SGU Episode 822

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SGU Episode 822
April 10th 2021
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 821                      SGU 823

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology.

Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist, naturalist, ecologist, and entomologist known for developing the field of sociobiology.

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, April 7th, 2021, 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: There's a little confusion about last week's episode. No confusion.

E: There's no confusion whatsoever.

C: Who's that noisy?

S: Perfectly cromulent episode.

J: I heard very good things about you, Bob.

B: Oh yeah?

J: Yeah. I've got emails like people really, really like the way you handled the whole thing and I agree.

B: Oh good. I'm glad.

E: It's not easy to just slip into that role and make it go so seamless. So well done.

B: It definitely took some extra work for sure.

J: And my God, like my big takeaway is that Cara completely can do, can like pretend to be me in that.

C: Well, you helped me out so much too.

J: I couldn't believe it. I was like, oh my God, she nailed me.

S: We have a little bit of experience with each other. Yeah.

E: Just a bit of familiarity.

COVID-19 Update (1:11)[edit]

S: So quick update. I spoke three weeks ago on the podcast, three weeks ago about the concern that there was blood clots occurring in people getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, COVID vaccine. To make sure there's no confusion, the AstraZeneca vaccine is being given mainly in Europe. It's not one of the approved vaccines for the United States. There was case reports of blood clots in the week or two weeks following getting the vaccine. The initial review of the data by the World Health Organization, by the UK, by the European Medicines Agency concluded that these were not above the background rate and there was no proof that there was a link to the vaccine. However, there was one concerning aspect and that was a few cases in young people, mostly women of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, which is basically a blood clot in the vein, one of the veins that drains blood from the brain. This is a, yeah, this is a potentially serious blood clot and there were a couple of deaths. So it's been three weeks. This data has been followed very, very closely and actually just today, the European Medicines Agency changed their ultimate conclusion from, we don't know, to there's probably a link to the vaccine.

B: Oh, shit.

S: Yeah. So obviously there's been more cases. They're tracking it. The numbers are still very low in terms of absolute numbers. And the difficulty has been the, there's a pretty wide range of uncertainty in terms of what the background rate is. And it's possible the background rate is higher during the pandemic because COVID can cause this too.

C: Oh, interesting.

S: Yeah. And so that's what took so long. And now they're saying, okay, there's there's been enough cases that I think we have to say that there could be an association here. But it seems to be limited to people under 55 and mostly women. So not older people. The other thing is that the, again, the risk is extremely low. They say that worldwide, if you look at every case, it comes down to around one in a hundred thousand risk of getting the blood clot, less than that in terms of dying. Like only a small percentage of them are dying. And so even if every single blood clot is still the case of all the blood clots, worst case scenario due to the vaccine, the vaccine would still save many more lives than would be caused by the side effect. So you might think, well, why don't they just give the other vaccines? But the problem is that this vaccine is necessary for the, the strategy of getting everybody vaccinated as quickly as possible. So it would delay vaccination in order to, if they, if they took this out of the rotation. Also it doesn't need the cold chain distribution. So it's cheaper and really convenient, especially for the poorer countries. So this was a huge part of the strategy to vaccinate poorer countries. So it'd be huge to take it completely out of circulation. And Europe is surging now with these variants, with these newer variants are really, things are turning around. So it's not just terrible timing. So what are they going to do? It's not really clear. Some countries have resumed giving the vaccine. Others have continued to pause it and others have said, all right, we're going to just not give it to people under 55, which seems like a reasonable compromise, although even then the numbers...

C: Yeah. If it's not that risky for older people, then...

S: Definitely you should, you should give it to people over 55 preferentially to minimize whatever risk there is from it. It's just, it's like one of those things where there's probably, like if this were a drug, it would either get a black box, what we call a black box warning, wouldn't necessarily be taken off the market. If it was like the only drug in that was fulfilling this particular need and it was saving more lives than it was harming, what we like in the United States, what the FDA would do is put a black box warning on it, like be very concerned in this population, keep a close eye on them. But if there's multiple options, they can say, well, we're just not going to use this. We'll just use the other options. But we just, that's just not on the table in the middle of a worsening pandemic. And so maybe eventually this will get replaced by the other vaccines. But for now, if you're playing the numbers game it's still going to save more lives than it will cost if you use it. But it's hard.

C: Yeah, I mean, there's a chance, right, Steve, that after this first round, like once kind of the world gets vaccinated, that we're going to have to get revaccinated. We're going to have to get boosters. And it's probably going to be a completely different vaccine anyway, because it will have been, the new variants will have been researched.

S: They'll be reformulated. Yeah, they'll be reformulated. There'll be more data with all the vaccines, that some of the vaccines may be taken out of rotation, some will be changed to minimize risk, whatever, they'll be better, they'll be version 2.0. We're kind of forced now to do version 1.0, because the COVID pandemic is killing so many people, these vaccines work and just the numbers are just still in favour of using it while we even while we're working out the kinks. But of course, that's a hard sell to the public. And a lot of people are just not turning up or they're canceling their appointments for the vaccine, which is contributing to this next wave that we're getting, which is unfortunate.

C: It's disappointing. It's unfortunate, especially if, let's say an older man has a vaccine appointment and hears the rhetoric or sees the stuff circulating online and just is like, well, better safe than sorry, I just won't do it. And it's like, no, that's not better safe than sorry, that's better sorry than safe.

S: Yeah, that's the thing. But we are not wired, as it were, to properly assess active versus passive risk. We are much more willing, this is the trolley experiment, right? We're much more willing to allow bad things to happen through inaction than directly cause them through action, even when it's the same outcome. In fact, we're willing to let more harm come by through inaction to avoid lesser harm through direct action.

C: Right. And then that piggybacks on the, what's it called? The appeal to nature fallacy? That this idea that, oh, well, nature is just going to take its course. And that's somehow better.

S: Yeah. Dying of a disease is better than dying from a vaccine. You're still dead at the end of the day.

C: Exactly.

S: The dead only know one thing. It's better to be alive.

C: Right. And the odds of the death are so much higher if you get COVID.

S: Even if you just consider the two week period, but forget about calculating all the downstream, your risk over the next year, and the risk of giving it to somebody else, and the risk of new variants occurring, and the risk of allowing the pandemic to continue to simmer for another six months, or whatever. If you calculate it all out, it could be orders of magnitude more harm from not doing the vaccine than doing it. But still, it's just not in us. Just feels wrong to take the risk.

C: And of course, we are consuming so much misinformation online. Steve, I came across this really interesting study about, it came out of McGill University, which is really famous, a really well-respected university in Canada. And they were looking at kind of why some Canadians are vaccine hesitant, where is this coming from, conspiracy theories, bad medical misadvice. These researchers were like, what's going on here? It's weird, because when you look at the news in Canada, it's really balanced. It's actually very bipartisan, right? Everybody's like, let's get vaccinated. It doesn't seem to be polarized there the way it is in our political arena. And so researchers were like, what's going on? They looked at the top 200,000 most active Canadian Twitter users, and they found that where are they getting most of their information? America! America! Yeah, so they tend to be, Canadians who are active on social media tend to get more US news-based outlets than they tend to get local news. And so because of that, there's sort of a mismatch between what they're learning. And Canadians are very active on social media. Apparently one in two Canadians, so half of Canadians are on Instagram, five out of six are on Facebook, and two out of five are on Twitter. Canadians are very active on social media.

E: It's a lot. It's a high ratio.

C: Yeah, and they're getting fed a lot of American news. So even though their local news is really balanced, and even though they're not seeing the polarization there, they're getting the rhetoric, the highly politicized rhetoric, the conspiratorial stuff, the anti-science, the pseudoscience, and it's crossing over the border. And we've long known that American misinformation spreads around the world. The internet doesn't have borders. We would hope that there would be that buffering effect of local news. And I guess the more active Canadians are on social media, they're getting this more than even listening to their own politicians and listening to their own anchors, news anchors. So that's a bummer, right? It's a bummer. We're like invading Canada.

S: Yeah, but Cara, did you see the information about the dirty dozen?

C: Uh-oh.

S: And you know that 65% of that anti-vaccine misinformation is coming from 12 individual people. 65%. Some of these names might be familiar to you. Joseph Mercola, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Sherry Tenpenny. These are all anti-vaccine heavy hitters. Christiana Northrup. So, yeah, those are the 12 biggest misinformation sources. 12 people are generating 65% of the anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. Unbelievable.

C: It's so, and it's one of these things where we sit around and we twiddle our thumbs and we talk about how this is such an intractable problem and how do we communicate more effectively and what do we do to buffer misinformation and how do we have people's bullshit detectors dialed up to 11. And it's like, the frustrating thing is like, if only we could just take their microphones away. You know what I mean? A lot of times it does come back down to like, get Mercola to shut up. And I know that that's the First Amendment issue and I know that that opens up a lot of really actually important and ethical conversations. But it is frustrating when you see the dude over there in the corner who's spouting everything off and it's like, just stop listening to him.

S: Yeah. Well there's a lot of talk. I'm going to preface this by saying I am a strong supporter of the First Amendment and free speech. You have to be very careful before we nibble anything away from it. But social media and this kind of spreading of really horrific misinformation, demonstrable misinformation online is really challenging the notion of how sustainable our modern society is with the ability, just how easy it is to massively spread harmful, demonstrable misinformation. And so we have to, I think, rethink the balance here. And maybe there needs to be consequences for saying things that are wrong and harmful.

C: It might be legal to say something or you may whatever. But if somebody is perpetually pushing harmful rhetoric that directly leads to loss of life, maybe that person should go on trial.

S: Right. Like I said, the First Amendment is not a suicide pact.

C: Right. That's brilliant.

S: I don't know what the answer is, but we have to rethink this because like that should not be the case. It, again, just might be that we're just going to progressively and perpetually lose the fight against misinformation the way the rules are right now. So we got to change something.

C: Yeah, absolutely.

S: Is anyone talking about taking action, doing something or trying something, or is it just like...

