SGU Episode 561
|This episode needs: transcription, proof-reading, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.||How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 561|
|April 9th 2016|
|SGU 560||SGU 562|
|S: Steven Novella|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|C: Cara Santa Maria|
|Quote of the Week|
|I’ve discovered the one cause of all the one cause theories: a deficiency of critical-thinking skills combined with an overactive imagination.|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 George Hrab's April 1st Podcast (0:25)
- 3 What's the Word (3:17)
- 4 News Items
- 5 Who's That Noisy (50:51)
- 6 Name That Logical Fallacy (53:17)
- 7 Your Questions and E-mails
- 8 Science or Fiction (1:06:13)
- 9 Announcements (1:21:03)
- 10 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:40)
- 11 References
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, April 6th, 2016, and this is your host, Steven Novella, Joining me this week are Bob Novella,
B: Hey, everybody.
S: Cara Santa Maria,
S: Jay Novella,
J: Hey, guys.
S: and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening, folks.
George Hrab's April 1st Podcast (0:25)
What's the Word (3:17)
S: All right, Cara,
S: you're gonna start us off this week with a different sort of What's the Word.
C: I am. So, I stumbled on a really interesting article in Scientific American this week, that is about a study. And this study is a linguistic study that's being performed by Tim Lomas of the University of East London. He's a psychologist.
S: The article, by the way, is by our friend, Steve Merski.
C: Oh! You're right! That's amazing! I didn't even look at the byline. So sorry, Steve! Yeah, that's hilarious! And so basically, he wrote about this study, called, “Towards a Positive Cross-Cultural Lexicography: Enriching Our Emotional Landscape Through 216 Untranslatable Words Pertaining to Well-Being.”
So the idea here is, Tim Lomas is a positive psychologist. And he is looking at this sort of well-being angle. But what really grabbed me is, it's a survey of all of these words that don't have a perfect English translation, kind of like Shadenfreude, right? We all
C: know that term. The joy you get at somebody else's pain or loss (which is pretty terrible).
E: That's why you're laughing.
C: Yeah, exactly. And so there's this great, actual quote in the article. And then I'll jump in to the words.
“The existence of untranslatable words pertaining to well-being implies that there are positive emotional states which have hitherto only been explicitly recognized by particular cultures. However, this does not mean that people in other cultures may not have had a comparable experience. Yet, lacking a specific term for it, such people have arguably not had the opportunity to specifically identify that particular state, which instead thus becomes another unconceptualized ripple in the ongoing flux of subjective experience.”
Because there is something to say about not really being able to fully kind of grasp a concept until there is a word or a phrase for it.
S: I agree.
C: Yeah, yeah yeah. It's really interesting how culture kind of evolves to put labels on the things that are prominent in that culture. So I pulled a few from the article that I especially love. I'm going to butcher the pronounciations of these. So take them with a grain of salt. But I'll tell you what culture they came from as well. So the first one is Ipsuarpock. And ipsuarpock is an Inuit term for the anticipation one feels when waiting for someone, whereby one keeps going outside to check if they have arrived. I love this word.
E: Can you use that word in a sentence?
C: It's kind of like, the ipsuarpock I felt while waiting for my pizza delivery.
C: Right? Okay, here's another one that's extra hard: Shimonjamo. Shimonjamo is a Georgian word for when you keep eating, even though you're full, because it's just so enjoyable.
S: I know it well.
C: Yeah (Laughs)
S: See, I didn't need a word for that to understand that emotion.
S: But there is a – what was the name of that comedian, Jay? I forget his name.
C: Was it Louis C. K.?
J: Yeah, Louis C.K.
S: And he said, “The meal isn't over when I'm full. It's over when I hate myself.”
B: Jay and I use that line a lot.
C: It's so true! It's so true! And apparently, in Georgian culture, it's called Shimonjamo. (Chuckles) So there you go! Here's another one: Gutika, which is Swedish for waking up early to go outside and hear the birds sing.
S: 'Cause you need a word for that.
C: Isn't that beautiful? And here's a German one: Voldensamkite, the mysterious ...
E: The world of something?
C: Yeah, Voldensamkite, the mysterious, and sometimes slightly creepy solitude that you experience when you're alone in the woods.
S: So, all right, here's my thing though: With German though – I don't speak German, but I know a little bit about it. Isn't it a little bit unfair? Because don't they made words by just combining other words?
C: Definitely, they do.
S: Yeah, they could make these huge words that have complex meanings just by combining a bunch of other words.
B: It's like a sentence.
C: There's a shortcut for that. It's true. It's like a sentence in a word.
C: And also, all of their nouns are capitalized, which is weird when you try to read German. And lastly, there's a Russian term, Prostor, which is a desire for spatiousness, roaming free, and limitless expanses. Not only physically, but creatively and spiritually.
C: I like it.
S: I got a few.
S: This one is Russian: Toska.
S: And this is at least the stereotype of a typical Russian. It is a deep and painful spiritual sensation without a real focus. It's like, you have a dull ache in your soul. You're longing for something, but you don't know what.
C: It's like every Russian novel I've ever read.
S: Right, that's why it's so typically Russian. All right, but there's my favorite one of all the ones that I came across, prepping for this: Jayus ('cause it's almost Jayphas, right).
J: That's great!
S: Indonesian; and it means a joke so poorly told, and so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh.
B: Oh my god!
C: That's so perfect!
E: Wow, where have we heard those before?
S: That's almost too on the nose.
E: Yet we still laugh! And isn't that
C: Jay's not laughing, is he?
J: No, I think that's cool. I have a couple.
C: You're not! You're not convincing me of that at all.
J: (Awkwardly) No, that was really cool, yeah. Okay.
S: (Imitating) Yeah
J: So in Sweden they have something called a Feca. Did you guys ever hear of this?
E: Uh, no.
B: Uh, no.
J: It's a like, “Let's go have feca!” And it means, like, “Let's go grab coffee,” but it's like an early afternoon coffee.
S: Okay. All right, here's – I have a couple more: Scottish term; it's perfect. Tartle
S: Tartle, tartle. T-L-E
C: Of a tarton?
