SGU Episode 542

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to: navigation, search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs:  transcription,  proof-reading,  formatting,  links,  'Today I Learned' list,  categories,  segment redirects. How to Contribute

SGU Episode 542
November 28th 2015
Sn-mosquitoes s.jpg
SGU 541 SGU 543
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
'A professor can never better distinguish himself in his work than by encouraging a clever pupil, for the true discovers are among them, as comets amongst the stars.'
Carl Linnaeus
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Celebrating thanksgiving

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

What's the Word (2:09)[edit]

  • Homeostasis

S: All right, well, Cara, we're gonna start with What's the Word this week, and I'm excited about this one.

C: Yeah, well, I'm excited about this one too, because this was Steve's recommended word. Do you remember, Steve, what made you want to cover it? Like, what you were, I don't know, triggered?

S: I read it somewhere.

C: Nice.


S: I don't remember now.

C: So this is a word that I think most everybody has come across, but they might not really understand the definition. So, the word of the week is homeostasis. Homeostasis is the tendency of a system, especially that of a living organism, to maintain internal stability or eqilibrium, often owing to some sort of coordinated response within the body that will react with regards to a stimulus.

So, a really good example of that would be, maybe, the maintenance of pH of your blood, or the maintenance of a steady body temperature in warm-blooded animals. So, for humans, we need to keep our body temperature right around 98.6 degrees – that's Fahrenheit, what is that.

S: Well, you know, the 98.6, that's fake.

C: It's really specific as a ...

S: Yeah, that's way too specific. There's, you know, about a two degree variable, ninety-eight to a hundred.

C: Yeah, so in, if we were using Celsius, which we use in science, that would be, what, thirty-seven degrees,

S: Yeah

C: which is probably more of a standard.

B: Yep

C: So, yeah, thirty-seven degrees, we'll go with that. In order to homeostatically regulate that thirty-seven degrees, what we'll often do is we'll sweat if our temperature becomes excessive, we'll shiver in an effort to produce heat if we are hypothermic. And we'll also generate heat through metabolic processes to try and get our core body temperature up.

Blood pH has an even tighter control – your blood pH has to really be maintained. And so we've got a bunch of buffer systems, the carbon dioxide that we breathe, and things like that, to help keep your albumen, that helps keep buffer your blood pH.

But homeostasis also has other definitions that are related. So, in psychology, they often use homeostasis to talk about sort of a psychological equilibrium that's obtained when somebody has a drive for attention, and then they reduce it. In entymology (so, insects), scientists will talk about how members of a colony of social insects will behave cooperatively, so maybe like, bees will all fan their wings at the same time in order to cool down a beehive, very cool.

And then, in ecology, we will hear the term stoiciometric homeostasis,

B: Cool

C: And that's kind of like stoiciometry, you know, balancing an equation. So that is actually describing the relationship between organisms and all of the nutrients within a closed system that they recycle. Kind of like the story we did a few weeks ago about whale poop.

So the etymology of this word, it actually comes, we can pin it down to the exact author (I love it when that happens), from 1926, coming from the Greek “homeo” and “stasis,” “homeo” meaning “similar,” and “stasis” meaning “standing still;” which together lead to the idea of staying the same. It was first described actually in French by physiologist Claude Bernard, who called the process “interior milieux,” and that was actually in kind of the 1850's. So he started talking about the interstitial fluid of your cells,

B: Cool

C: and how there are changes that occur – yeah – in order to keep your “interior milieux” intact. And then later, an American physiologist, and also the chair of the Harvard Physiology Department, Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term “homeostasis” because he was interested in Bernard's work, and followed up on it.

And, just as an interesting side note, the same man, Walter Bradford Cannon, who coined the term “homeostasis,” also coined the term, “fight or flight response.” Yeah, so he was busy.

S: Interesting. What I like about the concept of homeostasis is that once you really understand it, it helps you understand biological systems, but also, there's a lot of alternative medicine nonsensical treatments or beliefs about health and disease that completely fly in the face of homeostasis.

C: You're right!

S: Yeah, so like, treating your blood pH, it's bullshit! There's nothing you're gonna do, short of poisons,

C: Yeah, short of injecting something.

