SGU Episode 514

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SGU Episode 514
May 16th 2015
Orbo-never die battery2.jpg
SGU 513 SGU 515
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Selling eternal life is an unbeatable business, with no customers ever asking for their money back after the goods are not delivered.
Victor J. Stenger
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Ten hour marathon debrief. Amendment for Jay's science or fiction.

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:31)[edit]

  • Patrick Matthew: First person to offer the modern conception of natural selection as a mechanism for Macro-Evolution.

S: All right, Bob, tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Hey guys, for this week, in Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm covering Patrick Metthew, who was the first person to offer the modern conception of natural selection as a mechanism for Macro-Evolution. Ever hear of him? Probably not!

E: I've heard of Charles Darwin.

B: I never had. Well, that's just it. Everybody knows Charles Darwin, theory of evolution, right? Everybody. I mean, probably,

S: And Alfred Russel Wallace. You guys heard of Alfred Russel Wallace?

B: Right!

E: Of course, yes.

B: And then

E: 1A and 1B.

B: I mean, I remember first hearing about Wallace years ago, years after I knew Darwin. But you dig a little deeper, you find Wallace. And he came up independently, with a similar idea of, but many years after Darwin, but before Darwin published anything. But if you dig even deeper though, you'll find someone called Patrick Matthew.

Now, Matthew was a Scottish land owner and food farmer, who contributed to our understanding of horticulture, silviculture, and agriculture. And, he was the first person, the very first person to make that critical conceptual leap that natural selection, as we define it today, drives the evolution of species into new species.

And you could see evidence of this in an obscure appendix to his 1831 book on Nable Timber and aboriculture. Now in this book, he describes artificial selection, and how he figured out it could be used to greatly improve the quality of timber, by eliminating poor quality trees. And this discovery, thinking about it, he realized, and led him to this revolutionary insight of natural selection, years before anybody else that he mentioned in the book, very briefly.

So this discovery went unnoticed, and they were even a few periodicals who reviewed his book, and apparently they did not recognize the importance of what this guy had said in the book. So, keep in mind though, it's not my intention to diminish Darwin, or even Wallace, in any way. Just having an idea, even an amazingly revolutionary one, is nearly enough for science. You need to also collect and present evidence about that idea, and that is what Darwin did in spades.

Even Darwin's joint paper with Wallace in 1858 announcing the theory didn't even make much of a stir. Did you know that? The paper was just, didn't really do much.

J: Why was that? How weird!

B: Because, you don't have the evidence that he presented in Origin of Species. That is the book. That is what initiated his revolution, and not the paper that he published with Wallace.

S: Yeah, the idea itself was not brand new.

B: Right

S: It wasn't like, “Whoa! No one ever said that before.” 'Cause that's been around. The idea of evolution, just change over time, I mean, lots of the elements of it were there. You're right, Bob, Origin of Species, one long argument, laying it out, and like, “Here it is. This is what actually happened. And here's the evidence for it.”

B: Exactly. So he deserves all the respect that he's gotten for this, even, in my opinion, well above Wallace as well.

S: Absolutely

B: But, Matthew still was the very first to anticipate the true mechanism of evolution. And he stands with Darwin and Wallace as the only three to have independently come up with the idea. So, he should be known for that. So, remember Patrick Matthew; mention him to your friends, perhaps when discussing heritable phenotypic traits, or negative selection on rare alleles. (Laughs)

E: How rare?

S: I do want to read a quote from that book, Bob, where he basically lays it out.

B: Yes! Yes, I meant to do that, actually. Go ahead.

”There's more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to comixture of species, nearly allied, all changed by this appears very limiting, confined within bounds of what we call 'species.' The progeny of the same parents of a great differences of circumstances might after several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.”

J: Now, say it backwards!

S: Yeah. But, Matthews never abandoned his notion of natural theology, that there was a creation. Never really fully brought it into a theory of evolution. He just realized that selection could actually change species over time,

B: Yeah

S: and even change one species into another. So he just had that one piece of it, but not the whole thing.

B: And natural selection was actually talked about

S: Yeah

B: at that time, but not natural selection as we define it today. It was a different conception of natural selection. So that's important too, 'cause, yeah, people did talk about it before him. But he's the one that nailed it. He made that insight.

