SGU Episode 813

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SGU Episode 813
February 6th 2021
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 812                      SGU 814

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

Quote of the Week

All human experience proves over and over again that any success which comes through meanness, trickery, fraud, and dishonor is but emptiness and will only be a torment to its possessor.

Frederick Douglass

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Happy Whistle Pig Day.

J: What's a whistle pig?

E: A groundhog.

S: A groundhog.

C: Oh, that's a whistle pig? I wondered because that's also a type of rum. No, not rum. Whiskey. Rye whiskey.

E: That's right.

S: It's one of the common names for a groundhog.

E: Yep. Wood shock, ground pig, whistler, thick wood badger, it's got all kinds of names.

C: Weird. I always just heard groundhog. Puxatani Phil. Is that his name?

S: Yeah. Puxatani Phil. Did you watch the movie Groundhog Day, Cara?

C: Yes. I've seen it. It's repetitive.

B: That movie was wonderful.

C: One takeaway.

B: Did you see the Twilight Zone episode that's related to that concept?

C: No, but I feel like I've seen that iterated so many times.

S: It has been.

E: Star Trek, Star Trek Next Gen had an episode.

C: That guy, Andy Samberg from SNL, he did a movie, I think it's called Palm Springs on Hulu. It's pretty good. And it's got that kind of Groundhog Day vibe to it.

S: Cara, so I understand you got your second dose of the vaccine already.

C: I did. I went into the clinic last Wednesday, got the jab in my arm. So remember, that's three weeks to the day after I got the first jab. The first jab...

S: Did you go to Dodger Stadium to get it?

C: I did not. Oh my gosh. Wait, I have to tell you guys this first, or you might have seen it in the news. Did you see that anti-vax protesters shut down the site for at least an hour?

S: Yeah, that was national news.

J: What does that exactly mean?

C: They were blocking the entrance. And so they had to shut everything down so that they could get a handle on the situation, get rid of the chaos, restore... Because here's the thing about the Dodger Stadium vaccine site. I have a friend who just took his dad to drive through. They're like building it as it's happening. It's bananas, the number of, I mean, 5,740 doses at one site, sometimes up to over 7,000 doses a day. So it's this big drive-through. And think about it. It's Dodger Stadium. It's in the parking lot of Dodger Stadium. It's huge. And that's where I went historically to get COVID tests. And this is free. So people are getting in their cars. They're waiting in line for hours. And anti-vax protesters block the entrance, shut the whole thing down. People who are desperate to get this vaccine, it's their turn. They've been patiently waiting, weren't able to get it, at least not right away. It could have been worse, sure. It makes my blood boil.

S: Yeah, totally. They said they gave out all the doses. It didn't delay any doses. Basically the net result was the people who were there at the time had to wait an extra hour in their car.

C: And some of these people are, you think about it, 75 or older, some of these people are in ill health.

S: And they organized on Facebook.

C: And they played Plan-Demic.

S: They played Plan-Demic. When they were planning it, they told each other, don't wear MAGA apparel because they didn't want to politicize it. Really? That was your goal, to not politicize vaccines?

C: But they know that there are ties to extreme right-wing. So I kept saying anti-vax, but most of the reporting on it says anti-vax and extreme right-wing groups shut down. So it was definitely organized.

S: And also one of the groups was a militant anti-masker group. So it's all mish-mashed together now.

C: So not only is the entrance shut down, but it shut down because there are these people who are not wearing, yeah, I'm looking at the images. They're not wearing masks and they're holding up like banana signs. Moderna is not a vaccine, it's gene therapy. Like just turn back now, they're going to microchip you, COVID equals scam.

J: I mean, there's got to be some fun aspect to simply being able to make up your reality.

S: Yeah, it's called fantasy just don't confuse entertainment with reality.

E: Life is not a LARP, folks.

S: Unfortunately. So I love the fact that their whole conspiracy theory is that the epidemic and the vaccine, it's all just a ruse so that Bill Gates can inject everybody with chips so that he could track us.

C: Oh, and also to prevent Trump from being elected president.

S: Oh, yeah? Otherwise, there's no way that he could get all of us to carry around a computer chip everywhere we go that allows people to track what we do and where we are.

C: Yeah, no way. That's ludicrous.

S: Who would carry around a device that could monitor you all the time?

B: I mean, I'm optimistic about the future but Jesus, I got limits.

S: And get this, they'll make you pay for it. And upgrade it frequently.

C: Yeah, at least the COVID vaccine is free. But it is pretty ludicrous that the two biggest arguments against are either that Bill Gates is microchipping you or this was some sort of ruse that somehow connects back to Trump losing the election, both of which are very America centric views as if the rest of the world is not reeling from this pandemic.

B: Yeah, you're right.

C: It's just they can't see past their own hand in front of their face.

S: That's a good point, Cara. I do notice that a lot of the American conspiracies are not only American centric, they have on American blinders, like the whatever, like all the conspiracies that involve hiding information or faking information. So that would need to involve the governments around the world, but you forget the rest of the world exsists.

C: Even hostile governments who would never hide our secrets.

S: Right, exactly. So why was Russia not exposing the fact that we didn't send a rocket to the moon? Why did that? So then to to escape from that, they say, well, that's because the entire world is secretly being run by a shadow worldwide government. Yeah, that's how you get to that point.

E: Illuminati and all that.

S: Yeah, the Build-a-Bear group, my favorite one.

E: Build-a-Bear. I love those things.

J: Wait, wait, wait. Am I missing something? Is there like a Build-a-Bear conspiracy?

S: It's Bilderberg. I can't say that without thinking Build-a-Bear. And they're controlling the world with giant Jewish space lasers.

C: Oh, my gosh. I'm so glad. At least Mitch McConnell was like, yeah, this is not OK, you guys.

E: We know they're Jewish because they don't fire on the Sabbath.

S: So Cara, you got jabbed.

C: Yeah, right. So I do want to tell you guys, though, about my vaccine experience. So three weeks ago, or three and a half weeks now, I got the first jab of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in my arm, didn't feel the needle at all. It was a very easy shot, waited 15 minutes, no side effects, went home, went throughout my day. And I'd say about eight hours later that day, my arm just started to get really sore. And for probably a good solid two days, it was pretty sore, hard to lift over my head, just felt like somebody punched me really hard in the arm, which to me is like, OK, I can deal with it. And I've definitely had other vaccines that have similar local immune responses with the inflammation and the pain. And then three weeks later, I go in and I get my second jab. Luckily, because I work at a hospital, some people had already kind of warned me there for some people, not everybody, for some people, there is a pretty severe immune response that can occur. So be ready for it. Night clockwork about 12 hours later, so I got the vaccine at 11 a.m. At about 11 p.m., it was just fever, chills, malaise, teeth chattering. I sweat through my through my sheets that night. I felt pretty bad. I took a bath, that helped. I took naproxen, that helped. And for the next two days, so I'd say the first night, it felt like I had the flu. They were definitely flu-like symptoms, obviously it was not the flu. And then the next two days, it was more like I had a cold. It was not quite as severe, but I was still a little achy and fatigued. Now I'm 100% again. And what I kept experiencing was this phenomenon of kind of cognitive dissonance, where I was like, I know I'm not actually sick, but my body, for all intents and purposes, is doing the same thing it would do if I had an infection. I don't have an infection. I have a vaccination.

S: But most of the symptoms are the immune system anyway.

C: Totally. It's so funny that you think about the fact when you take naproxen, ibuprofen, and whatever, these NSAIDs, like you're reducing inflammation and it really works. I felt considerably better when I took an NSAID because I was reducing all that inflammation and it brought my fever down.

S: Yeah, I got the Moderna, not the Pfizer, had the exact same reaction to the first dose, sore arm for two days. I get my second dose in two days. On the Friday live stream, I will be able to talk about what my reaction was. But I'm hearing a lot of the same things that the second dose, the reaction to the second dose is a lot more vigorous than the first one, which is actually makes sense. That's why you take two doses and that's why they're timed to the way they are. It's because you're supposed to have a bigger immune response the second time around. So in a way, it's good that it says that the vaccine's working, but also just be ready for it.

C: That's what I'm thinking.

B: How common is that level of reaction?

S: Well we have that data from the trial, so we have the percentages in front of me. The incidence of, this is from the second dose, so fatigue was 59.4%, headaches 51%, muscle pain 37%, joint pain 29%, chills 35%, fever 15.8%, with similar numbers between the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccine. So yeah, those are the symptoms that are likely to occur with the second dose.

C: Obviously if the fever is significant, that's when you call your doctor. If it doesn't go away within three to four days, that's when you call your doctor. But it is normal to have that range of reactions. You're not allergic to the vaccine. If this comes 12 hours later and you feel like you have the flu, that is a normal immune response. My worry about talking about it on air, and we were just discussing this, is I don't want to turn anybody away from getting vaccinated. Please get vaccinated if you're able. That said, I don't like that people don't seem to know this, that this is a normal reaction. So I think more knowledge is better. Expect it as part of the process, and if you don't get it, good on you. I'm jealous.

S: You're lucky. On the CDC website, it says you might get fevers, chills, tiredness, headache, pain and swelling. They list all the side effects, but they don't really put it into perspective.

C: No. Because they make you think like, yeah, that's a normal vaccine reaction. It's like, I've never felt that way from any other vaccine. It's the first time I've ever had those reactions to the vaccine.

J: Cara, did you get the chills?

C: I got the chills.

J: Were they multiplying?

C: Oh yeah. They were multiplying. I was losing control. For sure. I was losing control. At a certain point, I Googled if it's safe to take a bath when you have a fever. I was like, is this going to be bad for you? My fever was like 99.5. It was not even that high.

S: That's not even technically a fever.

C: I know. I was like, it's okay. I can take a warm bath. That helped so much. Oh my gosh. So much.

J: Right now, we're what? Two-fifths vaccinated, or you're almost on your second dose, Steve?

S: Second dose in two days, and then it takes a couple of weeks to maximize your antibody response.

C: 10 to 14 days, something like that. I'm six days out, so I'm close. I'm so close.

J: All right. So the SGU will survive.

C: I will survive.

E: So far, so good.

C: It's a medley tonight.

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (12:21)[edit]

S: All right. Let's go on with the show. Bob, you're going to start us off with a forgotten superhero of science.

B: Yeah, man. It's been a while. So welcome to Forgotten Superheroes of Science. This time out, I'll be discussing Rita Levy Montalcini, 1909 to 2012. She won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of nerve growth factor. Now, Levy Montalcini thought she'd be a writer when she grew up, but she decided to become a doctor after seeing a family friend die of stomach cancer, nasty. Steve, did you have a similar epiphany growing up when you decided to be a doctor?

S: No.

