SGU Episode 656

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SGU Episode 656
February 3rd 2018
656 nanopore device.jpg

Hand-held nanopore device can sequence an individual's genome

SGU 655                      SGU 657

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


BD: Brian Dunning, writer and producer

EE: Emery Emery, comedian, film editor, and producer

Quote of the Week

No idea should be suppressed. And it applies to ideas that look like nonsense. We must not forget that some of the best ideas seemed like nonsense at first. The truth will prevail in the end. Nonsense will fall of its own weight, by an intellectual law of gravitation. If we bat it about, we shall only keep an error in the air a little longer. And a new truth will go into orbit.

Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, British-American astronomer and astrophysicist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Hawaii trip: wedding, bananas, and woo[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, January 31st, 2018, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening folks!

S: Cara is still traveling today. She did not get back in time to do the show, but she will be back next week. And I just got back a few days ago from Hawaii.

B: What the hell were you doing there?

E: How great was that?

S: It's paradise. It's awesome. What can you say?

E: How about that earthquake that happened in the tsunami warning?

S: Yeah, we got a tsunami warning while we were there. But they took it away pretty quickly and said, never mind. It's nothing serious. It was an earthquake near Alaska. And so basically anything surrounding that had a tsunami warning.

J: So what was the coolest thing that happened to you, Steve? What did you do?

B: Any ballistic missiles coming in or anything?

S: No, no middles.

E: That's a different kind.

S: So I was there for a wedding. This was a wedding of a friend of mine from medical school and it was also my first gay wedding. It was actually – it was nice. It was a really, really sweet ceremony. Everything was very nice. But just to give you an idea of what it was like, there were two ring bearers and they were both stuffed animal Pua pigs from Moana. What?

J: Stuffed animal, Pua pigs. Moana.

S: What was that? Remember the pig from Moana?

B: I saw that movie. It was awesome. What?

S: Really? The pig?

B: That's awesome.

S: Yeah. They were the ring bearers.

J: Neat. Oh, that pig that she's friends with temporarily. Okay. Yes. All right.

S: Whose name is Pua, which is Hawaiian for pig.

B: That's awesome. I would have picked the dog from Coco, but that was still good.

S: Now, they're both huge Disney fans. They're both huge Hawaii fans. And then, of course, they're both huge Moana fans. And so that was the theme of the wedding, basically.

E: Why was it there, Steve? Do they live there or just wanted an exotic location?

S: Yeah, as I said, they just – that was like – they wanted that place. That's like their favorite place together. So that's why they wanted it there. Luckily, he told us a year ago. It's like, oh, I'm getting married in Hawaii. So we had time to prepare. But we obviously made a vacation out of it. But it was – that was the reason why we went. But Hawaii is awesome. Jay, I think the best thing that we did while we were there other than the wedding was – We were in Oahu. We went to the botanical gardens. We got a tour from one of the people who works there. Now, you know when you do tours of places like this, it's a crapshoot. I've been on a lot of tours where the person had no idea what they were talking about. They had a script that they barely understood and there was a lot of misinformation in there. This was not like that at all. This guy knew his stuff and it was really fascinating. You know, talking about like what plants are native to Hawaii and how they get there and then what the changes over time. You had access to it. So he could like pull flowers off of trees and do stuff that you couldn't do if you're just walking around, you know, and cut open some of the fruit and everything. It was great. It was really, really fascinating. I did some birding while I was there, of course.

J: Yeah, of course.

S: Of course you did. Lots of beautiful birds in Hawaii. Although I did not see a honeycreeper. Oh, crap. What's a honeycreeper? I mean, it's a beautiful bird, but if you live there, you might see one once a year or something. You're not going to see them just walking around.

E: Are they endangered?

S: Every bird in the island that's native is endangered pretty much.

B: Oh, why? That's horrible.

E: Humans.

S: Humans. Yeah, I mean so it's overrun with invasive species. I mean there are house sparrows there. House sparrows are like the invasive bird everywhere. Oh, boy. Everything that you would expect, loss of habitat, but mostly just wave after wave of people bringing animals and plants and everything there. So they're trying to preserve the native species as much as possible, but it's kind of a losing battle.

E: Yeah, we're very good at contamination. Yeah.

S: Yeah, yeah.

J: Well, it's remarkable when you think about with all the boating and air travel that we haven't utterly totaled the planet yet. Right. Through contamination.

S: Well, it's happening slowly.

E: And we're changing. Things are changing.

S: One thing I noticed when I was there is the culture, you know, in terms of how much woo there is there. And it was bad. It was pretty bad. I mean compared to what we're used to on the East Coast. I wanted to talk to Cara about it because it's probably a lot closer to what she's used to in California. But it might even be worse because the appeal to nature fallacy was off the hook. It was totally rampant. You know what I mean?

B: Oh, wow. Yeah. It kind of makes sense.

S: It does. It does. And I get it. You're a native population and the technological civilization comes in there and muscles you aside and everything. And they're trying to preserve their culture. But it's just unfortunate that that gets exploited and it gets turned into sort of an anti-science stance. Yeah, it feeds the beast. Yeah. Yeah, every store was like – everything was gluten-free and natural cane sugar, sweetened soda, that kind of crap. Everything natural was awesome and it was – yeah, like. there was a Cyberry superfood crap everywhere and that was terrible. Yeah.

E: Did you go surfing and hit your head on a surfboard while wearing a tiki around your neck?

S: That was on my list, but I didn't get to it.

E: Confuse that with that old TV show, The Brady Bunch. Sorry. My mind wanders.

S: But it's gorgeous. You're driving on the highway and you turn a corner and there's this amazing vista with these giant cliffs on one side and the ocean spreading out to the other side. It was just gorgeous.

E: Now, were you tempted to stop every mile and take new photographs basically?

S: Oh, I wasn't just tempted. I did it. Yeah.

B: How many pictures did you take, Steve?

S: Probably 1,000.

B: Give me a number. 1,000, not bad.

S: Yeah, a lot. With digital cameras, just click, click, click. Why not?

J: So Steve, what do you do? Do you literally go home and just sift through all of that content?

S: Yeah, I usually organize it and then sometimes like if I want to do a picture book or something, I'll pick out the best ones. I posted some of it to our Twitter feed. Part of the reason why I take so many pictures, like if I am seeing a pretty bird I want to take a picture of, I'll click 20 pictures of that one bird. Hoping to get one with like the best whatever, focus and movement and angle and whatnot. Framing. That's like the one picture of that bird that I keep. So while I was there, I was on a quest to find local banana varieties. Oh, of course.

J: Wait, stop, stop. If you did not eat – Gros Michel? What's it called? Gros Michel. Yeah, if you didn't eat it, don't tell this story.

S: Well, I'm going to tell the story anyway. So actually I looked up like what are the bananas grown on the Hawaiian Islands or on Oahu? and Gros Michel was not among them. What? It's not among them.

J: What did you eat then? Tell me what you did. All right.

S: So obviously there's lots of Cavendish everywhere because that's the most commercial banana. Then there were two other bananas that are like local Hawaiian bananas. One is called an – they call it an apple banana. It's really a Brazilian banana. And it does have like this little tart undertone. First of all, they're smaller but they're really dense. They're very creamy and they're a little bit tart. So they're nice. They're very, very, very, very delicious banana. And then they have a local variety of a cooking banana like a plantain. Yeah. They're supposed to also have some other local varieties including ice cream bananas, but I could not find them anywhere.

B: Yeah, I heard about those.

E: Ice cream bananas.

S: Couldn't find them anywhere.

B: They're supposed to be amazing.

E: You must have asked people.

S: I did. I asked a couple of people that never heard of them.

E: Never heard of them.

S: Yeah, you probably have to go to a farmer's market and I only went to one. I didn't really – I wasn't there for that long. I think you just have to go to the right – know which farmer's market to go to or whatever. Oh, boy. And it may have been only on the other islands, maybe not on Oahu. So I don't know. So unfortunately, I didn't get to taste the ice cream banana. But the apple bananas were different. It was good.

J: So was it basically more of an artifact of the island that you were on and not that they're just not anywhere in the Hawaiian islands?

S: Maybe. Yeah, maybe. It's just not on Oahu. But I think that there's definitely an untapped market there because why the hell would you sell Cavendish bananas in a place where you could grow Michelle or ice cream bananas or pineapple bananas or whatever? You know what I mean? Why are you wasting your time with Cavendish? It's crazy. Just sell them to the Rubes in North America.

E: It's not right there.

S: You don't have a choice.

J: The Rubes. I'm getting really frustrated with this. Do we have to actually go to South America or something to eat this banana?

E: Well, there's an eclipse happening next year. Maybe, you know, coincide.

S: We'll call it the banana eclipse.

E: I like it.

S: I don't understand why there isn't an industry of this in Florida, right? You could grow them there.

J: Well, I think partly because you probably care more about bananas than most people do.

E: Well, yeah, it sounds like bad marketing on the people.

S: Yes, I think there's a marketing opportunity. there is what I'm saying because if you tasted one of the – from what I understand, if you tasted one of these other bananas, I think you'd pay a premium for it. Again, the only reason why these aren't commercial is because they can't – they don't stay ripe long enough to ship them around the world. But if you're just selling them locally, then that's not an issue.

J: Yeah, sure. Yeah, I agree with that. Right? Okay. All right. You've reinvigorated my desire to eat either one of those two other bananas. I want to do it.

S: The ice cream bananas are blue. The bananas themselves are blue.

E: The peels or the insides? Yeah, the peel.

S: The peel on the outside. Cool. I like that. They're all kind of like beige on the inside. Yeah.

J: Soft and creamy beige.

S: So the quest continues. I did add one more banana notch to my belt though with the apple banana, but that was it.

