SGU Episode 550

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SGU Episode 550
January 23rd 2016
Gecko foot on glass.JPG
SGU 549 SGU 551
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
CG: Craig Good
Quote of the Week
...fat isn’t bad; stupid is bad. And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.
Michael Ruhlman, author
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Astronomers may have discovered a ninth planet in the Solar System

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (9:27)[edit]

  • Stephanie Louise Kwolek (1923 – 2014): was an American chemist, who invented poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, otherwise known as Kevlar

S: Bob, tell us about the Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: For this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science, I'm going to talk about Stephanie Louise Kwolek (1923 – 2014). She was an American chemist, who invented an amazing material known throughout much of the world as Kevlar.

E: Ah ha!

B: Yeah. While Kwolek was at Dupont, she and her team were trying to create a lightweight fiber replacement for the steel in radial tires. She was working with a carbon-based molecule, was trying to join them into bigger molecules to make polymers. She was trying to convert a solid polymer into a liquid, so it could them be spun into fibers.

But the liquid that she ended up with, with this batch, looked kind of crappy. Instead of being clear and thick, like a syrup, which is what you would expect to turn a polymer into a really good fiber, it was thin, and it was opaque. And everyone told her, “Just throw it out. You're not gonna get a decent fiber out of that.”

But she persisted. She persuaded another researcher to run the liquid through a laboratory spinaret to separate the liquid from the fibers, and I love that they call it a “spinaret,” because spiders have spinarets that make their webs, which is so cool.

So when the fibers were spun, the polymide liquid crystal molecules all lined up to create fibers with an amazing stiffness. And the rest is history, as they say. Today, kevlar is everywhere. With a tensile strength to weight ratio five times stronger than steel, we all know that it kicks butt as a bullet-proof vest. That's a no-brainer application.

But it's also used in many different things like car tires, fire fighter boots, fiber-optic cables, armored limosines, and even canoes. And they also use it for bomb-resistant building materials, and hurricane safe rooms, things like that, even bridges.

Kwolek received many awards. My favorite award that she received, I never even heard of before, she received the National Medal of Technology,

C: Ooh.

B: which is now my officially most favorite medal of all time – the Medal of Technology!! And in '95, she was inducted into the National Inventors' Hall of Fame. Many, many more awards that she received during her career. An amazing scientist, an amazing invention, so remember Stephanie Louise Kwolek. Mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, you know, if it comes up.

E: Yeah, or when taking a bullet for your friends.

B: Yes. So that nasty, long word, that's what kevlar is. And kevlar, actually, it's a copyrighted term. It's a registered

E: Kleenex, Xerox, yeah

B: It's a registered trademark for a para-aramid synthetic fiber.

S: You know, Bob, if you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't wear it.

B: Ah!

E: Yes.

C: I only wear organic kevlar.

(Bob laughs)

E: That's right.

S: None of that synthetic kevlar.

E: Real spinarets, and whatnot.

S: Right.

News Items[edit]

Motorcycle Helmet Laws (12:31)[edit]

Charlie Sheen HIV (21:26)[edit]

Arctic Humans (32:37)[edit]

Geckos and Spiderman (37:36)[edit]

(Commercial at 42:38)

What's the Word (44:09)[edit]

  • Agnatology

S: All right, Cara,

C: Yes

S: what's the word this week?

C: I'm always like, “What? You talkin' to me?”


C: Yes, so this week, the word is a fun one. It's agnatology. So, what do you guys think of when you think agn?

B: Agno-agnostic!

E: Agnostic.

C: I know, agnostic, exactly. So, the definition, plain and simple, agnatology is the study of willful acts to spread confusion and deceit.

B: What does that have to do with skepticism?

E: Chaos theory.

C: To sell a product, or win favor. I know! I love this word!

B: Oh my god!

E: It sounds very political.

C: I feel like everybody who listens to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe is gonna walk away using this word in their regular vocabulary.

B: How did I not know this word? It's so perfect

C: Because

B: for skepticism. It's great!

E: Oh yeah.

C: The reason you don't know it is because it's a made up word

B: Oh, f*ck.

C: by a science historian at Stanford. I love this, you guys. So, there's this great story on BBC Future by Geogina Kenyan. She's the byline on that story. And it's about this idea of agnatology.