News Items[edit]

Orbo Free Energy Again (9:13)[edit]

Solar Roadway Test (15:36)[edit]

Glass Delusion (25:10)[edit]

(Commercial at 36:46)

Illusion of Invisibility (37:57)[edit]

Threat to Citizen Science (45:16)[edit]

S: All right, I want to do just one quick item. I saw this news item where Wyoming passed a law to criminalize citizen science.

B: My god!

J: Wha?

S: Yeah, that's interesting. Is that really what they did?

E: Uh...

S: The blog post is by a law student, Justin Pidot (P-I-D-O-T). And he said that, yep, Wyoming passed this law, which basically says if you go on to any open land, so anything outside of a city or a town, and you collect data, collecting data was interpreted in the broadest sense. So it could be taking pictures. And then, with the intent of giving that data to any federal or state agency, that that's a criminal act, and that you could be fined up to five thousand dollars, and six months in jail for the first offense, and one year in jail for the second offense.

E: Why is this ...

S: Yeah! So, okay, we need some context here, 'cause that makes no sense. So I did some more poking around. I found the actual law, and yeah, that's what it says. But it's framed as a trespassing law, that what they're really illegalizing is trespassing in order to collect this data. And it says that you need to get, essentially, written permission from the owner of the land.

E: Okay, all right.

S: Which, you know, superficially, it's like, okay, but that seems reasonable. You need to get written permission.

E: But why?

S: But, context, so first of all, why would they care specifically about trespassing to collect data?

J: Yeah

S: Why specifically that? You know, so this can't be just about trespassing, 'cause then they would just make sure that there were adequate laws dealing with trespassing. So, I found another analysis where they said, “Aha! See, the thing is, imagine that a farmer is, or rancher, is allowing his cattle to drink out of a certain river, and they're defecating and peeing in the river, and contaminating it. Is that farmer gonna give permission to some activist to come on to their land, and measure bacterial levels in the water?” That's what it's meant to prevent. It's meant to prevent citizen scientists documenting bacterial contamination in the environment, like in streams and ponds,

E: Right

S: et cetera. And this would effectively do that, because, if you do this, and if you even just pass through their land, that's the other thing. If you just pass, you just walk through their land, on your way to collecting data, this law applies to you.

So anyway, they're just creating a legal ability in inhibit people from collecting data on public or private land. And it seems what these legal bloggers are writing, that the whole point of this is to hide the fact that these lands may be contaminated with bacteria beyond levels that are allowed by law.

E: Okay, so aren't there agencies that are supposed to be going out there and doing the testing to see if there are these violations.

S: Exactly, but they empowered private citizens to do it because they just don't have the resources.

E: Ah!

S: So, they did. So now, they're trying to keep the private citizens who have been empowered by, let's say, like the FDA, from doing this, by passing a stupid trespassing law.

E: I see.

S: So it does

E: So the lobbyists have won this round.

S: I guess so. I mean, it seems to me, from reading the law itself, and from reading multiple analyses of it, that yeah, that's what's happening. They're trying to hide the fact that they're violating the federal Clean Water Act, by making it harder for people to collect data, you know. And specifically, to give it to the government. I mean, you know, it's ridiculous!

E: I wonder if this'll hold up.

S: It's being challenged.

E: Tested in the courts, yeah.

S: Probably not. It's already being challenged

E: Yeah

S: in the courts, and it, yeah, probably,

E: I'd be surprised if it

S: Probably won't. But how scummy is that, though?

B: Totally

E: Yeah, that is

S: It's just so

E: Literally and figuratively.

S: Yeah, yeah, it just really

B: Ha! But interesting.

S: But good on the bloggers for exposing it, because that's just ...

E: Yeah!

S: that's the power, that's the good power of the internet. Something like that

E: Absolutely

S: that would, twenty years ago, would be total obscure, local politics, you know, would get away with all kinds of crap like that. But now, the world find out, and we could mock them openly.

E: Yep

B: (Quietly) Yay!

Who's That Noisy (49:48)[edit]

  • No item last week.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Black Box Technology (50:42)[edit]

Several questions regarding this topic from last week.

Question #2: Buying Local Produce (56:10)[edit]

S: All right, let's do one more. This email comes from Ben Allison, who says he's a musician from New York city. (Accent) New York city?

(Evan laughs)

S: And Ben says,

”For many years, I've been hearing the refrain that buying local produce is both environmentally and morally better than buying non-local produce. The argument seems to be that shipping produce from far away is wasteful and not environmentally sound. Also, I sometimes sense a subtext to these arguments that support the narrative that buying locally also supports small farms, which I guess are somehow better than large farms, or ones that feel corporate. There are a lot of issues here to unpack. And any discussions involving something as basic as food while talking about business are sure to be complicated. But my question is, what does the science say about 'local' vs. 'non-local, or 'distributed' farming?”

