SGU Episode 570

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SGU Episode 570
June 11th 2016
T-rex-June2016.jpg
SGU 569 SGU 571
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
Guest
DG: David Grossnickle
Quote of the Week
'Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.
Robert L Park
Links
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


Introduction[edit]

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, June 8th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

Bob and Cara at the Reason Rally ()[edit]

What's the Word (2:28)[edit]

  • Iatrogenic

S: All right, Cara,

C: Yes.

S: What's the Word?

C: The word this week – it's a good one. So the word this week was recommended by Michael Clark from Salt Lake City. And he said, “I'm interested in the difference between a nosecomial infection and an iatrogenic infection. Perhaps a discussion?” So I thought I would focus on iatrogenic.

And iatrogenic is an adjective. It refers to an infection or an injury that's produced inadvertently by a physician or a surgeon, or during any course of medical treatment or diagnostic procedures.

E: Oh, like when they leave their watch in you during an operation.

C: That would be one example of an iatrogenic outcome. Of course, leaving your watch inside of somebody. But another example would be an infection that you get post-op, for example. There's a lot – and even some people refer to a scar as being iatrogenic, or some sort of drug interaction. You know, you're in the hospital. A physician puts you on lots of different drugs to be able to quell whatever it is that you're there for. And sometimes there're interactions between those drugs.

So, anything that's unintentional, inadvertent, but causes injury, or most commonly we use it to refer to infection.

S: Yeah, but it's any negative outcome that's a consequence of medical intervention. So, even, like, you can have an iatrogenic addiction, if you get addicted 'cause of a prescription drug, that's an iatrogenic addiction. That's another example. It's anything that is a consequence of your treatment.

C: And specifically, an adverse consequence.

S: Yeah

C: So when we talk about nosecomial, what we're referring to there, it's also an adjective, so it's a little confusing. But that, we usually use, you'll more commonly refer to it, I think, in the literature and in speech as just hospital-acquired. That's the word that they're subbing for that, to make it more simple. It means simply that.

It's usually referring to an infection, and it's specifically something that you'd acquire during a hospital visit, maybe from your ventilator, maybe because you're in the ICU, and you have open wounds because of an IV or something. And it's a common source of antibiotic-resistant infections, as we often have talked about on the show.

So, a nosecomial infection is in some contexts described as a type of iatrogenic outcome. It's like a subcategory within what we refer to as being iatrogenic. Iatrogenic, interestingly, is a relatively modern word that's used in health care. Its first usage dates back only to 1920, and it's made up of the Greek roots “iatro,” which means “physician or healer,” and “genic,” as we all know, that relates to forming, or producing, as in genesis.

Nosecomial is actually older. It dates back to 1855. That's the first time we used it as an adjective. In the seventeenth century, nosocome (N-O-S-O-C-O-M-E) was another word for hospital.

S: Yeah

B: Oh, wow!

C: And it Greek root just means “disease.” Yeah.

E: Ooh

C: Interesting, right?

S: Yeah, so the difference is, a nosocomial infection doesn't necessarily have to have been caused by an intervention. It's just an infection you acquired while in the hospital. And the reason that we want to distinguish that is because there are different bugs living in the hospital than in the community. So there's a community acquired infections, and nosocomial, or hospital-acquired infections. And they are treated differently, because the chances are, they are different bugs. So that's why it's an important distinction.

C: And it's true, too, right, Steve, that because of the hospital environment, because how kind of anti-septic the hospital environment is, we have seen some antibiotic-resistant bugs just really thriving. And that's why when you walk around hospitals, you see signs everywhere about stopping the spread of MERSA, and stopping the spread of antibiotic-resistant infections, and a lot of hand wash stations, and things of that nature.

S: Yeah, yeah, hospital-acquired infections tend to be worse. They tend to be more resistant bacteria because they're living, their environment's swimming in antibiotics. I mean, there was a study where they picked up dust in the middle of a hallway in a hospital, and it was loaded with antibiotics. I mean, it's just everywhere, because it's being used all the time.

And yeah, the measures to prevent the spread of infections has become very draconian in hospitals by necessity. Any patient who has a suspected infection or a confirmed infection that is one of the resistant bugs, you have to gown up, and put gloves on. They get in their own room, yeah, there's different levels, there are drop-in precautions for some infections, and then, but it's, hey, we have to do everything we can to limit the spread of these highly resistant bacteria.

