SGU Episode 807

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SGU Episode 807
December 26th 2020
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 806                      SGU 808

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


IC: Ian Callanan

Quote of the Week

Persistence in scientific research leads to what I call instinct for truth.

Louis Pasteur, French chemist and microbiologist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, December 22nd, 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: Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening, folks.

S: ...and making his SGU debut, Ian Callanan. Ian, welcome to the Skeptics Guide, man.

IC: Sup. I need a cool intro. I don't have one.

S: I know.

C: Sup.

B: That's your intro. I need a cool one. I don't have one.

J: They're developed, Ian. It just has to come. It'll come to you.

IC: Oh. Okay. Sorry.

S: So there is an SGU holiday tradition that when we do our end of the year wrap-up show, for a number of years, we had on Mike LaSalle, who worked for the SGU for years, is a great friend of ours. Unfortunately, we lost him a number of years ago because of heart failure due to a congenital heart defect. And what occurred to me, it's like, Ian works for the show, and we should resurrect this tradition because it's fun.

E: Hear, hear.

S: So Ian-

B: We tried to resurrect Mike, but that didn't work.

E: I mean, it is Christmas.

C: Jesus Christ.

E: What with the resurrection and all. Oh, that's Easter.

B: Wow. You guys are lame.

E: And edit that out too.

S: And this is, of course, our year-end review show where we talk about all the wonderful stuff that happened in the previous year.

E: It was uneventful.

S: This is 2020. We've been looking forward-

B: That's it. Thank you, guys. The show is over.

S: We've been looking forward to the 2020 wrap-up for a long time.

E: People will never remember 2020 for anything.

S: Now, Ian, in case there are people out there who don't know who you are, you are often the disembodied voice that manifests when we're doing live streaming events like the Friday live streams, and you have been a valued asset to the SGU in everything we do. You basically make all the technical stuff happen.

IC: You have to say that because I'm here, though. But yeah, okay. I agree.

S: I thought you'd have to say it because it's true.

IC: Oh, okay. Sorry.

J: Well, he doesn't do it all alone. I mean, it's not like I just stand there and point my finger around, you know?

S: I actually thought that was exactly what you did, Jay. Just tell Ian to do stuff.

IC: Yeah. He's good at finger pointing.

S: But Ian has made himself indispensable, which is great, but it's also like Jay and I occasionally like, God, if Ian weren't here, we would have no idea what we were doing.

IC: My plan is working.

B: You're still sending out newsletters, huh?

J: I mean, when Ian came aboard, he enabled the SGU to dramatically increase our quality and our output. You know, Ian is a heavy, heavy lifter when it comes to technical stuff. It's amazing. I love watching his brain work.

S: Yeah. As an example, the 12-hour show. See, I want it to be a 24-hour show. The 12-hour show-

C: Why? What is wrong with you, Steve?

S: -in January, January 23rd, is going to be all green screen, and that's only possible because Ian is going to manage the whole green screen thing for us.

IC: True. We'll do some fun, weird things. I mean, the practical set, it was beautiful, and I hate that I'm partially responsible for destroying it, but the green screen is just going to make the world of difference with all types of weird tech stuff that we'll do.

S: We haven't destroyed our practical set. We can't bring ourselves to do it quite yet.

IC: Yes. Not formally. It's hidden behind green screen.

S: Yeah. It's just behind the green screen.

B: And as I told Jay, if it comes down to it, and say the green screen just rocks so hard that we're like, we're never going to do anything else except, unless we get a volume, but we'll stick with the green screen forever, let's get rid of the practical Star Trek console set. I said, we're never going to destroy that. At the very least, we'll sell it. Have somebody, hey, you come pick it up, dismantle it, pick it up, and it's yours, and of course pay us. I mean, right? We'd sell that. We wouldn't want to just destroy that.

C: We could donate it.

B: That would be against the law.

C: That would be against the law.

S: Getting a little ahead of ourselves here. All right. So let's get into some of the categories that we'd like to talk about for our review show.

Science News Items of the Year[edit]

COVID-19 (4:18)[edit]

S: We're going to start with the science of the year, science news items of the year. What was the science news that had the greatest impact, either on us personally, on the skeptical movement, on the world? And the thing is, there's one giant big news story this year.

B: Giant.

C: Pretty big.

B: Murder hornets.

S: It sucked all the scientific oxygen out of the room, and murder hornets got a lot of votes, by the way.

E: It did get a lot of votes.

B: It did.

S: But come on. This was the year of COVID-19. This is the year of COVID.

J: And the vaccine.

B: And for me, yeah, it was the vaccine.

C: Yeah. It's sequencing SARS-CoV-2. It's learning everything that we could learn about it so quickly and developing this mRNA vaccine.

B: Yeah. I took a good look at this, just trying to see, all right, what did they actually do? How dramatic was it? And it's quite dramatic. I mean, most, as you probably heard, most vaccines take 10 to 15 years to make. I mean, that's a good average. Some of them are even longer, like the influenza virus, several strains took 28 years to develop. Oh, no, chickenpox took 28 years to develop. And then 15 years for the papillomavirus and rotavirus, 15 years to develop that. And up until now, the fastest that I could find for a vaccine development was for the mumps, which took four years. If that took four years now, I mean, that would, oh, my God, my pandemic care would be so horrible.

S: And do you remember, did I mention this on the show? How long did it take to develop the mRNA vaccine for COVID? Do you remember?

C: Oh, it was really short, like insanely short. You mean to, once we had COVID fully sequenced and we understand it, how to like adapt it?

B: But it depends. But the other foundation technologies were already, that were in development for years before that, right?

S: Yeah, of course. They had the platform. They had the foundational technology. But from the moment that Moderna, let's say, got their hands on the sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the Chinese, how long did it take them to develop the vaccine?

C: I think it was days.

S: Two days. Two days.

B: That's unbelievable.

E: So that's where we are now, huh?

B: But here's why. Now, here's why. I looked at it specifically, why was it so fast? Some of it, one of the reasons is because we're just simply better. We're leveraging our recent successes and we have accumulated knowledge that played in. We also, phases two and three were combined for expediency, as was demonstrated in the current trials. So instead of phase one, two, and three, one is safety, two efficacy, three comparison, they combined two and three. That sped things up.

C: But all of that was after the two-day thing we're talking about.

B: No, but I'm talking about, you have the code and now it's being distributed. I'm talking the full Monty, the whole thing. And also, large-scale manufacturing can begin when the vaccine is still in the trials. And that cuts a ton of time off. So that's the why why was it so fast? We're better reason. The other reason though why it's so fast is it's purely, I think, because of mRNA. The advantages inherent with mRNA. Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines were developed so fast, partly because they don't need companies to really to produce like the protein or the weakened pathogen for the vaccine like we used to. Basically, you're making the mRNA in a lab and that could take months or even years off of the process. So that, the fact, I think, the fact that it was an mRNA and not this like weakened mRNA and not this weakened version or segment of protein from the virus, that I think was a dramatic increase in the speed. And another factor that you don't really hear too much about is that they were exceptionally swift at recruiting patients for clinical trials. They got them together much faster. So I think, so all of that kind of...

S: It makes it really easy to recruit patients when there's a pandemic. You know what I mean? When there's literally-

B: There you go.

S: Hundreds of thousands of people coming down with the illness that you're studying. But also, but keep in mind though, Bob, yeah. So part of it was, the whole feature of mRNA vaccines is they're fast. They're not necessarily better in terms of efficacy or even safety. They're good.

B:' In fact, notwithstanding, I mean...

S: But some regular vaccines are 95% effective. But the advantage is we're really good at making genetic material and RNA, DNA, et cetera. And so if we can... If the vaccine production process is just a matter of sequencing a gene or a protein and then making an mRNA, that's it. It literally takes days to do that. All the other time was testing. But Bob, we have to point out though that AstraZeneca made a viral-based vaccine, a more traditional all-thirds virus vaccine. And they also took them about a year. So from February to...

C: That's really fast though.

S: That's really fast. So it wasn't just the mRNA. I think it was, as you say, doing basically all three phases simultaneously rather than sequentially and starting production before the end was done. Doing everything basically all at once was key.

C: And also SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced before we even really knew that we were dealing with a pandemic. So back when it was local, epidemiologists, virologists were able to start this next generation sequencing process. It's just a game changer that we can sequence the genome of a virus so quickly.

B: That's absolutely key to this entire thing is being able to quickly decode the genome of a virus or a bacterium quickly. And that's key. And China released that, didn't they? They released it worldwide and said, hey, you guys all have at it. They definitely should have done things differently than they did. They could have really nipped this in the bud if they handled things differently. But the fact that they did that was good.

S: Yeah. The fact that one year ago, this was simmering in China. And a year later, we identified the virus, we sequenced the genome. We've learned a ton about the pathophysiology of COVID-19. We've explored multiple therapeutics. We learned about the natural course of the disease. We learned how to care for these patients better. And a year later, we have multiple vaccines around the world ready get going in people's arms. That is a massive science success story. Just massive.

C: In the face of resistance. And that's the other thing that's so incredible. It's like there were a lot of mechanisms in place to lubricate these wheels. There were a lot of mechanisms in place to bring the money and to kind of streamline the regulations so that this massive scientific endeavor that's a multinational collaborative scientific endeavor could take place. But there were also massive mechanisms in place to kind of prevent progress. And yet this still happened in such a very short timeline. I think it really speaks to the power of science as a method. And it also speaks to the power of scientists and all of the different supportive people working in those supportive vocations out there as kind of a humanitarian effort.

S: Yeah. And also this COVID was also the source of the biggest pseudoscience of the year, as you're alluding to Cara. So for example, I mean, hydroxychloroquine has got to be the big pseudoscience story.

C: Wait.

E: The drug itself.

C: Yeah. But who promoted it? But I feel like I have to say, Steve, just to interject before we get into hydroxychloroquine as a whole. Do you guys remember this quote? I looked up the exact quote. I didn't want to paraphrase. "Suppose that we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it's ultraviolet or just a very powerful light. Supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or some other way."

S: Yep. The musings of one Donald Trump. We'll get to that a little bit later, I'm sure.

E: That's why you listen to scientists and not politicians.

C: Is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost like a cleaning? It sounds interesting to me. So we'll see. The whole concept of the light, the way it kills in just one minute. That's pretty powerful.

J: Yeah. They like he turned his head and he's looking at a couple of medical professionals and the looks on their faces were like, what do I do? How do we handle this one, you know?

S: I know.

J: It's unbelievable. Steve, you think the hydroxychloroquine was the pseudoscience of the year?