S: Yes, that's going to throw off your blood's pH, because it's a very tightly regulated, homeostatic system. There are feedback loops, often multiple feedback loops. That's one thing that evolution is really good at. When evolution has to innovate, then it's subject to chance, right? But once you have a system, evolution very quickly will go to an optimal state, you know?

C: Yeah

S: And when you have homeostatic systems with feedback loops, selective pressures will very quickly bring it to an optimal state. I mean, you can't just game it. You can't just do something that's gonna throw off a homeostatic system like that. So you can't easily affect blood pH. Things that do that, things that alter your blood pH are generally considered poisons, and they'll kill you!

C: Yeah, it's kind of like when you, you know, a lot of people don't realize this, but when you hyperventilate, the reason you want to breathe into a bag is not so that you can somehow get more oxygen, it's so you can recapture your CO2. 'Cause if you blow too much

E: Right

C: CO2 out of your blood, CO2 is an acid, right?

S: Yep

C: When it goes, it's carbonic acid. So your blood will actually alcalyze if you hyperventilate. So you gotta recapture that CO2 to keep your blood pH where it needs to be.

S: Yeah

C: It's interesting. But you're right, we have redundant systems. Like, we have multiple things that keep these things in check. And yeah, so many bullshit alternative treatments almost do the opposite.

S: Yes

C: They try to force your body into a posi- and your body's like, “No, not doin' it.”

S: Yeah, there's even a breathing pseudoscience, (Cara laughs) where you force yourself to breathe in a certain way. It's like, nah, just, your body will breathe the way it wants to breathe. Just let it breathe.

E: That's like have a pseudoscience control ...

S: Yeah, well think about your fluid – anything, anything biological – the amount of fluid

E: My gosh...

S: you have in your body.

E: Right

S: You know, your desire to drink, and how much pee you make, and how concentrated it is, very, very tightly regulated with multiple feedback loops. The nervous system - Cara, you know this – it's loaded with feedback loops. My favorite is the basal ganglia, because moment to moment, there's this complicated feedback loop in the brain that regulates how smooth your movements are, basically. It essentially is regulating the gain of the connection between your desire to move, and the amount that you move. And that keeps it in this optimal, very narrow zone, so that you move just as much as you want to, no more, no less. And if that system gets broken, it results in things like Parkinson's disease, where you can't move.

E: Can't control ...

S: Or you get, the other end, you get corea, where you're moving too much, and you can't stop moving. These are all homeostatic systems that are based on multiple feedback loops that keep things within very, very narrow parameters. The other one – one more, I gotta mention one more – is the oxidative stress antioxidant system. That's a homeostatic system too!

E: Oh, so when you taking grape juice with extra anto-oxidants and stuff, you think you're affecting it; but guess what, you're not.

S: Either you're not, or if you are, it's bad! (Cara laughs) Why would you want ...

E: It's not grape juice!

S: yeah. I mean, again, the evolution's already optimized that that balance in that system, you can't change it in a simplistic way by taking a lot of exogenous

C: Yeah

S: antioxidants. And they think that that's going to somehow improve the whole system. So, just, that's, this one concept of homeostasis, just always think about that when you think of any biological system, and it probably will help you understand it better.

C: And if you have a hard time understanding it at a physiological level because you haven't brushed up much on your biology, there are really cool examples of biomimicry where technologists have used the idea of homeostasis in tools. Like, your thermostat uses homeostasis!

S: Yeah

C: When you set it to a particular temperature, it has sensors that say when it's dropping too low or too high, and it will turn on your air conditioner or your heater, or turn them off accordingly! That is a really straightforward homeostatic system.

S: All right, thanks Cara!

News Items[edit]

Universe Resolution (10:32)[edit]

Scientific Consensus (17:46)[edit]

S: Well, a new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Cara, I know that's your favorite science journal.

(Cara chuckles)

(Cara and Evan both laugh)

S: And it's actually by a researcher at Yale, Justin Farrel, who was looking at the messaging from different organizations on climate change, comparing those organizations that receive corporate funding versus those that don't. And he found something that is not surprising at all. He found that when you look at the organizations that receive corporate funding – you know, funding from like, Exxon-Mobil, or other fossil fuel producing companies – there was a pattern.

