SGU Episode 4
|SGU Episode 4|
|15th June 2005|
|SGU 3||SGU 5|
|S: Steven Novella|
|B: Bob Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
| P: Perry DeAngelis
S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella. Today is June 15th, 2005. With me this week are Perry DeAngelis...
S: Evan Bernstein...
E: Hello everyone.
S: And Robert Novella.
B: Good evening, everyone.
Kansas School Board Follow-Up (0:21)
S: First, a little follow-up on our favorite story in the news this month, the evolution debate in Kansas. The board still has yet to make a final decision, but they are fighting with each other. The three moderate members of the board lashed out against the conservative members who are proposing the changes to the science standards. You might remember in 1999, I believe it was, Kansas had voted to remove evolution from the science standards in that state. The 2000 elections saw some of the conservative—more conservative members removed, and the new board reinstated the evolution-friendly standards. In 2004, however, the conservatives again seized a majority of the Kansas school board, and now they are considering once again either watering down treatment of evolution in the science standards or forcing criticism of evolution. Some say that they are entertaining introducing Intelligent Design, which is a form of creationism, into the standards. What's interesting in the past week is that the board members themselves are now fighting pretty diligently among themselves. One member, Bill Wagman, one of the more moderate members, he told the three most conservative board members, the ones who are proposing the changes, that they were all dupes of Intelligent Design advocates. He said that Intelligent Design is all based on absolute and total fraud.
P: Sounds like a bright guy.
S: Sounds like a bright guy. Unfortunately, he and his are in the minority. Connie Morris, who is the most outspoken of the conservative members, criticized the moderate members for not attending the meetings when the Intelligent Design proponents were giving their testimony. She said, "Had you attended, you would have been informed," Morris said. "You would be sitting here as informed individuals and not arrogantly calling us all dupes." Well, I actually doubt that. If they had bothered to sit through it, they would be all the more flabbergasted at their fellow board members.
P: Of course.
S: So this is a story we will be following.
P: You know, I wonder, the article uses the terms "Conservative" and "Moderate"; it says in 2004 the conservatives were able to take over after the election. I wonder if that comes down on party lines of the two national parties. I wonder if the term "conservative", in this instance, is used, you know, to mean Republican and "moderate" to mean—
S: I'm not sure. I mean clearly, socially conservative vs. socially moderate but I don't know if...
P: I'd be curious to find that out.
S: —it's Republican or Democratic party lines.
P: Perhaps I'll try to find that out. I'd be curious.
S: So they did not yet make a decision. Their decision will be put off until August.
E: Well, does that help the cause or does that hinder the cause?
S: I think—I don't know. I think that if it stays in the news cycle and criticism remains focused on the board, that will work to our advantage. If the story fades into the background, and the board does not feel that public attention is being paid to them, that they may feel, you know, more bold about watering down the evolution standards. So we'll see.
P: If I had to guess, I would say that it's going to stay more in the news than not.
S: Probably, probably.
P: If I had to guess I think there's gonna be more focus on it.
S: Depends on what else is happening in the news, I guess, over the summer.
P: Certainly that's true, but I mean, almost every week there's something in the Associated Press about it.
S: But apparently the anti-evolution board members have a 6-to-4 majority, so, unless considerable pressure is brought to bear, they will probably be voting that way.
Science or Fiction (4:23)
S: So it's time again for our "Science or Fiction" segment. Last week was the first installment of this. This is a segment where I, as the host, come up with three stories, either science claims or science stories in the news. And two of them are genuine; one is fake, and the challenge for the other panelists is to decide which is the one that is fake.
Follow Up From Last Week (4:51)
S: But before I detail the three science or fiction news items for this week, a little bit of follow-up from last week. Now last week you all remember what the fake news story was.
P: Yes. Yes.
E: Oh, yes.
P: I believe Bob and myself were able to identify that quite correctly.
S: Yes, Bob and Perry did very well. They both correctly guessed. The story that I had made up was that astronomers discovered the first Earth-sized planet orbiting a nearby star. Well, by an astounding coincidence—
S: —in the news on Monday, just two days ago—
E: Hm, hm.
S: —scientists from the National Science Foundation announced that they found an Earth-sized planet circling a nearby star.
E: They're obviously listening to this podcast. There's no other explanation.
B: By Earth-sized, you mean about twice the diameter and about five to seven times the mass.
S: That's right.
E: That's exactly what he meant by "Earth-sized". Yes.
S: It's the first small, rocky—
B: Yeah, the rocky part is what's—
S: —so not a gas giant.
S: And actually it's not the first small rocky planet that's extrasolar. They've seen a couple of other ones, but they were orbiting pulsars.
S: This is the first one surrounding a normal star. The star is about fifteen light years away, and the planet has a density similar to that of Earth, and is about six to seven times the mass, or about twice the diameter.
E: And I read the surface temperature ranged from 400 to 700 degrees Fahrenheit?
S: Yes, it's very close to the sun. It makes it a little bit easier to see the gravitational effects when it's close to the sun. And they did—reading the articles—they did, I believe, identify this world by its gravitational tug on the star that it orbits.
