SGU Episode 555

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SGU Episode 555
February 27th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 554                      SGU 556

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


JG: Julia Galef

Quote of the Week

Our beliefs do not sit passively in ou8r brains waiting to be confirmed or contradicted by incoming information. Instead, they play a key role in shaping how we see the world.

Richard Wiseman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Steve interviewed on ABC,

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 Wednesday, February 24th, 2016, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Good evening, folks.

S: and we have a special, guest rogue this week, Julia Galef. Julia, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

JG: Hey, thanks! Good to be back!

J: Julia!

B: Julia!

JG: The last time I was here, it was your anniversary.

B: Yes.

JG: Not on an episode.

S: That's right, the ten-hour special that we did.

JG: Oh yeah.

J: You started a fashion trend, if you remember.

JG: Oh, my tin foil hat! Yeah, yeah. It started out as a joke, but then I decided I liked the look of it. So now it's part of my rotation.

B: (Laughs) Rotation ...

J: You were protected that day. Did you feel like you had more calmness?

JG: I noticed my thoughts were, yeah, much more reasonable than they usually are, which probably means I filtered out the government waves.

E: Yeah, and how was your radio reception? Good?

JG: Good, good, yeah.

S: So, Cara is still on shoot. She'll not be here for this week. Next week is dodgy too. They really got her working hard. But then she'll be back. This is episode five-five-five!

B: Whoa!

S: Which means eleventy-one more episodes, and we'll be at six-six-six.

B: Oh! We have to do something special for that.

S: Yeah

E: That's a very ...

B: All right, I'm gonna start planning.

S: A little over two years, yeah.

JG: Ah, I'm already planning my head gear for this.


S: I actually was interviewed by ABC News this afternoon.

B: Oh!

J: How did that go?

E: How was David Weir?

B: It was ABC!

S: It went really well. It was about the people who are selling the magical mineral miracle solution. Basically, the industrial bleach that they're making people drink and inject up their butt, to treat autism or cancer, right?

J: Yeah, it cures the autism. Yeah.

B: And everything else.

J: (Laughing) It clears all your ...

S: So maybe we'll talk about that more when it gets closer to airing, and I'll let you know when that's gonna show. But what's funny was, when we were wrapping up talking about that topic, you know how these things go. They interview you for two hours for thirty seconds of

E: Sure

S: the clip, yeah. But he started asking me about the Presidential candidates.

J: Oh no.

S: I'm like, seriously? You want me to talk about my opinion about the Presidential candidates? Apparently, Bernie Sanders thinks that cancer is a psychosomatic illness.

B: What!

S: He wanted

JG: What!

S: my opinion on that. I'm like, “Well, I haven't heard that. I'll have to take a look into that.” But he's like, “Tell me what you think about the Presidential candidates?” I guess it's an election year, so he was fishing. I would be shocked if any of that makes it to the air.

B: But what'd you say?

S: Essentially, what I said was that I think we should have more science debates for the presidents. But what's interesting is that if you look at opinions that the presidential candidates have on scientific issues, they pretty predictably fall along ideological lines, right? There isn't a candidate I can think of that has an opinion on a scientific issue that is more in line with the opposite ideological view, right? There's no Republicans who are embracing global warming, for example. So I said, “That's disappointing. That says ideology is more important than science. I think it should be the other way around.” So I ...

B: Good answer, Steve.

S: Yeah, I didn't want to - basically endorse science over ideology without taking a political opinion on the Presidential candidates

E: Good move.

J: Good decision.

S: My editorial policy, which is something that we'll be talking a lot later on in the show, Julia. So we, having you here as a guest rogue, but also you talked a lot on your podcast, on Rationally Speaking, about free speech versus social justice, and I want to do a deep dive on that. We'll get to that after the news segment of the show.

JG: I mean, to be honest, I rarely talk about that, because it can be such a minefield. But I did devote a recent episode to it, somewhat against my better judgment, but I'm happy with how productive the discussion was. So I'm glad to be delving into it deeper here.

S: Yeah, we'll talk about all that. But it is a minefield, you're absolutely correct.

E: (Laughs) A mine...

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:12)[edit]

  • Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, is a pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital and is the first dr that brought the problem of Flint Michigan water to the states attention.

S: But first, Bob, you're gonna tell us about the Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: This week, I'm going to talk Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She is a pediatrician at Hurley Children's Hospital, and she is the first doctor that brought the problem of Flint, Michigan's water to the States' attention. Now this one account actually said that her activism on this came about because of dinner. She invited a water expert for the Environmental Protection Agency over, and she made her aware that Flint wasn't doing anything for the corrosion control to prevent lead from the water pipes from leaching into the drinking water and the cooking water.

And she was saying how, for doctors in her position, when you hear “lead,” you kind of go a little crazy, 'cause it's so toxic, it's just so nasty. She said that that's basically what started her on her crusade. She sprung into action. Now she had already heard of complaints from residents and some activists about the water after Flint switched their water source to the Flint river. And we've all heard about this by now. It's a travesty.

But, so based on this information, she did tests, and she noticed that there were elevated lead levels in the children of Flint that she tested. And she said that it was the easiest research project I have ever done. And that's mainly because hospitals over there routinely do, they test lead levels in children, especially one-to-two year olds, 'cause their developing brains are so susceptible. And all she did was that she compared those earlier lead results to ones that were taken after the water switch, and what do you think?

What she found was pretty undeniable. Lead levels doubled, and in some areas of Flint, they actually tripled. She said it was very straight-forward. So then this data was then brought to the state health officials, and then to the public in September. And you can guess what the state did: They essentially, as she describes it, they attacked her. They disregarded her results. They cast doubt on the research itself. They called her an “unfortunate researcher that was causing near hysteria.”

But she kept pushing and pushing, and she was saying how she even second-guessed herself a little bit because when you're going up against essentially fifty epidemiologists from the state, she's like, “Oh, wow! Maybe I did something wrong.” But she quickly realized, no, she did nothing wrong. She double-checked, triple-checked. She told them that her numbers were not wrong.

And two or three weeks later, the state re-looked at their numbers, and they agreed that they were consistent with hers. And so they essentially finally, publicly acknowledged the problem, in no small part because of what Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha did. Her and of course, there's lots of activists and just regular people that were also complaining at the time, but she was one of the critical people that really brought it out there.

So, I think what she did was incredible, and so, just remember Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing apoptosis, excitotoxicity, and the disruption of calcium-mediated neurotransmitter release, you know, if it comes up.

JG: As I often do at taco parties.

E: Oh yes.

S: It's a good opener.

B: I bet you do, yes.


S: Good ice breaker. Yeah, that whole Flint, Michigan thing is such a travesty. It's a failure at pretty much every governmental level; local, state, and city-wide. Unbelievable. Again, the initial, that knee-jerk of deny, deny, deny,

E: Yep

S: and then also, like, attacked the character

E: Sure

S: of the pediatrician just saying, “Um, yeah, there's a concerning signal here in the lead levels, and maybe we should check into this.” Just really, really shameful. Eventually, of course, the data was undeniable, and they came around. Everyone's pointing fingers, and whatnot. It's a mess, because now that the pipes have been damaged, they did shift back to Detroit water, but it's too late.

(Bob groans)

S: The damaged pipes are still leaking lead into the water. So,

B: Oh my god!

S: it's gonna cost, yeah, well, tens of millions of dollars at least

E: Oh, okay.

S: to – they have to replace all of those pipelines that are corroding, that are leaching lead into the water.

JG: Also seems like a mess on a broader, sort of meta level, because how can you trust the government when it recommends something to you in the future if you know that it's been essentially poisoning your children, and covering it up for months or years.

S: I, yeah, totally agree.

JG: Yeah, I kind of can't blame people sometimes for the conspiracy theories that they come up with about the government, because every now and then, we get a case like this.

S: Yeah, I know, it makes it so much harder for us, right, when we're trying to argue against conspiracy theories, but things like this, they just feed it to such an extent. And so yeah, our position is nuanced because it's like, “Well, yeah, you know, sometimes governments do do bad things, or sometimes corporations are greedy and even evil, but that doesn't mean your grand conspiracy is plausible.” You know what I mean? But I hate stuff like this, partly for, as you say, for the meta reason.

News Items[edit]

Air Pollution and Public Health (9:07)[edit]

S: Well, let's go on to some news items. We're gonna start with an interesting item I wrote about on Science Based Medicine today. There's been a number of recent reports looking at the economics of air pollution. This is interesting. Even though, in the United States, in a lot of industrialized nations, air quality has been improving over the last fifty, sixty years, air pollution is still a serious health problem. There was a recent study that looked at the UK, and they found that there are forty thousand deaths a year attributable to air pollution.

B: Whoa! That's as many as die on the roads, wow!

S: Yeah, forty thousand a year in the UK.

B: Yes.

S: That's a lot. And that this, the total financial cost of air pollution, just from looking at premature death and the health care costs, is twenty billion dollars a year.

B: What!

