SGU Episode 703

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SGU Episode 703
December 28th 2019
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SGU 702                      SGU 704

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re doing something.

Neil Gaiman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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, December 19th, 2018, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Should old acquaintance be forgotten?

C: Not yet.

E: Why do they say that?

S: Because it's in the song.

E: Well, I get that, but why do you have to forget them? I don't...

C: Isn't it Scottish? Weren't they talking about that a lot when we were in Scotland? And they love that song, remember?

E: Yes. They sing it at weddings. It's the parting song at weddings, or the last dance, bride and groom.

C: Something like that.

E: It's horribly sad.

J: I think our tour bus guide told us something about...

E: It's a story about the characters, there's two brothers who like it.

C: No, that's a different song.

S: That's The High Road and The Low Road.

E: Oh, High Road, Low Road.

C: Yeah. That's Loch Lomond.

S: Loch Lomond, yeah. Which I enjoy that song a lot more now that I know the actual story behind it.

C: It's so pretty.

S: The high road is being alive and walking over land, and taking the low road is being dead and going through the spirit world, which gets you back to Scotland a lot faster than having to actually walk through like, mountains and stuff. It's a sad, it's a very sad song.

J: The guy that took, so one of the two, I guess, had to die. And the guy that chose to die, sacrificed himself so his friend could go back and be with the woman.

S: Yeah. Well, in one version, it's his friend. The other version, it's his brother.

C: Yeah. But either way, he like leaves the note. He like leaves in the middle of the night and leaves the note, and he wakes up in the morning and sees it. It's quite sad. It's a very strange song to play at weddings, but I appreciate it. But I think they also said that they play what we consider to be a New Year's Eve song at like regular events. It's also like a pride and joy of Scotland is, how do you even pronounce it?

E: Auld Lang Syne.

C: Auld Lang Syne.

E: Yeah. It's interesting. But of course, this time of year, those sorts of thoughts come to mind. And you know, my point is, I don't want to forget my acquaintances. I like many of my acquaintances.

C: Well, maybe you have to start fresh sometimes.

S: Auld Lang Syne, by the way, Auld Lang Syne is a Scots language poem by Robert Burns written in 1788. So that's what they were talking about.

C: There you go.

S: So we play it on New Year's Eve. They play it at weddings, apparently.

C: But it makes sense. I mean, if you think about it, for many people, the holidays and then the new year are joyous. You know, we make resolutions. We start fresh. But for a lot of people, this is a hard time for them. People who have experienced loss or trauma, it's like is re-traumatizing and stuff. And I think that it's an ambivalent time for a lot of people. There's a lot of warmth and family and love, but there's also difficulty getting through the holidays because most of us have gone through some amount of loss and that can be hard. So I could see a bittersweet song making sense there.

J: With a little bit of research, I found out why Auld Lang Syne starts with the question, should old acquaintance be forgot?

E: Ah.

J: It's a rhetorical question because-

S: Yeah. It's not a recommendation.

J: The point is basically saying, no, we should not forget the past and should not forget longstanding friendships.

E: I like that.

C: Well, there you go.

E: I like that. Thank you, Jay. I feel better now.

J: Happy New Year to you too, my friend.

E: Likewise.

Year in Review (3:31)[edit]

S: All right. Talking about remembering the past, this is our year in review show. This is the last show we're recording for the year. So the show that's coming out on the 22nd, December 22nd, is the show that we recorded in London back in October. And this show that we're recording tonight is being released on December 29th. It's the last show of the year. And it's been our tradition for the last 13 years to do a year-end review show where we talk about the good and the bad in science and skepticism in the SGU over the previous year. Maybe take a little bit of a look ahead as to what's coming up. So we're going to start off with just a review of the SGU in 2018. This is actually a big year for us, guys. We had-

B: Huge.

S: Yeah. Our book came out and that was awesome. And then we had a book tour basically around the book release. We went to the UK, Scotland, did a lot of local events here. Cara basically hung out with us for two weeks. It was a lot of fun.

C: Yeah, it was awesome. So much fun. I love spending time in Connecticut, in New York, in DC. Oh my gosh, I love spending time at the Smithsonian. But obviously, Manchester, London, and Edinburgh. I mean, that was awesome.

S: What was your favorite part of the trip?

C: I think for me, it was the trip to the Highlands.

S: For me, it was the Wren Library. I mean, first of all, Cambridge is gorgeous. It's like a story of a medieval town. And then you're being in that library, just standing and looking at a book that is 900 years old, 800 years old.

E: Oh my gosh.

C: Pretty crazy.

S: Or reading Isaac Newton's own handwriting. His copy of the Principia.

B: That was magical. To me, that was a high- That's like a top two.

E: I got goosebumps.

S: Nothing could top that. I'm sorry.

E: Oh my gosh.

C: It was really cool.

J: They also had a handwritten poetry book by Lord Tennyson, who happens to have written my favorite poem. That was intense. Like actually seeing his poor handwriting. It wasn't very clean. And similarly, I'm left-handed, and I don't write a lot nowadays because of the computers. But it was just awesome to be in front of these artefacts, and these are human artefacts that have actual. It's not just an old bone. This is like a representation of somebody's work and their life. The air molecules that they breathe, they're in that room.

S: Well, they're everywhere, right? As we discussed.

C: True. True. But the oils of their fingers were on those pages.

E: That's right.

S: Well, I think it's what it represents. Obviously, there's no essence or anything magical there, but it represents the intellectual and cultural continuity between these giants of our species all the way down to the modern day. This is a first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, and written in the margin are criticisms by one of his contemporary critics who didn't believe in evolution.

C: Yeah, that's pretty cool.

S: His snarky comments. It's amazing that that exists. One of the things that's fantastic about universities is that they do represent this sort of cultural intellectual continuity. There's institutional knowledge that gets carried forward, and that's just a physical representation of it, but it's amazing.

C: It's also, I think, a hallmark of really good teachers and professors is giving you that kind of rich context when you learn about- Let's say you're taking a science class. Instead of just learning a bunch of things we know now, really learning why we know them and how some people kind of disagreed with those things, and then this dude came along and did this, and then this woman came along and was a heretic. It's so cool to then go see it, but I think most of us were lucky enough that we had really good teachers and we read really good books that inspired us with that. I hope that young people get that opportunity too, because it really does make it all come alive.

S: Yeah, I agree. That's the thing that's amazing about it is because we do, when we think back to these giant figures in scientific history like Newton or Einstein or Darwin or whoever, they're mythical figures now. They're not real people. Then when you are looking at a book that they held and wrote in, you see that they were just a guy. It was just a person.

C: Yeah. Like you said, Jay. Like he's got bad handwriting, Lord Tennis. It's like amazing.

B: But Steve, it's still interesting to think that, sure, you can kind of separate yourself from it and think, there is nothing really magical about these items, but if they could duplicate that book that Newton had jotted down in his Principia and with his handwriting, if they duplicated that atom to atom and put it next to it, I would still- It would be different. It would still be different. This is holdover in my brain that makes it just the tiniest bit magical, even though it's not.

C: It would be worth a hell of a lot less money too.

B: Sure, but you'd never be able to prove it. If you would take my premise, you'd never be able to prove it. But the thing is though-

E: We're cloning books now.

B: It's interesting. I mean, it's a thought experiment.

E: Oh, can I go back to Cara's point about the Scottish Highlands for a moment? Which was a wonderful day. And the first stop we made in the Highlands, besides that little rest area to go to the bathroom, was a place called-

C: Which was still stunning.

E: Was a place called Castle Dune. And I had no idea that was on the itinerary for the day, and I had no idea the significance of that castle until essentially you pull up to it, and oh my gosh, it's the castle from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, along with probably 18 other things that I've seen on TV or in the movies that I can't remember. But it was just, the moment hit me. I was stunned. I was so pleased.

S: Well, what was interesting was how many different locations in the movie was filmed at that castle. They just would change the camera angle, dress it up a different way, you know what I mean? So it was, half the movie was filmed at that castle. It's amazing.

E: It was all around there. And I'm watching recently on Netflix, The Outlaw King. I don't know if anyone else has seen that. Guess what castle appears in that show as well? And I'm like, okay, now that's it. Forever burned in my brain. I will always know Castle Dune from now on every time I see it on a big screen.

S: Yeah. I mean, we had a lot of trips this year. We did NECSS, Dragon Con, QED, and then we had our special shows in London and Cambridge and then the Smithsonian. And the best thing about that always is just getting to hang out with a lot of our fellow skeptics, to interface with the community. That is always, I think, really energizing for us. You know?

B: Sure.

J: The UK people were really awesome. I know we've said it before, but it really, it's funny because I grew up in the New York City area and people in New England, especially in and around New York, it's a rough crowd. People aren't super friendly. It's just the vibe. That's part of the reason that gives it its own charm, right? That is a New York, very much a New York vibe. But you know, the people in London and throughout all of the UK were incredibly friendly and incredibly funny, legitimately funny people like the dry humor that they have is like a backbone, I think, of the way that they think and the way that they talk. That's why I've always loved British humor.

S: So another thing that was new for the SGU this year is this year we started our Patreon page and that's been extremely successful. That allowed us to access to all of their features, including the Discord, which has been now a vibrant community that's in addition to our SGU it's great.

B: Great work on that, Jay. Jay put in a ton of amazingly hard work.

E: He's anchoring that. Yep.

C: Absolutely.

B: Fantastic job, Jay.

J: It's funny to think-

C: And big thanks to Ian too.

E: Ooh, Ian Callahan. Yeah.

C: Callanan.

J: He says everybody makes that mistake. Ian Callanan. I remember the six weeks it took to come up with all the content to post the actual Patreon page, there's a lot of copy a lot of writing and decisions we had to make. You know, we really were trying to be aggressive. We wanted to make the introductory video, like the welcome video, but I look back on it now, it's funny before Cara was saying, like, she doesn't remember, like, the years kind of blend into each other. It seems-

C: Oh, yeah.

J: This oddly seems like we just did it last week to me. It doesn't seem like 10 months ago to me already. It just seems like we just ran that project not too long ago, but we had a lot of fun making the video that night. I had to throw myself on the floor, I don't know how many times, a dozen times, Steve? How many times we shoot that just to get it all right? And I actually kind of hurt myself after that. I remember for a few days, like, tweaked my back. Because I was taking a real hit there.