There was a pattern first of all of communication, and sort of coordination of messaging among the organizations. But second, that there was a pattern that in the messaging itself, they were polarizing. He writes that the thematic content of these polarization efforts, and the discursive prevalence of that thematic content over time was evidence that, yeah.

So essentially, there was the attempt to ideologically cast doubt and confusion on the consensus of global climate change. And also, he said that no only were they trying to simply cast doubt on the scientific consensus; they also produced their own science to counteract it, you know? He said that he did not find that pattern when looking at non-corporate funded organizations. There was no pattern of polarization or of coordinated network of messaging.

Not a surprising finding at all, in my opinion. I wrote about this today, and talked more about the nature of scientific consensus, which comes up a lot on the show because we tend to go along with the scientific consensus. But it is incredible to me that still, the denialist messaging has been, to some extent, so successful that its actually convinced people, especially over issues that they care about, that it's okay to dismiss the scientific consensus. And that it's even, that's the skeptical thing. You're not being a skeptic if you just believe the authority figures, right? So then they say that's an argument from authority, which is not true. That's a misapplication of that logical fallacy.

So it's always good to remember why we respect the scientific consensus. Because it's, first of all, the scientific consensus by definition is based upon science and evidence. It's relevant experts in a field hammering out what we know. And if the evidence is convincing enough, then there's a tendency for the scientific community to sort of come together with a single opinion.

Usually, we see this in medicine all the time, when the evidence is weak or preliminary, opinions proliferate, right? Everyone will have their own opinion, like about the best way to treat something is. Once we have really solid evidence, that's the standard of care. Everyone has the same opinion.

E: That's it. Everyone adapts.

S: Yeah. It's the same thing in science in general. When the data is preliminary, when it's conflicting, there may be multiple schools of thought. We talk about this on the show a lot of the times too. Was there a meteor strike in North America or not,

E: Yes

S: causing the mass extinction twelve thousand years ago, for example. That's a genuine scientific controversy. And we're gonna talk next, Evan, about the hobbit, the homo florensiensis. Is that a new species? Or isn't it? That's a legitimate, scientific controversy where scientists are still waiting and debating over the evidence.

But eventually, with many things, you get enough evidence where a consensus emerges. And it's not black and white. The other thing is, I think a lot of the times, critics or contrarians will ridicule use of the term quote-unquote, “settled” science, arguing that science is never settled. I do think that settled science is an unfortunate phrase, because I think it's confusing in context.

What quote-unquote “settled science” refers to, I think legitimately, is when you have to make a decision based upon the evidence. It doesn't mean the science stops. It doesn't mean that it's not open to revision. It just means we're ready to make a decision. We're ready to act upon this information. And there is no current, significant controversy surrounding the evidence.

You know, vaccines are safe and effective. There's no significant, legitimate controversy about that. That is settled science. That doesn't mean that we're not open to more evidence if it comes out. You know what I mean?

C: But it's kind of where the burden of proof shifts, right?

S: Right

C: It's no longer on the scientists to continue to produce evidence that this is legitimate. It's on any detractors to produce valid evidence that it's illegitimate.

S: Scientists have already met their burden of proof,

C: Yeah

S: and now, if you're going to disbelieve that, or make any other claim, you have to meet an equal burden of proof. You have to at least contradict with an equal amount of evidence, the evidence that was used to support what is now the scientific consensus.

B: That's a key part of that, Steve, is that it's just not a matter of you producing some evidence. It would have, the implication is that you would need to produce quite a significant amount of evidence to counter what has been considered quote-unquote “settled.” It's not a trivial thing at all. Like, imagine what it would take to actually disprove evolution at this point. The fact that evolution takes place. It's almost inconceivable that that is wrong.

S: Yeah

B: Imagine what it would take to convince people that, “Whoa, we had this totally wrong!” It's incredible! It's mountainous!

S: It's at the point, like, with evolution is one of those

B: Right

S: scientific conclusions. It's at the point where

B: It's essentially impossible!

S: it can't be wrong. It could only be incomplete. We may discover

B: Right

S: that there's some more deep, fundamental reality going on that we hadn't thought about. But as evolution has to be true as far as it goes. There is just no other explanation for all of the evidence that exists. Same thing, like, with DNA – another one of my favorite examples – DNA is the molecule of inheritable information.

