SGU Episode 948

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SGU Episode 948
September 9th 2023
948 geothermal energy.png

"Some are trying to unlock geothermal energy by using techniques from the fracking boom." [1]

SGU 947                      SGU 949

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


AB: Anna Blakney,

professor of bioengineering

Quote of the Week

Not bound by facts, the hoax is free to fabricate feelings & the genres associated with them; it's this artfulness and ambiguity that help explain [its] popularity.

Kevin Young, American poet

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, past Dragon Cons; AI brain interpretation of song[edit]

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 Tuesday, August 29th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone.

S: Cara is not joining us this week. She's too busy. Just finishing up her work and whatnot.

J: Now that she's a doctor and all, she's very busy.

S: We'll see. We'll see when that's official. We'll let everybody know.

E: Right. She explained to us there's a specific point or criteria, a line specifically across it.

S: Yeah, we'll let you know when we cross that line. This episode is coming. We're recording a little bit early because we're going to DragonCon this weekend. This episode will be coming out the week after DragonCon, so we will have already been there in podcast time.

E: Oh my gosh. We had a blast, I think.

S: I'm assuming. Yeah.

J: Right?

S: Hopefully the hurricane didn't interfere with our trip, hurricane barreling up the Atlantic Ocean. Right now, it's supposed to miss us. We will see. We will have seen by the time this episode comes out.

J: What could it potentially, what's the worst case scenario?

S: It grounds planes. We can't get out.

E: Yes.

J: Okay.

E: Well, we can't get in.

S: Can't either.

J: Didn't we have something like this happen when we were in Tennessee and we drove back?

S: Yes.

E: Oh. It was called, I think, what was it? Sandy? You may have heard of it.

B: It's like a 10-hour drive home, too.

S: Yeah, it wasn't bad.

E: And we rode the edge of that storm the whole way home, remember?

B: Yeah.

E: Remember the ominous skies that were chasing us?

S: We were riders on a storm.

B: I remember the really cool Halloween store we ran by and went in.

J: I remember by the time we got home, I was delirious.

E: Well it wasn't just the drive, if you remember. It was like the 12 hours before we had to drive when we kind of realized, all right, we have to start putting a plan into action because our flights had been, what, canceled I think by that point. So we were effectively stranded 800, 900 miles from home and with no plan whatsoever. So having to scramble to get the van and change and just rally it all together, it was really more of like a 24-hour ordeal.

J: Yeah, for sure.

S: Now, I know you guys have heard this because we talked about it, and I'm going to play it right now in the episode. Listen to this and tell us what you think this is. [plays audio] So that was Pink Floyd, The Wall.

E: Yes.

S: Right? Very recognizable.

E: On a crummy broken tape player or something.

S: Yeah, it sounds a little distorted in a weird way. That is an AI-generated clip based upon basically the brain activity of somebody listening to the song.

B: That's pretty amazing.

E: How? How?

S: Yeah, I mean, so we talked about this, and I think it was a science or fiction a couple months ago, that when you add the AI to interpret the brain signals, it really makes a huge leap in its ability to go from brain activity to audio, to what the person is thinking or hearing or trying to say. It really is amazing technology.

E: And with the clarity of the lyric as well, it's one thing to sort of get a musical representation just with no lyric, right? You can come close, and I think your brain can have a lot of latitude there to say, yeah, this is pretty close. But then you start hearing a lyric kick in, and it's recognizable to the sounding of the word. That sort of brings it to another level.

S: And I was reading a news item today. I was going to use it for science or fiction, and I realized it's too close to what we talked about a couple months ago, where just another study looking at this technology, AI-assisted interpretation of brain waves to figure out what words somebody's thinking of, and they claimed a 92 to 100% accuracy. I'd have to look deeper into exactly, sometimes there was a limited choice of things that they were choosing from. But even still, this is years ahead of where I thought we would be, because of that introduced element of, oh yeah, you just have AI do the analysis and figure out how to. There's got to be a learning curve. It's like a trained AI on going from words to brain activity, brain activity to words. You have to have a feedback loop where it's trained. Then it gets really good at interpreting an individual's brain activity. It does not carry over to another individual. You've got to be trained on one specific person.

E: Clinical application here?

S: Oh yeah, you're locked in. You can't talk. You know what I mean? You can't communicate. Strap an EEG on your head, hook it up to one of these AIs, train it for a little bit, and then you're communicating.

E: That's such an incredible thing for people who find themselves in that super unfortunate situation. I mean, that is just beyond a world of difference.

S: I always think of Pike on Star Trek. It's like, really? 200 years in the future? They're saying yes, no? Even then, even when it was first coming out in the early 70s, late 60s, I thought, really? We're not going to be more advanced than that? We're already way past that.

B: Yeah, there's big, big internet arguments going on about how ridiculous that was, and people try to retcon it and make sense of it, and other people are like, that's just what they decided to do.

S: It was kind of important for the narrative, because you couldn't have Pike just communicating with them and giving away the whole storyline.

B: That basically shaped the whole thing. That happens quite often.

E: And the Futurama parody of that one, look it up. It's one of the funniest episodes you've ever seen.

S: Are you enjoying the reboot of Futurama, Evan?

E: Oh, damn, man. I got to start watching. Steve, shame on me. I have not yet watched.

S: It's good. I've watched like five or six episodes. It's really good.

E: I'm so far behind. I got to catch up.

News Items[edit]

J: I'm at the stage now where I am fully intimidated by artificial intelligence, because--

S: --Well, let's talk about that, Jay, since that's my news item. Let's just slide right into that.

B: Bam!

ChatGPT Performs at University Level (6:31)[edit]

S: We've talked about the latest crop of artificial intelligence, basically the generative pre-trained transformers. Transformers is a type of AI technology. Generative means that it's generating content, and pre-trained means that it's already been trained on a lot of data. Another way to refer to these applications like ChatGPT, again, the GPT stands for generative pre-trained transformer, is these are large language models. They are modeling language, so the AI itself doesn't necessarily have to understand anything about the words that it's generating. It's just predicting the next word chunk, and remarkably, remarkably effective at generating natural sounding, real sounding text, poetry, prose, answers to questions

B: It's striking, yeah.

S: Yeah, it is pretty striking.

B: Really blowing away deterring tests at this point, right?

S: Totally. There's been a number of studies looking at how ChatGPT specifically does when given certain standardized tests, or how ChatGPT does on academic performance, right? For example, recently, one study showed that ChatGPT was able to pass the medical boards, there you go, with a just passing score, but still, just passing is passing. All right, so there's one recent study, which I thought was worth updating this, and then we could discuss. This is looking at how ChatGPT performs at a university level, right? So now, essentially what they did was they took essay type test questions in 32 different fields, and they gave students the questions, and they gave ChatGPT the questions. And they had blinded evaluators, people who took that course.

E: Sure, they didn't know what they were.

S: Yeah, just grade them, like how did they do? And the results were that ChatGPT did pretty well. So in 9 of the 32 courses, it did as well or better than the students.

B: This is ChatGPT 4.0, right?

S: Yeah, this is the latest ChatGPT.

E: Wow.

S: And most of the rest, it was in the range. It did pretty well. Yeah, it wasn't quite statistically as good as the students, but it was up there. There was a few courses where it did poorly.

E: Shame.

B: Poorly, flat out poorly?

S: Flat out poorly, like significantly less than the students. One was mathematics. So we already know ChatGPT, not so good at math. The second one was economics, because it's very math-based. And the third one was coding, also because of the math-based component of that. So basically, that's just telling us ChatGPT isn't good at math. But other than that, as long as there wasn't a huge math component to the course material, it did as well or better than the university students at basically doing a test or homework type essay-type assignments. The obvious concern here is that students will be using this to do their assignments, right? And they did a couple other elements of the test. They put the ChatGPT's answers through two standard bits of software whose job is to detect ChatGPT-generated answers.

B: Oh, give me a break. Does that really...

S: So the two tools, the two ChatGPT detecting tools, failed to detect the AI's work in 32% and 49% of the time. So in one of them, it was a coin flip, right?

B: Yeah, to roll the dice at this point.

S: The other one was only a third of the time they didn't detect it. So that's obviously not good.

B: Yeah, at this point in time, I think it's pretty, people generally agree that those kind of tools to detect it are just not even good. Don't even use them at this point.

S: There's a lot of false positives too, claiming that a student's work is an AI's work. So yeah.

E: Yeah, that's true too.

S: All right. So a little bit of nuance here, and this is similar to other research, because I've been following this type of research pretty closely. And so you could start to ask, what kind of content is ChatGPT good at and what kind is it not so good at? And we could break it down into a few categories. So one is factual knowledge, another is cognitive analysis, and a third is creativity. So in general, as you would probably guess this, ChatGPT does best at factual knowledge.

E: Sure.

S: It's just knowing stuff. If the test is just, do you know facts, ChatGPT does really well.

B: Well, is it so much facts as do you know your training data?

S: Well, yeah, that's the same thing.

B: Yeah, it is. Just throwing that out there.

S: It obviously doesn't understand anything, but it can reproduce factually correct answers to fact-based questions. Creativity and cognitive analysis, it did not do as well as the students. It did better in the fact-based questions. But this is interesting. If you evaluate the questions based upon the difficulty, as the questions got more difficult, the gap narrowed.

E: I see.

S: Meaning that the students got harder, quicker for the students than it did for ChatGPT. I don't know if that pattern was going to hold up and be reducible, but that's interesting to think about that. You would think that, oh, for the really challenging questions, ChatGPT faltered more than the ChatGPT did. And in fact, it started to become harder to separate them the harder the questions became, the more challenging they were in terms of abstract thought and creativity.

