SGU Episode 573

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SGU Episode 573
June 22nd 2016
SGU 572 SGU 574
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.
Mark Twain
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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, June 22nd, 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: and Jay Novella!

J: Hey guys!

S: We are recording a little bit early this week because I'm gonna be out of town next week; and Evan is still in Italy! Still touring ...

J: Good for him.

C: Oh yeah...

S: It's funny, he sent us a picture yesterday. He was in ... I think it's Florence, right? Where there's a Piazza de Santa Maria Novella.

J: That's Florence.

B: Ha ha!

C: Love it!

S: Yeah (Chuckles) So, “Look, it's all of you guys in one name!”

(Cara laughs)

J: Florence is an unbelievably beautiful city. Oh my god, did I love being there.

S: Yeah, it's beautiful.

J: And, you know, when you say, “Florence,” it's like, it is the region of Florence, right? So the country surrounding the city. I was talking to my wife about this. It looks like what I would classify it as, it's heaven. It's all hand-manicured, like it's just unbelievable how much work people throughout however many hundreds of years were spending planting all things. It's like, everything is beautiful by design. It's unreal; you have to go.

S: Yeah, they have skeptical conferences in Italy, but they're in Italian.

J: I'd still go. I would go, just sit there and smile the whole time.

(Cara and Steve laugh)

What's the Word (1:27)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, you're gonna start us off this week with “What's The Word.”

C: Indeed. And the word this week is, “Alluvium.

J: That sounds like a cool metal.

B: No, isn't it something about drained water and sediment, and ...

C: Yeah, Bob. (Laughs)

B: Yeah.

J: How do you know that, Bob?

B: Come on, it's me!

C: Alluvium is clay or silt or sand or gravel or other similar material that's deposited by running water, usually left by flowing streams in a river valley or a delta. And generally speaking, alluvium contributes to very fertile soil. But, alluvium as a term gets really complicated when you start comparing it to terms like colluvium or fluvial settlements because they're closely related and oftentimes they actually refer to the same thing.

I found a great blog post online at comparing colluvium versus alluvium. And there's even an update at the top that says, “Because of the tremendous response to this blog post, we've initiated a survey to better understand how different people around the world are defining these terms.”

Because apparently, depending on where you live, colluvium could be more upstream; alluvium could be more downstream; one of them may be drier; one of them may be wetter. And these geological terms are not always as discrete as you liked to think. But, generally speaking, both of those terms do refer to settlements that are at the bases of hill slopes.

You may have heard the word, scree, or talus. That's almost the same thing, but the rocks' fragments are usually a little bit bigger. And the etymology.

So this is, it literally translates to “Matter deposited by flowing water.” It was from medieval Latin in the 1660's from alluvius and alluere, meaning “wash against” and “add,” meaning to pour against with luere, meaning, “to wash.” That makes sense!

Luere – that kind of makes sense. Or laver, like, lavadora in Spanish, like a washing machine.

S: Yeah.

B: And please, do not confuse this with effluvium, which is an unpleasant or harmful odor, secretion, or discharge.

C: (Laughs) Yeah.

S: Cara, did you come across the fact that with a lot of alluvia contains mineral deposits, like gold, platinum, sometimes gemstones? In fact, the majority of the world's supply of tin ore, cassiterite, comes from alluvium.

C: Oh, fascinating! And maybe that kind of harkens back to the early days of panning for gold, where you would actually ...

S: Yeah

C: be going through the silt with your little screen, or your little sieve to find the gold flakes. Cool.

S: Yeah, exactly. And it also contains a lot of organic matter, which is why it leads to very fertile soil, yeah. All right, thank you.

News Items[edit]

MEND Protocol (4:31)[edit]

S: First news item this week – I blogged about this today on Science Based Medicine – the MEND Protocol for Alzheimer's disease. Let's back up a bit. Have you guys ever heard of functional medicine?

C: Uhh....

B: I don't believe I have.

C: I think I've heard the term, but what does it mean?

S: Yeah, exactly. So, there's a lot of terms that get thrown around that in my opinion essentially are just excuses for using crappy science in medicine. That's what it comes down to. Whether it's complementary, alternative, integrative, and now functional medicine, personalized medicine. Well, the personalized is a legitimate concept, it's just being used and over-hyped, again, just to do more pseudoscience in medicine.

It always comes down to, “We're just gonna use crappy science or no science or pseudoscience, and we'll just call it something nice, and give it a flowery sort of philosophy around it.

So the idea of “functional medicine” is that you're using an intervention which is based upon how the body functions. It focuses a lot on nutritional supplements or lifestyle changes that address specific functional attributes of the individual patient.

C: What? As if medicine doesn't focus on function?

S: Yeah, I know. It's silly, but ...

C: It's so weird.

S: It's all just an elaborate hand-waving excuse to use crappy science. So keep that in mind when we talk about this new protocol. And we're talking about this because there was just a study published, which again is so emblematic[1]. The protocol, again, it's not a single treatment. It's a complex set of treatments determined by a computer algorithm.

It's a protocol, right? And it's a bunch of different interventions that is consistent with this notion of functional medicine. For example, the website that the company that owns it, Muses labs, they describe their protocol. So listen to this.

The analysis algorithm recommends pharmacological and non-pharmacological components. For example, if synaptic reconstruction and maintenance is needed, then multiple biological mechanisms may require normalization, enhancement, or administration.

That's gobbledygook, right?

C: Yeah, but it sounds very sciency.

S: That is technobabble. That is ... example, here's some more ...

examples of these underlying biological mechanisms include periodically activating autophagy, blocking prionic tao amplification, increasing beta amyloid clearance, inhibiting beta amyloid oligomerization, minimizing inflammation, normalizing neurotrophic factors ...

And it goes on. It's like they're just pulling out stuff from basic science research, you know?

C: And then somebody looks it up, and they go, “Oh, I don't want plaques and tangles. That's Alzheimer's! I need to do this!”

S: Yeah, right, exactly.

C: Ugh.

S: Yeah, I want to normalize my neurotrophic factors! So it's, again, you could make this up in an hour if you just zip through ... it's like, pick a disease, do a PubMed search; just pull random terms out of the abstracts; and just say that you're gonna do all this stuff, right?

Of course, each one of these things that they're mentioning would require multiple, multiple studies from basic science to translational science, to clinical science, showing that there was some net biological, beneficial effect from doing whatever it is they're doing, right?

But they're just skipping all of that science and just going from these markers to saying, “Oh, we're gonna renormalize your neurotrophic factors and inhibit beta amyloid oligomerization.”

Really? You figured out how to do that? You figured out how to increase beta amyloid clearance? Good for you! How did you do that? How did you bypass the twenty years of research that it would have taken to do each one of these individual things?

J: Steve, who are they talking to when they say those types of things? Because you might get an idea of what they're saying; I would imagine that maybe five percent of our audience kind of understands what the hell they're saying. It certainly doesn't mean anything to me!

C: But it sounds sciency, right? It sounds legit.

S: These are all ... the thing is Alzheimer's disease, it's a great one to pick, right? Because we don't have a treatment for it. There's symptomatic treatment, but there's no disease modifying treatment. We can't slow it down or stop it or reverse it. Also, there's tons and tons of basic science research looking at Alzheimer's disease.

It's a neuro-degenerative disease where the brain cells basically start to die, and they die over years, and you slowly lose your cognitive faculties; your memory tends to go early. But you lose everything eventually. It's a horrible disease.

If you look at the basic science research, just about every aspect of cell function, of brain function that you look at at the cellular level is abnormal. Yeah, there's inflammation, and there's impaired axonal transport, and there' oxidative stress, and there is toxic stress from glutamate, and there is proteins misfolding like in mad cow disease. All these things are happening.

In fact, we have too many clues. Everything is abnormal. The problem is when, it's like, something is going wrong, and there's all of these downstream effects. And then everything is going wrong. There's a buildup of proteins, the tau proteins and the amyloid, et cetera.

So, the problem is we have no idea what's cause and effect. Is the inflammation just cleaning up the dead cells? Or is it actually killing the cells? You don't know, right?

Is the abnormally folded protein driving the disease? Or is that just a by-product of the disease? Once the cells start to die, then everything seems to misbehave, you know what I mean? We're at that stage where we know a ton of stuff, but we can't put it all together. We don't know what's driving the disease; why person A gets Alzheimer's disease, and person B doesn't.

And again, there may be more than one thing going on here. It may be heterogenous, right? So there may be people who have different reasons why they ultimately develop it, to make it even more complicated.

So, for that reason, you could pick out all of these things, and say, “I'm gonna normalize all of these things that are abnormal in Alzheimer's disease.” But we have no idea what that means! You're just rearranging – as they say - rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. You have no idea if that's actually doing anything. That's why it's been such a tricky disease. It has been decades of research, and so many studies, and we still don't know how to treat it. We still don't know what's causing it, 'cause it's just really, really complex.

