SGU Episode 798

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SGU Episode 798
October 24th 2020

James Randi, Canadian-American stage magician, author and scientific skeptic, 8/7/1928 - 10/20/2020

SGU 797                      SGU 799

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What's left is magic. And it doesn't work.

James Randi, Canadian-American co-founder of CSI

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, James Randi passes[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, October 21st, 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: Unfortunately, we have to start the show with some very sad news. We just heard right before we started recording, pretty much. We heard that James the Amazing Randy has died. He was 92. This was announced by the James Randy Educational Foundation. They're not releasing details. News is just hitting us. Haven't had time to find out any more information. But we knew that Randy had survived colon cancer. He had survived heart attacks before. And again, of course, he was 92. So we knew this day was coming. But it's still sad. He was a giant, an absolute giant in the skeptical movement. You can't overestimate his influence on the SGU, his inspiration to all of us as activists, skeptics. He basically was our mentor and the iconic skeptic when we were just getting started in all of this.

Special Segment: James Randi memories (1:30)[edit]

  • James Randi, Canadian-American stage magician, author and scientific skeptic, 8/7/1928 - 10/20/2020

J: My earliest memory of Randy, we had him speak at MIT, right? Remember that? And we got to have a dinner with him and Davey and a couple of other people. And I was pretty watching this guy growing up and knowing so much about him. And at that point, I'm pretty sure I had already read one of his books. But we got to know Randy over the last 20 years or more. It's more like 30 years at this point. We got to know him and had done dozens of conferences with him and had just a lot of time to hang out. And when I think about I worried about losing Randy because he was always much older. In the sense of he really was a mentor and I felt like he's one of the last people from that generation that really remembers exactly what happened. I remember him telling us all of these details about the skeptical movement back in the day and all the drama and every twist and turn. And I remember throughout, Randy's sentiment was just like, what a waste of time. We just have this job to do. And he wanted to do that job, which was promote critical thinking and skepticism. And people got in the way. And I remember that frustrating Randy a lot. Not just in the books that he did, but all the in-person appearances and all the people that he spent time with. I mean, he was so unbelievably generous with his time. If you went to the amazing meeting, you could sit down and talk to him. That was as simple as that.

C: Right. That's how I met him. I mean, I really only knew him the last 10 years or less. And I remember being invited to speak at TAM. That's where I met you guys. That's how our relationship really started. And I've been lucky enough just in this last chapter of his life to have learned from him, to have sat on panels with him, had conversations with him. And I think the thing that resonates with me the most, and maybe this is because I have the perspective that's probably similar to a lot of our listeners, or at least a certain percentage of our listeners, of sort of coming to this movement after a lot of that drama, right? And after a lot of the major players kind of had established themselves, is that it was, yes, about the magic and yes, about the skepticism. But what resonated so deeply for me from Randy was like his humanism. And sitting with him and hearing the way that he talked about people and the way that he talked about communicating with people and being empathic and trying to understand where people were coming from, that always meant an awful lot to me.

B: Yeah, he definitely rolled a natural 18 when it comes to charisma.

E: Well said.

J: I was talking to Bob earlier and I was saying like, he has been such an amazing ally. And then it occurred to me, I'm like, yeah. And man, were you in trouble if Randy decided to focus his critical eye on you, if he had a legitimate reason. Because his knife was incredibly sharp when it needed to be. What an intellect on him. And my God, he held it. He held on to his intellect for the whole ride.

C: Master debunker.

S: No, but he didn't like being called a debunker. He wanted to be—he was an investigator.

C: There you go. Yeah, yeah, that's true.

S: He was concerned that calling it debunking means you, like, know it's bunk going in. He's like, I'm not a debunker. I'm an investigator. I have an open mind. I just haven't found any evidence of the paranormal. After 50 years or whatever, after a life of looking, I have not found any.

B: And how cool would it be if we did? I mean, that's not something that we would like, oh, boy, we've got to hide this guy. Scoop this under the rug. This goes against our worldview. No. If we found credible evidence, we would be right there with it. And, of course, we were tested to the nth degree. But we just haven't seen it. And it becomes increasingly improbable that anything like that is going to ever exist or be discovered. You know, you could pretty much—you could safely conclude, no, not there.

E: He bridged a lot of different industries. It was obviously the entertainment industry through his skills as a magician early on in his life. Certainly the science industry, if you want to call it that, or the world of science. Community. Skepticism, no doubt about it, being one of the founders of PSYCOP one of the most influential organizations of skepticism that was ever founded. And his humanist work. So he brought all of these together in a package that few others can claim that they've had a hand in.

C: Absolutely. And there's a beautiful documentary about him. I wonder if you can still access it on Netflix. But if any of you are listening right now and you don't know who he was, which I can't imagine, but maybe you're very new to the movement, I do recommend it because it tells his story in a really, really kind of meaningful way.

B: Is that the one that came out in 2015?

E: An Honest Liar.

S: An Honest Liar.

C: An Honest Liar. Yeah, that's what it's called.

J: Well, we certainly got to know Randy and watch him work in different capacity. And I've seen him do magic hundreds of times. You know, he used to do it at dinner. He would be entertaining one person at dinner just for fun. Like, he would just do a quick magic trick. I'll never forget, like, the simplest magic trick the dice rolling, when you roll a die on your finger, you can make it look like you're changing the numbers. You know, I mean, Randy was just having fun and he did it. But he did everything that he did was so meticulously flawless. His close-up magic, his magic was fantastic. He could be sitting right next to you and be doing just amazing close-up magic, sleight of hand, everything. He was just truly talented. But my memory of Randy is just always that he was such a sweet, honest, legitimate hard-fighting person.

E: Genuinely caring. I mean, he cared.

B: I don't think I ever saw him raise a voice or be angry or cross with anyone in all the years that I've known him. And, Jay, you mentioned his talents. And one of the talents that I really truly admired about Randy was that his ability to cut to the bone in terms of, lie, testing a claim. You know, with his million-dollar challenge, he would devise methods, like, to very simply and very easily. Nothing elaborate, just very simple, very easy way to completely blow anyone's claim out of the water if it were false. And like he had one guy who was doing a telekinesis. And this is for...

J: Johnny Carson.

B: Johnny Carson. And I remember one specifically where Johnny Carson was hosting some telekinetic guy who claimed to be telekinetic. And I think Randy was involved or suggested or even might have even been there. But he said, put the packing popcorn all around on the table. And if there's any wind because he thought he was using some, like, subtle wind being produced from his mouth. Yeah, just basically blowing. And when he saw those popcorn things there, he couldn't do anything.

E: Of course.

B: Completely powerless. Such a simple thing.

S: Power vanished.

J: Yeah. Actually, Randy was at that. Randy came out and prepared for each one of the guy's stunts. And he foiled everybody on that show.

E: Yeah. The guy who said he was metallic and had spoons stick to his body. Went over there, put a little powder on his skin. OK, now do it. Nah, gone. Next. Right?

B: I've got a magnetic field detector. No, just put powder on his face and you're done.

S: Well, that was the beauty. Like, he was a magician, you know.

B: Yes.

S: So you kind of know how the details of how these things work. You also know how to foil them, right? Because magicians also have to learn how to have their tricks not fail, which gives you the knowledge of how to make them fail, you know.

J: And then Randy did Project Alpha. This was I think in the 70s. And he showed that you could fool world-class scientists with simple parlor tricks. And it perfectly illustrated critical thinking because just because you're a scientist, just because you're intelligent or skilled at any one thing, whatever that one thing is, doesn't mean that you have skill across the board. And that is a huge problem with people who are highly educated is that they can easily fall into the trap of thinking, well, I'm smart. So, therefore I can't be fooled by a teenager. You know, these were teenagers you put in front of them. That's Banachek was one of the two people that were pretending to have psychic powers. And they totally bamboozled the scientists.

S: Yeah, using things and tricks that they thought were not only unimpressive. They said there was – they didn't even think that these scientists would fall for them. That's how simple, effectively, they thought they were. Yet, it still happened.

S: But also Randy told them if they ever ask you if you are connected to James Randy, tell them yes. If they ask you are you doing tricks, say yes. Never lie. Any question they ask you, answer completely honestly. And they never asked. They just simply never asked.

E: Ugh.

S: Years. Years.

E: What an experiment in psychology, that is, I tell you.

J: But he had the insight to do those things. He was able to organize and make those things happen. I mean, one of the biggest stunts that he did was he created a psychic. You know, he created a fake psychic and a holy man.

E: The persona.

J: Yeah, the persona.

E: The mythology around him.

J: He fooled a nation. He fooled an entire nation. And it was a big deal. So Randy knew how to pack a punch when it came to delivering his message in clever ways like that.

S: Yeah, so we're just hearing about this. And this is just our off-the-cuff reaction to the news. But we will have time to come up with something for next week, something more formal. So we'll definitely – I just can't deal with this in one episode. So we'll be talking more about Randy next week. But for now, let's go on with the rest of the episode. We're going to continue with the episode that we planned on doing. We're going to start with some news items.

News Items[edit]

Mapping the Proteome (11:49)[edit]

S: And, Bob, we're starting with you, a news item about scientists mapping the proteome.

B: Yes, yes.

E: Where's the proteome?