S: I'm sorry, twenty billion pounds a year, which is a little bit more. There was also a study in the United States, which estimated the total societal cost of air pollution in 2011 in the United States. What do you think it was?

B: Fifty bucks.

S: Close. A hundred and thirty-one billion dollars. That's down from 2002, where they estimated it was a hundred and seventy-five billion, so

E: Ooh!

S: things are actually improving, although they said some of that might be due to the economic downturn, but it is due to regulations restricting emissions

B: That's huge!

E: Emissions, yeah

S: and emissions, like coal, practice, and whatnot.

B: In one sense, though, that's actually good news, in the sense that you could then justify spending sixty billion dollars on dealing with this. If you could take a good chunk out of it, that money would be well spent, and you would be saving money in the long term by far!

S: Exactly

B: Right?

S: That's exactly the point, Bob, and a lot of people are keying into that. They're saying, “Oh, look at this. So we're spending a hundred and thirty billion dollars a year, basically, that's the cost to the United States of air pollution. Most of that, by the way, is from sulphur dioxide. But there's also nitrogen oxides, ammonia, volatile organic compounds, and fine particulate matter. But sulphur dioxide's the worst, and that comes from coal. And most of that is from power plants and cars.

B: Ooh! Electric!

S: But they're still a lot of other sources as well. But that's the big chunk of it, is producing energy, and driving cars. So that's exactly right. So some people are saying, that is interesting, because if you take a purely cost-benefit

B: Yeah

S: analysis to renewable energy, for example, shifting our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels, away from polluting sources of energy, it's hard to say that it wouldn't be cost effective, or that it would be a burden on the economy, when we could save tens of billions of dollars in health care costs; and also prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths.

JG: That's the thing that really confuses me, is why this point hasn't been more front and center from the

B: Yes!

JG: beginning,

S: Yeah

JG: about climate change, because people care to some extent about future generations, they care to some extent about the environment, but they really care about their health, and their friends' and families' health now. So I don't understand the strategy here.

S: Yeah

JG: Why hasn't that been more salient?

S: Yeah, when I was writing about this, and I looked it up, you do get people making this point going back even a decade. This isn't an entirely new notion, but it is starting to gain some traction, I think because of these recent numbers. And it is to me, it's such a home run argument. It's a win-win. And I've long said that, I think in the climate change debate, we need to focus on the win-wins, and sort of take away from the climate change deniers the argument that, “Oh, you're gonna destroy our economy,

E: Right

S: chasing this fictitious, hysterical, and not true risk.” Say, “Well, actually, we're not.” If we shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, actually, there is gonna be a lot of benefits. Energy independence is one. We could actually have cheaper energy if we do it right. And what's wrong with a cleaner environment with less air pollution? Now, we could say, “And we're gonna save a hundred billion dollars on health care costs.” Health care costs are so huge.

(Bob groans)

S: So huge, and they're soaring, that they are actually swamping the energy sector costs, right, that we're dealing with. And so, having a significant reduction in health care costs actually is a very strong point. Also, keep in mind, most of these extra deaths, these early deaths, are from asthma and heart disease.

E: Yeah

S: And a lot of the people who are dying from asthma are kids, right? These are, this is not like just old, sick people dying a little bit early. These are really premature deaths.

B: Right. That's whole lifetimes

S: Yeah

B: of contributions and productivity and living.

S: Yeah, and that cost, by the way, is counted into the one-thirty-one billion. There's a standardized number you use, like, what is a life worth in terms

B: Right

S: of productivity in society. And they calculate that out, but ... so, some of it is indirect health care costs, some of it is in lost productivity, some of it is in productive life years lost. As a society, reducing air pollution is a economic win. Even if you don't believe in global warming,

B: Right, right.

S: it is still the right thing to do.

B: That reminds me of that cartoon,

S: (Chuckles) Yeah

B: it's kind of a famous cartoon. It's like, “Wait, if we make all these changes, and there is no global warming, what benefit are we gonna get from this, besides all of these obvious benefits.”

S: Yeah

B: And they're just so funny that ...

S: What happens, what if we make the world a better place, and global warming is all a hoax? All the things that are gonna result from it are gonna be good anyway. You know, it's like energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is a win-win. Nobody loses from being more energy efficient.

B: Right, right.

S: You know?

JG: I feel like we could also make this, we could also frame the debate in terms of national security, right?

S: Yeah

B: Yeah

JG: Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, thereby reduce our dependence on countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. This is another thing that I, you know, I don't really understand why the framing is that in our more immediately palatable to the red states have not been ... you know, we have those framings. They're true framings. They just haven't been part of the discussion so far.

S: That's why I don't, something we should focus on developing technologies that for clean energy, for energy efficiency, things that are of a benefit whether or not you believe in global warming. Let's take the debate away from that, and focus on the win-wins, the low hanging fruit, you know, where everyone can agree. That's the common ground, that should be a consensus, that sure, yeah, reducing pollution has economic as well as health benefits for society. Let's do it. And if we solve global warming to boot, whether you think it's a problem or not, then who cares?

E: Thorium reactors!

S: Thorium, yeah.

E: Go thorium, invest in thorium.

S: I think, yeah, you know, I don't know. It's possible that ...

E: They're workin' on it.

S: It'll be very interesting to see fifty and a hundred years from now, how much of our energy's gonna be coming from wind, solar; how much from third generation uranium nuclear power plants; is thorium ever gonna be a thing? And when and if fusion's really gonna kick in, 'cause when it does, that's a game over, right? That's a game changer.

J: Yep

S: And the new stellerator design fusion reactors are makin' some serious progress. But it's still twenty to thirty years away, and it always has been. And it's gonna be, for the foreseeable future, until we really, really turn a corner. I'm very fascinated to see how that's gonna play out.

Mystery Moon Music (17:10)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Evan, I understand that NASA has finally solved a deep, dark mystery that dates back to the Apollo missions.

E: Yeah, it sure does. Apollo 10, in fact, which was launched on May 18th, 1969, a few months before I was born. And this mission, mission ten, was the dress rehearsal for the first Moon landing, of course, the famous Apollo 11 mission. This mission was to test all the components and procedures, short of landing on the Moon. But everything else was in play. And of course, its success enabled the first landing to actually have happened later that year in July.

Now, there's a piece of the history though, from Apollo 10 which has remained a mystery, as you said, Steve, for almost forty years. So all communications during the mission were recorded on tapes, big reel to reel tapes. And the audio recorded on the tapes was later transcribed. The transmissions between NASA control and the three astronauts, Tom Stafford, John Young, and Engene Cerman recorded everything.

Now, some people who have since gone back and listened to the recordings and read the transcripts from that time, wherein the Apollo 10 was behind the Moon, and this is the crux of this past week's news story and frenzy, because the question is being asked, “Did Apollo 10 astronauts hear alien music coming from outer space when they orbited the Moon?”

The crew, when they were behind the Moon, reported hearing strange sounds, which to them, they described like music. This whistling sound, with an eerie sort of sci-fi feel to it. In fact, some of the actual transcripts read like this: “Did you hear that whistling sound too? Sounds like, you know, outer space type music. I wonder what it is?”

So, the astronauts were not expecting to hear anything on their instruments when they were behind the Moon. But regardless, they were having this whoooo sound, as Cernan said about the recording. And he remarked that, “It sure is weird music.”

(Plays clip of the sound. A buzz-saw like noise plays continuously)

Astronaut: That sure is weird music.

2nd astronaut: No, it's a whistlin', you know, like an outer space type thing.

(A third astronaut speaks too quietly to hear)

S: But, it's funny, 'cause they're saying, like, they're calling it 'space music,' but it's really just a whistling noise.

E: Yeah, it is. And when you hear it, you kind of get the sense that, “Okay, there might be something sort of music to the scale of the sound, but it's really, I think they use the term “music” because they didn't have really another word to kind of describe the noise that they were hearing. It's really just kind of an unexplained noise, is what it was.

Now, the Science Channel has a new series called NASA's Unexplained Files, and this is why it's sort of created a buzz, because this last week, it aired, in which it talked about this particular story. However, there are, well, some light has been shed on to the mystery itself. Well, they went back and asked the astronauts themselves. In fact, they asked Cernan about what he thought about it. And he said the following: “I don't remember that incident excitingly enough to take it seriously.”

He's talking about the noises, the music he heard. He said, “It was probably just radio wave interference. Had we thought it was something other than that, we would have briefed everyone after the flight. We never gave it another thought.”

S: Right

E: A NASA – yeah – a NASA technician who appeared on the TV show supports Cernan's assessment, that the radios in the two spacecraft (the lunar module, and the command module) were interfering with each other. And that interference is what they were actually hearing.

J: So Ev, the astronauts didn't actually draw any conclusions about what they were hearing, correct?

E: Nope, they merely indicated verbally, as they were having conversation with each other, “Did you hear that noise?” “Yes, I heard that noise. It sounds like music.” They sort of tried to put a descriptor to it. And that was it. You know, it was more like a matter of fact kind of thing, not this deep mystery that they needed to either solve, or kept them awake at night years afterwards. It was a just at the moment kind of thing, and then passed.