E: Creativity is a little more subjective, though, so harder to measure.

S: Yeah, maybe that's an artifact of that, you're right. The authors do mention that, the more subjective measures, it's harder to make firm conclusions about. There's a couple of things we could chat about here. One is, this is a snapshot today. This is going to be different in six months, in a year, in five years.

E: Six months, yeah.

S: Back to 10 years from now, forget about it.

J: It's unpredictable.

E: Oh, we're going to look back and laugh at this news item.

S: I would say we shouldn't assume that we're going to keep the same pace of improvement as we've been seeing over the last few years.

E: No Moore's law here?

S: No. And there are some experts who are saying, and I've read their essays where they argue specifically that we're going to plateau. We're already getting diminishing returns. And so you have to think, why are they so much better than at doing this kind of task than previous AIs? One is that it's being trained on massive amounts of data, but there's only so much headroom there. There's only so much more data you could train it on. And again, you get diminishing returns. Once you're training on billions of samples of data, do you really get better if you do another billion?

B: Right. You would need orders of magnitude more, I would think, and that's not going to happen.

J: Steve, I was under the assumption that we were going to be moving into expert systems where it's trained very, very specifically, like to be a lawyer or to be able to solve medical issues.

S: Yeah. So that's a question. How much room for improvement is there on specially trained GPTs? And also, how much more room for improvement is there just on fixing things like the hallucinations, where it sort of makes up stuff? So you might have to add some subroutines in there that reduces the errors in the hallucinations. You could have specially trained versions of ChatGPT that's not just trained on the internet, but that's trained on all the medical stuff or all legal knowledge, legal textbooks and cases and everything.

B: I've heard ideas, Steve, about taking those, making many, many of those like little expert systems and then linking them together, which sounded intriguing. Who knows if it's a viable path forward, but it does sound intriguing. But yeah, clearly the low-hanging fruit has been picked, but I still think we may be a little bit surprised as to all the different ways we can apply it and use it and tweak it. Like typically, right? It's the classic sci-fi scenario where it's like no one's really seeing how it's going to be used and how it's going to be applied, so we may see more of that. But yeah, we definitely have gotten all this low-hanging fruit and who knows, we may need a paradigm change to really have that next leap.

S: But I think we could say, it's safe to say, like according to this and other studies, ChatGPT is up to the task of doing any student's homework, right? At this point, and it's only going to get better. It's already at the point where it's so hard to detect there's no reliable detection method. Plus the other thing is, students can easily subvert any detection method by just lightly editing the output of the ChatGPT, you know what I mean? It would be kind of silly to just use it completely unaltered, but you could have it do 95% of your work for you and turn a several-hour task into a 10- or 20-minute task just by, it might take you a few tries to get the good prompt, and then you get the result that you're happy with, and then you sort of lightly edit it so it sounds like your prose. And that's basically undetectable at that point. No one could detect who did the actual work. So what are teachers or professors to do, right? That's the question.

B: I think it boils down to the testing, because the kind of testing where you can't use AI to help, and at some point it may come to the point where you have to be in a specific room where technology won't even function. Like you have some super slick kind of ear insert, inner ear insert, and computerized glasses, whatever. You would have to even try to make sure that wasn't in there, and to just be like, it's all on you. It's just you and a pen and a paper and no technology to help you. That's how they may really assess how much are you actually learning, because homework is going to be worthless in terms of assessing.

S: Or oral exams.

B: Exactly. Same idea.

E: Yeah. But isn't that – that presents a whole other range of difficulties, right? Because some people just would do much better in a written test rather than an oral test on the same material.

B: Well, write it in the class where you can't have any help. I mean–

E: Yeah, I mean what I suppose you would have is a database where you would log in to do your assignment, which the school or the institution controls, and it's impervious to being able to be manipulated by the ChatGPT. I mean–

S: So there's another approach. So first let me back up a little bit and say that if you read commentary about this, I've three basic approaches to this problem. One is to say if kids want to cheat, screw them. They're cheating themselves out of an education. That doesn't work, I think, because teachers need a way to assess the effectiveness of their own teaching. And if that is taken away from them, they may not realize that what they're doing isn't working. And also grade sometimes – you know, some classes, some schools grade on a curve. There's a certain competitiveness in terms of going to the next level of your education or whatever. So there has to be a level playing field, and you don't want to punish the students who are not cheating, basically. So I don't think that works. The other one is really aggressive detection methods. I think we agree that's going to fail. That is failing. So we're left with basically methods of evaluating the effectiveness of the teaching and how much the students have learned that are ChatGPT proof. This may require a significant reorganization of the entire process. This may not be a quick fix. So for example – and I think the good news is I think we're already moving in this direction. And I think I've said on the show at my medical school, we don't lecture anymore. We don't give lectures. Students consume the material on their own time via video, podcasts, audio, and written material. And then when we have class time, we're doing workshops. So I think that's what we need to – we need to go to that model where it's like, okay, on Tuesday's class, we're going to be talking about chapter three. Here's all your material. Here's the chapter. Here's a video about it. Here's lectures about it, whatever. By Tuesday, you should have consumed all this material. And then during that classroom time, you're talking about what do people think about it and analysing the content or solving problems with the skills that they were supposed to have learned. And so that not only becomes a superior way of teaching the material, but also a way of evaluating the students. And I think any testing, as Bob said, needs to be live in the classroom, free of technology.

E: And the student would know that if they are kind of more limited than the other students in their participation, that their grade may suffer as a result of that, right?

S: Yeah. I mean, this exists. I mean, I had classes where even in college 30 years ago, it was like classroom participation will be part of your grade. That was just baked into some of the classes because they were so – like we had one class on the Canterbury Tales. And the discussions, you had to have read it. And if you didn't read it, you weren't going to be able to participate in the classroom discussion. And that would have negatively affected your grade. That was part of your evaluation. So that just needs to come forward as the primary way of evaluating students, not like here write an essay because that's just useless now as a way of evaluating students. And so the final thought I'll leave you with is that I think it's pretty clear that this needs to happen or something like this. We need to brainstorm other ways to sort of make ChatGPT-proof classwork. But universities and colleges and schools can't just put this on the teachers. They can't just say, like, do all this additional work to sort of reimagine education. They need support and infrastructure. And this is a disruptive technology. It has successfully disrupted institutions of learning. And there needs to be, I think, a significant change to how we evaluate students. And that's going to require resources. You can't just dump that on teachers.

E: Should there be punishment if students are caught cheating?

S: Well, that's the second approach is like trying to detect and punish cheating. I think because there's so many false positives, false negatives, it's problematic. You end up punishing students who didn't cheat.

E: Yeah, it would have to go through-

S: I would say no, I don't think we're not effective enough to do that.

E: Let's ask ChatGPT what's the best way to get around this problem. It has some ideas.

Geothermal Energy (21:59)[edit]

S: Right. All right, Jay, tell us about geothermal energy.

J: Well, Steve, you and I are fans of geothermal. We've talked about this in the past. We've discussed briefly where you could get a geothermal heating and air conditioner put into your house, right? And this is a similar concept, except on a huge, huge, like an order of magnitude, larger scale or even more. So the fact is the United States, basically every country is sitting on a significant and largely untapped source of clean renewable energy. And this is geothermal energy. So this energy source is capable of potentially powering the entire world, since heat energy is everywhere. If you drill deep enough it gets warmer and warmer.

S: That's the key. That's the key. Drilling deep enough.Of course.

