SGU Episode 778

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SGU Episode 778
June 6th 2020
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SGU 777                      SGU 779

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quotes of the Week

-- When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.

-- Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening.

first quote: Dalai Lama
second: Jeanette Winterson, English writer

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 3rd, 2020, 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: Good evening, folks.

S: How are you all doing today?

E: Well.

C: You know.

E: I'm trying hard.

S: It's been a tough week, and a tough week. Lots happened since our last show. We're just going to do a little bit of COVID updates first, like we usually do.

COVID-19 Update (0:42)[edit]

S: So the numbers continue to increase, of course, but in the US, there definitely is a leveling off. The parts of the country that peaked first are starting to, or the new cases, the number of new cases are declining. Some other parts of the country that peaked later are still on the upswing, and some are even spiking a little bit. And so we're again, as I said before, we'll be getting that transition to the next phase where we're starting to partially roll things out. And I think the next month or two is going to really tell a lot about how things are going to go.

C: Do you think that's because the most populated cities did tend to peak first? And so even if the more rural areas or suburban or less populated areas are now starting to see their cases peaking, it's just in terms of gross numbers, fewer people.

S: Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Yeah, this is, and we're definitely getting into the more rural phase of the spread of the virus now.

C: Right.

S: Absolutely.

B: Plus also in the news, no zombies have showed up yet.

S: Mm hmm.

C: Oh, that's good. Were they supposed to show up?

J: Bob, are you happy or sad about that?

B: A little of both, Jay. A little of both.

E: All right, Bob. One of these nights, I'll come over your house. I'll dress up. I'll do the whole thing.

C: But in a mask, of course.

B: I hit you in the head with my Noon Chuck.

S: Another hydroxychloroquine study came out, this one showing that it does not protect people from acquiring COVID-19.

B: Shocker.

S: So you can give it as a preventive to people who are not sick. It does not reduce their risk of getting it. On the good side, a study, the first study of convalescent plasma, so it's plasma from people who had COVID-19 and got better, showed that it was safe. This was an open-label trial, not a controlled trial. This was like a phase one safety trial, showed that it was safe, and I think it was like 20 people or whatever in the study, or it was more than that, but 19 of them recovered. So they did well.

'B: So the antibody test.

S: Yeah. This is for plasma with antibodies in it. So it wasn't an efficacy trial, so we can't say really that it works based on this trial.

C: But it didn't kill them.

S: Yeah, but it looked preliminarily positive, but now this will pave the way for an efficacy trial where we compare it to a control. So that's good. And now halfway through my second week working in the hospital.

C: How are you holding up?

E: Have you had a recent test?

S: No, I haven't been tested.

B: I feel happy.

S: They're only testing symptomatic people. So initially, when we recorded the show last week, I'd only been there for a few days. And it is a bit of a shock after two months of being in lockdown, to be strolling around a hospital full of sick people was a different experience.

E: Cultured shock, sort of, in a way.

S: But now I'm sort of seeing the other side of it. I think we got this lockdown pretty tight in that the people working in the hospital are all really diligent. You know what I mean? Everyone's wearing a mask, wearing gloves, washing in and out of patient rooms, they're gowning the protective gear we're doing social distancing, and we've made lots of workflow changes we're not doing the on-mask rounds that we used to do, we've really changed how we're doing things.

C: And that'll probably be like the new normal for quite some time.

S: Absolutely.

E: In fact, the next year's Paris fashion show is going to be gowns and masks and all sorts of protective equipment.

C: It might be. You never know.

E: You know what? You might be.

C: I wouldn't be surprised.

E: That's just how interesting that is.

S: So, I mean, this is not to say there isn't a risk of 450,000 people, health care workers have contracted COVID-19 around the world. So it's obviously it's a higher risk than not being in a hospital. I mean, you think about it, a hospital is the worst place to be for spreading disease.

E: You don't even want to be there when you're pre-COVID.

S: Well, just think about it. It's a space, it's a building that's confined to some extent with tons of people, many of whom are sick, and your people, large groups of people are moving around the hospital, literally going into different patients' rooms. You know what I mean? It's a complete setup for the transmission of germs.

E: Germ clouds all over the place.

S: Totally. This is why the precautions have been increasing over the course of my career, over the course of historical time as infectious diseases get more menacing. And this is just the latest iteration of that. And I do think that there's going to be permanent changes to how hospitals function in response to COVID-19, probably because COVID-19 is going to be a permanent addition to our germosphere.

C: Did you feel like there were changes after MRSA started to become a really, yeah and now that's just how people are in hospitals?

S: Yeah, I mean, there's specific protocols. If someone's MRSA positive, there's a specific protocol associated with that. I have one patient on my service now who's MRSA positive. It's a gown and glove every time you go in. And that's always been the case since MRSA was discovered. And it's very common. So same thing, same things with other antibiotic resistant bacteria and also certain respiratory infections and tuberculosis, every time there's a new big infectious disease, it pretty much permanently changes the practice. So the thing is, I am feeling better, I think in a way is like, we got this, we're doing everything we can do, we're kind of minimizing it, the professionalism is definitely there. And I think health care workers are getting more experience with COVID-19 and we're learning a lot about it. So we're sort of getting a grip on it. But there's just no way around the fact that it's a risk and that already there's been a huge price paid by health care workers for being on the front lines, there's no question.

C: And until there's a vaccine, it's going to continue to be a risk, unless we get to a herd immunity point.

S: And even after.

C: But a lot of people are going to have to get sick and a lot of people are probably going to die if we're actually talking about getting to herd immunity.

E: Yeah. How long before herd immunity? Two, three, four years?

S: I don't know. We may never get it.

E: We don't know.

S: We may never get it.

E: We may never get it, right?

S: It really depends on the number of variables. How protective are the antibodies? How effective is the vaccine going to be? What is going to be the compliance with the vaccine? How long is immunity going to last? And then also just what's going to be the long term virulence of this virus?

E: Bob, do we have computers crunching out those numbers and giving us scenarios?

C: Well, sure. But we don't have all the we don't have the baseline information. We still don't know some of the things that we need to plug in.

B: Error bars are huge at this point.

S: Yeah. Yeah. So it's like it's like extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, kind of chaos where sure. Yes, we absolutely have computer models for this sort of thing. But it's like, OK, you put in these 10 parameters, each of which has error bars and they multiply. So then the resulting error bar is massive.

C: That's when you hear things like it could be two to 10 years.

E: Plus or minus 12 years.

C: Yeah.

S: Right. But things are chugging along. So we'll see. Again, I think that we're in a very tricky phase.

E: I think your optimism comes as a nice relief for some people, Steve, they'll be happy to hear that.

S: I wrote my article on Science Based Medicine [link needed] today was basically optimistic. It was winning the covid marathon. It's like, yes, this is hard all the negative things about it. I reviewed the fact that in the last five months we have made massive scientific advances. Think about it. And within a couple of weeks, we seek when we identified and then sequenced the genome of the virus. We shared it with the world. We already were to have 100 drugs that we're testing. We have drugs in the pipeline. We're already working on a vaccine and we're working on the plasma thing. We're learning more. There's been 20,000. Was that the figure?

C: Yeah, something insane.

S: Yeah.

C: Of studies.

S: Studies published. We're sciencing the shit out of this. Now imagine and I said, think about it, compare this to 1918, where 50 million people died around the world. This virus really is not that virus is no worse than COVID-19 virus. That was, imagine how hopeless they must have felt.

C: They couldn't even see viruses. They thought it was bacterial at the beginning.

S: Yeah, right. They really understood. That's what we're doing. In 100 years, we are in a completely different place with this pandemic and it's all due to scientific advances. The thing is, I think people take for granted and are complacent about it, but it's, even in the last few years, our ability to, no, we not only didn't, it's not that we just sequenced the virus. We're sequencing the different strains of the virus. the spread of the virus by the differences in the sequences of the different strains. Think about that.

E: It's a phenomenal set of accomplishments in the science, in the world of science. It's incredible.

J: Steve, can I take a complete right turn here and say something really cool and adorable I found this week? A positive thing?

C: Okay.

J: Are you guys aware that hermit crabs hermit crabs have to get a shell, right? They have to go find a shell that they fit in and when they get bigger, they have to abandon their old shell and find a new shell. Are you aware that hermit crabs organize a shell swap meetup?

C: Oh, that's cute. I didn't know that. I only ever had them as pets.

J: So what they do is they line themselves up from biggest to smallest.

B: God damn.

J: And then the big guy starts first and starts the wave of the shell swap. So he's going to a new shell that's unoccupied. And then his shell goes to the guy behind him and his shell goes to the guy behind him. And of course, there's a bastard hermit crab that runs up and steals somebody's shell when they're out of the shell.

C: There's always that bastard.

E: Oh, they do that, huh? It's not this orderly uniform thing in which they're all behaving by the rules.

C: Well, there is, but there's always going to be the outlier jerk, the opportunist in every species.

J: Yeah, he snipes.

C: Yeah, you see that.

J: A hermit crab will die without the shell because the sun will cook them very quickly. They need it.

E: And also what a delicious end.

J: They'll get eaten. But anyway, holy cow.

C: Holy crab!

B: Holy hermit!

J: I mean, talk about evolution, huh? Like this is a learned behavior, a social behavior that's genetically coded in there. When I saw it, I was amazed and also a little horrified what their butt looks like, because you never see that part of them.

E: Yeah, well, they have dignity, you know.

J: Yeah, they get very embarrassed. But anyway, I thought that was amazing. And then the other cool thing, which we're going to talk about during my news item a little bit, but we really haven't talked about the launch, guys, and the successful launch of the Dragon crew capsule. And it's successful, amazingly successful.

E: I watched it.

J: I mean, yeah, I saw it all. But we never seen it.

S: Well, it happened since our last show. That's why.

E: Yeah, we're going to talk about it. We are going to talk about it.

S: All right. But before we move on to the news items, we do have to mention the other big thing that happened in the past week.

B: Oh, yeah, that little thing.

S: That was obviously the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers. And obviously, this is a horrible thing. I'm sure we all watch the video. It's painful to watch.

E: It's murder.

S: Yeah. I mean and even I'm sure anyone can see that that was wrong. But as a physician, I'm like, holy crap, that he's literally killing that person. I mean, what is he doing? He's completely, he's clearly unconscious. Why are you restraining an unconscious person anyway?

C: And of course, those are the voices in the video. Those are all the people watching and filming. The bystanders are like, guys, I think you're killing him.

S: So and the end, the response obviously has been an appropriate, I think, level of outrage among many people.

E: Universal outrage.

C: And this, of course, is not just George Floyd. I mean, George Floyd was the straw at this point.

S: It's a trigger. It's a challenging time for democracy in the U.S. But I, again, I tend to be hopeful. I think that protesting is a constitutionally protected, incredibly important part of-

C: Of the process.

S: Of the process. And it's actually good for me to see the conversation that's happening. I've learned stuff in the last week and I think that we did it. It is a time to listen. And we were just talking before the show. It's very reminiscent of the Me Too movement where when that really hit, I learned so much that I didn't know that I thought I knew about the experience of half the population. And it's another sort of moment where we could learn what the experience of a segment of our population.

