SGU Episode 385
|This episode needs: proof-reading, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.||How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 385|
|1st December 2012|
|SGU 384||SGU 386|
|S: Steven Novella|
|R: Rebecca Watson|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|Quote of the Week|
|I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here. I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 This Day in Skepticism (0:40)
- 3 News Items
- 4 Who's That Noisy? (42:14)
- 5 Questions and Emails
- 6 Interview with Banachek (47:56)
- 7 Science or Fiction (59:50)
- 8 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:58)
- 9 Announcements
- 10 References
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, November 26, 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: Hi, everybody. I am still full from that Thanksgiving meal.
J: I really overdid it this year.
B: In the past few days I've had four meals consisting of just meatball lasagna. It's awesome.
This Day in Skepticism (0:40)
- December 1, 1948: Taman Shud Case: The body of an unidentified man is found in Adelaide, Australia; involving an undetectable poison and a secret code in a very rare book, the case remains unsolved and is "one of Australia's most profound mysteries".
S: But, what happened on this date in history, Rebecca?
R: On December 1, 1948, a grand mystery began based upon the death of a man whose name is still unknown. As you guys know, I'm flying Australia tomorrow to go a conference in Melbourne, and so in honor of that I wanted to do a this day in skeptic history that has an Australian bent. So this is a really interesting case. It's called The Taman Shud Case or The Mystery of the Somerton Man. So on December 1, 1948, a, the body of a man was discovered on a beach in Adelaide, Australia. And the man well dressed, he was wearing a suit, but no hat, which was odd for the time, apparently. And nobody knew who he was. His dental records were nonexistent. He had no distinguishing characteristics, really. There was no ID on him. So nobody could figure out who this guy was. Eventually he was connected with a suitcase, they found a suitcase that they realized was his because there was a thread in it that was very rare and matched stitching on the inside of this man's pants. So they figured that this must be his suitcase. But there was really nothing in there to give away any clues either. The weirdest thing was that they found sewn into one of his pockets, they found the torn off page from the Rubayat of Omar Khayyam. It's a famous book of poems, basically. And this man had in his pocket a little, a little bit of paper that had been torn off and all it said on the paper was "Taman Shud." I think I'm pronouncing that horribly wrong. But that's what it said. And the officials realized that that was the, that meant "ended" or "finished" and it was at the end of The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam, this collection of poems. And, so specifically it had been torn out, they realized it had been torn out of that book, a very specific edition of that book that didn't have any writing on the other side of the page, and they couldn't find any editions that were printed like that. All of the editions that they found had printing on both sides of the page where those words were. Until this guy came forward. He realized that, it hadn't occurred to him originally that this was connected to this unsolved mystery. But the night that the dead man apparently died, someone had placed a copy of The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam in the back seat of his unmarked car that was parked nearby. And sure enough, in the back, they found that that piece of paper had been torn out of that book. And in the book was a code. There were these seemingly random letters written in the back, but they, they look like a code. And nobody's been able to crack the code yet. Still nobody knows who this guy is. There've been a lot of people guessing that this is something to do with the Cold War. That he was a spy. There's also this other connection where there's a child who died mysteriously and is, was somehow connected with this guy because they both shared similar genetics, or not genetics. They both share similar medical oddities in their bodies that they feel that there's so much
B: Ooo. Like What?
R: It's something like, it's something weird about their ears. One of the things they both have like one part of their ear is longer than the other.
S: His cymba was bigger than his cavum.
R: Yes! That's what it is.
S: Characteristic of one to two percent of the Causasian population. He also had attached rather than hanging earlobes, which is a lesser, less common, variation.
R: Right. And there was one other thing. Oh, hypodontia. Some sort of thing with his incisors. That's only present in two percent of the population, and both the kid and this guy had it. And both died mysteriously, like they're not really sure how they died. The coroner thought that this guy was poisoned, but he has no, the poison didn't leave any trace, so they don't have any proof of that. So it's this huge, huge mystery that still hasn't been solved. There are researchers that are now asking if they can exhume the body so that they can test the DNA in order to figure out at least, like, the general area that this guy, like the country, maybe, that this guy came from. But apparently last year Attorney General John Rowell wouldn't let them exhume the body because he says, "There needs to be public interest reasons that go well beyond public curiosity or broad scientific interest." Which is bogus. What's wrong with broad scientific interest? Dig that body up. That's what I say.
E: That's right.
R: 'Cause it's a really interesting case. Like, you know, it's got everything that a good Hollywood thriller has. Except for the ending. It needs an ending. So. I thought that was really interesting. I'd never heard of it before, so.
E: And you're heading to Australia to figure it all out. Good luck, Rebecca.
R: I'm gonna break this one wide open.
R: I'm gonna solve this case.
Not-So-Terror Bird (6:22)
S: Well, Jay, you're gonna tell us about a mystery that perhaps has recently been solved involving a very large bird.
J: So starting on January 5, 2009, a pineapple express storm hit the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Does everybody know what a pineapple express is?
S: It comes from Hawaii?
E: It's a movie.
J: Yeah, that was a good guess, Steve. These types of storms come from the sub-tropical Pacific and dangerous because of the huge quantities of water that they dump, so without going into the details
S: And all the pineapples flying all over the place.
J: (laughing) Yeah, read about it. I'd never heard about it. It's, the name is for a storm that starts in the Pacific Northwest and then it, I guess, hits the United States. But if you're interested read more about that, but I had some fun reading about that. Never heard about a pineapple express before. So, like I said, these storms pick and dump an enormous amount of water. And this storm that I'm talking about that happened in 2009 hit the deeply snow-covered foothills of Whatcom Country in Washington, which is a state in the United States, and it delivered an incredibly huge deluge of rain and warm temperature water. The storm resulted in massive water accumulation in the snow that was already there, and it ended up causing significant landslides. However, the good news is that those landslides uncovered something really awesome. A study published in the journal Paleontology studied a set of footprints made 55.8 to 40.6 million years ago, and the footprints are preserved in sandstone and are believed to be none other than the long-extinct giant bird known as Diatryma. And Steve, I figured you really like this news item for a number of reasons, because you love dinosaurs and because you live birds.
S: That's redundant, but yeah.
E: Well, yeah.
J: Well, when I say "birds" I mean modern birds, okay?
B: Modern day dinosaurs.
S: So that, every time I make that distinction, somebody says "You mean non-avian dinosaurs."
S: Whenever I say "dinosaurs" and I'm referring to non-avian dinosaurs, somebody pendanticly corrects me, you know "You mean non-avian dinosaurs." So the thing is if you're using the term "dinosaurs," this is gonna come up later in the show, too, if you're using the term "dinosaur" colloquially, people know what the hell you're talking about. You're talking about dinosaurs. You know, non-avian dinosaurs, not birds. While birds are in the dinosaur clade, I don't think anybody thinks of a sparrow as a dinosaur.
J: I agree. I'll continue my news item now.
R: That's the first thing that comes to mind, when somebody says "dinosaur." I think of a sparrow.
E: Jack Sparrow.
J: Diatryma were giant flightless birds found as fossils in early Eosene rocks in North America and in Europe. The Eosene Epoch lasted 57.8 to 36.6 million years ago. So these monsters grew to a height of about 2-1/4 meters, or seven feet. It's a pretty big bird. It had small flightless wings and incredibly powerful legs most likely used for running. And it had a large head and an equally powerful beak. This big nasty beak. Because of the beak it's been previously thought that these guys were predators, eating small mammals. George Mustoe, a geologist, and team members studying the footprints said they're commonly thought as the bird that replaced dinosaurs as the top predator. But now that those footprints exist, they provide some evidence about what the birds ate and we're gonna see a shift here, and this is the way that science works when new evidence presents itself. Science's opinion or facts change on that subject. David Tucker, another researcher on this study said the tracks clearly show that the animals did not have long talons but rather short toenails. And this argues against an animal that catches prey and uses claws to hold it down. Carnivore birds all have sharp, long talons. That's a huge point. They were able to see that these birds didn't have the equipment to actually be flesh catchers and flesh eaters, which is significant here. Some early paleontologists concluded that because the Diatryma was big and with a huge head and beak it must have been a predator. But the first fossil they ever found was next to tiny horses and small animals and that kind of led to that, that premise and they just figured that those were its dead prey, which I thought was funny. That like, you know, this bird died next to its recent prey, which, you know, maybe there was a big battle, they thought, or whatever, but it's still kind of weird to think that they'd find the skeletal remains of a deadly predator right next to like three or four animals it just happened to be eating right before it died.