E: You know if they used the Hubble Space Telescope to help monitor this?
S: That I don't know. I did not see that—
B: Don't know. It wasn't mentioned.
S: —in any of the reports.
E: I'm just curious, because, of course, we all know the Hubble program is going to be coming to a crashing end very soon, but I digress.
S: Well, Earth-based telescopes have surpassed the Hubble, in any case.
B: But not in all wavelengths.
S: Not in all wavelengths, but it's still—aren't they planning a replacement for the Hubble—a new space-based telescope—maybe at the Lagrangian points? Did I read that correctly?
B: Yeah, they are planning it, but I think it's like 2014 or something like that. It's not right around the corner.
P: Hm, hm. Certainly not.
B: It will also be outside of support from Earth.
B: They are going to put at the Lagrange or some distance so far from Earth that no shuttle will reach it.
S: Yeah. It'll be outside of shuttle range.
B: So if there's a problem, we're in trouble, but—
S: But in any case—
P: They send up blurry mirrors again or something.
S: If I predict next week's headline one more time, I want Randi's million dollars.
P: Heh, heh. That's true.
E: All righty then.
P: That's true.
S: Coincidence? I think not.
P: You don't know your own powers.
E: Well, I mean, at the same time, it just goes to show you how plausible the story you made up sounds to the average person.
S: I chose a plausible story.
E: Very plausible.
S: One that would be in the headlines soon, but not quite yet.
P: That's right. (laughs) That's right.
This Week's Quiz (8:13)
S: So you're ready for this week's items?
B: Oh, yeah.
S (recording): "It's time to play ... Science or Fiction (echoes)".
S: Again, three items: two are real, one is fake. Item number one. Listen to all three of them before you make your comments. Then we'll let you guys discuss and make your picks. But let the audience hear all three items first. The first one: South Korean doctors have successfully revived a dog who was preserved in cryogenic stasis for eleven days. That's number one. Number two: Israeli scientists have grown a palm tree from a two-thousand-year-old seed. And number three: in perhaps the first application of nanotechnology in medicine, scientists have attached cancer-fighting drugs to nanoparticles that target tumor cells.
B: You could have made it harder than that, Steve.
P: Hah! Listen to him.
E: Oh, oh.
S: Someone's getting cocky.
P: Mr. Cocky. Well, what've you got for us, Bob?
B: Well, obviously, two and three are entirely plausible and must be real. The first one, in my opinion, must be false. Now, when you say cryogenic, I assume you mean cryonic freezing.
P: Is there a difference?
S: Well, cryogenics is just the science of the very cold. But you're right, "cryonic" has a very specific connotation, and maybe I avoided that word on purpose.
B: OK. Could you—I have a question. Could you go into a little detail about how did they freeze this animal. Was it liquid nitrogen temperature or was it just like below freezing?
P: I don't think (unintelligible)
B: That's important.
S: I didn't say that the dog was frozen, just that it was in...
E: A "state" of cryogenic.
S: A "state" of cryogenic stasis.
P: And two and three, Robert, you find entirely plausible?
B: Well, the seed—the palm tree from a two-thousand-year-old seed is, to me, seems a no-brainer to me. That doesn't surprise me that a seed could last that long. Because a seed itself is a kind of—can be thought of being in a sort of stasis and can last a really long time. So that doesn't surprise me.
P: Thousands of years?
B: That's a long time, but I think it's plausible. The third one—what was the third one?
E: The nanotech one.
S: Nanoparticles. Nanoparticles targeting tumor cells.
B: Yeah. That's—I read about that stuff all the time.
E: You're all about that, Bob.
P: Bob, would definitely accept anything given over to nanotech.
B: I mean, it's hard without more detail—it's hard to really assess it, but that sounds entirely plausible. So I might have to go to the first one, with a caveat that if this dog was just below freezing for awhile, that's entirely believable, and I think I've actually read that that's been done. But if you're talking cryonic liquid nitrogen temperatures, then no, we are not at a stage yet where we could actually revive any organic tissue that was at liquid nitrogen temperatures, because of the damage that is done.
S: So the plausibility depends on the degree of...
B: Oh, absolutely!
S: ...of freezing that was done.
B: Absolutely. I mean, you could—they could have had some new cryo-protectants that protect tissues for subzero temperatures down to a certain level, but once you get to liquid nitrogen—minus whatever—minus 170 degrees Fahrenheit or some obscene temperature.
S: You're crystallizing.
B: Yeah, then you're crystallizing—
S: You're a pile of goo.
P: Which is the problem.
E: You're damaging the tissues.
S: Let Evan and Perry chime in here.
P: For me, I think number two seems the most reasonable. I think that that one's real. As far as number three goes, I'm not up to the minute on nanotech, but I certainly know that there's a lot of effort and science and study and money going into it, so it's more likely that that happened, because I don't think there's any huge studies or grants going into cryonics, not that I'm aware of.
B: Unfortunately, no.
S: There is a lot of research being done on the applications of reducing temperature in order to prolong surgery, for example, or for when you have to stop the heart, for example. But as Bob says, it totally depends on the degree of freezing that they're talking about.
