SGU Episode 562

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SGU Episode 562
16th Apr 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 561                      SGU 563

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist!

J. K. Rowling

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, April 13th, 2016, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey everybody

S: Cara Santa Maria,

C: Howdy!

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey, guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein

E: Yello, folks!

J: Ola

S: How are you all, this evening?

J: Fantastically well, my friend.

B: Pretty good.

E: Faring pretty well.

Lousy Substitute Teacher (0:31)[edit]

S: So, my daughter told me a story tonight, about a run-in she had with a substitute teacher.

E: Oh my god! Is she okay?

S: Yeah

(Rogues laugh)

S: So, this is not the first time she's had a run-in with a wackadoodle substitute teacher at her school. Previously, she ran into a teacher who was explaining to the class how 9/11 was an inside job.

B: (Groans) Oh, wow!

C: No!

S: And how the government killed those kids at Sandy Hook.

E: Oh no!

C: No-o-o-o!

B: Oh god!

S: And how evolution is a lie.

J: Oh my god, what the hell did she say?

S: That was an email to the principal.

B: I would so put tacks on her chair.


S: This one, she had a very polite debate about genetically modified organisms with this teacher. But it was funny, 'cause – I talk somewhat to my daughters about stuff like this, but not a lot. So I didn't know how much she knew. But she did a pretty good job. She was explaining how, like, everything has been genetically modified one way or another, whether it's hybrids or whatever. So the teacher was saying

J: What's a hybrid?

S: (Chuckles) that, “Yeah, but if I eat food that doesn't spoil, that means bacteria can't break it down. And therefore the bacteria in my gut can't break it down.” So, Julia said, “That's interesting, because I wasn't aware that there was any genetically modified food that doesn't spoil. Can you tell me what you're talking about? Which genetically modified food doesn't spoil?” And she said, “Well, Twinkies will never spoil.”

(Rogues laugh)

S: Okay, it's not a genetically modified food, but

(More laughter)

C: Yeah. And Twinkies do spoil, don't they?

S: Of course they do! But ...

C: Honey doesn't spoil.

S: I know, she said that. “Honey doesn't spoil. So you wouldn't eat honey?”

C: That's non-GMO. Yeah. (Laughs) That's true!

S: And it went downhill from there. But that was ...

J: It went downhill, meaning she made some good points, she made some cognitive dissonance happen, and the teacher's mind, the teacher dug her heels in, or ...

S: Yeah, yeah, she just non-sequiturs is what is sounds like. So she said at some point, “Well, Splenda causes cancer.” Well, no, it doesn't.

E: No, no.

B: Oh my god!

S: Then, again, here's the pinnacle. When she really pushed – all Julie was doing was saying, “What's the evidence for that? Why are you saying that?” You know. And she just would come back with irrelevant, off-topic responses, including, “Well, companies are just trying to make people sick so they could make money off of treating them later.”

E: There you go!

C: (Gasps) Sounds like Bill!

S: Yeah, so really ...

C: Terrible.

S: So then, as she said, “Well, these are different companies. You know, the agricultural companies are not pharmaceutical companies.” And she said, “Well, they're all connected. They're all actually run by the same people.” And then she trotted out the whole, “They have a cure for cancer already,” trope. So, this is a teacher. This is a school teacher. That is frightening.

C: Wow.

E: She needs a restraining order of some sorts, that she can't be near children.

J: The only way that I accept that story is if they prove the force existed, and the people behind the scenes were all Sith lords.

S: Yeah

J: That's it. If it's not Sith lords, it's all bullshit.

S: (Chuckling) Right.

E: Darth Plaigus!

What's the Word (3:37)[edit]

  • Homophily

S: All right, Cara, we have an interesting word this week. Tell us what it is.

C: The word this week was actually recommended by somebody named “Siggie,” from Philadelphia. And it is “homophily.” Homophily. Spelled H-O-M-O-P-H-I-L-Y. So what are we think, guys? Homophily?

E: Same, similar

C: Same

B: Similarities between different philosophical systems.

S: Liking similar.

C: Liking similar.

J: It's like in Spanish,

B: Oh, yeah

J: breakfast pastries, similar to waffles.

C: (Cara laughs) This is fun! It's like, balderdash. (Evan laughs) So, liking similar, those are really the two roots there, right? “Homo” means “the same,” and “phily” or “phile” means, you know, liking it. So this is a sociology theory more than anything, that people tend to form connections with others who are similar to them in characteristics like socio-economic status, values, beliefs, attitudes,

B: Birds of a feather

C: -actity – exactly. That birds of a feather flock together. Now, I should say this is not to be confused with, but in many ways, it's highly related to another concept that's well established in the sciences, which is called “assortative mating.” Have you guys heard about this?