J: As a renewable energy, it could potentially be a game changer if things go well now compared to wind and solar geothermal would be consistent. There would always be that heat there that we could use to produce steam, to turn turbines, to produce energy. Wind and solar as you guys know, it's unpredictable. We have external factors, weather conditions. Is the wind blowing? Yes or no. Is the sun shining? Yes or no. Sometimes it's yes. And sometimes it's no. Well, geothermal energy, it's always there. The heat is always there. So this makes it a consistent and reliable source of clean power. Now, historically, it's been difficult to collect geothermal energy efficiently because we've had to find unique geological conditions that are required for traditional geothermal plants to take advantage of it. So today's geothermal power plants tap into naturally occurring underground hot water reservoirs and things like that that can drive turbines that generate electricity. But there's only a certain number of these out there that would work by putting a fact putting a an energy generator on top of. So only a small fraction of America's electricity is produced through this method. And it's zero point four percent. It's not a lot. It's relatively insignificant today how much we're getting from it. Existing drilling and fracking technologies, though, have been steadily getting better as the years go by. There's been a significant technological boom for drilling and fracking since the early 2000s. And these advancements now make geothermal energy collection feasible. Like we are we are at that point where the technology has progressed far enough, where we have dozens of new energy companies popping up and are all trying to take advantage of this new these new fracking and drilling machinery and techniques that we have. And they want to get in on the geothermal potential here because it's likely to happen. It's just a matter of time. We have companies out of out of all the companies I pick out a couple here like Fervo Energy. They're using fracking techniques to try and crack open hard rock formations and then create artificial geothermal reservoirs. Basically they drill deep enough where there's a constant store of heat and then they inject water into the fractured rock. Then the heat would create steam from the water. And that again, that's all you need, right? You need a way to collect that steam energy. And they have different techniques to do that. I can get into a little detail. Like in this instance, they would create they would drill two holes very, very deep vertical hole and then a horizontal hole and then do it and do it again like a kind of like a mirror image. And then you have basically a way in and a way out, right? And then when the water is injected into it, the steam would come out like the other hole not the hole that's injecting the water. And then there's another approach that this company, Evor, is doing. It's called a closed loop approach. And this is essentially exactly like what geothermal is in the home on the home level, except it's much deeper and much, much, much more dangerous and complicated. But this closed loop approach is it involves like drilling sealed pipes into the hot rocks, right? So the water is not touching the rocks, the water is inside the pipes, but you pump the water down into the pipes and then it becomes it turns into steam it picks up an incredible amount of energy from the heat. And then on the other side you have the heat energy coming out as steam and then again you have a generator there, but it's not not just putting water out into the rockets all stays inside the pipes. So the main factor that's driving interest in expanding geothermal energy is this constant need, of course, for more clean energy solutions than we have today. And we need them to operate consistently meaning 24 hours a day now, particularly during times when wind and solar energy production fluctuates. So when wind and solar have made huge technological strides, they're doing really, really good. They're they're kicking ass. Every time you look at the charts and read what they're capable of doing, how much energy they collect and everything, the numbers just keep going up, the costs keep going down. But they still and always will need backup energy sources or at least we need to have this amazingly aggressive batteries connected to our grid to store the energy. And a lot of experts are saying it's very unlikely that we're going to get to that, especially in the short term. So geothermal energy could potentially fill this gap that we need to fill when we're using solar and wind. And look, it's a reliable carbon free alternative. There's a lot of untapped potential here. There's challenges and risks, of course, that come with this. Fracking could cause earthquakes. And they have to be very careful about how they're handling that. Allowing these kinds of projects takes a lot of time. And it has a complex process, especially if it's happening on federal property. There's a lot of regulatory reviews that take years and years. You know how slow governments can move on stuff like this. And again the government, the U.S. government in particular, isn't funding geothermal anywhere near its funding wind, solar and hydrogen. So I personally have a lot of hope for this technology. It seems almost like a no brainer. It's clean. We're using technologies that we already have. We just need them to get more refined and we need them to basically get to the finish line now. There's these companies are trying to do it. They're looking for funding and who knows what the future will bring. But I am guessing I think that that this is very likely to happen. It's not going to happen quickly again, because the money isn't isn't there yet. But I do think that in the within the next 10 to 20 years, like geothermal could be a huge, huge supply of energy as long as things go well.

S: Yeah, I think there's no question that there's going to be increased geothermal going forward. The only question is how much and how much really depends on how deep you have to dig. So like all all forms of energy, we need to pick the low hanging fruit first. There are locations where you don't have to drill that deep to get basically to to build a geothermal plant so we could do all of that. Then there are ones where you have to drill deeper, but within our current drilling technology. And then there's the deep geothermal where we're basically like, yeah, we've got to like, we've got to develop the drilling technology itself to be able to drill deeper and economically. And that's the big question mark. So it's really just a matter of how much are we going to have based on how deep we need to dig. And I've read estimates that, yeah, 10 to 15 percent is kind of the low hanging fruit in terms of like an existing energy demand in the U.S. Other countries will have a lot more. This is very region specific. It just depends on your country. And I agree that also, like the main advantage here you glossed over kind of a lot of debate and controversy about like how much wind and solar can we really get to? And it really, it really depends on grid storage. With enough grid storage, we can have 100 percent wind and solar. There's no question about that. But that but enough grid storage is a lot of freaking grid storage. And it's still questionable how quickly and how much we're going to be able to develop things like closed loop hydro. If that turns out to be something that we can do in the next 20 years, then that would give a huge boon to wind and solar. But the big advantage to like hydro geothermal and nuclear right now is that they just require a single connection to the to the grid and it could be an existing connection. And they can produce a lot of electricity and you just plug into an existing grid infrastructure. The biggest the biggest hurdle with wind and solar is that it's more than the intermittency is that it's widely distributed. We have a backlog of years of new connections to the grid and we need lots of grid upgrade if we're going to be able to move like solar power from one place to another or wind power from one place to another. And so that may be a limiting factor. So things that can just like swap out coal or natural gas for another large base load source, there's a certain there's a huge advantage to that in terms of how quickly we could decarbonize our energy infrastructure. If it didn't matter how long it took, then we could get go we could say, OK, we'll just do all wind and solar however long it takes. But we're not we don't have that luxury. We got to do it as quickly as possible. Which means we've got to pick the low hanging fruit of every type of energy and every type of low carbon energy. And then the final thing about geothermal, I think, is that it's one technological breakthrough away from being an order of magnitude, more important than these more modest projections.

Failed Star (31:55)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about this failed star. Why are astronomers excited about that?

B: Radiation belts, radiation belts like Earth and Jupiter's have for the first time been found outside our solar system and they're around a brown dwarf. Why should we even care about this? We shouldn't. Back to you, Steve. Oh, wait, I got a few more things to say.

E: It does not impact my immediate.

B: I totally lied.

E: The leads on this paper are Melodie Kao, fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Professor Evgenya Shkolnik of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, published in Nature on May 15th. Now, it's easy not to think about radiation belts, even though one begins, look straight up a thousand kilometers straight up. There's the beginning of a radiation belt. I personally, I don't see a lot of news items about them. I haven't come across them in a while and I'm always kind of looking around for something. But they are fascinating regardless. And it looks like they just got way more fascinating. Radiation belts are donut shaped magnetic structures found around the planets and moons in our solar system that have essentially large scale magnetic fields around them. So Earth, Jupiter, other gas giants, some moons as well. These are and all of these radiation belts are filled with charged particles, high energy electrons and protons. That's what you find in them. Sometimes you find more protons in one and more electrons in the other. But it's essentially high energy electrons and protons. Now, it's believed that the electrons and protons come from our sun's solar wind and they just get permanently trapped in our own magnetosphere. You may be thinking about auroras right now. And if you are, I send you a polite but earnest golf clap right now. The aurora borealis and the aurora australis, otherwise known as the northern and southern lights, are probably caused by those same electrons and protons trapped in the radiation belts. But some of them get channeled by the magnetosphere down to the Earth's polar regions when the solar activity warrants it. And then there they interact with the atmosphere and they produce the beautiful glow that we know as the northern and southern lights. Now, our own inner and outer radiation belts were discovered in 1958 by the first American satellite called, come on, people, the first American satellite.

S: Telstar?

B: What? Closed. Not bad, Steve, but it was Explorer 1.

E: Oh, that's good trivia right there.

B: It is. It is. And I didn't think of it either.

E: Everyone knows. It's weird. Everyone knows Sputnik.

B: Oh, my God. Right. Nobody knows Explorer. Right. Explorer 1. But this was very an important thing, an important satellite for many reasons. Space scientist James Van Allen and his team were behind this discovery. And the belts are still called the Van Allen belts to this day. You may come across that term, but they are dangerous areas for sure. They interfere with electronics and satellites. They can harm or even kill astronauts. But limited exposure is safe. It's safe enough. You can go. You can fly through it without really worrying about it. I mean, if you if you went outside of your ship, you wouldn't even notice it if you were just even floating right in the middle of one. But your instruments would certainly notice it. Now, Jupiter, as you might imagine, has a monster radiation belts, many, many times more powerful than the Earth's. They're actually recognized as one of the most hazardous areas of the solar system, besides Jay's bathroom, of course. So charged particles from the sun and interestingly, vulcanism on Jupiter's moon Io are what we believe cause a good chunk of these radiation belts in Jupiter. These charged particles are accelerated within the belt, like accelerators on Earth, like the LHC, Large Hadron Collider. So if you landed on Jupiter's moon Europa within one of these belts, some estimates say that you would get a lethal dose in hours, hours. Like you got a lethal dose. It's a deadly place. And of course, nearby, if you had electronics nearby you on Europa it would meet a similar fate. So yeah, when the aliens in Arthur C. Clarke's sequel to 2001 is based on Odyssey called 2010, when those aliens said all these worlds are yours, except Europa, attempt no landing there, maybe they had maybe they had our safety in mind. Dudes, don't go to Europa. That's a deadly place. Stay away. I don't think that's what they had in mind though, at all, Steve. So don't worry. Okay. So we have identified these radiation belts in our solar system. Okay. That's fine. How common are they? Well, we don't know, but we now have one new massive new data point. And it doesn't evolve a planet or a moon, but a brown dwarf. Now, brown dwarfs are, these are oddball astronomical objects. They are really are bizarre. They're at a huge 13 to 80 Jupiter masses. They're heavy. They could be up to 80 times the mass of Jupiter, but they're too big. So they're too big to be a planet. And they're not big enough to be to sustain hydrogen fusion in their cores. So they're not really considered true stars either. You'll often hear them referred to as a failed star or a substellar objects, which is fair enough. But they do fuse deuterium and even lithium if you're over 65 Jupiter masses. I say, if you fuse new elements in your core, you're a star. I call you a star. That's just me. All right. So the nearest brown dwarf to us is called LSR J1A35, blah, blah, blah, whatever. I'm going to call it LSR. It's only 18.5 years away. To be fair, this is a brown dwarf binary. It's a binary pair, but we're only talking about one of them. LSR, I'll call it. It's only 18.5 light years away.It's right in our backyard. In fact, the term backyard in this case is inadequate. That's so close. It's basically touching the deck that's attached to the back of our house. It's like right there. It's the third closest system to us after Alpha Centauri and Bernard's star. I mean, it's just stupid close. 18.5 light years is nothing, relatively speaking.

E: Let's send a probe there with a solar sail. Let's get there.