E: Never stop learning.

C: And here's the thing. I think that's a really important thing to note is that it's imperative on us as, especially among these five individuals who are speaking right now, but anybody listening for whom this resonates, as white Americans, and even though I'm Latinx, I am my race, if you want to define race, is white. My ethnicity might be Latina, but I look white. It's important for us to do our research and understand our role in these systemic, racist problems in our country and not to expect Black America to educate us about this. That's not their responsibility. It's our responsibility to remain educated. You cannot be passive in this kind of conversation because to be passive is to allow the structures that are continuing to continue unabated. We have to educate ourselves.

S: I agree. As skeptics, as critical thinkers, like a lot of people say, what's our role in this? This is kind of political, sure, but what I think is important is whatever your gut, knee-jerk reaction to this is, it's probably more emotional and ideological than fact-based, no matter where you are on the spectrum. And I think this is a good opportunity to put your immediate reactions aside and question everything that you might think about what's going on and look for facts, look for critical thinking, and also look for the other perspective. We all could use, I think, this is a complicated area, there's actually a lot of science behind it.

C: A ton of literature.

E: This will be studied.

S: Don't think this is all opinion. There's a lot of science here, there's a lot of sociology, a philosophy, everything of that. There's a lot of layers here.

E: Psychology.

S: Yeah, there's a lot of layers here. And we're going to be covering a couple of tiny slices on the show today. We may cover more in the future. We may find experts to bring on, depending on how things go. But I think it's a good opportunity to say, okay, I want to be more informed about this. I don't want to just go with my gut opinion here or my tribal opinion. I want information. I want to learn.

C: And I think if you're in what we call in the literature the ethnocentric, monocultural majority, and I know that's a big mouthful, but really it just refers to the fact that In America, the power structures tend to be white. And so that tends to be how we define things as normative. So ethnocentric, meaning white-centric, monocultural, meaning we tend to define white culture as normative and other cultures as other, which is obviously problematic. So if you find yourself in the ethnocentric, monocultural majority, then I think that one piece of advice that I'd like to give is that if when you hear things that threaten your previous beliefs and you find yourself feeling defensive or angry or shameful, listen to those feelings. Don't react. Start thinking, why is it that this offends me? Is it because I have been reinforcing some of these systemic problems? And how can I change that? I think one of the biggest problems is that change comes slow and that the evolution of awareness to anti-racism is actually a long process for a lot of people, especially if you grew up in a place where racist sentiment was codified. And so your initial reaction when you hear things that you may want to say, but not me or I'm not, don't tell me, it's not about you right now. So stop, think before you speak and educate yourself. I think that's a really important thing that a lot of white people can be learning right now.

E: Good time to enhance our listening skills.

C: Absolutely. Thank you, Evan. Absolutely.

J: It's amazing. Steve, after what you said because it was the Me Too movement and now we have this resurgence of the fact that black people are being abused in our country.

C: You mean the resurgence of people being aware of it?

S: Being aware of it.

J: Yeah, yeah. Of course. Well, I guess you could say that during the protests it's been getting worse too, but the point is it's so easy to sit here and be reminded that this is happening because, I'm a white male and I don't have to worry about any of the things that happened to any of the people in the Me Too movement. I don't have to worry about the things that the average black person has to deal with. And it really bothers me that I just can go years without even thinking about any of these issues because they don't affect me. I don't have people and these two movements have extraordinarily opened my eyes.

E: When people are hurting, it's important to listen to what they're saying.

J: So right, Evan.

S: And even still, we don't really know.

C: No. And the point that you just made, Jay, is a beautiful example of what it is in the literature and in larger social conversations that we're talking about when we talk about privilege. Privilege doesn't mean that bad things don't happen to you. Privilege doesn't mean that your life can't be hard. It means that you don't have the additional burdens of your blackness or your femaleness or whatever the case may be, and that you're not aware of the microaggressions and the experiences, the day-to-day experiences of an individual who doesn't have that privilege. And I think that the way that you just described your experience is a great example, Jay, of saying I'm lucky that I have this privilege. And so it's going to take me actually digging in and really trying to learn. And the best way to learn is to, as you said, Evan, listen and surround yourself with people who are different from you. Try and understand their experiences.

S: One story that resonated with me this past week. So a story of a New England Ivy League school professor who was an avid birder who was out in the park birding.

B: Sounds like a punk.

S: Right? I might have a little bit in common with somebody who fits that profile. And they politely remind a passerby that you're supposed to have your dog on a leash. And this turns into a racial conflict.

E: Oh my gosh.

S: It was watch to me that's like, that would not, if I were that person doing that, it would have been a completely different interaction. I know from experience, it would have been a completely different interaction. That was it was so clear. It's, again, obviously, millions of things like that happen all the time.

C: That's the important point. Just because we caught it on video this time and we're able to see it.

S: It was caught and it was crystal clear. But it stands in representation for all the ones that are not on video and maybe are more ambiguous or whatever. But it's still the same basic phenomenon. Anyway, we will be circling back to some of this. We're just going to do a couple of regular news items first.

News Items[edit]

More Accurate Time of Death (20:44)[edit]

S: Bob, you're going to tell us about a more accurate way to designate the time of death.

B: Yeah, this is a cheery topic I thought would be interesting. The scientists that have developed a method for determining PMI, or post-mortem interval, otherwise known as time of death, at a crime scene more accurately than ever before.

E: So wait, someone just doesn't look at their wristwatch and say, note the time, it's 12.30.

C: And not if they're not there when the person dies.

E: Because all the TV shows have showed me that.

B: Crime scenes don't often have people ready to make note of that. But this comes from researchers from Amsterdam, UMC, the University of Amsterdam, and the Netherlands Forensic Institute. And if you want to read about it, it's in the journal Science Advances. So you might say, who cares? How accurate do you really need to be? It's often a critical issue in forensic and case investigations. And the exact time of death can be decisive evidence in court, very important. And obviously, for an example, if someone has an alibi for a narrow window of time, if you know the post-mortem interval, it can help support or invalidate an alibi. Now you've got to trust me on this. I know a lot about alibis and court evidence. I'm taking care of my 83-year-old mom during this pandemic. So I hang out with her a lot with the TV on. Did you know that Law and Order, SVU has 478 episodes, and Survival PD has 148, and Criminal Minds has 324? And I feel like I've seen every goddamned one. Somebody help. Please help. Some of those shows just suck you in. It's like, no, I can't go back to work. I need to watch TV.

C: Oh my god, I love SVU. I can't help myself.

B: It's amazing. All right. So full disclosure, episode 522 from July 2015, science or fiction. Steve said, a new technique allows examiners to extend the window in which the time of death can be accurately determined from 36 hours to 240 hours. So it's a related news item, not exactly the same. The gist of that was that they tested dead pigs, and they found that some muscle proteins degrade in a predictable way such that you could reliably determine time of death from 36 to 240 hours after death. Huge. So this is the window after death that's very difficult to calculate. There's other methods, like taking a body temp, which I'll talk about later, and also you could catalog the bugs that colonize a corpse, and you could use that time frame as like, oh, this person, this body has been dead for this many weeks because of this type of bug. So this is different. This is in a specific window that was not easy to calculate. So now that was five years ago, and that method is still considered an interesting approach and with potential, but they're still looking for things like, what's the best protein marker to use for a human? And so the bottom line is that this is not being used in the field yet, but it still has promise. So now the current process. So what am I talking about with this news item? So my news item is about that first window with a fairly new corpse found at crime scenes typically 1 to 36 hours. The gold standard for this, for determining post-mortem interval, is pretty simple. The big part is body temperature. The body temperature is determined rectally, right Jay? Why don't I just go to Jay when that comes up? So you take the body temperature, plus you've got body weight and the ambient conditions, and you go to a special table, and that table will tell you that a person of that weight in that environment would have taken X number of hours to cool to the temperature that you took. So that's kind of how it's done. That's kind of the gold standard. It's helpful. It's been very helpful, but there's some problems with that method.

E: Sounds like variables come into play here.

B: Yeah, right. There's many more variables. So according to Professor Maurice Alders, professor of forensic biophysics at the University of Amsterdam's AUMC and the Van Hoft Institute for Molecular Sciences, damn, the guy's got a big title. He said, however, these tables are far from ideal. For instance, in the cooling process, it can make quite a difference whether a person is built heavily or thinly. The model does not incorporate this. So with persons of equal weight, but with different body structures, the outcome is the same. This implies that the results are not reliable.

C: It sounds like the same problem with BMI. It gets a good indicator overall, but like an individual basis.

B: If you're a bodybuilder, that number is going to be totally skewed. And the other problem with this method is that because taking the temperature is somewhat invasive, there's the potential that it could destroy some traces of evidence as well. So now the new method, the new method is non-invasive. It measures the body temperature in one to four places. So it could do four different places, and it's done with a thermal camera, or you can apply sensors to the body, which I guess is much less invasive. So you have that information, and then that information is entered into a much more comprehensive model which can handle details like what kind of clothing is a person wearing? Was he wearing a Speedo, or was he wearing a Parka, or you know, that can factor in. Was the body in water? Was it fully submerged? Was it only half or a quarter in water? And then the type of surface that the body was found on, et cetera, et cetera. You could plug all of this stuff in.

J: Can they also, would it tell you if they were dead or if they were just mostly dead?

B: Mostly dead. No. Mostly dead. This happens before-

E: I feel better.

B: Before the PMI. So conventional tests with just, like I said earlier, with the temperature and a couple other variables, they're usually accurate within three hours. So that's often a helpful window, but that's big. It's still a big window. This new method that I just described was done on bodies with precisely known times of death to get a really accurate test result. And they were accurate on average to within 45 minutes and never more than an hour. So less than a third. So they knocked out a good chunk. It's a really huge improvement. Alder said this is a major step forward in forensic investigation. So as good as that is, though, they think they can do better. So of course, I love hearing about how they anticipate that the future is going to play out with this technology. How much better can it get? And they think they can make it even better. And one way to do this that they're actually looking into now is to capture a body at the crime scene in 3D using motion photogrammetry. Now photogrammetry is a science of making measurements from photographs, taking accurate measurements, just using the pictures. So what you do is you photograph the body from all directions. And you know how the way apps work, right? Take a bunch of images from different directions and it could stitch it together into a 3D image that's generated. And then you could plug that into the model and then it can be immediately used to calculate the cooling of the body. And the cool thing about that is that you could say the body was in this position. It had this posture. And you could get even more granular with the types of situations that the body was in while it was cooling to have an even more accurate estimate of the post-mortem interval. And who knows how accurate they can get that? So that's interesting. I like this idea of creating the 3D image. And I wonder, could they get it down to a half hour? Could they get it down to 15, 10 minutes maybe? So however that comes out, I can't wait to see this method used in a new Law and Order episode.

C: Yeah. I mean, Bob, it's pretty interesting that you said 45 minutes to an hour is this new method. How long?

B: Three hours. Three hours for the temperature.

C: So all those TV shows are bullshit because they always talk about like, oh, he was gone for 20 minutes. That's enough time to kill him. There's no way they could have known that, a 20-minute window.

B: Yeah. Well, I'm not, yeah. That's not using methods that I'm familiar with.

