SGU Episode 533

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SGU Episode 533
September 26th 2015
SGU 532 SGU 534
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.
William Lawrence Bragg
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Jay's second baby

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (1:36)[edit]

  • Ruth Rogan Benerito: Chemist who came up with the 'easy-care cotton' process which may have saved the cotton industry and resulted in the wrinkle-resistant, wash-and-wear clothing that we all enjoy today

S: All right, Bob, tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: For this week's Superhero of Science, I'm covering Ruth Rogan Benerito. She was a chemist who came up with the 'easy-care cotton' process which may have saved the cotton industry and resulted in the wrinkle-resistant, wash-and-wear clothing that we all enjoy tremendously today, especially me.

Benerito was born in 1916, and she died in 2013. So she had a hell of a run. I was impressed with her parents. They were ahead of their time. Her father was a civil engineer, and her mom was a college-educated artist, an active feminist a hundred years ago – image how tough that was. Now, both of them encouraged Ruth's dream of pursuing science in an age when that would only be just a dream for many, many women. Her father made sure she had the same education as his boys, and often told her an education is something that can never be taken from you, which of course is a sentiment that will always be true, unless, of course, we learn how to hack the human brain, and can erase memories. But that's beside the point.

So, she graduated high school at fourteen – fourteen, so she was clearly very, very smart. She entered college at fifteen, and she got a degree in chemistry and math and physics. Wow! She worked at the US Department of Agriculture laboratories in New Orleans in the early fifties, and she's best remembered, according to many, for saving the cotton industry, potentially, by inventing this easy-care process. It's also called cross-linking, which is a chemical treatment for cotton to make it wrinkle-resistant.

Now, this process joins the long chain-like cellulose molecules. Now, cellulose is a polymer, so it consists of these long molecules, which make it a good fiber. But the hydrogen bonds are weak, so it can wrinkle very easily. And that's exactly why it used to wrinkle so easily. But by chemically inserting short, organic molecules between the fibers, kind of like rungs on a ladder, it makes them much less prone to wrinkling.

This was developed at a key moment in textile history. Synthetic fibers like nylon and polyester had just been invented in the thirties and forties, and it caused a sensation. Now, of course, they weren't as comfortable or cool in hot summers, but they did not need any ironing, which was a major, major convenience. And people were buying it in droves. And it was actually hurting the cotton industry.

And so, I mean, who knows what would have happened if she didn't have that breakthrough at that time. But there are many people that are convinced that it significantly helped the cotton industry, and potentially prevented it from going under. So, remember Ruth Rogan Benerito; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing the use of sodium hypophosphite as the catalyst for the esterification of cellulose phimeleic acid, you know, if it comes up.

(Cara chuckles)

S: Yeah, that's one of those examples of technologies that aren't sexy, and aren't headline grabbing,

B: Right

S: but they actually have a pretty significant impact on our modern lives, you know what I mean? There's sometimes little, mundane things, have the biggest

B: Oh my god!

S: impact.

B: I despise ironing. Oh my god! (Steve laughs) I mean, I do it, like, twice a year, when it really, really needs it.

S: Yeah

B: And I don't know if those clothes haven't been treated chemically, properly, but some of them just wrinkle more than others to this state.

J: Iron my money.

C: Ha!

B: (Laughs)

C: I don't iron. I refuse to iron. I just don't do it.

B: Yeah

E: You don't do it?

C: No, I steam

B: Yeah. Ahhh!

J: Oh, you're one of those. Okay.

C: Yeah, a little handheld steamer. It's so much faster.

B: Okay

S: I dry clean

C: I dry clean too. That's mostly what I do. (Laughs)

E: (Laughing) She sends it out

B: You can't dry clean everything!

C: You can't dry clean, yeah

S: Because otherwise, it needs to be ironed, my shirts. Everything else, we wash, but just, if you take 'em right out of the dryer, and hang 'em up, you're fine. The only thing, like, everybody's shirt's pressed. That's the only thing I do outside.

B: Well, usually, dryers have a wrinkle-release switch, so that typically does fine.

C: Dryers are big steamers.

B: Yeah, exactly.