S: Well, I mean, I think it was certainly one of the biggest pseudoscientific stories of the year. I mean, hydroxychloroquine is a real drug it has its indications mainly for autoimmune disease. And there is some real reason to think that it might have been effective against coronavirus, but it became an unnecessarily pseudoscientific story because of the way it was politicized. And people are still promoting it, still.

C: Yeah. In the face of overwhelming evidence that this is not good for everybody's health.

S: Just to close this, I just wanted to see what was the most up-to-date thing. So there was a November 13th systematic review looking at all the studies this year on chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19, basically showing no benefit.

C: And what a nightmare that we have to do multiple meta-analyses at this point.

S: I mean, that's fine. It's fine that it was studied. It was fine that we then put all the data together.

C: Of course it was fine that it was studied. But at a certain point you go, okay, the onus is not on this anymore. Like why are we putting considerable resources into continuing to study this?

S: Some of it was driven by politics, I agree, not the science. But here's the thing. And then the holdouts say, well, you need to give zinc with the hydroxychloroquine, otherwise it doesn't work. So guess what? That's been studied too now. The biggest study of zinc plus hydroxychloroquine showed no difference, no benefit. So it just didn't work. Again, the pseudoscience is in continuing to promote it despite the evidence.

B: Yeah. I mean, hydroxy definitely has a huge brand name recognition this year in terms of pseudoscience. But in terms of like actual damage, I put at the top in my list here, mask denialism.

C: Or just straight up virus hoaxism, right? Which goes along with the mask denialism. Just this idea that it's not that bad. It's like the flu or you're taking away my liberty.

S: Or the whole thing's a hoax.

C: The whole thing is a hoax. Yeah.

B: But to me, the mask denialism has the highest body count.

C: Right. I think it all feeds into each other.

B: Even more than those other terms.

C: It's like though, it's the same people who maybe aren't washing their hands and all those things contribute to the spread of a deadly virus.

B: Yeah. But if everyone just wore masks and didn't even wash their hands, then we would see much lower numbers.

C: That's so depressing.

B: Something so simple.

S: Yeah. In the U.S., we're over 300,000 dead at this point, arguably. But at least tens of thousands of people are dead due to some flavor of COVID denialism. And it could be as many as one, 200,000 of those 300,000 people. We don't know. We can't replay it. But like best case scenario, if we were really good about containing this pandemic, we might have kept the deaths under 100,000. That's plausible.

B: It could have been flu. It could have been similar to a bad flu year. And I mean, think about that. Think about those numbers. That's some dense pseudoscience death right there in one year. What even comes close in the past century?

C: Yeah, that's true. We often talk about hoaxes. We talk about pseudoscientific quack cures. And one of the common questions we have to answer doing what we do is the sort of what's the harm question.

B: There you go.

C: And we talk a lot about harm, but often it's true. It's sort of on the fringes. Or often it's sort of like it's harm psychologically. And yes, it's harm physiologically. Yes, it's harm in terms of actual life and death. But often the numbers are nowhere near what we're dealing with this year.

B: That's why you need a foundation of critical thinking, skepticism, and being able to assess evidence to get people in a position where they don't jump into something like mass denialism that has a huge body count.

E: And you have to know the right people to listen to, the right sources to read. You go to the experts. You don't go to the amateurs to figure out what's going on.

B: That's all part of it.

J: Look at how science got breached or the belief in and trust of science was breached. I mean it wasn't just Donald Trump, I know. But he was really leading the charge of first off I believe personally that he started the or was a huge contributor to the non-mask wearing craze.

C: He refused to in front of in all of his speeches early on when Fauci and Birx were saying, we need to mask up and we need to be vigilant about this. He was saying, yeah, they say that, but I'm not going to.

J: Yeah, he just persisted. It just kept going on and on. I think I saw him wearing a mask twice in the last 10 months. You know, I mean, everything that all of his negative contributions to this whole situation, I think were adding to the the lack of belief in basic science. The thing that's scary, though is just how easily so many people were pushed into not believing in science. It didn't take that much of a push. It wasn't like that long drawn out conspiracy against science. It was just a politician.

S: Well, Jay, the the COVID concept played out everything that we talk about in the skeptical movement, right. All of it came to a head with COVID. It was conspiracy theories, science denialism, the war on expertise, the politicization of scientific topics. It was all there. And obviously, scientists were pushing back. We were pushing back. Skeptics were pushing back. But it became a culture war. The science and the response to COVID became a culture war. And once that happens, you lose. You know, it was the spread of information on social media, of misinformation. You know, all of the things were at play, all the scientific skepticism, activism that we do. And again, that culminating in the what's the harm argument? Well, there it is. And it's not as if scientists didn't know what was going to happen. Some of our listeners pointed out that about 10 years ago, we had Mark Chrislip on the show. And we asked him, what's the next pandemic going to be like? You know, what's really what could it be like? And he pretty much laid out, the COVID pandemic. What he described, oh you're going to have lockdowns. People will be at home, he said. I think he even said stock up on toilet paper. You know, it was he pretty much called what would happen. Yeah, it was it was uncanny. So it's not like the experts didn't know that this was this was inevitable.

C: But there was also a kind of I continue to run up against this kind of like naive outlook that I see among experts who might be dialed into the science, but not necessarily into the social psychology or like, say, the skeptical kind of viewpoint, where I just had someone on my podcast this past week who I struggled with, because although he is very well versed in Andrew Wakefield and fraud, and I talk about this on the show, there's this sort of like bring the people the information and they will make the best decision.

S: Yeah. The knowledge deficit.

C: We know that. Yet you continue to see it is it's so naive, yet you continue to see it voiced by individuals in oftentimes positions of scientific authority where it's like, let's just keep following, towing the line saying once people see once they see, they're going to change their behavior once they see they're going to want to get vaccinated.

B: Have you seen you have met humans, right?

S: All right, let's talk about some non COVID stuff.

Return to Space (20:57)[edit]

S: So what other science? I mean, it's hard to get past it. But there was other science happening.

C: Absolutely.

E: Oh, yeah. The dragon capsule.

S: Yeah, exactly. I was gonna say list that as my as like the big positive thing that happened this year. This is really felt like the year that like we're back into space. Yeah, we you know, we have a successful launch of the dragon capsule with people delivering people to the ISS. And really seems like this is happening this whole going back to the moon Artemis project we're really the 2020s is going to be an incredible decade in terms of space travel.

B: Absolutely.

C: We launched three across the globe, three different Mars missions in July of this year. China launched Tianwen-1. We launched Perseverance, the rover. There was also a United Arab Emirates launch. As you guys I mean, we we freaking scooped rocks off of an asteroid this year.

S: Two asteroids and the moon.

B: And brought him back.

C: It brought it back. You're right. It's just amazing.

E: China went to the moon. Israel went to the moon. India went to the moon as well. Just incredible stuff.

B: And we're also seeing we're seeing historical levels of investment in one of my favorite things, nuclear thermal rockets for cislunar activities between Earth and moon orbit, which then with those engine designs will then can then be used as a foundation for the bigger versions to go to Mars. I mean, it really looks promising now. They're really starting to see that we need to step away at some point from chemical engines and really start looking at these nuclear engines. I mean, they're just imagine going to Mars and half the time, half the time, that's a huge chunk you're knocking off there. And so, yeah, so that made me very happy.

E: But you can feel it building up all these events. People took an interest again in space, I think, to a degree that they hadn't felt in a long time. And I think a lot of that had to do with the with the success of the Dragon capsule and the return of U.S. astronauts back into space and merging with the ISS. That was very celebrated. Millions of people watched the the event on television, even the first part that was scrubbed and then had to get pushed a couple of days for the relaunch. You know, people people followed that intently. There was a ton of attention and people were genuinely, genuinely interested. It's like a renaissance almost coming.

C: I also I think it's important to point out that 2020 really was a watershed year for spotlighting inequity across America specifically, but also that that that Black Lives Matter movement spread across the globe as well. So not just a conversation about police brutality, although that's sort of how it started. And that was kind of the nucleation site for this year.

S: It's good to point out, too, that there's a science at the core of this. Like we're not just this is not just how we feel about things. There's a science of the differential treatment in many contexts, in many, many the medical context, certainly in policing, definitely in many, many outcomes. And so that science is informing this entire discussion. And as it should, as it should be again, the like what we do about it is more of a political question, but there's no serious scientific doubt about the data itself. The disparity is absolutely there.

C: For sure.

S: Before we move off the science news part, Jay or Ian, do you guys have any science news stories that stick out for you?

Folding Protein (24:37)[edit]

J: I didn't hear anybody mention the folding protein.

B: Yeah. Tell me about this, Jay. Alpha fold. Definitely one of the biggest of the year for me. For sure.

J: After you covered that, Bob. I did more reading about it just because it takes a while for that type of science to sink in. Like I need to read it over and over again to really understand it because you usually pack so much information into your news items, like I can't absorb all of it. And it gave me I got a legit chill go down my spine when it hit me when I really got it. I'm like, oh, I totally get why this is profound now. And it was it really got me. I really think that that is an amazing, an amazing achievement. And the thing that thrills me is it's going to stay it's going to be just like CRISPR. Like we're just going to continue to hear about it. It's not going to go away.

Life on Venus (25:26)[edit]

J: The other one was the possibility of life on Venus.

S: Yeah, that was huge.

B: Yeah. That was cool.

C: We're all like, oh, yeah, maybe. Yeah.

J: Not cool enough for you guys?

E: No, it's super cool. That made my list.

B: I think we should prioritize a mission to check that out because that sounds I mean they've knocked down every other possibility that that doesn't have to do with life. So it's like, well what else could it be that that doesn't that's not proof that it's life, but it's compelling.

CRISPR Cancer Treatement (25:54)[edit]

B: And Jay, it's funny. You mentioned CRISPR. I have to do a shout out to something we didn't I don't think we covered in depth. We did mention as an aside on one show, the CRISPR cancer treatment they that they that they came up with to destroy cancer cells. And they did it in mice without damaging other other cells. This looked Steve, Steve, I remember you were pretty impressed with it, too. They took two of the most aggressive forms of cancer, glioblastoma and metastatic metastatic ovarian cancer. They treated it with CRISPR. They doubled life expectancy. 30 percent higher survival rates in mice. Amazing outcomes in mice that I think I mean I think that's probably going to translate pretty well.

C: When you say they treated it with CRISPR, they treated it with a drug that they developed utilizing CRISPR?

S: No.

B: Using CRISPR-Cas9.

C: What did they do?