B: The proteome project has released its first draft, and you should be happy about this. You should be happy. Listen and find out why. See if you agree with me. This news comes from an international research team, including Professor Chris Overall from the University of British Columbia. And it was published October 16th in Nature Communications. Check it out. So you all remember the Human Genome Project, right, from 20 years ago? That was an exploration of sorts, right? It was an exploration, every bit as important and potentially more so than anything Magellan or Columbus ever did, in my opinion. It mapped the entire sequence of human genes, the recipe for a person, if you will. All well and good, but the genome project was never meant to be the be-all, end-all, right? It was just really a first step. The next logical step, one of them anyway, was to look at the most important discrete bits that our genomic recipe codes for, all the proteins critical to life that our genome has instructions to create. That is the proteome. That's exactly what the proteome is. Now, for a loose analogy, if the genome project was a meatball recipe, say, or a list of ingredients, maybe more accurately, then the proteome is meson plus. For you culinary philistines, of which I was one an hour ago, thank you, Liz, that's the preparation and creation of the crucial subcomponents that work together to make the final product. That final product is, of course, these proteins. If there's one biological component that epitomizes life, I think it's safe to say that it's probably proteins very easily. These strings of hundreds or even thousands of amino acids are among, if not the most abundant biological molecule. With a diversified range of functions unmatched by any macromolecule, I mean, they can be used for so many different things. They could be structural or protective. They could be used for transport or storage as membranes or enzymes or even toxins, all of those things and more. I would say that evolved Earth life is, in many ways, interacting proteins. Identifying all those proteins, all of them, every last one, is what the proteome project is all about. It started in 2010. That's 10 years after the Human Genome Project finished, so now it's been 20 years since the end of the Genome Project. Now, after 10 years, they've got most of this proteome mapped. Now, I found this interesting. I wasn't aware of this. Researchers identified five levels of supporting evidence for protein existence. So when you look at any protein, of all the thousands of proteins that they basically mapped or described, they have a number. Each one has a number, 1 to 5, basically, and it's called a protein existence, PE. So PE1, that's the gold standard. If you have a protein that's PE1, then that level indicates that you have clear experimental evidence for its existence. It's really, there's essentially no doubt that that protein does, in fact, exist. But then when you go down the line of PE2, it's a little bit less conclusive. PE3 and 4, even less so. And then when you finally get to, oh wait, these PE2, 3, and 4, those are called, they're called missing proteins, colloquially, missing proteins. PE5, basically, that coding evidence is very doubtful. It's probably a mistake. Like, for example, if somebody did a very poor translation of a non-coding element from the genome, that's probably PE5. That probably doesn't exist. But 2, 3, and 4 could exist, especially 2. And the goal is to basically get them all down to PE1s. So this first draft release of the proteome contains PE1 level evidence, then, for 90.4% of the predicted human proteome. So 90%, over 90% of these proteins were at PE1. They are solid. So that's 17,874 proteins that they have described. Back in 2011, they only had 13,588 PE1 proteins. So they've discovered thousands of these proteins with a confidence level of PE1, you could say. So the team's goal, then, is to find PE1 evidence for at least all the current PE2 level proteins. If they could do that, then I think they'll be even closer. Who knows? Maybe 94%, 95% of all potential proteins mapped. So that's what they did. So now we come to the benefits. What kind of benefits are we talking about? Wow, okay, we've got a proteome that's 90% complete. Big deal. Some have argued that, well, the Human Genome Project was 20 years ago. What have we done? We don't have any miracle cures now. First, I would disagree. We've made amazing strides. But like I said, the Genome Project, the Human Genome Project, was just step one. There's lots of other oms that we need to deal with to really get a handle on what's going on. The proteome may be one of the biggest, but there's also the bacteriome and all sorts of ohms out there. So yeah, so I think if you look at the benefits of what's possible here, I think they could be quite extraordinary. Professor Chris Overall describes this draft as a significant milestone in our overall understanding of human life. This is because once we know all the proteins, now think of this. Once we know all of these proteins and 90% is a solid start, once we get up to even higher, then we can more fully understand how they interact not only with each other, but with the body and the environment as well. And that could revolutionize medicine by giving insights into disease prevention and truly individualized medicine. I think we could see some amazing things when this really starts rolling. And don't forget, there's also some COVID-9 possibilities as well. Because think about it, with COVID-19, what do you have there? You have two proteomes that are interacting, right? You've got the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the infected cell. So these are two proteomes that are interacting and modifying each other and messing with each other. And the more we know about our proteome, the better chances we have of dealing with COVID-19. Professor Overall said, understanding this relationship can shed light on why some cells and individuals are more resilient to COVID-19 and others more vulnerable, providing essential functional information about the human body that genomics alone cannot answer. So congratulations to everyone throughout the world, really, who participated in this proteome, this first draft release of the proteome project. And good luck getting those PE2s down to PE1s and getting even closer to all 100% of all the predicted proteins that the human body has and uses.

S: Yeah, it's quite a scientific accomplishment. And of course, we have to talk about what the effects are going to be of this. But that takes years, even decades, to be felt. But this is an incredible resource for scientists, for researchers. If any researcher could just basically look up any protein in the body that they need to work with or that they need to consider or whatever, and there it is. There's the amino acid sequence. It's an incredibly useful resource and will help accelerate progress in medical science. What this will actually lead to, who knows? But it's also kind of like the same thing happened with the genome project. They promised all kinds of things. It's like, yeah, that's true, but it's going to take 20, 30 years. Don't expect these things to happen tomorrow just because we have the genome. This is now a tool for science, but it takes time for those benefits to sort of work their way through the system.

B: Yeah, and I think it's pretty clear that there are going to be amazing benefits. But like you said, specifically, what kind of benefits, hard to say. But the fact that there will be benefits, I think, essentially, there's no doubt. There's no doubt. This can't not help. It cannot help.

S: Yeah, it'll be a powerful research tool. Absolutely.

Room Temperature Superconductivity (19:53)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, let me ask you a question.

J: Yeah.

S: Have they finally cracked room temperature superconductivity?

B: Oh, God. Oh, boy. Don't tease me. Don't tease me.

J: I guess the answer is yes, but no.

E: No, but.

C: Yes, but.

J: Yeah, there is a big but because, sure, yeah, the temperature threshold, they've been able to mitigate that problem, but something else happened. So first I want to say the people who write headlines, they just need to relax.

E: That's not their job, Jay.

J: I know, but I really do believe that the headline writers around the world are part of the information problem that we have because they always have to insert a little bit of drama thinking, oh, this will get more readers. Yeah, but you're essentially borderline lying with the way that these headlines come out. I mean, this was on the BBC and they said superconductors, material raises hope of energy revolution. And the headline implies that a recent advancement. No, but this is, I would say, a very light version of what you typically read because I'm sure that people are going to be putting headlines out saying that.

B: Yeah, true.

J: There now is a energy revolution because of this study that happened. But the headline is kind of saying that superconductor technology can usher in this new energy revolution that's going to happen very soon. So, of course, that's not reality because the fact of the matter is that this was an incremental move that just happened. So let me just give you a little background on superconductors. A superconductor is in everyday circumstances, as an example, wiring and all the electronic devices in your house. They're not superconductors, right? This means that when a current is passed through the wire that you have in your house, that wire has a certain level of resistance. And to put this simply, you can think of resistance as friction that happens between the electrons and the wire material, whatever that wire. If it's a copper wire, the electrons are banging around and they cause some friction, which causes heat.

C: That's right, copper.

J: That's right, copper. So the benefit of a true superconductor is that you don't lose any of the electricity as it gets changed into heat. You know, nothing gets converted into heat. It's all of the electricity that goes through the wire makes it to the other end. So theoretically, a superconductor would be able to have electricity passing through it with zero resistance, zero loss. And if you had electricity in a circular superconducting wire, let's say you just have a wire that's in a circle and you feed it a current, the electricity would be able to pass around that circle and that wire forever. Theoretically, right? So we have achieved superconductivity in other materials other than things that we use in our house. But the temperature had to be incredibly low, right? So the warmest temperature we achieved was minus 135 degrees Celsius or minus 211 degrees Fahrenheit. So not warm, not by a long shot, very, very cold. But that minus 135 is a lot more accessible than it used to be a lot lower than that, you know. So that you could do a lot more science at minus 135 degrees versus if you had to go to minus 200 degrees. Yeah, Jay, and that was because you would, for the lower, for the much lower temperature that there used to be before the breakthroughs of decades ago, it was like liquid hydrogen scale stuff.

B: Yeah Jay, and that was because for the much lower temperature it used to be before the breakthroughs of decades ago. It was like liquid hydrogen scale stuff. You know, it was very expensive to deal with something that cold and that expensive. Whereas when they had the breakthrough into the low 100s, that was more of like liquid nitrogen realm, which is like, I remember an article from decades ago saying that's as cheap as milk.

J: Milk. I remember that.

B: So that was a huge breakthrough in terms of spreading it. Even though it was still incredibly cold, it was much cheaper and easier to deal with than the other, than the really low temperatures. So that was big.

J: So in this study, the researchers are using a carbon-based sulphur hydride compound with a temperature of 15 degrees Celsius or 59 degrees Fahrenheit.

B: That's a cold room, man. Chilly room.

J: Yeah, but still, that's nothing.

B: I'll take it.

J: That's so achievable.

B: Underground. If you dig underground, it's 58 degrees. You could put it underground with no cooling and it would work.

E: Cool.

J: So the way that they were able to make it become a superconductor is by dramatically increasing the pressure, right? So they measured the pressure. This is going to blow your mind.

B: How many millions was it of atmospheres?

J: 267 billion Pascals.

B: Crap. Forget this. Next news item. Next news item.

J: So to put that into perspective, this is about a million times more pressure than a typical car tire.

B: So no room temperature superconducting wire. No, it's not going to happen. It's got to be all these Pascals crap.

E: In theory, it's nice.

J: All right. So this is funny because, and Steve made this observation. So they swapped out super low temperatures for incredibly high pressure. Like what do we gain here? It's actually easier to get to the low temperature than it is to get to the super high pressure.

S: A little bit of liquid helium.

E: Okay. So was this really supposed to be more of a proof of concept than anything else? That's what that sounds like to me.

J: Yeah. But it's also, Evan.

S: Because it's advancing our understanding-

B: True.

S: -of superconductivity. But this isn't necessarily moving us closer to like superconducting wire.

J: Yeah. They're not going to scale this up and nothing is coming out of it. But guys, the beautiful thing about this too, with what Steve just said, but it also is a great little microcosm again of science because this isn't a waste of time and energy. Science needs to do things like this. They need to do this, make mistakes, do more research. Then they get some success somewhere. It might be unusable, but it will inspire other people to try different things and it kind of spills out from there. So I think we shouldn't look down on this. I'm only looking down on ridiculous headlines when it comes to this research because nobody should be thinking anything fantastic other than, cool, they got superconductivity in a completely different way. That's good. So if we really did achieve superconductivity though, it would and hopefully someday it will have an incredible positive impact on the world. So every single wire that carries electricity is losing energy right now. And a percentage of it, like I said, is being converted to heat. So if you add up all those wires and every electrified device in the world and all the amount of heat and energy loss that is the result of those wires not being superconductors, I mean, have you ever had your cell phone get crazy hot in your pocket for no reason or you don't know what's going on?

E: Yeah, because the screen activated or something.