P: I'm going to say number one is false. It's seems the least likely. The nanotech thing doesn't seem bad. It seems within reason; it seems within reach.
B: I've read about quantum dots. It's like a one-dimensional... it's like an electron confined to a one-dimensional cavity that was used to actually target certain types of cells in the body, and then they'd make the tumors glow if you shined a certain frequency of light on it. So that's related to that, so that doesn't surprise me at all.
P: And after what we heard recently in our recent podcasts about nanotubes—
P: —it sounds plausible. So, anyway, I think number one is false. Evan?
E: You know, number three, although it sounds plausible, again, I don't keep up to date with the happenings of nanotechnology and all of its uses and so forth. Bob, you're more in tune with that than I am. I'm kind of leaning that number three is the one that Steve made up, and the reason is because it is plausible, yet I don't know if that level of technology and actually making it work within the medicine community at this level right now—
E: —at this time has actually happened. It's something that is going to happen, but it just hasn't happened yet. Similar to what happened last week, the one that turned out to be wrong. Well, just a week later; well, sure enough, there it was, so...
B: Steve, could you read three again to me?
S: In perhaps the first application of nanotechnology in medicine, scientists have attached cancer-fighting drugs to nanoparticles that target tumor cells. So the particles are delivering drugs to tumor cells.
B: Right. Now that's—that seems to me—I think that's a novel application, at least from my reading that. So if the first one deals with just subzero temperatures, then that would make number three be my next choice, because I don't explicitly remember them actually using—
S: Well, keep in mind I try to pick things that are up to the minute in the news, so these things, unless you read them today or yesterday, these are things that you should not have heard about. They are one step more than what we've done.
B: Right. So three wouldn't surprise me if, indeed, one was just subzero. But if one was supposed to be well below zero, then that definitely did not happen.
B: OK. Well.
E: Well, you're just going to have to make your best guess, then. I'm going to stick with my guess of three.
P: My best guess is one.
E: Three. I'll stick with three.
S: So, it seems that everyone agrees that number two is correct—is real.
E: Oh, no.
S: Number two is, in fact, real. We have grown a palm tree from a two-thousand-year-old seed. However...
E: The Israelis did.
P: Which means dinosaurs are right around the corner.
S: Exactly. That is actually the very first time. That's now the oldest seed to have been successfully germinated.
E: Do they mention how old the oldest seed prior to that was?
S: Yes. Prior to that, it was...
B: Two weeks old.
S: Let's see, give you exact data. Like 1,500 years or 1,200 years.
E: Well, that's pretty significant.
P: It's incredible.
E: Extra five hundred years.
P: Incredible advance for paleobotany.
S: Twelve hundred years. Lotus seeds twelve hundred years old were the previous record, so this almost doubles the previous record. It's actually not that hard to germinate seeds that are very, very old, but they almost always die very quickly, because...
E: You use Viagra. Isn't that what you do?
S: Right. The DNA has degenerated over time, so even though the seeds may survive; they may actually germinate, the plants die very quickly. So it's very difficult; very difficult to get an ancient seed to produce a living plant that flourishes. So far this one is flourishing. This is actually a date palm. The seed was actually excavated from Masada, which is actually the—
E: The mountain.
S: —the cliff fortress, where as the article I'm reading says, Jewish zealots died by their own hand in 73 AD, rather than surrender to Roman assault.
P: Rather than be captured by the Romans, right?
S: It's kind of a biblically famous location.
E: Hey, if it's in the Bible, it must be true.
S: The scientists who germinated this seed were interested in it because this date, I guess, had a reputation for being used in medicinal purposes back at that time. It's also an extinct species, so if this—
E: Hah, hah.
E: That's interesting.
S: —is successful it will actually—
B: That's cool.
S: —there are related species; obviously, we have dates. This specific variety of date is extinct. They will have brought it back. They don't know yet if the plant is a male or a female. Maybe you didn't know that date palms come in male and female, but they do. If it's a male—
P: Of course. I dated one. I dated one in high school.
S: —this will be a dead end. If this is a female, it will produce fruit and can be used to actually propagate the species.
E: They won't know until the plant grows some more?
S: They apparently don't yet know if it's male or female.
S: Interesting. I mean, it's very impressive. Unless you know the backstory, you might not realize how impressive it is, but it's... hopefully this plant will continue to flourish. So, is number one or number three correct? In fact, number three is correct. It's a true story. So number one, the cryogenic dog, is the fake story.
P: That's all right, Evan. It's your first.
S: A hundred percent. You guys are doing a hundred percent. That's OK; I'll make it more challenging for you next week.
E: I'm doing a hundred percent, too, so don't leave me out of that.
B: That reminds me—that reminds of a "Honeymooners" episode where Ralph came out with this crazy scheme, one of his crazy schemes. His defense to his wife was "Alice, no one's a hundred percent. Nobody's a hundred percent." And she's like "Sure, you're a hundred percent. You've been wrong every time." Popped into my head.