E: It reminds me of a skeptic lecture you gave, very long time ago, but it always stuck with me, in that we're always gonna know that the Earth is some kind of spheroid in shape.

S: Yeah

E: We may refine its definition, and tweak it a little bit, but tomorrow, we'll never wake up and figure out, “Oh, it was a cube all along.”

S: Yeah, we're never gonna learn some day that the Earth is a cube. We just, finer variations on some kind of spheroid. Exactly. That analogy, I think, was first proposed by Isaac Asimov, and I thought it was perfect analogy for how science progresses. It doesn't progress by finding that what we used to think was wrong, just that we used to – once you get to the point where you've had a mature science, that it's, obviously, when you transition from prescientific to scientific thinking about things, you do find out that what we thought was wrong. But once you get to a certain level of confidence, it's just never gonna happen, that we're

B: It's all fine-tuning. It's all fine-tuning.

S: Yeah, it's all fine-tuning from there. And with every question, you have to decide sort of where you are along that spectrum. It's not black and white. It's not like either you have a consensus, you don't have a consensus. You could be anywhere along that spectrum. Like, I think evolution is pretty much as far as it gets. There's no way that that's gonna turn out to be wrong.

What's interesting with climate change is that we have a number. I don't know how accurate the number is, but we have a number. The IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from the UN – said, they're ninety-five percent sure that man-made global warming is happening. So they were, that's their estimate, their number that they put on it. So that's pretty confident, but that's still, you know, it's just nineteen out of twenty. There's one chance in twenty that they're wrong. So that's what we're talking about.

We're not talking about evolution, which I think is so close to a hundred percent, you might as well treat it like a hundred percent. But like, with medicine, we often have to make decisions with ninety, ninety-five percent confidence, knowing that you're gonna be wrong one time in ten, or one time in twenty. And we can't wait until we're a hundred percent certain, 'cause by then, it'll probably be too late to really do anything about it.

It's like, “Yeah, we're not sure.” Phil Plait came up with this analogy, which I also think is good. “Yeah, we're about ninety-five percent sure this asteroid's gonna hit the Earth. Are we gonna wait 'till we're a hundred percent sure

(Cara laughs)

S: that that asteroid's gonna hit the Earth

B: That is good

S: before we build our rockets and start to plan the mission to try to ...” No! You have to act now! In fact, at what point would – I would say a twenty percent certain, I would

B: Right!

S: want NASA to be doing something!

C: Yeah

S: At thirty percent, forty percent ... we're at ninety-five percent. When you think about how solid a consensus – there's actually two numbers. There's what percentage of scientists agree with a certain conclusion, and how sure are they? And we have both of those numbers with climate change. We have ninety-seven percent of these climatologists are confident that man-made global warming is real. And they're ninety-five percent confident. So those are the numbers. Again, you could quibble about them, but I don't think they're fundamentally different than those two numbers.

One other aspect to all of this, and that is, think about what the oil industry was able to accomplish with all of their resources. And, you know, pretty much have smoking gun evidence now that they knew about global warming, and were motivated to cover it up, right? In fact, the New York state's attorney is bringing a lawsuit based upon evidence that Exxon-Mobil, for example, their executives knew that this was going on.

But in any case, they were not able to manufacture a scientific consensus that they wanted. All they really could do was cast doubt and confusion on the scientific consensus. The point is, that conspiracy theorists casually assume that other industries can just manufacture a scientific consensus whenever they want.

You know, Big Pharma could manufacture a consensus on vaccines. Biotech could manufacture a consensus on GMO's.

C: Yeah

S: But there's really no evidence that they can.

C: They would have to manufacture so much data

S: Right

C: in some sort of cahoots with one another

E: Yeah, conspiracy

C: over such a long period of time, yeah.

E: Very big conspiracy.

C: And that's the thing. Usually, when something is published in a peer-reviewed journal, and it turns out to be bullshit, it gets retracted.

S: Yeah, or just other scientists say that that's bullshit, you know?

C: Yeah, but we have, I mean, follow Retraction Watch.

S: Right

C: We have great watchdogs who keep an eye on this kind of stuff.

S: I agree. And also, a lot of conspiracy theorists act like the United States is the only country in the world.