S: Yeah, they probably intuitively knew it was some kind of instrument noise.

E: Interference

S: Yeah

E: coming from something.

S: And it wasn't important enough to track down.

E: So, and it's not unique to the Apollo 10 mission either. Michael Collins, the pilot of Apollo 11, and the first person to fly around the far side of the Moon by himself, while Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were exploring the lunar surface; recalled also hearing strange sounds, and didn't think too much of it either.

He said, “There's a strange noise in my headset now, an eerie sort of whoo-whoo sound.” He wrote in his book, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journey, he said, “Had I not been warned about it, it would have scared the hell outta me. Fortunately, the radio technicians had already an explanation for it. It was interference between the LM and the Command Module's VHF radios.”

So, so much for outer space music, or some sort of paranormal event going on there. It's just radio transmissions.

JG: Are there alternate explanations that have sprung up in the conspirashperes on the internet? Like, what did the NASA's Unexplained Mysteries show float as the plausible explanation?

E: Yeah, right, so the other side of it is that they had this other astronaut, Al Warden (I've not heard of him before), who was on the show. And what he said is that, “Logic tells me that if there was something recorded on there, then there's definitely something there.”

JG: That's sinister vague.

S: Yeah

JG: There's something there...

E: Yeah, right.

JG: Something could be, you know, interference of radios.

S: That's mystery mongering.

E: But that's the way TV goes nowadays, unfortunately.

S: So, when the lander was separated from the Command Module, the interference went away.

E: It stopped.

S: Yeah.

E: Right, so, there ya go.

J: Yeah, how do you explain that, science?

(Steve chuckles)

E: Yeah, that's right! (Julia chuckles) Where's your aliens now? Ah!

S: Okay, thanks, Evan.

B: Send more Chuck Beeblebrox.

Gender Bias among Programmers (23:20)[edit]

S: All right, Julia

B: You didn't get that one.

J: Oh, boy!

JG: Yes.

S: Julia, tell us about about female computer coders.

JG: All right, so, this news story is about a study that has been in the news for the last couple weeks or so. You might have seen it popping up on your Facebook news feed, as I did. The study is titled, “Gender Bias In Open Source: Pull Request Acceptance of Women Vs Men.” And it's been covered in the BBC, in courts, in Business Insider, in Vice, and a bunch of other places. The finding has been reported in the news is that the study demonstrates a bias against female programmers.

So, what the researchers did, is they went to GitHub, which is an online repository of computer code submitted by freelance programmers, essentially. And on GitHub, your account, it doesn't necessarily reveal your gender. So you have a handle, like, a user name, which could be your name, like JaneSmith001 or MichaelDoe32, or it could just be something completely anonymous, that doesn't reveal your gender. And you can upload a photo, but you don't have to.

So, some of the accounts on GitHub are gendered, and some aren't. And what the researchers did, is they pulled the email addresses on all the accounts, and cross-referenced them with the corresponding social media profiles, like the Google Plus profiles. And this way, they were able to identify the gender of a large chunk of the anonymous profiles – not all of them, but something like thirty-five percent.

So then what they did (this was kind of clever), they compared the two groups. The gendered profiles (the profiles where it was clear from the user name or account, what gender the person was), versus the group of anonymous profiles, but which the researchers secretly knew what gender they were.

And they asked the question ... so they were looking at something called pull requests, which is when a coder submits a piece of code to amend an open source project, and then the other GitHub users (the community) can either accept or reject that request.

And so the researchers who were looking at the question, “Are pull requests from women less likely to be accepted when people know that they're women coders?” And the result, as reported in the press was, yes, women acceptance (the acceptance of pull requests from women) goes way down when their gender is revealed. So that was the result.

And the reason that I'm bringing up this study is if you actually look at the study itself, and not just the news reports about the study, the result is much murkier. First of all, the one really sort of significant result was that revealing your gender reduces the acceptance rate of your pull requests for both genders. So both women and men get less pull requests accepted when their gender is known, which is surprising. And there's no obvious story that occurs to me to

S: Yeah

JG: explain that.

S: It's interesting.

JG: But it certainly seems like an interesting result, right? But then, when you start to look at it broken down by gender, it's much less clear. So the data is not actually available in paper, unfortunately, but they do have two parts showing, they compared two groups: What are called “insiders” and “outsiders.” The insiders are people who had worked on that particular project before, and the outsiders hadn't.

Among the outsiders, when the gender is revealed, women end up worse off than men. So, acceptance rates go down for both women and men, but they go down more for women, among the outsiders. And that's the result that the media was pointing to.

But then when you look at the insiders, revealing the gender is actually better for women. So their drop in acceptance is much lower than the drop in acceptance for men when gender is revealed, among insiders. So the actual results are very mixed,

S: Yeah.

JG: which makes it really striking that this study has been used to support this pretty asymmetric narrative in the media. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. I bring it up partly because I think it's sort of a striking example of a problem with science journalism, right? And this is something that happens a lot. There's kind of weak results that happen, you get in a study, like, “There's a correlation between this vitamin and slightly lower rates of cancer in this particular subset of the population.” And then the news reports, you know, “Vitamin D Cures Cancer!” So that happens a lot.

But this was, I thought, a particularly egregious example of science being misrepresented in the media because it's not like this is weak but clear evidence in one direction. It's sort of not clear that this evidence points in any direction. It's just sort of interestingly mixed result, but the media represents it as pointing in one particular direction.

And to be clear, I'm not faulting the authors of this study. It was an interesting study, I'm glad they did it, I'm glad they posted it online. I'm really, I'm laying the blame, fault, at the reporters who reported it in a biased way.

S: So, we get that question a lot, Julia, 'cause we see, obviously, this is old news, right? Oh! The media misreporting science news!

JG: Right

S: That's every week. And the question is often: Well, who is at fault? Was it the scientists, or was it the journalist, or was it the PR office? Sometimes it's the PR office, not the scientists themselves. And honestly, you don't know. And there actually was a study we talked about a year ago, which found that it's pretty evenly distributed. It's just as likely to be the fault of the scientists, or the PR offices, the journalist themselves. So the question is: What did the authors say in their own conclusions? Did they over-call the results? Or were they being completely appropriate, and the media just completely distorted their own conclusions?

JG: Yeah, that's a good point. So the authors – I mean, clearly the authors do report that the results of revealing the gender favored men in one group, and favored women in the other group. But then, in their conclusion, they do say, “It's troubling that there was this unfavorable result for women in this group, and that should give us concern about gender bias in tech.”

S: Right

JG: So they did kind of, in their result section, I think, over-state the amount of evidence that this study provided for the

S: Yes

JG: gender bias in ...

S: They gotta share the blame.

JG: theory, yeah. Yeah, that's true. And, you're right, there's many stages at which the actual evidence can be distorted. I have seen this example of it a lot, where the take-away, the researchers themselves leave you with in their results or conclusion section, or discussion section, is not quite the take-away that I would have taken from their

S: Yeah

JG: own research. But, that said, I just want to say, like, the other reason that I'm bringing this up is, I do think that there's a fair amount of other evidence for gender discrimination in many contexts. And when I post things like this – I posted this on Facebook, because I'd seen so many of my friends linking to the articles about the study. Usually, what happens whenever I post a corrective, where I say, “Actually, this argument for x is a bad argument,” is I get a lot of people assuming that I don't agree with x.

S: Right

JG: So, I'm reminded of – I think it was Dan Dennett, who said that there's nothing he hates more than a bad argument for a position he holds.

(Bob laughs)

JG: And I do think that holding this paper up as an example, as any kind of close to definitive proof of gender discrimination

S: Yeah

JG: is a bad argument. But I don't want that to take away from the other evidence of gender discrimination – just to pull one compelling example: There have been similar comparisons of women's acceptance rates in blinded versus non-blinded conditions in orchestras, where, when orchestras had women audition blind, such that the judges couldn't see the person who is playing the instrument, the acceptance rate for women shot up. That was a pretty compelling, pretty unambiguous result. So it's just one example, and there are others.

But I do think that it's important to call out the bad examples, or bad arguments, and to have that not be interpreted as disloyalty to the general cause.

S: Right, you still gotta get the science right.

JG: Right, right.

S: I'm interested in why the revealing gender had a negative impact on both sexes, both genders. Here's my hypothesis: That people who use pseudonyms, gender-neutral pseudonyms, that that maybe that conveys a certain mystique about it, right? 'Cause they're using cool names, rather than a

JG: Right

S: real-sounding name.

JG: Right

S: I wonder if that mystique that is created by a cool pseudonym actually is boosting their cred; and when they use a more normal name, that would reveal their gender, they don't get that benefit. That's just a hypothesis.

