SGU Episode 512
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|SGU Episode 512|
|May 2nd 2015|
|SGU 511||SGU 513|
|S: Steven Novella|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|GH: George Hrab|
|SW: Siouxsie Wiles|
|Quote of the Week|
|Scientists are not dependent on the ideas of a single man but on the combined wisdom of thousands of men all thinking of the same problem and each doing his little bit to add to the great structure of knowledge which is gradually being erected.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 This Day in Skepticism (1:22)
- 3 News Items
- 4 Science or Fiction (1:10:56)
- 5 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:07)
- 6 Today I Learned
- 7 References
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 Saturday, December 6th, 2014, and this is your host, Steven Novella.
S: Joining me this week are Jay Novella,
J: Hey guys,
S: Rebecca Watson,
R: Hello, everyone!
S: Bob Novella,
B: Hey everybody.
S: Evan Bernstein
(Evan speaks too quietly to be heard. Audience applauds)
S: And we have two special guest rogues on this show, George Hrab,
S: And Siouxsie Wiles
GH: Yay Siouxsie!
S: So, as you can probably tell by now, we are in front of a live audience. This is a private recording we're doing while we are in Auckland, New Zealand! So, welcome all the Kiwis.
S: Siouxsie and George, we're gonna chat with you in a moment. But we're gonna start the show as we always do with a This Day in Skepticism.
This Day in Skepticism (1:22)
- December 6, 2006: NASA images suggest flowing water on Mars
R: Yes. Normally, I go a bit further into – don't give me that look, Steve.
S: I'm not giving you a look.
R: I don't like that
J: He does that face every time,
R: Every time
J: You just never see it.
R: I just, yeah, I don't normally ...
R: Or I'm in another state.
S: If I give you a look, you'll know it.
R: Why I outta ... Uh, normally, This Day in Skepticism is a bit older, but today I decided to go for a more recent item that we probably even covered on the show. So it's kinda like This Day in The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. We probably talked about December 6th, 2006. NASA images came back, suggesting that there might be water still flowing on Mars. Do you guys remember talking about this?
J: Oh yeah
S: We talked about it.
J: Didn't they figure out what, it was not liquid? It was ice, right?
S: No, in the final analysis, it does seem like water, when the conditions are right, it actually bubbles up through the surface. It can flow very briefly, but then it evaporates quickly, 'cause the atmosphere on Mars is only a hundredth that of Earth.
R: Yeah, that's it.
B: I thought it was a thousandth.
S: It's one hundredth.
B: A hundredth.
E: One percent.
S: Yeah, one percent of an atmosphere. Still, you know, might as well be a vacuum, as far as livability is concerned.
R: And we didn't find any water monsters, so
R: it was a bit of a disappointment.
J: So is the gravity on Earth, is it to our benefit because it helps maintain our atmosphere?
B: Yeah, it helps hold gases, right?
R: Just like Jay.
E: I guess.
R: I know, I just wish you well.
J: My ass is like Mars. I just, (audience laughs) the sun comes to the surface, and it just evaporates out here.
S: It's not, the atmosphere though, is not just a factor of gravity, because Venus, similar to Earth, much denser atmosphere than we have. Mars, only a little bit lighter than Earth, and has a very wispy atmosphere.
B: Magnetosphere, is that, yeah.
S: It's the fact that we have a magnetic field, and that protects our atmosphere from the solar wind. Mars does not have a magnetic field, so the solar wind strips it away. And it's also volcanism. So, we are replenishing our atmosphere with volcanism, whereas Mars, the crust is completely solidified, 'cause it is smaller. And so there's no active volcanoes on Mars.
George Hrab interview (3:41)
J: George, can you do me a favor?
J: Can you rewrite the song Solar Wind for me? Instead of Summer Wind?
GH: Ooh! No.
J: (Singing) Solar wind, comes rushin' in 'cross the bay. (/Singing) No? You're not gonna do that?
GH: Okay. Gimme four minutes?
GH: What's the time to live ...
J: Whenever you got time.
R: Wait, you are weird, George Yankovich, right?
R: Just makin' sure.
J: Yeah, you did write the song in ten minutes in Australia.
GH: Naw, that was like, thirty.
S: Don't exaggerate.
R: And it was like a wonderful, original, heart-breaking original song.
J: Yeah, it was awesome.
R: Not a Weird Al Yanko- (laughs)
GH: It was no Solar Wind, but it was
J: We auctioned for someone to, George, write down the song on the spot. Took him thirty minutes that night.
J: And then he performed it, like, thirty-two minutes later.
J: And it turns out
R: So that means you missed your deadline.
J: So what was the guy's story? It was really ...
GH: It was an auction, and it got really expensive and awesome. And I was really flattered. And so I took the, we made that the first item at the auction. Like, I said, “Can this please be first, so I can have as much time possible to write this thing?” So we did that first. I grabbed, the guy's name was Dave. And we went out in the hallway. And we just started talking. I was like, “Where are ya from?”
And he's like, “Oh, I'm from Sydney,” I guess he lived in Sydney. And I said, “What do you do?” And he's like, “I'm an anesthetist.” I'm like, “What rhymes with anesthetist?” (Audience laughs) I'm like, “Oh my god!” And I noticed he had an accent, but it wasn't Australian. And I said, “Where are you from originally?” And he says, “Poland.” And I'm like, “Oh, okay. So what's the deal with like, how'd you come to Australia?”
He said, “Well, my family had to secretly escape from Poland in 1985. We took a trip to Italy, and then we basically just like, ran away to the Italian consulate, and took refuge there, and left everything behind.” And I'm like, “That's the song!”
So I wrote this, he just said, “Yeah, we had to leave with no warning.” And I was like, “No warning. That's the title.” I said, “Right, go away.” And he went away, and I went over the corner, and then just wrote this little song about a family leaving in the middle of the night, with no warning, and leaving everything behind. His dad was a carpenter, his mom was a travel booking agent or something like that. So I just used a little bit wood metaphor, and working on things. Yeah, and was poe-
J: You came out there. It was really, really good.
GH: It was fun.
R: What did you end up rhyming anesthetist with? I don't remember.
GH: Uh, the best with this.
R: Okay, that's right.
Intermittent Water on Mars (6:07)
S: Bob, so just playing off of the This Day in Skepticism, the whole bit about water on Mars, there's a bit of an update with that.
B: So this is definitely related to what Rebecca was talking about. A new study of scientists was kind of pointing to the idea of Mars being wet, happened in the past, but only very repeated events, caused by volcanism. So it's not something that happened for a long time. It just happened kind of intermittently, which is kind of a brand new idea, 'cause when we think of Mars, and ancient Mars, anyway, we think that there's water flowing everywhere. There might have even been tropical.
But now, they're thinking that maybe that wasn't the case. Because if you look at the period in time on Mars when water was flowing, about 3.7 billion years ago, the atmosphere was crazy thin. I mean, I think it was even thinner than maybe even now. But either way, it was very thin, and it was very cold. And also, the Sun back then, what do you think the, what was the Sun like, say, 3.7 billion year ago? How would you think it would be different? A younger Sun.
S: Was it a little bit brighter?
B: No, it was actually twenty-five percent dimmer.
B: So there was less solar radiation
B: hitting – that's just the evolution of a star. It gets brighter
J: Oh yeah.
B: It's getting brighter and bigger. Even now, Jay. So, in I think a few hundred million years, it's gonna be almost unlivable on the planet, unless you're a bacteria. So yeah, that's just how it progresses.
So if you look at Mars 3.7 billion years, it was really cold. The atmosphere was really thin, and the Sun was dimmer. And, oh, this one was really cool. They ran some atmospheric models of Mars, and they found that there was not one place on Mars that could have had liquid water. So none of that really makes any sense. How could there be water on Mars if all of those factors were coming into play?
One possibility that they came up with, when they ran these similations with, what was that, if the axis of Mars was shifted forty degrees, it's possible that it could have been hot enough, for parts of Mars to have water. But when they calculated where the wet place would be, it wasn't where we see all the ancient lake beds, and any of that stuff. So that didn't make any sense.
GH: Do those lake beds have to be water based? All those rivers and all those …
B: That's a, I mean, we are so familiar with those kinds of geological structures
B: on the Earth, it's pretty clear to the geologists that this was flowing water, or flowing something.
GH: Flowing something,
GH: but what else could it be? Could it be methane? Or could it be like, some kind of a something else?
R: Blood, perhaps?
S: Not cold enough for methane.
B: It's not cold enough for methane.
B: So chances are it was
GH: So it's gotta be water.
S: It's gotta be water.
GH: So, the question then is, what is the mechanism? How do you explain the evidence of water on a planet where, back at that time, water couldn't have existed?
J: I'm confused about the whole premise, because I thought that Mars had a lot of water, and it evaporated off.
S: Well, there's no question there was flowing water on ancient Mars, because we see ancient river beds, and lake beds,
B: Yeah, that's just
S: Geological formations
S: that we know from looking at the Earth, one hundred percent, was formed by flowing water.
