SGU Episode 502

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SGU Episode 502
February 21st 2015
2-SGU15 logo 200x200.jpg
SGU 501 SGU 503
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JD: Jennifer Dixon
Quote of the Week
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
Richard Feynman, from the Rogers Commission report (Challenger explosion)
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Jennifer Dixon introduced

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

S: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 18th, 2015, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys,

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Good evening, folks!

S: and we have a special guest rogue this week, Jennifer Dixon. Jennifer, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

JD: Thanks for having me!

S: So, Jennifer, tell us a little bit about yourself.

JD: Oh, that's a big start. So I'm a huge nerd, but my claim to fame, I guess, is that I gave up a career as a computer programmer, to actually go back to school to get a graduate degree in evolutionary biology. So, I'm one of those weird, older students who makes no money, and is doing awesome science.

S: It's good to have a little life experience under your belt, and then go back to school. I think they make excellent students, actually.

JD: Yeah, I think those of us who've kind of been around for a while, and figured out what our passion is, do better anyway. But it's kind of like climbing uphill. You're always catching up with people who have been in the field for a long time. But beyond being a scientist, I also do a little bit of writing. I just had an essay published in Chicks Dig Gaming.

S: I wrote my essay.

J: (Laughs) Thank you, Steve.

B: (Groans) Oh my god. Oh my god.

E: Nice! That ...

J: Sorry, that was a South Park.

JD: (Groaning) Oh!

J: Go ahead, go ahead, continue.

JD: No, that's cool.

(Bob chuckles)

JD: So yeah, I was a bit of a bad ass in Eve, for a while, took on some corporations. So I did a little bit of writing about that. And I'm working on a book called Botanical Voyeur: A Guide to Sex on the Prairie. Some I'm kind of a nerd of all trades.

E: Yeah

S: And you did a podcast for a while.

JD: I did, actually! With my good friend Kevin Weiser, we started The Walking Eye, which was an indie gaming podcast. We ran for about six years total. I was on there for about four before I started my graduate degree. And at that point, I kind of a guest on occasion. So, yeah, we won a couple awards. It was a good time.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (1:59)[edit]

  • Katherine Johnson: Space scientist and mathematician for NASA calculated the flight trajectory for the first American in space.

S: All right, well, Bob, you have another instalment of Forgotten Superheroes of Science this week.

B: Yeah, so, for this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm going to talk about Katherine Johnson. She is a space scientist and mathematician for NASA, and calculated the flight trajectory for the first American in space.

S: Wait a minute, is she still kicking?

B: She's ninety-five last I heard.

S: Wow!

JD: Hooph!

B: Have you guys heard of her?

JD: I have.

B: Probably not!

(Jennifer laughs)

B: Really? Oh, that's awesome. Katherine Johnson was born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She started work in 1953 at the predecessor of NASA called, guys, what was it called?



B: Nah, NASA Jr.

(Evan says something inaudible)

B: No, NACA - N-A-C-A, the National

E: That's right

B: Advisory Committee for Aeronautics.

J: Very cool!

B: Yeah, she was, when I first read that, I was like, "Is that a typo? What the hell is that?"


B: I had to look that one up. So, she and another woman, worked on problems that engineers gave them. She called her group "Computers Who Wear Skirts." She stood out though, by her intense curiosity, always asking the why's and the how's, and even the why-nots, which nobody really had ever done before. They've essentially just did what they were told without

S: Question

B: back and forth at all.

S: Yeah

B: So, likewise, no women had ever attended the meetings and the briefings that they would hold. But she went anyway, because she said, "Do you guys, is there a law against it?" And they said, "No, there's no laws." She just started going. And she said, "I'm contributing. I should be able to go." And she did.

She became so invaluable that she became among the first women to be pulled from that calculating pool of women to work on other programs like the Flight Research Team, which was one hundred percent males up until that point. This led her to perform calculations for the first American in orbit, Allan Sheppard, and even for the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo mission to the Moon, which is pretty impressive.

S: Bob, that reminds me of Dune. Remember in Dune, so in Dune universe, there's no computer.

B: Right

S: So they had to have rooms of people

B: Yes

S: doing calculations.

B: Yeah, which always struck me as odd, because it would take a thousand people a millennia just to do some basic stuff that a supercomputer can do in a nanosecond.


B: But that's beside the point. So, earlier though, back, talking about computers, earlier, when computers were beginning to be used more often, they would actually bring her the calculations to verify their accuracy, because she was known for being

J: Awesome!

B: She was known for being incredibly accurate. And they didn't have the confidence really wasn't there, especially for that type of application in those years. Later, she worked with computers herself, and it is thought that she may have perhaps instilled confidence in the use of computers at that time, in those early days.

So Katherine was an incredible pioneer, and I wanted to talk about her, especially since this is Black History Month, and, so, I'll end by saying, remember Katherine Johnson guys; mention her to your friends, perhaps when you're discussing vector sums to determine hyperbolic excess velocity, or something like that. And remember what she did.

S: Yeah, I was reading some accounts of her. So, she reports in an interview that she likes to count things. She's always liked to count things.

B: Since she was a kid, yep.

S: Yeah, she still likes to count things. And things all need to be very parallel.

B: Yes!

S: So

B: Straightening pictures and things on the wall. Hey, being anal like that is good in a lot of ways.

J: Whoa! What did we say!


B: Jay, we could use that word in that context.

JD: Yeah, you gotta wonder where that came from. Like, is it because people were so nervous and excited that they were just clenching for a long period of time, and that's why they decided to call them anal?

B: No, it's Freud. Anal retentive, right?

S: Yeah, yeah yeah. Then it gets shortened to anal, and people forget the retentive part.

J: I still don't get it. I don't know. I wouldn't have picked those words. Whatever.

News Items[edit]

Mammals vs Dinosaurs (5:45)[edit]

S: All right, so,

E: You might not.

S: Jennifer, you're gonna talk to us about the reporting of a recent news item, about the evolution of mammals and dinosaurs.

JD: Yep. I figure, if anyone can appreciate my rant on bad reporting, and how much I hate creationists, it's you guys who appreciate it. So, did you guys see the news article that came out about the new ancestral mammals that pushes evolution of mammals back to like, a hundred and sixty million years?

S: Yeah, they kicked dinosaur ass.

E: Yes!

JD: Actually, that's one of the titles that really got me pissed off.

S: Yeah

JD: It's Meet the Furry Jurassic Critters That Outwitted the Dinosaurs. And there's a whole bunch of other titles that are kind of along that, like, Our Precursors Were Tree-Dwelling, and Subterranean Moles. You know, stuff like that.

And so I read this article. It's on the surface, it's a great article, right? I mean, what do you guys think about the fact that we've got these really great skeletons that go back a hundred and sixty million years?

J: It's always cool.

JD: Right

E: Fantastic

S: I love how though, whenever they find any ancestor of anything in the vertebrate line, or even, anything in any clade that ultimately led to humans, or that humans belong to, they always call it a human ancestor.

JD: Um hmm

S: You know, they might as well call it a camel ancestor, or

(Bob laughs hard)

S: A fish

JD: A whale

S: ancestor.

E: Right? Any other, yeah, tons of things as it's related

S: But it makes it sound like it's specifically a human ancestor, but no, it's the ancestor of everything with a back bone, or whatever.

JD: Exactly. Yeah, and that's, my real beef with this comes because in 2014, so last year, there was another paper that was published in science that actually claimed that they were going to reclassify one of these early ancestors to mammals, which are called mammaliaforms, that they actually wanted to put these into the mamal clade as well.

And that paper has been largely ignored in most of the community, and even the papers that came out this week in Science don't refer to them as mammals. And so, to kind of clarify things for you guys, we have what's called crown mammals, which are all the living mammals, right? Things with

B: Crown

JD: placentals. Crown mammals, like a crown head.

B: Huh! I never heard of that. Interesting. Okay.

JD: Yeah. Um, and so that, crown mammals are like, what's living right now. And there's things that we can prove are mammals based on what's called sanapamorphies, which are shared traits for those organisms.

S: Now, to clarify though, those are currently extant mammalian group. So, you could still be a crown mammal, even if you're extinct, as long as your group is still around.

JD: Right, exactly.

S: Yeah, so caligapheres are crown mammals.

JD: Exactly

B: Well, obviously.

S: Yeah, yeah.


S: Just to clarify.

E: Any idiot can know that.

JD: Yeah, geez. Oh, and I should clarify as I'm talking about this. I'm specifically a botanist, and a pollenologist. I study pollen. So, animals are a little outside my wheelhouse, but evolution is really what I focus on. And so, I might mispronounce a couple of these family names.

S: Nobody will notice.