News Items[edit]

Universe Expanding Faster Than Thought (7:15)[edit]

Illusion of Choice (16:06)[edit]

S: Well guys, I have another interesting brain thing to talk about. I like interesting brain things. This one is about the postdictive illusion of choice. Have you ever heard of that term before? Of course not, because it just came out.

(Rogues laugh)

S: Well, yes, you read about it on my blog post, but this was just invented by the authors of the recent research. Very interesting. So, for a little bit of background first: Of course, SGU listeners have heard us talk about enough before, you know that your brains construct your image of reality, right? You're not passive recorders of reality. What you experience as your stream of consciousness is an incredibly highly filtered and selected and altered and reconstructed narrative of what's going on.

E: I find it very comforting.

B: And also very useful!

S: Very useful, but ...

E: Utilitarian.

S: largely a fiction.

E: Okay, I'm comfortable with that.

S: In general, your brain errs massively on the side of continuity and internal consistency.

E: Sure! Fill in the gaps where it needs to ...

S: Yeah, and ... not accuracy. It utterly sacrifices accuracy in order for that narrative to be seamless and consistent. As you say, Evan, it will fill in the gaps. We call that confabulation, when your brain just makes shit up. It makes assumptions, it alters how you perceive things in order to sort of make it all fit.

One of the interesting aspects of that that we haven't talked about a lot (we have talked about it a little bit), is the temporal component, time. Is that your brain is actually averaging out things over time as well. I know about a year ago we talked about the fact that your visual system averages out about three seconds-worth of images; and part of the reason for that is to provide continuity. So, like, the example they used is if you're watching a leopard run through a sun-dappled jungle, that it won't look like this morphing blob, you know? It'll look like one object, or one animal, even though its image is morphing like hell as it moves and changes angle and shadowing and all that stuff. You still see it as one continuous object because it's being averaged out over a few seconds.

So now we have another little study that advances that concept one incremental step. The other bit to keep in mind is that our brains, the time it takes to process information is real. It takes a hundred milliseconds or so at minimum for the signals to go through your neurons, you know what I mean? So you're essentially, you're living slightly in the past.

B: I knew it!

E: Sure. Hence the temporal sort of shift that our brains ...

S: Your brain has to compensate by projecting reality into the future. Otherwise, you wouldn't be able to catch something that was thrown to you. You'd always be a little bit behind reality.

So, okay, this study now is done based upon that, but this is now looking at your subjective sense that you are making choices. Now this is not about free will, right? Free will is a separate ...

B: Oh, okay

S: philosophical discussion.

E: Okay

S: If they could – from one perspective, you don't have free will, because we're in a deterministic materialistic world, right? So, but don't worry about that. What we're really concerned about is the choices that you make. Even if you don't have free will, your brain is still making decisions. So let me tell you the study, then I'll tell you what the implications this has.

So what the researchers did was they had subjects stare at a computer screen, and then, at random, five white dots would appear. And then after a delay, one of those five dots would turn red. The instructions to the subjects were to, “As soon as you see the white dots, guess which one of them is gonna turn red.” And then, one of them will turn red at random. The subjects didn't know this, but it was random. And they had to then indicate whether or not they guessed correctly.

Now, when there was a sufficient delay between the white dots appearing and one of them turning red that your average person, the subjects, had more than enough time to decide which one was going to turn red, they indicated that they were correct twenty percent of the time ...

E: Average

S: which is exactly what is predicted by chance.

J: Right

S: So that is important control. That's an important control because that indicates that they're following the instructions, and they're not lying, right? If they were not trying to pretend like they were doing better than they were by lying about whether or not they got it correct, they were being honest.

B: It goes up, right? Let me guess, it goes up, right?

S: Well, they, the researchers shortened the delay until it got to the point where people started to not have enough time to make up their mind, to make a choice. So when you got right to that borderline where they just didn't have enough time to make a decision, their reporting accuracy went up. They started to report that they were thirty percent accurate, not twenty percent.

J: Why?

B: Because they were seeing it, but didn't have time to register it.

S: This is what the researchers think: And now, this is the speculation interpreting the study.