Yeah, that's a really good question. I love these kinds of questions, because it is a very complicated political issue. You hear lots of claims about it. But there is gotta be a science there to unpack. And I tried my best to do that. There's definitely a lot being written about this.

First of all, it is absolutely true that our food travels on average quite a distance from farm to fork. You guys have a guess about the average distance food travels to get to your table?

E: Uh ...

B: Six thousand miles.

E: Thousand furlongs.

S: (Chuckles) Fifteen hundred miles.

B: Okay

S: Or that's about, yeah, twenty-four hundred kilometers. Yeah, that's far. That's like, half-way across the US, on average. I think the question is, it costs money, and it costs carbon, right, to, carbon gets released for every mile food has to travel, in order for you to eat it. So, based upon that logic alone, it is environmentally conscious to try to buy locally so that food has to travel not as far, so that you're lowering your carbon footprint.

However, like all things, it's more complicated than that. And you have to consider a lot of variables before you could know the true impact of buying locally. First of all, the transportation of food only contributes ten percent to the over all carbon footprint of agriculture, of making food, right, growing food. Of course, different types of food has a different carbon footprint. Beef and sheep, goats, are the highest. And then different kinds of vegetables are much less. Chicken's actually not that bad. Fish isn't bad. And vegetables - lentils for some reason are the lowest, at least on the chart that I was looking at.

B: 'Cause they're tiny.

S: If you, let's say, if you just, your typical American omnivore, let's say. You're not already a vegetarian or a vegan or something. If you switch one meal a week from beef to vegetarian, you will decrease your carbon footprint more than if you reduced your food miles to zero.

B: Whoa!

S: Right? So if you actually,

B: That's huge!

S: on average, yeah, the distance your food traveled for you to eat it, was zero, meaning you basically completely eliminating the carbon footprint of transporting food as much as you can, that still wouldn't have as much of an impact as just swapping out one hamburger for a salad. So if that's your interest, and you're not already a vegetarian or vegan, then that would do much more.

And if you are a vegetarian or a vegan, yeah, the carbon footprint of your eating is already really low, compared to the average. And there's not that much, this is not that much there. There's not much gain to make from buying locally. But it gets worse than that, because it may be, actually, a net negative to try to buy locally, depending, there's a lot more that goes into it.

So, for example, different locations, the environment and the soil is better geared towards certain kinds of produce than others. So, for example, an acre of land in Idaho can produce about fifty percent more potatoes than an acre of land in Kansas. So if you live in Kansas, it's actually effective for you to buy Idaho potatoes rather than local potatoes. Your local potatoes cost more to produce in terms of carbon and inputs, et cetera, than shipping a potato from Idaho.

In fact, it could get so extreme, that one analysis showed that if you live in the UK, the beef you import from New Zealand has a lower carbon input than beef that grow right in the UK.

B: Why?

S: 'Cause they're just so much more efficient, the herding and the grazing, and whatever. It's so much more effecient in New Zealand, that even when you include the cost of shipping it from New Zealand to the UK, it's still more efficient, just get UK beef.

B: Wow

S: New Zealand beef than UK beef.

E: Oh boy.

S: So, you have to know, and the other thing is, the system is kind of developed. I mean, there's a reason why Idaho grows a lot of potatoes, 'cause they have conditions that are optimal for growing potatoes.

E: Yeah

S: So, buy your damn potatoes from Idaho. Buying locally is actually a net negative, because it's actually the inputs are greater, just based upon optimization matching the location and the environment to what you're growing.

There's also economies of scale. They're a large, industrial farm, maybe just be more efficient than a local farm. And that may completely erase any advantage of buying locally. So, unfortunately, it's complicated. And you can't, there's no simple formula. You almost have to know for everything what the net cost is of buying from different sources.

J: You mean, down to the individual farm, the individual products?

S: Yeah! Yeah, yeah

E: Yeah

S: You can't make any broad statements like, “Oh, I bought this locally,

E: Right

S: therefore it's better.” You can't say that! You just can't say it. All you could say is that one variable, you're just looking at one variable, but it's often not the most significant variable in the carbon footprint, and the environmental impact of what you're buying.

E: Is that true if you grow your own?

