SGU Episode 534

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SGU Episode 534
October 3rd 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 533                      SGU 535

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

I'd rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.

Richard Feynman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Star Wars spoilers, Star Wars review

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:01)[edit]

  • Barbara McClintock: was a geneticist who made fundamental breakthroughs in genetics that took decades to be appreciated resulting in a Nobel prize in Medicine, the only woman to win in that category unshared with anyone else.

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

B: All right, guys, this week for Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm talking about Barbara McClintock, 1902 to '92. She was a geneticist who made fundamental breakthroughs in genetics that took decades to be appreciated resulting in a Nobel prize in Medicine, the only woman to win in that category unshared with anyone else.

Barbara was really interesting. She made some really key discoveries. When she was working at Cornell, she pioneered the field of sitogenetics in the 1930's, which focuses on the function of the cell and chromosomes. Her career was primarily all about maize, all about corn, which is actually ideal. I didn't know this: It's ideal for studies, since each kernel is essentially an individually fertilized embryo. So each ear then, had potentially hundreds of individual offspring that could be evaluated. So it was very, very valuable.

S: Yeah, as a quick aside, Bob, when one cultivar of corn contaminates another field, you could actually see that. Like, each individual kernel could be a different hybrid. And there are some types of corn that are different color. Like, you might have a blue corn invading a yellow corn field, and you just have these mosaic of blue kernels mixed in with the yellow kernels.

E: Not green ones.

S: You could tell which ones were fertilized from

B: Right

S: the corn on the outside, yeah.

B: Right

C: And as a quicker aside, when I would teach Bio 1, that's how we taught genetics a lot of times, especially simple crosses in Mendalean genetics. We could use these beautiful, multi-colored ears of corn to look at first generation and second generation crosses.

S: Cool.

C: Yeah

B: Yeah, and the actual different colors of the kernels that you could get with, was actually a big part of what she did. So, she had an amazing career.

S: A-maize-ing.

B: A-maize-ing! She had a very,

E: Ah!

(Cara chuckles)

B: very, no, it really was an amazing career. That included confirming scientifically for the first time, Thomas Morgan's then twenty year old theory that genes were positioned on chromosomes, and genetic traits were determined by these genes. He made that – what was that, in the teens, maybe, or the twenties. And nobody could really confirm that. It was an amazing theory.

But – I said “amazing” again. It was an intriguing theory, but nobody until McClintock verified it. And she did it incredibly, credibly well, with amazing techniques that just revolutionized this newborn field of sitogenetics. She was also the first to speculate on the idea of epigenetics!

S: Really?!

B: Which – yes! Which describes gene expression that's heritable not by DNA changes. So, it said that she was the first to speculate on it. I'm not sure she went far beyond that. But that in and of itself, pretty fascinating.

So, her greatest discovery, though, was transposable elements, or jumping genes. So these are little snippets of DNA that can change position to other sections of a gene, or within a gene, or to other genes. And these can play a role in mutation, turning other genes on and off. It can confer bacterial resistance to antibiotics, et cetera cetera. They're just incredibly important in the field of genetics.

So, she was clearly ahead of her time. It took many years for her discovery to be accepted. And she won, like I said, the Nobel Prize for it. People just did not like the theory, it was just too far ahead of its time. People didn't believe it, and she actually stopped publishing her results for a while because of the reaction. But I think it was well over a decade or two later that people realized, “Whoa! This was really prescient.”

So, remember Barbara McClintock; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing exo shuffling to create entrons, if it comes up.

S: Yeah

E: Or corn.

The Martian Review Announcement (7:56)[edit]

News Items[edit]

Water on Mars (8:29)[edit]

Looking for Life on Mars (11:56)[edit]

Brain Connections (21:07)[edit]

Skeptic vs Denier (33:53)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Jay, this is now really, this is a philosophical question we're getting into now. And that is the use of the term “skeptic” versus “denier,” which recently

E: Oh boy.

S: came up again because of the AP.

J: That's correct. So, I thought it'd be interesting. Do you guys know what the Associated Press is?

C: It's like Reuters. It's like a wire service, right? I mean it's like a combination of a bunch of different journalists in a network that deliver fast reporting.

J: That's right. It's a non-profit American, multi-national news agency. So they have a headquarters in New York city, and they're a cooperative organization, and it's owned by its contributing newspapers, radio, television stations, and the like. I never had a clear definition of the AP in my head before. I kind of had a general idea of what you were saying, but I didn't have a very clear definition.

So, the AP has a style book. And this style book is the accepted standard guide for grammar, punctuation ... it's a guide book for reporting principles and practices for journalism in general.

S: Right

J: And it's widely used and respected. And that's cool. I didn't know that they ...

S: What terms to use for what?

J: Exactly

S: Which always reminds me of that scene from Full Metal Jacket. If they come to us, they are a refugee. If we go to them, they are an evacuee.

C: Yeah! And there are historical instances where, like, using the word “genocide” has been very controversial.

S: Yeah

C: And they have to be very careful. And of course, I remember when I was working at Huff Post, everybody struggling with, the AP had – we had to wait until the AP told us how to spell Ghadafi. 'Cause it was like

E: It was never settled, by the way.