But they just take all of that basic science and say, “We're just gonna fix all these things with some magical mystery protocol,” that they don't describe because it's proprietary, right? So they published a study. It's really a case series of ten patients. So it's not controlled; it's not blinded; it's just ten cases.

They don't really provide you the kind of information you would need to have to really evaluate what's going on. They say the person had documented Alzheimer's disease, but they don't really give you the information you would need to know that. They say that they improved – they had subjective cognitive improvement. Okay ... And sometimes they do provide numbers, like their mini-mental status exam.

But it's really, really problematic. Obviously, it's not blinded, right there. It's not randomized. I have no idea if these ten patients were cherry-picked out of hundreds, you know what I mean? Who knows?

You don't know that these people really had Alzheimer's disease. One thing is, I dinged them for this. They were calling these patients “Alzheimer's diseased” throughout the paper.

C: Wow.

S: In fact, the name of the paper is “Reversal of Cognitive Decline in Alzheimer's Disease.

C: I thought you could only diagnose that on autopsy.

S: Exactly! (Cara laughs) Exactly! In fact, these people have Alzheimer's type dementia, which means that they meet the clinical criteria, but we don't have a pathological diagnosis. They're just assuming that the Alzheimer's type dementia is Alzheimer's disease. But we don't know that! They may have something self-limiting; who knows?

C: Yeah

S: So, again, if they're cherry-picking cases, yeah sure, you can find cases where patients stop progressing, or do better. And of course, if the patients doing better on follow up exams, like neuropsychological testing, well there's a practice effect to that. If you give a patient the test twice, they're always gonna do better the second time.

Often, in clinical trials, we'll have patients do the test three times and plateau, and then that's their baseline. And then we can compare it, you know? But if you just give it to 'em first time and second time, they might be better just because of the practice effect. So it was really in my opinion pretty sloppy protocol, not the kind of thing where you could make – it's not extraordinary evidence, and they're making extraordinary claims. And they're really hiding all the important data that you would really need to have.

So that's functional medicine in a nutshell. It's pseudoscientific technobabble gobbledygook kind of ripped from basic science studies without really doing the quality kind of clinical research that you would need to do in order to know if it actually works. And they're doing it for like, thirty-two things at once, you know? At the end of the day, it just amounts to utter nonsense which is very unlikely to pan out. As I say, they're doing it wrong. They're just not doing the science that is necessary to really know if any one of these interventions works.

It's also the other thing is you're mixing thirty things together. How do you know what's working and what's not working? You know?

C: Yeah. How do you do science with thirteen different variables? Or thirty different variables? In the same population.

S: Right.

J: But Steve, is this a scam, or is it just misguided people?

S: I don't know. That's a good question. I think it's probably a little bit of both is always the answer in that there's a company making money off of this. They're packaging it as a very sexy sciency kind of treatment. They're doing the kind of research that can sound impressive, but somebody who knows what they're talking about looks at it, they're not gonna be that impressed by it. It's designed to be false positive, you know what I mean? The kind of research that's going to be positive guaranteed. It's not really testing whether or not it works.

So it's certainly is with a lot of red flags for a scam. That doesn't mean necessarily that everyone involved is consciously perpetrating a scam. I do think – so there's certainly different philosophies in medicine. Right now, I think the dominant philosophy in terms of the relationship between science and practice is evidence-based medicine, which is fine as far as it goes. But as I've said many times before on the show, it needs some tweaks; and those tweaks are science-based medicine.

But then, that's pretty much, I think, ninety-five percent of people in medicine, or somewhere on the EBM to SBM spectrum. But then you have the people who are proponents of functional medicine or integrative medicine or alternative medicine or whatever. And they're basically just trying to change the rules of science, to lower the threshold of evidence, and to lower the standard of care. That's really their goal; that's what they are doing.

And they sort of package it in different ways, but it's still just bad science when you get right down to it. And this is a perfect example of that.

The Cost of Carbon (15:55)[edit]

S: All right, well, let's move on to another topic. Jay, this is a really controversial topic, and I think there's gonna probably be some controversy even among our own listeners. But tell us about this recent study looking at the cost of carbon.

J: Yeah, I took this as speculative, of course. I mean this isn't exact in any way. It's more of just trying to take a look at the cost and the future costs of not dealing with carbon emissions, and also just not having those people or companies who are truly responsible pay for the carbon emissions. And as you all know, we've heard of the carbon tax, and all that. But we're getting into some of the details now, and the cost estimates of what the damage is.

So, if you think about it, it's an interesting idea. When we use fuels, you're in your car, burning oil for your house, they release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. And in the long run, the use of those fuels – every time you drive to work and you're using a fuel – that it has a cost. Now, you could look at that cost in different ways. But I'm thinking more now from the things I've been reading that there's a cost to future generations, is more of what I'm getting at.

But it really is a cost that's spread out to the entire world of course, because it's not just you, but you're in essence causing society money when they get these fuels, and when we use the fuels.

Right now, there's roughly about two thirds of the companies globally, or individuals who should be paying for clean up of their carbon emissions, aren't. And that's a big problem. Now, like I said, future generations – billions of people – will be the ones who end up paying for this. And it's not just money that they're gonna pay for it, but it could be dramatic quality of life issues as well.

And to think that thousands of today's companies that are pumping tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, they're profiting off of future generations. And again, it could be money, it could be quality of life, or both.

The International Monetary Fund – this organization issued a report that said that $5.2 trillion USD a year are lost due to not making companies pay for the damage that they're doing to the environment, and other aspects of society, which I'll get into.

So, governments are catching on slowly, and some faster than others. They're starting to put taxes in place, and put regulations in place. These companies that rely on fuel, like oil companies or coal companies. They make their profits off of selling these fuels, are going to be a part of what is now being called the carbon bubble. It's a cool idea. It's like the internet bubble - everyone may have heard about the internet bubble. And when all of those technology companies went belly-up in a short amount of time because the whole thing just evaporated. And all the potentials didn't happen.

This carbon bubble's going to pop, and businesses all over the world are suddenly going to be dealing with huge price of or costs of doing business increases because again, governments very quickly as things get worse and worse, might start to try to make change happen. And all of a sudden, levy all these taxes. And the companies today that could be making billions or trillions of dollars, all of a sudden, might not be making any money because of the cost of what the quote-unquote “carbon taxes” would be to them.

So experts are now trying to figure out what that cost is to the businesses. And Chris Hope and his colleagues at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School have tried to calculate these costs and what they would be for the top twenty fossil fuel companies.

These companies are the ones who are most vulnerable to the carbon tax. And straight out, guys, the outlook is really bad. It's really bad. Hope said that the economic health, environmental costs. So it's economic, health, and environmental costs of properly dealing with a ton of carbon dioxide was quantified. So what does it cost to get rid of the damage done by one ton of carbon dioxide?

Then he applied that to each of these twenty companies, and multiplied it by their carbon output over a three year period, 2008 to 2012, I believe. And he just wanted to see, “Okay? So, what would it cost these companies to properly deal with what damage they're doing.” And in short, all twenty companies would end up owing more to fix the damage than they would gain after the profits, after taxes.

Of those companies, the ones that dealt solely with coal would, on average, owe nine dollars to every dollar of positive cash flow. So that's serious business right there. And the researchers noted, like I said, it's unlikely that all these companies will ever have to pay; and it's also, this isn't an exact, what they're saying. It's more of just an indicator. Like, “Okay, so here's an estimate of the potential future risk of these companies, as for-profit businesses.”

S: You know, economists call that a negative externality. So basically, you're shifting the cost of doing business onto somebody else, or on to society.

J: Or on to future generations, which ...

S: Well, even on to current generations! There's a health care cost now!

J: Yep.

S: People are – we've talked about that previously on the show – the estimated increased cost to health care of just pollution, of fossil-fuel burning based pollution is in the billions.

J: Yeah, look at China.

S: That's a negative externality. So it's absolutely a subsidy to the business to not require them to pay that. It's as if you allowed a company to just dump their toxic waste somewhere else, and society pays to clean it up. That's absolutely a subsidy. You're not making them pay for the negative externality that comes with doing business.

But of course, that doesn't necessarily translate into, “We should tax fossil fuel companies the actual cost of the carbon they're releasing into the atmosphere,” because it might not be a good idea to completely pull the carpet out from under our energy infrastructure over night.

J: Of course, yeah.

S: What we want to do is just balance the sheet a little bit so that renewable energy is more cost effective, because we're actually accounting for some of the external costs of burning fossil fuel. Fossil fuel in other words is artificially cheap because we're not making them pay for the cost of dumping pollution and carbon into the atmosphere.

J: Yep.

S: And that artificial cheapness is actually inhibiting other forms of energy – renewable energy, et cetera. Other forms of energy would be by comparison much more cost effective if you actually accounted for the real world costs of burning fossil fuels.