B: Right. So what the scientists at Brown University and the Wiseman Institute of Science in Israel, what they're saying is that the mechanism to allow this to happen is volcanoes. If you look at the history of Mars, at that time, about 3.7 billion years ago, when all this water was really flowing, there was incredible volcanic activity going on. So, they thought that maybe that was related somehow.
But the thing is, when you think of volcanoes on the Earth, what do you think? You have ash being spewed into the atmosphere. It blocks light, and things get colder. So how does that make Mars warmer? It doesn't seem to make sense, right?
So they ran simulations again. Thank god for simulations. And they discovered that the sulfuric acid particles from the volcanoes would interact with the dust on Mars, that actually, I'm not sure how that mechanism would work. But that then lets the light, it's less reflective. So the light gets deeper into the atmosphere, and can warm up a planet, because of the interaction between these compounds.
And also, it's possible that sulfur dioxide could have been spewed out in great quantities, and that would cause a greenhouse effect. So, they think that's kind of what happened. But that's not even the fascinating part, because they think that if this happened the way they think it did, it only happened episodically. We would have, you'd have volcanic eruptions, and then for either ten years to a hundred years, just a century, water would flow. And then it would go away, and there'd be no more water. The water will be gone.
And then after many centuries or millennia, you'd have another volcanic eruption, more water. So, and this happened for two hundred million years. That's a long time. But even though it was episodic, you could still have enough water flowing to account for what we observe. So it kind of all makes sense.
GH: Planet-wide volcanic things? Or one huge volcanic
B: No, primarily in specific areas, where all this volcanic activity happened, which also happens to be where a lot of this evidence happens. Now, this isn't iron-clad, this isn't like, a done deal, and we're ready to move on. It's still preliminary, so keep that in mind. One guy said a quote, James Bell, he's a planetary geologist.
He said that they make a reasonable argument that's consistent with a lot of the data, but there is still a lot of other data that's not consistent with the idea of water's limited presence on the planet. So it's not a done deal with that. So the implication I really striked me about this is life. What's the implication for life on Mars, if you've got an episodic kind of life, could you really, can life really start?
You know, if you have water flowing for a hundred years, Steve, what can really happen in a hundred years?
S: Yeah, unless there was a period or condition somewhere else on Mars, where life could evolve, and then adapt to that kind of situation.
B: Right. One scientist was comparing this to algal mats in Antarctica, because they can go through extremely cold and dry times where they're just kind of like, quiesscent and they're not,
C: like, suspended animation. But that has to evolve already. That assumes that something is already evolved. So maybe there's some subsurface water that was persistent, that allowed life to evolve, and just the surface was episodic. Or maybe panspermia, maybe life came from the Earth, and landed, and got life going. So it's interesting. We'll see how that pans out.
S: Yeah, it sounds like over all, it would be a negative thing for the prospect of life on Mars.
B: Absolutely, yeah.
S: If we really have these brief spurts of water, rather than there was millions of years of continuous, blue lakes and rivers on Mars.
S: So, that's
J: Mars is just not hospitable. It's just not a good place for us. I'd rather us make a base on the Moon than waste our time goin' to Mars.
E: That's the practical next step to getting to Mars, is really
E: getting to the Moon first, and then maybe
B: Moon Base Alpha.
E: and then you think about Mars after that.
R: This news, though, isn't particularly about us, and our ability to terraform Mars, or make it habitable for humans. I think, isn't it more just about what life could have been
R: before, right? Yeah, regardless, like, we could still set up a base on Mars. Like, this doesn't really change that, I don't think, right? Or does it say, like, maybe, a volcano will blow us up?
B: No, no. There's no, it doesn't impact the possibility of that happening, for sure.
S: Just the probability of finding life
S: hiding away somewhere on Mars.
B: Life doesn't, no, not as good as we thought.
B: If this is correct, if this is correct.
S: It's hard to say.
Glowing Bacteria (13:21)
- Special Report by Siouxsie Wiles
S: Well, Siouxsie, this is your second time on the show.
S: The first time we were talking about the conference that we're at right now.
SW: And now you're here!
S: And now we're here.
SW: Our city of volcanoes, kind of appropriate, really.
R: Yeah, we've smelled it.
R: Now we know what ancient Mars smelled like, it's like roterroa.
B: We were at a hotel in Roterroa, and multiple times, I'd walk outside, and then I'd look around for Jay. Like, Jay,
B: what the hell? And somebody would say, “We're in Roterroa.” And I'm like, “Oh! Of course we are! That explains it.” Right, Jay?
J: I did take up one of the nights we were there, I woke up, and I'm like, “Ah, I just blew the hotel room out.”
B: The town out.
J: You know, my brother in law was like, “Uh, there is, like, a volcano around here, that's actually, like shit that comes from Hell. You realize that.”
B: Brimstone, I loved it.
S: So, tell us some more about, when we all got here, you took our picture, illuminated by bacteria. Tell us about that.
SW: So, yeah, so I'm a microbiologist, but I'm fascinated by creatures that glow in the dark. So actually, for my research, I take the genes from various creatures like glow worm bacteria, and put them into a nasty bacteria. But I like to have some glowing bacteria that aren't nasty to kind of show people some of the concepts that we work with. But then sort of take these amazing pictures.
So I have this cube, kind of pop up, and I make people sit inside it in the dark, and then I have petri dishes that have these glowing bacteria on them. And the idea is that the only light that's reaching the camera is coming from the bacteria. So I take these amazing pictures, and maybe we'll put them up. We'll think of some way, people are just this beautiful kind of bluey-green glow, which is the colour that the bacteria are glowing. Yeah, it's really cool, like you came up just so awesome with your hair. Just
SW: basically, anything that's kind of
GH: Yeah, it was great, Steve, awesome. You look so good with your hair, Steve.
S: Yeah. For our listeners,
S: For our listeners, Siouxsie is pointing at me.
R: I mean, the corona on George's head, though was really impressive.
GH: That's what I'm goin' for, the corona.
S: What chemical causes that color, that blue-green glow?
SW: So that is a bacteria that's producing light using a chemical reaction. So, we call the chemicals bocipherin and bocipherase, but actually, we know about five different bocipherin-bocipherase pairs. So the ones, so they're all kind of chemically different. So it's the same reaction that fireflies use to glow, but slightly different chemicals.
And so, and the colour of the light's kind of dependent on the bocipherase, so, and this is the colour of light that travels based through water, so this is a bacteria that I isolated from some fish that I bought in a supermarket, because being New Zealand, it had to be something negative, and not dangerous, so I could take it out and do things like this at schools, and stuff. Yeah, so it was this beautiful, I love it. I, ah, it's so much time in the dark.
S: You bought fish at the supermarket
SW: Yeah! Yeah!
S: And got the glowing bacteria on it.
SW: Let me tell you the story, 'cause they're very cool. So, this was bacteria called photobacterium. And the reason it glows is because it wants to be inside of the guts of fish, because that is a really awesome place if you're a bacteria. It's so full of nutrients. So, what the scientists discovered quite recently, actually, is that what happens is this bacteria's floating around in the sea. And it gets swallowed by a zooplankton. And then the zooplankton realize they can't actually eat it.
So now you got this little zooplankton floating around, glowing in the dark. And it just so happens that this makes them visible to fish. So they've done some experiments in labs, where they've had these little zooplankton, and you put them in a tank with some fish, and hey! They get swallowed by the fish.
So what happens is these poor little zooplankton who are now glowing get eaten by the fish, then digested. And the bacteria survive this passage into the gut, and they get released into the fish's gut, and it's kind of where they want to be. And then, of course, what happens, the fish poops, and the bacteria ends up back in the sea. And then it kind of has to go through the cycle again to get back into the fish.
R: Does the bacteria glow
SW: The end of this, Rebecca, the next time you go surfing,
SW: when you are takin' some
R: I'm a surfer now, you guys. I was surfing.
SW: Next time you take in any sea water,
SW: you may well be swallowing photobacterium.
R: In poop.
SW: In poop, yeah. Well, they'll be lost, just in the sea too.
R: Will they be, do they glow throughout this process? So, does the poo glow, as it goes through?
SW: So, it'll, not so that we would be able to see it, I don't think.
SW: So the amazing thing about these glowing bacteria is a lot of them only glow when they reach a certain cell density. So it kind of makes perfect sense, 'cause they've got to produce this light using a chemical reaction, and it requires a lot of energy. So there's no point glowing if there aren't enough of them to see.
So what they normally do is they glow in what we call stationable, coming to to stationary phase, when this kind of flow to them around, and actually, the discovery of how bacteria turn on their light was how scientists discovered that bacteria can communicate with each other. So they all produce a signal, and they measure how much of the signal (inaudible) ound, and that is used to turn on a whole lot of genes.
J: That is crazy.
SW: So this bacteria, those glowing bacteria actually from squid, that led to that discovery. But then scientists realized that those chemicals were used by other bacteria to turn on other things. So things like, to figure out that you're in someone's lungs, and now's the time to cause disease. Those are the same kind of chemicals they use to communicate. So it was pretty cool. It's called quorum sensing. It just means being able to sense enough of themselves.