JD: Oh yeah


E: (Inaudible) care of that. We never mispronounce things.

JD: With these ancestral mammals, we've got the crown mammals, which are the living things. And then we have what's called mammaliaforms, which includes all of the living groups that we have, the crown mammals, plus all of the most closely related extinct mammal-like organisms. And so, what you end up with is your kind of reptile-like mammals, those are all in that group goes all the way back to like, the Triassic. So it's kind of what we're looking at.

So, this paper really kind of beefed me off because you're implying for the general reader that what we found is something that is ancestral to humans, ancestral to us, when in fact, it's not even related to us beyond the fact that a long, long time ago, we shared a common ancestor that split off, and went a different direction. And we came down another path. And so we're not really that closely related. They're more closely related to like, platypuses, or platypii? What's the plural for platypus? Who knows?

J: Platypuses is the plural, no?

JD: Is it? Platypuses? I don't know.

E: Oh gosh.

JD: It sounds dirty. Platypuses. Anyway,


JD: Um, but yeah, so I decided to dig into this a little bit. And so what I found is that this group of animals called docudongs, before, when we first started classifying these, we were only classifying them based off of teeth that we found, because one of the things that we use to identify mammals besides the fact like, hair, that they have placenta, that they have mammory glands, is a particular type of teeth, like they have milk teeth, you know how you have one set of teeth, and those fall out. And then you have, like, your permanent set of teeth.

S: Platypuses.

JD: Platypuses.


J: Thank you!

JD: That is the correct plural.

J: I instinctively know science. Thank you!

E: Well, what about, I'm looking at platypii right here.

JD: Check your sources!

J: That's a delicious meal, Evan. That's not a plural, that's a meal.

JD: And that's actually kind of the point of this, is some sources, when they're talking about science are wrong. Or at least they generalize things. Because if we're talking about taxonomy, you have to realize that when we're looking at these kind of evolutionary pathways, and we're referring to things as our ancestors, we're talking about periods in time, right?

And defining a particular species doesn't really have anything to do, when we're talking about morphological similarities, with the evolutionary history. And the reason that there's a little bit of confusion there is that scientists, when we're talking about evolution to the general populace, we're generally talking about one particular type of species concept, which is called the biological species concept. And that concept - does anyone know what that is?

S: The idea about, you know, a species is anything that is actively sharing genes, populations are actively exchanging genetic material.

JD: Yeah, that's pretty close. I mean, basically, if it can breed, it's a species. And so, if they have a way of recognizing each other, they can have sex with each other, and then have viable offspring.

B: Yes, right.

JD: That's considered a species.

S: So, hang on, but I want to clarify that, 'cause I've read that you have to expand the definition a little bit, because it's possible for example, like, two breeds of dog may be unable to breed directly with each other 'cause of size differences, but they can indirectly share genes with each other, so they're still part of the same species. So, as long as there's any way to get genetic material from one animal to the other, they're the same species, even if they can't directly breed with each other.

JD: Yeah, and that is absolutely part of a species concept, the definition of species.

S: Okay

JD: The point is, is there's actually twenty-six or so very different ways of classifying what a particular species is. Some of those use DNA analysis. Some of them use solely morphological analysis. And some of them use, like, cladistic approaches. But when we talk to the general populace, we're generally talking about the biological classification.

S: I gotcha.

JD: Yeah, so what this paper, for example, what they're doing is they're comparing morphology, which is very specifically the phoenetic morphological species concept, which is, they're looking at similarities in the structures, because they don't know anything about the living species. And so, when you try to actually put that within the living mammals, for example, you are lacking information, like, you don't know if it had mammory glands, because we didn't have any tissue remaining.

We can tell things about the jaw, or the teeth that gets us close to mammaliaforms, but it's not enough information to verify, either with genetics, or with any of the things we see in living organisms. We can't verify enough to actually put them into mammals, proper. Do that make sense?

E: Mm hmm

S: Mm hmm

JD: Yeah

E: Right. If the tissue doesn't survive, you can't know for sure.

JD: Exactly, yep. And so, I guess the biggest thing that I wanted to stress is that I start looking at all these click-baity science articles, and on one hand, I used to be really excited. I'm like, "Oh! I love all these -" I won't call any specific out Facebook pages that are like "Science is Awesome," right? But if you look at them, they almost always get something wrong, and it took me a considerable amount of time to dig out the truth of this.

And it's this type of kind of generalization or miscommunication that gives creationists a little bit of ammunition

S: Oh, absolutely.

JD: when they're, yeah, when they're actually fighting against real, good science.

S: Yeah, they'll often argue against mischaracterizations of the science in the popular press

JD: Exactly

S: as if that's the science.

JD: Yup

S: Yeah, I agree. I've seen that a lot.

JD: Yeah, like with this mammals one, the paper that came out in 2014 that's related to these docudongs that they found this year, they basically brought it down to the "kinds" discussion of like, "Oh, see, there's all this diversification of mammals way back in the Jurassic. And so obviously, all of these kinds always existed. It's just, they've gone extinct." And if people see these as "these are mammals, and they're all part of exactly the same line that leads back to some, the one, original organism, it's easier for them to believe it.

But if they understand the science, and how classification works, and how related organisms and clesiomorphic traits like ancestral traits work, it becomes a lot harder to fool them with these

S: Yeah

JD: kind of bullshit stories of how kinds and stuff work. 'Cause the real point of this, these papers are awesome! The point of these papers is that diversification happens. And we had organisms that were diversifying, and were changing their forms to match different niches way back in the Jurassic. And that is super-cool. That alone speaks to evolution, and it talks about how species work.

And so I don't want to lose that because people are thinking this is one solid line from humans back to, you know, mammalian-like

E: Right

JD: lizards.

S: Yeah, yeah, I think when a lot of the popular press talks about evolution, there is a bias in that they're looking back from what we know happened, right? So, yeah, it's like saying, "This was the evolution of people," but no, this was just local diversification. One branch happened to lead to mammals, which then diversified into all the mammals we see today. But they were not in the process of evolving into anything. They were just diversifying locally.

JD: Right

S: Right? So, yeah, so there's sort of a twenty-twenty hindsight bias that distorts our understanding of how evolution works. The other cool thing here is that these mammaliaforms, so ones that were not quite mammals yet, but they were half-way between reptiles and mammals, relaly, is one of the best documented evolutionary transitions between major groups

JD: Yep

S: that we have.

JD: Yeah!

S: We actually have fossils that document the evolution of the reptilian jaw to the mammalian ear.

JD: Yeah, well, what's even

E: Awesome!

JD: cooler than that - I don't mean to interrupt (giggles) is the teeth. So, we used to just find the teeth, and we made guesses about what these things look like, and what their form was, and where they belonged on the phylogeny, based on that. Now, we're finding the whole thing fossilized, the entire structure? We've basically verified the hypotheses that were made before, which is just proof, you know, this is how science works! We can make predictions. It's really exciting.

Scott Adams on Science (17:45)[edit]

S: Speaking of how science works, we're going to move on to the next item. Did any of you guys read Scott Adams who's the author of Dilbert, he wrote a blog post recently about science and nutrition. Any of you guys read it?

JD: Mm hmm.

J: I did yes.

E: Yeah. Stick to cartooning.

S: So it's one of those things, it rubbed me the wrong way enough so I wrote a blog post about it. So he basically says that, he opens up, "What's is science's biggest fail of all time? I nominate everything about diet and fitness." And then he goes on a pretty sustained rant about how "science", without really defining what he means by that, has systematically misinformed the public over the past 50 years. He has a list, he says,

I used to think fatty food made you fat. Now it seems the opposite is true. Eating lots of peanuts, avocados, and cheese, for example, probably decreases your appetite and keeps you thin.

I used to think vitamins had been thoroughly studied for their health trade-offs. They haven’t. The reason you take one multivitamin pill a day is marketing, not science.

I used to think the U.S. food pyramid was good science. In the past it was not, and I assume it is not now.

I used to think drinking one glass of alcohol a day is good for health, but now I think that idea is probably just a correlation found in studies.

S: And he goes on. I really thought it was a terrible article that systematically mischaracterised the history, how science works, how science is communicated. The whole time he essentially blames science, and he says people are justified in not trusting science because science has been so wrong, persistently wrong on the idea of nutrition. And then also he says that science was "cocky" and that when science is only half-way done with a topic it's still wrong and so it's not right until it's all the way right. So even when it's party-way done, it's going to be wrong right up until the point where it's completely done, basically.

E: Steve, these are all things we've heard in the past from people who are purely anti-science, pseudoscience.

S: Yup.

E: And just absolutely against the method of science itself.