C: Okay. Moving on, her Italian father didn't want her to attend college, as it might interfere with her being a wife and mother. He eventually supported her desire to become a doctor, which I think is saying a lot, especially for an Italian dad in the 1930s. Growing up with a big Italian family, Steve, Jay, I think you would agree. I think I have some insight into that type of reaction. Levy Montalcini graduated from in 1936, but before long, the war intervened with her science plans, specifically Mussolini's 1938 Manifesto of Race, which resulted in laws preventing Jews from academic careers. Pretty nasty stuff there. She famously set up a laboratory in her bedroom, though, and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. That actually laid the foundation for work she did after the war at Washington University in St. Louis, where she held a position of research associate, associate professor, and then full professor for 30 years. Her most important work was isolating this nerve growth factor. When she placed tumors inside of these chicken embryos, she discovered that the tumors released an unknown growth factor that made the nerve cells grow at an amazing rate, never been seen before. She was the first woman to receive the Max Weinstein Award for the United Cerebral Palsy Association due to her significant contributions into neurological research. Levy Montalcini received her Nobel Prize along with Stanley Cohen in 1986 in the physiology or medicine category. This was for their research for the nerve growth factor, NGF, the protein that causes cell growth due to stimulated nerve tissue. So an amazing life. Remember Rita Levy Montalcini mentioned here to your friends, perhaps when discussing neurotrophic factors or maybe tropomyosin receptor kinase, or of course, adrenocortico-trophic hormones. Duh.

S: You know, the discovery of the nerve growth factor is huge, although I still have a little bit of a problem with calling somebody who won a Nobel Prize a forgotten superhero, I have to say.

B: Have you ever heard of her?

S: Yeah.

B: Well, you don't count. Jay, Evan, Cara, have you ever heard of her?

E: I have not.

C: I've heard of her research, so I think I've probably, I don't know if I connected her name to it.

S: So it's in the gray zone. I just think they're not quite as forgotten as some other people.

C: Yeah, not quite, not quite, but you know, still a little forgotten.

News Items[edit]

Dunning Kruger Validity (15:29)[edit]

S: All right, Cara. So this is when I read this, I got a little sad, but I had to do a deep dive on it. I'm interested to see, I know we sort of separately did our deep dives, I'm curious as to what your take on this is, is the Dunning-Kruger effect real?

C: So my big answer is, what do you think? It's complicated.

S: Sort of. Yeah.

C: It's complicated.

J: It's really complicated.

C: So this is not the first nor will it be the last article that is critical of the Dunning-Kruger effect. There are many, many critical journal articles written about the Dunning-Kruger effect, especially right after Dunning and Kruger published their first paper on this phenomenon in 1999. We saw a bunch of people saying, no, no, no, no, no, this can't be real. This is statistical. This is something else entirely. And they at the time would systematically kind of reply to people and say, well, here, look at this evidence, here, look at that evidence. One thing that I will say to Dunning and Kruger's credit, which I've always appreciated and to the many studies that have replicated the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I've often appreciated, very often you have access to the raw data. In this newest paper, it's very difficult to replicate this study because they don't give you access to the data, which means that you have to back replicate. Luckily for us, some people have done that online already, kind of in a in a quick and dirty back of the napkin way. So we're going to get to that. Let's talk for a second about what Dunning and Kruger actually hypothesized, because I even don't think that the description of it within this new study really fully captures the Dunning-Kruger effect as it was described by David Dunning and Jason Kruger. So the Dunning-Kruger effect says basically that our metacognition is necessary in order for us to be able to accurately judge our ability to perform certain skills or tasks. So what they found is sort of the antithesis of that, that people who did very poorly on very specific tasks tended to rate themselves as doing better. In the worst that they did, the bigger that gap in their self-assessed and their objectively assessed measures. So Dunning and Kruger did a few studies when they first published. One of them was about, I think, logical reasoning. One of them was about humor, which is kind of funny. So somehow they were able to assess whether somebody thought they were funny or whether somebody was funny. And they showed...

S: In my heart, I know that I'm funny.

C: Exactly.

S: Cara, can I clarify one thing before we go on? Because almost, almost every time I hear somebody quote the Dunning-Kruger effect, they get it wrong. I just wanted to point out that the Dunning-Kruger effect, as described in that original paper, is not that the less you know, the higher you rate yourself, the slope still goes down. People who performed worse still rated themselves lower. It's just that the gap was bigger. There was a difference between how well they rated themselves and how well they performed got bigger. They were worse at rating themselves. But also, everyone rated themselves above 50%, which obviously half are wrong. And when you get to about the 75th percentile, people actually underestimate their performance.

C: It crosses over. Yeah.

S: Just to be more specific.

C: And that's a whole other part of the Dunning-Kruger effect that nobody really mentions in any of this new kerfuffle around this article. But basically, Dunning and Kruger figured out, or they think that they figured out why there's a crossover effect at the end. So basically what happened was that the people who rated them, the people who scored in the highest quartile, because that's another statistical problem with this we'll get to, is the quartile thing. But the people who, in the top 25% of people who performed the best on whatever task they were given, actually rated themselves as having performed poorer. And so they're like, well, what's that about? But then they showed them other people's tests. And they go, oh crap, I think I did better and adjusted their scores. So their explanation for why at the end, at the top quartile, people rate themselves as actually doing poorer than they did is because they're overestimating everybody else's abilities too. Isn't that interesting? So most people overestimate their own abilities. A lot of people overestimate other people's abilities too. The people at that tippy top of competence tend to think other people are better at the thing than they are. And they tend to say at that point, through humility, I'm probably not as good at it, which is a function, of course, of being an expert in something, is knowing what you don't know. Basically, the people on the lower end of performance don't know what they don't know. And because of that, they think that they're going to do better, or they think they are better at a particular task. OK, so that's kind of Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell. It's not that stupid people don't know they're stupid. That's, I think, a really, really bastardized simplification of it. And you'll notice that Dunning and Kruger never use the word stupid. They always use the word ignorance, because what they're talking about is gaps in knowledge. Lack of information. Also, Dunning-Kruger did not do their experimentation utilizing intelligence tests. Neither did most of the people who have replicated the study. So the new article, which was published in Intelligence. So this new article that was just recently published this past year, the Dunning-Kruger effect is parentheses, mostly close parentheses, a statistical artifact, valid approaches to testing the hypothesis with individual differences data. They did three different things in this study. We'll talk about all three. Their argument, though, their central core argument is that what we think of as the Dunning-Kruger effect is actually they call them two statistical artifacts, which is a problem. But what they're really talking about is one statistical artifact and one cognitive bias. So they claim that it has to do with regression to the mean, which we can get to. And we'll talk about that Dunning and Kruger themselves said in their very first article, there is likely a regression to mean phenomenon happening here. We just don't think it accounts for all the variants. So it's not like this is shining a light on anything new. Even Dunning and Kruger knew that it was likely that we were also looking at regression to the mean. But apparently, their argument is this is an effect that's above and beyond regression to the mean. So we'll come back to that. The other thing that the new paper asserts is that it's also the better than average heuristic, which they consistently call a statistical bias. But it's not a statistical bias. The better than average heuristic basically claims that people have a tendency to rate themselves or to, as it was first listed by the author, assimilate positively evaluated social objects toward ideal trait conceptions. What they're basically saying is that people think of an ideal when they think of a trait. So if you're asking them, how well would you do on a measure of honesty? How well would you do on a measure of humor, of musical ability? They think of the ideal, and they think of that ideal as the top of the scale. And then they rate themselves according to the ideal. But the ideal is not usually the top of the scale. The ideal is something that nobody has. So they end up overestimating their own abilities. And this is what we see as a part of a larger phenomenon, which is called illusory superiority. And as you referenced it, Steve, we all tend to think that we're kind of better than average, which is statistically impossible. We can't all be better than average. And we see this over and over in studies. One other caveat that I have to say, though, is this is culture bound. And we often forget to talk about the fact that this is culture bound. Most of these studies that we're looking at were done in America. And Americans think they're really good at everything. But when you actually start to look at certain cultures, especially in East Asia, you find that people underestimate their skills as a form of social and cultural humility. So we've got to remember that, too. So basically, the researchers are saying, we believe, or we are testing the hypothesis. I think I want to be fair to them. They're not saying we believe. They're saying, let's test the hypothesis that the Dunning-Kruger effect isn't actually a real phenomenon, that it's an artifact that's made up of the statistical artifact, which is regression to the mean, and the bias of illusory superiority, or more specifically, the better than average heuristic. Unfortunately, they lump those things both together as statistical artifacts, which I think is a fundamental flaw in the way they write their paper. Regression to the mean, it's simply, this is a statistical artifact. It's basically saying, if you look at any normal curve, the normal curve bulges in the middle, right? The mean, median, and mode are in the middle. So there's more people in the middle. If you pick random points on that curve at any given time, they're going to regress to the mean the more points you pick. Does that make sense to everybody? You might start with an outlier, but eventually, the more times you sample that data, the closer you're going to get to the average. So then in the study, they say, we're going to test this basically two main ways. The first way is we're going to set up fake data. We're not going to actually take data from people. We're just going to make up data that's clean data that would have no psychological biases in it because it's just, it's clean, random data. And then we're going to see what happens if we plot it the way that Dunning and Kruger and most of the people that have replicated the Dunning-Kruger effect did. So here comes the first problem with Dunning and Kruger, which I admit is a problem and most researchers do as well. The way that they chunked out the data that they collected. So they looked, remember, at actual skill and perceived skill, and they compared the two. Instead of actually drawing a smooth line, they decided, we're going to break it up into quartiles. We're going to say the lowest group, the lowest 25%, the low average group, that's the next 25%, the high average group, which is the next 25%, and then the highest group, the next 25%, four quartiles. And we're going to average those out and just compare the quartiles to each other. So when they did that, you get the famous Dunning-Kruger curve. And it's been replicated so many times, there are actual meta-analyses that show in almost every setting, we can find a Dunning-Kruger effect. So these researchers said, we think that if you do that with any data, you're going to find that weird line. And so they invented data. They invented data where they said people are going to, like fake people, right, like data points, have a skill of X, and they're going to rate that skill as being 25% better than X. And then they plotted it, and they found that the curve moves. It's not a straight line. So it's not that the people on the low end are 25% underestimating and the people on the high end are 25% underestimating. The line shifts according to the Dunning-Kruger illusion. And so because they're saying we were able to show this purely statistically with no humans, Dunning-Kruger doesn't exist. There are a lot of responses to that. And the best ones that I found are that just because you can show it statistically, it doesn't delete out the actual Dunning-Kruger effect. There can still be.

S: Yeah, if you look at their data, if you look at their graphs, it's not as impressive as Dunning-Kruger.

C: Yeah, it's not as significant. That's true.

S: Yeah, at most, it's a partial explanation, which is what, again, they admitted in the first paper.

C: And also, remember, they preloaded it with the idea that people already think they're doing better. So they're giving it the superiority bias or the illusory superior. They're actually saying that's a given and encoding it into the system. And that actually brings me to my first question, which is, so what, so what if Dunning-Kruger is a combination of regression to the mean, illusory superiority, and other personal variance kind of points? It feels like a semantic argument that these people are making. It's sort of like saying, well, there's no such thing as love, because we know that there's attraction, sexual attraction, affection, and interpersonal affinity for other people. It's like, well, what's the difference then?

