressive illness that incapacitated him. He died a year ago in May.

Jake Warga

This is Patricia.

Patricia Woolard

We'd talked a little bit about ghost hunting. He'd ask me questions. He was very open to that. And my mom is too. But I asked him, if he had a chance to come back to please come back and let me know that he was OK. And when he did pass away, I was there. And being a part of this group, even in that short period of time, changed my perspective on death. I used to think about death and be afraid. I don't have that fear anymore. But he's been back since. I was home, and I was up late. And I turned the light on, and it went off a few minutes afterwards. And I said, hi daddy. And it went right back on.

Jake Warga

I've been startled awake before. But having a psychic sleeping on the sofa next to me in a haunted cabin bolt up at 3:00 AM crying, there's someone coming, well, that's just scary. People grab whatever gear they fell asleep with. Somehow, I remember to put on my headphones and start stabbing at buttons on my recorder.

Jake Warga

3:00 AM.

Stephanie

You know what? Something just moved right there.

Ghost Hunter 2

Outside?

Stephanie

No, right here. Right along this way right here. Right where Kendra is, but through that door. Not going that way, but going this way. That was really weird.

Jake Warga

We all shuffle around together in a tight bunch. She guides us to the kitchen.

Stephanie

OK, that was definitely something in the kitchen. Definitely. Does anyone have any recorders going? You have one with you right now? Oh, you're recording this?

Jake Warga

Yeah.

Stephanie

OK. Get in the middle.

Jake Warga

Oh god.

Stephanie

Over here, will you? Don't be afraid.

Jake Warga

In their panic, no one had strapped on their tape recorder. They look at me and my big mike. I'm pushed into the dark kitchen. They can see me and my trembling microphone in the night vision camera. But I can't see a thing.

Stephanie

Is there anyone here with us? We need confirmation please. Would you tell us your name please? Can you give us a physical sign that you're here with us please?

Jake Warga

I feel my left side lift, all the hairs standing up. Is this a seizure? Wow, they say. What? I say. There's an orb near your left side. Point the microphone at the floor.

Stephanie

A presence over there. I'm hoping that you'll get a female's voice when you replay that. You have to really listen. But I'm hoping that you'll pick something up. Because I sure felt it really strong right in there.

Jake Warga

We go into the main room. Stephanie points at the ceiling. Upstairs, video cameras and a computer monitoring system are running. Everyone is leaving, afraid, she says. I point my mike up to the ceiling. Everyone listens closely. Then we hear it, a mouse. I hit pause on my recorder. Kendra's walking towards the front door taking EMF readings. Then Stephanie, in a frightened and direct voice, tells her to, stop, someone's coming. This is when the front door blows open. I hit record.

Stephanie

Relax.

Ghost Hunter 3

Cool.

Stephanie

Just relax. OK, I just got a big chill. Everybody just wait a minute. Please let me just gather myself. I have a definite male presence right there. And I feel really afraid right now.

Ross Allison

Possible orb?

Stephanie

I have a really, really, really strong male presence here.

Ross Allison

Gone.

Stephanie

I don't want anybody to move. Kendra, he just walked right by you. Just don't move. Don't move. Please don't move. Stephanie, don't move. He's still walking by us. Right here. He seems like he's looking for something. Just a minute please. The whole house is unsettled with this presence. I feel like the whole house is staying quiet for a reason. Like nobody move, that's what I feel like. And I totally feel like he's right here. Like right over in here. He doesn't want to talk to me because I'm female or something. I don't know. He doesn't want to talk to me.

Jake Warga

By this point, Ross and I have told Stephanie about the history of the cabin. And she thinks, maybe this is the man who was here 70 years ago, the one who people think abused the children at Bible camp, a spirit stuck in a routine.

Stephanie

He's gone for sure.

Ghost Hunter 3

That's crazy.

Stephanie

Dang, that was harsh. That's terribly sad. He's not ready to deal with it. He's just not ready to deal with it.

Ross Allison

Shutting the door.

[LAUGHTER]

Jake Warga

In the diffused light of morning, all is well. I'm woken up to giggles. Stephanie is having a really fun time tapping on Steph's sleeping head.

Stephanie

That was so funny.

Steph

Did you knock me on the head?