P: Thank God. What a cop-out. All right, so—
S: Scientists have been working on ways of targeting tumor cells in many different ways, and this is... this idea has been worked on for years; the idea of attaching drugs or chemo-therapeutic agents to something that will target the tumors, and now they're using nanoparticles to do that, so... and now they've completed the first successful test of this. What's good about this is that—
P: In a human?
S: No, in animals, in living animals. That's not yet done in humans. This kind of thing you always do in animals first.
B: But Steve, I have a question about that. OK, of course I understand, do animals first. But, what if you got some guy; some person that's in this end stage of some nasty form of cancer? Can't he just say, "Come on! Just give it to me. I'm going to be dead in a week, anyway"?
S: Yeah, but—
B: Do they ever do that?
S: That's called "compassionate use", and you can get exemption from the FDA to use experimental drugs on a compassionate basis. This is still always after the animal level of trials. You still have to prove in an animal that it won't instantly kill people before you use it in humans.
S: They can give it to them once it's passed that stage, before it would be FDA-approved; sometimes even years before it would be FDA-approved. Yes, it's done, but not quite at this stage yet.
S: So the advantage of this—and this could have tremendous number of applications beyond treating cancer—is that the target cells can receive a very high dose of the drug, but—
S: —other cells in the body will receive a minimal dose, so it dramatically lowers side effects and lowers the toxicity of the drug while increasing its effectiveness.
P: Do you think they're going to be able to attach something to send in there and destroy fat cells?
S: It's not impossible. There's no theoretical reason.
P: Can you imagine that? Give me an injection and it goes into your body and destroys your fat cells.
B: You have to be careful, though.
P: All the gyms close down.
B: You gotta destroy the right fat cells. You don't want to destroy the fat cells cushioning your organs.
S: Cancer cells are very different in some significant ways from the normal cells in your body. It provides opportunities to target them. Targeting one type of healthy tissue is also theoretically possible, but you really have to find something that's unique about the cell population that you are targeting, and fat—fat's kind of everywhere. I could foresee there would be some significant hurdles to that. But, you know, not theoretically impossible.
E: Well, it's diet and exercise until then.
S: Bob pretty much summarized what's wrong with the cryogenic dog story. I did try to leave it a little vague.
S: Well I didn't use "cryonic" because that has a specific connotation.
S: We have, in fact, cooled animals down to near freezing temperatures in order to slow their vital signs and prolong their survivability, for example, during difficult operations, like operations where the heart and lungs have be put on to bypass. That has been done very successfully. We have never, however, frozen an animal—a mammal—to the point where the water inside the cells actually freezes and crystallizes, and then brought them back. That is really the Holy Grail of cryonics—is bringing back an animal from a frozen state, because once you can do that, there's really no limit to how long—once they're frozen, they're frozen. They can stay frozen for a very long period of time.
B: Right. Essentially, time doesn't pass.
S: That's right.
B: I've heard the equivalent of if you're frozen at liquid nitrogen temperature, a century in that state would be equivalent to fifteen minutes of room temperature activity. That kind of thing. I think eventually we'll find—
S: Which is not negligible when you are dead, actually. Fifteen minutes of being dead... a lot of tissue damage takes place in that amount of time.
B: Yeah, but it's still a century.
B: That's still a very long time, but I think they might find other ways to totally leapfrog over the crystallization problem. Scientific American recently had an article—actually, they found out a way to actually put animals, mammals, into a type of suspended animation or hibernation by having them inhale a certain parts-per-million of carbon dioxide. This latent ability of mammals to have their metabolism drop to a fraction of what it used to be is pretty incredible. I think it has some incredible implications just for surgery. Imagine you need—you're basically at death's door, and you're going to be dead within an hour. They can put you in this suspended state and have you last probably days or longer until help can get to you. It was a fascinating article. We might be hearing a lot about that in the future.
P: Yeah. But I was thinking about getting my head frozen.
S: Just your head?
P: Apparently that's quite a bit cheaper apparently than getting your whole body frozen.
B: Yeah. It's a lot cheaper. They call that a "neuro".
P: A "neuro".
B: No sense focusing on your body when they should just be focusing on your head.
P: I want to get a neuro.
S: At this level of technology, there's going to have to be some major cellular reconstruction done. By the time we get to the point where we can do that, they can probably regrow you a body, too.
B: I think that's a safe bet. The key is though, about all this, and I'll be brief, the key is that as long as you can infer your previous mental state—your memories and your personalities—as long as you can infer that from the arrangement of the matter in your brain, the neurons in your brain, then you can deal with the damage. The damage is OK.
S: Theoretically. Yeah.
B: Yeah. It's like a jigsaw puzzle that you shake a little bit. Now they're all a little bit out of whack, and it doesn't look right, but you can infer from that state what its previous state was. And that's kind of the idea that the cryonicists are going on with the damage they're inducing by freezing.
S: Well, there's the rub. The real question is how long is it going to take before we have the technology where that's feasible. It could be hundreds of years; it could be a thousand years.
B: Hah! No. Never.
B: Barring some global catastrophe, those time periods are, I think, are just way, way too much.
P: What time period would you put on it, Robert?
