SGU Episode 581

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SGU Episode 581
August 27th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 580                      SGU 582

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Our place in the Galaxy nor our Galaxy itself is special. Darwin has further shown that humans are a natural product of evolution by means of natural selection. The discovery of extrasolar life will demonstrate that even that last claim to being special will have to be abandoned

Mario Livio, astrophysiscist

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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, August 24th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

SGU Going to DragonCon (0:27)[edit]

What's the Word (3:32)[edit]

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S: Okay, Cara, you're gonna start us off with What's the Word?

C: The word this week is inquiline. Anybody know? Anybody heard it? Inquiline.

B: I have not.

J: (Inaudible) horses?

C: It sounds like it, but it doesn't. It also is not an adjective. To me, it sounds like an adjective, like an inquiline something.

B: Yeah

C: It's actually a noun. So, something just is an inquiline. And what is an inquiline? Well, it's an animal that exploits the living space of another species, like an insect that lays its eggs in a pitcher plant, or a

B: Cool!

C: barnacle that attaches itself to the body of a whale.

J: That is cool.

C: Very cool. It was recommended by listener Kate Lowry, from Virginia. Here are some other kind of word forms: An inquiline takes part in inquilinism.

J: Whoa!

C: That is kind of the practice as a whole. And it has an inquilinous relationship with its host species. So that would be the other word forms of that. Inquilinism is a type of symbiotic relationship. It's often grouped under the ecological umbrella of commensalism, you may have heard that word, probably back in school, when you were learning Earth sciences. So that means specifically, in commensalism, one species benefits, while the other neither benefits nor is harmed. So it's different in that way

E: I see

C: from a parasitic relationship.

E: Right.

C: The etymology of the term, its earliest known use was from the mid 1600's. It comes from a previous Latin root incolinus, which means to inhabit or dwell. So, early on, when you see the word inquiline in literature, it's actually referring to just a lodger, or an individual who's inhabiting a dwelling that was not originally his or her own.

Not until 1865 did we see the term first used in an ecological or zoological sense, to apply the same meaning to a specific species.

S: So would that apply to all the insects that live in your house?

C: It actually, in one of the places where I looked it up, I think it was in Merriam-Webster, the definition example was a house mouse. So I guess so!

S: Yeah

C: If a mouse lives in your house, that's an inquiline.

S: But if the termites are destroying your house, then they would be more parasitic?

C: Then it would be more parasitic, I guess. But if they were living harmoniously with you, or not bothering you like spiders living in your house, and eating some of the insects, yeah, they could be

S: Cool

C: inquiline.

S: Inquiline.

C: Yeah, I like that.

S: Yeah, the commensal organism is something we talk about in medicine. It's like, bacteria that live in your body that don't bother you.

C: Oh, sure!

S: They don't help your body, just live in there. Commensal organisms.

C: Yeah

J: Where do they live, Steve?

S: Mostly in your gut, but on every surface; your skin, your mouth, all your mucus membranes.

C: We have these little mites that live in our eyelashes.

S: Yeah

J: Yes. I have friends that have an inquiline relationship with their parents.


C: They have an inquilinous relationship with their parents.

S: They are an inquiline, right.

C: Yes, they are inquil- I don't like that it sounds like an adjective, doesn't it?

E: It sure does.

S: Yeah, it does.

C: But it's not. It's a noun, yeah.

B: Steve, I would think that a bacteria in your gut would be more beneficial than ...

S: Yeah, most of them would be symbiotic rather than

B: Yeah

S: commensal, yeah.

C: But some of them may not be, yeah. That's the interesting thing about it. There's so many different ways to categorize all of these interesting relationships. And I think we see that the terminology gets more and more complicated as you near the present, historically, because before, I'd say, Alexander von Humbolt, we didn't even really have a ... that's when we first even started to have an understanding that nature lived off of itself. You know, that certain aspects of nature would engage with one another. And that if one species died, that it would actually change the balance of these different ecological niches.

So until we started to really understand the relationships between species, I think the terminology was a lot cleaner. And now there's all sorts of umbrella terms that stack and stack and stack. So, you'll see a lot of synonyms. A lot of times, you'll hear inquiline and commensurate species used as a synonym. But technically, inquiline's a little more specific.

News Items[edit]

Proxima Centauri Follow Up (7:39)[edit]

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Anthropocene (15:01)[edit]

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Anthropocene on Wikipedia

(New era is based on all the environmental effects humans are having on the Earth)

World Wide Web Turns 25 (26:38)[edit]

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(Commercial at 33:33)

Fighting Against Pseudoscience (34:54)[edit]

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S: All right, Evan, there was this article[4] published recently about science communication and fighting against pseudoscience that is interesting, although I don't totally agree with it. But let's talk about it. Tell us about it.