S: No, I agree.

C: I could still be love.

S: That was my reaction to Cara. I do think it's important in terms of us conceptualizing how people work. But in terms of the effect, yeah, of course it's a combination of multiple things. But I do think it's important to try to answer that question. Is there a distinct separate effect going on here? And ultimately, it doesn't matter, because one of the other effects that they mention is the lower your knowledge, the worse you are at rating your knowledge. And so the variance increases. It's not necessarily biased in the overestimation direction. It's just that your self-assessment is more variable. It's less accurate, right? Less precise.

C: Yeah, the gap is bigger.

S: But they said the worse you score, there's just more room above you than below you.

C: Yeah, so they're saying statistically that's always going to happen if we map this out.

S: Yeah, and if you're at the top end, there's more space below you than above you. And so that part, it's like, I remember Stephen Jay Gould made this argument for evolution. It's like evolution does not inherently lead to greater complexity. But we started at maximal simplicity, and there was only one direction to go in.

C: Right, yeah.

S: And so I do think you need to take that into consideration. But again, as you said, if you combine, we overestimate our ability, we're less precise in evaluating our ability when we have less knowledge, and therefore our self-assessments are going to be in overestimation, and that's going to be greater at the lower end of that curve. I was like, OK, that is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

C: Yeah, like what does it matter if we call it? And that's the part that I think I get sometimes frustrated when I see psychological research really reduce down to its most sort of logical positivist stance. Because there's almost a forgetting in the setup that these are constructs that we developed and constructs overlap. You can't say that, for example, throw out a cognitive bias, guys on the panel, like any cognitive bias we often talk about.

B: Confirmation bias?

C: Confirmation bias, yeah. Confirmation bias is a great one because it's like the mother of all biases. You can't say because this is confirmation bias, it's not also illusory superiority. Yeah, it's like, well, yeah, they cross over each other.

S: I also thought of one other thing, Carol, you tell me what you think about this. We've spoken before on the show about the super DK, right, the super Dunning-Kruger, and this is one where it's not just the Dunning-Kruger effect as we described, it's that the people at the lowest end of the knowledge curve actually thought that it did actually make them think that they were better. So they actually thought they rated themselves the highest, not just the greatest error, but actually the greatest knowledge. And that only occurs in certain, as you say, subcultures specifically with information. So among people who are anti-GMO, for example, the people who knew the least about genetics thought they knew the most. And so there we are dealing with a distinct phenomenon of misinformation, of illusory knowledge, and so it's something that's in addition to the Dunning-Kruger effect that we're talking about. So I do think it's helpful to tease those things apart, but you do see it in the data though.

C: Yeah, I think you're right. And it's an important exercise, especially for researchers, to be able to say, if there's a regression to the mean here, can we extract that variance from the data so that we can now have a cleaner perception or a cleaner statistical picture of the actual Dunning-Kruger effect? Or can we subdivide the Dunning-Kruger effect into what we think might be its constituent parts? That's an interesting study. That's an interesting dissertation topic. Is Dunning-Kruger really a sort of gestalt combination of illusory superiority plus regression to the mean plus these other statistical effects? And collectively, can we say, hey, all of these things could account for when they work in concert for what we call the Dunning-Kruger effect?

S: It's an effect. It's an effect. It's not its own bias.

C: Exactly.

S: It's a net effect.

C: It's an effect. Yes. It's not the cause. And so researchers in 2016 were like, hmm, I wonder if there's such a thing as cognitive immunity from Dunning-Kruger. Are there certain subtypes of people who are less susceptible to this type of effect? And they found that, yeah, they were able to subdivide their subjects into people who had more of a fixed mindset and people who had more of a growth mindset. So basically, people who are more willing to say, I was wrong, who are more willing to add new information to their old information and adapt their worldviews versus people who say, no, this is how I think. I'm going to confirm how I think. And anything that's disconfirming, I'm going to ignore or justify away. And they found that people with a fixed mindset had a stronger Dunning-Kruger effect, which is not surprising.

S: Which makes sense.

C: It makes total sense.

S: I bet you there's all kinds of correlations. I would be interested to see, like, does it correlate with intuitive versus analytical thinking styles, for example?

C: And the cool thing, Steve, is that a lot of people don't know this, because this was actually a deep dive on that the paper I wrote was a deep dive on David Dunning himself. He started his career in social psychology because he was interested in why people think the way that they think. And he was trying to show that thinking styles are directly related to personality traits. And he was pretty much unsuccessful in finding clean effects there. And that's where Dunning-Kruger came out, because he was just investigating how and why people fall victim to cognitive biases and how can we make sense of these different phenomena. But the last thing I really wanted to touch on was something that I found really interesting as I was digging through the paper I wrote, medical residents, inflated assessment of their patient interviewing skills, corporate executives, workplace computer users, even athletic coaches. They've all shown Dunning-Kruger effect. Financial literacy is unduly poor, like the self-perception, sorry, is unduly high in younger people versus older people, because the longer you live, the more wise you become. And so you see that there's a shift there. Even when Dunning and Kruger gave people money, they said a hundred bucks to as accurately as possible, tell me how well you think you did on this test, they still saw the effect. So it shows that this was not a social desirability bias, that money trumped the social desirability bias. And the thing that I thought was so fascinating is, and it directly applies to the types of things we talk about on the show a lot, we often see echoes of the effect in modern society. Benegal from 2018 argued that conspiratorial distrust of scientific institutions is exacerbated by the tendency for some people to think they know better than the experts who have dedicated their careers to these topics. And we see this across the board. Sylvester in 2018 made a convincing argument for a direct link, as you mentioned, Steve, between anti-vaccine attitudes and the Dunning-Kruger effect. And of course, this one's fascinating. In 2018, Anson replicated the effect using a large online survey of American voters. The author found, and I'm reading this directly from my own writing, the author found that participants with low political knowledge significantly overestimated their prowess. In addition, such low information voters were more reliant on partisan cues and tended to rate themselves as even more politically knowledgeable when partisan cues were made salient. This is worrisome.

E: Not surprising, though.

C: But not surprising.

S: Yeah. So one of the things that I found frustrating is, because a lot of people emailed us on this, and I've found a lot of blog posts about it, et cetera, is that a lot of people come away from this with the bottom line of, Dunning-Kruger isn't real.

C: Yeah. Which is not my takeaway at all.

S: No, it's not the bottom line. The bottom line is, yeah, it's complicated. We knew it was complicated. It's psychology, man. It's freaking going to be complicated because there's going to be tons of different effects interacting with each other, and context is going to be massively important. But in there, because it's pretty robust, it's very replicable, I think there is something going on there. Is it partly statistical? Sure. Is it partly just other biases that we know about, like the overconfidence bias? Absolutely.

C: Sure. Yeah.

S: But the curves are the curves. I mean, there is an effect there. All right. Let's move on.

Junk on the Moon (36:49)[edit]

S: Jay, how much junk have we left on the moon?

J: So when you think about the question, we want to know how much have we left on the moon or how many spacecraft have gone there that are still there. And it's a really cool question because it goes back quite a long ways. And there's also something to be said about what to do with that stuff. So we have moon visitors, and what? They've left urine collection kits on the moon, and there's a gold olive branch.

S: Full or empty?

J: There's tons of robotic equipment from all different probes and just a lot of other equipment. It's hard to say exactly how much stuff has been left on the moon, but NASA has estimated that it's about 400,000 pounds or 181,000 kilograms according to Earth gravity, right? Not its weight on the moon, but its weight on Earth. That's a lot of stuff. So the bulk of the debris was left by NASA, of course, because NASA did the most work on the moon. And this was done during the US moon missions back in 1969 to 72. This was during the Apollo program. And the remaining debris comes from unmanned missions, like I said, sent by the United States, Russia, Japan, India, and Europe. So I think we should not be overly judgmental about countries leaving hardware on the moon. There's a lot of good reasons why they needed to do it and why you can't really judge them. So when scientists were conducting tests on the moon's surface in the early 60s, some believed that the moon's regolith could have been a bit like quicksand, which I think is fascinating. And they're judging this by how many asteroids have hit it and what they think those asteroids were doing to the surface of the moon. It is responsible. Those asteroid strikes are responsible for the moon's regolith being so fine and also so sharp as it is. So we landed robotic probes to see how the moon's surface would react to heavy objects. We had to do it or else we could never have sent people there. And these probes stayed on the moon and gave us information we needed to eventually legitimately put human beings on the moon, which is one of, if not the most, unbelievable feats of humanity. The lunar orbiters that map the moon's surface have all crashed into the moon and are now part of that debris. And also remember that experiment that they did, remember the whole feather and hammer thing and they dropped them at the same time on the moon. They hit the moon's surface at the same time because there's no atmosphere. Well that hammer and that feather are still there.

B: Cool.

J: The lunar crater observation and sensing satellite, also known as lacrosse, was sent to the moon to analyze the moon's hydrogen and to see if there is water on the moon. That's still on the moon. NASA decided to leave as much of that debris as they could so they would save fuel and space inside the spacecraft on their way home. So what does a I'm talking about the most basic thing that you could say about a moon mission, a NASA moon mission. What are the things that they're concerned about? One, they want to plan to get the astronauts safely to the moon. They want to perform their tasks and experiments. And then of course they want to get the astronauts back home. And they don't factor in picking up trash or returning all the materials that they sent with them because that would actually not help the overall mission's goals. If you think about it, it's the right thing to do, especially at a time when we didn't have an easy way to transport all that gear. How would we get the rovers off of the moon's surface that you'd be sending more fuel? It's just ridiculous. You know, there was no other way to do it. The interesting thing about all those different materials that they left on the moon is that they provide scientists with some actually very useful information. And I know this is the part where I fully expect Bob to try to say what he thinks. So let me try to say it quicker so he doesn't cut me off. These materials...

B: I don't know about that, Jay.

J: They've been what? Think about it, guys. The materials on the moon have been what? They've been...

E: Exposed to the elements of space.

J: Right, exactly. They've been exposed to constant radiation. They're in a vacuum. And they've been cycling through these extremes of temperature over and over and over again. And those materials are a treasure trove of information for scientists. It tells us about what materials last, what doesn't. What happens when this particular material gets heated up 50,000 times, whatever, however many cycles have happened since then. It's a big deal. And I think that they're going to use those objects to really help them. At some point, a probe or a human is going to be walking on the surface of the moon or rolling on the surface of the moon, and they're going to pick up some of this stuff and analyze it.

E: They're legitimate artifacts. There's no doubt about it.

J: Oh, without a doubt. We talked about this, Evan. My God, those landing sites. This is museum, things that we should hold on to for as long as we possibly could. And we were talking about this, I forget when, because we've had so many shows in a 12-hour show.

C: Just recently. We were talking about putting a glass thing over the footprint.