B: You know it's hard to predict, but I think 500 years to a thousand is way beyond... I think that's way too far in the future. I think that if you look at the way that information has been doubling for centuries or for thousands of years, it appears to be doubling every twenty years or so. If you can safely extrapolate that into the future, I've read predictions that this century alone we will accomplish the equivalent of twenty thousand years of advancement, of scientific advancement, in this century alone, if this pace keeps up. Even if it doesn't keep up, we're clearly going to do more than a century's worth of advancement in this century. It's going to be—it could be equivalent of ten centuries or even twenty centuries of advancement. So I think people don't appreciate how this is going to accelerate. You just can't say "Oh, it's going to take a thousand years." People will be surprised what we'll be accomplishing, even in fifty years or eighty years. In our lifetime, I think we're going see stuff that we're going to be saying "You know, I never would have imagined we would have had this—
S: Oh, I agree.
B: —in my lifetime".
S: I agree, fifty years ago nobody—no futurist predicted the state of computer technology and the Internet and the information age. But the things that they were predicting, like the cure for cancer, flying cars; those kind of things did not come to pass. I think it's very problematic to project into the future. I think that we will have, a hundred years from now, we will have technology that we are not even thinking about today. I think the kind of things we are thinking about today, certainly some of them will pan out, but we don't know which ones. We're going to encounter obstacles we didn't anticipate. Technology... if you average out technology, you can make those kind of statements about how it's progressing, in some kind of—
S: —statistical way, but not every technology is progressing in that kind of accelerating or geometric pattern. Some technologies plateau, and you just don't know which ones are going to do that. I think nanotechnology is too much in its infancy, and cryonics; these are both too much in their infancy to really predict what hurdles they're going to encounter and if they're going to really pan out long-term. And yet, other technologies that we're not even talking about today may crop up and solve these problems in novel ways.
B: Well, cryonics perhaps, but nanotechnology, I think, in one form or another, will be here a lot sooner than you think. Well before multiple centuries.
S: It depends on how you define nanotechnology. Obviously it already exists.
S: They're already nano applications. But, reconstructing cells at the cellular level and to a degree where we're actually preserving the personality and memory in neuronal function. Let's figure out how that information's encoded first, before we decide how easy it would be to reconstruct it.
B: Yeah, but Steve, you have to admit that our society, our culture, seems now to be so focused on becoming increasingly capable of controlling smaller and smaller amounts of matter. Look at the computer industry, which is essentially what that is. Making memory devices and hard drives and computers that are smaller and smaller and smaller. There's so much money to be made with that; there's so many advancements that can be made once you create these tools, that we are not going to stop doing it, and we're not going to stop pouring trillions of dollars into it until we've reached the physical limits of what we're capable of. This is not a whimsy we're talking about. This is something that cultures all over the planet are focused on and researching on and obsessed with. We're all sitting here at home using our computers to create a podcast, something that might have been almost inconceivable ten or fifteen years ago. This is not going to stop. It might slow down a little bit. We might have a bump once we reach the limits of silicon or until some other paradigm takes over, but the force—the driving force is so great, I don't see it stopping unless there's some disaster.
S: I agree it's not going to stop. We just don't know where it's going to go. Predicting specific applications is premature.
B: Yeah. True.
E: Very challenging.
B: The more specific you get, the more problematic it is. But in general, some sort of manipulation of molecular systems; it's going to happen, and you've got a proof of concept right here. All of biology. There's no question any more, is it feasible? It's absolutely feasible. I mean, biological systems are... all of natures made out of it. It just a matter of either creating those machines to do similar things, or creating them on our own. It's going to happen, and sooner than you think.
E: Steve, is human life expectancy going to continue at its pretty remarkable pace of growth?
S: That's actually a really good question, and there's considerable controversy over that. The question is: are we going to plateau at around 80, 85 or some figure similar to that when we reach the limits of biology? Essentially, the built-in limit to longevity is how many times our cells can reproduce before they simply just lose the ability to replicate or reproduce themselves. Without getting too technical, it seems that the primary limiting factor there is changes that occur to our chromosomes, to our DNA inside the cells. Those represent clear boundaries. If we find ways around them, then that may open to greater increases in life expectancy.
P: But they're technological boundaries; they're not theoretical boundaries.
S: That's right.
P: Like the speed of light.
S: That's right. These are technological boundaries. There's no theoretical reason why we can't live forever. I don't know who said it, but someone said "Death is an engineering problem."
B: Right. Exactly.
S: It's true. I agree with that. There's no theoretical reason. In fact—
E: Scotty said that.
S: When you think about it—
B: I think it was Ray Kurzweil that said it. I think.
S: I think you're right. Think about it this way.
B: That's one of my favorite quotes.
S: We have ancestors that were living millions of years ago. The cells that were in the bodies of our ancestors, in essence, are alive today in us. There's biological continuity. We just have to figure out a way to maintain that kind of biological continuity within an individual organism. And there's no theoretical reason why that's impossible. In fact, I would predict—again, going out on a limb, it's very difficult to predict the future—but I would predict that we find biological ways of achieving near or relative immortality. We can pretty much live as long as we want to without aging too much. It hard to be truly immortal, because you're going to have a catastrophic disaster at some point.