C: That's why they work.

News Items[edit]

Predatory Pharmaceuticals (5:48)[edit]

S: Hey, did you guys hear about the pharmaceutical company that jacked up the cost of one pill of their medicine from thirteen dollars and fifty cents, to seven hundred and fifty dollars a pill?

J: Yeah, the CEO got, like,

E: Wow

J: destroyed on Reddit.

C: Yes, people hate him.

B: Steve, I saw this all over Facebook. Every third

S: Sure

B: article had that. And it had a goofy picture of some guy who looked kind of scummy, makin' a stupid gesture. And I couldn't even bring myself to even read it, 'cause I thought, “Well, that can't be right. I mean, come on!”

S: No, it's right. It's totally true, totally true. But there's, of course, a lot of complexity here. So the company is Turing Pharmaceuticals. Now, I've alternately read that it's a US pharmaceutical company, and that it's a Swiss-based company. And then I find out that it has headquarters in New York and Switzerland, so I guess it's both.

E: Well, they have a US, yeah,

S: Yeah

E: division

S: The CEO is Martin Shkreli, who is a young guy. That's the guy that you saw. He looks like he's in a low thirties. The Turing Pharmaceuticals is a start-up that he started in 2014. They haven't developed any medications yet, as far as I could see. But what sometimes, what pharmaceutical companies will do, is they will buy the rights to a drug, and then they'll market it. And that's exactly what they did. They purchased the rights to a drug called Daraprim, which is the only FDA-approved drug for Toxoplasmosis.

E: Have you ever had to prescribe that for anyone?

S: Sure, yeah.

E: Oh!

S: Yeah, I mean, you know, along with other anti-parasitic drugs.

C: Toxo is weird.

S: Yeah, it's “toxo.” So, toxoplasmosis is a parasite. It's pretty common. Most people, like, half the population or something like that will have some exposure to it. But usually doesn't cause an infection. But if you're immunocompromised, it can come out as an infection, as an opportunistic infection. So we usually see it in the context of HIV.

C: Don't you get it from cat poo?

S: Yeah, but again, most people just aren't colonized with it,

C: Yeah

S: and it doesn't cause an infection. Your immune system keeps it at bay. But if you're on chemotherapy, or if you have AIDS, then it could become an opportunistic infection. This has

J: They will raise the price, like crazy.

S: Five thousand five hundred percent.

E: Percent!


S: Thirteen dollars and fifty cents a tablet, to seven hundred and fifty dollars a tablet.

B: You know, I – I ...

E: Why would he do that?

B: Wait, I understand greed. I totally can relate to greed. Okay, but isn't that marketing death?

S: That's called a predatory sort of practice. You know. So he bought the only drug that's proved – not the only one that is used to treat toxo – one of the few drugs that is used. And the only one that's approved in the US, anyway, to treat it. This drug was approved in 1953, so it's been around for a while. But it's a quote-unquote “orphan drug,” which means that not that many people use it, you know what I mean? It's not like, for diabetes, or high blood pressure, something where there's gonna be millions of prescriptions. I've read that maybe two thousand people get treated a year with this medication.

J: Wow!

B: Well, how often? How often do you need to take it?

S: Well, if you have an infection, you take it for like, a six week period, a twelve week period, whatever it takes to clear the infection.

B: Six weeks, okay. So how many thousands are we talking, it would take then, to do a course of this?

C: A lot.

S: Yes, you would take it over the course of six to twelve weeks, and there's two thousand people a year, in the US, that use the drug.

C: And they're likely already infected with HIV, so they're spending a ton of money

S: Yeah

C: on medication already.

S: I bring that up, partly, to explain why there aren't generics available, 'cause no one's gonna bother, you know what I mean, to develop a generic

B: Right

S: kind of drug

B: Right

S: that has a small market. That's why after sixty years, it's still the only version of this drug. There's no generics available. So he bought a drug that had no competition, essentially, and then jacked up the price

C: (Pissed off) Geez!

S: incredibly. Now, of course, everyone reacts the same way, right? It's like, you look at those numbers, and it's just hard to wrap your mind around it, or to even think of a possible justification that isn't scummy. It just sounds predatory from beginning to end.