B: Yeah. Because LSR is so close though, that's why we are able to see its radio emissions in such great detail and make this breakthrough that they have made. In fact, the image resolution they got would surprise the hell out of me. They got, it was 50 times better than even the James Webb Space Telescope, 50 times better than JWST. So how could that even be? They did this by using very long baseline interferometry, VLBI. So they coordinated 39 radio dishes all over the Earth from Hawaii to Germany to create in a real sense a telescope the size of the Earth. Not in a full sense, but in a realistic sense, the telescope for some purposes is the size of the Earth when you spread it out over many, many radio dishes like that. So this is how they imaged the black hole recently that was all over the news was it last year, a year or two ago. They use this very similar technique. And without this technique, that brown dwarf would have just looked like a point of light, just like pretty much any other star. It really wouldn't have been able to infer really much at all. So this very long baseline interferometry technique was critical. So they were able to actually resolve the dynamic magnetic field around the brown dwarf, its magnetosphere. This is the first time this has been done and its shape and nature was recognizably similar to Earth's. And even more so, it was more similar to Jupiter's, in fact. Now, from what they can infer, as you might imagine, the radiation belts around this brown dwarf belied its name. Some estimates put it at 10 million times more intense than Jupiter's. 10 million times more intense of a radiation belt than Jupiter. So how long would an astronaut last near this? Regardless of gravity or anything else, just the radiation belt. So it's hard to say how long an astronaut would last. But if you extrapolate from Europa, if a lethal dose in Europa, you would get in a few hours. So what's one 10 millionth of three hours? I figured a thousandth of a second you would last and you would have a deadly dose in just a sub-second. That's going to be a very, very nasty place to get close to. All right, so that's the radiation belt. But what does the aurora look like on this brown dwarf? Now, imagine right now a classic aurora on the Earth. We've all seen the pictures, right?

E: That nice greenish glow.

B: Amazing, among the most beautiful images, the most beautiful things you could see in the night sky, arguably.

E: Everyone but Bob can't see.

B: I saw one decades ago. It went way down into Connecticut. It was light. It was not a dramatic one, but you could still get the sense of the beauty of an aurora borealis. So imagine that. Okay, now multiply that by about a million. And that's the aurora you would probably see on this brown dwarf. Maybe you might need radio eyes to see it. I'm not sure what the actual wavelength would be, but that's a million times the intensity of a classic aurora on the Earth. Amazing. But it gets even better. That's not even the really good stuff. The researchers speculate that there may be an exoplanet in this system, an exoplanet. Now, they think it perhaps if it exists, there's no real hard evidence, but if it exists, it would exist perhaps like Jupiter in the sense that there's a body in a close orbit that's supplying many of the charged particles that compose its radiation belts and auroras. So there may be some volcanism on this exoplanet that is spewing out the charged particles that the brown dwarf then accelerates and causes such a nasty environment in creating the radiation belt and creating the occasional auroras. Now, I love the lead scientist on this Melodie Kao's analogy of a radiation belt. She compares it to a yard, but she said the yard doesn't have flowers, it has glowing energetic particles. And then I'll quote her directly here to finish this. She said, "The particular properties of each radiation belt tells us something about that planet's energetic, magnetic, and particle resources. How quickly it's spinning? How strong is the magnetic field? How close it lives to the sun? Does it have moons that can supply more particles? Or does it have rings like Saturn that will absorb them and more? For the first time, we're able to see what sorts of yards, brown dwarfs, and low mass stars have. I'm excited for the day that we can learn about the magnetospheric yards inhabited by exoplanets." So really interesting the fact that we could use these radio signals to infer what the radiation belt and auroras look like on these distant brown dwarfs that eventually, hopefully in the future, we could then fine tune this technique so that we could look at them for exoplanets. And then by observing this radiation belt on the exoplanet, we can determine all of these details about the exoplanet, about its spin, its magnetic field, how close to the sun, all these things we can infer just by interpreting these radio signals that were emitted by the radiation belt. Fascinating stuff. Thank you for your time. Back to you, Steve.

S: So that's why astronomers are excited.

B: Yes.

S: All right.

Doctor and NDEs (43:55)[edit]

S: All right. Evan, tell us about this doctor who thinks that near-death experiences are real.

B: Oh, God. (Evan laughs) Real what, though?

E: Here you go, Bob. Put aside the Van Allen belt for now. Pick this one up. I read this at a website called It was featured on's website. And seeing as how I have a Yahoo-based email, I get all kinds of updates and news flashed at me. Comes at me a million miles an hour. So this was one of them. An article about a doctor named Jeffrey Long. Jeffrey Long is a medical doctor specializing in the practice of radiation oncology. That's, yep, radiation to treat cancer. Dr. Long is also the founder of something called the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation. And I went to their website and I looked at their mission statement, and here's what it says. "To research and study consciousness experiences and to spread the message of love, unity, and peace around the world." The banner on their homepage reads, "Where science and spirituality come together." Okay, all right. As a scientist, Jeff founded this organization in 1998. He wanted to know if near-death experiences, NDEs, I'm going to call them going forward, if they were real by directly asking the people who have experienced these things. And the answer is a resounding yes, as a result of his research he was able to author a New York Times bestseller book called Evidence of the Afterlife, the Science of Near-Death Experiences. And he's written some other stuff. He's been on all the major networks all the TV shows, Oprah, Dr. Oz. The only place I didn't see him was Goop. But he's pretty much been everywhere talking about this stuff for a long time. He says that studying near-death experiences, sorry, NDEs, has made him a better cancer doctor. Do I need to explain what a near-death experience is? Do you want to hear it?

J: Migh as well.

S: Give a bullet.

E: Yeah, well, here's his definition. I mean, these are his words. "A near death experience is someone who is either comatose or clinically dead without a heartbeat, having a lucid experience where they see, hear, feel emotions, and interact with other beings." That definition, I think, needs some clarity, right, Steve? I mean, clinically dead?

S: Yeah, that's how you define it. In most studies of NDEs, it's just defined as the heart is stopped. A period of time when there is no spontaneous heartbeat. Often, people are undergoing CPR, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, during that time. That's considered "clinically dead".

E: Right, clinically dead. OK, all right. So yeah, so there's the hard definition of it. Now, he came across, so he was in his practice. He was a resident at the time, the late 1980s. And he was in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He came across an article describing NDEs. And here's what he said, it stopped me in my tracks. All my medical training told me you were either dead or alive. There was no in-between. But suddenly-

S: Really? What course are you on?

E: Right. All his medical training told him this, Steve. But suddenly, he was reading about a cardiologist describing patients who had died and then came back to life, reporting very distinct and almost unbelievable experiences. And from that moment, he was fascinated with NDEs. So yeah, his organization collects stories from people who have these experiences. And then he, these are his words. "Evaluates them in the mind of a scientist and a doctor. I've made opinions based on evidence and came to this as a skeptic. But in the face of overwhelming evidence, I've come to believe there's certainly an afterlife."

S: Bullshit.

E: I'm a medical doctor. Steve, he's...

S: He's already thrown that authority away with the hyperbole that he's been using. You're not either alive or dead. There's a pretty big continuum between those two things, right? Your heart could be stopped, but your brain can still be functioning, for example. That's a pretty big point if we're talking about experiences that are remembered after somebody revives. He's clearly not coming at this from a skeptic scientific point of view, medical background point of view. He wants to believe this.

E: Oh yeah, absolutely. It's amazing that he's able to say that and has been saying this for decades with basically a straight face.

S: Or he's been bedazzled by the idea of it and is just engaging in motivated reasoning. But what's inexcusable is that he's promoting basically a religious belief by citing some kind of skeptical scientific authority, and that's BS.

E: That is exactly right. He's an oncologist, as I said before. He says, here, "I'm a medical doctor, but I've read brain research and considered every possible explanation for NDEs. The bottom line is none of them hold water. There isn't even a remotely plausible physical explanation for this phenomenon." Steve, those are his words exactly I pulled that.

S: Yeah, which also, I mean, right there, again, he's totally full of it because there are absolutely plausible explanations. He's not even addressing the most plausible explanation, which is that the memories that people are recalling didn't happen when they were "clinically dead". And research to prove that it's happening during a period of time with no brain activity have failed. They have failed to demonstrate that anything is happening at a time when you can document no brain activity. So wrong. That statement is a straight up wrong. Either he is just ignorant of the topic he professes expertise on, or he is being intellectually-

E: This is argument from authority, Steve, is it not? I mean, this oncologist basically-

S: Partly, I mean, partly, but he's also making specific factual claims, which are just not true.

B: He's a punk.

E: And he goes on. I mean, there's parts in here in which he talks about, what it boils down to is that he says his research, and he has studied apparently more than 5,400 cases, okay, through his organization for whatever that's worth. And he said, here's the thing. He said, "My day job still revolves around helping patients fight cancer. I don't tell my patients about my NDE research, and yet my work with NDE has made me a more compassionate and loving doctor. I'm able to help my patients face life-threatening diseases with increased courage and passion. My goal is to help them have more healthy days here on Earth, but I firmly believe that if and when they pass, they will be at peace."

S: Yeah, this is all subjective.

E: Steve, will he be writing for Science-Based Medicine anytime soon? Submitting an article?

S: Yeah, I doubt it. I'd be happy to engage in a written debate with him on SBM or elsewhere.

E: You recall, Steve, it was, oh my gosh, it's coming up on 10 years in which you had your debate, you and Sean Carroll.

S: That's right.

E: Against proponents of near-death experiences.

S: Yeah, where we kicked ass.