E: Yeah. It appeared in the Guardian, it was written by a former biologist. He turned blogger. His name is Richard Grant. And the title of his article is, “Why Scientists Are Losing the Fight to Communicate Science to the Public.” So I'll read a few things directly from the article, and then we can sort of comment on it as we go.

He says that, “Scientists and science-communicators are engaged in a constant battle with ignorance. But that's an approach doomed to failure.” Okay. He says that,

“A video did the rounds a couple of years ago of some self-styled skeptic disagreeing (robustly, shall we say) with an anti-vaxxer. The speaker was roundly cheered by everyone for sharing the video. He sure put that idiot in their place! Scientists love to argue, cutting through bullshit and getting to the truth of the matter is pretty much the job description.”

Well, I kinda don't necessarily fully agree with that. But he goes on to say,

”It's not really surprising scientists and science supporters frequently take on those who dabble in homeopathy or deny anthropogenic climate change, or who oppose vaccinations or genetically modified food. Brian Cox was at it last week performing a smack down on a climate change denier on the ABC's Q&A discussion program. He brought graphs (knock-out blow) and yet it leaves me cold. Is this really what science communication is about? Is this informing and changing minds, winning people over to a better, brighter future? I doubt it somehow.”

S: Yeah, I had a lot of problems with this article. So I think the core point that he's making, that you can't just oppose belief in pseudoscience with facts; you have to understand the psychological motivation why people are believing that pseudoscience – sure. That's absolutely valid.

C: Yeah, but that's also not ... new.

S: Exactly.

C: We all know that it's not a deficit problem. Sci-com, the reason it's not as effective as we'd like to be is not because there's just not enough knowledge out there. We know that.

S: Right. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, my problem was he's writing to science communicators, and he is about twenty years behind on the conversation.

(Cara laughs)

E: That's how I felt. It's like, “Where have you been?”

S: Yeah, this is like, I remember having this conversation literally twenty years ago ...

C: Yeah

S: when we were really getting involved with this. And there's so much more nuance, there's so much more involved with this. I just briefly put this up on our Facebook page and said that he's actually committing the problem that he's criticizing. He's sort of talking at us and not to us, and not really addressing the issue.

So like, for example, he's talking as if there is only true believers, but that's not true. There's not only true believers. First of all, there are a lot of people who are in the middle, or are just undecided, or just don't really know about whatever the topic is, like vaccines. Like, hey, there are a lot of parents who are, they hear concerning things about vaccines, but they're not anti-vaxxers. And so just putting the correct information out there and opposing the anti-vaxxers has a dramatic effect on the public conversation. It's an incredibly valuable resource to people who just want to know what the facts are.

And it absolutely does prevent people, I think, from going down that rabbit hole and becoming a conspiracy theorist or an anti-science denier or whatever. And also, there are con artists out there as well. That's another group. There are people who are exploiting the true believers, are exploiting the community, exploiting the beliefs, the conspiracies, whatever, just to make money, just to sell their wares, to sell their snake oil; and they absolutely need to be deconstructed and taken apart. Their claims need to be vigorously opposed. They need to be corrected. We need to have the correct factual information out there.

At the same time, when dealing with groups of people who believe things for ideological, emotional, political, sociological reasons, we need to address them in the context of the reason for their belief; and we know that there's a back-fire effect. People could dig their heels in if you make them defend their ideology. Yeah, we've been through all of this. This is what we talk about all the time.

So his article was just naive. It was just uninformed. As I was reading it, I'm like, “God, this really would have benefited if he actually spoke to a skeptic at some point who's been doing this for more than a couple of weeks.” His opinions might have had some depth to them.

C: Or a professional science communicator,

S: Yeah

C: somebody who does this for a living, and who

S: Exactly

C: studies outcome effects, and who talks to other science communicators. It was a little bit judgy, this whole thing. What is the quote? Somewhere in here. He's like, “How often is it that science communications actually listen to the needs of their audience?” And it's like,

E: Right

C: the number one thing we always say in sci-com is know your audience.

S: Yes

C: It's the first thing every science communicator

S: Right

C: talks about.

S: Right, right, exactly.

C: So it's just so dismissive to act as though we're ... I think he's really getting upset at scientists who don't communicate.

S: Um-hmm, maybe.

C: I don't know.

E: Yeah

C: It's frustrating. And also,

E: Frustrating

C: is it fair to ask, who is this guy?

(Steve chuckles)

C: Who is he? Really? Richard Grant.

S: I don't know. I don't know who he is.

C: (Laughs) You know? He works in med – yeah, here it is. “He's a former biochemist, cell biologist, structural biologist now working in medical communications and founder of the independent blogging network, Occam's Typewriter.” Okay, so he's just like one of the many of us. Basically, instead of saying, “Here are the ways that many of us can improve,” he's saying, “Wow, you guys all suck at this.”