So, Shkreli did give an interview, where he tried really hard to defend his actions, to defend the company doing this. But I have to tell ya, I watched the whole thing. I was really not convinced. I thought he came out as a slime bag. You know, even trying to defend himself, he just looked like this corporate executive who just was unconvincingly trying to defend some pretty sleazy actions of the corporation.

E: He's not a doctor, he's not a scientist, he's a venture capitalist!

S: He was a hedge fund manager before this.

E: Hedge fund manager!

S: Yeah, just, some people say, that's, you know, kind of a dodgy investment scheme.

E: Yeah, loose and fast.

S: Yeah, it's legal, perfectly fine. It's legal and everything, but, you know, whatever. It just means you're the kind of person who will go out on the fringe to make a profit. But anyway, so he was saying – this was how he was justifying this increase. He was saying, “We're gonna use the money to research newer, better treatments for toxoplasmosis.

J: That's bullshit.

S: Okay.

C: That, you know what? Everybody knows that there's a cost built in when you buy drugs. There's the cost of the R&D of the original researchers developing the drug,

S: Yeah

C: of all of the different clinical trials, but this drug has been around since the fifties.

S: Yeah

C: This drug is already on the market. He bought it from another manufacturer, which means that none of that was built in to that cost per pill.

S: Right

C: This -

S: The only cost

C: it's insane.

S: The only cost is the cost of purchasing it, which I haven't seen what the purchase cost was. And it's like, it costs like, a dollar a pill to make it. So the manufacturing cost is a dollar a pill. And then there's marketing, distribution, there are other costs built in. He claims that the companies who previously were selling it, because it was an orphan drug, which is in a small market, they were making no attempts to make a profit off of it. So they were selling it at a loss, and that's not a fair baseline to compare it to.

Now, he's just trying to sell the drug at a profit. But of course, just again, it's still hard to just – if he had raised the price from thirteen dollars to like, thirty dollars, then his defence would have made perfect sense.

C: Yeah, but even then, you know.

S: At fifty dollars a pill, that just seems predatory.

C: And it feels like it goes to the heart of what a lot of people have a hard time with as it is, which is this idea of for-profit medicine, this idea of making money off of people when they're sick, and making money, you know, of not just breaking even, of not trying to figure out a way to have a health care system that is more about keeping people healthy, and keeping people able to afford their medication. But this idea of, you know, kind of hitting people when they're down.

S: I think it's perfectly legitimate to have a system where we pay for drugs, and then the price of the drugs has built into it the cost of R&D, the cost of doing research,

C: Sure!

S: which can be millions of dollars. So, yeah, they're not just breaking even on the drugs that they're selling, they're making enough of a profit to fund their ongoing research, so that they could always keep new drugs in the pipeline. So I think that basic system is fair, 'cause otherwise, somebody else would have to fund all that research, or we wouldn't have as many new drugs as we have. And the US produces more new drugs than pretty much the rest of the world combined, because we have this system.

But that's not to say that this system isn't broken in a lot of ways as well, and this is one. And what a lot of the critics are saying is what this shows, is that the price of a lot of drugs is completely arbitrary. There's no real rhyme or reason to it. It's whatever the market will bear. So you can have a situation where a hedge fund manager makes a start-up company, buys a drug, and then jacks up the price five thousand percent, because that's what the market can bear. And it's only really because of social media outrage that attention is being paid to this.

C: The market only bears this because you have no alternatives.

S: Right

J: Well, doesn't insurance cover this, Steve?

C: That blows back on us!

S: Yeah, right.

E: Actually, the tax payer winds up paying for a lot of

J: Yeah

S: It's just Americans who are gonna pay for this, because other countries have limits on how much pharmaceutical companies can charge for their drugs. So that price, that seven hundred and fifty dollars per pill, that's basically just in the US. He's not gonna get that in any other country that has price control for pharmaceuticals. So the American consumer is the one who actually pays that.

E: Why won't the American consumer then buy their drugs overseas?

C: You can't.

S: Yeah, that ...

E: They will!

S: They will! They will.

