SGU Episode 577
|This episode needs: proof-reading,||How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 577|
|July 30th 2016|
|SGU 576||SGU 578|
|S: Steven Novella|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|C: Cara Santa Maria|
|Quote of the Week|
|I'm sorry, but that's completely ridiculous … You could claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist!|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 What's the Word (2:04)
- 3 News Items
- 4 Who's That Noisy (42:24)
- 5 Special Report: The Science of Race (47:24)
- 6 Science or Fiction (1:13:21)
- 7 Rogues' Favorite Video Games (1:29:01)
- 8 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:33:05)
- 9 Today I Learned:
- 10 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, July 27th, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,
B: Hey, everybody!
S: the Emmy award-winning Cara Santa Maria
S: Jay Novella,
S: and Evan Bernstein
E: I have no Emmy, but I'm here.
S: So, Cara, congratulations.
C: Thank you!
E: Well deserved.
S: Tell us about the award. This is an L.A. Emmy; your second I understand.
S: But you won one recently. Tell us about it!
C: I got one last year. It's the local Emmy awards. Most major markets have their own Emmy awards. The interesting thing about the L.A. Emmys is that the Television Academy of Los Angeles awards the L.A. Emmys; and the Television Academy of Los Angeles is also the awarding body of the Prime Time Emmys. So the trophies look the same except the L.A. Emmy trophies are like baby versions of the big Emmys.
A friend of mine has a real Emmy – not that mine's not a real Emmy – but has the type of Emmy that you're used to seeing on TV. And so we always joke about having Emmy battles. So now I have two!
E: Emmy envy.
C: My two little ones can take hers on. But yeah, last year, I won one for a piece I did for a local show I work on called SoCal Connected. It's on a public TV station here. We do really good journalism on a budget. And I did a piece about our local natural history museum of LA County, and about a cool insect citizen science program that they did. So that was really great.
It was my first year working on the show; so it was a big surprise that I won in that feature category. And then this year, our show won for best public affairs program remote.
E: Ah, that's great.
E: That's great.
S: Well, you're gonna bring us some of that Emmy award-winning talent with what's the word.
What's the Word (2:04)
C: (Laughs) I am! So this week's word was actually recommended by @SkepticProblems on Twitter – I love that Twitter handle. I wonder what his skeptic problems are? Probably the same as ours. And this week's word is neoteny,
B: Oh yeah!
C: which is also known ...
J: I know what that is!
C: as paedomorphism. Yay! Everyone knows what it is. Yeah, neoteny, paedomorphism, these terms refer to the retention of juvenile characteristics in adult individuals of a species. So this can sometimes occur – what we think of as “randomly,” - because of different types of genetic mutation. But it's often the outcome of selective breeding, or artificial selection; as we typically see it in dog domestication.
If you think about most dogs, they have really big eyes; they have very puppy-like features even when they're full-grown.
B: And they bark?
C: Yeah, they bark, their ears flop, their tails wag. There's a lot of things that we bred into modern dogs that are very different from wolves, and really do retain those juvenile characteristics. So the next time that you run into your dog, you can be like, “God! You're so paedomorphic!”
S: Humans are paedomorphic chimps.
C: Yeah, we are! We are paedomorphic chimps for sure.
B: I remember a picture of a baby chimp and an adult chimp; and the baby chimp, the proportions of the head were surprisingly human-like. And then you look at the adult chimp, and it was surprisingly not human-like with the sloping forehead, et cetera. It was really dramatic.
C: Yeah, and obviously there are a lot of evolutionary theories as to why we would breed things to retain these juvenile traits, and why juvenile organisms have those traits to begin with, and or why it is that mothers react to these typical types of juvenile traits like large eyes, high-pitched voices, really big bobble heads – babies are very bobble heady.
But there's also another definition of neoteny. It also can refer to a biological process that's also known as paedogenesis, which is a little bit different, but related in meaning. So specifically here, we're talking about the production of offspring by an organism while it's still in its juvenile or its larval stage, which occurs in some insects. And that actually eliminates the adult portion of the life cycle altogether. So they can actually breed while they're still juvenile, and then they don't mature to adulthood. That's also called neoteny in evolutionary or developmental biology, which is interesting.
The etymology of the term was first used around the turn of the twentieth century, and it was borrowed from neotenie – similar word, probably pronounced differently, slightly different spelling, ending in an “ie” - in German; and that was based on the Greek root “neos” - meaning young – and “teinein,” meaning to extend. So that makes perfect sense; we're extending youth into adulthood.
C: Yeah, I don't know. Tinen? T-E-I-N-E-I-N
B: 'Cause T-I-
C: In Greek, so
C: You know, it's funny, we often get emails – not often – but once in a blue moon we get emails from listeners who are like, “You guys are my skeptical heroes, and you know so much about science, but your Greek and Latin is atrocious!”
J: It is bad!
J: I can't pronounce English words for cryin' out loud!
E: (Laughs) My Greek is bad! Okay! (Laughs)
C: I know, my Greek is terrible, but I typically work on these in the day or two leading up to the day that we record. And so of course I often don't have time to reach out to an etymologist – is that an actual job title?
C: Yeah, an etymologist ... yeah to reach out and say, “Hey, can you tell me how to pronounce that?” And honestly, can anybody really speak ancient Greek?
S: I'm sure there's somebody out there that can.
C: But how do you know if your pronunciations are accurate?
E: Yeah! That's a very good point!
B: Time machine?
Vaxxed Lawsuit (6:03)
S: All right, Jay, you're gonna start off the news items with news of another crappy lawsuit.
J: Well, as many of you know – including Bob – Andrew Wakefield released a film recently called Vax: From Cover Up to Catastrophe. It's very dramatic. The film is being criticized for its lack of truthiness.
E: Heh! What a shock!
J: And in case you don't know, let me give you the quick history of Mr. Wakefield. Of course, this is all in my opinion; and Mr. Wakefield is a public figure, so I don't have to worry about getting sued. Right Steve?
S: (Laughs) Oh, you can get sued ...
E: Anyone can sue you
S: You just won't have a case.
J: That's right.
J: But it still costs me a half a million dollars to say what I want to say.
E: Only if you want to defend yourself.
J: So, Mr. Wakefield used to be a gastroenterologist and a researcher; and back in 1998, he published his infamous research paper in The Lancet that outlined his findings that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. I didn't know what I'm about to tell you next! This study also showed a link between the MMR vaccine and bowel disease, did you guys know that?
S: Actually, it only showed a link to bowel disease. The word (rogues laugh over Steve) autism doesn't even occur in the paper. He really only made that link after the fact in his dealings with the press.
E: Oh gosh! That's even worse!
J: It's pretty cool though, isn't it?
E: Down in your gutty-whats.
J: Well, the funny thing about science – you know, it's kind of crazy – but other scientists try to reproduce the findings that get published. So somebody's wacky scientists went out there and decided to reproduce Wakefield's findings, and they couldn't reproduce a shred of it! Huh! So in 2004, Brian Deer (who we interviewed last year – and he was awesome by the way), he found undisclosed financial conflicts of interest; and it turns out Wakefield was developing his own MMR vaccine! Whoa!
S: No, just monovalent measles vaccine, not MMR.
J: Right, sorry.
S: So the MMR is a trivalent vaccine. So he was trashing that so that he could then market his measles-only vaccine
B: Total conflict of interest.
S: as a safer alternative.
E: Nothing totally sleazeball about that!
S: He was also getting money from lawyers who were suing over the association of MMR and autism. So ... he was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars – not small amounts of money.
J: Once Brian Deer published his findings, most of his coauthors of the study withdrew their support. Then the General Medical Council, the GMC – which is the body that governs all medical practitioners in the UK – they conducted an inquiry and found Wakefield guilty of unnecessary invasive medical procedures to children and lumbar punctures, that Wakefield was acting without the necessary ethical approval from the review board; and in 2010, the GMC issued thirty-six charges against Wakefield. Four of them were accounts of dishonesty; twelve involved abusing developmentally challenged children.
But Wakefield cares so much about the kids. Then the GMC ruled that he failed – and this is a quote – “that he failed in his duties as a responsible consultant;” and that “he acted both against the interest of his patients, and dishonestly and irresponsibly in his published work.” The Lancet retracted his 1998 publication, stating that his findings were falsified; and then three months later, Wakefield was stripped of ability to practice medicine in the UK, what did they call it, they struck him from the record, Steve?
S: Struck off, yeah.
E: Struck off, man!
J: Struck off! So, sadly, Wakefield's deception – I'm so sorry for this guy – it led to a decline in vaccination rates in many places, and it unfortunately, a lot of people died from diseases that we fricking cured, or at least pushed into obscurity. So, Wakefield to this day, he won't admit his fraud, and he still defends his research. So, now that you know the facts about Wakefield, back to his movie Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Catastrophe.
So Wakefield has been trying to get people to see his film; and it was removed from the Tribeca Film Festival – we talked about that. It was all due to a blow back from people around the world. And many skeptics have been trying to educate people about the film, and how it's not accurate, and how it preys on the parents of autistic children.
One of them in particular, Fiona Pettit O'Leary, she founded an organization called Autistic Rights Together, or A-R-T ART. So this organization helps represent people with autism in the hopes of diminishing the negative stigma that comes with having autism. So Fiona has been criticizing the film very publicly; and the people who made the film decided to sue her, or at least threaten to sue her because they want her to stop her public criticism.