GH: The trays that you used
GH: for the photographs, how long does a tray glow? I mean, does that kind of go indefinite, or
SW: No, so they'll probably go for two or three days.
GH: So it's limited.
SW: And then they all kind of run out of juice, and they all die and turn their lights off.
J: So did you feed them?
SW: No, so they were growing on agar, so jelly in their head, kind of all the stuff they needed. But once they've all sort of grown, and they've done their thing, then they sort of start to die off.
GH: So by dying, they stop fluorescing, as opposed to they stop fluorescing, and then dying?
SW: So, I'm gonna stop you there.
GH: Sorry, not fluorescing. Sorry sorry sorry! Sorry!
SW: Yeah, yeah
GH: Sorry, sorry. Kiwi
SW: That's all right. I'm alright about this.
GH: fruit. What?
SW: So it's bio
R: Mouldy, mouldy.
GH: Mouldy, yeah.
J: So what's the right word?
SW: So it's bioluminescence, which is a different thing from fluorescence. So fluorescence is when you have these amazing chemicals that just by their structure, they glow. But they have to be hit by light of a certain wavelength, and that kind of excited them. All their electrons sort of pop out a little bit. And when they come back into orbit, they produce light.
Bioluminescence is a chemical reaction that produces light. So kind of different things. So my bacteria don't require lighting. We don't have to hit them with light to make them glow.
GH: I see.
R: Unlike Jay's hotel room, which requires a black light to see where it glows.
B: Can you make lasers from that kind of process? I mean, you got a population version, right? And when they come down, the light is emitted. I mean, that's how a laser works.
SW: Well, so then it would be fluorescence, that they excite,
S: Fluorescence, yeah.
SW: So yeah
SW: What I work with is bioluminescence, which doesn't require excitation. And so one of the that's really useful about that is that you don't have to do anything to them. You don't have to hit them with light of a certain wavelength. And so in my research, that's really kind of useful.
B: So how does it produce it? Where's the light actually coming from, if it's not …
SW: So it's a chemical reaction. So they put these two chemicals, bocipherin and bocipherase together, and in the presence of oxygen, and energy that comes from the bacteria, you get light as a byproduct.
(Unintelligible cross talk between George and Jay)
SW: No. So only when they turn these genes on. So they turn on the genes to produce bocipherase and bocipherin. And then when those chemicals are present, get all the light, if there's oxygen around, and energy
SW: And then once they don't need them any more, they stop producing the products of those genes, and then you don't get light.
GH: And then they die? Or
SW: And then they die. Well, so they'll be in kind of suspended animation, essentially.
SW: And if I took, you can leave these things kind of around. They might not be glowing, but if I took a little bit of it, and put it on a fresh petri dish, it would glow up again.
GH: Cool! Okay.
SW: So, yeah.
B: How do they survive in stomach acids? Are they extremophiles?
SW: Um, actually, I have no idea about the stomach acids of fish. I don't know what they do.
S: I mean, some bacteria survive
S: stomach acids.
SW: I don't about this one
S: They produce proteins that are resistant to the pH of the stomach.
R: Like E. Coli.
S: Like E. Coli. Anything that you can get, that can infect you from eating it, has to survive stomach acid.
B: Does that by definition make it an extremophile?
B: 'Cause it survives the stomach acids?
B: It's a pretty harsh environment.
S: No, it's not enough, it doesn't count as an extremophile.
J: So are glowsticks considered bioluminescence?
SW: No. So it's a complete different kind of chemical.
J: But it is just two chemicals that
S: It is a chemical reaction.
SW: So that's sort of, chemiluminescence is what you would call that.
S: So do all animals that glow use lucipherin and lucipherase? Some version of it? Like the glow worm?
SW: So, bioluminescence, yeah, so actually, so the New Zealand government hasn't been discovered yet what their lucipherin and lucipherase are. And they're sending a team down. They've been working on it for years now. But they haven't quite
S: They're not sure yet.
R: That's what I was about to bring up. Like, that, you know, Siouxsie's the reason why we went to the glow worm caves
R: You know.
SW: I'm so obsessed!
R: And the first – yeah, four years ago, the first time I visited New Zealand, she took me through, and just like in the middle of the tour, she tells me this fact. Like, “Oh, we don't really know why they glow, basically.”
SW: We know why they glow, we just don't know the chemicals.
R: Right, right, the chemicals. Like, it seems like such a, like it's this tiny thing, and there's so many people studying it, and, you know, and to not know that, to me, is just amazing and wonderful.
E: What is the difficulty
B: Not wonderful! Not knowing.
R: It is wonderful! That's one of the best parts about being a human is not knowing.
E: I get, but how many options can there be? I mean …
SW: So the way that the people in Eden were trying to figure this out was essentially, we know what the sequence is, of the genes, for things like fireflies and stuff. So they're beetles. And so they were sort of looking for, sort of trying this quite dirty method to try and find, pull out genes that looked sort of similar, using a sort of sequencing method.
And as far as I'm aware, that doesn't really get very far. So really, what they need to do is kind of sequence the
SW: genome of a glow worm. The other thing they were trying was more protein approach. So there was sort of taking glow worms. I think I'm probably gonna get this all wrong, and Merriam's gonna shout at me. But they, I think, were basically trying to see what proteins were there, and then if any of them made light. And then they would sort of try, if you had any collections of proteins that made light, then they could try and sort of find out what they were. But they weren't coming up with much.
So they've tried the genetic approach, and clearly it's not the same gene sequence that a firefly uses. So it's something else. But it might just be 'cause they're out by a few bases, and some weren't able to PCR it. So, that's like so much jargon, and
GH: That's awesome.
SW: Sorry. (Laughs)
GH: For the work that you do, what is the imagined tech that will come out of this, down the road? What is the,
R: Isn't it every scientist's worst nightmare question? How could we turn this into a weapon later?
GH: No, I mean, how can I make my drums glow? That's what I'm interested in.
R: Where's my glowing kitten?
GH: Yeah, yeah! You know?
SW: So, I guess the, I am fascinated by the creatures that glow, but that does not, I don't research them. So what I do, is I take these genes, and I put them in a really nasty bacteria. 'Cause what I'm interested in, is how they cause disease, and how we can stop them. So, how we can find new antibiotics and stuff.
GH: Awesome. This is for following them …
SW: Yeah, so, just, I'm just kind of fascinated by the creatures, 'cause they're kind of good to know your material. But frankly, all I'm interested in are the genes. And then I take those genes, and I put them into stuff like TB, food poisoning E. Coli's, I'm kind of like a Jack of All Trades. So if you give me a bug that's kind of fairly interesting, I'll try an make it glow in the dark.
And so, there's a number of reasons why this is really useful. So, one of the first things about life is that it requires energy. So, only living cells will glow. So, that means that we can use light to find, really quickly, whether our bacteria are dead or alive. So instead of having to grow them on petri dishes, which, for the ones we were working with yesterday, your pictures will have grown by today, right? So we've got these guys to draw in glowing bacteria yesterday. So they will have grown up overnight.
But something like TB, that takes four to six weeks to grow in a petri dish. So that just, the time it takes when we're trying to find out whether it's dead or alive, well, you could wait two months, or you could just make them glow in the dark, like we've done, and then you put something in with it, some chemical, and if they're dead, you just put them in a machine that measures light, and then it says “life / no life.” So you kind of get an answer within minutes, really, rather than two months.
GH: So you're trying to cure a disease, but my glowing guitar idea …
B: I think that would be really cool.
R: Wait, wait, wait! First it was a glowing drum set.
GH: Hey! I can choose.
J: Why just pick one? Come on!
GH: Wow, that's awesome!
SW: Yeah, so, the fact that it has to be alive, unless, well, yeah, we could probably cover it in goo, and maybe plate it.
GH: You mean the first one.
R: But enough about what Jay did (inaudible)
J: It would be cool if they could give you like a tatoo that just emitted light, that could feed off of the energy in your body. That would be really, I wouldn't do it, but somebody would do it.
SW: Well, you can get fluorescent tatoos already, ones that are, so again, ones that you need a black light or something to
GH: No, but no black light. They just Woop! Woop! (Futuristic humming, pulsating sound)
B: Jay, I saw a guy had a fluorescent tatoo in the shape of bone. So when you shine the light on his hand, it looks like, just bone. It was really good.
J: It was invisible in normal light? That's pretty bad ass.
R: Usually, he just looks like a bit of white on your arm.
S: What about the fish in the deep ocean? What kind of bioluminescences do they use? Do we know?
SW: So, they use bacteria. So things like the Angler fish?
SW: They have a colony of glowing bacteria. But again, nobody's ever been able to actively isolate and grow it. So we know that it's bacteria, and they've been able to
SW: actually know it's bacteria. But the conditions that an Angler fish has for that bacteria to live in its little lure, scientists haven't been able to reproduce those conditions in a lab. So we don't actually know how to grow it.
SW: But yeah, so there's loads of creatures in the sea that glow. Actually use bacteria to do that. And often, they have this sort of symbiotic relationship with their producing a home and some nutrients, and in return, the bacteria glows. And what often happens in these relationships is if the bacteria don't glow, then they won't be able to survive there. The creature will get rid of them, because they don't kind of want this dead weight that isn't pulling its weight, I guess.