J: So your battery is dumping a lot of charge on whatever. Yeah, like you're right, Evan. Your skin activates through your clothes somehow. It's touching it and something's going on. It gets crazy hot. And all of a sudden you realize, wow, man, it could cook an egg on my phone right now. That's a lot of energy being dumped for no reason. That's very similar to what's going on in all the wiring. So an interesting way to look at this is that think about all the data centers around the world. Data centers are gigantic rooms filled with servers. And there is wiring everywhere, through the floor, in every single tower. It's everywhere. And one interesting thing about data centers is that they all have these incredibly complicated and very expensive and intricate cooling systems. Like Google has its new version of its data centers are underground. And they have like this water evaporation process that they use to remove heat from the data center because the cooling of it is incredibly expensive. So you have these big companies like Google.

S: You can't just have one dust fan going in the corner.

J: No, no. They build in the cooling into everything. It's not just like I'm sure that they have all sorts of water cooling systems and incredible amounts of air conditioning. And as a matter of fact, if you ever talk to someone that is in a high-end data center, they'll say it's cold in those data centers because they're fighting the heat so much. So my point here is think about the amount of energy it takes to cool those buildings because of all the lost energy. Imagine if you only had to air condition those environments just so people are comfortable, not to get rid of all this lost heat due to friction from all that energy. That could increase our efficiency. It would really be an incredible boon.

S: And it's only going to get worse. Our civilization is increasingly run off of massive amounts of data. And it is using up an increasing amount of the energy that we produce.

E: More bitcoins.

J: Yeah, absolutely.

S: Yeah, right. Exactly. And yeah, so superconductivity is not trivial. This would dramatically reduce the amount of energy that we need to run our civilization and increasingly so moving forward.

J: The first time I heard about superconductivity, I believe it was the 80s. And I remember that metal disk floating kind of crooked with this super cold thing and they're showing like it's just floating there. And I was sold the dream. This is why the headlines kind of ticked me off because I was sold on this. Oh, man, we're close. It's going to be 10 years. We're going to have superconductivity, superconducting everything, toothbrushes, whatever the hell you got. And here we are.

B: 30 years ago.

J: I mean, 35 years ago.

E: 30 years later.

J: Yeah. Science, what have you done for me lately?

S: Yeah, that is the iconic story of false hype that we were sold. And I think that that has had an effect on us. Everything now gets looked at through the lens of the false promises of superconductivity that we were sold in the 1980s. You know what I mean? It really jaded us towards any claim to new technology. Totally.

B: Yeah. And there's so many news items. But it's like new battery tech. You're like, yeah, what do you got now? Yeah, tell me about it. Yeah, talk to me when you make a real leap, a real something that's not a maybe, but like fairly solid. And remember, Jay, you said so many Pascals. Let's convert that. I mean, wave your hand in the air, right, everybody? Wave your hand.

E: I'm waving.

B: You feel the atmospheric pressure? Well, no, you don't feel it because you're acclimated to it. But multiply that times 2.6 million, and that's the pressure we're talking about. And also, so that's like such crazy pressure. And also, they don't know the exact composition of the material or how the atoms are arranged. So I hope that that's the next step is to find out, okay what is the exact composition of this stuff? Because that's critical. Because knowing that you've got 59 room temperature superconductivity, these pressures is cool, but you really haven't learned anything or you've learned very little if you don't know what the composition is. So then you can start forming theories as to, all right, why is this composition producing room temperature superconductivity? And what can we do to get rid of the pressure but still have the superconductive effect? I hope that's the next thing on their plate. And it probably is. I'm not sure how hard it would be to find out. I guess there's some reason why they couldn't tell what it's made of and how the atoms are arranged. But hopefully they can in the near future.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Biodiversity (31:24)[edit]

S: Guys, we're going to talk next about biodiversity. Does somebody, Cara, give me your definition of what is biodiversity.

C: Oh, gosh. Well, it's an ecological concept, generally speaking. I guess that would be a good way to contextualize it. And it has to do with the, maybe not the number of species, but the productivity of a region. So how many different organisms are thriving within this region? Maybe that's a good way to put it. Different. I think different might be the key there.

S: Different. So the number of organisms within a defined group or species is a good proxy for biodiversity.

B: Genomic diversity? Genomic distance?

S: Yeah, you need genetic. It definitely incorporates the concept of genetic diversity. And I believe it was actually Stephen Jay Gould that introduced the term disparity as another concept. So disparity is the amount of difference. Whereas diversity is the number of variations on a theme. So the more two different organisms look different from each other, the more disparity they have. For example, if all mammals died and then dogs evolved to fill every niche that current mammals exist in, we might eventually get as much biodiversity within mammals as we have now, but the disparity would be markedly narrowed. Everything would be dog-like.

B: Yeah. Once you cross some genetic evolutionary lines, you're not going back.

S: You can't reverse it.

B: You really can't reverse it.

S: All right. So biodiversity is there's been some recent studies looking at the decrease in biodiversity over the last hundred years, and it's pretty alarming. So just to give some figures on it. So between 1970 and 2016, a recent review found that global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles, so vertebrates, right? Global populations of vertebrates have decreased by what amount, would you guess?

E: Since when?

C: Probably something ridiculous.

B: 110%.

E: Yeah, right. Yeah, there you go.

C: I know that amphibians are going extinct at 30,000 times the background extinction rate.

E: Yikes.

C: So it's like it's not good.

S: It's 68%.

B: What?

S: 68%.

C: Yes.

E: How much? Oh.

C: That's horrible.

S: 68%.

C: Oh, my God.

E: Over how many years, Steve?

S: Between 1970 and 2016.

E: My lifetime? Oh, my gosh.

C: 40 years, that's it?

S: Yeah, 46 years.

E: We are so good at destroying things, it's scary.

S: Mm-hmm.

B: Goddamn. I was thinking maybe 20%.

S: The biggest driver of population loss is habitat loss, right?

E: And that's us.

S: So if you look at the ice-free land on the earth, right? Land that is not covered with glaciers and ice. Only 25% can be considered wilderness, meaning that it has not been significantly altered by people, by modern civilization. Only 25%. The other 75% has either been converted to farmland or living space or recreational space or whatever.

E: Wow.

S: People have been significantly altered.

E: We're including deserts and everything else in there, Steve?

S: Yeah, that includes deserts.

C: Yeah, and most of that wilderness, by the way, is actively managed.

S: Mm-hmm.

C: It's not just like it's untouched, pristine. It's like scientists are tracking the organisms. The apex predators have been named. Some of them are tagged. We're seeing flow of genes.

S: It's not untouched. That doesn't mean untouched.

C: Yeah. There's no kind of, "wild spaces" in the sense that people don't have some sort of connection to them anywhere on the planet.

S: Yeah. I mean, there's probably some. I mean, I think like the deep jungles of Malaysia or something, there's still some areas that we've never explored. But also, in most of the world, this wilderness is increasingly isolated, right? This isn't one big contiguous wilderness. These are now increasingly cut off and isolated patches of wilderness.

E: Islands.

S: Yeah, islands of wilderness, which is bad because it limits the ability of populations to migrate and to move around.

C: And to breed with other populations in order to increase genetic diversity.

S: Increase genetic diversity. Exactly. And not only that, but what is the number one response of species to a change in their environment?

C: Death. No.

S: It's not death. So you might think it could be, you might think someone could die.

B: Migration. Migration?

S: They could evolve or they could migrate.

C: Right. They're going to try and get away from there first and look for food.

S: They habitat track. They move to another environment that they're better adapted to. That's the most common response. They don't evolve or go extinct. They just might. They just habitat track.

E: Move to the friendliest climates, right.

S: But of course, there's not a lot of opportunity to do that. So, if you consider the loss of genetic diversity that is represented in the loss of the number of individuals, that they're increasingly isolated and their ability to habitat track is also significantly limited, what does this mean for the long-term survivability of the species that are still extant in the world today?

B: Got to go way down.

S: Some biologists think that a large number of species are already doomed for extinction.

E: The die is cast.

S: Irreversibly doomed for extinction.

B: Irreversibly?

S: Yeah, if you're looking at like a thousand-year timeframe, which is nothing. That's a blink of an eye. The average lifespan of a species is about two million years. A thousand years is nothing. And so, even though we may be saving endangered species, but we're still creating all these genetic bottlenecks with very few numbers of individuals. We're dramatically reducing genetic biodiversity. And by limiting habitat, we're almost guaranteeing that many of these species are going to go extinct on the geological short-term. A hundred years, 500 years, a thousand years, something like that. Yeah, and it may already be too late. Now, of course you never know with technology. Technological advancement and whatever. You don't know what the world's going to look like in 500 years and if we're going to be able to make significant changes.

E: Build an artificial continent, float it out there, and put a whole bunch of things out there.

C: That's not a good idea.

B: I could do a lot better than that.

C: Also, in terms of policy changes, I mean, obviously these are small things. We would have to have radical, drastic shifts in the way that we approach conservation. But if we actually gave a shit enough to build wildlife passageways, to rewild large swaths of the planet to do things, they would have to be drastic. And so probably a lot of those models are based on the fact that politically that just doesn't seem feasible.

E: Wouldn't you be asking whole populations, basically of people at that point, to shift and move and get out and leave areas?

C: Not necessarily. You'd be maybe asking them to stop doing certain industries. You'd be asking them to stop logging.

E: Sure, like deforestation in Brazil.

C: But most people live in cities.

S: That's true.

C: Like, we have to remember that. And so there's a lot of places on the globe where animals could live, not just animals, like all organisms could biodiversity could increase. But because of things we do, massive we cut down all their trees, we poison their water, and then there's all these horrible downstream effects, like the fires that are raging right now in the southern hemisphere.

S: Well, climate change isn't helping either.

E: No, that goes everywhere.

C: But even a lot of those fires are due to direct deforestation problems. So, like, there's just—

S: Forest management as well as increased temperature. Yeah, it's not good. But so just the last word on biodiversity, then we could maybe shift a little bit to, like, what can we do about it, is we have to think about genetic biodiversity as a limited resource. It takes thousands of years, tens of thousands of years, even millions of years to build up genetic biodiversity over time. Mutations only happen at a certain background rate, and most of them or many of them are going to be harmful. Some will be neutral in a way, or some will be silent, in which case they don't really do anything. And some of them increase the amount of variability within a species without harming them. They just make them different. So that genetic drift or adaptation to a range of environments is what gives a species the ability to survive long term. Because when—the other thing that happens when habitat change is enough, you might have a dozen subpopulations, and one of them is adapted to a local environment, which is now the norm. And so they're the ones that then—they provide the genetic material for the species to survive, because now they're best adapted to the changing conditions. But if you dramatically reduce biodiversity, they're basically setting them up to fail. You're setting them up to not be able to adapt to changing environment. Also, the less genetic biodiversity there is within a population or within a species, the more susceptible they are to things like infection. Because a virus that is adapted—

E: Like a monoculture.