S: Like “turtle” with an “A.” Tartle.
J: Yeah, it's when you're late, and you fart at the same time.
S: Yeah, close.
B: It's tart and sweet at the same time?
S: The act of hesitating while introducing someone because you've forgotten their name.
E: Gosh! That's perfect!
C: That's amazing! I used to have a trick for when I would be at parties, and I didn't know peoples' names; is if I was with a significant other or a friend, if I introduce them first, that meant I knew their name. But if introduce my friend to them first, that means I have no idea what their name is, so make sure that you ask them.
E: That's a good point.
C: In front of me, yeah.
B: I like it. I'm so gonna use that, 'cause that terrifies me. I'm terrified of that.
C: Oh, it's the worst.
B: It's horrible!
C: And in Hollywood, nobody remembers anybody. And so there's this unspoken rule that you never say “nice to meet you” at a party in Hollywood. You always say, “Good to see you.”
S: I do that too. That's funny.
C: (Laughing) Yeah.
S: I do that too, 'cause I have so many people that I've encountered. Like, I see somebody
B: Yeah, yeah
S: at a skeptical conference for example,
B: I do that too.
S: and I might have seen them six years ago at a previous conference. If I say, “Nice to meet you,” they go, “Oh, we've met before.”
C: Yeah, they're so
S: If you say, “Nice to see you,” it's not as specific. You're not implying you haven't seen them before.
B: Oh yeah, you learn that one quickly.
S: Yeah, one more: This one is Japanese. Wabesabe. Anybody know what that one means?
C: No way! I love that word.
S: Wabesabe; and the definition is awesome: A way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life, and accepting peacefully that natural cycle of growth and decay.
E: There you go.
S: That's very nice. Isn't that? Wabesabe.
C: That's very philosophical.
S: It is, very philosophical. There's a ton more, but I think that's good.
B: It almost needs a better word.
C: I know, it's almost comical, that word. Maybe not in Japanese culture, but to us. It's like, it rhymes too much to be that profound.
Food Production (11:10)
S: All right, let's go on to some news items.
S: Interesting article about how much we have to increase our food production by 2050 in order to meet the demands of a growing population. But also, within the context of increasing carbon dioxide and temperatures due to global warming.
So this paper was done by two researchers, Steven Long, and Johan Kromjiq. They say that by 2050, it's estimated that the world human population will be 9.7 billion. So we're getting close to ten billion
S: at 2050; and that we need to increase our food production eighty-seven percent. Now that eighty-seven percent includes several things: Not just linear extrapolation to increase in population, but also assuming that we want to feed everybody. So making up for current food insecurity, and also including – this is now speculation – but growing food for biofuel. So, if you want to feed everybody, including people who are not being sufficiently fed today, with an increasing population, and meet demand for biofuel, we need to increase our agricultural production eighty-seven percent by 2050.
C: Holy! That's a tall order.
S: That's a tall order.
E: We'll need help.
S: They make another very, very salient point, is that it takes about twenty years, from concept to farmland, right? So, essentially, the ideas that we are going to need in 2050, we have to be coming up with pretty much now, you know?
C: Oof! And our government, at least, from that perspective, is not very good at long term (cracks up) planning.
B: Yeah, but Steve, if it's just hitting the farms in twenty years, isn't even that a little bit too late? I mean, we would need, to have it be wide-spread by 2050.
S: Well, that's why I said “now,” because – or '30 – it's thirty-four years. But yeah, the whole point is it seems like 2050 may seem like far away, but in terms of developing new cultivars, developing new crops, it's not. We really need to be working on these things right now.
B: Well, Steve, can't GMO do this? Can GMO's deliver?
E: That's part of the sol-
S: part of their point, is that we really need GMO, to be able to do this. And we'll talk about that more in just a second. But a couple other very interesting points that they brought in: One is land use. How much of the Earth do you think we use to grow crops?
J: Five percent?
E: Three percent.
C: Twenty percent.
S: So, you could say that in terms of the percentage of land,
S: and the percentage of arable land.
S: So land that you're capable of growing crops on.
E: Right, you're not going into mountains to ...
B: Wait, I would say we're getting pretty darn close to the amount of arable land.
S: Yeah, so we use forty percent
J: Oh no.
S: of the land mass for food production.
J: Oh, shit.
C: Whoa! The overall land mass?
S: And that's pretty much all of the arable land.
S: We've already picked all the low-hanging fruit.
J: That's bad, guys.
C: So we need to be more efficient.
E: Efficiency's the key.
B: Or, we cut down rainforest, and plant it there.
J: Yeah, let's do that!
C: We're already doing that!
B: Yeah, but I mean, like, seriously, really work on that.
C: We can't do
B: Right, that's not an option.
S: The whole point is, we don't want to cut down the rain forest,
S: that's not a good solution. In fact, if anything, it would be nice if we could grow more food on less land
S: than what we're already ...
S: Yeah, we need that increase
B: Lab food! Lab food!
C: Lab food!
E: Part of it.
S: There's a few approaches that we could take in order to achieve these goals. Certainly the increased efficiency with our current cultivars is one way to go it. Now, some people argue that we need to eat less meat, especially cows, right? 'Cause they use a lot of land, and they're very inefficient.
S: Growing food, then feeding it to animals,
E: And they're gassy.
S: then eating the animals, is about ten percent efficient, you know.
S: You have to grow about ten times as many calories for the animals to eat as you get out of them.
C: But they're so tasty!
S: But they're so tasty, I know. It's a killer. But that doesn't exactly translate, because some of the meat that is grown by grazing on land, that could not be used for crops. I couldn't come up with an exact percentage, you know what I mean? But, yeah, so if we cut back on the amount of meat that we produce, and mainly graze on lands that would not otherwise be suitable for crops, that would mitigate a lot of that.
There's a lot of food wastage. But it's easy to say, “Oh, just reduce waste.” But the waste is there for a reason, 'cause it's hard to have no waste in the system. Food rots, you know what I mean? And it gets bruised. But, actually, John Oliver had a really good episode on this, where he talked about how much food is wasted just because it's not up to the standards of the supermarket. And the laws kind of inhibit using food that may not be marketable, in charitable ways,
S: that we basically
S: need to get more out of that food waste, or
C: Yeah, be less picky.