C: Yeah, that exist.

B: Yeah. Right. Right. And of course, these silly shows take lots of lots of liberties.

C: Yeah. They get their DNA results back in 30 minutes. And also, enhance. Click, click, click. Enhance. That's their favorite tool.

B: Yeah. Oh, God. Yeah. Let's enhance information that's not even in the original picture, right? Sometimes they'll get an accurate estimate based on variables that they just got lucky enough to find out, you know? Like a video of it actually happening or because they can hack into these security cameras so well, right? There's always a security camera that's, oh, look at this. Beautiful.

C: The watch gets broken as they're hit with a rock or something.

B: I just saw one episode where the wife who was murdered, she actually recorded her murder from her TV. Her actual TV could actually record video because there was a hidden camera embedded in the TV. I'm not aware of a TV that could do that. But that's-

E: How did it know to record? Or what? Huh?

B: No, she knew to record it because she wanted to record this because something sketchy was happening.

E: Oh, she did.

B: You clearly didn't see that episode Evan. It was a smart move for her to record. And then, of course, the cops found it and like, oh, okay, you're the murderer. We got it on TV video.

S: I recently wrote about forensic science because a lot of it is crap.

C: Oh, my God. So much of it. So much more than we thought.

S: Yeah, I know. And a lot of it, unfortunately, is being, I think, falsely hyped on those very shows you mentioned, Bob. A lot of shows that have-

B: Sure.

S: Yeah, they go to the lab and they come up with a nice forensic, they tie a forensic bow around it.

B: In minutes.

S: Yeah. But a lot of it is relying upon stuff that we now know is just pseudoscience. But this is real. And this is the kind of thing that could have a significant improvement in informing these investigations.

SpaceX and the ISS (30:39)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, as you alluded in the preamble to the show, that we, since the last show, SpaceX docked with the ISS. So give us the update on that.

J: Yeah. So I'm going to tell you, Steve, about the Dragon launch real quick, and then I'm going to tell you about the ISS because that is a big, there's a big question mark in the future of the International Space Station. So first we got to see the Dragon crew launch. This is the Dragon 2 capsule. Yeah, so the original launch was supposed to happen on Wednesday, May 27th, and that got scrubbed because there was some bad weather over Florida. So they moved it to Saturday the 30th. The launch went off about three in the afternoon without a hitch. My first observation was it was really amazing how fast that the just was over before you knew it. I'm used to watching shuttle launches where I guess the vehicle takes a lot longer to get up to speed and get out of the atmosphere but like nine, 10 minutes into the launch, they were in outer space, they were getting rid of the second stage. So 19 hours later, approximately, they caught up with the ISS. The cool thing was this was really done largely by the computer system. It's not that the pilots aren't really doing anything. Of course they are. But the computer assist on this is huge. And they went through a lot of procedures, right, Evan? You saw this, right, Ev?

E: Yes.

J: And they do all these procedures. They're testing air pressure and they're testing the telemetry, they're making sure that the wire, they were like not running a wired connection, then they were running a wired connection and then they hooked the clamps in and it was really cool. It takes quite a while. This isn't like quick, the thing comes up and they park it and they connect it and the guys are in there shaking hands. It took about an hour to go through all this stuff. And then they come out and they're hugging each other and it just felt so good. It was really like a feel good moment, I think, that everyone around the world needed just to see this something that seemed like normal, even though it hasn't happened a private launch like this hasn't happened. But I was so proud of everyone involved and proud to see that the success happened. It was a big tension reliever when they launched and it was good. And then when they docked and it was good. And now the mission is moving forward. I still haven't heard how long they're going to stay up there, but they they're moving the cargo out. They're doing all the basic stuff. I didn't be, was not able to find a detailed mission spec on exactly what they're going to be doing and when they're going to make the final decision on when they're coming home. But I'm sure that that information will be out soon. So then I'm sitting there going, hey, wasn't the International Space Station supposed to be decommissioned? And it turns out, yeah, but there's a cool history here and there's a lot of details about the fact that SpaceX is now successfully able to launch people into outer space. So since 2011, when the space shuttle program was retired, NASA turned to the country that had the best space program, it happened to be Russia, and they're paying Russia to bring astronauts to the ISS on the Soyuz rocket. It costs about 80 million dollars.

C: Per launch?

J: Per seat, per seat.

C: Oh, per seat.

E: Yes. But you get a movie with that.

J: Yeah, you do.

C: You get some popcorn.

J: You get a couple of snacks. Hey, be happy because now with the success of the Crew Dragon launch last week, NASA now has access to once again launch the astronauts into outer space again without having to go to a foreign country. So I loved, like I was saying before, I loved watching the whole thing from soup to nuts even before the flight. And I just like sitting there with this stupid smile on my face. I can't tell you how exciting this is for me. So what this means, though, is the ISS will be used a lot more than ever before, right? We're going to be shuttling people up a lot. This is just with SpaceX. You know, wait till Boeing gets their crew capsule ready to go. Then it'll be even more. And this is this is a profound change to not only the traffic that we're going to have in space, but it's also a profound change to the future of the ISS because we need to re-examine the usefulness of the ISS. We can't just say, hey, we're going to shut this thing down. So what's going on here is America's political relationship with Russia has been on the decline, right? The typical politics between the two countries. The one part of their relationship that has been doing great is this co-joining between NASA and the Russian space agency. As a matter of fact, the scientists that are part of those two teams, like these guys get along and they there's a lot of mutual respect there. And they're in both countries are benefiting Russia's benefiting because they're getting like Bob asked, it's 80 million dollars a seat. So there's a lot of money in it for Russia. And the US, of course, is benefiting by getting their astronauts into outer space and up to the space station to continue conducting all the all the science that they're doing and a huge amount of the science that they're doing is testing for deep space missions, farther away missions like to the moon and one day to Mars. So the relationship between NASA and Rosco Cosmos, unfortunately now, depending on your perspective, it's got to change because we're not going to be paying 80 million dollars anymore. The heads of the two agencies discussed this idea of trading seats on either of their two rockets instead of the US paying Russia. So they both agree that the two countries need to continue to work with each other for both countries to move forward in the changing developments in space. And this is great news because the more agencies that can send people to space, the better.

C: And we should also remember, too, that it's not the only like sending people to the ISS is not the only use of Soyuz or of like any of these capsules that are launched out of Kazakhstan. Satellites are launched out of there all the time. And lots of countries buy that time or they contract with Rosco Cosmos. And although we have the capability to launch from Florida or from areas in California, I still think that American countries contract with Rosco Cosmos. It's not like our relationship with them is like dead after this.

J: Not at all. It's not dead. I mean, the only concern here is that mostly they were making Russia was making quite a bit of money off of the purchases that the U.S. was making. And with that loss of income, we're not sure right now what's going to happen to their program. Their space program is nowhere near as funded as our current space program.

C: Yeah.

J: So and there was a little bit of tension back in 2014 when NASA announced that they're hiring these outside companies to develop space programs. And so it's funny, Dmitry Rogozin, who was the director general of the the Russian Space Agency said, what did he say, goes in 2014 after he goes, after analysing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline. So I think he was a little miffed because I he immediately knew what the result was going to be. And what was really funny was Elon Musk remembered this comment. And last weekend, after the successful launch, he said the trampoline is working. But it turns out that now Russia was motivated to keep their rocket program alive while NASA was paying for the seats. But back in 2018, the U.S. payments ended up being 17 percent of their overall budget. That's a lot of their budget.

E: That's too many eggs in one basket.

J: So like I said, they're going to they're going to their space program is going to suffer to a certain degree, unless the country decides to pump money back into it. So the last seat purchase is going to be used this fall. And then from from this fall forward, it's going to be a trade. They're just going to trade seats.

E: We've been talking about this for a better part of a decade now about this sort of expansion between the private and public.

J: Yeah, that's right.

E: And it's happening before our eyes and paying dividends right now.

J: Finally, finally, this is exciting times to live if you if you enjoy space exploration. So, guys, so let me answer my original question. Where does this leave the ISS? So the ISS is a joint effort of space agencies from the U.S., Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. These partners have agreed that the space station should operate through 2024 and then be decommissioned in 2024.

B: What?

J: Yep. So NASA has that-

E: What the hell.

C: Four year, huh?

E: They might extend that.

J: Yeah. NASA's drifted from that original-

C: Do you think we wouldn't decommission it until we had a replacement?

E: Well, weren't we supposed to decommission Hubble like premature? I mean, there have been there have been examples of us having planned to decommission.

C: Exactly. Well, because we had James Webb coming to replace Hubble and we had the ISS coming to replace not to replace Mir, but to do the same thing that Mir did. Like we don't have another space station. We need another space station first.

J: Well, keep in mind, all of these countries are paying the billions of dollars it costs to maintain the station. So I can understand the other countries going, hey, United States, yeah, it's good for you. But you know, why are we paying to put your people up there? So NASA has drifted away from their decision for a 2024 end. And now they want ISS to function and be fully operational through 2028 to 2030. Now keep this in mind. This makes a lot of sense due to the Artemis program, right? This is the U.S. government funded crude spaceflight. Get back to the moon. Back to the moon. To the moon, South Pole in 2024. So we need the ISS up there to help as a staging and to it's just, it's just good to have something that's already in orbit in case of emergencies and resupply and all this stuff. Now, the ISS has a possible future being partly or completely funded by private business. Did you guys ever hear this? Because I heard it, but didn't know the details. Now this is what's happening. This would allow companies to send people to the station for various reasons, including private production, manufacturing or space tourism. And NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstone made it clear that funding will not be diverted from the ISS to support the moon missions so that it's a funding issue. And they're thinking if the other countries are going to back out of or they going to say, yeah, we're ending our financial support in 2024 and the U.S. wants to keep it going, that the U.S. could partially or largely fund the continuation of the ISS through getting private businesses involved. Those private businesses could literally send trained people up to the space station to do all those things that I listed. It's not that bad of an idea.

C: So they weren't going to decommission the space station because it's old and falling apart. They were going to decommission it because it's not economically viable to maintain it?

J: I think that both are a factor, Cara, because I remember them saying these modules can only stay in the depressurized outer space for so long. There is wear and tear on it. It's not incredibly old, but the ISS is not a new thing. You know, it's been around a long time.

E: I don't think 2025 marks the end of its safe life.

C: Gotcha. So that was more just like the end of the, like the funding or the budget.

E: Yeah. The plan.

J: I think 2030 is when they're, they're worried about safety.

E: Then yeah, at that point, yeah, then something else, then it will have to go.

J: And China is working on a private space station. And then, but the real thing too, and I read that they were, they were saying that the lunar platform that we've talked about before, that might be a replacement for the space station, even though it's much farther away. It's definitely going to be a place like, it's going to be a space station going around the moon.

E: You got to have it.

S: You may have both though. Maybe what we need to do, which we need to replace the ISS with a platform in low earth orbit that is designed to be a gateway to the rest of the solar system.

E: Right. Gateway one, gateway two is around the moon.

J: They've thought about it, Steve.

E: A companion around the moon.

S: I know. It's not a new idea.