So here's what happened: They sent Fiona a letter, and they demanded that she stop her defamatory remarks about the film and that she cease and desist in her interference with the distribution of the film, and making any statement to anyone anywhere about the film. She can't even talk to her Mom about it.
S: I like that.
J: So they went on to say that if she didn't stop, they'd intend to file an action against her. That's got a lot of teeth in it.
J: They will ask for punitive damages – see I can't even say it without laughing.
J: - punitive damages here! They want punitive damages and financial compensation for all loses to their business directly resulting from her actions. You know, nothing is really stopping the film makers from filing a lawsuit, like Steve said. And Steve and I know just how easy that is unfortunately; and especially if you have a huge sum of money. I have no idea if Wakefield or his producers have a lot of money, but it does take quite a bit of money to follow up on a lawsuit. But it's probably very likely that they're just threatening to scare her into silence, and any other criticism.
S: Yeah, that's absolutely boilerplate cease and desist letter, totally over the top lawyer speak intimidation. It is the prelude to suing. It is a very strong sign that they are intending to sue, because that's sort of the first step that you take; but people also do that just to intimidate people, to threaten the lawsuit, and if you don't have the resources to defend yourself, most lawyers will tell you, you have few options. You just comply with their demands and save yourself the trouble of a lawsuit; you can tell them to go pound sand; or you can preemptively sue them, actually. Sometimes that's an option.
J: The idea that their tactic here is to try to scare her, imagine if for example the producers of – Bob, what movie sucked? Like, The Last Airbender movie.
S: (chuckling) What movie ...
B: Space! Message from Space!
J: Or Message From Space! Imagine the producers of Message From Space – one of the worst movies of all time – and they decided to threaten lawsuits for saying that their movie sucked! Right? Is that how professional film makers act when their work is reviewed? I mean, Rotten Tomatoes would have to get sued every day for all the comments on there.
So, yeah, this is a – hopefully it is just a scare tactic, but it's still the wrong way to go about dealing with criticism. How about, get new research that proves your hypothesis Wakefield? If you still believe in it, go back and prove it in the laboratory, and then we'll take it from there. Well, you know, he's had twenty years to do it; he's not doing it.
S: Yeah, he's basically moved to the US, and continued his ridiculous anti-vaccine propaganda. Just made a career for himself as an anti-vaccine crank, and this is what cranks do. They try to intimidate legitimate criticism by threatening to sue, which, again, it unfortunately can be very effective.
E: Now, a lot of people criticized this film, why aren't they going after other people as well? What singled them out, these folks for this lawsuit?
J: She's done a very good job of putting them down.
S: She's effective.
J: Yeah, she's gaining some ground, and has had an impact without a doubt.
S:Yeah, but it's unfortunate again, that suit, that would be utterly baseless. Criticizing any movie, as Jay said, is fair game; let alone one that is a documentary that seeks to change public policy, right? So you're gonna shut down conversation and discussion and criticism over a documentary that seeks to change public health policy? Good luck! There's no way that they would make any progress in this suit, and this is purely for intimidation purposes.
E: They are bullies.
S: Yeah, they're bullies, just intellectual bullies.
E: Pure bullies.
S: All right, Bob, tell us about superatoms.
B: Yes! This was quite interesting. Researchers and engineers have, for the first time, linked superatoms to make molecules, suggesting that these new building blocks could essentially offer materials with tailor-designed magnetic and electrical properties.
So, yeah, this one fascinating. Hold on to your beanies with this one. Your first thought though is probably, “What the hell is a superatom?” And Jay, I don't even want to know what your first thought was. But a superatom is a cluster of atoms that essentially behaves like a distinct atom, but a potentially new class of atom.
It was discovered with sodium atoms, I believe, which form clusters, as lots of different gases do when they're cooled from a vapor state. And the awesome thing about them though is that the free electrons occupy a new set of orbitals around the entire cluster of atoms.
E: Oh yeah! I was gonna say, what's the difference between a cluster and the superatom, but you just explained that to me.
B: Yeah. So for ordinary atoms, it's not really the nucleus, but the electron orbitals that determine the chemical properties of an element. That's the key right there. So the fact that you could actually kind of tailor-make these orbitals, then you can tailor-make the chemical properties. So by adding various unrelated atoms to a superatom, you can create a mimic of other atoms.
So you might say, “Then why not just use the regular atom though? Why go to the bother of creating a superatom if you're just going to mimic another atom?” And that makes sense, but the element you mimic might be quite less expensive. For example, palladium. Palladium is used as a catalyst in jet engines. It's quite important, as you might imagine, but it's a hundred dollars a gram.
But if you use some sort of zirconium oxide superatom, it would cost two cents a gram. So the potential for money saving is immense. But even that's kind of the small potatoes of this, because you can create potentially superatoms to behave like one element, but also do something completely different as well that no atom does. Or maybe you can create a whole new class of atom with no mimic in the natural world at all. Lots of possibilities here; amazing potential.
Some scientists are looking at this as a potential third dimension to the now two-dimensional periodic table of elements! So imagine if you, with the creation of a whole sort of new superatom elements kind of expanding out into the z-axis. So, that would be fascinating; imagine an overhaul of the entire periodic table.
But even as cool as all that is, that's not even the new stuff! That's the old stuff! That's at least a decade old. So what's the new breakthrough now is that some guys that led the project, Colin Nuckolls, Michael Steigerwald, and Xavier Roy et al, including their whole crew, at Columbia University in New York; they have for the first time linked two and three superatoms into one molecule, or perhaps a supermolecule. I'm not sure what you would even call that thing.
So what they did was they built their superatom cores out of six cobalt and eight selenium atoms – sel-en-ium or sel-een-ium? I can never ... I think it's sel-een-ium. They then made what's called these ligands, which, so they took pieces of other atoms and they made them projecting out from the superatom like arms that linked to other superatoms, kind of like basically a chemical bond. That's pretty much what they did. So you can bond the atoms together using these ligands to make these molecules.
Let's see, so from their abstract, they said, “These superatom molecules have a rich electrochemical profile, and chart a clear path to a whole family of superatom molecules with new and unusual collective properties. I just see so much potential in this, it's just so interesting.
So what can you do with it? What's the future of this? What are we gonna see in five or ten years? Of course, that's hard to say. But the researchers want to build much larger assemblages of these superatoms to create new types of solid state electronics with bespoke optical, electrical, and magnetic properties. That's a new word I found – bespoke. Cara, what's bespoke?
C: It's like custom-made, like a bespoke soup is just made just for you.
B: Excellent! (Cara laughs) When I read that, I was like, “What in god's name is he talking about?” “Bespoke,” I had to look it up, so a cool word.
C: Yeah, it's a fashion thing.
B: I don't like it very much, so I may never use it ever again, but it's still there. So another option is superconductivity. So, you guys have probably heard of Cooper Pairs? Cooper Pairs of electrons, electrons that kind of pair up? That is essentially the defining aspect of what superconductivity is.
They've done some research into aluminum superatoms, and they've been shown, it seems like they are forming these Cooper Pairs, the hallmarks of superconductivity at a temperature around a hundred Kelvin. That may sound quite cold; that's minus two hundred eighty degrees Fahrenheit, so why is that a big deal? It's a big deal because if you just took bulk aluminum metal, and you made that superconductive, you would have to bring it down to near one Kelvin. That's minus four hundred and fifty-seven degrees Fahrenheit.
So by taking this metal and making it into a superatom, it basically increased the temperature at which it superconducts by a hundred degrees Kelvin. So that's big. That's a huge jump. Who knows how other types of elements will be able to jump once you turn them into these superatom clusters? Who knows? We may potentially finally reach that elusive dream of room temperature superconductivity. Don't hold your breath though; I've been dreaming about that for about a quarter century, so, whatever.
C: Aw, that's so nerdy. That's like the nerdiest thing you've ever said. (Laughs)
B: What? So, we could, I remember when those articles came out. My uncle Jay, Steve, uncle Bob, we're talking about, “Holy crap! Super – you know, room temperature superconductivity, imagine a spool of wire that's superconducting in your room, whatever!” Where is it? Where the hell is it? Oh well.
J: (Laughs hard) Bob!
B: They've made big advances. We're not there yet, but I still have hope! So, let's see. We could also create a cheaper, more effective catalysts in chemical processing, and in catalytic converters in automobiles. They could even be used potentially for new sources of energy. I mean, it's just so wide open there.
One quote I found got, his last name is Murray. I do not know his first name. Murray! “This work provides a powerful example that the building blocks of solid state chemistry are no longer limited to nature's periodic table. A tailor-made or bespoke molecular clusters can serve as artificial atoms in a greatly expanding building set.”
So these new building block clusters are like having a Lego set, and your Lego set has ninety some-odd different shapes, and then all of a sudden, “Hey! Here you are!” Somebody hands you scores or hundreds of brand new shapes with very weird and very helpful properties that just expands the possibilities incredibly.
Nuckolls said – I mentioned him earlier – he had a good quote. He said, “We think this isn't even the tip of the iceberg. It's the ice cube on the tip of the iceberg.
B: So, yeah. We could see this thing just explode in five, ten years.
E: Let's hope ...
B: So, yeah, so keep your eyes on this one kids. I think this one's got some interesting possibilities.
