SGU Episode 47
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|SGU Episode 47|
|14th June 2006|
|SGU 46||SGU 48|
|S: Steven Novella|
|R: Rebecca Watson|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|ZM: Zachary Moore|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 News Items
- 3 Questions and emails (17:09)
- 4 Interview with Zachary Moore (29:58)
- 5 Science or Fiction (1:07:16)
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 Wednesday, June 14, 2006. This is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. With me tonight are Bob Novella, ...
S: ... Rebecca Watson, ...
R: Hey everybody!
J: ... Jay Novella, ...
J: Hey, hey, hey!
S: ... and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening, all my friends.
Motorola patents feng-shui device (00:38)
S: So have you guys heard about Motorola's new fancy device that they have just patented?
B: Yeaaah! Cool!
S: They have patented a Feng shui device.
R: Oh my god! Are you serious?
S: It actually, it measures the feng-shuiness of your environment and tells you where you need to move your furniture and stuff.
J: How does it tell you where to move your furniture? What?
E: Whatever Motorola is doing it for, I'll do it for you at half price, whatever they're charging.
R: I have a very small studio apartment. I'm just wondering — there's really nowhere else for things to go. (unintelligible)
E: You're thinking inside the box, Rebecca, you have to think outside the box.
B: Is feng shui that popular?
S: Oh, so, feng shui, for those in the audience who may not know what it is, is an eastern tradition where they basically — it's pure magical thinking. It's the notion that luck and health and money and things like this are forces and energies in your environment, and they can either flow into your life, or into your house, or away from you according to how you might arrange your furniture.
J: Ancient Chinese secret.
S: Yeah, I mean, it's really ...
J: Stupid, say it, Steve. It's stupid!
J: It's probably one of the dumbest things out there!
S: It is! It's one of the absolute dumbest things. It's pure magical thinking. There's just nothing else to say about it.
J: Feng shui: isn't one of the things that you can't sweep. You have to sweep everything to the center of a room, because you can't sweep anything outside the house.
E: There are no parameters.
B: That's part of it. It's a flow of energy. You want to have the flow of energy, you know, I guess, going in the right direction and stuff like that. The funny thing is, though, that this device, it doesn't, like, detect the qi, and determine the nature or the energy and where it's going. It uses radio signals!
B: It says "Okay, here's where the radio signals are, so that, hopefully, that's correlated with positive Qi. So that's what it's based on.
R: So wait, you are saying it doesn't even detect Qi? I mean ...
E: Oh there's Qi!
R: What a ripoff!
S: It says weak radio signals indicate positive Qi, but strong signals means negative Qi. And I don't know, how did they figure that out?
B: Right! Not only that, so if you have positive Qi, then you have a bad connection for your cellphone.
R: That's not very lucky.
J: Wait, is Motorola ran by a bunch of retards?
S: I think they're ran by the same executives who were running Florsheim, those numbers of years ago, when they put out the magnetic insoles to help with the circulation in your feet. Remember that?
R: Oh, yeah. That's right.
E: Of course!
R: I think they're ran by people who like to make a lot of money regardless of the consequences.
S: And who think that their average customer is a moron.
E: Yeah, they're appealing to the California crowd.
B: They see a niche. They see a niche, and they want to tap into it. Damn logic and science.
S: Yeah, and they make stuff up: "Ah, we'll just mesure radio waves, because we can, and we'll call it Qi and we'll sell it as a feng shui device!"
E: It's foolproof.
R: Why not?
B: Wouldn't you think that feng shui purists would say: "Hey! That's not how that works!"
J: I'm sure they will, Bob!
S: Like there are feng shui purists. Bob, the people who are selling their services as feng shui consultants — they're just making it up out of the top of their heads anyway. They don't agree with each other anyway. They just give you completely different readings.
J: No, no Steve!
R: There's a great episode of Bull$hit about that, actually, when they invited three different feng shui consultants, and they each did entirely different set-ups for the houses.
J: Right, there are things that are standard. There are things like facing.
J: Everything has to be lined up, I believe, to the north properly, or something along those lines.
R: But even then, they bend their own little rules, and they don't know.
B: True, there's a lot of differences between the various feng shui experts, but I'd think all of them would agree that it's not radio signals. That's the only point I'm trying to make.
R: I don't know. I think that they'll probably line up behind anything that looks like it gives them some shred of legitimacy.
E: Well, my acupuncturist told me. He must know!
J: Steve! I think this could be classified under like one of those things that people think are fun, maybe at least in the United States.
S: I don't think people shell out five thousand dollars to a feng-chui consultant because it's fun. I think that they might do it because it's a status symbol, so they can say that they, whatever, that their house is feng shui.
E: Or when our governments waste our tax money by hiring feng shui experts to come in and tell them how to construct new government buildings and those sorts of things.
E: That's not very funny at all.
J: Wait! That happens?
E: In Connecticut it happened.
R: Yes, it did.
E: It happened here in Hartford.
J: Oh my God!
S: They were embarrassed out of it ultimately, but they did spend tax payers' money on a feng shui consultant.
B: Steve, they could say: "Yea, I'm Feng Shui 1.0 Compliant".
E: Ha ha ha.
J: I have to go shoot myself right now. I can't take that.
E: Well, don't do that Jay. Stick around and listen to the next item.
J: I'll finish (unintelligible)
R: Besides, you're gonna get blood all over your carpet, and that's not good for your Qi!
J: That's right! You're right! Thank you, Rebecca!
J: You saved me again.
Larry Summer Followup (05:43)
S: Now, Rebecca, you blogged about this recently. It's about the one year anniversary of the Larry Summers now infamist comment about women academics at Harvard.
R: Well, it's not the one year anniversary of the comment. The comment would have been back in January.
S: Is that right?
R: Yeah, I think it was around like, January, February of 2005. We're actually at the one year mark of the creation of the department that he made to kind of soothe over the hubbub, and it's specifically for increasing diversity among the Harvard faculty.
S: Hm, hm.
R: So it's been about a year since that was setup. So they just did a report going over what they've accomplished over the past year and what they plan to accomplish in the coming year.
J: So what did he say?
R: He was asked to give a speech explaining some of the current hypothesis concerning why there's not a high percentage of women in the upper echelons of academia, specially when it comes to the sciences. And he went over a few different hypothesis, one of which was, basically, women might just not have the same mental capabilities as men to do science.
S: Hm, hm.
R: And, of course, that pissed off a lot of people, and there's a lot of bad publicity over it, and it was about a year after that, it was back in February that he announced that he was going to resign his position. And he didn't say it was specifically because of that, but ...
S: But that's what it was.
R: ... speculation (unintelligible)
J: Well, I'd like to as everyone's opinion. Is there any validity to that? Did anyone do a real study? What's the consensus here?
S: That is clearly a thorny issue, because it is so political. But I'm a neuroscientist. I have sort of some sense of what this literature shows, and my reading of it is that in the last 20-30 years there have been quite a few studies comparing the — if you just step back a minute and not think about any particular ability, but just if you look at the male and female brains, they definitely are different. They definitely function different. They're organized differently in a number of ways that have been clearly established. For example, the female brain is more bilaterally redundant than the male brain. Male functions, especially with language, tend to lateralize a lot more to one side, where women will utilize both sides of their brain more.
J: So does that mean that women may be more adapt at language than men?