S: Has any human culture used bacteria bioluminescent bacteria to make lanturns or something? 'Cause, you know …
SW: So the problem, certainly not from bacteria. I mean, I guess people wouldn't put fireflies in jars and stuff. They probably won't last very long.
R: Smear 'em on our shoe laces. Does that count?
J: Shrek did.
R: My brothers used to do that. I used to cry.
SW: But it, the number of people that contact me actually kind of designers and stuff, who are like, “Yeah, we want to make some glowing furniture.” And we could do that with the bacteria, but frankly, it would only be glowing for a couple of days,
SW: and then it would stop. So actually, one of my things for next year is I want to try and figure out if there's a way that we can culture these things in continuous cultures to keep them glowing. But we might have to salt them in some way, because we need them to keep glowing.
SW: So one of the things that's thought, for example, this Hawaiian Bobtail Squid does, is it produces an environment that produces lots of, they use the bocipherase to kind of get rid of oxygen and other things. So we'd have to kind of hit them with something that they have to glow to get rid of. So yeah, that's gonna be my pet project for next year, I think, if we can figure that out. And then, hey! Maybe we could make some glowing furniture. That would be kind of cool.
B: You mentioned you transfer genes. What vector do you use? Like a virus to get the genes in there?
SW: So it depends on the bacteria. So some, so TB, we use, we've exploit a way that viruses get in TB. Other ones, what have we done, we've done, so, for some of the E. Coli's, we use the way that bacteria have sex with each other. So they kind of, they exchange some of their DNA's. We kind of use those, plasmids. Yeah, so it all depends on the organism. Whatever we can get our hands on, actually. Whatever nature has provided.
I must say, I've been doing this a long time. And maybe fifteen, twenty years ago, which I was doing my PhD, and people were like, “Oh man, genetic engineering is really evil!” And all I could come up with, it's like really easy, and nature does it all the time. And all we're doing is just exploiting nature's things. It's like, so, that's (inaudible)
S: Yeah, bacterias are trading plasmids all over the place. You know, that's nothing.
SW: We're just making them do what we want them to (inaudible)
S: Right, exactly.
S: Yeah, people say that as they inject their insulin, which is made from bacteria that has an insulin gene in it.
S: All right. Okay, that was awesomely fascinating.
(Commercial at 30:36)
Lessons from Dunning Kruger (31:48)
S: We're gonna shift gears a little bit, and talk about the Dunning Kruger effect. Anybody hear of the Dunning Kruger effect?
R: I know everything there is to know about that.
E: How do you spell it?
S: So, two psychologists, Dunning and Kruger, they did an interesting study, which has kind of become a very popular idea. They, essentially, took subjects, and they asked them to self-assess their knowledge on a subject. They gave them a test, and said, “How do you think you did on the test?” And then they scored how they actually did on the test.
S: And what was interesting is that people in the top quartile, the top twenty-five or so percent, slightly under-estimated their performance. They felt they did a little bit worse than they actually did. At around seventy-eight percent, people were pretty much right on the spot. Below that, people increasingly over-estimated their knowledge and their performance on the test, compared to how they did. Nobody ranked themselves less than fifty percent.
R: Uh huh
S: Percentile. So everyone's above average, right? So, everyone thinks they're above average, and even like, the bottom ten percent of performers thought they were like, in the sixtieth to fifty-fifth percentile, which is interesting. At the time, Dunning and Kruger explained this as, this is like a test of competency, and then, if you're incompetent, you essentially don't have the ability to evaluate your own incompetence, which everyone thinks, “Yeah, I know somebody like that.”
J: Can you interpret that as like, if you're stupid, you can't know that you're stupid.
S: That's how everyone interprets it, but that's really not a good way to interpret it. This is why we're talking about it again. Dunning, one of the psychologists, wrote a good article about this a couple of months ago, which I then blogged about, but we haven't spoken on the show yet. But it's really good follow up.
So, there's a couple of points. First of all, yeah, the meme that sort of got out there in social media was, “Dumb people are too dumb to realize how dumb they are.” And that's funny to say. But that's not really what Dunning-Kruger is saying.
R: Doesn't sound new. That's an idea that's
R: been around for a long time, so
R: it's kind of funny that science was suddenly proving Shakespeare right.
S: Yeah, exactly.
R: Fool thinks he's wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
R: It seems to play perfectly.
S: That is the Dunning-Kruger effect, yeah. So, what's interesting though, is that everyone is on the curve, right? And everyone is on the curve in different places for different areas of knowledge. So it's not something that applies to other people. It's something that applies to us, it applies to everyone.
Also, the question is, why do people so grossly, in the bottom three quarters, why do they so grossly over-estimate their own knowledge? Jay, why do you think people so over-estimate their own knowledge?
J: I can come up with a lot of reasons why I think that's inside of us. Like why do we naturally do that. I mean, part of it is, I would assume, like confidence has something to do with performance. So if we really thought and believed that we were wholly incompetent, or stupid, that we would maybe not do as much, or try as much as we do. The other thing
S: Yeah, that's kind of like a motivational
J: It's like a blocker, right?
J: You don't wan to just sit there and go, “I'm so stupid, I can't do anything.” And lack motivation.
B: Confirmation bias?
S: So, yeah, Bob, you're getting close with confirmation bias. Again, that's why the “people are too dumb to know how dumb they are” doesn't really fit what they've found. It's not that they lack information, it's that they're filled with misinformation. For example, if you talk to somebody who is a global warming denier, they may over-estimate their own knowledge of the issue. It's not that they lack knowledge, it's that they have confident misinformation.
R: Is that Fox News' telling them they're right.
S: Yeah, in that particular case, it's because sometimes it's because there are motivated outlets that, something that I've in the past called “sophisticated nonsense.” You know, it's like, if creationists, I think we may talk about this at some point, but the video, anybody here see the video of Megan Fox, who is a creationist, who was going through the Chicago Natural History Museum.
R: Not that Megan Fox.
S: Not that one. (Audience laughs)
E: Not the dumb actress. What an idiot.
E: She is!
R: Just a random cheap shot at Megan Fox. Why not?
E: Cheap shots. She's a ...
S: So she's walking through the museum, not the pretty Megan Fox, but the racist ...
E: Pretty dumb.
R: Random cheap shot at the other Megan Fox.
E: You heard the things she said. We're not talkin' about that right now, but this woman is not right.
S: Are we getting confused?
GH: Not the actress.
S: The non-actress, creationist Megan Fox was goin' through the museum, is like, ripping apart the displays of evolution that's, “How could scientists believe this? They're so stupid!” She's way, way at the lower end of the Dunning Kruger curve. But she's filled with misinformation. She's filled with ideas that are wrong. And it's not random. She didn't think of these herself. There's a systemic culture of misinformation about evolution that's out there, and people get exposed to it, they get taught it, and they get filled with a false confidence that they know what the hell they're talking about.
Meanwhile, she was spouting unending nonsense! Demonstrable falsehoods. And we encounter this all the time, right? How many topics can we come up that, where we said, global warming, in my opinion, GM, genetic modification, creationism are probably the big three. I've gotten into long arguments with people about psychiatry. They don't know anything. They're just completely filled with misinformation.
So it was very interesting to read Dunning write about that. This is now, whatever it is, fifteen years or so after the Dunning-Kruger effect was published, lamenting how misinterpreted it has been in the popular culture. But really, there's a very important core, skeptical lesson there. We are all, first of all, subject to it. We all have to, again, at the same time, you could be at completely different places on that curve on different topics.
And the thing to really be wary of, is not the absence of information, it's being filled with misinformation, especially misinformation that has been systematically biased in one ideological direction. And that's where motivated reasoning comes in, which is sort of a form of confirmation bias, although it's more of an active process, whereas I see confirmation bias as being more passive. It just sort of happens as a default unless you're working against it.
Motivated reasoning is, you're actively engaging in reasoning that is promoting a specific belief system that you have.
GH: Isn't there also the idea that you think you have all the information necessary to make
GH: a decision. It's like, the more you know, the less you know. When you start studying a subject, or you start jumping into a subject, you realize, wow, there is so much more here than I thought! And the more you learn, the more you real- like ahead of time you had your PhD, you're nothing. It's like, you graduate high school, you know everything. You go to college, you know a lot. You get your PhD, you realize you know nothing.
And I think on that scale, people tend to not realize how much information is lacking. And they're making judgments on how much they understand the subject, by only analyzing two percent of the information that's actually there. It's like, you know, someone that's gonna tell you guys, “Oh yeah, just podcast!” Easy. “Yeah, you get together, you record a podcast, and that's great. Probably takes you an hour and twenty minutes, right? Yeah, great! How hard can it be?” You know, they have no idea the complexities involved in trying to produce
R: It takes an hour and a half.
GH: Yeah, yeah.
GH: That's right.