S: Yeah

E: Steve, I got the same feeling (Cara laughs) you did. This is very incomplete, way too black and white, not recognizing the broad spectrum where people fall along the lines of science, intelligence, or understanding science. In fact, he breaks it down into – he gives basically two general reasons as to why he arrived at this conclusion.

He says, “First, in general, people don't like being told what to do. When the experts tell us how to live our lives, or worse, what to think, something rebels in people, especially when there's even the merest whiff of controversy or uncertainty.” And then he says, the second point is that on the whole he doesn't think that people that object to vaccines or GMO's are at heart anti-science, some are, but most aren't. People simply want to know that someone is listening, that someone is taking their worry seriously, and that somebody cares for them.

S: Yeah, I just don't agree with that. Yeah.

E: I don't know where he arrived (laughs) at that point, or how he got ...

S: Yeah, I mean,

E: that conclusion.

S: you know, he's armchair criticizing a community of people that he doesn't really understand. Again, I'm not gonna play the card, like, “He doesn't have the cred to have an opinion.” Of course he does. But if you're going to be judgmental about what other people are doing, you'd better make a good, sincere effort to understand what they're actually doing.

And we do have the advantage here. The SGU is eleven years old. We've been doing this for twenty years. This is a very interactive medium. We get dozens, dozens of emails every day. I read dozens of comments to my blog, and comments on our Facebook posts every day. We are interacting with people. We are interacting with a broad audience as well as our community.

We have a much better idea of what people actually think, and how they actually respond to what we say, than this guy apparently does, you know? He would have benefited tremendously from talking to somebody who's actually involved in doing this. We just got an email today. I wasn't planning on reading this, but I'll just say it's somebody who's name is Kim. I won't give her full name, who basically said, “Hey, I started out as an absolutely true believer, gullible, believed everything.” An impressive list of pseudoscience had dominated her life. Listened to our show, and then over time was totally converted into a skeptic.

So he's just factually wrong, that nobody ever gets converted, because we get these emails all of the time. It's probably statistically a small number, but you can't say that it never happens. And in any case, that's not even the primary goal. The primary goal is informing people who are open to the information, who are not already true believers. So, anyway,

C: Yeah

S: unfortunately, we encounter a lot of this, this sort of armchair criticism. It is, I agree with you, Cara. It's just being judgy. He ends -

C: It's judgy.

S: the way he ends, yeah, it was so terrible. He's said, “Most science communication isn't about persuading people, it's self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us,” it says. “Aren't we clever? We are exclusive. We are a gang. We are a family. It's tribalism.” That's bullshit.

C: Yeah

S: I'm not saying there isn't any of that. Of course there is. People are tribal, we do have our communities. It is a source of identity. But it is so much not that, that is not what dominates science communication and skeptical activism. It is absolutely about persuading people. We are sincerely interested in engaging in the conversation, and persuading as many people as we can; and we're constantly self-examining, and looking at published research to figure out how to better do it, and we talk about it all the time.

E: Oh yeah, absolutely.

S: Yeah, it's just, you know – he really, I think, again, as I say, especially in that piece that he was doing, he's guilty of the exact thing that he's criticizing.

C: Yeah! He's also so fatalistic.

S: Yeah

C: It's not like he's really putting forth any better options.

E: Right

C: He's basically, “Well, some minds will never change.” It's like, “Okay, thanks?” And then he sort of kind of throws a toogawanda under the bus to some extent.

S: Yeah

C: He was honestly one of the most, I think, effective and sort of non-controversial

S: Yeah

C: medical communicators out there, you know? His writings touch people who are absolutely religious or absolutely magical thinking, and they still can read his things and not feel insulted, and take something from them. He's just

S: Right

C: a very good writer in that way. I don't know. Everything about it is a little bit like, the worst of what it is to write a blog. You know, I think blogs are incredibly important, and they're incredibly necessary, and good blogs can be better than bad journalism; but sometimes blogs can be very lazy. There was no reporting done on this. He never spoke to anybody

E: That's right

C: before he wrote this.

E: Yeah, it's an opinion piece

C: Yeah

E: more than anything, and, you know, I don't know what the Guardian's all about as far as putting this out as a news article, but

C: It's a bit annoying, 'cause it doesn't say “opinion,” and it doesn't say

E: No, it's not.

C: “blog.”

E: Right

C: It says, “Science: Occam's Corner.” Like, this is

E: Yeah

C: listed under, “Science.” Obviously, “Occam's Corner” sounds like it's his blog that he has on the Guardian, but it's not really clear that that's what somebody's reading. So anybody who comes across this who doesn't know the difference between good and bad science journalism might look at this and say, “Oh my gosh, well, this is the state of things,” not realizing that he never interviewed a single person, or did any real reporting.