C: Yeah

S: They'll get them from other countries, which then, they tried to stop to that, right? But that's why there are people that are going online, and buying drugs from Canada. But then, of course, you get fake

B: Yes.

S: online stores.

E: Knock offs.

S: Yeah, they're selling knock offs, expired medication, or whatnot. So then you sort of go outside of the regulatory protections when you do that.

E: Right

S: So, that's not

E: A black market

S: Yeah, it's not a great system either. So, the legitimate points are here, again, I'm, personally, I don't say, like, we should scrap capitalism, you know.

C: No (Laughs)

S: You gotta pay for it one way or the other. You're either gonna be

C: But the price cap doesn't seem like a bad

S: Yeah

C: idea.

S: But there's gotta be some kind of controls in there so that

C: Yeah

S: it isn't completely arbitrary. This is just such a dramatic, obvious situation. But this kind of thing is basically how it works. It's just arbitrary, it's what the market could bear. It's also unfair that we're not competing internationally, that we're basically soaking up the cost of R&D for all these drugs, because other countries are just saying, “We're not gonna pay that much,” and the company's like, “Okay, well we could make all our money in America. So we don't care. You know, we'll just take a minor profit in Europe, 'cause, whatever, we'll make all our money in the US.”

So I think we need to figure out a solution to that, some kind of international pricing agreement, where everyone sort of pays their fair share for the R&D, you know, the development costs

B: Yes!

S: of drugs.

B: Yes.

S: You know? Now, the update is that Shkreli announced that

J: He's dropping it by three dollars.

E: Raised the price!

(Cara laughs)

S: He's gonna drop the price. He didn't say to what, he didn't say to what, but he's gonna drop the price of that, his company makes a small profit rather than this outrageous profit he was hoping to make, I guess, on this pill.

B: Well, yeah, he saw social media. I mean, that's awesome!

C: Yeah

S: Yeah

C: That's what that show is, really.

S: Even after you read it, and you hear his interview, and you hear him defend himself, you still kind of come away with that. But I always try to do the mental exercise of, what is the most charitable interpretation of everything that I could possibly come up with? And what I think is, is to him, I think he, I don't think he thinks he's a bad guy. Most people think that they're justified in doing what they're doing. I think he thought that he was, this is just a legitimate business transaction, and in order to fund research into more drugs, this is how you can get his pharmaceutical company rolling. But what he wasn't considering is that he's not selling widgets. This is a

E: Right

S: drug

C: Yeah

S: that sick people need, and it's part of the health care system.

B: Yes.

C: And it's their only choice.

S: Yeah, you can't just do that. You can't just treat it like a widget. That's, I think, the problem. That was his miscalculation, and he got hammered for it.

B: Yep, he's

C: Oh, by everyone! By celebrities, by politicians, by everybody!

S: Yeah

C: Did you see the meme that was going around, that just compared him to Jonas Salk? (Steve laughs) It was pretty bad. (Laughs)

B: It was across the era.

E: I wouldn't know Jonas ...

S: PR nightmare, PR nightmare.

C: Yeah

B: This is gonna go on his tombstone. This is likely

C: Yeah!

B: gonna be on his tombstone. No one's gonna forget this.

J: He had, like, a really good week. He was like, “I am gonna make bank!” Cara luaghs) He really was like, “This is easy!” You know?

E: (British or Australian accent) That's easy

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah

J: It's a great story, it really is, it's like a coming of age type of story, you know?

S: But the other thing, my fear is this becomes – yeah – this becomes a Big Pharma is evil story.

B: Ah, yeah

S: When of course, these kind of practices – that is not typical of the pharmaceutical industry. Not to say that they don't do their shenanigans; they do. That's why we need to tightly regulate them, keep a careful eye on them, need a watch dog, because, yeah, of course. They try to work the system to make money too. That's what they do. They're corporations. But nothing like this.

E: This is in everyone's face, essentially.

S: This extreme, this is not typical, and it shouldn't be used as an example of typical behavior in the pharmaceutical industry.

C: Oh, I'm sure Big Pharma was pissed! This guy made everybody look bad.

S: Yeah

C: They're like, “Dude, we had a pact here, like, under the radar.”

