SGU Episode 560

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SGU Episode 560
April 2nd 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 559                      SGU 561

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


KF: Kevin Folta

Quote of the Week

Science is not the opposite of art or expression. Science has no motives or end goal other than to inform. You can act on that information in whatever way you choose.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Doing taxes, ransomeware

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, March 30th, 2016, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria,

C: Howdy!

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, folks.

S: How is everybody this week?

E: Tired, but all right.

J: Mid-tax craziness.

E: Yeah

S: Yeah, Evan, you're still sloggin' through taxes, huh?

E: Ah, fourteen hour days every day, love it.

C: Ugh, I don't envy you.

(Evan laughs)

B: God

C: Tax season's bad enough for the people – like, you have to pay your own taxes too. It's not like you're exempt from that.

E: It's like this: Everyone kinda hates doing their taxes. It's a big pain. Imagine doing it five hundred times (chuckles) in the span of about ten weeks. That's kinda what I'm going through right now.

B: I can't believe my taxes are already done, and it's not even the end of March.

E: April, yet.

B: Thank you to that guy in Asia who hacked my social security number.

C: What?

B: That motivated me to finish it.

C: Oh (Laughs)

S: An amazing guy.

B: Yeah, thank you.

S: There's a new ransomeware goin' around. You guys hear about this?

C: No.

E: Oh, no.

S: And they're targeting hospitals.

J: Yeah, I heard about it.

(Evan groans)

B: Ransomware?

S: Yeah, the new ransomware can target a network. They lock down an entire network, not just a single computer.

B: Whoa! Is that where it encrypts everything, and you have to pay to get it unencrypted?

S: Yeah, that's right.

E: Yep

B: Nasty, nasty.

S: And then they're like, slowly dialing up how much they're making you pay, just to see how much people will pay to have their data back.

E: And they will pay.

C: Of course.

S: Total scum bags.

C: How do you not?

E: I've heard of police departments being hacked, and police departments paying to get their data back.

S: Ah, man, that'll be terrible.

B: Back up! Just back up, all the time. Screw them.

S: But it's gotta be, once you back up, then you gotta unconnect it, 'cause it will find your backup on your network. It does that too, so that you can't just restore from a backup.

E: Even in the cloud?

J: It could, if it infects one of your files, absolutely, why not?

C: Oh, god!

S: Because the infected files get backed up.

C: I back up onto a hard drive, but if my hard drive's infected, then what do you do?

J: Well, you have to have good internet etiquette. This is the real way to prevent yourself from getting things like this. The typical laundry list of do's and don'ts. Don't open executable files. Mostly, I would say, just try and never do that, but sometimes you have to. But you have to run a virus scan on them beforehand. You have to only allow for trusted sites.

S: Yeah, just don't click files unless you are a hundred percent sure you know what it is. I get fishing scams almost every day. I've been getting one that's like, “Oh, you have to pay your invoice. Please click here to pay your invoice.”

C: Yeah.

S: I'm like, “Oh.”

E: Uh-huh.

S: But they make a mistake where I get the same thing from three different people within an hour.

C: Yeah

S: So it becomes obvious that it's a fishing scam, but you gotta be very, very careful. Just don't click anything.

(Cara sighs with frustration)

(Rogues laugh)

C: I'm so depressed.

E: And that's the show, folks!

S: It was funny. You know, that's it. We're at war on the internet, a security war, and it's crazy.

E: Yeah

S: Our, Society for Science-Based Medicine just got hacked.

C: Wow.

E: Oh no!

S: Had to restore everything from a backup. It's part of living on the internet now, you just gotta have massive security.

E: I wish there were a better way to catch these people, doing these things. It seems like you're helpless.

S: Yeah, I think it does seem like the FBI, or whatever the appropriate organization is, needs to really dedicate a lot more resources to this, and have a dedicated division, or whatever. And they probably do, but I don't know about it. They just need to ...

C: I think they do.

B: They do.

S: Yeah

C: I think they do cybercrimes, but they're probably – again, because of this Patriot Act era we live in, I think they're so

E: Yes

C: focused on terroristic threats, and they're probably not as focused on this, which actually is domestic terrorism.

S: Yeah, it is. And this affects real people, and devastatingly. They really need to get on the ball, and get one step ahead of these criminals. It's always one step behind.