J: Yeah. Absolutely. So that's some stuff. Other stuff, who cares? You know what I mean? They're going to just get rid of it, because it's a probe that crashed and nobody... Most people didn't even know the probe existed.

B: Probably sell a lot on eBay, though.

J: Oh, I forgot. Before I continue. I had a really cool... Because I'm reading about this, and I love doing a deep dive on stuff like this. And I thought of a cool science fiction scenario where there's... It's just like the Mars thing where there's people stranded on the moon and they need supplies. They need some gear. And there's all these things. So they get out a map and they're like, all right, what do we know of? Where are the crash sites? Where is all the gear that we're aware of? And they go and collect it, and they build the thing that helps them get off the moon.

B: Yeah, that's what his name did in The Martian. Without that equipment, he would have been dead.

J: Yeah, totally. It's just a cool scenario. So the reflector, you know that reflector that they put up on the moon? The laser reflector?

E: Still using it. Yep.

J: They've been using it since then. It's a tiny little reflector. And because of that reflector, we are now able to measure that the moon is moving 1.5 inches or 3.8 centimeters a year away from the Earth.

B: I thought it was two inches.

J: As reported by NASA. Yeah, there's arrow bars on it. All right, so I said there's a lot of debris on the moon. We talked about that some of these things should be considered artifacts that we want to preserve. But during those six Apollo missions that landed on the moon, they produced 96 bags of waste. Straight up waste. But let me quickly go through a list of stuff that's on the moon, because this to me is really the interesting part. More than 70 spacecraft, including rovers, modules and crashed orbiters, five American flags, two golf balls, 12 pairs of boots, multiple TV cameras, film magazines, 96 bags of urine feces and vomit, like I said, numerous Hassenblad cameras and accessories, several improvised javelins. What? I didn't know about that.

C: What? Why are there improvised javelins? Just in case they were like.

B: No, they did like an Olympics test.

S: You have to see how far you can throw it.

C: For science, not to hurt people.

J: So various hammers, tongs, rates, shovels, backpacks, insulating blankets, utility towels, used wet wipes, personal hygiene kits, empty packages of space food, a photograph that one of the astronauts snuck on board, the feather, it's a falcon feather, the hammer, I told you a small aluminum sculpture that was a tribute to American and Soviet fallen astronauts who died in space, a patch, a small silicon disc, a silver pen, a metal honoring Soviet cosmonauts and a cast golden olive branch. That's pretty much it.

B: Okay.

J: That's a lot of stuff.

B: By the way, Jay, by the way, you were closer than I was. It's 1.48 inches per year. It's moving away 3.78 centimeters a year, about the same speed at which our fingernails grow. That's how fast the moon is moving away from us.

J: So if you just let your fingernails keep growing in like 10 years, you'll be able to be like, see, this is how far away the moon is now from the earth. That is so nasty. Those people that let their fingernails grow. Anyway.

C: They get all curly.

J: I know. Some of them paint them and then it just looks like what? All right. Anyway, so at some point we'll clean it up. We'll do some nice stuff. We're sending people back. Don't be upset. It's all good. You know, it's not like there's, other than the poop and the vomit and the pee, there's really not that, but it's not that nasty. You know, it's mostly metal and wiring.

C: That would, wait, oh, it wouldn't break down. It would just sit there. No, but the human poop and vomit and pee is not sterile.

J: Something has had to have happened to it. I would really like to find out like what an expert has to say because it has gone through that.

C: Because it has bacteria in it.

J: It's been heated and frozen and heated and frozen over and over and over. Like what? I don't know. What happens?

B: It's like 600 times since they, I assume 50 years ago, 600 times, I think.

S: It could be sterilized at this point.

J: Dude, somebody's job is going to be to pick that stuff up. Oh my God. What do you do?

C: Yeah, but it's just gonna be like pellets.

J: I'm the guy that flew to the moon to pick up bags of poop, urine, and vomit.

C: But freeze-dried poop, urine, and vomit is probably not even gross.

S: Yeah, pick it up in the frozen stage.

C: Yes.

B: They're all going to be in museums on the moon. Come on.

C: This is our vomit collection.

S: Our bodily fluid collection.

Protein Switches (46:25)[edit]

S: All right, guys, let's look at this headline. I read this headline. Oh, this should be an interesting article. New biosensors quickly detect COVID-19 coronavirus proteins and antibodies. Right? Sounds pretty straightforward. I read into it and when I started to wrap my head around the actual study they were reporting on, I'm like, holy crap, they totally buried the lead on this one. The underlying technology is so much more interesting than this one application that they're talking about.

C: Oh, so they just used the COVID hook.

S: Well, I think the researchers used the COVID hook, which is fine, but then, of course, that's what, again, that became the lead. The paper is de novo design of modular and tunable protein biosensors. That's the story. The fact that one application of this could be detecting COVID-19 proteins is interesting, but that's not the story. I don't know. I've been thinking about this. This could be something as big as CRISPR.

B: That's saying something.

S: I mean, who knows? Well, we'll know in 20 years when we look back and see it, but it was just a couple of years ago that, so let me back up a little bit further than a couple years ago. We're talking here about protein switches. A protein switch is essentially a protein that changes configuration in response to some biological stimulus.

B: Which means it has a new function then, right?

S: Which means it alters its function. It isn't necessarily a new function, but it alters its function. This is a basic component of biology at the cellular level. This is a basic part of evolution. Proteins, when they, for example, bind something, they bind a hormone or an ion or another protein, they can change their configuration, and that could turn their function on and off. It could open and close a channel, right? It could alter their function to something else entirely. This is just a basic way that biology works. Proteis change their function based upon sensing their environment in some way. We've known about this for a long time. The new bit is the modular and tunable protein switches, is the fact that we could now design a protein switch to react to whatever we want and to change configuration in a specific way. The specific way that they engineered in this study is to become bioluminescent. This protein glows when the signal of interest binds to it with obvious applications. This now could be a test for anything. They tested it on breast cancer proteins, on hepatitis virus proteins, on bacterial toxin, on lymphoma proteins. So you could take your blood, put this in there, and if it glows, you have lymphoma or whatever.

C: That's brilliant. It's like taking similar kind of the idea, I guess, of fluorescence proteins that we often do in research and extending it to an in vivo kind of setting or I guess ex vivo because you're taking a blood and then just dropping the reagent into it. It's genius.

S: Yeah, again, it was just I think one or two years ago where the first study was published where they showed that they could actually tune these, they could design them to respond to what they want to. And now the new study made it modular where you could, once you have the underlying technology, you could now quickly and easily crank out these protein, these switches that are designer switches that do what you want to do and they're modular as they say, what do you want to have happen and what do you want to react to? So this could, the diagnostic application with the luminescence is one obvious application, but this could have therapeutic applications as well. Think about it as a biologic, this is a major, whenever you gain control over one of the basic machinery of life, then that's a really powerful tool. So I wonder where this is going to go because again, it's like with CRISPR, we were able to quickly and easily alter make cuts in the DNA at where we want to and maybe even insert pieces of DNA, etc. It brought down the cost of doing this tenfold, made it accessible to many, many labs and applications. This is the same thing. We now can make tunable modular protein switches that are cheap and easy and fast, relatively speaking. And now this opens up a whole avenue of not only diagnostics, but of therapeutics. And we'll see what potential this has. But it's just amazing to me, it's like, really, that's, that was the lead, I mean, I guess if I understand it the COVID-19 testing thing, but it's like, man, the real news story here, man, is the modular tunable protein switches.

B: Could you make your face glow bioluminescent if you have COVID, that type of thing?

S: If you have enough of it.

B: Steve, let me throw this quote at you. This is from, you maybe came across this name, Hanna El-Samad, a PhD professor of biochemistry and biophysics. I think Hanna might have been involved in the research. He or she said, the ability to control cells with designer proteins ushers in a new era of biology in the same way that integrated circuits enable the explosion of computer chip industry. That's quite a comment.

C: Wow, yeah.

B: And then the quote ends with, these versatile and dynamic biological switches could soon unlock precise control over the behavior of living cells and ultimately our health. So we can control cells with this. I mean, I mean, how dramatic could that be? Could we basically put one of these in most of your cells and tailor their responses to given scenarios?

S: We'll see. I mean, so this is this, therapeutically, this would be considered a biologic, right? Just like we have monoclonal antibodies, that we might be having protein switches where you get an IV bag or an injection, let's say, of these protein switches that are designed to do a specific thing, like they'll respond to something in your body and release a drug or they will, whatever, they'll lower your blood pressure, they'll do whatever we needed to do. They'll kill cancer cells. Who knows? Now it's just a matter of, well, okay, what can we do with this tool?

B: Well, yeah. And that goes to another quote I got here that this was a graduate student at UCSF. He said that we are now limited more by our imagination and creativity rather than the protein that nature has evolved. That's a powerful statement right there. Yeah, this is really interesting. I did not see this at all. I had no idea. I'm really curious now to see where this does go.

S: Yeah, I do have the same kind of feeling when I first really wrapped my head around CRISPR.

B: Right. That took a little while.

S: It did take a little while. By the way, guys, did you know, speaking about CRISPR, we've given that a lot of attention, but there are two other methods of altering genes that are at CRISPR level in terms of their power.

B: What?

S: There's TALEN. You guys know about TALEN?

C: Nope, never heard of it.

S: Yeah, it's strange. Why CRISPR is hogging all the spotlight?

C: TALEN is a cooler name.

J: Way cooler.

B: What's a vector?

S: There's also zinc finger proteins.

C: Zinc finger proteins?

S: Yeah, so there's TALEN, CRISPR, and zinc finger proteins are really the three.

J: Did you say stink finger what?

C: Zinc.

S: Zinc finger proteins.

C: That's a thing.

S: CRISPR is the cheapest among them and the fastest.

B: There you go.

S: But TALEN is much more precise, and it could be actually more efficient in certain circumstances. So what I think is going to happen is that they will each find their niche and where their strengths and weaknesses are optimal. But there's really those three that we're dealing with, and they're all improving over time. So it's not just CRISPR.

B: The more the merrier, man.

S: It's the same feeling when I read about this tunable modular protein switches. That's on the same level with that genetic technology. Mainly I wanted to put this out there, put this on your radar. This is something that's happening. We're going to be hearing about this, I think.

J: Steve, just do me a favor. Just for fun, it's all speculation, but can you come up with something cool that you think that this might be able to do?

S: Yeah, so I think, for example, killing cancer cells. So if we can find some signal that's unique to a specific kind of cancer on the detection end, and then have a protein that reconfigures into a toxin that triggers apoptosis and kills the cancer cell. So that's off the top of my head. That's one thing. That's theoretically possible. It's just a matter of can we actually figure out how to do that. So that's a kind of level of control that we're talking about.

J: That's awesome.

S: Yeah, it couples some environmental state in the body with some protein that can configure itself, become an enzyme, become a signal.

J: So you're saying we'll have that next year?

S: Well, we have them now.

J: No, the cancer thing.