Stephanie

We've been laughing at you.

Ghost Hunter 3

Because then you looked up and thought it was Ross.

Jake Warga

Kendra, how'd you think it went last night?

Kendra

Kind of odd to hear the noises that I heard. But then again, it could have been my mind playing tricks on me too.

Jake Warga

We all stumble upstairs to see what clues the ghosts left us. The scrabble pieces we lined up in the attic had not been moved. They've had luck in the past. Once the pieces were moved to spell cat. The EMF detectors never went off. There were no unexplained voices on my tapes. The strangest thing to happen was that the video recorders and computerized motion and temperature detectors we had running in the empty attic shut off an hour into the two the batteries were supposed to last. And I did see a lot of orbs on the video monitors, plus a couple in my photos.

Ross Allison

So do you think this place is haunted?

Jake Warga

I don't know. But I mean the stuff on the video was pretty weird. Haunted, I don't know. What do you think?

Ross Allison

It's really hard to say.

Jake Warga

What do you think that whole thing at 3:00 AM was when the door opened?

Ross Allison

When it flew open? I don't know.

Jake Warga

It felt like the wind to me.

Ross Allison

Yeah, I was going to say, it could have been the wind. But before it happened, again, we had a lot of things building up to that.

Jake Warga

But not like, that's a ghost.

Ross Allison

No. Not enough for me to support that it was a ghost because we did have a lot of wind that night. And that door is really hard to latch.

Jake Warga

The week before this trip, my mom's best friend-- my Auntie Mame as I called her, she even called me Patrick-- died. I was shocked, still am. This is the first time I lost someone close to me and wasn't unable to say a proper goodbye. When each of my parents died, I was with them. I want to believe in ghosts. I want to say goodbye to my Auntie Mame. And I want to believe that my parents and grandparents, who said they'd always be there for me, in fact, are.

I'm going to join Amateur Ghost Hunters of Seattle-Tacoma, pay my $30 and get my badge and T-shirt. So maybe someday, during some investigation with AGHOST, chasing around a haunted place, or after midnight in some cemetery, I'll see or hear something that will make me believe that there is life after death, that ghosts do exist.

Stephanie

Are we all here?

Ghost Hunters

Yup.

Stephanie

We need to thank all spirit for allowing us to have the experience that we did last night. We want to make sure that you stay here. This is where you need to be right now. We'll be back.

Ira Glass

Jake Warga. His story got some support from hearingvoices.com and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

[MUSIC - "FADED FROM THE WINTER" BY IRON & WINE]

Act Two. Government Science.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Government Science. A couple months ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report condemning the Bush administration for what it called "distorting and censoring" scientific findings which contradict administration policies. One of the cases cited in the report involved something called the Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning. This committee is one of about two dozen in the Centers for Disease Control. Its mission is to advise the CDC how best to deal with the threat of childhood lead poisoning. The advisory committee has existed, in one form or another, for 30 years, starting in the '70s when the battle was to get the lead out of gasoline. Alex Blumberg has been following the recent fights over who's going to serve in this committee. Each side in the fight thinks the other is practicing a kind of fake science. Here's Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Dr. Bruce Lanphear is exactly the type of person you'd expect to find on something called an Advisory Committee for Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention. He's been the lead researcher on numerous studies investigating the effects of lead on children. He's a scientific consultant to the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing. And he's the author of a whole stack of scientific articles with titles like, "The effect of soil abatement on blood lead levels in children living near a former smelting and milling operation." So it's no surprise that the CDC got in touch with him.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear

Sitting in my office in a research building, now about the three years ago, I received a call from a CDC official who asked whether I'd be willing to be nominated to be a member of the CDC Lead Advisory Committee. And my name along with, I think, three other people at that time was submitted to the Secretary of Health.

Alex Blumberg

Serving on a CDC scientific advisory committee is the elite, scientific version of serving on a task force at your local school board. Committee members aren't paid a salary. They keep their old jobs. They're just private citizens who meet a couple of times a year and offer their expertise and energy to help solve problems. They have no regulatory authority. They don't even set policy. But because they are some of the leading experts in the field, their recommendations carry weight. The CDC told Dr. Lanphear that he should expect to begin work on the committee in a couple months, after the largely pro forma approval of his nomination was complete. But this was an election year. The Bush administration took power. And it took roughly a year and a half after he was first contacted for Dr. Lanphear to get another call from a CDC official.