J: No, I am not

E: No

C: So this is a type of sexual selection. And it screws up the Hardy-Weinberg principle. And the reason it does it is because in certain species, we actually see that organisms that have similar phenotypes, or even similar genotypes (but usually that leads to a similar phenotype), actually tend to mate with each other more likely.

So if they're similar in size, if they're similar in color, if they're similar in smell, whatever the case may be, they're more attracted to each other, they tend to mate more readily. It can lead to more inbreeding, but what it also does, is it screws up the well established Hardy-Weinberg Principle, which is the equation that you may have learned about in your intro biology class, that helps you predict how many alleles, or how many gene-carrying loci exist in a population, so that you can then predict rates of disease, rates of certain features, and things like that, when we're talking about simple, Mendalian genetics.

Now, the Hardy-Weinberg equation says that a population is always in equilibrium, except when it deviates, using certain things like mutation that can affect allele frequencies, migration does. If you live on an island, you see – not humans living on islands – but to some extent, even humans. Organisms living on islands tend to get really big. You guys have seen island gigantism.

B: And dwarfism.

C: There's also island dwarfism, yeah, that's true.

B: Isn't that more common?

S: Yeah, actually, both are happening. Large animals will tend to get smaller, and small animals will tend to get larger. So you have island gigantism and dwarfism. Things basically tend to move toward the center.

C: Well, there you go! (Laughs) They both happen. And so these are things where the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium that exists in nature is shifted because of non-randomness, and how the genes are spread out. Because of course it's not random. All the calculations are based on it being random, but there are things that affect how random they are. And one of these really large things is non-random mating.

Assortative mating is common in organisms. Scientists are still working to this day to try and understand kind of the how and the why of this evolutionary quirk, because it doesn't always seem to end up positively. You know, you can actually see that genetic similarity is not very good for a lineage of an organism, yet we see it both in non-human animal species, and, to some extent, we see homophily in humans.

So kind of coming back to homophily, which is specifically geared towards humans, and also, I guess some organisms, it's less about mating, and it's more about relating to one another. We can see that this is a phenomenon that underlies a lot of different quirks, like the tendency for us to be more attracted to individuals with similar faces, the tendency for us to be more attracted to individuals with a similar ethnicity, or who speak the same language, or who have similar political or religious values as we do.

And, yeah, it's a pretty interesting psychological, or sociological phenomenon that I think has a lot of relation to some phenomena that we have measured pretty staunchly in biology. Homophily.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. I've read other reports looking at the fact that animals do also tend to mate with, like, their second cousins. Even their first cousins is not uncommon. And there was, again, speculation about, “Is this adaptive? Why is this happening?” And the idea, or one hypothesis is that it actually does make it more likely for favorable genes to catch a hold, right? So if you have a favorable mutation, and you mate with your cousins, that solidifies that new, favorable mutation in the population.

C: Which makes sense. All things being equal, if the organism is thriving.

S: Yeah, right.

C: When it really gets screwy is when you have some sort of situation in nature, whether it be a new predator introduced, whether it be a shift in the climate. You know, one of these natural pressures that really do affect evolution, and they start to bottleneck that individual. If they're only mating with this assortative way, and they're only mating with cousins and second cousins, and then there are no other examples of the species available, then you see all these terrible things. We see it in dog breeding

S: Yeah

C: all the time! We want a dog with a cute, little, smashed-in face; we want a dog with a funny, little, long body. Oh, it happens to also have really bad joints, it happens to also be deaf.

E: Right

C: Those are just things that just come along with it.

S: Yeah

E: Sure

News Items[edit]

Metal Foam (9:42)[edit]

Pig Heart Transplants (17:08)[edit]

Should we hide from Aliens (29:22)[edit]

Computer Artists (38:31)[edit]

Who's That Noisy? (52:51)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Beatboxer

NECSS Announcement (56:41)[edit]

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question 1: Fishmato (58:09)[edit]

S: Okay, we've got one email this week. This one comes from Bob Loveless in Vancouver.

B: Loveless!

S: Loveless

C: Well, we got more than one email, right? We just, are responding to one.

(Bob laughs)

S: We're talking ...

(Cara laughs)

J: We've prepped one email.

S: That is correct. We're going to answer all fifty of our emails in the last week.