S: Well, that is a possibility, and there is some evidence to support that. So I think the thing that is interesting about this, again, is partly how politicized it gets. There are those at one extreme who think that any suggestion that there's any difference between men and women, it makes you a fascist, and they really get very emotionally upset at the barest suggestion of it. And I think that that is a very counter-productive end of the spectrum. Of course, at the other end of the spectrum there's some hold over sexism, but I do think that is significantly on the wane, at least in our society. Obviously in other parts of the world they're very, very different. What it comes down to, and I think this is really what the Larry Summer comment comes down to is: in our present day society, how much of the differences of distribution of men and women in different professions is due to past or current prejudice, and how much of it is due to a self sorting? How much of it is due to the fact that men and women may have different likes and dislikes and may have different aptitudes statistically, and you have to remember that even a slight difference aptitude on average, which could mean that 98% of men and 98% of women are not any different from each other. But even if there's a slight, slight difference, then at the very top of ability, there could be a huge over-representation of one over the other.
R: Well, and then, Steve, it's not just — the option isn't just whether or not it's genetic, I mean, there's another option besides genetic and bias.
B: Well, cultural!
R: Yea, there's just the fact that women could be raised from birth to just not be interested in science. It could be the way that they're being taught, the way that we're influenced.
J: I'm sure there has a part in it
R: I mean, there are millions of different possibilities there, and discounting any one just because someone thinks that it might be sexist, it's absurd! There shouldn't be any hypothesis that we dismiss out of hand without at least taking a look at.
J: Did that guy, last year, say something very derogatory and negative? Did he say that women are not as intelligent as men in that way, or was he talking about ...
R: Not at all! No, you can see the whole speech he gave online, and I linked to it through my blog. I've posted about Summers a number of times, and if you read through his speech, it's not at all derogatory, and it certainly doesn't sound like he's coming from a sexist place.
R: It sounds like he's saying "people are researching the problem, and here are some of the theories they've got going." He's not saying he subscribes to any one of them. He's just putting them out there, because that's what he was asked to do for his speech, and I think that that's — and if people disagree with that hypothesis, I think the correct response should never be "That' sexist, shut up", it should be "Here's why you're wrong."
R: "Here's the evidence that says you're wrong"
S: Right, I agree. I agree.
R: If there's evidence that says it's not true then, you know, show the evidence, don't ...
S: It's interesting. My personal opinion, having looked at the evidence and thinking about this for a while, is that there are still some cultural and historical forces at work in terms of the penetration of males and females in different professions, but I do think that we're moving towards a distribution that's more and more self-selective. I think that in our country, as women are more free to pursue the careers that they want, that they are winding up in careers that are more amenable to their desires and their talents. For example, women are overtaking men in the healthcare profession. They have no problem penetrating any corner of the healthcare profession. There are other fields which, and the reason why I think that there is a huge genetic component to this, is because when we see which fields women are not making gains in, like engineering, that tends to fit quite well with the basic neuroscience, which is showing that women don't like engineering. It's not that they're not necessarily good at it, they just really don't like it to the same degree that men do. So maybe it's not that surprising that they're not penetrating that field. From a practical point of view, what this means is, should we just do everything we can to make sure that both men and women are free to pursue whatever career that they want, or do we have to at the top end work from the top down to make the numbers look good? Do we have to force women into fields that they're not going in to spontaneously, or have some kind of affirmative action to make the numbers look good?
J: Sounds like bussing to me. That's ridiculous.
R: I don't think that you're going to force women into positions, though.
S: Well, the way you do that is with quotas. Right? Should you set up quotas, so that, specially like, in the upper echelons of academia, to make sure that 50% of women are in engineering departments?
S: That's the practical point of view, and I think if you look at all the evidence and if you look at what's happened, it's probably better to work from the bottom up to just make sure that there's no glass ceiling, that women do whatever they want.
J: Well, I'll speak for all software engineers out there. We want more women in the field. Absolutely.
R: Yea, good luck with that, Jay. And that's pretty much what Harvard's new office is working on. One of the mains things I noticed from the report they put out, they really seem to be focusing on improving the lifestyle of students and faculty who choose to have families, like increase funding to child care facilities and child care scholarships and things like that.
S: Yeah, which is excellent. It's all excellent.
R: Definitely, because speaking to women who are in academia, I hear that a lot, like, "you make a choice: either you're going to have a family and therefore go into private industry, or you're gonna go into academia and give up hopes of having a family."
S: Yeah, definitely the plainfield needs to be leveled in terms of just biological functions, absolutely.
R: Right. Women shouldn't have to make a choice when it comes to that.
S: Yeah, I do, although, one final comment is I do find it a little ironic that while there's still so much concern about making sure that women have a fair shake in academia, if you look at the younger generations, women are kicking guys' butts in school. I mean, they are.
R: Indeed, they are.
S: They develop academic skills at a younger age. Their temperament and what not, it seems to serve them better during the school years than boys. Boys tend to have shorter attention spans and are more distractible, whatever.
R: Also boys are smelly and have germs.
S: You know, in thirty or forty years, you know, we may be — the roles may be totally reversed and we may be having to talk very seriously about how we could get more guys into academia.
S: But, we will see.
Stephen Hawking on Space Travel (16:05)
S: One final news item, and this is just a quick follow-up to last week's podcast. We had talked to Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, about manned space flight, and he was very much in favor of NASA funding manned space flight as opposed to just robotic space exploration, and his primary justification for that was that we need to colonize other worlds so that we don't have all of our eggs in this one basket called Earth. By coincidence, Stephen Hawking has — I don't know if it was a lecture or an article that he wrote — but he has come out very much in favor of manned space flight, and for the very same reason that Phil Plait cited, was that we need to colonize worlds other than the Earth. He writes that the survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe, because there is an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy the Earth. So I just thought that was interesting because it was right on the heels of last week's podcast where we made that point.
R: See Phil? Just as smart as Stephen Hawking.
S: Steve Hawking. Absolutely.
Questions and emails (17:09)
S: Let's do a couple of emails, and then we do have an interview this week. We have an interview with Zachary Moore, who does the Evolution 101 podcast. We'll be getting to that in a moment. But first a few emails.
Consensus on Global Warming (17:24)
S: Email number one comes from Mark Goddard, who simply gives his location as "The US". Mark writes:
I would like to inform Mr. Novella that consensus is not a scientific term. He should make his decisions based on evidence, rather than basing them on a consensus. I thought that's what skeptics were supposed to do. It would also serve Mr. Novella well to reacquaint himself with his list of logical fallacies, as argument for the existence and seriousness of anthropogenic global warming is clearly reliant on the argument from authority. He believes in global warming because there is a consensus.
Real skeptics follow the evidence. I suggest that Steve do some actual research before reaching a conclusion, and if he finds some evidence to support his predetermined conclusion, then he should discuss that on the show. Evidence for or against the idea of global warming would be more informative than a broken-record repetition of "consensus, consensus, consensus.