JD: Well here's the deal...

E: It's nothing new, but it shows which camp he's in basically.

JD: If everything that I knew about those topics was solely based on reading the articles that I see online I'd have the same opinion as him. I mean that's how a lot of the information is presented to the general public online.

J: Right, so to describe what you're saying, like as an example, the press will pick up a study that is a very early study, as an example, right. So it's not fully cooked, there might be some good research in there or starting research to get somethign going, but it's not a conclusion, it's certainly not a body of work or 20 years of where you could say hey, OK look we've thoroughly tested this every which way, retested our premises and everything. So yes, that's why we keep reading news articles and then you're like, oh yeah a year later we found out that was complete nonsese because of this mistake they made or this mistake. So I agree with you, I can't blame the general public, if you're loosely following the science news you're going to see a lot of contradictions, a lot of changing of what the common beleif is, or at least what the latest and greatest information is.

S: Yeah. The problem is his bottom line characterisation is just completely misleading in my opinion. So the only thing he gets right is that there are a lot of popular misconceptions about diet and nutrition over the last 50 years. He's correct about that, but he blames, again, science, rather than putting the blame where it belongs. So part of the blame, in diet and nutrition, most of the blame in my opinion, sits in the lap of the self-help and diet industry. And there's an industry of books and diet plans that are essentially misinformation, that are disconnected from the actual science. But that's a huge industry. There's a lot of money in misinforming people about nutrition. I think a lot of it is in the lap of the supplement industry for the same reason. I think that a lot of it sits in the lap of the media for reporting preliminary studies, not putting studies into their proper context. Doing a bad job of science reporting. Now Adams mentions the media, but he calls the media "science's winged monkeys".

J: What the hell is he talking about?

E: Servants?

B: Oz, Wizard of Oz.

S: The media are the minions of science and so science still gets the fault for what the media is misreporting.

B: That's ridiculous.

J: Well wait, so is he saying there's a coordinated effort between science and the media? Because I have such an amazingly strong opposite opinion.

JD: Yeah.

S: Exactly.

E: He's treating science like, in the context of, like cranks treat big pharma or big food. Big science is out to get us, it's all a conspiracy and here's how they're doing it.

S: He's not saying it's a conspiracy, he's saying science is just cocky, and that they misrepresent preliminary findings that are ultimately wrong as if they're sure about them. He says this:

The pattern science serves up, thanks to its winged monkeys in the media, is something like this:

Step One: We are totally sure the answer is X.

Step Two: Oops. X is wrong. But Y is totally right. Trust us this time.

S: So that's completely wrong. That is not how science progresses. If you read the actual scientific literature, if you read interviews with scientists who are being responsible and reasonably trying to communicate findings, they never say anything like we're totally sure the answer is X. It's like, at this point in time, evidence suggests that X may be the answer. That's what you get.

JD: Right.

J: But Steve, it's important to note here that the vast majority of the articles that you read about new scientific findings are not written by the scientists, they're written by people who read, hopefully read the press release or read the journal entry and they're reporting on it. And they're sensationalising it, and they're coming up with provocative headlines.

S: There's two issues here, Jay. One is his characterisation of how science progresses, which is incorrect. Science isn't wrong until it's completely done with the question, then it finally gets it right. Science is always coming up with approximations of reality, and those approximations get progressively more detailed, or higher resolution. So it's like X may still be right but it's more complicated than we thought, we now have to modify X with this new information Y, and then that may even need to get further modified.

Now it is true that sometimes when you have to make actual bottom-line recommendations based on our current scientific understanding, you may make recommendations that are incorrect. That is true. So there's always a kernel of legitimacy here. It was true in the 70s and even into the 80s that the science suggested that dietary fat and cholesterol were a big problem and that you should really decrease total dietary fat, and then we learned, oh, no it's actually more important to adjust the ratio of HDL to LDL, so plant fats are good, animal fats are bad. And trans fats are bad, or whatever.

So we modified the knowledge and that did change our bottom-line recommendations. So that's I think a more correct and nuanced view of how science progresses. But the other issue here is the communication of the science to the public and there, we've reported on this quite a bit, I do think this is largely the fault of a scientifically illiterate and lazy media but we also know that the press offices of universities are hugely to blame, and scientists themselves need to be doing a better job of communicating to their press offices and communicating to the media. So there's blame everywhere along the line, but it's not entirely in the lap of scientists, I think it's 80% in the media and then 20% in the scientists and the press offices that are not managing the media properly.

B: That's being generous to the media I think.

E: I think so too, yeah.

JD: You have to realise how much pressure there is for scientists when they're publishing. There's a lot of scientists who I think would take some issue with how their particular article is referenced in the media but with a click-baity title and a link that goes to their actual publication, they get money based on that, or their particular publication can get money based on that. Or if they're not getting money in the very least they're gettin citations which makes them more likely to be able to get additional funding down the road. And so those scientists don't spend a lot of their time, not all scientists I should say, don't spend a lot of their time advertising their particular specialty or whatever their paper is. They're probably, some of them are going to be OK with the fact that there are click-baity titles heading to it just because it leads to more money down the road for research.

S: Yeah, it's complicated. What's interesting is that Scott Adams himself left a comment on my blog.

B: No way!

S: It's always nice, I love it when people I write about actually come and engage.

J: That is awesome, so...

E: I think he's going to add a new character soon, to Dilbert.

S: Yeah, yeah I wouldn't be surprised.

B: Are you sure it was him?

S: Yeah, yeah. So he, the comment was very defensive.

B: Oh yeah!?

S: And it was childish, to be honest with you.

E: Childish?

B: Really?

S: Yeah. He says:

It seems you have misunderstood the article entirely, perhaps intentionally.

B: Oh, nice opener.

S: And then he said:

Or are you just an outragist?

S: yeah, I'm an outragist.

B: (laughs).

J: I have not heard that.

B: That's the first time I've heard that term.

S: He just tried to say that I misunderstood his article, that all he was saying was that scientists were not communicating well to the public. Which is not true. So I replied outlining my specific criticisms that he seemed not to understand, blaming science for misinformation, calling the media the winged monkeys of science, the way he characterised the recommendations. First of all, he actually blamed the obesity and diabetes epidemic on science, which is ridiculous. If you read... I actually, for a separate article I have been looking up 1950s educational videos, these are wonderful, I love watching those old school...

E: You mean like those black and white reels which are like, hey kids, let's talk about...

S: Yeah, yeah they're wonderful.

J: Yeah, used to watch them at high school.

B: Yeah, the best breakfast is bacon and hash browns (laughs).

E: Steak and eggs.

S: No, but it's all correct information. I mean the stuff about diet is all very diet, eat your fruits and vegetables, I mean it's basically correct.

B: The big picture, right.

S: Yeah, the big picture is correct. It's when you drill down to nuances where the science gets more complicated and there are shifting recommendations over the years. But you can't say that the bottom-line recommendations of 50 years ago led to obesity and diabetes. That's ridiculous. And again, the documents are there to show that that is silly. So anyway, he has not responded to my response to him. Usually when people like that leave a comment it's a drive-by it's a one-off drive-by. They don't usually stay to engage but...

E: He left the field.

JD: It bums me out, I really liked him. Now, not so much.

J: You know I thought about it. I had plenty of time to think about this. You know, the guy is really good at being a comic cartoonist, right? He does a fantastic job, he's done it for a long time, I don't expect all celebrities to be pristine in their knowledge and understanding and have a nuanced understanding like we do, I think we have to just look at it like, yeah another celebrity or pseudo-celebrity that doesn't quite get it, I still appreciate his work, I'm not going to hate and do a ban on his work because I don't agree.

JD: Mmm yeah.

J: In a way I feel sorry for him to be honest with you. You know, he's trying, he's thinking, he's engaging, and I find that...

S: Well but Jay, if you read his articles, he has a history of being a provocative contrarian. Which whatever, you could say this is just for entertainment value or whatever, but it's of dubious value. And then, he could have engaged a little bit more maturely on my blog, to be honest with you.

E: I agree with that, yep.

S: Instead of being so defensive.

B: Jay, you're being too nice, he is so dead to me.


J: Dilbert is dead to you, man?

B: (laughs)

E: He's now Deadbert.

METI Controversy (30:53)[edit]

S: Evan, you're gonna tell us about METI - M-E-T-I.

E: So, the American for the Advancement of Science, they are an international, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people. Yes. And they hold an annual conference, which was just held a few days ago in San José. And this year's theme, there were the three I's: Innovation, Information, and Imaging. This is where it all took place.

There was a news briefing at that conference which focused on METI, which stands for Messaging to ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. Now, we've spoken many times before on the show about SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence. And SETI is a passive approach in seeking signals that are emanating from out in the cosmos, as we're looking for any sign of intelligent life that we can find.