S: yeah, waste less food. But interestingly, there's a couple of GMO varieties that would help with that. Potatoes that don't bruise, apples that don't brown. You know, those,
S: that would reduce food waste if we give food better shelf life, and reduce the kinds of things that would take it off of a store shelf, or prevent it from ever getting there. So, there's something called the CO2 fertilization effect, which means that – plants breathe carbon dioxide. If you increase carbon dioxide, plants are more productive. And that certainly has been going on for the last fifty years. And it has been increasing our food production.
However, the authors argue that this is not gonna keep happening into the future; that at some point, that effect plateaus, and in fact, at some point, the negative effects of increasing temperature will more than offset the increasing production of increased CO2. But further, it's not just that it's being offset by increasing temperature. Plants are not adapted to the rising levels of CO2. So they're not in a position to make optimal use of it.
They may have had a positive effect so far, but they – and this is really the bulk of their paper, and they get really technical on this. But they talk about the ratio of say, nitrogen to carbon in the plant. And if you just keep increasing carbon, then you get a mismatch, a nutrient mismatch, and that has negative effects. Not only are you not getting the benefits of the CO2, it actually can have negative effects.
Like in wheat, for example, the protein production is reduced. Some plants don't have any benefit from CO2, and others have some benefit. So what they're talking about is using genetic modification in order to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in our crops, and to make optimal use of higher CO2 levels, so essentially, genetically modify the plants to be better adapted to a world in 2050 that's gonna have CO2 levels that we'll have in 2050.
C: Which is something we could do with artificial selection. It would just take too long!
S: It would take too long.
C: So basically, yeah. Find the crops that are already adapted to those levels, for whatever quirk of evolution, like, because
C: they have some sort of mutation that allows them to be, and find that gene, and put it into these other plants.
S: Yeah, so we know that there are two basic kinds of photosynthetic systems in crops – C3 and C4. And corn, for example, uses the C4 system, and it's more efficient, although not in the whole plant. Whereas wheat and rice uses the less efficient. So we could get a thirty to fifty percent boost in productivity just by upgrading them to the more efficient photosynthesis system. So that's there. It's just there for us to do it.
And we've been working on that, but that's complicated, because there's not a single gene. It's a suite of genes. It could be ten genes or so. We have to figure out which ones we need, and so we're not quite there yet. It could take us easily thirty years before we're planting rice or wheat that has this enhanced photosynthesis. But that's when we're really gonna need it, you know.
And of course, there's no reason to suspect that our population is gonna peak at 2050. I think it'll probably peak at some point, that actually an interesting question. Is the population going to naturally just keep growing, or will we reach some sort of steady state. If history is a guide, the best way to reach a steady state is to uplift poor and third world countries, you know, into higher standards of living, 'cause the higher the standard of living, the lower population growth, actually.
C: Education and birth control.
S: Yeah, or just education and security.
C: And empowerment of women.
C: For sure.
S: Yeah, if parents have more kids 'cause they need them to work the farm,
S: and they know that half of them are gonna die,
E: That's right
S: and so they overshoot, and then they have lots of kids. But if they feel secure, and that their kids are probably gonna survive, they'll have their one or two kids and they'll be happy with that. So population should stabilize just by improving the lot in life of
S: the people that are suffering the most on the world, which has its own good end also.
E: Yes, people are living longer as well, right?
S: Yeah. Yeah yeah, but that's a good thing, but that also will contribute to the increasing population.
E: Of course, that's right.
J: But Steve, Steve,
J: Quick question:
J: Back to the food topic: Do you think it's possible that we will be having to mix in mass prepared meals, like
E: Sorna Green (Unsure what was said: 21:10)
J: Yeah, sure.
S: I mean, the thing is, the cows have to come from somewhere. How we prepare them, I don't think matters. We talked about, previously, that microfarming, basically insects, are going to be playing an increasing role in our food source in the future. I absolutely think that's true as well. But again, that doesn't mean you're gonna be eating whole bugs, right? I think that the way that that will probably manifest is in things like cricket powder. If you grind up crickets, you could make something that basically is like flour. You could bake bread out of it.
C: Hey, you can buy that now.
S: Yeah, you could buy that now. But I mean, if that could actually replace a substantial amount of calories,
S: that people are eating.
C: And also, urban farming, and more kitchen farming. A lot of these start-ups are starting to develop these great, little air pods where you can grow vegetables or herbs just in your kitchen.
E: The Martian.
C: It's kinda fool proof. Yeah, like they have a light, they have a feeder. It's all kind of automated, so that even if you have a black thumb, you can still have a food source right in your kitchen. I think that that's a great – I mean, granted, that's kind of more for the haves than the have-nots, but it can definitely help.
S: Yeah, but the bottom line is: Most of our calories come from just four staples: Corn, wheat, rice, and soy. That's like, eighty percent
S: of our calories
S: from those four staples. And then
C: You think that's because they're subsidized though?
S: I think it's just because they're easy to grow in massive amounts.
S: That's why. Every culture has its staple crop, and then it's like, supporting crops that include the nutrients that aren't included in the staple crop. Obviously, 'cause if they didn't have that, they wouldn't have survived. And I think most of our calories come from just twenty species, you know.
S: So, that's just the way it is. We need to optimize the efficiency of those as much as possible.
E: What about ocean-based food that we eat? What can we do about that? Is there a way to sort of do better in harvesting what we can from the ocean, maybe in a more efficient fashion, to make sea food more ...
S: That's another problem. Yeah, because, the problem is that it's not sustainable, the way we're doing it now, let alone increasing it. Farming the ocean, we've treated it as a bottomless pit, and it just isn't. That's too big an issue for us to just do a drive-by on that. We've talked about it somewhat before, but the bottom line is: We have to really get serious about ocean conservation, because we're over-fishing.
C: Oh, in a
S: And that is not
C: terrible way.
S: Yeah, that's not sustainable.
C: Terrible way.
S: But hey! They produced that GM salmon that grows twice as fast as normal salmon,
S: and people are not wanting it. They're not saying they're not gonna buy it. It's ridiculous!