Dr. Bruce Lanphear

Saying that he was a bit concerned that the representatives of the lead industry had put forward their own nominations and argued against the three people who had been nominated by the CDC officials. About a month later, the appointment was denied for me and, again, my two colleagues who had expertise in lead poisoning prevention. And the nominees who had been put forward by the lead industry were approved in place.

Dr. William Banner

There was some nonsense that I was somehow a Republican or something. That's craziness. And as a matter of fact, I voted for Bill Clinton.

Alex Blumberg

Dr. William Banner is the man who was appointed to the committee instead of Dr. Lanphear. And if you've ever wondered about that scientist industry trots out to say, all this research is wrong, smoking doesn't cause cancer, the climate is not changing, and lead paint isn't dangerous for kids, here he is. A liberal pediatrician in Oklahoma. Dr. Banner runs a children's hospital and is the medical director for the Oklahoma Poison Control Center. He doesn't want to loosen the current CDC recommendations about how much lead in kids' blood is safe. From my hour-long conversation with him, he seems to care deeply about the welfare of children in this state. He's an ardent supporter of Head Start. And he told me that the greatest threat to children that he saw was a recent change in the welfare law which kicks families off of government assistance. But he has also, on many occasions, been an expert witness for the lead industry, that is, companies like paint manufacturers who are being sued over the lead content in their products. They hire him because he's willing to say on the witness stand that none of the studies connecting lead and children's cognitive development are conclusive.

Alex Blumberg

Who called you to be a member of this committee?

Dr. William Banner

Well, I don't remember who it was. It was somebody that is involved in public relations, I think, for probably one of the national lead-- probably somebody from one of the companies. And I didn't hear anything more about. And I forgot about it. And then, the first thing I knew was that I got a letter from Health and Human Services asking me if I wished to submit a nominating letter.

Alex Blumberg

Dr. Banner went to his boss, the director of the hospital where he works, said, hey, the government wants someone to nominate me for this committee. And his boss said, sure, we'll send a letter. And so now, when you call the government, as I did, and ask about Bill Banner, he sounds great.

Bill Pierce

Medical Director of the Children's Hospital at Saint Francis in Tulsa, the Oklahoma Poison Control Center Medical Director. And he was recommended to us by the head of the hospital.

Alex Blumberg

This is Bill Pierce, the media relations guy for Tommy Thompson, the man appointed by George Bush to run the Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, which runs the CDC. Bill Pierce assured me that, contrary to what everybody I talked to told me, it was very common to overrule specific CDC nominations and appoint different people.

Alex Blumberg

Let me ask one other question about Dr. Banner. He has testified several times on behalf of the lead industry. And at the time that he was appointed, you had Dr. Weitzman and Dr. Lanphear, both of whom have just pages and pages of publications to their name, dealing with the very issue of lead poisoning. And then you have a person put on the committee who hasn't really published anything about lead poisoning and whose name was given to HHS by representatives of the lead industry.

Bill Pierce

That's the claim made. That's not true. Again, he was recommended by Robert Scott, executive vice president of Saint Francis Hospital, the hospital that he works in. Again, this is stuff made up by people.

Alex Blumberg

But this is from when I talked to him. He said that the people who first asked him if he wanted to be nominated were representatives of the lead industry.

Bill Pierce

Hey, again, it's a free country. Anybody can talk to him and ask him whatever they want. I could ask you, for instance, all kinds of questions. Does it mean anything?

Alex Blumberg

I guess--

Bill Pierce

It truly doesn't mean anything. We were not contacted by anybody in any industry regarding Dr. Banner.

Alex Blumberg

So you're saying it's a coincidence that somebody called him up from the lead industry and said, we want to nominate you for this, and then he got nominated?

Bill Pierce

I have no idea. I don't know anything about that. We don't know anything about that conversation. Alex, again, I just-- you and I could probably talk and find out six connections we have. Doesn't mean anything. We've never talked except for this week. Doesn't mean anything.

Alex Blumberg

Right. I guess it just seems-- can you understand, though, how that might seem suspicious?

Bill Pierce

No.