S: Yeah, to infect one individual is going to be well adapted to infect the entire population. There won't be—genetic diversity also gives—creates the probability that some individuals will be more resistant or just won't be as susceptible to an infection, for example. So it's—yeah, it's a setup for extinction. It's just a total setup for extinction. And again, because it takes thousands to millions of years, somewhere along that timeframe, to really replace it, then it's it's not the kind of thing that we can fix. You know, we could be losing hundreds of thousands of years of genetic diversity that is not going to come back quickly. Again, you'd have to anticipate that we're going to use our technology to do it. But—

E: Well, yeah, that's—I think that—but that's a—you know, I'm glad you mentioned that. I mean, it sounds a little bit dismissive, but when you're talking on the timescale of centuries, I think it's very valid to consider what technologies could be available to us, not now, and maybe in a hundred years, but that still would be—could be plenty of time to save a lot of this.

C: Yeah, but the thing is, Bob, we could save them now and we're not.

B: Yeah, we're not.

C: So I don't think some sort of technology is going to solve this. It's a willpower problem.

B: I'm looking at technology because we're not going to do it. We're not going to do it unless it's easy.

S: Why would you think we would get off our ass in the future?

C: Exactly.

B: Because it would be easy with the technology. That's why.

C: It's easy now.

S: Here's my fear.

B: Then we'll do it. Then we'll do it. It's easy. We'll do it then.

C: It is easy.

B: But we're not going to effing do it.

S: But my—here's my concern.

B: I guarantee you we're not going to do it.

S: Is that each generation—it's like when you get into an abusive relationship, it's by increments. You don't go immediately to getting beat up every night, right?

B: The frog in the boiling water.

S: It happens slowly. You give in little bit by little bit. I think as a species, we're sort of adapting to a more and more shitty earth, a shitty environment. We sort of—each generation gets used to it being one notch worse than what it was before. Then by the—you know what I mean? Then they die off. Then the new generations never knew what it was like before. It reminds me of that Soylent Green movie. You guys remember Soylent Green?

J: Of course.

E: Oh, yes.

S: They show him the video, the film of nature beforehand. He was like, I never imagined it was like this. Our future generation is just not going to know how shitty they have it because they've never experienced—

E: Oh, WALL-E was the same theme 700 years in the future.

C: I think yes and no. But I also think the thing that we sometimes forget is that, like you said, this shift that you specifically—the literature that you're citing pointed to—was only 45 years.

S: I know. But even—

C: These are not massive generational changes. So, like, we have grandparents potentially that were around during the Industrial Revolution. So, like, these drastic, drastic changes, you're right. They're on a short generational time span, which I think kind of the counterpoint to your point, although I do agree there are going to be generations who are like, what was it like when you could see the stars?

S: Yeah.

C: But the counterpoint to that is that I see more environmentalism in young people now than my parents' generation ever had.

S: Yeah, but we don't know if that's just age-related or generationally related.

C: True.

S: But you're right. Here's the thing. This is what I think—what I would like to see happen, right? I don't think we need to de-industrialize our civilization or do anything dramatic or horrible, right? Like, all of the right-wing nightmares about what they think the left-wing wants to do, right? I'm not saying that—

C: We don't have to give up energy.

S: Yeah, we don't have to give up anything, really. So, what are the things that we need to do? I think it's pretty reasonable to talk about population because that is one of the things that ultimately drives this. But, and again, I'm literally in the middle of arguing on my blog with somebody who thinks that the practical solution is to basically starve a lot of people to death. But that's ridiculous.

C: What?

B: Yep. Yep.

S: Yeah, just don't send those people in Africa food. That's the solution.

B: We've heard people say that out loud in public.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: So, no. How about this? How about the evidence shows that the more you lift people out of poverty and the more rights that women get, the fewer children they have.

E: There you go.

S: And so the best way to control, like, to level off and even sort of decrease the human population and reach an equilibrium point at a lower level is just to focus on lifting people out of poverty and human rights.

B: Yeah, but who wants to do that?

C: Right. And education. Yeah. Because they're huge.

S: Yeah, education. Absolutely. So, the biggest and biggest driver of loss of biodiversity is habitat loss. So, what do we do there? We need to be able to grow more calories on less land. Come on. That's GMOs.

E: How many times have we talked about that?

S: Not just GMO, but just agricultural technology. All agricultural technology. It doesn't have to be GMO.

C: And honestly, just thoughtfulness in sustainable choices. I think that's a huge part of it. Like, it's not about de-industrializing. It's about, just like we talked about last week, Bob. I think it was last week when we were talking about space junk. Before you put the satellite up there, you need to have a plan for how it's going to come back down. Before you plant this grove or before you clear-cut this, you have to figure out what is that going to do to the land. Is there a way to replace? Is there a way to make this a sustainable decision? Because it's just something we didn't always think about in the past, and then it became habitual.

S: And people cut down forests to plant, to farm, to plant crops because they're desperate.

C: Of course.

S: Or because they're poor. They don't have any other option. It's consumer, but it's also government and industry. Absolutely. So I think, yeah. So I think we should pick the low-hanging fruit. We should do things smarter. We have to do a risk versus benefit assessment whenever we do anything that will impact our environment. When I wrote about this, the point I made, the Earth is our only home. And as much as we love science fiction, we love the idea of going to other planets and terraforming everything, the bottom line is on no reasonable timescale are we going to have any other world to inhabit. This is it. This is the only world—

C: We don't even have to terraform Earth. It's already ready for us.

S: I know.

C: Yeah. Like, we can just live here.

S: Like, there's no other planet in the solar system that wouldn't absolutely suck as a home. And that would only be after thousands and thousands of years of trying really hard to terraform it. We'd get a shitty version of Earth.

E: Yeah. Like a terrible life raft.

S: Or we just preserve the planet that we have, right? And the other thing is that—

B: I agree.

S: It's become a cliche, but it is so important. We have one global environment, and we need to protect—we do need to think globally. So, those poor people in the rainforest cutting down the forest to grow food, they are our problem, because that's our environment that they're cutting down.

C: And ultimately, they're not the main problem.

S: No.

C: The main problem is, like, massive corporations who are serving—

S: Or corrupt governments.

C: Yeah, and corrupt governments and all of that. Like, when we're talking about the massive impact, we're not talking about indigenous peoples clear-cutting forests around them. I mean sure, there are some unsustainable practices that are happening, and sure, we all need to step it up. But when we're talking about scale—

S: Yeah, it's mainly—

C: That's the problem.

S: Yeah. No, no, absolutely. And so— But if we just can somehow, like, as a species, get to this attitude of, like, okay there's almost 8 billion of us now. We're one species. This is our one planet. Let's reasonably work together to try to preserve our world as best as possible. And I also just— The last I'll say about it is I feel firmly that it needs to be evidence-based. Whatever we do needs to be informed by the best science. And we can't— And this is why I get super, super annoyed when pseudoscience creeps into environmentalism, because it's so counterproductive. Tat what makes me really feel pessimistic is when you have like with global warming, you have the deniers on one side, and then on the other side, you have people who accept the problem but are looking to pseudoscientific solutions. And there isn't much room in the middle for somebody who will acknowledge the problem and be rigorously science-based in their approach to it. But that's where the answers will be, you know?

C: Yeah. Well, they'll be in the evidence-based policy. I think part of the problem is that interest groups fill in those gaps, because we're lacking the political will to follow evidence-based policy. So instead, we're following interest-group-based policy. And just like you have corporate interests, you also have environmentalist interests that are very specific to their own plight. We have to have a more global perspective. And that's why, I gotta be honest, Steve, I am scared shitless, for example, of the American sitting president wanting to pull out, let's say, of the World Health Organization.

S: Oh, yeah.

C: This is a perfect example of doing the opposite of what needs to be done in these scenarios. It's so scary.

S: Oh, absolutely. That's a good example. Yeah, like, what more proof is there that we have to think globally, that we are all in the same boat, than a pandemic, a worldwide pandemic? Obviously, what happens in China does affect us. It's what happened in one little wet market in China has impacted the entire world.

E: Earth is one big cruise ship.

C: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's one big petri dish. Yeah.

S: Yeah, we are. We are literally, we are living figuratively, we are living on a cruise ship floating in the universe, and there's no other ship in sight, you know?

B: Yeah, but what about the 800-pound gorilla? Guys, seriously, give me a probability that we're going to do what's right here. Come on, give me a serious answer. What's the probability?

C: I think it depends.

B: For me, maybe I'm the most pessimistic, but it's so small, I need an atomic force microscope to see the probability.

C: I disagree. I think it depends on who's in power.

B: In power around the world.

C: It depends on the political will.

B: Not one country, not two countries, around the world. Let's get the right person in power around the entire world.

C: It doesn't take the right person.

B: What are the odds of that happening?

C: Yeah, but Bob, listen, listen. It doesn't take the right person. It just takes not the wrong person.

B: But lots of them.

C: This is a majority opinion.

B: But lots of not the wrong people.

C: Yeah, I agree.

S: Bob, Bob.

B: Come on, no one's answering my question.

S: I would say, I'm actually optimistic.

B: Ha!

S: But first of all, first of all, optimism and pessimism, I think, are self-fulfilling prophecies in areas like this.

B: Then we're really screwed.

S: If we think we can't do it, we probably won't. If we think we can roll up our sleeves and work together.

B: No, no. That's wrong.

S: Then we at least have a chance. Bob, but the thing is, there's countless examples where we did do it. The World Health Organization is itself a great example with many countries around the world got together and developed standards and practices and resources to protect the world.

B: Absolutely, it can be done. I'm not denying it can be done.

S: I think, and also the UN.

B: You're Pollyannish.

S: Another example would be the asteroid detection and prevention system that's now in place. It's a worldwide effort to protect the Earth from asteroids that might impact us.

C: What about the ISS? We've managed to work with Russia and co-habitate this thing through the Cold War. There are times where science-based diplomacy seems to somehow transcend geopolitical conflict. I mean, there are countless examples of that happening.

B: Sure. Russians and Americans work hand-in-hand in the space station. That's great. It does happen, but still, I mean, in 20 years, if we're still doing this podcast, or 30 years, and we're talking about biodiversity, it's going to be far worse than 60%.

C: It probably will be. I think you're right.

B: That's all I'm saying. That's all I'm saying.