R: Oh, I don't know, Jay, they'll probably find you amidst, like a giant table of bacon.
J: Or meatballs. Yeah, okay.
J: All right. So, other scientists at the same time suggested that because their legs were short, they could not run fast enough to capture small prey, and they did not have a hooked beak, and that's huge, which is always found on raptors to help them tear flesh, leading them to think that they were herbivores. So even back in the day, there wasn't a total consensus on what the nature of these animals actually was. The fact that Diatryma did not have talons added greatly to the idea that they were herbivores. Mr. Mustoe added a more likely scenario than being a carnivore would be a gentle Diatryma that used its beak to harvest foilage, fruits, seeds, in sub-tropical forests that it inhabited.
S: Did you say foilage?
R: Foilage is what you wrap the foliage in for leftovers.
E: Yeah, foilage.
J: Did I say foilage?
S: You said foilage.
J: I meant foliage.
E: Well, we know what you meant.
J: You guys are like ridiculous pendants tonight.
J: All right, the team believes that the similarities of Diatryma to those of the carnivorous South American forosasits, or terror birds
E: Forest what?
E: I was gonna say four-assed monkey, here.
J: a/k/a terror birds, for real – they call these guys terror birds.
B: I, they are my favorite extinct birds.
E: Look at those pictures.
B: They are magnificent, my god!
J: So, those guys led early paleontologists to assume that the two were ecologically similar. And, what have we learned, guys?
R: That you can't pronounce words.
J: Yeah, I can't pronounce words that are spelled very strangely that I've only read and never said. Absolutely!
S: One thing that's interesting, 'cause when I first read the article it said "Terror birds not so terrifying." I'm like "really? Really? They're changing our understanding of the terror birds?" But they're just essentially saying that this North American cousin was an herbivore and was not similar to the South American, which have a . . . those, like titanis walleri, is one example, they had a curved beak, like a hawk, they had talons, like a raptor, and they had long legs for running, most of them.
B: And they were about, what, ten feet tall, Steve?
S: Nine feet, yeah, nine feet. So they were bigger. But there were about eighteen, I think, different species, and they varied in height and characteristics; some had shorter legs, some had longer legs. But some of them, like titanis, had all the characteristics they're saying are typical of a carnivore. Curved beak, talons, long legs for running. These, same bird, but a little smaller, no curved beak, no talons, shorter legs, but otherwise the same basic body plan. And one thing that was interesting, too, they were talking about the fact that the body plan is very similar to a T-Rex! Large head, small arms, large legs. Same basic kind of configuration.
S: Yeah. You basically have an avian T-Rex.
R: And the T-Rex is also being neutered, of course. Like every time we get more information about T-Rex, it becomes less terrible, too.
J: Being that, it would be really cool if these guys were herbivores, and some existed today, 'cause you might be able to ride them!
S: Yeah. That'd be cool.
B: Steve. Steve, did you hear this? I read that the terror birds primarily existed in South America, but, and they did, I think, for something like millions of years. They were like on top of the food chain for quite a long time. And I read, I remember reading somewhere, that they also, when South America joined North America, you know, Central America when they actually joined together, when a land bridge was first formed, they actually, I think if I'm remembering correctly, they migrated into North America and existed there for a little while, not very long.
B: But for a little while they actually were in North America.
S: That's correct. Their remains have been found in Texas and Florida. But they did not survive long, with the mixing of fauna in North and South America.
S: On both sides. They were victims exchange. Yeah, but they were, they did make it into the southern part of North America. Thanks, Jay, that's interesting. Always love talking about dinosaurs and birds.
Bloop Solved (15:35)
S: But Rebecca, you're gonna, this is yet another mystery, this is the mystery theme for this evening. So you gave us a mystery, we've sort of solved the mystery about the nature of the North America large flightless birds, and there's another deep skeptical mystery, we've talked about on the show before, that has been solved!
R: Yeah. And to get back to the initial dead guy in Australia mystery, if that guy turns out to be just some guy that dropped dead of a heart attack or something, and it ended up not being a very cool story at all, if that were the case, then it would fit in perfectly with tonight's mysteries, because this is another mystery that has been solved in a way that is not particularly fun. Like, the mystery itself: lots of fun; the scientific explanation, I feel,
R: Not that much fun, yeah.
S: I like it, but go ahead.
R: Well, that's because you're super . . .
S: Just stop right there, okay.
R: So, yes. We have in the past discussed the "Bloop." The bloop noise that seemed to emanate somewhere from the ocean. It was recorded by several different deep-sea microphones back in '97. And, it's, you can, if you haven't heard the bloop,
S: Well let's play it for our listeners right now.
R: Yeah. Okay.
(Underwater sounds with the "bloop" that sounds like a bubble surfacing.)
S: That was sped up sixteen times, by the way. When it's, at normal speed you can barely hear it.
R: Yeah, it doesn't really sound like anything at all when it's normal speed. But, yeah, so, you can tell why it's called the bloop. And for years people have wondered what the hell is that, including scientists. They weren't really sure. They noticed that it sounded kind of like a living creature, the way that the sound is made, the, how it sounds, it sounds like it's being made by a creature and because it's so loud, like it was incredibly loud, and it was something that had never been recorded before. Never been heard before. They speculated that it could be something like a giant squid, like a really, really, really giant squid, living somewhere
E: Like larger than the blue whale squid.
R: Yeah, somewhere undetected.
E: Much larger.
R: So it was pretty exciting and scary to know that there was something, there was a possibility of some enormous creature lurking somewhere in the ocean that we haven't even heard of yet. We haven't even found yet. Well, it's not. So the recent discovery, according to Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, the bloop is, in fact, an ice quake. The name sound cool, but trust me, not as cool as a giant squid would have been.
S: Actually, quite cold.
R: (fake laugh)
J: Oh, god.
E: I'm amused.
R: So scientists found that the bloop is in fact consistent with the noise that icebergs make as they crack and fracture. They've used microphones to record a number of these ice quakes since 1997, and they have found that the bloop fits it perfectly, in terms of loudness, what the wave forms look like, what it sounds like.
E: And the sound travels far. We're talking thousands of kilometers.
R: Yeah, because, I mean, the bloop was picked up by microphones that were 3,000 miles apart, so, yeah. This fits in with that as well, because, yeah, the sound can travel. So, yeah, it's just, just stupid global warming, that's all.
E: It's what the sound of a dying planet sounds like.
S: Well, it's cool, it's an iceberg cracking up and it makes that low frequency noise.
R: Not as cool as a kraken
S: Who really thought it was gonna be some kind of kraken?
R: I thought it was gonna be a kraken. I had hope.
E: You were hoping it was gonna go along the lines of Cthulhu.
R: Yeah, I was hoping for, the end of all things.
J: That would be so terrifying. Have you ever been on a boat, and you just imagine some of gigantic kraken coming out of the water? Those really big things hiding under the ocean just freak me out.
J: That's too, too scary.
R: Yeah, ditto. That's why I love it, I love the idea of it. And I hate the scientists who have ripped this from my dreams.
E: Yeah. They've ruined it.
R: Stupid science. With your facts.
E: With your facts.
B: Rebecca, there's plenty of stuff in science to dream about. I'll talk to you later about it.
R: Better be scary.
E: It'll have something to do with zombies, I'm sure.