B: Okay

S: What they think is that this is, again, the title, what they're calling a “postdictive illusion of choice,” is that sometimes when that delay was in the sweet spot, the subject would see which one turned red, then decide that that's the one that they were predicting was gonna turn red. But in their head, they decided before they saw it turn red. So their brain kind of reversed the order in which things happened, and created the illusion that they chose before they saw it. So they were kind of projecting their decision into the past a little bit.

So that would explain those results. There were some instances when they saw the red dot, they said, “Oh, that's the one that's gonna turn red, and then they remembered it as them deciding first, even though they saw the other red dot first; clearly because their reported accuracy improved. It went up beyond chance.

So, that's interesting speculation. This is clearly one of those things where you need to do follow up studies, confirm this phenomenon. Explore it from different angles and see what's really going on. But it's interesting that people would think that they made a decision. And that, the illusion of choice is not new. The postdictive illusion of choice is the new bit in this study.

But there are lots of contrived experimental situations in which you could make people think they're making a decision when in fact you're making the decision for them. In fact, don't magicians do that all the time?

B: Yeah, yeah! Yeah.

S: What magicians do?

E: Wasn't one of the options for the people taking the test to say, “I didn't have time to make a decision?”

S: Yes!

E: So “no answer?”

S: Yes, that is correct.

E: Okay.

S: They were certainly able to, “I didn't have time to answer.” They were able to give that as one of their ... but they said, “No, I chose correctly,” not, “I didn't have time to choose.”

E: Gotcha.

S: When it got really short, they would say, “Yes, I didn't have time to choose.” They would say that sometimes, but there were that sweet spot (that's why they adjusted it so they would hit everybody's sweet spot), where they would think that they made the choice.

Now, if you remember, we talked a few years ago about a study (this was an fMRI study), where they asked people to make essentially a left or right decision, and then they were able to see which decision they were gonna make, left or right ...

E: Oh, right.

S: up to like, six seconds before they reported being conscious of the choice.

B: Whoa!

S: That's a different phenomenon. That is ...

E: Yeah

S: a phenomenon in which – now, this was like one fMRI study. The signal to noise ratio was pretty low. It was like sixty percent, with fifty percent being random. So I'm not saying we can hang our hat on this, but it is interesting that in some cases, they could see that the one side or the other of the brain would light up depending on which side, which hand they would move. And then they would record their decision.

So again, what the researchers thought was happening in that experiment that the choice was essentially made for them subconsciously. Your brain makes some decision at a subconscious level, and then presents that decision to your conscious self. And then you have the option of accepting or rejecting that decision, you know. So there's different hierarchical levels of control in the brain where you have the more primitive or the more subconscious parts of the brain doing a lot of processing, a lot of algorithmic kind of processing, making you feel certain ways, or do certain things, or make certain decisions, or affecting your motivation.

But then there's the executive function, that top level control where you could say, “Wait a minute. Let me think about that. I don't necessarily want to do what I feel like doing.” So you could reject the choice that your subconscious brain hands to your conscious brain, if that makes sense.

So that's still kind of, that's basically the working model now, that neuroscientists have, how we make decisions. So this could be a related phenomenon where that subconscious choice is creating the illusion that it was a conscious choice, even if it has to fudge the temporal sequence a little bit.

E: Sure, and I can see that because people do want to be confident with the decision that they did make, there's plenty of reinforcement psychologically going on to say, “Yeah, that's right. You did make the right decision.”

S: Exactly

E: You definitely did want to make this decision as opposed to that one. And your brain feeds that reinforcement.

S: Yeah, that's exactly right Evan, that's what the researchers speculate as well, that this may serve the function of giving you the confidence to act on your decisions, because you feel like you made it, it's the right decision. If you felt it wasn't a conscious choice, you might not be as decisive, or willing ...

E: Right

S: to act upon it.

E: Or worse, you felt manipulated in some way ...

S: Yeah

E: by an exterior ... force.

B: Force.

S: Yeah. So, it's funny, 'cause they said, “Is this a bug or a feature, right? Of the brain.”

B: Hah.

S: And they said, their argument, “This is not a bug. This is a feature. This is deliberate in a way, that the brain is wired to give you the illusion of choice, even to the point of flipping temporal sequence, because that illusion of choice is important in order for us to be decisive agents, and acting on our decisions.