C: Well, people don't even want to eat farmed fish. That's the other thing. It's another way to be woo-woo, is to say, “Oh, I only want wild-caught fish,” which is only okay if you're buying fish that was wild-caught sustainably.
S: Right. Right, right.
C: And most people don't know, and they're like, “No, I want fresh, wild-caught tuna.” And it's like, that is so much worse than eating farmed salmon.
S: Okay, very very important topic, but it's a very complicated topic as well. I do get frustrated when anti-GMO activists say, “Oh, we don't need GM technology. We're making enough food now. We just waste too much, and it's a distribution problem.” It's like, yeah, we need the GM technology to feed the Earth in twenty and thirty years from now, and to keep our land use under control, you know.
C: And they also talk about it like it's on the horizon. Like, you just said most of our staple crops are these twenty crops. Most of those crops are already GM crops.
S: That's true. (Chuckles) It's true.
C: (Laughs) You know what I mean?
S: A lot of them are.
C: It's like,
C: Yeah, we are already doing it, you guys.
S: Right. But it is such a first world problem kind of perspective, thing, you know? It's like, yeah, ya gotta look at the big picture, the whole world, not just, “I wanna eat my gluten-free organic, whatever, farm-fresh food.” (Cara and Evan chuckle) That's a nice problem to have, you know, but
S: we have
E: a luxury.
S: to keep people from starving too.
E: That would be better.
S: Yeah. And also, the whole, “It's bad for the environment,” thing: The worst thing for the environment is farming, it's massive farming. I don't care how you do it, you're using forty percent of the land mass to farm, that's not available for natural ecosystems. The best thing you could do for the environment is to make farming more land efficient.
S: And that's why organic farming is a bad idea, and shooing GMO is a very, very bad idea.
E: Here come the emails, okay.
S: Send 'em, send 'em.
S: We already get them on this issue. I'm happy to respond. You know, this is an issue – again, I feel very strongly about, because I think that within our own community, people who are generally scientifically literate, and skeptical, there's so much misinformation out there, that propaganda machine has been so hard at work, and is so far ahead, that I get lots of emails from people. And I gotta say, they're full of just misconceptions and misinformation. Easy to correct, very easy, so I'm happy to do that.
J: So, as a side question, totally out of left field: If you could ask a genetic engineer to make one change to one fruit or vegetable that you could pick, within reason, what would it be?
C: Mmm! I like that question.
S: Well, I mean, the one that I would love for our major crops to be able to fix nitrogen for themselves,
S: from the atmosphere.
E: That's cool.
S: So imagine significantly reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer. That would be huge.
J: Oh, I was thinking more like, “I want ...”
C: Like, for personal use?
J: I want a strawberry the size of a softball. That's more
J: what I was thinking for.
C: You know what I want, is I want things like kale, and Swiss chard, and
E: Tastes good?
C: really leafy green, yeah, to not taste as bitter.
C: Like, I would love a variety of orugala, of these really nutritionally dense foods to still have all the micronutrients, but to taste less bitter. I would be in heaven!
S: But Cara, that's what
C: I know
S: tastes bitter.
C: I know!
S: Otherwise, just eat lettuce. You're just talking about turning it into lettuce!
C: But I feel like there's
E: Tastes like omega-3's
C: gotta be another way.
J: I know, right Evan? That's what fish tastes like! That's the good shit in fish!
C: There's gotta be a way! There's gotta be a way!
E: Pinch your nose, close your eyes.
J: I got one, this is easy. This is low-hanging fruit. But I'm still dying to eat one of those fricken' special bananas. You know, Steve,
E: The non-Cavendish?
J: What's the one that you and I are dying to try? The one they say it's creamy, you know?
S: An ice cream banana? I would like ...
J: Yeah, aw, man! I'm dying for that!
S: Or even grown from a shell.
B: Yeah, that'd be nice. You know what I want,
S: Have at it.
B: I want Reese's Peanut Butter Cups to grow on trees.
E: Oh, yes!
C: (Chuckles) I don't think any amount a genetic modification is gonna take care of that!
S: That's frankenfood. All right, let's move on.
S: Cara, what the f*ck is this next one about?
C: (Laughs hard) Yes! Perfect intro to a perfect story. Okay, so, Scientific American article written by Pierre Cario Val de Solvo this week, very new – actually just published yesterday – about a study from researchers at Merist College at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Now they were interested in testing the poverty of vocabulary hypothesis, which is sort of the old adage that (maybe it's not an adage) but the old folk wisdom that people who curse have limited vocabulary, that the reason that people use swear words all the time is because they can't think of better words. They can't think of more erudite words. So they focus on these swear words. It's a sign of laziness, a lack of education, impulsiveness.
And people tend to actually judge individuals who swear a lot as being less friendly, lower on socio-economic status, less effective at their jobs, all these negative things. So these researchers were like, “Is it really a poverty of vocabulary issue, or is our hypothesis more realistic.” And that hypothesis is that individuals who use a good vocabulary, individuals who are very expressive, who have a lot of words at their disposal, are actually more likely to curse, because it allows them an opportunity to utilize colorful language in a way that not using curse words would limit them.
So, their methods were simply to take groups – and this is a standard psychological assessment. So it suffers from all of the things that we often talk about, when we talk about university psych studies, which is like, eighteen to twenty-two year old pool of participants from the same socio-economic background. All that good stuff.
But they were really careful to control for a lot of things like observer bias, experimenter bias, things like that. And what they wanted to do, is they wanted to relate their word fluency with what they considered taboo words, curse words, with their word fluency in a general vocabulary. And one of the tests that they used to do that is a test called the “Cowat” (Coh-what) or the cow-wat.
I've never used this. Back when I was a psych major, and I was doing a lot of research in that field, I used a lot of these types of tests. But I never came across the Cowat, so I might be pronouncing it wrong. We often like to make the acronyms into words that – isn't there a different term for that? An acronym that is itself a word you can pronounce?
S: No, that is an acronym.
C: That's an acronym.
C: Okay, 'cause I feel like
S: There's a separate word for ones that you can't pronounce.