S: Well, it's just a matter of now the... I know you're kidding, but we have the protein switches now. Now it's just a matter of thinking of ways to use the tool.

J: That sounds awesome.

S: We're going to be hearing about it in the future.

Bipolar Ionization (56:29)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, tell me about bipolar ionization.

E: I will tell you about it. I want to let you know, though, that this news item came courtesy of Ross Pomeroy, and many people in this audience know him as the editor of Real Clear Science. Runs a great website over there. And I know, Steve, he's linked to your blog posts in the past.

S: Yeah.

E: So it's always fun seeing you up there. It's a good website. So a Minnesota high school district spent 1.4 million bucks to have bipolar ionization technology installed into their HVAC system to help kill coronavirus in the classroom. Now, what is bipolar ionization technology? Well, the technology uses specialized tubes that take oxygen molecules from the air and convert them into charged atoms that then cluster around microparticles surrounding and deactivating harmful substances like airborne mold, bacteria, allergens and viruses. Yes. And breath droplets as well. Dust particles. All these things transport viruses. So if you put it into your filtration system, it helps negate those things. According to the New York University School of Medicine, the ions produce a chemical reaction on the cell membrane surface that inactivates the virus. It can reduce 99.9% of microbes in a matter of minutes. That sounds good. Why aren't we all using this stuff? Which I think is a good question. So they invested a lot of money. This is Minnesota's largest school district that did this. And again, 1.4 million dollars. They used CARES, that's C-A-R-E-S, that was the act that was passed by Congress in order to help, among other things, with coronavirus prevention efforts and all those related items. And they used their funds to install these items. Other schools in other districts around the country have also done the same thing. One district in California used 400,000. Another one in Virginia used a million bucks to have the system installed. So it is taking place in a lot of different areas around the country. Now, according to the makers of these devices, when they are installed, they claim that their products inactivated 84.2% of coronavirus particles after 10 minutes. Flip the switch and 10 minutes later you've got 84.2% of the particles gone. If you leave it on for 30 minutes, 99.4%. It's not the same ratio as Ivory soap, 99.4%. That number sticks in my head. So those were the original claims by these manufacturers. It was pretty much across the board for several companies that did this. However, some of these claims have started to be removed from their websites. One particular company, GPS, not Global Positioning System, but one particular manufacturer, they replaced that particular statistic of 99.4% after 30 minutes with this. They say, the use of this technology is not intended to take place of reasonable precautions to prevent the transmission of pathogens. It's important to comply with all applicable public health laws and guidelines issued by federal, state, local governments and health authorities, as well as official guidance published by the CDC.

S: What we call the quack Miranda rights, right? These are not meant to be actual claims that we could be held liable for.

E: So, yeah, there's a lot of skepticism as far as this particular technology. And I think the main problem here is that while the test...

S: It's not real?

E: Well, it works, but in a very small space. You can't have whole classrooms. You can't have whole buildings with these things. It does not seem to work at that level. If you have like maybe portion of a closet or something, it could work to that effect. But certainly this is not what they were, what these schools invested in because they thought that they were going to be getting the benefits for their entire buildings. But that is not the case. Let's say Penn State University, William Benfleff, professor of architectural engineering, skeptical of ionization filtration. Much of the proof of their performance is in the form of laboratory studies commissioned by manufacturers that are often performed under conditions that are not representative of actual application conditions. So that's what you have with this. And yeah, they're investing in quackery effectively at that point. Why have these things if they're only going to work under very, very specific limited circumstances which do not apply to the real world?

S: And even then it's in-house studies. We don't really even know if they work.

E: Right. We don't have the peer-reviewed studies. We don't have the scientifically rigorous studies. And actually in one case, they're saying that these systems may emit ozone at high levels, which is bad. That's bad for health.

C: We used to decon our clean room in the lab where we had these like UV, like big UV lights that were the right frequency or whatever to kill pathogens. And they were mounted all in the clean room in the lab in like strategic places. And we had to have like a charcoal UV filter because so much UV is put off by them that while it was on, you weren't allowed to be in the room. And we had to absorb all that. Sorry, a charcoal ozone filter to absorb all that ozone that gets put off by them. I think that's the thing we often don't think about, Evan, is that even if something works in a laboratory setting or even if something works in a practical way in small portions, we've got to think about all the downstream effects too. Something that kills pathogens might also be dangerous. And it's worrisome.

E: It's doing other things, right?

C: Yeah, and it's worrisome when companies don't go through the proper procedures to get these things on the market. And then all of a sudden, we as consumers can just utilize them without thinking about some of the negative consequences as well.

S: Yeah, it's easy for something to sound good superficially, but as we know from centuries of experience now, medicine's complicated. You need good rigorous studies to look at net health effects. Otherwise, it is pseudoscience. And that's, I think, what we're dealing with here. All right, thanks, Evan.

Who's That Noisy? (1:03:03)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: NPC's shop in Zelda game

S: Jay, it's Who's That Noisy Time.

J: Last week, I played a Noisy, and I'll say this. One, I have never had more people send in correct answers on any noisy ever. So I was questioning to myself, is this even guessable? You know, there's got to be like a big fan out there that's going to be able to guess what this thing is. So anyway, yes, when you find out what it is, I think you'll realize what the deal is. OK, so let me just play the noisy for you.


All right, just so you know, not one person emailed me a what the hell was that email. There was not one negative reaction or a weird inquisitory nothing. It was like you either knew it or you made a joke about it, and that was it. So here's what we got. We got Sam L-A-U-C-I-R-I-C-A.

C: No idea.

S: All right, this is from a listener named Sam. He says, hey, Jay, the Who's That Noisy from episode 811 is definitely a recording of Bob's brain as he opens a package containing a new Halloween prop.

C: That's so good.

J: This is what it sounds like. That's awesome. That made me laugh out loud.

B: That's exactly what my brain's doing, awesome.

J: He said, love the 12 hour stream, guys. Sam. Paul Levine, Paul wrote, somehow I've only just recently discovered you guys, but I'm instantly sold. Anyway, this week's Noisy sounds like some extended cut of the music from Portal. I don't think the excerpt you played gets heard in the game, but I'm guessing that the loop from the game was sampled from a longer piece, which this week's Noisy is another part of, or else somebody composed something inspired by the game music and did an uncanny job recreating the sound. So I thought that was a very interesting thing that he thought of. I mean, that would have been very difficult, like an extended cut that nobody heard. It's not true, but you did hit on something in your guess, which you will find out very soon. Another person that guessed was Adam Slagle. He said, Jay, I see what you did here. This is a tricky one. At first you think Japanese games show music, but the Latin music style makes you think Latin America game show, but that was a total false flag. It has to be a Japanese interpretation of a Latin American game show. There can be no other answer, Adam.

B: Whoa.

J: I love this explanation. I think you did nail so many things about the style of the music in a freakishly accurate way. You're not correct completely, but I think, yeah, you're right about the Japanese with Latin influence. Absolutely. Michael Blaney said, hi, Jay, wow, you went tripping B-A-L-L-S with this week's Noisy. I'm serious. That rang a bell, and I believe it's from, and he goes on to guess the correct thing. I just thought it was a funny response, but he didn't win because he wasn't the first person to guess, even though I liked Michael's response. Here is the winner, Patrick Babineau, and he said, that's the Malo Mart theme from the video game The Legend of Zelda, Twilight Princess. This is funny. I played this game a long time ago. It might have been over a decade ago, 15 years ago, maybe even that long ago. And that song stuck in my head since then. I can drum it up at any moment I want, wherever I am. If I want to hear that song in my head, I can hear it because of how oddly distinct it is and how weird it is, and I love it. But essentially, Link walks into a shop that's in one of the cities that's in the game, and that's the music that plays whenever you're in that shop. And when I used to play the game, I would leave it there and just let it play in the background as I go and cook dinner and stuff because it used to crack me up. Listen again.

E: It's the police whistle and the slide whistle. I think that's what gives it the comic tone.

J: Totally. Oh, yeah, the whistle in the back is really, you're right, it's part of the humor. So anyway, I picked that. That was a noisy that I love that I wanted to play for everyone. It's a video game. It's a fantastic video game. The Zelda series is just fantastic. And by the way, on February 21st, which is very, very soon from now, it will be Zelda's...

B: Another 12-hour show?

J: No, it will be Zelda's 35th anniversary.

B: Oh, OK.

E: Hey, Zelda.

J: Yep, the first Zelda game dropped 35 years ago. So anyway, I suggest you play one or more of the games in that series. So thanks a lot, everyone, for guessing.

New Noisy (1:07:53)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy this week. This is a noisy that was sent in by a listener named Jaron Van Ninja Jindenton. I'm telling you, it's a hard... Look, N-I-J-N-A-N-T-E-N. Ninja Jindenton. Anyway, he sent a really cool noisy. I'm going to play it for you now. You will hear a human's voice in this recording, and that's not what I want to know. I want to know what the other sound is. Are you ready?


So there's a longer cut of this that I'll play for you next week that is much funnier than that, but that trilling noise, that's the noise I want you to identify. And if you think you know what it is or you heard something really cool this week, you can email me at

S: Thank you, Jay.

Announcements (1:08:50)[edit]

S: Jay, we have a Save the Date.

J: Yeah, we do.

S: And would you like to know what it is? They're much more effective that way.

J: Yeah, Steve, we have more than one Save the Date.

S: That's true, but let me tell you about the one I was thinking of. August 6th and 7th. It's Friday, August 6th, Saturday, August 7th, is the next NECSS, which will be another all-digital NECSS.

C: Yay!

E: Virtual.

S: Yeah, Virtual NECSS number two. The first one was massively successful in every way. We were really happy with how it came off.

C: When you said that, Steve, I expected you to be like, Virtual NECSS number two, revenge of the NECSS.

E: This time, it's personal.

B: It wasn't successful from every angle.

C: From the ones that matter.

B: I gained a pound that weekend, man. I was just eating junk food all weekend.

J: I know, right, Bob?

E: Uh-huh.

J: You're locked in a room with everyone for the whole time. Just think about that. We're going to be, by this summer, I know, let me get to the point. This summer, we might be vaccinated enough where we all can actually be in a room together again.

E: Oh, yeah.

C: Just vaccinated enough.

B: I would think by August.

E: I hope, I hope.

J: What do you think about that, Steve? What's your prediction on that?

S: I think so. We'll definitely all be vaccinated by then.

C: Yeah. I think it's doable, for sure.

S: And then we'll have it updated and know that, yeah, two people who are both fully vaccinated and immune can be in a room together without wearing masks, you know? Hopefully, we'll be at that point.

