SGU Episode 511

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SGU Episode 511
April 25th 2015
SGU 510 SGU 512
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
BW: Brian Wecht
GH: George Hrab
Quote of the Week
Those of us who are in this world to educate—to care for—young children have a special calling: a calling that has very little to do with the collection of expensive possessions but has a lot to do with worth inside of heads and hearts.
Fred M. Rogers, Host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Live at NECSS 2015. This is a private recording. Favorite part of NECSS so far. Bill Nye praise.

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (3:04)[edit]

  • Grace Murray Hopper: American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral who wrote the first computer compiler and was the key architect of COBOL

S: All right, Bob, you're gonna start us off with another Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes. Grace Murray Hopper, 1906 to 1992, she was a computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. How awesome is that? And a pioneer of the development of high level, easy to use programming languages. Ever hear of her?

Female voice: Yes!

B: Some have. Yeah, she's a little bit more well known. But I still want to talk about her. Early computers were not user-friendly. They were really, really difficult. You had to be either a mathematician or a computer scientist to really have an okay time programming computers. It was not meant for just anybody. She realized for computers to really penetrate the society, it needed to be easier to program, before anything else. It needed to be easier to program, so that so many different, diverse programs could be created, that anybody could use. And she received lots of push back.

People liked the status quo. They didn't even like her ideas. So she kind of ignored them, and she created the first compiler ever, the first person to create a compiler, called A0. And it, basically, a compiler will translate higher level programming language to a lower level programming language that the computer can actually use. And their, computers wouldn't be what they are today without them.

J: Well, to give a little more explanation, 'cause it's important to note. A compiler allows you to use more natural language

B: Yeah, well that's what higher level, higher level means more

J: So people might not know that

B: Okay, yeah.

BW: And then changes in the ones and zeroes, (major cross talk) machine language

GH: So, like, more simple, like English? Just like direct English kind of stuff?

B: Yeah, absolutely. Well, the higher level languages, a lot of them are, there's tons of regular English words, not like symbols, or arcane codes.

S: Yeah, there's still a format that you gotta follow.

B: Absolutely

J: Syntax

B: Absolutely

GH: It's not “Like these movies,” “Destroy network.”

B: No

S: Yeah

(More indistinguishable cross talk)

E: You want to play a game?

J: (Inaudible) like that.

B: So, she created another compiler, the B.O. compiler. And this was designed to

E: Phew!

J: That's very fitting for technical people.

B: B.O.! Right, and she made it so that it can translate, it had, like, billing and pay roll, more business-oriented stuff. So she made it so that it can compile that stuff. And she put twenty English words into it. Just twenty, not a lot, and she called it Flow Magic. And she realized, yeah, that's kind of weird, but Flow Magic; and she realized how beneficial that was. So she wanted to create an entire language made up of English words. And they said, “No.”

J: Isn't that English?

B: What?


J: An entire language made up of English words.

(More laughter from the audience)

J: Bob, what the fuck are you talking about?

B: Entire programming language!

J: Thank you, Bob!

Multiple people: Oh-h-h!

B: Right.

E: That's right.

B: No, listen to this.

J: Oh my god.

B: So they told her, “You can't do that, because computers don't understand English.” Really? (Starts laughing) Okay, whatever! (/Laughing) So still, she's like, she does not take no for an answer. So she finally convinced them. It took a few years, but she convinced them to create COBOL, which is

J: Awesome! She created COBOL?

B: Well, listen, pay attention, you'll learn, Jay.

(Audience laughs)

B: So she made, she was on the first committees to design COBOL, she made contributions, a lot of her team members also made contributions. And the interesting thing was that they created COBOL, I think in six months, which is fast. They based it on the only thing they could base it on: Flow Magic. It was the only kind of natural language that there was. And they used it. And one guy was saying that, “We couldn't have made COBOL without Flow Magic. So she is like, the father or mother or grandmother of COBOL.

All right, COBOL, in 2009, COBOL was fifty years old. I thought COBOL was as

E: Is it that old?