C: But the truth of the matter is, if we maintain a cynical attitude, it definitely will be.

B: I can't help it. I can't help it. No one gives a shit about my cynical attitude.

S: But, Bob, it all matters.

C: Well, but you are speaking to 150,000 people on this podcast. I mean, that's something we have to accept.

B: And you guys are disagreeing with me, so I'm the minority here. So it's balancing out.

S: Here's the thing, Bob. It's not just optimism. I think it's important to project an attitude that nothing less is acceptable. And my problem with pessimism is that it normalizes that kind of cynicism, that it normalizes the bad stuff. By saying, well, of course, that's how people are. That's the way it's going to be. No, it's not how it has to be. It's not how it's necessarily going to be. It's not acceptable. It's no longer acceptable.

B: A lot of shit is not acceptable. A lot of stuff is not acceptable.

S: I know.

B: And if the last half decade has shown us anything, it's that it's still acceptable by enough people.

S: But that gets back to what I was saying about that incrementalism. That's the abusive relationship. You are on the wrong end of an abusive relationship where you're just like, well, this is the way it is. I'm going to get beat up every now and then. That's just the way it is. It's like, no, stop it. You have to rage against that shit. You can't accept it. Otherwise, you fall into it. We cannot accept that governments are going to be corrupt, that industry is going to be self-interested, that we're not going to be able to work together to do the things that we need to do to save our planet and to make life better and to prevent pandemics.

C: Right, Bob. You voted, right?

S: We should not accept it. Go down raging against that.

B: I will vote on Connecticut's one day that I could vote in person. That's when I vote. One day.

C: And I think those incremental changes, Steve, that you talk about going bad can also start going in the opposite direction. I think the thing is if you tap into people's humanity in a very particular way, if you use marketing and social psychology to your advantage, you can change minds and you can get people to care about this shit.

B: Okay, Steve, I don't disagree with you. We have to fight as if this is completely unacceptable because even if there's a 0.1% chance that we will succeed, it's worth it because of the return on the investment. Absolutely. But right now, I'm in a little bit of a pity party. Man, I'm thinking 15, 20% loss in diversity and you hit me with 60%. That is just so mind-numbing.

C: 68.

B: Oh, yo, great. But yes, you got to fight. You got to fight. But right now, my hope levels are so low I can't even see them right now.

S: I hear you, Bob.

E: Still got to fight.

S: I completely understand your cynicism and pessimism. But what I'm saying is psychologically, and this has been studied, this is evidence-based, is that there's something called social norming, right? And when you want to change things for the better, you can't just rant about how awful things are because that normalizes it. What you have to do is say what you want to have happen has to be the norm. You want to normalize and promote the good things that you want to have happen. And so we have to be careful as skeptics because this is so much of what we do not to empower or normalize the bad stuff when we talk about it or when we deal with it. We always have to be focusing on the positive, what we can do to save our planet, to improve our environment, to work together, to have science-based policy, what we should be doing. And we can't because that cynicism is death. We really have to work against it.

C: And a lot of people already equate skeptics with being cynics. And I think that's a – yeah, it's kind of a perception that we ourselves can work really hard to change.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

Who's That Noisy? (57:13)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Bullet Ant on a microphone

S: Jay, you know what time it is?

J: I do.

S: It's who's that noisy time.

E: Noisy.

C: Noisy.

J: All right, guys. Last week I played this noisy.

[background hiss, foreground squeaking/squelching]

So what do you think, guys?

S: Now that is definitely an animalcule.

J: Yes, it is. You are correct, my friend, but you are not fully correct.

S: Correct as far as I go.

C: Is it something that I can snuggle?

J: No.

C: Damn.

J: But he didn't say what it was. I mean, you could say it's an animal.

S: It's a teeny tiny animal.

C: But it sounds snuggly.

J: I know it does.

S: It depends on scale.

C: Yeah.

J: All right. Here we go. Michael Greasier Johns. You should have just left your middle name out because there was no way I was going to pronounce it right. He said, hi there. Absolutely love the show. Steve, this is a correction from last week.

S: Okay.

J: All right. Just a little correction on something you mentioned when revealing last week's Who's That Noisy. The healthy coral reef from a longtime scuba diver. A couple of you mentioned hearing the water after listening to it and after the reveal. This is not correct. As it's underwater, you cannot hear audible sound of water. What I think you're referring to is the roaring background white noise. This is actually even cooler than water noises. This is the sound of millions of hard-beaked fish, such as a parrotfish, scraping at and feeding on the coral.

C: Oh, cool.

J: They're saying it's a key signifier that it's a healthy reef because it tells you that there's millions of fish feeding on it. That wasn't water flowing. That was fish chewing. Now, let's move right into this week's noisy. David B. Finney said, my skeptical 15-year-old daughter thinks it's a baby bird calling for food or a bat. And then he went on to list like three or four guesses of his own. None of these guesses are correct. But the baby bird calling for food is actually a very good guess because I've heard that sound from multiple different types of birds. And it does kind of sound like that. So she had a good ear there. The next guesser is Rich Peterson. He said, hi, Jay. Sounds like it could be a gecko chirping. Nope, it's not. I've never heard a gecko chirp. I didn't know geckos even made noise. So that's interesting to hear. But that's not correct. Justin Porteous said, episode 797 noisy sounds to me like the sound of rats laughing as they are being tickled.

C: Oh, I remember that story. Yeah, there's a journal article about that, like maybe five years ago.

J: Yeah, I had a lot of people email me this sound over the last five or six years. That is not correct. He also pointed out that you can't actually hear it. The wavelength has to be changed so you can hear it because it's inaudible. But that's not the correct answer, though it's not a bad one. Marcel Janssens, Janssens, Janssens. If you saw what I'm reading, you'd understand why I had to say it. Janssens. The noisy of this week is two guinea pigs mating on a hot summer night. You wanted the guess to be specific, so I'll say on July 28, 2020.

C: Chicka wow wow.

J: I thought that was funny. Sure. I could hear two guinea pigs making that noise. That is not correct, though. And then here's the last one I'm going to throw out at you that wasn't the correct guess. This one was by Marcus Noble, and he said, I've made a few past guesses all wrong. I hope my luck has changed. Years ago, I had a colony of bats living behind my chimney. So he thinks it's a colony of bats or a squeak noise coming from a mama bat to tell them to leave, someone to leave their babies alone. Now, here is as close to a winner as we can get. This winner has guessed. This is Johan De Beer, and he said, Dear SGU crew, my name is Johan De Beer, and I am a postgraduate entomology student at the University of Pretoria. Evan, wasn't that a zone in City of Heroes?

E: Yes, Pretoria is very much that.

J: Very close.

C: City of Heroes in South Africa?

J: Just saying.

E: City of Heroes, the online game.

J: This sounds like a squeaking moth that does not like being harassed. It could potentially be a death's head hawk moth or similar species. Love the podcast. Okay, so the closest guess I got was that, yes, this is an insect, but it's not a moth. So I give him a half win on that. So the original person who wrote this is Simon, and I pronounced his name wrong last week. Remember when I said it was Tooth Hill? It's not. He actually wrote to me, Jay, it's Toot Hill.

C: Oh, right, the T-H. That gets confusing sometimes.

J: Yeah, and I did confuse it, even though he told me how to pronounce his name. Simon, I'm sorry. I'm a very busy man. So anyway, this is actually the sound, Cara.

C: Yes?

J: It's an ant species.

C: I could snuggle with ants.

J: It's a bullet ant.

C: No, don't snuggle with a bullet ant.

J: No, you do not want to snuggle with them. Now listen to it again, now that you know that it's a very, very small bullet ant who is very, you know.

C: Wait, bullet ants are pretty freaking huge.

J: Yeah, but you know what I mean. This thing is like smaller than a lavalier microphone, which was the microphone that it was recorded on. It's crawling up onto the microphone. [plays Noisy]

C: Bullet ants are not smaller than lavs. That's really cute.

J: So they squeak when they walk. I love it. I thought that was so freaking adorable, and it just goes right up on the mic, which is great because you could really hear it very well when it does that. So that was a fun noisy. I guess you're right because now that I think about the video, it was bigger than the mic, but it could have been a baby. You never know.

C: Oh, cute. But yeah, don't try that at home, people.

J: Yeah, you don't want to mess with bullet ants.

New Noisy (1:03:14)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy. This came in from a listener named Grace Holland, and here is the noisy.

[background hiss, foreground baby animal-like squealing/bleating]

J: Please identify the source of that sound. If you think you know what this week's Noisy is, if you have a Noisy that you heard--I have a lot of fun Noisies from people. I can't use so many of them because reasons, right? It has to be the certain volume. It has to be identifiable like blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, send them to me because you never know, and I love it because I learn a lot, and I have a lot of fun answering some e-mails and everything. So send all of that to me, please, at

Announcements (1:04:05)[edit]

  • 12-hour live stream

J: Guys, I'm really sad about Randy. I cannot stop thinking about him. I was looking up pictures of him, pictures of us with him throughout the year. I mean, I have hundreds of pictures of Randy throughout all the TAMs and events and Nexus conferences, you know.

S: Jay, I know what will cheer you up.

J: What?

S: A 12-hour live streaming SGU event.

E: Yeah.

J: Yeah, sure.

C: Jay is very tired. I don't know if that's going to cheer him up right now.

J: I think because Cara is so knowledgeable about production work, she knows how much production work that's going to take me. Oh, my God. I have been thinking about it a lot, Steve.

S: Good. I'm glad because you need to be thinking about it a lot. So January 23rd, Saturday, January 23rd from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern Time. That's going to be the official time. We will be doing a 12-hour live streaming SGU event. It's going to be amazing. And this is a thank you to all of our listeners, especially our members and our patrons because we made our goal. Our goal was 4,000 patrons, and we broke through that. We're at 4,271. So thank everyone who has supported the SGU. We really appreciate it. It helps us do what we do, helps us keep the lights on, as we say. It's been very, very critically important this year especially, so we really do appreciate it. And you know what, guys? At 5,500, you know what our goal, our reward is when we get to 5,500? A 24-hour show.

E: Oh, great. Great.

C: Oh.

S: We're actually not that far from a 24-hour show.

B: When do we agree to that?

C: I don't.

E: And no, Cara, you don't get credit for having done the 12-hour show.

C: Yeah, it doesn't take 12 hours off.

S: But anyway, we're looking forward to the 12-hour show. It's going to be good. Send us your suggestions or things that you'd like to see us do or like to have happen. It's going to be a lot of fun.