J: As you and I have previously discussed, solar panels have turned the corner; and they're at the point now where in some cases, they are creating electricity less expensively than burning fuel.

S: Depending on the market, yeah. Some markets, actually, it's solar that's cost effective.

J: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. So, in another decade, with the technology increases that we're seeing, if you just continue to follow that line of that steady increase, collecting solar energy, we're definitely gonna beat fossil fuel. So, I would say, in extension to what you were saying, yeah, let's tax these companies. Don't tax them into oblivion; tax them just enough so we could subsidize other companies, and then make the shift over the next twenty years. World, hello? Right? Like, why wouldn't we do this?

S: It's happening any way, but the question is, is it gonna happen fast enough? Again, we could make it happen faster by just tweaking the market, or just regulating the market. And I think it's totally justified. Otherwise, your position has to be that companies are not responsible for the waste that they produce, even if it has demonstrable cost to society as a whole. I don't think that's a defensible position.

C: So, to play devil's advocate, 'cause you guys know me, and you know I don't actually think this way. Is there, do you think, a legitimate argument for the fact that that cost should be passed on to the consumer, somehow? Maybe not the way it's being shifted now, where it's passed on to society as a whole, but built into the price of some of these commodities, like the same way that when I used to go to the shop to get my car worked on, and I got new tires, there would be a tire-disposal fee tacked onto my bill. Or if you have to have a battery swap, there's a fee for disposing of your battery.

And in your head, you might think, “Well, why isn't the battery company paying to dispose of the batteries that they created?” But they're then passing that cost onto me as the consumer? Do you think that there's an argument to be made that the consumer themselves, because they want to use the fossil fuel, that they have a responsibility to take on that cost themselves?

S: Well, they will take on that cost. The companies will transfer that cost to the consumer, right? You're gonna be paying six dollars a gallon for gas, or whatever, depending on how much ...

C: The tax is ... yeah.

S: So that's why ... this is kind of a societal question, and there's a lot of value judgments that need to be made here. And we're not trying to impose any kind of particular value judgment. It's more that we have to think about all of the effects and consequences of all these actual decisions. They shouldn't be made by default because nobody's thinking about it. And they certainly shouldn't be made by companies who are going to make decisions that are entirely in their own self-interest even when it may not be in the interests of society as a whole.

And there's lots of things to think about. Like this will raise the cost of everything. We certainly don't want to tank the economy, or dramatically reduce our quality of life, or whatever. But at the same time, we have to think very seriously about the fact that we are having an artificially inflated quality of life, borrowing against our children and grandchildren, right? Because we are shifting costs to them.

If we're benefiting from cheap gas, and leaving the cost of cleanup to future generations, that's not fair either! We're just living high off the hog on their back! So, we have to think about justice, I think, generationally as well. And also, there's the idea that developed countries have already sort of used up our carbon budget, and now we're depriving that of third world countries. That's not fair either.

There's a lot of nuances to this, and I think we just need to decide what the best pathway forward is that will have the minimal impact on the economy, minimal impact on society, serve some kind of reasonable balance of justice. But also minimizes the negative outcomes immediately to health care and also long term for the environment. And we have to balance all of those things. That requires leadership at the national and international level. And unfortunately, that's really hard, to get the kind of leadership that we really need.

C: Because it's a psychological shift, really.

S: Yeah.

C: More than anything, it requires that as a society, we start thinking more about the implications of the things we do. We're a very, very short term society, you know? We are the society of credit!

S: Yeah.

C: It's built into the way that we view the world is, “I want it now! I'll figure out how to deal with it later.” So that's a big hurdle to get past to start really planning for the future in that kind of a way.

J: I know, but Cara, we're at the point now, there's so much information, we can't ignore it any more. This isn't really a decision that needs to be made; it's just something to do at this point.

C: It's a regulation. Yeah, it's going to require regulation. It's not something that the companies are gonna step up and decide to do on their own.

(Commerical begins at 27:53)

China’s New Supercomputer (29:42)[edit]

S: Bob, tell us about China's new supercomputer.

B: Yeah, China's new supercomputer, Sunway TaihuLight is now officially the fastest supercomputer in the world. This is the first one hundred petaflop-class supercomputer, and perhaps the best evidence yet of the end of the United States' supercomputer dominance.

Now, this was developed by China's National Research Center of Parallel Computer Engineering and Technology, and it was ranked by the, which tests and ranks supercomputers twice a year, and has been doing it for years.

So let's get to the nitty gritty of Sunway TaihuLight. This supercomputer is nearly two million times faster than the standard laptop. Yeah, two million times. So, with a peak performance of, I've heard two figures on this. A hundred and twenty five, but more common was ninety-three petaflops per second. That's ninety-three quadrillion calculations per second. That is a boatload.

And so, you remember the progression – million, billion, trillion, quadrillion. So it's way up there. That's ten to the fifteen. Or another way to look at it is ninety-three million billion calculations per second. Now that's nearly three times the performance of its closest competitor, and that's Tianhe-2, which is another Chinese supercomputer, which has been number one for about three years now.

So where's the United States in all this? The most powerful United States machine ranked third overall as Titan; and that has seventeen point nine petaflops, which is only about a fifth as fast. Really seems like a misnomer now that it's in third place, Titan. It also has – get this – ten point six million cores. Over ten and a half million cores. That is incredible! That's more than three times the cores of the previous leader, which was China's Tianhe2. And it's twenty times the amount of cores that Titan has.

It also has one point three one petabytes of primary memory. Now that may seem like a lot, but actually, it's not as much memory as it seems considering how many cores this thing has. And that actually was done on purpose because if this thing had a more reasonable amount of memory that you would expect for its size, it would be crazy power hungry. You would need the power of a city to get this thing to run properly. So that's actually a very good strategy.

It's also one of world's most efficient systems. It has a peak power consumption under load is fifteen point three seven megawatts, or six gigaflops per watt, whatever. Also, this computer isn't like a concept car or a demo model. This thing is ready to go. Plug it in, it's ready to go. So that's also pretty interesting.

Now, I've got a cool quote from Jack Dongarra, who's a University of Tennessee computer scientist. He was actually using this machine. He said it's running very high rates of execution speed, very good power efficiency. It's really quite impressive. Now that's high praise coming from the guy who created the top five hundred benchmark when it first was used in (Gameboy dinging sound in background) 1993, and of course, still ranking them today.

So this is an amazing accomplishment; not just the supercomputer, but the actual journey itself to get to this incredible end product. Think about it: Fifteen years ago, China had no supercomputers in the Top500. The US had over half of the top five hundred – over two hundred and fifty machines fifteen years ago.

Now, China has more top supercomputers than anyone else, with a hundred and sixty-seven, while the US and Europe have a hundred and sixty-five and a hundred and five respectively. And yet, even more dramatic, for the first time ever, the US has been eclipsed in total supercomputer power, with China having two hundred and eleven petaflops in total, United States only one seventy-three.

Oh, another interesting aside is that the chips were completely made by China. They are no longer using Intel chips; and they're pretty sweet.

Horst Simon, a supercomputing expert and deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; he said we're seeing an inflection point, and he's absolutely correct. This is a fundamental change in supercomputer dominance.

So China has now clearly shown that it's committed to a sustained investment in high-performance computing, which is bearing incredible fruit right now. With this technology, they could take the lead in worldwide supercomputer sales. They're already at thirty-four percent. They could increase that dramatically possibly with this.

Research and development in climate, weather, and Earth systems modeling, life science research, advanced manufacturing, data analytics, the list goes on and on. This could give them a fantastic advantage in all those areas. And the US of course is as frustratingly short-sighted as ever.

There is actual legal legislation in existence right now trying to get a supercomputer funding boost, but that's been stuck in the senate for year! A whole year, and it's still stuck in the senate. Also, representative Randy Hultgren, who was a Republican from the state of Illinois in the United States, his act, The American Supercomputing Leadership Act has been twice passed by the House of Representatives.

He said, “Massive domestic gains in computer power are necessary to address the national security, scientific, and health care challenges of the future.” And I'll add to that, we are totally blowing it in the United States.

So what about the future? What's on the horizon here? So, our department of energy may have a faster machine in 2018, which is expected to range from a hundred and fifty to two hundred petaflops, which is a nice little bump over what they're doing in China at just about a hundred. So that's awesome, but that's two years away. That's an eternity in computer time. So much can happen in that time.

For example, China is now predicting that they will have the first exo-scale computer in 2020, years before anyone else. You may not have heard of exo-scale computing. That is one of the Holy Grails of computing right now. That's one thousand petaflops, or an exoflop.

Many of the world's most pressing computational problems can only be significantly addressed by exo-scale computing. At a quintillion[2] operations per second, we could make incredible strides at things like developing controlled fusion, modeling the brain, drug development, designing high-performance materials. This is similar in many ways to molecular and nanotechnology in that the country or corporations that develop exo-scale computing first will have a tremendous economic and scientific advantage at addressing some of these problems that probably can only realistically be dealt with with an exo-scale supercomputer.