Hijacking DNA (20:46)
S: So we're gonna shift from mysteries to a couple of DNA-related news items, starting with Bob, who's going to tell us about DNA hijacking.
B: Yeah. Thanks to Melissa G. who sent me a link to a great article about a creature that is now in my top three list of cool animals. They're tiny invertebrate organisms that're called bdelloid rotifers. Which, I don't like their name because it begins with a "b," I believe it's pronounced "delloid" rotifers. And there's a new genetic analysis out that shows that ten percent of their active genes were hijacked from at least 500 other species. These genes were taken from thing, creatures, like fungi, bacteria and plants, and so they're just all over the, taking whatever they need or want.
E: Like shopping in the grocery store.
B: Yeah, right?
E: I'll go to this aisle and take some of that.
B: And these are, as you can imagine, if you choose pretty much any genes you wanted in a sense, it gives them pretty amazing abilities. Unlike any other animals. And it has also allowed them to survive millions of years longer than evolutionary theory says that they otherwise probably would have. It's a fascinating story. So what are their super powers, is probably one of the first things you're interested in. They can actually survive incredible doses of ionizing radiation, so high that doses a hundred times less or one hundredth would be enough to take out even the hardiest human. They can also be desiccated, or completely dried out for at least nine years, I think, I believe nine years is the record. And then they can just, they come back in a matter of hours they come back pretty much like nothing's happened.
B : And for example they've got two genes that they stole from bacteria that produce enzymes that can break down highly toxic chemicals like benzyl cyanide. So these are pretty interesting abilities that these guys just totally just grabbed from other species. The other amazing thing about them is that scientists have never found a male bdelloid. They've looked for a long time, they've never come across a male.
S: They're all chicks!
B: They're all females. In fact
E: They don't need male ones, apparently.
B: They don't, not at all. They've been asexual for eighty million years.
E: There you go.
B: That's a long, long time not to have sex. I don't think I could survive half that long. Asexual reproduction may not, you know, you hear about that all the time and it may not sound like a big deal and it's true for lots of different creatures like bacteria, of course, but these rotifers, though, are one of the only groups of animals to be, to have 100% abandoned sex. They reproduce through parthenogenesis, which means that the embryos grow and develop without the aid of any fertilization or anything. This, as a quick aside, I found this interesting: this is related to another form of asexual reproduction. Steve, have you heard of gynogenesis or pseudogamy? This method, it actually uses sperm or pollen to trigger the development of the egg cell into an embryo, but there's no genetic contribution at all. It just starts the process and then says "goodbye!" and there's no genetic addition at all, or contribution, which I found interesting. That's gynogenesis. Never heard of that one. So what makes the rotifer form of reproduction unusual is that one hundred percent asexual animals shouldn't really last eighty million years. According to the modern evolutionary theory, if you just looked at that information as it is, you would say that eighty million years just seems like an awfully long time for something, for a creature or species to last, because, obviously there's no genetic shuffling, there's no genetic variation that allows the species to rapidly adapt to whatever changing environment. And also the effects of maladapted genes as well. So this, of course, may yet be another benefit of this genetic hijacking. Being able to co-opt genes from other species not only gave them their cool super-powers, but it's also helped them live for tens of millions of years and diversify into, I think, hundreds, three or four hundred different distinct species. I love the term scientists have given them. They call them genetic mosaics, which I think is really beautifully descriptive. So then the next question, of course, is, well how do they pull this off? Scientists aren't a hundred percent sure but one theory I read about seems to pretty much describe what I think is probably happening, or at least hopefully happening, because this is a really fascinating process. And it's all related to desiccation. When these guys get all dried out and they enter into their dormant state, it's called hydrobiosis; when they emerge from this process they go through a genetic transformation of sorts that, as far as I can tell, is unique in the animal kingdom. Desiccation, as you can imagine, breaks cell membranes and breaks apart the DNA. I mean, take all the water out, all these biological components are just getting, are just busted apart, and that sounds pretty nasty, and it is, but obviously they can repair these injuries, which of course is amazing in and of itself. But the broken DNA, before it gets repaired, actually opens an amazing opportunity for these creatures to insert other DNA between the broken parts in the genetic code. And this is, maybe, how they pull this off. And this DNA can come, this is really cool, the DNA can come from anything that's in the nearby environment, even if it's partially digested food. They can take any type, any of the DNA that might be nearby, even from this food, incorporate in their genome, and bam! There you go. Super-organism that could digest and survive radiation and do all sorts of amazing stuff. So, check this guy out. I think they're fascinating and they deserve to be on anyone's top five list.
S: So, there is another species that hijacks DNA. Bob, did you hear about this?
B: Which one?
S: The corbicula. It's a clam. These are all male though. They're genetically male. They're hermaphrodites, so they produce their own sperm and egg and essentially clone themselves. But they also will, they'll steal the eggs of other species and will incorporate some of the genes, sometimes. They'll incorporate the genes from those other species of clams.
B: Oh, wow.
S: Not as wide ranging as what you're talking about, but similar. All one sex, reproduce by asexual cloning, in this case they're hermaphrodites that produce their own egg and sperm, but are viable because they're stealing genetic variation from other species.
B: Wow, that's pretty cool. I gotta look them up.
Bigfoot DNA (27:17)
S: All right. Now, Evan, you're gonna tell us about another DNA story. Apparently a researcher claims to have analyzed Bigfoot's DNA.
E: This is true. It's a company based out of Timpson, Texas. Timpson, eh? And it's called DNA Diagnostics, Incorporated, right? And according to their homepage they are experts in animal and human genetic testing. And the director of DNA Diagnostics is a gal by the name of Melba Ketchum and she's a veterinarian. Here's a quote from their homepage: "All of our testing is of the highest quality and the staff at DNA Diagnostics, Inc. is eminently qualified to provide superior DNA testing services to our clients." You know, who knows? Maybe they are the best in the business. So let's have a look at their latest press release title. And it's dated November 24th of this year. "'Bigfoot' DNA Sequenced in Upcoming Genetics Study: Five-Year Genome Study Yields Evidence of Homo sapiens/Unknown Hominin Hybrid Species in North America." Now these people claim to be superior DNA testers, compared to their, you know, counterparts, so, interesting. The first paragraph of the news release goes like this:
A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called the "Bigfoot" or "Sasquatch," living in North Americas. Researchers' extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.
S: Um hmm.
R: So, where did they get the DNA?
S: Well, because they haven't published the paper we don't have a lot of details about it. What happened was, one of the collaborators, a Russian researcher called Igor Burtsev, I think jumped the gun,
S: and published on his Facebook page the results of this study forcing Ketchum to then release a press release confirming the rumor that this guy spread on his Facebook page. So, it's definitely premature to announce results like this before it's even gone through peer review and been published.
E: I've come up with a title for this phenomenon because we've seen this several times before in the past and we've talked about it in instances on the show. And I'm calling it "premature press release emissions."
S: Um hmmm.
E: And that's where scientists, for whatever reason, cannot control themselves or comport themselves in a professional manner. They have to get their information out before it's, typically before it's peer reviewed. Or before any critical analysis by their peers can be conducted.
S: It's a Pons and Fleischmann maneuver. That cold fusion thing.
R: Yeah. But I mean like this is so obviously dumb.
R: Right? That like, I have trouble even believing that this person has access to a peer-reviewed journal. Like, who cares if they rush this press release out? It's obviously stupid. Like, Bigfoot doesn't exist. How can you sequence the DNA of something that's not been found to exist? It's like saying they sequenced the DNA of a unicorn
R: and found that it was mostly horse. Like, where did they get it?
E: Here's the next paragraph.
R: I'm very confused here.
B: Mostly horse!
E: Their study has sequenced twenty whole mitochondrial genomes and utilized next-generation sequencing, which is, I guess from Star Trek, to obtain three whole nuclear genomes from purported Sasquatch samples.
S: That's it. "Purported Sasquatch samples."
R: Purported Sasquatch samples.
E: Purported, Sas, now what more, what more do you need than that, Rebecca?