E: That's right!

S: Right, right right.

(Cara laughs)

E: Weren't ya at the meeting, buddy?

J: You only raise it by four thousand percent.

C: Exactly! People are gonna get pissed!

S: All right,

Ocean Populations Declining (18:52)[edit]

S: well, Cara, tell us about the tragically declining ocean populations.

E: I'm so sorry, why do you wind up with these?

C: I picked the most depressing story this week!

E: Oh, this made me ... awful feeling.

C: I know. If you want to have a good cry, I recommend reading the new World Wildlife Fund report, the 2015 report, called Living Blue Planet Report: Species Habitats and Human Well-Being. It's, you know what it is? It's sobering. I think that's a good word to use for it. But it's incredibly important, because some of the things that I learned, reading this, are absolutely staggering.

The reason that I was interested when I first saw this report pop up in my feed reader, and it really didn't get as much coverage as I expected, was because I recently finished Elizabeth Colbert's book, The Sixth Extinction, which is all

E: Right

C: about these major extinctions that have happened throughout geologic time, and how we are really right, smack dab in the middle of a massive one, and it does seem like we have – it's a lot of aspects of it are by our own hand. And so I wanted to better understand a very critical and sensitive part of this sixth extinction, which would be our oceans. And this World Wildlife Fund report actually gives us some good information.

So this is gonna be a little bit statistic heavy, but I'll try and only pick the things that I think are really important. The first thing I think is important to understand, when you're looking at this report, is that, first of all, nearly three billion people, so a pretty good chunk of the global population, relies on fish as a major source of protein. And, overall, fisheries and aquaculture assure the livelihoods of ten to twelve percent of the world's population.

S: Wow.

C: We should also remember that sixty percent (so well over half) of the world's population, lives relatively close to the coast – within a hundred kilometers. And now, here's the real kicker. So this is why it's important, because so many people rely on the oceans for food, but also for livelihood, and also for economic growth in their regions, like tourism.

Now, the way that they did this major study, which is the largest that's ever been done, is that the World Wildlife Fund, with a lot of different collaborating partners, developed what they called the Living Planet Index. And the Living Planet Index measured trends in ten thousand three hundred eighty populations of three thousand thirty-eight different vertebrate species. And they've been doing this year after year, so this is talking about kind of signature species across the globe, and trying to see how they've been threatened.

Now, overall, they've seen, across the Living Planet Index, a decline of fifty-two percent of these species, between 1970 and 2010. So another way that they put it, is that the population sizes of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, fell by half, in about forty years. What they specifically wanted to focus on in this study, is the portion of that population, which makes up the marine population. So the LPI, or the Living Planet Index for marine populations, which is based on five thousand eight hundred twenty-nine populations, so about half of the one thousand two hundred and thirty-four mammal, bird, reptile, and fish species that they identified for this study, those show a decline of forty-nine percent, between 1970 and 2010, so right around the same amount, almost half.

So that's gonna be the, what we're working with for most of these findings, is about a forty-nine percent reduction in mammal, bird, reptile, and fish species that are marine, that are oceanic. So, and this is the, this report, this year, is about twice as large as the report that they let out last year. They had a lot more data to work with, and so they think it's the most accurate thing anybody's done to date, even though we're still missing a lot of information when it comes to marine populations, 'cause it's very hard to study.

So, here're some sort of index species that give us a good idea of the health of the oceans right now. And one of the major ones that's often used is Scrombidae. I had never heard that word before.


C: Also, I'm not, by the way, a fish eater.

E: That's not the word of the week?

C: Yeah, it's not the word of the week, but you get a bonus,

E: Okay

C: just in this study. Scrombidae is basically the family that includes macrels, tunas, and bonitos. So these are major sources of food, from the ocean. And an index for scrombidae, based on data from fifty-eight populations of seventeen species showed a decline, you guys, between 1970 and 2010, of seventy-four percent.

So when you hear people saying, like, “Soon, there won't be any tuna left to eat,” that's not hyperbole. Seventy-four percent less strombidae in the ocean, then there were just in 1970, you know, not long, just a few years before I was born. And for most people, something – I mean, they remember 1970! It's not that long ago.

