SGU Episode 805

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SGU Episode 805
December 12th 2020
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 804                      SGU 806

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

That which parents should take care of (here) is to distinguish between the wants of fancy, and those of nature.

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, COVID-19 Update[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, December 9th, 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: All right. So got a good show coming up today, and we're going to be talking about some COVID anti-vaccine nonsense a little bit later. So just going to do a quick sort of opening banter COVID update, but I did find a couple of news items today that are both interesting and almost completely contradictory to each other. But so the question, now the vaccines are rolling out, right? Question is who gets them first? And pretty much there seems to be pretty much agreement that frontline healthcare workers should be getting them first, like the most vulnerable people and the people who take care of, directly take care of COVID patients. So there was two studies I saw, both coming out today, looking at, well, what is the actual risk of frontline healthcare workers? So there's one study, which is UK based, which was published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, which found that healthcare workers are seven times more likely to have severe COVID-19 as other frontline workers, as other "essential workers".

J: What does that mean specifically?

S: So if you're, if you are a healthcare worker, you're seven times more likely to come to get severe COVID than if you're not basically, even if you're a worker with either, if you're an essential or a non-essential worker, but not a healthcare worker. Then I also saw a study that showed that healthcare workers, this is a US based study, were not more likely to get COVID from their hospital care, unless they are in long-term contact with COVID patients. So what they found is that they looked at healthcare workers. They found that like nurses overall had an increased risk of getting COVID, but it was entirely from their non-healthcare contact. So we were talking about, this is funny because we were talking last week, like I feel more at risk in the store than I do at work because there's so much PPE and everyone's doing what they're not supposed to be doing. And this study kind of bears that out, like nurses who get COVID are more likely to get them from the community than from the hospital. But the one exception to that are nurses who are in prolonged contact with COVID positive patients. And so that's primarily nurses who are managing haemodialysis and who are handling respiratory care. So yeah, it's interesting. We were giving like high flow oxygen therapy.

E: How long are those treatments, Steve? In other words, how many hours a time are we talking for these people?

S: Well, haemodialysis takes several hours, right? And then if you're managing, it says high flow oxygen therapy, that could take a long time as well. So that shows that PPE, when high level PPE, the kind that is being used in hospitals and used consistently, basically works. But prolonged exposure is still probably going to get around it. But those are the people who should be using the N95 masks and eye protection and full gowns and gloves, things like that. They really need to take all those extra steps. Not like just wearing a face mask, you have to be doing everything. There's also a study which showed, by the way, that you know how some people wear those face shields, like the clear plastic face shields?

J: Oh, I read this. Yeah.

S: Yeah, they do not work as well as masks. So they're not a substitute for wearing a mask. It's okay to use them, but you need to have a mask too.

C: I don't think I've ever seen somebody wear it instead of a mask.

S: Yeah. I've seen that.

C: Oh, wow. That's not good. I mean, they're common in our hospital. You can't wear masks underneath them.

S: In the hospital, I've only seen it in addition to masks. But I guess maybe some people outside the context of a hospital think, oh, I could just wear the see-through face mask and be okay.

C: But there's just a giant gap underneath your mouth.

S: I know. I know.

E: So what is the face shield actually doing, even in conjunction with the case?

S: It's protecting spit from getting on the rest of your face.

B: Yeah. It's good for spit. It's not good for sneezes, because I was just recently reading about it. The vortices that are created when you sneeze can actually go above and below and inside the mask. I think some Japanese company was trying to redesign masks to ameliorate that. But yeah, you've got to use – yeah. The goal is to have a mask that's just as good – a face shield that's just as good as a mask, so you don't need the mask, which would be a boon for these frontline people because they wouldn't have to wear a mask on their face all day. But we're not there yet.

C: Yeah. That's like a biohazard suit.

E: So it's a sneeze shield, really, like a sneeze guard is a salad.

C: Yeah. That's basically – it's just impenetrable, but it has a giant gap at the bottom. Bob, how well does it work for your germ cloud?

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Right.

B: Yeah. That's –

S: But I do – there are – like there are workers at the hospital who – like if you're a respiratory therapist who's going around seeing patient to patient, they're in full gear. Like they have rebreathers on. They have like gas masks on, not –

J: I didn't know. Legit, Steve, like they're wearing something that's giving them oxygen?

S: No. No, no. It's a full – they have a filter. Like they have – you know what I mean? Like air filter.

J: Oh, a heavy duty – like an army filter, right?

S: Yeah. So they have like a full face mask on with – and they're breathing through a filter.

J: Okay.

C: With no gaps. Like it's closed everywhere.

S: Yes.

C: Yeah. That's the point. It like fits really tightly and it's been tested.

S: Full face mask with a filter breather.

B: Nothing's getting in that hasn't been filtered.

C: Yes.

S: Yes. Correct.

B: And that filter I'm sure is what? Like an equivalent to a N95, do they go even better than that?

S: Well, there's N99.

B: I want one of those.

C: And also remember N95 just refers to the percentage.

B: 95%.

C: Like the efficacy. It doesn't refer to the actual size of the filtration. There are different versions of N95 masks.

S: Yeah. We're generally talking – when we say you have to wear an N95 mask, we're talking about filtering out 95% of viral size particles.

C: Viral grade. Yeah. Exactly. But there are N95s for larger things like bacteria. There are N95s for smaller viruses. Like they come in different – you know, there are different kinds of N95s.

S: Yeah. So we're – in the US, 288,000 people have died so far from COVID. We're over 15 million cases. We're getting –

C: Oh, no. Steve, I don't think you noticed the most recent update. Today, we hit over 3,000. It was our first time.

S: No, the 288,000 total –

C: Oh, OK.

S: You're talking about per day we broke 3,000.

C: We broke 3,000 for the first time just today.

B: Wow.

S: Two – we're regularly breaking 200,000 cases, new cases per day. This surge is dwarfing the previous two, and they're saying we really haven't peaked yet because they're – and we're still probably going to see some Thanksgiving, post-Thanksgiving peak.

B: Yeah.

S: And we're heading into Christmas. So it's – and, of course, we're heading into into winter where people are going to be staying inside more.

E: All bad signs.

S: Yeah. It's all bad. But the good thing is the vaccine is coming out, and the question is going to be like how quickly can we get that out.

E: Right.

S: And, of course, the whole world is dealing with this problem right now. Well the Chinese came out with their vaccine. They say it's 85% effective.

B: But the Russian one, I guess that's still going out there.

S: Yeah. I just can't believe anything they're saying, though, unfortunately.

B: Yeah.

S: But they do have a vaccine. And there's 15 other ones in the pipeline, you know. Again, that's – you know, clearly we can't manage this without the vaccine. You know, just having people do what they're supposed to do is not working.

B: It's too much to ask, apparently.

S: There's too much misinformation, too much politicization in the U.S., at least. You know what I mean? It's just crazy.

B: It's ridiculous.

C: It does seem to be worse here, for sure, but you see the same kind of crank stuff in a lot of Western nations as well, and some Eastern.

B: But smaller scale is my take.

C: Yeah. It's worse here. I think a lot of it is actually kind of like imported from America.

S: I don't think anyone's politicized it the way we have.

C: Yeah.

S: And that's probably not going to end. But again, they're already gearing up to resist the vaccine, and some court, Cara, you'll be talking about that.

News Items[edit]

Chuck Yeager Dies at 97 (8:32)[edit]

S: But first, we're going to go on to the news items, and we're going to start with what I always consider to be bittersweet news, when somebody lives to a ripe old age, but then they do eventually die. Actually, my wife's great uncle just passed away. He was exactly 100 years old.

C: That's great.

S: He was pretty much in good health right up until the very end.

B: Exactly, like birth minute exactly? Or what do you mean exactly?

C: Come on.

S: What do you mean? No, he was –

E: Pico second.

S: I mean, he's 100 years old.

B: That's silly.

S: But like that's – I mean, who wouldn't buy that? I'll buy that right now. You wait 100.

E: I'll sign up for 100.

C: Yeah. I'll sign up for 100. And in good health until a 100? I'll take it.

S: In good health. Until he was a 100 years old.

B: Yeah, that's epic. A century.

S: Pretty much a rapid decline and then passing away.

C: I feel like it's almost hard to be, I mean there's obviously there's the grief and the loss of somebody that you love. But there's a phenomenon when you lose somebody who has had dementia for a long time where the grief processing starts before their death. And so I can imagine that somebody who is so long-lived that it's almost like, this is amazing that they made it this far. Like that probably overshadows like the sadness of the loss simply because their life was so lived.

S: Yeah. I wouldn't say it overshadows it, but it does mitigate it a lot. But anyway, we're talking about Chuck Yeager who died this week. Jay, you're going to tell us about Chuck.

J: Yeah. Chuck Yeager had a very, very busy life and he accomplished a lot of things that most people probably don't know about. So I'll give you a quick overview on Chuck Yeager. I always looked up to this man for lots of different reasons. He was born on February 13th in 1923. He was best known for being the first person to break the sound barrier, which means you're going the speed of sound or faster than the speed of sound. So before that famous moment, he started off, of course, as a young man from West Virginia with only a high school education. He lived in a small town of about 400 people. And right when World War II started he enlisted as soon as he got out of high school and he got into the Air Force. This was in 1941. He started his military career as an airplane mechanic. And not too long after that, on his first flight in an actual airplane, he got sick and threw up on the airplane, which I thought was really humbling, right? In 1942, he joined the flight program for enlisted men and finally received his pilot wings in 1943 out of a base in Arizona. So he always had a cool head. He was a very quick learner. He actually enjoyed the extremes of flying. He really liked to do dives and spins in the airplane. So he was showing the ability to handle that type of stuff right from the beginning. And in World War II, Jaeger was a fighter pilot and he impressively shot down five enemy planes in one day. And he got his ace. I think that's really a hard thing to do. So his P-51 Mustang was shot down on March 1944 over France by a German fighter pilot and his leg and head were injured when he hit the ground. He was luckily found and cared for by the French resistance. And he actually had to hike from France to Spain to eventually get back to his base in England. And when he got back they were basically giving him the, yep, you crashed and it's take it easy time. You know, they were going to remove him from combat and he insisted to go back into combat, which he did. And it's it's characteristics like that that I find to be extraordinarily impressive. So after the war, he was assigned to an army base in California where he was one of the top pilots and they were testing prototype jets. And it was at this time that he was chosen to fly the plane that broke the sound barrier. He was actually selected over more seasoned pilots. And you have to think they picked him because they saw the characteristics of someone that could handle that kind of stress and that kind of situation this was like very untested and dangerous thing to do. A lot of engineers were convinced that an airplane could not handle the shock wave of going faster than the speed of sound. But they managed to pull it off on October 14th, 1947. And the plane was called the Bell Aircraft X-1 and it was attached to a B-29 bomber. It was released at 23,000 feet. The plane shot up to 43,000 feet over the Mojave Desert. He hit 700 miles per hour. He broke the sound barrier. And you know, his comment about doing it was that there wasn't an obvious moment when the plane achieved the speed of sound. You know, I think he was expecting there to be some type of event like a sound or a rumble or something.