J: Good for you, Steve. Well done.

S: Thank you.

E: Glad you had a nice trip.

S: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It's great in the middle of the winter, right? You get a week of sunshine. It'll get me through February.

J: So I got to tell you guys, I went over to Steve's house on Sunday night to record the latest episode of our science fiction review show, Alpha Quadrant 6. And Steve and Joss had just got back from the vacation. And Steve was in full Hawaiian mode. He was wearing khaki cargo pants with no shoes and a Hawaiian shirt. And he had these beads around his neck. He caught the fever. Steve went native, man. Totally. Him not wearing shoes, to me, was so odd. Like Steve is not a walk around the house without shoes on type of guy to me. And he was the whole night. He was recording the show with no shoes on. It was pretty cool. It was horrible.

S: Okay. Here's the other thing. We stayed at a Disney resort in Oahu. Oh, really? Cool. Yeah. And we did this – they have these like little games, these tours that you do. Like they give you an iPad and then you walk around the resort or around the lobby or whatever. They had different ones. And you're interacting with the video on the thing and it's communicating through Wi-Fi with props, right? So you might walk up to a rock and the person on the video is saying like, you know, say the magic word and lights appear on the rock or whatever. You know what I mean? But the whole thing that we – so I did one with my daughter and it was horrific, guys. It was so – Horrific? Yeah, it was bad in the worst way that Disney whitewashes these issues. So what they did – the framing was terrible. So it was like a woman who was a native Hawaiian and was like the main person on the video and she was like a video, live action. And then in the corner, there was a still picture of a professor from a university, right? Yeah. So the whole thing was framed as a sort of conflict between the native person who was nice and friendly and who believed in magic and all of the traditional Hawaiian beliefs and this stuffy skeptical professor who was mean and dismissive and – you know what I mean? That sucks. It was insulting on both ends. The whole thing was designed to convince kids that magic is real. And of course you could say, yeah, it's Disney. It's tongue-in-cheek. Of course they know it's not real. But still, it's like it assumed the framing of the professor. First of all, he had all the knowledge. He did download the actual facts. So I found it was simultaneously insulting to the academic end and also the native end because the native – It was infantilizing, right? Like she was giving the Disney version of Hawaiian mysticism and was like poo-pooing the academic knowledge and the scientific approach and was doing that, oh, come on. You don't believe in magic, like being really insulting to the professor for daring to be skeptical. Yeah. The whole thing was – it was disgusting. It was just from beginning to end.

J: It's almost as if they were – that she was saying to the professor, not that you don't believe in magic, but you don't believe in dreams. You don't believe in – Yes.

S: It's like really?

J: Like you can't make – magic be equivalent to like having a positive outlook on the future? That's ridiculous.

S: They totally blurred the lines between magic, the supernatural, and religion. That's the other thing. It wasn't just like fairy magic like Peter Pan. It was blending seamlessly into supernatural beliefs and also traditional mystical beliefs or religion. That's why it was especially bad.

E: The worst of all worlds.

S: It was. I was like just offended the entire time.

E: Okay.

S: Just horrible.

J: So in a weird perspective, if you look through a different scope to people – to non-skeptics, people whose radar wouldn't have been tweaked or set off with that, right? Steve – I could see like a funny video of like Steve being like, I can't believe I'm just so offended and people are like, what's wrong with that guy? We just watched this really cute video and like you're all pissed off, right?

S: As I said, I would think that a native Hawaiian would have been offended at the – how infantilized that character was. I could think about how there was an opportunity there to show how compatible – just respecting the history of traditional beliefs of Hawaiians. and scientific knowledge. These things are not mutually exclusive. They are not in conflict. You can be a scientist and respect the traditions at the same time. And again, that's on the background of me being annoyed the whole trip at this forced conflict between science and rationalism and respect for nature, you know, on the other end. That is a false dichotomy. that is very destructive and it drives me nuts. And you just had the Disney version of that on steroids, you know?

J: Yeah.

E: That's unfortunate. Yeah, and they unfortunately have a history of doing things like that.

News Items[edit]






(laughs) (laughter) (applause) [inaudible]

Portable DNA Sequencing (16:15)[edit]

S: All right. Let's get started with some news items. Jay, you're going to tell us about this new portable DNA sequencer.

J: Yeah. So in recent news, a company called Oxford Nanopore has developed a handheld device that that can sequence the human genome. I just said that a company has developed a handheld device that can sequence the human genome. If you're not blown away by that, then you need to pay attention because I'm going to give you a little history about why that's utterly remarkable. So the details about this are in the journal Nature Biotechnology, and the cool thing about this device is that it allows genetics to be a part of a more routine medical examination or just a practice of medicines. The Human Genome Project started in 1990. It lasted 13 years. It included the National Institutes of Health, it's also called the NIH, and the Department of Energy, along with many global partners. And they set out to sequence all three billion letters or base pairs in the human genome. When they were done, they successfully quantified this complete set of DNA in the human body. And the project was such a success that they even completed it two years early, And they came in, of course, saving that much time. They also saved millions of dollars in the budget. But that's more of a testament to just how hard these people worked on the project.

S: Well, it's also a testament to the fact that the technology was advancing during the project. Exactly. So their budget was based upon the technology in 1990. But by 2003, they were already blowing it away.

J: It cost hundreds of millions of dollars, right? It was a global thing. It was a very long process. Today, the handheld device costs $1,000 to sequence an entire genome.

S: Wow.

B: And it does it how fast?

J: I think about nine days, two weeks time frame. I did the calculation. They could do – in 48 hours, they could do 10 to 20 billion bits of information. I calculated about nine days.

B: Gigabase pairs?

J: Yeah. But still, Bob, compare a week and a half or a week. Compare that to 13 years.

B: Oh, I know.

S: Bob, that's with the handheld device. They have slightly bigger ones that could do it faster. How fast? Like twice as fast, four times as fast. Also, the handheld device that we're talking about isn't the smallest one. They have one that you basically plug into a smartphone.

J: Yeah.

B: This advance is so – I mean portability and price and speed. I mean we're at a point now where we're going to see an explosion of genomes being produced. It's fantastic.

J: So the project though, the Human Genome Project back in the day, especially – As more and more people became aware of it and the press started to pick it up, this promise of being able to revolutionize medicine and human health was there. I remember thinking like, oh, when they're done with it, they're going to start – things are going to be happening super fast and curing all cancers and stuff like that. I mean it just seemed like the hype was too good to be true. It was too good to be true at the time but it took a while for the technology to catch up. Now we're starting to actually see a lot of that. early investment is beginning to pay off. As a quick example, we could use fast and inexpensive DNA sequencing to direct us on how best to treat a particular kind of cancer or detect a specific bacteria and maybe what antibacterials it would be resistant to as an idea of what benefits we can get. And that's where we're kind of at today. But in the next couple of decades – It really is going to blow out and I think that's when we're going to see some remarkable effects. with the initial sequencing that started in the 90s.

B: Yeah, we got to flesh out the other ohms, right? It will be really helpful once we flesh out the proteome, the bacteriome. That will complement the genome and it will work together.

J: But I mean, Bob, today with precision, we're able to read DNA and And we're able to edit RNA and DNA today with CRISPR. Like, we're already editing DNA. And again, we're still on the super, super beginnings of that curve of what we're going to be able to do with it. And, you know, we have to legitimize the fact that there is a danger here as well. I mean, You know, it's almost like creating a nuke at that point. You know, it's like, you know, this is too powerful, guys. In some instances, it could be very dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. And I advocate heavily for us to expand our knowledge in these areas, but I also advocate for us to be very careful and make very well thought out, very good decisions about how to use these technologies because, you know, it's scary. what, you know... I think a lot about like someone creating a biohazard, some type of bioattack using CRISPR. Have it be a virus that is just so powerful that it kills people really fast and it spreads itself very efficiently. That is real. That's real. That's scary.

B: Yeah, true.

S: Yeah, it's a powerful technology. All powerful technologies are two double-edged swords, atomic energy. You could use it to produce energy or you can use it to blow up the world.

E: Destroy the world.

S: Yeah. I think I'm more concerned than worried if that makes sense. I think what I mean is we need to think about how to regulate this technology and think about the potential uses and abuses. But I think we should do it because I think we – the benefits – as long as we're even the slightest bit careful, the benefits are likely to outweigh any detriments. We'd have to be careless I think. Of course.

J: I mean you could say that we have to be careful with every technology, right? Yeah. Space travel as an example. Like we're – We have to be careful with what we do there because a couple of things like space junk, that's dangerous. How about cars?

B: How many people do cars kill every year around the world? Huge numbers. But should we get rid of cars? No.

Alternative Treatment for Bears (22:13)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, tell us about these bears that were treated for burns.

J: Is this the bear sting burns? Doubles. Doubles.

E: Oh, nice, Jay. Yeah, good one.

S: Jay, it's the burn ward bears.

J: Thanks for making it better, Steve.

E: Point for Steve. Go ahead. The bears who are victims, like many other animals, were of the wildfires recently in California. But the Associated Press did a article just recently in which they, well, I'll read you the very first sentence of the article and you decide kind of what they're going after here. Veterinarians successfully used alternative medical treatments, such as acupuncture, on three wild animals burned in the Southern California wildfires. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Successfully used alternative medical treatments. Okay.

S: Yeah, total bullshit.