So if other countries want to remain competitive, they really need to take high-performance computing, research, and development more seriously than they're doing now; or basically resign themselves to being third class supercomputing citizens.

So, in closing, I want to congratulate China on this incredible achievement. I certainly hope this advance motivates other countries to take this highest level of computing as seriously as they clearly take it in China.

J: Well, I would imagine anybody in every country would want their government to spend the money and be a world leader in that. I'm excited that these achievements are being made, 'cause it is a gain in humanity; and it's kind of like, you know, rising tide. All ships rise in a rising tide. It's still gonna be awesome. I just hope, like you were saying, Bob, like, other countries get excited; they feel the squeeze, and they put a lot of money and time. And then, it just keeps rotating around the planet. How about that?

Music Chills (37:33)[edit]

S: Cara, tell me why music has such an emotional effect?

C: So, I don't know if I can really tell you why, but I can tell you a little bit of the how. So, have you guys ever experienced that feeling where you're listening to music that's incredibly emotional, and you physically get chills?

S: Oh yeah.

C: Yeah. So this happens to about two thirds to even three fourths of people when surveyed. They say that they have this experience. Now, in a study that was performed by Harvard and Wesley and researchers, they refer to this as a “chill response.” But in doing some of my research, I actually found – love it when I get to introduce two words in an episode – the term, frissons, - F-R-I-S-S-O-N-S. And that is this kind of aesthetic chill response that you have in your body.

S: Is that like, Netflix and chill?

C: (Cara laughs) Well, the funny thing is, it's sometimes called a “skin orgasm,” so, you make the connection there. But yeah, frissons. So, if you ever have that experience, then you know, you can say, “Oh my god! I'm having a frisson!” Interesting.

So, they wanted to know what is happening when people have these frissons. And there's been a lot of research about music appreciation in the past, about having pleasurable reactions to music. And it doesn't seem like it really confers any sort of evolutionary advantage. So, of course, researchers are interested in what is actually going on in the brain, and potentially where we would have evolved that response from.

So, historically, we have seen many, many studies show that there is a strong dopamine response in reaction to pleasurable stimuli, music being one of those things. But these researchers were a little bit more interested in the full circuitry. So they used a type of imaging called diffusion tensor imaging. That seems like it's sort of kind of like a type of MRI that specifically focuses on fiber tracks. So it's looking at axons, or white matter in the brain. And because of the way that water actually travels within these fiber tracks, it tends to diffuse more efficiently going down the axons than across the fiber tractography, which is the way that DTI's – diffusion tensor images are read – can actually kind of reconstruct images for the researchers of how much white matter is actually present.

So that is one of the things that they decided to look at in this study. So, as we know, from neuroimaging studies, oftentimes, the sample sizes are very small; and that was also the case here. We're looking at twenty individuals, ten who on survey said that they can consistently experience that chill response, and ten who say that they never experience it.

And they were also able to collect which pieces of music really reliably elicited it. And they put these people in the scanner, and they played that music, and then they looked at their brains. They also did some studies on personality traits like the Big Five personality traits. And historically, they have found that individuals who experience these kind of chill responses to music also tend to measure high on things like openness to new experiences.

Now a lot of this is correlation. So they wanted to know what's going on in the brain, and can we even start to parse out any sort of causal links, which ultimately I don't think they were able to do.

So what they did find is that when looking at the brains of these individuals, there was actually larger tract volume going from the superior – actually the posterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus, which is a part of the auditory system. It's a part of the brain where music would be heard, which makes perfect sense. And those tracts moving into both the medial prefrontal cortex, and also the anterior insula. And these two regions are implicated in emotional processing.

So these are things that were hypothesized at the beginning of the study. There are other types of studies that show that these regions are implicated in having an emotional response to music. But what these researchers actually found was that the tract volume is physically higher. So there is a biological, structural difference in the brains – a significant difference – in the brains of those who can consistently experience that chill response compared to their match controls. And the difference was pretty sizable.

So, obviously, that doesn't really answer the question about what came first, the chicken or the egg? Is this something that strengthened over time because they already have that experience? Or does the actual neural circuitry contribute to that experience? But it does show that there are some physical structural differences in the brains of those who have that kind of deep, emotional response when they hear music.

I'll tell you what. I was a singer in a past life; and when I was a young Mormon, I would sing a lot in church. And to this day, even though I'm an atheist, sacred music, specifically church music gives me these intense chills. And I used to think of that as some sort of reinforcement of my faith. And now I understand that I just really get emotional when I listen to beautiful music.

S: Oh yeah, music can be incredibly powerful.

C: Umhmm.

S: The combination of music and imagery, like in movies,

C: Yeah

S: it puts it on steroids. They multiply together, the effect can be so profound.

J: But Cara, I -

C: If you ever watch a movie, one of the track, like, where the score is taken out, it's crazy how dead the movie feels.

J: Or Cara, have you seen them put different music on top of a scene that you would normally think would be sad, or whatever, and the music can change the tone completely! It's really profound.

C: Yeah, it's pretty intense. So, it's kind of no wonder that we do have these deep emotional responses to it, but the interesting thing is that there are people - not a small number of people – who either report not really feeling anything when they listen to music, or who have never had that physical experience that we're describing here. And the interesting thing is it does seem to be the case that their brains are physically different.

J: I've often wondered why music has an effect on us at all. I understand that you're saying that they can see how it changes the brain,

C: Yeah

J: or what happens in the brain when we listen. But it's almost like, why do we appreciate the sunrise and art and all that? It's kind of, you know, Steve, I'm sure you have some way to quantify it. But to me ...

S: Yeah, the way I look at it is, so clearly, creatures with central nervous systems, and even creatures without central nervous systems, the whole idea of being positively and negatively affected by stimuli is sort of baked in to any nervous system that we know about on the Earth, right?

So, it's kind of fundamental to how nervous systems are wired that certain things are pleasurable, attractive to us, reinforces our behavior. Other things give us a negative avoidance reaction. That has been part of our nervous system throughout our entire evolution, probably. And we evolved very sophisticated things that stimulate the brain to give us some kind of positive reward, happy, pleasurable feeling or the opposite, dystopic, sort of negative reaction.

And there are very complicated things can trigger that. Certainly, it seems like certain symmetries in music and art, certain patterns can evoke these pleasurable, satisfying sensations, even you have emotional sensations. So it's very interesting why that is.

C: And how different it is between individuals. You know, some people will listen to Thus Sprach Zarathustra, this big, intense Wagner piece, and they'll feel so much; and other people are like, “Ugh! It sounds like war, and it's scary.” And then they'll want to listen to a Chopin that's much lighter and calmer, and that'll be what really touches the. There's so many individual differences.

S: Oh yeah.

C: But it's true. Even in the introduction of this paper, the researchers do a great job of summarizing a lot of previous research about aesthetic judgment, about these aesthetic experiences, and the theory of reward network that is responding to all of these different sensory pleasures. So, dopaminergic pathways are heavily implicated in, obviously food, sex, drugs, but also, like art, music, even pro social stuff like doing good, doing volunteer work tends to have this overlap of the types of reward pathways that are implicated. So there must be something, I shouldn't say there must be. But it does seem likely that there is an evolutionary advantage even on these things that we think of as higher order aesthetic experiences because they get to those basic feelings.

S: It could just be an epiphenomenon.

C: Yeah.

S: It doesn't necessarily have to be directly advantageous. That's kind of what I was getting to. It's baked into our brain. So there's gonna be a lot of quirky, interesting things that will make us feel good or satisfied, or whatever. There's something – I can't remember if we've talked about this on the show. I wrote about it. The ASMR...

C: Oh yeah, yeah. We've talked about ASMR. I covered it for a TV show, and it was fascinating to me! This idea that these certain types of sounds and a lot of times it's like whispering, and clickety-clacketing, and it actually gives people what they call a brain orgasm.

J: Cara, you said that that noisy I played a few weeks ago was ...

C: Yeah, it was a little ASMR for me. Yeah. That's true. I did have that. And I don't usually get that response. Some people who say that they have ASMR can really can consistently kick it in by listening or watching the same videos. That was one of the few first times that I've ever experienced that other than listening to beautiful music. So, that was interesting.

For me, I think, a lot of the emotional experience that I have to music, sure a lot of it has to do with patterns and rhythms and the way that things ebb and swell. But I think for me personally, a lot of it has to do with the actual pitch. Things that happen in the same register tend to be very emotional for me, as opposed to maybe things that are more percussive. This is so different for individual people. And this is only a very basic - this study - dig into not even why that is, but how that happens.

S: Yeah, we're just looking at what circuits in the brain are being activated. But tthat doesn't really tell us anything about why that happens.