S: We have to update the copy too, because now we're over 700 episodes. Our patrons right now, as we record this episode, are at 2921. We are 79 patrons away from hitting our goal of 3000 when Jay can officially work full-time for the SGU. And then we'll be on our way to the later goals. I'm excited about the 4000 one, where we have a 12-hour live show, 12-hour live SGU marathon. And we may try to do that one from the bridge of the Enterprise.

J: We've talked about this on the show. I found that since Steve mentioned this on the show, we know we talk about a lot of stuff, but if Steve says it on the show, of course, it's written in gold. And since that went gold, I've been subtly, slowly, and secretively buying myself Star Trek props and stuff that I'm going to want if we happen to do the show. You know what I mean? My costume has to be awesome. Everything has to be awesome. So my God, that would be an amazing goal.

S: We'll be ready.

J: At its heart, even all the fun stuff, I mean, of course, me working for the SGU is going to move the needle quite a bit. And I would appreciate it and love it more than anything. But if you really believe that what we're doing is a positive thing, then consider becoming a patron of ours. You could get onto our Discord server if you become a patron. At the $8 level, you will get an ad-free version of the show and all of our premium content. We have a ton of premium content at this point.

S: I think it's 109 different pieces so far, but we increase that all the time.

B: So what kind of premium content are we talking about, guys? What is that stuff? I never even looked at it.

S: It's a lot of extra segments. I might put together one, two, or three, depending on how long they are, segments that didn't make it to the show just for time. We always over-record. I basically over-record like one episode each week, and then I just put that up as premium content. But then there's some special things that we do just for premium content, like videos, interviews. Sometimes I'll just answer emails, and that's the premium content for that week. And we're open to suggestions too, whatever kind of content you want. It's just extra stuff specifically for our listeners.

J: And also, we do a monthly live stream that is for patrons only, where they can ask us questions. It's high in interactivity, and it's a lot of fun. We've been having a blast. We're going to probably do an open show very soon to the public, just to let everybody see what these live streams are like. You could go to, and you could read all about what you get when you become an SGU member.

S: All right. So there's something else that happened to us this year that we haven't spoken about yet on the show. And this is-

C: What's that?

E: Do we have clearance?

S: This is the most interesting thing I think that happened to us this year.

B: Do we have clearance, clearance?

E: There we go. Here we go.

S: We were invited to have a sit down at the CIA.

E: The Central Intelligence Agency.

S: That's right. And it was as interesting as you think it was. So everything that we saw, we got the public tour, right? And everything that we were exposed to is in the public domain, right? We obviously-

C: But to be clear, they don't give public tours. We just got a special tour that happened to not be redacted.

S: Well, it was in their museum. It was in the part of the CIA where the public is allowed to go.

C: But apparently you can't just show up at the CIA and ask for a tour.

S: No, no, no.

E: Right, right.

C: You have to be invited.

E: Still an invitation, which we were. We were invited.

S: It was essentially by the part of the CIA, their outreach program, right? So what's interesting is, and what we talked about, is the dilemma, the difficulty in being a secretive organization that's working for the public, right? So how do they have transparency and accountability at the same time that they have secrecy and intelligence? And that's what they're struggling with. So for example, people may make claims about what the CIA did or whatever, and they can't respond to it because it's all classified. So they're sort of struggling with this idea of how do we at least confront myths about the CIA, which is why I think they contacted us. Like, oh, these guys bust myths. Let's talk to them about it. And explain to the public what it is that they do, exactly how they operate, at least the parts that we could know about. And so I think to their credit, because they acknowledge they are public servants, right? What they are doing is in the public interest, and they want to make sure that the public knows as much as we can about what the CIA does. So that was kind of the purpose for the visit. But still, you could tell that organizationally, this is not in their wheelhouse, right? This is not their strong suit.

C: Oh, God, no. Yeah. I mean, they said themselves, they used this phrase, like, we're professional liars. We're paid to, like, some of the people we talked to were like, yeah, my parents don't know I work here. Like, I use a fake name. I'm completely sure.

S: We had no last names. We were given no last names.

C: Yeah, it's just letters.

E: That's right.

C: It's really interesting. And so, yeah, I mean, in an effort to do their job effectively, sometimes they have to literally lie. Like, it's sanctioned lying in order to do it. So it is tough to then turn around and say, oh, but when I'm telling you the truth, when I say I'm telling you the truth, I am.

S: So here's the thing. They said to us that they are not allowed, it's illegal, they are not allowed to tell a lie to a direct question from an American citizen.

C: That's true. It's a different jurisdiction.

S: But they're not, they're just simply not allowed to do that. So that was the origin of the phrase, I can neither confirm nor deny that X, because that's the way they have to answer those questions because they can't lie. So they just say, I can neither confirm or deny that this is happening or whatever.

C: They also do everything within their power to never have to be subpoenaed, right? To never have to go on the stand. Like they were saying, because this is something I did not know this about the CIA. I'm revealing my utter ignorance right now. And maybe people listening those that aren't from the US or maybe some like me who grew up here and just didn't know this. The CIA, even though it's called the Central Intelligence Agency, only investigates foreign intelligence.

E: Non-domestic.

C: Non-domestic. If, in some sort of investigation, a player turns up that's an American citizen, they have to pass that portion off to the FBI. They are not allowed to investigate American citizens. It's not in their mandate or their charter.

J: That is a big paradigm shift once you really understand what that means. They don't walk around and do things in the United States, which you would think, you know, the CIA is probably all over that. Or they're working hand-in-hand with the FBI. We pick up so much from TV and movies, and this was the big eye-opener for me. When we first got there, our host said to us, hey, just tell me a bunch of things that you think about the CIA, like preconceptions when you walk in here before we take you on the tour.

B: One-word adjectives.

C: Yeah.

J: So one thing I said was that they're packing heat that they're going to be carrying guns. I thought they carried guns. Well, I was wrong. They don't carry guns.

S: That's the FBI. They're not the police, right? The FBI—

E: They're not law enforcement.

S: The FBI is law enforcement.

B: They're not agents either. They're officers.

S: There's no CIA agents. They're CIA officers and analysts and tech specialists. I asked them a bunch of questions about their process of data analysis. I wanted to know, do you guys do a lot of data mining? And do you red team your—in other words, do you specifically appoint a devil's advocate in order to try to shoot down any hypotheses that you have? I wanted to see how much of the critical thinking they incorporate into their process. And they have—I have to say, I was impressed. They had good answers for all my questions.

B: Yeah, they did.

S: And you could tell. Like, I could tell if someone, like, really knows what they're talking about when it comes to, like, this basic nuts and bolts critical thinking type stuff. And they knew what they were talking about. So they—it sounds like they have a good skeptical process when they're analysing intelligence. The tricky part, of course, which they really tried hard to steer clear of in their interactions with us, is they—it's not their job to get involved in politics, right? So it's like we just—we put together the intelligence, and they were clear, intelligence is not data. Intelligence is data that has been analysed, right? And then they pass that off to the decision makers, right? And then that's it. It's out of their hand. Whatever happens to it at that point is not their job.

J: So my takeaway from that was very—I was surprised to find out that they don't really make decisions in the way that you would normally think an agency like that would be operating. Because I've seen, like, even FBI shows where it seems like the FBI is making all the decisions on what the FBI is doing. And I think I just kind of—what would you call it? I just overlaid the same kind of thinking with the CIA, but they said they prepare information. They give it to the higher ups, which is usually the president or the president's cabinet in his offices. And the president tells them what to do.

C: Yeah, they cannot make policy recommendations. And so the thing that was really interesting to me, I actually applied it recently to some work in my practicum where I'm working with individuals who have some very specific struggles. And there was one point in time where one of the clients had a struggle. And I realized that is not my job, nor is it appropriate or ethical for me to try and steer this person into any specific course of action, even though my value systems would tell me, oh, my God, please do this thing. If you don't, you're going to ruin your life. So I really took a page out of what the CIA was saying, where they said, listen, we do an analysis and we have to put probabilities and percentiles on things. So we have to say we are 72% sure that if X happens, Y will follow. And then in scenario B, we are X percent sure that if X happens, Y will follow. And all they can do is say, this is scenario A, this is scenario B, this is scenario C. Now, a thinking person might be able to look at those things and say, obviously, scenario A is the best scenario, but they cannot say that. All they can do is say, this is scenario A, this is scenario B, this is scenario C. It is up to you to use this intelligence how you see fit. And I really, I utilized that in my own practice. It was kind of a cool thing.

B: Yeah, I was really impressed with one of the officers, a woman who's also studying artificial intelligence for the CIA, which I wanted to talk with her for hours, but she was talking about how her process of removing bias when she's like sending reports up, and it was really impressive. It's so baked in. It's so baked into the process to remove bias on so many levels with other people, other eyes looking at it and the kind of things that you do day to day. That was impressive.

E: Yeah. Just about everyone we spoke with mentioned bias control in some fashion. It's constantly, constantly part of their initial layer of thinking, which is good.

S: Now, this doesn't mean that the CIA hasn't made mistakes, that they haven't done some shady things over the years. We're getting like the 2018 version, where it does seem like they have learned from these past mistakes that were things where they stepped over the line, which is something that I have read, actually, which is why I asked those questions. When the Bay of Pigs fiasco happened, the conventional wisdom is that they learned that, wow, you really need to red team these decisions. You can't have everybody on the same side.

C: Well, and they were pretty transparent about Bay of Pigs, I think.

S: They were.

C: The historian was like, but it's probably because nobody there was actually working with the people we talked to, at least, when that happened. I asked about honey trapping, and they were like, oh, we're not going to answer that question. I was like, well, okay.

J: I felt, too, like being in a room full of people that are trained in skill sets that you're not exposed to a lot, there was a very poignant vibe in the air. One of the people that impressed me was the analyst that they brought in, that lead analyst.

B: He was such a nerd.

C: Yeah, he's the one who really described the process.

S: Yeah, they're nerds. Most of the people we met were nerds.

C: Oh, yeah.

S: Absolutely.

C: A lot of them had PhDs.

J: But that guy really impressed me. He was talking, and he was explaining their process and how they go through the jigs and jags of figuring out if a piece of data is valuable and worthwhile and legitimate. I was enraptured by that. It was really complicated and very recursive.

S: They know what they're doing, was the impression I walked away with, which is reassuring in a way. There's a couple of cool things. One, again, we were meeting primarily with their outreach program, and they do produce a podcast, we learned. It's an internal podcast that's classified. It's only for other people at the CIA.