E: Yeah, total crap. How the heck? Hell, do they even know what was successful or what wasn't. But in any case, here's the story. Two adult bears and a young mountain lion were brought to veterinarians. First, they went to the State Department of Fish and Wildlife and later the University of California in Davis. And again, lots of animals were hurt in these fires. But the paws on these animals were burned very badly. The pictures are just awful. I mean, deep third-degree burns these bears are suffering from. One of which couldn't even – could not even stand up even while they were having – after they got the treatment. the pain was just too excruciating. They said that standard pain treatment is a problem for the animals because you can only anesthetize them so many times. And they are wild animals we're talking about, you know, teeth and claws, and certainly they'll, you know, attack you as fast as they would probably attack anyone else if they feel threatened. So you've got to keep them sedated, but keeping them sedated for too long causes problems. And you can't just throw pain pills at and pain medicines at them. They say that there's no guarantee the animals will eat them. Now, why they can't inject them with painkillers, I don't quite understand, but at least that's what they're reporting. They said that some of the alternative methods that they employ on these animals and others include acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and cold laser therapy. So crap, crap, and more crap.

S: Yeah, but here's the key line. Vets carried out the alternative treatments only on days when the bears and mountain lion were already anesthetized for bandage changes or other standard care. Right. So they got acupuncture and anesthesia. Of course. Right. But the acupuncture worked? How do you come to that conclusion? Total nonsense.

E: And that's what gets the top billing, essentially, what the thrust of this article is really about. Basically saying, hey, the alternative methods work. Yeah, sure, they got the other stuff, but it was the acupuncture. It was the chiropractic that actually did it.

S: I get high with heroin and homeopathy. It works really well.

E: Right. You decide which one is the actual effect occurring.

S: Right, right.

E: The vets have to stitch fish skins to the animals' burned paws. That's the treatment that they give them. And then they wrap their feet with – bandages of rice paper and corn husks. They have to use these kinds of materials because the animals will eat away at them. And if you gave them standard bandages, it would cause other health problems for them. They can't digest those things. Yeah, I suppose they did what they they essentially could for them. I don't know if the animals necessarily suffered further unnecessarily as a result of this because they were actually getting some real treatment for things. But, you know, again, here we go with the clouding of pseudoscience and real science and another article that just goes ahead and continues to make it worse.

S: Yeah, the only story here is how absolutely credulous the reporting was. I mean, just shameful. And this is like CBS News. This is like major news outlets, not like the National Enquirer or some crap like that. That's right.

E: AP initially reported it and ABC ran with it and other major news organizations ran with it too because it sounds great even though it's crap.

S: Total crap. OK, Bob, but you're going to tell us about not crap, but the acoustic tractor beam.

Acoustic Tractor Beam (26:23)[edit]

B: Yeah, it looks like tractor beams or acoustic levitation has had a bit of a breakthrough recently that could legitimately result in the levitation of large objects, perhaps as big as a human. Hello. That would be awesome. So we've all seen tractor beams, right? We've seen tractor beams in science fiction. Usually it's like an invisible force that lifts something and lifts it up, pulls it in or pushes it away, whatever. But it's never precisely clear how they work. But we all really want technology like that to be real, right? So now you could use a magnetic field or electromagnetism to push or pull or levitate objects.

E: Like the frog? Yeah.

B: But it's already a fairly mature technology at this point. And who doesn't love high-speed maglev trains? They're awesome. I can't wait until they're everywhere. But such technology, it's really not seen as a sci-fi tractor beam. And it can only be used on specific types of materials like conductors. So, yeah, it just kind of doesn't qualify. This, though, this is acoustic levitation or acoustophoresis. I did not know that word before. I learned a new word today. It basically uses the pressure of ultrasound alone to move objects, and it was actually theorized as far back as 1930, early 30s. So that's interesting. I didn't know the theory was that old. But for decades, we've been using that idea. We've been levitating small objects like insects or even fish using purely sound. But in 2013, though, real tractor beam-like abilities were realized for the first time right around then when objects were not only levitated but moved as well. So now a common way to do this is to use many speakers or transducers to create vortices of high frequency sound that wrap around an object like a tornado while the object itself sits in the eye of the storm or the cone of silence, you could call it. So that worked great. You could levitate it. You could move it. But there was a huge limitation though. The object itself could never be larger than the wavelength of sound. If they were larger, the objects were actually larger, the rotating vortex could transfer some of its energy to the levitated object and then just kind of like eject it and it would just fail or you'd fly away really fast or just fall. So they couldn't get past that and it seemed to be a fundamental limitation. That was kind of annoying because you don't want to be stuck lifting just really tiny things. So engineers from the University of Bristol found a way around the problem. They realized that rapidly changing the direction of the vortices stabilized the tractor beam. Imagine the tornado, these little tornadoes wrapping around the object and then going in one direction and then rapidly switching to the other direction and then the other direction again, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and that really stabilized it. For example, so using a 40 kilohertz ultrasonic waves that no human could hear but some bats could I think could hear that. They levitated and moved two centimeter long objects. That's more than two acoustic wavelengths in size. So that's – it seems like a small breakthrough but it's big. The object itself was bigger than the wavelength of the sound and that was a limitation that they weren't sure that – how they were going to get past. So it seems now that the only size limit is not related to the wavelength of sound itself but the amount of power that they could pump into the acoustic waves. So that's an amazing change because it's not a limit to how big it is but how much power can you throw into those acoustic waves? and you just know that as transducers get more powerful, smaller, cheaper, better design, that they're going to be able to throw more and more power at it and they're going to be able to lift bigger and bigger things. So right now they're working with about 192 transducers to lift about 1.5 centimeters according to one report I read. They theorize that with 40,000 transducers, they could levitate an object a meter across. But the near future though will probably not focus on levitating people or bigger things but little things really well. For example, Bruce Drinkwater, professor of ultrasonics from the Department of Mechanical Engineering said – Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications. I'm particularly excited by the ideas of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them. So this could be invaluable to industries like pharmaceuticals, electronics. For example, it could be used for manipulating say volatile chemicals. that you didn't want to put in any container. or you could use it for moving devices within a body like a probe. or how about a kidney stone? You could use the sound from the outside of the body to move the kidney stone along the path you want to move it in and get rid of it because I hear they're pretty painful. So moving a person though around using this type of device, clearly when and if that happens, that's certainly going to get front page news and you know that they're going to use the words tractor beam in the headline. So we'll be seeing that again over and over I think over the years. But so all we have to figure out now is how to use a tractor beam in airless space like all good spaceships should be able to do. Yeah, right. Because it's not going to work in space, kids. So yeah, so that's just another – another offshoot of tractor beam technology that they're going to have to get around.

E: So is tractor beam the right descriptor here?

J: It's really not a tractor beam, Bob.

E: Because a tractor beam implies kind of pulling it in towards sort of this much larger scale movement.

B: Sure. Dude, look at the videos. You could – suspending these good-sized beads, then they can move then left, right, up, down. They even turned it upside down and it still stayed in a static position above the transducers. I mean this is like invisibly moving apparent – invisible to us. Right. moving an object that you can imagine you can move it down a production line. I mean it's. it's. you know it's a tractor beam of sorts. it's. you know it's not. yeah it's not a spaceship tractor beam in space. no but I mean what the hell I mean. you know I mean sure it's close enough to a tractor beam and don't take that away from me.

E: all right bob you get your tractor beam tag there.

S: So, guys, do you know what a super blue blood moon is? Yeah.

Super Blue Blood Moon (32:50)[edit]

E: Oh, gosh. Yes. Of course. I missed it. Rare. Blah, blah, blah.

S: Yeah. I think it's been like 30 years since we've had one.

B: I think the next one is like many decades away, right?

S: Yeah. I'm going to cry. Supermoon, blue moon, blood moon all at the same time. So let's break that down. So a supermoon just means when the moon is at perigee, at its closest approach to the earth. It's actually no big deal. You can't really tell visually that it's closer. It's like 7% bigger, which is nice. But you would never notice it unless somebody pointed it out to you.

B: Right, and if you saw a picture of side by side of the difference, it's like, oh, that's cool. But yeah, when you're out there, you're like, well, yeah, it's a little different. It's not like in your face, like bam, big.

S: It's basically negligible to just ordinary viewing. So the supermoon, a lot of people think it's kind of a misnomer. I think the term was actually coined by an astrologer. It's not really even an astronomical term. No big deal, but that was going on. And a blood moon, so blue moon has two definitions. Twice a month. Yeah, the more popular one, the one that most people go to is it's the second full moon in a month. But actually, the more technical definition is the third full moon in a season that has four full moons. Right? Which is why nobody remembers that. It was always the second full moon in the month.

E: You think about it in more like quarter years rather than one-twelfth of a year. Think about it in those terms. Right.

S: So that's the real technical definition. But the more popular one that people think about is the second full moon. So this was the second full moon in January. So by that definition, it's a blue moon even though not by the more technical definition. And then a blood moon. This is interesting. So I've seen this many times. You guys have seen this many times as well. Basically, when the moon turns red as it passes through the Earth's shadow or umbra, like the inner shadow. So the question is, why does it turn red and why can we see it at all if it's completely in shadow? That's a good question, Evan. Glad you asked that. Yeah.

E: Yes. Steve, explain, please.

S: Yeah. So this is why. It's actually pretty interesting. So when the moon hits your eye, like a big pizza pie, when the moon is in the Earth's shadow, the only light that's getting to it is light that is basically bending through the Earth's atmosphere, right? So if you imagine that being – Hugging the Earth. Yeah. So it's hugging the Earth, being bent inward and then reflecting off the moon. Now, the reason why it's red is because only the long red wavelengths of light will do that. The blue light scatters before it can get through the atmosphere. And so it's basically filtered out by that scattering. So if you remove the blue light from sunlight, you're left with the red light. So only the red light that's bending around the earth through lensing in the atmosphere is what's being reflected back off the moon when it's in the umbra or in the dense part of the shadow. And so we see this blood red moon.

B: Now, I want to know what does the earth look like at that time if you were on the moon? Come on. Nobody has ever, ever seen that. Basically, it looks like a sunset around the entire moon. ring of the moon, of the Earth. I mean, that must be amazing. I want to see it.