E: Tasteful, please. Remain tasteful.

J: So, Steve, we are going to be. So Alpha Quadrant 6, which is me, Bob, and Steve, we started the science fiction review show. We will be on a live streaming conference called Outpost Con, or it's called Outpost 2020. The website is You can go check it out. So this is a conference that is all about convergence of science and science fiction and a lot of just fun, really interesting and diverse topics that you'll go. It's kind of – it reminds me a little bit of Dragon Con, what they're trying to do online. So it's definitely something worth at least going and perusing and seeing if there's any speakers on there you're interested in. Definitely go check out the website. That's And we will be on this weekend doing an AQ6 episode. All right. So, Steve, we will be on Saturday, October 24th. We are going to be – we are in the 6 to 7 p.m. slot. That is Eastern Standard Time New York City time. But the conference will be going on for three days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

S: So, guys, we have a great interview coming up with Richard Wiseman about a paper he just published. I think you're going to like it. So let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Richard Wiseman (1:07:16)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Richard Wiseman. Richard, welcome back to the Skeptic's Guide.

RW: Always a pleasure. Always a pleasure. Are you all right?

S: Yeah, we're surviving over here in COVID land. Yeah, absolutely. You've been on the show many times. But for those who may not be aware, you are a professor of the public understanding of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. And you are a skeptic, a fellow skeptic, a magician. And you sort of bring all of that together to promote critical thinking and understanding of human cognition. And you've published many. Your Wikipedia says several. Several.

RW: Twelve. I'm on my 12th commercial book. Some would say 12 too many. But, yes, far too many books.

S: Oh, excellent.

RW: I've run out of words. After writing this one, I realize I have no words left. I've used all the words in the previous book. If anyone has any spare words, please send them to me.

S: So I wanted to get you back talking about something specific. We love chatting with you about anything. But you did write a recent blog post talking about a recent study that you published that is something I've been tracking also for years. And I thought it would be great to just chat with you directly about it. This has to do with parapsychology and how the world of parapsychology may have actually positively impacted psychological research. Tell us about this.

RW: Well, you see, the thing is, so I got into magic young. And then I got into psychology. And then at the end of my psychology degree, I wanted to do a PhD. And I actually went to the Kerstler Chair of Parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh and did some work on deception and eyewitness testimony. But because of that, I met a lot of parapsychologists, some of my closest friends. And when you speak to them, what they often say is that these are all the believers. They think that parapsychology is going to change science and change the world. And it's turned out that actually they're correct in many ways, but not in the way that they intended that statement to be true in the sense that we haven't found evidence for psychic functioning. But by looking for evidence for psychic functioning, something else has come out. There's now having a radical effect on at least psychology. And in fact, my understanding is science across the board. And that's what we're going to talk about. We can talk about sort of bad quality science and how it can lead to better quality science and a radical re-understanding of effects that are out there. So this has its roots in Darrell Bem, who's a parapsychologist. And he published a paper in a mainstream journal saying there's nine experiments where people could allegedly look into the future as evidence for precognition. So I teamed up with Chris French and Stuart Ritchie, the two other British psychologists. We tried to replicate Darrell's work and we couldn't. And then other people waded in and looked at Darrell's work and said, hold on a second. It suffers from various problems. He perhaps isn't reporting all of the data. There may be some studies in there which have been dropped out. Maybe there's multiple analyses. Maybe some hypotheses were made up after the fact and so on. And that has happened many, many times before where parapsychologists have published something and the critics have come along and criticized it.

S: And by the way, we call that p-hacking. We've spoken about this on the show several times before. When you do those sorts of things, do multiple analysis, decide what your hypothesis is after you look at the data, etc., that's p-hacking. And yes, parapsychologists are infamous for that, but it's also pretty widespread in just science.

RW: This is the thing. This is the interesting bit. So it's p-hacking. It's file draw. It's what's called harking, which is where you come up with a hypothesis afterwards and so on. And together they've been known as questionable research practices. But the really interesting thing is that this time something else happened, which is some psychologists turned around when it was all right criticizing the parapsychologists. But I think that's true of a lot of psychology. And so if the parapsychologists, in a sense, they're doing us a favor because if you don't believe in psychic functioning, they're the ultimate control condition. They tell you what evidence you get for something when that effect doesn't actually exist. And so if in psychology or indeed in science you get that same level of evidence using those same questionable research practices, then maybe your effect doesn't exist. And so to prevent that, there's really sort of two ways, and both of them involve saying in advance what you're going to do. And one of them is you pre-register a study. You say this is how many participants we're going to have. This is the analysis we're going to do and so on. And the other way, which is a bit more robust, is called registered reports, which is essentially you submit the paper prior to collecting the data. And it's refereed. You write your introduction, you write your method, and referees look at it. And if they're happy with all of that, then you go when you collect your data. And you're pretty much guaranteed publication because you've already been through the peer review process. But prior to doing any data collection, and that stops many of those questionable research practices in their tracks. So that's where we're at. 2012, 2013, psychology journals start to use that procedure. And everyone starts to realize that some of the classic effects in psychology are more than a little bit shaky. And my sort of interest in all of this is that I like obscure and quirky science. I like just going back in time and seeing what people were doing quite a long time ago. And I knew that in the 1970s, this fairly obscure parapsychology journal, the European Journal of Parapsychology, was doing precisely that. That they realized there was a problem and so they started doing a version of registered reports all of those years ago, which is kind of amazing. I mean they're way ahead of the game basically in terms of methodology. So I thought, hold on a second. Those reports are sitting there. When it is a registered report, it's flagged up in the journal. So we've got registered reports. We've got non-registered reports. We've got about 15, 16 years of them. I could go back and see whether you get more significance, more effects in the non-registered reports. So I did that. We went through, a couple of the colleagues went through all those journals, picked out all the analyses. And it was amazing. If it was a non-registered report, that is to say they did not say in advance what they were going to do, around about 24, 25 percent of the analyses were significant. You would think there was an effect. When it was a registered report, that collapsed to around about 8 percent. We'd expect 5 percent by chance. So what you see is this very simple procedure having a huge kind of dampening effect. It's taking away bad quality research and one by one, those effects are dropping away. And it looks like that procedure is now going to be used in psychology and possibly beyond. It's already being used a little bit in medicine and so on. And in doing so, we're starting to find out that a lot of the effects in mainstream psychology are dropping away. So in a sense, parapsychologists have changed the world, but as I say, not entirely as they intended.

S: Right. And this is a fantastic story. I know at the time, I essentially wrote the same thing. Like either what Darrell Blam proved, either that ESP is real or science is broken. And it's clearly that – no, not that – you know, saying that quote-unquote science is broken is massively overstating it. But that clearly there's a systemic problem in the way some research is done and reported, etc. And this is not isolated to psychology, as you're saying. This has parallels in medicine.Right. This is basically why we are advocating for science-based medicine. Science-based medicine is essentially – part of it anyway – is fixing all of these things that evidence-based medicine – well, it's as good as far as it goes. It has a lot of the same problems. And so it's producing all these spurious false positive results. And we could make them go away by simply introducing some things like pre-registering. And now pre-registering clinical trials is now a thing in medicine. It needs to be more thorough, more ubiquitous, but it's definitely coming in vogue. And it does eliminate specifically p-hacking because p-hacking is basically making decisions about methodology after you look at data. And if you make all the decisions before you look at data, then you can't do that. But it still opens the door for other things. It leaves the door open, rather, for other things. For example, not doing internal replications. So I don't know if that's also hitting the psychological literature. Rather than just doing a one-off and publishing it, basically rolling those dice. Because then you get publication bias and other things are involved. But if you replicate your own effect before you publish it, that also brings the false positive rate way down. Is that something you've encountered as well? Like really pushing for internal replications?

RW: Yeah, absolutely. So all these things. As I say, in medicine, there was a study a few years ago looking at pre-registration on cardiovascular well-being. And again, the success rate for the studies went from about 60%. Down to, once you had pre-registration, I think it was again about 7% or 8%. It was a massive drop down. So what you're seeing is that a lot of those studies with a lot of those effects simply vanish as soon as you say in advance what it is you're going to do. So who cares whether or not people are psychic or can look into the future. But when it goes over to medicine and some sorts of psychology, boy, does it really matter. Particularly those that are influencing public policy. And as you say, these very simple techniques can have a big impact. A registered report, as I say, takes it to the next level because you actually peer-reviewed. And what's great is the referee's feedback before you've done the study. There's nothing worse than writing up a study. You send it in to be assessed. Referee comes back and you go, oh my goodness, I wish I thought of that.

S: Yeah, you should have done this. Yeah, it's too late.

RW: That's right. You should have done that. And you go, actually, you're right. I should have done. But I've collected all my data now. But what's great about the registered report is you get that feedback prior to that. So you can actually change things and drop the study and so on. But I just find it amazing that this thing, which we're now just opening our eyes to, actually was being done in the 70s. And Sebo Skouten, who's one of the two parapsychologists involved, I knew very well. And it just shows how some of those people were really pushing on the methodological front. You know, often we characterize parapsychologists as these kind of wide-eyed believers. But actually, there were people in there that were methodologically quite sophisticated and really trying to push that side of things.

S: Yeah, I agree. I mean, that's what I've encountered as well, just reading the literature, that there are those who are sincere and are really trying to prove it with – OK, if we're going to convince the mainstream scientists, we have to be really rigorous. The problem is when they're really rigorous, their effect goes away. And so those people tend to do one of two things. You tell me if you agree with this. They either say, OK, well, I guess it's not real, and they go on with their life. Or they figure out more subtle ways to fix the data so that they go back to p-hacking because that's the only way they get positive results.

RW: Yeah, there is a third way, which I think lots of them adopt, which is they change the paradigm. So that you might do a whole lot of telepathy studies, and then as you tighten up the controls, the effect goes away. And instead of concluding that psi doesn't exist, what you do is jump to remote viewing. And then you jump to psychokinesis. So you keep changing the paradigm, which actually the field does as a whole. So a few years ago, this thing called the Ganzfeld technique was very big, a kind of telepathy experiment, remote viewing before that with a CIA and so on. And then it was that people could mentally influence random number generators. And so each time it's sort of embracing a new paradigm. You keep going for a few years until that one fades away, and then you jump ship again. So it's kind of interesting because it gets back to that fundamental thing that science is being conducted by humans. And we don't like to be told there's nothing to it. There's nothing to our beliefs. We don't like disconfirming evidence pretty much in any sphere, including science.