Alex Blumberg

You can't?

Bill Pierce

No. Again, I deal in facts. I deal in reality. I don't deal in conspiracy theories. So it doesn't matter what anybody else said to Dr. Banner on their own. He is well qualified to serve on this committee.

Alex Blumberg

The question of whether Dr. Banner is qualified to serve on this committee is an interesting one. On the one hand, he has some very sensible opinions about government policies on lead. For instance, he didn't agree with the federal recommendations in the early '90s that said every child in the country should be tested for lead. In his rural state of Oklahoma, far away from old, deteriorating housing stock and big industrial smelters, lead wasn't the problem for children, he thought. Poor nutrition and a low immunization rate were. He didn't like having to spend what little money he had on a problem that, in his view, didn't exist.

On the other hand, he hasn't done any research on the effects of lead exposure on children. And his opinions of other people's research run counter to what pretty much every scientist in the field would say.

Dr. William Banner

Do I believe the studies, these epidemiological studies that have attempted to correlate IQ with the lead levels? No.

Alex Blumberg

What he's talking about is this. Over the last 10 or 20 years, many researchers working in many different countries with many different populations, have done studies investigating the link between elevated amounts of lead in children's blood and loss of IQ. They take a sample of children, measure their lead levels, give them an intelligence test, use a bunch of fancy statistical techniques to control for other factors, like parents' IQ. And in every study, they show a link between higher blood lead levels and lower IQ. But Dr. Banner says, they prove nothing. They can't, he says, by their very nature. They're statistical studies. Even when they show a correlation between lead and IQ loss, it could be coincidental. They tell us nothing about cells in the brain and what lead does to those cells.

Dr. William Banner

I think they fall far short of science. And I take issue with the way they have done. And frankly, I think they have reached the conclusions that they wished to conclude and ignored the alternative hypotheses. And it has become very politicized. Epidemiology itself is an infant as a science. And I think the rules are ill-formed at this point.

Alex Blumberg

Dr. Banner presents a compelling portrait of himself, a maverick scientist with common sense bravely telling the emperor, in this case multiple regression analysis, that it has no clothes. But to most experts in public health, to deny this research is basically denying the mathematical basis of all modern epidemiology which studies the spread of disease by applying the same techniques in the blood lead studies to hundreds of other health areas. Dr. Michael Weitzman has worked for 30 years doing field epidemiological research on children's health issues. For him, it's like denying that the earth is round.

Dr. Michael Weitzman

Is it possible that there are limitations to epidemiology? You bet. It's very difficult to develop a causal argument when we show associations between things. But when you have dozens, if not hundreds, of studies in different countries using different methods with different techniques showing the same thing, then how can you say that you question it?

Alex Blumberg

Especially, he says, when epidemiology gets results. Using only mathematics, epidemiologists have eradicated a number of diseases without any understanding of the basic biology. For instance, Reye's Syndrome, which killed a lot of school-aged children in the 1970s.

Dr. Michael Weitzman

And epidemiologic approaches found that the thing that these kids had in common is that virtually all these kids either have had chicken pox or the flu at the same time that they had taken aspirin. And so that led to the federal government making all sorts of recommendations that children under the age of 12 not take aspirin. And you know what? The disease has gone away. It's completely disappeared.

Alex Blumberg

Bill Pierce, the spokesman for HHS, didn't want to talk to me about any of this initially. He was convinced that I, like every other reporter, had an agenda. I'd been spun by the Union of Concerned Scientists and by a webpage put up by Representative Henry Waxman, which attacks Bush administration policies regarding science. He said that these things all made mountains out of molehills and ignored something much more fundamental.

Bill Pierce

All the claims made by the naysayers out there, the conspiratorial theorists-- if these people are appointed, somehow bad things are going to happen-- haven't come true. These committees are serving. These people are on these committees. These committees are meeting. Advice is being provided. So I ask them, where's the beef, as the old cliche is in the old commercial. Where's the beef? There is no beef. I ask and challenge the media. I ask and challenge all of you. Do that. Take a look. What's the point here? What is the point of these arguments that are being made?