R: Oh, quite a bit, actually.
E: "The genome sequencing shows that," I'm continuing in their quote here. "The genome sequencing shows that Sasquatch mitochondrial DNA is identical to modern Homo sapiens, but the Sasquatch nuclear DNA is a novel, unknown hominin related to Homo sapiens and other primate species."
S: Um hmm. This is how I make sense of this. They have hair samples. Hair samples, as we learned recently, while they do not contain any nuclear material, may retain mitochondria. And so you can get mitochondrial DNA from the hair. So they sequenced mitochondrial DNA from hair samples purported to be from Sasquatch, and they found that they were one hundred percent modern-day humans.
S: It's human-freakin'-hair.
E: Human hair.
S: Yes. They have some other samples, purported Sasquatch samples, from which they got nuclear DNA. I'd like to know what they are, but they didn't say that in the press release and we'll have to wait for the paper, I guess.
S: We should say, Evan, Evan spent the day trying to make contact with Dr. . . .
S: Ketchum, and was unsuccessful in securing her for an interview. Is that . . .
R: Much like the Bigfoot. She is unable to be found.
S: She is elusive like the Bigfoot. So there they found human DNA and some unidentifiable snippets of DNA. They're concluding from that that this is a hybrid between a human and some unknown primate.
B: It's a hybrid.
S: It's a hybrid. As opposed to saying, we have more human DNA, and some kind of contaminant.
E: Right! Contaminant
S: Because they're _____________
B: Oh, come on. What are the odds of that?
J: They've made up their mind what the conclusion's gonna be, and they're working towards that conclusion.
S: Yeah, so this is anomaly hunting followed by retro-fitting into the desired conclusion. Now, the fact that it's, what they're finding is modern-day human DNA, right, is very telling. They did, they're not finding DNA that is compatible with Neanderthal DNA or DNA from human ancestors from a couple of million years ago. They said, oh, the hybridization must have occurred less than 15,000 years ago. Which is just another way
E: How could that be?
S: Just another way of saying it's modern human DNA. But then, so let's look at that claim. Modern, so, 15,000 years ago some unknown primate species made it with modern humans and generated a
B: Oooo, baby.
S: self-sustaining population of bigfeet.
R: I'm sorry, Steve, but the plural of bigfoot is bigfoot.
S: Yeah. I like bigfeet.
B: Steve, how many, now, a sustainable population, Steve. How many individuals would you need? Isn't it somewhere close to a thousand?
S: Yeah, two thousand's the number, to really have good odds of sustaining a population, it's two thousand. But you can
R: Maybe that's what's happened here, though, maybe . . .
S: It's possible for a few individuals to generate a population, but it's . . .
R: But maybe they've sustained the population by mating with humans and that's why it looks like hybrid DNA, because it is actually a pure bigfoot that has bred with a human to stay alive, recently.
J: That would mean that the bigfoot actually raped a human woman, because there's no way anyone is having sex with a bigfoot.
R: Actually that's not true.
E: Not the bigfoot, an unidentified hominin.
R: That's not true because there was a man who wrote a memoir about his time in the '70s in a cabin in Pennsylvania with Bigfoot and Bigfoot was very sexual and the man seemed to be okay with it.
B: Oh boy.
E: Oh, yeah. Talking about a long time ago.
S: Although if you take it at face value, this is a male whatever, primate, with a female human 'cause the mitochondrial DNA comes from the female line and that's purely human. But, the thing is, a primate would not be able to mate with a human and produce fertile young. Therefore, again, a population, a self-sustaining population.
E: That's the biggest leap of the whole story in my opinion. How do you get to, how do you get to that?
S: What we have is human DNA plus anomalies. That's it. We do not have evidence of a new primate species or a hybrid between a human and some new primate species. That's all pure fanciful speculation. This also reminds me of the Starchild Project. Are you aware of this, guys?
E: Oh, yeah.
S: The Starchild Project, they
E: Yeah, Lloyd Pye?
S: Yeah, Lloyd, the apparent human-alien hybrid. Where they analyzed the DNA and they found human DNA, plus some anomalies. Same exact thing. The only thing that we know of that they're really finding is human DNA. And then they have to come up with this hybrid hypothesis. Anyway, it doesn't even make, it makes less sense with the alien stuff because of what they specifically found.
B: So this anomalous nuclear DNA, that's the crux of it right there. They, all they can say is what? It's not hominid? But it's DNA, it's nuclear DNA, and they just don't know what it is yet?
S: Some sequences are human; some sequences are unknown.
E: Unknown. Guess what they'll turn out to be. I wonder. But hey, this is a superior DNA testing company, folks. You can't question them. Or god forbid that they, well, or forbid that they go out and they ask another laboratory to verify what they've got. Or wait to do a press release until you have results that can either confirm or go against what it is you're proposing.
R: But why would you wait?
E: They don't wait.
R: Well, of course they're not waiting, because Bigfoot, doesn't exist.
S: She concluded, in her press release, she writes at the end, "Government at all levels must recognize them as an indigenous people and immediately protect their human and constitutional rights against those who would see in their physical and cultural differences a license to hunt, trap, or kill them."
R: (with incredulity) What?" Oh, my
B: Wow, talk about jumping the gun.
R: Oh, my goodness.
E: We should start getting laws to protect them . . .
J: Yeah, let's spend governmental time and resources on creatures that don't exist.
R: That's amazing.
E: Statutes, laws, regulations, and funding. We need more funding. Perhaps that is what this is all about.
S: Well, this is evidence for nothing, but it does raise the question, well what would evidence, DNA evidence, of a novel primate species look like? And I would imagine that if you sequenced human, gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan, whatever, you create a map, a genetic map of the evolutionary relationship among these various primates, these apes, and maybe even with other primates, and it would somehow, it would fit in there somehow. You would see that it shares mutations with some, but not others. And you could fit it into the genetic
E: Yeah, fit into the tree somewhere.
S: tree somewhere. But we're not seeing any kind of analysis like that. Just pure modern human and anomalies. No mapping of any new primate species fitting into the primate bush.
E: Steve, Dr. Ketchum has spoken to the peer-review process before in prior interviews, and I'll quote her here: "The peer review will happen unless we get biased people that refuse to pass it for selfish reasons, or if we have some conspiracy theory going on that it's prevented." Who does that sound like?
R: Wait. What? So she's already calling her crazy conspiracy theory she hasn't invented yet a conspiracy theory?
E: I actually pulled that quote from a prior interview, from 2010 actually, for the record, it's from an interview from 2010 from another set of DNA that she's analyzing. In fact, she's analyzed lots of things. People basically use her as the catch-all. You've got some DNA, throw it to Dr. Ketchum because she'll happily analyze it and tell you whatever you want to know about it. In her own little pro-Sasquatch, "it definitely exists in my heart" world.
J: Doesn't it dishearten them in any way, they don't have a corpse. They don't have one in a zoo. There is no proof whatsoever. Like, they don't have anything.
R: They have faith.
E: That will not stop this press release, Jay.
B: Genetic evidence would be compelling.
S: Jay, these creatures are shy. And brilliant, apparently. That's how they evade capture or detection in any way. And that's not special pleading.
S: All right. Let's move on. Just very quickly, some interesting dwarf planet news. The dwarf planet Makemake, you guys are familiar with the dwarf planets, right?
J: Well I know Make, I don't know Makemake.
S: Can you name all five of them?
E: Ceres, Eris
S: You've gotta name them in order from closest to farthest from the Sun.
E: Okay, new instructions, that's great.
R: Moving the goalposts.
E: Yeah, right?
S: If I told you to name the planets, do you go, Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, no.
S: Ceres, Pluto, Makemake, Haumea, Eris, are the five
R: Okay. What do you want? A cookie?
S: Yes, I do, thank you.
E: Want a Makemakean cookie.
B: Scooby snack?