S: Right.

C: Ugh! Anyway.

S: Yeah, he also makes ... one last comment on this. He makes this very typical rookie mistake. I think we've sort of made this mistake and then fixed it because this is what the evidence shows, is the idea that people are resistant to facts in general, which is not true.

E: Nope

S: What the evidence shows is that if you give people facts, they change their opinion. They change their opinion to meet the facts unless they are already ideologically bound to one position. So people behave differently for emotionally held ideological opinions versus things that they don't have an emotional stake in. And so you have to deal with people differently in different contexts. But he was nowhere near drilling down to that level of detail in his article.

C: Yeah

S: Yeah, okay let's move on.

Pew Belief Poll (47:05)[edit]

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S: Cara, tell us about the latest Pew poll about belief.[5]

C: Sure. So you guys may remember a report last year by Pew that detailed a really sharp decline in Christian affiliation, and a growing number of Americans reporting themselves as quote, “nones.” That was part of a really big study called the 2014 Religious Landscape study that was published in 2015. It included at the time thirty-five thousand seventy-one respondents.

So, what the Pew research group decided to do is a follow up, a recontact study, where they found – or maybe they reached out to more. But they ultimately ended up having I think five thousand individuals who they interviewed more in depth.

Of those five thousand individuals, one thousand one hundred forty-nine of those define themselves as “nones,” or unaffiliated. So that was broken down into four hundred twenty-six different atheists or agnostics, and seven hundred twenty-three people who indicated that their religion is quote, “nothing in particular.”

The real purpose of the recontact study was part of a bigger question about whether or not people choose new churches, when they choose new churches or houses of worship. And so they found a lot of really interesting outcomes on that. How often throughout the lifespan people go to a new church. What are the reasons that motivate them from leaving their former congregation, going to their new congregation. But within that, of course, they had all of these quote, “nones.” And so they found that there were a lot of really interesting things that came out of the nones, and they – N-O-N-E-S, not N-U-N-S – and they (Evan chuckles) dug a little bit deeper and asked a lot of questions.

So again, just to be clear, as part of a big thirty-five thousand people study a few years ago, they recontacted five thousand individuals. But now I'm only gonna be talking about the one thousand one hundred forty-nine individuals within that group who defined themselves as unaffiliated.

So here's some interesting stuff: The vast majority of these unaffiliated individuals say that they were actually raised as a member of a particular religion before shedding their religious identity in adulthood. So about seventy-eight percent of those people that they interviewed that said that they don't identify with a religion were raised religious, which to me seems reasonable. I mean, my personal anecdotal experience, and maybe it's because I grew up in the Bible belt (it's very rare for me to meet people who had no religion as they were growing up; much more common when I actually met people with similar viewpoints that said they had left a church earlier).

The really, I think, interesting thing here is that what they wanted to do is know why. “Why did you actually leave if you were raised religious?” And they found that there were a ton of different responses because they actually allowed for open-ended responses. So I'll read you some quotes in a bit. But there were some themes that sort of clustered.

The biggest response, which was about half (actually forty-nine percent of individuals) said that they left because they don't believe.

S: Yeah

C: That's pretty straight-forward. “I don't believe, so I'm not gonna go any more.” About twenty percent said that they left because they disliked organized religion. About eighteen percent said that they were just religiously unsure or undecided. And then only ten percent of this group that identified as a none or unaffiliated actually self-defined as an inactive believer, meaning that they still had those beliefs, but they either are non-practicing or they're too busy to attend.

So there is still within that nones group, I think, a little bit of a holdover of what I might not define as a none or an unaffiliated. So that's kind of interesting to parse it in that way. Under the “Don't believe” group, we found that many people said that they were disenchanted, and that's why they no longer believe. Some people said they just are not interested in, or they don't need religion, or that their views evolved. But that was actually a very small number. And only one percent of the individuals overall said that they went through a crisis of faith.

So it does seem like it was less common that something happened in their lives that really changed their opinion. More common that, as we were just talking about, it was a slow, gradual thing that happened through learning and thinking and coming across new evidence.

E: And the internet as well, I'm sure has ...

C: Yeah, the internet probably had a big part of that.

S: Totally fits with what I would expect. I think just largely generational. I think that they younger generations – it's funny. A lot of them, it's not like their atheist, they're so areligious

C: Yeah

S: they're not even an atheist, you know what I mean? It's like they just

C: Yeah, that's why they're adopting ...

S: It's not on their radar. Not on their radar.

C: Yeah, that's why they're adopting that “none” label

S: Yeah, “None.”

