SGU Episode 599

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SGU Episode 599
December 31st 2016
SGU 2016 Review.jpg
SGU 598 SGU 600
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Year end review show

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

Favorite Science News (0:49)[edit]

  • Favorite science news items: The Rogues look back at the most impressive science of 2016

Gravitational Waves (1:01)[edit]

  • Bob's nomination

Moss Piglets (6:18)[edit]

  • Cara's runner-up choice (she agreed with Bob that gravity waves were #1)

CRISPR (7:25)[edit]

  • Jay's runner-up choice

Planet 9 (9:42)[edit]

  • Steve's nomination

Alternative Energy (11:59)[edit]

  • A second nomination from Jay

Self-Driving Cars (13:15)[edit]

  • A second nomination from Steve

Alpha Go (14:30)[edit]

  • A third nomination from Steve

Zika Virus (15:17)[edit]

  • Fourth nomination from Steve

Juno at Jupiter (16:25)[edit]

  • Third nomination by Jay

Worst Pseudoscience (16:34)[edit]

NASA and Astrology (16:41)[edit]

  • NASA was accused of getting astrology wrong

Vaxxed Documentary (17:32)[edit]

  • Andrew Wakefield's “documentary”

Licensing Naturopaths (19:36)[edit]

fMRI Software Bug (20:02)[edit]

Jill Stein and Wi-Fi (22:44)[edit]

Talcum Powder and Cancer (23:50)[edit]

Cupping at the Olympics (24:10)[edit]

Abstinence Education in Africa (24:21)[edit]

  • The US spent a billion dollars on it

Best and Worst of 2016 (24:53)[edit]

  • Best and Worst: Favorite SGU moments

Technobabble segment (25:08)[edit]

  • Bob's favorite

Animal Group Names (25:55)[edit]

  • Cara's favorite

Sci-Fi Membership Promos (26:22)[edit]

  • Another one by Bob

Race Discussion (27:41)[edit]

Cara's Addition to the Team (27:59)[edit]

Interview with Michael Walen (28:30)[edit]

Viability of Conspiracies (28:50)[edit]

Skeptical Hero (31:38)[edit]

  • Skeptical Hero: Who kicked ass in 2016?

FTC (31:46)[edit]

FDA (35:05)[edit]

Social Media Failed This Year (35:47)[edit]

  • Facebook is improving its algorithm in response

(Commercial at 40:41)

Michael Marshal (42:29)[edit]

David Young (43:50)[edit]

Ishiel and Unate (44:40)[edit]

  • Turkish skeptics

India Rationalists Getting Killed (45:23)[edit]

Lawsuit Update (46:27)[edit]

Skeptical Jackass (48:32)[edit]

  • Skeptical Jackass: Who did the most to harm science and critical thinking? Donald Trump!

S: All right, Jackass of the year?


B: Well, maybe ...

C: Yay!

S: Well, yeah, let me preface this:

(Evan laughs)

S: So, this show is about science and critical thinking and skepticism. We're not a political show. We don't talk about purely political topics. But of course, there's a lot of politics involved with the institutions of science. And we will talk about any issue, whether it's social or religious or political or whatever if there is a critical thinking or a scientific angle. That's basically our editorial policy. We don't begrudge other people to do whatever they want to do. That's what we do.

However, there's one person this year that we all agreed was really the only person, by a long shot, that we could award Skeptical Jackass of the Year. This is somebody who, first of all, is anti-vaccine. They've been anti-vaccine for about ten years, as far as I could tell, on the record. They've been corrected publicly about this many times, but they've chosen not to listen to scientists, not to listen to experts, they still promote the idea - not just believe, but promote the idea publicly that the monster shot, or the too-many-vaccines too soon is causing autism, causing problems.

This is somebody who also a global warming denier. They think that global warming is a Chinese hoax. Again,

C: (Laughs) I think that one gave it away right there.

(Cross talk)

S: Yeah. But ... think I'm

B: China!

S: one of those who were talking about. Doesn't think, doesn't listen to scientists, doesn't listen to experts. They think that it's a big conspiracy. This is someone who has decidedly been, has not really cared about saying things that are true or accurate or factual. They will just lie. And when they're called on the lie, they'll go, "Nope, that's not ... I'm gonna," you know (chuckles). Adam Savage says, "I reject your reality, and substitute my own." That's basically

E: That's right

S: his (Unintelligible) bit, right? That's what he does. What else? He appears to buy into pretty much any conspiracy theory that is floated on infowars by Alex Jones. I mean, literally, Alex Jones is like, "Hey! I say something. And then two days later, he's tweeting it!" You know?