J: All right, so you could go to, N-E-C-S-S dot O-R-G, to do an early sign-up. We will be filling in all of the details soon. I will tell you that we came up with a theme for this NECSS, which I think everyone is really going to think is fun and interesting. But we're working on it. We're fleshing it all out right now. It's going to we have plenty of time. And as these speakers get placed and selected and everything, we will be putting all that information up. We'll talk to you about it on the show. But go to, N-E-C-S-S dot O-R-G to get your tickets now. And another cool thing, this is really good news as well. So we had a show planned for The Extravaganza, which is everyone on this program right now. We do a stage show, including George Hrab. And it's called the Skeptical Extravaganza of Special Significance. It got utterly destroyed by the virus. And we had a show scheduled, what was it, April, I think, of last year, last spring, and it got canceled. And then we rescheduled it early, like right when the pandemic hit, we thought, okay, well, by October, it'll be over. And we rescheduled it and that got canceled. So now we have scheduled this for November 18th it is the week before Thanksgiving. It's on a Thursday night. So it's November 18th, 2021. This is going to be at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. There are a lot of people who just held onto their tickets since almost a year ago. I will be changing the Eventbrite to reflect the new dates. I will email everyone that purchased tickets and basically say, I'll do whatever you want. You want to refund? I'm totally cool with that. You want to hold onto it? That's fine. And if you want to, then if you want to buy tickets to this, please feel free. It seems like big gatherings of, over a hundred and more will be okay. The industry the actual like performance industry is starting to schedule things for that time of year. We will cancel this show in a heartbeat if it's not safe. You know, we have absolutely no motivation other than to entertain people. And we don't want anyone to get sick or we don't want us to get sick. So again, this is all tentative on the virus, but it's starting to get to that point where the industry is starting to open up. You know, venues are accepting reservations. So we're doing it with total safety in mind. You can go to and you can take a look for a link on our homepage that will help you find the Eventbrite link very easily if you're interested. And my God, it'll be so amazing to do a stage performance again. I can't wait to do it.

S: Right. You think we'll require, people get vaccinated before they come to the show?

B: Oh, boy.

J: I would say, like just in general safety measures, I think that that is what the plan is going to be. Like, if you're going to attend an event, they're going to say you got to be vaccinated.

S: Yeah, I wonder if that's going to be a thing for a while.

C: I think it's going to be a thing for travel, but I don't think it's going to be a thing here. I think shows won't exist until people have the opportunity. And at that point, if you refused, you refused. Sadly, it's not illegal. Yeah. And we're probably not going to be able to prevent people from doing things in public if they're not vaccinated. But I could see for global travel, a vaccine passport being necessary because some countries don't have access to vaccines yet. Whereas if everybody in the US has had access to the vaccine and the only people who don't have it are people who couldn't or chose not to, at that point, hopefully, we're at herd immunity anyway.

S: Yeah, we should be at herd immunity at that point. If not, if a new variant or something is killing everybody, obviously, we'll be flexible.

C: We'll reschedule.

S: Yeah, we'll reschedule. That'll be our biggest concern.


Email #1: Inverse Gambler's Fallacy (1:14:03)[edit]

S: All right, so a couple of emails. I'm not going to really be able to get fully into either of these. I just wanted to quickly to do this. So a couple weeks ago, we talked about the multiverse and the inverse gambler's fallacy. That garnered a ton of feedback. I'm approaching, like, 1,000 comments on the blog post I wrote about it.

C: Whoa.

S: Most not quite on topic. I mean, most of it... What's interesting is that people want to talk about so many things around this. So again, very, very quickly, the idea is that the universe is so fine-tuned for life. How fine-tuned is it? That the probability, if... This is a big... Now, this is the premise, right? This is a huge premise of the fine-tuning argument is that if the constants and laws of the universe vary at random along some kind of an equal distribution, in order for all of the laws to be compatible with life... Like, most universes would survive for less than a second, so we would figure that intelligence is not going to evolve in a universe that collapses in on itself within a second. That sort of thing. That's what we're talking about. The space of universes in which complex life is possible is teeny-tiny. Something like 1 in 10 to the 200-something kind of order of magnitude. So it's almost zero probability, if it's random. So the question is, why do we exist? Is our universe a highly improbable event? So improbable that it's indistinguishable from zero. And one of the answers to that is... Again, it could be that those premises are wrong. The laws of the universe are the way they are for a reason, and we just don't know what it is yet, etc. But one answer is, well, maybe there's a lot of universes. If there's a multiverse with 10 to the 200 universes, then that one of them is compatible with life is actually probable, rather than being extremely improbable. And so the claim is that the multiverse solution to the assumption of the fine-tuning argument is itself a logical fallacy, because observing our universe does not make it more likely, more or less likely. It tells you nothing about whether or not there are many universes or only one. And my point was that that's the inverse gambler's fallacy to think that because this is a highly unlikely event there must have been multiple opportunities. My point was that the inverse gambler's fallacy doesn't apply. Trying to apply it in this situation is an example of the lottery fallacy. So it's like dueling fallacies going on here. What I love about this is that this is becoming like a Monty Hall problem where you have different camps and people can't quite wrap their head around it. Very fascinating discussion. But I think a lot of people are getting distracted, in my opinion. They're getting distracted by elements which are not relevant to the core logic here. And I wrote about it again. I wrote a follow-up blog where I thought, after all the discussion, I think I've kind of zeroed in on the key piece here. And that key piece is all of the analogies that are brought to bear are like, which I talked about, the joker monkey typewriter scenario where you wake up in a room, there's the joker from Batman in front of you, a monkey and a typewriter, and the joker tells you, I gave the monkey an hour to type out an English sentence. If he did, I was going to let you live. If he didn't, I was going to kill you before you woke up. So the fact that you are alive is a highly improbable event, but you only would know that the whole thing happened. If you did survive, you wouldn't observe all the instances in which you would be dead. So does that mean there's lots of monkeys out there typing away on lots of typewriters? Or does it say nothing about that? Now, here's the problem with that analogy. The problem with that analogy is the premise of you wake up, you wake up in a room with a monkey, the joker and a typewriter. So it's already committing a lottery fallacy right there because, yes, it's improbable that you would be alive. Just like if I say you win the lottery, yeah, it's unlikely that you will win the lottery as opposed to somebody wins the lottery.

E: Any person versus you.

S: Right, anybody wins, yeah. So the analogy fails at the first word. So I say, again, there's no real perfect analogy. The bottom line is that if you don't get distracted by things by things that are really non-sequiturs or irrelevant, the bottom line is if a one in 10 to the 200 event occurs, is it more likely to happen if there's only one opportunity for it to happen or if there's lots of opportunities for it to happen? It's obviously more likely if there's lots of opportunities for it to happen. And it's the lottery fallacy to say but you still need to explain why one particular opportunity won. No, you don't need to explain that. To try to fix the analogies, let's try to figure out a way to fix the analogy. Let's say we go to the lottery example. Instead of saying you win the lottery, let's say you're a journalist. Lotteries have never existed before. You have no prior information about lotteries, the concept, anything. But some company creates a lottery for the first time. And as a journalist, you are tasked with investigating it. So you're like the scientist in this analogy. And the company tells you this is the lottery. Here are the rules. This is the odds of winning. And this is the person who won the first lottery. You interview that person. There was a one in 10 trillion chance of any individual ticket winning. They bought one ticket and they won. Now, what's more likely? That that's the only person to buy a single ticket and it won with a one in 10 trillion chance of winning? Or that millions of people bought lots of tickets? What's more likely? Isn't it obvious that it's more likely that there are lots of people buying lots of tickets? If that one person is the only one to have bought a ticket, they bought one singular ticket and won with a 10 trillion to one odds, you would probably want to investigate that further, right? You probably would not accept that that was a massive, improbable coincidence. You would think, oh, it was rigged. It's a bullshit. There's a reason why he won. It wasn't actually random. Those weren't actually the odds. But if you knew that, oh, 100 million people played and trillions of tickets were sold, then you'd be like, oh, okay, this guy's really lucky, but that somebody won doesn't require any special explanation, right? Anyway, I think that gets to the nub of it, but people get distracted by so many irrelevant aspects of this whole thing.

C: Speaking of an irrelevant aspect of this whole thing, did you see the documentary about the McDonald's monopoly scam?

S: Yes, yes, it was really nice.

C: It was so good and it's so crazy that people did not catch on for ages.

S: Yeah, right, for years, I know.

C: Our statistical spidey senses are not good, are they?

S: But if you are interested in this, the real lesson here is how counterintuitive statistics are and that things that you might not think are relevant, like whether it's you won a lottery or somebody won the lottery, it makes all the difference in the statistics. If you're interested in this, read my follow-up blog post, send me an email, take part in the comments. People love to talk about this. This is like the new Monty Hall problem. And if you don't know what the Monty Hall problem is, look that up.

E: That has 2,000 comments.

Email #2: Compliment Sandwich (1:22:02)[edit]

S: The second biggest group email we got in the last few weeks we didn't have a chance to go over is the compliment sandwich that we mentioned a couple of weeks ago. And Cara, I was thinking of this the whole time through the Dunning-Kruger discussion because very quickly, the compliment sandwich is a rule of thumb about how to effectively give negative feedback to people. It's like you're a boss giving criticism to an employee, for example. The idea is that you don't just hit them with the criticism, that you open up with some positive context you give them constructive criticism and then you follow up with something positive as in terms of how we're going to move forward. But then we got a lot of emails with people saying the compliment sandwich is a myth, it doesn't work. It can be counterproductive. And then I went down the well of blog posts and articles and reporting and journalism on the "compliment sandwich". People love to say nobody wants to eat your compliment sandwich or the compliment sandwich doesn't taste so good. You're like, oh my God, just totally doubling down on that metaphor. But here's the thing, just like the bottom lining in saying the compliment sandwich doesn't work is the same thing as bottom lining the Dunning-Kruger by saying it's not real. It's overly simplistic and it's not fair. So all of the criticism of the compliment sandwich is based upon what appears to me, at least how I've always conceived of it, as a kind of a silly straw man about what the compliment sandwich is. It's like, yes, if you follow this lazily like a simplistic algorithm of give it a relevant compliment, then give them your criticism, then give them another irrelevant compliment, yes, that's stupid.

C: Like Bob did right after you talked the story.

S: I know, like Bob was joking. Because yes, that's confusing. It's like, why are you throwing these irrelevant compliments at me? What's going on here? Yes, of course that's confusing because it's stupid.

C: It's not the point.

S: It's not the point. That's what happens when you try to take a nuanced kind of thing and apply it simplistically. But the idea is, and I think the real version of it is, if let's say you're an employer giving constructive criticism to an employee, you first might want to put it into context. Overall, you are doing a good job and you're a valued employee. There's this one area, however, where I think you could need work. You need to be better organized. And then you followed up by saying, now let's talk about how we can address this issue because if we do, I feel like you will do great work at this company. So you see how there was positive things at the beginning and the end, but they weren't irrelevant. They were 100% relevant to the context of the feedback. You're just saying, put into context, this is not a deal killer. And at the end, you're like, if we can figure out ways to constructively address this, things I think are going to be very positive.

C: You're also preventing them from getting defensive off the bat. I mean, this is what is taught in... My university is mostly online and we do a lot of peer feedback and in almost every course, the peer feedback rules are like, don't be polemical. The idea is not to rip somebody to shreds. The idea is to give them good critiques that are useful, that they can utilize, but open with the things that they did right. Because if you open with the things that people are doing right, then they're not going to be defensive and not even listen to the feedback that you give them.