B: Right. Eventually, but—
S: I think that will occur prior to us figuring out through nanotechnology how to reconstruct the cells that have been damaged from extreme freezing. I think that's a very difficult problem that we won't solve for a long time; I think long before we figure out how to do that—how to revive somebody from a cryonic frozen state—we will figure out ways of regenerating or rejuvenating or replenishing our biological cellular structure in a way that will enable us to have younger bodies, have newer bodies, live indefinitely, basically.
B: My opinion on that is that eventually we will transcend biology. We'll move beyond biology. For the near future we'll do tweaks. We'll do genetic tweaks and genetic manipulation and things and kind of grab hold of, like, the nine or ten different major causes of aging, like free-radical damage. They've compiled a list of these things, and I think once they knock all these down, people will be able to live a long time, and that will kind of hold until we can actually reconstruct our bodies out of very durable materials that will appear biological, but will be just so much more hardy than conventional bodies.
S: I think—just to conclude this segment—I think that we agree technology is going to take us into unbelievable and amazing places in the future. I think, in my opinion, biological advances are going to be the answer to these kind of questions and give us much more power, especially over ourselves than more engineering nanotechnological answers. That's just my opinion, but we may or not be around to find out whose right, but it's not going to be any time soon.
Common Sense Science (34:26)
S: Well, this discussion brings up something that I've seen recently in the news. We do talk a lot about pseudoscience and weird science on this show, and one of things that makes people accept or believe in ideas or concepts which run contrary to mainstream or accepted science is their religious belief. And of course, we have nothing against anyone's personal faith, but it often gets in the way of science and accepting the findings of science. We've spoken a lot about creationists, who reject the theory of evolution in favor of religious beliefs about origins, but that's not the limit of Judeo-Christian pseudoscience. There are some faithful who actually advocate alternative theories of matter. Have any of you heard of this?
P: I have.
B: Yeah. I've been doing some reading on that.
S: Tell me about it.
B: I came across a website. It's commonsensescience.org. It's another just blatant example of creationists or intelligent designers trying to get their little wedge in and kind of usurp science for their own ends, or at least change science so that it's more amenable to their world view.
S: Or even validates their world view.
B: Right. Yeah. Right. When you start messing with science like this, it just gets really, really—I can't explain it, it's ineffable.
P: Did you say evaluating science?
S: What's their claim? What's their primary claim here?
B: Let me read a couple quotes from their website. It's just amazing that you could try to just change science to suit you. Here's a couple: "Common Sense Science and the Judeo-Christion world view are rational approaches with reasons for events such as particle motion and emission of light." And here's another one on atomism, which is basically the centuries-old belief that nature is ultimately reducible to ever smaller and smaller objects. Initially, they believed they were indivisible, and atoms, we discovered, weren't indivisible. Even these people might dispute that. This quote here is: "atomism is incompatible with Judeo-Christian and Muslim principles, because atomism views matter as independent of God, either because it exists from eternity and denies creation by an intelligent designer, or because its motions and events are independent of control by a sovereign being." So they've come up with some assumptions. Part of their thing is that they've got just very few assumptions that they go off on.
S: It sounds like they're talking about not really atomism, per se, but materialism, just the idea that we live in a physical—
S: —universe that follows natural laws, and it is not at the whim of a supernatural god.
B: Exactly. And they base all of their work on these assumptions about reality, causality, and unity. They think modern science has kind of abandoned these views. In a sense, they have, but they're misinterpreting a lot of modern science, especially quantum mechanics, surprisingly. They're using the counter-intuitive nature of quantum mechanics that basically describes the microscopic world of atoms and forces and particles. They take these counter-intuitive ideas and they say, "See! See what science is telling us. Let's get back to a more simpler time when things weren't so crazy." And causality was another one. One of their big things is that events of the universe follow the laws of cause and effect. Makes sense. In the macroscopic world, there really is cause and effect. But, once you get down to the subatomic quantum level, cause and effect kind of disappears and things appear very probabilistic.
P: Bob, don't a lot of pseudoscientists hide out in the fuzzy lines of quantum mechanics?
B: Oh, absolutely.
P: With the uncertainties?
B: Because it's so counter-intuitive, they feel that they can use it for justification of their outlandish beliefs. And it's very common to hide in quantum mechanics and say "See, I've got support of science," when actually, there is no support. The causality one I find very interesting. They've got a problem with quantum mechanics, because it seems a-causal. You can't predict specific events in quantum mechanics. You can only say "this event has this probability; this event has that probability." And they've got a problem with it. But one kind of interesting point to that is that... OK, they believes in cause and effet, how do they apply cause and effect to their god? Isn't he the ultimate—
S: The ultimate cause.
B: —effect without a cause? What caused him? They kind of ignore that, and I just thought that was pretty interesting.
S: Here's a—just looking again at their website, some of their problems with modern physical theories. They say, "it is only a mathematical model, consisting of equations, and does not usually specify physical structure for elemental particles."
S: That's just not correct. Plus, it's also—they try to say it's only a mathematical model. It's true that a lot of—
B: They're denigrating it.