But with METI, it becomes an active pursuit, in which we are looking to transmit or broadcast signals specifically to area which we think are highly probable, of all the places in the cosmos, that a sophisticated life form that's technologically advanced might be able to receive and understand our signals.

This was a, essentially a panel that consisted of, a couple people we're familiar with. Douglas Vachoch, who's the Director of Interstellar Messaging and Composition at the SETI Institute; David Brin - ever heard of David Brin? Author,

S: Um hmm

E: author of Futures Unlimited, San Diego.

S: I love David Brin.

E: Yes, David Brin is

S: The Uplift Wars were awesome.

E: Seth Shostak, we've spoken to him many times of the show. He's a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute. And David Grinspoon, who's a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute out of Tuscon. And each of these four panellists presented their viewpoints and opinions regarding actively transmitting messages into outer space.

And there was quite a variety of opinion going on amongst these people. Some people such as Seth were very much gung-ho about it, and they feel that, you know, there's no point in waiting. In fact, we should get going right away with crafting a message, and getting it out into space as far and directly as we possibly can with our technology.

But then there is the other side of the spectrum, which, I think David Brin held closely to, that says, "Look we gotta really think this through, and consider what are the risks of doing something like this, because it's probably not without risks. And the risk could be far greater than we even conceive." I mean, who knows? We could have a Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy kind of scenario (chuckles), coming along,

J: Yeah

E: which didn't work out to well for Earth.

J: I guess, the assumption by some people is that, you know, they're going to be beneign, friendly, welcoming - or the fact that the transmission would be picked up, like we would find an alien transmission, but you know, they can't fold space, or travel at the speed of light, then we're not gonna ever really encounter them. But, yeah, you know, I don't know, Ev. What do you think? 'Cause I would say, "Yeah, let's always be a little careful when it comes to like, alien species, even though none have been proven to exist." Why not be cautious?

S: I'm not worried.

JD: I'm not worried.

S: Everything is so far away, I think the probability of being invaded because aliens picked up on signals, I have other things to worry about.

B: It's ridiculous. And Evan, I totally agree, it did not work out well for the Earth, but it did work out very well for the hyperspace bypass.

E: You're right. Actually, it sure did. And where would we be today without that?

J: How are they trying to be careful though? Isn't that an important point to clarify?

S: By not doing it? By not sending specific signals out into space to attract aliens' attention?

JD: Basically, they want to be isolationists, and hide in the dark, and not say anything, so that no one knows we're hiding here.

B: Wait, wait, wait, but what about the signals that have been flying out at the speed of light already for decades? Wait, do they even address that? Did I miss something here?

E: Yeah, no, they did address that. The term is called "radio leakage," right? And it is something that Seth actually brought up during the course of it, essentially saying, "Hey, look, we're already doing this inadvertently." As he pointed out, he said, "I Love Lucy is about seventy light years into space already." But it's not a directed signal, it's not targeted at any of the systems that we're now aware about. So this would be a fine-tuned an directed message that I think with all their, with the technology that we have today, they're pretty confident they can get about a hundred light years out there, as far as a beam signal, direct signal, using what we have today.

So, you know, that does kind of limit, even a hundred light years is relatively far, but it's not, it's not even a drop in the bucket though, of the cosmos. So, yeah, why not? I'm in the camp saying, "Let's do it!" And I mean, it would be amazing if somehow we were able to get either some kind of response, or something. But I think it definitely should become part of the larger SETI tent, if you will.

JD: I mean, the thing is, is if I'm gonna die by a giant death ray, I'm totally cool with that, because in my dying moments, I get to think, "Hey, we weren't alone in the universe."

S: Um hmm

B: I totally agree. I welcome being obliterated by aliens.

JD: (Snickers) Absolutely.

J: Yeah, but what if they're like, nasty insect aliens.

JD: That'd be really cool for all the entymologists.

J: Yeah, but who, bleach! How many of 'em are there? And they'd probably kill them first anyway. But the point is

E: Because they know too much.


J: I'm not saying, like, let's be super-scared, and all that stuff. But at least let's talk about it. Let's weight the pluses and minuses, and you know what. I think I would tend to agree with you guys. If it meant zero communication or blocking all of our radio signals, but you know, at least come up with a protocol, and an agreed upon path for something like this.

S: The bottom line is, we have no way to do any kind of risk assessment, risk judgement, because we have no idea how many alien civilizations are out there, how far away the closest one is, even if we're aiming at them. Just the, you know, what the probability is of them having any, the technology to get here, the probability is of them being hostile. It's a complete unknown.

B: You're right. It's unknown, but if you gave it a really good guess, it would be completely negligable for hundreds

S: I would think,

B: upon hundreds,

S: I agree. Yeah.

B: tens of thousands of light years. Come on!

S: I agree. In fact, if they were close enough that we had to worry about it, I think sending out a deliberate signal is not gonna significantly alter our odds, you know, of running afowl of them. Yeah, so I just think it's, statistically, it's not something worth worrying about.

(Commercial at 37:51)

Anderson Cooper Takes Down Dan Burton (39:22)[edit]

S: Jay, I know you've seen this video of Anderson Cooper interviewing Dan Burton. Tell us about it.

J: Yeah, wow, this is great I absolutely loved it. So, recently, on CNN, Anderson Cooper indeed interviewed Dan Burton. Dan Burton is a former US Representative, and a tea party member. And what a fantastic job Anderson Cooper did. He immediately starts the interview questioning Burton's stance on vaccines. I mean, he comes right out of the gate swinging.

And Burton, you know, has been a long time supporter of the idea that vaccines cause Autism. I don't know if you guys were aware of that or not. He believes that the mercury in the vaccines is a key component to giving people autism. That it like, collects in the brain, and that's what's causing the neurological disorders. So, Anderson Cooper, he just did a near perfect job in the interview. Very few places he could have done a better job in there.

B: Awesome!

J: Yeah, oh, it was really impressive, Bob. He did a fantastic job. And he had that almost like Walter Cronkite, cold look on his face, like

B: Yeah

J: no emotion, you know, he's a Vulcan. He's just reporting the news. So,

B: He's so alive to me.


J: I decided, you need to hear it. I want to play a short snippet of the interview. Tell me what you think of this, guys.

DB: Three years, we had these hearings, and we did have those studies, and there's no question that many scientists around the world believe that the mercury in vaccinations is a contributing factor to neurological problems. Now listen, I'm for vaccinations. But we need to get the mercury out of all of them.

AC: Well, are you against breast feeding a child?

J: Here is comes.

DB: No, of course not!

AC: Okay, but you are aware that methyl mercury is actually in breast milk that's given to children, and in fact, the presence, if a child is only breast fed, they get more methyl mercury than they would ever have gotten in any of the vaccines. You're aware of that, right?

DB: Well, let me just say I'm not an expert on breast feeding.

AC: Which you hold hearings for three years, and nobody ever told you that there's mercury in breast milk?

(Laughter - from Dan Brown?)

DB: We never talked about that. What we talked about was the vaccinations.

E: We didn't get to that part!

DB: Vaccinations should not be there for adults or children.

AC: Sir, you're aware that the kind of mercury that was in vaccines, which is no longer there, is different than the kind of mercury you get from fish, correct?

DB: Let me just tell you,

AC: Are you aware of that?

(Laughter from a rogue)

DB: If you'll do your research, you'll find that any type of mercury injected into the human body can cause neurological problems.

AC: Know what kind of mercury's in fish?

J: Unmoved!

E: What, that's not the

J: Unmoved

E: point!

J: by

E: Oh gosh.

J: But, this is such a lesson in

E: Wow!

J: you know, when you look at the responses. Every response that Anderson Cooper had was based on science and the science literature. Every response that Burton had was anecdotal.

S: Yeah, I mean, it's not just that, Jay. The thing is, he says he has studies. And the anti-vaxxers will say, yes, there are studies. They will point to studies that show that mercury is toxic. But you see

E: So what?

S: he's building a case by giving partial information, and then hoping you're gonna make the inference he wants you to make. So, he says that mercury is toxic. That's true. Mercury can cause neurological disorders. That's true. Mercury shouldn't be in vaccines. Well, that's a little bit more problematic, but it certainly seems to flow from the previous statements.

But what he isn't saying, what Cooper's trying to fill in is like, "Well, there's different types of mercury. You know, ethyl mercury, that's in thimerosol is actually excreted by the body quickly. It doesn't build up in the tissues. It's not as toxic as methyl mercury, and it existed in extremely low doses that would not get to a toxic level. And clinical studies have shown no correlation between autism and any vaccines. And Cooper does go here, this is where, I think, Burton's case utterly collapses. In 2001, by 2002, mercury and thimerosol was removed from the routing childhood vaccine schedule. So, now

J: Vaccines, instances still went up.