S: There was. It was just behind him so he didn't hear it.

J: Yeah. I know, right?

E: He was out in front of it.

J: But what a moment in aviation history, right? You know, it lines right up with the first people the Wright brothers. You know, it's one of those seminal moments. In 1949, his base that he was stationed at was renamed the Edwards Air Force Base and it actually became the center for all of the advanced aviation research, which was right there at the very beginnings of the space program. And he broke another speed record in 1953 flying the X-1A plane that he got to about two and a half times the speed of sound and he almost got killed on that flight. That flight almost killed him and he got into a very, very hard to recover from tailspin. But he pulled it off.

B: Oh, yeah. I've heard about that.

J: And in 62, he became the commander of the astronaut training school at Edwards Air Force Base. Then he went into the Vietnam War and he commanded a fighter wing and flew 127 missions. After the war, he went on to head aerospace safety for the Air Force and he retired in 1975.

S: He was a brigadier general when he retired.

J: That's right. Now, a couple of interesting things. First, I found out that when he broke the speed of sound, they kept it under wraps for a year. They didn't want to reveal that it happened because it was a highly important military secret. Yeah. But it did come out a year later and he didn't really, really become popular or incredibly famous until the book and then the subsequent movie, The Right Stuff, came out. The book came out in 79. The movie followed two to three years after that. And because of his fame, people would commonly ask him, were you born with the right stuff? Which was basically, he heard it as them saying, were you born with all of these skills? And Yeager wrote in his memoir, the answer is no. It was the result of extremely hard work. And it was his experience flying planes that got him there. Legitimately, he put in over 10,000 hours flying airplanes. And he said it also was to the fact that luck or whatever skill and luck, that he didn't die. He survived all the danger. And he said, I was always afraid of dying always, which is good. You don't do things like that. You don't risk your life like that. If you're not afraid of dying, you're going to take too many risks. He was the kind of guy that he would learn the plane inside and out. He knew all the details about the engineering of the plane. But he also knew all of the safety mechanisms and everything. He got involved in those details. And that probably is one of the reasons that kept him alive. He died at 97 years old. So that is a-

S: For a test pilot, that's really good.

B: Yeah.

J: Fantastic life. Incredible achievement. Just a straight shooter type of guy. And I just find that to be, I don't know, in today's world, I know that we have people like that. They're just not glorified, I think, the way that I would like them to be because we need heroes in our world. And he most certainly was an achievement hero. He did very difficult, incredible things. And he ended up being an incredible human being. And I really, God, I love that scene in The Right Stuff when his plane crashes and he's kind of got black all over him and he's limping and he walks away from the plane. And he just has, the actor did such an amazing job, like that look on his face, just stone cold. You know? Like, I did it. Let's move on. You know what I mean? All right.

S: I have to tell my Chuck Yeager anecdote.

J: Yes. I love it. You told me already and I love it.

S: So I saw him in the flesh once. It was 1989 during, I was living in D.C. at the time and that was the inauguration for George H.W. Bush. We're like, what the hell? You know, it might be the only time we're in D.C. during a presidential inaugural. So we went. We were just in the crowd. But there was like a parade and we were pretty close to one of the the path that the parade was taking. And at one point a car goes by and in the car is Bob Hope and Chuck Yeager. You know, Bob Hope in addition to just being a movie star, did a lot of work for the USO. You know? So that was kind of his affiliation with the military. And so the crowd was going crazy for Bob Hope. And they're like, we love you, Bob, blah, blah, blah. And the group of people I was with was like, do they know who Bob Hope is sitting next to? Because that guy should be more famous than Bob Hope.

B: Yeah. Yeah.

S: And so we, I don't even know if they recognized him. We did, of course, because by that point Chuck Yeager was a hero for us. And he was like, we love you, Chuck. And he turned to us and waved.

B: Say it awesome. He looked me in the eyes.

C: That's hilarious.

S: It was. Yeah. It was great.

E: He jumped out of the car, ran over to you, gave you a big hug.

S: That's how I remember it now. Right? No, no. It was good. It was a fun moment.

J: It makes sense. You know, we get it. You know, you see the movie stars and TV personalities so much more. You have more of a relationship with those people.

C: Well, also you recognize their faces.

J: Yeah. Yeah.

C: But, like, Chuck Yeager, for a lot of people, is a concept.

J: Yeah.

C: Not a person.

S: Although, at the time, he was famous for battery commercials.

C: Oh. I had no idea.

S: So you would—most people would—should have recognized him.

B: The battery guy.

C: But, yeah, what if they're like, oh, it's the guy from the battery commercial.

J: But also—

E: It's Robert Conrad? Oh, boy.

J: You know, Chuck Yeager—Chuck Yeager didn't—you know, he doesn't have an actor's charisma. You know what I mean? Like, you're looking at the—like, Bob Hope had intense charisma. That guy was so charismatic. And, of course, we're going to remember those people and recognize them and have emotions connected to them. I just find it to be something—he's someone to highly respect because he did all of these things. I mean, if it weren't for him, a lot of things wouldn't be the way that they are today. You know? Like, he tested things that other people probably would have tested, but would they have done it? Would it have succeeded? He had a ton of input into all of this stuff. He started—he was one of the people that started the United States getting into outer space, which to me is just one of the most important things of my childhood is everything to do with outer space. So, whatever. I mean, he was an incredible human being, and I give him mad respect. And, God, 97 years old.

S: Yeah, I am so happy he lived to 97. Good for him.

The Smellicopter ()[edit]

S: All right, Bob. Tell us about—now, you talk about technological breakthroughs, right? Tell us about the Smellicopter.

B: Smellicopter.

C: What?

J: What's this thing?

B: Smellicopter.

E: No, that's like from—

B: This is a thing.

E: The Simpsons or something.

B: Right? This is a thing in 2020. Smellicopter. So, researchers have created a ne with a live moth antenna attached to find specific odors autonomously in dangerous areas with better efficiency than any artificial sensor we can currently create. So, this is both cool and pretty damn creepy, which means, of course, I was wn to it like a fly to a corpse. This was published recently in the journal IOP, Bioinspiration and Biomimetics. So, moths and butterflies of the order Lepidoptera, which I love. I've always loved that name ever since I first heard or read Stephen Jay Gould or whoever the narrator was to his audio book say that word.

S: I'm partial to Hymenoptera myself.

B: Yea, you would. So, Lepidoptera don't have noses, but they do have antennae for smelling and balance probably as well, and they are really good at smelling, but especially moths with their often far more ornate—they've got these feathered antennae, which have chitin hairs or sensilla on them, each with their own scent receptors. They're amazing tools. Now, they work by greatly enhancing chemical signals, basically. They're like PCR amplifying DNA. A moth antenna can take one single scent molecule and amplify it so it can be identified. No human-made sensor is that sensitive yet anyway. Of course, we'll get there. Some male moths can sense a female's hormones from 11 kilometers, which is seven miles away. Seven kilometers away or 11 kilometers. The smelling ability has been usurped, if you will, by scientists by putting a moth antenna on a drone. Yes, it's a drone. They call it, of course, a smellicopter. How could they call it anything else? How do they even do that?

S: You could call it Mothra.

B: Mothra, that'd be decent, but smellicopter, it just takes it so obvious. How does one even do that? How do you go about attaching, putting those two things that have never been attached together? You put the poor moth, first of all, and in this case, the moth is a Manduca sexta hawk moth, which is an awesome name. They put that in a refrigerator to numb it, apparently, and then they remove one antenna, which will grow back, I believe. Such an antenna can stay, actually, biologically and chemically active for up to four hours or even longer if you store it properly. That's four hours. You could do a lot of searching. The researchers basically just add wires into one of the ends of the antenna. It's essentially like a tube filled with chemicals, in a sense. You connect one end in the antenna, and you create an electrical circuit. They just need then to measure the average signal from all the cells in the antenna, and bam, you have an olfactory sensor. It seems, I'm sure it's a little complicated, but they made it sound kind of easy to do that. Then they tested it. You put this together. You make it into a circuit, and you could use it, so then you got to test it. They tested it against a modern artificial sensor. They basically put both of them at the end of a wind tunnel, and they would waft some scents through the wind tunnel. The Frankenstein antenna reacted faster and took less time to reset and be ready for the next smell than the one that we had created. This was definitely superior, more efficient, smaller, lightweight, low power. I mean, the thing had it all. They then, of course, attached it to a drone, and someone said, it's a smellicopter. So I'm just going with the Frankenstein theme, of course. This was a commercial handheld regular quacopter, nothing really that special, but it did allow for special features to be added. They included two plastic fins on the back, which creates drag. Imagine this thing is in the air. You got these two little fins in the back, and it creates drag, which then makes sure the drone is always pointing upwind. That was actually an interesting advance, apparently, regarding the fins, co-author and co-advisor Sawyer Fuller, UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He said, from a robotics perspective, this is genius. The classic approach in robotics, of course, is to add more sensors, maybe build a fancy algorithm, or use machine learning to estimate wind direction. It turns out, all you need is to add a fin, so that's a funny little aside. Just throw these fins on, and just keep it simple, stupid, and apparently, that wasn't common knowledge that's all you have to do to make it head into the wind. Okay, so this smellicopter that they made is surprisingly autonomous. This wasn't meant to have a guy with VR goggles flying it like a drone in Afghanistan. As it flies, it flies by itself, and it sweeps back and forth, looking for specific chemical signatures. When it finds it, it surges towards it, but it also needs to make sure that it's not bumping into things. It's got five IR sensors, infrared sensors, that pulse every tenth of a second. They have them to detect any potential obstacles, and that works very well. It also doesn't even need GPS. It just uses a camera to see its environment, which is great, of course, if you're just exploring indoors or underground areas. That's a great way to get around. It's very surprisingly autonomous. If it isn't obvious, then what would we use this smellicopter for? My first thought was that perhaps you could rent it out to moths who don't have antennas that are searching for a mate and want to find one, but there's other possible uses. According to Thomas Daniel, a UW professor, he said that the ability to detect and localize odors has a vast range of potential applications. Essentially, anywhere we might use dogs for tracking or sensing odors is a potential application for this smellicopter. It has the unique advantage that it flies and can navigate in complex environments. Moreover, it avoids putting dogs or humans in harm's way. Everything from detecting gas leaks to disease outbreaks in crops to the volatiles emitted from improvised explosive devices are potential areas of application. There's lots of possibilities with this as long as you have that four or five hour window, I suppose. In the future, if you look at what they tested in the lab here during their research, this thing flew towards smells that moths find interesting, like floral scents and females, I suppose. In the future, they're going to need to tweak that because I don't think there's going to be too much need for these drones to find floral scents, maybe unless you're looking for specific flowers. In the future, they're going to have to do some serious work on getting it to detect chemical signatures that are really, really important, like, for example, exhaled carbon dioxide. That would be critical. Someone's trapped under an earthquake rubble. If you could detect that, then you would be golden. How about this? You could search for chemicals related to explosives, like unexploded bombs. That would come in handy. How hard is that going to be? I don't know because I don't think there's any moth antennas that are suited for that. So I don't know how difficult that's actually going to be. Let's see. I'll end with another quote by Sawyer Fuller. He said, finding plume sources is a perfect task for little robots like this smellicopter. Larger robots are capable of carrying an array of different sensors around and using them to build a map of their world. We can't really do that at the small scale, however. But to find the source of a plume, all a robot needs to do is avoid obstacles and stay in the plume while it moves upwind. That's it. It doesn't need a sophisticated sensor suite for that. It just needs to be able to smell really well. And that's what the smellicopter is really good at. So for certain of these niche applications, the smellicopter is the best thing we have for this. We've got bigger, more capable robots on the ground that could build up maps of the environment much better than anything in the air. But for just finding the source of a smell, this is a really good way to do it.