C: I think that we're seeing a lot, or just, “I'm religiously unaffiliated.” There is something interesting though: Remember how I said forty-nine percent of this overall group said that they just don't believe, and that's why they left. Interestingly, if they actually broke that down into the people who self-identify as atheist versus agnostic versus quote, “Nothing in particular,” actually eighty-two percent of atheists say that they left because they don't believe. Sixty-three percent of agnostics say that they left because they don't believe. And only thirty-seven percent of the “Nothing in particular” group left because they said they don't believe; which also makes sense.

J: Are you surprised by any of these findings?

C: No, none of this really stuck out to me too much. I mean, it's definitely interesting. I think probably what's more interesting is the overall thing, like, Bob and I were talking about before we were on air, just the overall trends that we're seeing away from a specific religion or organized religion, and into a kind of personal formulation of spirituality, religion, or lack thereof.

It does seem like we're seeing an individualistic move away from these big groups, and I do kind of find that interesting because we hear about these studies all the time, a lot of nay-sayers will send us these studies and we'll actually describe them on the show where congregations, church groups, being in a community actually is correlated with positive health benefits. And so it is kind of interesting that we're seeing more and more people sort of leaving that organized community behind.

And I think that's where we're starting to see some changes, even within the atheistic community. Some people still like the idea that they're unaffiliated and they don't want to be part of a group, but you're starting to see some. Atheist groups meeting and even having kind of their version of a quote, “church,” (which of course is completely secular

E: (Chuckles) Yeah, right

C: but is still a group thing so that they can have that sense of community).

S: That's basically what secular humanism is.

C: Yeah, exactly.

S: Yeah

C: So it's interesting.

S: I do wonder a couple of things when I see these kind of numbers: One is, “Is this a long-term trend?” You know, is this the arc of human history to become less religious over time, or is this cyclical? You know.

C: Yeah

E: Wax and wane.

S: Yeah, you know, it's hard to get out of your time frame, and to try to look at the big picture. Certainly in the last I would say couple hundred years, it seems like the power that religion has on our society, even in the United States (which is fairly religious for a Western country),

C: Yeah

S: it's definitely been on the wane.

C: Oh, for sure, with, understanding evolution, just advances in scientific thinking, that's been a big thing; and like you guys said, the internet, just being able to meet people who are like-minded that maybe

S: Yeah

C: don't live down the street from you, is huge; and feeling more confident in coming out.

S: And the second question I have is (and I think I know the answer to this), but, as religion is on the wane, are people just replacing it with other forms of belief systems? This doesn't necessarily mean that there are more people who are being rational, or who are rejecting all ideology or all belief systems. It's more that they're rejecting traditional organized religion.

C: It's so true.

E: Becoming druids? And

S: Yeah, right.

E: warlocks

S: Just new age stuff, yeah.

C: I know so, in L.A., it is very rare for me to meet people who are religious. I actually forget that that's a thing. I grew up in a very religious part of the country, the Bible belt. I live in L.A. Most everyone I know is non-religious. Yet,

E: But they're still spiritual.

C: if you dig deep - oh, they're crazy spiritual! They have

S: Yeah

C: a university out here that's basically a cult. It's like a spiritual psychology university where people are studying, like, past life interactions and energy transfer,

S: Yeah

C: and chi. The woo thinking, the medical quackery, and the, yes, quote, “Spiritual,” - and I don't want to misuse that word. I have a hard time with that word because I think it comes with a lot of baggage. I think that it's perfectly legitimate for individuals to consider themselves to be spiritual in a sort of zen kind of way; you know, finding perfundity in nature. Carl Sagan even used the term.

E: Sure

C: I think he can talk about spirituality in a way that it is not magical thinking, and then you can talk about spirituality in a way that's absolutely magical thinking, and we have a lot of those people here on the West Coast.

S: Yeah

B: Why can't everybody be like us?

(Rogues laugh)

S: Then we wouldn't have to exist!

C: Aw, how sad!

E: Yeah

C: We would just vanish in a puff of smoke.

S: If the whole world were skeptical, obviously, you can't say no to that, but it would be interesting because we would not have to exist at that point. We wouldn't need a skeptical movement if there wasn't so much irrationality in the world. I'd still rather have the rational world though.

Who's That Noisy (56:39)[edit]

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  • Answer to last week: Space X landing

(Membership drive at 59:14)

Name That Logical Fallacy: Absence of Evidence (1:00:16)[edit]

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Science or Fiction (1:09:38)[edit]

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(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week? Three regular news items. Alright, here we go. These are interesting.