J: Guys. One last thing. I've never said this with more truth and enthusiasm, like to infinity and freaking beyond, man. Let's keep this going. This is, this is amazing. And I really think that this is going to draw in kids I got drawn in in the seventies with the space program and it lasted my whole life. My kids watch this. My seven year old had his mouth open the whole time. He was blown away. It's so important. Talk about science communication. This is science screamification. You know what I mean? It's going to draw people in and people will become scientists because of that launch.

E: Thank goodness it was successful.

C: Geez.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Police Brutality Breeds Distrust (43:19)[edit]

S: Okay, Cara. So you're going to tell us about this recent study, which looks at the effects of police brutality on trust in institutions.

C: Yes. So a new study that was actually published early this year in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, which is a Springer Journal, is called Police Brutality and Mistrust in Medical Institutions. And there's some crossover between this published peer reviewed study and an article that was written like two days ago in The Verge, which is a great outlet. It has a great science section called Police Violence Will Make It Harder to Fight COVID-19. And so the kind of thesis statement here is that going to the hospital, to a physician, basically having a medical encounter is contextualized by a lot of things. And people's lives are a big part of this. And we've known for a very, very long time that ethnic minorities in this country tend to have a greater amount of distrust in medical institutions. We also know that ethnic minorities tend to be victims more often of police violence. And there's a lot of good evidence to back that up. And if you want to look at good recent evidence, for example, there's a New York Times article that came out just in light of what's going on right now. It was just published today. Minneapolis police use force against black people at seven times the rate of whites. And that's just one example across a massive body of literature. So when you look at this published article specifically, what they did is they looked at some database surveys that were done using Qualtrics, which is like a very common way to gather database survey, and they gave two different surveys to individuals. One of them looked at how much they trust going to the doctor. And the other one looked at their experience with the police. And so and they were able to sort them using kind of a Likert scale. That's that like one to five or one to seven scale of like I find doctors completely trustworthy or I'm really distrustful you know, have prudent paranoia, whatever. And then the other the other survey that they gave basically broke it down into three different categories. So I've had no negative police encounters. I have had negative police encounters that were deemed necessary. And I've had negative police encounters that were deemed unnecessary because, of course, we know that sometimes the police have to get involved and sometimes it doesn't go well. And other times they it's again, self-report perceived negative police encounters. So keep that in mind. And they found that overall, what they call police brutality or operation, what they're operationally dividing as police brutality, which specifically is perceived negative, unnecessary police encounters are have a big impact on the amount that individuals trust, especially individuals of colour trust experiencing medical treatment or trust going to hospitals. And so that might seem like really disparate things. But when you dig deep into the literature, it starts to make a lot of sense. So we know that historically there are reasons that racial minorities don't trust medical institutions in this country. We can point to Tuskegee syphilis trials. We can point to Gila cells. We can point to trials on Native Americans without consent. I think there were early anaesthesia trials on black women without consent. There's been a long history of kind of especially with medical research, unethical situations. And so that is going to obviously contribute. But a lot of the sort of literature up to this point had only looked at these kinds of specific situations, like how much do these sort of historical injustices contribute to either lack of use of medical services or distrust using medical services? And then there's been a fair amount of literature looking at the actual experience in the medical facility, right? So is there systemic racism that individuals are feeling within the health care system? So are they treated differently by doctors? Are they more likely to have negative interactions with nurses or with individuals that are doing intake? And of course, we see that across the board. That's also the case. But this was the first study that these researchers know of where they actually wanted to look at something that exists in the social context. So these are interactions with police and see if there's almost like a transfer. I guess that would be a good way to look at it, like a cognitive transfer within individuals, because this is a system of authority and a system of power within American culture and American society. And the researchers are saying, yes, based on all of the evidence that we looked into on these surveys, there are significant differences between ethnicity and race in individuals who trust versus don't trust medical systems. So black people, by and large, and also Hispanic or Latinx and Native Americans tend to not trust health care systems significantly more than whites. And also individuals who have had negative experiences with the police, especially when those negative experiences were deemed to be unnecessary, tend to mistrust medical systems more. And of course, that's exacerbated by that racial variable. And so they've make a couple of really important notes at the end of their study where they say, of course, we've often talked about cultural competency. This is a big thing in psychology I can attest to. And Steve, you can probably attest to the fact that doctors are trained in cultural competency to some extent, but that their concern is that cultural competency is too narrow a focus, that it's not just about understanding sort of some of the needs of black patients or some of the medical issues that you see in black communities, for example, or understanding different socioeconomic status when you come in to see the doctor, but also this deeply entrenched systemic racism and the unequal treatment that individuals receive in many aspects of their lives can affect their experience within the health care system. And so they are calling for more anti-racism education and structural competency and not just this cultural competency. And they also are talking about, they also recommend more federally supported national data collection of police brutality and police related deaths because the data is still kind of squishy because a lot of police forces are able to not report certain aspects of these things. And so it's a little bit hard. The data is a little bit clouded right now. So calling for more clarity there. And then finally, something that is important that I didn't even think about was that hospital safety and security are obviously really important for health care workers. But again, this is my privilege showing I didn't even think about the fact that if there's a police officer standing at the door or if there's a uniformed police officer or a police officer with a gun handy who is in certain medical situations, that this is going to be an extra layer of contributing to potential distrust because if I'm already fearing the police and I'm already feeling uneasy, I might not be willing to enter into that building or I might not be willing to give an honest medical history et cetera, et cetera. And then to kind of really quickly relate that to this article in The Verge, where the reporter specifically talks about the link to COVID-19, they're talking about police violence, protests and COVID-19. So there's a lot of research and I even thought about maybe talking about this on the show, but maybe we could save it for another time as to why African-American individuals and Latinx and also Native American individuals are getting pummeled by COVID-19, are having health outcomes that are significantly worse than white Americans. There's a good amount of literature to show why some of these systemic institutional structures are contributing to that. So you've already got that information on the one hand. And now you link to it, protests where individuals are in close quarters, such situations where, for example, if tear gas is used or if other methods of crowd control like pepper spray are used, they induce coughing, which is a big problem and a lot of contributing to these respiratory means of transmission. And I would say I just want to do a quick like kind of I guess this is a self plug, but I recently was involved in a short series, documentary series that you can find on World Channel on YouTube through ITV. So this was a public American Public Broadcast Service documentary series about why people believe in conspiracies, kind of where does conspiracy thinking come from. And each episode is about a different specific topic within conspiracy thinking. And episode three is called Prudent Paranoia, and it specifically focuses on why African Americans are more suspicious of doctors than the rest of the country and why there are more conspiracy theories within African-American communities about things like HIV. And it goes to a lot of these different contributing factors within this short documentary, if you want to bone up on that. So it's a complicated issue for sure. But of course, the evidence goes to show that this is a real phenomenon. It's a phenomenon that can have that continues to have really devastating impacts for some of our most vulnerable citizens. And it's something that we kind of we know what tools we need to start working on fixing it. But it's got to be bigger than the medical profession as a whole. Public health has direct links to things like police tactics. And we need to understand that if we're going to affect real, real and lasting change.

S: Yeah, it is complicated. I want to make a couple of comments. One is just to point this out from the scientific point of view. Yes, this is a correlational study and we can't there's no cause and effect that you could get demonstrated from this. And in fact, it's plausible many different ways because especially since it was self-report, it could be that the mistrust in institutions in general lead to both. But I think there's probably just a very complicated web of self-reinforcing mistrust among all of these variables.

C: Yeah. And I think there's there's a fair amount of really good evidence to show that because we can see it, we have good evidence to show that systemic racism exists and disenfranchisement and discrimination exists across these different institutions. That even though this is a correlational study, it's very likely that it's the you know, that black people by and large are experiencing this and that's contributing to their prudent paranoia, as opposed to the prudent paranoia is somehow making the police more brutal towards them.

S: Yeah, yeah, I think I agree.

C: But I have seen this myself just in my practice and more when I was working in Washington, D.C., just because of the demographics than in Connecticut. But it is the only time in my life I've ever been accused of being a racist is in the context of health care, which and I being as self-reflective and humble as possible. I don't think that those accusations were fair, but I do understand the context of that it was happening. And essentially, there's many times when you tell patients things they don't want to hear. Or they want more intervention than is medically appropriate. That happens all the time. But but there were a couple of cases where I was telling a patient or a family member that we don't need to do this study or that is an indicator or whatever. And that, of course, you have to put a lot of trust in the system, in the physician and in order to accept that. And if that trust isn't there, it could easily be seen as, well, you just don't want to spend money on me or my family member because we're black.

C: Well, and also it's the sad and scary thing is that because by and large, there are plenty of studies that also show that, yes, black people disproportionately don't get the same treatment.

S: And it's true. I know.

C: And so when you have an example that reinforces that narrative, because the narrative holds up, then, of course, what do you expect for an individual to go in? I mean, if I feel like if I were in a young black woman's shoes in America, I might expect the racism instead of going in with the benefit of the doubt, because it's just what I experience every day of my life.

S: No, absolutely. And I totally understand. I'm not criticizing that response. I'm saying it's unfortunate because there's enough of a reality to it. Just statistically speaking, when you look at it, you have people. If you're a member of a minority, you're less likely to get the interventions that you need or to get admitted or whatever. All those things are true. But of course, as you know, it's hard to apply that to an individual case. But the point is, it is counterproductive. So I saw people sort of subverting and not this is even in many contexts, not just in the racial context, but when there's that lack of trust, whether it's deserved in that individual instance or not, it does sort of short circuit the therapeutic relationship and the whole process of delivering optimal health care.

C: Oh, absolutely.

S: And when it occurs, it's just it's just part of a background of mistrust, which is totally reasonable, given the history and the current reality. And so I see this as just another way that they get victimized because.

C: Yeah, it's a negative feedback loop.

S: It's a negative feedback loop. Yeah. It's like, yeah, you're you haven't. We haven't earned your specific trust because of all the systemic racism. Therefore, you're unable to give the system the trust that would be necessary to have an optimal relationship.

C: But ultimately, they get harmed by that.

S: They're the ones who get harmed by it right now. I don't get harmed by it. They're the ones who get harmed by it. Absolutely. And so, yeah, it just it made me sad but it was just another just like I think in many contexts, like people who believe in conspiracy theories in general hurt themselves, you know. But it's tough when it's partly justified, you know.

C: Well, yeah, that's the thing is that here it's like so often, individuals aren't hurting themselves, but they're being hurt. And then in the in the rare examples or the non normative examples where they wouldn't be hurt, there's such fear. It's kind of like a learned helpless helplessness, right? There's such a fear of of becoming victimized or of becoming hurt that like, why try? And that's I mean, that's devastating. And the thing is, when you say like, you're right, you weren't harmed in this interaction, but the individuals might be harmed in this interaction. But as a whole, our society is harmed by.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

C: It affects everything from health care costs to just everyday humanity. And so I think that one of the recommendations that was made in the article that I actually didn't point to, which you've just reminded me of, is that it's really important. And we see this in psychology, too, right? By and large, most therapists are white, which is a problem, because if a black person wants to talk about the experience of living black in American society, they may want to talk to a black therapist because I'm not going to understand them the way. And it's not their job to teach me, you know. And so it doesn't mean that I'm going to be not as I'm not able to be an effective therapist for them, but it may be that for their comfort, they might want a black therapist. So we need to be elevating more people of colour into these medical and clinical positions. And we also need to be promoting and making sure that services exist so that there are liaisons in these situations. Individuals of colour who come from similar backgrounds, who have similar experiences, who can help communicate about these fears and talk about treatment options and things like that in a way that is less threatening, for example, or where the power dynamic is disassembled. And I think that's super important.