B: Right

JG: It's a good point, because I think the authors of the study, but definitely the press (and me too to some extent), we talk about this as if, when the gender is revealed, women do worse. But actually, we're just comparing across to two separate groups of people: The group where the gender is apparent, and the group where the gender is not apparent. And there could be other factors that distinguish those groups from each other

S: Yep

JG: that make them different, that are affecting their acceptance rates. And so the thing I had thought of was not about – it sounded like you, Steve, were imagining a mechanism where people who are deciding whether or not to accept the request are influenced, maybe subconsciously, by the name, and whether it's anonymous or not.

I was thinking more of a selection effect, where I actually don't know GitHub very well, but I could imagine that in theory, you start to pick up some cultural norms as you spend more time on GitHub, and you notice at a certain point, like, “Oh wait, actually, the cool programmers don't have their name, and their user name

S: Yeah

JG: is like, not cool. And so, I'm gonna use an anonymous name.” And that's only something that happens the more experience you have.

S: Sure

JG: That's just a theory I have. I haven't even looked at whether they controlled for amount of time on GitHub, or anything like that. But I could imagine similar such stories that would explain it.

S: The broader point is: This is an observational study,

JG: Yes

S: not an experimental study; and observational studies are prone to confounding factors. There's all kinds of things they didn't control for. And just saying that revealing one's gender was the key factor is difficult to make that conclusion when the data is so muddy. I think it may be muddy because gender was not the deciding factor, or it was overwhelmed by other factors. And unless you're intimate with the culture, and you control for those variables, you just can't know what those other factors might be. I'm just spit-balling about

JG: Right

S: having a cool user name, or your hypothesis is just as reasonable. Maybe it's the experience, and maybe it's ... who knows. There's so many possible confounding factors here. I don't think you can draw any conclusions. That data sounded like noise to me, to be honest with you.

JG: Yeah, and the broader point you're making about people inferring causal

S: Yeah

JG: relationships from correlational data is a very important, very universal problem. I agree.

S: Yeah, it's things like this you have to do three, four, five studies, and see where they triangulate. And then you could maybe draw some causal inferences, but not from one study that's uncontrolled like this.

JG: I mean, one other secondary point I'll just make is that this division of the data into the insiders and the outsiders, that's one way to divide the data into subgroups. We don't actually know what other divisions

S: Right

JG: the researchers tried, or whether there are other divisions they could have tried. And so it's hard, their own charts don't actually portray how statistically significant these differences are. But even if they had, it wouldn't be that informative without knowing how many other breakdowns they tried before the one that they revealed.

S: Yes, their researcher degrees of freedom were probably huge, and the statistical analysis is almost worthless unless you know every single thing they did to look at the data, which we usually don't get in report. That's why replications are important, and looking at the data in multiple ways.

JG: Amen, brother.


E: Well said.

Who's That Noisy (35:32)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Gravity Waves

S: All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: So, last week, I played you this noisy:

(Wind and typing-like sounds)

J: All right, so, I gotta tell you, this was a lot of fun for me. I got a lot of responses. I got a lot of correct guesses. I got a lot of funny wrong guesses, and I got a couple of interesting but wrong guesses. I'll quickly go through. So,

B: Can I guess first?

J: Yeah

B: It sounds like gravitational waves.

J: Yep, that's it. The worst guess, whatever you want to say this is, is this guess was, “That was Darth Vader speaking that African clicking language.”

JG: (Laughs) Wow.

J: Yeah, that was definitely like, (Imitates the language) Yeah, no, that wasn't it, not even close, Mike Robinson.


B: Jay,

E: We won't use any names.

B: Jay, neither was your imitation of it.

J: I know, right. So the winner this week, Tod Dart, said, “Hey Rogues, Today's Who's That Noisy sounds suspiciously like the audio version of gravity waves data recently detected by the LIGO (Leego) scientists,

B: Wow

J: which is


J: LIEGO, whatever. You say LEEGO, I say LIEGO.

S: I say LAYGO.

E: I think it sounds LOWGO.

J: The quick one-two on – Bob, why don't you, since you're Mr. Smartiepants, tell us exactly what this was taken from.

B: That is the distinctive sound made by two black holes colliding together, causing a ripple in space time known as gravitational waves. That was the classic noise there. Actually, that thing anticipated that. Theory predicted. So when they saw that, they were like, “Holy crap!” When they saw that, it's like, they knew what it was. Ho ... so, yeah.

J: Bob, did you ever see the movie Alien?

B: Yes.

J: So, you would know that there actually is no sound in space, correct? That is an

B: Yes

J: interpretation, a digitized

B: Yes, so, the wave-form, the wave form.

J: Right. So, I have a new noisy this week. So, this one is a little long, but this one is very entertaining, and also, it's something that's gonna make you want to pull your hair out.

Unknown man: It does something, there's something going on there, 'cause we're not naturally inside our tissues are salty. We're not naturally like a river. Your tissues are salty, therefore we have to have salt in our diet to pull that juice on. And that's why in a desert climate, it's more important to have salt, because you can get your body juices wanting to evaporate up into the heavens. So, therefore, you need more salt, to hold the everything on the Earth.

The reason why the oceans are salty is that's what's needed to hold the water onto the Earth. If that didn't happen, the water would levitate right off the Earth. That'd be the end of it. The salt holds it on in the same way that it holds it into our body.

E: Neil ...

B: So the great lakes, why aren't the great lakes floating up in the sky? Oh my god!

J: Like, right?

JG: Uh huh

J: Swimming pools,

B: Ah!

J: puddles of water,

E: 'Cause there are trace amounts of salt, I guess you only need a trace amount.

J: The super-subtle thing, but at the very end, you hear someone go, “Yeah,” like there's somebody sitting there. So, I think this one's gonna be pretty easy, but I just found it so provocative, what that guy was saying. Who is it? What's he talking about? And any other dirt you have on him, let me know, send it to me at

S: Thank you, Jay.

(Commercial at 39:03)

Special Report (40:09)[edit]

  • A discussion with Julia Galef about the recent controversies in the skeptical movement.

S: We're coming up to our special report. We're gonna do an interesting discussion, and this is the main reason why we have Julia on the show with us this week, other than just, it's lovely to have you on as a guest rogue.

JG: (Sweet voice) Of course.

S: But, we want to talk about free speech versus social justice, because we love controversies. (Chuckles) We want to piss everybody off, and what better way to do it. So,

JG: Yeah, I wrote my will before coming on this show.

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

JG: You know?

S: Now, what's triggering this, is the whole NECSS thing. I just want to quickly encapsulate what happened there. I don't want to really talk about that too much. I want to talk about the underlying philosophy, the underlying points.

So, as probably everyone knows, Richard Dawkins was invited to be a featured speaker for NECSS this year, and then, as we mentioned a few weeks ago on the show, he retweeted a video that was satirical towards feminists, Islamists, and some people found that offensive. In reaction to that, the NECSS executive committee decided to rescind the invitation to Dawkins. And then, in the ensuing conversation that happened, in the two weeks after that, the committee decided that that probably was not the best move, and we apologized for doing that unilaterally, and said a better move would have been to discuss our concerns with Professor Dawkins. So that's what we did.

Unfortunately, in that time, he had a stroke. That was after we, by the way, the decision was made, it did not influence the decision. But that did complicate our discussions. And as it stands right now, Professor Dawkins will not be coming to NECSS, because of his health. And then he made a public statement to that effect.

Now, I don't want to dissect that decision. I wanted to say a couple of things about it, and I did get sort of clearance from everybody on the executive committee to say the following things: First of all, a lot of people were put off by the fact, and perplexed by the fact that those decisions seemed to be very contradictory.

The thing you have to understand is that no individual person made those decisions. That was made by a committee, a committee of people who are very conflicted on this issue, and in fact, there is a range of opinions on the committee. That's why we're vacillating, because we don't agree. It's very conflicting, very contentious point. So, if you try to make sense of it as if an individual person made those decisions, of course it doesn't make any sense, and we get that. We're acutely aware of the fact that the decision making process was very dysfunctional. We've admitted that, we apologize for it, we just want to move past that, and address the underlying issue, which we think is very interesting, and very important, especially to our community. And that's what I want to do for the rest of the time on this show here, is talk about the underlying conflict that is really driving everything.

So, Julia, let's talk about that first, just the whole, what is free speech, what is social justice, when and how do they conflict? How do we resolve those conflicts? Just in generic terms, not with reference to anything specific. And then, if we have time, I might want to talk about how this has played out within the skeptical community, 'cause the one thing that has come out of this, is my sense that we really need to confront this issue as a community. It really has been very polarizing. It's very disappointing how polarizing and how ideological this has been, within a community that's supposed to be non-ideological, and dedicated to rationalism. But we'll talk about that second.

So, first, I want to talk about free speech versus social justice. You talked about this somewhat on Rationally Speaking, your own podcast. And you had, I think, a very thoughtful and excellent discussion about it. Why don't you start us off? Encapsulate for us your thoughts on this issue, free speech versus social justice?