But, he won't believe the CIA. Yeah, the CIA can't be trusted. Alex Jones, though, he has the inside track to the truth. So he believes in the dumbest conspiracy theories,

E: Yeah

S: over the intelligence community. Um, okay. Obviously, I'm talking about Donald Trump.

E: The President-elect?

S: The President-elect. Now, clearly, this is not about right, left, you know, Democrat, Republican. We're not a bunch of liberals up here cavetching about Trump. It's not about that, honestly. It's not true. We're talking about Trump because of his utter disdain for the truth. Obviously, he's not alone in that. And a lot of people make what I consider to be the false equivalency argument. "Well all politicians lie, and they're all ..." no, no. He's on a different level. I mean, this is an

(Cara laughs)

S: order of magnitude difference. He can't just brush it off as like, they go, "I know. I don't trust anything a politician says." But that's different than, you know, spinning, versus just out and out lying, and denying the truth.

J: Well, he was a birther as well, you know. He just

S: He was a birther, yeah. Again, another crazy conspiracy theory.

J: Over and over again. And you know, that's the thing. Like, you know, I think it's very important to reiterate: We're not talking about politics, and we're not talking about the fact that he belongs to one, you know, one side of the fence

S: Yeah

J: or the other. It's just, this is who the guy is.

S: Yeah

J: It doesn't, it actually doesn't matter

S: He's a conspiracy theorist.

J: if he's got an R or a D next to his name is absolutely irrelevant. And he is the kind of person, you know, we've been, I've been anti-Trump way before he ever said he was gonna run for President.

S: Yeah

J: I mean, this guy's done a lot of things, I've never liked him. I've always thought that he was

E: Wouldn't give him the time of day.

J: anti-science. So, you know, we are gonna talk about him on the show, but it's going to be when he crosses swords with science.

S: He's anti-science and anti-intellectual.

J: Right

S: And a conspiracy theorist. So,

B: Other than that ...

S: (Chuckling) Yeah

E: Oh yeah, I agree.

S: And, you know, so let's talk about his cabinet picks for a little bit. This is a good one: He has appointed Jim O'Neil to head the FDA.

(Evan groans)

S: O'Neil has said, "We should reform the FDA so there is approving drugs after they're sponsors have demonstrated safety, and let people start using them at their own risk, but not much risk of safety. Let's prove efficacy after they have been legalized.

E: Uh...

S: So basically,

C: Wow

S: he thinks - Trump put in charge of the FDA, or is pointing to be put in charge of the FDA, some one who doesn't think the FDA should be testing drugs to see if they work or not!

(Evan sighs)

S: Let the free market decide if they work. That's ridiculous!

E: That is ...

S: It's also, we know that that doesn't work. It's not like we have to guess

E: Right

S: about what would happen.

E: That's the point.

S: We know that that doesn't work. We have the supplement industry to tell us what happens when you don't require evidence for efficacy. You get flooded with crap that doesn't work. That's what happens. The free market doesn't sort it out, because, you know, as an individual, like if you take a medicine that decreases your heart risk by twenty percent, how do you know? You don't know that anecdotally! You can't tell! It takes really rigorous science

B: It takes science.

S: to know, if statistically, if something has efficacy or not.

B: He really said that?

S: Yes!

B: Are you sure?

E: That one's bad.

S: Yes!

B: Ho ...

S: Like, come on, again, he's putting in charge of the FDA somebody who doesn't believe in the mission of the FDA. Putting in charge of the energy department, somebody who thinks that we should shut down the energy department.

B: That's the Dean!

S: Putting in charge of the EPA somebody who does not believe in global warming. So, this is the pattern that we're seeing on these scientific issues.

J: The EPA guy, actually has been suing the EPA, right?

S: (Chuckles) Suing the EPA.

J: I don't understand. I just don't understand that decision at all!

S: Now, I know some people think that this is all anti-regulation. So there are people on the right who think, "Great! The government over-reaches, and then they're gonna pull it back, this over-reach of, you know, there's too much regulation," again, I get that, I understand that politically, ideologically, that there's that position. But I don't think that's what Trump is doing. I think that these appointments are largely reflect the fact that he's anti-science, anti-intellectual, he's

E: He doesn't know it.