E: It's a solar eclipse from the moon's perspective. Yeah.

S: Have we ever had a probe? take that image? That would be interesting. But yeah, so it's the same reason that sunsets are red, right? Sunsets are red because the sunlight is going through more atmosphere and the blue light is being scattered out.

B: It actually goes through, compared to overhead light, it's going through 12 times as much atmosphere when it's on the horizon. 12 times. So it scatters a lot of blue light out.

S: Yeah, that's significant. All right, Jay, who's that noisy time?

Who's That Noisy? (38:13)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
slowed-down audio of a kookaburra

J: Yep, so guys, last week I played this noisy. What is it?

S: It's an animal.

E: Or a demon.

J: I got so many people wrote in. So a lot of people guessed an ape. A lot of people guessed some type of seal.

E: I would have gone with seal.

J: The worst guess was. somebody said it was a male camel. Michael M. said it's a dromedary, but bactrians probably do it and do it too. And other camelids and llamas. Whatever.

E: Camel is, okay.

S: Even the Dalai Lama?

J: Yeah, he was saying they have the big, fat, gross tongue and all this stuff. Yeah, that's not it. Somebody said it's an animal. Originally, I thought it was a bird, but I think it's an elephant seal barking. That was Cameron Fraser. I got a ton of answers. Go and figure. A lot of people that answered were from Australia. A lot.

S: Of the correct answers.

J: No, the aggregate answers.

S: Did anyone get it right?

J: Yes, a lot of people did get it right and every single person that got it right that I saw was from Australia. and they said that is in fact a slowed down audio.

S: Play the fast up version first.

J: Okay. That is a kookaburra.

S: Oh, yeah.

J: Is it a kookaburra or a kookaburra?

S: Kookaburra. Very recognizable sound, normal speed when you slow it down.

J: I thought it sounded like an ape. I think the trick there was that it sounded like an ape. So the winner from last week was Adam Bailey. Adam guessed it so fast it was ridiculous, like right after Steve put the show up. So very good job, Adam. To this day, a noisy gets sent to me. It's a freaking bird and it's interesting enough to play it. I'm surprised. You figured we'd be done with bird noises.

S: Oh, we haven't even scratched the surface of bird noises, Jay.

J: I'm agreeing with you, Steve. So this, you know, just to remind everyone, Kirk Mona sent in the original noisy and, you know, again, saying that it's a quintessential sound of the jungle, right? That bird has definitely got the jungle noise. So, guys, this week's Noisy was sent in by a listener named Katie F. And this one is pretty interesting.

S: Aloha! Aloha! It's a singing frog.

J: You know what it actually reminded me of? Did you ever see The Three Amigos?

S: Yeah.

J: The singing bush. That's what that reminded me of. The singing bush. A little obscure, but yeah. It's not the singing bush from The Three Amigos. Only Katie and I know what that is.

E: They spoke Spanish, not French in that movie.

J: If you think you know what the noisy is for this week, or if you heard something really cool and you need to just send it to me, do it at WTN at

New Noisy (40:25)[edit]

[old-sounding recording hinting at "Alouette" song]

... what the Noisy is for this week ...

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (41:12)[edit]

Email #1: Driverless Cars ()[edit]

with_reduced_spacing_for_long_chunks –

S: Do it. All right. Thanks, Jay. One email this week. This email comes from Nick C. And they write, I'm a longtime listener and very much enjoy your show. Thank you for all that you do for promoting skeptical thinking and science literacy. However – Thank you for having me. More battery waste, environmental harm, increased urban sprawl due to longer, more productive commutes, et cetera. Car companies at the CES would love for people to ignore the downsides and buy, buy, buy. But as skeptics, we can do better and present both sides of the story. Then she goes on to talk about a study where – she later clarified that they actually did a study, although it was a small study, like I think only 13 participants – where they paid for a chauffeur for people and – so that's to simulate a driverless car, right? So they basically had a free chauffeur and then they tracked their use of the chauffeured car compared to their baseline use and I think unsurprisingly, people drove more, right? They made – were in the car more when they had access to a chauffeur than when they didn't. Parents would send the chauffeur to go pick up their kids, and people who were older and maybe not as confident driving drove more at night and drove longer distance, and overall car driving increased significantly. They said on average they logged 76% more miles than normal. First of all, let's talk about the overall comment. Did we ignore the potential downsides to driverless cars? And two, what do you think about this notion that when driverless cars are widely available, that they will dramatically increase our road time? What do you guys think about that?

B: Well, first off, the topic I was discussing was the CES, the Consumer Electronics Show. And I was basically showcasing what was there and what was being claimed. I mean it wasn't an overview of the future of driverless cars where going over the downsides would have been more appropriate. So there's that. I mean that wasn't really the thrust of the talk at that time. Yeah. And granted, we did riff a little as we sometimes do. We just chatted about it because it's fascinating and that went a little bit beyond maybe the strict CES floor show and stuff like that. But still, it wasn't meant as a nice overview. And I think talking about potential downsides of a driverless society is certainly worthy of discussion. Sure. Although I think such a small – Such a small study is not really ready to base a discussion on that. I don't think – I mean first off, a chauffeur-driven car is one thing. But a driverless car that could be a TV room, a bedroom, an office are two different things. I mean – So that might make the driving even more dramatic, the increase in driving, because it's an environment. It's a driverless environment that's not just a car, but it's a moving environment. So maybe that makes it worse. I just think we're not ready to seriously address potential downsides yet until we get some more big studies, more realistic studies going on. But it is interesting to consider how things are going to change. And yeah, this is a disruptive technology. For sure, this is incredibly disruptive. This is going to change a lot of shit. We don't know how much it's going to change or exactly what's going to change, but get ready because this is coming and there's no stopping it.

S: Yeah, I mean I agree. This study is way too small to generalize from this. Plus there's potentially a lot of artifacts in here. People may have been using the chauffeur just because of the novelty. We really don't know that in a month or a year that that's what their driving behavior would be like. It's way too short term to really I think make any conclusions from it. But – The possibilities that it raises are certainly reasonable and we just don't know how it's going to shake out. I think it's very likely that people who are for whatever reason not as confident or even able to drive by themselves will make use of driverless cars. Absolutely.

B: Our mom is 80 years old and she is afraid to drive at night. She will not drive at night. It's just hard for her to see the road and just glare and she basically doesn't do it anymore. So this would be wonderful for her. Even just for – during the day, she's good. But at night, not good. This would be fantastic for her.

S: Right. I'd love it. I think the issue of like. there were times when there was no passenger in the car because they sent the car.

B: That's concerning. Yeah.

S: Actually, that's not concerning. I was going to make the opposite point. Because what's the difference? If a parent goes to pick up their child or if they send the car to pick up their child while they're at home doing something else, there's no difference.

E: That's true. That's a good point.

S: The only difference is that the parent could do something else rather than just be driving to go pick up somebody else.

J: It's more efficient. The more driverless cars there are, the more efficient the roads will be overall, right? So think of it this way. It's the difference between cars working in coordination with each other. Yeah. Not just from a safety perspective, but cars are going to be able to... First, they'll be detecting each other. Then they'll actually be talking to each other. Right. And when we get to that point, it'll be like stepping into a fast-moving lane, you know... Versus like a human being trying to do it wouldn't be able to do it with the same precision and lack of effect on all the other vehicles.

E: I think minority report gives me the image of how the cars were driving around in a world like that.

B: That's a good point. That's a good point and that addresses the whole idea that it's going to increase traffic. First off, you got to consider that. Imagine cars on the highway all doing say 70 miles an hour like a foot behind each other or whatever.

E: You can't do that now.

B: You can't do that. now so the the road carrying capacity increases. and if say you know say there still is more traffic and more time spent on the road that sucks. but if you're if you're in a car which is basically your living room ah you don't really care as much. you're still being productive you're still. so you don't really care that it takes. maybe you know if it takes 20 longer to get somewhere that you're still being productive and doing fun stuff and not a slave to that damn steering wheel.

E: Is the underlying assumption here also that this is a safer overall technology than what we currently have? So the saving in lives, I suppose you could – I don't know how you put a cost on that and sort of bring that into the formula of all this. But hey, if you're going to – 50,000 people a year perish on the US roads if I'm not mistaken. You can cut that down. If you can cut that down significantly, I don't know. That seems worth it. Right.

B: No one is saying that's a bad thing. But we're not talking about that. We're talking about two different scenarios. The scenarios we're comparing are everybody owning a driverless car and everybody renting a driverless car. So those are the two different scenarios. And it's this whole idea of on-demand driving that is being addressed here. So yeah, so that's kind of the choice. And yeah, I'm still – I'd love to see some great studies on this, but I'm not terribly concerned. I mean I love disruptive technologies anyway. Bring it.

E: I happen to think this will be a long way down the road, pun intended.

J: Hey, it could be 10 years. Dude, dude, no.

E: In 10 years, we're not going to have – not everybody is going to be abandoning their cars and going for these rent-a-pods or whatever the heck you want to call it.

S: Well, we don't know exactly how it's going to be used. But I think driverless cars are going to be pretty common in 10 years just given where the technology is.

E: But that doesn't get rid of the old cars.

S: Oh, you're right. I agree. You're still going to have those.

E: There's going to be this integration between the two for, I think, quite a long time. And I'm not sure how they're going to exactly get all that worked out. That seems very foggy to me.