The Items[edit]

Item number one: a new study finds that rat whiskers contain chemical receptors to smell.[6]

Item number two: in a study, researchers find that chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition at a rate of five to one.[7] And,

Item number three: scientists report a case of a patient who went from minimally conscious to fully conscious after stimulating his brain with low power ultra sound.[8]

Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Alright, the rat whiskers, sure, that makes sense, i mean, would you call it “smell”? I could see that. I could see that.

Un, the second, let’s see… chimpanzees choosing cooperation over competition, five to one, that’s… that kinda goes against what I’ve been led to believe about how… if you said bonobos I would absolutely agree with you, but chimpanzees are definitely more on the uncooperative/irascible[v 1] scale.

C: …irascible… (laughs)

B: Scientist, let’s see, number three, minimally conscious to fully conscious after stimulating his brain with low power ultrasound. I just kinda love brain stimulation. I think it, I’ve heard, I know it’s not, you know, it’s not, it doesn’t necessarily do what they’ve been claiming over these years but I think, I still have read some interesting experiments that have surprising effects, so I’ll tentatively go with that one.

Um, cooperation over competition, five to one, alright I’m gonna say the chimpanzees is fiction.

S: Okay. Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: This one about the rat whiskers that contain chemical receptors… what I can’t figure out is how, how is the chemical receptor in the rat whisker communicating back to the brain? There’s no electrical type nerve connection from the organ, the receptor, to the brain. Unless it’s… i don’t know. I just don’t see how that can possibly be. It seems completely BS to me.

The second one here, researchers find chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition. I don’t know about the rate of five to one, but I do agree with that and I think that makes a lot of sense. So, I’m gonna say that one is science.

And this last one, minimally conscious to fully conscious after stimulating the brain, the thing that Bob has hidden in a drawer next to his bed.

B: Apparently, it’s not hidden.

J: I just wanted to make sure Cara was awake, that’s all. That’s why I said that.

C: I’m awake. I’m awake.


J: Stimulating the brain brings people from, …minimally conscious to fully conscious with a low power ultra sound. I agree because this reminds me what it’s like when I wake up in the morning, and that’s my coffee. So, sure, this is possible.

I just don’t think the rat whiskers and the chemical receptors, and them helping them smell thing. No. Nope, I don’t agree. That’s fake.

Steve: Ok. Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: So, the patient went from minimally conscious to fully conscious. I suppose those… minimally conscious is a technical state of some sort. Not a coma? Or like…

B: Yeah, it ‘’is’’ a coma, but minimally conscious is pretty self explanatory.

E: Okay. But now, you stimulate the brain with a low powered ulrta sound? So, how did they do that? Or, why does that, why does a low powered ultra sound have that ability to that? I don’t really understand it. This one’s tricky.

The next one, the middle one, chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition at a rate of five to one. I think that one will be science. I don’t think there’s any problem with that ratio. It may ‘’seem’’ high, but, you know, chimpanzees are very cool. Very cool.

How closely related in our DNA are we to chimpanzees? Ninety …

C: 98 percent

B: It depends on how you count it. There’s no one objective answer to that.

C: yeah, but it’s very high.

B: Somewhere between 96 and 98 percent is the usual figure that the scientists give.

E: alright, fair enough, I think people, although they’re competitive also i think we ‘’do’’ have a lot of cooperation, so I think we kinda mirror that. I think we’re okay there.

And the last one is the rat whiskers that contain chemical receptors. So, I’m gonna… this one I’m having a problem with because, I’ll go back to what we were talking about before with the logical fallacies , isn’t this something we would have figured out maybe a ‘’long’’ time ago? You know, rat whiskers. It’s not like some hidden thing that we weren’t able to… what prevented us from determining this a long time ago? So, I think we would have found the evidence for that a while ago.

So, therefore I think I’ll agree with Jay, I think the rat whisker one is gonna turn out to be the fiction.

S: Alright. And, Cara…

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I think I’m torn between rat whiskers and the consciousness situation, so I’ll start with the chimpanzees. It seems reasonable to me. I’ve seen ‘’a lot’’ of primate studies, going all the way down to monkeys, not even apes, that show high rates of competition and of helping get food or share things in order to maximize the benefit for the group. So, I’m gonna say that one is science.

Do rat whiskers contain a chemical receptor that help with sm… well I’ll disagree with jay because that is what a whisker ‘’is’’. It is an organ. It’s a sensory organ that actually helps with probe reception, or it helps them navigate their environment. So, if you cut certain whiskers you can do all kinds of neurological studies where you change some of the representation on the sensory cortex. So there ‘’is’’ a direct connection between whiskers and the brain, but ‘’chemical’’ receptors is interesting to me because I don’t think they have a physical way to bind anything. I mean, that would be what the receptor is. But it would be crazy if they just now found that because rat whiskers… or rats are such a common laboratory animal.