S: So is the smellicopter a cyborg?

B: Right. Now, it needs another name.

E: Here we go.

C: Is a taco a sandwich?

E: An existential discussion.

S: A taco a sandwich?

C: It's an ongoing thing. It's a whole thing.

J: It's a smellboard.

E: Maury Amsterdam was not a sandwich.

COVID Anti-Vaxxers ()[edit]

S: All right, Cara.

C: Yes.

S: So why is an anti-vaccine doctor giving testimony to the Senate?

C: Well, here's the thing.

B: Oh, God.

C: She already did. And the fascinating part of this story is I found some write-ups about the fact that dr Jane M. Orient was going to, because the write-ups were all written beforehand, testify before a Senate committee yesterday on Tuesday, December 8th. And so as I'm reading all about her testimony and how a lot of people are pissed about this, I'm thinking, well, why don't I just watch this testimony? So I pull it up and I'm able to watch it in full. And there's a tiny bit of commentary in some of the places that I've watched it. But interestingly, so far, I haven't been able to find any write-ups. I've only found people talking about it happening in the future. So I'm going to be interested to see if some sort of op-eds come out after the fact about all the garbage that she was spewing. But let's break...

S: Maybe on Science-Based Medicine.

C: Right. Yeah. And I looked. I did look. And actually, Gorski wrote about it on his other blog. So he wrote about it beforehand and gave me a lot more context, actually, which was really helpful because I think that when the New York Times wrote it up, they did a couple of annoying things. At first, they called her an anti-vaccine scientist, which is frustrating because she's not a scientist.

S: Not a scientist. She knows I called her a doctor, not a scientist.

C: Yeah. And then they also still, even after they changed the headline to anti-vaccine doctor, they still say in the very first, like in the lead sentence, a doctor who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines, which is like, ugh, that's such a not what the word skeptical means.

J: Yeah. That's not reality.

B: Denialist.

C: Yeah. That's a whole other thing, a whole other can of worms that we've dug into a lot on the show about the use of the term skeptic and skeptical and what it actually means. But I think going on too much of a tangent on that might take us away from the main point of this, which is dr Jane M. Orient. She's the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

S: Sounds legitimate.

C: It really does, actually.

E: It says association in that title.

C: And we've talked about the Association of the American Physicians and Surgeons in the past on this show. If you want a super deep dive on how crank this organization is, I definitely recommend looking up the many things that David Gorski has written about it, like the many articles in Science-Based Medicine about it. But basically, this is a professional organization that has a very strong right-wing bent. It also has a very strong science denialist, conspiracy-mongering bent. It calls itself a professional medical society, but their core mandate, like deep down all of the work that they do, is to promote freedom, medical freedom.

S: You can't even really call them a professional organization. And even saying they're quote-unquote right-wing doesn't cover it. This is a radical, real, capital-L libertarian, absolute freedom. By freedom, that's like zero regulation. They think that doctors should be able to do whatever they want without any government regulation or oversight whatsoever.

E: That's not dangerous. [sarcasm]

S: Of course, even if like the originally, like this was founded in the 1940s, so even if you sort of came to that position because of an extreme ideology, once you have an organization dedicated to that, it's going to attract every crank doctor that exists. And over time, it just became a completely crank organization. Here's the, but it's still keeping to their sort of radical roots. The first article that's active on their website right now, here's the opening line. So it's not like they even try to hide their political ideology. This is an article on an ostensibly medical professional organization's website. First paragraph says, one is hard-pressed to deny that Joe Biden is a weak, corrupt, pathologically lying, creepy, dirty old man who has lived off the government teat for 50 years, and he allegedly won the 2020 presidential election. Are Americans that ignorant? Or has Joseph Stalin's political philosophy that has been simmering in America for years finally come to fruition? COVID was the not-so-secret agent. The whole article is about how COVID is being used as a pretext for a communist takeover of the United States. It is like just, that's really on a, that's what we're talking about. This is an ideological organization pretending to be a professional organization. That's what this is.

C: Right. But unfortunately, it has a full veneer and sheen in the eyes of many of a legitimate professional organization.

S: Which is bad.

C: And that's the problem. It's very bad.

E: Sure.

C: And as you mentioned, like she didn't try to hide it during her testimony either. It wasn't that overt by any stretch of the imagination. But she would do all the classic logical fallacies where she was constantly moving the goalposts. She was constantly setting up straw men just to knock them down. And she did, I remember at one point during her testimony, she did the classic like, well, what we believe in my organization is that treatment is between a doctor and a patient, not between a patient and their government, not between a doctor and a regulatory body. And that no government has any right to infringe on our rights to do what's best for our patients. So that's kind of how she's constantly couching this and conceptualizing this.

B: That last statement is critical. Who determines what's best for your patient? Clearly you can't do that.

S: They do.

C: And so they view federal vaccine mandates as a direct violation of human rights. And let's be clear again, dr Orient is the executive director and this was not a recent appointment. I think she's been the executive director since like 1979. So she is a woman who has a lot of influence in the mandates and the policies of this crank organization. There is a fair amount of evidence to show that this, as I love this, as David Gorski put it, John Birch society-like group that's masquerading as a medical society. Here's some great claims that they've made throughout the years. That shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury. That the measles vaccine will result in a mass extinction of humans.

B: Measles.

S: Remember when that happened?

C: Yeah.

E: Well, it hasn't happened yet.

C: That climate science does not exist. That HIV/AIDS does not exist. That breast cancer is caused by abortion.

B: Oh God.

C: Yeah.

E: Are you reading from Goop or are you reading Goop?

C: No, I know, right? It's amazing.

S: By the way, the one time they want the government to get between a doctor and his patient is when it comes to reproductive rights.

C: Of course. Yeah. We got to ban that outright.

S: Yeah.

C: It's amazing. One thing that David Gorski pointed out, which I think is also really, really important, is that there's an argument that's often made by this organization that the sort of medical freedom argument that they try to utilize actually goes to the root of scientific consensus as a whole. They reject evidence-based medicine.

S: Totally.

C: Not just that they're rejecting all of these... They're promoting all of these pseudoscience concepts, but they're actually rejecting the concept of scientific consensus. They have the alternative view. Their autonomy is more important than the consensus of experts. You may remember that when Trump first made his first pick many moons ago, after many... If we go back before all the firings, Trump's first pick to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, was a member of this organization. That was a massive red flag. Also, they have sued to protect their rights to pander to the anti-vax crowd in the past. Specifically, Jane Orient has spoken about Hillary Clinton having had Parkinson's disease. She's peddled that conspiracy theory. She's talked about anti-vaxxer conspiracies around Zika or anti-vax conspiracies. When it comes to COVID-19, this is sort of the m that she's beating. Masks don't work to slow the spread of the disease, but what we should all be doing is taking hyxychloroquine. As I was scrubbing through looking at her specific responses, they seem to fit in with the hearing. I started thinking, what is this entire Senate hearing? And I pulled up, you guys can actually go online right now and you can find this. It's called Early Outpatient Treatment, an Essential Part of a COVID-19 Solution, Part 2. You can go through and you can read all of the testimony of the multiple people who spoke, all of whom are either MDs or MD-PhDs, all of whom I guess are talking about early outpatient treatment. A lot of them are describing the g, what is it, ivervectin? But a fair amount of them are actually talking about hyxychloroquine. It's funny because the news that I was reading leading up to this was like, what an embarrassment. How could they invite Jane Orient? And yes, it's because her only affiliation is the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, as opposed to these other individuals who are testifying from Stanford, from a pharmaceutical company, from St. Luke's Aurora Medical Center.

S: You mean real scientists?

C: Some, or real doctors. But what I'm finding is actually, the deeper that I dig into this, is actually a shruggy problem more than anything. So you have, with these COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies, I think the reason that they've been able to take such extreme route is that you have the overt peddling cranks, like the dr Jane Orients of the world, and then you have the legitimate scientists and physicians who are almost so naive that they don't realize that there is an active disinformation campaign going on. So they don't do their homework before somebody comes to testify. They don't understand the importance of persuasive language when they talk about these things. And then they seem surprised when certain Senate hearings, for example, come across as farcical. And that's the part that I'm struggling with so much, is the normalization, or the both-sidesy-ness of the anti-vax movement. It's become so mainstream over the course of really honestly since Wakefield, but especially more recently over the course of existing under an anti-science administration. And it's become difficult because it's got its tentacles deeply into our government.

J: Of course.

C: Very, very deeply.