S: So there's another thing that happens in medicine. I suspect it probably happens in psychological, in parapsychology as well. But in alternative medicine, right, when you do the preliminary crappy study with p-hacking and all that and you get spurious positive results, then skeptics like me say, nope, I'm not convinced. Do more rigorous studies. They do more rigorous studies and the effect vanishes every time. So then what they do is it's kind of a switching the paradigm thing, but they might go. They stop doing efficacy studies and they start doing pragmatic studies. So they basically they do research, but not research that is designed to tell whether or not the phenomenon exists, but rather just to tell about the phenomenon. Like, you know what I mean? Like, how do people like it and how does it get incorporated into practice? And but not not as they stop. Just stop asking the fundamental question of if the phenomenon is real. Do you encounter that as well?

RW: Well, it's not quite the same within parapsychology, but there is a difference between the proof oriented study, which is proving the thing exists and a process one, which is under what circumstances is it best or most effective. And so I guess that's sort of similar. I think what you're saying is that they might shift to sort of softer metrics in terms of was this good for you? How do you find it helpful? All those sorts of things, rather than that fundamental question of does it actually have any impact? Because people will tell you all sorts of things. And so, yeah, it's fascinating. I want to say what sits at the base of it, I think, is you can see if you spent your whole life looking at a particular phenomenon or we don't choose these things randomly. Normally, it's because they have some sort of personal significance for us. And suddenly the dice don't roll in your favour. You know, you like to think, well, OK, just give me a few more goes with those dice and see how it can go. And if not, I'll try and turn things around a little bit and keep hold of these beliefs. They're like possessions. We don't really want to let them go. They're ours. And we want to hold on to them.

S: Since you started this story with Daryl Bem, I think I've mentioned this before on the show, but it's such a fantastic story. And I'm sure you know about it, that in the summer of 2016, he and other researchers did like a really rigorous replication of his own field of future studies. And they were dead negative, of course, because, as you say, once you introduce rigorous controls, the effect goes away. And then they published or they presented those results at a meeting of the Parapsychological Association. But then in the conference abstract, they reanalysed the data ex post facto and managed to squeeze out some, quote, unquote, significant results. So they went back and they repeated it after the fact. So they couldn't they couldn't just sit with the negative results.

RW: Yeah, I think that's right. They started to look at I think it was participants that spoke English as a first language versus others or something like that. There was a process oriented one in there. And I think the problem with parapsychology, which makes it slightly different, actually, to most other fields, is that I mean, some of my other work looks at the psychology of lying. Now, if it turns out my theory about lying is not true, well, we still know that people lie to one another. I still got a job in the morning. I still got research to do. My particular theory might not be true, but we know the phenomenon is true. The problem with parapsychology is that if it turns out that people aren't psychic, well, that's that you just pack your bags and go home. Well, at least in medicine well, people are still getting ill from whatever we've got a problem here to solve.

S: Yes. But along those lines that's why if you are like a physician who will just do whatever works. Yes, you are correct. But if you're an acupuncturist, you're like a parapsychologist. You have to believe that acupuncture works. And if studies prove that acupuncture itself doesn't work again, you have to pack up and go home. You need a new career. So that's the problem with having health professions dedicated to one conclusion that may not even be true.

RW: Absolutely. So, yes, that parallel is very nice. And that's an interesting one, I think, because then all the kind of psychological pressures are so much stronger because it turns out that this thing isn't true. And this practice doesn't work. And all these people are going to be out of a job. And my sense of identity is now being threatened because I was really into homeopathy or whatever it is. That's nice to go to parties and tell people homeopath. And now I can't do that because it isn't true. Well, you can see the psychological pressure. It's way more than me going, I had a theory about lying. Turns out it isn't true. I've still got people still lie. And I think that's a fundamental difference that isn't spoken about very much in the literature.

S: I agree. I agree. It's not like, yeah, you're going to discover that psychology doesn't exist because your study failed.

RW: How great would that be, though?

S: I proved that there is no psychology.

RW: It doesn't exist.

S: All right. Well, Richard, this has been fantastic, as always. Take care.

RW: Okay. Take care. Lovely to speak to you.

Science or Fiction (1:25:21)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers have developed a motion-capture system that requires only a single chest-mounted camera, not multiple cameras, sensors, or a dedicated studio.[5]
Item #2: A study of the last 125 years of chess tournaments reveals that people are retaining peak cognitive ability about a decade longer than a century ago.[6]
Item #3: Scientists have discovered how pit vipers can seen prey in the dark – by seeing heat with a special pyroelectric organ.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Chess & cognitive ability
Science Motion capture camera
Pyroelectric organ
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Chess & cognitive ability
Motion capture camera
Chess & cognitive ability
Chess & cognitive ability

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Got three regular news items, no theme. You guys ready?

C: I think so.

S: All right, here we go. Item number one, researchers have developed a motion capture system that requires only a single chest-mounted camera, not multiple cameras, sensors, or a dedicated studio. And item number two, a study of the last 125 years of chess tournaments reveals that people are retaining peak cognitive ability about a decade longer than a century ago. And item number three, scientists have discovered how pit vipers can see prey in the dark by seeing heat with a special pyroelectric organ. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

C: Yes.

E: All right. That's true. I haven't gone first in a while. So here's a motion capture system that requires only a single chest-mounted camera, not multiple cameras, sensors, or a dedicated studio. Okay, so they shrunk it all down to the size of a single camera, which you can wear around your neck, apparently, hang on your chest, you look like Flava Flav. I don't know how they did it, but it doesn't seem unreasonable that they have done this. Camera technology, video capture technology does march along at a pretty amazing pace. So I think that one's science. The next one, about 125 years of chess tournaments, that's a lot of chess tournaments. They reveal that people are retaining peak cognitive ability about a decade longer than a century ago. So they're making a general statement about everyone based on studying 125 years of chess tournaments?

S: Yeah, but I'll just say that part is not what would make it fiction. You know what I'm saying? That's just, yes, they're using chess players as the representative sample, but in other words, from studying that cohort, that's the result that they found.

E: Okay. All right. Good. That puts it in more perspective. Well, I mean, I'm a chess player myself. Retaining peak cognitive ability a decade longer. Boy, I don't know about this one. It seems like something's wrong. I still feel like something is missing here, and that's kind of a leap in a sense. So I'm not feeling it with that one. Last one about pit vipers can see prey in the dark by seeing heat with a special pyroelectric organ that they didn't know about before. You'd think they would know most things about pit vipers and other snakes and things. They only realize what this did now. Maybe they thought it was a nostril or some sort of olfactory sensor, but it turned out to be something more specific here. Why do I think that? That one's probably science, although it's just a little strange that they only realized that recently. So that's maybe the only strange thing about that one. So I'm not putting it together with the chess and the retaining peak cognitive ability one. I can't put my finger on it, but I think that one's the fiction.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. This first one here about researchers have developed a motion capture system that requires only a single chest mounted camera. So the thing that confuses me about this, Steve, you're saying it's a motion capture system.

S: So it's capturing the motion of the person wearing the camera.

J: Right. So typically what they have to do is they have to put stickers on their face or they have some type of thing that delineates the different parts of a person's face. You have seen it a million times, and they've been getting much, much more streamlined and smaller and smaller throughout the years. So now you're saying they can make one that doesn't need anything. Now, this I mean, I know a lot about motion capture, and I'm not bragging. I just happen to be a big fan of it. So I read a lot about these types of technology. I have heard nothing about this, and I would find it very difficult to believe that they can do it seamlessly. But there's probably a tricky thing in here, like maybe they use a special kind of makeup on them or something that the camera can see. Or maybe I don't know, maybe it's using heat to see their face. I don't know. Interesting. I'm on the fence about that one. Second one, a study of the last 125 years of chess tournaments reveals that people are retaining peak cognitive ability about a decade longer than a century ago. Wow. Now, why would that be? Is that lifestyle changes, medicine, the upgrade of health care, the fact that we know how to take better care of ourselves now than we did a century ago? That's a huge factor right there, just the fact that we know how to take better care of ourselves. Okay. I'm thinking that one is probably science. And the last one, scientists have discovered how pit vipers can see prey in the dark by seeing heat with a special pyroelectric organ. I think, Steve, that they're using the pit vipers as the chest-mounted cameras.

E: That play chess.

C: A mocap.

J: Yes, and they play chess when they're off. They play chess, yeah. At the set, when they're bored, Evan, they play chess between shots.

S: They're using a chess-playing pit viper as a motion-capture device.

J: Yes.

E: Wow.

J: Thank you.

E: I thought there was no theme here. Okay.

J: I would never say that something like a pyroelectric organ doesn't exist because the natural world is amazing. Sure, yeah, I could see a snake being able to read heat signatures in the dark. That's science. I'm going to say that the cognitive thing is science, and I'm going to say that the chess camera is the fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Motion capture, one camera. So Jay seemed to be assuming that this is face, facial capture. What about full body capture? I've seen cameras mounted on the chest that capture facial movement and expressions, but the face also had the reflective dots. So you could see how the relationship between the dots changes over time while the person's emoting. So what is it? Capturing a face with a chest-mounted camera is doable, I guess, but a full body, I'm not sure how that would work. Because if it's on the chest, once your arm moves beyond the plane of your torso, then the camera can't see it. So what's the arm doing? It wouldn't know. So I don't know what to think about that one. Go to three here. Pit vipers seeing using a pyroelectric organ. Yeah, everyone agrees with me in that what took so long to find that. I mean, give me a break. So you like how I said that? It's so cynical. But still, I'm not going to make the – I won't choose that as fiction. I'm going to choose the chess one. I'm not buying that peak cognitive ability as now 10 years later. I mean, I don't even – with modern nutrition and diets, I don't think that it would make it be an entire decade. I'm saying that one's fiction.

S: And Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah. So, I mean, I think I'm going to go with Evan and Bob on this one and just like as a quick explainer. I could see mocap getting that good. And also, I like that Jay was like, oh, I just don't see it being seamless. And I'm like, you didn't write that it was seamless. You just wrote that they developed it. So it could be horrible. Like it doesn't matter, but they did develop it.

J: Well, that's not fair though, right? If it doesn't work, that's why not.

C: Well, but it might just not work that well. Who knows? It's in beta. And then –

S: We'll fix it in post.

C: I could definitely see scientists discovering a new organ. I mean, I just read an article that like we discovered a new organ in people. It was like new salivary glands.