S: Well, thanks for writing the email, Mark. We appreciate the question and the feedback. And this is an excellent topic, because we deal with this issue quite a bit, and it really gets to the heart, I think, of scientific skepticism. So I do think that there's a difference between the argument from authority and having an appropriate level of respect for a consensus of scientific opinion, because, honestly, most of us, all we have in the areas outside of our, whatever, our narrow field of expertise — and if you're not a working scientist that's all areas of science — is a distillation from the consensus of scientific opinion. I think that if you think that your own personal reading of the evidence somehow supersedes that, that is incredibly arrogant. And actually at the same time, it's naive. I mean, it really means that you don't understand the gulf that exists between the amount of information that we have as laypeople versus the amount of information that scientists at the cutting edge of any discipline have. So, to look at this another way: when I am conveying a consensus of a scientific opinion, I'm not saying that "this claim is true because there is a consensus." I'm saying there's a consensus because it's probably true. And the reason why I can say that, my premise to this is that if you have a mature scientific discipline where there has been decades of robust, transparent, open-debate about an issue, a specific question, or a specific scientific discipline, and a fairly solid consensus emerges from the evidence and the research and the debate, that consensus is very highly reliable. It's not necessarily true. It can be wrong. Science is always tentative and contingent and is amenable to revision if new evidence or ways of thinking about things comes to light, but we can rely to some degree on a hard-earned, robust consensus of scientific opinion. At the very least, if you disagree with that consensus, you better have a damned good reason for doing so. And dismissing it as an argument from authority is not appropriate. And that is an actual abuse of that logical fallacy. I do think where people get into trouble with the Argument from Authority is investing authority in an individual scientist. Any individual can be biased, quirky, can just be wrong for whatever reason, but when you have a community of scientists hammering out the issues over a long period of time, there is some legitimate authority that you can invest in that.
J: So in other words, the consensus here is that this guy is a jerk?
S: No, I think this is a very common misunderstanding about the Argument from Authority, but, again, if you do take it to that extreme, to say that basically you can never refer to the scientific community, the opinion of either the scientific community as a whole or specific organizations that have panels of experts that have reviewed the evidence and come to some consensus opinion. If you just routinely dismiss all of those, then what do we have, again, to rely upon? Again, I think that it's arrogant to think that as a layperson who hasn't spent a career studying this data, who isn't intimately familiar with the technical literature, that your opinion somehow can supersede those of scientists that breathe this data.
J: Well, he said that you have no evidence, Steve. He flat out said that you're just ...
S: Well, he did, he also made a few assumptions in his last paragraph there. He assumes that I have not done some research, again, on my level. Again, I'm not a climatologist. This is not my area of expertise, and the farther away I get from my area of expertise the more I have to rely upon the consensus of scientific opinion, which I think is the appropriate thing to do. But he also made a lot of assumptions that were not correct. I've actually been reading quite extensively about this, especially since it keeps coming up a lot as a topic on our show, so I'm trying to inform myself as best as I can about the actual issues with global warming. And there is quite a lot of evidence for man-made global warming. There is global warming in fact. There is increasing CO2 levels. There is a plausible connection between the two. There is a receding of the glaciers and the polar icecaps. These things are all being documented to an increasing level, and every time skeptics say "Well, this data is not great", and NASA puts up another satellite or whatever, some new more sophisticated way of collecting the data is put out there, the data comes back even more in favour of man-made global warming. So, it really does seem to be converging on this consensus, but there is still, and I have said this before, it seems a lot of legitimate uncertainty about the degree of the man-made contribution to global warming, about how to extrapolate it to the future, and about the degree to which this is more of a natural trend, warming trend that we're having. Clearly there is some man-made global warming, and even some of the hardest skeptics will admit that, the debate really is about the relative contributions of man-made versus natural causes, and I do admit that there is, of course, some degree of uncertainty there.
J: I also have the sneaking suspicion that the writer of the email doesn't agree with what your conclusions are.
S: Yeah. Usually when people start to get nasty about logical fallacies it's because they don't accept the position that I'm taking. Nobody has chided me. None of our listeners have chided me for, for example, stating that greater than 98% of practicing scientists support evolution over creation. That's an argument from authority, too, if you apply the criteria the same way. But it's more saying that "hey, there is a robust scientific consensus for the fact of evolution." And it's not an argument from authority to point that out.
B: I think that that fallacy though, is definitely one of the ones that's most easily abused when trying to employ it.
S: Yeah, I agree.
B: People just throw it out there like "Oh, logical fallacy!". Well, no, not really.
S: Yeah, science has some legitimate authority to it, because the method works, the institutions basically work.
God and the Big Bang (25:01)
S: Well, let's move on. We do have another — and this is our second audio email question. This one come from Joel Kerbrat, whose cypher name is "Jokermage". So let's play his audio email now:
Hey, all. I love the podcast. It's been really helpful and informative. I do have a quick question, or, really, I'm just trying to get your opinion on a particular argument I encounter a lot when I'm discussing the existence or non-existence of God. I'll be able to quote you the literal text of one of the people I was having this discussion with: "Assuming the Big Bang Theory is in any way correct, and going back far enough, you come to a time when there was quite literally nothing. Where did this something which led to the creation of the first universe come from?" And from my perspective this would qualify as an argument from ingnorance. We don't know what happened before the Big Bang or before the Big Bang, so they always say "what's before that? What's before that?" and, honestly, we don't know or we're still looking there. And for some people the fact that we haven't reached that point yet, or may never reach that point says "oh, there must be a god there". Well, I'm just interested on what your guys' take is on this particular question. Thanks for your time! Bye!
S: Okay, well, thanks again Joel for sending us in that audio email. This is a question that we deal with frequently. This is a good old God of the Gaps argument. The idea that wherever there is a gap in our current scientific knowledge, that is where God is. God caused that thing that we have not yet explained through naturalistic or scientific explanations.
R: I hate when people do that, seriously! Because it's like you put a period at the end of a sentence and you just say "well, that's it! Everybody can just go home now, there's nothing more to see here" instead of trying to explore things further.
E: It's definitely lazy. If nothing else.
S: Yeah, it is lazy. It is lazy.
J: Well, it's opportunistic as well. I mean, people are always looking for a way to prove God exists, so that's the whole point to "god of the gaps". There's a gap there. Science can't currently define what it is, and they jump on it.
B: The problem is, though, that that little god of the gap might be around for quite some time.
S: Yeah! One might not go away sometime soon.
B: That might be the last to go, because we just can't know what happened before the Big Bang
S: Although if you recall a couple of weeks ago ...
B: Yeah, yea, I still don't buy that.
S: ... that was one of the Science or Fictions was inferring what happened before the Big Bang by the way the Universe looks today. So there may be windows of inference into that. It's hard to say. There's nothing that we can really extrapolate from current knowledge to know how we would even investigate what happened before the Big Bang or what caused it.
J: Why don't we just never talk about the Big Bang again, you know what I mean?
R: Ha ha ha ha. You know what? God did it. There, that was easy.
J: Yeah, fine. I'll give you that one, right?
B: Here's my big problem with finding out — trying to figure out what happened before the Big Bang: If the Big Bang created not only space but time, so there was no time, there was no space before the Big Bang. So before the Big Bang: no space, no time, so how could you say "what happened before there was time?" when there was no time?
S: Well, what I'll say about that, Bob, is trying to grasp the Big Bang and the existence of the Universe in English, in words that evolved to describe our everyday world, and they just are not up to the task. You don't have the language, and therefore you don't have the concept to really even grasp that question. The only way we that can really deal with it at this point in time is through mathematical concepts. So at some point we may be able to come up with some mathematical description of could of what happened "before" the Big Bang, although before is probably not the right word or the right concept.