J: Steve, the people that lack knowledge though, fit in to this paradigm? 'Cause I can give you some examples of people I talk to, they happen to be people I work with, that have remarkably, a very small amount of information about a topic like, vaccinations is the big thing. Every year, when the flu vaccine comes, like, everyone at my job can get it for free, and I'm literally one of those people that walks around, trying to entice people to go get their flu vaccination. And every once in a while, some one will poke their head out, and want to know why I give a shit. And then I'll do my one-two on it real quick, and I'm curious to know what they know. If they're not getting it, why?
J: 'Cause it's a good thing to learn, because I can, the next time I talk to them, maybe I'll have an answer. And a lot of times, they don't have a goddamn thing in their head. “Ah, vaccines.” It's like, “Well, what? What about vaccines?” “Eh!” There's nothing there!
R: No, it's this.
J: Yeah, but there's nothing there.
J: So, where are they on this?
S: Yeah, I mean, that's a good question, and I do think it's a combination of underestimating, as George says, underestimating how much knowledge there is. Also, in some cases, being filled with misinformation. What I often do, because obviously, I teach medical students, I teach other physicians, I teach people at pretty much every level of education. It's really fascinating to know, I like, know that I'm talking to a first year medical student versus a second year medical student versus a third year medical student. They're so different.
But what I often ask them to do is, like, especially when you get to a fellow, for instance. That's like, the highest level of specialized training. So this is somebody who has now completed seven years of medical training. They've done four years of medical school, a year of internship, and three years of residency. That's eight, I'm sorry, eight years of training. And then they do a year of fellowship. And then they really learn what's goin' on in their narrow area of expertise.
And I usually like to, half way through the year, towards the end of the year, say, “So, compared to your knowledge of neuromuscular disease, after nine months of studying neuromuscular disease, to what you had at the end of your Neurology residency,” after basically eight years of medical training. “You knew nothing, right? I mean, by comparison, you look back, and like, 'Wow!' Yeah, you thought you knew neuromuscular disease, but now you realize you really didn't. Now, what I want you to imagine, though, is that you are still at that level of ignorance for everything else.”
And I don't know why that doesn't naturally occur to people. Or in a lay audience, I'll say, “Think of something you're an expert in. Everyone has something that they, whatever, a hobby, their job, whatever. “How much do other people know about your area of expertise? When you see a news report on the news about something that you know a lot about, they always get it wrong, profoundly wrong. And you're annoyed at how wrong they get it. But just remember that you're that person. You're as ignorant about everything else as you think everyone else is about your area of expertise.”
B: Thanks for making me feel stupid, Steve.
S: And it's always light a light bulb going on.
J: But the podcast, the process of doing this podcast
J: is humbling to all of us.
J: And the reasoning is, that we'll talk about an item. So we research our items, and we know how to research, and we're very good at vetting the data, and doing the process of assembling list of information that we want to give when we do a news report, right. And it happens quite often, we'll get an email from an expert. This is the person that is literally invented the information, or discovered the information.
S: This happens to be the topic of my PhD thesis, literally. I get that all the time.
J: So there's Steve, as the doctor, talking to us, which, you know, it's a poor comparison, but we get it, but we don't get it all the way. And then they humble us, because they're like, “Now, (Claps) let me tell you the real story.”
B: But Jay, the thing, I think you're mischaracterizing that a bit. That does happen sometimes, but I think, generally though, what we get is not that “You guys screwed up, and here's what really happened.” What they really do is give us, “You guys pretty much got it right, but consider this.” And he goes through details
B: Deeper. He takes a deeper dive than we could in the time that we have.
B: And that's what makes it really interesting to me, 'cause you think you know something, yeah, we got it right. We weren't wrong, but there's other layers that make it just
B: so complicated and rich, that it might have been lost on us.
J: And sometimes, another person will write in, and the two experts are arguing two perfectly legitimate in different areas. And then we're like ftt! Oh my god!!
J: But that's cool too. So the whole thing is humbling for us.
S: It's interesting. So we get every kind of response. We get the, “All right, you guys made a little mistake here,” or “Yeah, you sort of got it, but you sort of had the wrong spin on it.” I've gotten emails from scientists who would like, “Yeah, but the researcher who did the study you talked about, he's an asshole.”
S: They know the guy personally,
S: There's just no way we're gonna get at that level of insight into the culture
S: of the scientists who were doing the research. And of course, why don't we always contact them? Well, first of all, we do as often was can. We have people on tap that we go to, just to make sure, “Hey, am I getting this right?” I'll email the author of the studies to get 'em on the show, or to just say, “Hey, am I getting this right here? Can you just get me a bullet?” They don't always
S: get back to us
S: on time, or at all. So it's hard. It's really hard to do it in a news cycle kind of way. So then we count on the crowd sourcing afterwards, where, all right, if anybody did this as a PhD thesis, they'll email us. Then, if we need to, we'll come back for the second bite. And often though, most of the time though, it's what Bob said. That's like the ninety percent response we get.
It's like, “You guys were good as far as you went. But I love your show, and now this is my opportunity to tell you about the one thing I know more than you guys do.” And they give us more information, and it's great! I love it. It's education for us. And if, you know, I have to make an editorial decision about whether or not it's worth coming back and saying, “Hey, here's some other layer of information about this item,” which we do sometimes as well.
R: Yeah, and just to get back to the original Dunning-Kruger
B: Oh, I forgot about that.
R: Yeah, that's what we were talking about.
R: I was just thinking of how to best sum up what you're saying, and what I'm thinking is, a lot of people mistakenly believe they understand a lot about the Dunning-Kruger effect,
R: but are misled by their desire to believe that other people are stupider than them.
S: No, I think that's true. And I think that's a general skeptical lesson.
R: It's like a fractal
S: Meta. It's a meta meta, yeah. So, this is a theme, I think we've been hitting a lot recently on the show, in a lot of venues, is that you gotta apply all these skeptical tools to yourself. And when you just apply them to other people, you're missing the point, and you're probably getting it wrong.
R: And you're probably a jerk.
J: You know what's interesting around this, an interesting side note. We get emails from people, and a few weird things happen. One is, like, this happens quite often, actually. Someone will say, “You got this wrong.” Steve will relisten to the segment of the podcast they're talkin' about,
J: just to make sure that
J: you have it in your head. Then he'll comment, “Actually, no, we didn't say that. What you said was said. We said this. And you're wrong, here's why, and thank you for emailing.” And then the guy writes back and goes, “Well, I didn't really listen to the whole news item.”
S: They email us half way through!
R: That's the best part.
S: That's the best part.
R: And we'll get like a second email like, “Never mind.” (Mumbles) “segment.”
S: They're so trivial.
R: What are you doin'? Go out their walkway, listen to the podcast. Or just sit there with your email program open.
B: Yeah, but sometimes, they do listen to the whole thing, and their memory of it. I like it, because you could tell the bias they're bringing to that.
B: Specific topics,
S: They hear what they want to hear.
B: Hear what they want to hear, exactly.
S: Yeah, exactly.
R: They're all idiots, basically.
S: All right
(Commercial at 47:59)
New Zealand’s Dawn Whale (49:11)
S: Totally different item. You're gonna tell us about a whale fossil that was discovered right here in New Zealand.
R: A whale of a fossil.
J: Yes, I looked for New Zealand news items.
J: I'm not gonna go too deep in on this. You guys probably heard about this. And if I mispronouncing, you must help me, 'cause I'm horrible at that.
R: Whale. (Strong emphasis on the H)
J: Oh, is that ...
R: It actually makes like an F sound. Fwail
E: Whale, whale.
J: I love that. Otagu Department of Geology PhD student Robert Bosanecker.
J: Row-bert Bosanecker, and his supervisor, professor Yuan Forditie. It's like, everybody's god damn name! Where are the John Smiths in the world? So, Professor Yuan Fordite identified and named a genus of ancient baline?
S: You know what that means?
B: They're filtered.
S: There are two types of whales, ones with teeth, and then ones with
R: The broom
S: The broom handle. So they bring in the water,
R: This is what they look like
S: with the krill or whatever they eat.
(Some one makes a loud slurping sound with a straw and cup)
S: And then they squirt out the water.
J: Yuan Fordice, they identified and named the new genus (Jen-us)
(Laughter, especially from George)
S: A baline whale
J: A baline whale, they now call Tohorata. Very cool name.
J: Why does that remind me of something from Star Trek?
S: I dunno.
J: What was that ...
R: Because everything reminds you of something on Star Trek?
J: Toharata, which is Maori for Dawn Whale, or can be interpreted as
S: That's a cool name, Dawn Whale.
J: Yeah, it is cool.
GH: Wasn't she Mary-Ann?
J: Wasn't she Mary-Ann? On Gilligan's Island?
GH: Dawn Whales?
R: Appreciated by three of us.
R: It's all like, that's all that matters.
J: So, like I said, the whale belongs to the toothless, filter-feeding family. No chance I can pronounce ... eomastaik.
J: Myo – M-Y-S-T-I-C-E-T-I-D-A-K.