E: They have to work within the rules of the bureaucracy as well, which slows things down. And a criminal is not subject to any kinds of rules like that. They can adapt much faster than a government can.

S: Yeah

C: That is true.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:13)[edit]

  • Dorothy Hodgkin: Dorothy Hodgkin was a biochemist who won a Nobel prize in chemistry and even had a Google Doodle of her very own in 2014

S: Okay, Bob, tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: For this week, I'm covering Dorothy Hodgkin, 1910 to 1994. She was a biochemist who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and even had a Google Doodle of her very own in 2014. Hodgkin was born in Cairo, to two archaeologists, how cool is that? I can't help but imagine her Mom and Dad as Indiana Jones, and Marianne Ravenwood.

(Rogues laugh)

B: She went to school in England, and studied chemistry, where she was one of only two women allowed to do that. She focused on X-ray crystallography, which uses scattered X-rays to determine the structures of many different types of molecules. We've talked about it on the show before.

She was the first to image cholesterol, penicillin, and vitamin B12, for which she won the Nobel in 1964. And then in '69, she finally figured out what insulin looked like, after thirty years of effort – thirty years, to finally crack that thing. An amazing effort. So she was not only a trail-blazer, she was considered by many to have transformed crystallography from an art into a science.

S: And let me say that that's important, because knowing what a molecule like that looks like helps chemists to synthesize it. So it has a very practical application. It's not just ...

B: Pretty pictures.

S: knowing what it looks like, yeah.

B: Right. She was so respected that Watson and Crick invited her to see the structure of DNA, which of course was created through crystallography, before it was even announced to the world. So they respected her so much, they said, “Hey, we haven't announced this yet. Come take a look at this. So, that must have been quite an honor.

So remember Dorothy Hodgkin, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing NMR spectroscopy and tertiary protein structures.

News Items[edit]

Ghosts in the Brain (6:08)[edit]

Neuronal Feedback (15:24)[edit]

Film Festival Pulls Anti-Vax Film (23:55)[edit]

S: Jay, tell us about the Tribecca film festival's recent woes.

B: Whoa, boy!

J: Yeah, you may have read about this. There's a lot to say, so I tried to condense it down to – I think – the most important thing that we learned from this whole experience. So, this year's Tribecca film festival had a little intrigue. Robert DeNeiro, who was one of the people who organized the festival, and apparently is making a lot of the big decisions, first of all, what happened is that DeNeiro himself approved a controversial called Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. And it's a documentary that tries to convince its viewers that the Center for Disease Control – Evan, the CDC.

E: Like The Walking Dead, Season One?

J: The same, exact company. (Rogues laugh) The same exact government department, whatever.

S: It's a center.

J: The center!

E: Oh yeah!

J: But it is completely controlled by the US government, Steve, isn't that correct?

S: That is correct.

J: Okay, so the film claims that the CDC is covering up data that proves that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. So the thing that makes this even worse is that – oh! Andrew Wakefield himself produced the film.

C: Oh my god!

J: If you don't know, Wakefiend is a former doctor, (Cara laughs) who faked data in his study. (Jay and Cara laugh) Oh my god! I love that! He faked data in a study about a link between the vaccines and autism. And because of that study, which was published in The Lancet, he lost his license to practice medicine in the UK, because the study was proven to be fraudulent. Like, he actually faked the data.

The Lancet fully retracted his paper, and Wakefield later on become the face of the anti-vaxx movement, and is now directly responsible for the deaths and horrible sicknesses caused by the decrease in vaccinations globally. This guy actually is responsible for people dying.

So now, back to the film festival: So DeNeiro happens to have an autistic child. Now, I really feel sorry for him. I think we have a pretty intimate understanding of what it's like to be a parent, to have an autistic child, and the drama ...

S: So Jay, let me say, that there's a spectrum, right?

J: Yup

S: Many parents are delighted with their children who happen to have autism. It's not, you shouldn't stigmatize it, or make it seem like it's always a horrible thing, and parents are devastated. Some children are fine, parents are happy, they're lovely; you shouldn't stigmatize it, seriously.

J: I completely agree, but I guess my point is that a lot of people that have autistic children really want to help their children.