E: You did. You moved the needle, right?

S: By the rules of the debate, we won.

E: Absolutely. Yeah, no, it was significant, too. It wasn't just a small blip. You convinced a good chunk of that audience to think differently about this after it was all said and done.

S: Yeah, but the bottom line is, just as a scientific question, they haven't proven that NDEs are a phenomenon, that they are anything other than just brain activity occurring sometime around the entire experience, right? Because they haven't been able to demonstrate any mental activity when the brain is not functional. That's it. Until they do that, they have nothing, nothing. All right, let's move on.

Who's That Noisy? (51:54)[edit]

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

J: All right, guys, last week I played this noisy.


Short and sweet. What do you guys think?

E: Friction, something experiencing friction.

J: Yes, you are correct.

E: Excellent. I win.

B: Random sound created by an AI.

E: AI's interpretation of that sound.

J: A listener named Will Beldman wrote in and said, "Hi, Jay, based on your hint, I think it sounds like taping up a hockey stick." Because remember, I gave the clue that it's sport related.

E: Oh, yes.

J: "If that's it, this person is probably a pro because this person is able to tape up the blade in one continuous smooth motion." You are incorrect, but I do appreciate the visualization of somebody doing that very quickly. Visto Tutti had something to say. He said "A rhythmic scraping, sweeping sound, then pause. And did I hear a click? I think this is the sound of the sport of curling." And then he goes on to describe it. "Curling is the ancient sport of guiding the path of large stones on frozen lakes without touching them."

E: More like guidelines.

J: And the curling stones go back to 1511. Everybody here probably has seen the video of people curling and then they have the people with the brooms and whatnot and all that. I always find that fascinating. But that is incorrect, my friend. I have another listener named Portia Schumans and she says, "Good morning from Canada. It sounds to me like sharpening ice skates. Thanks and have a nice day." And then there was a listener from Alberta, Canada named Maxie B, 11 years old, listening to the podcast while my father's driving. "Is the noise ice skates being sharpened?" So I got many, many people guessed that it was ice skates being sharpened. Maxie, thank you for listening to the show. I appreciate it. I hope you grow up to be a scientist. It is not ice skates being sharpened. But there's a little bit of a step in the right direction. I have another guest here from Keely Hill and Keely says, "Given the hint, I think it's an automatic ball lacing sewing machine." I have no idea what the hell that is. And I wanted to know if any of you guys know what it is. What's a ball lacing sewing machine?

E: The term ball lacing? I don't know.

J: Yeah, I've never heard of that before. Well, Keely, send me in a link to a sound of that. I'd like to hear that. No, but it is not that. But the important word here, when people made these guesses in ice skates was ice. So nobody got it. And I knew it was going to be hard. This is an ice screw. This is a screw that ice climbers use to essentially make a point that they can hook on a safety line or whatever, right? So they have to screw into the ice in order to make this stable point. And then they would use that for climbing, right? Can you understand what I'm saying? But the weird thing is when this screw is screwed in, it's pushing out ice shavings out the middle of it. And they just come out as the screw goes in. So take a quick listen again. [plays Noisy] Right, so that's...

E: So I was right. Friction.

J: Yes, that's the person turning the screw around. And it goes in very, must be super sharp, the teeth on that thing.

E: Friction based on an inclined plane.

J: Yeah. Very cool, though. I don't know much about ice climbing other than it's dangerous. But that is one of the tools that they need in order to pull it off.

New Noisy (55:29)[edit]

J: So I have a new noisy this week. I have this noisy sent in from a listener named Anthony Morgan. And here it is.

[Eerie mechanical hums, groans, and screeches]

If you think you know what this week's noisy is, or you heard something cool, email me at

Announcements (56:04)[edit]

J: Steve, as people hear this, we will have already been to Dragon Con. So I know I don't need to mention Dragon Con. But what we do need to mention is NOTACON, which is our conference.

E: Let's go.

J: Which is not really a conference because we're doing things at this gathering that are non-conference like. If you've been to other been to other skeptical or science conferences, it's not going to be that it's a totally different concept. This conference revolves around two things. Us entertaining you and you having time to socialize with the people that are at the conference because this is what people have been asking us for years to do, right? They want they want social activity. So we're giving you social activity. This will be happening on November 3rd and 4th. We have a lot of awesome things planned for those two days. A couple of a couple of things I want to tell you guys, even though this show is going to come out a couple of weeks later, everything I say is still relevant. First and foremost, it's not too late. There are still tickets left. I did have I did ask for more seating and everything. I had to arrange for that. So we do have some more seats available. So please do buy tickets. This will be in White Plains, New York at the Sonesta Hotel in White Plains. We have Brian Wecht, George Hrabb, Andrea Jones Roy, and everybody from the SGU will be there. We have all different types of crazy events planned for the day. You can go to to find out more information. We have some the schedule will be up very soon. If it's not up by the time you get you, you go there when you hear this. So please do join us. It's not too late. We'd love to have you. We're going to have a great time. There is also the very strong potential for there to be a conference dinner which will which will cost forty nine dollars. At this point, it's very likely to happen and I will it'll be a separate ticketed event that I will put up as a separate Eventbrite. If you're interested, you can buy tickets for that. And a couple last things. One one thing you could do to help the show is you could just give us a rating on whatever podcast player you're using. Most people go to Apple podcasts to read reviews and everything. So that'd be great if you could do that. And also you could become a patron if you appreciate the work that we do.

S: Okay. Thanks, Jay. Well, we have a great interview coming up. So let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Anna Blakney (58:26)[edit]

  • SciComm and Vaccines

S: Joining us now is Anna Blakeney. Anna, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

AB: Thanks so much for having me.

S: And you are an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia in the Michael Smith Labs and School of Biomedical Engineering. It seems that your research focus deals with various aspects of RNA. Is that correct?

AB: Yeah, that's right.

S: But we're going to talk to you at least at first about your social media activity because you're a science communicator, just like the rest of us. We appreciate that. So tell us what you do. Tell us about your science communication.

AB: Yeah, absolutely. So I guess, yeah, maybe I'll give you a little bit of the backstory here. So I run a TikTok account that is dedicated to educating people about RNA vaccines and therapies. I'm primarily a TikTok purist, although I do also have an Instagram account where I cross post reels. But yeah, it's mainly to just really kind of be able to show people how we make and characterize and test RNA vaccines in the lab and answer any questions that people may have come up.

S: And how long have you been doing that?

AB: So I started in October of 2020. So kind of right at an interesting time when there were lots of vaccines in development for COVID, but none of them had been approved yet. And so I was actually invited to join this organization called Team Halo that was started by the United Nations and the Vaccine Confidence Project. And so their whole goal was to just get more scientists and clinicians who were working on COVID-19 on TikTok specifically, to just be able to answer questions and yeah, kind of educate people about the progress.

S: Do you have any mechanism for evaluating your effectiveness or you define that in any way or you just want to be a resource?

AB: Yeah, that's a really good question. I think there's, I've had many conversations about this with people and interested to hear your guys' thoughts on this as well, which is there's many metrics that you can have on the app, right? There's all these analytics about how many people see a post or comment or like a post or share a post. And all of that is well and good, but obviously is very influenced by the algorithm and the actual content there. I think for me, kind of a personal, like a personal measure of this or what I value is really more the interactions that I see in the comments. So something that I have been really, I guess, surprised by, but also pleased by is that there is actually sometimes really good discussions in the comments. So people asking questions, answering questions, people kind of sharing their experiences. And so for me, that's what I find much more rewarding and valuable as opposed to just how many followers you have or how many people have viewed your videos. Yeah, we've been doing, I don't know if Jay told you when he was setting this up, but we've been doing science communication on TikTok for about six months now.

J: Well, since the beginning of the year.

S: Beginning of the year. Yeah. Okay. So eight months. So we've been we engage in the comments as well. And man, that's an expense. I mean, I'm sure some of the comments you get, you're like, do I even engage here? Like, do you have a way of figuring out, like, is this worth engaging with? It's obviously good. It's all good. But man, sometimes you have to wonder if it's worth trying to deal with some things.

AB: It's really funny. I feel like I could probably write a whole book on just TikTok as a scientist. It's so different from what I normally do, right? Because I mean, usually I'm talking to crowds of people that all are on the same page, right? They may be skeptical about certain parts of my science, but they all are, understand RNA and vaccines and whatnot, right? So for me, yeah. So what I do, what I try to say really grounded in is my mission of being there. So for me, I'm not there to try to convince people to get vaccines. I'm purely there to educate people about the science I do and mRNA technology in general. And so I think that really also helps me to kind of check my attitude about what I'm trying to do there and my interactions with people. I'm not trying to argue. I'm not trying to really convince somebody to get a vaccine. I'm really just there to answer their questions. So if people have good questions, happy to engage and answer them and kind of go back and forth. But if people are just there to troll or be really negative, that's not the energy I'm there for. So it's pretty easy for me to just pass that by. But yeah, what has your guys' experience been like?

J: How much time do you have?

S: So we are skeptical science communicators. So we do take that approach sometimes. And we're also not purists. We do everything. Whatever social media we go wind our way into. So we take that approach of, like, we're here as a resource and for the media, for people who have questions. But we're also, as skeptical science communicators, we are supposed to be addressing the conspiracy theories and the pseudoscience and the critical thinking aspects of it. So we delve into that, as long as we think there is something productive to get out of it. And then there are just sometimes, first of all, there's one class of people, we have a conversation sometimes, like, is this guy for real? Or is he, is this performance? Because we don't want to get sucked into that. We don't want to deal with somebody who's not even sincere. They're just trying to goose their own TikTok ratings, you know. Or the other sort of line is, is this guy, I'm using guy in a gender neutral way, is this person on the fringes of mental illness? We don't want to get and go down that road either. But if we think, like, okay, they're stating a conspiracy theory, so we're going to address this, not even necessarily for them, but for other people who might be reading the comments.