E: So cool.

C: Isn't that amazing? They also have a classified journal that we can't read. Like a peer-reviewed journal.

S: They're interested. They're looking into creating a podcast for the public so that the public has an idea of what the CIA does, and they actually were asking us to consult with them on their podcast. How cool would that be?

B: And they also wanted us to interview us on their classified podcast, I thought, right?

S: Yes. Which we would never even get to hear.

B: Damn cool.

S: We couldn't hear it.

E: We could not confirm or deny that we ever participated in that.

S: But I think the coolest thing while we were there, though, I have to say, they had a model of Osama bin Laden's compound, where he eventually –

C: Yeah, that was pretty cool.

S: And it was actually the one that the SEALs trained on, and they gave us a walk-through of the whole mission, from soup to nuts.

B: That was cool.

S: And I didn't realize that they were on their fifth or sixth plan. Plan A failed. Plan B failed. Plan C failed. They were down to like G or H or something.

J: Steve, they were one plan away from the runaway and scream plan.

E: It came to a point where they were banging on the front door, and luckily somebody was around the other side and let them in.

S: It was one of their men. It was one of the other team. What was impressive was how many contingencies. They had a contingency all the way down, and it mattered because they actually got to their fifth or sixth contingency. Primarily, the big problem was that one of the helicopters – and this is how detailed they have to get. It was a little hotter or something that they figured when they were practising. And because of the heat, it affected the aerodynamics of the helicopter, and the helicopter lost control and had to crash land.

J: Well, it didn't lose control. It was losing altitude because there was a vortex that got created by the heat. So there's a couple of points, I think, to help our audience understand better. We were looking at a model that was like five feet by five feet, right?

C: Yeah, it was like a tabletop model.

J: That model was taken from satellite imagery, and then they recreated – what did he say? About 70% of this in full size, full scale.

C: In an undisclosed location.

J: That was at the same altitude, same temperature, and the moon – for some reason, he said the moon had to be in the same position in the sky.

C: Probably for the brightness, how well they could see.

J: Yep. And so they practices with real helicopters in a real setting to run this mission. And I think that's where they come up with the contingency, Steve. They probably think, if this fails, what do we do? If this fails, what do we do? And I have a couple more details, if you don't mind, because this was so incredible. So they're describing how one of the helicopter pilots figured out what was happening in a matter of seconds. So he tells us all this stuff, and he said – and that was about two to three seconds of time for the pilot to figure out that he's got to crash land in the next area. So he brings the chopper down. And then he said – so they had another chopper as a backup that they had to bring in. And then it occurs to me – I'm like what are these choppers? I mean, wouldn't Osama bin Laden hear them? You know, you have three choppers flying in now? And he goes, not these helicopters. Oh my god. It was so cool. You know, when you're like – We have silent helicopters. Oh my god. It was so cool. So then he tells the whole story, which is riveting, and it'll make you angry. You'll get pissed if you hear what this scumbag Osama bin Laden did. You know, he's using his wives and his children as body shields. And he was shooting at them. And then he goes – yeah, and there's his rifle that he had right there, and it was in a case hanging on the wall. I mean, that's the rifle he shot at our soldiers at our agents.

E: It was on his bed. Yep.

J: Not agents. Right? We don't call – CIA, you're not –

S: Yeah, but these were SEALs. These were SEALs.

C: Yeah, those were Navy SEALs.

S: This was military. This was a military operation.

E: Yeah. The agency just collected all of the information for it.

J: You get the idea after going through the museum that – you hear all these stories. You know that the tip of the iceberg are the field agents.

S: Field officers.

J: Everything else, field officers.

C: Oh, yeah. Well, this is the cool thing that I thought was really neat. OK. First of all, they gave us swag. They gave us CIA swag, which is like, come on. This is ridiculous. I love it. I'm drinking my coffee out of a CIA cup. But then they also gave us these – like basically these brochures. And I didn't – I kind of contextually gathered some of the organization of the agency by how they were talking. But not until I went home and I looked at this brochure that talks about the mission and the overview of the CIA did I really understand how it's divided. So there are multiple directorates. There's a directorate of operations, a directorate of analysis, a directorate of science and technology, a directorate of digital innovation, and a directorate of support. So it's only really the directorate of operations where we're talking about clandestine collection. They actually say this in the brochure. The DO clandestinely collects foreign intelligence through human sources. So these are like the people that we think of as being Jason Bourne, and we met some of them, which is really cool. But the vast majority of people who work for the CIA work at the CIA. They don't like – yeah, they don't like leave the country on a regular basis.

E: They have desk jobs. They're working in an office.

C: Analysts – and it's a really cool job that they do. I mean they're all processing this super important intelligence on a regular basis.

S: And they were very clear that the operations officers support the analysts as much as the analysts support the officers or it's a team effort. Because I guess they fall into the perception that the officers in the field are the superstars and everyone is just working to support them. Like no, that's not the way it is. Everyone is basically supporting each other in one collective endeavour. It just depends on your point of view, right? The analyst might say, I need this piece of information and then the operations officer has to go get it. And the operations officer says, well, we need this doodad to make this happen. And then the science and technology guy says, OK, here's your doodad.

C: And one thing that's actually kind of funny – so at one point I had to pee and so I asked permission to get up from the conference table where we were sitting and the publicist, I guess you could call her, that walked me to the bathroom because you can't just like walk around the CIA all by yourself. Who would have thought? So there was a movie we were talking about. Did you guys ever see the movie Spy? Is that what it was called?

E: With Melissa McCarthy?

C: Yes, with Melissa McCarthy. And she was saying she actually kind of liked that movie. Like obviously a lot of stuff in it was really, really wrong. But there was a handful of things that they did really right in that movie. And one of the things was that they showed that people who work in different directorates often switch jobs, that like somebody has a certain amount of expertise for something so they may go out in the field even though they hadn't been in the field before. Or somebody might have been working in science and technology and now they've developed something and they want to go utilize it in the directorate of analysis. And she was like, that's kind of how it actually is. It's like, that's pretty cool. And they expanded on that a little more broadly in that Hollywood and other movie and television making shows and agencies and studios generally get things wrong.

S: That's true of everything. Anything you're an expert in, Hollywood gets wrong, right? That's just the way it is.

E: I get that. But what other point of reference do the majority of people have other than that? And that is also why the CIA becomes sort of the perfect scapegoat for so many things and conspiracy theories and other-

S: Sure.

C: Of course. Yeah. That said, there's still a part of me that doesn't believe anything they told me. I have to be honest.

S: That gets back to the core dilemma of how do you have transparency for a secret organization?

C: Yeah. And how do you say like, oh, but what I tell you is true. You'll know in 50 years once that all becomes declassified if I'm telling you the truth right now. It's tough.

S: Right, right. But we'll keep you apprised if anything else comes of it, like if they do invite us down to help them with their podcast or interview us for it or whatever, we'll- I mean, we're not- what do they call that? We're not assets of the CIA, right? We're just- As cool as that would be. We're not-

J: Well, that might not apply to all of us.

S: Oh, that's true.

C: Oh. I can neither confirm nor deny this.

E: That's our story. We have to stick with it.

J: Before we move away, though, I do want to thank all the people that we met. I don't want to just start naming names because-

C: We can't name names.

S: Well, Daniel-

C: They're not real anyway.

E: They're not their real names anyway.

S: Our main contact was Daniel, and he was very nice. He was sort of our host for the day, but that's all we got is a first name, which may or may not be his real first name.

C: I don't think it is.

S: Well, we don't know.

J: He was a cool dude, and the other people we met all had something unique and cool about them, too. I just really appreciate that time that we had there. It was a wonderful window into a huge mystery. You think you know the CIA, but you've heard it a million times. You've seen the logo a million times. I know a lot more now than I did, and I have a much more healthy respect for them now.

C: Oh, absolutely. There's a part of me that was like, ooh, how do I get a job here? No. No, I don't think they want me.

S: Hey, this is Steve breaking in. Just a quick update. We did get invited back down, since we recorded the show, down to visit the CIA again to work with them on a podcast, so again, we'll keep you updated as that proceeds. Also, just listening back over the segment, I wanted to clarify a couple of things. Our job, our role in meeting with the CIA was to just discuss their process of data analysis and things like that. None of this is a political commentary on the history of the CIA, things that they've done in the past. We may have come off sounding a little bit gushing. That's just because the experience was very interesting, but really, we're just trying to understand how they function, and we understand that we're being told what we're being told. This is the, as we said upfront, this is just the publicly available information, but none of this should be interpreted in any way as any kind of political statement on the CIA, or things that they've done in the past, or may have done. This is just conveying information. With that said, let's go on with the rest of our review show.

Best and Worst of 2018 (36:27)[edit]

S: We're going to do the best and worst of 2018. We'll start with segments of the show itself, so guys, what was your favorite part of the show? Jay, you've been monitoring the forums and the Discord server for our listeners' feedback too. Anything stand out? What was something that listeners mentioned that was cool about this year?

J: Yeah, so people that are on our Discord server are patrons. They're given access when they become patrons, and we have a dialogue with them all the time. I created a channel on there where they could just talk about the year-end stuff. Bill on the board, on Discord, was saying that he thought the best thing that we did was the interview with Devin Bray, who is an actual patron as well. One thing I read on there was really cool. What's fun about reading Discord is I get to kind of read what people that listen to the show think. It's a little anonymous, and I kind of can jump in and just read different conversations. So they were saying there's a lot of people that listen to the SGU that have expertise in something, and they've suggested to us that we seriously consider interviewing people who listen to the show, like real listeners that understand the show, understand the audience, and have an expertise. It's a really great idea. I never really put it together that way. I know that we always looked to our audience to help give us corrections whenever their expertise comes up, but I never took it to like the, hey, let's look at them as a resource for great interviews, because that interview with Devin was fantastic.

C: Oh, he was, yeah, he was fastball down the middle, so interesting. Obviously, what he studies, what he does for a living is basically a huge Venn diagram with what we do, but he does it academically.

S: I think my favorite interview of the year was with, Mark Alanis was the reporter who was initially anti-GMO and then changed, flipped, once he looked at the evidence, he became pro-science, right? He realized that the anti-GMO movement was completely anti-science and built on a house of cards. Very, as much as I thought I understood it, I gave me, he gave me additional insight into that world, the hyper-greeny world, if you will, which I thought was interesting. So that's why I love interviews where, I always, obviously, we know a lot about these topics, but when you get that sort of extra insight that you didn't know you didn't have, that's always fascinating.