B: That's close enough
J: All right
J: I'm feelin' good tonight. It's very interesting that this is the first time members of this family have been identified in the Southern Hemisphere. So that's the key point
J: to this news item. The whale lived between twenty-five and twenty-six million years ago, and it vaguely resembled a Minke Whale (Strong emphasis on the H) But it's more slender, and serpent-like, which is actually kind of creepy.
S: Does it have legs?
J: No legs. The whole animal could have been about eight meters long, and they were preserved in a rock formation near Duntrune in north Otago. Very cool.
S: Yeah, the whole evolution of whales thing is awesome, because fifty years ago, the creationists said, “Ah! You got whales, there's no connecting fossils between land mammals and whales. They're a kind unto themselves. There are no transitional fossils. And then in the 1980's, and since, I think first in Pakistan and India, we started digging up these whale fossils, fossilized whale ancestors. And basically, we fleshed out the entire evolution of the whale.
S: In the last thiry
B: Wasn't tiktaktalik one?
S: No, tiktaktalkik's a fish. Ambulocetus. Abulocetus is like the main, in the middle. It's the walking whale. It is the whale with frickin' legs.
S: It is the quintessential transitional fossil. It completely blew away the creationist argument. And you know what they say?
J: Worry about the one between that one.
S: Did they say, “Nope! Those bats! They don't have any connection between bats and other mammals.” They just shifted over to another example.
B: Move the goal post.
S: Yeah. They completely ignore the fact that the abulocetus totally blew them away.
S: And you know, in whatever, some day, we'll find some half-bat mammal things, and then they'll just shift over to something else.
J: So why are we doing this science then?
S: 'Cause we don't care about them!
J: It is frustrating, but the fact is that we get to relish in awesome news items like this.
J: They just miss it all.
S: Yeah. I love whale evolution. They have leg bones!
GH: They have leg and hip bones, still in modern whales.
S: Modern whales have little, vestigial hip bones.
J: So how about a bad ass glowing whale? Like a beacon of modern science.
SW: I will do my best.
J: Get on it!
S: Get on it.
J: And I'll ride that bastard.
?: Yahoo!! (Probably Siouxsie)
R: That's a good point though, Siouxsie. We don't see any large glowing things.
SW: So, apparently, in New Zealand, we have a giant, glowing earthworms.
J: How big is it?
R: How big is giant?
SW: I have no idea. But I'm told they're big. (Laughs) I actually have no idea!
R: No? Your husband is saying …
(Cross talk makes it difficult to hear for the next few lines)
J: That's how
GH: He says six inches
R: mathematicians, so I don't really him.
S: Is that the biggest glowing thing in the world?
GH: It's the second biggest.
SW: They are some quite big beetles
J: Yes, that's big.
GH: Look at me! I'm glowing!
GH: (Unintelligible) I'm happy to be glowing.
J: Is that thing moving around? Does it interact with people and hurt them?
What I did learn, just recently though, is that from quite a famous entymologist in New Zealand, he thinks that this one actually has a glowing bacteria inside of it. That's the reason that reports from the American Civil War, that soldiers who had glowing wounds were more likely to survive their injuries.
R: I had never heard that.
SW: So this is an awesome – sorry, am I allowed to do this?
R: Uh, yeah!
SW: There's an awesome glowing bacteria. It's one of the only bacteria on land that we know glows - cosfoteraptus luminescence, and it normally lives inside – the most well known symbiots. This one's that lives inside of a microscopic worm. And this worm burrows its way into larvae of various insects. And then it produces a whole heap of toxins which kind of kill the poor, little caterpillar, which then starts to liquify, and that's kind of awesome nutrients. And the bacteria and the nemotode'll all reproduce.
And for some bizarre reason, the bacteria also starts to glow. And it's thought that maybe this attracts more silly larvae to the, and then they basically, the worms, and the bacteria are reassociate. And then they spill out this carcass, looking for their next victim.
SW: And so he reckons, actually got this bacteria in New Zealand, and that's the reason those ones glow. And so he was like, “Give me,” his macard, we'll go and find some. Yes! We're gonna go find ourselves some giant earthworms.
R: So, wait.
SW: So I can identify the bacteria.
R: I've never heard this idea before. So, in the American Civil War,
SW: Yeah, so they're apparently some documentation. So, the really important part of that story that I completely missed out is that, so now you've got kind of liquified larvae, that's this bag of nutrients that everything's growing in. And so what photoraptus does is it produces antibiotics to stop other bacteria from taking advantage of the soup.
SW: And so what was likely happening, so the soldiers who'd survived, they had glowing wounds. And they used to call it “angel's glow.” But what's much more likely is those soldiers had got photoraptus, which lives in the soil, on their wounds. It was producing antibiotics, and that stopped other nasty bacteria
SW: from taking hold and killing those soldiers.
S: We have to travel here to hear this?
R: That's what I was thinking! You have just blown my mind. I had never heard of this.
J: Yeah, I can't believe that that (Inaudible)
(Siouxie says something unintelligible)
(More cross talk)
J: People can see the wounds glowing?
J: I mean
SW: It only happens under very certain circumstances. I think about this, it's to do with the temperature of peoples' bodies, and blah blah blah. But, yeah, there're apparently documents that it would help people (Inaudible)
J: That's awesome.
R: That's really cool.
GH: This just in.
YouTube’s Recommended Videos (57:12)
S: How come, that when I go to YouTube, and I watch a video,
R: Uh huh
S: interesting stuff happens, and you're gonna tell me about it.
R: Good, good segue. Natural.
S: I don't want to steal your thunder. Just go.
R: Yeah, so I found a really cool study in the journal Social Science Computer Review, which I'm sure we all subscribe to. Or which someone on my Twitter feed subscribes to.
(Audience laughs softly)
GH: I read that for the articles.
R: I read the sexy pictures of computers. So, yeah, there was a paper title, “Down the White Rabbit Hole: The Extreme Right and Online Recommender Systems,” which was produced by researchers at University of College, Dublin. And they were looking into the idea people might get caught up in a sort of feedback loop, when they're on YouTube.
So, we've talked on the show before about how people online can end up seeking out information sources that already stick to what they already know. So if you are left wing, you're going to be looking at left wing sources, and you sort of self-select your information. And that makes it difficult to reach out to people who are maybe, you know, if you're a skeptic, and you're trying to reach out to somebody who's a vaccine denier, it can be difficult, because vaccine deniers are looking at other vaccine denial websites, and things like that. They're self-selecting themselves.
But what this research was looking at was not how people self-select, but how the platforms they use might funnel them into the same sort of bubble that they would otherwise be choosing for themselves. And this is interesting, because a lot of these platforms, like Twitter and Facebook and YouTube claim to be politically neutral, by design, by necessity. If they were not neutral in as many ways as possible, obviously, they would come under fire.
So what they say is, “So long as what you're saying is legal, go ahead and say it. We're not going to censor people just because they have opinions that we don't agree with,” which is fair enough. However, these sites use certain algorithms to direct their users in certain ways. So this particular study looked at YouTube.
YouTube, when you watch a video, off on the right hand side, you'll see recommended videos. And there's an algorithm that decides what videos You Tube will be showing to you, in order to get you to click through, and continue watching YouTube videos. And obviously, the algorithm is focused on finding things that each user will enjoy in some way. But what these researchers were looking at is, what exactly are they showing you.
So they looked at extreme right videos, extreme right being things like very racist or nationalistic, KKK, neo-nazi sort of stuff. Some music as well, like, nationalistic metal, and things like that. And what they found was that, by and large, basically, they took all of this data from YouTube, and they looked at which videos were being the most recommended. The most recommended being the number one most clicked link on any one YouTube page.
And what they found was that with extreme right videos, that top video more often than not, tended to also be extreme right. Not just being within the spectrum of something that that user might find interesting, but always specifically extreme right. And the top rated video was much more likely to be extreme right than any of the other related videos.
And what the researchers point out is that this can lead people to getting trapped in an ideological bubble, which can be particularly bad when you're talking about hate groups, because the whole purpose of many people who are uploading videos that are extreme right, is to, in some way, encourage people to go out and to do something, to activate this base of racists and misogynists and things like that.
And when you get caught up in that ideological bubble, it's much more likely that you will be able to activate that kind of base. So the researchers come to this conclusion that even though we see these platforms as neutral, and we tend to think of people just choosing their content on their own, the platforms and the algorithms they use actually do end up pushing people in one particular direction.
And so, they suggest that maybe tweaks to these algorithms could prevent people from becoming more extremist in their beliefs. It could help expose people to differing beliefs in some ways, if the platforms are open to make those changes.
S: Yeah, I hate the idea that the content I'm being fed through Google or whatever is being tweaked based upon what the algorithm thinks I'm interested in.
S: I hate that.
S: I hate when you do Google searches, and like, “Oh, great! My own blogs are coming up.
S: That's awesome.” It's like, no, they're just feeding you my own shit, you know?
R: And no matter what, there's always going to be an algorithm.
R: And so, unfortunately, there's no opting out of it. There's no way of saying, like, “I want an algorithm that's not going to influence me.”
R: Like, it's not gonna happen. You know, no matter what, it's going to have an effect on users.
S: And it's social engineering, when you think about it.
R: It is.