C: That you can't pronounce, gotcha. Okay.
B: That's called an initialism.
C: Initialism, gotcha. Okay, so with acronyms, we often pronounce them. But in this case, it could be co-wat, cow-at, I don't know, whatever. Anyway, so controlled word association test. And they gave these participants this word, and it's kind of like, have you guys ever played Scattergories?
S: Oh yeah.
E: Yup, oh, yes.
C: So, yeah, they have a given time window, and then they give them the letter. And then it's like a free association thing. Just say as many words as you can that start with that letter. And then they can come up with a fluency score based on the number of words that they generate. You can read the study to find out some of those words, 'cause they're great.
And then what they did – I love this part – how much fun would it be if you were a psych student, and you volunteered to do this study, and they were like, “Okay, now that you finished that word fluency test, I'm gonna give you one minute, and I want you to say out loud all the curse words you can think of.” (Rogues laugh) So you've got these undergraduate students like, “Shit! Dick!” Every swear
S: I wonder how many of them did the George Carlin thing
E: Yeah, so sure.
C: Oh yeah!
E: Seven dirty words!
C: They must have, yeah, go through that first. So what they did is they compared the scores on the COWAT to the taboo verbal fluency. And what they found was that across the board, almost completely, individuals who had a higher level of verbal fluency also had a high functional level of curse word fluency. So, they are actually trying to debunk the hypothesis that it's a poverty of vocabulary situation.
Problem is, as you can see, the most glaring problem of this study is that just because somebody knows all of those words, doesn't mean they use them in their everyday language. And so the hypothesis that maybe people who actually have a better vocabulary are more apt to use curse words, this doesn't really say anything about that. It just says that people who know a lot of words also know a lot of curse words, which is probably true.
What I do like is that participants generated four hundred different, unique curse words over the course
C: of this study. I know! (Laughs) Can you imagine four hundred taboo words?
C: I can't think of that many.
E: You don't need that many!
C: You don't need that – (Laughs)
E: You really don't. We're talking about efficiency in the last news item, and, come on. Let's get efficient here.
C: Yeah, right? But I love that in this article, the author – the Scientific American article, not the study – the author actually says this sentence, which I think is beautiful. “Swearing, it seems, can be creative, smart, and even downright lyrical,” which I would agree with wholeheartedly. So, I love this study. This study is a huge middle finger to all of the people my whole life who told me not to curse, 'cause it makes me look stupid. And even though I think that there's a lot more research to be done in this field, it is one step closer to me being able to say, “F*ck you!”
S: So, there's a lot of research that I was able to find on just swearing in general, and I had read some of it over the years. Unfortunately, a lot of it is preliminary, and needs to be replicated. But here are some preliminary findings. So one of the findings is that when you curse, it actually reduces your perception of pain.
C: Oh, yeah, I could see that.
E: MythBusters actually tested that out.
B: Holy shit!
J: Why though? What the hell is that about?
S: It's a release.
C: It's like an outlet, yeah.
S: And another one (and this is something that actually has influenced the tone of this show) is that there is evidence that shows that it increases a sense of social bonding, because when you swear in front of somebody else, it is a sign of familiarity and comfort.
Tied to that, I think is there is some prelim- again – preliminary evidence that needs to be replicated, that people who swear are actually more honest and open and forthright, so that they're more likely to be honest with you if they swear.
E: Was my father honest. Oh boy! Was he honest!
S: Maybe it's a sign that they're not holding back.
C: I think there's also a difference that we have to make sure that we clarify that some people associate cursing with anger. But we're just talking about cursing in your general language.
S: Could also just be a sign of humor.
E: Think of the dude from the Big Labowski.
S: I would say though, that it's not just a personal observation, I think it's one of those things that needs to be used judiciously. It has a little bit of an impact, an emotional social impact. And if you overuse it, it loses its impact.
C: Oh, I believe it.
S: If you save it up for when juicy moments, then it has a much greater impact.
(Commercial at 35:11)
Laser Propulsion (36:19)
Who's That Noisy (50:51)
- Answer to last week: Meteor
Name That Logical Fallacy (53:17)
Hi guys, big fan etc etc. I was wondering if you could talk on the show about something I think is kind of a fallacy, but I'm not sure. If I predict that, for example, it will rain tomorrow morning, then come midday tomorrow I'll know if my prediction was right or wrong. On the other hand, if I predict that there's a 20% chance of rain tomorrow then I am correct whether it rains or not, because we can never repeat the experiment so the actual probability I gave it is meaningless. Is it a fallacy to predict a chance for something to occur if that experiment can only ever happen once? Other examples would be websites like fivethirtyeight.com predicting Sanders has a 17% chance of winning the primary - regardless of the result (unless something extremely unexpected happens) they can say 'see, told you that had a chance of happening', or a chiropractor telling me that fixing a subluxation will have a one in three chance of curing my headache. Cheers Martin
Your Questions and E-mails
Question #1: Carter UFO Follow Up (57:23)
Dr. Novella, As soon as I got this email from my grandparents, I knew I was going to forward it to you. I wanted to forward you the whole string since you came up in the discussion and I thought it was fun. Jay Kelly is my uncle by marriage. He is married to Amy. A professor form Georgia Tech (where my grandfather went as ROTC Navy before he transferred to Annapolis, where my uncle Jack went (Jimmy's oldest son) and got a degree in Physics, and my alma mater where I got my Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering (I got my Master's in Mechanical Engineering at Auburn)) emailed my grandfather's office regarding his experience with the Air Force with sodium and barium. My grandparents sent the story to the whole family without much comment, but that's how they often communicate fun and interesting stories or articles that they want to point out. As you can imagine, I've heard the story many times. Only two or three times from my grandfather though, and it always ends in a lesson, and it's always to one of his young grandchildren or great grandchildren. A memorable experience I've had was when he told it at his house, at in his driveway, retelling the story while pointing to the same part of the sky where he saw the UFO many years ago. We all know that the UFOlogists have latched on to the story as proof that Jimmy Carter saw aliens, but that's not how he told the story at