S: Yeah, the autism incidence didn't change! Not a blip! It continued to rise as it had been without a change. We are now fifteen, fourteen years out, conservatively thirteen years out, and autism rates, they have to level off eventually, but maybe they're doing that now. But they, essentially over the last thirteen years, they continued to rise without any change.

Meanwhile, in 2001, the anti-vaxxers who believe that thimerosol was causing autism predicted that autism rates were going to plummet in the next few years. And their prediction was spectacularly wrong. And now Burton is trying to white wash over that whole thing. He actually said, "Oh, no, autism rates are levelling off," which is just wrong. So he just lied about the facts.

And then, even if it is levelling off, that's not what you would predict if thimerosol was causing autism. You would predict that the rates would plummet to their pre-1990 levels. But the increase is not due to vaccines. It's not due to mercury. It's due to changes in the diagnosis, and the pattern of diagnosing the disorder. That's it. It's an artifact of diagnostic patterns, and expanding the definition.

J: So more children are being diagnosed with autism, where thirty, forty years ago, they would have just been considered to have minor educational problems, or whatever

S: Yeah

J: but they weren't gonna be diagnosed.

S: So, diagnostic substitution going on, there would have been diagnosis having some non-specific neurological development disorder, or speech disorder, or whatever. But not autism. So, Cooper, I think, did a very good job of exposing the house of cards. And Dan Burton just kept returning to his talking point, even after they had been obliterated, even when Cooper already showed that he's essentially giving misinformation, or leaving out critical information that would put the information he's giving into context.

B: Also, Steve, I think Burton's replies, and what he said really betrayed, in my mind, the fact that he's been living in an echo chamber for years,

S: Yeah

B: because he did not know basic, basic stuff. He's been doing this for years, and he should have had the different types of mercury on the tip of his tongue, you know.

E: No, no, no.

JD: Yeah

B: He should have know that. He didn't necessarily need to know about the breast milk, per se. But the different types of mercury? That should have been,

J: How could that have gotten past him?

B: you know, 101!

J: After all those years,

B: Right

J: right?

B: Echo chamber, echo chamber.

J: Yeah, just, it's really a shame.

S: Yeah. If you eat tuna fish, you get exposed to more mercury than in the entire vaccine schedule at its peak. But now, the mercury's gone! You know,

J: I think mercury is delicious.


JD: Great way to start your morning.

S: Right

E: Cup of mercury.

J: Well, so, to summarize, I just thought that Cooper did a wonderful job. I commend him for the level of research, and his understanding. Yeah, it would have been nice if he pronounced thimerosol correctly, but I'll give him a pass on that.

E: Eh, give him a pass.

J: Over all, this is the type of journalism, or this level of journalism is what we should be applauding.

S: Yeah

J: And, you know, he deserves some real credit here, for what he did.

JD: I totally agree. I wish that I knew who his science advisor was. Like, how they actually prep him for this stuff. 'Cause I've liked him before, but this totally made me just fall in love with him.

DNA Barcoding of Herbal Supplements (46:57)[edit]

S: Jay, a couple week ago, you spoke about new actions against supplement producers for selling supplements that don't even have what's on the label in the bottle.

J: Yeah, their active ingredient isn't there, yup.

S: Yeah, the active ingredient isn't there. So, I want to do a quick follow up to that, because a scientific point came up in this discussion, what happened was that the, New York State was taking action against various companies like Target, for example, who were selling supplements. And they found that in a high percentage of cases, the active, the alleged active ingredient that was on the label wasn't even in the pills, that instead, it was filled with fillers like wheat.

But this was based upon the science they were using for this was DNA bar coding. So, using snippets of DNA that are unique to one species, and can very precisely tell you what plant species, for example you are dealing with. This is very useful, because they're, especially with herbal supplements, there are often several closely related plants, some of which may be toxic. So you don't want to have a closely related plant. You want to have the actual plant that's supposed to be the herb that does what it's being sold for.

So DNA bar coding can tell the difference not only between genko baloba and alfalfa, but closely related species that could be confused with genko baloba, or other herbs. Now, what I was interested in was the response of the supplement industry. Guess how they responded to this action?

B: They ignored it.

J: Oh yeah?!

(Evil laugh)

S: They said, they put out a press release. They said "These actions today by the New York State Attorney-General off a smack of self-serving publicity stunt under the guise of protecting public health." And what they accused them of relying upon bad science. They essentially said the DNA bar coding studies are not proper. They're not validated. That they can miss the active ingredient, and they can, that yes, there's, you know, all these things do have fillers in them, but they can't distinguish between a tiny amount of filler versus saying, you know, that this is what the whole thing is.

So, okay, so they were defending themselves with a scientific claim. The DNA bar coding has not been validated, and is not the proper way to tell what's in the bottle. They said they were essentially just denying the accusations, and saying that the quality control is just fine, and it's the DNA bar coding that is off.

So, okay. I sunk my teeth into that specific claim. It turns out that, you know, they're wrong. There are in fact, studies looking at DNA bar coding of herbal supplements. One study showed that in fact, they used known controls, right? So they knew what they were testing. And they found that the DNA bar coding was able to correctly identify herbs in the form that you would normally buy them in.

So, in other words, the process of drying and packaging the herbs did not destroy the DNA, and did not prevent the DNA bar coding from working. So, you know, again, there's always a sliver of truth in that, yes, this is a relatively new technology. It's true that the guy, the scientist they had doing the DNA bar coding isn't a specialist in plants. He's a specialist in DNA bar coding, but just not of plants. Apparently, it didn't matter, because the technique is valid.

The other thing is there's a tremendous amount of special pleading going on here. So, in special pleading, even when your point may be technically possible, it's the fact that you're invoking a series of unlikely scenarios in order to defend yourself. I can't prove that they're all wrong, it's just very unlikely. So, for example, in order for the supplement industry response to be correct, the process of making an herbal supplement would selectively destroy the DNA in their active ingredient only, but not in their fillers.


S: Why would that be? Why would it selectively destroy the DNA in ginko baloba, and not in wheat? Or alfalfa? That's special pleading! I can't prove that it doesn't do that, but that's special pleading to say that that's the case. And also, they did detect it in some of the herbal supplements. So like, I guess it works sometimes. Again, that's special pleading to say it would work sometimes, but not at other times. And also, they're saying that when it detect alfalfa, there was only a tiny amount of alfalfa in there as a filler. It wasn't replacing the active ingredient. But again, they have no way of demonstrating that.

So, what I do think should happen going forward, I do think there should be independent studies further validating the DNA bar coding technique, further investigating herbal supplements, you know, comparing it to other, like, gold standard techniques of looking at the constituents of the bottles, and also quantifying the amount of the substances that are in there. You know, dot every i, cross every t, sure. Do the follow up studies, absolutely. Do the replication. You know, answer the objections. I think it's an important enough question that we want to do that.

But the denial, the denial on the part of the supplement industry was special pleading, and ignored the fact that there are studies which in fact do show that this technique absolutely works for herbal supplements. So I was not impressed by their response.

JD: I should clarify for you, 'cause this is actually something I've been researching for a little while, is the DNA bar coding techniques. For the herbal supplements that they were looking at, they had a DNA bar code to work with. They had identified that particular, unique DNA sequence that they were looking at.

S: Yeah

JD: If these supplement companies knew exactly what molecule or secondary metabolite, or special metabolite was giving you this miraculous benefit of their supplement, we could test for that. But since they don't even know that, the best we can do is test for the plant that they're saying they're putting in there.

S: Yeah, exactly. They're not purifying or even identifying or quantifying an active ingredient.

JD: Yeah

S: And so, how could we test for that?

JD: 'Cause you know what happens when we identify what makes a particular plant work for us?

S: It becomes a drug!

JD: Exactly! Yeah

S: It's pharmaceutical!

JD: Willow trees, Willow bark

S: Yeah

JD: and aspirin, yeah. If we knew what the hell was doing something, or if it actually was doing something, we could come up with something useful and be able to actually create it in the lab. But we can't, because

S: Yeah

JD: there's nothing there.

S: We'd identify it, purify it.

E: Herb to drugs.

S: Test it. Yep.

Who's That Noisy (54:07)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: bearded seal

S: Okay, Jay, it's

J: Yes?

S: it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: Exactly. So, this was what, two weeks ago, Steve?

S: Yeah

E: Hell, yeah.