C: Well, things are happening. People are... I mean, you got to remember, too, these social media platforms are private company, well, they're public companies, but they're companies, right? And so there are moral and ethical conversations being had at these corporate levels. And of course, there's pressure. We see political pressure as well. And you're already seeing, we've talked about it before on the show, Twitter. If you see an article and you just go to reshare it without opening it, it'll be like, are you sure you don't want to read this first? And like, shame you. And I think we're starting to see labels on Facebook. Obviously it's not enough. Obviously, like, we need something more robust. But it's not like this isn't being worked, I don't want to say worked out, but grappled with.

S: Yeah. But I think that's the low-hanging fruit. And I would like to see how far we can go with that. Just reminding people...

C: Right, because it's still self-report.

S: Just reminding people that you should be skeptical about this, or this is unverified, or eyewitnesses are unreliable, or whatever, anything like that, makes them in the moment more skeptical and better able to evaluate information. And so it's like we have to build in these guardrails, even if they're just soft reminders.

E: And studies bear that out?

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah. We've talked about this before too.

S: Absolutely.

C: Like, it makes somebody less likely to click share. And if you're less likely to click share, then downstream, you're less likely to get something shared to you.

E: Sure. That's right.

S: And some people might scream social engineering, but the thing is, we are social engineering our country. We're doing it to create QAnon believers. Think about that.

B: And other countries are doing it as well.

S: I know.

C: And also, let's be honest about what these social media platforms are engineered to do. Keep you there. Keep clicking. Go down the rabbit hole. Get exposed to more advertisers. These platforms are engineered out the ass. This is not just like passive information flowing back and forth. This is a big business.

S: Right. And so, at the very least, these business models need to be held accountable for destroying the fabric of society because that's the consequence of what you're doing. Okay. Congratulations. You've managed to convince a million people of the most absurd and vile conspiracy theory imaginable. And it's actually destabilized our government. Good going, guys.

C: Good job. Idiocracy. This is our reality. Cool.

E: Some people just want to see the world burn.

B: But that's what I mean. It's so, it's obviously so dramatic. And now we're getting warnings. Are you sure you want to share this? I mean, let's do some dramatic shit, people.

C: I wish. But the sad thing is it's in the hands of the Bezos and the Zuckerberg. And it's in the hands of these, like, sadly, these very, very, very powerful corporations that when it comes down to it, it's people. It's people who are holding those reins.

S: Yep. Yeah. And do we want those guys to be in charge of these big decisions about society and our future and the stability of our democracy?

C: Of course not. But they kind of, in some ways, already are.

S: They are.

C: And that's the scary part.

S: They are. By default, they are in charge. And if we don't want that to be the case, we have to make big decisions collectively as a society. You know what I mean?

B: It's going to be too little, too late.

S: Probably. There's no easy answer here.

C: You're so pessimistic all the time.

S: It's like a magic wand without downsides and sacrifice.

C: Of course. I mean it's like we want more privacy. We're going to give up convenience. We're going to give our data away. We're going to, like, there's always a downside. So it's that, what do we call it? It's that thermostatic homeostasis.

S: Homeostatic.

C: Yeah.

S: Well, we're not going to fix this problem tonight.

C: True.

News Items[edit]

Yawning Lions (16:49)[edit]

S: Jay, tell me about yawning lions.

C: I'm so glad you picked this story, Jay.

S: A big male lion with his mane giving a giant yawn showing those awesome canines.

J: Well, I think I need to for disclosure here, for transparency, lions have been my favorite animal since I was a kid.

C: Yay.

S: They're pretty much my favorite animal.

J: They are, Steve?

S: Oh, yeah. So I did my first book report on lions. They've been in my top two or three since I was a young kid.

C: Aw.

E: It's like you have a lot of pride on that.

S: Lions and whales were my two.

J: I think they're majestic and there's something about their look that is just captivating to me. But anyway, have you guys ever noticed that lions yawn a lot? Like scroll through your memory of lions. They typically do in what? What are they doing?

E: Laying in the grass.

C: Sleeping.

S: Male lions?

C: Sleeping and yawning. And ripping other animals to shreds.

E: That slow motion nat geo.

B: The female lions, baby.

J: They spend between 16 and 20 hours a day resting and sleeping. You know, this is obviously so they could save energy. It makes them have to eat less and all that. But lions yawn a lot. They do. And you look at pictures of lions and you'll see pictures of them yawning. That's how often they do it. So this is not exactly what you think, though, because it seems to go hand in hand with the fact that they sleep a lot. But a team of researchers has found out something pretty interesting. So Elisabetta Pellaggi, who is a research scientist and ethologist at the University of Pisa, that is in Italy if you didn't know, noticed that lions yawn a lot as well. She was studying other animals and had lions near her and just was looking at them and noticed these guys are yawning a lot. So she got curious and started to study them and then formalized a legit study that lasted about four months. You know, there's different reasons why creatures yawn. There's lots of different animals that yawn and there's lots of different things that people suspect or research that has shown or didn't show some reasons behind it. But with lions, it's pretty serious because it is also connected to a lot of other behaviors that they have. And there's a pattern to lions yawning. And it's really cool. Listen to this. Pellaggi had previously studied primates and the yawning primates in particular. So she was already well versed in it. So what ended up happening was a group of researchers monitored 19 lions at a private game reserve and they discovered that if lions saw a member of their pride yawn, they were approximately 139 times more likely to yawn themselves within three minutes.

C: That's contagious for them too.

J: Yes. But it goes beyond just yawning. Also if a lion caught a yawn, right, so caught a yawn from another lion, they were 11 times more likely to mirror the bodily movements of the lion that they saw yawn compared to a lion that didn't catch the yawn. How about that? As far as I know, humans don't do that. You know, we'll yawn along with somebody else, but we don't like get up and move our body the way that they're moving their bodies. But lions do this. So let's just visualize this. Imagine if you are watching lions and one of them yawns and then another one yawns, then the first lion gets up and does something and then the second lion gets up and does the same thing. That's what they observed. The researchers believe that it could help maintain the pride's social cohesion. So it is a social element. This would be beneficial in keeping all the members of the pride in sync with each other, right? So if some of the lions are noticing something and they get their bodies up and they're getting ready for maybe combat or they're just being very protective, the other lions would be more likely to do that as the result of them yawning and copying each other, right? So it's like a behavioral way of copying each other. And keep in mind here, lions live cooperatively. They hunt together. They manage their offspring together. They are very much a society and a very, very tightly knit pack where they live and pretty much do everything together. So the coordinated yawning and movements would increase the likelihood of two lions interacting with each other and also of other lions that are because multiple lions could catch the yawn, that their behavior would be similar. Now this goes into a little more detail where this has something to do with the pride having a collective vigilance under, like I said before, under the right circumstances, they would need to act as one and they commonly do if you pay attention. I've watched tons of videos. There's a lot of videos of lions saving other lions because they're aware of where the pride is and they know when one of them is missing or far enough away where they need to check on them.

B: Wow.

J: I've been interested in yawning I always read about it. Hey, somebody figured out what yawning means and then you read all these different other articles. But I have read quite a few things where it does have some type of social element to it. So it isn't just I'm tired and you yawn and you catch my yawn and now you feel a little more tired. It's not just that. There's other things going on here. And again it's ongoing research. Nothing is 100% conclusive because we're literally just observing their behavior. You know, we don't know genetics or any of that stuff at this point, but it is incredibly interesting.

C: It makes me wonder, and Steve, I'm interested if you're wondering the same thing, like how active a role mirror neurons play and whether lions even have them, which I don't see why they wouldn't, but I don't know if they do, and how active a role mirror neurons play in that phenomenon. It's pretty overblown, the mirror neuron thing, but I feel like yawning is one of those places where it's been like really, really established that they have an active role.

S: Yeah. I mean, so I think we're still learning about mirror neurons. These are neurons that will activate to replicate another person's mental activity. So it's a way of, again, socially reacting to other people in a similar way and absorbing the culture and language and everything from what's around you. But we're still, I think, figuring out, I think initially, yeah, they kind of overstated their role. They're pulling it back a little bit. Not that they don't do anything. And definitely other mammals have them. Dogs have them. You know, lions specifically, I'm not able to find anything.

C: Interesting. Yeah. I don't know why they wouldn't, because they're pretty sophisticated mammals. But it would be interesting to look at that behavior somehow. Who knows how you would do that experimentally in a freaking lion? You probably couldn't ever. But I'd be interested to see.

S: They've definitely been found in primates and dogs, yeah, definitely.

B: Anybody else yawn about eight times during that talk?

C: Ah, you're so mean, Bob.

B: I did. I did. And that's not mean. It's just the topic.

J: Without a doubt.

C: How funny.

B: I typically only yawn twice when Jade talks. But this is like eight times.

C: Well, and isn't it so funny that because yawning did evolve as this social cue, or at least that's how we what the evidence seems to point to, that we think of it as a way to communicate to our kin that we're safe, that we're settled, that we can, like, relax a little bit. Yet, socially, yawning, when somebody else is speaking or when you're engaging in social interaction, is considered rude.

B: Yeah.

E: Yes.

C: It's kind of fascinating.

E: Oh, I'm boring?

C: Yeah, like you're boring me. Yeah, like if I'm doing therapy and I feel a yawn coming on, I have an existential crisis in my head.

E: What do you do?

C: Like, I try to swallow it, usually.

J: Yeah, that is so hard. There's something wrong about that.

E: That's uncomfortable.

C: And I feel like they can still tell, but I still feel like it's way less rude than, like, gaping. And it has nothing to do with being bored. It's usually because I'm really comfortable.

E: Do you take notes care? Do you have, like, a notepad or a notebook or something?

C: Yeah, I do. I take notes.

E: Do you ever just, like, kind of lift it up in front of your head?

C: Well, it's hard because it's teletherapy, so it's just your head, you know? It's like a big full-screen head.

S: Yeah. I've learned to yawn in such a way that, at least behind my mask, you can't tell.

C: Yeah. Yeah, you've got to have this little trick.

S: It's unfortunate. The thing is, and there's evidence that yawning is more of a waking up signal than a I'm sleepy signal because it stretches the tendons, and it might be really activating. In fact, people yawn more when they're waking up than when they're going to sleep.