J: I mean, the second that the government lets its guard down they're going to come pushing in. They're spilling in as far as they can get. I mean this administration, the past four years, is a perfect lesson for the entire world to learn about how dangerous it is to not hold the brightly burning torch of legitimate science as the absolute gate, that it has to be legitimate.

C: And I think very often, even respected scientists, respected evidence-based policymakers, respected physicians who care immensely about public health are hoodwinked by conspiracy theories because they sort of miss that central objective that's out there. They're constantly surprised by a supposed expert's view when they finally let it slip or when the evidence becomes more obvious that this person is anti-vax. Because the thing about skillful anti-vaxxers is that they use doublespeak. They're very good at sounding legitimate. Really, any, any skillful pseudoscientist is good at that. And so they cherry pick evidence. They often set up impossible expectations of what science can actually deliver. So they will you'll see these articles coming out recently about the new Pfizer and BioNVax vaccine saying like, well, we don't know about its reproductive outcomes. We don't know how it's going to affect people 10 years down the line. It's like, no, we don't. There's no way to know that. That is not what we studied in this. But what we do know is that it's 95% effective. And according to a thorough and rigorous drug trial and multiple review boards at this point, not just the American FDA looking through this drug, but the Canadian equivalent of that, multiple European equivalents of that are saying this is safe. We've looked at the data and we're saying that right now it is safe and effective. And as a public health measure, the risks do not outweigh the benefits.

S: Right. And also, while this is true that these are the first mRNA vaccines, like the company Moderna has been working on mRNA technology for 10 years. This is not a new technology and there's lots of data in animals. And yes, they're not people, but at a fundamental biological level, we don't expect it to do something different in people cells versus other mammal cells. So it's not like there's going to be something that surprising in store in terms of the basic technology.

C: Right. But what these anti-vaxxers love to do is set up these... What's the logical fallacy where it's like the, but what about, with something that has no evidence to support it? So she recently wrote a blog post, dr Jane Orient, called, Should We Line Up for a 90% Effective Vaccine? And in it, she specifically wrote, and this is cited in the New York Times article, because the effect on fertility has not been, oh, she's saying that young people should be really cautious about getting vaccinated, "because the effect on fertility has not been determined". And it's like, yeah, but there's also no evidence that there's any risk of infertility. You're literally just making up something that could happen, that there's no evidence to say it happened and say, because we didn't study this conclusively or exhaustively.

S: It's like the negative of special pleading. You're just making up things that there's no particular reason to worry about this and there's no evidence for it. But sure, there's a thousand things we haven't proven about pretty much any treatment.

C: Exactly.

S: It's all risk versus benefit and risk is never zero. But at some point we could say, all right, tens of thousands of people have gotten this for months. And that's usually the timeframe where side effects start to appear in vaccines. So we could make probabilistic statements about the safety like every other medical intervention. It's like orders of magnitude safer than the risks of getting COVID. So COVID is kind of pretty good data now on what kind of a risk that is. And that's just considering the individual risk. It's not even considering the secondary benefit of stopping the pandemic, preventing the spread to other people.

C: And that's the thing that I'm finding to be the most frustrating about the arguments that I'm seeing from anti-vaxxers who deny mitigation efforts, right? Deny that masks work, deny that we should be in lockdown because of pure political ideological reasons.

S: Only their snake oil works.

C: Yeah. But then they say do X, Y, and Z where there's no evidence to support that. So it's like, what do you actually want? I mean, we know what they actually want to peddle their snake oil, but it's really frustrating to see people who are anti-lockdown then being anti-vaccine. You can't have it both ways. And this, as we know, is the biggest and most effective chance we have for a global public health strategy. Because as we were just talking about at the beginning of the episode, unfortunately, we know how to prevent the spread of this, but people aren't willing to take those steps.

S: It's not only that, I mean, yeah, not only that, not enough people are willing to be good about it. It's like there are significant downsides. You could only shut down so much so often, so thoroughly. That's a huge sacrifice that we're making in order to do that.

C: Oh for sure.

S: And so you have to consider the risk versus benefit of everything you do, everything you don't do, and every alternative. And the vaccine is absolutely the best pathway to get out of this pandemic.

C: It' why we've been working so hard at it from the beginning.

S: All right. Let's shift gears a little bit.

Are We Ready for Aliens (45:51)[edit]

S: Evan, you're going to tell us about this Israeli general who says we've contacted aliens. Where have I heard this story?

C: Oh, gosh. This story's been everywhere.

E: Not just contacted. Oh, it's even deeper than that, Steve. We read about this first, I think, in the Jerusalem Post, where they reported a few days ago that a retired Israeli general claims the existence of a galactic federation, which has supposedly been in contact with Israel and the United States for years. And the general claims that the reason no one, well, until now, has known about this is to prevent hysteria, because humanity is not ready to deal with this reality.

J: Well, because, Evan, I was just about to become hysterical.

E: Exactly. Jay, you were about to flail your arms like Kermit the Frog and run around the room screaming. Boy, I love good old-fashioned, extraordinary claims, don't you? Yes. This is the meat and potatoes of the skeptical movement, for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the examination of the evidence. But it acts as a good exercise to ask ourselves questions such as, are humans really ready to accept intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? But I'll give you a little bit of the background first, and then we can get into that question. So the general's name is Chaim Eshed. He served as the head of Israel's space security program for nearly 30 years, and he's a three-time recipient of the Israel Defense Prize. He has a doctorate in engineering, and he's been a professor. His specialty is satellite technology. He's 87 years old, and in a recent interview, he gave descriptions about exactly what sort of agreements have been made between the aliens and the United States and Israel, which ostensibly have been made because they wish to research and understand "the fabric of the universe". So let me give you a couple of lines of quote directly from the general so you can hear it right from the source. They have asked us not to publish—these are the aliens—they have asked us not to publish that they are here. Humanity is not ready yet. Trump was on the verge of revealing, but the aliens and the Galactic Federation are saying, wait, let the people calm down first. They don't want to start mass hysteria. They want to first make us sane and understanding. They've been waiting for humanity to evolve and reach a stage where we will generally understand what space and spaceships are. There's an agreement between the U.S. government and the aliens. They signed a contract with us to do experiments here. They too are researching and trying to understand the whole fabric of the universe, and they want us as helpers. Now here's the best—one of the best parts here. There's an underground base in the depths of Mars where their representatives are and also are American astronauts.

J: Wait, there's an underground base on Mars?

E: Yes. Where there are representatives meeting from the Galactic Federation and the United States, are specifically U.S. astronauts.

J: How did they get—how did our people get there?

C: These claims that are so easily, like, fact-checked.

E: Yeah, that's—this is the—these are the basic newsworthy claims that the general made. So let's take the appropriate amount of time to comment on the evidence that the general has presented in support of his claims. Okay, that's it. Moving on. Once again, what we have here is stories. These are fantastic stories brought forth by a person respected in his field, a three-time award-winning security analyst, honorable military service. It's a template. This has been happening since the days of Roswell, 1947, and it continues right up into 2020 and probably beyond. Look, there's no tangible evidence. There's nothing to see here. There's nothing to feel or look at or test. There's nothing to analyze. We can't correlate anything and we can't falsify anything. So the lack of evidence is really what the actual news story should be here. But reporters and media, if they were being honest, they would be doing that and doing that public service. But frankly, they're not. But that's even another story. Now you talk about the mother of all conspiracy theories. I mean, exactly how many humans in positions of government and private industries would have to keep this thing airtight? Does this not stretch plausibility beyond all limits?

J: I mean, the thing that this smacks of for someone like me is I've heard this exact story hundreds of times.

E: Yes, it's a template. We hear it regularly. This is what a lot of skepticism is. We familiarize ourselves with exactly these things and we know what the arguments against those kinds of claims are, and they wind up never having the evidence to share. They all turn out to be stories. You know what I thought of with this? And I don't know exactly what the general is claiming concerning the technology, Cara, you alluded to, how do they get there?

C: Right. Oh, no, those were Jay, yeah.

E: Jay, I'm sorry. What this Galactic Federation has, maybe they have some super duper futuristic technology, but it's 100% undetectable by things like the Mars surveyors and Mars orbiters and our Earth-based telescopes and our spectrometers and all the other devices that we have which would detect something going on on Mars were there some kind of, say, underground base and certainly human activity.

S: Yeah, but NASA and the government are covering it up.

E: Apparently so. So that's part of the conspiracy. But also, you know what I thought of? I thought of Carl Sagan's story about the invisible dragon in his garage. What's the difference between an entirely undetectable background underground base on Mars and no base at all?

C: Right.

E: Which is the basic question. There's no difference.

S: There's no evidence and then you just make up reasons why there's no evidence. But the world isn't ready argument is particularly lame. It's just ridiculous. Again, if they wanted us to know they were here, we'd all know. They wouldn't make contact with Donald Trump and not tell, you know what I mean? With just certain governments and say, by the way, this is how I characterize it when I wrote about this. It's like, just wanted you to know that we're here, we exist, but you're not ready for this so please don't tell anybody.

C: And also, if they told Donald Trump, we would have known in a tweet 30 seconds later.

S: I know. That's true. Absolutely.

E: That's fair. That's very fair. Very fair.

S: So it's just silly. It was silly 50 years ago, 60 years ago when they were saying that, but it was also coupled with the any day now, any day now, they're going to reveal themselves and it'll all come out and now it's 60 years later and it's like any day now, but we're not quite ready yet and just, it'll happen. Just keep waiting. It's like the people who believe in the end times, like this is, we're in the end times. It's going to happen soon. We're the last generation, blah, blah, blah. They've been saying that for 2000 years. Every generation thinks they're the last generation. Every newbie UFO enthusiast thinks that any day now, the government's going to reveal the UFOs, but it's just all an elaborate excuse for the fact that there's zero evidence and the simpler explanation, of course, is that there are no aliens buzzing the earth or making contact with world leaders.

J: My question is-

E: Or has bases on Mars.

J: My question is why do these people continue to come up with the same exact narrative every like four years, five years, whatever you want? It just seems like-

C: Because it works.

S: It's how it works.

C: Yeah. It's like people respond to it.

S: That's how narratives work. We hear things, we incorporate it toward the way we make sense of the world and then we just regurgitate it with weaving in different details. I like his reason for why did they make contact with us. It's because they need our help in order to understand the fabric of the universe. Why the hell do they need our help?

C: Right.

S: If they flew here from another solar system.

E: Clearly they're doing just fine, frankly.