S: Yeah, at the very least, you have to conclude that he is not taking the consensus opinion of scientists or experts

E: Nope

S: into consideration

E: He's ignoring them.

S: on these issues.

J: You know, of course, we want whoever the President is, and the people that work for the President, we want those people to be science-minded. We want them to be literate in science, and understand.

S: Right

J: And at a time, when education is paramount, science education is paramount, when we were at TAM, we're goin' back four or five years now, and Neil deGrasse Tyson was talking, and he was showing, if the primary, you know, the countries in the world that are leading in education, as an example, right? If they were balloons, and they would inflate if they're having high education, and deflate if they have low education. The United States was tiny! You look at China, and you look at the UK, and there's other areas in Europe, and you know, the countries are huge in what they're doing about education. And the United States is smaller now than it was twenty years ago.

We're on the decline. Our education standards are going down. The amount of people getting educated per capita is going down, higher education.

E: Right, quality education.

J: Right. And science is one of the things that when people study it and apply it, it advances the country they live in. It advances the global economy. It's a healthy

E: Right

J: thing for humans to do.

E: Absolutely!

B: Yes, and science is critically important for politics. Of course it's different from politics, but it informs politics in a very critical, very important way. And, I mean, look at, Cara, earlier this year, you talked about the candidates. They were polled specifically about science. And, if I'm remembering correctly, Trump's replies were by far the worst, the worst scientific answers

S: He scored seven percent.

B: to those than anybody! Nobody was close to him in terms of how pathetic his answers were to those main science questions.

S: Just, let's get back to the Facebook discussion a little bit. Is that, in a democracy, you need a well-informed public, right? By definition. And scientific issues are obviously critically important to society, to civilization. So, we need a public who is well-informed on factual issues, on scientific issues. And, unfortunately, we don't have that. We are now living in a world overwhelmed with misinformation. And I do think, to some extent, you know, Trump rode a wave of misinformation into the White House, you know?

He embraced it. He magnified it, you know? And that's, it's possible that he did more damage just to the system than in terms of like, policy damage that he's going to do, you know what I mean?

E: It makes what we're doing, other skeptic groups, what other science groups in the country, and around the world, their efforts even more important than ever. And now is not the time to either roll over, or

S: Yeah

E: be lax about this. We have to work harder in order to compensate for these issues that are inevitably going to be coming up.

J: Yeah, and this has been coming. You know, we

C: But I think we also have to be very careful to look at this positively, and look at it as an opportunity for us to continue to do the work that we're doing, as skeptics, as science communicators, and just understand that, I don't think anything has really changed too much with regard to the public. I think that a lot of what has changed is that public officials, maybe I should say, certain public officials, are just, feel like they don't need to be as savvy about pushing through these alternative reality agendas.

You know, I think in the past, this still happened. I think people were just a little bit better at spinning. And now that they've realized they don't have to spin as much, because, according to the last election, and according to a lot of attempts at public policy, they're finding that creating your own narrative seems to work.

And so, I think that the biggest change that's occurred is kind of necessitating that we, as science communicators, and we as, you know, individuals watching the stream right now, just people who care about science, and who care about the truth, become much more vigilant about pointing out non-truth, than we had to in the past, because it's no longer masquerading. Now it's much more overt.

J: Yeah

S: Um hmm. Yeah, I think it's also, you know, I do think a lot about the effect of social media, and the web, and the internet, on this. And what seems to be happening, is that people are getting into progressively isolated bubbles of reality, bubbles of information. It's like, it's a positive feedback loop, right? If you watch a news program that has a certain extreme, political editorial policy, then that becomes your truth.

And then, when you hear other opinions, well those guys, that disagree with you, that's fake news, right? Those guys are lying, they're not telling the whole story. So then you get even more isolated in your bubble, because that's the only one that's telling the truth. And then, of course, you just drift farther and farther apart.

I try to be as ideologically neutral as I can be, and just try to be as rational as I can be. So it's fun for me, 'cause I have people in my life who are at the full ends of the spectrum, right? I have people in my life that are as far right as you can get, and as far left as you can get. And I love hearing them talk, because they're so in their own bubbles, it is amazing.

J: Yup

S: And of course, if I'm taking a position that's in the middle, then I'm a horrible leftist to one side, and a

E: Of course!

S: horrible conservative to the other at the same time! You know.

(Cara chuckles)

J: But people who are close to Steve know that he's basically just an asshole.