S: Either way, you do it. I do think, I still think they should try to be as neutral as possible.
R: And they are. They're not
E: Or not suggest anything.
J: This is a complicated thing though, guys.
J: Nobody is spending no place behind the scenes, like, trying to cause this effect.
J: I mean, seriously, Google
S: It's an unintended consequence.
J: Yeah, they are trying to produce hits things that you want to see. Have you ever used somebody else's Google account, as an example. You could do this. You could sign into your Google. I'm a huge Google user and fan and everything. But it learns you, you know what I mean?
J: It knows a lot of stuff about you.
S: Have you noticed, we're in New Zealand,
S: we're searching on Google here. We're getting New Zealand news items!
S: We're getting fed, you guys, what you would normally see, it's different than what I would get fed if I was doing the same searches in the US.
J: So there are ways that you could make Google not know who you are. But the point being, though, is ultimately, maybe not in this particular circumstance, and like, if they want to actually, like you were saying, social engineer
J: something more constructive in the search results, my circumstance, I'm lookin' up, like, Star Wars trailers, and just show me everything! I'm cool with that. I'm not gonna turn into an asshole through that.
J: nobody's seen the George Lucas version of the new Star Wars trailers? Just go watch it. You're gonna love it.
SW: The lego version's better.
J: I haven't seen that one. I'll check it out tonight.
B: Lego, I hate lego stuff like that.
J: Google though, it really does do us a lot, there's a lot of work behind the scenes in order to produce that information, and as fast as it is. And we should be thankful for it, because it really is something, it's a miracle that they're able to do what they're doing.
J: It is! It's fantastic! Technology is just
R: All praise Google!
GH: Say, you want to find a brand of Kit Kat bar, let's say. And you really want
R: That's already a brand
GH: a peanut butter version of a Kit Kat bar.
GH: Okay, and you find it. You find it, and you buy it. You've bought the thing you want. And now every ad that comes up is for a peanut butter Kit Kat bar.
J: You already bought it though.
GH: But you bought it already.
GH: That's the thing that's the most, like
GH: every piece of gear that I look for, for the next six months now, it'll say, “Hey! You want a tri-cymbal? You want a tri-cymbal?”
J: The thing is, Google doesn't know that you purchased it.
GH: Of course!
J: Google's algorithm is saying
S: You searched for it.
J: this person has searched for this. They probably haven't bought it yet.
GH: I get it. But I want it to bioluminesce and be able to provide me with a …
R: And that's the thing, like I think in a way, we're at this early stage of developing these algorithms. So, when I'm on YouTube, I actually get served a ton of recommended videos that are just the worst possible thing for me. And they actually tend to be extremist content. Like, you know, if I like watching, like, Anita Sarkeesian videos, who's a feminist game critic, I'll get a bunch of videos in the side bar that are like, “You may also like Anita Sarkeesian is a Jew whore!” You know? And it's like, whoa! What? No!
S: It's like the Google ads on our site. “Would you like this homeopathic remedy?”
R: Right, yeah.
S: I just wrote an article trashing homeopathy. They haven't triggered that. They haven't figured that out yet.
R: I would love to see a similar study, like this, but looking at less extreme viewpoints, like a skeptical viewpoint
R: or feminists, or something like that, and how that pans out.
R: Because I get the feeling that because the algorithm is, in a way, so basic, it's going to latch on to those black or white sort of options. So when you do watch extreme right videos, it's like, “Oh good! I know exactly what you want!” You know,
R: And bam! “I've got you.
E: They should allow you to opt out of it.
S: Yeah, that's what I was gonna say.
J: Like, StumbleUpon let's you thumbs up or thumbs down content, and it changes its algorithm (inaudible)
R: But that
E: Clear your cache, clear all that stuff. All that, go away.
J: You have to delete your Google account.
E: You have to delete the Google account?
S: What if you're not signed in?
R: These solutions don't actually solve the problem that the researchers have identified. You know, which, they're not looking at people who would opt out of these things. They're looking at people who would see that next extreme right video
R: and say, “Oh, okay, well, that supports the thing I just saw, so this is ...” and it gives a false sense of majority,
R: and helps activate people. It helps give them a feeling of community with very extreme hate movement type of ideologies.
S: It's a bit scary, I mean, because increasingly, the internet is our one source of all information, and it's complicated, managing that massive amount of information. And essentially, computers are deciding how we access information, based upon algorithms that are not serving our own interests, or even desires. It's kind of serving whatever, some click algorithm.
S: And you just wonder how far that's gonna go, you know? We're all gonna be living in our own internet bubbles
S: that are just crafted to us. And that's why I do like the opting option, at least if it's right there, “Do you want a Google search that remembers your history? Do you want one that's totally neutral? Do you want news that's skewed towards New Zealand? Do you want
S: it skewed internationally? Do you just want the most popular of everything that's happening out there?” You know what I mean? And I'd like to compare them.
J: That'd be one hell of an app for someone to write. Like, I want to see Google as it appears in fifty countries of our choosing.
J: You know?
R: See, and that would be really cool, but again, that's for somebody who's already primed with the idea of, “Oh, it's a benefit to me to seek out opinions that are different from my own.”
J: Like, seek out new lives, and new civilizations?
R: Yeah, to boldly go blah blah blah.
(Commercial at 1:09:39)
Science or Fiction (1:10:56)
(Science or Fiction music)
VO: It's time for Science or Fiction
S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake! You guys ready for this week?
GH: Bring it.
J: Yes. Susan!
S: All right, here are the three items. Again, one of these is fake. Item #1: A recent study found that in five adult ICUs in one hospital there were over 2.5 million patient alarms in one month. https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2014/10/119601/hospital-logs-staggering-25-million-alarms-just-month Item #2: A new prospective study finds that those with a commute greater than 31 miles one way have an increased life expectancy compared to those who live closer to work. And item #3: Scientists have discovered the oldest carving by a human ancestor, five hundred thousand years old and the first by Homo erectus.
So, we're gonna start by polling the audience. George, will you do your clap thing?
S: Okay. So, if you think that 2.5 million patient alarms a month is the fiction, clap once.
(Scattered, single claps. One is noticeably later than the others)
R: (Laughts) It's late.
S: Yep. If you think that having a long commute to work increases your life expectancy, clap once.
S: And if you think that scientists discovered a five hundred thousand year old carving by a homo erectus, clap once – that that's the fiction, clap once, sorry.
S: All right, that looked like two, then one, and then nobody believes three. Okay, or thinks three is the fiction. So let's go down. We'll start with our guests on the right.
GH: Bah! Okay, I read something about the carving. Five hundred thousand feels really old, though. And I think that's the trick. I think the trick is that, I think Steve knows we all read, we saw the little potato with the carvings on it. And we're all gonna go, “Oh! That's real!” Ah, half a million seems too much. (Winces multiple times loudly) I'm sayin' that's the fiction. I'm saying that's the fiction.
S: Okay, Siouxsie?
SW: Oh, I'm gonna be really dull and go with, so, you have a better life expectancy if you
S: Commute to work.
J: Long commute. Miles longer.
S: More than for
SW: I'm gonna go with George.
S: You think that the five hundred thousand, that's the fiction?
S: Okay. Evan.
E: How many ICU's? 2.5
S: Five. It's basically one hospital, which has five adult ICU's. There were over 2.5 million patient alarms in one month.
GH: That seems high too.
J: I'm not very clear on that.
R: Yeah, I have no idea what a patient alarm is.
R: You mean, like when somebody stops breathin' and you're like boo-boo-boo! (Imitating alarm sound)
R: Boo-boo-boo! Okay.
S: An alarm going off. Gonna happen greater than 2.5 million times.
E: That's a really high number, 2.5 million of these things going. Five ICU's, got a number of patients.
B: Can I use a calculator to calculate how many times per second that went off?
E: That's too high.
B: Is that allowed?
E: It's too high, Steve.
E: Patient alarms has got to be the fiction. I think of the three of these, that's the most extreme number here, so that's the fiction.
S: Patient alarms, okay. Bob?
B: Can you skip me?
B: Homo erectus, huh. First one, half a million.
GH: Seems high, right?
B: It does, but 2.5 million, that's like
GH: I know! That seems high too!
B: a lot!
J: Less than five patient bays in one hospital.
S: In one month. Five adult ICU's. Hospitals have multiple ICU's.
J: Okay, they just put multiple beds
S: All the adult ICU's in one hospital, over the course of one month, there were greater than 2.5 million patient alarms went off.
B: All right, half a million's too big. That's the fiction.
S: Okay. Rebecca?
R: I was gonna go with the commute thing, because I feel like commuting more than thirty miles would significantly decrease my life expectancy. And, you know, like, traffic accidents happen a lot. Then I was thinking, most accidents occur within a mile of home. And then I was thinking, most rich people can afford to live in fancy suburbs, and commute into the city, and back out. And they would probably have higher life expectancies anyway. And people of a lower economic class
B: You're overthinking it.
R: would live – okay.
R: The homo erectus thing.
B: Yay. Yay! GWB!
J: Steve, you said that if you live thirty-one miles or farther away from work, you have an increased life expectancy.