JG: Sure, so the discussion on Rationally Speaking, it was with the philosopher Dan Finka, and it was immediately prompted by the decision to disinvite Dawkins. I had written a Facebook post about it, and had gotten, I think, a lot of thoughtful discussion and disagreement. And one of the most thoughtful dissenters was Dan Finka. So I invited him on the show.

One thing I'll say is that, as you alluded to in your introduction of this topic, Steve, I do think that it's a very complicated issue, on which reasonable people can and do disagree. And even though, I guess – spoiler – my initial Facebook post had disagreed with the decision, and felt that Dawkins should not have been disinvited, I do feel like I have more in common ideologically, intellectually, with the people who disagree with me on the object level, and think that it was correct to disinvite Dawkins, but who think that it's a very complicated issue, than I do with the people who agreed with me on the object level, but think it's simple and obvious, and only morons could disagree with it.

So, yeah, I think that's a very important point to be made. Well, so the question you put in my lap was, what is free speech and social justice, and how do they interact?

S: Yeah, thirty seconds.

JG: The trivial (nervous laugh)

B: Go!

S: Frame it for us.

JG: Well, I guess the first thing I'll say is that I think free speech is often a red herring in these discussions. In the case of Dawkins, and in some similar cases, I suppose, the question is: Is this particular person, do we want to give this person a platform? And that's different from the question of: Does this person have a legal right to voice their opinions, no matter how controversial? So, I do think that a lot of the talk of, “Is NECSS censoring Dawkins,” was misplaced.

And to broaden the scope of that, beyond which speakers to give a platform to at conferences, I think that another arena in which this debate often plays out is on college campuses,

S: Oh yeah.

JG: where speakers are being shouted down by students, or being disinvited because they're too controversial, and the students are protesting. And the discourse around this in the media and on blogs tends to be about, “Students these days are less in favor of free speech than they used to be.” And it's really, their desire to not have these speakers on campus is really about free speech.

And I'm not sure that that's true. I mean, I have some data suggesting that millennials as a group are more likely to endorse government censorship of offensive speech against races as compared to other, older demographics. So that's, I suppose, some evidence that there might be a real change on this dimension, but more to the point, what I think is more salient here, is that for most people, there are some positions that we just all agree are reprehensible or unconscionable.

So if they're a speaker who is going to speak at a university to argue that we should reinstitute slavery, or that all women should be raped whenever they disagree with a man, I think that most people would agree we don't want to legitimize that view by giving that person a platform at a reputable university. And there is, whether or not you want to officially acknowledge it, there is some amount of legitimacy that's given to a speaker, and by extension, to his views, by giving him a platform.

And so, it's sort of like we've all agreed that disinviting, or barring speakers is sometimes acceptable, and now, we're just haggling over the threshold, to some extent. So I think what's really changed on college campuses, or maybe I should say what really characterizes this disagreement over no platforming, is how big is that set of issues that we consider to be unconscionable, and not even worth giving a platform to?

And I think many of the more traditional liberals, for them, that subset would include things like saying that women or blacks are inferior to men or whites. But it wouldn't include things like, for example, a recent case involved a gay activist who had been campaigning for gay and queer rights for decades; and there was a big controversy over him speaking at a university (unfortunately, I can't remember which one), because he had written an essay recently in which he said, “You know, as much as I hate it, I think that legally, a baker should not be forced to make a cake that has a pro-gay message on it. I don't like that they're homophobic, but I think that forcing bakers to create cakes for any ideology, no matter how much they dislike it is a bad precedent to set.”

So he wrote that essay, and now there's a huge controversy over him speaking at a university. And the queer community at the university, at least some of them, are opposed to having him talk.

S: Yeah

JG: So, that's the kind of thing over which I think many traditional liberals would say, “Well, reasonable people can disagree, and you shouldn't shut people like that out of the discussion entirely.” But I think, for many people in the social justice crowd, the set of things that are unconscionable, and not to even deserve a platform is just much greater.

S: Right

JG: So, people don't necessarily disagree about, “Should there be free speech,” it's just, “What things are so unconscionable that we want to do everything we can to not encourage them.”

S: I agree that that's, first of all, I agree that this is complicated, and I agree that the real discussion is about where to draw the line.

JG: Yeah

S: However, the discussion that ensued after the NECSS decision, there were definitely the harshest critics were not saying that. They were not saying, “This is not where you draw the line,” they were saying,

JG: Yeah

S: “There is no line. Free speech...”

JG: I know! I just don't think they really believe that.

S: I agree with you. I don't think they really believe it either. I think they're being intellectually lazy, and they're not being thoughtful about this at all, because you absolutely, so let's explore that. Let's first, explore, “Is there a line?”

So, first of all, let me just say: I totally agree, and I'm very passionate about free speech. I'm currently engaged in a very expensive battle to defend my own free speech. I know how important it is. I also very passionately believe in social justice. I think, like most people in our movement, I believe in both. And I think that both are important, and that we need to think about how to optimize both in our movement, but they do conflict at times. And then we have to make very thoughtful and careful decisions about how to balance these two valid ethical principles that sometimes come into conflict.

I think this is what society is doing, I think this is what we have to do as a movement, and I think the notion that this is entirely in one direction or the other, that there is no debate here because obviously the only issue is with social justice or obviously the only issue is with free speech.

You know, people were saying things like, if you say, “I'm in favor of free speech, but-” it's like, stop right there, there is no “but.” If you're in favor of free speech, that's it. That's the end of the sentence. Wrong! That is actually, philosophically wrong. No ethical principle is completely superior to all other ethical principles. There are times when they come into conflict, and you have to figure out how to rectify that.

So let's establish some basic ways in which we need to, free speech and social justice come into conflict, what's interesting is on a completely unrelated issue, but the parallels were very striking to me. I wrote about a blog post about being able to differentiate between CG and real photos. The reason why this

JG: I'm not sure where this is going...

J: Really?

S: You're not sure ...

B: Yeah, where's that come from?

S: This is a very specific legal implication here because the Supreme Court has ruled that child pornography that involves a real subject is not protected speech, but child pornography that includes a completely CG or CGI subject is protected free speech, because there's no direct victim involved in the producing of the material.

So the discussion on my blog about that has mirrored, I think, a lot of these issues. So, what has emerged from that, (and this is my take on the limits of free speech), is that when free speech causes demonstrable harm to somebody else, it's reasonable to limit that. That's not protected speech.

So, I think the uncontroversial examples of that are, you can't incite people to violence, right? You can't say, “Go kill this person,” and rile people up, and get them to kill somebody. The iconic one is you can't

B: Fire!

S: Yeah, cry fire in a crowded theater, because you're endangering the lives of people with reckless speech. We recognize that you can't use speech to cause reputational harm, financial harm, direct physical harm, right? These are legally not controversial. I just, agree with you. People would have to acknowledge those, that they really don't believe that free speech is one hundred percent unfeathered.

E: In terms of the misnomer, really.

S: Well, the other issue that you brought up, Julia, which I agree with is that oftentimes, issues are framed as “free speech” when it's really about editorial policy, right?

JG: Right, and I think it is reasonable for a community, for a college, or for a conference to sort of draw a line in the sand and say, “We're not gonna infringe on someone's legal rights. Of course, we can't do that. But this is the line that defines what kinds of views we want to legitimize in our community.”

S: Right

JG: I mean, that's not precisely free speech, but it's relevant. And I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

S: Yeah, you don't have a right to get anything published in the New York Times. You can't say that they're censoring you, or oppressing your free speech 'cause they won't publish your article. They have a right to an editorial policy.

B: A good analogy.

S: Yeah, conferences are right to decide who gets to represent

B: Yes

S: their conference by being a speaker. And I am very, however, I have to say, personally, am very amenable to the free speech argument when it comes to universities 'cause they should be bastions of the free exchange of ideas. So I would tend to be a little bit more towards that end of the spectrum more for a university than for a newspaper or a conference.

Here's where I think we get into the grey zone, right? Now here's where, and I think this is where our discussion is: So, first of all, everyone agrees, right, that your right to free speech ends where you harm other people, right?

JG: Oh, wait, I wouldn't agree to that. Sorry.

S: Tell me where you wouldn't agree to that.

JG: Well, no, I mean, just, there's plenty of, if I make up a political argument, and someone else feels upset by that argument because they disagree with me, I've harmed them emotionally, but I don't that means I shouldn't have had the right to make the argument.

S: That's where I'm going next.

JG: Okay.

S: I totally agree. But in terms of the examples that I've already raised, inciting to violence,

JG: Yeah

S: yeah, those are the obvious ones. In the case of the child pornography, somebody (and again, this is not in any way in the context of our discussion), they made the point, “Well, what if CG child pornography incites a pedophile to rape children?” Is that enough? Should we ...

E: How are you gonna argue that? I mean, in other words ...

S: Well, what if there's scientific evidence that says if being in the possession of child pornography correlates with a higher risk of actually acting out on your feelings of being attracted towards minors? That's just an interesting question. Is that child pornography protected free speech? Or is it putting minors at risk because it's inciting somebody to violate them?

