SGU Episode 376

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SGU Episode 376
29th September 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 375                      SGU 377

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


PG: Pamela Gay

Quote of the Week

An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. 'Can they be brought together?' This is a practical question. We must get down to it. 'I despise intelligence' really means: 'I cannot bear my doubts.'

Albert Camus

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. Today is Monday September 24, 2012 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella

J: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good morning and/or good evening.

S: How is everybody today?

R: Super.

E: Doing just fine.

J: Thanks for asking.

This Day in Skepticism (0:33)[edit]

  • September 29, 1954: CERN is created

R: Hey, happy CERN day everybody. Happy CERN day.

B: What does that mean?

R: That means, on September 29th 1954 the convention establishing CERN was signed. CERN of course being the European organization for nuclear research. That's the English equivalent. I'm not going to attempt the French, 'cause I don't want to get angry emails.

J: Rebecca, I was concerned that you were going to forget.

R: Forget that it is CERN day?

J: Year, I was concerned.

B: Ah, yes...

J: Nothing, huh? Okay.

R: Cerntailly that's not an issue.

J: (laughter) You mean, my joke was so bad, that I'm hurtin' for cerntain.

S: (laughter) Alright... So, this is also the one year anniversary - or at least September 24th when we're recording this - of the first SGU 24 hour live broadcast.

J: Oh, boy, that was awesome.

E: Remember that?

S: Have you guys recovered yet?


R: Has it only been a year? Seems like yesterday.

J: Barely...

B: Evan, we don't need to sleep, right?

E: Nah. I'll sleep when I'm dead.

J: I think that was the hardest project I ever did in my life.

E: It was a test of endurance, will and -

R: Well, until that baby comes out.

J: Yeah, that's right.

E: Oh, yeah.. (laughter)

B: So far, every convention people come up to me like "Do another SGU 24." and I always say, "You know what? I wouldn't mind doing it again, but I don't think we could convince anyone else to do it." And I tell everyone, maybe we'll do like SGU six hours or four hours or something like that. I think if we ever do it, that's what it would have to be.

R: SGU four hours is a normal night of recording for us.

J: Yeah, that's right.

E: Well yeah, actually it is.

News Items[edit]

Ig Nobels 2012 (2:18)[edit]

S: Rebecca, have you checked out the IG nobel winners for 2012?

R: I have indeed, actually. I'm sad I no longer live in Boston, because Ig Nobels were my favorite time of year. If you ever get a chance to actually go and see them in person, I highly recommend it. It's a hilarious evening of science and fun. So yeah, this years winners, much like previous years, are absolutely delightful. So for those of our listeners, who are not familiar with Ig Nobels, the idea is that they give out awards to science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. Some Ig Nobels are occasionally given out tongue-in-cheek to idiots and speudoscientists, but for the most part they are given to actual scientists doing actual scientific research that is completely ridiculous. So, for instance, this year the psychology prize went to two scientists for their study "Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller".

E: As opposed to the right, I suppose.

R: My personal favorite prize was the acoustics prize, which went to two Japanese researchers who created something called the speech-jammer, which is the most brilliant device I think that has ever been created and it's something that when I describe it will be immediately familiar to everybody currently on this show. This is something that anybody deals with audio, who has spoken into a microphones while wearing headphones and have something go wrong, you know exactly what this does. So, the speech jammer disrupt a person's speech by forcing them to hear their own words at a very slight delay. So, the... Basically what it is, it's a large gun that looks kind of like - I've seen it refereded to like an Xbox-like device - and there's a microphone on it. You point it to someone who is talking. And the microphone picks up their words and then delays what they're saying by a few hundred milliseconds and then feeds it back out trough a speaker directly at them. And everything is direction sensitive, so that the speaker is the only person who can really get the effect.

B: Are they aware that they are hearing their voice on a delay?

E: Oh, year.