all. He told the story as a lesson of his characteristic precision of language. It went something like this: My grandfather told us (Me, my brother Jeremy, and my brother Jamie) that he saw a UFO. To set the stage, we are all very young at the time (I was definitely less than 16, probably 13 or 14. That puts Jeremy at 11 and Jamie at 7 years old). Jeremy was very interested in aliens and may have mentioned something about it, he very well may have outright asked if there were aliens (when we met Bill Clinton, that was his only question) because he has in the past, and my grandfather casually stated that he saw a UFO. Of course, 14, 11, and 7 year old boys now have their grandfather's full and undivided attention. He said he saw a ball in the sky, then he pointed to the sky, and said the ball started blue, then turned red, then zoomed away. He waited patiently as we all form the conclusion that he saw an alien. Then he says casually that oh, it wasn't an alien, it was a UFO. We look at him puzzled, because we've never heard the difference, and he explains that it was Unidentified, it was Flying, and it was an Object. A UFO. He told us he suspected it was a rocket or something from Warner Robbins or Eglin, but he didn't know. When he was President, he asked the people that might know (the Air Force, Army, Pentagon), and he didn't get an answer. He laughed and said he didn't spend a whole lot of taxpayer money on it, just wanted to know if it was in a file somewhere. But UFO it remained. If the information from Professor Justus pans out, it might very well turn into an IFO, as long as we can agree that a blob of barium gas can be an Object. Thank you for your show and all you do. The Skeptics Guide is one of my favorite things. Josh Carter Mr. Buchanan, [Should be Bohanan] I'm sorry to have missed your recent presentation to the Alpharetta Historical Society. Friends of mine who attended said it was quite good. I am a native Atlantan, former Professor at GA Tech, longtime admirer of President Carter, and longtime contributor to The Carter Center. After recently reading the book 'Georgia Myths & Legends', by Augusta Chronicle columnist Don Rhodes, specifically Chapter 5 'Jimmy Carter and the UFO', I am virtually certain that I have identified the source of what it was that President Carter saw. In the 1960s and early 70s I worked on an Air Force sponsored project that studied the upper atmosphere using releases of glowing chemical clouds, produced by rockets launched from Eglin AFB rocket range in Florida. Some of these chemical clouds, notably sodium and barium, were visible by the process of resonance scattering of sunlight. Clouds of this type had to be launched not long after sunset or not long before sunrise. This was due to the fact that the cloud had to be in sunlight at high altitude, while it was still dark enough at ground level for the cloud to be visible against the dark sky. In Carter's official 1973 UFO report, as given in the Rhodes book, he stated that he had seen the phenomenon in October, 1969, at 7:15 pm EST. However, it has been determined from Lions Club records that Carter must have seen the 'UFO' when he spoke to their Leary, GA Chapter on January 6, 1969. The report 'U.S. Space Science Program Report to COSPAR, 1970' (QB504.U54, Appendix I, page 154), documents that there was a barium cloud launched from Eglin AFB (Rocket Number AG7.626) and released on January 6, 1969 at 7:35 pm EST (January 7, 1969, 0035 UTC) [COSPAR stands for Committee on Space Research]. The reported altitude for this cloud was 152 km. With a distance between Leary, GA and Eglin AFB, FL of about 234 km, this cloud would have appeared in the sky at an elevation of 33 degrees (consistent with Carter's estimate of a 30 degree elevation). Carter's report notes that stars were visible, so the night must have been clear. I can verify from personal experience that under clear skies, a barium cloud such as this would easily have been visible from the distance of Leary, GA. Carter reported the UFO 'appeared from West'. The direction of Eglin AFB from Leary, GA is approximately WSW. Thus this barium cloud at Eglin is consistent with Carter's reported 'UFO' as to time, elevation, AND direction. Furthermore, the appearance reported by Carter is totally consistent with a high altitude barium cloud. His report stated that it was 'bluish at first, then reddish, luminous not solid'. A neutral barium cloud would initially glow bluish or greenish, with parts of it taking on a reddish glow as some the barium becomes ionized in the high altitude sunlight. The size and brightness, reported as being about that of the moon, would also be consistent with a barium cloud at Eglin, as viewed from Leary, GA Carter has been reported as saying that he never believed that he had seen an alien spacecraft, but that he had no idea exactly what it was. I'm interested in exploring if this information could be relayed to President Carter, so that if he wishes to, he can better understand what it was that he saw back then. Do you have any suggestions? In the past few weeks, I have used several avenues for sending this information to the Carter Center Library and have yet to receive a reply. A Facebook Messenger inquiry to the Carter Library FB page provided me with the email address of Tony Clark, Public Affairs Director of the Carter Library. I emailed him the above information, but have yet to receive a reply. Thanks, Carl G. 'Jere' Justus
(Commercial at 1:04:56)
Science or Fiction (1:06:13)
(Science or Fiction music)
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 fake! Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to sniff out the fake. Bob, last week you were pretty negative about my black hole creating heavier elements thing.
S: And one of our listeners wrote in to say that he thought you were being a little negative. And I pointed out to him that, well, it's kinda their job, is to – they know one of them is fake, and they have to sort of come up with a reason why one of them is fake. So it's sort of part of the game.
S: But he did an interesting point.
J: I agree, Steve, he said, “Bob's a jerk!” And I'm like, “Yeah, I'm agreeing with him!”
B: Jerk who swept your ass.
S: We talked about that, the fake item was that heavier elements can be made in the accretion disk around a black hole. But the truth is that astronomers believe that heavier elements are made in one of two places: When neutron stars collide, or during supernovae. And we actually had another listener who is (I think) a physicist write in and say, “Actually, it's not when the stars collapse that the heavier elements are made, it's when they explode out. That outward pressure's so strong, that's where all the nucleation occurs, where elements heavier than iron are made.
Which makes sense, 'cause they're blasting back out into space, so they could seed future clouds that will turn into solar systems. But he also said – the first guy said – that if a neutron star collides with a black hole, that also could generate heavier elements, or at least that's what scientists think. So it doesn't have to be two neutron stars.
So my fake item was almost right. It wasn't just an ordinary accretion disk, but it can be in one that results from a neutron star colliding with a black hole.
E: Ya gotta be carefully when you make up your own fictions next time.