B: dead, yeah, in 2009. That's what, fifty-eight years old now.

J: It was pretty much the first super-powerful programming language.

B: It was the Common Oriented Business (what the hell does it mean?)

BW: Common Business Oriented Language.

B: Com- okay. What he said. So that's what it stands for. So, I thought that was like, a dead language that companies just want to get away from.

J: Not at all.

B: Right?

J: Sadly, it's like, there are companies that have such amazing architecture built on it that they can't get off of it.

GH: They still use COBOL?

B: All right, listen to this.

J: Yep

B: Two trillion total investment in COBOL systems as of 2009 – two trillion dollars. Five billion lines of new COBOL are developed each year. Five billion lines. Two – this is a good one – two hundred times more COBOL transactions per day than Google searches.

J: Yep

B: And here's another one: COBOL is sixty-five percent of the total global software.

J: Yeah, but think about it like this, though, just because I know that you're thinking like, “What? There's so many other languages that have come out that are easier to program.” There's a lot of arguments that can be made at whether they have a faster interface with the processor and everything, but it's like a basic language like that that's sitting right on top of machine language, essentially. You know, there's a lot more detail to it, but

GH: Right

J: it is powerful, it is fast, it can do a lot – plus, they've expanded. It's not the same thing that they were using a few years ago.

B: Exactly! Guess when the latest standard was developed? 2014. Last year, they came up with another version, it's object-oriented. It's really, not just this old dinosaur. They have brought it up to modern day.

GH: What does that mean? Object oriented?

B: It's, you use objects to communicate within the program. It's objects talking to objects. It's easier to, it's pretty standard. I'm not a programmer. How would you define object-oriented …

J: Well, yeah, an object, you can create instances of objects. So, as a quick example, you could say, you would write a collection of code that could represent a customer, right? So it has a first name, and a last name, and all that. And you can create an infinite number of them, and each one of them is an object.

B: And the object could have many different attributes. So, COBOL is everywhere, and it's not goin' anywhere; and it's really just because of her. So, a couple other quick things: She came up with the idea of the computer bug. She's the one that really came up with the first idea of what a computer bug is.

S: What do you mean? A virus?

J: A computer virus, or an actual

B: No, a bug!

E: System?

B: No, a computer bug, which was really first came about because they found a moth in the circuitry, right? And then, serious! And then that kind of became, morphed into the idea that a bug is just a problem in the program, and needs to be fixed.

S: She coined that phrase?

B: Yeah, she pretty much,

S: And it was based on an actual moth.

(Audience laughs)

B: Right, that's where it started.

GH: That's awesome.

B: Because of her, it kind of morphed into this (drowned out by Jay)

J: I thought they had to removed the bugs a lot from the machines. Like, was it a problem that they had because of the heat

BW: Because it was hot machines,

J: Yeah

BW: and the moths would just …

J: So they had to debug the machine

B: That's true.

J: all the time. And it just got, yeah

B: Really

J: I'm not sure that's it.

E: No, they put a zapper in it. Just zup! Zup! Zut! And it took care of the problem.

J: No, CPU was basically a blue bug zapper.


GH: We just take it for granted that that term just means that, but you never think to go, “Oh yes! I'm gonna have to decide.” I mean, it could have been called,

J: A worm

GH: who knows what? A worm?

J: Ugh!

B: So this one was funny

S: No, Jay, an object.


J: Learned that from Bill.

B: This one was funny. In '69, she was awarded the first ever Computer Science Man of the Year.

(Laughter and some groans in the audience)

J: They couldn't put a “wo” in front of that? Like,

B: Man of the Year award. She got that award, which is pretty funny. Which also tells you how things were

E: That's kind of cool, though.

B: in '69. So, remember Grace Hopper; mention her to your friends, perhaps when you're discussing the syntax of tokens with lexical analysis, if you ever do that.

E: Nice. Token's what? He wrote what?

(Audience laughs)

E: Oh, wrong Tolkein.

J: That was my favorite one you've done so far.

B: Really?