S: So recently astronomers were able to learn a lot more about Makemake because it passed in front of a star. They trained a lot of telescopes on the small dwarf planet, and were able to learn some new things. First of all, it does not appear to have any atmosphere at all. We did not know that.
R: It's not a lot of fun to hang out
E: Maybe it once had an atmosphere, but, no longer.
S: The astronomers were able to refine their measurement. It's not quite spherical, and it's about 1,430 kilometers across in one direction and 1,500 across in the other. Has a density of about 1.7 grams per cubic centimeter, similar to that of Pluto. Less than a third that of Earth.
B: Where'd that unusual name come from?
S: It's named after the Rapa Nui chief god of fertility. Chief god of the Tangata manu bird-man cult, was worshiped in the form of sea birds. Its material symbol was a man with a bird's head. I thought it was interesting, the notion that they were sort of waiting for it to pass in front of a star so that they could see light passing past it, through it. It's a good way to examine the atmosphere. You look at, you do spectroscopy of the light as it passes through the atmosphere, but in this case, it didn't have one.
E: Very cool.
B: That doesn't mean that it never has an atmosphere. I believe Pluto, depending on where it is in its orbit
B: has an atmosphere
E: Sometimes it does?
B: Well, it rains, it condenses and rains down on the surface when it gets too cold, and when it gets a little bit warmer it can become somewhat gaseous.
S: Yeah, a lot of these Plutoids, or these Kuiper (pronouncing "Cooper") Belt do have very eccentric orbits
B: Is it Kuiper (pronouncing "Kyper") Belt?
S: K-U-I-P-E-R, Kuiper Belt, do have very eccentric orbits
J: It's "Kyper" Belt, Steve, sorry. That's how you correctly pronounce that word. Thank you.
S: Thank you, Jay.
Who's That Noisy? (42:14)
S: All right. So, Evan, you're gonna get us caught up on the puzzle from two weeks ago.
E: The puzzle from two weeks ago. Three people are interviewing for a job and are given a test. The first person to solve the test gets the job. Each person is given a hat that is either black or red. They must put the hat on and cannot look at the hat or use any method to directly discover its color. The three applicants are then put in the same room, and each is further instructed to raise their hand if at least one of the other two applicants is wearing a black hat. The task is to figure out the color of the hat that they are wearing. One applicant sees that the other two applicants are wearing black hats and both have their arms raised. After a moment the applicant states that they have solved the puzzle and that they are wearing a black hat. So how did they solve that riddle?
S: So when I first heard this puzzle, my initial answer was the applicant may have inferred that in order for the test to be fair that all three of them should be wearing black hats. So strictly from just the point of view of who's raising their hands, that third applicant could have had a red or a black hat. That would be consistent with the other two people raising their hand. But then, that wouldn't quite be a fair test, would it, unless they all had the same color hat. But that's not the precise answer to the puzzle. The answer is, although I do think that's a legitimate point, the real answer is, which I came up with next, was that if he did have a red hat, it would be very easy for either of the other two applicants to solve the puzzle and to know for sure that they had a black hat. So if they were able to quickly deduce that they had a black hat, they would have raised their hand and answered the riddle. Because there was a pause, because neither of them could immediately answer, then the third applicant must have had a black hat because either of the other two men, from their perspective, could also have either a black or a red hat, and therefore they would not immediately know what the answer was. So the third applicant used the fact that the other applicants did not immediately answer as another piece of information to infer that he had a black hat.
B: That's cool.
E: There's a very subtle, subtle, right, clue in there that you had to pick up on as far as the order of things.
S: Plenty of people did pick up on that. The first one to answer to answer was Magnus M from the message boards.
J: That's Magnus, man.
B: Magnus. How's Lestat?
S: Well, Evan, do you have a new puzzle or Who's That Noisy for us this week?
E: Yeah, I've got a noisy for this week, so, open your ears and take a listen to this one and let me know what you think. Here we go:
A long-winded trumpeting sound that changes pitch but is not especially musical.
J: What the hell was that?
E: Exactly. Who's that noisy? So, info@the skepticsguide.org and sguforums.com. Those are the ways to post your response to us. Let us know your thoughts. Good luck, everyone.
Questions and Emails
S: All right. We do have one email this week. This question comes from Jim White from Boston, Massachusetts, and Jim writes:
I'm a chemistry and environmental science teacher, and I love (and occasionally use in class) your podcast. Still, my pedantic nature cringes at the free use of the word "theory" on the podcast. The SGU frequently substitutes the word "theory" for more the appropriate terms "hypothesis", "conjecture", or "study". A good example of this was the recent news topic on the relationship between asteroid belts and extraterrestrial life. While an interesting study, it could, at most, be called a hypothesis, but it definitely doesn't have the experimental evidence or depth of explanation to be a theory. Since the SGU sometimes criticizes others' misuse and misinterpretation of the word "theory", please be careful.
Bob, can you defend yourself?
E: Yeah, Bob, what's your theory on that?
B: I think I agree. I think I agree with him. I think, now that I think about it, I probably do throw that word around a little bit more, especially with the cutting edge, you know, this "breaking news" stuff that comes out now, often it's not a full-blown theory. They probably can more often be characterized as a hypothesis or a conjecture. So, yeah, I think I agree with this assessment. Scusi, mille regretti.
S: But here's the problem. There are words that have slightly different meanings when used technically versus when used colloquially.
B: That is true. That is true.
S: And we do mix them together sometimes. I think the real question is, is it causing confusion?
E: Amongst some, I think it is. Like creationists. (laughing)
S: But it's one thing to just be using a term colloquially. It's another thing to actually make a point of confusing the colloquial and the technical definition.
R: Right, but I think that when we're discussing science news and we use the word "theory" incorrectly, it dilutes the scientific definition of the word for the general audience.
S: I agree.
R: I think we can still use it colloquially, but I don't think we should use it colloquially when we're talking about science news. 'Cause it only bolsters the creationists' arguments.
S: Yup. No, I agree. It's hard not to slip it in there because we're having a conversation, you're not writing and being careful about your word choice. Well, thanks for keeping us straight, Jim. We'll be more careful in the future.
Interview with Banachek (47:56)
S: We're sitting here now at TAM 2012 with Banachek. Banachek, it's always a pleasure to see you and talk to you.
BA: Always a pleasure to be here.
S: So, you are now in charge of the million dollar challenge of the JREF, you manage it.
S: So, how is that going? What are you up to?
BA: It's a lot of work. A lot more work than I ever thought. You know, originally when D.J. approached me, he said, we want like a, a spokesperson kind of role,
S: You bought that, huh?
BA: I did, I did. And the first year, I just spent so much time with back-and-forth emails, and most of 'em were people who were never gonna apply. And so, I'm a performer, I kind of warned you guys that I'm a performer, and I travel, and I just don't have time for this. So, luckily now it's at the point where everything goes to the main office. They take a look at everything. They take a look at the applications. And then only finally when a person has really properly filled out the application, they have everything that goes with it, does it come to me at that point. And at that point I have to find resources to help me out to follow through the protocol.
E: Now how many people do actually fill out the application properly?
BA: That's really hard to say. I mean it really is because, for me, also, I'm not getting those applications until they're filled out, so I don't know how many fall by the wayside. I do know that in the beginning I would get a lot of things, people would just send something on the back of a postcard, okay, send me my million dollars.
S: We should say, I know our audience, probably most of them know this, but this is an offer of a million dollars if you can prove a paranormal ability.
BA: Well, it's not proving. No. Because there's never, there really is not proof.
S: Or demonstrate
BA: If you can demonstrate, exactly, if you can demonstrate a paranormal ability under proper observable conditions. Now, having said that, though, I truly believe, and this is me, okay? But I think the JREF is pretty much behind it, too. If somebody was to pass and was to win the million dollars, it doesn't prove that they have psychic powers. It doesn't prove that, because that's not the way that science works.