S: They used a vector to get CRISPR into the actual cells. You know, they didn't get to every cell, but they took a lot of the cells that may have been affected. And the CRISPR targeted a DNA change that makes the cancer cells cancerous and basically stopped them from reproducing. So they would just die.

B: That's their, that's their, their shtick. That's their, their mojo. They they're, they're immortal cells, right? You stop that. Well, that's the thing.

S: Cancers, almost by definition, have genetic changes. So we could target the genetic changes that make them cancerous with CRISPR and make changes that will either stop them from growing or kill them outright force them to undergo apoptosis. Basically, cell death. Then...

B: Kill the cancer cells. No, they actually said in quotes, no side effects, which is amazing, right?

S: Yeah. It's not chemotherapy.

C: Yeah. Because it's targeted. We have incredible mind-blowing targeted treatments for cancer now, but they often do have side effects, even though they're targeted because there's a molecular marker on the cell or it's a hormone positive type of cancer. There's still all sorts of off kind of target problems.

B: Right. And you often see incremental advances. And when we've come a long way with incremental advances for over years.

C: Those were not incremental though. Once those were developed, that was a game changer for cancer patients. I would not call that incremental.

B: Okay. That, yeah, that, that's fair. That's what you're seeing here. I mean, when you're seeing doubling of a life expectancy and a 30%, not a 30% survival rate, but a 30% higher survival rate, that those are, those are game changers as well. And I think it's just going to get better.

C: It also opens up an avenue for prevention. It opens up an avenue for targeting oncogenes, for example, or pre-cancerous cells, being able to find places where there's a chance that if more genetic variation occurs, cancer could become rampant. Let's stop it in its tracks before it's even cancer. That's amazing.

S: Ian, do you have any votes for science?

Arecibo (28:42)[edit]

IC: Well, this is about two minutes too late, but when you said vector, I did want to say, what's your vector? Wait, wait. Well, I said a badly.

S: Roger. Roger.

B: We can cut it back two minutes ago, man.

IC: Can we cut that in? Okay.

B: No, that was good. Even a little late. That's funny.

IC: No problem. I didn't know that the science news needed to be happy, but I thought of the Arecibo radio telescope collapse as actually being kind of, I mean, uber important. And then maybe it spurns the desire to look into maybe we need to build more telescopes or maybe we need to consider how this "ancient technology" that's been around, what, how many decades, four decades now, was it built in the 60s? I can't remember. Actually, that's more than that. That's six decades. How important that is for astronomy.

C: Yeah, that's six now. Geez, Ian.

IC: It's crazy.

C: Sixtis is six decades ago. Oh my gosh.

E: We've talked about telescope construction quite a bit on the show over the years, mostly having to do with the appropriate places they should be and in context of making sure that, places like Hawaii are preserved properly and cultures are appropriately, involved in the process among other things. So it's not that we can just go plopping down telescopes wherever we want, even if tere's an ultimate perfect spot to do so. There's a ton, ton of considerations. It's very complicated and I think we've done a pretty good job of delving into some of those issues.

B: Yeah. And for a little teaser, if you want to talk about telescopes, stay, watch our 12 hour show at the end of January and I will probably be talking about the best telescope you will ever hear about ever, ever.

E: James Webb?

B: No.

E: That's almost a running joke.

B: James Webb is a…

E: It's almost become a running joke.

B: Is a 10 power little, little glass, little lens compared, no, I won't say anymore. Best ever, ever.

Climate Change (30:44)[edit]

S: I think a stealthy, sort of in the background, but big science news item, not one thing, any one thing, but sort of lurking in the background this year is climate change because really we are getting…

B: Took a bit of a backseat, right?

S: Yeah.

B: Because of the pandemic.

C: Isn't it like the hottest year on record?

S: But yeah, but 2020 is on track to being, if not the hottest year on record, it'll be just barely behind 2016, which was an El Nino year, so it's kind of has an unfair advantage. But I wrote about the fact that like in 2010, the climate change deniers were still saying, oh, there hasn't been any warming for 16 years and it's all fake and everything. And so I said, okay, well, you're wrong. You're statistically wrong. But assuming that the increases in temperatures that we've seen so far are just random, then we would expect a regression to the mean or there wouldn't be any particular reason to think that the 2010 to 2020 decade is going to be warmer still. But if global warming is happening, the next decade is going to be the warmest decade. Let's see who's true, who was correct in that prediction. Here we are in 2020. The last decade has been the warmest decade on record. Something like nine of the last of the 10 warmest years are in this decade.

B: Couldn't get them all, though, could they?

S: And then we'll put the next decade is going to be the warmest decade on record, too. Yeah. So it's just beyond.

B: But at this point, though, at this point, are they still saying that it's not getting hotter or have they kind of segued to, yeah, but we're not doing it?

S: Well, yes. They're doing all of that.

B: It's a mixed bag of stuff.

S: It's a Mott and Bailey, remember, fallacy where they'll there's some at times will marshal arguments that it's not really happening, but then many will say, OK, it's happening, but we're not doing it or it's happening and we're doing it, but there's nothing we could do about it or it'll be cheaper just to adapt to it or whatever. Anything other than not burning fossil fuel. Right? That's the goal. The goal is to continue to burn fossil fuel. And so they every argument has that conclusion that we can continue to burn fossil fuel. And we are sort of approaching this point of no return where we're not already able to just yeah, yeah, we might be-

E: Some have argued we're past that tipping point.

S: Well, again, there's not one tipping point. There's multiple tipping points. And we still have a little bit of a carbon budget left to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. But we're getting awfully close. You know, we really are. We're basically out of time to for big initiatives to do things that will reverse this trend.

E: Does that include nuclear building up our nuclear reactors?

S: Well, some argue that that that's the case. Again, I'm not my position is not that that's absolutely necessary. It's that we need we absolutely need to maximize renewables. And then we need either grid storage or nuclear. I think we should do both to hedge our bets. That's my position. But we don't need nuclear if grid storage works out fine and dandy. But we don't have the technology right now to have all the grid storage that we would need. And so if we can't we can't figure out 10 years from now that we read the wrong choice. This is it. This next decade is pretty much our last chance. And if in 2030 we can't say, oh, we should have done this 10 years ago. There's no room for course corrections. We've got to do it all. And we've got to do it now. You know what I mean? That's where we are. We've left we've frittered away all of our buffer. We have no more room to maneuver. Either we really have a concerted effort right now to dial down our carbon footprint or, the worst case scenario is inevitable. It may take hundreds of years before we get there in terms of the consequences, but we'll lose the ability to stop it. It'll be inevitable.

B: You know, at the very least, we can pretty much guarantee that the United States will be kind of back on course with that for the next four years. But the question is, is that going to even make a difference? I mean, because you got the rest of the countries at least at least they're all in the Paris Accord, except what? One other country? And us?

C: And us? Yeah, that's the thing. It's so frustrating for people listening to us talk about this, who live in countries that have a progressive outlook on this and are actually working really hard to, because we're always like, we've just got to have a concerted effort. And everybody's going, yeah, you guys are the assholes who aren't in the concerted effort.

S: No, we get it. We totally agree.

C: I know, it's so frustrating.

S: It's not just us. Australia is not doing well, either their politics or our food bar and climate change.

C: Sure, sure. But we actually have so much influence.

S: You know, we will do nothing if China and India aren't on board as well, but we need to lead by example. We need to also listen, this technology is coming. We can either be buying this technology from China or whatever, or we could be innovating it and having our economy benefit from it. The thing that's super frustrating is that this is often framed as the false choice between climate versus the economy. Wrong. It's just like the false choice between the pandemic or the economy.

C: Yeah, that's a political angle right there.

S: That is a false choice. It's a false framing. It's one of the other flows. The best thing for our economy, and economists have said this, that the best thing we could do for our economy is to mitigate climate change, is to prevent it from happening, not deal with the after effects. It'll be orders of magnitude more expensive to try to deal with the after effects. And there's tons of money to be made in the new technologies that will mitigate it. There's tons of opportunity here. We're throwing away opportunities, jobs, and money after...

E: And our planet.

S: What? Yeah, not to mention all the disruptions and deaths that it already is causing.

B: And the real good news, Disney World won't be flooded. Come on.

E: The oceans are taking it on the chin, though. I mean, just the news we read this year about how horribly it impacted our oceans, our coral reefs and everything in there. It's dying at an incredible rate, and it is so scary to read.

S: But I think like every year, just to sort of wrap up the science part, there's a lot... We did continue to make incremental advances in all the areas that I think are really transforming the world. We're making incremental advances in battery technology, in solar technology, perovskites and organic solar power, for example, in two-dimensional materials, in quantum computing.

B: Artificial intelligence, deep learning.

S: Yeah, artificial intelligence. Yeah, just massive gains this year. So all that's sort of continuing to chug along in the background. We like to talk about it from time to time, but it's like there's no one big breakthrough. It's just that this incremental advantage to continue to pile up, and they are changing the world right from under our feet.

E: Thank goodness.

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

Favourite SGU Moments of the Year (37:44)[edit]

S: Ian, maybe you could set us off with this topic. We're going to talk about the favorite SGU moments of the year. And this could be on the show, during live events, during the Friday live stream. Is there anything that sticks out for you?

IC: I don't know if it's technically SGU, but NECSS, I mean tangentially related was pretty fun for us, I think, in all of the setup. I mean, it was just an epic collaboration of like all the guests and then all of the crazy tech stuff, which, of course, I am a fan of. But I think it went really well. So that was in this world where we can't meet. And we were like, last minute, kind of, we're like, how do we do this and make it work? It seemed like.

S: Yeah, I agree. It wasn't, it was technically a New England Skeptical Society event, but it was basically the SGU running it and sponsoring it. And so, in fact, that my vote was for not just all of NECSS, but specifically the interview of Bill Nye and Ann Druyan, which was just magical. And you know, a lot of people also voted for that, for that. A lot of our listeners, I think that was the best single thing that we did this year. I know we have that on YouTube, although we've kept it private. How would somebody listen to that interview right now if they wanted to?

IC: Well, they could go still to the same link for, I believe it's the 2020. And that will lead them to where they can sign up for the conference, because it's still actually available, the whole thing.

S: Yeah. As a digital conference.

IC: As a digital conference. And we are thinking about re-streaming it again later.

J: Yeah. We've talked about that.

IC: So stay tuned for that.