S: Well, yeah, I mean, growing your own is massively inefficient. I mean, I have a garden, and I grow as many vegetables as I can on the area that I have for that. It costs me much more to grow my own vegetables than, they're so friggin' cheap in the supermarket. But I don't do it for that reason. I do it for the fun of having a garden.

But, alright, so here's the thing though. I wanna add this: The carbon footprint is not the only consideration. Now you know that I don't believe in the propaganda about organic farming. The evidence does not support this construct of organic farming, although I do think there are a lot of complicated issues surrounding sustainability for farming, and all that sort of, I'm not getting into that.

But in any case, what I do think the biggest advantage for the world of local farms, and why it's probably a good idea to mix some local farmer's market purchases in there is that local farms generally have a much greater diversity of varieties than the large industrial farms. So, by supporting your local farms, you are supporting a much greater biodiversity in our crops.

Local farms can grow varieties that are like, heirloom varieties, that don't have to be optimized for shelf life and shipping. The food that travels a long distance, those varieties, and it's not genetic modification, it's just hybrids, and cultivation over the last couple of centuries, they've been optimized for shelf appeal, shelf life, and the hardiness for transportation, often even at the sacrifice of taste and nutrition.

In fact, there are genetic engineering, genetic modification programs which are trying to figure out why that happened, 'cause it was an unintended consequence. If you are prioritizing those variables, just by chance alone, other variables are gonna suffer. Prioritize hardiness, taste is gonna suffer, 'cause you're not prioritizing taste. And so inadvertently over the years, if you buy a tomato grown in California on a huge farm, the variety of tomato that you are buying is not gonna be as tasty or as nutritious as a local heirloom variety that can't be shipped across the country, but you can buy at your local farmer's market, or that you can grow in your garden, which is the other advantage of having a garden. You can grow heirloom varieties that are not really commercially viable, but they're perfect for your backyard garden.

But I know, like, Kevin Folta, and other scientists are working on figuring out which genes accidentally got screwed around, and to try to selectively put back those flavor and nutrition genes into the commercially viable varieties, so we'll actually, genetic modification, will lead to more varieties,

E: Yes!

S: and better varieties,

E: Better taste.

S: than breeding has, 'cause the traditional cultivation has actually done, we've had to make some real sacrifices in order to get the commercial varieties, whereas genetic modification can undo that inadvertent damage, ironically, despite all the propaganda against genetic modification.

E: Steve, you just wanna grow the tastiest bananas you've ever ...

S: Absolutely!

E: in your basement.

S: And strawberries. I want to grow

E: Ah!

S: commercially viable strawberries that taste like those native strawberries that Kevin sent me, that were awesome! But there are these tiny, little things you can't commercialize. So they sacrificed flavor for big, red strawberries. But those flavors were unbelievable. The strawberries were so delicious. Imagine if you can have that big, juicy strawberry that had that incredible aromatic flavor of these other non-commercial varieties. That's what genetic modification can do.

The bottom line is, I'm not arguing against local farms, or against buying locally. You just gotta put it, don't think that you're necessarily lowering your carbon footprint. You may not be. I think a mixture, you know, buying most of your food from the efficient, large farms, and some of your food locally, when it's in season, depending on where you live, et cetera, et cetera, is fine, that's great.

Some people try to buy only locally. The other thing is when you do that, you sacrifice variety, which is not good for your nutrition and your health. You want to have a good variety all year round. I could get strawberries in January. You know, yeah, the strawberries I get in June are much better, but I still like the strawberries I get in January, and their strawberries are loaded with nutrition. We are better nourished now because we can get vegetables from around the world. So I don't think we should go back to just local farms, those small, local, losing the economy of scale farms that are not necessarily optimally matching the variety with the environment.

We want the best of both worlds. Get the economy of scale, and the advantages of growing our potatoes in Idaho, but mixing in some heirloom varieties grown locally. That's, I think, the best of both worlds.

Announcements (1:08:12)[edit]

  • TAM coming up. Occ the Skeptical Caveman series is finished. SGU internship applications are being processed.

Science or Fiction (1:11:45)[edit]

Item #1: After 30 years of dimming, the planet's surface is brightening. Item #2: As the world warms, vegetation could double the frequency of extremely hot days experienced. Item #3: Our most creative thoughts come when we're walking.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:46)[edit]

'Selling eternal life is an unbeatable business, with no customers ever asking for their money back after the goods are not delivered.' - Victor J. Stenger

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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