B: Yeah. For me, the best interview was, my favorite interview was with Adam Becker, author of What is Real, Quantum Mechanics, and I did my homework for that interview, and I think it's probably the only interview in 700-plus episodes where I actually talked more than Steve.

S: Yeah.

B: At least for part of the interview. That was so much fun to talk to somebody who really knows what they're talking about with something that's such a complicated, nasty little topic. So that was one of the high points for me. Yeah, Sean Carroll did an interview, and that would have been probably one of my favorites if I didn't miss the whole damn thing, but it was funny. I got there, I got online just when it ended, and I threw out a couple questions to him, but it wasn't but I was like, damn, I missed that interview, so that would have been great. Maybe next time.

E: Our friend Richard Wiseman, yes, in one of our earlier interviews here, we had recorded that at PsyCon the year prior, but it aired in 2018, and we were sitting, oh my gosh, he always comes up, I laugh, I don't know, I just laugh throughout the whole interview, it's so freaking funny, and he tells us he was six years old, and the big Santa Claus head suddenly appeared in front of him, and he wound up having a bit of an accident there. You know, that's just how he starts the interview, and it goes it becomes even more hilarious from there. And then we interviewed Jennifer Ouellette, who was also our keynote speaker at NECSS this year, and she was talking about the concept of criticality, which I had not heard of before or really thought much about before, and she gave me a lot of interesting ideas there to think about.

C: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Jen's the best. She's the absolute best. I think that one of my favorite, and maybe it's just because it's so fresh in my mind, was the just incredible amount of fun that we got to have when we were in Manchester doing the QED conference, and the interviews that we did there, along with the live show that we got to do, having Marsh on the show, and getting to play all sorts of fun new games with Marsh. I mean, that's always so much fun to kind of have this, I don't know, this collision sort of, of the groups that there's these groups of skeptical activists around the world, and it's so fun when those worlds collide, and we get to learn from one another, and see the kind of cultural differences, but then the things that really unite us, and I don't know. I just loved it. It was good times all round.

S: Yeah, the rest of the segments that I like kind of focus around, like the best science news and the worst pseudoscience news of the year. So why don't we go to that? Any science news items stand out for you guys this year?

J: Absolutely.

C: So many. Where do we start? I mean, CRISPR was like CRISPR was sort of an umbrella.

S: Genetic engineering is, as we predicted, getting more impactful, and of course, culminating in the Chinese researcher who CRISPRed the two baby girls, apparently, that we talked about recently. But yeah, it just shows that, yep, we are heading into the age of genetic manipulation.

B: Yeah, I saw that story as like the reverse tip of an iceberg pointing, going into the future. People are going to look back. In 20 years, they're going to look back, and this news item, and perhaps even this year, will be seen as one of the milestone years where, man, yeah, it really started picking up that year. Remember that? Boy, did those people have no idea what was really going to be coming down the pike. But man, so yeah, this is just, we're going to be hearing about this every year. I'm just so excited about this technology, more than almost any new technology in the past decade.

J: There was a few news items that came out that were health-related that really caught my eye. So the spinal cord repair that they did, and I really needed to ask you a question about this, Steve. So they said in these studies that they actually restored people's, they healed their nerve, and they were no longer paralyzed.

S: Yeah, if you remember, we talked about it at the time, that I think that those claims were overhyped.

J: Yeah, right? Because from my understanding, if the nerve, say you're paralysed, right? And you can't move your arms, or let's say you can't move your legs. If the muscles don't get any nerve stimulation, they literally go away. Like, your muscles completely atrophy to nothing, correct?

C: To smallness.

S: If they're not getting any innervation, they actually go away completely.

C: Really? Like, you just lose your entire muscle?

S: The muscle fibers die. Yeah.

B: Jelly, right?

J: So that was a little bit of a hype. But I mean, it did make some headway with electrical stimulation to helping the nerves reconnect. You know, that's a big one. I mean, imagine, you could just scroll through history, and there's a lot of people that get these kind of injuries, and they become paralysed, they can't walk anymore. I mean, someday they might be able to just not have it be literally a crippling experience.

S: Yeah, but the bottom line is that that was not a turning point, and that was not a huge breakthrough. That was a baby step in a sequence of baby steps, and yes, we are making some slow, steady progress in figuring out how to treat spinal cord injury, but we still have a long way to go.

J: Well, here's a big one. So they transplanted a womb out of, I guess, some woman, you know...

B: It's a uterus, right?

J: Yeah, it's a uterus.

C: Yeah, womb.

J: It was taken from somebody who was willing to donate their organs. You know, something happened, and they literally took the uterus out of her and put it into another woman, and they just had a healthy baby.

S: Yeah, that's amazing.

C: Yeah, a cadaver, a uterus from a cadaver basically gave birth, like housed a growing infant, and a woman was able to give birth to a healthy baby. That's amazing.

E: That's amazing that a person's body can accept something like that and not have a negative reaction.

C: Especially, I mean, this is one of the most complex organs in the body. I mean the brain, I guess, would be safe to say that that's pretty complex, but this is an endocrine organ. I mean, there's so much going on with a uterus. There's stuff we still do not understand about the uterus, and you're right, Evan, that it could successfully transplant and then function in a healthy way. I mean, it's one thing to get a kidney, but Steve, when you get a kidney, for example, which we've been doing for a long time, or you get a piece of liver, because we know liver can grow, is it like 100% functional, or is it that it kind of sort of helps, but that some of the organ is not really up to par?

S: Yeah, like you can't innervate it, for example. So you can hook up the plumbing to it and blood supply, but not nerves, generally speaking.

C: But not nerves. And think about all of the things that have to happen for a uterus, like it stretches and it squeezes, and then all of the necessary hormones, and I'm sure she was taking hormone therapy, and there were other things involved, but like, how cool is that?

E: Just that her body didn't reject it is amazing.

C: And the baby didn't reject it didn't reject the baby, and they didn't, I mean, gosh, incredible.

S: There's a ton of space news this year. I think the one that sticks out for me is the possible discovery of what liquid water on Mars. This was under the surface, under the ice, and it's probably extremely salty in order for it to, it's probably like a slushy brine, because it should be like negative 68 degrees Celsius there, but just the possibility that there's actually liquid water anywhere on Mars is amazing.

C: Didn't we also find, and I say we as if I had anything to do with this, find...

S: The collective scientific we.

C: Yeah. Like some building blocks, like some early...

S: Yes, that was on Europa, some of the, a lot of organic, evidence for organic molecules.

C: Oh, and what about Parker, the solar probe that we shot to the sun? How freaking cool is that?

E: Oh yeah, Parker.

C: Oh man, we're going to get, we're already getting beautiful photos.

B: Yeah, but the news, the space news that really got me going, all those are great, but the one that really got me going was the unveiling of the plans that we're going to have an orbital base around the moon in 10 years.

E: Moon presence.

B: That's huge. That is huge. It finally showed a serious commitment for an idea that we've talked about a lot and people have been talking about, and lots of countries are talking about, but the idea of going to the moon first and then Mars and not the other way around, and it just makes so much sense. And I was so happy to hear a solid commitment and some really good plans to make that happen. You know, suss out, work out all of our stuff in moon orbit, learn more about the moon, how to live in space like that, and then we could talk about going to Mars and not before. So that's great.

E: That's been a reoccurring topic on SGU since we started, I think.

C: And a point of contention for sure. And I get why it's super exciting to you, Bob, but I have to say, I'm so much less interested in the crewed missions, and I'm so much more interested in the robotic missions. We have a new rover, and this rover can dig! That's cool.

E: Yeah, it's not going to rove around too much, but it is going to go down and search the depths. Insight is going to explore the planet Mars like never before.

C: Yay! We have so many robots on Mars. That's freaking awesome.

E: Our presence, I mean, what's next? A Starbucks? I mean, we are on Mars. I mean in lots of different ways.

C: And Insight took a selfie, and we're getting so much data all the time. This is the cool thing about having a space agency that works for us, right? This is a public space agency where they're able to use our tax dollars and actually, commission private companies, but also utilize all of the different NASA locations around the country. And you can log on any time and look at the data that's being brought back from all of these missions. I love that. You can look at photos. You can learn stuff.

S: Here's one we haven't talked about yet because it's happening right now.

C: What?

S: New Horizons. New Horizons was the probe that flew past Pluto. It's just about to do a flyby of what's probably a dwarf planet way out in the Kuiper Belt.

C: Cool.

B: What the hell? Which dwarf planet?

C: Ultima Thule? Is that how you say that? Ultima Thule?

S: Ultima Thule, yeah.

C: Cool. New Year's Day.

S: Yeah, the New Year's Day. So they were looking for stuff in the general direction of the New Horizons, right? They found this and they were able to tweak the path so that it was able to fly by it. Then they were concerned that there might be too much debris around this world and they would have to go a little bit farther out. So they said that as they get closer, they're not encountering more debris. So they're going to go really close to this—we're going to get close-up images of this world.

E: That's—

C: Oh, my gosh.

E: I mean, talk about a lucky break. It's incredible.

C: Get this.

B: Yeah, what the hell else is the probe going to do? Of course. Send it there.

C: Wow. Bob, its current trajectory, we'll put it at 2,200 miles from—

E: From the object.

C: This Kuiper Belt object.

B: That's fantastic.

C: That's real close.

E: Right. Bonus material. It's like unlocking an Easter egg. It's so cool.

S: Well, guys, there was a lot of pseudoscience this year as well.

E: A lot of pseudoscience every year.

S: Yeah, there is. But I think—so what—I try to think, like, what surprised me this year? And I think part of it was the return of some classic pseudosciences.

E: Definitely.

S: Astrology is on the rise again. Millennials like astrology. That is surprising. And also, I did a major debunking of Atlantis, right? Atlantis is still a thing, you know?

J: How did that come back?

S: It's a guy made a YouTube video with some new crank crackpot theory about where Atlantis is. That was fun. It's fun to tear them down. I mean, it's to do like a really careful analysis of exactly why their claims are wrong. The classic pseudosciences are great for that. It really is a good topic to cut your skeptical teeth on. It is amazing that we're still talking about Atlantis and astrology and Bigfoot and these things.