C: it is a G? Is it a Q? Yeah, it was

E: It was never settled.

C: pain in the ass.

E: It was never settled.

S: It's not objective. We're translating it into a different alphabet. Anyway …

C: Yep

J: So the AP recently updated their style book, and they added a very interesting entry. Check this out:

”To describe those who don't accept climate science, or dispute the world is warming from man made forces, use 'climate change doubters,' or 'those who reject mainstream climate science.' Avoid use of 'skeptics' or 'deniers.'”

C: Huh!

J: That's pretty cool. So, why do we care about this?

E: Well …

J: In the skeptical community, we have seen the term “skeptic” misused quite a bit by the press, over and over, right?

E: It's been coopted.

J: Yeah, it's been used to describe those who, I guess you can call them, like, they have an outlier perspective. Instead of using the word “skeptic.” You know, I'd think of them as more on the fringe, or an outlier. So, the irony is that scientific skepticism follows the scientific consensus, which means that skeptics are not outliers in their thinking at all!

S: Well, it depends on what the mainstream consensus is. How robust is it? What community of scientists are we talking about? You know, some sciences are themselves very new, or small.

E: But this is climate science specifically.

S: But if we're talking about – yeah, but you, here, we're talking specifically about climate science, but Jay was making kind of a broad statement about skeptics. And also, we have to point out that the word “skeptic” has lots of meanings. You know, it has a philosophical meaning, it has kind of a lay meaning that's closer to “cynic,” or just the fact of doubting makes you a skeptic. But we use it,

E: Right, adjective

S: movement skeptics use it to mean scientific skepticism. And oftentimes it comes up is that maybe we should always say scientific skeptic, and never just say skeptic, because, either that, or we have to change the public perception of what the word means to the way we're using it.

J: I agree with that, Steve. I totally agree with the idea of adopting “scientific skepticism.” Not only is it more accurate, but it does kind of take us one step away from how the word “skeptic” has been bastardized.

C: I think that that speaks to one of the issues that journalists often face, when they were struggling between these two terms for a climate denier, you know? A climate denier – your editorializing when you call somebody a climate denier. And that is the side of the argument that I feel comfortable editorializing on, but I thought it was really interesting when I interviewed Chris Mooney recently, from my podcast, that since he left Mother Jones and went to the Washington Post, he had to start using the term “climate skeptic.” He wasn't allowed to use the term “climate denier,” because their readership is much more conservative. And that editorializing was actually offensive to their readers.

So I think journalists have always been stuck in this complicated place, where they want to report the news cleanly, without putting their own thoughts into it; but neither word was really sufficient.

J: What you just said, makes my next point, I think, very well, Cara. The words are important, and their individual nuanced meanings are important, right? It's funny, 'cause you would think, you know, “Who cares? Just get your point across.” No! You have to, with a scalpel, pick the words that you're using, because there can be very slight differences between words that would change the scope of what you're saying dramatically.

So in this instance, the word “skeptic” is a label, and it comes with a collection of ideas and concepts that go with it. Of course, and those collections of ideas and concepts change depending on who you talk to. But in general, I think all of us agree on what the term “skeptic” means.

So the AP has been made aware of this fact, that using the word “skeptic” to describe someone whose beliefs are on the fringe is incorrect! Enough so, that they changed their style book to point it out. That's a big

S: Yeah

J: deal. Big move.

C: Yeah, I love that.

S: It's also at the other end, though, because not everyone who doesn't accept maybe the mainstream view on climate change, deserves the moniker of “denier” either, because

C: Yeah

S: the problem with the scalpel metaphor, Jay, is that there's no sharp, bright line separating skeptics from doubters from deniers. And therefore, using a neutral term to refer to the whole spectrum is not a bad idea.

J: The devil is in the details here, in my opinion, because it becomes obvious that many climate deniers want to be labeled as skeptics. So they may feel that it gives them some legitimacy, it makes them seem more credible, I don't know. It's an interesting thing to think about. But skeptics of course, don't like it when the term “skeptics” is darkened by misuse. And believe me, the term “skeptic” has a history of trouble.

The word “skeptic” doesn't define what you believe, it defines the process of how we come to our conclusions, and how we obtain new, trustworthy information, how we reject bad information. And I always like to defer to those who are smarter than myself. So I'll borrow Steve's excellent definition of scientific skepticism from how blog. And here it is:

”A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable, and valid to ones that are comforting, or convenient. And therefore, rigorously and openly applies the methods of science reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic in a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason, and the mechanisms of deception, so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion, and takes a position of humility towards complex areas of knowledge requiring extensive expertise.”

Oh my god, Steve, (Cara laughs) that was so absolutely perfect. Now, let me ask you: Do you think that climate deniers follow this definition? No, not even close.

S: No!

J: How about anti-vaxxers? No, not even close. How about chiropractors? No. How about homeopaths? No. At our best, the skeptic is able to question his or her own memory, our own perception, acknowledge our own biases and our ideology, and try not to talk about shit we don't know about!