S: I think in terms of the traffic issue as an isolated issue, I think there's way too many variables to predict what the net effect is going to be. I buy the fact that people will be using more cars because it's going to be more convenient and safer and people who can't drive now will be able to drive and people will – if it's available as an easy and convenient option, people will use it. Absolutely. Absolutely. But then we have to say at the same time, the driverless cars will be more efficient. So they may reduce traffic in that way. For example, it's quite possible that people who are using driverless cars as a service, they may also be optimized to carpool. You know what I mean? Like it may be cheaper if you're saying, yeah, you could pick up somebody else on the way. You know what I mean? Right, right. So it's possible that there may be more people per car on average if you're using driverless cars.

E: A little ride sharing.

S: Who knows? We'll have to wait and see. The other thing is. the other factor that's really hard to account for is the thing none of us are thinking of. It's the thing that someone – some company is going to innovate some service or some way to do something that no one is thinking of right now. that's going to change everything. Because we haven't fully explored all of the new possibilities that driverless cars brings. Right. We're going to put millions of lithium ion batteries on the road. We absolutely have to think about where does all that lithium come from? Where are they going to? What's the net cost of economically and environmentally, et cetera? And I do think that we really need to prioritize research into batteries made of common, cheap, non-toxic materials.

B: Sure.

S: I agree with you, Bob. None of this is a deal breaker. None of this means that we shouldn't be moving forward with driverless or electric cars. It means we just need to think about the impact all of these things are going to have and think about potential solutions and way to leverage the benefits of absolutely that's with any disruptive technology artificial intelligence gmo nanotech all that stuff.

B: um you we got to talk about. we got to talk about it before it's so in your face and it's already here. talk about it prepare for it anticipate deal with it because some things you're just not you're just not going to stop as much as you might hate it.

Interview with Brian Dunning and Emery Emery (52:15)[edit]

Brian's conviction[edit]

Brian's redemption[edit]

S: all right guys. so we have a very interesting interview coming up with Brian Dunning and Emery Emery so stay tuned for that. Well, joining us now, we have two guests, Brian Dunning and Emery Emery. Guys, welcome back to the SGU.

BD: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

S: Brian, it's been a while since we've had you on. Emery, I know we've been on your show once. Did we ever have you on our show? I don't remember.

EE: I believe this is my first appearance.

S: This is your first. You're an SGU virgin.

EE: I am.

S: Okay.

BD: That's a rite of passage. You need to all whip him or something now.

S: So we're having the two of you on together because you are both involved in a project. You're trying to fund a skeptical movie. We're going to talk about that in a few minutes. But Brian, since we haven't had you on since your life-changing events occurred – And this is kind of the elephant in the room. We figured we better get this out of the way and talk about this and answer the questions that come up since this has happened. So why don't you give us your summary of what happened and then we'll sort of ask you the questions that people ask us when it comes up.

BD: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it's no secret. It's been on my Wikipedia page for just about 10 years now. And I actually enjoy talking about it, but nobody ever asks me. So I was convicted of wire fraud. I pleaded guilty. And I spent basically a year at Club Fed. And that happened from 2014 to 2015. And what was the conviction based upon? So it was from a business I had back in the early 2000s, from about 2002 to 2006, 2007. I had a partner and I and a number of employees had a small company doing affiliate marketing for eBay. One day, out of the blue, we were raided by the FBI, which was a shock to nobody more than it was to me. And seven and a half years of civil cases followed. I believe we were in the right, and I believe we would have won those civil cases. But the fact is, I'm an individual, and I'm fighting one of the world's largest and wealthiest companies with arguably the world's most expensive law firm with a carte blanche. And seven and a half years, there's no way you can maintain fighting that. And after about four years, they went thermonuclear and filed a criminal complaint, making the exact same charges that were in their civil complaint. They simply weren't true, which is why we were fighting them for so long. But there comes to be a point, and we can talk about this, there comes to be a point where it's a numbers game and you just have to play the best odds. And the cheapest and fastest way to get out of it is to simply plead guilty. And we worked with the prosecutor to... write something that had a word of truth in it that I could honestly plead guilty to. And so I went away for a few months. That's the short version. I've talked about this on a number of podcasts, Emery, including yours. I've been on a couple of times. And there's a complete detailed summary of it on my personal website, which is slash message. And you can read the entire case there. But that's basically it.

S: So what did eBay say that you did?

BD: It's technical and it's confusing and it's hard to follow. There's no simple way to describe it. But what we were doing was placing ads for eBay on websites. And if somebody sees one of those ads, they become, quote unquote, our customer because eBay writes a cookie to their computer through our ad. And if they go to eBay within the next 30 days and become a new customer and buy something that generates a profitable commission for eBay, they would pay us a percentage of that for this person having been our customer that we introduced them through our ad.

J: It's basically how affiliate programs work.

BD: Yeah, it's how they have always worked and how they continue to work today. What they were alleging was that their pixel that was in our ad was not in the original contract. And these original contracts were written late 90s, early 2000s, long before the industry was in any way mature. As they knew every detail of what we were doing, they saw our ads. Of course, they scrutinized them. We worked closely with them on a daily basis. It was a complete surprise and still just absolutely bizarre that they charged that they had no idea that their pixel was in our ads. It makes no sense at all.

S: What do you mean by their pixel?

BD: In our ad, we just have a little bit of HTML that would be on people's websites in the form of a widget that provided some useful gadget that they wanted on their website. And in the text of that ad, it would say, buy and sell stuff on eBay, and there would be a little picture or whatever it was. And in there is a little invisible pixel, just a one-by-one invisible GIF image that comes from eBay's server. So in our HTML, which we write, which is part of our ad, we had a call to eBay's website as the address for this pixel. That allows the web visitor's browser to make a direct connection to eBay. The reason eBay had that pixel in the ads was to track user behavior because they want to know what websites people visit so that they can better market products to them. Amazon does this. Every large internet company in the world does this. They track user behavior via some technology similar to this. That's exactly what eBay was doing.

S: But they said that they were not aware that you had a pixel in your ad that linked back to their website?

BD: That is the whole of it right there. It is completely bizarre. Why does that bother them? It's inexcusable. We don't know. That's the one thing that we were never able to find out, why they decided to – there was a number of companies that they charged with this behavior. It wasn't just us. And I was not the only person who went to jail. It was a number of people for all exactly the same behavior. And the thing that's sad is that it continued even during our lawsuit, during all those years I was fighting it. All of their top affiliates were still doing exactly the same thing. I have a video of that on the URL that I just gave you, slash message. You can see that. a video of me viewing a website and seeing the exact same behavior. And it's still how they do it today. So we can't know what their internal mechanism was. Somebody decided they were paying out too much money. I have no idea. We've never been able to just do anything more than speculate.

S: Was there any deception on your part?

BD: No, I spoke with them every day, and they can see the ad. They can look right at it. I was always concerned because this was a lucrative business. Our whole contract was, over those several years, was about $5.3 million. We had 15 or 20 people employed at the most, but I was personally one of the highest paid guys. I personally made about $1.1 million over all those years.

S: I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and ask you the kind of questions that people ask us.

BD: So am I, Steve.

S: Yeah, I know. It's complicated. So was there any – were the people whose websites you were placing the ad on through the widgets that you were providing them? Do I have that right? You were like, hey, here's a useful widget that does something. And in that was an ad which was basically paying for the free widget. And that ad led back to eBay. Was anyone in this chain being deceived by anything?

BD: I don't see how that argument can be made. There was two basic widgets that we used. One was a WordPress plug-in, which would show a – it was called Who Linked, and it would show a list of backlinks, other websites that linked to your WordPress blog. That's a useful widget. People would install it on their website, and it would have sponsored by eBay, and their little graphic would be in the ad. And the other one we used, which was more successful, actually, was on MySpace because this was the early 2000s, and MySpace was actually a thing. Whoa, MySpace.

S: Yeah.

BD: It was just basically a little Google map showing a map of all the visitors to your MySpace profile. And at the bottom of that was the ad. It said, buy and sell your stuff on eBay. And a little picture. So, I mean, it's very apparent to everyone who installed it that it was supported by this eBay advertising. eBay certainly knew that. In fact, eBay gave us several revisions over the years. Hey, change the wording to this. Change it to that. Change the graphic from this old eBay one to the new eBay one. I mean the argument that they didn't know anything about it is just completely untenable.

B: But I mean did you – could you have supplied like an email with having this communication with them and showing that here? Look, they're just – they're talking about it. They wanted us to do this. Did that carry no weight in court?

BD: Well, it never went to trial, so we never got to make that argument. But the first thing we wanted to do, of course, was to depose our person, the person that I had daily contact with. As soon as the FBI raided us, eBay's employee in their affiliate marketing department, their program manager that we worked with, she disappeared and was completely off the map and nobody knew where she was, quote unquote, for six whole months. And at the end of that six whole months, because we actually had an investigator trying to find her so that we could depose her, she resurfaced and eBay had transferred her overseas to London, where she remained through the duration of the whole case. So we were unable to depose her.

EE: To the best of my ability to figure this out, I have an opinion, and I suspect Brian can't even say what I'm about to say from a legalistic standpoint. That's my guess, but I haven't asked him. I've never asked him before. But my opinion is that eBay was doing something that was ethically questionable and using affiliates like Brian and others to do it. And then when some heat came on them, I think they threw these affiliates under the bus.

BD: I agree with most of what you say. I don't see anything that they were doing. that was unethical, though. My best analysis was really this was just a case of their left hand didn't know what their right hand was doing. And somebody internally had some problem that we don't know what it was. And they said, well, hey, rather than saying our guys are doing something wrong, let's just say we were being cheated or fooled or something by the affiliates.

S: I get that, but I still don't – maybe there's no answer to this. It sounds like you don't have an answer to this. But what is the offense that is being alleged? that they were trying to cover up or blame on somebody else? So here's my reading of this over the years. Again, I never really understood what happened. But one thing that some people seem to get the impression happened is is that you were taking credit for referrals to eBay that you weren't really responsible for. In other words, that pixel that was on their website on the widget would capture affiliate credit even if they went to eBay by themselves. that had nothing to do with the ad that you had placed there. Is that accurate or is that a misunderstanding of how this worked?