BA: Well, what happens, 'cause, people win the lottery. I mean, really, pretty much our odds come to, close to one in a million, in order for somebody to pass the preliminary and to pass the formal test, 'cause there's two stages to it. If they pass both of those, that just simply means they pass one-in-a-million. Doesn't mean they're psychic. People win the lottery all the time. Not a lot of people win the lottery, but there are enough that win the lottery. So it could happen. And it also means that just because they fail doesn't mean that they're not psychic. It may indicate more than likely they're not, but it does not mean that they're not psychic. So, what we have is a million dollars. I mean we're not an investigative group, really, although on the fringe sometimes, we do some investigations. But we're certainly not set up to do research. And as a non-profit we're not set up to do research, so we can't do research, anyway. And sometimes claims do come in where they look, and they go, you know, wow, this will take six months to do, and now, this is research. And we get some claims where basically they want us to do the research for them. And it's like, well, we're not a research facility. Go to a research facility if that's what you want to do.
J: So, why are we doing it? What's the purpose of the million dollar challenge?
BA: I think, well, for me personally, why do I do it, and I think for Randi as well, he would love to see something that is truly psychic. I mean, that's not the main reason, of course, the main reason is to educate people about this type of phenomena and how much of it is just pseudoscience.
S: Yeah, it really is, it's an educational tool.
BA: It's a great way to demonstrate it. And quite often we come across claims, and you know, so many of these people are self-deceived as well, so we can actually teach using this.
S: Yeah, I mean that's been our experience. That most people who are doing this are self-deceived. I think. It's kind of a self-selective process. If you were a con artist you probably would figure, I'm probably not gonna get away with my shenanigans with these guys, but if you really think you have a power, then you'll wanna go for it.
BA: It's one of those reasons I think now, especially with myself, Randi and Jamy Ian Swiss and a lot of magicians really involved that could detect the phenomena that's out there, being up on all the new stuff that's out there, it would be almost foolish for a magician to come in and try to fool us, with a trick. So the people, the majority of people we get, I think they're pretty earnest about what they're going to do. Otherwise they wouldn't show up.
J: So what else are you working on?
BA: Quite a few things. The one big thing I've been working on is a brand new stage show. I've done the same stage show for about 30 years now and you know, the verbiage and everything, it's just kind of ingrained in my brain and everything. So now what we've done is I've got the writer who did Todd Robbins' show, Play Dead, which they did a showing, a video showing of that last night. And he also did, oh, the Mythbusters live tour and he's done a whole bunch of things like that and he's always wanted to do something with me. We did do something a while back, which was called Hoodwink and it was myself, a professional pickpocket, and Todd Robbins was in the show, and a guy by the name of Richard Turner, who's a card cheat. I would walk Richard out, he would do three-card monte, but very, very well. He would do multiple ways of cheating people and he would cheat 'em, and give them money up front and then win all his money back. And then we would reveal that he was blind, and he is blind. So he's a blind card cheat and people thought that was part of the con, that we were conning them that he was blind, but he really is blind. That's the thing. But the interesting thing is, it was all about how you con people, but in reality we were conning the entire audience through the whole show. And it would start out where we would bring a woman up and we would use her phone number to give her a psychic reading, and then afterwards we'd crumple up the number and throw off to the side and say "we don't need that anymore" and then we'd continue with the show, about cons and everything else. And then, almost towards the end of the show we would ask the lady, where are you, would you stand up? We said, "now, we're gonna reveal a few things about you; if you feel uncomfortable at any point, just let us know. We want to introduce you to a couple of our friends." And a screen comes up and there's a couple of our hacker friends. They would be there and we'd say something like, "You know our hacker friends have been very busy throughout the show trying to find things out as a result of your phone number. For instance, they've come up with this picture." She'd say "oh my god, that's my kitchen." Say "Yeah, it is your kitchen."
BA: She said "But it doesn't look like that anymore." And we'd stop her and say, "yeah, yeah, you did a remodeling, you know, and it cost you x amount of dollars. By the way, keep in mind, any time you want to stop, you can say 'stop.'" And while we did that we took a look at Facebook and we found this out and blah, blah, blah, and "oh, by the way, getting your credit card numbers is extremely difficult if you go to the doctor, but a"
BA: "But when you go to the vet, and you have two dogs, we found those on Facebook and your local vet, and we found out that your last four digits of your Visa card is this this and this, is that right?" She'll say "yes."
B: Oh, wow.
E: Oh, boy.
BA: And then, they usually stop us when we get to the point of some sort of dating, online dating or something like that.
BA: And they'll say "Stop! Stop! Stop!" and we'll stop at that point. And then we'd say, "And the rest of the audience, you guys wouldn't fall for this, would you?" No they wouldn't, everybody's thinking they wouldn't. We say, "Montana, come on down." And Montana comes down. Now this girl comes down and she's dressed all sexy, whereas earlier she wasn't dressed quite so sexy, but they realize this is the girl that before the show that was out in the lobby with a clipboard, we're letting people win a free iPod and they were giving us their phone number, the best time to call them, you know, when they're at home, basically, and when they're not home, you just hear a collective . . . and you may have to bleep this out, but you know it "Oh . . .
BA: Yeah, you can just hear that, 'cause they just realized they've given us more information that what she gave us, and we got standing ovations. And they're bringing that back up again, they want to do it in January in Detroit, and we have a run with that. I'm not sure I'm going to be able to do it just yet because of the new theater show that I'm doing, which is, I come out the entire first half as if I'm genuine. Which is interesting because I really do tend to mess with people's emotions. But then when we get to the half-time mark, I, you know, before we go to break, I say now, and it's all about telepathy and it's all about what people have said telepathy, explanations for telepathy through the years. You know, that's it's, oh, that it's radio waves that our brains create, which Einstein believed, that he wrote the forward to a book by Upton Sinclair, and they believed that our minds produce radio waves that other people could pick up; some people were better than others. And I do a little demonstration with that in the show. Going all the way to spirit whisperings where they believe that spirits were all around us and they would pluck a thought out of one person's head and they would whisper it into somebody else's head, and people truly believed that. Culminating in me doing a spirit cabinet and then I get to the point where I say, "So what is telepathy?" Well, is it this, is it this, is it this, well, I think I know what it is. And I think it's something else completely different. I will tell you what I believe it is when we come back from the break. We come back from the break and I say, "well, I assume that during the break you debated amongst yourselves. You solved what over one hundred years of science could not: what is telepathy? In this day and age people think they can have a Chinese menu of beliefs. They can, they wanna have their religion, and they take a sprinkling of the X-Files on top, a dose of fortune telling." And I go through this whole thing. I say, "but I promised to tell you what I believe telepathy is." And I say "well, this is what they say telepathy is, and there's a host of fakes and frauds for the year, blah, blah, blah, blah, you know, that will have you believe that, will make a living having you convinced that that is true. But what do I believe it is? I believe it's nothing more than magic. It's a subset of magic, it's entertainment. And what makes me able to say this so bluntly?" And then I come out and I start talking about my history, my life, how I listened to Uri Geller when I was a little kid, and I believed I could bend a pin. And then how I read The Amazing Randi's book back in the day, you know, The Magic of Uri Geller which is now The Truth About Uri Geller and the truth as Randi put it was that Geller was nothing more than a magician posing as a psychic. And how I became angry reading that book because all the adults around me had believed, and so I had believed and I learned a valuable lesson. And then I go on about how I was abandoned and I go through my entire life story, so it becomes very, very personal, but this is now an actual show, whereas before my show was pretty much me doing an effect and blow your mind, do another effect, blow your mind, and do another effect, blow your mind. In this case, there's a purpose to this story.
BA: So it's exciting for me to do it, but it's also scary because it's two hours of verbiage that I've never done before and when we did it up in Toronto, it was a, and that's kind of like my workshop, I had like four days to work on everything, including three brand new effects that I've never ever done before, so it was scary.
BA: But we walked away and I think it's, we got fantastic reviews. Yeah.
E: I can see how an audience could relate to that personally. Interpersonal story, much more when you frame it in that regard.