R: Yeah, I'm sure they are but there is a -

E: That's the point

R: There is a video showing it in action and... there is one part of the video that focuses on a professor, and he is giving a lecture at the front of the room and somebody does it to him, and he kind of freaks out because he thinks that something in the lecture hall is going wrong. Like his microphone is messed up or the projector is messing something up. It really makes him stop talking like immediately. It's so difficult to listen to yourself echoing, while continuing to talk.

B : Have you guys ever experienced that?

R: Yeah, all the time.

S: During the SGU 24 show, we were doing interviews -

R: Oh, god, that's right.

S: there was that half a second delay and it was almost impossible to talk. I had to take the headphones off to get a sentence out.

R: Yeah, it was hard. You become hyper-aware of what you're saying and you're completely unable to function.

E: That's funny, Steve. What's going on in the brain at that point? So, the brain is- you're trying to create speech and at the same time interpret- your brain is also at the same time interpreting its own speech and trying to -

S: Yeah, I think so. It's -

E: - make it fit together?

S: it just can't process two speech streams at the same time. So -

B: I think it's a little more complicated than that, though, because one of the things that people do by instinct is... we're able to filter out ambient noise. So if you're in a room with five or ten or more people talking you can kind of just ignore it. But you can't ignore that.

S: Yeah..

E: It's the sound of your own voice.

B: There's something different about it. You can't ignore it just sweep it aside like you can other speech. It's something that just like short-circuits your brain.

E: And hearing yourself so close to the words that you've just spoken, right, the timing sure is -

B: Yeah, the timing is -

E: They've homed in the timing to be effective in this regard.

B: Yeah, I wonder if they slowly increase the delay, what the effect would be. Would you reach a threshold where you could totally deal with it? You probably could.

J: Absolutely, Bob, it's a sweet-spot and they figured out the sweet-spot and then they figured out the delivery mechanism, like how to shoot that sound back at one person or to a very small area. So it is kind of like a gun. Right, Rebecca?

R: Yeah, it looks like a big chunky gun. With a microphone and a speaker on it.

J: But the funny thing about this is that there really isn't any point to it, other than... what? Like is it just a prank?

R: Yeah, in the abstract they say "We discuss practical application scenarios of this system such as facilitating and controlling discussions." Which is just a polite, sciency way to say "making people shut up". A bunch of kids, you know, studying in a lab and a girl pulls out her cell phone and starts talking and somebody pulls out the gun and she just immediately stops.

E: Has to stop.

R: So, I mean. I think everybody can think of a million practical applications for this item. Just maybe not so much in the terms of furthering human evolution... or knowledge of the universe.

S: I think we talked about the neuroscience prize on the show.

R: We did. Yeah. And it surprised me because I assumed that these guys got the prize years earlier because this study came out in 2009. It's the study that shows that you can pick up meaningful brain activity using fMRI from absolutely anything. Even a dead salmon. So these researchers stuck a dead salmon in an fMRI and found, what they would classify as meaningful brain activity. Which really is a fantastic study, because it throws into disarray so many previous studies that claim to show really amazing results by finding, you know, certain spots of the brain that are meant to be certain types of thought and things like that. This sort of throws all that out the window in a way, because it makes you realize that brain researchers, unfortunately, can quite easily just see what they want to see in fMRI results sometimes.

S: But there was a very specific statistical argument that they made. It doesn't necessarily invalidate all fMRI research, just that those that use poor technique. Now, what specifically they were saying is, that because you're looking at so much information - with fMI - you can number crunch tons of comparisons, and it becomes almost a certainty that you will find false-positives among those comparisons - unless you correct for multiple comparisons. You use a statistical fix for multiple analyses. So, if you do the proper statistical analysis, then the results can still be robust and statistically legitimate. But it's also just trivially easy to produce false-positives by failing to do that basic statistical correction. And that's something we see all the time, not just in fMRI studies. It's just that the number of comparisons that you can do with this kind of data is so huge that it particularly lends itself to this kind of statistical error.

R: Yep.

S: Got it?


E: Got it.

R: I was also particularly impressed by the literature prize. I'm going to read directly from the Ig Nobel description of it. "The US Government General Accountability Office, for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."