S: It would be a good idea if we could schedule it. But I do like, I love the fact that, and I guess we did back into it a little bit because we were going to do a meatspace conference and the pandemic squashed that. But I think we really rose to the opportunity because we didn't just say, all right, let's do a digital conference. We said, all right, we have an opportunity to reimagine what a digital skeptical conference, science conference can be. And we rebuilt it from the ground up in terms of the pacing of the events, the kind of events that we were going to do, the kind of interaction with the audience. And I think it was a success. I think we did a really good job I must say, of not just having a in-person conference online, but crafting a digital conference. And in fact, honestly, I think that's what we should just do going forward. Not because we have to, but because it's better. And not that we won't do any in-person events, we are, but I think a digital conference in a lot of ways was just a superior experience for everyone involved.

J: I think the in-person thing because of COVID is going to be a little weird for a couple of years anyway. And we put in an incredible amount of time, like in the R&D part of this, right? We talked about it over and over and over again. And then when we started to really get into the technical side of it, until the edges were pushed, we didn't know where they really were. And we found out that we had a lot of technological room to grow and to do a lot more. We're still doing it right now. So I think I agree with you, Steve. I'm not 100% sure that I don't want to have an in-person conference again, just because...

S: Oh, we will. We'll do in-person events. But I think we're still, this is still a moving target. I think...

B: I miss meatspace.

S: Well, we're going to do meatspace events, but I think we'll do a meatspace events that are optimized for meatspace events, and we'll do digital events that are optimized for digital events.

B: So meat-optimized.

S: Is what I'm saying. Yeah. But I think just having like a conference where we're imparting information, that's better digitally, to be honest with you. And if we're going to be in person, we'll do stuff that's more social interacting, entertaining. You know what I mean? I think those are better for physical things. If we're just having lectures and stuff like that, I would do it digitally. That's my sense, but we're still working this out.

B: Well, that's what we learned in classrooms, right, Steve? You know, the lecture, just make that digital. You don't need to be there.

C: Well, it depends on what you're doing. Is it didactic? Is it just a lecture? Or is it engaging?

B: Well, yeah.

C: And I think that that's is it interactive?

S: If we go to the listener responses, I think the number one vote for favorite SGU episode of the year was our live episode that we did, our live show, where we pretended it was 2035.

C: Oh, the one that we recorded in Melbourne just at the end of 2019.

S: But we aired it. We aired it in 2020.

E: So it counts as 2020.

S: It counts as a 2020 episode.

J: It's really good to hear that the experiment that we did, which was a total left turn from our typical content, because it was science fiction it was fiction. It was definitely an extrapolation on known things. But it really was a work of fiction that all of us heavily contributed to. And the fact that people really got into it and appreciated it and felt a connection to it was really inspiring for me because Steve, I was really worried about that show.

S: I know.

C: Yeah.

B: That was the hardest show.

E: We were there with you.

C: We came up with that whole thing like over breakfast.

B: That was the hardest show I ever worked on. That was tough.

E: It's because we had to create the entire backstory for – we had to set the whole thing up. There was a lot of prep work involved with putting that episode together. We spent many days on it.

C: Everybody was so stressed. And I was like, just yes and this shit.

S: It was improv and role-playing. And it was basically – once we came up with like the interim history, like what's going to happen over the next 15 years and we all were on the same page, then all we had to do was play out that information that we all had in our heads. And Cara's right. It's just a yes and. Just don't contradict anybody else. Just agree with them and build on it. But it wasn't just for entertainment. The purpose of it – and it's always good to have a purpose, right? The purpose of it was to say if we try to extrapolate out not only science and technology for 15 years but skepticism for 15 years, culturally, what do we think things are going to be like then? What kind of news items might we be discussing in 15 years? And so it wasn't formative in that way, although it was this element of speculation. And for every item, we sort of gave the real history up to 2020 and then kept going to 2035. So there was a lot of real information in there. It wasn't pure fiction. But yeah, I know often Jay gets worried about things and you have to learn to trust me, brother.

J: No, I do. I do. I guess part of it is I'm not trying to even play devil's advocate. Like I think it through as a co-producer of all of our content. I'm constantly trying to find holes in things and think it through. And typically what I do is I can easily trust technology, but I don't completely trust how well we're going to pull something off as human beings. You know what I mean? Just because when it comes down to it, we're all a group of friends here. We're friends and family here. And I know that we have skills. But it is sometimes a lot to ask for a group of people to just try something completely new that they've never done before. We really have never done that before.

C: And I love how many people, Jay, like didn't get it right away.

J: Yeah. Oh yeah.

C: Like they got it eventually, but they were like, did I like hit my head and wake up in the wrong year? Like people were legit confused until they found themselves in it. But like we got so many emails after that aired.

E: Oh my gosh. So many.

C: So many.

B: It was a mix of emails.

E: Positive and negative.

C: I didn't know what year it was.

B: Some people were like, please don't ever do that again.

E: Pulled a prank on me. As part of that-

S: It was mostly positive. Just a couple.

E: No, yeah. It was mostly positive. As part of that episode, I did a skeptical quote, as I do for all the episodes. And I quoted someone named Alyssa Carson, who's a space enthusiast. She's the youngest person to have ever attended all of the NASA pre-events, basically working her way up. She's going to be an astronaut someday. She's working on it. So I pictured her being on the moon and giving a quote about being a first astronaut to live on the moon. So afterwards, I got an email from her father asking, do you guys remember this? We got an email saying, hi, I'm Burt Carson, I'm Alyssa's father. I got a link. It showed up in my, I guess, Google alerts, came up. Anytime her name, I guess, is mentioned, he gets a Google alert. So because we used it as a quote in this fictional episode, it showed up. And he's like, can you explain to me what this is and what's going on? So I did. I replied to him and had to explain it. I just thought that was kind of the coolest thing to come out of that episode. Really, really special.

J: Well, Evan, you never told us that. And that, to me, is so, like, I totally get, as a dad, like he's searching for his kids' names as a Google alert, just to make sure nothing weird's going on, whatever. That's his job. But he got hit with a very weird, unique situation, right? Because we visualized his daughter as a successful astronaut on the moon in the future.

E: Right. So he's like, you need to explain to me what this is and what's going on. So I had the pleasure of replying to him on that one. We had a nice little conversation about it. Very cool. Great episode all around. One of my all-time favorites. All time.

IC: Did y'all buy stock in the Aug yet?

C: The Aug! It's coming, man. It's coming.

IC: It's happening.

S: I really loved the interview with Ann Druyen. I really loved the interview with Angela Saney. I think that we had some pretty kick-ass interviews this year.

B: Kevin Peterhant and Gerald Gossner.

C: Oh, yeah, Kevin! So many great people on the show.

IC: I think a viewer favorite, sorry, Jay, a viewer favorite is the live streams on Friday.

B: That, yeah. We gotta give a shout out. That's just, like, such an awesome thing.

E: Another thing got, was birthed out of COVID, in a sense.

S: So let me explain what that is. So we decided that, like, this was during the shutdown, like, we were all at home, hey, let's just do a live stream on Friday for something to do and to entertain our listeners. And you know, it turned into a lot of fun for everybody, so we continued to do it. Cara, real life, intervened with the PhD thing that she's doing. So she's not able to make them regularly now, but we've continued to do them. And Ian has turned them into an audio podcast format, which you can get if you are a patron of the SGU, even at the lowest $5 level. So they're all there. Yeah, so that was just, that was something that came positive that came out of the pandemic. I don't think we would have done that otherwise.

J: I look at it like it's the dark side of the SGU, like the light side is this podcast, and the, and when I say dark side, the front, I mean-

S: Unfiltered.

J: Yeah, it's unfiltered. So there's really no editorial policy, like, we're trying not to swear, whatever.

S: There's editorial policy, there just isn't an editorial filter, because it's locked.

C: Yeah, enforcement.

E: There's no delay button or anything like that.

J: We talk about pretty much whatever we want, there's, it doesn't have to be science. It's not really SGU content as much as it's, it's, again, it's friends and family talking about their lives and what's going on. I mean, and of course, this year with the pandemic and all the insanity, the absolute political insanity that we all have lived through and are continuing to live through, like, it was a really good outlet. Like I kept, Cara and I kept talking about mental health on the, on the live stream. And a lot of people emailed and sent me a lot of private messages thanking us for having the nerve to go there. Cara and I mutually both agree that we've got to de-stigmatize mental health issues. And we've been using the live stream to do it. And you know, Cara, I forgot to tell you, I got an email from someone where they heard us on the live stream and they were like, you know what, I think you really helped me because I've been struggling. And I just, after hearing you guys talk about it so openly and so honestly and so non-weirdly about it, like it didn't have like the stigma of weirdness, it was just, yep like I broke my foot or I have mental problems. There's really not that much of a difference.

C: I take my pills every day. Yeah.

J: Me too. And like they said you just helped me kind of get over their hurdle and I can't tell you like how much I appreciate it, like unexpectedly from a group of people that do a podcast. So I feel great about that just because our personal experiences, we're able to help some people and but the point is that the live stream, really guys, it's just letting hot air out. It's just a good, it's the community is fantastic. My God, the chats, I attend the live stream just to read what the audience is chatting about because it's ridiculously funny.

C: That's my favorite part is reading the thread of all the comments by far.

J: I have a favorite bit though, Steve.

S: Go ahead, Jay.

J: It's a silly thing, but it was out of, of course, Who's That Noisy? It was the listener that emailed us slowed down talking and we all sounded drunk.

C: Yeah. That's awesome.

J: That was another thing I got. I get a lot of Who's That Noisy emails, like a lot. Like it takes me an hour to go through the emails every week. It literally just like following up on people's links and all the noises. And the two weeks after that, people like emailed me, were just like, oh my God, I can't tell you. Like I was driving when I heard that and I started laughing so hard that I couldn't see the road. Like I have a lot of those emails of people that really got off on that. So I just think it's awesome. People keep quoting Cara going, and he was just so really wonderful, like Cara was just so total, like loaded. It was awesome.

S: That was funny. All right, it's time to move on to the skeptical heroes.

Skeptical Heroes (52:22)[edit]

S: We got a lot of votes from our listeners. Thanks to everyone who filled out the form. And let me just say thank you to all of our listeners who voted for the SGU or for one of the rogues as their skeptical hero of the year. We appreciate that, but we're not going to discuss ourselves.

B: I didn't see my name on it.

S: The only one non-rogue that got the votes there was Dr. Fauci, and I agree. He talked about somebody who was in a no-win, horrible scenario. So first of all, it's hard enough calling a pandemic, right? So this guy, he doesn't know any more than the rest of us, in terms of the real-time information. He's an expert, so he knows how to put it into context, et cetera. But he's going on the same information that we are, pretty much. And he has to make sense of this in real time and not only advise policymaking, but communicate what's happening to the public and make specific recommendations. And that's a tough job.