S: —modern physics and cosmology does begin with mathematical models to try to explain observations.
S: But those models make predictions, and those predictions can be subject to observation. The special theory of relativity is not "just a theory", just like evolution is not just a theory. It has withstood hundreds, countless of observations that could have potentially refuted it. These are successful theories because they—
S: —predict... They make successful predictions.
B: And you can make the argument—and I think it's widely believed—that relativity and quantum mechanics are probably the most successful theories that were spawned in the twentieth century, of all time. Everything that anybody can throw at it has just bounced right off it. They're invulnerable. They're just so effective. I mean, our entire economy is essentially based on quantum mechanics with computers and electrons and things like that. So they're actually trying to denigrate these relatively new sciences because they don't quite jibe with their conception of the way—
S: Well, they have to go pretty far, too, to take offense at these. What they're doing is they have a philosophical objection to science itself; to naturalism, to materialism, to science. And they're picking at these complex sort of cutting-edge theories in physics and in science to make it seem like there is something wrong with them, when in reality they have nothing legitimate to say against these theories; they just don't like the whole enterprise of science because it doesn't revere their god. Because it doesn't say specifically that God does everything.
B: And they're not mutually exclusive. You could be religious and a scientist at the same time. So many people think that it's one or the other. It like a false dichotomy. It doesn't have to be that way. There's plenty of scientists that believe in God.
S: They're going out of their way to make them contradict each other.
P: Sometimes it doesn't seem that hard. On the "contradict each other", I mean.
S: They really only contradict each other if you misapply the context or the rules of one discipline to the realm of the other.
P: You think they're aware of the disciplines of science and choose to ignore them, or do think they're not even aware of them? In most cases.
S: I don't think they ignore them; I think that they're against them. I think that they're against the philosophical underpinnings of science.
P: So, aware of them and actively opposed.
S: Yes. The philosophical underpinnings of science—they are actively opposing it. I think what they're unaware of is the methods of science. They don't understand that science is about testing hypotheses. And you have state a hypothesis in such a way that it can be subjected to a specific test. It can be potentially refuted by observation.
B: Otherwise it's not science.
S: Otherwise it's not science. Again, either they don't understand that. I really think they don't, or they do and they're ignoring that because they want to attack the philosophical basis of science, which they see as godless, and that's the only thing they really care about. They have their sort of what they call their model of elementary particles. They call it a "model", because it's not a theory. When they do that, that's sort of a buzzword, like the model of creationism, because they know it's not a scientific theory. They don't want to use the word "theory" to apply to their ideas. That is kind of a hint that they know exactly what they are doing, that they're trying to undermine the basis of science, and they're not just or simply ignorant of it.
Love In Action (43:50)
P: So, it's not the only thing that they're trying to dip their hands into these days. There's a great many things. I recently read a piece about a Christian group called Love In Action. What that group is trying to do is give Christian counseling, if you will, in half-way houses to people who are homosexual so that they can cure them; bring them back to sort of a straight lifestyle.
B: Did they find a cure?
P: They certainly think God will do it.
S: That was going to be my Science or Fiction item for next week.
E: Too bad.
P: On the home page of their website—Love In Action's website, they have a little blurb, and it says "exploring the homosexual myth". And it says that there's no such creation as a "gay" or "homosexual" person. There is only homosexual attraction and behavior. Accordingly, there can be no change from a sexual identity that never existed in the first place. So they're not even giving credence to the fact that homosexuals—
P: —are born. It's just totally your own weakness, your sin, your lust, your gluttony.
S: But they separate attraction from behavior.
P: Yes, yes.
S: What do they think attraction is? A man or a woman who is attracted to the same sex. What is that?
P: Lust gone wild. Not controlling your sinful desires.
S: But not controlling the desires would be the behavior. Where do the desires come from? They kind of skirt that. They kind of skirt that issue.
P: Of course they do.
S: It doesn't make any sense. And what's the difference between being a homosexual and having same sex attraction? Isn't that the definition of being a homosexual is that you have same-sex attraction?
P: Well, their director, John Smid, whose been at this for twenty years, says that it's not their goal to make sure clients never act out in homosexual relationships. He says "their mission is to help them make informed honest decisions about their sexual choices and to seek God's best for their life".
S: B.S. It's coy. That's what they all say: "We're not trying to do this." Yes, you are. It's exactly what you're trying to do. Your goal is to somehow magically convert homosexuals into heterosexuals, and it's based upon this ridiculous notion that there isn't a biological basis for sexual attraction.
P: There's a gentleman in the piece, Peterson Toscano, who tried for ten years to make himself straight. He's a gay guy and he went all around the world to all different groups. He spent thirty thousand dollars. He was on three continents. He got married and divorced. He went from fundamentalism, then to evangelicalism, then to Pentecostalism, finally to just Charismatic churches. He was trying to ramp up his experience, hoping that a little more Holy Ghost would do it. A little more exaltation and screaming in the aisles. He went to ILA's houses, too, which at least at the time, cost him $950 a month for the residential program.
S: That's like rent.