S: Uh-huh.

R: Yep.

S: Ah, bureaucracy.

R: The fluid-dynamics prize went to some researchers who studied how your coffee sloshes around when you walk.

B: I hate that.

R:"Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?"

E: That's why they invented lids.

R: The anatomy prize went to "Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception". These researchers from the Netherlands and the US found that chimpanzees can identify other chimps from seeing photographs of their butts.

R: The medicine prize was... terrifying. It went to French researchers who did some research advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode.

B: Wait, what?

R: The paper was called "Colonic Gas Explosion During Therapeutic Colonoscopy with Electrocautery". Steve, you can, your butt can explode during a colonoscopy? That's terrifying.

S: I think Jay has more expertise on this area than I do.

E: Ah, ha.

J: Just because I do what my doctor says. You know, he says it's time to go get an exam, I get the exam. What am I going to say? No?

S: That wasn't my point.

R: That's not where he was going with that...

S: This has to do with explosive gas that builds up in your colon, and that gas can get to a sufficient concentration to be explosive. And then you can trigger it with electrocautery. A little spark can actually ignite the methane that builds up in your colon and explode it. It doesn't have to be a big explosion to cause some serious damage.

J: Why would you do that? Why would you -

R: I don't think they're doing it on purpose, Jay.

J: Yeah, but after it happens, like once... You figure they'd stop doing it, right?

R: They still have to cauterize.

S: Stop doing colonoscopy with electrocautery? It's a rare complication, so what they're essentially saying, just do a really good prep, you know a good colonic cleansing, before you do colonoscopy with electrocautery to minimize the chance of explosion.

B: Holy crap, how can I never ever hear of that.

R: Yeah, don't you wish you could unhear it?

J: I'm terrified now!

B: No, I want to see a video tape of it.

R: There is something wrong with you guys.

B: (laughter)

R: That is not cool.

J: Steve, does that kill them?

R: Yeah, that's what I'm saying, it's a horrible way to die.

J: How embarrassing... "What did your brother die from? -Well, he was getting an exam, and his whole ass blew up." Seriously!

R: Well, hopefully it wont happen as much anymore thanks to the Ig Nobel winners.

S: Apparently there were 20 cases of colonic gas explosion identified in the literature. Nine of them were complicated by colon perforation.

R: Like it was perforated before?

S: No, no. The explosion caused perforation.

R: Oh.

E: Well, yeah, you would think, at the minimum.

S: One of those was fatal. So, one person died. Well, thanks, Rebecca. The Ig Nobels are always fascinating.

GM Corn Rat Study (13:45)[edit]

S: So this next study that we're going to talk about didn't win an Ig Nobel. Maybe for next year. But this has got to be one of the worst studies I've run across in a long time. The number of different specific criticisms I've come across of this study is staggering. Have you guys heard? This has been, actually quite prominent in the media. This is one of those studies that numerous, numerous listeners have emailed us about. The French study looking at the effects of GM Corn in rats, concluding that, um, the Round-Up ready GM Corn increases the risk of getting tumors. Have you guys heard about this?

J: No.

R: How could we not.

B: Yeah.

R: It was everywhere.

S: Yeah, it was everywhere. So the researchers said that this is alarming, obviously that GM Corn can be increasing the risk of breast cancer in women and other tumors, based upon this study. The French media seemed to completely buy their alarmism based upon this research. But American media was pretty skeptical from the get-go, but they didn't really give a good impression of how horrible this study was. The thing that was most suspicious in the initial reporting was the fact that the researchers would not allow... So it's very typical to send out a press release about a news item and to embargo it until a certain time. So you give the reporters a chance to look it over and write their story and then at a certain date and time, then you can publish the news story. This gives the scientists an opportunity to do a press conference or whatever it is they're doing. Of course if you violate the embargo you're probably not going to be given future pre-releases of press releases. In any case what the researchers did was they sent the embargoed press release to the media but they specifically prohibited journalists from seeking outside comment on the paper before it was published.