C: And also not lose his job in the process.

S: Right, but he had to do that in a pretty hostile environment, all things considered. He was able to stay professional, do his job. He got things wrong. He just picked himself up and said, sorry about that. We're changing. This is what we're doing now. And just this calm, rational voice throughout the pandemic. I think we all owe Dr. Fauci a huge thank you for his hard work. He really is, I think, the hero of the year, so I agree with that.

B: And he's loved and trusted, loved and trusted by so many people.

C: Also, by the way, this man in two days, as of this recording, is turning 80 years old. 80 years old on December 24th. He's about to, I think he's accepted, right, a new position in office under Joe Biden. So not only has he just really kind of steered this ship amongst very tumultuous waters, the fact that he ain't going to get a break, he's just going to keep on going.

E: Thank goodness for public servants like him. Thank goodness. They're a special breed of people.

S: He managed to find that sweet spot where he was depoliticizing the pandemic, rather than kowtowing to the politicization of the pandemic. You know what I mean? And a lot of other experts didn't find that sweet spot, and they got chewed up as a result.

C: Remember, he's been serving in a public capacity for the American public for 50, over 50 years.

E: He's dedicated his life to it.

C: He made massive contributions during the AIDS pandemic, which is still ongoing, during Ebola. He's protected so many people. He's ultimately saved so many lives.

J: He came out of retirement, too, to help.

C: Incredible.

J: And now he's just on. He just is not quitting, which I find to be amazing. I mean, at his age, there's a lot of other things I'm sure he would rather be doing. Yeah, I'm sure you are. He's an amazing brand.

E: How many scientists nowadays are household names? Not enough.

C: True. Living scientists.

E: Not enough. Correct.

C: Yeah. You're right. And the fact that he is, like, I don't want to say unscathed, because he's for sure got some bumps and bruises and scars from living through this administration, but he kept his job. And he's like one of few who managed to stand up in the face of these overwhelming odds and say, it's about telling truth to power. It's very important that I say what needs to be said, regardless of the pressure to say it or not say it. And somehow, because he was so indispensable, he managed to keep his job.

S: All right. But now, not to be too American-centric, we did get one listener point out that Jacinda Ardern, Ashley Bloomfield, and Susie Wiles were their votes for helping to eliminate COVID-19 in New Zealand by being excellent science communicators. So yeah. So other countries all had their Fauci. They all had somebody who had to be the face of the scientific side of dealing with the pandemic. And some of them did a fantastic job, and they should be recognized as well.

C: Absolutely.

E: And we know Susie. We've been to multiple conferences with her, twice in New Zealand, and she's just a wonderful person to begin with. And then her work, and then me reading about her and her being reported on early on in all of this was really, really satisfying. And also Jacinda and Ashley as well for their work. Can't be understated. Cannot be understated.

C: Well, I mean, Jacinda Ardern, to lead a country, I mean, I think this is what's so incredibly important is that we're seeing, we see Trump, and we see Boris Johnson, and we see these comical examples of failures. And sometimes we forget that the Prime Minister of New Zealand is making evidence-based policy decisions left and right. She's leading through strength of character. She is elevating the science communicators and the scientists within her country. And she's kind of a perfect example of the epitome of that. But there are many societies across the globe who did this thing right. They did it right.

S: Yeah, I agree.

C: They had strong leadership, and they were interested in following the experts. And so, yeah, tip of the hat to them. Sometimes we obviously get kind of up our own asses because we're dealing so much with such like catastrophic failure here in the U.S. But I mean, it's amazing to see places that do that.

S: Yeah, and I'll say, again, just to pull like a Time magazine kind of a maneuver, where I'll say I think that the skeptical activists worldwide in general and science communicators and any scientists who had to be the face of science during this pandemic, this is a tough year. And I think this was a year where there was an opportunity for science, the scientific institution, institutionally to say, all right we're going to step forward and we're going to help us get through this pandemic. And it totally did so I just think every health care worker who had to treat COVID patients, every scientist who had to deal with the pandemic, every science communicator who had to push back against conspiracy theories and misinformation and pseudoscience, it was kind of a group effort. And I think everybody needs to get mentioned. This was really, there was a bit of a culture war going on here. And it was expertise and science and scientists and reason against tribalism and conspiracy thinking and nonsense and this is not going to go away. But this year really brought things to a head for sure.

Skeptical Jackasses (59:21)[edit]

S: Now the flip side of the skeptical heroes is the skeptical jackasses of the year. Now, I'm sure you could guess who the vast majority of the people who responded on our forum voted for. And that is the person who was the face of the pandemic denialism, continued a pre-existing, campaign of climate denialism, of anti-science, of anti-expertise, and who pretty much single-handedly manufactured a massive conspiracy theory that is undermining democracy in the United States, as well as giving aid and comfort to other absolutely batshit crazy conspiracy theories. And that is Donald Trump. You know, yes, he's a political figure, but just putting that aside, he is a conspiracy theorist and a pseudoscientist extraordinaire. And he absolutely is the beginning and end of our skeptical jackass of the year.

C: Absolutely. I mean, nobody else even holds a candle to him.

S: Yeah. I mean, there's a couple other honorable mentions we could throw in there, like, did he...

C: But they're absolutely honorable mentions.

S: Yeah. The scientist whose paper started the whole hydroxychloroquine thing that had to get retracted. It was just scientifically so awful. Definitely gets a mention. Gwyneth Paltrow gets a an honorable mention. If it weren't for the pandemic, she might have been in the running because of her goop nonsense.

C: What about Jade Amulet guy?

S: But that was the same guy. That was the magnetism is manufacturing COVID from your own DNA. And if you wear a jade amulet, they'll protect you from it. Oh, my God, his paper got retracted, of course, but the purest nonsense of the year. Absolutely. Just dangerous, pure nonsense.

C: Yeah. And then I would just say, like, the COVIDiots, like the the hoaxers, the people who perpetuate, and to be fair, not people who are swept into this, not people who have had the wool pulled over their eyes, who have been unfortunately for so long consuming the type of content that feeds this, but individuals who are perpetuating, individuals who can see the evidence right in front of their faces and denying it, ignoring it. And I think kind of one way to add to that would be like QAnon, this was a big year for QAnon.

S: Totally. That's what I was referring to. You know, you definitely give aid and comfort to that crazy conspiracy theory and manufactured the whole, that the election was stolen from him, which is now probably the biggest conspiracy theory in our country that is directly undermining democracy. Just really horrific. You know, just as general, just generally lowering the tenor of conversation, lowering respect for institutions, for process, for expertise, he really does stand for, promote, and embody everything we are fighting against as scientific skeptics. Pretty much everything. Again, whatever your political stripe, this is not about conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat. This is not about that at all. It transcends all of that. This is about science, logic, reason, expertise. You know, that's what it's about, critical thinking. And yeah, he's done more harm to that in this country than anyone in recent memory. No doubt. Okay. Let's move on.

In Memoriam (1:02:58)[edit]

S: So we're going to move on to the In Memoriam segment. And this may sound strange, but I enjoy this segment because it's an opportunity to remember and celebrate people who meant something to you and meant something to us collectively, to the movement. And it is remembering them at the end of their journey. But still, it's a great sometimes people you haven't thought of in a while, you're like, oh, I really appreciated what they did. And it's good to take the opportunity. So we're going to start at the top with the people who were the most, I think, central to science and skepticism. And of course, the person at the top of that list is James Randi, who we lost earlier this year. James was a good personal friend of ours, a good friend of the show, was part of the show for a while. You know, he really did so much not only for us, but for the skeptical movement, with TAM just as like things were getting started and the social media was really moving things along. He provided the biggest single venue for skeptics to get together. And he had a huge impact. And of course, this was at the end of a lifelong career of promoting science and reason and pushing back against fraud and pseudoscience and magical thinking. So just we all know, we all know James Randi. You know what he did, but it's just we have to take this opportunity. And of course, he got the most votes for the the biggest loss of the year. And a lot of people, a lot of people voted for him as their Skeptical Hero of the Year, but just as a way, I think, of honoring just his his lifelong career as a skeptic.

J: You know, Randi was first an inspiration for us growing up. And a lot of people that were science enthusiasts remember seeing Randi when they were young, watching him on TV he lived an incredibly busy life fighting pseudoscience. You know, as soon as he got on that path, he never went off of it until the day he died. That was it. That was his calling. +He really was an exceptional, exceptional human being. And he was an exceptional thinker. His mind was amazing. And he deserves to be remembered and he deserves for his the legacy that he helped build. And I feel like we're a small part of that, but we it lives on and it moves forward with him in mind.

S: Another person who this was a surprise was Grant Imahara. So you know, Grant was on the Mythbusters. He was a great science communicator, really everyone involved with the Mythbusters did so much to promote not only just enthusiasm towards science and technology, but also scientific thinking they really did a lot to model scientific thinking and Grant was part of that. He was, he died unexpectedly at only 49 years old of a brain aneurysm, which is very tragic. And it's it's different. Like Randi was 92 and it was like you have to celebrate that he had a long, happy life and fulfilling. And Grant was taken from us in his prime, which adds another layer of sadness there. I'm sure he had many great things ahead of him that he now won't have a chance to do. But still, it's great to recognize and celebrate what he did do in the time that he had.

C: Yeah, he's just a genuinely nice guy, like just genuinely giving open, kind of no Hollywood bullshit about him. Just very kind of like, hey, I think what you're doing is really cool. And you know, I'm all about it. And you ever want to chat about that, like, I'm here for you. And you know, he was like the best kind of nerd. Like he was the way that we would often talk about Wil Wheaton. I don't know if you guys remember that video where Wil Wheaton is standing up. I think it's at a Comic Con. And he's defining what it means to be a nerd to just be like, earnestly into what you're into in a really authentic way. And I mean, that was Grant. And also, you guys might not know this, but he was like a huge LARPer.

S: Oh, really? No, I didn't know that.

E: Was he a LARPer? I know he's big into board games.

C: No, he was a LARPer too.

S: We talked recently about Chuck Yeager, who died not too long ago. You know, a real pioneer, very courageous critically important to the space program. Again, the kind of person that we can celebrate for just being dedicated to excellence. Again, that sort of competency porn thing that is so important. Somebody who just very no-nonsense kind of guy who just did the work and moved things forward, you know. Also on the list, we lost Katherine Johnson this year. You guys remember who she is?

C: Yeah, absolutely.

S: From Hidden Figures.

C: That was this year? What month was that?