And then scientists report a case where a patient went from minimally conscious to fully conscious – Okay, so they woke up. – after using low power ultra sound. I think I’ve seen cases where consciousness is kind of sparked with thalamic stimulation. It’d be crazy if you could do this from outside the brain, and usually ultra sound is delivered from outside. So, I mean, I want this one to be true. So maybe – whuah, this is hard – I’m gonna hope that the ultrasound is also science.

And that the fiction is the chemical receptors on the rat whiskers. Because I just think they would have found that sooner. That would be my reasoning.

Steve Explains Item 3[edit]

B: Okay (1:19:45)

So, you all agree with the third one, so let’s start there. Scientists report a case of a patient who went from minimally conscious to fully conscious after stimulating his brain with low power ultra sound. You all think this one is science. And this one is… science.

(many): Yeah, baby.

C: Yay. Wow, that’s so cool.

Bob: And Cara, great job. You pretty much nailed a lot of the details there. This was thalamic stimulation.

C: Oh, it was!

?: The thalamus.

B: The thalmus. First of all, I was very careful in how I worded this. This was a single case. And they can’t prove that the stimulation is what did it, just that the patient woke up after they stimulated them. But, the timing ‘’does’’ look good, but they’ll obviously have to replicate it to see how generalizable this effect is, and if the effect is actually real.

But, let me throw in some caveats here. First of all, this is a patient who was in a coma because of trauma. Trauma patients have a much better prognosis that patients who, for example, have diffuse anoxic ischemic injury.[9] So, if your whole brain is injured because of lack of oxygen, these types of things generally don’t work. But if you have trauma to the brain, there may be pieces of the brain which work and other pieces to the brain that don’t work. And this is sort of a classic scenario where probably the cortex was relatively spared, and was still pretty functional, but the cortex just wasn’t being activated by the deeper structures like the thalamus. And so, if you could get the thalamus, if you could kick start or jump start the thalamus–which is what they’re calling it–you can do it with drugs, you can do it with wires, with deep-brain stimulation, if you can get that thalamus to function more it can wake up the rest of the brain, which is actually not that bad off.

C: Isn’t it crazy how tenuous that is? Oh, my god.

B: Yeah, right? These little centers, deep in your brain, alerting your whole cortex, and if they get taken out, you’re in a coma. Your whole brain could be perfectly normal, but you’re essentially permanently asleep, because you don’t have the mechanism to alert or wake up your brain.

So, in those special cases where that’s the problem, this kind of thing can work. There was also a study where they implanted a chip basically to stimulate the thalamus and the deep structures. That also can be effective. So, eventually that may be the intervention. But, this is now using just an external, low power ultra sound focused on the thalamus to stimulate it. They described the patient being, again, minimally conscious. They would be able to do ‘’some’’ things, but not much. They occasionally would attend to external stimulation. Then after the treatment, they were essentially awake. They would look at the examiner. They did a fist bump, it was reported. One of the doctors as they were walking away they would follow commands, participate in their feeding. Still not neurologically normal. The guy still has brain damage. And was still was minimally verbal. I think would just shake his head yes and no, but would do so appropriately, but wasn’t really speaking. Again, he woke up but was not returned to neurologically intact.

I do think we’re gonna see, fairly soon, these types of interventions to treat this one subgroup of patients who have enough brain function to be awake, but their deep structure’s just not working well enough to alert the brain. And all we need to do is stimulate it in order to get them to wake up. And we’re just figuring out the different techniques for doing that. Yeah, but very very cool.

C: Very cool. Maybe this could work for…, I know it’s a very specific case, but …

Steve Explains Item 2[edit]

S: Yeah. Okay, we’ll go backwards, I guess. We’ll go to number two: in a study, researchers find that chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition at a rate of five to one. Bob, you think this one is the fiction, everyone else thinks this is science, and this one… is… science.

B: Ahh, F-

?: Sorry, Bob.

C: (laughs)

S: So, this was a little surprising actually, because previous research seemed to indicate that chimpanzees in particular are very competitive.

B: Yes!

Steve: They’re greedy. You know, chimpanzees are often described as greedy, like they can’t inhibit their need to take things. They’ll steal. They’ll cheat. They’ll freeload. And they’ll compete against each other for resources. In this study, though, researchers tried to do a more open ended experiment with/in a more natural group environment. So, they had eleven chimpanzees who were involved in this study and essentially they gave them tasks to do that would result in a reward. But the task required either two chimpanzees to cooperate or three chimpanzees to cooperate; one chimpanzee could not get the reward by themselves. And they just observed their behavior. For example, did the chimpanzees work together, and did they police themselves for theft or freeloading or competition. And in fact, they did.