S: Yeah, I think the bottom line is it just it just shows you how racism poisons so much in society. The tendrils reach deep into places you never would have imagined.

C: Absolutely. And again, pointing back to what Jay said at the very beginning of the show, it's a good full circle, is that if you're not actively experiencing the outcomes of these things, you don't even notice they're happening. Your privilege allows you to not even know they're happening.

Journalists and UFOs (1:00:52)[edit]

S: All right. So, Jay, you sent me this next item. This is an interview that was published in Scientific American. The interviewer was John Horgan. You guys remember that?

B: Oh, God, yeah.

E: John Horgan.

J: I do.

S: Yeah.

E: Didn't he gave a speech once or so?

C: Oh, yeah. John Horgan is like one of the editors, right?

S: And then he wrote he wrote an article trashing skeptics to certain extent.

C: He wrote a book that I studied in my philosophy of natural science class when I was an undergrad called The End of Science that we ripped apart.

S: Yeah, I had to rip him apart on my blog as well. And so he was interviewing Leslie Keene. Do you know who she is? So she's a journalist. She published a couple of controversial, somewhat controversial articles. One was a kind of a soft treatment of UFOs. She wrote a couple of books, one on UFOs and one on life after death. So the interview basically was about why these topics are legitimate for journalists to address, which I have no problem with that basic premise. My problem is that her journalism, it was crap. That's the problem. And she may be a fine regular journalist. And this is kind of what I wrote about on my blog. I was like journalism without skepticism, even if you are a competent, even a very good journalist covering a wide range of topics. When you delve, it's like, but that doesn't mean you're a science journalist. And it doesn't mean does it mean you're a skeptical journalist.

C: But shouldn't you always be a skeptical journalist?

S: But we know, Cara, we know that scientific skepticism, not just like just skepticism and the check your sources and blah, blah, blah, just basic stuff like that. But you need to have a working knowledge of things like the philosophy of science, the difference between science and pseudoscience mechanisms of self-deception. And if you're going to go into a specific topic like UFOs, you probably want to know something or two about what skeptics think about that topic, because we've been thinking about this for decades and have been in the trenches addressing the claims and thinking through them for a long time. But so here's her problem, in my opinion. And this is what she in this this comes out, I think, pretty clear in this interview. She thinks she already understands what skeptics think. And so she didn't bother to incorporate their opinion into her journalism. And so she makes a string of rookie mistakes that I think many competent skeptics, especially those who are specifically familiar with the UFO area or the life after death area that they were just skepticism in general. They could have corrected for her. There's a lot that she could have learned. So she was she kind of Dunning-Krugered all over these topics. Because because because she's a journalist, she doesn't need to talk to skeptics. She's the skeptic. She knows how to answer these questions. Total fail.

C: And also, was this real reporting or was it like an op ed?

S: This wasn't an op ed. It was it was it was commentary. It was an interview by Horgan in Scientific American. But her but her articles or New York Times articles were real reporting. They were a commentary. So about UFOs, for example, she writes, "The documentation goes back more than 60 years when no one on this planet had technology like this. In some cases, experts, such as officials from the French Space Agency, had enough data to rule out all conventional explanations, meaning it wasn't something natural or manmade. These cases present only a small fraction of those reported, but they are the ones that matter."

E: So, yeah, there's nothing about human misinterpretation.

S: Yeah, there's a lot. There's a lot that's wrong in there. And like any skeptic could have pointed out to her why she's making some massive errors, even though they may be they may be subtle logically. So of course, she's prematurely concluding that the existing evidence shows the existence of real physical objects breaking the laws of physics or at least performing way beyond technology that currently exists, let alone the technology that was around 60 years ago. So she's already basically assuming the the conclusion. That's her starting point. This evidence shows this.

E: That's not even good basic journalism right there.

S: No. Well, I would I would agree. But the thing is, if you only talk to UFO enthusiasts, you will get that impression or if you watch the videos or you might. It's also a false reliance. And journalists fall into this. If you could find an expert, somebody who has a reasonable claim to authority, then you can rely on what that one person says and you can quote them. And that's good enough. Or maybe you get a second person and you're golden. But that's not enough when the question is, are we being visited by aliens? Right? You have to explore the skeptical point of view, which she did not do. And the other thing is these it's not like this information is enough. It's like in her in her article for the New York Times, she was largely talking about the Navy videos that have now subsequently been fully debunked, completely debunked. And so that proves that everything she said to say that they were genuine and convincing and compelling is bullshit, because we know now that those videos are of birds and planes and mundane things. They're not these extraordinary things that she thought they were. How did she make such a big mistake? Because she didn't talk to skeptics. But I want to focus on the more subtle part of this. These cases represent only a small fraction of those reported, but they are the ones that matter. No, they are not the ones that matter.

B: Oh, man. That's a bad one.

S: That's a bad one. All of the cases matter. You have to look at it in the context of all the evidence. If you only look at the residue of unexplained cases, that's then you're putting blinders on and you're missing the big picture.

B: Do your magician analogy, Steve.

S: Yeah. So I wrote about what if, for example, the culture of magicians, this is not the case. Most magicians say that they're doing tricks. But what if just as a cultural phenomenon, magicians said, claimed that they were doing real magic, that their magic was real.

E: Some do.

S: Do you think you could address that claim by only looking at the five best magicians in the world? Or do you think it would be helpful?

C: You want to look at the worst ones.

S: Yeah, exactly. You'd want to look at all the magicians and then you can put the best magicians into the context of they're at one end of the spectrum of the full range of the phenomenon of stage magic. So somebody in the comments, I can always tell, my blog sometimes get invaded by non skeptics who clearly are not familiar with me or my blog or my writing. And it's like they're only looking at this one article because it was probably somebody linked to it from a UFO site or something. So there's a lot of UFO apologists there. But anyway, somebody wrote this analogy. It's like, so are you saying that if you have like a wad of bills, the more fake bills there are in that wad, the less likely it is that any any of the bills in there are real. It's like, OK, so I always find it interesting to try to figure out exactly where somebody's thinking is going wrong. It's like that's just a false analogy on a couple of levels. But I said, let me feel this. So let me fix that analogy for him. What if someone has a wad of bill like pieces of paper that they're concealing from you and they're going to pay you, however, put some of this money in an envelope and pay you for something and to show you that the money that they're holding is real they will randomly pull out bills and flash them quickly in front of your face. So you can't see them well enough to identify if they're real or not. But occasionally it's slow enough that you do get enough of a glimpse where you could identify whether the bill is genuine or fake. And every single time you can identify the bill, it's fake. Every single time. Does that mean the ones you can't identify are more likely to be fake? If they flash one bill in front of you, that's fake. And then another bill that you can't identify versus flashing a thousand bills in front of you that are fake and one you can't identify, aren't those two situations different? The fact that there are millions of UFO sightings and experiences and reports or whatever, and that 99 percent of them can be identified as natural phenomenon. Does that doesn't that inform whether or not that one percent that we can't fully explain is probably just an extension of this overall phenomenon?

E: Occam's razor would tell you, yes.

S: Do you really think that that one percent is something completely different than the other 99 percent or is it just-

E: So different requiring that you practically have to come up with a whole new physics to explain it? It's not just a subtle thing either.

S: We're not even getting into like Occam's razor and all that. I mean, just that that basic idea that I'm just going to focus on the residue. So the other way I look at this and I've wrote about this many times, do you think if we lived, if we lived in a hypothetical world, where we are not being visited by aliens, right? And that there is no craft flying around the earth, whether you think it's alien or from the future or whatever the hell ou think, another dimension doesn't matter, right? There is no technolo advanced technological craft, not of current day human manufacture flying around the earth. Would that residue exist? Of course, it freaking would. So therefore, the existence of that residue of unexplained observations does is not evidence for the existence of alien spacecraft or anything like it. It's exactly what we would expect if there were no such craft and there was just this massive psychocultural phenomenon. So it doesn't distinguish between the alien hypothesis and the psychocultural hypothesis. But the 99 percent that we can explain does. So the existence of that residue of unexplained phenomena, this goes with Blob Squatch or anything else. You're always going to have things that are easy to explain, things that you need to investigate, but you can ultimately explain. And then there are things like the more you investigate, the more you can explain. But there are some where you just don't have enough evidence. They're just really unusual, rare, coincidental things that you may not have enough evidence to be able to exactly explain what they were. But they're not definitively identifiable as the whatever the new phenomenon is. And then the other sort of big picture thing is and we talked about this not too long ago on the show about Blob Squatch. You know, it's like the fuzziness is not a bug. It's a feature. These things are fuzzy because the non-fuzzy things are identifiable as not being UFOs or Bigfoot or whatever. They have to be fuzzy because those are the only ones that leave open the possibility that it's something new and interesting. And so she misses all of that. And I could have explained all of this to her just like I did now if she had ever interviewed any skeptics for her articles or to her book or to her inform her understanding of this. But she clearly never did. Or if she did, I don't know who she talked to. It was never me or anybody that I know. But she she did. She missed it. She went in with blinders on or biased or she already had her conclusion. And so and I also don't think it's a coincidence that she is gullible of UFOs and the life after death. And she makes the same kind of mistakes for both. That sort of that crank magnetism. So very disappointing, very disappointing interview that it was in Scientific American.

J: Yeah. What's with that, Steve?

C: What is wrong? It's John Horgan. It's John Horgan. I mean, I shouldn't say only, I don't know. But I mean, by and large, that's where I find problems in that publication.

S: And there may be some things about what she writes that are perfectly fine.

C: He's controversial at best.

S: Controversial at best. But when he he took it upon himself to lecture the skeptics movement and then every example he gave was a straw man, which means he didn't really understand what we were doing. Every single one is like a complete-

B: It's pretty pathetic.

S: Yeah, it was totally pathetic. And then when he was called out on it by multiple people, including me, he doubled down. He did not use it as a learning moment. He did not go, oh, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I need to learn something more about what's actually going on in this intellectual movement that's been going on for decades. And that consists of philosophers and scientists. Maybe they know something I don't know. Nope. It's totally double down.

C: He highlights on his website, Steve. So I just looked, he's not he's not an editor there. He's a science journalist there. He's the director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology. He's a former senior writer and he's written for a lot of outlets and he's written a lot of very good science. So we have to be clear about that. Like he's educated as a science journalist. But the third article down under selected works listed under skepticism is dear skeptics bash homeopathy and Bigfoot less mammograms and war more. And that's been one of his arguments from the beginning. But I think that he-

S: Just won't let it go.

C: Yeah. Yeah.

Will Your Dog Rescue You? (1:14:45)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, you're going to finish up the news. This is a fun one. There's actually some interesting science to talk about here, but it's also kind of adorable. So tell us about would your own dog rescue you?