So, apparently, this science historian at Stanford, Robert Proctor, invented the word when he was researching kind of some of the seedy actions of Big Tobacco, where these big corporations would twist the science and confuse the public about the link between cigarettes and cancer, 'cause they were trying to say there wasn't one.

And according to the article, Proctor says that the word, quote, “comes from 'agnosis,' the neo-classical Greek word for 'ignorance' or 'not knowing,' and 'ontology,' the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnatology is the study of willful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product, or win favor.”

I have a few more quotes that I've combed here from Robert Proctor. The first one is, “I was exploring how powerful industries could promote ignorance to sell their wares. Ignorance is power, and agnatology is about the deliberate creation of ignorance.”

Here's another one: “In looking into agnatology, I discovered the secret world of classified science, and thought historians should be giving this more attention.”

And the last quote that I think is really apropos: “The 1969 memo, and the -” I don't know if you guys know about this, but there's a really glaring memo that the tobacco industry was hammered about in 1969. It didn't come out until later, that just, is pointedly disgusting if you read it, like, a lot of the text is horrible.

S: This is mustache-twirling.

C: Yeah, yeah, it is. It really is.

S: It's the smoking gun of villainy.

C: It's the smoking gun.

S: Yeah

C: Exactly.

E: Oh my gosh!

C: So, this quote here is, “The 1969 memo, and the tactics used by the tobacco industry became the perfect example of agnatology. Ignorance is not just the not-yet-known, it's also a political ploy, a deliberate creation by powerful agents who want you not to know.”

And I love this word. So, this idea of spreading ignorance, and it's not just – 'cause oftentimes in the skeptic movement, we talk about it like, “Oh, well people, it's a knowledge deficit, because people aren't aware. They're not very scientifically literate, or they haven't read the things that they need to know,” but there are forces at work. The anti-vax movement is a force at work. We talk about this.

The anti-GMO lobby, it's a force at work. The cigarette industry at the time, this was, and still today, a force at work. And they are utilizing this agnatology.

S: The money quote from that memo, which is iconic now, is “Doubt is our product.” They literally

B: Oh!

E: Great

S: said that. “Doubt is our product.” Their job was to sow doubt and confusion about the connection between tobacco and cancer.

C: Yeah, it's this whole idea of “Teach the controvery.”

E: Right

S: Yeah

B: I hate that product!

C: It was not controversial!

S: They outlined their strategy for sowing doubt and confusion.

B: Sure

E: And it's all you need, is some reasonable doubt, and court and lawsuits and things, and you've got it.

S: The whole idea of cherry-picking studies, finding experts to present the minority opinion, and then you have experts disagreeing. And once you have experts disagreeing, hey, how's the public supposed to know who's right and who's wrong? I mean, and you can see a one to one correlation almost, for example, with the climate denier industry.

B: Oh yeah

C: Yeah

S: The same strategies are there. It is denialism. It is what we, today, call denialism.

C: Exactly

S: But agnatology, I guess, is a subset of denialism that is deliberately manufactured for some secondary gain. It's not just an outflow of an ideology, or like vaccine denial, which is just crazy. There's a specific goal in mind.

C: It's the architects,

S: Yeah

C: The architects are the ones practicing this agnatology. And in the article, I think, it does a good job of sort of informing, or reminding us that this happens on both sides of the aisle. This happens, it does not matter what your political persuasion is, it does not – you will see examples of agnatology,

S: Sure

C: across the board. I love it. I mean, I don't love it, but I love the word. (Chuckles)

S: Well, let's go on with our interview with Craig Good.

Interview With Craig Good (49:28)[edit]

  • The editing of movies

(Commercial at 1:12:38)

Science or Fiction (1:14:09)[edit]

Item #1: Neuroscientists have discovered that the amount of information the human brain is capable of storing is 10 times greater than previous estimates. Item #2: In the largest study published to date, researchers confirm an increased prevalence of depressive symptoms in the late winter and early spring compared to other times of year. Item #3: Scientists have developed a new 3D microprinting technique that can create complex shapes, even overhanging shapes, with 3D pixels of only 800 nanometers.

NECSS Registration Open (1:28:13)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:29:52)[edit]

'...fat isn’t bad; stupid is bad. And until we have better information and clearer shared language defining our food, smart choices will be ever harder to make.' Michael Ruhlman, author

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


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