AB: Yeah, absolutely. And you know what, I actually mRNA vaccines, especially over the past few years, there's lots of conspiracy theories about all these things, right? And so, yeah, I haven't been I actually don't try to ignore that or like go out of my way to avoid talking about conspiracy theories. I think it's actually really good sometimes to just confront these things head on. I think exactly as you've said of just you have to kind of do a temperature check of just, like, maybe who is this person I'm about to engage with, but it's so hard to tell. I mean, it's not an easy thing to do. But one of the things I always really try to do when I'm doing this is have data to back me up or at least present kind of the data that's most relevant or most cutting edge. And so, yeah, whenever I go into any of these theories, I try to have some sort of data to point to in that conversation.

B: Anna, you keep going on about RNA. Does that stand for rotor nacelle assembly or radio network association?

E: Oh, good question.

AB: Could be any of the above. It could also be ribonucleic acid.

B: Ah, that initialism.

AB: Yeah, it depends on who you're talking to, right?

B: Got it. All right, I'm on board. I get it.

S: Yeah Bob has sort of a different science emphasis.

J: Yeah, it's called science fiction.

S: Any deep lessons learned in the last few years of science communicating, not just about TikTok, but just about because you were in the fire with the RNA vaccines during the pandemic. You were on the front lines of misinformation. Anything that really surprised you or that you said, I really had to change my strategy because of your experience?

AB: Yeah, maybe a few things regarding that. I think for me, the biggest lesson that I've learned in the past few years, the biggest realization that I've had is that there is just such a gap between scientific progress and what the public knows about. This was really kind of put under the magnifying glass for mRNA vaccines. I guess to give you an example, if you think back to January 2020, there were still very few scientists, even in the drug delivery fields, that knew about mRNA vaccines and knew about the clinical trials and kind of all the work that had been done to get there. And that was scientists, people who you think would be more privy to this information. And so as you can imagine, the average person just had no idea what an mRNA vaccine was. And then all of a sudden, billions of people are getting these vaccines. And so I think just from my observations, and there's been lots of studies and social science studies about this now, just as far as some of the questions that people were asking about, does RNA, is it safe? Does it change your DNA? These are actually questions that scientists were asking about a decade ago. When these vaccines were really first starting to come online, scientists asked those same questions as well. Then we did the studies and learned about how they actually worked and the mechanisms. And we know they don't change your DNA, but the perfectly valid questions, it's just the pace that we communicate our findings to the public is just so slow. So we really saw this for mRNA vaccines in the past few years, but it was kind of a wake-up call for me for so many different things. It's not just RNA vaccines, it's climate science. It's all these different things that I think we just do as scientists. We're really focused on our research and communicating to other researchers, but we don't do enough science communication as a whole.

B: Anna, can you distinguish RNA-based vaccines with conventional vaccines?

AB: Yeah, absolutely. So whenever I'm explaining what's different, I just try to think about, what are we trying to do with a vaccine? What does a vaccine do? With any vaccine, we're trying to train your immune system to recognize a foreign pathogen, ideally without ever having seen that pathogen. So for example, the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we're trying to train your immune system to recognize a protein on the surface of that virus. And there's many ways we can train your immune system. So we could give you the virus itself. We could make that protein in a lab and give you just that protein. Or what mRNA vaccines do is we give your cells the code to make that protein in your own body, and that is what trains your immune system to recognize it. So historically, we've used all these other different ways of vaccinating people with viruses or inactivated viruses or proteins, subunit vaccines. It's all just different ways of getting these proteins into your body.

B: That was great.

S: Have you noticed a change over the last few years? Do you think we've turned a corner? Do people get it now? Obviously, not everybody, but just in general, do you find the public, the needle has moved on in terms of the public understanding and acceptance?

AB: Yeah, I think that to me is maybe a positive outcome of the pandemic, if you can even really say that, is just I think there has been an increase in the global knowledge about virology and immunology and vaccines. Even I think to put it into perspective, if you think about, maybe if you've ever gotten a flu vaccine in the past or a tetanus vaccine, did you know the manufacturer of that vaccine or what type of vaccine it was when you were getting it?

E: No.

S: Probably not.

AB: Probably not, right? And so now people know the manufacturers, they know the different types of vaccines, and so I think people's vaccine literacy has actually really improved. I notice that even just talking into my friends and family who aren't scientists, but before the pandemic I would always tell my parents or my friends, I'm working on RNA vaccines, and they'd be like, okay, okay, okay, great. I don't really get what that means, right? Now, whenever I talk to people, they're like, oh, yeah, how's the new vaccines looking? Like, how are those antibody levels looking? And it's like, everybody just knows so much more about the field. And so I think I do think there has been kind of just an increased level of learning that has taken place.

B: That's encouraging because my knee-jerk assessment would be that acceptance has definitely gone up, but actual understanding of what's going on under the hood is maybe not nearly as good as just the general acceptance of them, but you're engaging more than I am, so I think that that's encouraging. I'm happy that that's your reaction.

AB: Yeah, I mean, don't get me wrong. I don't think like we're really at the point we need to be at with the education and kind of what everybody knows, but to me, I think there was kind of a net positive change for that in the past few years.

B: Good.

S: Can I ask you the reaction of your university at any level to your social media engagement?

B: Ah, yeah.

AB: Yeah, that's a really good question. You know, I always joke about like, I'm just waiting for the day that UBC sends me like a cease and desist for my social media, but no, they're very supportive. I think I actually, in 2021, I have an award up on my wall. I won the president's award for public education through media. So all the feedback I've gotten is that people are very supportive and pro using it. I think the only challenge is like maybe with the platform itself, with TikTok, I think there's a lot of, I think at least this year has been more controversy, especially in Canada. So now you're technically not allowed to use that on government phones. And so I think if anything, the real risk is like for the platform itself. But yeah, other than that, no, I think it's very supportive because honestly, I do think social media is a great tool for scientists. It's just, you're able to reach so many more in such different populations of people than you normally have access to.

E: And what about the boomers? How do you reach out to them if, because most of them, no, most of them are not on TikTok. So there have to be other things, other ways.

AB: That's right. So I think all these different social media platforms, they kind of have their own identities. I think TikTok for sure historically was a much younger population. I think that average age is getting older now, but maybe, maybe not like quite comprehensive of the boomer generation. I know that some people have like real strategies around this. I don't know that I have like an intentional strategy necessarily, but I think you probably reach a few more people with Instagram. But I actually think that generation probably mainly uses Facebook. And so actually when I was really involved with Team Halo and doing a lot of TikTok stuff, I know that that was like one of their, yeah, one of their strategies was actually getting videos on Facebook and Twitter as well actually at the time. So I think you kind of have to embrace all these different platforms because especially it's different in every country all over the world, right, as to what people are actually using. So yeah, it's a whole world out there for sure.

B: I think Steve is the only boomer on TikTok. Is that right, Steve?

S: Yeah, I was referred to as decrepit in one.

B: Oh my god.

E: Oh, congratulations, a new milestone.

J: You're not decrepit yet.

S: So I'm glad to hear that your university is supportive, but I'm a fellow academician so I'm very interested in this. But when you say supportive, how supportive are they? And specifically, like do you get academic credit for your public outreach on social media?

AB: Yeah every year in my like merit review, I include that in it. And I've actually, I've gotten advice from colleagues of like how to highlight that in my CV, which is kind of the main way of communication. But yeah, I have a blurb about it and because I mean, if you think about it, I've created hundreds of outreach videos, right? And so they happen to be on TikTok, but that is a lot of time and content and education. And so, yeah, I always kind of wondered about that. Do my more senior colleagues view this as a plus when they're looking at my CV. I don't know that I've ever gotten like formal feedback on that. But everybody like who I've talked to, first of all, it comes up at the beginning of basically any conversation I have with people. Because as soon as you Google my name, that's one of the first things you see. So everybody's aware of it. But yeah, I do think it is actually academically valued.

S: Yeah, I agree. So I've been doing it for about 20 years and it's changed over that time. It started out as that's weird. They didn't really know what to make of it. Maybe even a negative. Then it kind of turned into a, well, okay, it's fine that you're doing that, but it doesn't count for anything. And now maybe it's like a plus. It's like, okay, that's good that you're doing that. We'll count that as legitimate, even though it's not the same as other academic activity.

AB: Yeah, I think exactly. It takes time for that view to change too. I mean, I don't think it can become my main emphasis in life. I think there's still things that are valued way higher than that, but I do think it is appreciated.

J: Anna, do you think it's challenging for your average scientist or researcher to be able to effectively communicate online like you're doing?

AB: Oh yeah. I mean, it's a huge challenge for me, right? I get wake-up calls all the time on TikTok of I'll be explaining a concept or something about a vaccine and someone in the comments will say, oh, what is a protein? And so you just have to really take a step back and remember like, oh right, not everybody is dreaming and thinking about RNA vaccines 24/7. So it makes you kind of, or it makes me realize kind of what a niche I'm in and how I'm surrounded by people who think about similar things to me all the time. But yeah, that's a huge challenge for sure. It's just being able to explain these concepts such that people can actually understand them. We spend so much of our time training a scientist to communicate at a higher technical level through writing and presentations. And honestly, I think it's actually more of a challenge to understand it at that high technical level and then be able to boil it back down so that you don't lose the technical content, but you're still getting the message across such that the average person can understand it.