BA: For me it was always interesting, because I hate, really, talking, even though it may not seem like it, about myself. You know I'm very open about my life with people. About, I don't hide anything. But, in this case, the only thing some of the reviews said, they said they loved this, it's a smart show, it's a smart magic show that they've wanted and blah, blah, blah, and there's all these great quotes. But the one thing they said "We wish there was more about Banachek's personal life." And I was like, wow, really? You find that entertaining? I thought the magic was the entertaining aspect of it. So, yeah.
E: But leaving them wanting more, I think that's a big key.
BA: I think that's a big key. But, yeah, the reviewers don't see it that way.
J: I'm not surprised to hear that, though. I mean, once you open up the personal door a little bit, you give them a tiny bit. You're an interesting guy, you know, and you're very charismatic, so I can understand people just wanting to understand you a little bit better.
BA: Well, thank you.
J: And plus, you are mysterious. I've seen your stage show. I saw it here at TAM 5 I think it was.
E: Or TAM 6.
S: 6 or 7.
BA: There was one where I did all of it, and there's a couple where I've done hints of it, so maybe . . .
J: I saw a big one,
S: It was fantastic.
E: Oh my gosh.
J: You were such an interesting character because you're very much a brick wall. You know, you're not revealing much about yourself, and that makes it more interesting. So I could even see, if you give a little bit, I bet people are really like, well, who is this guy?
BA: Yeah, yeah. It was eye-opening for me. To see that, that people would want to know about me as the individual, rather than just the performer.
S: Well, thanks for joining us, Banachek, always a pleasure.
BA: Always fun.
E: Thank you very much.
BA: I learn so much from you guys.
Science or Fiction (59:50)
Item #1 A recent study shows that exposing the unborn and very young to traffic pollution can more than double the autism risk. Item #2 To get the best look at a person's face, people focus first on mouths. Item #3 Writing negative thoughts down and then throwing them away helps people not to think of them. Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts . . .
B: Every week Steve does the Science or Fiction thing, and this week he was way too lazy and couldn't do it, so he threw it on me, and I really don't like doing this anymore, it just takes way too much time, and it's
B: It's tough and I can really appreciate, and I really do appreciate what Steve does every week 'cause to do this well, takes a serious amount of time, something that I just did not . . .
S: All right. Stop complaining and get on with it.
B: All right. All right.
R: But his complaint turned into a compliment, so
S: Yeah, I know.
B: It did, so, yeah.
E: It's kind of a back-handed compliment.
B: All right, guys. Number one: A recent study shows that exposing the unborn and very young to traffic pollution can more than double the autism risk. Number two: To get the best look at a person's face, people focus first on mouths. Number three: Writing negative thoughts down and then throwing them away helps people not to think of them. Okay, so, Jay, I'm gonna say, you go first.
J: So the first one about exposing young people and unborn people to traffic pollution can more than double their autism risk. So, Bob, you're saying if they're unborn, the mother's breathing in the pollution? Just don't know about that. I don't know if autism is environmental and that's a big question. It's interesting, though. Next one is to get the best look at a person's face, people focus on their mouths. Well, there's a lot of features on the human face that you can instantly recognize somebody by and the mouth is definitely one of them. You can just look at pictures of famous people's mouths and recognize them. And also, of course, the eyes. I don't know, there is something about somebody's mouth that is amazingly recognizable and maybe even more so than their eyes. So I'm gonna think that one is true. And the last one, about writing negative thoughts down then throwing them away helps people not to think about them. I thought that writing them down was good, I never heard about the throwing away thing. So it's between this one and the pollution one, and I'm gonna go with, I'm gonna go with this one as the fake, the one about writing things down and throwing it away. That's fake.
B: Okay. Rebecca, what about you?
R: You know, the, okay, a recent study shows that exposing the unborn and very young to traffic pollution can more than double the autism risk. Here's my problem with that. I can believe that there is a study showing the correlation between exposure to traffic pollution and autism, but I have trouble believing that there's a study that shows that exposing them to traffic pollution can definitely more than double their risk. The idea of throwing away negative thoughts that you've written down helping, that makes sense. I think I've seen other studies that have shown that. We've talked about studies like that. I forget the word for it, Steve will remember.
S: Embodied cognition.
R: That's the one, yeah. I mean, I can believe that. The second one's weird, to get the best look at a person's face people focus first on mouths. That's weird because it doesn't even mention a study, it's just a thing. And I don't know, why would, why are they trying to get the best look of a person's face, like to remember it? Just to size someone up? Like there's a lot of detail missing there. So I guess I'm gonna go with that one because I feel like generally people would focus on eyes first. That's really weird and generic.
B: Okay. Evan.
E: The unborn and traffic pollution, doubling the autism risk, wow! So, I've read in the past that environment is being studied, has been studied, as one of the possible causes or contributors for autism. And it's not bunk, it's not crap, apparently. There seems to be something there. But I don't know about double the autism risk. I hadn't seen that, or recall reading that at all in the past, that that could be that big a risk. I think double's pretty significant. The next one about a person's face and focusing on the mouth first. So when I look at a person's face, and I've taken note of this before, I do look at their mouth first. And then I look at other features on their face. I don't know why. I think maybe if I'm having a conversation with a person, I know people who have a hard time hearing or they're hearing impaired or something, they will look at the mouth in order to get a better sense on what people are saying. I'm thinking this one might be the fiction because of that. If you're going to focus on a person's mouth it might help you hear exactly what people are saying as opposed to getting the best look at the person. The last one about writing negative thoughts down and throwing them away to help, helps people not think of them. There are other similar mental exercises like this. I think it's reported that they do work, or people claim that they help 'em with reminders and other things. So I'm not at all really surprised about that. It's a little odd, but not all that surprising. So it comes down to autism risk doubled or people focus on the mouths first. I'll say people's focus on, first on the mouths to get a best look at the person's face. I'll say that one's fiction, I think, instead of looking at the person's face it has to do with comprehending the words they're saying.
B: Okay. Steve.
S: All right, well, good job this week, Bob. These were all good. I'm gonna take these in reverse order. The writing negative thoughts down, and then throwing them away. It's that kind of symbolic thing that I think we see all the time in psychological studies. You can sort of make sense either way out of all of these items, which is why they are good. You can say, well writing it down may actually reinforce the memory of things, but, okay I'd believe that the study was done and the symbolism of throwing it away helps people deal with it, sure. The second one, to get the best look at a person's face, that's ambiguous. The best look based upon what? On what criteria and what goal? The best look to recognize them, to remember them, to read their emotions? What's the specific outcome here? I don't know. That one might be real. I know for me, I look at the mouth first when I'm trying to recognize somebody and that's my best chance of recognizing a face is when I focus on the mouth. I wouldn't doubt that more people focus on the eyes first. You could make sense of that as well, so that may be what Bob switched to make that the fiction. But I think that one's plausible. The first one; now there have been studies looking at patterns of autism compared to, say, propinquity to coal-emitting factories, you know, like power plants. Coal-burning power plants. The notion that being close to highways or being closer to coal-burning plants increases exposure to some toxin in the environment and that the environmental exposure causes or increases the risk of autism. So I know those studies have been done. They're largely crap. It kind of depends on who did the study. Is this somebody who's really trying to push the environmental-autism link? Or was this by a more responsible and objective scientist who is looking at the data more reasonably? 'Cause I think that those studies that purported to show links like that are very, just very poorly done, and the data's preliminary and really dirty and problematic. So, I don't know, you know, I can believe that somebody put this study out 'cause I know there are people out there that are really looking for ways to push this connection. I have not heard about this. Doesn't mean it's not true, but I tend to hear about these kind of studies, so, either I missed this one, and again, usually when I have Bob or someone else do science or fiction it's because I'm too busy to look at a lot of studies, so, unfortunately this was one of the very weeks where I could miss something like this. But I think I'm gonna go with the autism one as the fiction, partly because I didn’t hear about it, partly because I think that more than doubling is a bit much. Even for the environmental believers. Not impossible, but I think, I'm just gonna say that one's the fiction.