BD: Okay, so we have to introduce a new level of complexity to address that.

S: I'm sorry, I know.

BD: You're correct. So there was a middleman company, which was called Commission Junction, which eBay employed as the middleman contractor that actually ran this program and did everything. Now, they had their own contract. that said we couldn't put eBay's Pixel actually in the ad, that the users would have to actually click the ad and go to the website, and that's when the direct connection would be established between the user's computer and eBay, allowing eBay to write cookies on their computer. Now, very, very early in our involvement with eBay, when everyone is trying to figure out, gee, how can we make this better? How can we get more traffic? How can we generate more clicks? eBay made it known to me in kind of a sideways sort of way. Well, hey, if the pixel, if our pixel was actually in the ad, then they would get we would be able to write to their computer before and whether or not they ever actually visited the Web site. So that, I think, addresses exactly what you're talking about. I see. And the problem that that caused was that now we had the choice of, well, do we want to violate Commission Junction's terms of service or do we want to not do what eBay is telling us to do?

S: Okay.

BD: We're between a rock and a hard place from day one. I see. And eBay was the 800-pound gorilla. They were by far Commission Junction's largest customer. And eBay always told us. I remember the phone calls specifically. They said, we support what you're doing, whether or not they do. If they ever give you any guff, you call me. I will have it cleared up within 10 minutes. And that's what always happened. We actually had printouts of the email conversation. I would email my contact at eBay and said, Commission Junction just called me. They said they've got a problem with the... the pixel appearing in the ad because it generates this connection to the server while someone is only viewing the ad and not clicking on it. And, and, and she would reply back to me, no problem. I'll take care of it. You stand by. And then five minutes later, she'd email me. Okay. It's handled. You're, you're clear. Keep, keep on keeping on.

S: I see. Now I think I understand it a little bit better. So you think that is the focus of the – I'll say misunderstanding, whatever. All of the hubbub was that pixel. Do you think maybe that eBay was violating their agreement with the middleman and then they tried to throw you under the bus to cover that fact?

BD: That's a possibility. That is absolutely a possibility. In the middle of this, in fact, I even called Commission Junction and said, hey, look, eBay is screwing you here. If you'd like my evidence that these conversations they're having with me to violate our agreement, I'm in.

S: Was Commission Junction being screwed out of commission because of the way it was working this way? Were they being bypassed in some way?

BD: I not not in any way that I know of. I actually feel that Commission Junction was probably. I mean, they were. they had their terms of service the way they felt affiliate programs should run. And I think that they were true to that and they were willing to stand up to their biggest customer. Yeah. You know, in a sense, I admire them for doing that. In another sense, it's like, well, hey, this is how your customers this is what eBay is hiring you to do. You should do it the way they want you to do it. Yeah.

S: So again, I'm trying to find out who the victim is in all of this. So eBay wasn't losing anything out, right? They were paying a commission but that's because people were coming to them through your ads, right?

BD: Yeah. I mean, if somebody never saw an ad on the Internet and then they went to eBay all on their own with a fresh, clean browser and eBay would get to keep the full commission.

S: Yeah.

BD: So their argument was, hey, we lost money. It's like, well, no, you didn't lose any money because all of these were profitable commissions on sales from people who saw our ads.

B: The cookie was written, though, if I'm reading this right, from just displaying the ad, just by having it display on the screen. That's correct. So that seems sketchy to me. I mean, I see a lot of ads, but I'd almost never click them. And I would expect that if I clicked it, then, yeah, whatever happens, happens. But if it just appears and I don't do anything, I really wouldn't expect anything to happen. But it did happen. So to me, that seems the crux of the sketchiness is that.

BD: I agree with you. Right there. And the thing is, that's up to eBay. The connection was to eBay's computer. It was their scripting on their end that decided what to do with this connection. Do we read to see if they already have a cookie?

EE: See, that's the thing that made it really clear to me was when I understood that Brian wasn't creating this system. He was just putting it in place per eBay's instructions.

BD: Yeah. Is that accurate, Brian?

S: Yeah.

BD: They asked me to give them a racetrack. They're free to drive on the racetrack or not to.

EE: And so it's really clear to me that Brian wasn't guilty of creating some insidious thing that does a thing in the background. He was guilty of building a way that these things that eBay was creating could be delivered. And that is why he got into trouble because he was simply involved in this process and they threw him under the bus. That's the way I read it.

S: Brian, at the end of all this, do you think that you made any mistakes that you regret?

BD: So actually, the day that the FBI raided my house, the first thing on my calendar that morning was to call up eBay and say, we need to have the contract amended because we keep getting these complaints from Commission Junction and you keep overriding them. I want to have this in writing that you want us to be doing the ads this way, that this is not something I can potentially get in trouble for. And it seems unlikely that anyone's going to believe me when I say that that was honestly the first thing I was going to do that day. Yeah. Yeah. I regret. I definitely regret allowing myself to be in a position where two people were telling me two different things. Yeah. And. I mean, you've got to be on top of that kind of thing. You've got to say, no, I'm not going to be in this ambiguous position where either one of you might suddenly decide you've got some claim against me because the contract I have with the other party you don't like.

S: Yeah. So I want to move on to the other part of the interview. So that is –. obviously this whole situation is very complicated. We're trying to get to the bottom of this as best we can. So what I'll just say, if there are any listeners out there who have questions we didn't ask or you think were left unanswered, email us. Email Brian, right? Brian, you're happy to answer anything that was left unanswered. Absolutely.

BD: Absolutely.

S: We're just trying to be as transparent as we can in a very complicated situation. Well, you can email info at – Brian, if you want to give your email, you can do that. Sure.

BD: Brian at

S: So the other part of what we wanted to talk about tonight was that you and Emery are trying to fund a movie. Part of the reason why we thought we had to clear the air about your history was because when we posted a link to this on our Facebook page – There was a discussion about, oh, why should we give money to a fraudster? You're asking us to support something done by somebody who's a convicted felon and I thought, well, OK, fair enough. If we're going to ask for this, we should at least give you enough information to make an informed decision about what this is. Let me further say that I think regardless of what you think about all of this and what your guilt is in all of this, you paid your debt to society for whatever it's worth. It's done and going forward, you want to be – you want to do – as you said to me many times, you want to do good skeptical work. That's your redemption, right? And I totally believe in redemption. I totally believe, hey, if you want to do good skeptical work going forward, you know, I'm happy to support you. So that's what this project is about. So tell us about this movie that you and Emery are looking to produce.

BD: So the title is called Science Friction. And it's a documentary film about scientists who have been misrepresented by science documentaries on TV, movies, the media.

S: Does that happen?

BD: It happens all the time.

E: Which channel is that on?

BD: In fact, Steve, as you know, you were one of the people that we interviewed. We talked about your experience on the Dr. Oz show. And that was a drop in the bucket from all the stories that we've been collecting.

S: It wasn't even my worst experience.

BD: Oh, it wasn't? Well, we've got to come back and do a second round of interviews with you then.

S: Yeah, absolutely. No, that was – Yeah.

BD: So what we want to do is we want to give them a chance to say, OK, what did you actually tell the TV producers? And then we're going to show what actually made it onto the air. And you can see that it was edited horribly out of context or misrepresented. They twisted their words to make it sound like the scientist was promoting the Wu perspective, basically. And the further we've gone down this rabbit hole, everyone we talked to says, oh, well, you need to talk to this person, this person and this person, because it was way worse with this. Now, we've got a lot of big names on here, but but really the people that this has happened to the most and the most dramatic stories that we've got are from people whose names aren't necessarily household names. Regular working scientists who were really excited to get a call from Discovery Channel, History Channel, Science Channel, you name it. And were really excited to have a chance to be on a TV show and had every reason to believe they were going to be presented as a scientist and they were going to get to share their awesome science with us. with them. They got screwed. They were really upset about it. And they found that they had no recourse.

S: Yeah. You sign your life away. Absolutely. It's boilerplate. But they say, yeah, sign this release. Basically, we can do whatever the hell we want with this footage and you have no recourse. And what are you going to do? I mean, you have to sign those things if you're going to do that. Most like workaday scientists who aren't media savvy have no idea, you know, how all this works. And they think they'll just tell their story and what could go wrong, you know? And even, you know, I try to be savvy and I still get screwed, you know?

BD: My favorite person that we talked to was Richard Wiseman. I was able to buttonhole him at a conference last year and say, I told him about the film and his response really surprised me. This is my favorite thing that's happened to me so far in this whole experience. He literally backed me against the wall and got right in my face and said, the reason that doesn't happen to me is because I am so paranoid about it. Every time one of these producers comes to my university and wants to feature one of us or wants to feature me on their TV show, you would not believe the grinder that we put them through. We make them sign this giant contract that says we get creative control over the final product. We get final edit. This is a partnership between our university and you. And nobody agrees to that contract.

E: No.

S: I can't see it. They would never agree to that.

EE: But Brian, did he make you sign that too? No.

BD: Okay, so he said, and it's going to be the same thing if I talk to you guys. Now, the difference is, of course, I'm excited to sign that. I'm thrilled to sign that. I say, yes, that's exactly what we want to communicate. These are the links that you have to go to as a science communicator if you don't want to be misrepresented by the media. And that's what was so dramatic.

EE: Was there a repeat offending party here that when you guys were going through this process, you were like, oh my god, this movie that all of these people were in was a horrible scam? Which one was the big offender?