E: Question these researchers had from Arizona State University. Can a dog sense when their owner is in a perceived state of danger? And if yes, would the dog attempt to save their owner? Well, I'm not going to save the results for the end. I'm going to share with you right now the heartwarming conclusions that according to these tests.

B: Thank you.

E: Yes, your dog will save you as long as the dog knows how to save you.

C: OK.

E: So the study was done by two folks, grad student Joshua Van Borg and experimenter Clive Wynn, both of the Department of Psychology. And we think of things like Lassie, OK. Oh, Timmy fell down the well. So Lassie went and ran and got the family right to get Timmy to survive. And this is what Van Berg calls a pervasive legend, effectively, that we have this perception that dogs want to help help their owners or help rescue their family their family members in times of peril. But how do you how do you test that? How do you simply observing the dog rescuing someone doesn't really tell you much. The challenging part, he says, is to figure out why they would do it. So here's the experiment they set up. They tested 60 pet dogs and their owners one at a time. Van Berg and Wynn observed what happened when each dog's owners was seemingly placed in a serious situation. And here are a few details about the protocol. First of all, none of the studied dogs had any prior experience of training in saving people. Right. These are untrained animals in this regard. The owner would go into a box with a sliding door in which the dog would need to either nudge or paw open in order to "rescue the owner". The owner, while in the box, the main experiment is designed that they would slap the box four times for four quick slaps and then let out cries for help. But they weren't allowed to call their dog by name. They would just say, help, help. You know, I'm trapped. Help. You know, exclamations, but not calling the dog per se. All right. To see what would happen. Here's here are the basic results. About one third of the dogs rescued their distressed owner. And according to Van Berg, he says, now, that doesn't sound too impressive on its own, but it is very impressive when you take a closer look. And that's because of two things. Number one, the dogs desire to help their owners. And number two, how well the dogs understood the nature of the help that was needed. Now, Van Berg and Wynn explored this factor in control tests. And they said what previous tests had been lacking were these controls in which you have to kind of figure out where you're starting with these dogs. So in one, for example, in one control test, when the dog watched a researcher simply drop food into that box, no person, they just drop some food in there to see what the dog would do. 19 of the 60 dogs managed to open the box to get to the food. When the owner was in there doing their help, help, help more dogs rescued their owners than retrieve the food.

S: Sid you look at the actual article because they said it was a third of that, which would have been 20 versus 19. So it's like one one more.

E: 19 of the 60 dogs realized how the mechanism worked drop the food in. The dog had to figure out what it took to get in to get the food. And 19 of 60 were successful in doing so. Of those 19 dogs, 16 of them also in this same scenario, but this time in the rescue scenario, which the owners were crying for help, 16 of them also rescued the owners. Now, that's 84 percent of those dogs. So 84 percent of the dogs capable of opening the box or showing willingness to do so, they did it and they did it when it, quote unquote, counted. Now, the researchers are therefore concluding by this that most dogs or owners, their dog, the dog wants to rescue them. And if they know how, there's a very good chance that they will be able to do so. Now, I'm not sure. I think that's kind of a loose. I think there's I think that's subject to maybe some other interpretations. Not sure how solid really this is, or if you can really conclude that, yes, your dog wants to rescue you more based based on this. It's kind of a limited study in a way.

C: But showing that many dogs, like a majority proportion of dogs who basically have the choice of either getting food or giving attention to their owner in any situation would. I think that's kind of comforting. That my dog might choose to like help me over eating a steak that was next to me.

S: So, Evan, it was 20. I'm looking at it was 20. OK, so of the 60 dogs tested, 20 rescued the owner in the primary distress test, 19 successfully retrieved treats and 16 released the owner from the apparatus in the reading test. You didn't get there yet. But so the other control was instead of crying for help the owner was just reading.

E: Yes.

S: And so 16 also opened the door to get the to get their owner when they were not in distress. So the thing is.

C: So it's really just that your dog wants to be with you.

S: Yeah, that's the thing. We don't know that it might be that they just want to be with you.

C: But that will still hopefully work in your favour if you are distressed.

S: Right. But the but the being in distress up the ante a little bit. It went from 16 to 20. But that suggests the majority of that is just the dog wanted to be with you, which I know we all have our anecdotal experience, obviously, with many pets. And my current my current dog, Sagan, is desperate to always be physically with like me and my wife. I could totally see the same him doing that. I mean, he's like jumps on my lap and lays on his bed. Oh, my God, such a baby. But it'll be by your feet. This always like wants to be as physically close to us as he can be. So I could totally see that he would be one of the dogs that would do it just to get in there.

C: But even that, I mean, it bodes well for if you are in distress, A because they could probably find you. But B like the fact that there's more of a drive for like interaction than for food seeking in a lot of dogs is a really I mean, that really does show how important that kind of human dog relationship is to the dog. That's great. It's not just us. They actually really like it, too.

E: They do.

S: I also think my dog would tear that cage apart to get right to the food.

E: They also said sort of as more of an aside, when the owner had was in the distress test, they called it the distress test. The dogs tended to bark more and they actually whined and they showed these other signs of sharing distress with the owner. They didn't like the pitch, the volume and the tone by which they could hear their owners crying for help. So they also sort of had more of an experience with the dogs who expressed those kind of feelings. Their owners are feeling that as well. And there is other studies that have been done that that correlate with that.

C: And we, of course, all have that anecdotal evidence, too, of like, you're having a really bad day or you're crying or something. You're not in a good mood. And your dog seems to be somehow like attuned to that. They know to like be less needy or they know to just come up and put their head on your lap or it's like, oh, thank you. Read your tone.

J: They're better people than us.

E: I'm surprised it actually hasn't been a little more widely studied. These kinds of studies. I enjoy these studies. I do like learning more about it. And we do have to check our own biases, when it especially comes to our lovely, cuddly little animals.

S: It's hard to infer their motivation. That's the bottom line. But I do think if you're going to get close to it, you do have to do many tests that control for as many different interpretations as possible. So this was a fun study because it did like a few tests. So you have at least some you could triangulate a little bit, you know.

Who's That Noisy? (1:23:14)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: Guys, last week, I played this Noisy.

[brief, vague description of Noisy]

B: Damn.

J: I got a lot of guesses this week, and to start off, many people wrote in and said, that's a warthog. You know what a warthog is, guys?

S: Mm hmm.

C: I do.

J: It's a combat plane. A big plane.

B: Somebody that hoards all the warthogs.

C: I know what an actual warthog is.

S: Oh, that warthog.

J: It's got an amazingly big gun on it.

E: Cara, you're thinking of Africa.

J: Yes, it's not a bad guess at all, because there's something very military about this sound. Glenn Elert, his last name is E-L-E-R-T, wrote in "This week's Noisy sounds like a liquid fueled rocket, a rock propelled something. It has those cracking sounds of a space shuttle only smaller. Blasting across the alkali flats in a jet powered monkey navigated" and goes on and on like this.

C: Why are there so many animal names in all of these things?

J: I don't know. William Steele wrote in. "Jay, my initial guess for this week's noisy is an A-10 warthog." And there it is. This was the first person to guess the warthog. "On a firing run with the iconic G-A-U-8 Avenger." He sent me a sample video. I watched it. Wow. You do not want to be on the wrong end of a warthog. "However, it seems like the sound played is way too long for a firing run. My guess now would be top fuel dragster event." That is also incorrect. But getting the edge in closer. So the winner for last week, Logan Callen wrote in. "Hi, Jay, this week's Who's That Noisy is a Taliban rocket being stopped by a C-RAM." You know what C-RAM is, guys?

C: No.

J: Counter rocket, artillery and mortar system. He said-

C: Anti-aircraft? Oh, anti rocket.

J: Yep.

C: OK.

J: He said he saw it on Reddit. That's where actually I saw it, too. And then the person that sent it in was originally found, I think, on Reddit as well. Reddit is a goldmine for wonderful Internet stuff if you don't know.

C: And also horrible Internet stuff.

J: Yes. Yeah.

C: All of the Internet stuff.

J: I mean, Reddit has a there's great communities on Reddit. And I avoid all the bad ones. So to me, it's a good experience. This this listener, Logan, said that it was great to see us all in Seattle, except for Evan. And we brought his wife, Christelle, up on stage. I didn't. Yeah. OK. That's great.

C: I remember Christelle. She was our.

B: Yeah.

C: I don't want to give away parts of the show.

J: Yeah. Yes. Good. Thank you for reminding. Remember. All right. So, guys, the original person that sent this in was Carrie Harmon. Oh, yeah. So what you're seeing is I believe there are two guns that are shooting an incredible volley of explosive rounds at whatever is coming at this base or in this area. So listen again now that you know what it is. You know, it's anti. It's a CRAM. It's anti ballistic firepower. [plays Noisy]

B: Wow.

J: Yep.

B: It's just lots of them.

J: Now, I have to tell you guys, that like that was that initial blast sounds like from Steve from War of the Worlds.

S: Yeah, yeah.

J: The Tom Cruise one. Yeah, there is something really deep and scary about that. That initial fire that just crawls up my spine. It's probably why the people that made the movie pick that sound effect. But I did say to one person that emailed in, it's really sad that we have to develop countermeasures like this. This thing that spits gigantic bullets at a phenomenally ridiculous, neck breaking rate to stop other people from shooting missiles at you to kill you. We live in a really screwed up world when we have these types of technology that can do these things. Anyway. Don't get me started. Let's get on to the next noisy.

New Noisy (1:27:27)[edit]

J: This was sent in by a listener who did not clearly give me their name. If you want to send me your name, I will happily announce it next week. And here is this cool sound. Check this out.

[brief, vague description of Noisy]

J: Yeah, there's a lot going on there. There's an obvious like exclamation point in that towards the end of that sound that I think is really cool. And that's really the action that I'm talking about. But there's I left in some other pre and post sounds that might help somebody guess. Email me at If you think this week's answer or if you have any cool noises that you heard, please keep sending those noises in, guys. I love picking them from listeners. I hate having to find my own. You want to know why? Because I'm exhaustedly done. I don't know where else to look. I need you. I need you. Evan it gets scary. There are some weeks where I'm like, what am I going to do?

E: It is. It's a challenge.

Announcements (1:28:37)[edit]

J: Steve, there is something very serious I need to talk to you about.

S: Is it NECSS?

J: NECSS, of course. I have so I have an announcement. So Richard Wiseman is going to give a talk on August 1st at NECSS. But on Friday, July 31st, we have the absolute honour of saying that Bill Nye will be joining us as one of the game show contestants. He is going to be on our game show. So this is going to be from like 8 to 10 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Bill is going to be one of our contestants, meaning that he will be one of the people receiving the quizzes. And he's he's a ton of fun if you guys haven't had the chance to catch him. And he did the extravaganza with us a couple of times. He is just off the cuff. Amazing because he was and still is a comedian. If you didn't know that, it's one of his skill sets. Oh, yeah, don't forget that Lianne Lord and Andrea Jones-Roy will be joining Bill as our contestants.

C: Yay.

B: What a crew.

J: As you may know, Lianne has been the previous MC at NECSS for years. And she is also a comedian. And Andrea is also a comedian and a scientist.

S: Yeah.

C: Amazing.