S: Early in the year.

C: Yeah. Wow.

E: Was she 100?

C: She was, yeah.

S: 99 or something? 100? Yeah, she was. She was the mathematician who worked at NASA during the Apollo space program and was, working behind the scenes to land the astronauts on the moon, but didn't get the credit at the time that she deserved and was didn't really become a household name until the recent movie, Hidden Figures.

C: And, like, this is a woman who is working against just insane racism.

S: Yeah.

C: Like, in an era where the work that she did as a mathematician, as a – was she a calculator, a computer?

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah. You know, doing these, like, really sophisticated calculations was just – it just blows my mind when you look at how these women were treated separate bathrooms, separate, facilities, unable to share in the same coffee pot. Like, it's amazing that the disconnect in the American mindset that said, this person is valuable enough that will use their brilliant mind to help us achieve the – what before we thought was unachievable, but not so valuable that will give them any sort of human dignity. And the fact that she, in spite of that, served her country in this way, and in spite of that, worked tirelessly to make a better place for all of us, I mean, it's just – I just burst thinking about it. It's, like, an overwhelming feeling for me. It's just been such an inspiration to so, so many young women and so many women of color.

S: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. That always strikes me. It's, like, in the face of incredible indignity to just persevere, and, like, you wonder how you would respond in a situation like that. You'd just be so angry, you know?

C: Exactly. And, like, it'd be so easy to just kind of walk away from it and say, I'm not – I can't – I'm not standing for this anymore. But she knew what she was doing really mattered.

S: So a number of scientists caught my eye as losing this year. These are not household names, but it's funny to think about, like, people who are responsible for things that you take for granted, like maybe in your day-to-day life or just part of your the scientific background. Arnold Spielberg was instrumental in developing personal computers, and he was, in fact, the father of Steven Spielberg, the director. Helped develop personal computers. Frances Allen, the first woman to win the Turing Prize, died this year. William English. William English built something you guys use every day of your lives. You're probably using it right now.

E: A chair.

J: A mouse.

S: Computer mouse. Yeah, computer mouse.

C: Oh, okay.

B: Nice.

S: Joan Feynman. A little bit of a relationship to the other Feynman. Did the foundational research on the aurora borealis what caused it. William Dement did, it was foundational research on sleep, and he came up with the term rapid eye movement or REM sleep, REM sleep. Floyd Zeger did a tremendous amount of work in agriculture and specifically in making fruit cultivars. He developed the pluot.

C: Oh, cool.

S: Yeah, which is a plum and an apricot.

C: Plum, apricot. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, you guys say apricot. Ian, what do you say?

IC: Oh my gosh, I really thought I was listening to the podcast for a second, I'm sorry. Kind of daydreaming. Apricot. Apricot.

C: You do? Okay. Yeah. So, and were you born and raised Connecticut too?

IC: Yeah. Yeah. It's that Connecticut Italian thing.

B: No, no, we don't say apricot. We say apricot.

C: I say apricot.

E: Apricot.

B: No, I never even heard of apricot.

IC: Apricot? That's not right.

S: Now I can't possibly know because it's in my head.

B: I think it's one of those things where you don't know how you say it because it's...

C: Jay, what do you say?

J: I say apricot.

C: Yeah. All right. Do you guys say pecan or pecan?

J: Both.

S: Both. Yeah, pecan. It's pecan pie. All right, John.

C: Sorry. Sorry to keep railing.

S: He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work with climate science. Larry Tesler. This is an interesting one. Larry Tesler came up with the whole software for cut, copy, and paste technology.

C: Oh, my gosh. That's life-saving.

J: I love it.

S: Yeah, right?

J: That is awesome.

S: Bob Freeman Dyson. Died this year.

E: Dyson. The Dyson sphere?

S: Yep.

B: Dyson swarm. Dyson sphere is unstable. Dyson swarm.

E: But the idea still is the Dyson sphere. Thanks, Bob.

S: Mary Fowkes. F-O-W-K-E-S. A neuropathologist who worked all year on COVID-19 pathology was responsible for a lot of the discoveries, a lot of things that we know about how COVID-19 affects the different organ systems in the body, and she died this year. There's a few politicians that I think are worth mentioning. The big one, yeah, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, of course. And John Lewis died this year. Also, I mean, I include the journalist in this category, Jim Lehrer, of the used to be the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, but which I was my go-to news source for a long time. So Jim Lehrer, yeah, he died this year. And then there's so many actors and famous people, we can't name them all. It's not really central to the show.

E: Several Star Wars-related names on that list, yeah.

S: But yeah, but there are some people who are just personally meaningful to us that I wanted to name. I don't know if you guys have anybody on your list, but I think most of the ones that you're going to care about are going to be on my list. So I'm just going down this in no particular order, Chadwick Boseman the Black Panther.

E: What a great actor.

B: What the hell, man.

E: Great actor.

S: Great actor, yeah, died very young. He knew he was sick. He knew he was dying, didn't tell anybody, just filmed the Black Panther. It's so sad to learn. You lost both Sean Connery and Alex Trebek, which for some reason I have to mention together.

C: I know, for some reason.

J: Steve, what's the first thing that Alex Trebek heard when he went to heaven?

S: The game is on foot, Trebek.

J: Sean Connery.

S: Kirk Douglas.

E: Paths to Glory.

S: Yeah, Paths to Glory and many things. Ian Holm from Alien.

E: Oh, of course. Bilbo Baggins. Oh, my gosh. So many roles.

S: Terry Jones from Monty Python.

E: Monty Python. More sadness.

S: Yep. David Prouse, who played the Darth Vader.

B: Oof. Yeah.

J: That's a big one.

S: Diana Rigg from The Avengers. Guys, remember Diana Rigg? She was also on Game of Thrones. She also on Game of Thrones. She had a very long, long career.

B: Yeah. She, um. She was excellent.

S: Bob, one of the stars of Enter the Dragon, John Saxon.

B: Oh yeah. That sucked.

S: And one of my favorite actors, Max von Sydow.

B: Oh!

E: Ming the Merciless.

B: I forgot.

J: So many roles.

B: Oh, my God.

E: Like 100 roles?

B: He was great. Damn.

S: I have to mention mainly for George Hrab, Neil Peart from Rush.

E: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. And me, too. Thank you.

IC: And what about Van Halen?

S: Eddie Van Halen.

B: Right. Oh, man. I forgot about a lot of these deaths. Damn it.

S: That's why I said it's good to review it. You know, just remember the people.

J: We're talking about famous people, but I do want to mention the 300,000 Americans that died from COVID, which I believe 250,000 of them were not didn't have to happen.

B: That's right, Jay.

S: Okay. Are we ready to go on to science or fiction?

J: Yes.

E: Oh, boy.

C: Yes.

S: All right.

Science or Fiction (1:16:07)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Common gene ancestor
Science Water on pluto
Targeting nanoparticle
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Water on pluto
Targeting nanoparticle
Water on pluto
Common gene ancestor
Common gene ancestor

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Theme: 2020 News Items
Item #1: A review of the evidence supports the conclusion that when Pluto formed it was hot enough to contain liquid water, some of which likely still exists as subsurface liquid water.[1]
Item #2: An extensive analysis finds that all vertebrate genes analyzed so far share a common, if remote, gene ancestor.[2]
Item #3: Scientists developed a nanoparticle that can target atherosclerotic plaques in arteries, triggering the destruction of cellular debris and stabilizing the plaque, which would potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks.[3]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. But before we play the last science or fiction of the year, I'm going to review the stats for the year so far. So who do you think had the highest percentage correct this year?

C: Steve.

J: Cara.

J: George.

E: Steve, what was your percentage?

S: I got two out of three correct, apparently.

E: Wow.

S: So I know it's not really fair to have me in the mix.

C: That's that whole small sample size.

S: Yeah, it's a small sample size. Sometimes I had 0% one year. I had 100% another year. But it's usually in there. But I just want to point out, take this opportunity to point out, it's a lot more challenging for me to play Science or Fiction for a number of reasons. One, I don't get that much practice at it. Two, I don't get that much exposure to you guys running Science or Fiction. And also, you guys don't do it enough to like really dial in the balance. And you know what I mean? So whereas- I have a very, I mean as much as I try to be unpredictable, I definitely fall into certain patterns, mainly to make sure that I'm keeping things clear and fair. But you guys are getting, every year, you're getting a little bit better figuring out how I would make something a fiction or whatever. So of the rogues, the second place was Cara at 66%, so just behind me.

E: Wow.

C: That's high. That's a good year for me.

S: Yeah. You had a good year.

S: Evan at 57.5%.

C: Well, that's high, too.

E: That's pretty good for me. Darn good for me.

S: Then Jay at 55.1%. And then Bob at 50%.

B: I just want to say, I just want to say that if you really look at the stats properly and you consider only non-themed Science or Fictions, Cara and I tie for 74%. I will say no more.

C: Non-themed. Interesting.

E: Yeah, I like diving a little deeper.

S: So clearly, I need to do more themed Science or Fiction.

C: No, clearly.

B: I'm just trying to find the gold nugget in there, and that's the only one I can find.

J: My gold nugget is that I got higher than Bob. I just can't believe that.

B: That's a good nugget, Jay. Enjoy it while it lasts.

S: Cara had the most solo wins at three. Cara also had the longest consecutive win streak at seven.

B: Was it eight? Seven?

E: Yeah, I remember that. That was fire.

S: Cara tied with Bob for the longest consecutive losing streak at five.

C: I am a multi-faceted. I contain multitudes, you guys.

E: You are a multitude.

S: The panel performs best when who answers first?

J: Cara.

E: Bob or Cara.

C: Me or Jay?

S: Jay. Jay answers first. 63% correct guess is when Jay goes first.

J: Why?

E: Jay, you're a trailblazer.

C: Because I think, Jay, when you're confident, you're confident, and when you're not confident, you're an easy read. So I think it's... We know.

E: And you talk your way through the items pretty well.

C: Yeah. Yeah.

J: So I give you credit.

B: Or it could be just random.

S: Or it could be random. Jay and Bob were asked to answer first 13 times, Cara 11, Evan 9.

B: You got to randomize that better, my friend.

E: Don't feel like you have to make up for that.

S: I'm just going on memory.

C: That's pretty close, though.

S: That's pretty good for just going on memory.

B: Well, stop it.

E: Flawed memory.

S: Cara did the best of anybody when answering first. She had 55% correct when she was the first one to respond.

C: Oh, wow. That's hard.

B: That's good. Yeah, it is hard.

S: So I swept you guys seven times this year.

E: That's good.