J: I played a very provocative noise for you. Now, I asked you guys to guess what it is, and a couple of people wrote in. Did anybody on the show guess it?

S: I have no idea.

J: Okay, I'll play the sound for you again.

(1950's "futuristic" Techno-wobbly noises combined with wind, all gradually getting lower in pitch)

S: It's the blariphon landing, on The Forbidden Planet.

JD: It's gotta be underwater.

E: It's the alien from that Brady Bunch episode, where Greg Brady was pretending there was an alien

S: The slide whistle?

E: That was, yeah, the slide whistle, thank you.

J: Somebody very intelligently said, "It's gotta be under water."

JD: Oh, it couldn't have been me. I don't say many intelligent things.

J: Why would you say that?

(Jennifer laughs)

JD: Wait, because it sounds like, first, I think I hear a whale song? I'm not a hundred percent sure. But then it sounds like a submarine, you know, kind of that reverberation noise that you get with submarines?

J: That was a fantastic point, you made. That actually is a bearded seal doing the courtship sound.

B: Whoa!

JD: Hot!

J: Bearded seals make those sounds. So,

E: Seals have beards?

J: I heard that, and of course, I'm thinking, "It sounds, god, like, what did that remind me of?" And then I'm like, "You know, it reminds me of that old sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet." And I went back, and I was listening to some sounds on Forbidden Planet, and now check this out!

(Steady low boo-o-o-o-p noise with occasional lower techno-whines and later a couple of whale-like sounds)

J: That's from Forbidden Planet. That's the Krell music.

B: Oh yeah.

S: Yeah

JD: Dude!

J: I really suspect that the musical composer of that music heard a bearded seal or some type of sea creature that makes similar noises.

E: Sure

J: It's too coincidental. I listened to quite a bit of the Krell music, and there are extraordinary similarities between the two.

B: Oh wow, good job, Jay.

JD: Super cool.

J: But anyway, so yeah, that was the bearded seal doing the courtship sound. He's basically, like, yelling into the ocean, "I'm here. I'm ready for hot sea sex. Just come at me."

(Jennifer laughs)

E: Bearded sea sex.

J: For this week, I came up with something, I'm sure some of you have heard it, but I find this phenomenon so interesting, I thought I would open it up to you guys, and to all the listeners. Take a listen to this.

(Constantly rising note for about fifteen seconds)

B: I know what that is.


J: I'm sure a lot of people will know, but I think it's interesting to talk about what it actually is. I'll give you one interesting tidbit of information. Here's my clue: Good luck. Take a guess on what you think that is. What's going on there? We'll talk about it next week.

S: Jay, by the way, on The Forbidden Planet, the sound effects are created by Beeb and Louis Baron. And apparently, those sound effects you played were created by an electronic circuit that they made, that they were able to manipulate in order to cause reverb and delay and whatever to create those sound effects. And apparently they burned out the circuit while making the sound effects for the movie, and were never able to recreate it exactly.

B: No. Way!

J: Wow!

B: Awesome!

E: Ah!

B: That's cool.

J: But what's even stranger is a bearded seal, like wrote in and sued them. And he's like, "You know

S: Yeah!

J: that's my jam, man!"


E: Totally copyright violation.

S: That is amazing though, that bearded seal.

Dumbest Thing of the Week (58:28)[edit]

  • Dumbest statement of the week goes to the Food Babe: "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."

S: Jennifer, what was the Dumbest Thing You Heard this Week?

JD: Beyond Food Babe?

S: No, no! Whatever. Food Babe is acceptable, if that's your vote.

JD: I think Food Babe is like, the Stupidest Thing I've heard all week.

S: Yeah, Evan, you had a different vote, though, which I think is an honorable mention.

E: That's the Saudi cleric. This one's gone viral, of course.

JD: Oh!

E: Yes. Apparently the Earth does not rotate at all. It is in fact stationary.

S: No

E: And he gave an excellent, excellent example of how, if an airplane heading from Saudi Arabia to China were to suddenly stop in mid-air, the Earth would not catch up with it.

S: Yeah, he basically said, well we know it's not rotating because yeah, you could sort of just hover in the air, and the Earth would rotate underneath you, and you could travel around the world that way.

JD: So if I jump high enough,

S: Yeah

JD: and stay in the air long enough,

E: That's right. That's all

JD: Awesome

E: you have to do. That is all you have to do.

S: Yeah, yeah. Apparently not familiar with gravity and momentum and all that stuff.

E: Honorable mention for the

JD: Lies

E: Saudi cleric.

S: But the Food Babe's book is out, and you gotta love this pull-out quote. "There is just no acceptable level of any chemical to ingest, ever."

E: Except mercury.

S: Don't ingest any

JD: Right!

S: chemicals, people.

J: Yeah, so don't swallow your spit, folks.

S: Yeah

(Steve and Evan cross talk incomprensibly)

E: ... oh wait!

S: Sodium chloride, that's a chemical.

E: Oh! Damn it! Damn it! Now, let's, should we define chemical?

S: Well, she doesn't define chemical.

JD: She doesn't.

S: She apparently doesn't know what it means. Now, if you're being charitable, I think it's always a good idea to ask yourself, what would be the most charitable way to interpret what somebody said? Perhaps she's referring to synthetic chemicals, right? Or she just assumes that the word chemical refers to only synthetic chemicals.

Her statement is still nonsensical, because, you know, saying that there's no acceptable level is just wrong, because toxicity is all about dose.

B: Dose!

S: Everything, everything is toxic in high enough dose.

E: Water, water.

B: Water!

S: Yeah, and pretty much anything, in a tiny enough dose. I mean, the other thing is, you can never ensure a zero level of anything, you know. You can never say that our tolerance level is zero for anything that you can measure, 'cause you'll find it. Even if it's in one part per trillion, you'll find it. You have to set some limit. And that limit can be set by toxicity data. You know, usually what the FDA or other regulatory agencies do is measure toxicity levels in animals. They may be able to infer it in humans, or whatever.

They marshal the best data they have to figure out what the toxicity levels are, and then they say that the most that they will allow in whatever is, like, two or orders of magnitude lower than that. So they usually build in a buffer of about two orders of magnitude.

B: A hundred times, people!

S: Yeah, which means you would have to exceed the limit by a hundred times to get to the minimal toxic dose of something.

JD: When they define something as toxic, I assume they're not talking about death, necessarily? Just negative effects?

S: Yeah, that's right. They're not talking about the LD50, which is a, that's a specific test. The LD50 is the dose that is required to kill fifty percent of lab animals that are given whatever.

JD: Gotcha

B: Cool! I like that number!

S: Yeah

JD: Yeah


S: So that's one number that is used, the LD50, but that's not the minimum dose that causes any measurable toxicity, you know. So in any case, it's just naive, of chemistry, and science, you know, and biology, to say that there's no acceptable level. It's just ridiculous. And clearly, she doesn't understand what a chemical is. If you tried not to eat any chemicals, you would die.

JD: It makes me sad for humanity.

B: Yeah, that reminds me, somebody came up with a poster infographic that showed the chemicals in a banana, and the list was

S: Yeah

B: unending, and scary-sounding! I'm sure she would have nightmares if she read that.

Announcement (1:02:27)[edit]

  • NECSS with Bill Nye

S: Hey guys, I have really exciting news. Are you sitting down?

E: Oh my god, how

S: We booked our key note for NECSS, NECSS, New York City, April 9th to 12th will be key noted by Bill Nye the Science Guy!

B: Oh my god, how awesome!

E: Whoo! Yeah!

B: I'm looking forward to that.

E: All right!

JD: I've got shivers.


J: It gets better than that. So

S: It gets better.

J: Much better.

E: Wait, no.

J: Friday night, the SGU and George Hrab are doing the Extravaganza. And we contacted Bill's agent, and made the request, and Bill agreed to do the show with us. He's going to be on stage with us for two hours doing the entire Extravaganza.

B: Yes

J: That's the Friday night show.

S: He was excited to do it with us.

J: Yeah

JD: That is so cool!

J: Yeah, I think Bill remembered shooting video with us. Well, we've interviewed Bill many times, whatever. But we spent a lot of time with him at TAM last year. We shot some video up, and you're gonna see the video that we shot with him very soon, up on our YouTube channel. And I think he learned more about us. And I think that's why he agreed to do this. But no matter what made his mind

E: Or he forgot entirely, and decided to


E: It's one of the two.

J: Yeah, exactly, thank you Evan. No, but we can't be more excited to spend two hours with Bill, doing something fun, that the Extravaganza is a mish mash of lots of different things. But there's a lot of improv in there. We do a lot of science and skepticism oriented content, different types of bits, and all that stuff. It's just one thing after another. It moves very quickly. There's a quiz show, it's a lot of fun. And the fact that Bill's gonna do it with us blows my mind. I'm so excited, I can't wait.