E: So we're misjudging the social messaging that goes on when you're awake.

C: Exactly. I don't think it has anything to do with being bored, but it has become a symbol for that.

B: It's clearly more complicated because I'm still yawning. And I ain't waking up.

C: Because every time we say the word yawn, Bob yawns

Air DNA (25:55)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, so we've talked before about scientists being able to sample water for DNA and telling like, here's everything that lives in this lake, but now they can do it from the air.

C: Yeah. This is really cool. Okay. So it's called eDNA, environmental DNA. And I feel like we've even, Steve, we've done stories about that on SGU, right?

S: Yeah. Totally.

C: Yeah. So just as a refresher of that, we know that there's DNA pretty much everywhere. And ecologists have started to only somewhat recently, because we now have the tools to do on the go sequencing and to do collection and we can use PCR and all of these amazing tools and nanopore sequencing in order to do this stuff in the field. But let's say we're tracking an endangered species and we want to know what its habits are like. Researchers now can they'll take samples of water. We see this a lot with aquatic species, for example, they'll take samples of water. They can see the fragments of DNA that are in it and they can say, okay, this organism, used this water, it passed through here. That seems to be the most common usage right now. We have seen some examples of it happening in soil, although it's not as common, there's been a little bit of work in there and also things like snow and rain. But these researchers, PRJ Life and Environment, they published an article about eDNA, but specifically they looked at the ability to capture DNA in the air. This is remarkable. And they did a pretty controlled experiment. They put some naked mole rats in like a device, a cage. And the cool thing is, I love this about how science is evolving in this way to be more aware and focused on public communication. You can watch a video abstract of this peer-reviewed study, which is, or pre-peer-reviewed study, which is a full text available online. So if you find this study in PRJ, you can read the entire thing and you can click on a video abstract, the authors tell the story of their research. And there's like photos and stuff. So it's really accessible. I love it. And so you get to see the setup. You get to see the little rig with the naked mole rats walking around inside with the hoses and everything. So it's like a sealed cage with naked mole rats and they're in there and they're living and they're breathing. And then they basically vacuumed out the air. And then they were able to analyse and they talk you through all the steps that they use, but kind of classic lab steps in order to understand what's going on from a DNA perspective. What DNA can we find within here? They also were able to sample the environmental air around it. And they found DNA from the naked mole rats, both within the cage and from around the cage. So it shows just how kind of pervasive and how much this DNA actually does sort of leave the body through things like coughing, through sneezing, even through your dander. And when I say you, I mean the mole rats in this case, but of course it's in their dander. So when they shake their little bodies and when they rub up against things, all of these actions release DNA into the air. So they did not know if they would be able to detect it in any sort of meaningful quantity. And they didn't know if it would need to be hermetically sealed to be able to do so. But they found no, not only is there eDNA within the cage, but we found it in the environmental air outside of it. We caught it in filters, basically almost like the same things, like HEPA filters. And it would get caught up in there and they were able to sequence it. But you know what else they found in all of their samples? Human DNA. You want to know why? Because we shed too. And so they found, obviously this opens up a really important new way to track, for example, endangered species, to learn about organisms in their habitat kind of in situ without having to remove them, bother them, stress them out by capturing them and taking samples. But also we need to be careful because of course, these samples are so readily contaminated. So we either need to work with like basically some really intense clean room clothing in order to prevent cross-contamination, or we need to expect that human contamination will be in there and kind of extract that out of the data so that we can see what organisms are living there. But how cool, in the past, this has been demonstrated one time before, or not one time, but there's a body of literature around it with plants. But they always thought it's because plants release their DNA in spores. And so like, obviously, plants put out these spores, we might be able to sample the air around them and find the DNA from those spores. They didn't know if it would work, and especially not with mammals. But this study is a really cool proof of concept that says, hey, maybe now we can go out into the environment, we can vacuum up the air within a burrow, within an area, and we can potentially detect what species were existing there. How cool is that?

S: Yeah, that's awesome. I especially love the implications for cryptozoology. It's like, nope, there are no dinosaurs in Loch Ness, sorry. You can't have large swimming reptiles and not leaving any traces of DNA behind.

E: Yeah, where's the poop, folks?

B: What about, Cara, what about bacterial DNA? They must have found that. I mean, we've all got our bacterial clouds.

C: Oh, I'm sure they did. But I think we've gotten so sophisticated with sampling technology now that I think you can match against these big databases. And if you look at enough of the, because remember, bacteria have different DNA than, because they're prokaryotes. And so they have the single naked strand of DNA, and eukaryotes have more complex DNA, and also there's mitochondrial DNA. And so I'm not sure, I would have to dig deeper to see if they looked at mitochondrial or if they looked at nuclear DNA. But I think that it's relatively easy to differentiate.

B: Makes sense.

C: Yeah.

Oxygenation Events (32:01)[edit]

S: So we talked recently, Bob, you talked about the great oxygenation event, or the great oxygenation catastrophe, as you like to call it. And you were talking about the future oxygen levels in the atmosphere. But there's a new study which tweaks our understanding of the history of oxygen in our atmosphere.

B: Oh, really?

S: It's pretty cool. And it answers some questions, although it always raises more. And it'd be a good opportunity to review sort of the broad brushstrokes of the history of oxygen in the atmosphere of Earth. So as many of you probably know, the Earth formed, the current Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object hit the proto-Earth, forming Earth 2.0 and the Moon. Right? And that's when the clock starts ticking on. This is right now, this is geologically when the Earth began. So at that point, things were hot, but they eventually cooled down. There was liquid water on the surface. We had a mostly nitrogen atmosphere, probably other stuff in there as well. But no oxygen, right? There was basically no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere during this first phase, what scientists call stage one in terms of the oxygenation of the Earth's atmosphere. Then came stage two, which is what we're going to be talking about in terms of the new information. Stage two, starting around 3.5 billion years ago, but definitely by 2.9 billion years ago, we have cyanobacteria and they would be breathing carbon dioxide, combining it with water and making carbohydrates, which is energy food, right? And O2 and oxygen. So oxygen is essentially being liberated from water and carbon dioxide and being free oxygen is being released into the atmosphere. Now this free oxygen did not immediately start building up because we have a planet. Oxygen is like the most reactive element on the periodic table. It will react with most of the other elements and form oxygen species. So a lot of this oxygen started immediately, not only dissolving in the water, in the oceans, but also combining with any iron in the ocean beds. So we have like this great rustification of it, geologically. This is how we know that the atmosphere was containing oxygen, was that the layers start to see increasing levels of rust, you know. And so, but during this time, oxygen levels rose only a little bit, up to about 3 to 5%. So that's stage two. Then it was pretty stable for about a billion years and archaeologists sometimes refer to this as the boring billion. Like there was...

C: That's so sad.

S: Yeah. Because just in terms of fossil evidence, I'm sure there was a ton happening at the cellular level in terms of evolution, but at the from a fossilization point of view, there was a pretty much a stable 3 to 5% oxygen in the atmosphere between 2.45 and 1.85 billion years ago, let's say. So even though it's not being, it's not building up in the atmosphere, it's building up in the oxygen sinks. And then once the oceanic oxygen sinks were full, then the land oxygen sinks started to fill up combining basically with minerals on the land. Once all the oxygen sinks in the world were basically full, like anything that oxygen had access to was already oxidized, then the oxygen started to build up in the atmosphere. This is phase four where you could see the oxygen levels shoot up and they peak at over 30% oxygen. Then they start to decrease down to the current level of about 21%. So currently our atmosphere has about 21% oxygen in them. So remember when there was 30% oxygen in the atmosphere, that's when the dinosaurs were around, the giant insects like the dragonflies, because they had the oxygen, they can get it to their tissues.

B: Fires everywhere.

S: But let's go back to that stage two, to that area. So scientists used to think that during that stage two when cyanobacteria were cranking out oxygen, that pretty much was a one-time event, right, that once that started happening, it was happening. But it turns out that that probably was not a stable unidirectional event. So here's the other thing that's very interesting that happened. So when oxygen started to build up in the atmosphere, even only to 3.5, 3 to 5%, that displaced carbon dioxide and methane. Now carbon dioxide is only 0.04%. Methane is in trace amounts. The only other significant gas in the atmosphere is argon, like I think it's around 0.9%. So it's 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, trace methane, and other gases. So the carbon dioxide and the methane levels went down. And what did that do, Bob?

B: Carbon dioxide and methane goes down and it gets cooler?

S: Yeah. So that was snowball earth.

B: Oh.

C: Yeah, that much cooler.

S: So it plunged the earth into a glaciation event where the entire earth was a giant glacier, including the oceans. This caused a mass extinction of cyanobacteria. So oxygen levels plummeted. And then once that happened, the volcanic outgassing of CO2 increased the temperature and the earth thawed. Cyanobacteria reemerged, created oxygen, killed themselves off again, knocked down the CO2, plunged the earth into another snowball earth. There were four, four snowball earth glaciation events. And they think that they all coincide with this oscillation of oxygen production and then extinction from cyanobacteria. And then once the cyanobacteria levels were decreased enough, CO2 levels were able to build back up. Because remember, they're metabolizing CO2 to produce oxygen. They were also sort of driving down the CO2 levels, driving down the greenhouse gases. But basically what they discovered was that the oxygenation events didn't really stabilize until after these four glaciation events were done. So this better aligns the cyanobacteria producing oxygen with these glaciation snowball earth events. And then the earth did not permanently emerge from its snowball state until this oscillation, this process stabilized. From that point forward, that's kind of when you have the permanent oxygenation, the boring billion years where you have just this steady buildup of oxygen in the minerals till the sinks were full and then in the atmosphere. And then the buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere coincides with the Cambrian explosion and the explosion of multicellular life, which probably required higher oxygen levels to get enough oxygen into the deep tissue, right? If you're a single-celled critter breathing oxygen, 3% might be fine. If you're a multicellular creature who's got to transport oxygen around your body, you might need more than 3%. So these things coincide as well. Very interesting, right? So we're sort of clicking into focus the chemistry of the earth, including the atmosphere and the land and the ocean and the seabeds, as well as with the chemistry of the atmosphere, as well as life, as well as the climate, and it's kind of all interacting and creating this one coherent picture of what was going on. Although we still don't really know what was going on in terms of life. We just have like really these tiny little windows into what life was doing throughout this whole period. It's like we know that there are some mats of cyanobacteria and things like that, but we don't know a lot because this is all pre-hard parts, right? So there isn't an exquisite fossil record prior to the... The Cambrian explosion was not so much an explosion of life, although it was, but it was more the innovation of fossilizable parts. And so it was sort of a flipping on of paleontology of the fossilizable hard parts. And it's like sometimes it was like literally like turning on the light. It's not like the life wasn't there. We just turned on the light. And now we could suddenly see all the life that was evolving, but they must have been evolving for hundreds of millions of years just in the dark. So we don't really know a lot about them. So pretty cool. I liked it. It's a good story. I like to have sort of this at least a general picture of stuff. Like what does the universe look like? What does the history of the earth look like? What does the history of the evolution of life on the earth look like? Just a big... These broad brushstrokes of basically where are we in space and time kind of thing is I find very cool.