E: That's outside the norm.

S: It was very unusual. So they basically told the journalists, here's our research, we want you to report on it, but we don't want you to do your job as journalists and ask anybody else what they think about it. Just publish our interpretation of our own study.

B: Wow.

R: That's amazing, that that can even happen.

B: Can they make us do that?

S: Well it's... what do you mean by 'make them'? You know they...

B: Did they make them sign a p... saying, you can come and listen to this but uh...

R: But no the beauty of an embargo is that, they can't enforce it at all, all they can do is if a journalist breaks the embargo they can go on a shit list, and then they never get the tip-offs again.

B: Well who cares of they're on their shit list?

E: And for a piece of crap like this.

R: Well, unfortunately it matters to a lot of journalists, particularly the overworked type I'm imagining at, you know, larger newspapers who are mostly just printing press releases and things and don't really have time to dig into this stuff. And not really have much interest in pissing off the people who are feeding them the easy science news.

S: Yeah

R: But that said, there are plenty of journalists who do break embargos because of things like that. I know Ben Goldacre has tweeted some of the idiotic things researchers will do with embargos that journalists happily say, "go screw yourself," to.

S: Yeah

E: (laughs)

S: It's all honor system, but of course, if you don't care about the particular institution or researchers, you're under no obligation to follow the embargo. In this case I would've told them to screw off, and just did what I normally do, you know. But it didn't take long for scientific news outlets, like the New Scientist, and science bloggers to be all over this study, and there was just an avalanche of withering criticism. For example, here are some of the specific criticisms of the study. "The population of rats that they were using have a high propensity for tumors."

R: Hm

B: O-kay

E: ..animals used

S: It's really easy to get them to have tumors. One way to get them to have tumors is to overfeed them. And the researchers didn't indicate the total food intake for any of their groups.

B: t...esting

S: There were only 20 rats in the control group. And they had a lower tumor rate than is historically typical, for this population of rats.

R: Hm

E: The control group

S: Yeah. The control group had an artificially low rate of tumors. The data only reported that some of the test groups had a higher tumor incidence while others did not. So they essentially cherry-picked the data that showed a higher incidence, and in fact there was one group that showed a lower incidence with the highest amount of GM Corn. There was no dose-response, so there was no relationship between how much corn they ate and the risk of tumor. They also looked at exposure to Round-Up, the herbicide, which had the same effect as eating the corn that had the gene that was resistant to the herbicide. Which makes no sense. It's completely different mechanisms that produce the same effect. They did not control for fungal contaminants, something else that also can cause tumors in the same population of rats. And they did not use standard statistical analysis; instead they used some completely made-up unusual statistical analyis, that Tom Sanders, who's a researcher, characterized it as a "statistical fishing trip" in the New Scientist.

B: Holy crap

R: Ouch.

E: This ended up in a peer-reviewed journal?

S: Yes. Amazingly, yes. This is just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, every time somebody else takes a look at it they're like, oh my god, look at what else they did. There were just so many other problems with this study. The study is uninterpretable, and utter nonsense.

B: Was it done on purpose?

E: Maybe it's a spoof. Maybe they're having a joke on all of us.

J: Yeah

S: No. You'd like to think that, but no.

J: So whats the result gonna be, Steve? What happens to these people?

S: Well they're getting roundly criticized. I don't know why anybody would take them seriously. These researchers are suspect right out of the gate. They are part of a group that has been highly critical of GM crops ahead of time, so they have an ideological axe to grind. They've produced previous studies that were highly criticized as flawed, and totally biased against GM food. And one of the researchers—and this may explain how horrifically bad their research methods were—one of the researchers is a homeopath.

B: Oh boy.

R: What?

B: No way.

R: What?

S: Dr. Joël Spiroux de Vendômois—which I probably totally butchered—is a homeopath. He is a doctor of homeopathy and acupuncture.

R: What?

E: Do they have a feng shui specialist on this team as well?