S: And I agree. And again, the key is, obviously, that it's a process, not a conclusion. And the denialism is the same. I've been writing about denialism for literally as long as I've been a skeptic, like almost twenty years. It was one of the first things I really sunk my teeth into. And my description of what it is has been evolving over the years as I've gotten more and more experience with the many examples of it. So here, if I can, Jay, is a quick jot-list of the kinds of things that deniers do.

-They do not fairly assess the scientific evidence, but will cherry-pick the evidence that seems to support their position. -They will make unreasonable or impossible demands for evidence, move the goalpost when evidence is presented, and refuse entire categories of legitimate scientific evidence -They will attempt to magnify scientific disagreements over lower-level details as if they call into question higher-level conclusions -They primarily focus on sowing doubt and confusion over the science they deny, rather than offering a coherent alternate theory or explanation -They will exploit ambiguity, or even create ambiguity in terminology, or employ shifting definitions in order to create confusion or apparent contradiction -They will attack scientists personally, and engage in a witch-hunt in order to impugn their reputations and apparent motives -They will cast doubt on whether or not a scientific consensus exists -And when all else fails, they will invoke a conspiracy theory to explain why mainstream views differ from their own

Now, of course, not everyone who is essentially denying a mainstream, scientific consensus does all of those things. That's why it's a fuzzy definition. The more of those things that you do, the more of a denier you are. But there absolutely are people who tick every box in that list.

E: Sure

S: And they should be called deniers, 'cause that's what they are. They are engaging in denialism. It's as much a thing as pseudoscience is a thing. But there are people who are not all the way towards on end of the spectrum. Maybe they're just flirting with some mild denialism, but basically, they're trying to be skeptical. You know, everything, the entire spectrum, exists out there.

And it's tough. When you're dealing with somebody who is, eh, just flirting with the fringe of denial, what do you call them? They're gonna be offended if you call them a denier. It's just like calling somebody who maybe has some soft aspects of what they're doing, calling them a pseudoscientist. Yeah, they'd get upset about that too. Doesn't mean

C: Sure!

E: Call them deny-curious.

(Steve and Cara chuckle)

S: Or crank, or

C: Denial-lite (laughs)

S: Yeah, it's just all of these

B: A spectrum

S: things, there's all spectrums, but it's good to know what the phenomenon is, at the far end of the spectrum, because it helps us understand the behavior,

C: Yeah

S: which is what this is all about.

E: Sure, I don't

S: But because this,

E: identify

S: people take this all so personally, which I understand, but I do think should try to back away from the personal, emotional reaction to this. This is ultimately a discussion of science and philosophy, and method, et cetera. Try not to take it personally. But that's why we need things like a style guide to tell us what phrases to use. Not to be accurate, but to avoid hurt feelings, you know?

C: Yes, that is so important for a journalist, who is answering to their editor, whose job it is to try to report the news, and not make any personal, editorial decisions, even though, as we know, people are biased, and you can't help it. You're trying to strive to minimize the amount of editorializing

(Commercial at 45:36)

Who's That Noisy (46:24)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Star Trek phase on stun

What's the Word (50:21)[edit]

  • Isograd

S: All right, Cara, What's the Word?

C: The word this week is isograd. Isograd.

E: Isograd.

C: (Singing) Isograd. (/singing) What does it sound like to you guys? I would say, what field of science

B: Meteorology

C: do you think it comes from?

B: Meteorology.

C: Sounds like meteorology?

B: Isobar...

C: I dig it.

E: Isotope, that would be chemistry.

C: That sounds like chemistry. But isograd is actually an Earth Science term. Specifically, it's a geology term. An isograd, according to the American Heritage Science Dictionary, is a line on a map, connecting points on the Earth where metamorphism of rocks occurred under the same pressure and temperature conditions.

B: Oh, wow!

E: Cool!

C: Yeah, these lines are established on the basis of the distribution of index minerals, and they're useful in reconstructing the tectonic history of a given region. So, of course, remember back to life sciences, metamorphic rocks are rocks that have undergone metamorphism, or they've changed physically or chemistry, or both, due to heat and pressure. They can be igneous rocks, sedimentary rock, or other metamorphic rocks, before they undergo metamorphism.

And an isograd is a distinct line, kind of differentiating between different layers of metamorphic rock. Its etymology, the earliest – actually, no, I was able to find exactly where the word came from. I love these. It was coined by C.E. Tilly, in 1924. And according to H.G.F. Winkler, the author of Petrogenesis of Metamorphic Rocks, a book first published in 1994, he says that Tilly coined the term, to quote, “designate a definite degree of metamorphism, by the first appearance of a so-called 'index' mineral, such as byotite, almindine, staralite, et cetera.”

Interview with Andy Weir (52:11)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:09:00)[edit]

Item #1: There have been 40 missions to Mars (not including fly-bys), but less than half, 18, were successful. Item #2: The length of a day on Mars is almost the same as Earth, at 24 hours and 37 minutes. Item #3: Mars has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos, which are likely captured asteroids. Item #4: Mars essentially is made of two parts, the southern highlands and the northern lowlands, the latter forming 42% of the surface and likely resulting from a massive impact that tore off half the planet.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:53)[edit]

'I'd rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.' - Richard Feynman

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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