Since listening to your Podcasts I have changed my position on GMO’s. I was strongly against GMO’s until I learned that some anti-GMO groups were using the same tactics as the Climate Change Deniers, i.e. cherry picking data, putting words into scientists' mouths that they never said and twisting the facts. That led me to doing some of my own research on the internet. I still do have some concerns about the chemicals used in conjunction with GMO’s, not just their effect on humans, but the effect on wildlife particularly if the chemicals get into rivers. Yet, I fully appreciate the need for GMO’s to help feed the world as the population grows to 9.5 billion by 2050 and increasing areas become difficult to grow crops due to climate change. However how do you explain this incident – the doctors appear to have been very cautious and used proper procedures to come to their conclusion

And then he gives a link. The link is about a report in which Spanish patient has apparently died due to a anaphalactic allergic reaction to a genetically modified tomato that contained a fish protein. And he had basically a fish allergy from eating the tomato. And it's been reported as the first documented death due to a GMO. So he says, how do I account for that? Have you guys seen this report?

C: I ...

J: No

C: have seen this report, and I've seen the report on Snopes that counters it.

S: Yeah, so ...

B: First of all, though, Steve, World News Daily report?

C: Yeah

S: Well, that is, first of all, yes. So,

B: (Laughing) Yes!

S: first of all, absolutely. This is though, it's good to go through this because, yeah, I saw the article. Obviously, it's making the rounds, and it's like, “All right, this is what we like to teach people on this show. You see something like that. What process do you go through to say whether or not it is legitimate?” Of course, going to Snopes is a good shortcut. But if you want to just do the evaluation yourself, whether it's not on Snopes, or you just want to see if it holds up.

So, question number one is always the source. World News Daily Report. Just type in “World News Daily Report.” Is it legitimate? Is it real or fake? And it turns out that that source is a quote-unquote “satire” news outlet. It's not real. Although it's not satire like The Onion. It's more ...

C: Yeah, it's not funny.

S: Yeah, it's more fake like the National Enquirer. It's just, they make up sensational stories, just made-up news for the sensationalism. Maybe they hide behind saying, “Oh, we're not, we're just entertainment. It's not really news.” Whatever. It obviously, the whole point is

B: It's horrible

S: to make people think that it's news. And it worked, obviously, in this case. Even if the source in and of itself did not invalidate the report, you can then basically address each of the factual pillars or premises of this report. So one question you could ask is, “Okay, I heard about the fishmato – the tomato with a fish gene in it. Is that on the market?” That's an interesting question. I happen to know it isn't, but I looked it up just to see.

And it turns out, by the way, that there are no genetically modified tomatoes on the market at all. Even though, ironically, the first genetically modified organism approved in the United States was the flavor-saver tomato. But it's no longer on the market.

C: Yeah

J: Why? It wasn't delicious?

S: Well, it just, whatever. The popular demand wasn't there.

C: Yeah, I think it just didn't sell.

S: 1990.

C: Yeah, I think it just, weren't making money on it.

S: This fishmato, by the way, never existed, meaning that it never existed as an approved genetically modified crop. It never actually never even came to fruition. The idea was to take a gene from the winter flounder. The winter flounder is an arctic Atlantic fish that is adapted to the cold. And it basically makes its own antifreeze, right? It's own cryo-protected. It keeps, survives very cold temperatures.

So the thinking was, “Okay, we'll take that gene, and we'll put it into a strawberry. And then the strawberry will be able to survive a frost, which will extend the growing season, whatever, reduce loss from a sudden freeze in April.”

So that was the idea, but they never came to fruition, as I said. Whether in the strawberry or tomato or whatever. But somebody got their hands on the idea that somebody was researching this, and that led to the fishmato meme, which the anti-GMO people love, even though the thing doesn't exist. So that's kind of hard for somebody to die from something which doesn't exist, right?

B: Really hard.

S: Yeah, really hard. The other thing is, one of the clear, clear safety testing that GMO's go through, is an evaluation for any known allergens, right? There's always the fear-mongering that maybe they'll contain a new allergen, a previously unknown allergen. Of course, there's no particular reason to think that's the case, or that there's any more risk of that from any other source of new cultivars, mutation-breeding, or forced hybridization, or whatever.

It's actually lower with GMO's because, again, we could screen the new cultivar to see if it's producing any proteins that are known to be allergenic. But not only that, not only can they screen for known allergens, they can screen for genetic sequences, for protein sequences that are known to confer allergenicity.

For example, proteins that cause allergies have certain things in common, namely, one thing is that they can survive complete digestion in the stomach. Obviously, if you're breaking down a protein to amino acids, it doesn't matter what the protein was. It's just amino acids at that point. Enough of it would have to survive intact that it could produce an allergic reaction. And there are protein sequences, amino acid sequences which protect the protein, allow it to survive stomach acid. So, allergenic proteins have those sequences in common. We can screen for those in any new proteins that would be in a genetically modified organism.