C: (Chuckles) Oh yeah! Like with UFO spottings,

S: Yeah

C: I always am amazed by this. (Evan laughs) Like, somehow, we were in cahoots with like, Russia? Like, really.

S: Yeah

(Cara laughs)

S: Yeah,

C: This is crazy.

S: This is a world government would have to be in on this together.

C: Yeah! There's no way!

B: They cooperate so often so well!

(Cara laughs)

E: I know, yes. And everyone's very good about keeping secrets.

C: Yeah, North Korea's just keepin' all our secrets!

S: Right

C: That's happening.

S: The subjective validation, and the ad hoc reasoning becomes evident, right? So, with climate change, it's the government that is behind it, right, against the industry. But with GMO's, it's the industry that's behind it. And they're pulling the wool over the eyes of the government, or the scientists. With Lyme disease, it's the insurance companies who are the villain. You can always find somebody to be the villain, and it's always somebody different. It can be, any part of the puzzle can be the villain as needed, without any evidence. You just pick your villain, you know.

C: But it is the government a lot, isn't it? (Laughs)

(Evan laughs)

C: It's like a common target.

S: Yeah, oftentimes, it's either

E: The government's omnipresent.

S: the government

C: Yeah

S: or

C: Big Brother

S: business, right?

C: Yeah

S: Yeah. If you tend to be liberal, then you're more likely to blame corporations. If you tend to be conservative, you're more likely to blame the government. So it's partly ideological too.

C: There is some legitimacy to seeing the government and big business working together on their interests. The problem is when you take that, and run with it in such an extreme way.

S: Yeah, well, sometimes they're working together, sometimes they're not working together.

E: Right

S: You can create your narrative any way you want.

C: Yeah

S: That's the ad hoc reasoning, and it doesn't have to be consistent at all. Whereas, I think the skeptical position is consistent. You know, we're saying the science is the science. Yeah, yes, everyone has their own take on it, but it kind of all comes out in the wash, you know, as long as there's legitimate, mature scientists publishing rigorous data, that tends to trump corporate interests, government interests, whoever.

B: That's what's so fantastic about science. It's kind of out there on its own, separate, in a way. Sure, humans are still involved in the enterprise, but still, it's kind of separate from all of that nastiness.

S: Yeah

C: And in so many ways, it's self-correcting.

S: It's self-correcting, yeah. And part

E: Self-correcting and

S: of the self-correcting aspect to it is that everyone is not on the same page, you know? It's not like everyone has the same motivations. Different scientists have different points of view. They have different, they work in different countries. They may be some may be private, or government, or industry, or whatever.

C: And a lot of times, it's the alternative of that. Because scientists, a lot of times feel competitive to publish first, and to ...

S: Yeah

C: There is some competition. So, not only are they not working together, sometimes they're like not working together.

S: Oh, no, they are competing with each other.

C: Yeah

B: Right

S: And you're keeping each other honest. And they have every motivation to tear down what another scientist

B: Absolutely!

S: is saying.

B: Which makes a consensus even more compelling.

C: Exactly

B: Once you have that

S: That's

B: breakthrough,

S: exactly.

B: all these disparate pieces actually agreeing on something to a significant degree, that's compelling.

S: And I've seen it happen. I've seen it happen in real time. Again, one of my favorite, because it was so dramatic, was Ivy IG versus plama freesis for Guilian Barre syndrome. Again, a very wonky medical controversy. Heated scientific controversy over which one was better, and two schools of thought pretty evenly divided.

So they did a consensus trial. They did a huge, multi-centered trial comparing the two treatments head to head. And everyone listened to the results of that study at the end. It didn't matter what school of thought you were a member of prior to it. Once the data came out ... again, when the data's ambiguous, everyone has their own opinion. When the data is conclusive, everyone has the same opinion. It turns out, by the way, they were equally effective. So ...

(Rogues laugh)

S: everybody won. But, yeah, neither had an advantage over the other. So that, okay, so that was the answer.

E: Okay, that's the result!

S: Everyone now has the same opinion.

