SGU Episode 531

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SGU Episode 531
12th Sep 2015
SGU 530 SGU 532
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.
Miguel de Unamuno
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Jay's wife is in labor “as we speak”
  • Bob and Evan went to DragonCon. Evan's voice is bad this week due to the conference.
  • Journalist shot on camera. Conspiracy says it's fake
  • Steve's vacation. Discussion of geology.

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (10:15)[edit]

Fritz Haber
German Chemist and inventor of synthetic fertilizer. He has the distinction of saving more lives than any other scientist: 2.72 billion

News Items[edit]

Night Skies (14:58)[edit]

Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief (21:41)[edit]

(Commercial at 39:22)

Psychic Detectives (41:08)[edit]

Special Report (48:02)[edit]

Time Travel

What's the Word (59:44)[edit]

  • Stochastic

S: All right, well, Cara, you've been jealous for a while, that

C: I have!

S: the rest of us have our special little segments that we do, and you wanted a special segment of your own, and we've been sort of going through certain possibilities. But I think we settled on a very interesting one, so tell us about it.

C: Yeah, I am excited to tell you, What's the Word this week.

S: What's the Word, Cara?

C: Yeah! (Evan laughs) So, what we'll do, is each week, I will pick a word that I've come across through my scientific reading, a word that is related to science or skepticism, that most of us may have heard in passing, but probably don't really know what it means, or we don't have a clear understanding of its usage; and I will dig into the history and the usage of that word.

So, the word I've chosen this week, with the help of some of my friends, actually, 'cause they get frustrated when they read this word: Is stochastic.

B: Ah!

S: That's a great word.

E: Can you spell that for us, please?

C: I can spell it. Ooh, now I feel like I'm in a spelling bee. It's S-T-O-C-H-A-S-T-I-C.

S: Can you use it in a sentence?


C: It's actually not as easy to use in a sentence as you would like. But I would like,

S: Okay

C: I do have some sentences I'll use later on. But I was gonna ask you guys, first and foremost, you've come across the word stochastic, right?

S: Oh yeah!

B: Sure

C: Do you know off the top of your head what it means?

S: Yeah, my understanding of stochastic is that it is a process that is a random in the particulars, but is statistical in the aggregate.

C: And that is a very specific usage of that word.

S: Yeah

C: So, let's go back to where the word came from, and how it's used today. So, stochastic comes from the Greek “stochos,” so, first appeared in the 1660's in Greece. And “stochos,” which is a noun, means to aim, or to guess, or to take a stab at. That evolved into “stochas-” I can't even pronounce it – my Greek is not very good, you guys – stochasisty, which is a verb, to guess or conjecture. And then stochasticos, which is an adjective that means “pertaining to conjecture.”

And stochastic is an adjective. It sounds like an adjective, which really, fundamentally, just means “random.” It's randomly determined. Now, we often hear it used in a very specific, statistical context, where there, it refers to a random probability distribution or pattern that we can statistically analyze, but we can never precisely predict, because it has that random variable within it.

So, stochastic originally just meant to guess, or to take a stab at something. The first use relating to its modern definition (which is kind of randomly determined), in English was in 1934. And that came from the German “stochastic” in 1917.

Steve, you were referring to a stochastic process, which is actually a statistical process that involves a number of random variables that depend on a variable parameter. So, let's say it's time, and you never know, like, the time part of it is random. But once the process occurs, then you can measure the dependent variable on it. It's complicated.

Now, it's also used in linear algebra. A stochastic matrix is a matrix where each column entry is non-negative, real, and add up to one. So it's an interesting usage. Stochastic geometry is the study of random spatial patterns. And I feel like sometimes in literature, if you've come across this word, you will have read it being used just to refer simply to something involving random chance, probability, or variability.

Like, I might say, “My sleep patterns are totally stochastic,” or “So-and-so seems to pick his dates stochastically.” That is how it's kind of evolved into a more literary usage. Now, I found, on, they have a really cool metric. I have no idea how they calculated – looks like their algorithms are probably proprietary. So, who knows if this is true or not, but it says that you will encounter the word “stochastic” about once every three hundred eleven thousand thirty five pages of reading, which is interesting.

B: Whoa!

S: Yeah

C: And also, I think an important note is that “stochastic” is not related to “stoiciometry,”

S: Right

C: which made me ...

E: What?

C: Yeah, you might be trying to relate those things in your head if you have done any work in chemistry or biochemistry. This is the calculation of reactants in products within a chemical reaction. You know, stoichiometry is how you're trying to balance the equations so that you can calculate the reactants in the products. That word, stoichiometry, has the Greek (it's also Greek) but the root of it is “stoichin,” which means “element;” and “metron,” which means “measure.” So that's literally translated to the measure of the elements.

S: My interaction with stochastic is often in a biological context. A lot of biological processes are stochastic in that, the way I described, the individual things that happen are randomly determined, But the net result, it can be described statistically, and is actually fairly predictable, you know? It's like developmental biology is stochastic, you know what I mean? Cells are just doing random things, but in the aggregate, their behavior's statistical, and therefore predictable.

C: Yeah

S: Does that make sense?

C: Totally.

S: Yeah

C: If you think about pharmacology, think about a drug. The way that it works when you take a drug is that that drug randomly floats around until it binds to a receptor. That binding process is random. But as you increase the concentration of the drug, you increase the probability that the drug will

S: Yeah

C: bind. So you can look at overall dosages, but you can never say what's happening at an individual receptor level.

S: Exactly. Yeah, it's totally, yes, stochastic, absolutely. Yeah, cool word.

C: Yeah!

S: I like this segment, Cara, I think it's gonna work out

C: It's fun.

S: really well, 'cause

C: Oh great!

B: Yeah

S: words are concepts. I also love words. Just giving our listeners sort of expanding their scientific jargon, is I think really useful, because, again, it helps you own the concept. And plus, it helps you understand what the hell you're reading, you know?

C: Totally!

S: You encounter these terms, and it's, sometimes you sort of skip over it, 'cause you have a vague understanding of what it is, and so you just sort of, that's good enough. But to really understand it, I think, helps you dig a level deeper into what you're reading.

C: And sometimes you're straight up wrong.

S: Yeah

C: Like, you think based on context that it means one thing, 'cause it always works, but it actually means something totally different. And also, I think, you know, for me, my background is in biology and psychology in the neurosciences. So there's a lexicon that I'm pretty comfortable with. But when I'm reading a paper, like, Bob, you read a lot of cosmology

B: Yeah

C: and astrophysics. And when I come across terms in that field, I'm like, “What? Wha?”

S: Yeah

C: So I think it's cool that people who have different strengths can still always learn something new.

S: Yeah, yeah. Hey, and if you're a listener, if you have a good suggestion, like a really nice, juicy, scientific term, send it in. We'll make a list.

C: Yeah!

Science or Fiction (1:07:09)[edit]

Item #1: A new analysis finds that iconicity – the sound of words reflecting their meaning – is not rare as once thought but can be found throughout the English language. Item #2: Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other birds to be raised, but a new study finds that female cowbirds track the wellbeing of their abandoned offspring. Item #3: Researchers have developed a capsule that automatically degrades medication after a specific length of time to prevent water contamination from discarded medication.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:30)[edit]

The skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches, as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found
Miguel de Unamuno

Announcements (1:26:39)[edit]

  • Talk for humanists in Fairfield county

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.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • This episode contained the debut of the What's the Word segment


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