S: Yeah, it's like one of those things that it's either gonna revolutionize material science, or it becomes an obscure thing that only nerds know about.
E: Yeah, this is great, but there's not much we can do with it.
S: Or maybe somewhere in between.
B: Yeah, I think at the very least it will be somewhere in between. These research groups, even now, they're hinting at some discoveries they've made that are incredibly fascinating that they won't go into too much detail with, but basically, like I said, these tailor-made molecules that, to create things like solid state electronics that have properties ... imagine, “Oh yeah, this use, we need this amount of magnetism, and we need this type of optical whatever,” and you could just completely make it to whatever specs you need just by having the various atoms collected together in this assemblage of these clusters. So, that is what's fascinating, that they can just tailor-make these things for whatever application they have.
Dolly Clone Follow Up (23:17)
S: Well, hello Evan.
E: Oh, hey Steve, how ya doin'?
S: Can you tell us about the update on the cloned sheep?
E: Ah, yes! I can do that. We've all heard of Dolly, the sheep.
E: Many of us have. I have to take you back to the early days of the internet, July 5, 1996! A sheep named Dolly makes history by becoming the first mammal cloned from an adult somatic cell using the process of nuclear transfer. Now ...
S: Do you know what a somatic cell is, Evan?
E: Oh, absolutely, yes. (Laughs nervously)
C: It's a body cell, not a germ cell.
C: Sperm and eggs, yeah.
E: Makes sense.
B: Gametes, baby!
C: So it has the double complement of your DNA, not the single ...
E: Right. Real quick, here's true or false guys. One at a time, just gimme a true or a false. Dolly was named so because she was cloned from a mammory cell, and therefore they thought of Dolly Parton, and decided to name the sheep Dolly. Steve, true or -
S: I would say that's false.
B: It's true.
E: Steve says that's false, Bob says true. Jay says ...
J: I say true!
E: Jay says true, Cara says ...
C: I don't know how I feel about it, but I kind of want it to be true.
E: And it is true. (Laughs)
E: According to the internet, it is true. Now, so after, it's a big proof of concept. After cloning was successfully demonstrated through the production of Dolly, many other large mammals were cloned: Pigs, deer, horses, and bulls. So, it really did mark a new era.
B: I think it's important to point out that you're really rolling the dice with this somatic cell nuclear transfer? Is that it?
B: Because so few, very infrequently does it work. So ...
B: you gotta do it a bunch of times. Like, “Oh, we got one! This one's cool. Those ten or twenty, sorry, in the garbage. Whatever.”
E: Dolly was the only lamb that survived to adulthood from two hundred seventy-seven attempts. So, yeah, the ratio's ...
B: Yeah, wow! (Laughs) Worse than I thought!
E: Not good. (Chuckles) Not good.
B: But Dolly didn't live very long, did she?
E: No, not as long as other sheep who are come to being the traditional way; about half the life span. And she had some issues in her life, most notably she suffered from...
E: Right. She suffered from osteoarthritis at a relatively young age.
E: And then she developed lung disease, but that was deemed to have been caused by a virus, which is common among lambs that live indoors as opposed to outdoor. And they had to keep it indoors.
B: I thought I read that her telomeres were extra short.
E: Short, yes they were; they were absolutely short. So ...
B: Right again!
E: (Laughs) And they had to euthanize her in 2003. So only six and a half years old. But the legacy of Dolly lived on because, as you see, scientists actually cloned other lambs from Dolly! They made clones of the clone.
S: Now, wait, are you sure it was from Dolly, or just from the same parent? Yeah, well I don't think it was from Dolly. They're not Dolly's clones; they're Dolly's siblings.
C: Then you're right. They're like, I'm totally using my Orphan Black knowledge here, (Bob laughs) that all of the ... they call themselves “Sestras” on Orphan Black, all of the different clones that came from a source DNA. They're all sisters.
B: But they're ...
S: You're a clone of the source of the cells, but multiple clones of the same source are not clones of each other, they're clone siblings, yeah.
B: They're twins! They're still identical twins.
E: And the scientists want you to know that those clones are doing just fine so far! And they're already up to nine years old! So they've made it past the age that Dolly made it. And they've gone through a battery of tests and evaluations to see exactly what condition they are in. And they are in excellent health, is what they are saying.
B: And they're not just older than Dolly; aren't they senior citizen sheep? Right?
E: Well, they're approaching – these sheep lived to be, from what I've read, eleven to twelve years old.
E: So they're approaching the end of their, what would be a normal lifespan for this species of sheep.
C: It's so weird thinking about how long animals live.
B: It sucks. It just sucks.
E: Well some animals live a long time.
C: Yeah, like crows,
B: Guys, I need dogs and cats to live ...
S: Live together.
B: like Jay's stupid bird that lives ninety years.
E: Bob, you're looking at it all wrong. You just need to keep cloning ...
E: the dog and the cat ...
C: And you'll be fine!
B: Well, if you can clone memory, then yeah, I would agree.
E: Their names are Daisy, Debbie, Diana, and Denise.
B: I see a pattern!
E: The sheep will be continue to be raised and treated until the age of ten, and then researchers will – (sad) oh – put them down and conduct a closer post mortem ...
S: So you say they're gonna be raised (German accent) and shot?
C: Jesus Christ! (Laughs)
J: That's awesome.
S: And for those who don't know, that is from, what Evan?
E: Dr. Strangelove.
S: Dr. Strangelove, thank you.
C: Wait! When was that in Dr. Strangelove?
S: At the very end, when they're talking about, “We cannot afford a mineshaft gap!” Then Peter Sellers as the borrowed Nazi scientist is explaining to them how they could populate the mineshafts. And that, (German accent) “animals could be raised and shot!”
E: “It would not be difficult Mine Führer!” Yeah. “I'm sorry, I mean Mr. President.”
B: So can we just get it over with and just clone a person please? Let's just do it. Come on.
S: Just so it's done?
B: We could do it. We could do it. We could do it. We could do it.
S: Didn't the Raelians already do it five or six years ago?
E: Oh, gosh, yeah! They got the short end of that stick, didn't they? Nobody believed them for some reason!
S: Yeah, and then they said, “Well, yeah, we kind of did lie, but we got a lot of free publicity out of it,” as if that justifies it.
E: So there you have it! Dolly and her sisters.
S: So, basically, the technology has improved. Dolly was the first one,
E: That's right.
S: She had about half the normal lifespan. Then their subsequent ones are all just perfectly fine.
E: So far, so good.
S: So far, so good. Awesome.
The Neuroscience of Cool (29:23)
S: All right, Cara, tell us about the Neuroscience of being cool.
C: Yeah! I was reading an interesting article on Quartz by Marc Bain called “The Neuroscience of Cool;” and while the article only briefly glossed over a few studies, attempting to define what it means to be cool, it actually mostly focused just on historical uses of the term, and what sociologists have to say about it.
I did notice two fields colliding in an interesting way throughout the text: Neuroscience and economics. And I think that's really what I want to focus on; but before we get into that, I was wondering from you guys, what do you think it means for something to be cool? What's the definition of cool?
B: For me, being cool is you don't give a shit. You know, it's like, nothing phases you; it's like, “whatever” kind of attitude; not overly emotional or sensitive. It's just like, just goin' with the flow, and not getting too worked up about something. To me, that's at least part of the essence of what people call “cool.”
S: Yeah, I think those are components that make somebody cool; but I think cool itself is a certain competent and calm charisma. I think charisma has to be a component of it.
B: And confidence. I think confidence is important too.
C: Yeah, yeah.
E: And you're all
C: You all agree?
E: I agree with all of that. I also would throw in that you, I don't think can deem yourself cool; it's up to other people or groups of people ...
E: or organizations to determine what, if you are in fact cool ...
E: or not cool.
S: Absolutely. Calling yourself “cool” is uncool.
C: It's so uncool.
E: Agreed. (Laughs)
B: I'll call you guys cool if you call me cool!
J: Are you say ... we would call somebody cool, or define them as cool, but we would also say something is cool, right?
C: And how is something cool? Because something can't be aloof.
B: That's different though; that's completely different.
J: Something is cool when it's intriguing in a clever way to me. Something has an aspect of it that is surprising and good. You know, utilitarian or good.
C: I like this, because I feel like you guys are actually showing a dividing line around your age a little bit.
C: Evan, are you closer in age to Steve and Bob, or to Jay?
C: Okay, so here's the thing: The definition of cool seems to have really shifted a lot over the last century. It's generally accepted that it first emerged from African American Jazz culture around the turn of the century. That's when the use of “cool” as we sort of know it – “cool” being definitive of a personality – started. And then it was co-opted by white culture, and society at large immediately after the second world war, really through people like Marlon Brando and James Dean on the big screen.
They sort of epitomized this rebellion, and it was in attitude and speech; but honestly, in a lot of ways, one of the most important social things that happened there is that they started wearing denim, and they dressed a certain way, which became incredibly identifiable as cool. Blue jeans and leather jackets.
Before this time, the word “cool” was only used to describe an element that you guys were describing, which is a calmness, and inability to be rattled. So when you think Cool Hand Luke, like if somebody had “cool hand,” they were very calm. That's the only way that cool was described prior to that.