P: It is. But now he's out of it. He said that for him personally the big shift came when he stopped looking outward for direction and started looking inward. And now he does a one-man show about his experiences called "Doing Time in the Homo No Mo' Halfway House," and apparently it's quite popular—
B: Oh my god!
P: —and he makes his living doing that one man show now. About his experience.
P: The one other thing I want to mention about this piece is that there's a sixteen-year-old boy—his name is Bartlett—who came out to his parents, and they've been hammering God down his throat ever since that moment, and he keeps a web log, and he talks about the trauma he's going through; writes about how terrible—he wish he had never said anything. Wish he had just waited two years until he was eighteen and he could move out of the house. His parents—they're really apparently, according to him, being quite cruel to him, and not easy for him at sixteen years old.
P: Come out to his very religious parents. I imagine not.
S: So they have no qualms about dismissing the findings of science to suit their political agenda. There really is no controversy about this. Sexual attraction is so hard-wired. It is, of course—first of all, anything to do with sex has very extreme evolutionary, Darwinian forces attached to it. Our brains are designed to highly motivate us to seek out sex, because that increases our probability of reproduction. For whatever reason, certain individuals develop same-sex attraction instead of opposite-sex attraction, but it's totally hard-wired in them. I think the best theories and the best evidence suggests that it probably has something to do with the levels of various hormones in the brain at the time of development. But even if we don't know the exact mechanism, this is the way their brains function. I imagine it is no more possible for a homosexual to alter their desires and their attractions than it would be for me to alter my attractions.
B: And that's where a lot of people differ from you, Steve. They think, "Oh, they're just dabbling and experimenting. Just stop it. Just do it the right way." They don't understand that it's just like if they were asked—
S: Right. If you really think about it that way, you realize how ridiculously futile it is.
P: Well, now, the guy—he doesn't mention the exact effectiveness, but this one gentleman that tried to go straight for so long, he did have an exorcism done.
S: He did?
P: In New York City by a Jamaican woman. Unfortunately, it had to be closed down by the police as it was getting too loud, in the apartment house, and the police came and broke it up before it was... before she could drive out the spirits of homosexuality, lust, and gluttony.
S: If only she had a little bit more time.
P: That's specifically what she was trying to do. It is unfortunate.
S: She went for the trifecta: homosexuality, lust, and gluttony. He had a few pounds to drop, too, apparently.
S: "I want to become a homosexual and drop twenty pounds. How much is that going to cost me?"
P: Her ministry was cut short. Her ministrations. Oh, well. Better luck next time.
S: It's just ridiculous. There is no limit to the silliness that people will believe in, especially if there is any emotional investment whatsoever.
E: No doubt about it.
Skeptical Website of the Week (51:00)
S: Well, we're almost out of time for our podcast this week. I'm just going to close by mentioning our skeptical website of the week. When we think of it and have time, we'll be highlighting certain websites. The Internet is certainly an incredible resource of information, unfortunately both good information and misinformation. I know I certainly do—and the rest of my panel—rely heavily on the Internet when we do research for this show and for our other skeptical activities. We're just going to mention those sites that we have found to be most useful to us that are excellent skeptical resources. The website that we used recently that came to our attention is called junkscience.com. The subtitle is, "All the Junk That's Fit to Debunk".
E: They're you go.
S: It's just a list of news and commentary, setting the record straight; addressing issues that are in the news that are topical and where the science is being distorted. The one that's at the top of their website at the moment is the Kyoto Count-up. It's an article critical of the Kyoto Protocol. It has a running ticker which is counting up how much money it's costing the US, which is right now almost up to fifty million—no, I'm sorry, fifty billion. So it's up to fifty billion dollars.
E: Fifty billion.
P: Big difference.
P: Now you're talking real money.
S: That's real money, yeah. Fifty million, meh. While the potential temperature saving by the year 2050 so far acheived by Kyoto is .00051 degrees Celsius.
E: Right. That how much degrees we're actually gaining.
P: Bush takes a lot of heat going against the Kyoto, too. Our President, a lot of heat.
S: But, again, these kind of issues, the politics aside, should be decided by good, solid science. That's why it's definitely useful in a democracy with all the misinformation on the Internet, to have resources, places to go to where you can get some at least someone trying to give you accurate scientific information.
E: A great source.
S: junkscience.com. While we're talking about the Internet and websites, of course, don't forget to look at the website of the New England Skeptical Society, that's www.theness.com. You can find links to our podcast page, which will have more information on the topics we discussed this week, links to earlier archived shows and their information pages as well. And while you're browsing through the NESS website, you can also link over to weirdsciencecolumn.com, which is a website dedicated to my science column which appears in the New Haven Advocate, "Weird Science."
S: Well, thank you again for joining me this week, Bob, Perry, Evan.
B: Good night everyone.
E: Steve, good to be with you.
P: Good night everyone. We'll see you next week.
S: Congratulations again on Science or Fiction. You guys did well. I'll try to give you a more challenging one next week. Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
Today I Learned...
- A Fiction item on science or fiction came true the next week.
- This is the first reporting on the SGU of an Earth-sized exoplanet
- Israeli scientists have grown a palm tree from a two-thousand-year-old seed.