R: But you know, we could talk all day about the Big Bang, but I think that the important thing to remember is just that at one point we thought that God drew the Sun across the sky in a chariot, and if we had just stopped there and said "well, that's that" we wouldn't know jackshit today!
S: That's right.
R: But instead, we move forward, and we put that idea aside in favor of scientific inquiry.
S: Right, and that's the most important point, I think, of all this, is that you shouldn't ever use the God of the Gaps argument to end scientific inquiry.
S: Well, let's go on to our interview.
Interview with Zachary Moore (29:58)
S: Joining us now is Zachary Moore. Zach! Welcome to The Skeptics' Guide.
ZM: Hi! Thank you very much! Glad to be here.
R: Hey Zach!
S: Doctor Zach, as he is sometimes called, is a fellow podcaster. He does the Evolution 101 podcast, which we've mentioned before on the show. An excellent podcast. He is a PhD in molecular biology and also the author of a blog called The Writings of a Mad Scientist. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy in Pathobiology and Molecular Medicine at the University of Cincinnati, and he's currently a graduate assistant. Is that still accurate?
ZM: Post-doctoral assistant.
S: Post-doctoral assistant at the University of Cincinnati, in the department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.
ZM: Actually, I'm now at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
S: Ah! Your website is not updated!
ZM: I just updated it the other day.
ZM: I'm sorry about that.
S: So he's currently a post-grad assistant at the University of Texas. So, Zachary, we've been listening to your Evolution 101 podcast. They are excellent. How did you get interested in doing that?
ZM: Well, you know, I kind of fell into it, and I never dreamed that it would get quite as popular as it has been. I don't know if you're familiar with Reggie Finley, who also goes by the name The Infidel Guy. He's got a website called TheInfidelGuy.com, and he's had a number of guests on to talk about evolutionary theory, and one of the ones that he had on several times was — I guess that you've also had — was Massimo Pigliucci
ZM: And uh ...
S: MASSIMO! As we call him...
ZM: Massimo!, yeah, he's a great guy. I love his blog, actually. He's really funny. Anyway, so he had some interest among the people that listen to his show — he's got like a webcast — that they would like to see a regular show that was within his sort of aegis that would just do evolution discussion, and it was to be titled Evolution 101, and it was going to be once a week, an hour show that he would host, and initially it was supposed to be Massimo, primarily, although what happened was that he got sort of tied up with a bunch of things, and he couldn't commit the time, and so he put the word out that if there's anybody else that would like to contribute to that, that he'd be happy to share it around, maybe have like a rotating guest host or something like that.
S: Hm, hm.
ZM: So I was kind of nominated/volunteered for it, and I actually did the first episode of that. It was a two-hour long premier special, and then Massimo did the next week, and after that time Reggie sort of ran out of the time on his own to do that extra show, and so it sort of languished for a couple months, and people started talking again, and they said "Oh, we really loved that, and it'd be nice to have something on a regular basis even if it's not that much," and I sort of joined the conversation not really volunteering to pick it up myself, but I was just saying "yeah, it was a great idea. It was fun for me to do it. I really don't have the resources or the equipment to run a webcast like that on my own." Just sort of throwing it out there I said, "I suppose I could do a podcast," or something like that and somebody said "well why don't you do that?" and I said, "well OK, I'll give it a try."
S: The rest is history!
ZM: And the rest, as they say, is history! So I just recorded the first one just sort of on the fly and threw it out there and, I think that it's up to like five thousand downloads by now.
J: Excellent! Excellent.
ZM: It's not a huge amount but, you know, I guess it's okay for a small little thing that is just me doing it every Saturday morning in my pajamas and throwing it up there on the internet for people.
R: Wait, so you podcast wearing clothes? This is ...
ZM: I try to, yes.
J: Rebecca likes to — she thinks it's funny to tell everyone that she does it topless.
ZM: Oh, okay. So that's the (unintelligible)
J: But she hasn't posted any pictures yet or anything. There's no proof.
ZM: Oh, be sure to post some, I'll appreciate that.
R: You know, a little mystery is always good.
R: Maybe the pajamas then, I'll consider that.
S: You must have had an interest in evolution and evolution of science.
ZM: Yeah, I have. It's funny, because it was never something that I really — like when I was studying science it was always just sort of there, and I didn't really give much interest to the whole evolution/creation debate.
S: Hm, hm.
ZM: But the more I started doing things on the internet, and the more I sort of realized how much bad information there is out there, it started piquing my interest more and more, and I started reading some stuff like, you know, Richard Dawkins and other things like that.
S: Hm, hm.
ZM: And really started getting interested in it. I started spending a lot of time at Talk Origins, and I'm actually a moderator at a website for people who have left the Christian faith. It's called [exchristian.net exchristian.net], and I sort of specialize in the science part of that forum, so I moderate a lot of the stuff that comes up about evolution and creationism. And so I just sort of got used to thinking about that and not being an expert. I mean, I'm not an expert. I'm just some guy with a degree who knows where to look up the right stuff to find out the answers to these things. So anyway, so that gave me a little bit of confidence to put together the podcast.
S: Yeah, it's interesting because for me the evolution-creation debate — that was my gateway topic into skepticism in general. I mean, that was the first time I really got involved ...
S: ... in a pseudoscience and examining it, even back in high school. And I've kept up with it ever since, even though, you know, like you, I'm more in the medical field. I don't have a degree in evolutionary biology
S: I don't know if it's because of creationism, but there seems to be a tremendous amount of high quality information available for the layperson on evolution in general and also on the evolution-creation debate, so it's one of those topics where if you really want to be an exceptionally well-informed layperson, you can be. I mean, the information is out there.
ZM: Right. It does take a bit of work. I mean, Dawkins is great, but he can be thick for some people. The people that I'm mostly trying to reach are people like, for example, my mother — knows nothing about science, you know, and so this was actually something — somewhat of a talent that I honed while I was coming up to the graduate school ranks, I would, in an effort to be able to make my data accessible to the general audience, whenever I would put together a presentation I would always give it to my mother, and if she could understand what I was saying, then I figured I could give the same talk to just about any audience without any problem. And so I try to sort of distill concepts and make them accessible to really, really the average Joe on the street.
S: Yeah, that is a great skill to have, and it is a separate skill. Not all scientists can do that. They may be brilliant in their area, but they may not have that completely separate skill set that is needed to convey their discipline to the public at large.
ZM: Right, and most of the writing we do, and you've published a couple of things — I looked over your brain paper — the scientific writing is incredibly complex.
ZM: And it's almost completely inaccessible. I showed one of my papers to my father-in-law, and he looked at it said "I think there's two words in there that I understood"
R: I usually get in trouble getting passed the titles.
ZM: (laughs) So, it's kind of like the opposite of the way I'm thinking normally, or when I'm in the lab. Instead of making things as scientific precise as possible to sort of not dumb it down, but sort of generalize things and try to find good analogies so that everybody can come to the same understanding.
S: Yeah, and it's difficult to do that without, as you say, without dumbing it down. To convey the richness and the detail of the scientific theory but translate it into terminology that a layperson can understand.
ZM: Right. And it's really hard to do that in ten minutes or less, ...