Alex Blumberg

He's right. Even experts who got rejected from the committee agree that they probably wouldn't have done much different from the current committee members. But there is something at stake. And that is, how do we view science? Bill Pierce said to me, listen, there's Democratic scientific experts, and there's Republican scientific experts. Democrats appoint the Democratic experts. And when Republicans come in, they appoint the Republican experts, Dr. Banner notwithstanding. But this is actually a fundamental shift. Consider J. Routt Reigart, a professor of pediatrics in South Carolina. He drafted the very first document the CDC ever issued about lead poisoning back in the 1970s. He's been involved with the CDC on one committee or another ever since, from Nixon to Clinton. And he says, in the past, appointments were not political.

J. Routt Reigart

That part was definitely a change in that nominations were going up from CDC and were being not only rejected by the secretary, but the secretary telling the center who should be on the committee, which was quite a different event than I was familiar with in the past.

Alex Blumberg

And this is going back--

J. Routt Reigart

Oh that's going back as far as I can remember.

Alex Blumberg

That's back to the '70s?

J. Routt Reigart

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

The Bush administration suggests that science is just like politics. Dr. Banner has his opinion, Dr. Lanphear has his, and they're both valid. But that's not actually how science works. Science is based on the premise that there are not two equally valid points of view on all issues, that there's a verifiable truth to things. That one side is right, and one side is wrong. And science has a process in place to figure that out. And so, Dr. Reigart says, there is an objective difference between Dr. Banner and Dr. Lanphear.

J. Routt Reigart

Dr. Lanphear, every time he submits a proposal, he has to justify everything he wants to do, why he wants to do, what his preliminary data is. So he can't get the money unless he has a scientifically defensible point of view. Whereas Dr. Banner's statements about lead poisoning-- if he has research that refutes those studies, then he should publish it. And then we have something to talk about.

Alex Blumberg

In other words, Dr. Banner can raise his concerns about experimental methodology in courtrooms all over the country and to reporters on the radio and at public advisory meetings for the CDC. But science has already settled those questions long ago. Of the 12 members in the current Lead Advisory Committee, only one could be considered a leading researcher on the effects of lead on children. And he's rotating off at the end of the month. It'll be a science advisory committee without any scientific expertise. In the case of lead, this might not be so dangerous. The science concerning lead has been settled, more or less, for years. But on dozens of other committees appointed this way, committees which investigate global climate change, for example, or the effects of pesticides on human health, committees where the issues are much less clear, we need every expert we can find.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg is one of the producers of our show. Coming up. I hear dead people, part two, more real recordings. And how to determine whether you, yes you, are objectively as beautiful as the stars. Facts, details, analyses. That is in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Beauty Science.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme. We bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Fake Science, stories of people employing scientific logic, scientific analyses wrongly. We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Beauty Science. There's a whole-- I don't even know the word-- there's a whole tendency in certain people to try to apply objective standards, find objective standards, pseudo-scientific standards, to things that, frankly, are never going to be objective. You know what I'm talking about? You've seen those scholars who write books explaining why comedy is funny. That's what I'm talking about. Some things are really better off left unexamined, far from the groping, sweating, parsing, greedy hands of fake scientists of all kinds. And for an example of this, all you need to do is look at this article that's on the website Fametracker.com. It points out a recent attempt by a famous magazine, one that is on newsstands right now, to dive into this area. Adam Sternbergh is the co-founder and co-editor of Fametracker, and he has the story here.

Adam Sternbergh

Yes. It's that time of year. People magazine has once again graciously taken on the task of whittling down the hundreds of blindingly brilliant, gaspingly gorgeous, eye-searingly spectacular celebrities to a final, chart-topping 50. How do they do this? Can you imagine the arguments? Benjamin Bratt. Rodrigo Santoro. Benjamin Bratt. Rodrigo Santoro. Benjamin Bratt. Rodrigo Santoro. Then some poor, unfortunate associate editor gets a letter opener to the eye. And Rodrigo Santoro, the quote Brazilian actor and health-buff, gets page 142.

This annual culling of the perfect may seem an arduous and arbitrary task. This year, though, People's given us a peek into the process. These selections aren't just the ephemeral whims of overworked editors, their eyes blearied by beauty. No, these selections are made based on the rigorous rules of science. Science, damn it, science. It's about 2/3 the width of his mouth and a perfect 1/3 of the length of his face, and his wide cheekbones and square jaw balance the width. No, this isn't Keats writing another ode, this is Dr. Steven Pearlman, a Manhattan-based plastic surgeon quoted in People. And he's lovingly describing Orlando Bloom's nose. Oh yes, let us see that perfect 1/3 baby.