J: Yeah, these guys are awesome. So for for that Friday night game show or the Saturday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. string of events that we're going to have with a ton of speakers, a lot of other activities going on. More will be announced. You should go to and please join us and help support the spread of critical thinking and just fun, just fun, Cara.

C: I like fun and also critical thinking.

S: Yeah. Critical thinking is fun, Jay. This is a false dichotomy. All right.


Question #1: Talking and Breathing (1:30:22)[edit]

I hope you will make mention on your show of the killing of George Floyd. (And perhaps you already have, if you've already recorded this week's episode.) I think you could not just mention it as a topic that I think everyone basically needs to say something about in the current climate, but you could also discuss the pseudo-scientific myth that if you can talk, you must be able to breathe. Thanks. - Freeman Ng, Oakland, CA

S: One email, this one comes from Freeman in Oakland, California. But we got a few emails basically asking us to talk about the notion that if you can talk, you can breathe. Have you guys ever heard that? If you can talk, you can breathe.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah. So why are we talking about that now? Obviously, because of the George Floyd thing, because when he initially when the knee was on the back of his neck, he was saying, I can't breathe.

C: I think he said it 13 or 16 times.

S: Yeah, he said it multiple times. And then, of course, he went unconscious and died. So some people are questioning whether or not he really couldn't breathe with the notion that, well, if you can talk, then obviously you can breathe. So maybe in fact, a Mississippi mayor went as far to say that he thinks he died of a heart attack or something else.And not because he couldn't breathe, because obviously he was talking.

C: George Floyd's original autopsy came back to show that he had heart disease. And that it was a cardiac arrest. And then when a second autopsy was ordered, an independent autopsy that wasn't ordered by the police, they showed that it was a direct. The direct cause was asphyxia. So asphyxia, I'm sorry. So there was, I think, some confusion there as to whether or not he had these preexisting issues. Would he have died or not? Was it directly attributable attributable to not being able to breathe? Or was the fact that he couldn't breathe what sped up the cardiac event that he had? Did those things happen simultaneously? But if you actually look at the minute by minute account of what happened to George Floyd, the original police officer that was charged, the one who actually had his knee on Floyd's neck, I think in the video accounts kind of hinted to the fact that he was fine because he could talk. And that's where a lot of this like resurgence of this kind of thing comes up. Because, oh, yeah, I always heard that if you're choking to death, you can't actually you don't have enough airflow to get words out. So I think that's the myth, right? And that's probably what he was following.

S: Yeah. So, yeah, the mayor, this is the mayor of Petal, Mississippi, wasn't even talking about the autopsy or anything like that. It's a completely separate issue.

C: Interesting.

S: He was specifically just talking about the fact that, well, if he could, if he could talk, then he could breathe. So that wasn't the cause of death. But in terms of when you asphyxiate, your heart stops, right? You do have a cardiac arrest. That's how you die from asphyxiation. If your heart's not getting enough oxygen, it fibrillates and then stops. Well, yeah, of course the underlying condition will make it happen sooner or later, depending on how healthy you are at baseline. But that's irrelevant. It was clear that the proximate cause of death was the asphyxiation, he didn't just happened to have a heart attack while it was laying on the ground there.

C: Right. The eight minutes and forty six seconds of a knee in the throat.

S: Right.

B: And the other two men on his on his back, right?

C: On his legs.

S: So let's talk about that that claim, though, that if you can breathe, you can talk because it's not true. It is demonstrably not true. I'll also say that it's come up.

J: When I look, you said it backwards. If you can talk, you can breathe.

S: If you can talk, you can breathe. Yeah. Yeah. But if you look that up, you'll see that this this came up with previous police brutality cases where a chokehold was involved. So this is also not the first instance where this is being raised as a point. So I'm not sure what the origin of this is, but it is a complete myth. I you know, the only time I've heard anything like that invoked in medicine that was legitimate was the notion that if you can make a noise, whether it's talking or whatever, then your airway is not obstructed 100 percent.

C: Gotcha. Like for Heimlich.

S: Yes, exactly. Because then the reason for that is not that therefore the person's not in distress or not at risk. It just means that the Heimlich maneuver is going to be less effective. It may not work at all because that requires-

C: You need that complete blockage.

S: Yeah. You need to build up pressure behind the obstruction to then expel it. And so that means you need to do something else.

C: But that's only if you're choking, that's that is nothing. That's not just asphyxiation. Other other things can make you not breathe.

S: That's what I'm saying. That's only valid in the context of choking and only to help you determine how effective the Heimlich is likely to be. It doesn't in any way tell you that the person is not in distress or at risk. And then, of course, there's many other reasons why somebody might have difficulty breathing, even to the point where that difficulty breathing will be life threatening, can be fatal. So the question is, can if you are being fatally threatened by either medically or physically or whatever impaired breathing, does that mean by definition, you can't talk? No, it doesn't mean that. And there's a very good reason for that in that is that when you're talking requires breathing out, right? Ventilating requires breathing in. And you could it's a lot easier to breathe out than to breathe in. Breathing in involves creating negative pressure in your lungs and sort of sucking the air in. And there's only so much force that can be brought to bear that way. Whereas when you're breathing out, you create positive pressure and you can create much more force on the exhale than you can on the inhale. On the inhale, you're limited by atmospheric pressure. On the exhale, you're not limited by atmospheric pressure. You can generate all kinds of pressure to exhale. And you could do this experiment yourself. Gently cover your nose and then try to breathe in. Do it just enough so that you can't breathe in and then exhale. Of course, you can exhale through the blockage that is preventing you from breathing out.

C: It makes a suction otherwise.

S: Yeah, right. And the other thing is when you at the end of your exhale, let's say you just breathe normally and then exhale and then hold your breath at the exhale, right? You still have about 500 millilitres of air in your lungs. You still have a lot of air. You still have about twice as much air in your lungs as you normally exhale. So that's a lot of talking that you can do before you completely run out of air. And maybe you're able to gasp a little bit of air in and to sustain it even longer. But you're not vent... That doesn't mean you're ventilating. That doesn't mean that you're able to blow off enough CO2 to maintain your metabolic equilibrium or that you're able to refresh the oxygen in your lungs enough that you're getting enough oxygen exchange. So especially for over a prolonged period of time, right?

C: Like eight minutes, unfortunately.

S: Yeah, like eight minutes. Yeah. Absolutely. So it's just complete medical nonsense, this notion that if you're able to grunt out one or two words, that you're breathing fine and that can't be the cause of your death. That's basically the implication. It's nonsense. So that's just basically a myth. Get it out of your head. It's only true in a very, very, very limited context. And it's only really important in the decision making about whether or not am I going to do the Heimlich or am I going to stick my fingers down this person's throat? That's what you're trying to get at forceps if you're in the hospital, whatever. All right, guys, let's move on to science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:37:58)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Maize no big deal
Science Artificial cells
Flat universe
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Maize no big deal
Maize no big deal
Maize no big deal
Maize no big deal

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Item #1: For the first time scientists have developed functional artificial red blood cells that not only can carry oxygen, but also deliver drugs.[7]
Item #2: An unparalleled find of human remains at a site in South America spanning 9,000 years indicate that maize was only a minor contributor to overall diet until less than 1,000 years ago, when it eventually displaced other staples.[8]
Item #3: Astronomers have made the most accurate measurements of dark energy to date, showing the universe is incredibly flat.[9]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. You have three regular news items this week. You guys ready?

J: Yep.

C: Yes.

S: Item number one, for the first time, scientists have developed a functional artificial red blood cells that not only can carry oxygen, but also deliver drugs. Item number two, an unparalleled find of human remains at a site in South America spanning 9,000 years indicate that maize was only a minor contributor to overall diet until less than 1,000 years ago when it eventually displaced other staples. And item number three, astronomers have made the most accurate measurement of dark energy to date, showing the universe is incredibly flat.

C: God, I don't even know what that means.

S: I'll explain that very quickly without giving anything away. There's three possibilities, right? The universe is either open, closed, or flat. And a closed universe means it'll eventually collapse in on itself. An open universe means it will continue to accelerate. A flat universe is the exact equilibrium point between those two, right?

C: Okay. So this has to do with the universe, whether or not the universe is expanding?

S: Well, no. In either case, the universe would be expanding. If it's closed, eventually it will slow down, stop, and contract and get the big crunch. If it's open, it's basically the mathematical curve by which it continues to expand. And if it's flat, it's kind of like decelerating asymptotically, but never quite completely stops. But it's approaching that. It's kind of flat is a very, very, very narrow point between being open or closed on either side. Does that make sense? Okay. And this all depends upon the cosmological constant created by dark energy. So we'll get into this more after I get your answers. But so the question is, in this statement, the most accurate measurements of that dark energy constant to date shows that the universe is really flat. Okay? All right. Cara, why don't you go first?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Oh, crap. (Jay laughs) Okay. Functional artificial red blood cells. Wow. So they can help with this oxygen exchange, but they can also deliver okay, right? So they can carry oxygen molecules, but they could also deliver very small drugs. It's interesting. And they've just developed them. They've not started utilizing them or anything. So that's like, okay, I could be early in the process. Unparalleled find of human remains at a site in South America spending 9,000 years. Is that why it's unparalleled? Because it's such a big time span or because it's so large? What does that mean? It's unparalleled in what respect?

S: Well, definitely part of it, the fact that it's unparalleled is that it spans 9,000 years.

C: Okay.

S: Yes, that is part of why it's unparalleled, yeah.

C: Cool. So it's basically obviously a settlement that stayed in the same place for a really long time and just kind of like how in Rome people talk about they'll be trying to put a basement or in Egypt, this will happen, where they're trying to put a basement and they're like, crap, antiquities. I got to call in the people. Found some crap down there. So okay, that makes sense. Indicate that maize, but the big thing here is maize was a minor contributor until only about a thousand years ago or less than then it displaced other stables. So they were just basically eating other grains and other main things there in South America. And then the flat, it's incredibly flat. I don't know. This wouldn't be wrong if it was just kind of flat, right? Like the word incredibly is not the operative word here.

S: I mean, it is, but it is operative because the question is, as we refine these measurements, which direction is it going in? Open, closed, or flat, right?

C: Flat, gotcha. Okay, so I don't know, flat sounds good to me. I don't know. I think the thing, maybe the fiction is the human remains one and that the real science here is that maize actually was a major staple across all those years. I think maybe I'll go with that because this is a total crap shoot. I love the artificial red blood cell. I really hope that that's science. So that's more of a, I hope so than I actually believe it. But yeah, I'll say the fiction is the archaeological site.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Let's see. Artificial red blood cell. Yeah. Oh man. God, I haven't seen anything about that. I want that to be real, so I shall make it so by not selecting it. The flat universe, yeah, I could buy that totally. So that leaves then the South America site. I could have kind of bought it, but compared to the other two, I'd have to say that that one's fiction.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan Response[edit]

E: Cara, I was also thinking the maize one. I think of the three as probably the least plausible. How's that? I did want to say though about the universe being incredibly flat. This will lead to more flat universe theories. Flat universers, I guess we have to call them, right? Flat earthers, flat universers. So I would not be surprised if that someday comes up. Yeah, I just don't know enough about that one. I mean, that's really Bob's expertise and he didn't go there. So that kind of narrowed it down for me as far as the maize one. Yeah, I think we're going to find out that, yeah, maize was important all this time, not just the last thousand years. That's fiction.