Infection Proof Implants (41:44)[edit]

S: All right, Bob. Tell me about making infection proof implants.

B: Yeah.

C: Oh, nice.

B: This was another cool advance against the bacterial bad boys in medical devices that kill and they still kill thousands of people every year worldwide. It's still nasty. And our researchers are now taking inspiration from insect wing evolution to create surfaces that repel or just kill bacteria after they land on it. So this is from an international interdisciplinary team of researchers. They published recently in the journal Applied Physics Reviews and it's called Bactericidal Surfaces and Emerging 21st Century Ultra Precision Manufacturing and Materials Puzzle. So it's kind of like doubly faceted here. It's got the materials and you've got this research puzzle. So I love when researchers leverage evolutionary R&D, research and development to help them make better products because evolution has been doing it for quite a long time in a lot of cases. And in this case, they're inspired by dragonfly and cicada wings, for example. Now I was thinking about it and it kind of makes sense. And I imagine that there'd be tremendous selective pressure to protect insect wings from things like bacterial infections, right, because they're just so delicate. I mean, it's like the epitome of something that is delicate, something like a dragonfly wing. I mean, yeah. I mean, if you get an infection or any damage, even if it was to one wing, I mean, you are toast, right? So it makes sense that they'd have some robust defense. So after 406 million years of insect flight evolution, they've developed a fantastic way of dealing with bacteria. The structure on the top part of the wing itself for many of these species is essentially deadly to bacteria. You don't even need chemicals, although some wings are more complex and have layers of the material that hurts bacteria and also chemicals as well. So it's kind of like even more powerful, I guess. So if you look real close, though, at some of these wings, you see tiny nanopillars on them. And depending on the species, they could be longer, they could be shorter, they could be pointier. So when a bacterium rests on it, you can imagine it stretches and pulls the bacterial membrane or it just flat out just punctures it, killing the bacteria and preventing bacterial biofilms from forming. Now these biofilms are especially nasty because biofilm on an implant can form essentially a barrier that can prevent your immune system or even antibiotics, even powerful antibiotics, from getting rid of it. And that could mean that the doctor will come to you and say, well, you've got an infection, nothing we could do to get rid of this infection. So yeah, we're going to pull this implant out of your body so we can actually get rid of the infection so we could treat it. Like, not fun. Can you imagine that? Now surfaces like this aren't new. This isn't just a new discovery. Oh, wow, look at these cicada wings. They're really cool. We've known for years that many natural surfaces lotus leaves and other types of wings are actually inimical to bacteria and for varied reasons as well. But leveraging that information, using that information into into creating commercial product to take advantage of it, that has not been really happening, hardly at all. And it turns out because creating such an exquisitely engineered surface at scale is a tremendous scientific challenge. This is not easy at all. But this challenge now potentially may be yielding to applied physics. And these new recent precision engineering techniques are fascinating. They really have had breakthroughs over the years. Some of them have really cool science fiction sounding names, like some processes called, one is twinning. Another one is dislocation nucleation. Another one was high pressure phase transformation. Look them up. Those are those are cool techniques that they've developed basically to increase the plasticity of metals. So in this specific case, though, the researchers plan on using lasers to create nano features on these medical devices that would have a similar effect to the nanopillars. And then once their plan, once they've developed this they're doing 3D models. And once they're happy with it, they plan on making a prototype and then that would then be tested. So there's Oliver Pierce from Milton Keynes University Hospital in England said that the end goal is a prosthesis that I can implant with clinical evidence that it kills bacteria and reduces the infection rate. And it turns out you really wouldn't have to kill many different types of bacteria for these types of insertable medical devices. Most infections on them are basically either a staphylococcus or a streptococcus. So if you can develop these engineered surface that are tailored to just those two types, then you would be in really good shape because those are the ones that predominate on medical implants. And they they estimate that if you could if you could deal with those two, then you could reduce implant infections by 90 percent. So so, yes, that would be huge because the implants are implants are safe. Don't be afraid of getting these implants if the doctor says you need one. They're very safe. Not many people get get infections, but percentage wise, though, because there's so many implants the world over that that's the absolute number of people that get these infections is still big. It's a big number and it's quite a drain on health care services. So if they could reduce that by 90 percent, that would be a boon, save a lot of lives. So let's hope they really can make this work and be be really dramatic.

Aliens, Friend for Foe (47:23)[edit]

E: All right. Evan, this is something that we've discussed previously and I've thought about a lot. What's the probability of space aliens being friendly or threatening?

B: Four foot one.

E: I mean, if you research science programs like Star Trek and Star Wars you can get a pretty good sense of that. But if you'd rather go the more scientific route. Yeah. And there was a really neat piece today that came out in Air and Space magazine online. That's airspace mag dot com. And it was written by Dirk Schulz-Makuch, who is a professor at the Technical University of Berlin.

J: Did you just make that up?

B: That's a great name.

E: Dirk Schulz-Makuch.

B: Oh, that's awesome.

E: Professor at the Technical University of Berlin in Germany, of course, adjunct professor at Arizona State University and Washington State University. He's published eight books and nearly 200 scientific papers related to astrobiology and planetary habitability. So he kind of knows a few things about this. He's writing a multi-part series of articles for Air and Space magazine. And this is the first part that came out. Really neat. He's asking the question about advanced extraterrestrial life forms and would ETs be threatening or friendly. And that, like Steve said, this is something we've actually talked about quite a bit on the show. But the professor frames the question in this context, would a technologically sophisticated species share some common behavioral patterns with humans, such as social structure with predatory roots?

B: We have no idea.

E: I don't know that we've actually talked about that angle of this on the show. And he comes out right off the bat saying that he believes that that would be the case. Right off the bat. Boom. I admire that. He's also asking a question as to how we could possibly know such an answer like this until it actually happens. And then it's too late. And then you get what you get. But what are some of the best predictions that we can make about the likely social structure of an alien race and back it with evidence rooted in science and what we know? Here are his key points. He says that any intelligent alien species would likely have predatory roots because the evolutionary trait of intelligence is promoted if you have to hunt for your food. So predators must hunt if they're going to stay alive and keep the species going. And some of the most effective ways of successful hunting is to coordinate the efforts with others in your species. And lots of evidence for that right here on our planet. Packs of wolves, packs of other mammals that hunt include chimpanzees, dolphins do it. Lions. We were talking about lions earlier. Spotted hyenas. Right, Cara?

C: Yeah.

E: And even birds. Avian social predators includes the Harris's hawk. Is it Harris's hawk? Butcher birds and kookaburra species. And of course humans. You know, we're our own example of that. Cooperation is required and it relies on a certain level of communication among the individuals in the group. But hunting only gets you so far. Those species would have to find ways for more stable and long-term methods of capturing and consuming energy and bring on agriculture. That's agriculture. And with agriculture compared to hunters, you need a higher degree of communication and more sophisticated communication to create your crops, your grasses, and other things that lead to that. And those are just two of the steps sort of on the way we can get to a place where humans currently reside. You know, we go through masonry, metallurgy, seafaring. Our sophisticated tools, our machinery, our lighter-than-air ships, nuclear reactors, the silicon chip, and podcasting these are the absolute peaks of human endeavours. And communication and complex socialization allows for these advancements to take hold in the society. And he says that social structure is the key ingredient that allows for these advances to unfold over time. And it's a fine-tuned balancing act. Because we are sort of in this constant conflict with our aggressive tendencies that we've had since the days of our early evolution. But if we're too aggressive, we have a much more challenging time achieving these levels f stable socialization that are required to get to the point where we've gotten to. And he brings up our hominid ancestor as an example. Ardipithecus Remedus, a social system four million years ago in which the females chose their own partners, which led them to have reduced levels of aggression and more stable social arrangements, meaning that outsiders were more tolerated, innovations like the use of new tools were more easily accepted by the community, and these are the things that grow, allow you to grow socially as a species. And we know that human history is filled with examples of violence, barbarism, savagery, we have plenty of examples of those. But when you look at it over a long period of time, he says, the social stability was still allowed to take root because they were more dotted with these things rather than rooting in and totally collapsing the system. Over time, it works. So the collaboration prevails over competition. And without that cooperation, complex societies would be impossible. So he makes that this is the argument. You can make the same argument for technologically advanced aliens, even if their specific social structure would look very different or would be something that we would have maybe a hard time identifying that that should be the case with an advanced alien race. So that's a pretty neat way of looking at it. And I don't know that we've really talked about it in any depth along those lines.

S: Yeah. I mean, the question I think is, what are the developmental pathways to a technological like an advanced technological civilization? Does it have to be through some period of competition, predation, etc., or can't, even if eventually it needs to settle down into cooperation, or can it take a completely different path? Of course, we have an N of one. That's always our problem. We don't know of any other examples. We have to then speculate.

E: Is there too much human bias, you think, in his approach to this?

S: Total.

B: Absolutely, man.

S: Total. The thing is, we don't know what that bias is.