S: Yeah. Which means he's an expert in manipulating data and generating false positives...

J: (laughs)

S: ...out of crap.

R: You have a degree in baloney.

S: You have a degree in baloney. So that's what we're dealing with. Now apparently, the French media ate it up, and they were like oh, see how horrible GM food is, it's going to kill us everybody, it's just horrible.

E: Big souffle.

S: But now, later than other countries, than English-speaking countries, they're starting to pick up on the fact that maybe this study is not something to hang your hat on. So they're sort of catching the second cycle and then trying to make up for their initial utter failure in reporting how crappy this study was.

B: Scuzi, milli regretti.

R: French, not Italian.

B: I know, but I know how to say that in Italian. And it's a movie quote.

E: It's all quotes, so.

R: Uh-huh.

S: Right. So this doesn't say anything about GM food, we had a previous discussion about this on the show. It's a complicated topic. It gets into the precautionary principle, the environmental effects, and is also all of the dealings that Monsanto and other corporations like that do in terms of controlling their seed and how they treat farmers and what not. But, regardless of what you think about all of that, this one study is utter crap. And there really isn't any evidence of any health risks from eating this particular GM corn. It has a gene in there that gives it resistance to Round-Up, so it's a so-called Round-Up-Ready crop so that farmers could then spray their fields with Round-Up in one application to get rid of weeds and it won't affect the crop, so it's very cost effective. There hasn't been any evidence that it causes any... I mean it's been studied sufficiently to get approval for human consumption, that it's safe. So when you have something that's been studied to this degree is probably being consumed by millions or hundreds of millions of people, really, you're going to do a crappy little study with 20 control rats? Then try to alarm the world with risks of this product? That's just completely irresponsible.

E: What does this say about the Food & Chemical Toxicology Journal? Does a journal like this suffer?

S: It's a peer review fail. Total peer review fail.

E: Does this put them in a bad light?

S: Yeah, absolutely.

E: ...for future reports.

S: It turns them into a scientific rag, I mean this shows that their editorial filter and peer review filter is inadequate. This never should have been published. This study is a joke.

B: Yeah but still, people will be citing this study...

S: Yes

B: ...for years. They'll be citing, "Hey, this was in a peer-reviewed journal"

S: Yeah

B: And lots of people won't remember that it was shit.

S: You may be right, but we'll see. There was such a science blogger feeding frenzy over this study, that I wonder if that is going to stick. You know, oh, that was that crappy study that was shot down in flames, within hours of being published.

E: What if this came out 20 years ago before the internet, what would've happened?

S: Yeah

E: It would've gotten out there, and been out there so long before anyone had a chance to really pull it apart the way we have.

S: Oh I know the turnaround was really quick, within a day or two it was shredded, shredded on the Internet, so. You're right. I think that's one of the good, positive things about the internet was the speed with which this kind of information can be turned over.

E: Good job, internet.

HIV and Faith Healing (24:22)[edit]

Emoticon Turns 30 (34:22)[edit]

CSICon Private Recording (38:19)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (39:42)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Warp core from Enterprise TNG

Interview with Pamela Gay (42:00)[edit]

S: All right, let's go on to our interview.

S: Well we are sitting here now at TAM 2012 with Dr. Pamela Gay, Pamela welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

PG: Well thank you so much for having me on again.

S: And for those who don't know, Pamela does an amazing podcast called Astronomy Cast, one of my favourites, but tell us what you were talking about here at TAM this year.

PG: Well I was trying mostly to focus on how human beings can do amazing things to make the world better and fix the things that are broken by getting engaged in society. And there are so many different aspects to this, from helping scientists to accomplish science in our current funding crisis by going online and participating in citizen's science, by being aware of things that they can help support through just writing an email. There was a fifth grader a few weeks ago who was forbidden to give a speech on same sex marriage by an extra-ordinarily judgemental principal, and the internet outcry allowed this kid to be able to give his speech in a special assembly. And by simply looking around and saying I'm going to do something to change what bothers me rather than whining about it on Twitter, we're capable of doing really great things as a society, working as individuals.