S: Yeah. It just doesn't even... The story never holds together. You have to concoct this Frankenstein story that doesn't ever really internally make sense or hold together.

E: They apparently signed contracts with us, which is... It's so flimsy.

S: Yeah. But it's like any conspiracy theory.

E: To say it doesn't hold water.

S: Conspiracy theories in general work that way. You have to keep grafting on these special pleading components to make it work and then you get this massive contraption that falls in on itself.

E: But I like that it suggests the question, are we ready? That is a fair question to ask, I think, and discuss and have an intelligent conversation about.

S: Yeah.

E: I think that's legitimate.

S: Yeah. But the answer is we don't know. Because we won't know what happened until it happens.

E: How would we ever know, I think is the question, right? How could you possibly know and prepare for something that you have no idea how it would potentially unfold, reveal itself? What can you really do? Is anyone ever, is humanity ever really ready in that sense? I don't think so.

S: Well, I mean, we're bad at predicting how people are going to collectively respond to unique one-off events like that. You know what I mean?

J: But I will tell you that following human history, it would be incredibly, it would be like, oh my God. And then about two weeks later, people wouldn't care. You know what I mean? Unless they park a spaceship above one of our government buildings like the movies love to do. If we were contacted by aliens and they were benign and nothing crazy was going on, it would end up becoming normalized.

S: Yeah. Maybe. Could be. We're adaptable. Yeah. I know like in three years, we'll be like, hey, Frank the alien walking down the road.

E: Of course, this is a theme that is consistently touched on in so many science fiction stories and television programs and movies Out of the Silent Planet, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, one of my favorite movies, The World's End, deals very directly with the very question, is Earth ready to join the galactic congregation of other intelligence out there? So all you have to do is be loosely associated with science fiction and you can come up with all sorts of stuff.

S: OK, let's move on.

Who's That Noisy? (56:28)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: _brief_description_perhaps_with_link_

S: Jay.

J: Yeah.

S: It's Who's That Noisy time.

J: All right, Steve and everybody else. Last week I played this noisy.

[plays Noisy]

All right. I got some some good guesses here. I got some funny answers as well. So the first person, Michael Conway, writes in and says, hey, Jay, just started listening to the podcast a few weeks ago. I think this week's noisy is a power hammer used by a blacksmith to forge steel. So I've seen those and they kind of do a little fast. It is a little fast. I thought that was going to be my feedback. They kind of sound like that, too. It's more of a clang than a slap. But that was not a bad guess. But however, it is not correct. Let's move on. Kyle Pizzola wrote and said, hello, I'm visualizing something from Looney Tunes, like a piece of rubber or leather on a rotating wheel slapping Elmer Fudd. My knee jerk to that was like, you're wrong. And then I re-listened to it. Listen, listen. [plays Noisy] It's really it's not that bad of a guess.

E: Jay, didn't you say that you thought it sounded like Benny Hill slapping the old man on the knee?

J: I did. I did.

E: Well, that's not too far off from that.

J: I know. It totally has like that skin slapping sound. It really does. So anyway, Kyle, thanks because you made me laugh and I needed to laugh. Incorrect though. Next one, Patrick Carr and Visto Tutti both guessed that it was an electric spot welder. And I went online. I watched a couple of videos of spot welding. Is it a spot welder? Now, there might be a couple of different ways that this is done. But the things that I googled, I found where they take like these two copper looking electrodes that are kind of heavy duty looking it's like the size of a big knitting needle and they touch the bottom, the top and the bottom of two pieces of metal and it puts a current through them and makes it the electrical current creates a ton of friction and it heats up the metal so much it melts the metal. But it didn't have that slappy popping kind of sound. So unless you guys have seen something different I just didn't find it that way. But anyway, the guess is wrong, but it might be an okay guess. I just couldn't verify if it was a good guess or not. Moving on to Gary Sturm and Gary said, Hi Jay, this was a tough one, but after much thought and a little imagination, I have decided this week's noisy is Bob Ross slapping his paintbrush on his easel.

E: I love Bob Ross.

J: So listen again.

C: Me too.

J: I mean it's funny. You made me laugh.

E: That's not a bad guess.

J: I know. It made me laugh a little bit because Bob Ross did do that. And then of course, who's he face? What's his face? Made a joke. Remember that funny video that he was ssed up as Bob Ross? It was like literally every wow, he's been-

C: Literally everybody.

E: Yeah, no, it been parodies.

J: Remember when Deadpool dressed up as Bob Ross? Kind of he did the same thing. It's funny. I laughed. All right. Anyway-

C: It's funny. Believe me.

S: So I saw stormtrooper dressed up as Bob Ross.

J: Yeah. That was a great mashup. I love that. We have a winner, though. Somebody finally won. I don't think we have a winner in a little while. Toby Shipman wrote in and said, my guess is that it's a tattoo laser removing machine.

B: Oh.

E: Wow.

J: All right. So.

C: I hear those hurts.

J: Listen again. This is a tattoo laser removing machine where it zaps the skin very quickly, like little circles like that. And then you could see like the the actual tattoo like it because the skin is getting blasted. And maybe it's not changing as quickly as it looks because it's killing the skin on the outside. It's heating it up. But here it is. [plays Noisy] Now, I'm pretty sure that that noise is coming from the device that generates the laser. And that's not the noise of your skin being slapped by a laser. But I'm sure.

C: Skin doesn't make a noise.

J: Yeah. There's no noise.

C: When you get when you get laser hair removal, it doesn't sound like that.

J: Yeah. I saw a guy. So this particular laser was from China. Somebody ordered it. It's super, super powerful. It's like it's overpowered. You know, it's like one of those things where you're like I could probably cook food with this freaking thing. So he tested it out and he's like popping holes with this laser through different kinds of wood and metal and everything. And then he gets it on his hand and it didn't really hurt him that much. Then he turned the power up and then it did hurt him a little bit became painful. But it still didn't leave like permanent burn marks on the guy or whatever.

C: Right. But many lasers would. So don't play with lasers.

J: Yeah, don't. Don't even.

C: This is like I feel I feel the need to interject and say don't point a laser at your skin or your eyes, especially.

J: Definitely not. Please be careful. Lasers could be fun, but they can also be absolutely dangerous. But you know, the whole thing of laser removal, you guys must have read about it by now. Like it really does something interesting. You know that when they do this with the laser that it's it's allowing your body to absorb the ink from the tattoo and you excrete it.

C: Yeah. But this the sad thing, the hard thing about laser tattoo removal is that unfortunately the worse your tattoo in many regards, the harder it is to remove simply because a poorly done tattoo is laid at various depths into your skin. And so, yeah. So the laser has to reach the because your tattoo is not in your top layer of skin, your epidermis, right? It's in your dermis, which is why you tattoos look kind of weird when you see like autopsy photos and things. You can see people's tattoos even when their top layer of skin has sloughed off. From what I've read, because I've had some tattoos that I'm like, do I keep it? Do I not? Is that it can be pretty brutal if your tattoo is laid poorly.

J: Yeah, that's I didn't know that, Cara. So like if it's not evenly done, if the tattoo artist wasn't good, then.

C: Yeah. So the depths are varied. That means the depths of the laser removal have to be varied, and that's much harder to do. So it's this like unfortunate irony that like you're crappy, the crappier tattoo, kind of the harder it is to take off.

J: Yeah. And I'm sure that it hurt more, too.

C: Dang it.

J: Because you're getting it done by someone who doesn't really know what they're doing. Well, my canvas is clean. I have never, no needle has touched my body.

C: Really? Do any of you guys have tattoos?

J: No, I do not. No, none of us do.

C: What?

J: Yeah.

C: That's amazing. I want you all to get tattoos at this age.

J: I would get it. There's two circumstances where I would get a tattoo. If all of us got an SGU tattoo, I would do it. And if my wife wanted me to get a tattoo with her, like a co-tattoo, I would do it. But other than that, I'm not doing it.

E: Like half of a heart, and she gets half of a heart, and you line them up together.

J: No, no, no.

S: Say, what if you joined the Navy and got ink? Would you get it done?

J: Eh, probably.

E: You'd get a lot of other things, just a tattoo.

J: Yeah, you'd get a whole bag of weird shit.

S: It's part of the package you'd get the Navy.

E: The scurvy, the clap. All sorts of good stuff.

J: You'd get the Bob Ross slap on the head.

B: If I got something, it'd probably be like a computer circuit design, or like a robot arm tattoo.

J: Yeah, I could see you doing that, Bob. And I could see Bob lying in bed, and he's going, whew, whew, whew, whew, whew, whew. Okay, so let me move this on.

New Noisy (1:03:36)[edit]

J: So I have a noisy that was sent in by a listener named Nathan Erickson. And I'm not going to say anything about this. I'm just going to play it. I think that some people will instantly know, and some people won't. And here it is.


So my only clue is that Nathan recorded this one himself. And if you have any ideas on what this is, if you have a cool noisy you heard, now there's got to be holiday-based noisies. There has got to be. So send them to me at

Announcements (1:04:23)[edit]

J: Steve, January 23rd. What are you doing? What do you want to do?

S: What's happening?

J: What do you feel like doing?

S: I'm hanging out.

E: What's happening?

J: We are going to be doing a 12-hour patron thank you live stream. It'll be happening on January 23rd. It starts at 11 a.m. Eastern time and ends at 11 p.m. Eastern time. But we want you to join us because this is going to be a lot of fun. We have a ton of things already planned. We had a huge meeting yesterday. We went through the whole thing, soup to nuts. We have a couple of really cool projects that are going on, and one of them is something that the audience can join in on. And I'm going to give you a little teaser. We're going to be doing some cooking. We're going to be cooking, and you're going to ask that if you're interested, you could join us and cook along with us, especially...

S: Virtually speaking.

J: Yeah, it'll be virtual. So what we'll do is we'll put it up on the website. We'll say, here are the recipes, here's the ingredients, here's everything that you're going to need. We're going to start doing this at X time. So if you're interested, this is what you need to have prepped by this time. And then bring your phone or your iPad into the kitchen, and we'll bounce back and forth. We're not going to have you watch us cook for an hour, but we're going to do something fun. And of course, the food that we cook will end up being the food that we eat during the major meal of the 12-hour show.

S: Yeah.

E: Hope it's good.