B: We've got one data point. It's all mental masturbation.

S: Yeah. If you grew up in the culture of one nation and you didn't even know there was a world outside that nation, you wouldn't even know what defined your culture because you would have nothing to compare it to. You wouldn't even know that your people were whatever, that they tended to be more collectivist or more individualist because you wouldn't even know that that's a thing. That varies. It's just you are just what you are. We don't even know what it means to be human, and we won't until we have something to compare ourselves to, right? And then we'll be surprised. It's like, oh, I didn't realize that intelligent beings could vary in that way. This is part of what I like about science fiction, where they try to explore these issues. They try to imagine an alien species that's alien in thinking. That's the hardest thing.

E: Oh, gosh. That's so hard.

S: Most sci-fi aliens are humans, not just physically. Even if they're not physically human, they're mentally human. And making aliens that are not mentally human, when it's done well in science fiction, it's fantastic.

B: Right.

S: It's not common.

C: That's why I loved Arrival.

J: You're right. It's a great example.

C: It's so good. It's so different.

B: And that's how it would be. I'm watching Enterprise, the complete series now. It's the first time I've ever watched the whole thing. And I'm loving it. I'm loving it. But it's like, oh, my God, another alien with just a weird nose or forehead, but otherwise identical. It's so frustrating. And I understand why, but it's still like, come on.

S: Also, Evan, I think it's a bit of a false dichotomy. The most common answer might not be friend or foe, but indifferent. They might be not actively hostile, but not necessarily recognize or respect our rights. And just that indifference could also be threatening, even if it's not aggression as we think of it.

E: So they would look at us, look at the technology that we've developed, and really kind of brush it off, potentially?

S: Well, again, we're personifying these aliens by necessity. Who knows how they might think about us and what their morality, their ethics. They might be doing things that they don't think are wrong, but we would. It's just hard to imagine. So there's so many assumptions in the question itself that it just almost becomes self-defeating.

E: Well, I'm curious to see where he goes with this, because it's part of a series of papers that he's going to be, or a series of articles that he's going to be releasing in the coming months. So I'm interested to follow up a little bit.

Who's That Noisy? (56:41)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: Stepper motors

S: Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: All right, guys. Last week I played this noisy. [plays Noisy] You guys must recognize that.

B: Yeah.

E: Well, it's an old arcade or video game.

B: Some porno I was watching yesterday.

J: Oh my God.

C: Wait, that's not Mario? Isn't that Mario?

J: That is. Well, you know what? It has such an unbelievable similarity to old school, like Nintendo stuff. So that's Wii. That is like the Wii background music.

C: Oh, it's the Wii. You're right. You're right. That's why I'm equating it with Mario, because I played a lot of Mario Wii.

J: But that's not really what the hard part of this noisy was, because if you play any of these video games, you definitely recognize that melody. But so what is creating that sound? That's the real question here.

E: Oh, what's creating the sound? Ones and zeros.

J: And you know what? Before I get into this whole thing, I got to tell you, it took people years to stop emailing me at Who's That Noisy, to stop emailing Evan when I took over the segment, right?

E: Hey, Evan.

J: Last week, I would say most people addressed the email to Cara.

B: What?

E: Okay. But that was paying an homage to-

J: I know, but-

C: That's amazing.

J: I know.

C: That makes me so happy.

J: Yeah, I'm sure it does. Thanks a lot, guys. You know, thanks. Anyway, I'll get on with this. Okay. So Adam Hepburn, he writes, hey, Jay, hey, Cara, hey, Jarrah, Santa Novella. I've guessed correctly the past two noisies. Now you say that. This is me talking now. You say that, Adam. We don't know. You could dispute. I've got 25 of them.

C: It's not like there's a paper trail, like you could just search your inbox or anything.

J: So I'm hoping for the hat trick. For episode 821, I have an idea. I have no idea what the song is, but I'm guessing that the melody was generated using a dot matrix printer. Okay. First off, shame on you for not knowing what the melody is. Second of all, dot matrix printer, not a bad guess. That's not what it happens to be. Let's move on. Listener named Joshua writes in, and he says, this week's Who's That Noisy sounds like the Wii theme played on floppy disk drives.

E: Interesting.

J: Yeah. So you guys have probably heard songs played on floppy drives, right? And there's different ways.

C: Yeah, but they don't sound that good.

E: No, they sound more like scratchy. They're more grindy, yeah.

J: That's all correct, Cara. Very, very observant of you to pick up on that nuance.

E: And with sound effects, I compliment.

J: Totally. This is, again, not a bad guess. It just wasn't the correct thing that's creating it, but it's similar. So then we have a listener named Devin Von Taufkirchen. Not bad. Taufkirchen. I know that's correct. I can tell by the way it's spelled. He says, hi, Devin Von Taufkirchen here. I think this week's Noisy is the Mii theme played on an automaton Wii Shop Channel Theme.

Have you guys ever heard of an automaton? Nobody?

E: No.

J: So this is what an automaton actually sounds like. I got this here for you. [plays automaton] The reason why I picked this thing, this incredibly weird musical instrument, is this thing is bizarre. Okay, it looks kind of like a saxophone, but nowhere near as complicated. It's made out of plastic. It basically just has that bend to it.

C: Saxamophone.

E: Saxamophone.

J: So at the bottom where the horn part of the saxophone is, there's this rubber-looking mouth. It looks like a cartoon mouth. It's like a line. You can open that mouth and change the timbre of the sound that comes out of the mouth. Then the stem part that you hold with your other hand, that's where you play the note. You're just basically pressing down a slider that changes depending on where you put your finger on the slider. But the cool part about this instrument is that you can open the mouth and change the way it sounds, which I found interesting. So anyway, look it up. It's weird and probably comes from Japan, I suspect. Anyway, that was incorrect, but very fun to look at. Another listener named John Tanzer wrote in, said, hi, long-time listener, first-time guesser. Is it the Me Channel theme played on a 3D printer? So you see the theme here, guys. Everyone knows. They're all dancing around it. It's not a 3D printer, but it very well could have been, but there is a correct answer. That answer comes from Joseph Nosy, and he says, to who's that noisy, this noisy is the We Shop Channel theme played on stepper motors, such as from an old printer. So if you look up a stepper motor, it looks like a square box, more flat, not perfect square. I don't even know what you would call that. What do you call that shape? If you take a square and you cut it in half, what are you left with?

C: A rectangle?

S: A triangle?

J: No, not a triangle. If you just kind of have-

E/B: Depends how you cut it.

J: You cut it straight.

C/S: A rectangle.

E: Whoa.

J: Yeah, but it's still- Yeah, you're right. It's a rectangle and a square. It's a square-tangle. So, okay.

C: What?

J: Yeah, I know, but when you look at it, it still looks-

E: Write that down, Cara. Square-tangle.

J: Whatever.

C: Square-tangle.

J: Listen, Cara, I'm talking over here. So, it's like one of those, and it has a gear on it, and then it has an arm coming out, and that's what turns your printer. That's what turns the paper, turns the wheels in your printer. But it turns out that if you rotate that engine, this electric motor, faster or slower, it makes different sounds. And people are now making music with these things, and I'm sure it's not true. But let me replay it to you now that you know what it is. These are stepper motors. [plays Noisy] Can you hear your printer in there?

B: Yeah.

J: Very cool. I love it. I love creative things like that. So, good job on that one, Joseph. Great guess. You were the first to get it right. Lots of people did, though. And again, this original sound was sent in by a listener named Matt Surley, and thank you for that, Matt.

New Noisy (1:03:10)[edit]

J: I'm going to play a new noisy for you this week, and here it is.


E: Cool.

J: Yeah. So, that's an old recording, and I would like you to identify what it is. And this was sent in by a listener named Octavio, and I believe Octavio is in Mexico City. Very cool. Thank you, Octavio, for sending that in. Very, very fun noisy. So, if you think, guys, you know what it is, or if you have any cool noisies, or you just want to say hi, you can email me at

Announcements (1:03L57)[edit]

J: So, Steve.

S: Yes?

J: I've been waiting to do that all week, Cara. I have so many things to announce. Okay. So, if you go to, or just click the link on our website, you'll be taken to the SGU store. So, I wanted to let everybody know, we have a bunch of great t-shirts in here. We also have a tote bag and a mug. The tote bag and the mug are going to go away very soon. Also, I have two new t-shirts coming into the store. I'll let you know when they drop, but they're both SGU themed, and they're both a lot of fun.

Next thing I'd like to say is that we have NECSS coming up. You can go to, and this will be happening August 6th and 7th. So, it'll be Friday night and all day Saturday in August. So, if you'd like to join us, go to It's going to be great, and I hope we'll see you there.

So, on November 18th, which is a Thursday in Denver, we will be having the very next Extravaganza. So, as you know, our tour got cut short. This is the continuation of that tour, but we will be updating the show quite a bit between now and then, just making it better, coming up with more bits. So, you can find this link on the website, of course. Just go to, and we also have a private show, which is on November 19th, and you'll see a link for it there as well. So, please do join us.

S: All right. Thanks. And Evan, you have something coming up.

E: Yeah, I do. So, as you know, I'm the co-host of another podcast called Which Game First? A Board Game Podcast. We are putting together an online virtual conference as well, which is coming up starting on May 7th, and it's called the Board Game Design Conference, in which we're inviting professionals to come and speak to talk about the design process of gaming. But it's so much more than that. You don't have to be part of a company that designs games in order to have an interest in this. They're going to be talking about a lot of different aspects of board game, what it goes into making the board game, the psychology of the board game, education, how it relates to board game, and so many other things. It's for both the player and the designer, and we're inviting everyone to join us. It's one price. It takes place over the course of three weekends. There's a total of 12 presentations that you can see, and it's only $29.95. We would love for you to join us. Go to to purchase your ticket and read up on the great presenters that we're going to have, all the topics that we're going to be talking about, and of course, I'll be there along with Celeste and all of our hosts the entire way. We hope to see you there.

S: Sounds like fun. All right.