S: I get that. I know you meant well by saying that, but the problem is then it overstates the situation, and it turns it into an unnecessary stigma. So you do have to be a little bit sensitive to the fact that it is a very broad spectrum, and parents are not always unhappy with their child. It's not like this horrible thing that's happened to them, you know. So ya just gotta be careful with that.

J: You know, but I would think, to ... I agree with you, Steve, but I would think DeNeiro, 'cause he stated he has an autistic child in his family, that this is a sensitive topic for him, and he wasn't aware of the entire back story of the anti-vaxx movement, and all the details. And he thought the film would start a worthwhile conversation about the issue.

So he said, “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family.” So, I get that. And I want to cut the guy some slack because of that.

So there was a significant roar that came from the scientific community because of this. A lot of people were upset. I know I was personally very upset that the Tribecca film festival was gonna screen that ridiculous documentary. And in response to this, the film festival tried to say that they're taking a neutral stance, which in my opinion was them trying to distance themselves from their original decision. And then they finally decided to remove the film from the festival, which I thought was fantastic. And at this point, the anti-vaxx, and Wakefield supporters claim that Wakefield was being censored.

And this is really the big exclamation point on this whole story, is that, you know what? The idea that Wakefield is being censored is ridiculous. It's childish, if anything. This is clearly not censorship. The Tribecca film festival is a private company, they don't have any responsibility to allow all and any ideas to be represented in their festival. If anything, I'd say that the festival organizers have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that the documentary films are based in reality, and are of high quality. And that's a perfectly fine reason to either not invite someone, or uninvite someone, because they found out that there was something significantly wrong with their film, and that they don't want to expose that to a lot of people, and continue to spread these ridiculous ideas.

The larger the brand, a company like Coca-Cola, who has a global presence, I would say, has a massive responsibility to make sure that they're not spreading pseudoscience, and misdirecting people. And I would say that the Tribecca film festival has a similar responsibility.

S: Yeah, unfortunately, the damage is already done, in that they've now given a lot of attention to this crappy documentary. And just to get into a little bit more detail,

E: Yeah

S: it's not just that we disagree with what the documentary says. Its quality is horrible. Orac wrote a good series

B: Yes!

S: of posts on Respectful Insolence. If you want to go into detail, just look on his blog, and you could read as much detail as you want. But here's the very quick skinny, is that this is basically detailing the story of William Thompson, who is the alleged, the quote-unquote, “CDC whistle-blower.” He basically is the guy that was working at the CDC, who had a disagreement with his colleagues about how to deal with an issue with data. And he discussed it with Brian Hooker (who's an anti-vaccinationist), and Hooker essentially took it all out of context.

Now, I disagree with Thompson. I think he's totally speaking out of turn, and he's being a jerk. But Brian Hooker did things in this documentary now, in the Vaxx documentary, taking bits of conversation that he recorded, literally out of sequence and out of context to create an impression that is not true.

B: That is reprehensible!

S: Yeah

B: And it should be illegal! Come on! You're manufacturing lies, putting lies in someone's mouth!

S: And then Hooker's also the guy – the other thing is they're trying to say that this data supports a connection between the MMR vaccine (Mumps, Measles, and Rubella), and autism. First of all, even in their own reanalysis of the data, it only showed a link with African-American boys.

B: Which is a red flag, right there.

S: It's a red flag, right there. It's only in a subgroup. So you're also saying that simultaneously, that there is no association with any other group? Before, it was like, a major cause of autism. Now, it's only in this one subgroup? And that's not even true. I mean, essentially, the CDC had to do – they did fairly standard, totally transparent and above board statistical analysis in order to make sense of these numbers. And Hooker's basically saying, “No! You can't do any kind of statistical analysis. You have to just look at the raw numbers.” Which is nonsense! There's no such thing as raw numbers when you're talking about epidemiological data like this. You always got to make adjustments for how the data was collected, et cetera, et cetera.

So, Hooker is reanalyzing the data, saying that there's this connection with African American boys. It's been utterly deconstructed, and shown to be completely horrible science. It's nonsense. Andrew Wakefield is backing this up now, because it's quote-unquote “vindicating” him, right? Because it's showing a connection, even though it isn't, really.