S: We always, each time we do the show, we tweak it, and we try to raise our game, and make it better. And now we're gonna do that with Bill Nye and my. We're gonna iterate the show, change some of the content, and now we can specifically do it to accommodate his presence. It's gonna be a ton of fun.

J: So go to, N-E-C-S-S dot O-R-G to sign up for the conference, for the workshops, and for the Extravaganza on Friday night. Just take a look at the different things we have to offer. I think you're gonna love the conference this year, guys. It's going to be awesome. And I'm dying for it to begin.

S: Okay, guys, well, let's go on to Science or Fiction

Science or Fiction (1:04:43)[edit]

(Science or Fiction music)

VO: It's time for Science or Fiction

(More music)

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. No theme this week, just three, I hope, interesting news items. Are you guys ready?

J: Yup, yes we are.

S: All right

E: Bob is.

S: Jennifer, you're ready

JD: Bring it.

S: for your first Science or Fiction?

JD: Let's do this!

S: Okay. Item #1: Scientists carefully mapping the activity of the brain during speech find that Broca’s area, long thought to be responsible for speech output, is inactive during actual speech.

Item #2: Recordings from the Van Allen probes indicate that solar shock waves can accelerate electrons in the Earth's radiation belts to greater than ninety-nine percent the speed of light, close to the speed of particles in the Large Hadron Collider.

And, Item #3: A recent study finds that women with mild knee osteoarthritis benefit from high impact jumping exercises without adverse effects on their knees.

S: Well, Jennifer, as our guest, you have the distinct privilege of going first.

JD: Ooh, I'm very honored.

S: You should be.

JD: (Deep breath) Let's see if we can break this down. So, the one for mapping the activity of the brain or Broca's area, I can understand it being responsible for speech output. I guess I could understand it maybe being inactive during actual speech, like maybe it's you use it to actually form what you're going to say, but then something else happens. I'm not sure. I wish I knew more about the brain. Huh. One's a tough one.

The one about the solar shock waves sounds really cool, and sounds plausible, but what the hell do they mean by solar shock waves? Like, are we talking about a particular, is there a definition for solar shock waves, that I can know?

S: There is. There's a very specific definition of solar shock waves.

JD: Okay

E: (Laughs) Welcome to Science or Fiction.

JD: Well, it's not going speed of light. Yeah, exactly. But they do mention the LHC, so I have to love that one anyway. The last one, about the mild knee osteoarthritis, high impact jumping exercises without impacting their knees. I don't know! That sounds like, really not cool. Like, if your knees are bad, maybe jumping is bad. So I'm gonna say that the one with the mild knee osteoarthritis benefiting from high impact jumping. I'm gonna say that that one is fiction.

S: Okay. Jay.

J: Yeah, the first one about Broca's area. Sayin' it's inactive during speech. I'm really shocked to hear that. I thought that we had ways of viewing the brain's activity during almost in real time. And, huh, that one is interesting. The second one about this Van Hallen probe. Now what, is this a lost album or something?

(Steve laughs)

E: Yeah! Jump! Oh wait, that's the third.

S: Um, so the solar shockwaves, and these freaking shock waves can accelerate electrons to almost the speed of light. I don't know why you'd be afraid of that Steve, and why you so scared of that?

(Steve chuckles)

J: All right, that's interesting. I mean, I'm thinking about it, and no red flags are going up. And this other one, this final one, about women that have the mild knee osteoarthritis, they benefit from high impact jumping exercises. I don't know, man. People with bad knees should not be doing high impact jumping of any kind. I mean, seriously, Steve. I have to take that one as the fiction.

S: Okay. So, Bob, you're coming off a double-fail last week.

B: Wait!


E: Oh ho ho ho!

B: Wait now.

S: Well, I'll add, along with everybody else.

(Evan or Jay makes strained groaning noises)

B: So, wait


B: So Jewie or Fiction is included as part of, is definitely included as part of Science or Fiction?

S: Well, you lost the regular Science or Fiction too, so it doesn't really matter.

B: Yeah, but is it really, sure it does. Double is a lot worse than a

S: We have, well, we'll put an asterisk next to it.

B: What are you offic- what have you done in the past? I'm actually very curious.

S: We have included it in our statistics in previous years.

B: Um, okay.

E: That will get

S: Hey, that means, I'm running zero percent, so, 'cause we all got swept by it last week.

B: (Sighs) Crap. All right.

S: All right, go ahead, you're next.

B: All right.

E: You almost got it right.

B: Osteoarthritis, you know, I think that's a tricky one, because, if you've got bad knees, general wear and tear, that type of thing

E: Ha! Trick knee.

B: then sure, I would say this makes no sense. But I think because osteoarthritis, it's not necessarily as bad as you would think. And, perhaps it has some weird reaction, where it actually lessens the pain. I could kinda, in a weird way, see that one making sense, because it's just too outrageous to be fiction, I think. I think that's a trick one.

The shock wave, the solar shock waves. Yeah, I mean, I can kind of see that. I do remember reading a long time ago, I mean it's not a current news item, but quite a while ago, reading about electrons being accelerated by the Sun in that way. I don't remember how fast, but I think that it could be plausible. It's not necessarily completely out there.

The Broca's area, though. That one is, you know, I'm just, I'm not buyin' that one, because even before we studied it, as you say, "carefully," carefully mapping that area, I think even before, maybe they were, you were talking about fMRI or whatever, I think we have a pretty good idea that it was used at some level during speech. Granted, there could be some subtle thing about it that, you know, it's used for speech, but not necessarily during speech. I betcha that wouldn't shock me. But I'm gonna say that one is fiction, because I just think we can't be quite that wrong, just because we looked at it carefully, as you say.

S: (Hesitates) Okay. All right, Evan?

E: Yeah, the thing that's drawing me wrong about the Broca's area one, inactive during actual speech, I think there's gonna be a twist here in which, maybe it's not entirely inactive, but maybe there's some sort of lesser effect going on. I'm not quite sure how to phrase, almost turning on and off, sort of a fluctuation there, rather than an entire inactivity. For a lot of the reasons Bob said, I thought this was pretty well defined. Therefore, the other ones are moot based on that. So I'm gonna say the Broca's area one is the fiction.

S: Okay, so we got an even split. We got Bob and Evan for Broca's area. Jen and Jay for the osteoarthritis. So that means you all agree on number two, so we'll start there. You all agree that recordings from the Van Allen probes indicate that solar shockwaves can accelerate electrons in the Earth's radiation belts to greater than ninety-nine percent the speed of light, close to the speed of particles in the Large Hadron Collider. You all think that one is science. And that one is ... the fiction!

B: (Groaning loudly) Oh my god!

J: (Groaning loudly) O-O-O-O-O-H-H-H-H!

JD: (Groaning) O-h-h-h-h!

E: Serious!

S: So week number two.

J: Oh, you suck.

S: Two weeks in a row.

J: You suck!

JD: I don't feel as bad, since we all missed it. (Laughs)

J: I don't like this game.


B: I'm gonna quit.

S: This was cool, though.

E: Wow!

S: Yeah, so we have the Van Allen probes, are sitting up there in the Van Allen radiation belts of the Earth. And in 2013, they recorded what happened when a solar shock wave struck the Earth. It bounced off the magnetic field of the Earth, and then essentially sent this pulse - get this, Bob, magnetosonic pulse.

B: Oh, I love it!

JD: Ooh.

S: If I were a superhero, I want that to be my power.

B: Yeah, magnetosonic.

S: I want to be able

(Bob laughs)

J: I agree with you, Steve, that is awesome!

S: I want to send out magnetosonic pulses that accelerate electrons. So, it would circle, basically bounce around the magnetic field of the Earth, taking just a few minutes to go around the Earth, just a really fast shock wave. Now, it is magnetic. It does accelerate electrons. So, it would accelerate electrons pretty significantly. And if fact, if the electrons happen to be going in the same direction as the magnetosonic pulse, they would be exposed to it for a long period of time. And the longer they were exposed to it, the greater they would be accelerated. So what the probes detected was a ten-fold spike in the number of so-called ultra-relativistic electrons.

B: Nice!

S: These are electrons that are traveling at relativistic speeds. However

B: It's ultra relativistic, like ninety percent of ...

S: No, no, ultra relativistic just means that fast enough that relativistic factors are

B: Wait, that's what relativistic means.

S: I know. I don't know. I read it. That's the definition.

B: Oh well, they're wrong.

S: You know.

B: Okay, go ahead.