B: I mean, it's all human psychology. The shields just go up.

C: Of course it is.

B: They just go up so fast, so easy. You got to kind of work with that and try to minimize that because nothing is getting through those shields.

C: You get people comfortable, then you show them places where they could improve in a safe way and then you close it by continuing to tell them that you value their contribution and people will walk away going, huh, I could do this thing and it would be better instead of going, what a dick, I'm not going to listen to him.

S: Right, right. Now unfortunately, and there's the legitimate criticism, is there isn't a lot of good empirical data on this.

B: Who cares? It feels right.

C: Face validity.

S: I do think it's based upon valid concepts that have been supported, but this approach specifically, it would be very hard to control for, but the other thing is what's the outcome measure? If the outcome measure is you're more likely to change people's behavior, good luck, because nothing is really effective at changing people's behavior. That's a really high bar.

C: But is it like they still like you after the conversation?

S: Yeah, is it better for the relationship or does the person come away with a higher self-esteem, which we know correlates with better outcomes. There are, I think, softer outcomes that are worth looking at and that actually, if you look at the literature, I think appropriately, does support this approach. But I couldn't find any real studies that zeroed in specifically on this detail and looked at it in a rigorous and fair way in my opinion. But it's also, I think it is a reasonable extrapolation from psychological studies that show the elements of it. And the other thing is, but if somebody did do a well-designed controlled study with good outcome measures and everything that was really rigorous and it showed that it wasn't effective, okay, I would change my mind about it. But until we have that, you're putting everything we do know together, it's a reasonable approach and it doesn't take that much effort, and it seems to comport with a lot of basic psychological wisdom. So, all right, let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Computational scientists have developed a new method of performing large scale simulations of neural networks using only desktop computers but performing as well as supercomputers worth tens of millions of dollars.[5]
Item #2: Genomic analysis helps explain why duckweed (Wolffia) is the fastest growing plant known, able to double its mass in as little as 16 hours under optimal conditions.[6]
Item #3: A recent review of research finds that human bitter taste receptors evolved in the mammalian lineage where they remain widely conserved.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Bitter taste receptors
Science Neural networks
Duckweed is the fastest growing plant
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Bitter taste receptors
Bitter taste receptors
Bitter taste receptors
Bitter taste receptors

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics and tell me which one is the fake. No theme this week, we've had a lot of themes recently so I think I'll just do all news items. You ready? Here we go. Computational scientists have developed a new method of performing large-scale simulations of neural networks using only desktop computers but performing as well as supercomputers worth tens of millions of dollars. All right, number two, genomic analysis helps explain why duckweed wolfia is the technical term is the fastest growing plant known able to double its mass in as little as 16 hours under optimal conditions. And number three, a recent review of research finds that human bitter taste receptors evolved in the mammalian lineage where they remain widely conserved. All right, Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: So let's see, we've got large-scale simulations of neural networks mimicking supercomputers. Yeah, I mean, it all depends on how many desktops do you have access to?

S: No, Bob, a single desktop is doing this as well as a supercomputer worth tens of millions of dollars.

B: Well, it says here using only desktop computers.

S: I'm clarifying for you because I see the ambiguity in that now. We're talking about a desktop computer using this technique will do the simulation that previously would require a supercomputer with tens of millions of dollars.

B: Oh, crap. How the hell does that happen?

S: This is not like using a thousand desktops. It's not that.

B: Right. It's just one or very few. Clearly not analogous computer power is somehow replicating lots of super computer level. So, I mean, I mean, what is it? It's like some using algorithms that work very, very well on a desktop computer. But they don't work well on a super computer. I don't know how that would work using only desktop. That's just too obvious. Too easy. I got to metagame it, I think. So let's look at the next one here. So we got this duckweed fastest growing plant known double it to mass 16 hours. Yeah, I mean, it's OK. 16 hours. That seems a little quick, but it's not shockingly impossible. It doesn't seem so anyway. Let's look at this third one here. Even bitter taste receptors evolved in the mammalian lineage where they remain widely conserved. OK, that makes sense too. But just mammals? I mean, I think bitter evolved because of poisons are often bitter and you don't want to have a pleasant taste to something that we sense is bitter because that could be bad. So then based on that, I would guess that it would be something that would be widely conserved beyond just mammalian taste receptors. So I'll say that that one's fiction then. Although I'm really curious how that number the supercomputer one would be would be science. But OK, let's do it.

S: All right, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. The first one here where the scientists came up with a way to to run simulations on a regular desktop computer. So what do you mean by large scale simulations?

S: So like simulating the visual cortex of a mouse, something like that?

J: I mean, I would say it comes down to actually I don't want to oversimplify this because it would be it would sound ridiculous. I mean, I think sure there's probably ways like similar to maybe how we use like with like zipping technology, like how they'll find similar computations. And then when you zip a file, it's finding patterns that repeat and they use flags to mark those large patterns. And then they it makes it so you can you could crunch down something and make it more dense. I think they may have come up with a way to do that with the way the brain functions. So, I mean, I would say, sure. Going on to this next one, genomic analysis that helps explain why duckweed is the fastest growing plant known. All right. So you're saying it doubles its mass in as little as 16 hours. You know, I know that bamboo grows really fast. That's like the go to for fast growing plants. So in optimal conditions, it can double its size in 16 hours. I mean, I wouldn't say I'd say that's not like a crazy thought and that I don't know exactly what duckweed is, but I would help if I saw a picture of it. But I would say that that's not impossible. And this last one, a recent review of research finds humans bitter taste receptors evolved in the mammalian lineage where they remain widely conserved. Steve, I got to admit I'm not sure what this means.

S: So conserved means it's still present in all mammals. So in other words-

C: In the DNA.

S: Yeah. So the human's bitter taste receptor is unique to mammals, but pretty much all mammals have it.

J: OK. I mean, that also makes sense. Let me let me try to rip this one apart. I mean, I know, like, for example, birds can't taste spice, like spicy food.

B: It's so bad for birds.

C: Do you like spice?

J: Spice.

C: Sorry.

J: Yeah, but bitter. You know what? You know what I'm going to say? I'm going to say that that one's the fake because I think bitter is a sign of poison and poison affects more creatures than just mammals.

C: Jay was clearly not listening to Bob at all.

J: What did Bob say?

C: Exactly what you just said.

J: I wasn't. I actually I'll admit that I wasn't.

B: You know, you already did admit it.

J: That's fine.

S: All right. You think that one's a fiction?

J: Wait, hold on, Steve, wait.

S: There's more? That's usually the end of your...

J: That is it. That's it. You got to let me finish it, OK? I like to finish.

S: Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: OK. About the computers, Bob, you missed an excellent opportunity opportunity to say the word pedaflop. I was really waiting for you to say that. Didn't happen, so I guess I had to say it. And this does seem the most unlikely of the three, which is why Bob probably avoided it as being the fiction. And I'm having the same kind of feeling as well. I have no idea how it did this. Who also mentioned Jay, you were talking about zip drives or zip files?

J: Yeah, yeah.

E: Remember jazz drives? I don't know why suddenly.

J: I do.

S: Yeah, I had one.

J: I had one and I still have the disks and I don't want to throw them away because I'd love to know if I can recover some of the data.

E: Right, right. It's like having the, what, the three and a half inch floppies lying around somewhere that.

C: I know those, but I don't know what a jazz drive.

E: Jazz drive from the 90s. It was, I don't know, double the space of a three and a half?

S: It was like the A-track of data storage.

E: It was popular for about three months.

C: It just jumped right over.

B: No, it was like, I think it was fairly significant, like a hundred meg maybe.

S: Yeah, something like that.

B: It was very intermediary to like the stuff that really settled in.

S: Before we were burning CDs.

C: They sold it until 2002. And you're right. It was a hundred megabytes.

E: Cool. Sorry about that tangent, but I had to get that off my mind. Now the second one about Duckweed. Jay, you missed this one. The real name is Wulfia.

J: Wulfi.

B: Wulfi.

E: Mark your cards, listeners. Oh wait, we're not playing the bingo game that we play on Fridays.

S: They could be playing SGU bingo.

E: Fastest growing plant known. Okay. Double its mass. 16 hours. Optimal conditions. Genomic analysis. Sure. Why? What other analysis would explain why? If not genomic. As far as I'm concerned, I think that one's science. So I'm kind of left with this bitter taste in my mouth and that one is going to wind up being the fiction for all the reasons that Jay said that Bob said.

S: Okay, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah, I got to go with the guys. The neural net one is incredible. And I can't wait for you to tell me why that is science because it sounds too good to be true. And I had the first thought that Bob did, which was of course they daisy chained them all together. Like we're using their processing power in the same way that a supercomputer would.

E: Like the SETI program used for desktops.

C: Right. But if that's not the case, and I'm really interested in what is the case, the duckweed one seems like, I bet you people listening right now, if I'm remembering correctly, will be like, duh, that's science. We just during the live show interviewed Kevin Folta and I remember him talking at length about how duckweed and algae are really great sources, sustainable sources of photosynthetic fuel because duckweed grows so quickly. So hopefully that's, I feel like I remember him literally just saying that. So that one is aligned with that. So I got to go with the other guys too. Simply because I think that bitter is probably older than mammalian lineage. It's probably like a chordate thing. I wouldn't be surprised if everything, lizards, birds, yeah, anything that's kind of a, has a spine. So not obviously insects, not things at that level, but anything that we think of that's a chordate is probably able to detect bitter. Otherwise, yeah, they'd just constantly be killing themselves by eating toxins.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right. So you all agree on number three. Let's start with number two since you seem to have the easiest time with this one. Genomic analysis helps explain why duckweed, Wolffia, is the fastest growing plant known, able to double its mass in as little as 16 hours under optimal conditions. Now, is it the fastest growing plant? That's the thing. You guys focused on the 16 hours.

C: A fast growing plant.

S: But is it the fastest? This says it's the fastest.

C: Crap.

S: This one is science. This is science.

C: Oh, God. Will that be insane?

B: He didn't have me for a second.

S: Most people, Jay's correct. The go-to answer here is bamboo.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Bamboo grows the fastest when it comes to linear growth but not mass. Duckweed, you guys have all seen duckweed. These are the tiny little plants that float on the top of ponds or lakes. Yeah, like a mat of these tiny little things. You probably didn't realize that they were individual plants themselves. The reason why they, part of the reason why they grow so fast, this is what scientists are trying to figure out, why do they grow so fast and can we replicate this in, like, crops? What can we do about this? So they want them to know what genes are responsible for allowing them to grow so quickly.

B: CRISPR, baby.

S: Part of what they found out was that the duckweed has a very simplified genome. So first of all, they have no roots, right? So they don't have to spend energy growing roots. They actually reproduce by budding and the entire plant consists of like a stem fused to a leaf, basically. So it's just one little green thing that floats on top of the water. Now 16 hours is, again, that's like the lowest number I found under optimal conditions. Every two to three days is more realistic under real-world conditions. Still, that's a lot.