S: Yeah, I gotta be careful.
B: Now, Steve, so, nucleation does not occur with the intense pressure of the collapse?
S: That, but it turns into neutrons in a neutron star. If it's collapsing, it's in the stuff that's exploding out, not the stuff that stays collapsed down.
B: Oh, wow, I gotta look into that. That's cool.
S: Yeah, it's a little counter-intuitive, but I could see what he's saying. Yeah, I do have to read more about that, 'cause that's interesting. I envisioned it happening in the collapsing down phase, but it seems it's more the outward pressure, the explosion is so great that that's where it happens.
We have a theme this week: And the theme is energy, okay? You guys ready for the energy-themed Science or Fiction? Here we go:
Item #1: Scientists have developed solar cells made from inexpensive perovskite crystals – that's P-E-R-O-V-S-K-I-T-E – perovskite crystals that are almost twice as efficient as silicon based solar cells.
Item #2: Researchers announce that they have made and successfully tested a rechargeable battery that uses bacteria to store and generate electricity.
Item #3: MIT scientists have devised a technique for doubling the efficiency of coal burning to produce electricity.
Bob, you go first.
B: So scientists have developed solar cells from inexpensive perovskite – PK, they call that PK, right?
S: I don't know.
B: That are almost twice as efficient as silicon based ... you know, I can't take any of the solar photovoltaics seriously, because you read this kind of stuff all the time. And sure, something looks good, but it just doesn't quite pan out. Same with battery technology. You know, it's like, “Sure,” I mean, it's totally believable, but the fact that this is what we've been waiting for isn't necessarily
S: Honestly, that's why I did these all together, because they kind of all have the same,
S: the same weakness, that, yeah, don't we hear this all the time?
B: Yep. So now, we've got – let's see – rechargeable battery using bacteria. Well, bacteria can do so many wondrous things, I'm not too skeptical about that either. Yeah, I mean, my – can a bacterium store enough to make it worthwhile? I mean, sure, you could probably have many millions, or maybe billions of 'em, but – I just don't think we're at the point where that would be efficient enough.
This last one here: Doubling the efficiency of coal burning ... sure, yeah. Nothing is leaping out at me, like, “No! That's probably physically impossible, maybe.” All right, I'm gonna, unfortunately vote against my lovely bacteria, and say that one's fiction.
S: The bacteria's fiction, okay. Jay?
J: All right, this first one about the perovskite, the crystals. Twice as efficient as silicon. Well, the problem I have with that is that's a lot more efficient. That's a big deal. But god, I hope that one is science, 'cause we really need some nice breakthroughs here. Very interesting. I know quite a bit about solar collection cells like this, and I'm trying to figure out, like, what they're doing with that. It's interesting.
All right, next one here: The bacteria as a rechargeable battery. I'm just gonna say, “Sure.” I'm gonna go with this last one, doubling the efficiency of burning coal. I think that we've probably spent such an enormous amount of money figuring out how to properly burn coal for fuel that I doubt that we'd double it. So that one's the fiction.
S: Okay, Evan.
E: Yeah, Jay, you made a good point, that's a lot. That's pretty significant, but I wouldn't be surprised if they devised the technique. Putting it into scale, and production's a whole other thing. I think that, I'll go with my gut, and say the bacteria one will turn out to be the fiction.
(Bob and Cara chuckle)
E: I think, rechargeable, something with that one's wrong.
S: Okay, Cara?
C: I mean, they're all equally plausible, and they're all equally not plausible. I think I've heard of perovskite crystals
B: Yeah, I have
C: Like, yeah, I feel like this is a solar cell technology that already
E: That's what I thought.
C: But I do think that they haven't been mainstream, so maybe there was something keeping them from going mainstream, and maybe this is the thing that happened.
The rechargeable battery to store and generate electricity using bacteria: We already have bacterial fuel cells too, at least in experimental protocol. I think that it's the rechargeable thing is probably the operative word here, and I think that that could definitely be a fact. So the question is: Is there something tricky in the perovskite crystals item, or is it that MIT scientists actually have devised a technique for doubling the efficiency of coal burning to produce electricity?
I'm gonna go with – Jay, is it you that said that they've probably put so much money into this kind of research that we've pretty much sapped as much efficiency as we can out of coal? I'm gonna go ahead and say that that one is the fiction for that very reason.
S: All right, good. So we got an even split between 2 and 3. So you all agree one 1, so we'll start there. Scientists have developed solar cells made from an inexpensive perovskite crystals that are almost twice as efficient as silicon-based solar cells. You all think this one is science, and this one is the fiction.
B: (Groaning loudly) Oh!
C: (Groaning slowly) O-o-oh!
B: A reverse sweep! You bastard!
J: Wow, good job, Steve.
S: Clean sweep.
C: So, what is it? Is it in the wording? What's going on here? Are they not twice as efficient ...
S: They're not twice as efficient.
S: They're – Jay, you were right, your instinct there was right. That would be huge
S: if they were twice as efficient. But they have, what the science item is, that this is based on, is that they developed a technique for getting more efficiency and more energy out of perovskite solar cells. They figured out that if they put them under pressure, the crystalline structure gets better, and they can absorb more energy.
And this is research at Stanford working on this. But they were saying that they could get up to the range of silicon efficiency, which is around twenty percent.
C: So what's the point? Is it cheaper than
S: It's cheaper. They're inexpensive materials.
C: Oh, okay. Yeah.
S: Yeah. And also, this could have applications in LED's, and lasers, and lots of other things, not just solar cells as well. So this technology has a lot of applications. And this is a hybrid perovskite. It's a hybrid.
J: It's a hybrid.
S: Yeah, thank you, Jay.
E: Hybrid? Hybrid!
S: It's made from inexpensive things like, you know, lead, so it's not like platinum – you know, I just love it when I read like, solar cell efficiency made of platinum. Who cares? We're never gonna mass produce this.
E: How much platinum is there?
S: Yeah, right. So, anyway, yeah, this could be – I think that this is a technology that we'll be seeing on something at some point. Whether it replaces silicon in solar cells remains to be seen, but yeah, getting them cheaper is just as important as getting more efficiency, actually.