Then “cool” as a phrase started to define a person who's really cool; who's really rebellious; who, as you said, Bob, kind of doesn't give a shit. But we're actually starting to see a shift even away from that definition in more millennial culture, which we'll get to -
S: Oh man, I gotta tell ya, I've got two daughters ... thick in millennial culture, and they are redefining all of our terms.
E: They have to get off our proverbial, yeah ...
B: Tell them to stop!
S: It's fine, but it's amazing the degree to which they are reinventing the cultural language.
B: Like what, Steve? Gimme some examples.
S: Julia uses every word wrong. (Rogues laugh) So a recent example was, so she uses the word “edgy” to mean someone who's a poser.
C: (Gasps) Hilarious!
E: I would never know that if you didn't tell me.
B: That's just flat out wrong.
C: I wouldn't either.
E: Edgy, okay.
C: That makes me feel old.
S: Edgy ...
J: So what'd you say to ...
C: Edgy is a term that's always used to describe me in TV pitches.
E: Uh oh!
C: Right? Because I look counter culture, like, I'm a thirty-something, but I'm tatooed, and I'm pierced, but I represent science. And so people are like, “Oh, she's the edgy science communicator.”
E: Apparently a poser.
C: And of course, they don't mean it to mean, “She's a poser,” (Laughs) They mean it to mean she looks kind of cool and different.
S: Can I tell you something Cara? So Jay and I were talking about this. You're definitely edgy, but what's funny is you're like Mormon edgy. (Rogues laugh) Don't take that the wrong way. (More laughter) You're base line is so clean cut, you know what I mean?
C:(Supressing laughter) Yeah...
S: You're not street edgy. You know what I mean.
C: Also, the funny thing is I have head shots from the work that you do. You have to provide head shots; and I have different head shots. I have my lip ring and glasses kind of nerdy, quote, “edgy” head shot, which is what I look like in my day to day. And then when I take off my glasses and my lip ring, my head shot looks like I could sell toothpaste.
C: It so-o-o commercial and so girl next door. You're right; it's (Evan laughs) a bit Mormon. (Laughs) I love it. But now, apparently, “edgy” means “poser,”
C: My entire world is upside down. (Laughs) I'm freaking out.
J: Why is she doing that, Steve?
S: That's what, why's she doing it?
C: (Mockingly accusatory) Why is she doing it? (Normal voice) I don't think she's doing it on purpose! She's doing it because “cool” evolves. And this is something that is really interesting. Actually, I feel like there's something about having a scientific conversation about “cool” that immediately makes this conversation uncool. (Laughs) But we will venture on.
So in this Quartz article, Bain, the author, talks about two researchers. Weirdly, one of them is named “Quartz,” which is kind of confusing. His name is Steven Quartz. He's a Caltech neuroscientist and philosopher. And the other researcher's Annette Asp, who's a political scientist. She focuses on Marketing, and she was a former project manager in Quartz's lab.
So the two of them have been focusing on the idea of “cool” for many, many years in their research; so much so that they actually wrote a popular science book about it just last year called, Cool! How the Brain's Hidden Quest for Cool Drive Our Economy and Shapes Our World. And they of course posit that coolness is such a strong thing in our culture, such a strong undercurrent that it actually does have a huge impact on our economy,
C: which makes sense! So they wanted to figure out what's happening in the brain of cool. Like, are there any neuroscientific or neurological correlates of cool.
So in one study, they had design students categorize a big group of images; things like different types of clothes, cars, celebrities, whatever, as cool or uncool; and then they put a new group of design students in an FMRI, and they showed them the photos. And we know all of the issues that come along with FMRI studies, but they did find something interesting: When these design students looked at things that the other students generally categorized as cool, they had a significantly increased amount of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex than when they looked at things that were not categorized as cool.
So they actually saw that there was some sort of executive function that was happening at a higher level when people were thinking about whether or not something was cool; which is in many ways kind of self-reflective. Now, these authors admit, of course, that “cool” is subjective; but as none of us can deny, it trends; and those trends are both top-down as we know via marketing – you know, big businesses, clothing designer makes something; they target it to youth in a very specific way. “This is cool. This is cool. You should buy this. This is cool.” People buy it; it's cool. But there's also bottom-up, like street-style, right? People who wear their clothes a certain way or do vintage style; and then of course the clothing designers start to copy that.
Quartz then also hypothesized based on their studies that this experience of “cool” has social benefits; that sure, being cool is still a bit rebellious, but it's kind of like rebelling with partners in crime; and it defines us; and it feels good to be cool; and in doing this study on this topic, I actually came across an article published in the Journal of Individual Differences called, Coolness: An Empirical Investigation, by a psychologist who has unfortunately a really uncool name, Ilan Dar-Nimrod.
C: (Chuckles) He's at the University of Rochester Medical Center; and he found in this study where he was basically just asking people to define what it means to be cool; and then he had them look at a list of adjectives, like personality trait terms, and sort of cluster which ones were cool, and which ones were uncool; and he found that on average, the rebelliousness was only second seat to some of the things that Jay was saying earlier: Pro-social and positive traits.
So people that were nice, people that were attractive, people that were confident, successful; young people tended to say that that was more cool than people that were aloof, rude, rebellious. So I found that kind of interesting, that we're starting to see a shift. But back to what really interested me about this Quartz article, is this idea of neuroscience meeting economics.
So, a good friend of mine, also a regular guest on my personal podcast, Talk Nerdy, is a graduate of CalTech's PhD program in computational neuroscience. Her name is Teagan Wall, and she has a lot of degrees. She's a really overachiever. She has degrees in poli-sci, economics, and neuroscience; and I asked her to define “economics,” because I had her on my podcast, and she did that, and really taught me about what economics is. And here's what she said: Quote:
“Economics is the study of the allocation of finite resources to fulfill unlimited wants. It assumes people behave rationally based on their preferences at any given time. The marriage between economics and neuroscience tries to get at how these preferences are affected by psychology, biology, and all the messy biases and inconsistencies in our brains.”
See, I always thought that economics meant money, but that's just one area of focus in the field. As a whole, economics really is about decision-making; and without an injection of brain and behavioral sciences, honestly, it's mostly theoretical. That's why I'm fascinated by the field of neuro-economics, which actually seems to have been developed at CalTech. It's a lot like Skepticism; you know, we have to understand our own errors of thinking so that we can make more informed decisions; and it does seem like the types of decisions that we make have a whole hell of a lot to do with whether or not we think something is cool.
S: So what would you say that the bottom line of that study is, about the neuroscience itself, though? So, there was more executive function, but did they narrow it down more than that?
C: No, I don't think that they were, I think that they have a lot of ideas; they wrote a whole damn book about what they think is going on; but I think based on the study, the main thing that they could really pull out of it was that this increased activation in the medial prefrontal cortex showed that there was a correlation between our own kind of personal ideas about things that are cool, and a mirror process, you know, that there's an empathic process that's happening there; that when we think about “cool,” we think about “cool” as it's definitive to us, and how we can label ourselves, and how we fit in with that idea of cool, that cool really is a personal construct that's based on something outside of us, but it almost doesn't exist if we can't relate ourselves to it.
S: Got it.
C: But that doesn't really, I think, have any basis in whether or not cool is subjective or whether it's objective, although it does seem to be the case that there were correlations between things that were deemed as cool, and this increased activations. So, in some ways, at least at any given time, if you put your finger on the pulse of what's going on in the country, you might be able to say that certain things are objectively cool, for the time being.
S: Right. n C: But that's a very anti-postmodern view ...
C: that I hold because I think that postmodernism is kind of bullshit.
S: But those two things are not usually exclusive, being totally temporal and cultural, and ...
S: still activating the same circuits in the brain. They're just, different things activate those circuits, and that's what's cultural.
Who's That Noisy (42:24)
- Answer to last week: Grey-necked wood rail bird
S: Jay, get us up to date on Who's That Noisy.
J: Last week, I played this noisy; and I asked everybody to crowd source to find out what it is, because the person who recorded it had no idea. So listen to this:
(A few things that sound like dogs yipping, but squeakier)
Okay, so, lot of fun! Because I got some responses, guys. What is that? Steve, do you want to take a guess?
S: Some kind of bird.
J: Yes, that's correct.
C: Didn't you already tell us it was a bird in Brazil?
J: I think I did. First off, guys, thanks for guessing. Everybody that wrote in with the exception I think of one person actually got it right.
C: How do you know that?
J: I'll say that because I did end up going into professional bird sites and listening; and, you know, I think I found it. And then everyone wrote in, and they got it right. So the first person to guess correctly, Edwardo Es, he said, “I think it's the grey-necked wood rail, or the Saracuratrais Potes Poches.”
Yep, and there's me mispronouncing all sorts of stuff. So the bottom line is, he sent in a recording, which I will play for you. So here is Edwardo's.
(Similar sound that sounds a bit more like a squeak toy. Just one creature this time. Has three weird squeaks at the end.)
J: (Chuckles) I like the end there.
J: What'd ya think? That's it, huh?
C: That sounds like it.
B: Yeah, that's it.
C: That bird sounds like a monkey.
J: Yeah, it's pretty cool, the different vocalizations that it can make. So then I got correct guesses from David Halley, Nobel Baker, Andre Pain, and Daniel Irizari, as of today, which is Wednesday the 27th, so if anyone guesses after that, guys, sorry; you didn't make the cut.