C: I know. It's ridiculous.

E: The trend over the last couple of years, Steve, we've noticed, and I think the polls that we've been looking at at Pew and other places have backed this up, is that as the generation's religious sort of tendencies and beliefs start to wane in our societies, they're filling it instead with these sorts of things, which they feel are spiritual, such as the old astrology and crystals and so many other different kinds of pseudoscience. And the younger generation is paying more attention to that maybe than has been in prior years.

C: You know, a pseudoscience thing that sticks out to me is the guy, or I shouldn't say the guy, but he was kind of the architect of it, but he had multiple authors. You remember the space octopus paper?

S: Yeah. Oh yeah. That was a fun one.

C: It was fun, but it was also like extra annoying because it was like a peer-reviewed academic paper.

S: Oh, it was extra. It was very extra.

C: It was definitely extra.

S: So this was about panspermia. And again, this is a classic, what I consider to be a pseudoscience. And this is one, this is like the naked ape theory or the aquatic ape theory where it's like it's really-

C: We were talking about that last week.

S: Yeah, it's really in that gray zone where, okay, it's not an unreasonable-ish hypothesis, but it's just a hypothesis. It's not really a full-blown theory. And the proponents of it are really just pulling a lot of circumstantial evidence, but they don't really have evidence to support it and they don't really have a good testable hypothesis. So with panspermia, the thing is their arguments are just really not compelling. And what these panspermia proponents were saying was that the octopus is evidence of panspermia because it's so out there and bizarre. It's something that didn't evolve on earth. It was sort of introduced somehow. That's why it's so bizarre or different. But I think that's a terrible-

E: It's almost a God of the Gaps argument.

S: Yeah. It's just a terrible argument. But that, we got a lot of pushback on that. Because people are like, what are you saying? Panspermia is not real science. It's like, well, it's not. I'm sorry. So what we're saying is the people who are promoting it are using a lot of terrible arguments and this is why they're terrible. But it's really good in that gray zone example of pseudoscience, like it really is trying to be scientific. But it is pseudoscience. A little bit more towards the pseudoscientific end of the spectrum was the thing we very recently discussed was the release active drugs, which is basically homeopathy. That's the kind of pseudoscience where you're taking a pure pseudoscience, like pure magic, like homeopathy, and just dressing it up in scientific jargon. And of course, every year, every year, alternative medicine is huge. And this year had not just that, but also anti-vaxxers and we saw a return of measles, especially in Europe. More cancer quackery. Just at the end of 2017, actually, there was a study came out that said that if you use alternative medicine and you have cancer, you die more quickly. Alternative medicine literally is killing people.

E: You're twice as likely to die if you opted for the alternative treatments.

B: You know, it pissed me off a little bit, Steve. And you wrote about this. This is a California Superior Court judge, Elihu Burl, who ruled that this was in accordance to Proposition 65. Is it 55 or 60? 65. It's like coffee is a carcinogen and requires a warning label. And that's just like, oh my God. Now I expect people, laymen, to be confused by things like, wait, you're confusing hazard with risk type of thing. But a Superior Court judge that is going to be judging the safety of something like this, and it all boils down to the roasting process apparently creates minute amounts of this chemical, acrylamide, but these are mostly like animal and in vitro studies and there's no clinical evidence of risk and they're pretty much saying that you slap a warning label on coffee and it's just like, wow, that just shows you how high up scientific illiteracy can go with people that really should be a little bit more scientifically literate, I think. Right.

S: Also, he's failing to consider the intention to warn. So in other words, if you set your threshold for warning labels that low, people are going to start to ignore all warning labels.

B: Yes.

C: That's what I was going to say. It's almost a backfire effect. Isn't it funny? Everything in California, there's a sign that says it causes cancer, so nobody worries about anything.

S: Right. Everything causes cancer.

E: Walking outside causes cancer I mean, crazy.

J: I was buying something on Amazon and an alert came up that said like California blah, blah, blah, something about like the thing I wanted to buy could cause cancer because of the plastic they were using. And it was like a handheld object. It wasn't consumable.

C: No. Yeah. Everything causes cancer here. It's literally posted outside of like every building, like this building contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer. But wasn't there a recent study, Steve? Tell me if you remember this because I want to say you're the one who presented it on the show. But of course, all my years blur together about GMO labeling in like Vermont and how it actually made people, like more people bought GMOs.

S: Yeah. There's conflicting data on that. So it depends on how you ask the question, who you ask or whatever, but it's not clear what the net effect is, that it might have actually made people a little bit more accepting of GMOs but it's not clear. I would just say that that's not clear.

C: In California, I'm like, give me my cancer.

E: But there's one thing about GMOs. And on the other hand, this is cancer. So people have just the C word is red alarms go off in people's heads anytime they hear that.

S: On my list for the year also is the anti-GMO movement still. It's still the biggest disconnect between scientists and the public and they're relentless. They're absolutely relentless. Whereas the evidence shows that, yeah, the GMOs that are on the market are actually perfectly safe, but it has not stopped the organic lobby and anti-GMO activists from basically lying, lying about the science, cherry picking, they're still harping about Seralini's terrible pseudoscientific study. And engaging in conspiracy mongering, et cetera, et cetera. When I asked on my blog about like, what's the worst pseudoscience of the year? That was the most common answer was the anti-GMO crowd is still top of the list.

C: It just feels like it doesn't stop. What I found interesting is that you remember when we were in the UK and we were visiting Cambridge, I had to duck out of our lunch because I had an interview scheduled with Lord Martin Rees. Affectionately, we called him Star Lord because he's the Astronomer Royal. And we talked a lot about what was the biggest thing facing humanity, sort of eschatological threats. And he said that one of the things that he, because he was a little bit like here in the UK, we have our issues in the US, we see a lot of bad stuff happening with your administration. I'm really stressed out about climate change he's very woke, he's very modern, whatever. But one of the things that he said was like, one place where we are failing in the UK, where you guys have been more ahead of the curve is with GMOs. At least for the most part, your administration has always kind of gotten it. And that's true. We're on the other side of the curve. We're just trying to convince like cranks in the US, but at least our laws are not...

S: So far.

C: Yeah, so far. Exactly. But they're chipping away at that for sure.

E: Oh yeah, the lobbies are active.

S: Also just like looking back at like what have I blogged about over the year, there are certain themes that come up. One theme is there have been multiple studies now which show that the biggest concern for the environment is land use. That's it. That's like the number one. And whether you're talking about just environment in general or specifically climate change, it was just a recent study I wrote about where it said, yeah we have to use land optimally in terms of its food production as well as carbon sequestration. And like one of the worst things we could do is use land inefficiently. So growing organic on land, which has about 20% less productivity than if you use whatever method you want to use, is a horrible way to use land, right? So organic farming is actually bad for the environment and it's bad for global warming.

C: Yeah, and it's almost baked into the label organic or whatever it takes to get that label slapped on your food. But basically, very little technological advancement can occur for something to still be organic. And we know that making more with less requires technology in many ways. It's not just GM technology. It's like technology with lights and with technology with-

S: Irradiating food so it doesn't spoil.

C: Yeah, all these different things. But none of those things are organic, so we're not allowed to do them. It's crazy.

S: So they talk about food waste. Like, yeah, but how do you keep food from spoiling? One way, if it's appropriate, is irradiation. But that's not natural, you know? So yeah, it's all about process, not the end result, and they don't want any technological process, which we can't afford that anymore. That's the bottom line.

Skeptical Heroes (1:00:48)[edit]

S: All right, so guys, let's talk about our skeptical heroes and the skeptical jackass of the year. Let's start with hero, and I'll go first. I'm going to, although this is a little close to home, and I acknowledge that, for my skeptical hero, I'm going to name Brit Hermes.

C: Oh, yay.

E: Yes, definitely.

S: And all of my science-based medicine colleagues, because they really have been tireless. They work very hard for really nothing for literally nothing. But also, they get very little accolades. They get a lot of crap for what they do, a lot of pushback. And everyone I just mentioned has been sued for doing what they do.

E: It's true.

S: Brit Hermes is embroiled in a lawsuit. All of SBM is embroiled in our second lawsuit now. So we deal with a lot in order to thanklessly promote science and medicine, something you wouldn't think would need promotion. But it's still a massively uphill battle. And the other thing is you have to realize about everyone is that they know that we're fighting a losing uphill battle, and they do it anyway, because it's the right thing to do, and because they care about their patients, and they care about society. So they're like almost always perpetually my skeptical hero of the year. I think that they especially deserve to get mentioned this year.

C: Yeah, I think I'd have to second that, especially on Brit. I mean, she's become a good friend over the years, and I've really had an opportunity to both interview her in a recording, but also just hang out with her and talk to her kind of off the record. You know, she's young. She's a new mom.

S: Yep, just had a baby.

C: Yeah, just had a baby. She literally lives in another country partially because her husband is getting his PhD there, but partially because it's the only way that she can go to school to start her life over again. She sunk so much money and so much effort into becoming a naturopath because she was duped that she is basically screwed. She's in so much debt. She could never get a good education back in the U.S. because she's maxed out her student loans, and she really worries that she'd never be able to pay them back. And that's all because she was taken advantage of. And now she's getting sued just for speaking out about that, just for speaking literally the truth. I mean, it's a really big deal, and she's super brave for doing this. Like I said, she's quite young, and she has a lot going on.

E: I'll throw out two names. Now, they don't run in skeptical circles, really, but these people caught my attention this year, and they each wrote a book about vaccinations. The first one is Michael Kinch, K-I-N-C-H. His book is called Between Hope and Fear, A History of Vaccines and Human Immunity. So he's telling the story, basically, of the history of vaccines, which is fascinating and kind of essential, really, to understand in the entire context of the anti-vax movement. And there was also another book, Peter Hotez, Dr. Peter Hotez, who wrote the book Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism. And he traces the roots of the problem back to 1998, Andrew Wakefield, and does a really good job of sort of properly pinning a lot, if not all of this, back to this guy and making sure that this is in correct historical context as we close the 20th year anniversary of Wakefield and his article that was published in that journal. So that's it. So I think they just—and they each—so these books each came out in 2018. Thank goodness there are people putting out more books about vaccinations and the truth about the anti-vax movement. We need more.