So, we'll leave that question aside. Let's get to Julia, the point you anticipated where I was going with the point you were making, is: Can we include harassment as harm? Stalking? Bullying? Violating somebody's civil rights? I think that's where the social justice people are coming from. And certainly, that's what they expressed to me in the context of this debate is, “Yes, but speech that is oppressing me, because it's harassing me, should not be protected speech.” What do you think about that?

JG: Well, this is again, one of those cases where I could imagine some instances of harassment that almost everyone would agree should not be tolerated, maybe not even tolerated legally, but certainly not tolerated in a community, or a

S: Right

JG: conference. Like, hurling vicious insults at someone online, and outside their door, and, there are certain things that are actually threatening, or incredibly emotionally abusive. There are other much grayer examples that sort of get smuggled in

S: Yeah

JG: to that prohibition, that are like, “Well,” there was this case on a college campus – again – where there were anti-abortion protesters holding up signs that had pictures of aborted fetuses. And a professor at the campus rangled one of the signs away from the student, and I think shoved them in the process. And she ran off with the sign and destroyed it. And she stands by her actions, saying that the signs were triggering her. They were causing harm to her, and that was terrorism, actually, she called it.

And I don't know if she was disciplined by the university, but certainly there are people who think that she was in the right, because that free speech was harming her. You know, there are a lot of other very gray area examples, like,

S: Yeah

JG: I think that like, agreeing about whether harassment should be not tolerated just doesn't get us very far in resolving most of these examples that are filling up the discourse are the gray area examples.

S: Oh, I agree. I agree, but I do think, just because we're firmly planted in the gray area doesn't mean that we can't agree on the basic principle. If you think that harassment is never a reason to limit speech, then that's pretty clear position.

JG: Oh, no, I wouldn't. I would say that it is at least sometimes

S: Yeah, if you think that

JG: limit speech, yes.

S: they can sometimes be, then we're back to haggling over where to draw the line. And I totally agree. And some people argue it's like, “Well, you can't make subjective judgments about what constitutes harassment, therefore it's not reasonable to use that as a criteria for limiting speech.” And I disagree with that, in principle.

JG: Yeah

S: I think we make judgments all the time. That's a slippery slope argument. We actually have a profession of people called “judges,” whose job it is to make judgments. Even applying very carefully written laws to the real world requires judgment. And they use often what's called the “reasonable person” standard. How would a reasonable person, a typical, reasonable person respond in this situation.

You brought up the point of, “Is it emotionally abusive?” Right? Would a typical – so, one of the arguments that are made on the free speech side, which I agree with, is that people generally should have a thick skin. And I agree with that. If you're going to be out there, active in the real world, the rough and tumble free market of ideas, you have to have a reasonably thick skin. It's almost, in my opinion, a civic duty to have a thick skin, so that people have the elbow room to have free speech, including unpopular speech. Free speech means nothing if it does not extend to unpopular, even upsetting speech, like, I would say, like the pictures of the aborted fetuses. They had a point to make.

Now, however, you can't demand that people have an infinitely thick skin, and there are reasonable limits. And, as you say, what if you are constantly haranguing somebody with really hateful speech that a typical person would find emotionally abusive, to the point that they can't live their life, that they really can't function. Doesn't that oppress their civil rights? Isn't there a point beyond which that speech is so, so abusive that we have to say, “Okay, all right, I believe in free speech, but this is ridiculous. We gotta have some reasonable limits here.” Would you agree with that?

JG: For sure, yeah, I think the courts agree with that too.

S: Yeah

JG: Definitely.

S: Yeah, yeah.

E: Yes, they do.

JG: Yeah, I mean, I guess it's a little alarming that you, the fact that you bring it up as a question mark, which we might all agree reveals something about the kind of comments that you've been getting during the last few weeks?

S: Oh, I've had comments from people who are intellectuals, academics, who are, I respect, who have made the argument that we cannot draw any subjective lines. It has to be completely free speech because you can't define “harassment,” you can't define “objectionable,” you can't define “abuse,” it's so subjective, we have to just say anything goes. And I just can't accept that position. It does not make logical sense to me.

B: So, Steve, is that kind of like pornography, you can't describe it, but you know it when you see it?

S: Yeah, and they hate that analogy. They specifically brought up that analogy

B: Yeah

S: and they reject that notion that you know it when you see it. But, again, the courts use the average, reasonable person standard. Would the average, reasonable person think that this is abusive?

JG: Yeah, there's tons of subjectivity in all sorts of

S: Sure

JG: legal decisions, and you just have to, you know, the judge has to use his or her best judgment, and rely on precedents, and try to give some consistent logic for their judgment. But you just can't get rid of the subjectivity.

S: Yeah, I agree, I agree.

JG: The difficulty with the subjectivity, I think, is that the same kind of rhetoric, or the same level of vitriol can be interpreted as harassment if you sympathize with the target, but not harassment if you don't sympathize with the target, which I think is a very natural, human instinct, to sort of interpret things with a bias towards whatever the conclusion is that you sympathize with. So I get that.

But that's been the angle through which I've been thinking about this question recently. And when I originally posted about this issue on Facebook, the crux of my argument, which I don't completely endorse now, but the crux of my argument then was, “Look, this video that Dawkins posted, I don't like it. I think it was crude, and sort of beneath him. I wouldn't have posted it. But I don't see how that level of discourse is any different from the kinds of things that other skeptics and atheists post, for example, about Christians, or about homeopaths.”

S: Yeah, the difference is, I listened to you, and I read that,

JG: Yeah

S: I disagreed with that. I think the difference is, it wasn't about satire, or whatever. We're fine with that. It has nothing to do with satire. It is entirely about the context, the fact that there are women in our movement who are receiving regular rape and death threats, who are literally being harassed out of their own free speech, that are being emotionally abused by misogynists. And this is another sort of angle to this, now we're sort of shifting towards how this is playing out in our own movement.

Unfortunately, there are trolls in our own movement. Whether or not they're really skeptics or really atheists, who cares. The fact is that they are poisoning the environment by being actual misogynists. We've had a female cohost on our show for ten years now (two different ones), and I can tell you, there's this constant background of sexism against our female cohost. And it's not all Rebecca.

JG: I can believe that.

S: Cara is now, do you face the same thing?

JG: Well... to some extent, yeah.

S: To some extent, right? It's there. There's this background baseline sexism. And then, of course, once Rebecca became a target, then it ramped up orders of magnitude. And we saw it, we were there. You can't – and of course, I've heard people on the “free speech” end say they're making it up. Folks, they're not making it up. We had front row seats. The abuse, the misogyny, the sexism is real.

B: The emails were vile.

S: Vile!

B: Vile!

S: And this is what we saw! This is the stuff that came through the SGU. Imagine what went directly to her, and didn't come through the SGU. So, we can verify, it's real, they're not making it up. Please don't say that. It's just not true.

What I do think has happened, is that the true misogynists, the trolls, if you will, have found common cause with people who are passionate about free speech in the movement, for whom free speech resonates more than the social justice issue resonates with other people. And they've, in a way, I think they've duped some of the people on the free speech side into thinking that this is all about free speech versus insane political correctness.

I do think, at the same time, that the feminists who have been most targeted have become (again, quite understandably), very defensive. I mean, just the amount of attacks that we've had, nothing compared to what they face. And I can tell you, it's no fun. You get tired of it very quickly. Yeah, if our being directly threatened and villified the way they are, I could absolutely see how that would, anybody would get defensive if they were put in that position.

I do think, unfortunately, that has led to, I think they do go too far in terms of the political correctness, and some of them have, I think, taken a “if you don't have our back, and you are not totally with us, then you're against us.”

B: Right

S: And I think the “with us or against us” attitude, which both extremes have, has been extremely destructive. I know of people, people you know, famous science communicators, who have left the skeptical community because they did not want to get caught in that meat grinder. And who hasn't been – every conference has been caught in that meat grinder. We're just the last ones, the most recent ones to get caught up in it. But pretty much everyone has.

We have to find a way to talk about this. I think everyone needs to take a deep breath, realize, I mean, again, both sides have told me - I have to get this out - both have told me now, in the context of this debate, “There is no common ground, there's nothing to talk about, we're completely right, the other side is completely wrong. There's only one issue here, and it's very simple.” Both sides are telling me that from the absolutely opposite narrative and perspective, and I have to disagree with both sides.

There is common ground, we can talk our way through this, you just have to just take a deep breath, and realize that there are two valid principles here, not one. And we need to have – I think most people get that. Most people in the movement care both about free speech and social justice, and think that we can all get along. And they're perplexed by how polarizing this has become, and most people, honestly, that I know, are keeping their head down, they're cowering out of fear. Most people are doing that,

B: Sure

S: who are not on the extremes. Most people in the middle just don't want to get caught up in this

E: Right, and they'll express some kind of opinion, and be attacked for it by somebody.

S: They're just cowering in fear, and I totally understand that too.