Bloom's nose is featured in a section titled, "Most Wanted," which details the most wanted lips, eyes, nose, or cheekbones of the stars. The possessor of each perfect feature is described with a snappy, verb-centric sentence. For example, of Nicole Kidman's skin it says, "She glows." Of Johnny Depp's cheekbones, "He smolders." Of Bloom's coveted nose, "He commands." That's right. Orlando Bloom's nose commands. To do what? It's not entirely clear. It turns out, beauty is not, in fact, in the eye of the beholder, as some olden days person wanted us to believe, whoever that was. Caesar or Jesus. Beauty can be reduced to a mathematical formula. And it's fun to try at home.

Let's turn to Dr. Francis Palmer, founder of the Beverly Hills International Center for Aesthetic Surgery and co-director of Facial Plastic Surgery at University of Southern California School of Medicine. And with each paragraph-hogging list of professional credentials, you can picture that poor People fact-checker, phone stuck to her ear as the aesthetic surgery doctor in question reads his resume very slowly over the phone, as though speaking to someone who is developmentally delayed, "Beverly Hills Internat-- yes. Aesthetic. OK. A-E-S--"

Dr. Palmer has quote devised the following point system to determine true beauty. You get 75% of the points for your cheekbones, 10% for eyes and eyebrows, 7% for lips, and 2% each for jaw, chin, and neck, sleek nose, clear skin, and quote general harmony of features. So who scores the highest among, say, recent reality TV babes? Why, it's Survivor's newly minted millionaire, Amber Brkich, with 97%.

But where do we, the regular folk, fit in? It's easy to find out. Here's the formula, as printed in People magazine. To do a self-analysis, draw an imaginary line from the pupil of your eye down toward your jaw. Draw a second line from the nostrils across your cheeks. The bottom of your cheek bone should fall at or below the intersection of these lines. If it is higher, your face may appear flat and masculine. So she glows. She sparkles. He smolders. You suck. Hey, that's not our opinion. That's science talking.

Ira Glass

Adam Sternbergh. Read his analyses of both the famous and the very famous at Fametracker.com, where this story first appeared.

[MUSIC - "I AM THE BODY BEAUTIFUL" BY SALT 'N PEPA]

Act Four. Radio Science.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Radio Science. Fake science can be fun, and it can bring people together. Brent Runyon has heard it happen himself in the middle of the night.

Brent Runyon

Most nights I have a hard time going to sleep. I worry a lot when I go to bed. I worry about money and if I should go and work at the movie theater again. I worry that we're not going to be able to stay in this house. And I worry that if we do move, everyone will be miserable. After that, I worry that the Red Sox will never win a World Series, and that Nomar's Achilles is going to require surgery, and that the Yankees will always win no matter what the Red Sox do. I know a lot of people who have trouble going to sleep. Walker, who is 12, needs to have the dishwasher on to go to sleep and the dryer. Grandpa Jim used to count upwards through the prime numbers. I remember when I was a little kid, I used to lie in bed and listen to my parents talking through the wall. Their voices sounded muffled, and I couldn't make out the words. But I liked listening to the sounds.

Now at night, I turn on the radio, so I can hear voices when I'm going to sleep. It's tuned to the same station the Red Sox games are on, an all-talk station. They have some local guys in the morning and Rush Limbaugh in the afternoon. But at night, they have this program called Coast to Coast AM. I remember the first time I heard the show. It was 1:00 in the morning, and I couldn't sleep. So I turned on the radio. And there were people talking about recordings from beyond the grave. And then they played the recordings. And at first, there was just a lot of tape hiss and a kind of angry grumbling. I was laughing at how silly it was. And then a voice seemed to say, I found the link. Except that instead of saying it in a normal voice, the voice said it in a creepy, David Lynch, Twin Peaks, little man in the red room backward, kind of voice. I sat up in bed and turned the light on. It freaked me out. I was freaked out by some weird voice on a radio show in the middle of the night. And still, I would rather listen to that than worry about money. So I turned the light out and closed my eyes and listened until I fell asleep.