C: It doesn't, and there's even a great quote in a Smithsonian article that covered this study. That was from Philip Ball, who writes for Nature News. He said, quote: “Although it is worth knowing that musical chills are neurologically akin to the responses invoked by sex or drugs, an approach that cannot distinguish Bach from barbituates is surely limited.”

S: (Chuckling) Right.

C: (Chuckling) I love that!

Who's That Noisy (48:51)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, get us up to date on Who's That Noisy.

J: Yeah, last week guys, I played this noisy.

(Buzz-saw-like sound that gets higher and higher pitched, louder and quieter every second or so.)

Any guesses?

C: Some sort of motor.

S: Yeah, definitely sounds like an electric motor would be my guess.

C: Like a drone, maybe?

J: Good guesses guys! So, this was a remote-control car. At the highest pitch, it was going two hundred miles an hour. It was going on a circular track, and I did some research, and I do believe that the car was tethered.

C: Wow.

J: So it was going around a sloped circular track that was probably about the size of half a tennis court, and it just was going around and around and around, around, and they just pegged it. I also suspect that it was not just running on normal fuel. It was running on a high-end fuel.

So, very cool. Yeah. It's a very odd noise, because there's a combination of this noise of the wheels on the track, and then the noise of the engines spinning out, and then of course, it's going by the camera. (Imitates the sound), like that, so you get the doppler effect as well.

So we did get a guess. We had several correct guesses. One listener named Shane Hillier said it's a boat going in circles. Oh! So close Shane! So close. Not a remote control boat. A listener named Michael wrote in, said, “This week's Who's That Noisy is tethered to a nitro car.” Yes, so I do believe it was a nitrous oxide car. And he said, “On an unrelated note, thanks again for the recording you did for my wedding. Really made our day.”

This was a listener who I believe won an auction, or no, I think I did this one for free 'cause it was a wedding. And I gave them a funny recording that they played at their wedding. So I'm glad you enjoyed it Michael, and it was my pleasure.

So, a new noisy for this week. What is this?

(Static with a steady whooshing sound in the background)

What the hell was that, Cara?

C: (Whimpering) I don't know!

J: Crazy, right?

C: I think it's coming to get me!

J: This, that was a noisy sent in by a listener named, Ken Briodagh. (Austrian or Scottish accent) Dog! Briodagh! (/accent) Thank you Ken. Hey, Ken's from Connecticut! So, if you have any guesses on what that noisy is, and if you have any cool noises that you've run across, or should I say noisies that you've run across, over the past couple of weeks, email me directly at

S: Thank you Jay.

(Commercial at 51:38)

Your Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question #1: Politics and Gun Control (53:15)[edit]

S: All right, we're going to do, well, one email, but also refer to a bunch of emails. As I predicted two weeks ago, we were gonna get a lot of feedback on our discussion about the CDC and studying gun violence.

B: Oh yeah.

S: And we did. We did. Very predictable type of response. This one response comes from Steve. We'll skip the preamble a little bit. He continues ... it's a very long email, and I want to get to the meat. He says:

I cant help but notice that the show has taken a sharp left turn into the toilet since Cara joined the cast.

(Cara laughs harder than usual)

B: Oh god!

Every week either she makes some asinine political comment (Like “Something that dosen't exist … Like voter fraud”) or another member of the cast has to take a sneering shot at either Fox News, the Republicans, or Donald Trump. I don’t remember this being the case before she joined the show. Its almost like her bad behavior is dragging the rest of you down

J: Whoa!


Like how one misbehaving kid in a class encourages the other kids to act up. And that brings us to this week's episode, the last I will be joining you for. I can listen to you guys talk about black holes, sub atomic particles, going to Mars and debunking science stories that are in the news all day long.

But when you take an anti-gun stance, you just lost me as a listener. For me, knowing that there is an agenda behind your facts kills your credibility. I found and read the article you mentioned on the show. My conclusion is that the AMA is an activist, partisan organization and they do not try and hide their anti-gun, anti 2nd amendment activist positions. Is this worthy of a show devoted to skepticism?

There is no such thing as Gun violence. There is “People violence”. The CDC or AMA studying guns is a waste of money and just another regressive attempt at an end run around the constitution – The goal of which is to declare “Gun violence” an epidemic and a public health issue, and impose more gun laws on honest people – And doing nothing to solve the problem.

Maybe you don’t care, maybe you don’t want people like me in your club, and you are welcome to tell me to go pound sand. I will never blog nasty things, sue or harass you. But if your mission truly is “To promote science and critical thinking”, pissing in the face of half the country is probably not the best tactic. If you ever start doing a show on science again let me know.

C: Ugh! There's so much to say.

B: Wow.

S: Yeah, lots to unpack there. There's a lot to unpack there. But, this is not atypical. I have mentioned before that whenever we talk about an issue that has a political angle to it, I get emails declaring me either a hopeless conservative or a hopeless liberal, whatever the issue happens to be. So I do want to take the opportunity to reiterate the editorial policy of the SGU, which is that we are an apolitical show. We are a science show. We promote science, skepticism, critical thinking, logic, and reason.

We do feel that this should apply to a broad range of subjects, especially those that have some kind of direct impact on the world. We try to deal with important issues like vaccines, and GMO's, and global warming. And in this case, gun violence.

But of course, whenever you do that, you always run the risk of running across peoples' very tightly held and very emotionally held opinions. So that doesn't mean that we don't have a political bias ourselves. We do, although I think you would probably be surprised at what that is. I always laugh when people make these ridiculous assumptions about what they think my politics are, and they're never right. Let me just say that.

Granted, I don't adhere to any simplistic label, so you can't really put a label on my politics. And whenever you try to do that, I guarantee you you're wrong. And I think the same is true of most of us. I think, Cara, probably you're toward the left end of the spectrum on this show, but actually, you're to the right of Rebecca,

C: Yeah

S: quite honestly. So, Steve has not been paying attention for the last nine years if he thinks that you have taken the show to the left. I think part of is an artifact of the fact that we're in an election year.

J: Yep.

C: Yeah, it's, that's why we can't always do these before and after analyses in science, because there's so many confabulating factors like Trump is running for President. Maybe that's why Trump has made his way into our conversations more often.

S: Yeah. I do want to say, so, again, we try to avoid just pure political speech on this show. We really do. And if it sneaks in, I do tend to edit it out. But I have let a few statements on Donald Trump get through, and here's why. I'll just say this. I have problems with Donald Trump. They have nothing to do with his politics. They have nothing to do with where he falls on the right to left political spectrum.

They're all about the fact that he is anti-science. He thinks vaccines cause autism. He said that ten years ago. He was publicly corrected on that fact over the last ten years, and he has not changed his opinion at all. He clearly has disdain for experts, for intellectuals, for scientists. He's a conspiracy theorist; he's anti-science; and that's my problem with him.

C: And I think that's the context of how he's come up on the show-

S: Yes.

C: historically. And let's not forget that we've also talked about how Bernie Sanders is anti GMO.

S: Yeah.

C: And I personally did a story about Hillary Clinton pandering to UFO enthusiasts.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And, both Sanders and Hillary Clinton pander to alternative medicine proponents.

C: Yep.

S: So we talk about politicians and politics when there's a scientific angle, and we do try to keep it about the science. But of course, people are tribal, and people hear us talk about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or whatever, and because of our tribal instincts, the reaction is, “Well, you're not on my side, therefore you're on the enemy's side. And then they ascribe to us all of the things that they fantasize the enemy thinks or feels or believes.”

So, I think that Steve's paragraph here says a lot. Let's shift now to the gun violence issue, which is a really tricky issue, let me say that. There's a few things I want to chat about about this. But first, I really want to encourage everyone listening to this to set aside their ideology and their politics, and to try to look at this from the perspective that we are on the show are trying to look at it. Seriously, I'm very personally interested in the issue of guns, gun control, gun violence, et cetera because it is a great topic if you want to flex your critical thinking skills. It's extremely challenging.

There is so much sloppy thinking about this issue. And for me, I'm just trying to really deconstruct and unpack the logic that people are using to evaluate it for its validity, and to really try to wrap my head around this very complicated issue from a purely critical thinking and scientific point of view. It's very hard. It's very difficult.

There's so much noise that it's really easy to cherry-pick the arguments and the logic and the factoids that you need to defend your tribal position, very easy.

So, we'll just pick some stuff at random and go for it. Steve says,

There is no such thing as gun violence.

Okay, that's a massive premise right there. That is a core massive premise. There's no such ... and I find that to be a very common premise among those promoting gun rights. That they essentially want to argue that guns are completely incidental. As he said, they're a tool. They could be used for anything. I'm pulling at things that other people have emailed me as well.

The guns are completely incidental. Guns aren't doing anything. It's the old, “Guns don't kill people, people kill people.” We should be entirely focusing on the people, and not on the tools they happen to use to commit their violence.