J: Well, yeah, I happen to know stuff about it. So,

B: Okay

E: That'll do it.

GH: Bob, how do you find these? This has been a great addition to the thing. Do you think, “Okay, I'm not gonna find anyone.” And they just seem to be cooler and cooler, and more obscure?

B: Yeah, I always seem to find somebody. But I will reach a point after, what, a year or two, I'm thinking, oh man.

S: We'll see.

B: I really just can't, but there's so many, and that's what makes it sad. There's so many that did amazing things that nobody knows about.

GH: Really

BW: Bob, I was so, like, a couple weeks ago, when you did Amy Noter.

B: Oh yes!

BW: Who was just a foundational

B: Yes!

BW: figure for theoretical

B: Huge!

BW: physicists everywhere. And, you know, to us, she's this god, but not really known outside of

S: Yeah

BW: mathematicians and theoretical

B: How about earlier today? Lisa Mitner. She pretty much was integral to discovering fission. And she did not get any award. I had never really

BW: No

B: hear, huh?

S: Never got a Nobel.

B: Never. And the biggest snub ever. She got, Otto Han is a jerk.


E: Yeah, but he won a Nobel Prize.

B: Prize, and totally threw her under the bus.

News Items[edit]

Terror Bird (11:27)[edit]

A Rape on Campus (17:27)[edit]

S: Have you guys heard about the Rolling Stone's retraction of their article, A Rape On Campus?

GH: Yes

E: Yes

S: Yeah, this is, I think it's pretty big news. This is more, we're interested in this type of story because of the journalism angle to it. You know, we're all journalists in a way. So in, the back story is, in November of 2014, Rolling Stone published an article by Sabrina Erdelie? Is that how you pronounce that last name? Called, A Rape On Campus.

So, she was interested in writing a story about the problem of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and rape on college campuses. And it was a big story last year. She sought out a case. You know, she wanted a story of a woman who was raped on campus, and just to see, like, how she was treated, and have that be like, a representative story for this obviously serious issue.

So, the pseudonym that she used of that person was Jackie. So she told Jackie's story, which was that she was sort of lured to a frat party, and some time after midnight, was lured up to a dark room, where she was essentially assaulted, held down, and raped by seven guys. Totally, that was a devastating story. The reporter was very emotionally affected by it. And that was the centerpiece of her article, was Jackie's story.

Pretty soon after that, I mean, it's only a few months ago, right? So pretty soon after that, some questions about the veracity of Jackie's story arose. And Erlie, lost confidence in the story, and told her editors, “I have problems with this story now, because some things aren't hanging together.” And then the police could not, they exhausted their leads, and could not verify key aspects of the story.

So, what Rolling Stone did, they didn't retract the story at that time. What they did was they commissioned an independent investigation of the story and their journalism. And that just came out. That was a Columbia University report. And then, on the heels of that, Rolling Stone formally retracted the article. They wrote an editorial, basically a mea culpa editorial, and then the full Columbia report, which is devastating, which documents multiple instances of just unforced journalistic f- errors.

The big thing is though, that it seemed that, first of all, the author was a little bit too anxious to get a story was sort of in the sweet spot, you know? And we encounter this all the time, where, I've had, this personal experience, where a journalist contacts you, to question you, interview you for a story that they're doing. They've already written the story. They already know what the story is. They're looking to back fill quotes from people that they could say they “sourced,” you know, but they're just back filling. They're not listening to what I'm saying. I'm not shaping the story. I'm not informing them. They're just back filling quotes.

So, if you already know what the story is before you do your investigation or your interview, that's a problem.

BW: Have you ever had anyone say to you, this happened to a couple

S: Yeah

BW: scientists, friends of mine, “What we want you to say, is this.”

S: Yes.

E: Sure

S: Yeah

E: Yeah, I've heard that.

J: That comes up in my sex life a lot.

S: Yeah

(Audience chuckles)

S: You know, they'll say, “Would you say [this]?”

E: Right, are you willing to say ...

S: They definitely will try to put words in your mouth.