Since then, I've barely missed a night. It's hard for me to fall asleep without it. I travel with an AM radio. I wait to go to bed until 1:00 AM when the opening music kicks in. And when it does, I don't want to go to sleep anymore.

Art Bell

From the High Desert and the great American Southwest, I bid you all good evening, good afternoon, good morning, whatever the case may be in whatever time zone you're in.

Brent Runyon

That's Art Bell, the weekend host of Coast to Coast. He's a ham radio operator in his spare time. He's got a bad back, and he does the show out of his house. The whole program runs like an amateur scientific society from the dawn of the Enlightenment. There's a sense that there's this stuff out there that's barely been studied, and we don't even have good procedures for studying it yet. But if we all sit down and reason together, we can probably make some sense out of it. Aliens, Mars, time travel. Listeners call up to talk about shadow people and this ghoulish figure called the old hag who sits on their chest while they sleep.

But there are ground rules. Art lets the callers discuss whatever they want as long as they follow some system of logic and can back up their claims with a little evidence, with some kind of facts, or at the very least, a coherent story. If not, well, there's going to be trouble.

Art Bell

East of the Rockies, you're on the air.

Carl

Hello, Art.

Art Bell

Hello.

Carl

My name is Carl.

Art Bell

Hi, Carl.

Carl

I am the Antichrist.

Art Bell

Really? How can you be sure, Carl?

Carl

I was born with six fingers on each hand.

Art Bell

Well, that's still-- that doesn't nail it right there. I mean, it is unusual, Carl. But that doesn't mean you're the Antichrist. There's a lot--

Carl

I understand that.

Art Bell

OK, what else?

Carl

I sent--

Art Bell

No, wait, wait, wait, Carl. What else?

Carl

So much more, Art.

Art Bell

Well, fantastic claims require fantastic evidence.

Carl

I understand that. Let me make a statement to you and to the audience.

Art Bell

What would that be?

Carl

I am going to save at least one third of the life on this planet.

Art Bell

That doesn't sound like an Antichristy sort of thing.

Carl

I understand that.

Art Bell

You've got to understand that what you say is held somewhat suspect based on the fact that you've announced yourself as the Antichrist.

Carl

I certainly do.

Art Bell

All right, thank you very much. And West of the Rockies, you are on the air. Hello.

West Of The Rockies

Hey, Art, how are you?

Brent Runyon

In the Coast to Coast universe, nearly everyone shares some basic assumptions. We know that aliens exist because so many people call up and talk about seeing them. And if aliens exist, then there has to be a shadow government covering up the aliens. And if the shadow government exists, who is controlling it? Well, that's what we're trying to find out. Ghosts exist too. Also, life after death and reincarnation and time travel and prophecy.

One night, a truck driver called in and said he'd eaten at a '50s style truck stop in Ohio that was filled with pretty waitresses and good food. And then when he tried to go back a few weeks later, it was gone. Not torn down, it had never existed. Art sounded like he'd heard that one before. All he said was, phantom truck stop-- the way you'd say the Eiffel Tower, like we all know what that is-- and then went on to the next caller.

Much of the data presented on the show falls into the category of experiments that would be difficult for other scientists to reproduce. For example, the recording of hell. Someone sent Art this tape, which was supposedly recorded by scientists who were mining in Siberia. They drilled down nine miles until they smashed through into earth's hollow core. They measured the temperature at 2,000 degrees. And then they dropped down a super-sensitive microphone to listen to the tectonic movements. But they accidentally recorded the moanings of souls in hell. In case you've ever wondered what that sounds like, here it is.

[SOUND OF MOANINGS]

So Art plays this tape on the air, and people call in to discuss the breakthrough because there are questions of methodology to be discussed. They're not saying, well, maybe hell doesn't exist, or even if hell exists, it's probably not in the center of the earth, or it would be easy for anyone to fake this. They're discussing the logistics of drilling a nine-mile hole and then dangling a microphone into it. The sound quality of this next clip isn't the greatest.

Male Caller

Now look, I'm not a geologist. But in my opinion, if you drilled nine miles down and you came to a pocket that was 2,000 degrees, you're talking about molten rock.