So, let's go on to number 2: Researchers announce that they have made and successfully tested a rechargeable battery that uses bacteria to store and generate energy. Evan and Jay thought this one was the fiction. And this one of course is science. And yes, it is rechargeable. And they actually did
S: build it and test it. So, and you are right, Cara, we already have bacterial fuel cells – microbial fuel cells. And that's part of it. But they coupled it with a microbial electrosynthesis system. So, essentially, they have bacteria at the biocathode make acetate, which then goes to the bio-anode, and then the acetate is made back into energy, into electricity. So you could use electricity, store it essentially as acetate, and then convert acetate back into electricity using bacteria in both of those processes.
And, in their proof of concept model, they fully charged and discharged it fifteen times. So it worked well over fifteen charges. It charges slowly, but the idea is, like, this is a kind of battery that could charge over a day long use with a solar panel, and then discharge in the evening to get the energy back out. So the whole goal here is large capacity, cheap battery storage, or energy storage for renewable, but not on demand energy sources like solar. So this has potential.
Of course, it's a proof of concept, right, Bob? That's the thing. We read about these things all the time.
S: It's whether or not this actually has a use at some point, can be mass produced or whatever, is still very unlikely, statistically speaking. But it is a very interesting concept. Let's move on to number 3: MIT scientists have devised a technique for doubling the efficiency of coal burning to produce electricity. Jay and Cara thought this one was the fiction, but this is also science.
S: And I think Evan was the one that pointed out first that, yeah, they developed the technique for it; they haven't actually done it.
S: This is a hypothetical system. The MIT scientists developed the computer model showing that this would work. What they do, it's another hybrid system. A hybrid system, they say, could cut coal plant emissions in half, basically by doubling the amount of electricity for half the coal, therefore half the CO2.
They use the gassification process – which doesn't turn coal into gasoline, it just releases gases from the coal – and then they burn those gases. And by doing that, you could get, by their computer models, you can get twice as much energy out of the same amount of coal, and therefore, basically, reduce the amount of pollution in half, including CO2 release.
So the next step is to now build an actual, working prototype, which could take a few years. And not something small, like, an actual, the kind of thing that could produce, they could shovel coal into, making energy out of it. And then if that works, then they could scale that up to an actual power plant level.
So, you know, again, probably ten to twenty years before – if it works out well. If this scales up, and the prototype works, et cetera, it's gonna be
S: probably ten to twenty years before we're replacing coal plants, or new plants that are being built are using this system, rather than traditional systems.
J: How about this?
J: Take all that money, and all that human energy, and work on a renewable energy, and don't burn coal, and waste that resource by using it for fuel.
S: Yeah, I mean, that, certainly, there is an argument to be made for that. The authors argue, while that is a nice vision, the bottom line
S: is people are burning coal. It's a cheap source of energy. China is building more coal plants every day. It's realistically, you could shoot for that. “Let's go totally renewable.” And that would be great, and that's probably ideal. But, if in the meantime, we could cut coal emissions in half, that probably is a good thing too, yeah, you know what I mean? It's probably unrealistic to say we're gonna get like, China to abandon all of their coal burning plants.
E: Too utopian.
S: Yeah, the perfect is the enemy of the good, as they say.
E: Hey, who said that?
S: I don't know. I don't know who said that first, but I use that concept all the time. People think, “Oh no! We gotta take only this one perfect solution. Forget any imperfect solutions.” Well, sometimes you gotta go with the good enough, you know what I mean? 'Cause the perfect is not obtainable.
J: Yep, absolutely. I use that expression all the time at work.
S: Yeah. Yeah yeah, it's a very practical bit of knowledge. So, yeah, interesting. It'll be interesting to see if this ever works, or takes a hold, you know? That's pretty good, cutting coal emissions in half. Then if you throw in any kind of carbon capture, or try to have clean coal technologies combined with this, really whack back the pollution that they produce. It's something. It's still not as good as clean energy or renewable energy, but it's something. All right guys, nice try this week. This was a tough one.
J: Yep, it was.
C: Oh, whatever.
C: “Nice try.”
B: Good job, Steve!
S: Yes, thank you. I don't sweep you guys that much.
B: You're so...
E: A few times a year.
- Skeptical 2016
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:23:40)
S: All right, Evan, give us a quote.
E: Here it is, this week's quote:
"I've discovered the one cause of all the one-cause theories: a deficiency of critical-thinking skills combined with an overactive imagination."
And that was written by the one and only Harriet Hall, whom we all admire very much.
S: Full of awesome, yep.
E: Absolutely. And it comes from an article she wrote back in 2010, actually, titled, “The One True Cause of All Disease.” And she speaks about the concept of how alternative practitioners tend to apply their one set of skills, or remedies, or applications, to fix anything and everything.
For example, she writes,
”Chiropractors treat every patient with chiropractic adjustments. What if a doctor used one treatment for everything? You have pneumonia? Here's some penicillin. You have a broken leg? Here's some penicillin. You have diabetes? Here's some penicillin. Acupuncturists only know to stick needles in people. Homeopaths only know to give out ridiculously high dilutions that amount to nothing but water. Therapeutic touch practitioners only know to smooth out the wrinkles in imaginary energy fields. They are not trying to determine any underlying cause. They are just using one treatment indiscriminantly.”
S: Yep. And those are often mutually exclusive one-cause theories. Everything is caused by a liver fluke. Everything. Really?
E: Yeah, fix it all. But you gotta buy my treatment,
E: or come to my clinic, or do my ... (Chuckles)
E: So, well done, Harriet, very well done.
S: Yeah, Harriet, she writes for Science-Based Medicine. Good friend and colleague. She's actually written a lot of the really popular articles we have at Science-Based Medicine. She will pick up a topic like that, and dig in, and do a great job.
E: And if you have any questions about statins, (Steve and Evan laugh) she'll be happy to discuss it with you.
S: All right,
E: A little inside joke.
S: thanks, Evan. Thank you all for joining me this week.
C: Thank you!
B: You're welcome, Steve!
S: It was a pleasure sweeping you. And until next week (Rogues chuckle) 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 theskepticsguide.org, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.