Name That Logical Fallacy (1:06:33)[edit]

S: We have a great interview coming up. We're just going to do a quick name that logical fallacy and then go on to our interview. This is a letter that comes from Steve Hopkinson, and he writes, "Hi Rogues. I was listening to another podcast in which a proposed federal ban on menthol cigarettes was being discussed. The guest was a professor of law who was arguing against it for several reasons." So again, the professor's arguing against the ban. And then Steve continues, "one of the questions that the host asked him was if he realized that intentionally or not, his position put him in league with the tobacco companies. Putting aside whether or not I agree with the professor, I think there's an obvious fallacy in that question, but I can't put my finger on which one specifically." He thinks it might be an ad hominem logical fallacy. So what do you guys, this is actually, should be an easy one. What do you guys think about that? Saying that, yes, so he's against the ban against menthol cigarettes. And then the host says, yeah, but that position puts you in league with the tobacco companies. In other words, that your position is the same as the position that they have.

C: Poisoning the well?

S: Absolutely. It's a textbook case of poisoning the well. Yeah. So, which is again, lump or splitter kind of thing. It's kind of in the same category as ad hominem, where you're arguing against the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. But in this case, you're just trying to taint the argument or the person making the argument by associating it with something unsavory. The most common manifestation of this may be the argument ad hitlerum, which is basically saying, well, Hitler thought that too, you know.

E: Hitler had a dog?

C: Hitler was a vegetarian.

S: Yeah, Hitler was a vegetarian. So yeah, obviously so means nothing, but just a way of tainting the argument, tainting the position or tainting the person by associating it with something that everyone dislikes or is unsavory or is generally thought of in a negative way. So poisoning the well, that's the logical fallacy there. Okay. So we have an interview coming up with Iszi Lawrence. We're going to talk about pirates. It's awesomely fun. So take a listen now.

Interview with Iszi Lawrence (1:08:51)[edit]

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S: Joining us now is Iszi Lawrence. Iszi, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

IL: I should be welcoming you, shouldn't I? I should be going, you're listening to Iszi Lawrence on the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. There you go.

B: That sounds familiar.

IL: There you go.

S: Yeah, if Iszi's voice sounds familiar, she intros the podcast every week and science or fiction.

IL: I do. It's quite an effort, though, because every single week they get me to ring up.

S: You got to record it every week. There's no easier way to do it.

B: Right. You're so consistent, though. It's amazing.

IL: Thank you. I do try.

S: I have to tell you, we got one email a couple of years ago from a listener who's like, who's that person on your podcast doing a fake British accent?

IL: Darling, I mean, you're listening. Well, officially, I've introduced BBC podcasts because I do Radio 4 shows. And so I've had to go, thank you for downloading this podcast from the BBC. I've done all of that. So you guys were first. So you got officially that level of cred.

B: Awesome.

S: Absolutely.

B: Retro cred.

S: So the reason why we're having you on the show this week mainly because you're awesome and we need to have you on every now and then, but the reason why we're having you on now was because I was watching Netflix because that's what you do in a pandemic and I was watching the Lost Pirate Kingdom, which they're using the talking head interview style. And one of the talking heads was you.

IL: It's my head.

S: I know that talking head.

IL: Yeah. Yes. It was me. I am by trade. You see, I started doing stand up comedy and I've really gone into doing history as part of that. And as a result, I've become effectively a British BBC history presenter. So whenever you'll find making documentaries, you have these experts who come in and they refuse to say what they think without having lots of caveats in it. Well, given the information we have and so far we know, whereas an idiot like me will come along and say, well, I've read some books and I've seen some primary sources. So this definitely happened this way. And as a result, I'm quite popular because I'm prepared to not risk my academic career by people misconstruing what I mean.

S: Well, there's a very important role. I know you're being semi tongue in cheek, but for science communicators who have enough of a background in the area to understand enough of what the experts are saying that we could say in an interesting way to the public. Whereas as you say, the experts often don't necessarily have the entirely separate skill of public speaking or science communication.

IL: It is a tricky thing to do. I also present a podcast called Terrible Lizards, which is about dinosaurs, which I present alongside Dr. Dave Hone. And he's an academic of paleontologist proper, has named dinosaurs and that sort of thing. And even he, when I'm speaking to him and we're chatting on a podcast, refuses to be pinned down on certain facts. And I was like, no, tell me this. Tell me what you really think. Well, I think this, but and everything has this caveat of the science can always change because that's the thing that you guys know is the science always changes. Well, so does history. People's opinions about certain people always changes. And it's often to do with the politics. And I think every historian wants to sort of kill their father. So you have to have a different opinion of the people who came before.

S: Yeah. Do you feel that there's a lot of that, like opinions evolving just to have something new to say rather than saying, no, they're pretty much historians about this right for the last 300 years?

IL: Well, yes and no. I mean, there is. I mean, the big change is, I think, in almost all science, really, but in in archaeology and paleontology and is just and in particular archaeology, actually, it is the database and it is the fact that everybody's stuff is now online. So you have historians able to get different sources from all over the world and look at them. Like you could even get somebody to 3D print you a dinosaur fossil from across where previously you'd have had to fly out to see it and the how cheap information is now compared to just even the time investment of going to investigate something. You know, if there's a Roman mosaic in Greece that you want to go and have a look at now you can see really detailed photographs of the the objects that you're investigating and that is changing everything. And the data sets you're able to process so much more information so much faster than ever before. And that's the really exciting thing about the IT world. People think, oh, it's all about genetics and it's all about being able to like CT scan mummies and that sort of thing. It's not. It's about collecting all the information together and museums and universities across the planet working together and coming up with new theories. So yeah, there is the idea that we've got to write something new, but there is genuinely a lot more information for you to find that new thing to get hold of.

S: I can't imagine doing what we do, any of it without the internet.

B: Oh my God, going to go into a library. What is that?

S: How would you know stuff? How did they know stuff before they could just look it up online?

IL: It was.

S: I don't know.

IL: Yeah. It seems to be an absolute nightmare. You know, the idea of, well, Dr. Dave Hone, who I do the podcast with, he was sort of telling me when he was doing his part of his PhD at Bristol University, part of it was having to sort of do get a data set. I think he was looking at like the length of jaws of Spinosaurus or something. It's usually what he does. And it's literally, he had like 5,000 data entry points or something that was going into this. And it would take a week to process do a runner multivariate statistical analysis on something would take a week for the computer to get through it. And this was like 2005. And now he can do it in an hour.

S: So let's, let's pivot to pirates.

IL: Yes.

S: We want to talk about pirates.

IL: Let's pirate it up.

S: I was really surprised, I have to say, after watching the documentary, how much of pirate lore is actually sort of true.

B: Yeah, right?

S: You know, I, because I assumed that like the Treasure Island, well Disney pirate thing was complete nonsense. And I watched Black Sails, which is an awesome series, I'm sure you've seen it. And I'm like, yeah, okay, this is like all based upon Treasure Island, and it's all fiction. And then I watched this documentary, holy shit, half of this was real.

IL: Yeah. And a lot more of it is real than the historians want you to think, because it seems so silly, as well. So even very basic things like there's this, everybody says, oh, the pirates didn't really go arrr. But a lot of them were from West Country, you go down to Cornwall, to this day, I've done I've performed shows in Devon and Cornwall. And they do all go, instead of saying yes, they go arrr, arrr, there you go, all right. You know, they sound like pirates. And that is why you have the pirate accent the way you do. Yes, it was popularized in the 1950s. And that's where it sort of comes from as a joke. But that is based on fact, a lot of people like Blackbeard came from the West Country.

S: But I think the single most amazing fact that I learned was that the first real Caribbean pirate was Captain Hornigold. How is that possibly true?

IL: What's that word? It's nominative determinism. It's this wonderful thing where you end up doing what your name says. So my favorite nominative determinism person is Professor Brain, who was the head of the magazine journal Brain. This is in like 1910, 1920, something like that. And he was replaced by Dr. Head, who replaced Brain as the head of Brain at the journal Brain. It's a beautiful little thing.

S: If you told me Captain Hornigold, I would think, oh, that's what a stupid Disney name is. Couldn't they come up with something more realistic than that? But it's freaking real.

B: But not only that, not only is Hornigold an awesome name, but I didn't realize just how important of a character or a person he was in the whole scheme of the Golden Age of Pirates. I mean, this is the guy. I mean, it was basically his idea to go from Jamaica to Nassau and set up this pirate kingdom. He's like the grandfather or father of these Golden Age pirates. I mean, this guy is critical.

IL: Well, he was a man of necessity, though. I mean, this is the thing. They needed a place to sort of hang out and Nassau was notoriously underfunded and it was easy to take over. You just put enough men in there and there's nothing that the governor could do because you've just got loads of pirates. And then it was just like, OK, well, be good, kids. What are they going to do?

S: What are they going to do?

IL: Yeah, exactly. But I think the reason he was just popular was he was just a very good captain and got a lot of respect from his men. And he was able to basically command a ship and people did what he suggested, which is lovely. But he wasn't he's I think Jennings nearly took over at several different times. There was different fighting among different pirates. And who was the most popular? Who could command the respect of the men? I mean, that's the really surprising thing is all of this nonsense that you get in Pirates of the Caribbean about parlay and the pirate code is a real thing. They did have a set of standards, which is incredibly modern. I mean, if you're into a welfare state at all, I mean, these guys got pensions. If you got injured, you were given compensation, you got free health care you've got a a right to vote. I mean, what's amazing is that very few people realise the big misconception that you get is how white all the crews are. They weren't. I mean, Blackbeard's ship was about 60% African and when I say African, African Caribbean. And it is just that, it is that thing that every single person on that ship got a vote about what happened. Now, admittedly, Blackbeard is a pirate, so he ended up selling a lot of his crew, but in theory, they were free men and they could vote they should have voted him out when they had a chance, really. But he was a very successful pirate.

B: I remember being very disappointed with Blackbeard because I was gaining a lot of respect for him that I hadn't had just at how he was knowledgeable and educated and seemed like a cool guy besides the torturing and murders and stuff. But then when he did that, I was just like, oh, man a little disappointed Blackbeard.