Art Bell

Virtually.

Male Caller

And aren't you going to create a volcano? Now, what I'm thinking is--

Art Belll

But they didn't mention, in this story, pressure. They mentioned a horrid little being that came flying out. Then they mentioned the drill bit turning wildly, and they mentioned a high temperature.

Male Caller

But they also mentioned that they lowered a microphone into it.

Art Bell

That's right.

Male Caller

OK, that's a pretty long extension cord. But anyhow--

Art Bell

Not unreasonable. It could be done. Who says they lowered the microphone to the final depth? And so they may have lowered it just low enough to get the sounds.

Male Caller

OK, granted.

Art Bell

I don't know.

Male Caller

I have an open mind.

Brent Runyon

When I think about it, one of the really surprising things about Coast to Coast is how little disagreement there is. You turn on the radio any time of day, and people are arguing about politics or sports or whatever. When there are disagreements on Coast to Coast, they're about whether aliens are truly from another world or are simply human beings traveling through time to harvest our DNA. Or whether the pyramids were built by people from other planets or if they were built by giants.

I think, just from listening every night, the sheer volume of it, four hours of Coast to Coast whether I'm awake or asleep, I've totally stopped being skeptical about it. Now I just let the ideas wash over me like chemtrails.

You know when jets fly over and you can see the vapor trail, the misty exhaust line that goes away after a few minutes? Those are called contrails. Well, chemtrails look the same, but they hang in the atmosphere for much longer. According to a Canadian journalist, chemtrails are a government-sponsored climate modification experiment. Basically, military jets are spraying large amounts of microscopic particles into the atmosphere to counteract global warming.

When I first heard about chemtrails, I thought, quartz particles suspended in midair to reflect light and heal the ozone layer? That sounds pretty far-fetched. But then guests and callers kept bringing it up, and I heard about it so much, it just became part of my normal life. Then NASA just released a study saying that contrails may be affecting climate change. And now, I can't look up into the blue sky without thinking about chemtrails.

On Fridays, George Noory, the other host of Coast to Coast, does open lines. And sometimes he asks for stories from people around a particular theme. Last week, the theme was "I was cursed," and he got calls from all over. One guy talked for a long time about these creatures that were following him. A woman called and said she'd been cursed for over 20 years by a former roommate, and that everything had gone terribly for her until she'd hired a good witch to remove the curse. And then George got this call from Bob, east of the Rockies. On any other radio show, Bob would just be another sad story about depression, and the toll it takes on you. But on Coast to Coast, if you're depressed and have had a hard time, then you must have been cursed.

Bob

I wasn't going to call in tonight, but after hearing some of the stories and-- I just started going, wow, a lot of that stuff has happened to me. And I've got to tell you George, I credit you and your show for saving my life.

George Noory

What happened?

Bob

Well, I'm just one of these people who has this dark cloud over him. And I almost decided that I was going to just do it all in.

George Noory

No.

Bob

Because things just weren't making sense. And I just couldn't seem to get a break anywhere. And I've listened to your show and listened to the people. And there was just such a connection there.

Brent Runyon

At 1:00 in the morning, I understand what he means. We're all up in the middle of the night, we can't sleep. We're worried about things we can't really do anything about. It's all just so much easier to deal with if there's a reason. We're cursed, or it's the shadow people, or demons, or chemtrails. If there's some bigger, powerful, controlling force, then everything makes sense. It's easier to stop worrying. It's easier to go to sleep.

George Noory

Tell me about the cloud. Is it still there?

Bob

The cloud? It seems to be dissipating a little bit because I'm beginning to understand about the world around me a lot more.

George Noory

Good for you.

Bob

Because there was just so much I didn't understand. But now I do because there's more to this world than we really can see with just our five senses.

Ira Glass

Brent Runyon lives in Cape Cod and is the author of the memoir, The Burn Journals, which will come out this September.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Jane Feltes and myself with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Sarah Koenig, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Will Reichel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

You know you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have Public Radio programs, best-selling books, even The New York Times all at audible.com. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia. Every time he wanders by my office or I pass him in the hall, I can hear him mumbling to himself.

Stephanie

OK, I just got a big chill. I have a definite male presence right there. I don't want anybody to move.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.