C: Wow, that's really good.

S: You guys swept me 10 times.

E: That's even better.

S: That's even better. Yeah. So these stats were provided by Wayne. So thank you, Wayne, for crunching those numbers for us.

B: Thanks Wayne.

C: Awesome job, man.

B: I told Wayne that I want at least four recounts before we accept this.

E: And certification.

S: You want a machine recount and a hand recount, and you still reject the results. Okay. But there's one more. There's one more science or fiction, and this has a theme. And the theme is, it's just science news items from 2020. So I had the whole year to use as a resource. I think these are not covered previously. I'm not going to promise that because I didn't check. I just didn't recognize them. So I may have used them and forgot. So don't hold me to that. But they're just three science news items from throughout, scattered around the year.

E: Oh, boy.

S: Okay. Here we go. Item number one, a review of the evidence supports the conclusion that when Pluto formed, it was hot enough to contain liquid water, some of which likely still exists as subsurface liquid water. Item number two, an extensive analysis finds that all vertebrate genes analyzed so far share a common, if remote, gene ancestor. And item number three, scientists developed a nanoparticle that can target atherosclerotic plaques and arteries, triggering the destruction of cellular debris and stabilizing the plaque, which would potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks.

J: Great.

S: All right, Ian, as our guest, you do have the privilege of going first.

Ian's Response[edit]

IC: I like that word, privilege, in this case. Okay. A review of evidence, blah, blah, blah, Pluto, blah, blah, water.

E: See, you're getting the hang of it already.

IC: Maybe. Wait. Okay. When it was formed, it was hot enough to contain liquid water. I don't like this. Some of which likely still exists as subsurface liquid. I mean, I guess, but I don't, is Pluto big enough to have that much heat in the center of it? Because it just seems like it would be far out. It's cold. Okay. I'm going to skip on that one. An extensive analysis finds that all vertebrate genes analyzed so far share a common, if remote, gene ancestor. That makes, I guess, sense. Right? Yeah. Right? There's a common evolution, maybe. Okay. I'm going to say that is science. Moving on. Scientists developed a nanoparticle that can target atherosclerotic plaques in arteries, triggering the destruction of cellular debris and stabilizing the plaque, which would potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks. Man, I just plug in cables. I don't know. It's like... A nanoparticle that can target... Sure. I mean, scientists, they're smart. They got stuff to do. They're all at home. They can just figure this out. Okay. I'm going to say that the water one on Pluto is the fiction. I just don't think... Yeah.

S: Okay. Evan, clearly you need to go towards the front of the order.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Right. Somewhere near the front of the order.

B: Wait. Why?

E: Because I only went first nine times? Okay. Pluto formed... I think... Hmm. Pluto, when it formed, I wish I could remember exactly. In reading about it in the prior years with the flyby with Pluto, and this must be the data that they collected on it, hot enough to contain liquid water at its formation, but some of it still exists on the subsurface as liquid water. Yeah. What kind of chemical reactions can take place that would otherwise take something that should by all rights be frozen solid and turn it into water? Now, obviously heat, but maybe there's another chemical reaction occurring, something else that I'm not quite aware of that could be doing that. That's interesting. The second one about vertebrate genes sharing a common remote gene ancestor. And by the way, I don't recognize any of these. So I'm not... That's very neat that they were able to find that. And I have a feeling that that one's going to be science. The fact that it is remote is the key word here and gives it weight. Then the last one about the nanoparticle targeting the plaques and the arteries. Boy, reducing the risk of heart attacks. This is one of these items in which you say to yourself, why didn't I recognize this when this was reported? This would have been pretty big. And how did we miss it on the show? Especially being a nanoparticle, Bob, how'd that get through your safety net? So that's unusual.

B: 50%, my friend. Don't listen to me.

E: But here's why it could be science. Because they could have developed the nanoparticle itself with the idea that it does these things. But it's maybe theory or it just hasn't been tested out yet to satisfaction because it says potentially, the word's potentially in here. It's either that or Pluto. All right. I guess I'll go with my gut. I think it's the one about the nanoparticle because I don't think we would have glossed over it had we known about it at the time. We just collectively missed it, though.

S: OK. Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I mean, the one that seems the least practical is Pluto having liquid water because it's so cold out there.

IC: Don't use my logic. It's probably wrong.

C: But let's see. OK. So maybe when it formed, it was hot. Sure. Maybe. If it still exists as subsurface liquid water, I mean, is that like a stretch, that word you're using, subsurface? You mean like real subsurface, right? Like kind of near the core where it might be still hot? Because there's no way. It's like just under the surface of the ocean like Europa.

S: I'll just say it's described as subsurface liquid water. Take that for what it is.

C: That's just the word that's used. OK. Review supports the conclusion that this is the key. that this happened. Not this could have happened. But the way you wrote this. Review of the evidence supports the conclusion that when Pluto formed it was hot. Hot enough to contain liquid water. Some of it likely still exists. Not like it could or perhaps this is a meybe thing. But we're pretty sure this is the case. I don't know man, that one is bananas. All vertibrate genes analised so far share a common, if remote, gene ancestor is totally plausible to me. All vertibrate genes meaning every single gene ina avertibrate body or every gene that encodes for being a vertibrate?

S: Every gene that a vertibrate has.

C: Yeah, but there were inveribrates, we have invertibrate genes.

S: Yeah, but that doesn't matter to the point here. They're still all related to each other.

C: Yeah, that's true. Becasue there would be a common ancestor to that as well. OK, cool, it would just be an earlier common ancestor. Yeah, that seems totally plausible to me. It was a branch, it split off. The vertibrates, the cordates, whatever, they split off and they proliferated. Scientists developed a nanoparticle that can target atherosclerotic plaques, OK, that's cool. Triggering the destruction of cellular debris and stabilizing the plaque, which would potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks. So stabilizing the plaque meaning like encapsulating it somehow or like getting it to stick to the wall so it's not going to unstick. Stabilising. Preventing it from braking up into smaller pieces.

S: Not that it matters for this item, but waht that means is, this is not so much that the plaque would brake off is that it won't ulcerate and form trombis. You're eating up the debris that would trigger a clot formation that would cause a heart attack.

C: Got it, OK, cool, cool. Yeah, I can see that happening. Because it doesn't say that it's not mice, it doesn't say that it's not model. It just says they developed one that could do this. So to me it's like, yeah. If it said in humans and has gone through trials and people are not benefiting from it that might be a different story. So I think I may go with Ian.

IC: Oh God. I'm sorry, you may be dead.

C: Yeah, so I think Pluto is the fiction here.

S: All right, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: So I will be summoning Perry helping me with the third one here about the nanoparticle. And I remember Perry saying something like if it has anything to do with nanotechnology it's science. But if anything is going to do what this item describes, getting rid of arteriosclerosis. Being able to clear out debris, stabilizing plaque. It's going to be a nanoparticle. That is the only thing to do other that surgery where they literally blow up a ballon and then pull it out. Pull all the crap out with it. So I think this one is science, and then I'll skip to the first one. So as you guys are talking, I'm like well what makes- When is a planet hot? And I always had this thing in my head like well planets are hot when they're forming, but I realize I don't know that. Because for some reason when you go back and you keep going back it's like, It's hotter. It's hotter. It's medieval. It's crazy.

C: Medieval.

J: Whatever. You know what I mean. So what would make it hot? I don't know. But I do know that pretty much every planet except the gas giants have liquid water at some point. So I don't think it's that weird for a planet or planetoid or dwarf planet to have some type of liquid water on it at some point when it may or may not have been hot. And there's other things that would make water liquefy other than heat. Isn't that true, Steve?

C: Don't think he can answer that.

S: Yeah, I think I'll leave that one alone.

J: All right. So that means that I think when we talk about analysing genes from vertebrates, I don't think this one is the science. I think that at some point everything had to come from one thing. But when we talk about sharing a common, having all share a common gene ancestor, I think the tree branches get so prolific that the answer to this could be no. And because I personally don't like genes and chromosomes, I'm going to say this one is the fiction.

C: You don't like them?

J: I don't. I really, I hate them both.

E: Yeah, well.

S: All right.

C: You need to love to learn your genes, Jay.

S: Bob, you get to give the last science or fiction answer for 2020.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah, whatever. So yeah, Pluto, yeah, it's not a mystery how planets get hot. You know, you're going to be hot. You know, the distance from the sun isn't that important. It's more of like radioactive decay creating heat or tidal forces creating heat. So tidal forces, I don't think are going to be that prominent on Pluto. There are a lot of moons, but I don't think there's enough tidal forces going on to really create heat. Is there radioactive decay? It's pretty damn small. I would say maybe not. Wait. Is it solid? But I don't know. I do remember, though, I do have tickling memories in the back of my head of something about water and Pluto. So I may just have to rely on that for some stupid reason. I'm going to jump to the third one, the nanoparticle. That one as well is triggering this vague memory from earlier in the year. And these damn memories have they're like, God, it really makes me think that this one is science as well. And there's nothing implausible about it. The only one that sounded implausible to me was the vertebrate gene analysis showing a common ancestor for all the genes. Regarding, Cara made some comments about this. You know, knowing that all the genes had an ancestor is one thing. We know that's true because of evolution. It has to.

C: That's how it works.

B: But knowing it is a completely different story. And you know, de-evolving genes to see what they must have been like before they entered their present state. It's a thing. They do that. But doing that, I think it's very hard. And I think doing that for all the genes in vertebrates, to me, it just seems like no way. They didn't do it. They didn't analyse every gene and do that analysis on every gene because that information is it's hard to figure out I think. Maybe they found something that they had in common that the gene ancestor had to have possibly. But I don't, that just seems the least likely option to me. So, I'm going to say that the gene analysis one is fiction.

S: Your answer is locked in, Bob, but let's point out it says vertebrate genes analysed so far. It didn't say we analysed.

B: I know. I don't want to get into my thinking.

S: All right. Good.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Here we go. So, you're all over the place. We're a good spread out. So, I'll take them in. There's no reason not to take them in order.

C: No sweep.

S: No sweep for anybody. So, we'll start with number one. A review of the evidence supports the conclusion that when Pluto formed, it was hot enough to contain liquid water, some of which likely still exist as subsurface liquid water. Ian and Cara both think this one is the fiction. And this one is science. Sorry, guys.

IC: Sorry, Cara.

S: Bob's basically right. So, when planets form, they can either form hot or they can form cold just by their formation. It depends how violently and quickly they form. And honestly, we didn't know for Pluto prior to getting a really good look at it whether or not it was one or the other because it's out there in the Kuiper belt and we don't know what's going on out there, right? So, was there enough activity to cause a hot formation or did it form cold? Bob is absolutely correct that radioactive decay is what would keep Pluto hot.