ZM: ... which is what I try for. My cousin's experienced in the dramatic arts, and he told me that after I'd chosen a ten-minute cut-off, he said that's actually a good time period because most people, when they're trying to learn about something like that, that ten minutes is about as long as the average person can really commit to something like that, especially if it's complicated.
S: Yeah, ten minutes is reasonable. I've heard twenty minutes is really like the upper limit of attention span. If you're just sitting in any kind of lecture type of environment, you can pay attention and process information for about twenty minutes. After that you're really not processing information anymore, unless there is something dynamic about that.
S: Which, of course, podcasts are not. They're passive. You're just sitting and listening to them.
B: So Zach, will you now go to twenty minutes?
ZM: Well, you know, I do go over sometimes.
S: I think you can afford to. They're pretty quick.
J: You know, no matter how much you dumb it down though, a true creationist won't even take the time to try to understand evolution, because they reject it.
J: So you're not pitching this to true believers. You're pitching this to people who are either on the fence or don't really have an opinion.
ZM: Absolutely! And I think most of the people sort of just by default because they can't really grasp evolution. It just seems too complex. Creationism, even though it does violate the simplicity — Occam's razor — it's just a little bit more intuitive, you know? And that's kind of the problem with science is that very often it's not intuitive. So, hopefully, the laypeople and most of the people that I talk to who are just on the cusp of understanding, once they can really understand it then they're like "Oh, well of course that makes so much sense."
J: Yeah, I totally agree. That's how I feel about evolution. To me it makes much, much more sense than anything else you can possibly come up with.
R: Zach, how do you feel about directly debating creationists?
ZM: Ah, well, let's see. The official line: Gould said that we shouldn't, right? And Dawkins agreed with him, so I don't want to go against Dawkins, but um ...
R: Wait a minute. What kind of a critical thinker are you? Appeal to authority!
ZM: Yeah, I don't know. I'm generally, you know, generally I don't really have a problem with engaging in open discussion with anybody on any topic, so there are some people that write in. They're usually not true believers, I don't think, unless they're sort of couching things in like a third person, like "Oh, my friend has this problem." So probably, so probably ...
J: Yeah, he's got this itch.
ZM: Yeah, so probably I don't really interact with too many true believers, but I do interact with a bunch of people that just have honest questions, at least that's what they come across as.
J: Well, before you signed on, Steve said that you used to get into a lot of fist fights over this. We want to know if that's true.
ZM: Who me?
J: Just kidding. Just kidding.
S: You do list on your interests, you list Jeet Kune Doo as one of your interests.
B: Jeet Kune DO!
S: Jeet Kune DO, whatever.
B: The Way of the Intercepting Fist. In what capacity is that? Do you actually study it or ...
ZM: I have. Since I've been down in Texas I have. And I studied it when I was in Cincinnati. I'm a fairly big guy anyway, so I don't really worry about stuff like that. It was a friend of mine got into it really seriously and sort of convinced me to try it, and I actually really liked it. It was a lot of fun.
B: For those that don't know, that's the style that Bruce Lee originated.
ZM: Right, right. It's actually less of a style per se ...
B: Right, that's a misnomer.
ZM: ... and more of a philosophy of martial arts. And it was a lot of fun.
ZM: Dan Inosanto's the guy that sort of runs the whole thing nowadays.
B: Yeah! Did you meet him?
ZM: Yeah! Yeah. He came to (unintelligible)
B: Oh, wow! Awesome!
ZM: Yeah, and he's — what's his philosophy? Oh, it's something along the lines of "learn what you like, absorb what is useful."
B: Yeah, that's pretty much Bruce Lee, I think.
ZM: So, uh, they teach a lot of different styles there, and you sort of decide on your own what you're gonna specialize in.
ZM: You sort of decide on your own what you specialize in and I really liked Kali and ...
ZM: ... and pink cats a lot, those are my favorites. Wing chun is pretty cool, too, but I really like the Kali, I have to say. I like swinging a stick around.
R: I General Tzo's Chicken, with the (unintelligible).
R: That's my personal favorite, but ...
ZM: That's pretty good too.
B: It's good that you know. The jeet kune do is there just in case you get waylaid by a bunch of creationists or IDers.
ZM: Right. I'll keep that in mind if I ever go to Kansas.
S: Now while we are on the topic of your interests, you also list there Sasquatch. What's that about?
ZM: I figured you guys would call me on that one. No, I'm not a true believer of the Sasquatch. I'm just an interested observer of the phenomenon. I've had some — I spend a lot of time outdoors when I can, and I've had some — there's always some weird things that happen out there. So some unexplained phenomenon, so I'm just mostly interested to see if — obviously, the ultimate criteria is the body.
ZM: Of course, nobodies going to believe without a body, so I'm just sort of sitting and watching and waiting to see what they come up with.
B: Even just DNA. I'd be happy with just DNA.
ZM: I'd love to see some DNA, too. I heard about some getting sent to the Ohio State University at one point, but I never heard anything about it, so it must have been negative.
S: Yeah, you always hear about the new find that's going to be analyzed by experts. The believers trump that up.
S: But then you never hear that "Oh, it turned out to be bison," or whatever.
ZM: Right, right. That was a recent one.
S: When you follow up on all of these, they all turn out to be known species.
J: But, you know, it is remotely impossible I think at this point, but I actually don't think it's possible that they exist anymore, just because too many people have been looking for too long, but how cool would it be if they really did turn up one?
ZM: I know. That's kind of where I am, too. And, honesty, of all the supposed cryptids that are out there, I think the Sasquatch is probably the most likely to crop up.
S: There's nothing inherently implausible ...
ZM: No, no.
S: ... about a giant hominid. We know they existed it evolutionary ...
ZM: Right. Gigantipithicus.
S: ... in the past, like Gigantipithicus. Yeah, it's the one that always comes up. There's just no evidence they're around now, and there's no reason to think that the cultural phenomenon of belief in Sasquatch is based upon evidence. It was based upon hoaxes, so when a phenomenon is initiated by hoaxes, I don't hold out much hope that it's going to ultimately be true. That would be quite a coincidence.
ZM: Right, and I actually — part of what keeps me tempered on that is the fact that I was personally most likely one of the hoaxes that may be out there, certainly.
S: Is that right?
ZM: Kind of a long story, but I spent some time ...
J: We have plenty of time. Go ahead.
ZM: I've spent some time doing some ultra-primitive stuff, orienteering and things in the wilds of Kentucky. I inadvertently spooked some young kids that were out there, and they probably thought I was something that I was not, so ...
J: Were you wearing a rug? What were you doing?
ZM: No, I was just sort of out there covered in mud and leaves and loin-cloth, just ultra-primitive experiencing ...
R: Like an episode of The Simpsons.
J: Exactly what I thought of.
ZM: So, anyway, they got a bit of a scare. I don't know if they ever told anybody about it, but if they did, then that was me.
R: I'm sure they told their therapist. So, congratulations.
J: Zach, will you at least agree with us that we know for certain there aren't any psychic Bigfoots?
ZM: Yeah, I think that's without a doubt. The bfro.net, the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, I paid a lot of attention to their website, because they seem to try to do things in sort of a rigorous, somewhat scientific way, but after the follow-up from the Sonoma video, ...
R: Yeah, they fell for that hard.