S: But whining is so much easier, though.

PG: And that's the problem. We've all forwarded a tweet about something where someone is articulating something that bothered them, but never taken the moment to do something original, to donate to a cause. One of the things that greatly frustrates me is there's been a few times with 365 Days of Astronomy, which is a community based podcast that I work with, we've put out a call for donations and seen huge numbers of re-tweets and zero donations.

J: Yeah.

PG: It's so easy to just forward, to just repeat and so much harder to put your time, your money, your effort into actually doing things that you say matter for you. Imagine if all the time and energy that went into going to some Youtube video where someone's being an idiot and then trolling them for it, instead went into doing something positive to educate people so that they don't become trolls.

J: So is being a troll a trap? Do you think there's something that attracts people to it, like they get an adrenaline rush or something, what's the driver?

PG: People want attention. I for a while volunteered as a dog trainer and I went through courses to get trained as a dog.

S: You got trained as a dog?

PG: Not trained as a dog, sorry. To get trained as a dog trainer.

J: (laughs)

PG: And to think like a dog, which don't conjoin those two sentences, it comes out strangely, I just tried that. And one of the things that they teach you is that some of these animals misbehave horribly, biting, nipping, yapping, peeing on the floor, because they just desperately want attention, they're herd, they're not herd animals, they're pack animals and they, if you have a single dog it's isolated, it wants to feel part of the pack and negative attention is still attention. And trolls, when you feed them by saying you're wrong, you're bad, you're evil, you're wasting my time and you attack them back, you're feeding them, you're giving in to their need for attention, to feel part of the pack. We need to figure out how not to give them that positive reinforcement.

J: Is it as simple as just ignore?

PG: I think you sometimes have to do more than just ignore because if you just ignore they're still sitting there and other people are going to give in and feed. I think it's worth taking the half-second before you close that browser window to hit the block, to hit the report as abuse, to hit that button that will eventually alert the social network this is someone we probably need to remove.

S: Yeah there's a certain threshold of people where you just have to ban people.

PG: Yeah.

S: Because they're, as you said, don't feed the trolls, when you say that, that's feeding the trolls, first of all. You can't talk about not talking about it without talking about it.


S: That feeds in to a certain degree. Because they always just escalate their game until someone caves.

PG: Yeah.

S: The other thing is that, with certain sites, if you're running a science site, and you have somebody there spreading pseudoscience, you can't let it go unanswered so you have this dilemma where you have this rank pseudoscience on a science site that no-one is objecting to, or you have to feed the troll, or you just ban them. So you're almost obligated at some point just to ban people to preserve the integrity of the blog.

PG: This is something that we have to deal with with with the CosmoQuest forums which recently merged with the Bad Astronomy Universe Today forums, and we get a lot of people coming in to the forums and presenting their alternative to the mainstream ideas about science. These are people that are trying to say relativity isn't true or presenting their own alternative ideas, and so we have an area set aside for their discussion, and they're required to answer every question that is given to them, and they're given 30 days to convince people of their idea, and if they can't, they have to be silenced, the thread is closed. So it's a way of confronting it but giving them their own space.

J: That's interesting, I mean you're basically saying, we're going to allot you time to talk about it but then if it doesn't actually get to the point where it goes above the water line, which I'm curious to know if it ever does...

PG: So far it hasn't, and this is a forum that has existed within the Bad Astronomy Universe Today named about forums for many many years and when Fraser Cain first set up this part of the forum it was with the hope that maybe some new, novel, interesting idea would come out of it that was real science, and it never has.

J: Did he come up with that idea?

PG: I think it was a combination of seeing all of these pseudoscience ideas, seeing all of these alternative ideas being brought forward and getting smashed down in a way that led to flames, trying to create out of all of these flame wars, something positive.

J: Right. Well I think it's a really cool idea, I'd like actually to come take a look.