S: But he had syphilis and he kind of went demented at the end there, right?

IL: That is true.

S: How plausible is that? I mean, I think it's pretty well established that he had syphilis. And if you get tertiary syphilis, you can get a kind of crazy dementia, you know. And it's how well established is that?

IL: It's not established. We just simply don't know how ill he was. All we know is that he held up a town for a week and risked everything just so he could get his hands on mercury, which was the supposed cure. So I don't know if it had gone into his brain. It was certainly giving him physical discomfort. But the reason why he got syphilis isn't just because he was a party animal. It was partly because of that. There was a reason for it, which is he had a wife in each island, in each town, effectively. So he always had a defense witness. So if he was ever brought up in front of the courts, he had a woman there pleading how she needed him to look after her and everything else. So he needed to marry several different times. So you have that ability to escape the police, as it were, even though I'm using the word police incorrectly there. But you know what I mean, to escape the law.

S: Authorities.

IL: Yeah.

B: Uh-huh.

S: Another very interesting historical fact that came out of this was that, I mean, the British Empire basically created the pirates.

B: Oh my God, yes. Absolutely.

IL: Well, to be fair, it wasn't really the British Empire. I blame Spain for having, I particularly blame Spain for just not allowing their royal family to breed outside of the royal family, because the whole reason the Spanish War of Succession happened was because Charles II's dad married his niece and Charles II is a famously disabled man. I mean, it's really quite tragic. The poor thing. He had to eat, but he could barely eat. His tongue was so large he couldn't close his mouth. He couldn't sleep on his back because he died at a very young age. He was completely unable to breed. And this left a massive crisis in Spain, where they didn't have a new leader. And the next in line to be leader was also the Holy Roman Emperor. And that would mean you'd have a sort of super state in Europe, which is very Catholic. And the Dutch and the British and a bit of France, effectively, would have been crammed in between of this. And they're quite Protestant countries, France isn't at this time, but you can see the antagonism happening. They're trying to establish colonies everywhere. So you have this massive war, for which Britain gets a load of privateers to attack as many Spanish vessels and stop them getting all their gold from the New World. And then all these privateers are just given letters of marks, saying, you keep some of the booty, just go ahead, attack all these Spanish ships. Once the Spanish War ends, you have all of these privateers who just don't have a job anymore. And the British don't do anything about it. They just say, we can't be a pirate anymore, go back to doing what you're doing. In the meantime, there's no jobs on the land because all of those are done for free by slaves. There's no ability to go back to England because that costs money. The Navy doesn't want you anymore. So what do you do? I mean, these men were absolutely desperate for work and desperate for some sorts of employment. So of course, they go and rob ships.

B: Didn't some of them like they've had like, what, 12, 14, 15 years of plundering these Spanish ships. I mean, didn't some of them say, all right, I got enough booty here. I'm good. I don't need to do this anymore. I mean, why? Or did they make so little that they just blew it on prostitutes and booze? I mean.

IL: Well, I think you've got, you've got, well, when they're British Navy merchants, so they're basically, they're not being, they're being paid a wage at that point. And it is the British who are sort of controlling the ships. So when they're attacking the Spanish, they're doing so on behalf of the British government. The British government is getting some money. And when they're pirates, though, they can divide it up between them. So being in the Merchant Navy was pretty brutal. I mean, you were lowest of the low British officers were of a different class to the the Navy workers, people like Ben Hornigold, people like Edward Teach or Thatch or just Blackbeard's easier. But people like who Charles Vane as well. They would have been whipped. They would have been given very meagre rations, very meagre wages. And they were lucky. A lot of them had been press ganged into it as well. So a lot of them wouldn't have wanted to ever go to sea. But they were basically forced to when they were back in England. They were gotten drunk and they were just, I think, being slipped the king's shilling is what it's called. And then you, you basically get taken on a boat and then you are a sailor. And if you muck up and you've refused to work, well, they'll do, they'll whip you or they'll kill you or they'll do something absolutely atrocious to you. And that's in the official that's on the good ships. So you don't really have much of a choice. So yeah, these men were desperate for money. They didn't. It's not like when they were plundering the Spanish, they were allowed to keep it all at that point.

S: Yeah. So as a pirate, they had a better life, more money, right? They had a job.

IL: They had a destiny.

S: They were less likely, less likely to get keelhauled.

B: They had a good man island.

S: Despite the fact that they have a reputation for being chaotic and lawless, they actually conditions are more civilized on a pirate ship than on a British naval ship at the time. Would you agree with that?

IL: I think for your average sailor, yes. For the officers, possibly not. And also they had to do things which meant like on a British naval ship, there would be medical officers and there would be a correct doling out of the grog and a correct, you know, everybody would have got fed in order for the ship to work. It was much more efficient. You would have been, whereas on a pirate ship, if things were going wrong, if the captain was drunk, who knows what would have happened? I mean, you could have been you're basically dependent on how good the people are around you. So there is that. And the grog would have been, because the grog is necessary, because as you know, you can't keep water fresh, you've got to mix it with rum. And so and this was really sparingly given out on a British vessel in order to make sure the crew was sober, but on a pirate vessel, not so much. So I mean, you have like Blackbeard at the height of his reign, his best ship gets run aground just on a sandbank, presumably because they were all too drunk. A lot of historians do say that this was a tactical move by Blackbeard because he was going to get his king's pardon and he knew what he was doing. I don't think so. I don't think he would have just basically wasted his best vessel for a tactical reason that made sense later on.

S: Right, right, right. But yeah, so they were less disciplined. But there was more egalitarian, more democratic.

IL: Much more.

S: So to what extent, I mean again, black sales kind of pushed this theme. And I didn't know how reasonable it was. To what extent did they really innovate democracy in North America, you know?

IL: Well, in North America, I don't know, is the answer to that. I don't think, I think certainly the word got out about them and they were very romanticised. And as a result, that may have influenced. But the thing is, these ideas have been around a long time. You have to remember, this is, what, 60, 70 years after back in Britain, we'd chop the head off the king. And there's this sort of weird time where people are gathering in coffee houses, like going, oh, we could vote and decide how we do it. Oh, look at this ballot. Isn't this fun way? Do you know, if we have the ballots without other people watching, that seems like a more fair argument. And oh, isn't this a nice idea? And should we have a law protector of England for a decade? And so all of these ideas were already there. It's just that the necessity of it in the pirates basically because you couldn't pay people until you got the treasure, until you got the booty, you couldn't physically give anybody any money. So they had a higher stake in the outcome. It's a bit like I don't know if you watch like ice fishing and all the rest of it. You know, I can't remember what it's called, it's called like killer crabs or whatever it is. That American show in the Bering Strait and you have these guys. Well if that boat goes down, none of the fishermen get any money. But you know, depending on the catch depends on how much money you're paid. And in a similar way, depending on the catch, if we can get hold of these vessels, if we risk our lives together, then we'll get paid. And even though the captain is the head of the ship, the captain didn't initially buy the ship. Well, not unless he's Steve Bonnet. But most captains just stole their ships. And therefore, they didn't have that stake in them at the beginning. And so it's much more of a corporation instead of a top down, top down thing. You know, there's no big money invested. Well, there is massive money invested in a ship like the Widder. But once Sam Bellamy gets hold of it, it's not really his, it's everybody who's taken it.

S: Right. So the situation really required that kind of model.

IL: Yeah. And I think it's because you're looking at people who come from the lower classes in general, because they are ex-navies and everything else, the way that the working class is, because there is no welfare state at this point in England or in Britain in the same way. You are reliant on each other a lot more in general. If you're growing up, it's a sort of naturally, it's what people, it feels natural to people. And the idea of voting on what we do and drawing lots and that sort of thing feels more natural, certainly at the beginning. And then it's about which man ultimately you respect to be your leader. It feels more tribal, I suppose, rather than let us write the Constitution of the United States of America without knowing what America is going to do in the next 50 years or so. So, yeah, it's born out of necessity rather than idealism, I would suggest. But it is rather lovely that you do have Anne Bonny, who is a woman, got an equal vote to, if they'd been on the same ship, to Black Caesar, who'd have got an equal vote to Blackbeard. All of this, it's just, it's incredibly forward thinking in some respects, but ultimately they are trying to rob people. So they're not good guys.

S: Well, Iszi, this has been a ton of fun.

B: Yeah. Loved it.

IL: Arr.

B: Arr.

S: We have to get you back on the show more often.

IL: It'll be cool.

S: What are you working on next?

IL: So I am, I've got, I'm writing kids' books, so that's my main thing. I write history books for kids. Most of them are quite English-centric, so I've got one called The Unstoppable Lettie Pegg, which is about the suffragette movement in the UK. Based all on facts, my character Lettie Pegg joins the suffragette bodyguards who all train in jiu-jitsu, which they did back in 1910, believe it or not.

B: Wow.

IL: So that's a fun-filled little book. It's out with Bloomsbury. You can get that. I've got another one coming out in September, and that's all about the Second World War, which has Americans in it, because the American women came over, and they helped us fly our Spitfires. So you have a load, this is before the WASPs, right? They came over, and they joined the ATA, and so I've got a book called Billy Swift Takes Flight, which is out in September. You can pre-order it, and that is all about the Second World War. And yeah, I'm working on my podcast, so if you like history, I do several history podcasts, and the main ones are the British Museum Member Cast, the Z-List Deadlist, and of course, if you like dinosaurs, like pirates, yeah, listen to Terrible Lizards. But there's an awful lot there. Just go to,, that is me.

S: That's actually the most impressive thing about you, is that you have a four-letter URL.

IL: I know.

B: Yeah, right?

S: That is amazing.

IL: I'm so Google-able, but nobody can actually spell my name. But yeah, I got that when I was 15, you know? I bought that, and I thought, that's quite fun, I'll spell my name like this now, and that is probably the best bit of investment I've ever made. But nevermind.

S: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

IL: Oh, thank you so much for having me, and yes, goodbye from the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, your escape to pirates.