ZM: Well, I downloaded the video, and I looked at it, and I was like "That is — what is that?" I couldn't quite make up my mind, and then the BFRO came out heavily in favor of it, and I was like "Well, you know, if they're in favor of it, maybe there is something to it," because they've got all of these anthropologists like Jeff Meldrum and other guys that are supposedly looking at all these things, and then it comes out that it's Penn and Teller.
J: I heard after that incident they changed their name from BFO to BFD.
R: That's clever.
ZM: Yeah, actually, I've heard that there's a lot of people leaving that organization, because it's sort of becoming a "Let's go out and camp and find Bigfoot" type of thing, instead of a "Let's really investigate what's going on."
S: Surprise, surprise.
S: So, Zachary, before we run out of time, I want to get to some real immediate evolutionary topics, because we talk a lot on this podcast about the conflict between evolution and creationism, and occasionally we talk about some specifics, but because of the nature of your podcast, I really want to get to some meat with you. The first episodes of yours that I listened to were the series you did on the molecular evidence for evolution, which I thought was just excellent, because it really brought home what I feel to be the strongest, at least statistically, evidence for evolution. What do you think about that?
ZM: Right, absolutely, and those are my favorite ones to do, also. Those are actually the main reason why I really agreed to do the podcast in the first place, just because this is my favorite evidence, and I just wanted to get that out there, get it out there in the public, because nobody really knows about this. I mean, everybody knows, oh, fossils and whatever, but nobody really thinks to look at the DNA. My background is in molecular biology, so I'm dealing with DNA all the time, and ...
ZM: ... looking at these things, and so it made a lot of sense to me, so I wanted to get that sort of translated to the laypeople. And, basically, the way it works: when you look at the DNA evidence, you can look at two things. You can look at the coding regions of the genome and the non-coding regions, and the coding regions obviously are the genes, and ultimately what they produce, which are the proteins. And there's functional redundancy in the genes and also in proteins that they eventually make, and proteins are, basically, long chains of amino acids. There's twenty different amino acids, and different organizations of the different amino acids in the chain make different proteins. So in that way, function follows from structure. In a similar way, the DNA sequence is made up of four different nucleotides, and the amino acids sequence that follows from that DNA sequence is based on the three nucleotide codons, which make up the gene. And what's interesting is that there's, as I said, there's functional redundancy in the sequences of both proteins and the DNA in that you can have vastly different sequences of amino acid come up with the same, basically functional protein.
S: It will have the same three-dimensional structure, basically.
ZM: Essentially, because, yes, the structure — as I said, the function follows from the structure. So you can have a number of different amino acid sequences that give the same basic structures. It may not be exactly the same, but it's close enough to give that essential function, and you see this especially with what are called ubiquitous genes, such as Cytochrome C, which is a gene that's essential for cellular respiration, and you can, basically, swap out the yeast gene Cytochrome C for the human gene of Cytochrome C, and they work essentially the same. Even though the sequence, the amino acid sequences are very, very different. And, again, you see the very same phenomenon with the DNA. A number of different — because the codons are also redundant. So there are some codons that will — you can have different, as many as four different codons, in some cases as many as six, different codons give the exact same amino acid. So there's essentially incalculable ways, many incalculable ways that you can get the same amino acid sequence from DNA, the undelying DNA sequence. So you can basically write the gene millions and millions of different ways, because of the codon redundancy. Now, given all this, if heredity wasn't the case, if we didn't inherit our DNA from our parents and then from their parents and so on and so forth, if that was not the case, you would not expect to see different organisms with similar DNA sequences, because, as I said, so many different DNA sequences are functionally redundant, so there's enough redundancy in the sequences for every single organism to have a completely different gene and a completely different protein for every single gene in the genome. But that's not what we see. What we see is that the closer two organisms are in terms of their characteristics, the closer they are in their genes. So a dog and a cat have more similar genes to each other than to a frog, for example.
S: Right. I think it's important to emphasize, because the creationists will often counter that by saying "well, yeah, so God made more similar creatures to look more similar at a genetic level, too." But the thing that's important is that the differences in DNA sequences and the redundant code of the DNA have absolutely zero, zip, nothing to do with function.
ZM: Right, so that's ...
S: They are invisible to function.
ZM: Right, so it's completely unnecessary to postulate that.
ZM: Another criticism, as far as that goes, is that "Well, you know, maybe these things could've been created that way for some yet unknown reason." Well, that's just God of the gaps.
ZM: I'm sorry, but there's no reason to postulate that. If you have a naturalistic estimation for some phenomenon, you don't need to insert some sort of supernatural explanation for that.
S: Yeah, you can also look at it from the point of view that the theory of evolution predicts that we will see an evolutionary hereditary pattern of differences at the molecular genetic level, and that's exactly what we find.
S: So in a way, you can test evolutionary theory by observing the pattern, and evolution has been validated by corroborating evidence thousands and thousands and thousands of times over — every time you look at the genetic evidence it validates evolutionary theory.
S: And it's never been falsified with this evidence.
ZM: Right, and you can check any gene. All the genes are published on the Internet. I have several examples of genes that I put on my website that you can see where I've laid out the sequences from different organisms, and I construct a cladogram based on that. Every single one you see humans and chimpanzees more closely related to each other and everything else is falling at what would be predicted by evolutionary theory, and if anybody out there has gene that they like me to do that for, I'm more than willing to do that. So in case you'd like to try to disprove it, there's the challenge.
B: Zach, since this genetic information is so detailed and gives us such insight into evolutionary history, I mean, what else have we learned? I mean, have we found any connections between species or things that say "Oh, wow! We didn't realize they were — they had such a close genetic history," or there must be some insight. So maybe the science is too young to really determine that at this point.
ZM: No, there's some weird relationships that we've been able to determine based on genetic information, like bats are probably, outside of primates, are the most closely related to humans. Another weird one is cetaceans — whales and dolphins and porpoises — are actually part of the Artiodactyla clade. They're not there own separate clade. They evolved from the ungulates, basically, cows and deer and stuff like that. The closest related species to them is the hippopotamus.
S: Let's talk a little bit about transitional fossils, as the other main body of evidence, and, again, I think that the real strength of evolutionary theory is that all these different, independent lines of evidence line up quite nicely.
S: Even in many cases down to very fine detail, but the thing that always amazes me is the number of times creationists or evolution deniers repeat the claim that there are no transitional fossils, which is always mind-boggling, because that's a factually demonstrably wrong statement.
S: What I find that they do is that they just redefine or define away what is a transitional species to make them not exist. On a recent podcast of yours you talked about that and put it in an excellent context. What do we really mean by transitional species?
ZM: Right, well the problem is every species is a transitional species.
ZM: Aside from that, there are a number of really good — yeah, that's kind of what you have to — and I haven't really had any debates on this myself, but really what it comes down to is definitions.
S: Hm, hm.
ZM: What do you accept as a transitional species? And usually it's something that has — they might waffle on this — but something that shows characteristics of one defined group, and they're sort of hard to pin down, even on what constitutes a group or a classification ...
S: Hm, hm.
ZM: ... and characteristics of another. And there are so many — I mean Tiktaalik was ...
ZM: ... excellent.
S: The walking fish, yeah.
ZM: It had distinctly fish characteristics; it had tetrapod characteristics; and it had a number of characteristics that were intermediary between the two. So, I mean, it's just — you couldn't ask for a better example.