S: And Jay.

Jay Response[edit]

J: All right, Steve, the first one here about the human blood, like the synthetic human blood. I do remember seeing a TV show easily 10, 15 years ago where they did make a blood, something that could replace blood, which you might not be aware of. You might not be aware of it.

S: I am aware of it.

E: Of the TV show?

S: Yeah, but if I remember, it was a TV show about, and they had a guy on that was talking about blood. But if I remember correctly, it wasn't red, which might mean it's not a red blood cell, which is why I still think this one is science. Going on to the corn one, you said that they found 9,000 years indicate that maize was only a minor contributor to overall diet. Now, where did I read it? I don't know. But I remember reading something that contradicts that, but then this could be an updated study. Oh, boy. But then we go on to the third one, which Bob didn't pick, which Evan helped me remember and realize. Because I always thought that we had an open universe, which means that it's just going to continue to play out and go out and out and out. But if it is a flat universe, that means it's going to stay, but we're still going to have a heat death. I agree with Bob that I hope it is flat, because that's a nice place that means that we could live forever maybe. I don't know. But anyway, number two, the one with the corn, I'm going to go with the group, because I want to sweep Steve this week. Oh, no.

C: Or he might have swept us.

S: Oh, shit. You see, it always goes both ways. You never, ever know, Cara.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right. Well, let's take these in reverse order, since you guys seem to be the most confident about number three. Astronomers have made the most accurate measurements of dark energy to date, showing the universe is incredibly flat. You all think this one is science. And this one is science.

J: Oh, my god. So Bob, what does that mean, Bob?

E: Oh, thank goodness.

J: What does that mean, Bobby?

B: I cannot tell you.

S: Why are you asking Bob?

E: Of course you can, Bob.

J: I figure Bob would know. But I mean, what do you got, Steve?

S: So here's, I always like to go to the original article, and it was incomprehensible.

B: Yeah, they're nasty.

S: We examine the cosmological implications of measurements of the void galaxy cross correlation at redshift z equals 0.57, combined with baryon acoustic oscillation data at 0.1 is less than z is less than 2.4. That was the first sentence.

C: What? That was the first sentence?

S: Yes. So in non-technical terms, they used a couple of techniques in order to make a far more accurate measurement of the strength, if you will, of dark energy, which, so you guys remember the whole cosmological constant thing where Einstein assumed that the universe was static, and then, but because of the gravity of everything should be pulling it in.So he said, well, therefore, all of that gravity must be exactly compensated by an outward pushing force, which we'll call the cosmological constant.

B: His theory predicted an expanding universe, and he totally blew it. Probably his biggest mistake ever.

S: He called it his biggest mistake. But now it seems that there is a cosmological constant in dark energy. There is this persistent outward force. It's not the same exact thing that he thought it was, which is interesting. We're trying to measure it using these things which you can't really understand unless you're an expert in this area. But as the measurement gets more and more accurate, the question has always been, is it going to be zeroing in on an open, closed, or flat universe? And it looks like more and more that the data is closing in on a flat universe, and this new data supports that.

J: When you say flat, though, can you give me some specifics on what that means?

B: That means, Jay, that an equilateral triangle has internal angles of 180 degrees there.

E: I knew that.

B: Even if it's a really big one.

J: That doesn't mean anything to me.

B: In a curved universe, those angles would not be 180 degrees if it were closed and open.

C: It would start to either cave in or they would open up.

S: Yeah, it would bow out.

C: Oh, that's a good explanation. Thank you.

E: In a square, it's 360.

S: Yeah, it's basically a description of space-time. But it does also relate to the fate of the universe as well. So, and that's one of the, Bob, I don't know if you've ever heard it invoked as a anthropogenic argument that what are the odds that our universe has exactly the cosmological constant necessary to make it precisely.

B: Yes.

E: Pretty damn good.

S: It's like being at the tip of a mountain. You're going to fall over to either side. You have to be perfectly balanced at the tip. Our universe is sort of perfectly balanced at that flat point.

B: Which makes it seem like we must be screwing up something because how could it be so perfect?

S: Yeah, right. So some people think, well, there you go. The universe was designed for us. But the other way to look at it is that there's something we don't understand about all this. And maybe the universe sort of has to be this way for some reason that we haven't figured out yet.

C: Yeah, maybe that's the only reason it's like stable right now or something.

S: Yeah. Or that the multi-universe theory is like, yeah, out of the trillions and trillions of universes, life is going to occur in the flat ones. You know, whatever. So let's go back to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: For the first time, scientists have developed functional arterial red blood cells that not only can carry oxygen but also deliver drugs. You guys all want this one to be science. And therefore, you believe it is science. And this one is science.

J: Yes!

C: Yay! It's awesome.

S: So this is one of those things like batteries and whatnot, where you have to have a suite of features all at once in order for it to be functional. And Jay, yes, we're talking about red blood cells, not just like blood substitute, like just a liquid that can carry oxygen. This is red blood cells, right? That's different. And so what you're talking about-

C: It's like nanomaterials?

S: Yes. Yeah, it's nano, of course. It's, yeah. Nanoworknews is the publication.

B: So how did it evolve, Steve, if it needed a suite of attributes all working together at the same time?

S: Because it evolved with the blood vessels. So red blood cells need to be very flexible. They need to be able to squeeze through capillaries and come out the other end and could still function. They sort of bounce back to their old shape. But they need to be durable as well so they don't break down too quickly. And of course, they need to carry oxygen properly. So what they did was they started with red blood cells. Then they coated them. They coated them with silica. And then they covered them with positively and negatively charged polymers. And then it says they etched away the silica. So you were just left with the polymers. And that's the artificial red blood cell, right?

C: And that way they got the exact right shape.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: They almost cast a red blood cell. Oh, I love that.

S: Then they coated the surface with natural red blood cell membranes. And the reason for that was because the red blood cells, so it needs to be strong, flexible, and does not provoke an immune response. And so red blood cells are coated with things which tell the immune system, I'm fine. Don't leave me alone. I'm part of you. Just ignore me. And so they needed to put that up there as well. So they did all of that. And for the first time, they got all of those features together in one artificial red blood cell. But the other cool thing is they can load them with haemoglobin if they wanted to carry oxygen. Or they could load it with drugs. Or they could load it with a talk, like chemotherapy, right? You could put the anti-cancer drugs in there. Or magnetic nanoparticles. Or toxin sensors. Or whatever. It's a delivery mechanism for many potential different things.

J: Cara, they could load it with mac and cheese, you know?

C: Or they could coat it with nanoscale mac and cheese.

J: Yeah, hell yeah.

S: They tested them out. Again, this is not obviously approved for people yet. But they were able to meet all of the physical attributes that they needed. And they lasted for more than 48 hours in mice. So in mice, they last for more than 48 hours. So with no observable toxicity to the mice also.

C: I wonder, what is the life cycle of a single red blood cell? How long does it last before it's broken down?

S: It's about 120 days.

C: Oh, wow, that's long.

S: Yeah, that's long.

C: Oh, that's good.

S: And then your spleen is the primary organ that filters out the ageing and damaged red blood cells.

C: And is that what, am I mixing things up? But is that what bilirubin is? It's like old red blood cells.

S: It's the metabolic breakdown product in the liver of the haemoglobin.

J: What's that Cara, the bilirubin?

C: Bilirubin, bilirubin. Bilirubin is what makes your poop brown.

S: And biliverdin. And that biliverdin is what makes a bruise turn yellow and green after it lost the haemoglobin from the blood in the bruise.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: OK, that means that an unparalleled find of human remains at a site in South America spanning 9,000 years indicate that maize was only a minor contributor to overall diet until less than 1,000 years ago when it eventually displaced other staples is the fiction. And yeah, Carrie, you're right. The data showed the opposite. So this was an amazing find, but it wasn't a village. It was a burial chamber.

C: Oh, that makes sense why you have 9,000 years.

S: And it was over a period spanning about 9,600 years ago to about 1,000 years ago. So almost 9,000 year period. So we have a sequence of human remains in the same region over about a 9,000 year period. And so the researchers were like, this is an unprecedented opportunity to look at their changes in their diet over those 9,000 years.

J: Holy creepers.

S: Yeah, because they were able to tell from the proteins and the bones and everything what they were eating.

E: Oh! Look at the bones!

C: And it's safe to assume that they're kind of the same "peoples".

S: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, so there's probably cultural continuity there to some extent. So the oldest remains date to about between 9,600, 8,600 years ago. And they said they were basically eating herbs, fruits, and nuts. So they were hunter-gatherers with animal protein. So they were hunter-gatherer kind of a mix of foods that they were eating. By 4,700 years ago, maize was already a significant part of their diet, which is I think a little bit older than we would have thought just by other lines of evidence. So that was about 40% of their calories were coming from maize. And by 4,000 years ago, so only 700 years later, 70% of their calories were coming from maize.

C: So that's really probably when they figured out how to cultivate it really well.

S: Well, cultivation goes back like 9,000 years, 10,000 years. So it starts its life as teosinte, right, which is a grass. And they cultivated it for thousands of years. But yes, sometime probably around 4,000, 5,000, maybe 6,000 years ago, they started to make it start to look like what we would recognize as corn. And they started shifting. But yeah, so 4,700 years ago, they were eating a lot of corn. But by 4,000 years, I think the switch there was that they shifted to an agrarian society. It wasn't just the maize itself. They shifted in from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural society. And then that's exactly when you have all kinds of complicated political changes. You have the multiple subcultures splitting off. It gets much more complicated. And all the interesting stuff happens.

C: Yeah, it's probably because the population reached a point where they were like, we got to feed more people. We got to plant food.

S: And then, of course, the agriculture allows for a much bigger population. And of course, a sedentary population. And that's where you get all the things like government. You have people who don't have to just make food all day. They're free to do other things. So that's when the Mayan civilization took off, when they started growing corn. All right, Evan, give me some quotes.

Skeptical Quotes of the Week (1:56:51)[edit]

When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.
Dalai Lama

Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening.
Jeanette Winterson, English writer

E: All right. Double quote tonight. Special double quote, too, for the price of one. "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new."

C: Hear hear.

E: Supposedly said by the Dalai Lama. Which one I don't know. I think the 14th. Jay, caddyshack. I'm not sure which Dalai Lama. I looked it up. I tried to figure out which one, but it's just attributed to Dalai Lama. So one of the 14 Dalai Lamas. I think we're on the 14th right now. So and then the second one, second quote. "Everything in writing begins with language. Language begins with listening." Jeanette Winterson, who is married to Susie Orbach, who's a British psychotherapist, psychoanalyst, and writer and social critic. And OK, so the theme, I think, if you didn't pick it up already, it's about.

B: Shut up and listen.

E: We need to listen, folks. It's so important and now more than ever, perhaps.

S: All right. Thank you, Evan.

E: Thanks.

S: Thank you guys for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

J: You got it.

C: Thanks, Steve.


S: —and until next week, 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.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[10]
  • Fact/Description
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