J: So when Stephen Hawking came out with A Brief History of Time, I remember Bob just handed me that book and said, read this. You know, it was one of those things that would happen quite often, like Steve and Bob would always be—you know, I would be breaking into their closets and basically stealing their stuff as well, right, Steve? Stephen Hawking has had an impact on me in most of my adult life in one way or the other. And I was very sad when he died this year. I was also happy for him for doing what he was able to do to overcome his illness and still be amazing.

S: Yeah. He was an amazing science communicator and it's very difficult for him to communicate, you know what I mean? But he didn't stand in his way.

J: As another quick mention, the scientific community has been struggling a lot with the current administration in the United States. I just want to say that even though we're talking about skeptics here I have a massive respect for scientists and people that are dedicating their time to push the ball forward and to improve humanity by increasing our knowledge and technology. And I think because things have been so hard, I mean, people have been losing their jobs and funding has dried up and it's been very hard to be a scientist the last two years, if not longer. But I think they deserve a nod.

C: Oh yeah. Especially EPA scientists, NIH scientists, individuals who basically their jobs are at the whim of the administration. And you know, to be able to keep your head down and keep working, even in times when basically your work, according to the people that have the purse strings, according to them, they call it, I don't know, irresponsible. They might call it not valuable. They might call it a hoax. Can you imagine? It must be really hard to be a climate scientist right now, especially one that works for the government.

Skeptical Jackass (1:06:24)[edit]

S: Well, that gets me to the skeptical jackass of the year segment. My pick for that, after all of the things that have happened this year and the reports that have come out, is anyone who is still denying climate change.

E: Yes.

S: Right? Everyone and anyone who still thinks that anthropogenic global warming is not a thing that we need to worry about or do something about. I mean, please.

B: I mean, it's especially appropriate this year. It really is because it was really driven home this year that this is not only is it a thing, but that humans are actually doing this. I mean, this was the first year that research explicitly attributed some of the extreme weather events that we've been experiencing to human-caused climate change. I mean, they really didn't do that before this year. They say, well, it's hard to say how much climate change is making these storms really difficult. But this year, they explicitly said, yep, this is legit, right from-

C: The thing that's frustrating is that this is almost, I have to say almost first because I know it's not exclusively, but this is almost exclusively an American problem. And that really bothers me. It really bothers me that the rest of the world gets it, the rest of the leadership of the world and the rest of the voting public of the world. Yet in America, there's this denialism that runs so deep. It's infuriating.

B: It's disgusting.

S: I do think we may be turning a corner a little bit in that-

C: It's hard to deny?

S: Well, the harder it becomes to deny, you start to see the people towards the moderate end of the spectrum peel off, right? So I think we're starting to see that peel off. So like for example, the writers of South Park were ridiculing Al Gore for his alarmism 15-

E: ManBearPig.

S: 20 years ago. And now they did a few brilliant episodes where they were basically their apology tour for Al Gore.

B: Multiple episodes?

S: Yeah. It was like several episodes. And they were making fun of the denialists, I mean, beautifully. While ManBearPig is mauling people behind them, they're denying it or saying, I think, yeah, we're ready to begin to talk about possibly examining whether or not we should think about it. I mean, it's like the delaying tactics. Some conservative writers have said, yeah, I got to admit I was wrong about climate change, like Max Boot wrote an article essentially saying that. So we're starting to see that, like the moderates are peeling off. And so on that end of the political spectrum, we'll be divided on this issue.

C: Yeah. Even the deniers, they can't deny it's happening anymore. All they can do is say, it's not our fault.

S: Or they say, well, if it's not our fault, it's not going to be that bad. Or even if it's going to be that bad, there's nothing we can do about it. Or what about China? China's not doing anything about it. Whatever. Just as long as the end result is they don't have to do anything. That's the desired conclusion. And they will backfill any excuse that they need to. And they will also just shift around as needed. As long as the final conclusion is we don't need to do anything. Let's wait and see what happens.

C: Let's wait and see how quickly we die.

E: Let's see how bad it gets before we go. Oops, you were right. Too late.

S: Right. But there was like the IPCC reported about, yeah it's still going to be bad even if we limit it to 1.5, but 2.0 is going to be really bad. The US government report came out saying that, yep, this is going to cost a lot of money. It's really going to be cost effective to prevent this from happening right now. The data is just getting stronger.

C: Yeah. And of course, this is not new. But hey, guess what? Hottest year on record.

E: Ask England how their season was this year, their summer. Insane. Hot, hot, hot, hot.

B: We had nice weather in London and Scotland.

C: Yeah. I don't think it was supposed to be that nice that time of year.

SGU Word Inventions (1:10:19)[edit]

S: To finish off on reviewing the SGU for the year, so Cara, you keep track of funny words that we make up accidentally when we're recording the show.

J: She's like, uh-huh.

C: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. So the one thing I don't do, and I'm going to start right now, is I don't delineate when. I just have a running list. So I have 26 words that we've made up, but many of them are very old, like geothermical or infectious. Both yours, Jay. But so I'm just going to count backward, and maybe you guys can tell me once I get to what sounds like 2017. So most recent, Jay made up a wonderful word, comoroid. That's a comet and an asteroid gray zone object. I like that.

E: I like it.

S: A comoroid.

J: I got a lot of emails on that one, too. People really liked it. They identified with that.

C: The next, actually, I have more words lately, probably because you guys give me so much shit that I actually ended up writing them down. I didn't do that early on. I was talking about a medical examiner, and I instead called him an examinator. Yeah.

J: The examinator.

C: The examinator. Also, Bob, this one's for you.

B: I did one?

J: Lay on your rug.

C: Yeah, you did one. We'll get there. But this was me again, but it was something that I think is really relevant to you. I was talking about decorating for Halloween, and I called it deckerine. It's one of Bob's favorite things to do, deckerine. Jay mentioned fraudulating data.

E: Fraudulating?

C: I love it. Both Steve and Evan both said the word fictitious.

E: Oh, yeah.

B: That's a Simpsons play on words.

S: That's a Simpsons thing, yeah.

C: Gotcha, gotcha. There we go. Okay. Jay talked about the wee centipede quite a few times. Steve, you did another one, which was fictitious. You made it that much worse.

J: Wow, Steve.

C: Bob, here's a good one that you did. You were trying to think of the word mosquito net. And you were like those fly curtains.

B: No way.

C: So Homer Simpson of you. The garage. Sorry, car hole. Let's see. Whatever. Jay called science squients at one point.

B: Squients.

C: Squients. Oh, and Evan talked a bit about republiclins, republiclands.

E: Republiclands. I think it's accurate.

C: And then here are just a couple more. I think we're getting back into 2017, but they're too funny, so I have to say them again. Bob, she hit the nail on the button. Everyone loves that one.

B: Really?

E: Mixed metaphor.

C: Steve talked about a couple things being co-orbitable. Which I think we need. Yeah, we need to enter that. Co-orbitable. And Evan discussed some different academic papers, I suppose being citated.

E: Yes, they were and still are.

J: What was the dinosaur I couldn't say?

S: Parasaurolophus.

C: Parasaurolophus. I wrote down that you called it Parasophilus.

J: Parasophilus.

C: Yeah. And also senescent instead of senescent. And lastly, my favorite, although I don't know if it's from this year, it reminds me a bit of Bob's fly curtains, is Evan's lung clams.

E: When we were talking about tonsil stones or something.

C: Tonsil stones. You were like, one of those things, those lung clams.

E: Lung clams. It's just more ew.

S: That sounds horrible.

E: It does sound awful.

Favourite Who's That Noisy (1:13:58)[edit]

S: And Jay, you wanted to tell us your favorite Who's That Noisy for the year.

J: Yeah. So I picked a handful of noisies. So this one I know you guys loved. [plays Noisy] Remember this one?

C: The Boston Terrier.

J: Yes. Now here it is with a little music. [plays Noisy]

B: Oh my God.

J: That is genius. That is totally genius.

C: I love the woman.

E: Futuristic opera.

C: You're embarrassing me. Stop.

J: This one was, I think, my favorite. The most provocative. [plays Noisy] Remember what it was?

C: No. Was it something celestial?

E: An imperial probe droid.

J: That was a seal making its underwater noise outside of the water.

C: Oh yeah. That's crazy.

E: One confused seal.

J: I just thought that was so freaking cool. Do you guys remember? This one was really funny too. I thought this one was very odd. [plays Noisy]

S: Is that the parrot?

J: Yeah. So that's Oscar the parrot. But then there was another one where, oh no, here's Max the bird. This is what I was looking for. Max the bird. [plays Noisy]

C: I don't like it.

J: No, I know it sounds demonic a little bit, but that's the bird. If you listen to the guy's voice.

C: I don't like the guy's voice.

J: I know, but that's what's creepy about it is the bird is mimicking his voice.

S: All right. We got two more sections to go through.

In Memoriam (1:16:00)[edit]

S: We're going to do an in memoriam like we do every year and then science or fiction and then we're done for the year. So we always review the scientists and notable celebrities, notable to us, that we lost during the previous year. So lots of places put out lists of scientists who died. Cara, you sent me one that I thought was the most complete of the ones that I've seen.

C: Worked hard on that.

S: The number one is Coco the gorilla.

C: Yeah. Coco died June 19th, 2018.

E: Been hearing about Coco for decades.

S: Yeah, my whole life.

C: She was born July 4th, 1971.

B: My birthday. Wow. Holy crap.

C: Yeah. So she was.

E: Not the 1971 part yet, right?

C: She was 46 when she died. I love it on her Wikipedia. It says what she was known for. You know, there's always like in the box what somebody's known for. Use of sign language and pet keeping. Aw. Remember she had the kitten. Multiple kittens, I think.

S: Oh, we also lost Paul Allen.

C: You guys know Paul Allen. October 15th, actually, 2018. Co-founder of Microsoft, of course. Philanthropist.

S: Yep. Founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Institute for Cell Science.

B: Wow.

S: Didn't he also like donate money for radio telescope array, the Allen Array?

C: Oh, yeah. And he also was the co-founder of the Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Yeah, did a lot. Really, really, I mean, massive philanthropist and also very into science and tech and changing the world for the better through those uses.

S: We talked about Stephen Hawking already. Leon Letterman stands out for me as well. American experimental physicist.

C: Nobel Prize in 88.

S: Worked at the Fermi Lab. Yeah. Nobel Laureate. Became known in 1993 for his book, The God Particle.

B: Oh, boy, yeah.

S: Talking about his boson.

E: Oh, Bob, you hate that.

B: Lots of people hate that.