E: And there's an evolutionary advantage to that? I would imagine.

S: Well, that's the speculation. But, yeah.

J: Steve ...

S: Yes?

J: Do you think in the future, when we have much more advanced technology, you think we're gonna be able to mess with our consciousness or maybe ...

S: Oh yeah!

J: I just wonder. It's hard to ...

E: That's a little scary.

J: Yeah, it is, right, Evan? It's hard to even form a question about this because how weird it is. But, do you think we would be able to make it so we are making decisions more legitimately?

S: That's a difficult question to answer. I mean, I would say your bigger question, “Mess with our conscious,” we already do that. It's what drugs do, right? I mean, you could mess with consciousness with not only drugs, but with transcranial electrical or magnetic stimulation. We could increase or decrease the functioning of different circuits in your brain, and alter its construction of consciousness, or reality. So we can already do that now, although admittedly, very crudely.

There's no reason, however, there's no theoretical limitation on the degree to which we could mess with your consciousness, all the way to point where we might be able to literally implant electrodes into different circuits in your brain, and have pretty much total control!

E: Gosh, you see, we already have I think the sort of tenuous grasp on reality as it is, and you feel people might lose something of themselves if we start going down those roads. You won't know what's real or what's not.

S: Yeah, that's true. Its the Matrix dilemma, basically.

J: But, from all the things that you talk about, things that I read, I get this sense, you know, our brain is doing all of these different things to make it so we could understand reality in a smooth, linear way, you follow me?

S: Yeah

J: Right, because the temporal part of it is so important and it's so important for us to be able – like Steve just explained – the brain needs to project us into the future so we can interact with the environment, like catching a baseball's a really good example.

You're forecasting where that baseball's gonna go. You're in a weird kind of way telling the future of the physics ...

S: Yeah

J: around you, right? I totally understand why we evolved that way, but if we were to start messing with the human mind, and try to make it so the Prime Directive of the brain was different, that wanted to be able to really make decisions. I know that sounds so weird, but to make decisions in a much more – oh god! It's hard to put into words, correctly.

E: More the perception of control?

J: Yeah, the actually ... the decision is more legitimate, it's not being faked or tweaked.

S: There is no seat of conscious, by the way. Every piece of the brain contributes this little bit to consciousness.

B: It's more of a lawn chair.

(Rogues chuckle)

S: The idea that there's any piece of your brain that is conscious is no longer the working model that neuroscientists are using. They've essentially ...

B: For quite some time!

S: Yeah, they're essentially proved it wrong, because partly through the inability to find it, but also partly because it seems that every little bit of the brain is contributing its little bit to consciousness. And every little bit of the brain is conscious in its own right. Although, in order to have wakeful consciousness (this is another study I don't think we talked about, but very interesting). In order to have wakeful consciousness, a recent study showed that you need to have a certain percentage of your brain functioning, or of your total brain function.

If your just talking about how energetic, like how much neuronal activity there is in your brain, and you have like, they did a normal, healthy, controls to establish a baseline. And then they found by looking at comatose patients what the critical threshold was for being able to generate any consciousness. And you know what that percentage was?

B: Forty-two.

S: Forty-two!

E: What!

(Rogues chatter over each other for a couple seconds)

B: Oh my god! Yeah baby!

E: Ah! The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy suddenly makes sense!

S: It is the answer to the universe, life, and everything.

B: Oh. My. God.

S: Forty-two percent of healthy, conscious brain activity ...

B: That's awesome.

S: In order to generate con... that's why I asked it that way. In order to generate consciousness, so ...

E: Oh, that was leading, you expected Bob to come up ...

S: I thought forty-two, what else are you gonna guess? It also was kind of makes sense in a way. But ...

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah

C: Yeah!

S: That's why half of your brain, one of your hemispheres can be conscious. It's fifty percent. That's enough!

C: Yeah

S: So, over the threshold.

E: Wow.

S: One final thought on all this. What I love, whenever I write about this sort of thing, it's like so in your face, that materialism is correct, and dualism is bullshit.

B: (Chuckling) Yes

S: You know what I mean? But it's funny how the dualists still cling to their magic.