But, god that was cool! I got a lot of fun emails from people. And people put time in; they were going through professional websites that do this thing; and that was it. So there you go; I loved it. So, I put it to you, anyone listening that's interested: If you listen to something recently, or have a recording of something that you can't identify, and you want me to crowd source it on the SGU, send it to me. I will take a listen, and if it meets my expert criteria - which means it has to be cool; right, Cara?
C: Right, right.
J: I will use it. So, here you go; here is this week's Who's That Noisy.
(Very muffled male speech. A continuous scraping sound starts to go over top of the speech, and gets louder, with the speech continuing. The speech sounds like it's on a microphone in an auditorium)
B: That is messed up and creepy. I love it.
C: You thought that was creepy?
C: That to me just sounded like what it sounds like when you're sitting in a terminal at the airport.
E: Oh man ...
B: To me it was like something you'd hear in like, a haunted house.
S: Sounds like demonic possession.
E: Yeah, that's my first thought.
J: So that was sent in by a listener named Jim Fisher, and Jim said, “To Who's That Noisy, this begs to be a Who's That Noisy. I would assume it has already made an appearance,” because it's such an obvious candidate. But then he goes on to talk about what it is. Very cool; it's a cool thing. I think you guys will really like it. So send me your guesses; send me your awesome Noisies; and send me your crowd sourcing Noisies too! WTN@TheSkepticsGuide.org
Special Report: The Science of Race (47:24)
S: All right, well, let's move on to the next segment. Instead of a news item this week, I'm gonna do a special report. This is something I blogged about last week. It sparked a very interesting discussion. I thought we could talk about it.
Because we love to jump feet first into really massive political social controversial quagmires, I decided that we should talk about the question of whether or not race is real. Does race exist? Is it biologically meaningful? Or is is biologically meaningless, as some contend?
Do you guys have any initial thoughts about this? I mean, it's interesting because I've asked people, like, intelligent, progressive people I respect the question; and the most common knee-jerk I get, “Well of course it exists!” Right? Isn't it obvious? There is intuitively, it certainly seems like, “Yeah, there are different people, and they could be separated into different races.” But it's actually a very complicated and nuanced question.
B: Yeah, sure.
E: When my wife was pregnant, we went through various tests because of our backgrounds. She's French Canadian, <--TIL--> I'm Jewish, and so we had to go and look for things like Tay–Sachs disease, and be tested for that. So in that regard, I feel there is, perhaps race? I'm not really sure how to sort of categorize that.
S: Yeah, then that is one of the issues that comes up, is is it useful medically? And I'll get to that.
S: And that's mainly what I was writing about when I was blogging about it. But, you can separate it into two issues initially. So I'm just gonna try to navigate through all the issues here. There's the scientific issue, and then there's the social / historical issues. There are those who claim that race is socially and historically constructed. And actually, I wasn't even talking about that; and I'm not gonna talk about that now. I'm gonna talk entirely about the scientific question about race.
But it's funny, because even though I was discussing entirely the scientific issues involved, and I didn't challenge the notion that race is socially or historically constructed; a lot of people interpreted it ...
B: Of course they did!
S: as a discussion that way. It's like, “Well, you can't believe anything nuanced about it scientifically, and still accept that there is a social aspect to race.” It's like, “Well, yeah, of course race has a social aspect to it. Most peoples' ideas of race and what that means, there's a huge social and historical component.” Some people took offense, 'cause his social construct of race has been used to historically oppress certain groups, and privilege other groups. Sure, I'm not contesting that either. That's fine.
It's fascinating that people link the two. And I do want to talk a little bit about that up front, the relationship between ethical political social issues and related scientific issues. The approach that we take is that science should inform the social ethical things, but science can't determine them, right? There are value judgments. And we talk about the scientific issues, maybe how they relate to social and ethical issues, but we don't make value judgments; we don't impose our own value judgments on the science.
So what happens frequently, and the first time I've read this concept was in The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I think he may be the one who really first pushed forward this idea. You shouldn't make an ethical principle dependent upon a scientific fact, because then you make the ethical principle unnecessarily vulnerable to refutation of the science, and it then forces you to take a particular scientific opinion, which is bad, right?
S: You want the science to be what it is. So like, on the ...
B: But that never happens!
S: (Chuckles) So, yeah, like, so if you think that, “Hey,” - and I again, when I wrote about it, I explicitly said, “I totally believe ethically, my personal opinion is that every human being is equally deserving of respect and dignity,” right? And I of course do not believe in any kind of privilege or oppression according to arbitrary groups – racial, ethnic, whatever.
I believe in that ethical principle regardless of what the science says about the genetics of humanity. But some people want, they want the science to be one hundred percent in line with their ethic; and then therefore, they say, “Well, no. Therefore race can't exist, scientifically. It's biologically meaningless.”
So, it's like, “Well, maybe it is; maybe it isn't; but that's a separate question.” And, Bob, you and I have had this conversation before. What if there happened to be an actual subspecies ...
B: Oh my god!
S: of human. What if Homo floresiensis (the hobbit), what if they were still living? What if there was a population of ...
C: Or neanderthal.
S: Yeah, would they be deserving of respect and dignity? Would we then have to downplay the genetic difference between us and them? Would we alter our categorizations to obscure that we're different subspecies, because we believe in the dignity of all sentient beings, whatever? No, just say, “The science is what it is; and the ethics is what it is,” you know? And sure, the science can inform our ethical thinking, but even if we were cleanly divided into clear cut subpopulations at a racial level, it would not alter the history, the social arguments, or the ethical arguments.
Okay, having said all that, let's now pivot to the scientific question, which is fascinating. It's actually really fascinating. What it comes down to is how you define categories, which is a very generic kind of idea in science. And in fact when I wrote about it, my opening line was, “Is Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet?”
S: Right. There's no objective answer to that. It all depends on how you choose to define categories, right?
B: Yeah, that was good.
S: It's the same thing applies to human populations, right? Which is why my conclusion to the question, “Is race real? Is it biologically meaningful?” There's no objective answer to that question because it all depends on how you decide to look at the data, and what criteria you decide to emphasize or to value.
J: So there's nothing biologically different between races?
S: See, that very question assumes the existence of races, but ...
C: Yeah, and that depends on how you define what a race is.
S: Yeah, we gotta back up even more. So, there are different things that you could look at, right? So you could – so clearly, clearly, there are genetic differences when you look at the landscape of humanity across the globe, right? And it's not uniform, it's not homogeneous; there are different distributions of genes in different locations, geographically located around the world.
So based upon that, you could say, “Well clearly there are Asians and Europeans and Africans; and they're defined geographically, and they look different, and if you look at their genes they're different, so we're gonna call those “races.”
It's like, “Yeah, but there's a lot of assumptions in there, so let's unpack that a bit.” Those who argue – we'll start with this side of the equation – those who argue that race is biologically either insignificant or meaningless would point to a few interesting facts. One is the amount of genetic diversity in all of humanity, if you look at that, ninety percent of that can be found within anything that's defined as a race, right? Within Europeans, ninety percent of the genetic diversity is there. If you include then Asians and Africans, you only pick up an extra ten percent of genetic diversity; does that make sense?
S: So, another way to state that is that there is more genetic diversity within a population than there is between or among the populations.
B: But Steve, that one was especially powerful to me. I actually – this is funny – I read this in a toilet stall, written on the wall. (Rogues laugh) Somebody wrote that on the wall.
B: And I had kind of an epiphany; it was like, “Damn! That's such a compelling argument.” And then in another place, I think in some documentary, they were saying that, “I'm Italian,” guys, “we're Italian and Swedish. Seventy-five percent Italian, twenty-five percent Swedish. If I found another guy in the United States that is the same ratio, the differences between us would be greater than the difference between me some guy who grew up in India, or China.” To me, that's a powerful fact.
E: Pretty diverse.
B: Right? And to me, that made racism in a sense just naked in front of you saying, “It's such bullshit!” How could you be so tribal when you could be closer genetically to somebody completely different from you?
C: But that fact includes all genetics. It's not just phenotype.
C: And I'm interested if when you actually whittle down just phenotype, just the genes that code for outward appearance,
C: how different would things become? Because one thing that you mentioned, medical differences, which I know you'll get to, but what you don't talk about in your article (and I watch a lot of Forensic Files, so this is my armchair Forensic science happening here), I see all the time that when they find bodies that are just bones, they'll try to do all these different analyses to figure out if they fit in one of three categories, and forensic scientists legitimately use these words: Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid.
C: Those are actual terms that forensic scientists use,
B: Sure, yeah.
C: to talk about three major groups of bone structure of the face and of the skeleton that they can kind of discriminate ,,,
C: where somebody is ethnically or racially based on their skeleton. So I do wonder if that ten percent difference grows to something like closer to sixty or seventy percent (I'm just throwing that out there) once you only look at phenotype.
S: No, it actually doesn't.
S: But here's the thing: In fact, they may be less ...
S: because a lot of the differences are in non-coding regions.
B: Ah! Yeah.
S: But in any case, you're touching on a different way to look at genetic diversity, and the landscape of genetics among humans. So, again, there's so many different ways you can look at this. So that one way can be by itself very compelling. There's more genetic diversity within a group than between groups. Sure.
But that's partly because the different groups have been mixing throughout our whole history, right? So there's no, certainly, there are no pure subpopulations; there are no pure groups. Humans migrate, and they interbreed, we swap genetic material. So think about it this way: If you just had one African spread their genes into a European population, they would be contributing much of the African diversity to the European population, right?