S: Yeah, it's just, I'm, that's what it


S: comes down to. Which is what unfortunately, a lot of people think that. You know, and it is, people get, I mean, they think that if you disagree with them factually, you're being mean. "That's

C: Yeah

S: mean!" No! That's the truth! I'm just giving you facts. I'm not being mean. It's not, I can't, that is very, very frustrating. It's like, "Oh, you people are being rude," or "mean." Like, no, this is just,

J: Yeah, I mean

S: reality!

J: I hear this a lot, because it is also how we deliver it, right? And this is just a general message to skeptics. We have to try to speak to people in a nice way, right? It's so

S: Yeah

J: easy to

E: Yeah

J: get on some type of high horse, and come off like you know better, and they're stupid because they don't know. And it's our job to whack that back as much as possible, try to put yourself in their position.

E: Sure

C: But I also think that the biggest problem that we're facing right now is that there's a fundamental distrust in how we define was truth is.

S: Um hmm

C: I think that the scientific method is accurate, it's adequate. It works. It's foundational. But for some reason, we are moving farther and farther away from the core trust that the public has in the teachings and the understandings of science. And it worries me, when we see ideological pushes against education. And we see ideological pushes against knowledge.

You know, I don't understand how it got to be the case that the rhetoric, amongst certain groups, is that going to college isn't for everybody.

S: Yeah

C: Or that getting higher education is somehow a liberal bias. Like, that to me, blows my mind.

S: Right. In Texas, critical thinking, apparently, is a liberal agenda.

C: Yeah, like that's a term that liberals try not to use

E: Yeah

C: when they're talking to the Board of Education, because they worry that it's going to kind of be a Scarlet Letter, you know what I mean?

S: Yeah

C: Like, if they say "critical thinking," then all of a sudden, you're not gonna listen to anything else I have to say, 'cause I'm, you know, I'm

J: Right

C: a pedantic liberal.

B: That's being against good hygiene.

S: Yeah

B: Right? It's like, why wouldn't you want to be hygienic?

S: Yeah, right.

B: Oh my god!

S: Yeah, I mean, people ask me, "What's the solution to all this?" Obviously, you know, scientific literacy, critical thinking, education, making, again, we need a well-informed, literate society, right? But obviously, that's a generational struggle. That's an endless struggle. It's not like we're gonna fix the problem by doing that in any kind of short order.

I do think we do need to think very carefully about how information is flowing through our society, which is why I applaud Facebook for at least experimenting with a way of pulling back the reigns a little bit on fake news. And that's also why Donald Trump had to get my vote, because I do feel like the difference, what happened this year was, yeah, people have always used misinformation and spin, and whatever, in order to advance their agenda, but I felt like, you know, Trump's approach was fundamentally different in that he just gave up, or just he didn't even try to even give the appearance of trying to be accurate. It's like, you know, "I'm not just gonna give my spin on the truth, truth doesn't matter.

J: Yeah

S: I just, here's my narrative. And just forget about what you think is true. I'm just gonna say it, and we're gonna stick to my guns. I don't care what the facts are. Truth doesn't even matter." And it did take it to a new level.

C: Here's a great example of that, Steve. "You just said, that's why Donald Trump gets my vote." If I were (laughs) not a good

B: Oh!

C: reporter, I would forget to put in brackets, "for Skeptical Jackass of the Year."

S: (Same time as Cara) Jackass of the Year. Right.

B: Oh my god!

J: (Laughs) Right?

In Memoriam (1:03:45)[edit]

  • John Glenn, Morley Saffer, Gene Wilder, Kenny Baker (R2D2), Alan Rickman, Dr. Heimlich, David Bowie, Mohammed Ali, Ray Thomlinson (inventor of modern email), Marvin Minsky (AI), Robert Todd Carol (Skeptic's Dictionary)

Science or Fiction (1:12:19)[edit]

Item #1: A 2015 review of life cycle assessments of electric vehicles shows that overall they increase green house gas emissions compared to gasoline vehicles. Item #2: Scientists have developed tiny robots that can attach themselves to immobile sperm and swim them to the egg so they can participate in fertilization. Item #3: Astronomers now claim that LIGO’s two black holes which collided were likely both formed within the same star.

Quote of the Week (1:26:11)[edit]

“Good grief. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, and at one another, in good spirit and without malice, then what fun can there be? If we must withhold all ribbing in the name of protecting everyone’s feelings, then we truly are a toothless society.” George Takei

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Steve actually argues against a free market policy during his rant against Donald Trump today


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