S: In terms of people getting involved in changing the world, which obviously we like to do - we're activists, I do find that people come up to us to talk about us are sorted into one of two categories, there are people who say "you guys should do this".

PG: Yes.

S: "You guys should go ahead and do that." My answer is always, yeah that is a good that, you should do that, why don't you do that? We're doing something already. But there are a lot of people who do ask questions at lectures or who come up and talk to us and say "I want to get involved, I want to do something, can you help me do that?" So we don't want to make it seem like other people aren't interested in being activists, but sometimes you just don't know how to get involved.

PG: There's two different factors, the people who come up to us and say "you need to" make me feel exhausted, because we can only do so much as individuals, but part of what we're seeing is these people see us as strong, powerful people who are capable of enacting change and they don't see themselves that way.

S: Right

J: Yeah.

S: So we have to empower people to understand that when they see a problem, when they're upset about something, they actually can be that cliché of be the change you want to see in the world. And so we need to somehow facilitate people believing in themselves. And the other side of that is that there are a lot of people who recognise that there's a lot of badness out there and they don't know where to start, it's all so intimidating, they don't know how to get involved, and my advice to these people, is simply find what you're passionate about and then google to find out who's already engaged in combating this. One of my favourite examples is people who get very upset about lesbian/gay/bisexual/queer/transgender issues. I don't remember what order those words are supposed to go in now. There's this fabulous It Gets Better Project. So if you see, and people see this on my comment thread because my last name's Gay, so every good comment thread eventually leads to somebody saying "haha this is so gay her last name's gay, you're gay" and it's ridiculous that this is still happening in 2012.

S: Yeah, but that could be an 11 year old right, because it's online.

PG: It's online and, but...

J: It was me.


J: Just kidding.

PG: And this is one of those cases where there's clearly still problems, there's that teenage girl killed in Texas for being in love with another girl, and there's already an organisation working hard to do good, to fix things, so find the people who are doing the thing that causes you to stay awake going I can't believe the world is broken in this way, and embrace those people. And if those people aren't already out there doing the thing that makes you passionately hurt so that you want to change the world, be that person, Elyse Anders did that a few years ago, creating the Hug Me I'm Vaccinated program when she realised how much we're losing herd immunity. So you can, if you don't see the people already out there working to make things better, be that person who starts the grass-roots movement.

J: Or if you don't have the time, or you're just not cut out for it, which let's be honest, some people aren't, like you said earlier though, you can also be a supporter, not just by digesting the content and learning from it, but you can donate and even just sending an email to the people that are doing the work that you really appreciate and thank them and let them know because as someone who receives email where people say hey, I listen and I appreciate it, it fuels us and it really makes a difference. If you're just in an echo chamber and you have no idea if you're having an impact, then you don't know what's going on and you could easily just putter out and not be motivated.

PG: And in our current society where we're in a position where our government just can't fund the things the way it used to. And I know I personally am in this situation where I'm really worried because I didn't get the grant I was counting on this year, I need to figure out to afford my lead programmer because his funding runs out in December. And all of this is terrifying but then I see hope in things like there are so many individuals who have things that they can share, resources that they can share and they're working so hard to literally build our rocket plane future. NASA right now is underfunded to say the least, but there's so many individuals who made their fortunes in dot coms, working with Amazon, with Google, with PayPal, with these different corporations, and having made their money, they're now saying, I'm going to build the rocket plane future by hiring the engineers, by hiring the space suit designers, and this is where we see SpaceX, Blue Origin, XCOR, all these other companies, because someone of means said "I'm going to change the world" and what we have to hope for is that people of means will recognise what we're doing. And "of means" may be one extra dollar, it only takes ten people with one extra dollar to pay for one hour of a student doing something in the lab, and every one dollar can go so far, and maybe some day we'll get lucky and I know we've been lucky with Astronomy Cast, we've Uncle Bob as one of our sponsors, and he supports what we do, spreading the word of astronomy, and you have supporters who support you and we live in an age where it's individuals who fund changing society virally, one idea and campaign at a time. It is one of those strange contradictions of modern society where there's the expectation that with intellectual gifts and content that we should give it away for free and that if we expect to earn money that we are being selfish, that we are - name one of the seven sins. We're somehow taking advantage of society by trying to make a decent living, and there's something wrong with the idea that it's OK for an athlete who entertains on TV and in the sports arena, an actress, all of these people, to get paid huge sums of money to do what they do. One baseball player's salary for one year, for one of the little guys making a million a year, that funds my entire staff, multiple individuals for multiple years, and people see it as wrong that we as academics would like to make a reasonable living, that we as content producers might even put ads on our websites and try not to have to pay out of pocket for our microphones. That's what Fraser and I do, Fraser and I do all of our podcasting out of our own pocket and we pay an audio engineer and we pay someone to do transcripts for us because really if you don't pay someone to do transcripts you're torturing them.