J: So yeah, so it could be fun. If enough people do it, it'll be fun to have a lot of people eating the same thing along with us. But we're going to have a couple of different things. I think everybody is going to bring something. Of course, Cara won't be with us because of COVID. We're not 100% sure that Evan can be there because of COVID, but we're going to try. We're all basically hyper in our own home-based bubbles. So I think everybody over here, it might be okay. Really, Steve's the only factor here because he has to go into the hospital every once in a while. But just so you know, we are going to be extraordinarily COVID safe. We're probably going to get tests if we are going to be in the same room together. Bob and I are in the same bubble, so Bob and I don't matter because we see each other all the time.

B: We matter.

J: But just trust us. We're going to be safe. If you're going to be in a studio with masks off, it's going to be after tests and incredible preparedness and being careful.

S: Evan is going to quarantine.

C: Hey, Steve.

S: Yeah.

E: Yes.

C: Steve might be vaccinated.

S: Could be.

C: Not that you shouldn't still use social distance and mask after vaccination because you have no idea about the people around you and you still have no idea where you're at. But still, you could be vaccinated by then.

S: Yeah. So that's going to be a lot of fun, January 23rd, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eastern time. Yeah, we already have way, way more planned that we probably need. We always over-prepare for these things, but it'll be good.

J: I have one more thing. Wait, wait, Steve. I forgot something cool. We're going to ask our patrons to send in pictures of themselves because we have a couple of things on the back burner that we were talking about, about patron involvement, right? I don't want to underplay this. So we're going to ask that you're going to give a website and you're going to have a way to register and send your pictures to us and everything. But we're going to try to get some patrons involved, right? We don't know exactly how or who yet. We're still cooking up some ideas, but there will be patron involvement in this show.

S: Yeah. As much as we can work in. At the very least, you should be able to play along with us for a lot of the things that we do. Okay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:07:41)[edit]

Follow-up #1: Protein Folding[edit]

S: So one question this week, Bob, this is a number of people wrote in to follow up on the protein folding story that you talked about last week. And the feedback was essentially that maybe you overhyped the story a little bit too much. What do you think about that?

C: Bob on a tech story?

B: Well, I'll push back on that a bit. Some people had the problem of saying that it's basically saying that the protein folding problem was solved. Now, I was very careful about that. I did not want to come out and say that this is solved, because I know there's lots of caveats that wrap around that. But then I read quotes from people that were not part of DeepMind. For example, John Malt, who was essentially one of the co-founders of the Casp competition. He's the one that said, this is a big deal. In some sense, the problem is solved. This is a guy that runs Casp. He said this. Then there was Muhammad Al-Qurashi, who was a Casp participant. He said that he suspects that people will leave the field as the core problem has been arguably solved. So these are people that are throwing the S-word around regarding this. So I was careful. I made sure I quoted them. I mentioned them multiple times. And then came back and said, yes, this isn't perfect. There's still work to do. But it seems the core issue, the core problem is essentially solved, just kind of mimicking what these experts have said. So I think I covered my butt on my overexcitement. And I was excited. And I think this is going to be huge. But it's not slam-bam solved right now.

S: When we talk about these stories, we're always striking a balance between being excited about legitimate progress, especially when it's significant. It's not just an incremental advance, but this is a pretty big advance. But then putting in the caveats about putting it into context and not getting over-hyping it or getting premature or whatever. Most of the people who wrote back, I think that they were saying things that we had said.

B: And we see that a lot. Right? Just like we see that a lot.

S: Yeah, yeah. I know. And it really just came down. And they also did it where they didn't mention anything specific. It was just like it comes down to tone, which is important, though, not to downplay. As science communicators, we want our audience to leave with a correct impression. I did feel that you were towards the hype end of the reasonable spectrum there. And I did pull you back. But I thought I pulled it back to an appropriate degree and provided balance. And that's a subjective thing, right? That's just subjective.

C: Right. But do you notice sometimes, Steve, that people will email and they'll be like, I can't believe you said X. And then it's like, did you listen to the whole thing? And they're like, no, sorry. Now that I have.

S: That just happened like a half an hour ago. But it wasn't just that. And just to get to how to email in general, when you're cold emailing a podcast or whatever, we give a lot. You gave us feedback. This is our feedback to you. So obviously, we want you to email us. We love this part of the show. We love the conversation. The other thing is, I read every email. And there's a really good chance I will not only respond to your email, but even engage you in conversation, as long as you're reasonable and you're not gratuitously a dick. I probably will engage with you. But all we ask is that you are respectful of our time. And that involves a couple of things. One, listen to the whole segment before you email us. And listen carefully. If you feel like you want to give us constructive feedback, again, that's fantastic. We're not trying to discourage that at all.

B: Absolutely.

S: But think about, just be fair. Did they actually say this? What are they actually saying? Don't tell us to do things we already did, for example. And also, the other way to be respectful of our time is to just keep it reasonably short. We're not going to read 5,000 words in a day.

C: If they require me to scroll twice, I don't have—we get so many emails in a day.

S: Well, a lot of people do, which is a really good idea. They say, here's the question or here's the executive summary.

J: Yeah, do the TL:DR.

S: And if you want more details— Yeah. Exactly. If you want to go into all the details—

J: No, T-L-D-R.

S: Yeah, here's all the details below. But here's like, if you just want to cut to the chase, here it is, kind of thing. But with regard to the protein folding thing, it's like, yeah when you got down to the specifics we were giving the very specific details about how successful they were. I think also I was a little biased because I had already blogged about it. And I think like I had—I was much more cautious in my blog. And that maybe was contaminating my impression of how we handled the topic because I was sort of mixing the two. But like I it was very clear to say—and again, sometimes I can't remember what did I write and what did I say in the show. But like this isn't going to—we're not going to be reaping the benefits of this tomorrow. They have a lot of iteration to do before—and it takes 20, 30 years before like we start to see the benefits of this kind of basic breakthrough. I think the best feedback we got though was from people who were experts in the field and were giving us very specific details that I think went beyond what either we knew or what we got into to discuss like.

B: Oh, I love that. Yeah.

S: Yeah. That's great. We always love that. And that's one of the things—

B: There's always layers to that onion, right? You could always go so deeper.

S: Yeah. There's always layers.

B: It's so much more complicated than you imagine.

S: Yeah. And so specifically they said like in order for this to actually be useful, for example, in medicine discovery, there needs to be a level of precision that we are not at. And even saying like in the three-dimensional structure, it's not just getting it like 90% correct. It also has to be precise enough that you can base chemical discovery on it. And we're not there. And I agree. I mean, again, this is like what I covered in my blog about it. It's like we're not there. It's like this is going to take 10 or 20 years of iteration before probably that there are going to be actual applications coming out of it. I think what we were trying to emphasize is the potential, how important proteins are, how important understanding protein solving is. And when we get to the point where we have not just mostly solved it or we've solved the core issues, but when we've solved it from a practical application point of view, there's massive benefits will flow from that. And it's actually even hard to overhype that. But we are not there yet. And so we do sometimes have to tweak our emphasis and make sure that we're balancing those two things correctly, which is why—and I think there was some appropriate feedback that we got on this issue, on this particular segment about that. But yeah, I think also some of it were sort of—they were glossing over the caveats that we actually did put in there to be fair.

B: Yeah. I don't think you would have let me gotten away with not having caveats because there was caveats.

S: Yeah.

B: And I didn't like go into a deep dive on the caveats, but they were mentioned and they're definitely there for sure. But this is a genuine reason to be excited, I think, this advance.

S: Yeah, yeah.

B: It's not incremental. It's not an incremental the usual incremental advance. This is much more dramatic than that.

S: But there's still a lot of work to be done. There's still a lot of work to be done. Okay.

Name That Logical Fallacy (1:15:06)[edit]

  • More on "Slippery Slope"

S: I'm also going to do a follow-up to the name not logical fallacy from last week. We were talking about the slippery slope logical fallacy. And Cara and I both sort of thought of what I think is one of the most obvious examples of like the classic slippery slope argument, which involves gun regulation and the Second Amendment. You know, that the standard argument goes, if we allow the government to restrict gun ownership to any degree, that that will go down the slippery slope to banning gun ownership completely, right? And that sort of has the classic form of the core slippery slope argument and commits the core logical fallacy there, which is to say that if you take one incremental step that you necessarily will lead to going all the way to the logical conclusion or the extreme conclusion of that, which is complete banning in this case.

C: Right. And you brought it up because it's an actual argument that we hear often.

S: Yeah, it's a common argument.

C: It's like a real world example.

S: Yeah, and it's clearly a logical fallacy. Well, not surprisingly, some people pushed back on that in the email. And I did have a fairly extensive exchange with one emailer. I'm not going to go into the name that person or anything. But just to it did help me, I think, sort of wrap my head around. I always like to try to understand what is the fallacy that they're committing? Like, what is the error in thought that is leading this person to this to not understanding what I'm saying, for example. And in this case, I think this gave me some insight into, like, some of the logic here. So, like, they were saying that, well, if the Second Amendment says that the government will not abridge the the right to own a gun and therefore any right, any law that does abridge that right is a slippery slope because you've broken that cherry, if you will. You know, you sort of, once you've broken the letter of the law, then there's nothing holding back going all the way. And that's incorrect for a number of reasons. So the primary is that it's an overly simplistic view of the law, right? One of the arguments I made was don't fall for really simplistic legal reasoning. And just appreciate the fact that legal reasoning is horrifically complicated. And unless you're an expert, you really just have to, you should be asking what do the experts say, not I'm going to try to make my own argument about this, because it's going to be hopelessly naive. I don't try to make my own arguments. I just say, what do the experts say? I try to get to some fundamental understanding of what is the actual discussion as much as possible. So, like, for example, when it comes to the Second Amendment, there was actually two kind of issues here. The first one was does the wording give people a collective right to own guns or an individual right to own guns? And initially, this—

C: Right. And it actually never even says guns. It says arms.

S: It says arms. I know. Arms. That's the other thing. I'll get to that in a second. Because it says like, a well-regulated militia being important to states defending themselves the right to bear and hold arms shall not be infringed. And so, for years, the Supreme Court ruling was that it was only a collective right, not an individual right. But then that was overturned not too long ago by the Miller decision, which said, no, it is an individual right to own and bear arms. But in the same exact decision, they said that—however, that's not incompatible. That interpretation is not incompatible with the government reasonably regulating gun ownership. So those two things sort of went together. So you just have to understand that the Supreme Court, the current interpretation by the people that we put at the top of that legal pyramid of deciding how to apply the constitutional law, decided that the Second Amendment does not preclude regulation. And the reason is there's so many other things woven in there. You can't just read the Second Amendment and think that you can interpret it. There's something called legal precedent, right? And legal precedent involves so many other lines of argument, including interpreting other laws. So for example, there is the question of, well, how do we define arms? How did the people who wrote the Second Amendment think of arms? Would they have considered arms tactical nukes, for example, or miniguns that could shoot thousands of rounds a minute or something like that, or tanks, you know? So there is a reasonable question to ask about whether or not that's how that was conceived.