C: Amazing.

S: Here's the reason why Kevin Folta was so interested in it. 40% protein, 40% protein. So not just biofuel, this could be a massive food supply in the future. It is eaten in Southeast Asia, apparently.

E: Little cricket flour with that.

C: Steve you just gave that...

S: I swallowed my glottal stuff.

C: Yes, I was like, you just gave that classic Connecticut-cution, it's eaten. It was so good.

S: Eaten.

C: Eaten.

S: Yes, that is our regional, people ask us, what size do you have of a speech impediment? That is our regional accent. It's called the glottal stop. Just suck it up.

B: That's the right way to say those words.

C: So wait, Bob, yeah, you all say eaten, don't you? That's so funny.

S: Eaten, written, written is probably the one.

C: I don't say eaten, but I would say it in between. It's like eaten.

E:Isn't there a donut chain called best eaten donuts?

C: Eaten.

E: Eaten.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay, let's go on to number three.

C: Sorry sorry.

S: A recent review of research finds that human bitter taste receptors evolved in the mammalian lineage where they remained widely conserved. I think the word that you all missed in there is human bitter taste receptors. This doesn't mean that non-mammals don't taste bitter.

C: It's the same as ours.

S: They don't have the same bitter taste receptor as human.

B: I hate when we miss words.

S: Which is why I put that word in there. Because I was hoping that you were going to key in on it because this one is the fiction. You failed, you failed to fall for my bait.

S: I love how he has to frame that in the negative.

E: Well done Bob, thans for going first, Bob.

C: We failed at falling for his bait.

B: We failed at not winning.

E: Our victory is our victory.

S: I call that the insult sandwich.

E: The insult sandwich. That works well.

S: The study was actually looking at the bitter taste receptors in coelacanth. What they found was that we have the same bitter receptors. At least there's an evolutionary continuity between the coelacanth bitter receptors and pretty much everything. Our bitter taste receptors go back at least 400 million years.

B: 400 million?

S: Not only all chordates, as you say, Cara, all vertebrates, let's say, but going way back into the early dawn of vertebrates. And you're correct. It's because bitter, the whole point of tasting bitter is to avoid poisons. Could it make sense that it's more of a land animal kind of thing because plants and bitter? But it's also, for fish, it's eating other fish. Other fish have poison. But they're discovering a lot about the bitter taste receptors because once something exists, it's going to find other uses. That's how evolution works.

B: Sure.

S: There are bitter taste receptors in your heart. Did you know that?

C: What?

S: It also can sense things like your bile. It can serve a lot of it. This is adaptive radiation. Other things have evolved out of these bitter taste genes that they're discovering that serve other functions.

C: Did you guys know that rats can't throw up?

S: I didn't know that. Is that really true?

C: I remember reading about this in early neuroscience courses because it was all behavior and biology. Rats can't vomit, so they actually observe other rats fall victim to things like poisons, and they learn from that, which is why rat poison almost never works if you have multiple rats.

S: It kills one rat.

C: It kills one rat, the rest of them watch, and they develop almost a food aversion by proxy by watching that rat die because, yeah, they can't vomit, so they have to be extra vigilant. It's pretty cool.

S: Yeah, that was a good non-sequiter. All right, going back to number one.

B: Steve, that's like when we would have Jay eat the weird stuff before you and I would eat it when we were young.

C: Exactly. Just in case he dies.

B: Yeah, you know.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right, number one, computational scientists have developed a new method of performing large-scale simulations of neural networks using only desktop computers but performing as well as supercomputers with tens of millions of dollars is science. This is pretty incredible.

B: Yeah, tell me about this.

S: I mean, I don't understand really how they do it because they're computational scientists but, and this was published, this study was published in Nature Computational Science, go figure, and...

B: Cool.

S: What they did was they used a GPU, right, so a Graphics Processing Unit.

B: Graphical Processing Unit. That's common. I mean, they're calculation intensive. They do crazy calculations.

S: Extremely.

B: A lot of supercomputers are just a whole bunch of GPUs.

S: Yeah, they figured out how to use a GPU to do exactly the kind of computing that is necessary for simulating large-scale neural networks and the key is, as far as I could tell...

B: Gaming computers.

S: It's a little bit technical for me. The key is that they figured out a way of doing it where it doesn't need to store massive amounts of information. It's not generating and storing a ton of information where you need the power of the supercomputer to do it and so they were able to sort of bypass that with the method that they're using.

B: Well, it's not just storage. It isn't just pure speed. Don't you want quintillions of operations per second? Something that a desktop is not going to do?

S: Yeah, but I guess a lot of that time was being taken up generating and storing information that they were able to bypass. So their method was actually a little bit faster. So if you look at how quickly it would take a computer to simulate one second of biological time, let's say, in a mouse's brain in the part of the core, not the whole brain, we're not at that point yet, but in the part of the cortex they're simulating. So using a supercomputer in 2018, this specific simulation that they were doing, they were actually doing a macaque's visual cortex.

B: Any details on the supercomputer? How many petaflops, exaflops?

E: Too late Bob.

S: In 2018, this was in 2018, one rack of an IBM Blue Gene Q supercomputer.

B: That's fast. That was number one for a while.

S: Would simulate one second of biological time in 12 minutes. They were able to simulate that same second of biological time in 7.7 minutes.

C: Wow.

S: So that's better.

C: That is better.

B: I'm still not sure. I mean, then it can't really just be pure calculations per second that's doing this. And so how could storage, so why then, if you don't need storage to accomplish this, then couldn't that bring down the time for a supercomputer as well? Because they won't need the storage and they'll just have the pure raw processing power. So there's some details there, I'm just not quite getting, but okay, I still won.

S: So this was it. They're procedurally generating connectivity and synaptic weights on the go as spikes are triggered, removing the need to store connectivity data in memory.

C: Yeah, it's like instead of having to draw things up, do the calculation and bring them back down, they're somehow accessing it in real time.

S: On the go. Again, Bob, just reading off the article. I don't understand exactly what they're doing.

B: I'll look a little deeper if I can find a better way to explain it next week, I'll do it.

S: Yeah, we could do some follow-up. But that's pretty cool. And again, off the cuff, you're like, wow, you can use a desktop computer that two years ago would have taken a supercomputer worth tens of millions of dollars or pounds, depending on what side of the pond you're on. That's amazing. And so this, of course, would bring this kind of simulation down to accessibility to all researchers, whereas previously, booking time on a supercomputer was a limited resource. So this could be like rocket fuel to this kind of research, which is awesome.

B: But that's an important caveat there, though, Steve, because this kind of research, yes, but other types of research that require supercomputers that does not mean at all that you can just use a laptop for them. I think this is very specific type of research that's amenable to desktops that other types aren't.

S: You're correct so far, but who knows? Maybe they can adapt this procedure to weather simulation or who knows? It may not be only useful for neuronal networks. You know, it might be useful for other things that remains to be seen.

B: Maybe a few other things-

S: Or generalizable it is.

B: It's not like we're going to be replacing supercomputers with desktops.

S: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. But yeah, you're right. It'll be for some things, but hopefully not just one thing.

B: Classes of problems, potentially, yeah.

S: Right. But it also does show you how powerful GPUs are. You know, the graphics processing units.

B: Oh yeah, they're little beasts.

S: That's what they do.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:49:34)[edit]

All human experience proves over and over again that any success which comes through meanness, trickery, fraud, and dishonor is but emptiness and will only be a torment to its possessor.
– Frederick Douglass (1817-1895), an American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman.

S: Okay, Evan, give us a quote.

E: "All human experience proves over and over again that any success which comes through meanness, trickery, fraud, and dishonor is but emptiness and will only be a torment to its possessor." And that was written by Frederick Douglass, who we all know.

S: Yeah, very interesting person. Any of you guys watching the series Good Lord Bird?

E: No.

C: Oh, I just started. I watched the first episode.

S: Oh yeah, it's great.

C: With Ethan Hawke.

S: Yeah, with Ethan Hawke. It's about, is it John Brown? Yeah, it's about John Brown.

E: Yeah, John Brown led the slave revolt.

S: Yeah, led the slave revolt at Harpers Ferry. Very interesting.

E: Precursive of the war, yeah.

C: It's based on a book that was written like a literary kind of take on John Brown, I think. And it's like a dark comedy.

S: It is, it's a dark comedy.

C: It's interesting, yeah.

B: Wow.

C: Yeah.

S: But it's very accurate. Every time something happened, did that really happen? We would look it up like, yeah, that's really happened.

C: Oh good, okay, cool.

S: He had a relationship with Frederick Douglass.

C: So it's like narrative nonfiction. It's got that storytelling component. Yeah, that's really cool.

S: Yeah, they say most of it happened. So there's obviously characters that were not real that we see the story through, but the story is actually historical. I highly recommend it. The name Good Lord Bird, at one point in the story, this isn't giving much away, at one point in the story, you see there's a bird on a tree. And I'm looking at it. I'm like, damn, that looks like an ivory-billed woodpecker.

B: Oh, no way, no way.

E: Was it?

S: And it was an ivory-billed woodpecker.

B: CG'd?

S: I totally nailed it. Of course. But they called the ivory-billed woodpecker a common name for it was the Good Lord Bird because that's what people said whenever they saw it. Good Lord.

B: Good Lord, it's making a racket.

J: What, is that true?

S: I don't know.

C: And it's like a sign of good luck.

S: Yes. That's right.

C: It's a beautiful bird.

S: Yeah.

C: I kind of said Good Lord when I first saw it in the show.

S: Good Lord, yeah.

C: Yeah.

S: Right, it's funny.

C: I was like, dear mother of God.

S: A little bit of birding in there.

C: Sorry, I had to.

E: Have we found some DNA somewhere, Steve, of the ivory-billed woodpecker? Could we bring it back?

C: Oh, it's extinct?

E: Allegedly.

C: Oh, that's so sad.

S: No, it is. Remember, there was this, there was possible footage emerged in 2017 around there. But it's almost certainly a Pileated woodpecker, which is the most closely related bird. It didn't have the field markings that would positively identify it as an ivory-billed. So it's probably been extinct for about 80 years, and there's no convincing evidence.

C: Weird. Wikipedia still counts it as critically endangered.

S: Yeah, there's no convincing evidence that there's any living specimens. But the thing is, it lives in the deep swamps so that people could say, oh, it's hidden away. It's okay. It's a fair point. But until we have evidence, it's like the Tasmanian tiger. So it's unclear, apparently, if there's any DNA fingerprint of it. Maybe in a lab somewhere, who knows? But I don't know that we know for sure.

Signoff/Announcements (1:52:56)[edit]

S: We are still doing our Friday live stream, starting at 5 o'clock Eastern time. So if you want to, you could join us. We will be doing that every week. And thank you guys for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

J: You're welcome, Steve.

E: Thank you, Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.

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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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