So, but I think that there's a straw man in there. And the straw man is this notion that guns are somehow causing the violence, or that they are somehow implicit to the violence. But actually, the position of people who are concerned about gun violence – and again, this is not about taking away your rights, taking away the guns from honest people and doing nothing about the problem – you have to - the principle of charity, apply that a little bit here.

People just don't want there to be mass killings, right? Everyone is just a little bothered by the fact that thousands of people die a year in the United States with guns. That's what people are concerned about; not whatever liberal fantasy you have.

In any case, saying that guns are entirely incidental is actually missing the real point, which is not that guns are causing violence, or that these people wouldn't have been violent any way. The question is, to what extent does the availability and the ubiquity[3] of guns in our society increase the lethality of violent events when they do occur.

That's the issue. And if you are a proponent of gun rights, and are anti-gun control, that's the point you need to be addressing. Stop saying there's no such thing as gun violence. You're entirely missing the point of the other side. And therefore you're not advancing this discussion at all. It's all about the effect on the lethality.

For example, when we mentioned that yeah, something like, there's thirty thousand gun deaths a year, but twenty thousand of those are suicides. And there was a lot of discussion about, “Well the guns are incidental to the suicide.” No, they're not, really. It's not why the person's killing themselves, but the one most solid predictor of dying from suicide in somebody who attempts suicide is the availability of a gun.

If you don't have a gun at hand, you are much less likely to die from your suicide attempt than if you do have access to a gun. It's not incidental. It increases the lethality. It's not about what's causing the suicide, it's about the lethality of it. Same thing with violence. When people go on a violent spree, people say, “Yeah, that guy in China attacked thirty people with a kitchen knife.”[4] Yeah, he wounded thirty people, and killed no one! The presence of a gun increases the lethality of the attack, not the presence of the attack.

C: And that's why you see nuanced arguments about different kinds of controls, like when we talk about an automatic or a semi-automatic weapon versus a non-automatic weapon. Or a military grade weapon versus a smaller caliber weapon. That's why you start to see those nuanced arguments. Because of how lethal certain weapons can be.

S: Presumedly. I think part of the trick here is that we have a dearth of actual hard evidence. I'm going to get to that in a second. 'Cause we'll shift to the research angle, because a study came out today by coincidence. I want to talk about.

C: Oh, okay.

S: So just think very carefully about the logic that you're using. That's what I'm interested in. Is the logic really valid here? Are we having a productive conversation? Are we adhering to the principle of charity? Or are we just defending our tribe, and portraying the other side as in these ridiculous terms that really doesn't apply to anybody, you know what I mean?

And it cuts both ways. I've just been assaulted by the illogic on this issue from every angle over the last few weeks. Since Orlando, really. I really feel like on Facebook, on email, everything. For example, on the left, people will say, “Well, it's not about mental illness. Most people who are mentally ill are not violent.” But then on the pro gun side, they'll say, “It's not about guns. Most people who own guns are not violent. And most guns are not used in violent crimes.”

So both sides are using the same bad logic. It's like, okay, but it's somewhat about mental illness, because some of the people like at the Newtown shooting who performed the mass shooting were mentally ill, did slip through the cracks, we do absolutely have a problem with mental illness and having a poor infrastructure for dealing people with mental illness in this country. And some of those people who slip through the cracks do end up being mass shooters.

So, that is absolutely relevant to the issue. But again, on the other side, the availability of especially rapid-fire weapons does seem to increase the lethality of these attacks. And so they are relevant to that degree as well. But both are trying to use that same poor logic to try to say, “Ah, the issues we care about are what's important. And these other issues are incidental.”

Nah, it's a complicated multifactorial picture. It's culture; it is terrorism; it is homophobia apparently; it is mental illness; it is the availability of certain kinds of weapons All of those things are clearly playing some role. I would like to see everything on the table, and then having an evidence-based discussion about it.

But that gets us to the research component, right? By coincidence, JAMA published a study today looking at the Australia experience over the last twenty years. Have you guys seen this? So, we talked about this because Richard Saunders was on the show. We brought up the fact that in 1996, Australia banned certain kinds of weapons.

They basically banned semi-automatic rifles. Richard said that there was a voluntary buy back. And a number of writers pointed out that it was actually mandatory. But what I found out that it was both. That there was certain kinds of weapons were mandatory – they were banned. And you had a certain time period to sell them to the government, or you would be found guilty of a crime.

But then there were other classes of weapons where selling them to the government was entirely voluntary.

C: And what were those?

S: A lot of people did sell those kinds of weapons back. So, there were some kinds, like, any weapon, even if the weapon itself wasn't banned, you could still, if it was just an unwanted weapon, like whatever you inherited, a weapon from your father; you didn't want it any more, whatever. So, single-shot rifles were not banned, but if you wanted to sell one back to the government, you could.

C: So that dividing line was kind of along the sporting weapons versus military assault style weapons.

S: Yeah, again, there's so many problems with the discussion,

C: Yeah

S: because how you define quote-unquote assault weapon is so vague.

C: Umhmm, it's true.

S: And when, in the assault weapon ban in the United States that lasted for ten years, that defined assault weapons very specifically, but it included a lot of features that don't necessarily contribute to the lethality of the weapons. So, that opened the door to a lot of criticisms that, “You're just banning scary-looking or scary-sounding weapons, and not taking an evidence-based approach to what features actually put people at higher risk.”

C: Oh yeah, it's just one in a long line of examples of the way that we write legislation that has nothing to do with science and everything to do with lobbying and truthiness.

S: Yeah, so I get it. I get why you might feel, if you are pro-gun, why you would feel like a lot of anti-gun or gun control issues are irrational or cosmetic and are not really addressing the issue. But at the same time, I think the NRA position is kind of designed to box out any even discussion of gun control, of doing any kind of measure that might decrease the lethality of these events.

For example, they say that if you propose one kind of measure, they'll say, “Well, that infringes too much on our gun rights.” And if you impose a milder measure, they'll say, “Well that won't work.” So anything that's mild won't work, and anything that's severe is too infringing.

C: Yeah, it definitely seems like a slippery slope fear.

S: That's also part of it, yeah. Or they'll say the gun ban, the quote-unquote “assault weapon ban,” 1993 to 2003, it was about ten years. And then it sunset. That it didn't have any effect in the United States. Well, yeah, but that's because they didn't ban them, they just banned the sale of them. But they didn't force people to sell them to the government. They didn't confiscate them. So it didn't really change the number of weapons that were out there. That kind of just, “We're not going to sell them any more,” would probably take fifty years to have an effect.

So that's the other thing. It's like, when you take a measure that would take a long time to work, they say, “Well, it didn't work in the short term, so we're not gonna even let it exist for a long term.” So, you know what I mean? So a lot of illogic that sort of prevents there from being any progress on trying to address this issue.

C: And the burden of proof, which is something that I've seen a lot. When you see coverage on the news of these little snippets of individuals who are testifying before congress, or of individual representatives who are talking about either why they're for or why they're against certain types of weapons control or weapons bans, you'll see oftentimes this argument that like, “Well there's no evidence to show that if we did ban that, that it would make any difference. So because of that, I'm against the ban.”

Which is like, really problematic thinking because it's putting the burden of proof on the wrong side. Until you can prove it to me that it will make things better,

S: Right

C: I don't want to do it. But now you can't ever prove it.

S: Right, you can't ever prove it if can't experiment with different laws.

C: Yeah (laughs)

S: So you need the ability to try things out in order to, yeah. So at least states need to be able to experiment with different measures. And then we can follow and see what effect that they have. But if you want the evidence first, you'll never get it, 'cause how could you get it? What kind of evidence do you imagine occurring in the absence of any laws?

C: Yeah.

S: All right, so let me quickly review the data from the last twenty years of the Australia semi-automatic weapon ban. Prior to the ban, overall gun deaths were declining by about three percent per year. After the gun ban, they declined by about five percent per year, which doesn't sound like a huge difference – three percent to five percent – but you change the slope of those lines, it's cumulative over twenty years. That's a significant difference.

Also, the number of mass shootings - which they define as five or more deaths not including the shooter themselves – the number of mass shootings in the twenty years prior to the ban was, I think, thirteen, with sixty to seventy total deaths. The number of mass shootings after the ban was zero. And that's what most gun control proponents point to as the big evidence for the effectiveness of at least that measure.

However, the data is more complicated because the number of non-gun-related deaths decreased by even a greater margin than gun-related deaths over the last twenty years. So unless you're gonna argue that banning guns reduced non-gun violence, it's hard to say that, basically, the authors concluded, “Therefore, we can't make any conclusions about the effect of that gun ban on violence,” - on either gun violence or non-gun violence, 'cause they both decreased at an accelerated rate, and in fact the non-gun violence decreased even faster than the gun violence after the gun ban.