E: Oh gosh.

C: It's so weird to me that there are still dualists.

S: Oh, seriously ...

E: Yeah

S: There are serious dualists, absolutely.

E: Wow!

S: And they just don't understand neuroscience. Neuroscience completely ignoring the philosophical debate, and is proceeding with the assumption that the brain, your mind, your consciousness is brain activity, that's what it is. It's not your brain, it's brain activity. Because if your brain is not active, you're not conscious.

That assumption is working just fine. And it is perfectly consistent with all of this evidence that we have. In fact, it's one of the most proven scientific hypotheses I think that we have, that consciousness is brain function. And it's amazing to me how that people still deny that. It is neuroscience denial, and they just have no idea how well established it is. All of the hundreds, thousands of studies where, that any one of which could be inconsistent with the materialist model of consciousness.

It's like evolution. There's so many fossils out there. As somebody said, “A horse in a Cambrian, like, a well-preserved horse in a clearly Cambrian geological strata, that would be pretty hard to explain within the evolutionary paradigm. Same thing. There's nothing, there's nothing which challenges the neuroscience paradigm of consciousness. It is unbelievable.

Okay, let's move on.

(Commercial at 33:31)

Is hands free safer? (35:15)[edit]

S: Cara, so here's a very interesting question: Is it really safer to use hands-free when you're talking on the phone and driving?

C: And the answer to that question is, “I have no idea, because the study I'm about to tell you doesn't really answer that question.”

S: Oh.

E: It depends on the officer that pulls you over.

C: I think this is an interesting example of a pretty interesting preliminary study that actually tells me some things that I feel like I need to know, and I want to see more research in this area. But it doesn't really tell me whether or not hands-free phone calls are safer drivers. So I'm a little disappointed by that.

There was an article that was published, actually quite a while ago, in Transportation Research Part F Traffic Psychology and Behavior. These journals are getting really specific. And it was done by some researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK, and it was entitled, “Imagery-Inducing Distraction Leads to Cognitive Tunnelling and Deteriorated Driving Performance. This was actually published in February of this year. But for whatever reason, both Science Daily and Live Science picked it up just within the last week. And that's what I was looking at.

The Science Daily article has a subheading. They called it, “Think talking on your hands-free phone is safe? Think again, say researchers.” And the subheading literally says, “Driving while talking on a hands-free phone can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile phone, psychologists at the University of Sussex have found.”

What I'll tell you that they did find is that in a driving simulation where they did not test talking with a hand-held mobile phone whatsoever, there were some examples of risks. And those risks come about because of the way that we actually have to use mental imagery when we're thinking.

So what these researchers did is they did two different experiments. In the first experiment, they took sixty different people and divided them into three groups of twenty. And they put them in a simulated driving course, which means that they look through the windshield of a non-moving car, but through that windshield they saw a video, as if they were the driver.

And they had the driver step on the brake pedal every time there was a road hazard. So in one group, they measured how often people stepped on the brake pedal when they saw the hazards with no distractions present. In the next group, they asked the individuals true or false questions while they carried out the simulation. And they ensured that the true or false questions required some sort of visual imagery in order to answer it.

So the example here in this Live Science article is a question, quote, “In a rowing boat, the rower sits with his back to the front of the boat. True or False.” So what that means is it requires you as the driver to actually envision a row boat in your head, and see the picture of it. Meanwhile, you're trying to drive and focus on potentially dangerous road hazards.

They also gave a third group true or false questions where they didn't require visual imagery, like, quote, “The official language of Mexico is Spanish.” That's something that is more just common knowledge that you wouldn't have to see in your head. Now, if they were to ask about the Mexican flag, for example, that would require visual imagery.

They found that the undistracted group stepped on the brake pedal the most often in response to real hazards. They found that the people who were the worst at hazard detection was of course the group that had to use mental imagery. So they wanted to go a little bit further. They did a second experiment where they took, again, a very small sample size, forty-six people, and they compared to two groups. In both groups they actually tracked the eye movements of the drivers during this mock up.

The first group, again, was given no distractions. So it's kind of the negative control group. And the second group was asked to envision in their mind a grid. They were putting themselves in the middle of the grid, and then they were told to kind of travel around the grid, just like a chess board (well, not just like a chess board). Let's say just like a checkers board. So up, down, right, or left. And then tell the researchers that the very end of this series of instructions where they ended up.