S: So it's not really, when you think about it that way, that there's interbreeding, then it makes sense that most of the genetic diversity is gonna be spread around the whole world, you know?
S: We're what we call an outbred population, we're very outbred. So, in any case, that kinda makes sense. But then Cara is sort of looking at it a different way, which is, “Okay, but can you use statistical genetic differences between groups in order to sort individuals into those groups?” And the answer to that is unequivocally yes. You can do that, whether it's morphologically on certain bone structures, or genetically.
And this study has been done and replicated where if you take a hundred people, and you sort them into three groups randomly, and then you do an analysis of their genes, and you re-sort them based upon shared genetic mutations, you actually do sort them with very high fidelity into Europeans, Asians, and Africans. You could do that very easily.
So if that's your criterion, can you use genetics to sort people into groups? And the answer to that is yes. Then you might use that to argue that those groups therefore are real, that they are biologically meaningful. So, in other words, one is: Does it predict anything? Yes. What's the relative amount of difference? It's actually quite small - it's only ten percent of all the diversity; and humans recently passed through a bottleneck, right?
E: That's right, yeah!
S: Just as a species, we have a lot less diversity than many other species.
S: So the overall diversity within the human population is small, and most of that is shared throughout all populations. Only ten percent of this small difference separates different identifiable groups.
C: Almost everything that makes the equation, that you have to calculate into the equation applies to humans.
C: We do non-random mating, we live on isla- like, there's just everything that you could possibly ...
C: imagine, humans do.
B: Now, Steve, I wonder, if we never went through that bottleneck, was that what, ten thousand years ago? Eighty thousand years ago?
S: No no no no, a hundred and twenty thousand years.
B: A hundred and twenty, so that was a period of time where the population literally went through a bottleneck, where we were ...
E: Two thousand
B: reduced to our lowest numbers, was it like, ten thousand?
B: Or a hundred thousand?
S: Yeah, like, just a minimum breeding population. Thousands.
J: When was that?
S: A hundred and twenty thousand years ago. That's why there's the Mitochondrial Eve.
S: That's why only one mitochondrial group survived through the bottleneck into modern times.
E: Wow, amazing.
S: So you could trace all of humanity to one common female ancestor. It's a bottleneck.
B: So yes, right. So my point is, what kind of diversity do you think, Steve, we would be seeing today if we never went through that bottleneck? I mean ...
S: Yeah, it would be a lot more. It would be more like a typical species. What's also interesting is that we lived in Africa for a long time, and developed most of our diversity in Africa; and then one small group went through a bottleneck, migrated out of Africa, and then represents all of the rest of the world, you know, Asians, Caucasians, everything else. So most of the genetic diversity is actually within Africa.
S: And then everything else is one sort of tiny branch of Africans, you know? So in a way, we're all Africans, if you look at it that ...
B: Yes, exactly.
S: That's what's interesting as well. So that's the other thing, is that, breaking it up into Asians, Europeans, and Africans is so arbitrary because it's giving way too much weight to the ... it's not cladistic, you know what I mean?
S: It's giving way too much weight to the Europeans and the Asians in terms of the overall genetic depth and diversity ...
B: Or take, yeah ...
S: and then lumping in most of the genetic diversity into one group. So that's where I think those groups are so socially and historically constructed; and they're not really representing the landscape of genetic diversity among human populations.
But again, we get back to this question: Is quote-unquote “race” biologically meaningless? And I've read a number of researchers looking at this question, and I think the one that summed up what my impression from reading all this was that, “It's not meaningless, but it's different than what most people think.”
First of all, it's not big; the differences are actually very tiny compared to most species; and we're very outbred, lots of intermixing. But also, it reflects our migratory history and our history of isolation, so you can trace human migration by the way we intermixed our genes. And then the more geographically isolated a population is, the more isolated their genetics are. It perfectly follows an evolutionary history of the human species, exactly what we would expect.
So one other argument, which I found very interesting is the question of “Is the distribution genetic diversity among humans,” there's no question that it changes, as you go from one region to another, genetic patterns change. No question about that. But is it clinal or cladistic?
B: What was the first word?
C: What's clinal?
S: Clinal means there's no discontinuity. It's just a gradation from one to ...
C: Oh, yeah.
S: the other. It's like, what's the difference between tall and short?
B: Oh yeah.
S: There's no discontinuity. It's a continuum. It's a spectrum.
C: And that just gets more and more murky, the more breeding.
C: Like, the places like America are probably much more murky than places
S: Forget America.
C: like China.
S: Yeah, forget ...
C: It's just impossible here!
S: Yeah. So, and the argument goes that there is no obvious place to draw the line, right? Because even at the continent level, there's no obvious discontinuity. We only see discontinuities in this continuous gradation of genetic diversity when you get to like, island populations ...
S: that have been isolated, like Australian aborigines for example.
B: So, for a true discontinuity, you would need like a neanderthal.
B: Right? That would be a discontinuity.
S: But, you could argue, and I have argued, that that is a bit of a false continuum fallacy. There are still tall people and short people even though there's no objective line between the two. So, the fact that there is no discontinuity doesn't end at “Where do we draw the line is somewhat arbitrary,” doesn't mean that you can't say that there are some people who are more African than European or Asian, and other people who are clearly more Asian than they are European or African. That still is biologically meaningful.
B: Sure, it's fuzzy!
S: Yeah, it's fuzzy. It's fuzzy, it's blurry at the edges, the intermixing breaks down the boundaries; the Middle-East, forget about it. That's the thoroughfare of the world, and so their genes are all mixed up.
S: But if you get far enough
B: It's like you're ninety percent tall, and ten percent short. (Cara laughs) You're not just tall. It's a grouping ...
B: of characteristics. Yeah.
S: Yeah yeah. And obviously there's gonna be tons of people who can't be slotted into groups because they have mixed heritage. So, yeah, I think that the end of all of that, if you think, “Are there identifiable subpopulations within humanity?” Yes. But the differences are small; and there's lots of intermixing, we're very out-bred; and there's no obvious way to draw the line, so it's ultimately arbitrary; but you can use genetics to reliably sort people into these genetic subpopulations. So in that way, it does have meaning.
J: Yeah, I've always heard that black people have sickle cell anemia as an example.
J: They're more likely to have that, right? So is that true?
C: They're the only ones that are likely to have that.
S: No, it's gotten into other populations as well.
S: Yeah ...
C: But it started there.
S: So that pivots to the medical question. And I was writing about this, I was responding to an essay which actually, they downplayed the medical value of race or ethnicity. Now, I'm a physician, so this is something I have day to day expertise in, and I completely disagreed with their take on it.
So the medical profession completely ignores this entire argument and practices as if race is biologically real. In fact, this is a fun fact: If you do not take into consideration the race of your patient when you prescribe certain drugs, you are literally guilty of malpractice. There are differences in certain genetic frequencies that affect response to drug, including serious side-effects.
So, for example, if you prescribed typerthal to an Asian without testing them for the sensitivity, that's malpractice. But you can prescribe it to a European without testing for it - that's fine. So, as a physician, is race, ethnicity, however you want to draw the line or whatever, taking into consideration somebody's heritage, is that biologically meaningful? The answer's unquestionably yes, of course it's biologically meaningful. Day to day we consider that, it influences our probabilistic thinking about what disease someone is likely to have. Now, sickle cell anemia is not a hundred percent restricted to Africans, but it certainly is a lot more common. Wouldn't be the first thing on my list on somebody from Sweden.
Now, the counter-argument is that, “Yeah, but if you over-rely upon a simplistic notion of disease frequencies, or response to medications, et cetera, based upon perceived race or heritage or whatever, that you can make mistakes based upon that.” To which I say, “Yes. So what?” That is generically true of all of medicine.
E: It's across the board.
S: All of this applies to gender by the way as well. So, for example, men are more likely to have heart disease than women, and that does cause women to be under-diagnosed with heart attack, because they're not typical, right? So they're not a typical patient. So, yeah, that's true. I lecture my students about this all the time. That's the representativeness heuristic. That's a logical fallacy. You base your diagnosis on predictive value, not on how typical somebody is.
So you need to know the percentages; and knowing someone's ethnicity helps you know the percentages, and then that helps you diagnostically; but you shouldn't think that only people who are typical of a disease will get it, because you'll be wrong often enough that you're not practicing good medicine.
So it's just, that's a fallacious argument, the notion that some people oversimplistically misuse this data doesn't mean it's not biologically or medically meaningful. It absolutely is medically meaningful.
And then other people said, “Well, heritage,” again, “is just a statistical piece of information about genetic risk. You should really just individualize.” I'm like, “Yeah, good luck with that!” That's where we're headed. Maybe in a hundred years, essentially, yeah, we sort people into demographic groups, and then we have statistical information, epidemiological information about those groups, and we use that to guide our diagnosis and therapies; and we try to get more granular, more and more and more granular by doing research. Eventually we may be able to just test your DNA and then know on an individual level what all your genes are. We won't have to guess what your genes likely are based upon your heritage. Absolutely. And as soon as we can do that, we will. Until then ...
E: Yeah, what do you do?