B: Yeah, not over oversimplifying or, or, or worse. We've seen examples of that for sure.

AB: Yeah.

S: Yeah. So it's challenging to, as you say, to get people to understand the essence, to be correct at the level that you're explaining it and without introducing misconceptions or error or the big problem I find is introducing gratuitous hype.

AB: Right.

S: Which is always like like the siren trying to call you to do that to get more engagement, but it, but it really has, I think a detrimental effect on the actual teaching that you're doing.

AB: Yep, exactly. And I think there is that balance is really important to keep in mind, right? Because probably the pulls from the TikTok side are to over sensationalize things and simplify them and make them really exciting. But wearing my professor's scientist hat, it's more to just be very, very specific in the language about the claims that you're making. So when reviewer two comes back to you, you haven't misspoken about or misrepresented your data. And so those two things, like they are, are very polar opposite. So it's, it's definitely just a constant challenge to end up in the right balance between those.

S: Can we talk a little bit about your, your RNA research?

AB: Yeah.

S: So what are you most focused on right now?

AB: Yeah. So my lab works on a specific type of messenger RNA called self-amplifying RNA. Have you guys heard of this technology?

S: Yes.

E: Yeah.

AB: Okay. So it's, for those who aren't aware, it's just a type of messenger RNA that's able to replicate once it gets into cells. So this gives us a number of advantages. It means we can use a much lower dose of mRNA. It's usually about a hundred times less, but we can also express protein for a lot longer. So a typical mRNA expresses protein in vivo for about three to five days. Whereas for sRNA, that's about 30 to 60 days.

B: Wow.

AB: So when we're thinking about giving a patient a therapy needs that instead of dosing every three to five days, theoretically, you could be dosing every 30 to 60 days. So once or once a month or once every two months.

S: Now the existing like mRNA vaccines that are out there are not self-replicating.

AB: They are not. No, there is actually an approved sRNA vaccine that's approved against COVID-19 in India. So that was developed by a company in Seattle called HDT Bio. So there is an approved sRNA vaccine. But the first two, the Pfizer and BioNTech and the Moderna, those are just non-replicating messenger RNA vaccines.

S: Yeah. I'm not that, I'm not familiar with that vaccine. Is the thinking that it would be just more effective or would it also increase the time between boosters?

AB: Yeah. I think the jury's still out on whether it increases the duration of immunity. I don't think that's really been shown for an sRNA vaccine yet, but that is part of the idea and the hypothesis there. But in the approved sRNA vaccine, it is at a lower dose. So it's at a dose of five micrograms compared to the 30 or 50 micrograms that are approved for mRNA. So this is also a huge advantage when we think about scaling these vaccines up and the cost of them. So if you have to make only a 10th of the material, obviously you can make a lot more. It's a lot cheaper. And so there should be kind of more equity associated with that as well.

S: Does that reduce side effects because it's spreading it out over a longer period of time?

AB: Yeah. It's a really good question. So actually the side effects that they observed in that trial were quite similar to the mRNA vaccines. I suspect that's due to some of the manufacturing. It's obviously made in the same way. And so I think, yeah, it's kind of a side effect of that. The goal would be like theoretically, you should get fewer side effects with a lower dose. And that's, I know, really one of the main challenges and priorities in the field right now. But if you look at the outcomes from that clinical trial, they were actually quite similar to the mRNA vaccines.

S: Yeah. Interesting. So it may not really have a tangible advantage over the other approach.

AB: Yeah. Not yet, at least.

S: Yeah. Is there anything that you're aware of or that you're working on that in the pipeline that is so new, like we wouldn't have heard about it yet?

AB: Oh, good question. So I guess a couple of things. One of the projects that we're working on now is in collaboration with some oncologists. So it's specifically an sRNA treatment for ovarian cancer, where we use the sRNA to encode a specific type of antibody called a bispecific T cell engager. So this is, are you familiar with antibody drugs?

S: Yes.

AB: Okay. So to set the scene, maybe antibodies are excellent cancer drugs, right? They're very specific. They don't have the horrific side effects that chemotherapy does. But one of the main challenges with them is that they're very expensive to develop and produce. So sometimes they're up to $10,000 a dose. And this is just obviously very limiting for these medicines. So the idea with using RNA to encode antibodies is that when we're making this and scaling it up, making the RNA in the formulations is essentially the same every time as making it for the vaccine. So that process is very well established. So for every new antibody, if you're making it as a protein, you need to optimize that whole process specifically for that drug. Whereas for the RNA, it should be very similar. It should be a straightforward scale up, knock on wood as always. So we're interested in using these new types of antibodies that are called bispecific T cell engagers or bytes. And they're a little antibody that binds to both a T cell and a tumor cell. So they have two recognition sites. And essentially what they do is they lead a cytotoxic T cell directly to a cancer cell and enable cancer or enable killing of that cancer cell. So they've been shown to work really well. One of the main challenges with them is that they are missing a part of the antibody called the FC region that allows it to circulate for a long time in the blood. So they have really low circulation half-life. So it's about one to two hours. So when patients get treated with these bytes, they're constantly being infused with the bytes for four to six weeks in a normal treatment course. So this is obviously a very demanding treatment schedule. Our idea is that because we get such a good expression with our sRNA, we can encode the bytes and then ideally give a patient an injection. And then you just get expression of the bytes. You have your own cells producing that antibody over the course of a month. And so it's a much easier treatment plan for that.

S: So would this technology potentially replace monoclonal antibody technology?

AB: I guess it's kind of a different form of a monoclonal antibody. But yeah, that's kind of the idea is that instead of having these big centralized pharmaceutical manufacturing plants to make monoclonals, we just use a patient's body to make the monoclonal instead.

S: How far off do you think before we see these kind of drugs actually approved by the FDA?

AB: Yeah, actually, Moderna has some large scale phase one, two trials, not for the specific type of antibody that we're looking at, but they actually have some incredible data from some of their antibody clinical trials. So you never know. The development is just never going to be as quick as it was during the pandemic, because obviously the whole world was working on one disease. The scientists, clinicians, regulators, everybody was focused on COVID. But I think in the next three to five years, we'd have outcomes from a phase three trial, and then they would see about getting regulatory approval for it.

S: Cool.

B: So Anna, do you ever think farther in like 50 years in the future or so and think, oh, and try to imagine what would RNA-based vaccines or just even other types of vaccines, what it could be like in the coming generations?

AB: Yeah I think we're starting to see actually like some of the things that sound so futuristic come online a little bit more. But where I think medicine is really headed and why I think RNA is a great tool and platform for this is just really for the modularity and the personalization, right? So some of the work that Biontech is actually really known for, I would say was their main emphasis prior to the pandemic, was these personalized cancer vaccines, right? So you can take a biopsy of a patient's tumor, you look at what proteins are on the surface of that tumor, and then you make an RNA vaccine that specifically targets that person's cancer. I would not be surprised if in the future with the power of sequencing, with the power of RNA technology and kind of all these other different drugs and protein design that is really starting to come online, that we'd be able to have better healthcare because of that, because we wouldn't be doing humans are so heterogeneous, right? It's like we all have different makeup in our blood and our cells. And so it's really hard with just off the shelf drugs to be able to account for that variability. But if you're able to make drugs that are personalized for a person based off of their genetics, their biochemistry, they should be a lot more effective. And so because we have medicines like mRNA, where it's easy to manufacture them on a per person basis, I'd like that is the future to me, is just making these things more personalized so that we can have more efficacious medicines.

S: Yeah, it really seems like we're in the middle of a real revolution in terms of therapeutics, leveraging antibody RNA or molecular technology.

AB: Yeah, exactly. And just like if you compare it to the cancer drugs, for example, of yesteryear, with chemotherapy, it's a drug that basic many types of cancers will get the same drug because we're just killing every rapidly dividing cell in your body. So it's just so nonspecific. It's kind of crazy that it even works. But what we're trying to do is make this like so, so specific. So you stop seeing those off target effects, those side effects, and just have efficacy at the cells and the tissues where you really want it and need it.

S: All right, Anna, that was a really fascinating interview. We really appreciate you giving us your time.

AB: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

S: So good luck on your social media endeavours. Where can people find you?

AB: Yeah, so I am I'm on TikTok at Anna Blakeney and also the same on Twitter.

S: Okay, yeah, we'll link to that in the show notes as well.

AB: Cool.

S: All right. Well, you take care. Thanks again.

B: Thank you.

AB: Awesome. Thanks so much, guys.


Science or Fiction (1:29:34)[edit]

Theme: Negative results

Item #1: A study of the use of augmented reality glasses in social interactions found no significant impact.[5]
Item #2: A recent Finnish study found that the type and amount of fungus (molds and yeast) found in the home of young children do not correlate with the risk of developing asthma.[6]
Item #3: A study following children from age 10 to 16 did not find any correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Use of AR glasses
Science Fungus & asthma risk
Social media & depression
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Social media & depression
Use of AR glasses
Fungus & asthma risk

Voice-over: 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. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have three recent news items this week, but there's a theme. The theme is negative results.

E: Okay.

S: All studies which had negative results.

E: Except one. Or maybe all three did.