So this required really heavy mental imagery; really visualizing something in your head while you're simultaneously driving and trying to avoid hazards. And they found that in this group, they had a slower reaction time, but they also did something really interesting. They looked, but failed to see. That's what they called the phenomenon.

So they showed that the eye tracking data had them looking at these road hazards, but they didn't react to them by pushing the brake pedal. So there was something that was a more, I guess, lower level conscious processing that was happening there, where they saw the distraction, or at least they looked at the distraction with their eyes – physically – but they didn't actually slam on the brakes.

So, of course it does seem reasonable that the researchers concluded that needing to do things that require visual imagery while you're driving can be incredibly distracting, and aren't safe. And so, what we're seeing the journal is saying, and the researchers as well, saying is that whether your hand is on the phone or your hand is not on the phone, there's some good reason to think that if you're having a conversation with an individual, and they're asking you questions that require visual imagery like, “Hey, can you remember where I left my backpack in the house?” You know, your kid calls, and you have to answer that question. You're thinking about the house, and you're envisioning the backpack. And that can be incredibly distracting.

Now the reason that they say that they sort of use this as an example of distracted driving while on the phone instead of distracted driving just while having a freakin' conversation with somebody else in your car, (because, you know, because it seems like you could say the same thing about that) is that they do argue, and I think there is some truth to this, that when somebody's physically in your car with you, they mitigate.

So let's say you're having an in depth conversation, and then things get complicated on the road. There's traffic ahead, or there's an erratic driver, or a dog runs out into the street. Hopefully your passengers are also looking out the window, and they might actually quiet the conversation, or say, “Oh, we'll pick that up again. You should focus on the road. Whereas the person on the other side of the phone is oblivious to what those distractions are. So they're less likely to mitigate them.

J: Have you ever been in the car, and had the passenger save you?

C: Oh, yeah! For sure.

J: Like, “Hey! Watch out!” And you're like, “What the hell would have happened if you weren't in the car with me?”

C: Yeah

J: You know? But part of the problem is they're distracting you.

C: No, for sure. But I also have the opposite problem when my mother is in the passenger seat, because she's (and this totally has been passed down to me, which is a huge bummer because I see myself doing it), but she does this thing where she, like, holds on to what we refer to as the “Oh, shit bar.”

J: Yeah, we call it that too.

(Cara laughs)

E: Oh yeah, the, “Oh shit handbar.”

C: Yeah, and she squeezes it so tight, and you can feel her body tensing up next to you every time there's a minor hazard in front of you. And I have to constantly be, like, “I see it. Don't act like I'm about to smash the car into the car in front of me.” It stresses me out to no ends. So that's almost the opposite issue.

But yes, I have had passengers save me, and I definitely do see that phenomenon where you're having a conversation, and then all of a sudden, without even noticing, you both stop talking when you have to exit, or when things get complicated, and then you just pick it up again.

But it's true that that doesn't happen with the person on the other side of a phone. You have to physically go, “Hold on a second. I have to focus.”

E: Ha ha, right.

C: And the onus is on you then. So I get it, and I get that these – I think – are reasonable takeaways from the research; but what really bothers me is the way that these articles are basically saying that these researchers found that hands-free phone calls are just as distracting as phone calls where you're physically holding the phone, because they didn't even study that!

E: Oh, great.

(Evan and Cara laugh)

S: Yeah

C: So that's like, super-confusing to me why they would headline it that way. But, is the question, “Are hands-free phone calls really safer drivers?” It's an important question, and maybe they're less safe than we thought because of that visual imagery component. So I'd like to see more study done, where physical drivers are on the road, and they're doing the same thing. The problem is: What are the ethics of that? Can we really do something where they're not in a simulated situation where they're on the road, full of distractions, and then we try to distract them further. It sounds like that could be pretty unsafe.

S: You can't do that study. You gotta do it in simulators.