J: Do you guys have a knee-jerk response, even if you agree with the statement? Do you go, “I'm not doin' that. I don't do that,” or ...

S: No, no.

BW: I've never personally been in that situation.

S: No, if it's something that I completely agree with, then I'll say, I might restate it in my own words, you know, but I won't object to it if it's something that I agree with.

J: Yeah

S: 'Cause that could, you could also use it as a technique to make sure I understand what you're saying. “So, you're saying that Bigfoot doesn't exist.” Well, yeah, that's correct. Bigfoot doesn't exist. Yeah, so that's not a problem. But if they're trying to put a certain spin on it, then, “So you're saying that it's possible that Bigfoot does exist? But he just hasn't been found yet?” No, that's not what I'm saying at all. You know.

So, in any case, we could talk about that a little bit further, how to interface with the media, because this is a problem that you run into all the time.

E: I bet

S: And we, there are times, like, for example, scientists get quoted in a press release or an article, and then we're reading it sometimes on the show, or in preparation for the show, and it's like, “Did that scientist really say that? 'Cause that's idiotic.”

E: Right

J: Yeah

S: And either that scientist is self-promoting, they're naive, or doesn't know how to talk to the media, or they are quoted way out of context. And we really have no way of knowing. We'd have to contact the scientists themselves. And sometimes either we do, at other venues, the scientist says, “I was being taken totally out of context. It's not fair.” Then we realize, “Okay, it's bad journalism.”

But in any case, the other thing the author here did was, and I find this a very interesting issue, because I don't know that there is a simple solution to this. But she deferred to Jackie, for a number of reasons. One, she was telling the story that she was looking for, but also, she didn't want to put her through a retraumatization, right?

So, “I don't want to make you re-live the trauma of being raped. So, if you're uncomfortable with any questions, we don't have to go there.” And then, she was also too deferential to Jackie's demands, like, “I don't want you to talk to my friends about this.”

E: Right

S: And then, “Okay.” So she didn't. And then, of course, when those friends were spoken to, they completely contradicted her story. There's a delicate balance here, and it may be just a no-win scenario. Like, you have to just, there are things that you're trying to accomplish that are mutually exclusive, and you just have to decide how you're gonna balance them as best you can.

And this is not just the reporting of rape, this is also, I think, the investigation and prosecution of rape, because, obviously, we want to make sure that rape victims are treated fairly, that they're not treated with excessive skepticism. False reports of rape are rare. And that's the, the other thing that's really interesting about this story, and they admitted this, it's not just that the boys who were accused, and the frat house in the school was University of Virginia, you know, this specific frat house that was named. Their reputation was trashed. It's probably gonna be some lawsuits coming out of this.

So they're victims. But also, Jackie herself is victimized, and rape victims are victimized further by this, because now, the journalism failure can be used to call into question any report. “Well, remember that Jackie person was lying. That was,” so just adds to that. And they said, they did a disservice to the rape victim by – and I think journalists need to do that in general. If you don't dot your I's and cross your T's, then people aren't gonna believe your sources, you know. So, being deferential to them is not in their interest.

GH: No

S: You know.

J: Steve, do you think journalists learn on the job, or are they actually learning these skills, are they mentored? I've never

S: It's, I think, everything. It's like, they should be mentored, they should learn on the job, but, you know, there's a lot of pathways you can take to being a journalist.

GH: I'm surprised the upper levels of editors didn't

E: Yes

S: Well they failed too.

E: Exactly right.

S: It was a failure at multiple layers.

GH: For them to say, “Wait a minute, you haven't spoken to any of her friends.”

S: Yeah

GH: You can't confirm the stuff that she's saying.

S: Right

GH: You know, yeah, it's a great story. Yeah, obviously, we want to run with this, but like, talk to them first.

S: So it was, the author, two layers of editors, then the fact checkers, they let them off the hook, because they said they were not in a decision-making position. But I think they also raised some red flags that were then ignored. But it was really the author and at least two layers of editors, of utterly failed to check up on the

J: Well, you know, the one good thing is that it puts a clear sign out to the whole journalistic world, don't let this happen! This is bad! This could be devastating.