Hobbit Update (33:22)[edit]

Gene drive in mosquitoes could eradicate malaria (39:50)[edit]

100 Year Anniversary of General Relativity (48:22)[edit]

Blue Origin Successful Test Flight (51:32)[edit]

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Political Opinions (54:03)[edit]

S: All right, we're gonna do one email this week. This email comes from Harry Livingstone, or Living-ston. And Harry writes,

How do you manage to form objective political opinions about the world, when the source of all your information tends to be a media outlet with a narrative of their own? This seems very relevant in the wake of the Paris attacks regarding foreign policy, but I find it true of most political opinion. What are the sources you go to, as critical thinkers, to form your opinions about the world?

That's a really good question. The answer is, it is very difficult, in my opinion. Whenever there is a strong ideological angle to any question, it could be very difficult to get objective information, because, as you say, everything is sort of colored with a narrative. That's the first step though, is to recognize that's the case.

You know, when I have conversations with people on political topics, they don't even realize that they have a narrative. That's when it's kind of hopeless. They just think that their information is the objective truth, when it's so clearly just one narrative.

Evan, your email response to Harry was actually very, very good. I agreed with everything you said. You emphasize that ya gotta go to multiple sources.

E: That's right. You never rely on a single source. It's sort of like what we've learned in science as well. When someone comes out, they publish a study or something, that's great. You never rely on one study. You have to get more data. You have to compare and contrast how the event is also being reported, and you look for signs of obvious reporter bias or preferenced agendas that might be hidden within there.

And you do. You have to go to multiple sources. It takes effort. Like anything else, the more effort you put into something, I think, the more you'll get out of it in the end. And it's unfortunately an effort that a lot of people either feel they don't have time to invest in, or they can't get over their own inherent biases to be able to do that. You need to sort of

S: Yeah

E: run those disciplines as you get along in life.

C: And that's especially tough when it comes to geopolitical conflicts, because a lot of times, we just don't have access to foreign language newspaper articles. We don't have translations of them. And so I think a really good example of that is Israel and Palestine. It's very hard for anybody living in the West who has never visited these areas, and who doesn't really understand what's going on there to formulate a strong opinion that's not based on, as you said, kind of these personal narratives. It's just hard

S: Yeah

C: to get access a lot of times to seeing a conflict or seeing a difficulty really clearly with unbiased reporting, because a lot of times the reporting itself is just entrenched in the culture.

S: Yeah, I mean, Christopher Hitchens spoke to us about this when we interviewed him, that the news media is telling the story that's being told, and you're never gonna really get the facts from the media. He said – he was being a bit cynical – but he said that's like the last place he would go to get information would be the media,

C: Yeah

(Rogues laugh)

S: 'cause they're just regurgitating the narrative of the day, not really getting to the meat of the real facts. But I think, in all honesty, just as a private citizen, not somebody who is working full time as an investigative journalist, where you're gonna vet information personally, all you could really do is look for the common threads, look for the consensus, try to get as many different perspectives as possible.

Plus, as you develop your skeptical chops, you get to realize which arguments are compelling, which one has red flags for being distorted, or being propaganda, or being a narrative. Who has, at the end of the day, the best argument. And you begin to see, like maybe you get an idea of what's really going on.

There are some times, like recently, based on a discussion I was having with somebody, I always try to pull back emotionally, first of all. I don't have any position, right? I try to be as non-ideological as I can. I know it's hopeless. You have to have some world view, but I just try to minimize the effect that many biases have on my opinions about things.

So I was in discussion about the net economic effect of raising the minimum wage, right? Seems like that's a pretty factual-based question, although I understand it could be complicated. But I tried as best as I could to find out what evidence there is, and what the experts are saying on what the net effect is of raising the minimum wage. And I never got to the point where I felt like I had a good handle on the actual facts.

(Cara laughs)

S: Essentially, I found liberal economists telling a liberal story, and conservative economists telling a conservative story, and that was it. And I -

C: That's the problem, right, is that the

S: Yeah

C: experts themselves are often ideologues.

S: Yeah

C: Especially if they're selling books.

S: Yeah yeah. I found a couple of academic papers that were talking about some specific things, but it was really hard. Another one might be like, what's the net effect of gun regulations? Again, it's like, (ugh) you run into this quagmire of ideological opinions, and it feels like we just don't have the data to really definitively answer a lot of questions. There's enough conflicting data, enough limited data that you can look at it any way you choose.

C: Yeah

S: And you don't really get a good, strong consensus out of it. So for some questions, it's really challenging.