S: Right, and what they will say, like if you read Duane Gish and a lot of the other, you know, Hovind and some of the classic creationist arguments, ...
ZM: Hm, hm.
S: ... is they'll either try to say that a so-called transitional species is really one or the other. "Well, that's just a fish." And Homo Erectus: "That was just an ape." And Archaeopteryx: "Well, that was just a bird." They just try to peg it as one, and they just ignore all of the intermediary features. The other thing they say, if you peg them on that, they'll say "Well, you can't prove that that was actually evolutionarily transitional between these two groups. It just happens to be a bird with teeth and a bony tail, and so God made birds that look like that. That doesn't prove that it's actually transitional." So, again, they just change the criteria for what is a transitional species, so that no matter what evidence you put before them, it's not enough.
ZM: Yeah, and that's also absolutely not true. You can graph, especially with the hominids, you can graph certain characteristics of fossils over time and see definite change between these different groups.
S: Yeah, of course you can.
ZM: I mean, it's so obvious.
S: Yeah, but then what they'll do is they'll take the half that looks more ...
ZM: Right, just arbitrary cut-off point.
S: ... like an ape and say those are just apes, and the half that looks more human and say "Those are just diseased humans." And voilà, they've dismissed the very nice sequence of fossils that clearly shows change over time in the hominid line. But that's why there's no winning with them.
S: Recently, again talking about how the ID'ers or creationists deal with this overwhelming evidence. There is actually a podcast out there called ID, The Future, that the Discovery Institute puts out, and recently one of their hosts made the statement that — I know this is part of the intelligent design big tent, where they accept quite a range of views of evolution denial.
S: But one thing that some of them say is that okay, well, they accept that change over time occurs, and they accept common descent, that creatures are, in fact, related to each other and that they've changed over time, which happily accommodates all of the evidence that we've discussed so far.
S: All of the molecular evidence, all the transitional fossil evidence, etc. So what they're left with is that they say they only have a problem with natural selection, by which they mean that natural processes or forces could have resulted in or caused this change to occur over time. So what they think happens is that God, this intrinsic divine force from God is making evolution happen over time. This sort of ongoing creation, which ...
B: Oh, my God! That's their new position now?
S: That is the position of some of the ...
B: Oh, jeez!
S: ... IDers. Which of course is less difficult to disprove, because it accommodates most of the evidence that we put forward for evolution.
J: That's still magical thinking, though.
S: It's still, but what it gets down to, and that gets down to all they're really left with is irreducible complexity. Because that's the only thing they have that says that the natural explanations don't work, and therefore you need to introduce the intelligent designer. You've, again, on a recent one of your podcasts, you've spoken about irreducible complexity.
ZM: Yeah, they don't even have irreducible complexity anymore. I think that was pretty much blasted at Dover.
S: Oh, yeah.
ZM: So Behe was kind of put his place on that aspect. So I really don't even think they have that any more.
S: Well, they don't. They don't, but that's what they're clinging to, though.
B: If that's where they're heading, Steve, if that's like the future of ID, that's quite a victory for science, I would think. If they actually concede all that, and there is general agreement that they all concede that. I'm sure it's minority now, but maybe in twenty years that's going to be the dominant position of the other side, and still, of course, they'll be clinging to their magical thinking, but still that could be considered, I think, a victory.
S: Well, what I think is that is the thin edge of the wedge, right? Once you — it doesn't matter to what degree — once you introduce God into science, they've won. That's their goal: is to introduce supernaturalism, God into science at any level, even if it's just to say that "Well, this complexity was too much for natural forces alone to explain," and once they're in, they intend nothing less than completely dismantling naturalistic, materialistic science as we know it.
S: So I wouldn't get complacent about that.
B: No, absolutely not. Never get complacent, but still, I'm kind of happy about that we've actually won a little battle there. If that's the direction it's going.
R: Yeah, it's kind of you're pushing the wedge back out just a little bit, so, small victory.
ZM: Hopefully it dilutes the impact of evolutionary theory that maybe they'll just sort of get tired and just — it will be diluted to the point where they can learn it, be comfortable with being taught in the science classroom, and then the Christian students out there can just go home and think themselves "Okay that's all true, and way back along the line somewhere there's God."
S: I do think that when you teach people science, even if you don't specifically try to take away their supernatural beliefs, whatever they are, that if you really do a good job of teaching of science, over time the supernatural beliefs tend to wane and tend to go away.
R: Yeah, you see, creationists aren't the only ones with a wedge.
S: Well, Zach, do you see yourself during the Evolution 101 podcast for a long period of time? What are your long-term plans?
ZM: Yeah, I'm still loving it, so, yeah. I'm going to be doing it for as long as people keep sending me questions.
S: I think the Internet is the biggest classroom ...
S: ... that we have, and that's for people like you and me who just like to teach, which is why else would anybody go into academia, to do research and to teach and make no money, right?
S: So it is very good to have the podcast and the Internet as, basically, as a classroom, and at the other end, I think the public is well-served to have people who are interested in and motivated to teach science to put their thoughts out there. So it's a great thing, and your podcast definitely fills an excellent niche. There are nice crunchy bits of knowledge about evolution, and it definitely fills a need.
ZM: I would agree with that, and I recently went back — I grew up in Ohio — and I went back and I checked the Ohio science standards, and they may have changed since then. I was actually kind of worried because of the stuff that was going on in Ohio, but the official science standards have at least a half a dozen pretty good lessons on evolution, and I was reading them, and I was really disappointed. I guess it's up to the schools to decide which lesson plans they incorporate, but I really missed out on those, and I really wish I would have gotten a little bit more of that.
S: Right, right. I think that what that means is that people who are interested in this topic need to educate themselves, which is basically what I did. I took some college-level courses, too, which were excellent, and that's why I think a lot of the excellent textbooks were out there, out there, by Dawkins, as you said, and Gould and others, but also now podcasts and the Internet like Talk Origins, which is a remarkable, excellent resource, are indispensable, because they basically, we have to fill the gap that's being left by the public school educational system.
ZM: Exactly, exactly, and I am — there's a definite response, and a lot of people have been very grateful for hearing my podcast. I do happen to be the number one Evolution podcast on iTunes right now.
ZM: Although, I am also the only evolution podcast on iTunes right now.
R: You know, you could have stopped right there, before you said that.
ZM: I know.
J: Steve, we're the number one skeptical podcast.
S: We are. We are the number one podcast dedicated to scientific skepticism.
ZM: And you're also the number one podcast that listeners of Evolution 101 also subscribe to.
R: All right.
S: Well, now that we're done patting either other on the back,
R: Go us! Yay!
S: Hey! Go us! Well, Zach, it was great talking with you. I enjoy the podcast. I hope to be able to listen to them far into the future.
R: Yeah, keep it up.
S: Thanks for agreeing to be on the Skeptics' Guide. I hope to have you back again sometime.
ZM: My pleasure. Anytime.
S: All right. Take care.
J: Yeah, take it easy.
R: Bye, Zach.
S: So that was Zachary Moore, Evolution 101. Excellent podcast.
S: I recommend you take a listen.
J: I think it's cool to have people on the show from another podcast, Steve.
S: Yeah, it is. It's good to have some cross-promotion. And our listeners are clearly — people who listen to our show will probably want to listen to his and vice versa. Well, we have time for a Science or Fiction.