C: Right. But that comes down to a different—like, that comes down to how one interprets the Constitution, which is a scholarly conversation to be had that's separate from evidence. Like, it's different people have different views about how literally the Constitution should be interpreted.

S: I'm talking purely in the realm of legal arguments and logic, not on what's right or what the evidence says or anything like that. This is just what's the legal reasoning here. The other legal reasoning—and this is taken from the Supreme Court decision where they said that—like, this specifically had to do with a case of a state that banned the ownership of sawed-off shotguns, right? And they said that there is no legal use of a sawed-off shotgun that a law-abiding citizen would have. Right? That was their reasoning. There's no law-abiding use that a law-abiding citizen would have. Therefore, the right to own that gun is not protected by the Second Amendment. And because that's just making the law work with all other laws and with other legal reasoning, because the law should be internally consistent. And so, OK, so once you accept that, that—so now we're saying arms the right of an individual citizen to own an individual arm needs to be consistent with law-abiding activity. Well, there you go. There's your argument for why—well, then why does a law-abiding citizen need to have a fully automatic military-style weapon, you know? And then that's where the—

C: Yeah, but some people disagree with the interpretation.

S: You can disagree with that. You can disagree with that. This is the current decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. But the point is, getting back to the slippery slope argument, because this is where the argument is being had. This does not mean that once you break the absolute right to own any arm, it's a slippery slope leading to banning all arms is not a valid argument. It's not how it works because there is other legal reasoning involved in where to draw lines. What the Supreme Court is saying is you can draw lines. Those lines could be based upon things like what are acceptable law-abiding uses of arms. And that is not a slippery slope by definition. That's why the slippery slope argument is fallacious because it's not relevant to the actual legal reasoning that's going on. And yeah, I'm not saying that this is correct. I'm just saying that's the current Supreme Court precedent. That's the decision.

C: And I'm not saying it's incorrect when I'm saying what I'm saying. I just have a feeling we're going to get more emails after this than we did the first time.

S: That's fine. And that's fine. But the thing is, I'm not really trying to create a venue about arguing about Second Amendment rights.

C: Right. Exactly.

S: And I want you to just back up. The only point—seriously, this is not about your feelings about gun ownership or the Second Amendment. This is about logic and legal reasoning. But all I'm saying—I'm making the extremely limited point that saying that there could be limits on gun ownership because of the Supreme Court's legal reasoning at a constitutional level, which is very complicated and nuanced, that does not validate a slippery slope argument about any gun regulations. If you disagree with any particular gun regulation, you need to come up with a better argument than it's a slippery slope because the slippery slope is a logical fallacy in this case. So this is purely about the logic. It's not about gun regulation. And I'm not even making a point. I'm not even taking a side about gun regulation. I'm just saying this is the legal reasoning that's involved.

C: Well, and it almost speaks to Steve. Is there a logical fallacy that has to do—I mean, it's sort of like every cognitive bias has to do with motivated reasoning and has to do with some of these issues. But is there a particular logical fallacy that has to do with the fact that when something is more emotionally salient for you, it's harder for you to use logic?

S: That's not a logical fallacy. What you're saying is that's motivated reasoning.

C: It's motivated reasoning. Yeah. Because I think that that is why these kinds of conversations obviously can become triggering. And it's funny because individuals who have an ideological or an emotional tie to it, it actually becomes harder to see, to break down the logic. It's sort of why in debate class you're often tasked with debating the alternative viewpoint. And you're like, morally, I don't know if I can do that.

S: No, it's great, though.

C: But it's really good practice.

S: Absolutely. And that's what I'm saying here. Step back from your emotional views about gun ownership and let's just talk about the logic involved. And that also helps you because—and again, we're seeing this in spades in American politics now where people are defending positions that they 100% would not defend if it was flipped to the other side. Right? I mean, they're like directly contradicting things that they have said in the past. And they're just making the arguments that are in favour of their side, not because they're logical or because they're consistent. But as good skeptics, we should always be able to back up from the implications and our political views and our tribalism and all that and just say, all right, if we just strip this down, what does the logic say? What's the logic here? All right, guys, let's move on to science or fiction.

J: Do it.

Science or Fiction (1:25:39)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Dog language ability
Science Honey bees use a tool
Inherited eye disorder
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Dog language ability
Dog language ability
Inherited eye disorder
Dog language ability

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Item #1: In the first instance of honey bees using a tool, they have been found to deliberately cover their nest entrance with animal feces in order to repel giant hornets.[5]
Item #2: In a new study of canine language ability, dogs demonstrated the ability to differentiate even words that differ by a single phoneme.[6]
Item #3: In a breakthrough study, a genetic therapy for an inherited mitochondrial eye disorder found that injecting the gene vector into one eye improved vision in both eyes.[7]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. All right, I've got three regular news items this week. No theme. You guys ready?

J: Yep.

S: All right, item number one, in the first instance of honeybees using a tool, they have been found to deliberately cover their nest entrance with animal feces in order to repel giant hornets. Item number two, in a new study of canine language ability, dogs demonstrated the ability to differentiate even words that differ by a single phoneme. So for example, dig versus dog, right? And item number three, in a breakthrough study, a genetic therapy for an inherited mitochondrial eye disorder found that injecting the gene vector into one eye improved vision in both eyes. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Honeybees using a tool deliberately covering their nest entrance with animal feces. That's brilliant. Smart, smart honeybees. But is this really their first instance of using a tool? That's why I think this one might be the fiction. It may not be the first instance. That's what I'm thinking there. But I do think that they actually did use that tool. The next one about canine language, dogs demonstrated the ability to differentiate even words that differ by a single phoneme. Anytime I think dogs come up in these science studies, we overestimate a little bit on what might really be going on here. So that's interesting though. And the last one about genetic therapy for an inherited mitochondrial eye disorder. You inject the gene vector into one eye and it improves in both eyes. So does that mean the eye is just a channel to the brain and the actual improvement is happening in the brain and not the eye directly? I suppose that's what that would mean.

S: I mean, I'll tell you it's happening in both eyes. As it says, it's in both eyes. It's not in the brain.

E: Improve vision in both eyes. Okay. So we're not talking about.

S: But it's in the eyes.

E: Okay. All right. So it's actually happening. Why would it do that? I can't think of how that works because I am ignorant of such things. Boy, that one's really, really something. I'm leaning towards the dog one being fiction. I think of the three of these, I think they're all fiction. But the most fiction is the dog demonstrating. I don't think we can get it down to a phoneme in canine language. And again, I think studies about involving dogs and language and communication tend to yield more positive results than maybe what's actually going on. So I think that one's fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Okay. Honeybees putting crap on their entrances. I mean, yeah. I mean, I do that in my house.

E: To repel the giant hornets?

B: Especially in the past eight months. Let's go jump to the third one. Yeah. The genetic therapy on the eye. I immediately thought of something I read many years ago about if you lifted weights with one side of your body, like your right bicep, your left bicep, or left leg if you did your right leg, would see some benefit. So that kind of made me think of that. And since I'll grab onto anything that makes sense, I'll say that that's maybe science. The one that's sticking out, though, is the dog one. Yeah, I think that's a little bit too subtle for them. I'll say that one's fiction.

S: Okay. Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. So I'm taking them in order. I mean, as much as there's a piece of information that I'm pretty sure about where bees won't let another bee come in if they got drunk on a flower, like this happens in Australia with the heat. There could be like fermentation happening in the nectar, and then they won't let that bee in until they've kind of gotten rid of the alcohol.

E: Because it would contaminate the rest of the honey.

J: Absolutely. It would contaminate the honey, and they don't want boozy honey. Because that honey is specifically made to feed the young. You know what I mean?

E: Yeah. Keep things going.

J: But this is not them putting it inside and contaminating. So I think bees, they're pretty smart in their own way. So I don't think this is that crazy. The second one about the canine language, I mean, again, I have some information where I remember there was a show I watched where a guy was whistling to his pack of 15 dogs, and each one of them had a different whistle. So they were able to determine the difference in notes. So I'm thinking that that is science, that they can hear the difference. So I'm going to just by default say that the third one, the one about the inheriting the mitochondrial eye disorder drug injection gene vector situation is the fiction.

S: And Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I think I'm going to go with the other guys, not with Jay on this. Interestingly, the honeybee one, I have not heard this story, but there was a story literally this week about pandas rolling around in horse shit to keep warm. So maybe there's a poo theme in the news right now. It doesn't surprise me at all. There's a lot of crap in the news. Yeah, to use animal feces, I think has long been kind of an evolutionary strategy. I think that the mitochondrial, this one's interesting to me. It's surprising, but I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility simply because I think oftentimes when we talk about like gene vectors and gene therapies, we think about things that are happening in vitro. So you've got like a little petri dish and you've got some cells and you inject something into a cell and then the thing only happens to the cell. But I think we often forget that our bodies are like leaky and they're fluidy and there's like movement. And so I wouldn't be surprised if literally the injection, yeah, it was localized, but some of that genetic material, right, might've just moved. It might've been absorbed through the eye into vessels, into interstitial fluid and you know, your eyes aren't that far apart. I wouldn't be surprised if you could find traces of that genetic material literally somewhere else in your body as well. I just don't see how you can keep things super localized in the body. It's why gs affect lots of off-target receptors, but yeah, an injection is usually more targeted. But the dog thing, I just don't believe it. I don't believe that a dog could differentiate a word by a single phoneme. I've long felt or believed, or even based on the evidence, that a lot of studies that come out about dogs' ability to discriminate language are really overblown. I think that, yes, they understand words. This is true and it's been demonstrated, but their vocabulary is insanely limited. And mostly dogs respond to emotion, to like staccato versus legato, loud, soft, all that stuff. Yes, they can recognize words, but I don't think that they can differentiate the word, walk from talk. Actually, that would be the same phoneme.

E: Walk from wick.

C: Walk from walk.

S: Do they tell each other to shoot accents though? Okay. Let's go.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: You all agree with the first one, so we'll start there. In the first instance of honeybees using a tool, they have been found to deliberately cover their nest entrance with animal feces in order to repel giant hornets. You guys all think this one is science, and this one is science. Not surprisingly, it's in Asian honeybees because they have to ward off those giant hornets.