BD: Oh, well, okay. I mean, we talked to both Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins about their experience with Expelled. Yeah, that was Expelled. It was like the poster child for this. Yeah, that was a good one. We are hoping to, we haven't gotten to it yet, but we're hoping to talk to Lawrence Krauss, Kate Mulgrew, and Michio Kaku about The Principle, which was a 2014 movie promoting geocentrism. A whole alternate view of the universe and all of these people were lied to about what the movie was going to be about. There was also other scientists who weren't even interviewed for the movie. They took like existing footage of them and edited it badly to fit it into there to make it sound like they were promoting geocentrism.

S: Yeah, I mean, Brian, as you and I both know, the editing room is powerful. It is amazingly powerful. You could make audio or video sound like pretty much whatever you want.

EE: I'm jumping in. I was really excited about this project. First of all, I understand the responsibility of directing and editing this sort of project, or any project, I should say, for that matter. In fact, when we cut the aristocrats, it would have been so easy to piece together sentences, and we broke up sentences left and right in that film. It would have been so easy to piece together sentences to say things and do things that the acts that we were talking to, the artists we were discussing this with on film, weren't saying. We could have gotten anything we wanted in many cases. And Provenza and I, we not only wouldn't change someone's words, we would never change the meaning of someone's concept. And that was my learning ground for that. It was really great. And that's when I learned that Michael Moore isn't a good storyteller is when I started learning how easy it is and then seeing the techniques used to alter a story so that it fits your narrative. It blew my mind when I started looking at initially at Michael Moore and then others and then. Television, once you become a professional editor, television is hard to watch. Porn's worse. Television is hard to watch. But what's really, really maddening is when you can recognize how someone has been misrepresented conceptually. It really should be illegal, even though it's not. It makes me crazy. And so morally, I couldn't possibly stand any stronger against this kind of behavior. So to not only be given the opportunity to work on a story that that exposes this problem, I'm also very anxious to be the watchdog to make sure we don't make any of these kinds of mistakes.

BD: One thing that I want to do when we're running the end credits, I'm hoping to include a little Skype clip of everyone who appeared in our film telling whether they felt they were fairly represented in our final cut or not.

EE: Oh, that's a great idea. Wow, I love that.

S: Yeah. Well, good journalists will do that. I've had journalists from major papers or whatever say, oh, yeah, here's the final quotes from you. Is this OK? To make sure I got it correct. That's actually responsible journalism. They vet their interpretation of what you said. But then there's – that's usually more in print. For TV, I've never had that done. I've encountered mainly just – A lot of sleazy characters and then a lot of well-meaning but misguided characters. And I try to stick with people who I think get it. So I usually have a long conversation with them before the actual filming. But you never know. You never know what they're going to do to you in the editing room, no matter how careful you are.

EE: Yeah, I'm hoping that we can honestly put at the end of our movie, no scientific theories were harmed in the making.

S: Awesome. You have to do that. All right. So if people want to support this project, Brian, what should they do?

BD: So go to There's a trailer there. There's little clips from some of the interviews. And I just want to reiterate that the film is being produced by Skeptoid Media, of whom I am obviously a key employee, but I am not on the board of directors. I am not the treasurer. I don't have unlimited authority to spend the nonprofit's money. I'm just the guy the board of directors has placed their faith in to produce all of this great skeptical content. So We're crowdfunding the initial production of the film. But go to the site anyway just to watch the trailer because it'll blow your socks off. And there's some social media widgets to share the trailer with your followers.

S: There's no pixels in those widgets though, right? Any cookies? There are no pixels in those widgets. All right, Brian. Thanks for coming on the show. Thanks for being so open with us. Again, if we get any further feedback, we'll let you know. Again, we're trying to be as transparent as possible with all of this. Good luck with the project and maybe we'll have you back on when it comes out. Thank you guys so much.

B: Thanks, Brian. Thanks, Emery.

S: Thanks, Emery. Bye, guys. Emery, take care.

Science or Fiction (1:21:55)[edit]

Theme: Hawaii

Item #1: A traditional Hawaiian diet consisted mostly of poi, resulting in a ratio of 12 percent protein, 18 percent fat and 70 percent carbohydrates.[5]
Item #2: The Hawaiian alphabet includes only 13 letters, one of which is the ‘ or okina.[6]
Item #3: Hawaii is home to over a dozen venomous snakes, second only to Australia in terms of deadliest vipers.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction A dozen venomous snakes
Science 13-letter alphabet
Traditional diet of poi
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
A dozen venomous snakes
A dozen venomous snakes
A dozen venomous snakes

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. And if you guys did not guess the theme, that's on you. Because the theme is Hawaii.

B: Of course it is.

S: Aloha.

B: I anticipated this.

J: Not surprised.

B: I don't think it's going to help me.

S: No, it probably won't. All right. Here we go. Three facts about Hawaii. Ready? Ready? Item number one, a traditional Hawaiian diet consisted mostly of poi, resulting in a ratio of 12% protein, 18% fat, and 70% carbohydrates. Item number two, the Hawaiian alphabet includes only 13 letters, one of which is the apostrophe or okina. And item number three, Hawaii is home to over a dozen venomous snakes, second only to Australia in terms of deadliest vipers. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: So this first one about the traditional Hawaiian diet, which consists mostly of poi.

E: It's a typo. He forgot to write S-O-N on the end of that.

J: So you're saying that you're just basically giving us the properties of what their diet is.

S: So that resulted in a diet that when you break it down, that their diet had 12% protein, 18% fat, and 70% carbohydrates.

J: Right. Gotcha. That's a tough one to even comment on because – I don't know much about Poi. This next one about the Hawaiian alphabet. Now I'm going back to Bugs Bunny. See if Bugs Bunny has anything to offer me in my memory.

J: Oh my gosh.

J: Nothing there. I do believe this one is correct. I vaguely remember some things about the Hawaiian alphabet. The Okina from the video game Zelda. Or is that the Macarena? What is that? The Ocarina?

S: The Macarena.

J: I don't know. All right. Anyway, this last one here, Hawaii is home to over a dozen venomous snakes, second only to Australia. God damn. I hate this one because I feel like there's things I should know about this because I've been there and I studied up when I went to Hawaii about stuff like what could kill me when I go there and I don't remember anything. But I don't see why...

E: Waka Kilmi is one of the smaller islands, by the way.

J: Waka Kilmi?

B: Yeah.

J: I mean, I would imagine that any snakes that are there would have to have been brought there. I don't know. There's something about the snake one I don't like. I think I'm going to say that one's a fake.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's say Poi. I remember Poi. I remember it being a little bit bland, but for some reason that ratio sounds about right based on my very old memory of what it tasted like. So I'm going to go with that one. That Yeah, I've heard that before about the – only a certain small amount of numbers or letters. Although they said something about it being when translated to English and I'm not sure what that actually means in terms of how many letters. Are there sounds that don't translate into our alphabet? But yeah, so I've kind of seen that before. The snakes though, yeah, I mean when I was there, granted it was 29 years ago, but I just have no memory of coming across or hearing about anything about snakes. poisonous or venomous snakes. um and uh boy do I remember it when I went to uh australia. uh so uh yeah so basically I mean I'll just have to say that the snake the snake one is fiction too and Evan um I'm pretty much gonna have to follow suit here.

E: uh the poi uh jay the cartoon I was thinking of was the flintstones. The Flintstones once went to the Hawaiian Islands.

J: Yes, you're right.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Past the poi was the funny line at the time when things like that in the 60s were funny. You know what? Maybe they didn't visit it, or he was shooting a commercial or something, and it had a Hawaiian theme to it. But Pass the Poi was definitely a Flintstones reference. But in any case, that doesn't necessarily help me here. But the 70% carbohydrates, I think, is maybe kind of a key in low-protein, high-carb diets in the islands. I'm not sure that that's unusual. The alphabet, 13 letters, okay, and one's the apostrophe. I seem to remember this. The The old spellings of Hawaii had the apostrophe between the two I's, if memory serves. So I'm going to say that one's right. It leaves the snakes, and I think it kind of makes sense. I doubt that there's any indigenous or otherwise snakes on the island. That's probably one going to be close to zero, if any. So I think that one's wrong.

"Pass the poi."

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. You guys are all united, so it's a sweep one way or the other. We'll just take these in order. A traditional Hawaiian diet consisted mostly of poi, resulting in a ratio of 12% protein, 18% fat, and 70% carbohydrates. You all think that one is science, and that one is science. Science. Yep, they mostly ate poi, which was their staple carbohydrate. Poi is made from the taro root, which is a giant root. I saw them when I was in Hawaii, and they sort of mash it up into a paste. It is rather bland. It's often described as tasting a little bit like yogurt, but it's also described as having an acquired taste, which I don't think on first sampling you're going to have.

B: Well, yeah, not as dramatic though as Vegemite.

S: Yeah, maybe not. And prior to Western contact, that was their staple food. So there's not a lot of really agricultural crops native to Hawaii. So when you talk about what plants are quote-unquote native to Hawaii, you have to separate it into a few different categories. Sugarcane? Well, no. There's pre-human contact native, right? So these are plants and animals that were on the islands before any human got there. So that's wind, water, and wing, right? That's how they got there. They're just drifting on the waves, blowing in the wind, or flying there. Then after the Polynesians colonized the islands, there were some things that they brought there. And then, of course, when there was contact with civilization, with Europeans, et cetera, then the contamination just flooded in. Most of the commercial crops that are grown in Hawaii were brought there later. The Polynesians, the native Hawaiians didn't really have a lot of commercial crops there. They had some native fruits. The breadfruit was there. That might have been one that they brought with them. They had the taro root. They had poi. For meat, they had chicken, pork, and fish. And of those, they mostly ate fish. Chicken and pork, that was your party food, right? That was during luau's, which is only occasional. That wasn't a staple. They didn't have that all the time. By some reports I was reading, they might have meal. Many of their meals were just entirely poi or poi, maybe just seasoned with some salt or some of the local plants for flavor. Or they might have it with some fish meat, for example. And that was basically their day-to-day diet. What's really funny is the crisscrossing narratives that you run into. So on some sites, you read about how the native Hawaiians were a healthy, vigorous people with a lot of endurance because they ate the very calorie-dense, nutritious poi, right? And poi is one of the most nutritious staple carbohydrates that there is in the world. And you can also get protein from the other parts of the plant. So they actually were able to get protein and pretty much all the nutrients that they need from it. But that's a 70% carbohydrate diet is portrayed as being healthy because it's natural, you know, to them. But of course, that totally contradicts the whole. carbohydrates are bad, low carbohydrate craze, right? In fact, when the Hawaiians started eating more of a Western diet and the proportion of poi in their diet decreased, which it has, it's plummeted, then obesity rates started increasing.

