Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 11 - 3 May 2009

This week's episode featured an interview with Ben Radford, author of many books and managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Champ: Supposedly a relict population of plesiosaurs lives in a lake on the US/Canada border. Many people believe that Champ (the Lake Champlain monster) is some of the best evidence for a cryptid anywhere. With over 300 reported sightings (see picture below for a list of sightings) and a classic monster photo (called the Mansi photo after the woman who took it) it's hard to dismiss it immediately.

A board near the lake with a list of recorded sightings of the beast (Courtesy Ben Radford)

The Mansi photograph (© Gamma Liason/Sandra Mansi)

For their book on lake monsters Ben Radford and Joe Nickell got right into Lake Champlain (literally). Here's some behind-the-scenes photos from the investigation:

Ben in the water with a 3 x 1 foot marker (Courtesy Ben Radford)

Ben holding a 6 foot mockup of the monster (Courtesy Ben Radford)

The book contains all the details, but the punchline is that people were probably seeing large tree branches or beavers. As for the famous Mansi photo - probably another tree branch. Which really is what it looks like.

Bigfoot: If you haven't heard of Bigfoot (or Sasquatch), then you probably don't own a computer and so you probably aren't reading this. This is the classic 'wild man' story mixed in with a liberal dose of credulity and fraud. As is common for pre-modern societies, the North American aborigines had tales of hairy men-like beasts that roamed the land. With the discovery of big footprints in California the 'Bigfoot' craze was here to stay.

Proponents claim that Bigfoot is a remnant of Gigantopithecus (a giant ape) which 'scientists' believe died out at least 300,000 years ago. Others claim that Bigfoot is in league with aliens or has assorted paranormal powers. This probably doesn't change the overall plausibility of the beast - given that no corpses or fossils have ever been found.

The classic footage of the beast in the Patterson-Gimlin film convinced many, even after a friend of Patterson admitted to wearing a costume for the shoot.

A frame from the Patterson-Gimlin film

Abominable Snowman: Also known as the Yeti. Another variant on the wild-man myth - this time he lives in the snowy mountains of the Himalayas.

Drawing by Phillippe Semeria

Loch Ness Monster: Loch Ness must be the most famous loch in the world. In fact, how many people must have learned that "loch" means "lake" just because of this creature? Again, 'Nessie' is supposedly a sort of plesiosaur that somehow escaped extinction. And again there is a classic photo that turned out to be a hoax.

The famous 'Surgeon's photo' - Source

Or maybe this is the answer:

The Loch Ness Elephant - Source

Yowie: Yet another hairy man-like ape that lives in the bush. This time it's the Australian bush. Once again - no corpses, no fossils. Incidentally, Rex Gilroy, one of the main proponents of the Yowie, also strongly believes that Australia was visited by advanced civilisations in the distant past, that the Tasmanian Tiger is still extant, that there are Egyptian pyramids spread around the country, and the elusive panther is out there somewhere. Keeps him busy I guess.

If this isn't compelling, I don't know what is - Source

Mothman: In 1966 a pair of doe-eyed couples spotted some glowing red eyes belonging to a giant moth-like man. He then proceeded to chase their car at over 100mph. The mothman was spotted several other times over the next few months and came to be associated with disaster - specifically the collapse of a nearby bridge.

Mothman, Immortalised in Iron - Source

The elusive mothman has been the subject of a book titled The mothman prophecies by John Keel, a parapsychologist. Amongst ramblings about UFOs, men in black, poltergeists and psychic phenomena Keel displays a moment of insight: " Once you have established a belief, the phenomenon adjusts its manifestations to support that belief and thereby escalate it." The book was made into another quality Hollywood production in 2002.



Jack D. Ripper was very concerned about the communist conspiracy to weaken the American man by polluting his water with fluoride. Regardless of any dental benefits, it results in men not being as vigorous as they might be after engaging in the sexual act. One can't help but think that similar thoughts are in the minds of some people as they liken Anna Bligh (Queensland 's premier) to Hitler, Stalin and worse. All yea-sayers are necessarily part of the conspiracy. Why? Nobody's quite sure.