Science or Fiction (1:31:50)[edit]

Item #1: 97% of all animal species are invertebrates.[6]
Item #2: The longest worm in the world was measured at 55 meters (180 feet).[7]
Item #3: Of the invertebrates, only insects undergo metamorphosis.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Metamorphosis
Science 97% invertebrates
Longest worm
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. I have a theme this week. The theme is invertebrates. Invertebrates.

E: Inflammable.

S: Invertebrates. Ready?

E: Yes.

S: Item number one, 97% of all animal species are invertebrates. Item number two, the longest worm in the world was measured at 55 meters, 180 feet. Item number three, of the invertebrates, only insects undergo metamorphosis. All right, Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Right. That's a word.

S: This is totally not revenge for last week, but go ahead.

B: Did I make you go first?

C: You made him lose.

B: I did make you go first, so good. Yeah, I understand. Oh, crap. I'm taking my sweet time. Let's see. 97% of all animal species are invertebrates. Okay. Shit. Let's go to two. The longest worm in the world was 55 meters. That's just too crazy to be false. Yeah. I don't think you'd make that up. That's 180, what? All right. Let's see. Maybe three is better. Of the invertebrates, only insects undergo metamorphosis. So how would you describe metamorphosis? Is that an allowed question for this one?

S: I mean, there's a very specific technical definition of metamorphosis. It's like caterpillars becoming butterflies, right?

B: That's like one of the true evolutionary puzzles. How the hell does that evolve, right? I mean, that's just metamorphosis. You only hear about that though. All right. What the hell? I'm going to say that one. I think, yeah, I'll say the metamorphosis is fiction, whatever.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. 97% of all animal species are invertebrates. I think that is science. That sounds correct, you spineless bastards. The longest worm in the world was measured at 55 meters. Oh my God, that's disgusting. That one is crazy.

B: You could feed a family with one worm.

J: The worm eats you, Bob. You're reversed here.

E: A family of what?

B: I'm going to go with Bob. I'm going to say that invertebrates are not the only animals that go under metamorphosis.

S: Okay. It doesn't say only animals.

J: It says only invertebrates. Of the invertebrates, only insects undergo metamorphosis. Oh, oh.

S: Yes.

B: Oh, wait. Wait, now.

J: I'm going to still say it's no.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I think I'm going to agree with Jay and Bob here, Bob and Jay, I should say. That longest worm at 55 meters, that's incredible. I mean, but there are worms in our bodies and stuff that I think can get pretty long, but out in nature and who knows where or down way deep in the ocean and stuff, perhaps. So yeah, that one seems remarkable. But again, I'm convinced by Bob's and Jay's lack of specificity with the one about metamorphosis, so I'll join them. Fiction.

S: And Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: GWTBs. Go with the boys. Yeah. I think worms we think of as we look at earthworms and that's like our template for a worm. But it's true. They're parasitic worms. They can be curled up. They can like pack intestines, pack stomachs of big organisms. And think about it. There's probably worms in whales and stuff. They're probably big. The invertebrate thing is the 97% is pretty bananas, but I still think it's probably true. You know, when I think about metamorphosis, it's funny because yes, of course, like caterpillars to butterflies is the first thing that come to mind. But the second thing that comes to mind is tadpoles to frogs. And of course, those are chordates. Those are vertebrates. But if they, if a lot of amphibians can do it, I bet you there are other invertebrates like because we think of insects a lot, but there are like, like mollusks, crustaceans, like shellfish, like a lot of those things are invertebrates too. And I wonder if some of them undergo metamorphosis. And we're just not aware of it because we don't, we don't look at their life cycles very often. So I don't know. I'm going to go with the guys on that too.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. So you guys are all in agreement. So I guess we'll take these in order. 97% of all animal species are invertebrates. You guys all think this one is science and this one is science.

E: There's a lot of insects out there.

S: There's a lot of invertebrates out there. It's one of those things where like we give a lot of attention to vertebrates like when you think of, like if I told you to think of an animal, I think 99% of the time people would think of a vertebrate, you know?

E: Yeah. We have a backbone bias.

C: Yeah. They would actually probably think of a mammal.

S: Probably even, yeah, right. Unless you're a birder. Then you'd think of a bird. But yeah, so vertebrates are birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and amphibians. And there are six categories of invertebrates and 97% of all individual species are invertebrates. Most of the animals are invertebrates by far.

C: And is that because of so many insects?

S: That's the biggest group. And beetles is like the specific group.

E: Beetles. Oh my gosh. They dwarf all others.

S: Yeah. So yeah, that one is science.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Number two, the longest worm in the world was measured at 55 meters or 180 feet. You guys all think this one is science. So if this one is science, what's the worm? Which worm do you think is 55?

E: The Mongolian death worm, of course.

C: I think it's probably parasitic.

E: One that jumps out of the sand like in Dune.

C: Or yeah, or it's like a jungle or like a rainforest dwelling worm. I don't know. But I bet you it's parasitic.

S: You think it's parasitic?

C: I think so.

E: Probably.

S: Linnaeus longissimus.

J: I knew it.

C: Longissimus.

S: The bootlace worm.

C: Ew. So it looks like a bootlace?

S: It's a ribbon worm.

E: It tastes like a bootlace.

C: Ew. Stop it.

S: One of the longest animals. Yeah. This one's because this one's pretty gnarly. It secretes a mucus that is highly toxic.

B: Oh. Toxic mucus.

C: It's like that weird tooth thing. You remember the tooth stamp, the nose tooth?

S: When you handle it, and then the mucus is pungent, it smells like iron or sewage.

B: Like a hagfish?

J: Moving on.

C: Bleh.

E: I'm hungry.

S: They could kill crabs with this mucus.

B: Damn, man.

S: 1864 this specimen was washed ashore. This is in the ocean. And was measured at 55 meters.

E: So it was a water creature.

B: Wow.

S: Yeah.

B: What did that weigh, I wonder? 180 foot worm?

S: Yeah. Incredible.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Of the invertebrates, only insects undergo metamorphosis. That is the fiction. Cara's correct. Frogs. Tadpoles turn into frogs. So yeah. So there are vertebrate species. Fish and amphibians are the only groups of vertebrates that undergo anything like metamorphosis. Of the invertebrates, as far as I could tell from reading multiple sources, only the insects undergo complete metamorphosis.

B: Yeah.

S: But mollusks, crustaceans, siderians, echinoderms, and tunicates undergo a partial metamorphosis, or hemi-metabole. So there's holometabole is when it's four stages, and it's pretty much a complete change of the body anatomy. A hemi-metabole has three stages, and it's less complete. And then ametabole is no metamorphosis. It's actually not that evolutionarily mysterious, Bob, because if you think about it, it's just the different stages of growth. So like a maggot turning into a fly is the same exact process as a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It's just that-

B: Really?

S: Yeah. Once you get those stages are set up. So the holometabole is egg, pupa, chrysalis, adult. Hemi-metabole is egg, pupa, adult. There's no chrysalis, and the transformation is usually less dramatic. But it's essentially any rapid dramatic change in body anatomy, usually accompanied by a growth spurt. So yeah, the caterpillar to butterfly is the iconic example of it. But like the crown of thorns, sea star starts out as a blob and then turns into a sea star with spikes on all of its arms. That's hemi-metabole, or that's partial, incomplete metamorphosis.

B: Well, do they have any ideas on how it might have appeared earlier in its evolutionary history?

S: So I don't know what the evolutionary history of it is, but it's simply sequential developmental stages that have become fairly discrete. And then once you have them, they could evolve more and more differences. What happens is, in the pupal stage, you have what are called imaginal disks. You guys ever hear that term, imaginal disks? So this is essentially like clusters of genes and proteins that will make the adult. And they're just sort of dormant in the pupa stage. And then when the pupa goes into its chrysalis, then the imaginal disks basically grow in adults out of the material of the pupa. So the pupa is typically the eating phase, and the adult is the mating phase.

B: That's an interesting way to put it. Yeah.

S: So the pupa, like the caterpillars eat, and they turn into a butterfly. The butterflies mate and die, mate, lay eggs and die. Yeah. They don't eat.

B: Jay, when are you going to enter your mating phase?

J: Three more years.

S: Then you have to lay your eggs and die.

B: He's still in his eating phase. It's a good phase.

J: From where I'm from, it's called the meatball phase.

E: Meatball phase. Yeah.

B: Of course.

S: All right. So good job, guys. You know your invertebrates, at least a little bit.

E: Yeah. Well enough to pass the test.

S: Yep. I mean, I like to hit areas of knowledge that I think are underrepresented, that go against our biases.

B: Of course you do.

S: We tend to have, yeah, it's like mammalian biases, charismatic megafauna biases, animals over plants.

B: Yeah, right. Charismatic megafauna.

S: Yeah. So we're going to be hitting these themes every now and then.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:42:47)[edit]

‘If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology’

– Edward O. Wilson, an American biologist, naturalist, ecologist, and entomologist known for developing the field of sociobiology

S: Evan, give us a quote.

E: "If history and science have taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth. The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology." E.O. Wilson.

S: That's a good quote.

C: Apropos.

B: Not a dumb guy.

E: No, not at all.

S: Those pesky emotions get in the way. Only we can become a species of pure logic.

J: No, thanks.

S: Is that what that would be like?

E: Ooh.

C: No, that sounds dangerous.

S: Then we can, every seven years, we can go crazy and have sex.

C: How sad. No.

B: Seven years, man.

E: Pond far, is that what?

S: Pond far, yeah.

J: Yeah, we could call it that. Instead of calling it the pond far, they should call it sex far, because that's about, because it's far away.

C: Oh, no. Yeah. I do not want.

B: They don't have to wait every seven years to have sex. It's a misconception.

S: Are you debunking a Vulcan myth, Bob? Is that what you're doing?

J: He's a science fiction skeptic, Steve.

S: Yeah, that is definitely, you earn like a double geek points for that.

E: Yeah. Well done.

S: All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Right.

B: Sure man.

E: Thanks, Steve.

S: We will be doing a live stream on Friday. Yeah, we'll be doing it most Fridays, only like holidays and stuff we may take off, but we will be doing it on Friday. So we'll see you all there.

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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