B: Okay. Got a nice split here. Steve takes the autism, Rebecca and Evan have the focusing on mouths, and Jay has the negative thoughts. Throwing away negative thought. So you don't all agree on anything, so I will start, I'll just take them in order. "A recent study shows that exposing the unborn and very young to traffic pollution can more than double the autism risk and that is . . . science!
B: This is a study from USC and the University of California that studied, title was "Traffic-Related Air Pollution Particulate Matter and Autism." And it shows that the exposure to air pollution related to traffic during pregnancy and the first year of life is definitely, well it seems to be, associated with more than a two-fold rise in autism. The study participants are the first that looked very closely at the pollution found near roads, and then combining that data with the regional air quality measurements. They also looked at interesting details that seemed pretty granular to me. They looked at how far people were from the road, how busy the roads were, even which way the wind was blowing. So they tried to look at a lot of details and pull it all together. They examined data on about, almost 280 autism cases and they had about 245 control subjects. But, in addition, they also found that exposure to two things can also increase the risk. One was pollution consisting of nitrogen dioxide, and the other one was smoke particles less than 2.5 and 10 microns in diameter. Both of those were also related, even if the mother did not live near a busy road. So, this, according to the principal investigator, Heather Volk, she said that this work has broad potential public health implications. Which it obviously would, if they really nailed this and of course replicate it like any good science, scientific study should be. So that one, I thought that was interesting. And, let's see, we'll go to number two. The first place people look; to get the best look at a person's face people focus first on mouths. That one is fiction! Good job Rebecca and Evan! Good job!
E: Is it for the reason I think?
B: That one, this one was kind of weird. I tried to, well, you'll see. Let me explain what was going on here and I'll explain how it was, why it was kinda worded that way.
E: All right.
B: Researchers used an eye tracker and had participants look at a hundred photos and wherever they focused, they were able to, using this eye tracker they were able to focus where they looked, but not just where they looked, but where they looked initially. The first split second that you look at a person, and try to assess them, it said like 250 milliseconds, that they averaged out all these, it's weird because all people kinda focused right around the bridge of the nose. That's where people looked. It's close to the eyes, but if you look at the average dot it's pretty much under the eyes, right in the middle, right on the bridge of your nose. That's where people, that's where their gaze pretty much always goes. The key thing here, though, is that these people, people trying to determine a person's identity, gender and their emotional state. So, those are the three key things when people are trying to determine that, this is where they looked. Which I think is pretty much, almost every time you're looking at somebody, you want to identify their identity, do I know them or not? And then what's their gender and what's their emotional state. That pretty much covers a lot of the times you're gonna be looking at somebody, I think. But I didn't really want to just put that into my news item, to save you guys, I didn't want to throw in all this extra detail of the identify, gender and emotional state. So I used one of the titles in the news item itself, they put it this way: "To get the best look at a person's face, look just below the eyes." So, I thought that was a sufficient way to phrase it. "To get a best look at a person's face," 'cause in a sense that's really what it is.
R: But that's really not, that's not really what it is, though. I mean, they haven't determined, by the sound of it they haven't determined that that's the best place to look. They've just determined that that's where people look.
B: Determining where people look was the second part of what they did. They actually went through a lot of computations and a lot of math and a lot of algorithms and heuristics to determine and predict what is the best place, based on all of these variables, what is the best place that people should look in order to very quickly, which of course would be advantageous evolutionarily, to very quickly determine these keys things about people, identity, their emotion and their gender. And they determined that right there, under the eyes, is the optimal place to look and that's because, the reason why that's so is because it allows people to read information from as many features of the face as possible.
E: I was not right, but that's all right.
E: My premise was not correct.
B: Oh, yes, way off. But, you got it right, so it doesn't matter.
E: (laughing) That's the beautiful part of this game.
B: Okay, the third one. Writing negative thoughts down and then throwing them away helps people not to think of them. That one is, of course, science. This one is interesting as well. Yeah, embodied cognition, if you're familiar with that, it would kind of make this a bit of a no-brainer. Maybe I could have phrased this even more differently to make it tougher. But this one is fascinating as well. In essence, how we treat the physical manifestation of thoughts actually seems to make a difference to how we feel about those thoughts. There are some forms of psychological therapy that use a variation of this concept. They tried to get a patient to dispose of their negative thoughts and feelings, and I believe, as far as I could tell, this is the first study that actually validates that approach. One experiment had about 284 students and they had them write something negative or positive about something that most people believe is good. And one of the examples they used is the Mediterranean diet. People generally believe that this type of diet is definitely healthful and beneficial and people who live a lot of their lives on it are generally healthy and live a long time. They asked some of the participants to write down their thoughts and throw the written thoughts away. Some of them left them, they had them put them on their desk. And the third group, they told them to put it in their pocket or their wallet. On their person, essentially. And all the study participants were asked to rate their attitudes towards the Mediterranean diet and their intentions to use the diet for themselves, and as you might guess at this point is that, those that threw the paper away were less influenced by their thoughts than those who kept it on their desks. And those that kept it on their desks were less influenced than those that kept it on their person. And this study was done in three different ways, and it's pretty much what happened when they did each experiment. They did, this is interesting as well, they did a similar experiment with a computer. They had them write it on the computer and then put it either in the recycle bin or put it onto some sort of permanent hard storage and it was the same result. If you put it in the recycle bin, you were less influenced by those thoughts than the people who had saved it. And then they took another step, which I think is crucial, they had them imagine this entirely in their mind. They said, "Think about doing this." And when they did that, what do you guys think happened?
R: I give up.
S: No effect.
B: No effect at all. No effect, which I think really validates this idea.
S: That would basically do it.
B: Good work, guys, especially Evan and Rebecca!
S: Good job, Bob.
R: Good job, Bob.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:58)
S: Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?
J: I have a quote by someone that we all love. Richard Feynman.
I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here. I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.
S: Very nice.
J: (shouts) Richard Feynman!
SGU Year-end Wrap up episode (1:16:40)
S: Well, before we go we have a couple of announcements. It's time once again to get ready for the SGU Year-End Wrap-Up Episode.
B: Oh my god.
B: Another year?
E: That's right!
S: And we need the help of our listeners for this. So, we have a post on the Forums. We'll have a link in the Show Notes. We'd like you to send in your nominations for: the best episode; best guest or interview; funniest moment; best Who's That Noisy?; best quote, best science news story of the year; most outrageous illogical statement or pseudoscientic claim; most unexpected scientific discovery; most unbelievable but true Science or Fiction story; jackass of the year; skeptic of the year; and best bits or lines from each rogue. So send in your nominations. We will read the best ones on the Year-End Wrap-Up Show. If you need to look at the list again, it's posted on the Forums. We'll have the link in the Show Notes.
Jay and George on Inkredulous (1:17:40)
J: Steve, I have an announcement. Me and George Hrab are on the latest episode of Incredulous Podcast, number 16. We had a great time doing it, and please go to merseysideskeptics.org.uk and download the episode.
B: That's awesome, Jay.
S: They're fun guys.
Support the SGU (1:17:56)
S: Also, this is a good time of year to remind our listeners that you can support the SGU in many different ways.
B: Really, Steve? How can they do that?
S: You can send us a donation. You can also make a recurring donation through Paypal. If you go to the Store page from the SGU, theskepticsguide.org main page, you will see there the Store and Support page. From there you can subscribe to the SGU via Paypal. You can download premium podcasts. You can make one-time donations. And you can go to Skeptical Robot where you can purchase SGU swag. We do appreciate your support. I’ll take this opportunity to say thank you to all of our listeners who have supported us in the past. It does help us produce and put out all the content that we do. So please consider paying a visit to our Store page and giving us some support.
Well, thank you all for joining me this week.
R: Thank you, Steve.
J: Thaks, Steve!
S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
Voiceover: 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 www.theskepticsguide.org. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.