So, okay, here comes another one that's just brutal: Sea cucumbers – and this is a really good, again, index population, because it's quite sensitive. It's a more recently been seen as a delicacy, and it also helps support a lot of different agricultural kind of cultures. In the Galapagos Islands, sea cucumber populations declined ninety-eight percent between 1993, when the first legal fishery for sea cucumbers opened in the Galapagos, and 2004. In only eleven years, just in the Galapagos, almost all of the sea cucumbers were fish. And we also saw very similar fall off in the Egyptian Red Sea been '98 and 2001, a ninety-four percent decline due to over-exploitation.

Now, there was a fishing ban that was introduced in 2003, but even after that fishing ban, between 2002 and 2007, we saw another forty-five percent decline in these populations, which shows that a lot of this is not being well-managed, which we'll get into in a bit.

Okay, so let's talk about some things that we've all heard from the time we were little, coral reefs are declining. We know this. Coral reefs are going away, but how dire is the situation? It's probably a lot more dire than you thought. Coral reefs, as we know, are basically like the Amazon of the ocean. They're the most biologically rich, the most biodiverse, and economically valuable ecosystem on Earth. And the crazy thing about coral reefs is that over twenty-five percent of all of the species in the ocean live in reefs. But they only cover point-one percent of the ocean.

And so, a comparison for that, which I'd never thought about before, all of the coral reefs on the globe cover about half the area of France. That's it. So, three quarters of the world's coral reefs are currently threatened. And at projected levels of warming and acidification, which are the two major problems facing it – don't get me wrong – over-fishing, poor water quality, run off, deforestation, coastal development, oil spills, all of these things are contributing to loss of coral reefs, but especially because of global warming and the ocean acidification that's come from global warming, and how sensitive these reefs are to acidification, the current projected levels show that coral reefs will probably be lost altogether by 2050, that we won't have any left. And so, think about that. That's where twenty-five percent of the ocean populations live.

E: So, are we over the cliff, I mean, no way back?

C: Not necessarily.

E: Ooh, okay.

C: So this is the crazy thing. When we think about what is going on with our oceans, why are our oceans so threatened? Why are mangroves going away? Why is sea grass going away? Why are all of these species threatened? Gosh, seventy-two percent decline in deep sea fish populations in the North Atlantic over the past forty years. Like, why is this happening?

Well, one: It's over-fishing. It's unsustainable aquaculture. So even though we have started to say, “Well, you know what? We need to start fish farming. We've got to figure out how to produce this.” A lot of places aren't doing it in a sustainable way. There's no oversight.

It's climate change, it's extratives, it's drilling for oil and gas. And it's massive levels of pollution and CO2 that are going into the environment, that are acidifying our oceans. So all of these things are contributing to just a massive die off to probably one of the more sensitive indicators of biodiversity on the planet.

But, with some of the changes that we've made more recently, we can already see both stability, and very quick turn around and bounce-back in a lot of these species. So I want to give you a couple of really promising examples, so that we're not all like, crying by the end of this (chuckles) conversation.

E: Oh gosh, yeah, please.

C: Yeah. So, here's a really good example in the study. There is an area called the map of the coral triangle, which sort of surrounds Malaysia to the Philippines. It surrounds Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. So sort of this strip above Australia, and up, underneath Southeast Asia.

And this area is being managed by a lot of different organizations. There's this governance that's working to try and protect the coral triangle. It's a really big initiative across these six different countries. And there is a really sensitive coral reef there, and individuals are starting to work very closely to try and have this area bounce back. And we're already starting to see really promising results, where we're starting to see economic growth in these areas, we're starting to see a lot of flourishing reefs that we did not see before.

And specifically, if we turn the corner, and we look at a really interesting study that's going on in Mozambique, there are local fisheries there that have been doing something differently for four years. They have started working within sanctuaries that are overseen by the World Wildlife Fund, and by another organization called CARE. And within four years of working, doing sustainable fishing in these marine sanctuaries, there have been a three hundred plus percent bounce-back of species.