J: Oh, I knew about those.

C: Yeah. This stuff happens – Jay was aware. So I think the thing that's getting me on the chess one is – I mean, at first I think you got me on this because I was like, oh, well, the Flynn effect and like we are getting smarter, although that might be an artifact. You know, there's a lot of argument about that in terms of like the average IQ going up. But heat cognitive ability about a decade longer, meaning that like if we're at our most sharp at 25, now it's 35. Or if we're our most sharp at 15, now it's 25. That I don't buy because I feel like evolution, she's a cruel bitch. And I don't think that we would be able to change something like that just with medicine or nutrition. Maybe, but to me that seems like it's something that's a little bit more like encoded. So, yeah, I'm going to go with the boys on that one.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Interesting. All right. So you all agree on the third one. So we'll start there. Scientists have discovered how pit vipers can see prey in the dark by seeing heat with a special pyroelectric organ. You all think that one is science. And that one is science.

B: Yeah, baby.

E: A pyroelectric organ.

S: Yeah, that's the key. The key word that they – the key discovery was the pyroelectric organ. So does anybody know why pit vipers are called pit vipers?

E: Because they're in the dark.

B: Because of the pits. They thought that the heat was sensed by the pits on their skull and their face.

C: Oh, they have pits.

S: Bob is correct. That's what I thought when I was a child. That's because I lived in pits.

C: Right.

S: A pit viper.

C: Yeah, I know.

S: But, yeah, Bob is correct. It's because they have pits between their eyes and their nose. And those little divots are heat-sensing organs. So we've known for a while that certain snakes, the pit snakes, can see in complete 100% darkness. They can still sense their prey.

E: It's an advantage.

S: And they are picking them up by heat. That much we know. That much we know. And we know they're not seeing them with their eyes. The eyes are not seeing the electromagnetic spectrum of the heat signature. But we didn't know how they were sensing the heat. And we didn't know how –

B: Wait. How did they rule out their eyes weren't seeing an infrared?

C: They could probably just closed their eyes.

S: Yes. They'd patch their eyes and they could still see.

B: They blinded them. Okay. Good test.

S: So, yeah. So they knew it was with their pit organ, which is what that's called, the pit organ. But they didn't know how the pit organ was sensing the heat. So this is the new discovery was that they discovered – and here's the problem they were having is that there's no known pyroelectric substance that is analogous to what the snake has in their pit organ. So they didn't think that that could work.

C: No way.

S: So pyroelectric means it turns heat into electrical signals. Because that's what you ultimately need for any kind of sensing organ is it's got to be converted to electrical signals in the nervous system, right? So we know that there are mechanocenters that mechanically disrupt the cell and that can generate an electrical current, for example. But there's no known pyroelectric organ in biology. So what they discovered was that in the pit organ that the protein there can act as a pyroelectric organ.

B: Protein, baby. It's all about the proteins.

E: Wow.

S: They're actually – they're not seeing the electromagnetic spectrum of the heat. They are sensing the warmth itself. They are sensing the heat and that is – they're seeing the heat itself.

J: That's awesome.

C: Love this.

S: Yeah. That was the discovery. Yeah. It's cool. All right. Let's go back.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Let's just keep going backwards, I guess. So a study of the last 125 years of chess tournaments reveals that people are retaining about a decade longer than a century ago. Jay, you think this one is science. Everyone else thinks this one is the fiction. And this one is the fiction. Good job, guys. Sorry, Jay.

J: Bastards.

S: I mean, Cara, you basically sussed it out. But let me back up a little bit. So this was a massive study. They looked at 125 years because chess games – chess tournaments are usually recorded move by move.

E: Absolutely they are.

S: So that is a massive database that they have. They looked at more than 24,000 games over this time. Like every move of 24,000 different games over 125 years. And they used AI, of course, to analyse – the analysis they did was how close was each move to a theoretically optimal strategic move.

B: How the hell do you figure that out?

S: Whatever. Because we have computers. What would a chess-playing computer do in that situation? And what did the person do? Was the person playing as well as a computer or not?

B: Okay.

S: Right? So the more you played as well as the best computer chess player that we have, the more cognitively optimal your performance was. And so you could see an individual player get better and better and better as they get older, right? Because you're following them throughout their career. And then you could see when they start to fall off when they're – they are no longer at peak cognitive ability. So what they found is basically two things. I mean they found – there's more details in there, but the two broad brushstrokes that they found, one was that people are getting smarter. Like the Flynn effect. Like over the course of years, of decades, not just individual people get smarter as they get better at chess, but each generation is better than the generation before. That their peak was higher. And again, the question was, is this an artifact? Is it that people are getting smarter or is it that they're just getting better at the culture of chess is advancing?

B: Yeah, right.

C: It's the same thing with IQ tests. It's like, are they getting better at taking IQ tests?

S: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And so that's – you really can't resolve that with this data. But that peak was getting higher, but they found no difference in when they reached the peak. It's basically 35. And people are peaking at –

C: 35.

S: People are peaking at 35 today.

E: Happy birthday, Cara.

S: They were peaking at 35 125 years ago.

C: I just turned 37 on Monday.

S: You're past your peak.

E: That's it. Welcome to the other side of the hill.

J: I didn't even feel it when my peak happened.

S: I didn't notice. I was too busy looking good.

B: Enter the dragon quote, people.

S: All right. So that was – yeah. So that was interesting. That was interesting. Kind of encouraging on one end and depressing on the other.

C: Right. Yeah.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All of this means that researchers have developed a motion capture system that requires only a single chest-mounted camera, not multiple cameras, sensors, or a dedicated studio is science. This may be a little bit more impressive even than that summary reveal. So yeah. It's just you have – the person that you're capturing is wearing a camera on their chest and that's it. That and, of course, software. But you don't have to be looking at them with multiple cameras. They don't have to be wearing any special sensors of any kind at all.

B: What are you capturing? Face or body or both?

S: Whole body.

B: Whole body.

S: So how do you think it works? This is called the MonoEye. The MonoEye.

B: How big is the camera? I mean is it like a real wide angle kind of wraparound?

S: It's not physically big but you are getting to the key feature. It is an ultra-wide fisheye lens.

B: Yeah.

C: Right.

S: So even though it's only like a small camera strapped to the chest, it is looking 280-degree field of view.

E/B: Nice.

S: 280-degree field of view. So that's how they're doing it. So it does have a little blind spot straight in the back obviously but it can – so it partly works through extrapolation with a database of what people's bodies look like when they move, right?

E: That's kind of what our brains do.

S: Yeah. So it's inferring the body pose, the head pose based upon the data that it does have. And so it actually uses three deep neural networks. So it's estimating again the 3D body pose and head pose based on the information that it's getting. And they said that it basically works but it will get better as they continue to feed more and more data into the system.

B: Now I wonder – I mean there's also an advance here. If you don't need those reflective dots, typically you put them on like your joints, right? So if you know what your joints are doing, then you could create like a skeletal schematic of the movement and really make lifelike movements. So without that, I wonder – I'd like to read about the technology that doesn't need the dots.

S: Yeah. This is the software. But then keep in mind that part of the challenge is it's not just like capturing a stick figure. This software is trying to create photorealistic 3D renderings including clothes, actions, background, and lighting.

B: There you go.

S: That's why it needs this massive database so it can recreate all of those things from the data that it has.

C: Wow. Talk about the future of gaming. Holy crap.

B: Right. So it's not like they're going to take your movements and map it to like a seven-foot alien, bipedal alien that looks completely different. They could completely recreate you in CG. Then they could take you and then make you like a digital stuntman version of yourself like it's blown up or falls 100 feet smack into the ground without risking any stuntman.

C: But they might be able to map you to an alien.

S: Yeah. But you can totally see this being the future of –

B: Well, that too. But they're extending that ability.

S: Of virtual reality, right? You don't need to have the cameras mounted on your walls or anything. It's a little. It's a little, little harness with not that big camera in the middle of your chest. If you have that and for some games, you might not even need game controllers. It just knows where you are.

C: Right. And now your avatar is you.

S: Your avatar is you. Your whole body.

C: That's pretty cool.

S: Yeah. Right now, like if you play virtual reality games, like if you have the controls in your hands and you're wearing the thing on your head. So it basically knows where your head is and where your hands are. And it basically interpolates everything else. And so your legs do all kinds of funky things. It is trying to figure out where your legs are supposed to be. I know the newer versions have like you could put things on your ankles. And so then it also can –

B: Somebody at NECSS had that, Steve. It was really cool. They could do stuff with their feet.

J: Technology is getting better all the time.

S: Yeah. But this is – Yeah. I think Cara is right. This is in beta. There's actual like products on the market. But it's always good to see where the technology is headed.

C: Cool.

S: Yeah. Cool.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:44:52)[edit]

Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What's left is magic. And it doesn't work.

 – James Randi (1928-2020), Canadian-American stage magician, author, scientific skeptic, and co-founder of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI)

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

E: Well, there's only one quote today. As usual. But there's only one person it could come from. "Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What's left is magic and it doesn't work." James Randi.

S: James, the amazing Randi. Absolutely. He will be missed. He was a massive influence on all of us on the movement and on our culture. He was absolutely a cultural icon.

E: We are all better for having Randi in our lives, all of us.

S: Yeah. I'm definitely happy that we were able to get to know him and work with him and be friends with him. That was definitely one of the really great things to come out of our skeptical activism.

J: The thing is, Randi believed in this and he inspired a lot of people and we wouldn't be here. I don't think the SGU would be here if Randi didn't. There was a lot that he did very early on, too. A lot of inspirations that came our way.

S: The ripple effect is huge. Absolutely.

J: Yeah, it is huge.

C: I think sometimes that we forget, especially for everybody who's listening right now, when somebody has been so influential as to become iconic, we often forget that in the end, they're people. Obviously, our thoughts right now are with his dearest friends, with his family, of course with his husband. It must be a really, really tough time for a lot of people, so sending love their way from us.

J: Definitely.

B: Yeah, and often you hear the quote, don't meet your heroes, because often, far too often, it's a major disappointment. But Randi is one of the exceptions.

S: He was the exception, absolutely.

B: Absolutely. He's a guy that if you did meet him, you were never disappointed and always an unforgettable experience.

S: Because he cared. He cared about your experience in meeting him. He did.

C: Yeah.

S: All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Thanks Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.

S: I will see you on the Friday live stream, for those of you who can make it.

Signoff (1:47:06)[edit]

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[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



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