So it's mixed, and therefore, you could basically see whatever you want in it, you know? You could pull out whatever piece of that you want in order to make whatever argument, defend whatever side you want. But the bottom line is there's not exactly strong support there for any one particular position.

You could say it prevented any mass shootings; it accelerated the rate of decreased gun violence; but it's tainted by the fact that, again, we're not controlling for variables, right? It's an observational study. But other violence was also decreasing. There could be some other factors were just coincidentally decreasing violence, or who knows? It's hard to unpack that with a single study.

You need multiple, multiple, that kind of uncontrolled observations – especially sociological ones – there's so many variables; which again gets us back to research. Again, Steve, we were not taking an anti-gun or a pro-gun-control stance on the show two weeks ago. All we said was that we think the research should be allowed to happen.

But if you're gonna take this, what I think is a very illogical and extreme position that there's no such thing as gun violence - which is really a semantic game in my opinion – just to argue that we shouldn't do any research. Agh - to me, that's a hard position to defend. All we're saying is gather the data.

C: Yeah, how could you ever argue against doing research?

S: Well, I have argued against doing research. So you can, like, I don't think that we should research magical therapies in medicine that can't possibly work. It's a waste of resources, and it's just used to promote them.

C: But that's also because the research has already been done.

S: Well, that's partly why.

B: But there's a prior plausibility argument.

S: There's a prior -

C: Yeah.

S: plausibility. But I don't think that applies here. It's not a prior plausibility argument. Even if they have misbehaved, then that's what you should be criticizing, not just, “Let's ban research,” 'cause then that gives us no ability to gather data. Science needs to inform policy, right? Especially in areas like this where it's so contentious and so complicated. Logic and science needs to inform – not make policy – but inform policy. But how can you do that if you're not doing the research?

So that's really the only position we took; and that's the only position that the show is taking, the SGU is taking this week, is that, just slow down; think logically; think critically; and let's gather data; and let's have evidence-based, science-informed policy. But we're not promoting any one political agenda or a side of this equation here, because that's not what we do on this show, where ... it's – again, it's hard. We get it. It's hard to parse that from the politics. But we do try; we do sincerely try. That is our editorial policy. Let's move on to Science or Fiction!

Science or Fiction (1:15:53)[edit]

(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 then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake! Just have three regular news items this week. Jay, you missed it. I swept Bob and Cara last week.

J: Well, you would not if I was there, sorry guys.

S: Yeah, you can say that, you can say that. It's easy.

J: Sure I can.

C: Uh huh.

S: All right, we'll see how you do this week.

J: Right.

S: Item #1: A recent study finds that fish evolving to live at least part of the time on land has likely independently occurred thirty-three times in extant families.

Item #2: A new study finds that older subjects are better able to process visually complex images, suggesting that our brains learn to improve such processing over time.

And item #3: A new analysis of Pluto from the New Horizons images supports the conclusion that Pluto contains subsurface liquid water today.

J: All right, shall I go first then?

S: Yes, Jay. Of course you should ...

C: He's volunteering.

S: Yeah, after that braggadocio[5], you should go first.

J: So this first one about the fish – they evolved, Bob – to live at least part of the time on land, these particular fish. And they -

B: You read well!

J: independently occurred thirty-three times in extant families. Cara, you could use that as a word of the week, if you want “extant.” I don't know if Bob knows what that word means.

B: It's still-existing punk.

(Rogues laugh)

C: Yeah

S: Jay, extant is the opposite of extinct.

J: Whatever. (Cara laughs) Bottom line is, I believe that this item is science, because I like the number three, and it's used twice here. No, no, yeah, this is really cool. This is really interesting. I mean, you gotta go, “Wow! It occurred independently thirty-three times!” I'm assuming Steve's saying thirty-three different times this type of thing had evolved. Very fricking cool. I don't have any specific information on that, but I don't see any reason why that wouldn't happen.

The second one here about a new study that finds older subjects are better able to process visually complex images. Interesting, but I would very much think that the exact opposite is happening here because I don't think that the human body gets better at anything as we age. And I think it's pretty obvious that we don't get better at analyzing visually complicated images. I think when we get older, I believe that, especially with issues like lack of sleep, the changes in the brain and all that; and the fact that even our eyes age, and that we're not seeing as clearly. I just don't think that this one is science.

And then the last one, the subsurface liquid water – yeah, absolutely with Pluto. I think that one is science. The second one here is the fiction.

S: Bob, go next.

B: Thirty-three times fish evolved to live on land part of the time, which I think is the key word right here. Thirty-three sounds like a lot, but when I saw the “part of the time on land,” I was like, “Okay, that of course increases the odds,” because it's not a permanent migration to the land. So, I can kind of see that one, so...

Pluto, subsurface liquid. Whoa! That's quite interesting. I mean, Pluto is so small, I'm not sure how that would happen. I would think it'd be pretty much a dead world with no active core at this point, perhaps not. So I'm curious to see how that would be, and what the evidence is. But it's still a less compelling than number two here, the oldest subjects being able to read and process visual imagery.

Yeah, I'm not buying that. I think that your vision definitely takes a hit in many different ways including being able to process complex images. So I gotta agree with Jay and say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Cara.

C: All right! So, a recent study finds that fish evolving to live at least part of the time on land has likely independently occurred thirty-three times in extant families is quite interesting. I recently interviewed Neil Shubin, and learned a lot about Tiktaalik, you know, one of these ...

B: Yeah

C: early tetrapods who, he's focused so much of his research on this one species that does seem to feed into most of us who are alive today. But maybe the fish themselves had a bigger kind of evolutionary branch behind them. And it's not uncommon I think in the animal kingdom that we do find multiple rounds of evolutionary branches that terminate. So it's fascinating when that does seem to be the case. I want it to be the case. So I'm gonna say it is the case.

And then skipping down to Pluto and New Horizons. Pluto may contain a subsurface liquid water ocean. Obviously, it seems unlikely because it's so far away, and it's so freaking cold. But we see it in Jupiter's moons – they're also very far away – obviously not as far away from the Sun as Pluto. But because of tidal forces, because of the energy that occurs underneath that ice shell, there does seem to be enough heat energy to keep the water liquid in many places where we didn't think it was possible before. So I'm gonna say that that one's science as well.

This is gonna be a full agreement rogue night. Older subjects being better able to process visually complex images just flies in the face of everything I know about the aging process, and about visual perceptions. So it's hard for me to see that there's some form of trickery in the way you wrote this one, Steve; so I've just gotta say that it is the fiction that older subjects would be better able to process visually complex images.

S: All right, you guys are united.

J: Steve, do you see what happened here?

C: You set the tone?

S: I know how you're gonna... You're gonna take credit for it if you got them correct, but what if you don't get it correct?

J: I will take the negative credit.

S: All right.

J: That's how this works ...

S: That's called “blame,” Jay. That's called “blame,” by the way.

C: That's called, “blame,” yeah.

J: Wait, wait! That's a very political statement I just made, right?

(Cara laughs)

B: Negative credit. That's awesome.

J: But clearly, Steve, I have influenced the rogues this evening. Did you notice their lack of GWJ?[6] They didn't even want to say that because it would be giving me too much credit. You see what happens?

S: Well, let's take these in order.

J: Okay.

S: A recent study finds that fish evolving to live at least part of the time on land has likely independently occurred thirty-three times in extant families. You all think this one is science. And this one is ... science.

J: Science. Thank you.

S: That's pretty cool!

B: Thirty-three!

S: Thirty-three different times. So the authors were saying - so these are in different fish families. They probably occurred independently. In other words, they don't have a common ancestor who was out of the water.

B: Yeah.

S: So, that's again, this is all in living fish.

C: So cool.

S: By the way, as an aside, are you aware of the fact that there is so much more diversity, actually, even disparity among fish than there are among all other vertebrates. So, if you think about birds, reptiles, mammals, and amphibians, we're one tiny little twig on the fish family tree; does that make sense?

J: Sure.

B: Yeah, they, like bacteria who have been around for so long, their metabolisms are so distinct because they've been around for so long.

S: Yeah.

B: So the fish have been around for so much longer; so they're more diverse.

S: We are more closely related to some fish than they are to other fish.

B: That's awesome! That's awesome! I love it.

S: That puts it into perspective. Yeah, so we're talking about thirty-three different fish families. These are widely diverse, evolutionarily speaking. And what this suggests is that it's a lot easier for fish to start to spend some of their time out of the water than we thought it was!

B: Yeah!

S: It's actually not that hard! It happens all the ... and this is in living species. So it probably happened a lot of times throughout evolution the last ...

B: Yeah! Yeah, sure...

S: three hundred million years.

B: It could be hundreds!

S: Yeah.

B: Hundreds of species!

S: And a lot of these, however, do just spend some of the time out of the water, although some spend most of their time – but even when they do, they ... some of the species may live in tidal pools, or they sort of skip along like mud-skippers, you know.

J: Muddy mud skipper?