C: Goddamn particle. More like it.

B: Exactly.

C: Also, by the way, 96 years old. Ripe old age of 96.

S: Yeah, good run.

C: That's a good life. Oh, Walter Mischel really stands out to me. Walter Mischel is a name that most people who have studied psychology would recognize because Walter Mischel was famed for the marshmallow test. You remember the famed marshmallow test?

E: Of course.

C: That was his experiment. Died at the age of 88. Gosh, there's so many interesting people here.

S: There are two astronauts.

C: Two astronauts.

S: John Young and Alan Bean. Yeah, Alan Bean was the fourth person to walk on the moon. And John Young was the ninth person to walk on the moon. Also, Australian obstetrician William McBride, who discovered the teratogenicity of thalidomide.

C: Oh, saved so many lives.

B: Teratogenicity?

S: Yeah, teratogenic means it causes mutations.

C: Monster forming. That's what the word literally translates to. Also, a researcher named Dorothy Chaney, who's a primatologist, a professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania, and she studied cognition, communication, and social behavior in wild primates. She was quite young. She died at the age of 68. Gosh, there's so many really interesting people who there's like a bunch of laureates who passed away. Yeah. A lot of interesting engineers. Oh, here's an interesting I got to give my shout out to my ladies. Jimmy C. Holland was the founder of the field of psycho-oncology. So she established a full-time psychiatric service at Sloan Kettering and really brought psychology into cancer biology and cancer care, which was really important. And it's actually ultimately a field that I'm really influenced by and will probably end up going into. So that's a big deal. Oh, this one, Adel Mahmoud, who is an Egyptian-born American doctor. He is credited with developing the Gardasil HPV vaccine and also the rotavirus vaccine.

E: Oh, boy. Important.

C: Hugely important.

S: A few non-scientists make our list because of their cultural influence. So Stan Lee, of course, recently passed away. We spoke about that. Douglas Raine. Douglas Raine did the voice of Hal, the Hal 9000 in 2001. An iconic, iconic voice.

E: Oh, my gosh.

S: Gary Kurtz. Gary Kurtz, one of the producers of Star Wars.

J: Yep. He was one of the people that made it what it was, that first movie. Very important.

S: Yep. Yep. Absolutely. And Harlan Ellison, we talked about on the show. Very influential science fiction writer. And Evan, you and I mourn the loss of R. Lee Ermey, who played the gunnery sergeant.

E: Gunnery sergeant Hartman.

S: On Full Metal Jacket. I mean, he basically created that archetype of the hard-ass drill sergeant. I mean, he made it his own.

C: Oh, the drill sergeant?

S: Yeah, the drill sergeant. He made it his own and has been replicated multiple, multiple times since then.

E: Oh, it became iconic.

S: Yeah, it was iconic. Absolutely.

E: And I have more than one friend who tell me that the first half of Full Metal Jacket is the best movie making they've ever seen in their lives.

S: It's amazing.

E: In no small part due to the acting of R. Lee Ermey.

B: Yeah, I love that movie.

J: Yeah, he made the whole first act of that movie be amazing.

E: It's mesmerizing.

S: Mm-hmm. All right, guys, are you ready for the final science or fiction for the year?

Science or Fiction (1:21:50)[edit]

Item #1: A newly published paper reveals pterosaur fossils covered with feather-like filaments, indicating that feathers may predate not only birds, but dinosaurs.[1]
Item #2: A published analysis finds that ocean worlds like Europa probably do not contain enough life-essential elements to support significant life as we know it.[2]
Item #3: In a survey of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, 64% admit to committing scientific misconduct at least once in their own research.[3]

Answer Item
Fiction Scientific misconduct
Science Pterosaur fossils
Ocean worlds
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Scientific misconduct
Pterosaur fossils
Ocean worlds
Ocean worlds

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

Science or Fiction Stats for 2018 (1:22:03)[edit]

S: For the first 50 episodes this year, so not including the last two episodes, I'm in last place with 0%. I lost both the games that I played, but Bob ran and I lost them.

C: Go, Bob.

B: Yeah, baby.

S: Followed by Jay at 60.4%, 29 out of 48.

C: Wow, that's still really good.

S: That is. And then Cara at 60.5%, 26 out of 43.

E: Almost identical.

S: Basically identical. And Bob very close behind, 61.7%, 29 out of 47. And the winner is Evan at 68.1%, 32 out of 47.

C: Wait, so we can't even beat Evan now.

E: Yes, Bob, it's becoming Evan-ized.

C: So Evan, you're still going to be the winner regardless of how we do over the next few weeks.

S: Yes, that's true. He's uncatchable. You can break down the stats a lot of different ways, but the other one I want to mention other than the overall record is just the record for lone rogues, the lone rogue stats. So in other words, when you were by yourself, how did you do? And there, Bob did the worst when he's by himself. So Bob was alone eight times and was only correct one time out of eight. So one solo win for Bob out of eight attempts or seven solo losses.

B: But it depends. I think it depends if you go first or last. That would skew the impact of that.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

C: But that's pretty random, right?

S: This is just looking at when you were alone.

B: Yeah, I got you.

S: Jay was two out of 12, 16% of the time.

B: Still shitty, Jay.

S: Cara was the lone winner two times out of eight. So lone winner twice, lone loser six times or 25%. And again, Evan is on top, 38%. Five times Evan was the lone winner.

C: I remember those times.

S: Out of 13 total, yeah.

E: Yeah, I went the most. I made the most solo attempts for the year.

S: It paid off.

E: Right, yeah. You got to be bold, gamble big, and win big.

S: And that was your margin of victory for the year. Those are the times when you went against the crowd.

E: So there's a strategy there that seems to sort of work. Well, let's see what happens in 2019.

S: We'll see.

E: We will see.

S: All right.

E: More data.

S: But I have a new science or fiction for you this week. Are you ready?

C: Make Evan go first.

E: I have a feeling I'm going first, yeah.

S: These are news items from throughout the year that we somehow missed.

C: We missed. So these aren't just news items you already put in science or fiction.

S: No.

C: You've done that to us before and we still lost.

E: Impossible to prep.

S: I know. But these are not ones I've used before. These are just news items that just flew below our radar for the year.

B: Cara, I think I prefer this to ones that we already did because – you know, the way human memory is. It's like, wait, are you remembering what you guessed or what was the truth or what was the fiction? You're all messed up. So the news stuff is better, I think.

C: Oh, yeah. Because it's always – the science or fiction that are fiction are still pseudo. It's like there's a kernel of truth in all of them.

S: So we'll see how you do with the new ones this week. Ready?

J: Yes.

S: Item number one, a newly published paper reveals pterosaur fossils covered with feather-like filaments, indicating that feathers may predate not only birds but dinosaurs. Item number two, a published analysis finds that ocean worlds like Europa probably do not contain enough life-essential elements to support significant life as we know it. And item number three, in a survey of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, 64% admit to committing scientific misconduct at least once in their own research. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: OK. Wow. Feathers before dinosaurs?

S: So just – I'll give you a little bit more information here. So pterosaurs are closely related to dinosaurs but they're not dinosaurs. So it basically means that the common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs may have had feathers. Therefore, it predates dinosaurs.

E: I see.

S: Yeah.

E: I see. I see. Well, that is just fascinating. I wouldn't be surprised if they were able to detect that, come up with that discovery. It is fascinating. I'm leaning towards this one being science. The next one, Europa probably – so this particular analysis says that Europa probably does not contain enough life-essential elements to support significant life as we know it. Well, I don't doubt that there is an analysis out there. Does – this one sounds like science as well. I imagine there are also analysis that say just the opposite. So it's not unusual to have these sort of conflicting things especially for a world that we know relatively so little about. So I think that one is right. So maybe this last one, let's take a close look at it in regards to the survey of ecologists and evolutionary biologists. 64% admit to committing scientific misconduct at least once in their own research. That seems high. That seems a high level of admission to me. I think maybe it's more along the lines of 64% maybe realize that they publish something turned out to be wrong upon later examination. But admitting to misconduct at least once in their own research? I mean to willingly know that you're doing that and put it in there among those groups of scientists? I don't know. Something there is not quite right. Not hitting me correct. I think that one is the fiction.

S: All right. We're going to go in reverse order of how well you did this year. So Bob, you're next.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: The pterosaur, feather-like filaments. Yeah, I'm skeptical of that one. I think Steve would have jumped on that. And it's just so unappealing to think that feather-like filaments arose before dinosaurs. It kind of takes away from everything we've been talking about, about feathered dinosaurs for decades now. Let's go to the second one anyway. The Europa. Yeah, the key word there is significant life as we know it. And also I find interesting that it does not contain enough life-essential elements. Well, do we – I mean I'm sure we could be confident about what life-essential elements are. But I think we still have a lot to learn about what elements are really life-essential. And then the last one here. Let's see. The 64% admit committing scientific fraud. God, I remember we covered that at some point.

E: Well, misconduct, not fraud.

B: Yeah, misconduct. Yeah, misconduct. If it were fraud, then I think I probably wouldn't believe it. So I'm going to go with that one because I remember something about that and it was really – and it was surprisingly high. But the one that seems most likely to be fiction is the feather one. So yeah, I'm going to go with that.

S: That's the fiction?

B: That's fiction, yes.

S: All right, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Well, Steve is not going to sweep us because I think I'm going to go with the other one. So let's go through them. I'm really confused about this – the first one about pterosaur fossils covered with feather-like filaments. This is one of those ones where I'm like, did I read this? Did I only read the headline? But the thing that bothers me is indicating that feathers may predate not only birds but dinosaurs. I thought pterosaurs and dinosaurs existed at the same time.

S: Yeah, but they're not in the same group. So if they both have it, then they're common ancestors. If it's homologous, it's obviously a homologous versus analogous thing but whatever.

C: OK. But that makes more sense. So you're not saying that pterosaurs before dinosaurs had feathers and then later dinosaurs – OK. So that one – I think that might be science. Ocean worlds like Europa. The thing that bugs me – OK. Let me go to the one that I also think is true. I am not surprised that 64 percent of scientists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists would admit to committing scientific misconduct at least once in their own research. I would not be surprised at all because scientific misconduct is broad and vague. Like it could be filling in the data when some data is missing or it could be not crossing their Is or dotting their Ts in their statistical analysis or it could be – I bet you most scientists do that. So I am a little surprised that 64 percent would admit to it. But I think, again, that's one of those polling things and there's not enough information in how Steve wrote this because it just depends on how the survey was worded. If they downplayed it and they were like, yeah, maybe you did this. People would be like, yeah, OK. I probably did that. So I'm not surprised.