J: Right, right.

S: Mmhmm.

E: Mmhmm.

J: (laughs).

PG: And it's...

J: It's frustrating, and it's something that we've all hit, that we've all hit that wall and it's funny, I was just talking to Brian Dunning about it and you know it's like "yeah, you know it's just another year of throwing the money away, of burning the money on our hobby, quote, unquote hobby". But right now Brian is doing it full time and he's really under the gun he's really working it. So you know, hopefully there are a lot of people that do donate money, even though like you said, a dollar or whatever, and that does count. Of we all, like Bob was saying, would love a bigger infusion so that we don't have to focus on it as much.

S: You made another point that I thought was very good, the fact that often our listeners, people out there in the public may perceive us as having some kind of special power or access or something, that we can get things done that they can't and I think that, we've marvelled at that too, people come up to us at conferences, they send us emails, and there's this tone that makes it seem like they think like we're all part of one big organisation, which is not the case, we're all just individuals. Or somehow that we have some magical access to government or whatever, it's like "yeah, why aren't you telling the FDA how to fix this?" Because I'm just a citizen. I have no special access to anyone or anything and we just started doing this in our living room, there's absolutely no reason you can't do the exact same thing, it's all just energy and drive you know. But I think that becomes this artificial barrier, that people think that they can't do something or there's something magical about what we're doing.

PG: And this is where I deeply appreciate the fluffy segments that are at the end of the news so often where they show the 12-year-old who raised a couple of thousand dollars for this foundation or...

E: At the lemonade stand, yeah.

PG: Right. And so there's so many small ways and giant ways and I'd encourage everyone to take the time to listen to TED talks, not the ones by the big name academics, but the ones by the individuals who've seen a problem. One of my favourite ones, it's such a simple concept, was realising that there's a serious problem of not having soap in the third world, such a simple thing, not having soap. And then was visiting the United States and seeing that they throw out, and they do this here in the South Point, a bar of soap every day. You open the soap, you use the soap, and the next morning it's gone and you have a new bar of soap. Well he worked out a program to gather up all these hotel soaps, clean them, and redistribute them.

J: Clean soap?


PG: I don't know how that part works. Physical scientist, not chemist or biologist.

B: You need super soap, meta soap.

J: I think you'd just put water on it and agitate it, get rid of that outer layer.

PG: Yeah.

S: So Pamela, thanks for being open with us and talking with us, and so of course, always a pleasure to see you at these conferences.

PG: It was really my pleasure, thank you so much for having me on.

Science or Fiction (58:16)[edit]

Item #1: Astronomers may have solved the "missing baryon problem" with the discovery of a halo of hot gas surrounding the Milky Way galaxy. Item #2: This year's peak Arctic ice melt is the greatest since records have been kept, and likely the greatest in a million years. Item #3: Physicists have built a 4-dimensional "space-time crystal" that can be used to keep perfect time until the end of the universe.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:12:10)[edit]

An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. 'Can they be brought together?' This is a practical question. We must get down to it. 'I despise intelligence' really means: 'I cannot bear my doubts.'

Albert Camus

Announcements (1:13:40)[edit]

Voice-over: 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 You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.


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