S: It's a cautionary tale.

GH: Did you ever see the film, I think it was called Shattered Glass, with the guy that played Anikan,

J: Yep, I saw that.

GH: Hayden ...

J: Yep

GH: What's his, whatever.

E: Nobody remembers.

S: I blocked it out.

GH: He's actually good in this film. He's actually really good in this movie.

S: So it is Lucas. It is his directing.

GH: Obviously.

J: Of course!

GH: Absolutely, yeah, his choices

J: I think that little kid's never gonna be able to act though, the Darth Vader little kid?

S: The little kid. We're talking about the teenager.

J: I know who you're talking about, but

E: Jake Lloyd, his career

S: Hayden Christiansen

E: got ruined by that

GH: Jake Lloyd hates everything Star Wars.

E: Yeah, he's, absolutely ruined by

J: Lucas ruined him.

GH: Tangent. But anyway, the Shattered Glass deals with the National Review, was it? No, I forget the magazine, but this report, it's a true story, this reporter made up scads of stories, and it's neat when, 'cause he's addressing sort of his high school

B: Oh, I did see that!

GH: teacher's day, or whatever it is, or, you know,

J: Yeah

GH: go to work day or whatever it's called. Go to Work Day, what's that called? Like Career Day, thank you, Career Day. Go to Work Day, yeah.


GH: On Tuesday. Uh, Career Day, and he's talking about the levels needed to confirm a story

S: Yeah

GH: That he does a thing, he hands in his notebooks, he goes through one editor, second editor, fact checkers gonna get back to him. And he goes through this entire long list, and it shows that that entire long list of checks completely failed, and not just once for him, but it was dozens of stories

J: Yeah

GH: that he just fabricated, because they were great stories.

E: Right

GH: They were great stories that sort of drove a message that was entertaining, and fun, and outrageous, and outlandish, and a complete failure then. So, it's not like this is the first time this has happened.

E: Oh gosh no.

GH: To say, “Hey, let's not have this happen again.” You think, boy

E: Happened to the New York Times, just six years ago.

GH: Jason Peshstov right?

E: Yep, that's right.

BW: I assume, as news rooms get down further and further

S: Yeah

BW: and further, this is only gonna get worse and worse and worse, as you just don't have the man power there, to do

S: Yeah

BW: all these checks and

S: They talked about that in this context, and I think their resources were a little decreased, like twenty-five percent. But the review concluded they had plenty of resources. This wasn't a failure because of lack of resources. It was a failure of process.

E: Right

S: It's just, their method was not there. They just didn't do what they should have done. They just ignored standard journalistic practice, and they made it up it in the ass.

E: Have you seen the movie All the President's Men, that's what you're supposed to go through in order to get to the story. And that movie was all about the process.

S: Yeah

E: Start to finish.

S: Like anything, like any investigation, it's all about the process. But, you know, again, there's been a lot of discussion, lot of writing about where do we draw the line between protecting victims, and protecting the accused. And that's a tough – I struggle with that. I really do, because

J: We can't really even put it into words, like

S: 'Cause it's innocent until proven guilty, but then, if the accused is innocent 'till proven guilty, that equals disbelieving the victim until proven that they're correct.

J: It's circumstantial though

GH: Or minimizing

S: Or minimizing them.

GH: the victim's experience.

S: And then some people will say, “Well, even calling them a victim is assuming the accused are guilty.” It's like, well, okay, that's true, you know, but otherwise, so, you're stuck. You either error on the side, which could almost be like a witch hunt. You know, because of the severity of the crimes of which you're accused, we are going to suspend the normal rules of justice and evidence and innocent 'till proven guilty, because of the victim.

But it's a horrible situation for the victim, because they're immediately not believed, which is a typical, most people who, like, if you claim that somebody mugged you in the street, no one's gonna assume that you're lying unless you could prove you were actually mugged.