Science or Fiction (1:07:16)
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine, and one is fake, and I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to figure out which one is fake. Are you ready?
R: Ah, ready. Yeah.
S: Item number one: a new study finds that in general people become progressively less happy as they get older. Item number two: astronomers have discovered a giant intergalactic ball of hot gas a hundred million degrees and 3 million light years in diameter. Item number three: robotics scientists have developed artificial sensors able to give robots touch sensation so discriminating they can discern Lincoln's image on a penny. Evan, go ahead.
E: Say number one is fiction, so there you have it. For any reason in particular? Less happy as you get older. I don't know. That's just not — I just don't ...
S: You could also say that people get more grumpy as they get older.
E: Yeah, I wouldn't necessarily think that that's the case either on that one. I don't know. I think that one just has a certain flexibility to it that would allow it to be the one that is wrong. Whereas a giant ball of gas 3 million light years? Sure that's big, but plausible as far as I can think. And artificial sensors for robots to detect Lincoln's face in a penny? Sure, absolutely, why not? I don't see anything wrong with that.
S: Alrighty. Jay?
J: I think — the first one is one of those I really think it's true. I don't really know anyone, any older people that are extremely happy. They're usually in pain and arthritis and all that. It just seems kind of hokey that of all the three this seems to be the one that you want to — you think we're all going to pick, but I think it's number two. I think number two is false.
S: Okay. Rebecca?
R: Number one. People get happier as they get older.
S: Okay, Bob?
R: It's just true. Sorry.
B: What about grumpy old men?
R: Sorry, Jay.
B: All right, Steve, tell me about your gas, again.
J: Usually after I eat meatballs. Oh, God!
S: It's a ball of gas about a hundred million degrees. That's hot. And it's 3 million light years across.
B: Alright, so, less happy? That sounds plausible. I've met plenty of grumpy old men, and I plan on being less happy when I get older, because I'm just going to be ...
J: Less happy.
B: ... old and aching and ...
R: Well, everybody needs goals.
B: Yeah. That's mine.
E: You are the senior member here, Bob.
B: Yeah, I'm old. Thanks for pointing that out. So that seems plausible to me. That wouldn't surprise me either way, but I don't think that's the least plausible today. Third: the touch sensation. I did read about that, so that's correct. Two is absolute crap. A hundred million degrees that's 3 million light years wide. That's thirty times the size of our galaxy, yet hotter than the sun. Eh, eh. No way.
R: And that's that!
B: I can't imagine.
R: I don't think you have to go futher. Steve, you don't even have to tell us the answer, because there we go.
S: Well, you all agree that number three is true. That, in fact, we've developed touch sensation for robots that is extremely discriminating, and that is, in fact, true. You all got that right. Some of you had read it. It has been around for a few days in the news. This actually — the pictures they have of the kind of data they can get is actually quite impressive. They can actually read a lot of the fine detail in like the engraving of Lincoln on the pennies. The device is a film roughly 100 nanometers thick. Within it lie alternating layers of nanoparticles of gold and cadmium sulfide, separated by films of polymer, and then there's basically electrical charges that enable it to read tactile information. So one step closer to humaniform robots.
S: Let's go next to item number one. A new study finds that in general people become progressively less happy or more grumpy as they get older. That is — shall I give you a drum roll?
S: That is fiction! That is fiction. That means that Rebecca and Evan are correct this week.
E: High-five. Right there.
R: Again! Yeah. All right!
S: So, in fact, what the study shows is that people get happier as they get older.
E: I know I do.
S: In general, people actually get happier as they get older. But what's also very interesting about this study is that whereas most people rate their own happiness higher when they're older than when they're younger, they think that other people are grumpier or unhappy as they get older. They also think that younger people are happier, and they remember themselves being happier when they were younger. So everyone thinks that their current state of being happy when they're older is the exception to the rule, but actually enough people say that that actually is the rule, not the exception.
J: Steve, is this happening because of some atrophy in the brain?
S: That's a good question.
E: Your brain is the king. You don't realize that you should be disappointed with growing older. Instead, you're happy.
R: Hey, ignorance is bliss.
S: Our brains do atrophy when we get older, including our frontal lobes, and some people lose their anxiety as they get — and we're talking like older than seventy or eighty or something. It's certainly possible. This study was performed by VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and University of Michigan researchers involving 540 adults who were either between the ages of 21 and 40 or over 60. This was published recently in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
E: The Journal of Happiness Studies.
B: Whatever. Get to two. How could you possibly justify two.
E: Go, Bob. Go for it.
S: You know, obviously this was the one that I read like this is totally unbelievable, so why would be a good true one to throw in there.
B: You must have got a figure wrong. 3 million light years? A 100 million degrees? Come on!
S: I triple-checked it.
B: Justify it!
S: I have the link. This is from the European space agency. This comes from the ESA's XNM Newton X-ray satellite. A team of international scientists found a — they call it a commet-like ball of gas — I don't know why they say that — over a thousand million times the mass of the sun hurtling through it to a distant galaxy cluster at over 750 kilometers per second. They say that the size and velocity of this gas ball is "truly fantastic" says Dr. Alexis Finoguenov, who is an assistant professor of physics at the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, and here are the figures: The gas ball is about 3 million light years across or about 5000 million times the size of our solar system.
R: That's pretty big.
S: There are actually galaxies inside this ball of gas.
J: What becomes of it, Steve?
S: What's that?
B: You said it's a 100 million degrees.
J: Wait, you just said that there's galaxies inside of it.
S: That's right. Hey, it's 3 million light years across. That's much bigger than our own galaxy.
J: Wait, I'm sorry. I pictured this as like a blazing fire ball.
B: Jay, he said 3 million light years across.
J: I know, but Bob, the way he described it I pictured it as like a gigantic sun.
B: Well, yeah, because it makes no sense.
S: Well, it's not very dense.
J: Oh, you suck. That was — you know what?
E: Speaking of very dense.
R: Wow! And zing!
J: You described it, Steve, as a sun, like this is gigantic on fire.
S: Jay, I gave you the numbers. I told you the temperature and the size.
B: Steve, how do — how do they justify ...
R: How do you justify those facts?
B: It's a hundred million degrees.
E: Well it's farenheit, celsius, or kelvin.
S: It says "it contains hundreds of galaxies and great amounts of hot gas that is nearly 100 million degrees."
J: I'm going to tell you right now, Steve, that there's a lot of angry listeners out there along with me that are very upset about number two.
S: I've got the link, dude. It's very surprising. They also think that this feeds the formation of entire galaxies, the matter in this gas.
E: That is one heck of a flatulence right there.
J: That's awesome. That is awesome.
R: Hm. That's a lot of beans.
S: Apparently Rebecca and Evan had no problem believing in the 300 ...
R: Not at all. That's because I have no concept of temperature or space.
B: So you're saying your ignorance helped you out.
R: Yes, that's what I'm saying.
S: Bob got into trouble because he actually knew enough to realize how absolutely incredible this finding is.
J: Anyway (unintelligible)
S: All right, guys. Thanks again for another good show.
R: Thanks, Steve.
J: Thanks, Steve.
S: Always a pleasure.
J: Stumped me again.
R: Good times.
S: Until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society. For information on this and other podcasts, please visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the 'contact us' page on our website, or you can send us an email to 'info @ theskepticsguide.org'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.