J: You know, Cara, it's not as simple as like, “Oh yeah, don't eat fish any more,” because then the people who rely on fishing for their income are gonna suffer. You know, it's gotta be solved through other means.

C: And also, some people can't not eat fish, you know what – and it's about way more than just fish. If we lose the coral reefs, we don't just lose all of the food from the coral reefs, we lose these barrier protections for coastal cities. So, a hurricane

E: That's true

C: hits, and it's significantly more damaging if the coral reef is no longer there,

B: Oh, wow!

C: and we lose these massive CO2 sinks. The reason that the ocean acidifies is because it takes in so much CO2. And so it's this negative feedback loops, where the more die-off wee see, the faster the ocean acidifies, and it just gets worse and worse. There's a lot of negative, downstream effects of losing the biodiversity in the ocean, that literally has nothing to do with our food supplies.

Election Graphology (30:38)[edit]

(Commercial at 36:26)

Conspiracy Thinking (37:59)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (46:56)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: BSG

What's the Word (49:26)[edit]

  • Efferent

S: All right, Cara, What's the Word?

C: Ooh! The word! There's a word! What's the Word this week? The word is efferent, not to be confused with afferent.

S: Right

C: But I think to understand efferent, you have to understand afferent. Now, Steve, I know you know this word,

S: Yeah

C: And I want to know about the other guys.

S: Let me just say, we usually pronounce it ee-ferent.

B: Ooh!

C: Do you?

S: But I think that's because we just want to make sure it's absolutely clear that we're not saying afferent.

B: Oh!

C: So, I will tell you, in the south, I have never heard that pronunciation.

S: Not, that's, I think that's just a

E: It's an east coast, west coast

S: even though we know it's like, maybe it's grammatically incorrect,

C: Gotcha.

S: just to be absolutely clear, ee-ferent and afferent, make them sound as different as possible.

C: Efferent! Yeah!

S: So it can't be confused.

C: I have literally never heard a professor – I've never heard anybody say ee-ferent. That's so strange!

S: May be institutional, although ...

C: Could be institutional too. I am gonna have a hard time doing that. Eh-ferrent – fairent

B: Steve, it makes sense in your profession, because a misheard word can mean

S: Yeah

B: the difference between life and death.

E: Oh gosh!

C: That is definitely true.

B: Absolutely!

C: This is a word that we use in, obviously, research all the time as well, and it's probably less likely that you will

S: Right

C: cut the wrong thing.

S: Or whatever.

C: (Laughs) In a research setting.

S: Eh-ferrent, ah-efferent, efferent, yeah,

C: But they do sound very similar.

S: Ee-ferrent is just, you know, makes

B: Yeah

S: it more distinct.

J: What the hell is the word this week? I don't know what the word's on.

E: You're supposed to amputate the right leg.

C: Efferent, or ee-ferrent, refers to guys, do you want to take a stab at it?

B: I think I know what it is.

J: I know what you mean.

E: Projecting out, or something.

S: Yeah

B: Yeah, Jay.

J: It's the law that they passed in New York to make sure that the land lords don't raise the rent.

(Someone scoffs)

C: No. (Laughs)

(Evan winces)

C: But Bob, you said you thought you knew. Evan said it in the background, but you might not have heard them.

B: No, I didn't. Something that extends away, or outwards, or something like that, moves away.

C: Exactly.

E: I said projecting outwards.

B: Yeah, yeah.

C: Projecting outward, extending outward, conveying or conducting away or outward. Specifically, this is a word that's used in physiology as it relates to a body part or an organ. And more specifically, it's almost always referred to, when we're talking about blood vessels or nervous tissue.

So I learned the words efferent and afferent in all of my neuroscience courses. And I remember being very confused, just like many students in anatomy and physiology are, because it's very hard to keep them straight, and they do sound very similar.

So, if we think about where they come from, it's a little bit easier to keep them straight, which is why I think etymology is always so important, especially when you're learning medical terminology. So they come from the Latin “effere,” or “ee-fear,” if we want to say it that way, meaning “to carry away, or bring forth.” So if you break that down, they come from “eff” or ”eef,” which is synonymous with “ex,” which means “out of,” or “from within.”