S: But


S: these electrons are getting up to one thousand kilometers per second. So that, you know, a three hundredth of the speed of light, not ninety-nine percent of the speed of light. So that was what made it fiction.

E: Right

S: I multiplied it by about three hundred. Yeah,

E: 300

S: nowhere near what the Large Hadron Collider, also, is getting electrons up to 99.995 percent of the speed of light.

E: Wow

S: Yeah, so it's not, ninety-nine percent's not greater than the LHC, and these electrons are only getting a thousand kilometers per second, the speed of light.

B: Wait

E: Not even close.

S: It is two hundred and ninety-nine kilometers, two hundred and ninety-nine thousand kilometers per second.

B: Steve, Google the LHC

S: Yeah

B: Did they accelerate protons? Not exclusively, but they primarily worked with protons.

S: Yeah, yeah, the particles they accelerate

B: All right

S: get up to 99.995 percent

B: Important difference. Go ahead.

S: So,

E: Well,

S: that was the fiction. Let's go back to number one. So, of course, the other two are science, but number one, scientists carefully mapping the activity of the brain during speech find the Broca's area, long thought to be responsible for speech output is inactive during actual speech. This one totally would have gotten me.

B: Yep. What the hell?

S: This is very surprising.

B: I feel so much better now.

S: A hundred and fifty years. I've been teaching this to students for years. I mean, the Broca's area, that's the speech center of the brain. This is what is responsible for speech output. It's actually doing the speaking. It not true, it turns out. So, here's the difference between anatomical mapping and functional mapping. So, we know what happens when Broca's area is damaged, right? So that's, when Broca's area is damaged, that's like, as a practicing neurologist, that's what I see. I see people that come in, they have a stroke. The stroke's in Broca's area, and I know what their exam is like.

They can't speak. They have a stuttering speech, they have a hard time getting the words out. Sometimes they can barely produce any speech at all. That's a Broca's ephasia, right? So, clearly, Broca's area is necessary. I think as you said, Bob, it's involved with speech output. But it's not what's producing the speech in real time.

B: Yeah, I know it.

S: It's probably involved in the planning of speech.

B: Ah-h-h...

S: The researchers likened it to the script. The Broca's area is writing the script. But then the motor cortex is still physically doing the speaking. So what they found was, and also, this is what they were doing. They were looking at patients who have epilepsy, who are being evaluated for epilepsy surgery. And what we do is, we lay strips of the these tiny electrodes actually on the surface of their brain. And so, you would never do this to a human being just to do research. But if you're doing it for surgery, you could do a little research, you know, in the few days that they have this on. So that's what they did.

So they were able to record, in a very precise way, brain activity during speech. And what happened was Broca's area was active prior to speech, and then became quiet when they were actually speaking, which was shocking! It was very surprising. That's like, goes against what we thought we knew for a hundred and fifty years.

So, Broca's area again, is probably involved in the planning and the scripting of speech, but then the executing of the speech, its job is done when you actually start to speak. It probably also is monitoring the speech, and giving you feedback, so that you can modulate your own speech. You know like, how people who are deaf can't speak because they can't hear themselves?

B: Yes

S: So, that may also be partly modulating through Broca's area. So, this also, it's interesting. When you read it, it's like, yeah, this totally makes sense, and it is totally consistent with our previous data. It's just a new way of interpreting it. And also, is more in line with what we're learning, now that we have these functional ways of looking at brain activity like fMRI and EEG, et cetera, we're seeing that it's the module versus network debate, right? So, are there pieces of the brain that do specific things, or are there networks of different parts of the brain that are involved in activities.

So this is kind of moving more towards sort of the network approach, is that, yeah, Broca's area is involved in a network. It's coordinating information from Wernicke's area, which is involved in interpreting language, and the motor cortex, and sort of planning the actions of the motor cortex. They're gonna take based upon this sensory feedback, and this language input, et cetera. You know, so you still need it. It's required to produce fluent speech, but it's not what's doing the speaking.

B: But I would think there would be, you know, an interplay between the motor cortex and Broca's area while you're speaking. It's still planning what you're going to say. It's not just a dead lump of brain tissue while you're talking.

S: Well, maybe it has to become quiet so as not to interfere with your current speaking.

B: Which means

S: You know what I mean?

B: you can't plan what you want to say while you're talking? That doesn't sound right.

E: Well, it just goes so fast.

S: Yeah, I don't know.

B: Well, okay.

E: It seems instantaneous.

B: That seems important.

S: This is now a new study changing what we thought we knew about Broca's area. So now this is obviously gonna have to spawn further research.

J: Steve, if you damage a different part of your brain, you won't be able to do funny voices. It's called Hack's Area.

S: Yeah

(Bob laughs hard)

S: Hank's Area?

B: Nice, Jay! Nice!

JD: Ah-h-h-h!

B: That's a good one.

E: Sweet.

S: Been sitting on that one for a while, Jay?

J: No, it literally just occurred to me.

S: Yeah

B: Awesome.

E: Yeah

(Jennifer laughs)

E: But Broca's area had nothing to do with you talking about it.


S: Okay, number three: A recent study finds that women with knee osteoarthritis benefit from high impact jumping exercises without adverse effects on their knees is also science. And this is also surprising.

J: Yeah, fine, how can think that's true.

S: Because you would think that jumping around is exactly what you're not supposed to do when you have

JD: (Chuckling) Right

S: osteoarthritis. So, little background, osteoarthritis is the wear and tear, degenerative form of arthritis. It's not inflammatory

B: Oh

S: or, like rheumatoid arthritis. We all get osteoarthritis of our knees as we get older,

B: Sucks

S: to some degree, yeah, it's just, our knees wear out. So these were mainly older women, fifty to sixty-five years old. They had mild osteoarthritis. And what they did was they gave them an exercise regimen that involved high impact training, so both with resistance, and also with changing direction. You know, again, like, the exact thing you think that they shouldn't be doing.

And what they found was that the exercises increased the bone content in their leg bones, which was good, and that would serve to strengthen the knee joint. But it did not have a negative impact on the cartilage. They used MRI scans to investigate the composition - the biochemical composition of the cartilage. And they found that it stayed the same. So it was not adversely effected by these exercises.

So, again, this is one study. It's one way of looking at this. I'm not gonna pretend that this is the last word, definitive on this, but that's what the study showed, which was interesting. So it's always a risk versus benefit thing, right, with exercise, especially as you get older. There's no question that weight-bearing exercise is really helpful when you're over fifty, because it helps maintain bone and muscle mass, which is critical. Because basically, you're coasting from fifty to the grave with what you got.

(Jennifer laughs)

S: So you want to keep it as long as you possibly can, and the way to do that is with resistance exercises. But the downside to that is your joints, you know, suffer wear and tear. So that's why they did this study. They wanted to see, hey, should we have them do resistance exercise? Is it gonna screw up their knees? This suggests, at least in this study, eh, they did okay. You know, after twelve months, their knees held up. It didn't adversely affect their knees.

JD: Hm, I want to see their waiver for that one.

S: (Chuckling) Yeah

JD: "Listen, I know you have knee problems, but we're gonna make you jump around

S: Yeah

JD: for a while, and just see

(Evan laughs)

JD: how that goes."

S: Right, right.

E: Sign here.

JD: It's interesting.

S: Jennifer, did a valiant effort on your first Science or Fiction. It was a particularly tough week to walk into, I must admit.

B: Yeah, yeah.

JD: Yeah, you shoulda' had me do this when you had all the botany questions.

S: Yeah, yeah.

JD: I would have nailed that. It would have been awesome!

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:22:53)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, do you have a quote for us?

E: I do. And here it is:
"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
And that was written by Richard Feynman. Comes directly from the Rogers Commission report, which, for those of you who don't know, was the commission set up by President Reagan to investigate the Challenger explosion in 1986. And, did you know, and you always gotta learn something new about these people as I bring up these quotes. When Richard Feynman, a very young Richard Feynman got bored in the remote New Mexico desert, when he was working on the Manhattan Project, he had found another hobby cracking safes! Eventually, he became so good, he could open nearly every cabinet containing secret documents and


B: Awesome!

E: (Inaudible due to cross talk) facility.

S: That's awesome.

(Evan laughs)

B: How cool is he?

S: All right, well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Thank you Steve!

J: You swept us again.

S: I did.

JD: It was great.

S: Jennifer, thanks for joining us. It was a lot of fun having you on the show this week.

JD: Thank you, it was my pleasure.

B: Thanks Jennifer.

JD: Yeah, and it was great. I had a really good time. I felt like an ass about most of it. But I definitely had a good time.

B: What?

J: What a coincidence.


JD: Yay!

E: You'll fit right in.

S: All right, thank you all again. And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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