There's never been a single case of somebody dying from an allergy from a GMO. So there was, I think, one case of, they inserted a Brazil nut protein into a plant, and somebody had a nut allergy, and it was taken off the market. In the United States, it gets screened out. It's not gonna happen.

So that didn't seem plausible either. Plus, also, if you read the report, they say that the doctors were able to confirm that the allergic reaction was to the genetically modified tomato, which is interesting, because there's no way to do that. There's no test you could do that would tell you that this dead person's anaphalactic reaction was due to the tomatoes that they ate. Just, the anaphalactic reaction is the same.

C: You just kind of would assume, if they ate something that was high allergens. Like, if you had somebody come in, and they were

S: Yeah

C: like, “I'm allergic to peanuts.” And they were in anaphalaxis, you would probably just deduct that they ate peanuts.

S: Yeah, but it doesn't matter

C: ...proof, yeah

S: anyway because you treat them the same, other than avoiding exposure to the thing that you're allergic to, you know.

B: So, Steve, this is about a product that supposedly killed someone, yet the product does not exist, and even if it did exist, we would never be able to determine that it killed him.

(Cara laughs)

S: Right

B: That's what you're saying.

C: That's the summary.

S: Yeah

B: Okay, just checking.

S: So everything about this report is wrong. You know, if you go down a list of the factual elements of this report, every single one doesn't make sense. And then when you dig deep, you find that it's incorrect. So, it's actually not that hard. You could spend ten minutes online, and completely dissect this story, and determine that it's not true.

David Suzuki and GMO's (1:06:29)[edit]

S: Bob goes on, the email goes on to talk about David Suzuki. You guys remember we spoke about David Suzuki?

B: Yeah

S: So he came up because we quoted him for the quote of the week, and then we got emailed, saying, “Hey, you guys used somebody for the quote of the week who's actually anti-GMO.” So he mentioned that. So now, I don't want to read the whole thing, but Bob basically says David – he's Canadian, Bob is Canadian. David Suzuki's Canadian. They're saying that he's a great science communicator. He was highly acclaimed television host of the Nature of Things. He's an actual scientist, actually a geneticist. He's basically an awesome guy. He said, “The comments made on the podcast were totally uncalled for, and unprofessional.”

I disagree with that. I think that

C: What did you say?

S: I think just that he was anti-GMO.

C: We weren't like, “What an idiot!”

S: Since getting the email, I'm like, “All right, let me take a deeper dive, and actually look at some interviews and read some articles that Suzuki has done on GMO's. And I'm just not impressed. I'm sorry. I'm not impressed with anything that he has to say about it.

By all accounts, he seems to be an excellent science communicator, but he's an environmental activist, an environmentalist. Nothing wrong with that, but I think listening to him talk these environmental issues, it seems to me that he's taking a very ideological approach, not a detached scientific approach.

When he talks about GMO's, he's really, his only real point, as far as I could tell, he has one point: and that is, “We don't understand enough to be confident that there aren't unintended consequences from doing this genetic modification.” That's a pretty weak point. It's first of all pretty generic. There's no specific reason to really be concerned about genetic modification the way that it's being done. You can't really argue that it's not being studied adequately. You could always say that there may be unknown risks, or unintended consequences, and “We need to do more safety testing, or more ...” you could always say that about pretty much anything.

And he really just didn't do a good job of making that point when he was asked pointed questions by scientists during interviews, I don't think he handled those questions very well. Again, he reverted to that, and he said, “The only reason why we're rushing is corporate greed. These companies wanna make money. That's why they're doing it, and we're just getting ahead of the science. But he didn't have any real, technical points to make about it.

Just came off to me sounding like an activist, not a scientist or a science communicator. And that happens a lot. Scientists or science commentators sort of mix their own personal ideology or their own activism into their science communication. That's fine, but when you do that, you gotta own that, you know? And I think that he's wrong on the issue of GMO technology. And I'm just not impressed at all with his position, or the way he defends it, or the way he communicates it. I think then, he is ceasing to be a science communicator, and he's just being an ideological activist.

And, I'm sorry, but we call it the way we see it. It's not an insult to Canada, or Canadians, or, he could still be excellent in everything else that he does, but, you know, you gotta take the good and the bad with people. What can I tell ya?

Okay, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:09:59)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:51)[edit]

I mean, you could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist!

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

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Steve does a great job describing how to research a claim on the internet in the section about the fishmato death


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