C: It seems like a lot of “data” that journalists use (and I just put “data” in airquotes) is polling data.

S: Yeah

C: It's not actual investigative data, it's not scientific, experimental data.

S: Right

C: It's polling data, which, as we know, you can get whatever answers you want in a poll,

S: Yeah

C: you just have to ask the question the right way. So that's a huge problem. I think a lot of it too just comes down to ultimately trying to find the sources that you trust the most, trying to find the lease biased sources that time and time again are delivering on the information that you, like you said, has those common threads that's corroborated by other places.

And you know, for different people, that might be different things, but there are a lot of like, Propublica, and Frontline, these areas that are funded by the common public, they're funded by people, they're not based on advertising funds, and they definitely don't cater to a certain political ideology. They're there as pure journalism, to just disseminate information to the public, which is really like a dying art in this country.

E: Yeah

S: Yeah

C: It's a bummer.

S: It's a shame. Yeah, I do -

C: Yeah

S: I do think there is so much value in that type of journalism, where somebody is just trying to really get to the bottom of the facts, completely divorced from any narrative or ideology.

C: But it's hard!

S: It's hard. There's still good reporters out there, but I mean, it is

C: Oh completely!

S: more the exception now than the rule.

C: And you have to find them. You know, you have to dig

S: Yeah

C: for them. But we still see it in newspapers, we see it in periodicals, we see it on television, and we see it in documentarians, but we also see a lot of bullshit. So, I mean, for me, that's something that I want to work on bringing to the SGU. We talk a lot about pseudoscience. I like to talk about pseudojournalism. I like to talk about when a science story is reported really poorly.

E: There's plenty of that.

C: 'Cause that happens a lot.

B: That happens every now and then.

S: That's fresh meat for us all the time, yeah.

C: Exactly! (Laughs)

E: “The headline says ... invisibility cloak!” Wait, this is nothing like an invisibility cloak.

C: And it happens in other arenas too. It happens in areas where it's the scientific process is, that muscle is being flexed, but it's not a scientific topic. And so I think that's also important. Let's apply the scientific method in most aspects of our lives. Let's at least try and think

E: Yes

C: scientifically, even about things like geopolitical conflict.

S: You know what's interesting too is I've had experiences recently having discussions with various people, and I think after ten years of doing this show, after twenty years basically of being an activist skeptic, I notice that my skeptical colleagues and I really do argue differently than people who are not steeped in skepticism. The gulf has just gotten wider and wider I think over the years.

C: Like you're just less emotionally invested when you talk about those things?

S: The way people formulate their arguments, their use of evidence, just their use of logic is just so narrative-driven, I think at baseline. And we're so non-narrative-driven. It's the exact opposite. It's hard. It's harder to get into a conversation when everything the other person says is a logical fallacy.

(Cara laughs)

S: You know what I mean? Where do I, you would have to go launch into a long discussion about how to even have an argument

E: Right

S: before you could start to deconstruct and address what's going on, you know?

E: So much misinformation flies and flies and flies that you could spend all year trying to refute, just to correct the misconceptions that are coming out, let alone try to advance the discussion.

S: Yeah, it's not even just, you can't even get to the factual claims yet. You have to back way up and start to talk about how to even approach issues from a skeptical point of view, or a logical point of view. And there's so much background work you'd need to do to really make any progress.

C: A good argument should be like sex. It should be like give, take, give, take. It shouldn't be just like masturbating. You know what I mean?

S: Yeah

C: Just regurgitating a bunch of stuff with no effect. Is that a terrible analogy?


E: I heard “sex” and “masturbation.”

C: Uhh...

Science or Fiction (1:03:40)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that the Earth’s magnetic field is much closer to flipping polarity than previously thought and may happen this century. Item #2: After sequencing the genome of the tardigrade researchers found that about 6,000 genes, or over 17% of the tardigrade’s genome is composed of foreign DNA. Item #3: Engineers have made bionic roses, with transistors and electrodes incorporated into the leaves and stem, including a rose that can change color when an electrical current is applied.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:42)[edit]

'A professor can never better distinguish himself in his work than by encouraging a clever pupil, for the true discovers are among them, as comets amongst the stars.' - Carl Linnaeus

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.


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png