J: So you were saying that the more time you spend in the car equates somehow to a higher life expectancy. Very interesting. That one alone, I could turn around a million times in my head. I'm thinking, like, and I've done long and short commutes, and I'm much happier with a short commute. And I think happiness is important. Yeah, I'll take that one as the fake, and I think that's wrong.
S: Okay, so we're spread out.
GH: Should we re-poll the audience?
S: Yeah, we'll re-poll the audience. So, this is just to see how much of an influence our expert panel had on you. So, if you think 2.5 million patient alarms in one month is the fiction, clap.
S: If you think longer commutes make you live longer, clap.
(Another loud clap)
S: If you think that five hundred thousand year old carving by homo erectus is the fiction, clap.
R: We totally got people, yeah.
S: That was a dramatic effect. You guys flipped them from two to one.
S: From the life expectancy to the ICU one. Okay, so, ungh
(Everyone starts hmming)
S: Should I go with the panel or the audience? Let's uh …
(Incoherent cross talk)
S: I will default to taking them in order, since we're kind of all over the place.
B: (Whispering) Shit!
S: A recent study found that in five adult ICU's in one hospital, that there were over 2.5 patient alarms in one month. I think, Evan, were you the only one on the panel that
S: thought that one was the fiction? The audience was convinced by that. A lot of them thought that one was the fiction. And that one is
B: How is that possible?
S: Yes, that's a lot of.
SW: That thing … all the time!
S: Yeah, that's hundreds of patients every day, every few moments, is an alarm going off, and it adds up to over 2.5 million
J: There's always an alarm. You go to the hospital, there's always a bell ringing.
S: Yeah. So this
(Humming / buzzing sound)
GH: There it is.
S: The study was specifically done to look at something called alarm fatigue.
S: Which is kind of self-explanatory.
J: So you ignore the alarm?
S: Exactly. So what happens, there's so many alarms going off all the time, you just ignore them. The same study
B: That's an alarm, just one alarm per second, for a month.
J: There's one always happening.
S: But there's hundreds of patients.
R: It's on average.
S: Yeah, that's a lot. It's crazy. 88.8 percent of them were false alarms.
J: What's that mean?
R: A lot of them.
J: Hold on! Siouxsie and I agree, like, the springs in those things are shot. They fall off your finger, in like, two seconds.
S: But it's not just the oxygen sensor on your finger. So they broke out specific kinds of alarms.
J: EKG's and all that.
S: EKG's, right. So, 88.8 percent, what I say, a false alarm, that means that nothing had to be done. So either it was just an error, or it was not actionable, or it was a false positive, it was picking up, like it thought it was an arhythmia, but it really wasn't arythmia.
B: Or they got there so late, they were already dead, and they didn't have to do anything.
S: So, clearly, we need to take steps to reduce the number of alarms that are going off, raise that threshold, because when, it's like crying wolf, right? This is the outcome where the boy who cried wolf. There's alarms going off all the time, you just, it's part of the background. I work in hospitals, it's part of the background. Unless it's going off right next to you
SW: Like it shouldn't happen in an ICU, and they didn't ignore them.
S: Yeah, well they don't, but it also contributes to them constantly
GH: The I Don't care unit.
S: Having to run in, you know, to the patient room. By definition, ICU, you have one to one nursing anyway, so the nurses are kind of, one nurse to one patient in the room.
J: So why are nurses so angry?
S: 'Cause they're answering alarms.
GH: Because they won't stop buzzing, Jay! That's why!
E: But what if they nick you, with the babies,
S: Yeah. It's probably the same thing, but they didn't study them. They always (inaudible)
E: (Inaudible) study.
S: Let's go on to number two.
J: Trim traps!
S: A new prospective study finds that those with a commute greater than thirty-one miles one way have an increased life expectancy compared to those who live closer to work. Jay, you thought this one was the fiction. You're the only one on the panel.
J: There was quite a few people in the audience that agree with me.
S: A few people in the audience thought this one was fiction. They switched after Evan convinced 'em to go to the wrong one.
S: And this one is the fiction.
(Groans and oh's)
S: Well done!
GH: Well done. Jay bird.
B: Nice, Jay.
J: I'll stand up.
S: Well done.
J: Got it! Here you go, thank you.
GH: Thanks, that's nice. Oh, damn it. Sorry.
S: So, this study actually showed, as Jay also said, that people who had a longer commute have a lower quality of life. They are not as happy. And, this wasn't the reason for the study, but I had to look it up. There are studies which show that people have a longer commute actually have a shorter life expectancy.
J: Nailed it!
S: Shorter life expectancy. Not sure why.
(Rebecca says something that is drowned out by Jay)
J: That's like “Zero commute! I will live forever!”
S: But the hypothesis is
(George mumbles something)
J: I gotta get on that.
R: While we were watching Netflix in my underpants. Yeah, so
J: And YouTube videos.
J: God damn right!
E: Just the videos on the right.
S: The hypothesis is that it causes stress, that people, when they have a longer commute, they have less time, and they feel time pressure, and that causes stress. And the stress kills 'em.
J: Obviously, yeah.
S: Yeah. So, let's go to number three. Scientists have discovered the carving by human ancestors are five hundred thousand years old, and the first by homo erectus. And that is science!
S: Isn't that cool?
GH: Like I said, I remember reading
GH: that. The number was ...
S: It was a shell. And there's markings in the shell that are geometric, and it had to be deliberately carved, like it was hard to do it. They reproduced it on both fossilized and fresh shells, and it's not the kind of thing that can happen by accident. Somebody had to like, really scratch it out deliberately, kind of a pattern. They're still debating over whether or not you would consider this art, whether or not it counts as art. But that's kind of irrelevant.
R: To be fair, they're still debating that statue of a penis somewhere on the Tate modern ...
S: Right, right. But it clearly was a deliberate carving, and it was by a homo erectus. So we have carvings by, obviously homo sapiens, like we talked about this I think, the other time you were on the show.
S: Cro magnon man, in that case. We also have paintings done by neanderthals, but this is the first one by a homo erectus.
S: Homo erectus is an alder hominid. They emerged two to two and a half million years ago. They went extinct about a hundred and forty thousand years ago. They are almost certainly the ancestors of both neanderthals and homo sapiens, and modern humans. They were the first hominids, probably, to use fire. And also, the combination of hunting and using fire enabled them to essentially spread throughout the world. So they were the first ones to really range far and wide. The Australopithicenes were largely confined to Africa, for example.
J: Can we talk more about the commute, though?
S: Do you have any other insights? You want to explain a bit.
R: Can we talk more about bed.
J: I got it right, though.
S: Yeah. You did, Jay. You got it right.
R: Good job.
S: Well done, solo victory.
J: It's very exciting to be
S: It feels good.
J: this at a live show.
S: Feels good.
J: In front of a very intelligent audience.
J: It happens.
S: The homo erectus, though, is very surprising.
J: It is pretty cool.
S: Yeah, I like that one.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:07)
S: Jay, do you have a quote for us?
J: I have a quote.
S: (Unintelligible) You good?
J: This is a quote from Ernest Rutherford.
S: A kiwi!
J: You guys know who he is?
B: The Rutherford atom.
J: Do you take ownership of this man?
1st audience member: Oh yes.
2nd audience member: He's on our money.
J: Then you must take, he owes you money?
2nd audience member: No
(Jay says something that is drowned out by the laughter)
GH: Hey, Ernie, let's go! Today! Come on! The vig is six percent, son of a bitch.
R: Can we say that's actually how Jay was like, “I should find a New Zealand person.” I was like, “Just look at the money.
J: Yeah, it was good.
R: Pick a random dude.
“Scientists are not dependent on the ideas of a single man but on the combined wisdom of thousands of men all thinking of the same problem and each doing his little bit to add to the great structure of knowledge which is gradually being erected.”
J: (Shouting) Ernest Rutherford!
S: We'll give him a pass on the whole
(Applause gets louder)
S: Thank you all for joining me for this episode. Thank you to the wonderful audience we had with us tonight.
S: George, always a pleasure to have you on the show.
GH: So nice to be here again. Thank you.
S: Thank you for joining us for this whole trip. It's been wonderful.
GH: It's been unreal. I'm gonna miss you guys. I can't even begin
GH: to think
S: Come visit. Like, we live right next door to your sister.
GH: I … yeah! Totally. It's true. That's true. That's true. Come see the funk band.
S: Funk band. We definitely.
J: January 10th.
B: January 10th!
GH: There we go. January 10th.
S: Siouxsie, wonderful having you on the show again.
SW: Thanks very much for having me!
R: Thank you.
E: We learned a lot tonight.
S: You need to make more glowing stuff.
SW: Okay, I'll do that.
S: Awesome, awesome. Guys, as always,
S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.
GH: (As applause continues) He-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ey!
(A little more applause)
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 theskepticsguide.org, 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 email@example.com. 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.
Today I Learned
- This episode was recorded months before it aired. As a result, it is the last episode that has Rebecca as a regular rogue, and it is the last time that Jay shouts the name of the author of the quote of the week.