C: Eww.

S: Not chemical.

B: Weak force, my friend.

S: There's probably, there's a lot of probably tidal forces from Charon there, but not enough to make it hot. So, it is the radioactive decay. By the way, radioactive decay is why the Earth is still hot. It's why we haven't solidified.

B: Oh, absolutely.

S: And that's the one factor that Lord Kelvin was missing when he incorrectly calculated the age of the Earth was that there was, he didn't, we had not yet discovered radioactive materials. Okay. So, if Pluto formed cold, that would mean that it was all ice to begin with and then it heated up from radioactive decay and the water would therefore melt. And when that happened, it would shrink. So then we would see the sign, because ice is bigger than water, right? So then we would see the signs of shrinkage on the surface of Pluto. If it formed hot, then that means the water was liquid and then as it cooled from the outside it would expand and we would see expansion signs at the surface. And we could also, yeah, right, so we could also see like the, do the older parts of Pluto have shrinkage or expansion signs and do the younger parts of Pluto. It turns out that the old, the old surface of Pluto has expansion signs, which means that it formed hot and then froze. But some of that liquid would have then, some of that ice would have then melted as the, as the subsurface heated up from radioactive decay and then we would see shrinkage, the contraction. So that's what we see and that, so that indicates both that Pluto formed hot and, but probably still has some subsurface liquid melted by radioactive decay.

C: That's bananas.

S: Isn't that cool?

B: Yeah. That's cool.

E: Super cool. Was this all learned by the recent flybys?

S: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. This is from careful analysis of the surface of Pluto because of the flyby. Okay. Let's go on.

B: That's cool. There's still radioactive decay going on in such a small planet.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right. Number two, an extensive analysis finds that all vertebrate genes analysed so far share a common, if remote to gene ancestor. Bob and Jay, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is the science. So it's between Bob and Jay or Evan. So this one is the fiction.

C: Damn. So there were multiple evolutionary events, weren't there?

J: Bob.

B: Jay.

S: Well, let's back up a little bit. So do you guys ever hear of orphan genes?

B/C: Yes.

J: I've heard of Orphan Black.

E: I've heard of Orphan Drugs.

S: So as you know, as not only do species evolve from each other in a branching nestled descent, but so do genes. Genes evolve from each other. Gene will split into two and then go and then evolve in different directions, take on different functions and then further split and further split. And so evolutionary biologists try to build the evolutionary tree not only of species, but of genes. And sometimes they come across a gene that they cannot connect through similar sequences to any other gene. Or maybe it's a cluster of genes. These three genes are related to each other, but we cannot connect them to the tree. We can't connect them to any other genes.Those are called orphan genes. Now the question is, are orphan genes orphans because they've just evolved so much that their connection is obscured? Or are some orphan genes orphans because they represent de novo gene creation?

C: Right. Just like a spontaneous...

S: So this is the study to say what percentage of orphan genes were formed, "from scratch" and what percentage of them are just orphaned because they just evolved too much that it's hard to know where they connect to. And this analysis in any case finds that about two thirds of them are actually de novo from scratch gene formation. So how would that work? How do we get a gene from nothing? Well, junk DNA. There's a lot of sequences in there. There's a lot of raw material. There's viral inclusions that are pseudogenes. These pseudogenes or whatever the junk DNA can through mutation become an actual functional gene. That's awesome. If it just gets...

B: That's awesome. Start making proteins.

S: Yeah. Just start to make a protein. Now it has an evolutionary foothold. It can evolve. And in fact, species and groups of creatures that have really unique adaptations tend to... Those adaptations tend to be from orphan genes. Yeah. So it would suggest that they may be from de novo gene formation. That's why they didn't inherit it from another, from a relative. They actually developed it somewhere along their own line.

B: Yeah, which might be hard for conventional genes because they're kind of locked into a pathway. They can't really go devolve and change back.

C: So this confuses me though, because even if there were de novo mutations, are you saying they happened multiple times in the vertebrate lineage?

S: So that de novo gene would not come from a single...

B: Common ancestor.

S: ...common ancestor gene.

C: No, but wouldn't that de novo gene mutation become the new common ancestor?

S: Only if everything that derives from it, but there still wouldn't be. So this says all the genes share a common ancestor. A de novo gene would not share a common ancestor with all other genes.

C: No, I get that. Aren't you saying that the mutation itself is what causes it to become a vertebrate?

S: No.

C: Oh, that's where I was. That's where I was lost. I thought you were talking about a gene mutation that you just...

S: I could have said all mammals. I could have said all animals. I could have said all life. It didn't really matter. I just arbitrarily chose a big branch just to make it seem more plausible. Yeah, but it has to be wrong if there are de novo genes, right? They can't all come from a single ancestor, no matter what branch you choose.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All this means that scientists developed a nanoparticle that can target atherosclerotic plaques in arteries, triggering the destruction of cellular debris and stabilizing the plaque, which would potentially reduce the risk of heart attacks is science, and this is pretty cool. Now, what the nanoparticle is doing is targeting macrophages and delivering a drug that activates the macrophage, and it's the macrophage that eats the plaque and stabilizes it. The nanoparticle is not eating the plaque. It's just triggering. It could target the plaque, and it triggers the destruction by delivering a drug to the macrophages. Does that make sense? That much has been demonstrated, but it wasn't tested clinically, which is why I said it potentially reduces the risk of heart attacks, because the clinical studies haven't been done. Just the proof of concept has been done. It does do that. It just doesn't... They need to do the clinical studies. This was from January, so this was from the beginning of the year, published in Nature Nanotechnology. I do remember Perry saying that, Jay. I knew you guys... At least one of you would remember it, so I thought maybe they'll think that I'm punking you because I remember that, but it's a cool news item. I do also have a vague memory of it. I don't know if we mentioned it or talked about it or whatever or if I wrote about it.

B: I don't either. I just had a vague memory as well.

S: There's a ton of news items that we miss when I go through, like just looking at all the news items for the year.

E: Oh, gosh. So many.

B: Some of them are like, whoa, how did I miss that one? That's pretty important.

S: The liquid... The Pluto subsurface water I recognized too. I don't think we covered it really, but I remember coming across that, yeah.

B: It rang a bell. It definitely rang a little bit of a bell there for me.

S: Rang a bell.

B: Yeah, so I have to say that with this recalculation, with this win now under my belt, I think you will determine that I won by a landslide.

S: Yeah.

B: A landslide. We all know it. You all know it. You all know it.

S: Yeah.

C: That's how math works.

B: It's quantum math. Come on. Quantum math.

IC: I still got one out of three, so pretty good.

E: That's right. Always right ones in science fiction.

S: That's right. All right, Evan, give us the last quote of the year.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:43:08)[edit]

Persistence in scientific research leads to what I call instinct for truth.
Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), French chemist and microbiologist

E: Last quote of the year.

S: Decade isn't the last quote of the decade. It's when you count decades.

E: Oh my gosh.

C: No. No, we're not doing this again.

E: Save it for the 12-hour show. January 23rd. Tune in.

B: After we talk about AM-PM.

C: Yeah, exactly.

E: Oh, yes. Thank you. Please put that on the list as well. That'll take up 10 hours alone, those two conversations. This was submitted by a listener, John from New Hampshire, so thank you. It's to the point, and I liked it. "Persistence in scientific research leads to what I call instinct for truth." Louis Pasteur.

B: Louis.

S: Yeah, it's an interesting quote. You have to really think about it, too, I think, know what he's talking about. How would you interpret that, Evan?

E: That you have to be... Well, persistence, I think, is the key word here. In other words, not just following the process, but following it to a fault, almost, and making sure that you're always following it, being very persistent with it at all times. Of all the ways of possibly knowing things, that can lead you to what you could feel is the most truth, and I think that's why he called it an instinct for truth.

S: Yeah, you could also think that the more research you do, the more you start to get a feel for not only how the world works, but how information works, how we begin to... Like a metacognition kind of thing.

C: Totally.

S: How we know what we know.

C: It sounds to me like he's also talking about, basically, the development of expertise.

S: Yeah.

C: Just the longer that you study something, the more that you see all the different types of evidence that can be produced within that field, the more that you start to be able to make inferences with fewer data points. The more that you're able to say, okay, this looks like X because I've seen X from every different angle, and I have so much data in my catalogue that now, as an expert, I can kind of cut through to the core quicker than somebody else.

B: Yeah, but you still have to treat that as a hypothesis and follow through the process to prove your gut instinct.

S: All right. Interesting quote. So, guys, thank you for another great year of the SGU. I appreciate you guys showing up every week and doing this with me.

B: Sure man.

C: Thanks Steve.

S: Yeah.

E: Thank you, Captain.

J: That's what we do, man.

S: And Ian, thanks for all your hard work for the SGU this year.

IC: Of course. My pleasure. You know what? I just remembered I did have a skeptical hero and skeptical jackass, but we had such prime targets for that that I figured I would save it. So if you want to hear what it is, why don't you follow and come to the live stream on January 1st of 2021, and maybe we'll talk about it. That's the next live stream.

E: Cool. I love teasers.

IC: There you go. Big teaser.

J: Hey, Steve.

S: Yes, Jay.

J: Another great year, man. You are a hero to many people, including me, and I really appreciate the work that you do.

S: Oh, thank you, brother.

B: Sucking up to the boss again. It is. I mean I've said this before. It is a pleasure working with all of you guys. This is if I were doing this all by myself it wouldn't be even a tiny percentage as fun as it is. I like having my crew, having my peeps.

IC: Would it be you talking to yourself in five places?

S: Yeah.

IC: Oh, okay. That's good.

S: No, I think this is just so much more fun as a group endeavour, you know? And also just I love having people to throw ideas off of, and like the discussion is the important part of it, right? It's not just like, here's some information. It's let's talk about this and let's challenge each other and everything. That's makes it so much more, I think, compelling.

J: Last but absolutely not least, thank you to all of our patrons over on Patreon. You know, you guys know it. You make all of this possible and to also to our legacy members all of you are definitely contributing to what I consider to be skepticism in general is incredibly important. And we work hard every day to push the ball forward, keep people informed, and to continue to do what we do because the message is ultimately what's important here. So thank you guys very much. I can't tell you how much we appreciate your contributions.

S: Absolutely. We're heading into our 16th year and we wouldn't be doing that if we didn't have such wonderful listeners and supporters.

E: Hear, hear.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[4]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



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