S: So I'll just say – I mean even though you're the third person going, I'll just say that the scientific misconduct you could put in quotes, right? That's the phrase that they're admitting to.

C: That they're using. Interesting. Oh, OK. And so whether it's explained or not, that kind of changes it. OK. The thing that bugs me about the Europa one, which I'm like, hello, I think I would have heard this. But also you're like a published analysis. How many freaking published analyses are there? You get me all the time with this shit where you're like a study says that – I'm like has it been replicated? Is it peer-reviewed? Like anybody could say whatever they want. I'm sure somebody out there said that there's probably not enough essential life elements. But the people that I know that are like pro-Europa are so diehard and like they're still unflappable. And I don't think that if this actually had any sort of legs that NASA would still be trying to go there and do a flyby and get a probe and all this stuff and get the geyser water. So I don't know. I just – this one rubs me the wrong way. Even though you said a published analysis and maybe you're screwing me on that. I'm still going to say that's the fiction.

S: All right, Jay. They're all over the place. So it's up to you.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Oh, boy. I can't even keep track of who said what now.

S: They're evenly divided.

J: All right. Crap. Well, I've had plenty of time to think about this, Steve. I'm going to tell you. I don't like it. This first one about the feathers, I think that's science just because there's really no reason to – I haven't seen the fossil record. But sure, feathers are so unbelievably useful in lots of different ways. I can see them predating "dinosaurs", which means they just go way back. Okay, that's fine. The next one about – this one about Europa and the life essential elements. I really agreed with what Bob was saying about how life essential elements for our type of life. But in a different environment, there could be a whole set of other elements that are needed. This also kind of rains on my parade a little bit because I really would like there to be life on Europa. The last one about the ecologists and the evolutionary biologists. I was agreeing with what Cara was saying there about 64 percent said they committed scientific misconduct. I'm not 100 percent sure of the scope of what scientific misconduct actually means. It probably means a lot of different things. It could mean anything from like not having full efficacy in their protocols or finding out that they could have done something better or that it wasn't really adhering to what they needed to do, that type of thing, and they just kept the data anyway. I'm just going to go out and say I think that Europa, the Europa one is the fiction.

C: So I'm with you.

J: Yes, me and you, Cara.

C: All right, against the world.

J: Let's do it.

C: But so is Bob.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Evan's by himself again.

E: And I went first.

S: Hey, before we go on to the reveal of this week's answers, a listener, Alex Garner, took the liberty of putting together a montage. We like to play montages of stuff from the previous year. This is a montage of the rogues' reactions to the science or fiction reveals, and it's pretty funny. Take a quick listen to that, and then we'll go on to this week's reveals.

[plays the montage]

All right. Let's take this in order since you guys are all spread out. A newly published paper reveals pterosaur fossils covered with feather-like filaments indicating the feathers may predate not only birds but dinosaurs. Bob, you think this one is the fiction because pterosaurs with feathers? Come on. And this one is science.

E: I like your bold choice, though Bob, it was bold.

S: And this a new item. This is actually a very, very recent item.

B: Really? Well, that's interesting little factoid you didn't tell me.

S: I said it could be from any time. I said it could be any time over the year.

C: That's one of the things we didn't do.

J: That's right, Bob.

S Pterosaur integumentary structures with complex feather-like branching. And it's not just like, oh, it looks kind of like feathers. It has the signature of feathers like on theropod dinosaurs. So they think that they're homologous, that this means that feathers as an integumentary specialization might have occurred in the common ancestor of pterosaurs and dinosaurs. It may predate dinosaurs in general, not just the theropod dinosaurs.

J: Bob!

B: Did you say integumentary? I thought it was a skin thing.

S: That's incredible. That is mind-blowing. That's like, I agree. We talk about these things that come up that change the way your mental image of the world. I've already had to re-imagine all the theropod dinosaurs with feathers, like even T-Rex, and now pterosaurs, they have feathers.

C: But I think that's why it was less mind-blowing to me, because we're just systematically seeing more and more visions of our childhood being changed. And I'm like, yeah, throw them on the pie.

S: I know, I know. But still, there's a disturbance of the force.

J: Bob, I'm sorry, man. It sucks, dude. Sorry, Bob.

E: Wow, Jay.

C: Jay, don't talk smack until we find out if we've won.

J: It's my last chance. This is the last moment I may have this year to talk smack.

E: Jay, there's more salt in the cupboard if you want to keep adding to the wound.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: We'll go to number two. A published analysis finds that ocean worlds like Europa probably do not contain enough life-essential elements to support significant life as we know it. Jay and Cara think this is a fiction. Evan, you think this one is science. Evan is all alone, thinking that the scientific misconduct one is the fiction. So Jay and Cara, if you guys are correct, I think you'll leapfrog Bob.

E: Also, this has consequences.

C: But we'll still be secondary to Evan.

S: But if you're wrong, then you sink even further into fourth and fifth place.

C: Well, we sink the same amount as Bob. Evan just gets assaulted even more.

S: And this one is science.

E: Oh, my gosh.

S: Evan takes an even stronger, more commanding lead. Another solo win for Evan.

E: Went first. Thanks, Bob.

C: What is wrong with us? How do we not learn from our mistakes?

E: Here's what you got to do. You have to start producing a game podcast because it helps hone your skills in game playing a little bit more.

S: So two researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics modeled just Europa, and not just Europa, but the icy worlds out there to say, all right, what's like Ceres, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, Dione, Triton, and maybe even Pluto, and said, all right, so given what we know about these worlds, where is the sulfur and the nitrogen and oxygen, and is there enough to sustain? Now, of course, life as we know it that's in there, as you guys said, it could be life that uses whatever ratio of elements those worlds have, but not Earth life. And I said significant because if there's a little bit, well, you could have a little bit of life, but you couldn't have a thriving ecosystem. There wouldn't be enough. There wouldn't be enough to go around. But again, the models are only as good as the models, right? So we don't really know how accurate they're going to be.

C: And this is only one study.

S: Yeah, but it was a pretty robust study. And whenever I say a study, it's always peer-reviewed. I'm not going to throw some non-peer-reviewed study at you.

E: But the journal Crank said, blah, blah, blah.

S: Right, right, right. Yeah, it has to be believable to me, like a reasonable – of course, it's never definitive. It's only one study, but they also were modeling trace elements like molybdenum because that's–

C: Ooh, molybdenum.

E: That's one of my favorites.

S: Iron. Iron. Have you had your iron today?

E: It's in me blood.

S: So yeah, so it is unfortunate if this pans out, if that analysis is correct. It could limit the prospects for life on Europa and similar worlds. But I agree, this is just life as we know it, and it's more a limit on the amount of life, not whether or not there could be any life. Even one organism would be amazing.

E: Oh my gosh.

C: It's also very hard for us to know what's beneath that ice.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All of this means that in a survey of ecologists and evolutionary biologists, 64% admitted to committing scientific misconduct at least once in their own research. This is the fiction. And Evan, your analysis was spot on.

E: Thank you.

S: That, in fact, it was 64% admitted to doing things in the gray zone, but not "misconduct". So what they admitted to was questionable research practices. But 97.9% said they never committed scientific misconduct. So very few. Only 2% said they did it once or twice.

B: Was it blinded?

S: 0% said they did it, yeah, said they did it often.

C: You mean like it was an anonymous survey?

S: Yeah, anonymous survey. So what falls under questionable research practices, however, and this is what I found very interesting about this article, to me, that's scientific misconduct.

C: Ah, that's where I was confused.

S: 64% of surveyed researchers reported that at least once they failed to report results because they were not statistically significant. 42% said that they collected more data after inspecting whether results were significant or not. That's p-hacking. So 42% admitted to blatant p-hacking. 51%—

C: Yeah, that's misconduct.

S: Yeah, yeah. But that's why I said, yeah, put that in quotes. That's the phrase they were—

E: Admitting, right, right, self-reporting.

S: As opposed to questionable research practices. That's the distinction that they're making.

C: That's not questionable. That's been questioned. That's not okay.

S: I'm with you. I'm with you. 51% reported harking. Do you know what harking is, Cara?

C: Harking? No, I've never even heard that term.

S: Hypothesizing after results are known.

C: Ew, that's so bad.

S: Yeah, they say that an unexpected finding of the research, well, that's what we were looking for all along.

C: That's f-ed up. Why don't you just report that? It's also so stupid because it's unnecessary.

B: It's like anti-science.

S: We hypothesized that this was going to happen. No, you didn't. That was an unexpected finding. Just say it, right.

C: Yeah, just say it. That's even cooler.

S: 51% admitted to that. So yeah, so it's clustering around half, admit to these "questionable practices". But I think that they should be upgraded to scientific misconduct, especially the p-hacking. That's just, you can't do it.

C: Yeah. Also, I feel like that number's probably low because even though it's anonymous, any computer scientist, anybody who's like, somebody's going to be able to figure out I answered these questions is probably downplaying a little. Evan-

S: Interesting.

C: I'm disinviting you from my poker table.

E: Oh, Cara. Damn it.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:46:13)[edit]

The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change, and the fact that many of our self-protective delusions and blind spots are built into the way the brain works is no justification for not trying.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) (2007) by social psychologists Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

S: Evan, bring us home for the year with your final quote.

E: I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You're doing things you've never done before. And more importantly, you're doing something. And that was from Neil Gaiman, G-A-I-M-A-N, who's an English author of short fiction novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theater, and films. His works include the comic book series The Sandman, which I hear is very good, and novels Stardust, American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book.

B: Coraline.

S: Coraline is awesome. Coraline is awesome. And I watched the first season of American Gods. It's interesting. I think it's interesting.

E: Yeah, it makes you think a little bit.

B: I recently listened to the book. I enjoyed it.

E: How was it?

B: I enjoyed it.

E: Good, good, good. And it's a good sentiment.

S: Guys, thank you all for another exciting year of the SGU. I appreciate all the work that you do for the show.

B: Yeah, it was all right.

J: Thanks, Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thanks for being the captain of the boat. And it was a great success this year.

S: It is my honour. Yes, my honour to host all of you guys.

J: What's in the boat?

C: Skepticism.


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

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.


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