Fluoridation began in earnest in Western countries after WWII - a relatively cheap public health measure since dentists were, for many people, a luxury. Queensland is the last Australian state to introduce water fluoridation, due to a combination of fear-mongering and apathy. While there is no doubt that it is good for teeth (see this study from Singapore) it looks like these are the main objections:

Fluorine is poisonous - True. Fluorine is the most electronegative element. (That means that it's the greediest - it will suck electrons away from any other atoms nearby.) Which makes it extremely dangerous, and it makes a poisonous gas. But this also makes it rare. Because it reacts so easily, it doesn't hang around long before finding other atoms to bind with. So why would we put this stuff in our water? Well that would be stupid. We put FLUORIDE in the water, NOT FLUORINE. Fluoride is the reduced form of fluorine (that means that it has sucked up an extra electron and is happy). The fact that FLUORINE is so electronegative means FLUORIDE is very stable - it's not going to suddenly jump out of the water and become a gas again. It's stuck in there.

But of course that's not to say that no fluoride compounds are dangerous - sarin gas has fluoride in it - but these nasties aren't being put into our water.

Fluoride is poisonous - True. But keep in mind that everything is poisonous if you get too much of it. If you drink a lot of water and you brush your teeth 5 times a day you'll almost certainly be fine (depending on what else you eat and drink). If you eat several tubes of toothpaste for dessert, you'll probably feel sick.

Fluorosis is bad - Well it's certainly not good. But Australia only has about 1 ppm (part per million) of fluoride in the water, which hasn't been shown to cause any serious fluorosis. And moderate tooth fluorosis is only a cosmetic concern (if visible at all), and in fact it helps make your teeth even tougher against cavities. Skeletal fluorosis is more of a concern, yet there hasn't been any significant problem with the disease in Australia, despite decades of fluoridation.

Fluoride causes cancer - This is the big one. And yes it is very much a legitimate scientific concern. Studies are still being conducted to establish if high levels of fluoride can cause osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer). There have recently been some reports showing a positive link between them. However, there are some serious questions about that research. The questions centre on a large study being conducted in the US. Elise Bassin, a student of the lead researcher Chester Douglass, published the results of a subset of the larger study showing a positive correlation between cancer and fluoride in young males. Yet, the sample size is possibly too low to draw the conclusions she claims. And further, her supervisor published another paper in the very same journal issue warning the reader to be careful about interpreting her results too quickly as their larger data set shows no relationship. That resulted in claims of impropriety. It remains to be seen what the final analysis will be. We weren't able to find the published results, so the study is probably still in progress. But once again, we need to keep in mind that there hasn't been any clear observation linking the rates of cancers and the rates of fluoridation.

People can get fluoride from other sources - Most people can, yes, but many people can't for whatever reason. The people who can get it from other sources can also limit their other sources (ie. don't eat toothpaste). Also, having fluoride in our tap water means you probably don't need special fluoride toothpastes or mouthwashes (unless your dentist recommends/prescribes it).

You've got no right to put stuff in my water - What makes it your water? You get it out of the tap, practically for free, through government infrastructure. Buy a water filter or rainwater tank.

Jack Ripper's complaint of post-coital effects have not been demonstrated in controlled studies. But that didn't stop him from nuking Soviet Russia - nor does it stop people sending ill-wishes to pro-fluoridation people in Queensland.

Of course, fluoridation is probably just a plot by doctors to get rid of dentists.

The original Dr. Teeth.


Oops. Mistakes we shouldn't have made but did:

Ben mentioned that these lake monsters look like Brontosauruses. To ensure we don't get emails - Bronotosaurus is an outdated term for the Apatosaurus. We know. But Stephen Jay Gould and the Cosmic Tea Party say "Bully for Brontosaurus".


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