JG: Yeah, I mean, I cower sometimes myself. I think that also compounds the problem you're talking about, of this perceived irreconcilability, where if the only people you see arguing that free speech is important are also arguing that it's fine to send vile death threats to women you disagree with, then, and similarly, if the only people you see defending social justice are also the ones saying that we should excommunicate people for disagreeing over minor points of ideology,

S: Right

JG: that's, you know, yeah, that's gonna make things look pretty irreconcilable.

S: Right, right. And then both sides end up hating you, right, if you try to express a moderate position,

JG: Yeah

S: 'cause you're not with them, right, you're not with them, so you're against them. It's like, no, I'm actually

JG: Right

S: with both sides.

JG: Yeah

S: I feel strongly about free speech and social justice, and there's no reason why we can't have a reasonable discussion in the middle, just as if we were rationalists and adults, you know? Imagine if that were the case. But it's interesting that even intelligent, academic, respected people have been so polarized on this issue. And, I have to say, along totally predictable ideological grounds, which has also been extremely disappointing. It's like, really? We're supposed to be the one movement who is non-ideological, and we are falling along absolutely predictable ideological grounds on this issue. And I think that's what I think most people, is most striking to people who are very familiar with this,

JG: Right

S: is that we have failed to rise above our ideology on this issue. That's the bottom line.

JG: I think there are some basic tenets of social justice that essentially everyone in our movement agrees on, like women should have the same human rights that men have, and women should have the right to vote, that they should have the right to bodily autonomy, to not be raped; these are pretty uncontroversial ...

S: Right

JG: But then there are these additional issues, that are sort of closer to what feminism as a movement in recent years, has been focused on, where there is more room for, they are in fact more controversial, and in my opinion, there is more room for reasonable people to disagree, like affirmative consent laws, or the question of whether, if a woman reports that she was sexually assaulted, should our default response be to assume that she is telling the truth? Or should our default response be to withhold judgment until there's a court case, that sort of thing.

S: Right

JG: And so the division that I see is, I mean, saying it's a division over social justice is somewhat misleading, because at the base, the core tenets of social justice, there's tons of agreement, but then, I might characterize the two groups as being enthusiastic social justice, and then hesitant, or skeptical social justice, which means, skeptical, but some of the positions of social justice. And so Dawkins, I would consider, would be in the later category.

And I think there is a case to be made for taking greater care to be respectful and charitable when critiquing social justice, because of the factors that you brought up, Steve. But I also think that if the group that is more hesitant about some of the positions of social justice, if we want them to also feel welcome in the skeptic community, then we have to also discourage vicious or intellectually lazy, or ad hominem attacks on their positions.

And I do see a lot of that kind of attack. Various skeptic leaders have said things like, “If you don't agree fully with atheism-plus, then you are disgusting, and despicable, and you should be kicked into the sewers. They have called people scumbags, or scum, or witless wankers – that phrase might reveal someone I'm thinking of. And, you know, I would hope that the people who have some hesitation about some parts of the social justice agenda, we want them to feel welcome too. And so, that policy, then applied consistently should also prohibit viciousness towards them.

S: I agree. Yeah, I totally agree. Yeah, I think you said it well. But, it's complicated. We're not gonna resolve this in one show.

JG: Yeah

S: And this is probably gonna just spark more conversation and controversy, which is good, which is fine. Again, I don't mind the controversy over genuinely controversial issues. I just, I do want people to at least appreciate that this is a complicated issue, that there are gray areas here. I really would want, to people that find themselves far towards one end or the other of this spectrum, is to remember that the people on the other side aren't feminists, they are people who happen to be feminists. And I think they forget that. They attack an icon, they attack an ideology, and they don't realize they're actually attacking people.

And I think the feminists need to understand that there are people on the other side who are not free speech nazis, they're people who just feel passionately about free speech. And everybody on the extremes thinks that they're good people who are in the right. You may think that they're wrong, and I do think that both sides are right to some extent, and wrong to some extent, 'cause they're too extreme, but there are real people who actually feel like they are virtuous, good people, who are defending the correct position. That's where our common ground is.

JG: Right

S: And unfortunately, there are also actual psychopathic trolls, who are spoiling it for everybody.

JG: Right

S: And the real challenge – it's like having a troll on your comments. Are you suppressing free speech and censoring them by banning them? Well, yeah, but they don't deserve, they don't have a right to spoil your comment section by trolling everybody. Sometimes, they're inhibiting other peoples' free speech by their trolling behavior. I do think that the misogynist trolls are actually inhibiting free speech by polarizing everybody on both sides, and by doing what they're doing.

So the challenge is how do we keep an open forum, an open, constructive forum, while not giving the trolls free reign? How do we inhibit the trolls without inhibiting important speech, or constructive speech? And the problem is there, again, it's subjective, because, you know, skeptics are trolls when they go on to a true believer forum, or at least we are tagged as trolls, we are looked on as trolls, and it's not true. But it shows you how subjective even that designation can be, that judgment can be, so it's very complicated, and we're wrestling with all of these issues. But let's just do it like rationalists. That's, I guess, the final point that I want to make.

All right, well, hey, everyone, let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:15:00)[edit]

VO: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine, and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week's three items?

JG: As ready as I'll ever be.

E: Thought I was ready last week.

S: Item #1: Astronomers now claim that LIGO’s two black holes which collided were likely both formed within the same star. Item #2: Examination of the dodo cranium reveals that they had well above-average intelligence for birds. Item #3: Scientists have developed a chip that enables the detection of a single molecule using an ordinary cell-phone camera.

All right, Julia, as our guest, you get to go first.

JG: Oh no! That's the hardest!

(Rogues laugh, especially Bob)

E: Welcome.

JG: I was sure I could piggy back on other peoples' answers. Oh man! Ugh! All right.

B: (Chuckling) Yeah

S: It's a privilege, Julia, it's a privilege.

JG: I guess I'm gonna go with the dodos having higher than average intelligence being the fictional one, 'cause I'm increasing my risk by giving my justification, because if I get it right, but for the wrong reasons, then I still look bad, huh?

S: But you still, right is right, even if it's for the wrong reason.

B: Yeah, right is right, we embrace it.

S: (Laughs) I may point out that your reasons are wrong, but still get ...

B: And he will! There's no “may” about it.

JG: Yes, so I guess, yeah, I don't know enough about LIGO to judge whether it's plausible that the two black holes could have been formed within the same star. I kind of thought that a star could only form one black hole, but I'm not confident in that. I also, yeah, I'm not sure about the one regarding detecting a single molecule with a cellphone camera. Sure sounds implausible, doesn't it? No, okay, I'm gonna go with the detecting a molecule, a chip in a cellphone camera, because I think the resolution of the camera is what would be the limiting factor in being able to detect the molecule, and I don't think a chip could change the resolution of the camera. Is that right?

S: Okay, Evan go next.

E: Okay, in order, LIGO, two black holes, collided were likely both formed within the same star. That's interesting. These things apparently do happen, they must happen often, given the vastness of the universe, but the fact that the one we use to make the ground-breaking discovery makes this kind of special, but I'm not surprised.

Dodo cranium, above-average intelligence for birds? How do you rate that? How do you rate above average intelligence for birds versus below? Is it simply brain size? Or is there other things going on? I think there might be more components there that determines what is considered above average versus average and below average.

The chip that enables detection of a single molecule using an ordinary cellphone camera, sure. I think if you use cellphones, you can change it in some sorta way. It might reveal some sort of special color if you're looking for a particular molecule, and it might reveal that somehow, like one little pixel reveals this one type of molecule. I think you could manipulate that.

The bird, dodo cranium, fiction.

S: Okay, Bob?

B: Yeah, the LIGO black hole one, it's a little bit, it's more than just interesting. I just, I'm trying to picture, trying to imagine how one star can create two black holes. I'm not thinking of any way that could happen. But I think that's what you want me to think.

(Julia laughs)

B: Clearly, smart phones don't have the resolution to detect a molecule, but I think they can possibly detect the effect of one molecule in terms of say, something maybe an amount of light that's emitted by it, or some other way. So I think there might be some other way to detect amounts minute enough to be a molecule, but not necessarily seeing that molecule.

So, that kind of leaves the dodo one. I'm gonna have to say that that one is fiction.

S: And Jay.

J: All right, first, I'd like to start by saying I don't like any of these.

(Julia laughs)

J: The idea that the same star created two black holes, the star would have to have, I'm thinking, would have to have exploded in order to get the matter far enough away, where the two black holes could have time to form, right? They're not gonna form so close to each other within the sphere of the star itself. So I can kinda see that happening, but it just kind of makes me angry to think that if this one is true, that this could happen. One star making two black holes seem to be very unbalancing. There's a disturbance in the force on that one.

(Julia laughs)

B: Agreed.

J: But, okay, but sure, crazy stuff happens out there. The second one about the dodo cranium, all right, so, first of all, you ever see a picture of a dodo? Is it just cultural programming? But they look stupid, right?