And then “fere” refers to “bearing,” or “carrying.” So, when those two things are combined, it's bearing or carrying out of, or bearing or carrying from within, outward. And this was first used in medical texts in 1827. Now, this is, as we said, in contrast with afferent, from the Latin, “affir,” which means “to carry toward.”

The reason we used to get confused, and I think a lot of people do, is you think of it as being away to toward, and so you want to say that afferent is away, but it's not. Efferent is away, and afferent is towards. So, I was looking up online some memory devices that different students have used when they were trying to understand it. And I found a really good one that a student submitted to Yahoo Answers. So think of it this way:

When we think of an efferent nerve fiber, it's a nerve fiber that's sending signals from the central nervous system, away towards the peripheral nervous system. So, a good idea of an efferent nerve fiber, would be one that's sending information to the muscles. So, a motor neuron is talking to muscles. So they were saying efferent for exercise. Your muscles exercise. And then an afferent nerve signal is one that often will bring sensory information toward the central nervous system. So they said that they remembered afferent for aroma, as you smell an aroma, and it brings it into the brain.

J: Oh, cool.

C: So I thought that was ab interesting

J: Very cool.

C: device that you could use.

J: So was that related to effervescent?

C: I don't think so. And it's also not related to affect or effect. So that's the other thing: A lot of times, grammatically, people get affect and effect confused, or affect and effect, which are basically the same word, but used grammatically differently. Of course, affect is also a word used in psychology and neuroscience

S: Yeah

C: to refer to, yeah, somebody's kind of behavior, the mask that they're wearing, sort of. So, it's not related to either of those words either. So that's why this is a very confusing word. And anatomical distinctions are often, I think for students, one of the hardest things to understand, because it's hard to compare it to a root. In this case, I think knowing the Latin really helps you understand

S: Yeah

C: how to use the word.

S: Right. And in medical school, you pretty much have to just commit all that stuff to memory. I mean, you have to know it cold. If you're digging into a pneumonic, you don't have it. You know what I mean?

C: Yep

S: You just have to know it. It's like things like distal, proximal,

C: Proximal, yeah,

S: hormonal, syphallic, I mean, you have to know what all of those things mean. Dorsal, ventral.

J: Why do they give it weird words, Steve?

S: 'Cause they mean something very specific. It means something very specific, you know what I mean? Like, distal means farther down along some extremity, right? Like, your fingers are distal to your shoulder. But you can't really see anything else – nothing else really would work, right, other than, distal's really the only word that actually captures the exact, anatomical relationship.

J: Gotcha, so it's kinda like how the eskimos have like, a hundred words for snow.

S: Yeah, which I think is a bit fallacious.

J: (Laughing) Which isn't true, but ... I'm just saying.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Proving God (55:44)[edit]

You talked about the classic great question, 'What could change your mind.' about X and that we should always be open minded. Thing is there is one thing I don't think least from my perspective I could ever accept as possibly true, and thats god. It goes to the title, the problem of Q. Wich is a simular thing to the arthur C clarke quote, 'Any sufficently advanced technology would be indistinuishable from magick.' of course the reverse is true, magick would be indistinguishable from sufficiently advanced technology. What could a god do, that couldn't be either done by a being such as Q, or faked with high technology. The enterprise can either do most things a god could do, or fake with things like the holodeck and such. Even if everything in the bible was 100% true, how could we ever be sure it wasn't just some Q like being screwing with us? I'm curious you guy's thoughts on this is there something you can see that be hard or impossible to fake with technology? Only thing I can maybe think of, but even then could maybe be faked and thats grant knowledge of some kind that my human brain couldn't hold or such. but not sure. Wolfwing Canada

Science or Fiction (1:03:39)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers have discovered a new layer of code within the DNA genetic code that determines the type of proteins that are made. Item #2: New fossil evidence shows that the first Australians lived along side and probably hunted giant predatory lizards the size of small elephants. Item #3: A major world-wide effort to replicate STAP - stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, has completely failed, falsifying this simple method for creating pluripotent stem cells.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:24)[edit]

"The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them." - William Lawrence Bragg

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.


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