And that's essentially what the whole film is based on, based upon their crappy reanalysis of this data, and then trying to misinterpret Thompson's disagreements into a cover-up of this connection between MMR and autism. And from the trailer, and from Wakefield's YouTube videos that he's released basically over the same material, the documentary style is all this ominous music, and slow motion, and it's all the usual things that they do to make it seem like there's a big, deep, dark cover up. It's just total crap. It has no place in the Tribecca film festival. Just basic level of quality control is enough to keep it out. There's no censorship here. The crying censorship, I said, “The only thing that does is make you look like a whiny idiot.”

(Cara laughs)

S: But that's what they do, right? Because what's the – if people cry “censorship” because they don't want to admit the reality, which is, whatever they're doing is crap, you know? So if they can't admit that to themselves, where else do they have to go? Saying “There's a conspiracy against me! We're being silenced!” No, just, your work is crap. That's why you don't belong in whatever venue won't have you.

J: And I wonder how much they benefited from actually having the controversy take place.

E: I'm sure they did.

S: Yeah

C: Yeah

E: You know, bad – on a subject like this, any press is good press for them.

S: Yeah, I mean, it's better that it's not gonna be at the festival. They won't be able to claim that, but

E: They brought attention to it.

S: yeah, they still got the attention, which is unfortunate.

Minimal Genome (33:31)[edit]

Vegetarians and Cancer (42:41)[edit]

Pseudoscience Creep (53:21)[edit]

  • Kevin Folta fights against the way pseudoscientists are creeping into scientific venues

SGU Wins Too Many Podcast Awards (58:37)[edit]

  • They won so many times they will no longer be in the running

Who's That Noisy (1:01:29)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Harbor seal

What's the Word (1:04:05)[edit]

  • Chemiosmosis

S: All right, Cara, What's The Word?

C: What's the word this week? The word is chemiosmosis. Woo! You guys excited about that word?

S: That's an exciting word, Cara.

C: It's a really exciting word.

S: I'm very excited.

C: It's an amalgamation of two words, right? Osmosis and chemi, as in chemical. It was actually first utilized and first coined by Peter Mitchell (Nobel Prize winning Peter Mitchell) in the '60's, when he first started talking about this hypothetical model for how ATP was produced in cells. And if you don't know, ATP (adenosine triphosphate), is kind of what we think about as the cellular currency, our energy source that we utilize; and it's actually produced by phosphilating ADP (that is adenosine diphosphate).

And that happens in these little cellular machines inside of the mitchondria, or the chloroplast in eukaryotes (so, more complex organisms). And in simpler organisms (prokaryotes, bacteria), it occurs freely in the cytoplasm. And ATP is formed by making this proton gradient, actually, across a membrane.

So if you look at a mitochonrian or a chloroplast under a scanning electron microscopy, you'll see that it is a whole bunch of membrane. It's like, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle. And across that membrane, what actually happens, is that there's a pump. And these protons are pushed across the membrane the same way that osmosis happens, going from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration. And that movement is actually what phospolates that ADP to produce ATP.

And it's really important! It's one of these things that sounds complicated – it is complicated. You learn about it in intro biology. But once you grasp it, you get it. And it's really important, because without it, life wouldn't exist,

S: Yeah

C: 'cause we need energy.

S: It's kind of an important, fundamental,

C: Yeah, it's a fundamental thing.

S: Even just the mere phenomenon of chemicals passively diffusing down their gradient,

C: Across a membrane

S: that's like one of the fundamental basis of neurology, right? That's how your nerves work.

C: Yeah

S: Yeah, that's how all of your cells maintain – they also have pumps, they have proteins that pump things against the gradient, but also, the osmosis is a critical part of that as well. That's how cells maintain their environment. All right, well everyone, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:06:45)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have developed transparent wood that can be used as building material. Item #2: A new computer model indicates that some heavy elements, such as gold, may have been formed near the event horizon of hungry black holes. Item #3: New research finds that a new technique for scrolling information on a computer screen improves skimming efficiency by 60% and allows readers to find points of interest 210% faster.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:22:05)[edit]

'Science is not the opposite of art or expression. Science has no motives or end goal other than to inform. You can act on that information in whatever way you choose.' - J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • The Skeptic's Guide has won the Best Podcast in Science Education award so many times that they will no longer be considered in future years


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