J: So the question here is, did somebody encounter one of these birds, go, “This bird is a moron,” start calling people a “dodo,” and it stuck. And did that guy or girl know what the hell they were talking about? This is me performing science, by the way, Julia.

JG: (Chuckles) I like your, “It would make me angry, therefore it must be

J: Right

JG: false” logical reasoning.

J: It works!

E: It angers up the blood.

J: One third of the time. Well, it's either, I don't want to belabor this, but I'm sorry, Julia,

JG: You're gonna go dodo, okay.

J: More, I'm going to Bob, it's not really to Evan.

(Julia and Bob laugh)

E: It's all right, Bob went to me, so I'm ...

J: We do call it, the maneuver I'm about to pull is called the GWB, it's a “Go With Bob.” I'm gonna go with Bob and pick the dodo.

S: So, let's start with number one. Since you all agree that astronomers now claim that LIGO's two black holes, which collided, were likely both formed within the same star, you all think this one is science despite the fact that you all seem to think that this is highly improbable. You can't imagine that this would possibly work. How could two black holes form within a single star? Yet, you just went with, I guess you felt comfortable enough in your own ignorance that ...

(Bob laughs)

J: Wow!

S: You know what I'm saying? You like, “The universe did it somehow. I have no idea how, and I'm comfortable with that.”

E: Yeah, it's big ...

B: My reasoning is a little bit more nuanced, but go ahead.

S: (Chuckles) Okay. Well, this one is science.

J: Oh my god! It's not right! It's not right, Steve.

B: Awesome, now explain this, please.

S: So, yeah, how could that possibly happen?

J: Was I right? Did the star explode?

B: No, you were wrong.

S: No, but nobody hit upon the answer is ...

J: Wait, no, an external gravity source that pulled part of the solar mass away.

S: No,

E: Yeah, like a tractor beam.

S: No – is extreme rotation.

J: Oh my god! Of course!

B: Oh, damn!

S: The star was rotating so fast,

B: A globule.

S: it got pulled apart. It was like a dumbbell shape. You ever see that?

J: Yeah

B: Awesome, yes!

JG: Oh yeah!

S: Each end formed a black hole, and then, of course, they rapidly crashed together again, and that's what we detected, was the two black holes crashing back together into one big super blackhole.

J: But Steve, the real question is: What spun up that star? What is going on?

S: It spun up because – we know what happened – because it contracted, I think absorbed another star or something, then,

B: Conservation of angular momentum.

S: Yeah, so it's spinning faster and faster and faster as its radius decreased.

B: Think of a skater, Jay, with the arms out, and then going in.

S: So it was spinning super, super fast, and then turned into two black holes.

B: Of course! It all makes sense now.

J: Now the last thing that that star said was, “Whoa! Holy shit!

E: It said, “Slow down!”

S: Yeah, but of course, the first thing, you like, really? I had the same reaction. Two black holes in one star? How did that work?

B: Right

S: Yeah, but the explanation sounds perfectly cromulent.

J: All right, now I believe.

B: Awesome.

S: Okay, all right. Let's go on to number two: Examination of the dodo cranium reveals that theyhad well above-average intelligence for birds.

J: Well above.

S: The boys think this one is the fiction. Julia, you think this one is science. And this one is ... the fiction.

J: Oh my god!

JG: (Disappointed) Ohhh...

S: Sorry

B: Sorry, Julia

JG: Yeah

E: It was close. It was so close.

S: Julia, you almost went for that one too.

JG: I did, I did. I picked it up, I looked at it, I put it back.

J: Too bad, Julia.

S: So, Jay, you are correct. It is purely a cultural bias that you think of dodos as being stupid. They have become the icon of evolution's failure.

B: Right

S: Totally unfair. I actually

B: That's stupid. They're just drawn that way, Jay.

S: It's so unfair, I actually got a little upset that the movie Ice Age, that portrayed them as, like, slated for extinction

E: Dumb and slow.

S: because it

B: Right

S: was such a misrepresentation of evolution. They were perfectly well adapted birds. The problem was they lived on an island with no natural predators, so they had no natural fear. And when humans arrived on the island, we just scooped them up for food, and our rats and cats destroyed their eggs, which they laid on the ground.

JG: Man, and then we brand them as stupid, that's really rubbing salt in the wounds.

B: They're just

S: (Inaudible due to cross talk) the birds (inaudible) wiped them out.

B: They were trusting, that's all.

JG: Aw.

S: So, there was a recent examination of a dodo specimen, and they measured the cranium, and the shape of it, not just the overall size. And they came to a couple of interesting conclusions. One is that the cranium to body size (that's how you estimate intelligence by cranium size), compared to the overall size, so it's not just a ratio, it's a ratio in the context of the size of the animal. That's the encephalization quotient,

B: Quotient, yeah, yep.

S: whatever the number is. They did that for the dodo, and they were exactly on the median line for birds. They're a typical bird.

J: Okay

S: They're as smart as a pigeon. Not above average, but not below average, just right

B: Yes

S: on the line, is what ...

B: Not a crow, but ...

J: Well, I suppose if somebody called you a pigeon brain, you'd be like, “Okay, I was just insulted.”

S: Yeah, if you're a primate.

(Bob laughs)

S: But primates are more encephalized than your average bird. But they were just birds. They were just a typical bird.

B: I love being encephalized.

J: Any relation to the encephalotron from the ...

S: Encephalotron?

J: Yeah, doesn't that sound like, what's the stupid Michael Bay movie he keeps making over and over again?

S: The transformers?

E: Transformers?

J: Yeah, the transformers use encephalotrons, or whatever?

S: Megatron?


E: Megatron, ultatron,

S: Ultron, whatever. So, the other finding that was interesting is that their olfactory bulb was larger than a typical bird. So,

J: So they still couldn't smell trouble though, 'cause they got killed.

S: Yeah

(Bob chuckles)

S: Many birds have highly developed vision, but not smell, right, because they fly, and they have to see at a great distance. But they're not close to the ground, where the odors would be strongest. But dodos were flightless, so they don't fly

B: Ah! Makes sense!

S: Yeah, they spent their time rooting around on the ground. So this suggests that they relied more on their sense of smell than a typical bird, and less on their vision. So that's the other thing that emerged from that study.

All right, all of this means that scientists have developed a chip that enables the detection of a single molecule using an ordinary cellphone camera, is science. And Bob, you hit upon it.

B: Yeah

S: It's not directly visualizing a single molecule, it's detecting it. The chip allows for the detection because the chip does a couple of things. First of all, one side point though, molecule is deceptive because one DNA strand

B: Yes!

S: is one molecule. A molecule could be actually quite large. You shouldn't

B: That's true.

S: think of a H2O molecule.

B: That's a good point.

S: And in fact the chip is detecting RNA and DNA, and it is also amplifying it and color coding it. But still, what you end up with is this disk with these tiny, tiny, tiny, little coded dots on it. And it is actually designed so that a typical camera, you just take one picture of the disk itself, and then the software can detect all the little dots, 'cause what happens is the chip will separate out the sample, separate out so it's a single molecule per dot. And then if there's something there to amplify, it does. If there isn't, it doesn't. And so it's either positive or negative. Either there was a molecule in that cell, or there wasn't, and so it could allow for just using a cellphone camera, and the software, you can read the chip, and in an automated way, know what the results of the analysis were.

JG: Oh, that is cool enough to take the sting out of my defeat.

B: Yes

S: Always, always, yeah.

B: But it never totally takes it away.

JG: Not totally

E: (Laughs) Bob!

JG: Bob, not totally.

S: As I say, Julia, did you have fun? And did you learn something?

JG: I have to admit that I did on both fronts.

S: Then you won on an existential level,

B: Awww!

S: on an existential level, you won.

E: Yes, that's right.

J: Steve, you've never put it to anyone that way before.

S: Actually, I have, you just don't remember.

J: Okay.

S: But, yeah, so obviously

E: He never put it to you that way.

S: we like to joke, because the stakes couldn't be lower, but everyone gets so excited about it.

B: It's not low!

S: But thanks for being a good sport.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:28:34)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, give us a quote.


"Our beliefs do not sit passively in our brains waiting to be confirmed or contradicted by incoming information. Instead, they play a key role in shaping how we see the world."

The incomparable, the one and only, the keynote speaker at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, 2016, Richard Wiseman.

S: Yep, Richard, cool guy.

JG: Yes

B: Yes, he's awesome.

S: Very much looking forward to seeing him again, it's been a few

B: Yeah!

S: years since we've crossed paths. Yeah, he's awesome. Yep, and he is the keynote speaker at NECSS. We are greatly looking forward to that. Registration is open, so check it out, So, Julia, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure.

JG: My pleasure! This was such a great discussion. I'm not bitter at all about my defeat.


S: And thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thanks, Steve.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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 has a thirty-five minute segment devoted to the controversy within skepticism about free speech versus social justice.
  • In this episode, Steve states that the female rogues on their show get far nastier emails than the men. He calls those emailers misogynists, and asks that people stop claiming that these emails don't happen.


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