GH: Or that you did something to

S: Yeah, you did something to ask, well, “What were you carrying? What were you wearing? Were you wearing mug-friendly clothes?” Or whatever.

(Audience laughs)

S: Yeah, it's just a complete, the standard is so twisted, so how do you fix it all so it's fair to everybody?

J: I don't know!

BW: There's another, I think, really interesting and problematic dynamic here, which is the fact that it happened at a university,

S: Yeah

BW: which often wants to have its own internal sort of review,

S: Yeah

BW: and there have been a number of articles about this recently, which regards them as largely ineffectual,

S: Yes

BW: right? And so then there's a question of when do you go to the cops?

S: Right

BW: When does it become a legal or criminal matter, as opposed to just an internal university matter. That's a whole other thing.

S: I think that's the easier question, because I think that the police should be involved right away.

BW: I agree

S: And I think that the universities really need to improve their process.

BW: And they're not doing that right now.

S: And they're dragging their heels. So I think that's the easy thing to fix. But then, what the process becomes, like how do we balance all of these issues I just spoke about? That's challenging.

GH: It's like the, internal internal internal internal

BW: Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, yeah.

GH: Yeah

J: But why would you think that every university would have a fully realized system to handle the internal affairs like this? It's ridiculous.

S: Well, I mean, it's, in a lot of universities, their process of dealing with sexual assault is scandalously bad.

J: Yep

S: It's horrible!

BW: Or non-existent in some cases.

S: Or, to the point of non-existent in some cases.

BW: Yeah

S: Or just superficial, they're completely superficial.

J: Well, think of it like this. It's like a private corporation running their own investigation

S: Yeah

J: on a crime that they've committed.

E: Universities are corporations.

J: With no experience doing so.

E: Right, that's not what they're, yeah.

GH: In which direction do you think it's better to fail? Do you think it's better to fail in the direction, or to lean, rather, I don't want to say fail, but lean towards the direction of the victim? Or lean toward the direction of the idea of innocent 'till proven guilty? Like, which, if you're gonna do a benefit/cost sort of analysis, where do you think is the better way to ...

E: We're a society of laws, so we have to

BW: We have to take all such accusations seriously initially.

S: Yeah

GH: Right

E: You do.

GH: But I mean, it's like, it's right down the middle, sort of

S: It's tough. And people, that's where the arguments have occurring. That's where the argument is. Where do we lean? And maybe we've been leaning so far to one direction, maybe we need to pull it back, and see what happens. So maybe we're gonna over-correct,

BW: Right

S: and risk that. But whatever, it's all, I'm not gonna advocate any one position, because I honestly am ambivalent, because I don't know. It's tricky. And I haven't really sorted it out in my own head, how to balance with all optimally.

E: Was anyone fired or disciplined their own staff for this?

S: No! Good point. Nobody got fired, and they're being criticized for that. They're saying negative press is punishment enough. Really?

BW: The reporter was a staff writer.

S: Yeah, staff writer, the editors, no one got fired. All right, so we've solved this, I don't think so.

E: Yeah, right, where we started sort of.

B: Science.

S: (Chuckles) All right.

(Commercial at 31:29)

Special Report (33:25)[edit]

  • The Future of the LHC with Brian Wecht

Playing with Sulphur Hexafluoride (57:45)[edit]

  • That gas that makes your voice lower

(Commercial at 1:02:25)

Science or Fiction (1:03:27)[edit]

Item #1: A new analysis of Swift UV data demonstrates that 1a supernova actually exist in different populations, altering the data used to calculate the acceleration of the universe. Item #2: A new study finds that fecal transplants are effective in treating Type 2 diabetes. Item #3: Researchers have grown functional heart cells on a substrate of spider webs.

Announcements (1:21:27)[edit]

  • Events coming up: SGU 10, Reason for Change in Buffalo NY, and TAM 13

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:13)[edit]

'Those of us who are in this world to educate—to care for—young children have a special calling: a calling that has very little to do with the collection of expensive possessions but has a lot to do with worth inside of heads and hearts.' - Fred M. Rogers, Host of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood

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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