B: No surprise there.

S: Yeah, it kind of breaks the low-carb narrative. Western diets were like 40% carbohydrates compared to their 70% and the low-carb dieters recommend 20% or lower. So anyway, I love that when you have a completely separate, isolated, mutually exclusive narratives that aren't based on evidence. They ate that because that's what was there, right? They're on an island. They only have access to whatever food was there. So that's what they ate.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Okay, let's move on to number two. The Hawaiian alphabet includes only 13 letters, one of which is drawn like an apostrophe, but it's called the okina, and that is a glottal stop. You'll often see that between two vowels. You guys all think this one is science, and this one is science.

J: Of course.

S: Yep. Not a lot of consonants in Hawaiian. Now, of course, this is – as Bob said, this is when it's translated into English letters, right? Although Hawaiians have lots of different vowel sounds, but many of them are diphthongs, right? They're basically formed by two vowels joined together. Yeah. And of course, you could make each one of those vowel sounds its own letter, in which case you could count as many as 25 vowel sounds. Or you can make them up of a minimal set of vowels, in which case there's only either or five. Yes, you could say there's five or 25 vowel phonemes. But the standard way is to just do five vowels. And then you make the combinations, the diphthongs, out of those five vowels, like O-I-E-U-E-I-A-U, et cetera. But it's interesting that – so there are theories as to why there are so few phonemes in the Hawaiian and some other languages. I've encountered this before, so I just pulled up a couple of papers that talk about this. So one theory is that there was a steady decrease in phonemic diversity – As you get farther from Africa, right? So specifically meaning that there was what's called a serial founder effect. Every time a part of the population goes somewhere and forms a new population, right? Then a part of that population goes somewhere and forms another new population. You have that serial founder effect. Every time that happens, you have a decrease in phonemic diversity.

B: Oh my god. And Hawaii is like probably what? The farthest you can get from Africa?

S: Hawaii is the most isolated populated place on the earth. And it would make sense that it would be like the end of a long line of serial founders and therefore it would have a highly restricted phonemic diversity. So it's more of a general trend in language and Hawaii is just an extreme example of that in Hawaii. So it's interesting.

J: So how much farther could it go?

S: Yeah, what would happen if Hawaiians then colonized something else? And what's going to happen when we start colonizing other planets?

E: Yeah, good point.

S: But then – but you'd have to also think though that over time, the phonemic diversity has to be able to increase too, right? Because otherwise, how do we get there in the first place? That's interesting. But maybe there just hasn't been enough time. Like maybe it doesn't take hundreds of thousands of years for the phonemic diversity and then it gets winnowed down with migration. Yeah.

E: We'll have automatic cars by then.

S: Yeah, that's true.

J: I'm going to take one to Hawaii.

S: Hawaii, by the way, has interstate highways.

B: Go figure that one out.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Hawaii is home to over a dozen venomous snakes, second only to Australia in terms of deadliest vipers, is of course the fiction because Hawaii actually in its flora and fauna reminded me a lot of New Zealand. If you remember when we were visiting New Zealand, they made a point of saying how there were no predators in New Zealand until people brought them there. And therefore, the animals didn't have any defenses. The birds just nested on the ground. And that's why they were so vulnerable when predators like rats and cats and whatever were introduced. Got the same exact story from Hawaii. So Hawaii had no natural predators and no natural foragers. So no animals that forage the plants, which means the plants also had no reason to waste energy on defenses. And so – right? So that's why there aren't many poisonous plants in Hawaii either except for the ones that were later introduced, right? But for the native plants, they don't make a lot of natural pesticides because they didn't have to. So you have a lot of plants there that are just safe to eat because they didn't have to spend energy because it didn't have to fend off foragers. Right. There are two snakes that you might find in Hawaii. There's the occasional interloper, right, the occasional accidental snake that gets brought there. But there's a very large mongoose population on the Hawaiian Islands that were deliberately introduced, by the way. and they tend to keep the snake population from becoming established. But there are two established populations. One is venomous. It's a sea snake. It's an occasional visitor to the island. The land snake, the only native land snake, is as big as an earthworm. It's a teeny tiny snake. And that's it. There's no other snakes in Hawaii. So it's, again, very similar to New Zealand. If you recall, there were no snakes in New Zealand. So very few snakes, no real natural predators, no foragers. The only things are that are animals that were brought there later. The rats that seem to accompany humans wherever we go around the world were devastating to the local species. And the mongoose were introduced to kill the rat. That didn't work partly because rats are nocturnal and mongoose are diurnal. So they weren't out at the same time. So all they really did was double the predators. By now, you have a daytime and a nighttime predator. So that was a total failure. We saw plenty of mongoose. They're like squirrels. They're just all over the place. Rikki-tikki-tavvy. Yeah.

E: That was in India, but yeah.

S: They're about the size and shape of a squirrel, you know, and you see them running around. But they like hug the ground. And so even in very short grass, they're hard to see. They're like sort of sneaking through the low grass. Very stealthy little buggers. But I got some pictures of them. Cool. Yeah. They're cute. All right. So good job, guys. Yeah. You didn't get fooled by the Hawaiian vipers. Yeah. No real – there's only – there's not a lot of spiders too. There's a smiling spider in Hawaii.

B: Yeah, I saw that.

S: Yeah, very cute. Until it bites you.

B: It's got a smiley face on its back.

S: Yeah, it's got a smiley face.

E: Oh, neat. Oh, here's one with an hourglass on its back. Oh, cute.

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

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:37:15)[edit]

No idea should be suppressed. … And it applies to ideas that look like nonsense. We must not forget that some of the best ideas seemed like nonsense at first. The truth will prevail in the end. Nonsense will fall of its own weight, by a sort of intellectual law of gravitation. If we bat it about, we shall only keep an error in the air a little longer. And a new truth will go into orbit.
Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (1900-1979), British-American astronomer and astrophysicist

E: No idea should be suppressed, and it applies to ideas that look like nonsense. We must not forget that some of the best ideas seem like nonsense at first. The truth will prevail in the end. Nonsense will fall of its own weight by a sort of intellectual law of gravitation. If we bat it about, we shall only keep an error in the air a little longer, and a new truth will go into orbit. And that was written by Cecilia Payne, who was a British-American astronomer and astrophysicist, who in 1925 proposed her PhD thesis, An Explanation for the Composition of Stars in Terms of Relative Abundances of Hydrogen, Yeah. Cecilia Payne.

S: Well, it depends on what you mean by suppressed, right? So does that mean that we need to give access to nonsensical ideas in the published literature, on university campuses, in textbooks? Of course not. By not discussing creationism in a high school biology textbook, are we suppressing creationism? That's what they say. So it's hard to say that. I mean, again, this is a long time ago. I'm sure she said this. So In today's society though, this is – you can't get away with just making the statement I think. There's so much nuance here that she's glossing over that we now are aware of. I also don't agree that all nonsensical ideas – will fall as a matter of course. I don't think that that's true. For example, in Asian cultures, people still believe in chi like they have for thousands of years. The notion of chi, which is utter superstitious nonsense, has not declined for thousands of years. So I do think that nonsensical ideas do need to be specifically opposed. I don't think that they should be censored completely as if suppressed in that extent. But there is a proper time and place and context for them. Right. And they need to be discussed in that context. You know, that doesn't mean that they should have unfettered access to legitimate outlets like science textbooks and and the published literature, et cetera. Right.

E: I don't think she's making the equal time argument by stating this necessarily.

S: I agree. But my point is a creationist would absolutely quote this without change as support for their equal time academic freedom position. Oh, sure. Yes.

E: Their master is at taking all sorts of things.

S: Because there's a lot of nuance that she's not addressing in that short quote.

E: No, and I think – right, right. And if you look at it from within a purely – rational, scientific circle. I think it makes sense, but that we understand culturally and otherwise, that's not really how the world works. And if you look at it more of a worldview, absolutely, this has problems. But my guess – I'll give her charity and assume that she was speaking from within the circles of real science.

S: Sure. Absolutely. Also, I think it's just a different time. Now we're in an age post-internet, post-concerted efforts to regress the enlightenment. We have to be more aware of how our dedication to openness is being abused by the people who are trying to promote nonsense. So we've had to take a more nuanced position to just – yeah, just total free market of ideas. Sure, I totally believe in the free market of ideas. That doesn't mean there aren't rules and there aren't mechanisms of quality control. That's where you get into. I think problems is when you use quality control and equate that with suppression of ideas. Those are two different things but they could be easily conflated and that's basically what happens. But yeah, I like the quote, but we live in a more complicated world today, so it doesn't go far enough.

E: That's right. Stephen Jay Gould said, right, apples might float, but we're not going to give it equal times in physics class.

S: Yeah, exactly. All right. Thank you guys for joining me this week.

E: Good show, Steve. Sure, man.

J: You got it, brother.

Signoff/Announcements (1:41:43)[edit]

S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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