They engaged in a lot of policing behavior or enforcement strategies. For example, they wouldn’t expose the rewards if somebody… if a chimpanzee who had previously freeloaded was hanging around. They would say “nope, not until we get this jerk outta here. We’re not gonna do it.” You know. Sometimes the more alpha males would get involved in policing and punishing and ejecting the previous freeloaders or thieves from the area. They essentially enforced cooperation collectively as a group through punishment and these kind of behaviours. Which is what humans do. That’s essentially our system of justice is largely about, enforcing social norms and living together, cooperating, etc.

And lots of other animals do that too. Birds, lots of birds do this. Birds will, for example, some species of birds will warn each other if predators are coming. But if one bird doesn’t participate in that, then other birds won’t warn them when it’s their turn. So, they use reciprocity as a way of awarding and punishing this behavior. So, even birds do this. So, cooperation’s actually fairly wide spread in the animal kingdom but it is ‘’not’’ unique to humans. Although some researchers have argued that our level of cooperation ‘’is’’ unique to humans. But every time somebody says that, you know, it seems like we find that chimpanzees do it too. And this is a similar case. Chimpanzees were mostly cooperating and engaging in a number of behaviors to enforce that cooperation, on the group.

?: So that’s nice

C: Aww. That’s really cool.

S: That’s pretty cool.

B: Somewhat cool.

Steve Explains Item 1[edit]

S: (laughs) …all this means that… a new study finds that rat whiskers[10] contain chemical receptors that help them to smell, that is complete and total fiction. And the whiskers that themselves are basically hairs. They don’t have nerves in them. They have nerves at the base of the hair that sense the movement in the whiskers.

?: Yea, where you saying that there were receptors in the whiskers?

S: Yeah, but I made that up. That was wrong. That’s the lie.

?: Okay.

C: Yeah.

S: The whiskers are just hairs.

?: (inaudible)

S: They are like vibro- receptors at the base of the whiskers. So, the rat can sense, they get sensory information to their brain that actually helps them map the world when those whiskers move. The new study that inspired this item though was a study showing that rats can use their whiskers to sense the direction of the wind. And that helps them follow odors. So, if they’re smelling something, they need to know what the direction of the wind is blowing in in order to track that odor back to it’s source. And their whiskers help them do that.

But this study, very quickly, was they had rats enter an arena through a door and there were five fans. One of the fans was on and blowing. The hole at the base of that fan led to food. The hole at the base of the other four fans did not. So, if they couldn’t sense the wind at all, they would have a 20 percent chance of guessing the correct hole out of the gate. But the rats were able to do it 60 percent of the time, not just 20 percent of the time. But in order to show that they were using their whiskers, they then cut off their whiskers to see how they would do. Okay?

?: Aww.

S: But they said that the cutting off of the whiskers is painless. It’s like cutting off your hair. And they grow back. So, there’s no permanent harm done. So, they would cut off their whiskers, and then their performance dropped by 20 percent. So, they were still able to do better than chance, because there were other ways to sense the wind. But their performance decreased significantly because they no longer had their whiskers as a sensory organ. This suggests that they were sensing the wind, in part, with their whiskers. That was the study.

C: cool.

S: I looked it up. I couldn’t find any evidence that they sniffed the air with their whiskers at all. I guess they could lick their whiskers.

?: That’s what I was thinking. It’s exactly what I was licking, uh… thinking.

S: If there’s stuff clinging to the whiskers, they could taste it by licking it. But the whiskers themselves don’t have receptors on them, as far as I could find. They’re just hair.

Alright, Evan, give us the quote…

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:27:14)[edit]

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S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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 states in this episode that Name That Logical Fallacy is a very popular segment that they don't do often enough.


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  2. Yirka, Bob 'Search is on for 'golden spike' signaling start of Anthropocene'. Omicron Technology Limited. Retrieved 10 September 2016
  3. '1st website ever restored to its 1992 glory: CERN's ancient page describes the "W3" project'. CBC News: Technology and Science. CBC/Radio-Canada. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  4. Grant, Richard P 'Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public'. Science - Occam's Corner. The Guardian News. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  5. Lipka, Michael 'Why America’s ‘nones’ left religion behind'. Fact Tank: News in the Numbers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  6. Morris, Amanda "Whiskers Help Animals Sense the Direction of the Wind". McCormick School of Engineering. Northwestern University. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  7. "Chimpanzees choose cooperation over competition: Study challenges distinctiveness of human cooperation.". Science News. Emory Health Sciences. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  8. Lazaro, Sage "Real-Life Awakening: Scientists ‘Jumpstart’ the Brain of a Coma Patient". Observer. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  9. Arciniegas, Dr. David B. "Hypoxic-Ischemic Brain Injury". International Brain Injury Association. Retrieved 10 September 2016.
  10. 'Whiskers'. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 10 September 2016.


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