S: using things like gender and heritage, ethnicity, et cetera, as a way of giving us a statistical leg up on trying to guess what your genetics likely are is perfectly reasonable, and it's biologically meaningful. So, my interest in this is that it's scientifically generically interesting to think about categorization, and where you draw lines, and how you define categories. But also, I'm interested in the critical thinking angle of how you compose arguments, how you use logic. And what's fascinating about this topic is that it's really complicated; it's different than what most people think naively, and there's enough information there that you could make whatever argument you want to make if you're willing to cherry-pick and just emphasize certain arguments, or value certain points over other points.
E: Ignores others, yeah.
S: Yeah ...
S: you could defend either side pretty reasonably. I think at the end of the day, my answer is, “There's no objective answer.” You have to just look at all the data, look at all the arguments, and understand that there's no objective answer here. But don't hog-tie it to your ethical considerations. You can be against racism and privilege ...
S: and the historical oppression of groups without feeling that you need to have a scientific opinion about the distribution of genetics in the human population, you know what I mean? So anyway, hey, if you have a different opinion than what we stated, please let us know. I just ask that you be respectful. We're just trying to understand the science and the critical thinking here. And I totally acknowledge that this is a topic where a range of opinions are perfectly reasonable. There may be a way of looking at this that I didn't discuss that you think is relevant. Let us know.
There was a lot of useful conversation about this on my blog on Neurologica, and part of the reason why I wanted to write and talk about it was to generate discussion because there are so many potential angles here.
J: So Steve, Italians are not predisposed to talk with their hands?
(Rogues laugh one at a time)
S: That's culturally constructed, Jay, talking with your hands. Seriously, if you take anybody of any genetic heritage and raise them up in an Italian household, they'll love meatballs and talk with their hands.
S: Although that's a stereotype, but we'll ignore that.
C: Ah, you're Italian. You're allowed to...
S: Yeah, I can endorse Italian stereotypes since I am Italian. All right guys, well, hey, let's go on to Science or Fiction.
Science or Fiction (1:13:21)
(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction
S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fackeroony; then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. I'm just being edgy there. (Rogues laugh) And you guys can play along.
J: Steve, don't ever get a lip ring. It just wouldn't go...
C: Please get a lip ring.
E: And a tatoo. (Steve chuckles) Big ol' tatoo.
S: All right, are you guys ready for this week?
E: Cool that ale.
S: Three regular news items. Here we go: Item number one: A review of the last thirty-one years of video games reveals the steady increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters. Item number two: Astronomers report the first discovery of a supernova that appears to have exploded twice. Item number three: MIT scientists have developed a prototype theater that allows for a glasses-free 3D. Evan, go first.
E: Ooh! Number one: A review of the last thirty-one years of video games reveals the steady increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters. Jeez, that's a lot of games. (Sighs) I mean, I'd think numbers alone would sort of say yes in a sense, but I suppose it's really, you have to look at it more at the percentage.
S: Yeah, percentage.
E: Over thirty years?
S: The percentage, yeah.
E: I think we are trained in sort of in a way to believe that that is the case. I think we could also say the same would be, obviously, with more violent video games; and violent sex, maybe somehow drug culture has also crept its way in increased numbers into the video game industry, so that's interesting, but I don't know. I don't know if that one's right.
Number two: Astronomers report the first discovery of a supernova that appears to have exploded twice. I guess the first explosion didn't get 'er done, as they say.
E: There was enough material to go again, and make sure they got it right the second time, whatever was left over. Which leaves: MIT scientists develop a prototype theater that allows for glasses-free 3D. Well, I think this one's science as well. We already know that glasses-free television in 3D exists, if I'm not mistaken. So why couldn't it be in a theater of – I see that one being entirely plausible. All right, I'll say it's the video games. Although I initially was going for the number of games, obviously it has increased so much in quantity, but as a percentage, I think it's probably been about the same.
S: Okay, Cara?
C: Okay, review of the last thirty-one years of video games reveals a steady increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters. I bet you there's been a decrease ... I don't know! Okay, astronomers report the first discovery of a supernova that appears to have exploded twice. (Whimpers) I have no idea! I thought I read somewhere something about a supernova with rings ... (laughs) but that sounds crazy now that I'm saying it. No, a star with rings – that probably doesn't relate to this at all.
And then MIT scientists have developed a prototype theater that allows for glasses-free 3D – I hope that's true. I'm gonna definitely say that that one's true. I would disagree with Evan, though. I don't think we have 3D glasses-free TV yet. Maybe we do. But, yeah, I think that it's science that MIT's developing this prototype theater. Do I go with the one that I know less about, which would be the supernova; or do I go with the one that feels like it could be tricky, which is the video games? And I think I'm gonna go with tricky, 'cause Steve, you're tricky. So I'm gonna GWE and say that video games have not had a steady increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters, although that feels wrong, even as I say it.
S: (chuckles) Tricksy... ey? All right, Jay
J: Ah, I'll take 'em backwards. So, the MIT scientists that developed this cool prototype 3D glasses-free theater, very cool. I wouldn't put it past those bastards at MIT to be able to pull that off, and that would be awesome. (Evan chuckles) I hate wearing the glasses. This supernova that appears to have exploded twice, my god there's a filthy joke I can say about that; I'm not going to say it because Evan is here.
J: You know, sure. Stars explode. Sometimes they're so pissed off they explode twice. Okay, why not. The thing I'm pretty damn sure about is that this first one about the thirty-one years of video games, and the increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters; I am very sure that that is not correct because I've played most of the video games that came out over the past thirty-one years, and would you even consider that anecdotal?
B: Of course.
J: Because I'm not conducting research. Yeah, but, you know, come on Bob. It's me.
J: So I'm thinking this is not true because that's not what my perception is of my experience playing video games. So I would say that this one is the fake.
S: And Bob.
B: Yeah, I'll take it backwards as well. 3D glass-free movies, yeah, it's time. I could see that that's been developed. I guess they have to make a pretty big sweet spot for the audience depending on the size of the audience. But I think that's doable. I've heard of prototypes for things like computer monitors and stuff, so that kind of makes sense.
The exploding supernova, I'm trying to think of a way that that could actually happen. The only thing that makes sense is that, I think the important word here is, “appears,” appears to have exploded twice. I think one way I could see it happening is a regular supernova that leaves a remnant like a neutron star or pulsar or even a black hole, and then there's a collision with another star; and that collision causes another supernova. That's one way I could think of that happening. That kind of makes sense.
The first one though, with the video games: Yeah, that's just one that – of course that has to be true! Which makes me immediately suspect. And I kind of agree with Jay, just anecdotally, I don't think it's necessarily true. And I think twenty or thirty years ago, who the hell was even thinking about oversexualized female characters? I mean that was probably not in anyone's head at that time. They didn't give it a single thought.
C: Thirty-one years ago was the eighties, Bob.
B: Oh, Jesus.
B: That one is fiction! The highly sexualized female characters.
S: Ah! So you guys all agree.
B: GWG! Go With Group!
S: All right, so I'll take these backwards then. We'll start with number three: MIT scientists have developed a prototype theater that allows for glasses-free 3D. You guys all think that this one is science. Evan, let me first say that you are correct. There is a TV ...
S: that has glasses-free 3D.
S: But you have to sit in a very ...
S: particular angle.
B: Sweet spot, year.
S: Yeah, the sweet spot.
S: A very, very, very narrow sweet spot. The problem with a theater is that you have people sitting all over the theater. And so you can't have a very narrow sweet spot. That's the trick. But this one is science because that's what the MIT scientists figured out how to do this. Do you know how the glasses-free 3D works?
S: Tell me.
J: They blast your inner eye with lasers.
E: Ah! That must be it. Yeah.
C: Is it like a screen that comes out at different angles?
S: Yeah, so what they do is they use what are called parallax barriers, essentially little slits in front of the TV screen so that each eye is getting exposed to different information, right? So the right eye will be able to see through one half of the barrier, and the left eye will be able to see through the other half of the barriers, right? Parallax barriers, I thought that that was a cool term.
B: Ooh, I like it.
S: Yeah, but you have to sit in just the right spot so that your position to those barriers is correct, otherwise the effect would not work. You can't sit on the couch on the other side of the room and get the same effect. And in theaters, that's a huge problem. So what the researchers, the key insight, apparently, that allowed them to develop the prototype was that people will move their head only a very small amount throughout the course of watching a movie.
So for each individual person, they have a very narrow range where they need to be able to see with the parallax effect, the 3D effect. So that enabled them to use an elaborate system, what they call, “lenses and mirrors,” so that no matter where you are in a theater, you will get the 3D effect. But still, it was a massive array of lenses and mirrors. And this is a prototype, so don't get excited about this any time soon.
S: This screen ...
B: Who cares?
S: is about as big as a sheet of paper.
C: Oh no!
(Bob and Cara laugh)
S: They were able to make it work though for fifty seats arranged kind of in a theater array, but it was a very, very small screen.
C: Fifty seats watching a piece of paper?
S: The question is: Can they scale it up to a reasonable movie theater size? And will it be practical financially, let alone otherwise.
E: Yes! How do you scale it. Yeah.
S: It works in theory, that's why I said, “a prototype;” and, it may work at some point, but I don't think this is, don't look for this next year in theaters, but ... And one other problem with the theater 3D, the “Cinema 3D” as they call it, is that you sacrifice a great deal of resolution.
B: Screw that!
S: But with their method, they were able to get decent resolution.