E: Yeah.

C: Oh, those bastards.

S: Yeah. So they've evolved a lot of...

C: So they can bee ball.

S: They can bee ball. They could do swarming kind of tactics. And now they also put poop on their entrance because the hornets don't like it.

J: So Steve, is this a new behavior?

S: It was a newly discovered behavior. I don't necessarily think that it's a newly evolved behavior, but it's newly discovered. Yeah. Pretty cool. And they do describe it as the first known instance of honeybees essentially using a tool, if you count the feces as a tool. So that's pretty cool. All right. We'll just take these in order.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Number two, in a new study of canine language ability, dogs demonstrated the ability to differentiate even words that differ by a single phoneme. Jay, you think this one is science. Everyone else thinks this one is fiction. And this one is the fiction.

J: Damn it.

S: I thought I was going to get you on the puppy thing because you want to think that puppies can do this. Dogs can absolutely understand words. They have a pretty good vocabulary. They can understand words even separate from the intonation and the emotion and whatever. They can understand the actual words as previous research showing that. So this is kind of following up on that.

C: Isn't it only like 60 words or something?

S: Yeah. Something like that. 40, 50, 60, something.

C: Yeah.

S: It's very limited for human perspective. That's a lot if you think about how many words your animal can understand.

C: For sure. But 60 words, I'm assuming if they could get 40, 50, 60, probably they're not 40, 50, or 60 that all sound really similar.

S: No, no. So what they found was that they could not distinguish words that only differed by one phoneme. So they need to be more different than that. That was kind of—they have to have at least two differences. So they specifically said they would not be able to tell the difference between dig and dog, right? Or sit and bit, or whatever. Or sit and sat.

C: Oh, so walk and talk was a good example.

S: Yeah. But if there's two or more differences, then they have a chance of picking out the difference. So they're not as discriminating as humans are. So if you are teaching your dog, you want to build their vocabulary. Use different sounding words, which probably would happen mostly anyway. But I mean, it's good to know that specifically.

C: Especially if you're looking for commands that are like you want left versus right or heel versus go. Like, yeah, you want—

S: Yeah, the important things should be really distinct and you shouldn't have anything that sounds like them that you're using as a command, right?

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay, all this means that in a breakthrough study, a genetic therapy for an inherited mitochondrial eye disorder found that injecting the gene vector into one eye improved vision in both eyes is science. Now you might be asking, well, why would they do this? But this is essentially the way they designed this study, where this is a particular genetic disorder called Leber's hereditary optic neuropathy. I've actually diagnosed patients with this. It's considered a neurological disorder. And it is a mitochondrial disorder. And you get bilateral optic neuritis, optic atrophy, and it's like one of the rare things that does that. And it usually presents in the 20s so late teens, early 20s sort of thing. So up until now, there really hasn't been any treatment. What the research was looking into genetic therapy using a viral vector. So they use a viral vector in order to insert a gene into the retinal cells that will then produce a protein that will go to the mitochondria and stabilize it so that you don't get the degeneration of the retina that leads to the loss of vision. And they were using patients who, because this is fairly rare, so it's like you can't have hundreds of people with it. So the trial was involved 37 people. So they used the patients as their own control, right? So in other words, they would inject the gene vector into one eye, and they would do a saline placebo into the other eye.

C: Oh, hilarious.

S: So they were using the, like the left eye was the control for the right eye, which kind of makes sense.

C: It didn't work out that well.

S: They were completely expecting that if this works, we'll know because the eye that got the gene will get better, and the eye that got the saline will not get better. And what they found is that both eyes got better.

J: So what was the mechanism?

S: So technically...

C: Yeah, I'm interested in this.

S: Well, we'll get to that. So technically, you might think, well, that means the study was negative because the two eyes were not different. The placebo was no different than the treatment. But the thing is, if you use the historical control of they should go blind, basically, and they shouldn't improve, any improvement is significant. And the eye that got the gene did improve more, significantly more than the eye that didn't get it, but both improved. And so the question was, well, why is that happening, right? So in order to...

C: That makes me think there's a dose-response thing going on.

S: There might be a dose-response thing going on. So in order to test whether or not... What was happening to the other eye, they did it in animals as a follow-up. And they did it in animals so that they could sacrifice them and find out, like, what's happening to the eye that's not getting the injection. And they found the gene, the therapeutic gene in the other eye. So it actually is getting there. It's not just some remote effect. The actual viral vector with the target gene was finding its way over to the other eye. So I think you're right, Cara. The body's leaky. You know, it's basically...

C: Yeah.

S: What's going on?

C: It'd be cool to see how far from the target it ultimately ends up, or just a low-level it finds its way into, like, your ankle tissues.

S: So enough of it was getting over there that it was having a measurable benefit even though that wasn't the eye that was injected, but not as much as the eye that was injected, actually, not as much of a dose.

C: But how ironic that the actual control was the other eye.

S: Yeah. No, it's not uncommon to do that.

C: It's amazing.

S: Use patients as their own controls, basically. You could do that with a crossover design depending on the study, where, like, you're getting the treatment one week and then the placebo the other week. Or in this case, if you have two of something, like, two eyes, you can use that as their own controls. But this is very exciting. The bigger news here is that that was kind of just a quirky anomaly. But the big news here, there's a gene therapy for this optic atrophy, which is working, which has had, like, 70% improvement in vision, which is huge. The magnitude of the effect was actually pretty significant. So this is we're finally, finally, like, really getting to this age of gene therapy, you know. Again, we sort of had a false start in the 1990s, and then we ran into trouble. And now we're sort of rebooting this sort of viral vector gene therapy sort of approach. And we're starting to see some real, real positive clinical trials, you know. So it's great. Great. Glad to see it.

C: And also, it speaks to, we got an email question just this week about kind of, like, how would CRISPR work in people? How do you actually, and CRISPR is a whole other thing the way that they get to that gene therapy is different. But the question seemed to be more about the mechanism of delivery. Like, how do you get a gene therapy into a human being? Does it have to be in the embryo? Does it have to be? And obviously, depending on what you're trying to do, the answer to that is different. But this is one example of a situation in which in an already developed person who has, the defective gene, they're able to see a change, which is really cool, just by injecting.

S: Yeah. But I didn't see any mention that this used CRISPR in any way, but this...

C: No, no, no. But it doesn't matter. That's...

S: Yeah, you're right.

C: How you got to the therapy doesn't matter.

S: This is a viral vector, which is very common. And so some viruses, one of the things that some viruses do is insert their genetic material into cells. And so you have to find a benign virus that's not going to cause an infection, that's going to go to assert the cell population that you're targeting, that will inject the gene that you're interested in. And that's a very complicated technology that's taken us 30 years to develop, right? Or more. But it works. So it's all about the virus, right? It's all about the properties of the virus itself as the vector.

C: Yeah. So any sort of vector or any sort of... There's all these different, really interesting ways to get the treatment into the genetic material. And it's really cool to hear about such a... It's almost like such a simple mechanism in these individuals, literally just inject it right to where it needs to go. But hey, keep in mind, it's floating around in other spots too.

S: Yeah. Totally. All right. Well, good job, guys.

J: Well, not really, but...

E: Thanks.

S: Except for Jay.

S: All right. Evan.

C: No. Thank you, Evan and Bob.

S: Evan, give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:42:16)[edit]

That which parents should take care of (here) is to distinguish between the wants of fancy, and those of nature.
John Locke (1632-1704), from Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 1693

E: "That which parents should take care of here is to distinguish between the wants of fancy and those of nature." That was written some time ago by John Locke, the famous English philosopher. And he's known probably more for his treatises on, say, government and perhaps religion. But he also wrote a, well, I guess what we would call a book today, but back then it was a paper, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. This was in 1693. And my best understanding of this is that he's saying that parents should be guiding their children towards learning about the natural world, about science, about things that are real, as opposed to the wants of fancy and fantasy.

S: Yeah. I interpret that more as just reality. Those of nature, the wants of nature to be just reality. Not necessarily science, but just like there's the things, the fantasies that you want to be true, and then there's reality that actually is true, and you need to learn how to distinguish those two things. Right. There are some world leaders who need to learn how to distinguish those two things.

E: Absolutely. No doubt about it.

S: Yeah. I think the general notion that adults are just children who hide their irrationality better is largely true. Obviously it's not completely true. People actually can control themselves better, and as they get older, they get more neurologically sophisticated. But to a huge extent, I think a bigger extent that we want to admit, we are children with a social filter, you know?

C: And some are more-

S: And some people have more of a filter than others.

C: More children than others. Says the girl who's entered the dating world again.

B: Oh, boy.

E: Oh, boy.

S: That's a distant memory for me, man.

C: I know.

S: Happily married for many years.

C: Don't be jealous, you guys. It's awesome, especially during a pandemic.

S: Yeah, sure.

E: Can only imagine.

S: All right. So we will be doing a live stream over the next few weeks, probably not the Friday after Christmas. Is Christmas a Friday?

E: It is.

C: What with Christmas coming and all.

J: Of course.

E: Cara! Exactly.

S: Not Christmas.

E: Exactly.

S: We won't be doing a Friday live stream on Christmas, but we will be doing it on the two Fridays before Christmas. And then-

E: New Year's Day is on a Friday.

S: New Year's Day is on a Friday.

C: It's weird that that's the holiday, because that's just when people are hungover.

S: What do you think? Are we going to do it on New Year's Day? Probably not.

E: I'll be home.

C: Maybe.

S: Maybe.

E: I'll be.

C: Maybe we'll do it without you, Steve. I haven't shown up to work in like months.

S: So we'll be doing the Friday live stream. We'll do it this week, obviously, but that's the day before this comes out. But we'll be doing it on the 18th. We won't be doing it on December 25th. We may or may not do it on January 1st. We'll see. Probably, because that's what else are we going to do? And then back to our usual schedule. We probably won't be doing it on the 22nd, because it's the day before the 12-hour show.

C: Oh, yeah.

E: Makes sense.

S: But otherwise, we'll be doing it. We actually –

C: I cannot contain my excitement.

S: We've began discussions about rebooting the extravaganza, our live stage show, like maybe for next fall.

E: Yeah.

J: Six months, they were saying. Six months. So midsummer, maybe.

C: Maybe nine months.

E: Dream?

S: Yeah. It's hard to say. Hard to say.

Signoff/Announcements (1:45:59)[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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