S: Mud skippers are one type of fish that comes out of water. They also said that it's probably pretty easy for fish to adapt to being out of water some of the time. But then the real trick ...

B: Yeah, that's true.

S: is adapting to being completely dry, cause their gills need to be moist to work. So that probably requires the lungfish adaptation, right? You need some kind of lung adaptation before you could really stay out of water for a long time.

But what this means is that there's probably have been many, many opportunities in evolution for fish to evolve permanently to terrestrial vertebrates because that first step is easy, so that's a lot of opportunities for later ...

B: Yes!

S: more elaborate steps to occur. And that, we see that that's true a lot in evolution. We find that the things that evolve a lot are actually easy to evolve. And it's not circular logic. I mean, we find genetically or physiologically, whatever, why it's easy. You know, it's like, “Oh yeah, this is the kind of thing, this one little genetic mutation will make this happen over and over and over again.” Evolution, just statistically picks the low-hanging fruit. The things that are likely to happen happen a lot! So it makes sense, and that's what we find no matter which way we look at it.

All right, let's move on to number two: A new study finds that older subjects are better able to process visually complex images, suggesting that our brains learn to improve such processing over time. Can I first say that there's a lot of ageism in the panel this week.

C: (Laughs) Oh no...

J: Uh oh.

S: Bob, have you gotten your AARP card yet?

B: No comment.

(Steve and Cara laugh)

S: So this one ...

B: I refused it on the ground I look too good.

S: is ...

C: Oh no ...

S: the fiction.

C: Yes!

S: You guys got it right. So ...

J: Thank you.

S: But this is based on a cool study that did in fact show the opposite, that as people get older, their ability to process certain kinds of visual information actually gets slower.

B: Like what?

S: So, okay, this is very interesting. So what the researchers were looking at is a basic neurological function called, inhibition, which I'm sure I've mentioned on this show before. The brain largely works by when you activate one part of the brain, it inhibits other parts of the brain. And our perception works that way as well.

So we've talked a lot about perceptual processing on the show. The fact that your brain constructs an image of what you're seeing; it's not passive. So one of the things that our brain does is it looks at all the possible ways to construct an image, and then it picks the one that's strongest, and it inhibits the other ones. Does that make sense?

B: What?

S: So, I'm gonna give you an example from an optical illusion. Are you guys familiar with the face-wine glass illusion?

J: Yeah, of course.

C: Yeah.

S: Where you have two faces looking at each other, or is it a wine glass in the middle? It depends on whether you're looking at the one color or the other color, or the white or the black, you know. Are you looking ...

C: It's like foreground, background.

S: Foreground, background. So, the illusion is they're constructing an image where it's kind of even. So your brain kind of shifts back and forth between inhibiting one construction or the other. But that's also why your brain flips. You don't see both at the same time, really; you see one or the other,

B: Right.

S: because your brain will choose one as dominant, and it will suppress the other one. So first your brain looks at all the edges between stuff, and then it decides what's foreground, what's background, what's the image, and what's the background? And then it suppresses the ones that it doesn't think are real, and it enhances the one it does think is real.

But when you give this optical illusion to people, this is what the researchers did, is they gave these white on black images. Some of the images – and they told the subjects to look at the white image, to try to figure out whether or not the image was something real or something not real. So either it was a random shape, or it was a thing. Did I explain that correctly?

B: Yeah.

S: So, for example, you might have a white apple on a black background, or you might just have a white blob on a black background; and the subjects had to decide, is the white part a thing, or not a thing. Does that make sense?

C: Yeah.

S: But here's the thing, here's the trick: Some of the images in which the white part was not a thing, the black part was a thing. So in other words, it was like the black part was a contour that suggested an image. So in order to really see what the image of the white thing is, you had to suppress this suggested image of the black thing, of the black background.

B: Interesting.

C: Which is harder to do.

S: So it was easy when there was nothing to inhibit, right? It was just the white image, and there was nothing suggested by the black border. But it was harder, you had to take a moment to suppress the suggested black image in order to see whether or not the white image was there or not.

So, older people had a harder time doing that. It took them longer. And this was predicted by the researchers because they said that it's been established by other research that as we get older, we lose our ability to inhibit certain brain functions. So they actually, I'm not sure how true this is, but it was very interesting. What the researchers said was, “This is why older people tell long, rambling stories.” (Cara laughs) Which is kind of funny, because they can't inhibit their thoughts. They get distracted by ...

When you're telling a story, other things come up in your mind. You're making associations in your mind all the time.

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: But you inhibit them to keep focused on the story.

J: Right.

S: But they have a harder time inhibiting these other side thoughts ...

B: Oh wow!

S: so they go off on these tangents. And I've noticed that ...

B: That's fascinating.

S: myself, when I'm – sometimes you're more calm; other times you might be more manic; or you might be tired or fatigued. So at times, you may have more of a little bit flightiness in terms of you're leaping from one topic to another, whereas other times you're much more disciplined and controlled. You guys know what I'm talking about?

J: Sure.

B: Yeah, I do. Sure.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah, so we all have a range depending on whatever our overall function. I'm sure I have never been drunk, but probably when you get drunk, it's the same thing.

C: Interesting. And combine that with memory deficits and you've got a terrible story teller!


C: What was I talking about again? I have friends like that though that are not old.


S: All right, let's move on to number three: A new analysis of Pluto from the New Horizons images supports the conclusion that Pluto contains subsurface liquid water today. And that one of course is science. I figured that you guys might have seen this one. This has been all over the news, but we had to talk about it. It was too cool.

So, the researchers basically computer-modeled what would happen if Pluto had a liquid ocean at one time, which it almost certainly did; and that if the liquid ocean completely solidified – turned to ice – then Pluto should have shrunk. And if Pluto shrank any time in its past, we would have ...

B: The surface would be different.

S: there would be geological surface features that would represent that shrinking. And New Horizons didn't see those features. So there's no evidence from studying the surface of Pluto that it has shrank over the years. Therefore, if it did have a liquid ocean, it probably still has one. And it has not completely solidified. So, that's the reasoning that they used to conclude that Pluto might have – which is why I said it supports the conclusion. It doesn't really prove it. But it bolsters the case as they say that there may be subsurface liquid water on Pluto, which is cool. And it is surprising for such a small, distant world, right?

C: Yeah.

B: Yeah, it really is.

S: There might be Plutons.

C: Plutons! That's true, actually.

S: Life – if you have liquid water, there could be life down there; who knows?

C: I hope they're like water bears.

B: (Chuckles) They're awesome.

C: I like water bears.

J: That would change the world, wouldn't it.

B: Tardigrades.

C: Oh, really, yeah.

S: Water dogs.

C: Yep.

S: There could be water dogs.

C: Yeah, exactly, they could be slightly different.

S: Dogs named Pluto All right, good job, guys.

J: Thank you!

C: Yay!

J: Guys, see how he didn't say, “Good job, Jay?” He said, “Good job guys.”

S: I always give everybody credit.

J: Umhmm.

S: I know you're ...

C: It had nothing to do with it!

S: you're desperate for approval, Jay; I know. I understand.

J: I'm not. I'm just trying to show you that last week I would have probably done an excellent job as well.

S: Yeah.

C: Last week was hard!

B: It was. It was.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:32:59)[edit]

S: Okay, I have a quote this week.

B: Quote me!

S: All right, you tell me who the quote's from, and I'll read the quote. You see if you have any guesses.

“When even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition. I doubt if I could do it myself.”

C: Richard Dawkins!

J: Sol Rosenberg

S: That was none other than Mark Twain.

C: (Whispering) Carl Sagan!

J: Oh my god!

C: No way!

J: Of course, the quote generator.

C: That's amazing! I love it!

J: I've never heard that quote by him before.

B: I don't know if I agree with it.

S: I see where he's coming from. He's being a little cynical, which of course is his thing.

C: Yeah.

S: But he's basically saying that if you get inculcated with a superstition, it is damn hard to shake it, you know?

B: True.

S: Which I agree with that. I wouldn't say it's impossible ...

C: Yeah.

S: because I ...

C: But maybe it was back then, or harder.

S: Even then, I think people could dig themselves out of that hole. It's hard though. It's damn hard.

C: Yeah.

S: I'll give him that, absolutely. Yeah, but Mark Twain, very skeptical dude. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it!

B: Sure Steve!

C: Thanks Steve!

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]

Steven Novella says that he has never been drunk before.[7]

Steve demonstrated a good way to apply critical thinking skills to a political issue today.[8]

We are more closely related to fish than some fish are to other fish.


  1. Definition: Serving as a symbol of a particular quality or concept; symbolic (Google)
  2. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000
  3. being everywhere (
  4. Chenpeng Village Primary School stabbing
  5. Boastful or arrogant behavior (Google)
  6. Go with Jay
  7. Fish evolution (573 SoF)
  8. SGU, politics, and gun control (573)
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