S: So you can have a consistently high resolution from a wide range of angles, but they need an elaborate system of lenses and mirrors; and so it's still maybe not ready for Prime Time. But it was an advance in cinema 3D. Glasses-free cinema 3D.
E: Okay, they've started. They're on their way.
S: Right. Okay, let's move on to number two: Astronomers report the first discovery of a supernova that appears to have exploded twice. You guys all think this one is science; and this one is also science!
B: Yeah baby!
S: So, Bob, you're wrong.
B: Wow. It happens, it happens.
S: This is not a supernova followed by a collision and another supernova. This is an actual supernova that had two explosions.
B: Was it a white dwarf then? What type of supernova? Was it a classic ...
S: Not a white dwarf.
B: explosion? Okay.
S: Nope, it's a superluminous supernova.
J: That's cool.
E: I've never heard that before.
S: A superluminous supernova, we've only observed about thirteen ever, and astronomers recently had the best observation of one that they've ever had, basically observing the entire process of a supernova. They happened to catch it right at the beginning, and they turned a telescope to it right away. So the superluminous supernova, instead of lasting for weeks, can last for six months.
S: And it could be a hundred times as bright as a typical supernova.
S: Hence “superluminous.”
B: Hence the name, yeah.
S: It's massively bright.
S: These are bright as hell. So what they saw was that there was an initial brightening, and then a dimming for about three days, and then a much bigger brightening. So what they suspect happened was that this was a massive star, maybe two hundred solar masses. It threw off about the equivalent of one solar mass in the first explosion, and that was an expanding cloud of gas that created the first brightening. But as it expanded, it cooled, and therefore got dimmer. So then you had the three days of dimming. And then the core collapsed into a magnetar ...
S: which is a rapidly spinning neutron star; and that was the second massive explosion. So that's their current model of what happened. But this is the first time they've observed this, so they have an n of one, observing it through this double dip, this double explosion that they're calling it.
B: So the other superluminous supernovas then didn't have the double dip?
S: Well, no, they didn't observe them long enough to know.
S: This is the only one they observed long enough to know. They didn't catch them early on. So they do not know if this was something unique ...
S: or unusual about this superluminous supernova, or if this is something that all superluminous supernova do.
S: They will have to observe more of them in order to sort that out. So, yeah, they don't know that based on, again, 'cause this is the only opportunity they have had to see it. They saw it, and they don't know if it's unique or generic to this type of supernova. So yeah! Pretty cool.
S: Pretty cool.
S: All right, all of this means that “A review of the last thirty-one years of video games reveals a steady increase in the number of highly sexualized female characters,” is the fiction.
B: Yeah, baby!
S: Now, initially during this time period there was a fairly steady increase in the sexualization of female characters, which they attribute largely to the fact that if you go back to the ... so they started looking at titles released in 1983 through to 2014, right? So thirty-one years. What they found was that early on, most of the video games were highly pixelated.
S: There really wasn't much of an opportunity to sexualize those female stick figures in the game.
S: Essentially, as resolution increased, sexualization of the female characters increased,
E: Of course.
S: peaking in the 1990's; and then it stayed high for a while. But in the last maybe ten years, there has been overall a decrease in the over hyper-sexualization of female characters. For some reason there's this peak in 2012, and then it dips down again in 2013 and 2014.
J: I think I know why; because of what game did that.
S: I don't know, what was that game?
E: Call of Booty?”
J: No, I think it was ...
S: One game wouldn't do it, but I mean, yeah ...
J: The game is Mass Effect, and you could pretty much have sex with every girl in the game.
S: Yeah, okay. Mass Effect was a blip ...
B: You could do that?
E: (Laughs) MassEffect.com
C: Well, you could also have sex with hookers in Grand Theft Auto.
J: That's cool.
B: Oh yeah.
E: Costs too much.
S: So, they attribute this shift in the last ten years – again, this study didn't look at that. They were just counting up the highly sexualized female characters. But they say that there's an increase in the number of female coders in the gaming industry, and there's an increased interest in games among women, and that both of these things have caused video game companies to make games that might be a little bit more appealing across a broader gender spectrum, you know, not just to horny guys.
C: There's also just more awareness ...
S: Yeah ...
C: of the fact that ...
S: I think so. I think it's awareness ...
E: Culturally ...
S: There's more maturity. I think video games themselves have matured, you know.
Rogues' Favorite Video Games (1:29:01)
S: What is your favourite video game of all time?
B: For me, it was probably Diablo and Doom. Those are my favorite, mainly for the social thing. I was at work; I was working in I.T. for the first time, and I met some friends, and we would play after work and at lunch. I even played with my boss so I would never get in trouble, which was awesome. So in terms of just having a blast, but then I can't also discount you guys. City of Heroes, City of Villains with you guys was so-o much fun. City of Heroes would be maybe a potential favorite of all time.
E: That's mine. Yeah, I spent more time playing City of Heroes than any other game I ever played. So that has to be my favorite.
J: So many so hard.
B: I know, right?
J: Twisted Metal 2: Oh my god did I love playing that game. We were very competitive with that. We used to round robin that, remember guys? Then we also, yes, of course, City of Heroes. And then, back in the day, we used to play Ghouls 'n Ghosts round robin.
B: Ghouls 'n Ghosts!
E: Epic times!
B: Oh my god!
J: But games that I played by myself, I mean, I've played a lot, and I've enjoyed a lot of them, but to me I've – again, I'm always going back to the games I play with other people because the dialogue and the camaraderie to me are so much more fun than ...
J: sitting there burning hours away by myself.
B: Exactly, Jay.
S: What? Come on!
E: The video game you've played the most.
E: Or that you liked the most.
C: I've played such different games than you guys. Like, when I was growing up, I was really addicted to my NES.
B: That's so cool.
C: I didn't play any computer games. So...
S: So that's okay. What's your favorite NES game? I'm like, you know, I don't know! I'm like, a girl gamer. I played a lot of puzzle games; I played like, Dr. Mario – I loved Dr. Mario. I also played games like Super Mario Brothers. My Dad got me into Spy vs Spy, if you remember that, from the comics.
B: That was a good ...
E: Mad Magazine?
C: Yeah, there was a Spy vs Spy yeah, from Mad Magazine. There's a Spy vs Spy game on Nintendo. And also, Contra ..
E: Zelda maybe? Contra ...
C: And also Simon's Quest, those were big games I played. So ...
E: I remember Simon's Quest, yeah!
C: Yeah, it was a lot of games with plot lines, or puzzle games I tended to go towards instead of fighting games ...
B: (Too hard to hear 1:31:21)
C: or first person shooters, or if there was fighting ... yeah, if there was fighting, it had to be part of the plot. Like, Simon's Quest, there was fighting, but it was part of the plot.
B: Bo-o-oring! (Laughs)
C: Yeah, it was fun for me to have a mission than to just destroy and then turn it off.
S: Yeah, I have to say, I think I had the most fun playing the social games, so the massive multiplayer games, and City of Heroes was the pinnacle of that.
J: We used to laugh our asses off.
S: What was the best game I played, I think the best single video game I played was Portal 2.
B: Ooh, really?
C: Everybody says that Port – like, every person I know that's a big gamer when I tell them I don't really game, they all say I should play Portal.
S: It's awesome.
J: Yeah, Cara, 'cause it's ...
S: Awesome ...
J: mechanical ...
C: Yeah, it's like, solving puzzles ...
S: You would love it.
S: You would love it.
J: It is. It's not a lot of talkin' to stupid characters in the game, and having to go collect shit, it's all about trying to get through to the next room.
S: It's brilliant, it's brilliant, and the plot that they do have is hilarious. There characters that you are incidentally interacting with are wonderful. So, yeah, Portal 2, highly recommend that. Right now, I'm into Fallout 4, which is like, crack. (Cara laughs) That game ...
E: Crack Out 4?
S: It is amazing because it's the perfect combination of killing and building.
C: What's amazing to me, Steve ...
J: It's called “killding,” Steve.
C: is that you have any time to play video games.
S: I have my down time, like when I do six hours of straight post-production, I need to reward myself with some mindless ...
E: Oh yeah.
S: video games.
J: Yeah, Steve does that, and I go cut the lawn.
S: I've worked a full day on Saturday already.
E: (Chuckles) Twelve noon, you've done more than anybody's done all weekend.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:33:05)
S: Okay, Evan, hit us up with a quote.E:
I'm sorry, but that's completely ridiculous. You claim that anything's real if the only basis for believing in it is that nobody's proved it doesn't exist.
And that was spoken by Hermione Granger of course, from the Harry Potter series, the book that's The Deathly Hallows, and the author is J. K. Rowling. A series we all love and enjoy, and there is some skepticism to be learned through Harry Potter, so thank you Evelyn for sending that in.
S: Well, thank you all for joining me this week.
B: Sure. Thank you Steve.
C: Thanks Steve!
E: Ah, yeah!
S: (Chuckles) And until next week ...
J: Steve, wait! You're cool!
S: Thank you, Jay. Until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.
S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at 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.
Today I Learned:
Evan is married to a French-Canadian woman
Steve spends six hours in a row on Saturday morning doing post-production for this show, and then plays video games after to relax.
Superluminous supernovas are far brighter than regular supernovas.
Scientists have created superatoms
Medical practitioners assume that race is real in day to day practice when looking at side-effects of medications and risks of contracting certain diseases.