Who's That Noisy (44:27)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Digitized image as sound

Dumbest Thing of the Week (49:15)[edit]

  • Noel Edmonds tweets about cancer cure

Your Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question #1: Antibiotics in Mexico (52:42)[edit]

  • Over-the-counter antibiotics can be bought cheap in Mexico

Question #2: Mythbusters and Science (55:17)[edit]

S: Next one: Cara, you did a reference to the Myth Busters last week, and we got this email from David Smith, who gives his location as “Earth,”

(Cara laughs)

S: Thanks for narrowing it down for us, David. And he writes:

C: He doesn't want me to come find him!

S: Yeah

E: He's not on the International Space Station, got it.

S: Yeah, wait 'till you hear his email. He says,
I thought your new female presenter was unfair about Myth Busters. How many episodes has she seen? And if it isn't science, what are they failing to do? I don't know the procedures needed to be scientific, but they seem to have control groups and try to draw reasonable conclusions.

E: Wait, new female presenter?

C: What am I thinking? I feel like I said that, though, right? I said that I think the show does a lot of good, and I think that the show gets people excited about science; but it bothers me a little bit when people try to equate what they did on the show rigorous science.

S: Yeah

C: Obviously, it's a television show.

S: Right

C: And, it was in the context of something else, where I was talking about ... what were we talking about? 'Cause it was about basically trying to ...

S: Talking about the cellphone-rat study. Basically, your point was ...

C: Yes!

S: that Myth Busters will often push the question to its limits, 'cause that's the narrative, right? And then they acknowledge that. And ...

C: And that's what that study did.

S: He felt like the study was doing that.

C: Yeah

S: So, it's funny, so I looked into this, and this is a question that is debated on the internet. Are the Myth Busters ...

C: Oh, that's funny!

S: doing science? With people saying, “Yes,” and people saying, “No.” And the answer I think depends on what you mean. (Cara chuckles) How you define science, (Evan laughs) of course. So, I think that what the Myth Busters are doing is sort of science, but it is not what scientists do, or at least what scientists should be doing. So they would do what I consider to be science-like demonstrations, right?

C: Yeah

S: They have control groups. They would try to control for variables. They did, in these demonstrations, I think they did a good job of teaching the public, and getting them excited about science, and introducing basic concepts to the public like controlling for variables, things like that, which is important.

But the Myth Busters themselves are the first to acknowledge that this is not science in the way that what scientists are doing. And I found a video where the Myth Busters were on a panel at ComicCon, and they were asked this very question. And Adam Savage unequivocally said, “No. What we're doing is not science. And what we're doing isn't publishable. It's not rigorous.”

And to David, I emailed him back, and I said, essentially that, but to clarify a little bit further, a scientific study should be generalizable, right? And in order to be generalizable you need to have large sample sizes, and the samples are randomized in some way, adequately randomized. And it needs to be representative. And you need to have enough numbers that you could do some kind of rigorous statistics on it.

And the Myth Busters were operating within the confines of a television show, and their demonstrations were very stripped down, and were much smaller scale, and it was part of a narrative. And they did a great job within the story arc of their episodes. But they weren't doing the kind of research that a scientist would do to publish actual generalizable results.

C: Yeah

S: So that's what we mean when we say it wasn't quote-unquote, “real science.” At best, you could consider what the Myth Busters did in a lot of their demonstrations to be very preliminary or exploratory science. They were doing, just testing the idea out very quickly, like the kind of way that you would do in a preliminary study to see if it deserves further, more rigorous science.

C: And if I can contribute just a little to this, like ...

S: Yeah

C: hopefully people will understand that there is some nuance, and some context to the conversations that we were having. I, of anybody here on the show, this is what I do for a living, right? I do science and science-related programming on air, both in television and on the web. I'm the first person to be sympathetic to the idea that you have to make a show entertaining first, and then the science follows.

So we can't make programming that's only in service to science. We'll never get it on air. We have to make entertaining programming that then hopefully improves science literacy in the public to some extent. And I think that the Myth Busters do an incredible job of that.

S: Absolutely

C: There's a generation of kids who are excited about science because of that show. So of course, I fully agree with that. I think that obviously, that statement was made in the context of that rat study.

S: Yeah, doing actual science would be incredibly boring TV.

Interview with David Grossnickle (1:00:10)[edit]

  • Mammals were more successful than we thought during the reign of the dinosaurs

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Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:32:35)[edit]

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Today I Learned:[edit]

References[edit]


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