S: Okay, here we go. Item number one, a study of the use of augmented reality glasses in social interactions found no significant impact. Item number two, a recent Finnish study found that the type and amount of fungus, molds and yeast found in the home of young children do not correlate with the risk of developing asthma. And item number three, a study following children from age 10 to 16 did not find any correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see. This first one here, I didn't quite follow that one. A study on the use of augmented reality glasses in social interaction found no significant impact with the social interaction.

S: Somebody in a social interaction using augmented reality glasses didn't affect the social interaction at all.

B: Must be some damn good augmented reality. Oh, okay, wait, there's different ways to interpret that. So this is augmented. This isn't virtual.

S: It's augmented.

B: So there's just like basically extra information being overlaid.

S: Exactly.

B: Okay. Well, I mean, that could just be software reasons. It's just not good enough, timely enough, relevant enough information to have an impact. And it said no significant impact. I mean, it probably had some, but screw all that. The one that really got me was three. This is kids 10 to 16 did not, there was no correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression. I would think if you're like in that, within that age group and heavily into social media, that it would have to probably be some link to anxiety and depression, but maybe it's just kind of like baked in and it would be more genetic than environmental. Ah, I don't know. So now I'm not as confident as I was on the first blush. So let's take a look at the second one then, shall we? So fungus, molds and yeast, no relation with asthma. I have no idea. I never heard of any link with asthma and molds and yeast. Could be for sure. There could be some link, but then you'd think that there'd be most kids in a family would have it since they'd be in this pretty much the same environment. All right, screw it. I'll just say that the social media one, I'll say that one's fiction, whatever. Roll the dice.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, I was thinking that too, Bob. I was agreeing with you on that, but let me go through all these.

B: Very wise of you.

J: Social media, it has been reported to affect anxiety and depression, but this could be some rando study that said they didn't find a correlation. I don't know. The second one here, a recent Finnish study that found that the type of amount of fungus found in the home of young children does not correlate with the risk of developing asthma. It's another thing that you hear about and you think that's basically something that most people would think is true, but okay, so it's possible that it doesn't have an effect. And then the first one says the study of the use of augmented reality glasses and social interactions found no significant impact. I feel really sketchy about that one. I would think that there would be a massive impact.

B: Yeah, right?

J: I think that would be a game changer. I'm going to say, I think that the first one is the fiction. I think that the augmented reality glasses actually do have a significant impact.

S: And Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Yeah, you would think the use of glasses would have, well, I guess it's how you define significant impact. No significant impact. Maybe it had an impact, but just not a significant impact. There's some sort of difference there. But I suppose if everybody's in the augmented reality, you're able to, the augmented reality itself compensates for that impact barrier in a way, right? So it kind of cancels itself out. You don't see people wearing the stuff maybe in the augmented reality and therefore it doesn't have that impact. I don't know. The second one about the fungus and found in the home of young children not correlating with the risk of developing asthma. I wish I knew more about specifically asthma and how it's all about. I think, I might be wrong. It has to do with the particulates in the air, something about the lungs in the young people that they can't filter it out is how much of that would be fungus though. There's a lot of stuff in the air. I always thought it was maybe more like an allergy, like just a severe sort of allergy to pollen and those kinds of things, which are not fungus. And then the last one, Bob, I was really also thinking along the same lines with you, the 10 to 16 not finding any correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety. The only thing that's holding me back on saying this one's the fiction is that it's a study. So I'm sure this is being studied multiple times. I mean, maybe there is one study that didn't find it. That's the only kind of thing I can think about this one and why it might be science. They all have reasons and therefore I will say, what the heck, I'll go with the fungus one as the fiction. That way, Steve, we're all spread out.

S: Yeah, all spread out. Great. I love that. All right. So let's take this in reverse order.

B: Aaaa!

E: Okay. (laughs)

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: A study following children from 10 to 16 did not find any correlation between social media use and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Bob, you think this one is the fiction. Jay and Evan, you think this one is science and this one is science.

B: Christ, I suck.

S: So this was, yes, there have been studies looking at this and with varied results, but this is a very large study with a long follow-up.

B: Not long enough.

S: They followed these kids from age 10 to 16. So it's a pretty robust study. I didn't tell you that this was a study in Norway, would that have affected your answers?

B: Oh my God, totally.

E: Nor-way.

S: So they didn't find any significant correlation. It's interesting. I always find it interesting when you guys make a lot out of my use of the word significant, but every study has that threshold. Every single study is about "significant" results.

E: It's in the first one. It's in the augmented reality.

S: Yeah, I know. But it applies, I'm just making that observation.

E: Oh, okay.

S: But you're right. Yeah, that's the first one. So they did not find any significant change in evaluations of anxiety and depression, but also they found the other way that in kids who developed anxiety and depression didn't alter their social media use either. So it kind of went both ways. It basically like the two things had nothing to do with each other. Again, no one study is definitive. This was a fairly robust study, 810 subjects for six years. It's a pretty long follow-up and there was just no signal there. All right, let's go back to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: A recent Finnish study found that the type and amount of fungus, molds and yeast found in the home of young children do not correlate with the risk of developing asthma. Evan, you think this one is a fiction. Bob and Jay think this one is science and this one is science. This one is science as well. So Jay won this week. So this has been a long-term controversy, like how much of an effect does household mold and yeast have on respiratory symptoms? Now, obviously when levels get high enough, obviously that can have an impact. But this was just looking at the range of molds and yeast found in Finnish homes. They tried to see if they could correlate either the amount or the species, right? Like is there some species of fungi that are more likely to be associated with the later development of asthma or is there some threshold of exposure? And what they found was basically they couldn't conclude that there was any relationship. There was no robust signal there either. So it was basically negative. I could read the results. "The results of our analysis from this well-characterized birth cohort suggest that the early life house dust mycobiota characterized by DNA amplicon sequencing do not have strong predisposing or protective effects on asthma development." So yeah, they looked at it both ways. It was either protecting or predisposing.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Okay, this means that a study of the use of augmented reality glasses and social interactions found no significant impact is the fiction mainly because there wasn't actually a study? There was kind of, it was more of an analysis, like a model. It didn't like do an actual study.

E: It's only a model. And what they concluded was that there was the potential for significant interactions. And specifically, the person with the augmented reality glasses, that the AR glasses create an information asymmetry that would disrupt the power balance and the equilibrium between the two individuals. That the person who had the ability to get information on the other person, for example, would give them, especially if they're doing it on the sly, that that would create a power imbalance in the interaction. That was their conclusion. But it wasn't like a study of this is actually happening. It was more of just like an evaluation of the potential for this to happen. But that's why it's a fiction, because there wasn't a study that showed no interaction. And so it'll be interesting if advanced augmented reality becomes a thing. And every time you're interacting with somebody who's wearing glasses, or maybe even contact lenses at some point, you have to wonder what information do they have access to? And it might get to the point where you just have to assume that everybody has it. And there'll probably be, at least for a time, you'll be able to tell when somebody's accessing their augmented reality information, unless they're like tinted glasses. So you can't see their eyes.

B: Like a dungeon crawler carl Steve, you could see the glow in your eyes.

S: So it may become, what will be the impact on social interactions? What will become the social norm adaptation to this? Will it be rude to be hiding your eyes from somebody who is, it may become socially unacceptable. I'm not going to talk to somebody wearing glasses where I can't see their eyes, because I have no idea what they're doing.

B: It's impossible to predict, but yeah, lots of possibilities.

S: All right. Well, good job, Jay.

B: Nice, Jay.

J: Thank you.

E: Well done, Jay.

J: Just so you guys know, I read that.

S: Oh, did you?

J: I was actually going to ask you if I could do that as a news item for the-

S: Okay.

E: Well, there you go.

B: I would never admit that, dude.

J: No, Steve will edit that out.

S: Or not. It's not cheating to read science news, guys.

B: Of course not. But it diminishes your achievement, it seems.

S: I don't know. It's a different kind of achievement. It's being knowledgeable about recent science news.

B: Ah, yes. But yes, I hear you. But it diminishes it.

E: Steve did not edit Perry in episode one when he told him to get closer to his microphone. Just to remind you that I know we're going back a ways.

S: All right, Evan, give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:42:22)[edit]

Not bound by facts, the hoax is free to fabricate feelings and the genres associated with them- it is this artfulness and ambiguity that help explain [its] popularity.

 – Kevin Young (1970-present), American poet and the director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, from from Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (2017)

E: The quote this week was suggested by a listener, Jan from Rochester, New York. Thank you, Jan. "Not bound by facts, the hoax is free to fabricate feelings and the genres associated with them. It is this artfulness and ambiguity that help explain its popularity." Kevin Young from his book called Bunk, The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarist, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, 2017 book.

S: Yeah, nice. We have expressed that exact same thought not in those words. The idea that pseudoscience, that whatever, is unencumbered by facts and reality, right? And when you're unencumbered by reality, then you can tweak your narrative to be psychologically appealing.

E: Of course.

S: That's the only thing that matters then is how well you could sell it. It's not limited by actual facts or reality.

E: Yeah, yeah.

S: Yeah, totally agree with that.

E: It's fiction. It becomes a total fiction. Yep. Which you're free to do whatever you want. Let your imagination run wild.

S: It's asymmetrical warfare, you know.

E: I know.

S: It's an unfortunate advantage.

E: I know, yep.

S: I think there are different advantages that being actually true have, but the advantage of being unmoored from reality is that you could have the best narrative. You could tell people what they want to hear.

B: I'd still rather be true unless I want to make money.

E: There's that too.

S: Yeah, right. That's the point, I think. All right, guys. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

J: You got it.

E: Thank you, Steve.


S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


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