SGU Episode 819

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SGU Episode 819
March 20th 2021
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 818                      SGU 820

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

Quote of the Week

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out ‘Don’t you believe in anything?’ Yes’, I said. ‘I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.

Isaac Asimov 

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, March 17th, 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: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan is hip deep in taxes, so he will not be able to join us this week, but he will be joining us again next week. So good luck with all those taxes, Evan.

C: Well, we got an extension at least, not an extension, but yeah.

S: One month extension.

B: Has that been confirmed?

C: Yeah.

S: Takes the pressure off a little bit.

C: May 17th, I think.

J: That means one more month of putting it off, right, Bob?

B: You know, this year I promise I'm not going to do it, Jay. I'm not going to put it off.

S: I've actually mostly done it. I took the week off. I have a week off from work. And what am I going to do for my one week off? I am working. I am working from home the whole week. It's basically just a month of weekends where I got to do all the projects, spring cleaning, taxes, all that stuff I don't have time to do normally. So like today I cleaned up most of my garage, which was pandemic filthy. It was like I always do like once or twice a year I have to clean up my garage. And of course I promise I'm never going to let it get this dirty again. And of course it does. But this was probably the worst. This was probably because it just is. Oh my God. So part of it is that like we're just ordering everything online now. And the amount of cardboard that we're collecting is greater than the capacity of my recycling bin. You know what I mean?

C: That happened to me too. That happened to me, Steve. I had to do a drive down to the recycling dump.

S: That's what we did, Jay and I went yesterday. We had a car full of cardboard and other crap from this. It's also I have the studio deliveries and everything too. So I got like double cardboard.

C: Did you get paid?

S: No. Just drop it all off.

C: A lot of the recycling centers in L.A., at least around L.A., you drive onto a big scale. You get a ticket. It weighs your car. You dump all the recycling.

B: They weigh your car again?

C: And then they weigh your car again. And they pay you for how much cardboard you put in.

B: Oh my God.

C: Yeah. But I drove right past the scale and didn't see it. So on the way out, I was like, no, man.

J: So how much could you get paid for a car load? You know, what happens?

C: Oh, I don't know. Like five or 10 bucks. But still. That's funny, you know?

B: A couple whoppers.

C: It's kind of cool. Yeah.

S: You get lunch on the way home and you're good.

C: And it's cash. Yeah.

J: Steve, there is an item that you need to mention here.

S: Yeah?

J: You know, remember that death refrigerator you had, like the kind that like a murderer would have in their garage?

C: Oh, like that you could fit a whole body in?

S: No, it wasn't that. It was. So this is what happened. We had a freezer in our garage for extra freezer space. And at some point, it failed. But it's in the garage. And so we didn't notice until weeks later that the freezer was not running, you know? And so it was one of those things like, all right, at some point we're going to have to clean that out. But you know, that's going to be a big job.

C: Yeah. But in the meantime, just don't touch it. Don't open it.

S: Yeah. So we didn't. And then that was two years ago.

C: Oh, my God.

S: Here's the other thing. You know, we have the twice a year big pickup where they pick up big items. And so we have to get it ready for the town to pick up the big garbage. And then they had all these rules like we had to take the door off and everything. And then they haven't picked up in a year because of the pandemic. They didn't pick up last spring or last fall. So I haven't had an opportunity to get rid of it. So now I just have to just open that thing up and clean it out.

C: Oh, gosh. So there's going to be like rotten meat in it?

S: It was bad in there. It was bad.

C: Or like desiccated now, huh?

S: Yeah. At least it was mostly... It was mostly smudge but it was still bad.

B: I keep thinking of Dirk Gently, who did that in one of his books, and he kept it shut for a long, long time. And then by the end of the book, it gave birth to a god. I don't think that's going to happen to you, though, Steve.

C: Steve, how bad does it smell?

S: Well, I did it when the temperature was freezing. So it was not bad. Yeah, it was frozen overnight. So it wasn't bad. It was actually just mostly frozen. Jay's like, oh, you should spray that crap down with Clorox. So I did. But I was going to hose it out, but my hoses are frozen. So now I have to wait for them to thaw so I can hose it down, take the door off, and then I have to make a second trip to the recycling center to get rid of that bad boy. But the garage is clean.

B: Imagine you got a phaser, set it to disintegrate.

S: I know. Wouldn't that be awesome? Or just... I mean, I would love to have a household nano-recycling unit where you just throw anything in there, and it breaks it down to its elemental particles or whatever stable solid...

B: And that's your feedstock for whatever else you want to make.

C: Yeah, that'd be cool.

S: Yeah, that's it. Then you use that to make other stuff that you want. I want a new couch.

C: Just the cardboard sitch for me was such a pain. Of course, I go on a Sunday because it's like the only day that I can go. And the place I usually go is closed because I didn't bother looking online. So then I find another place online that's open, drive all the way across town there, and they're like, oh, we stopped accepting cardboard. Like, what?

S: That's like the one thing.

C: I'm like, yeah, it's not worth it.

S: Yeah, it was too many people. I mean, it's crazy.

C: It's crazy. And so then I'm like, okay. So I found another place that was like 30 minutes away from there.

B: Oh, we don't accept matter, just antimatter and dark matter.

C: Exactly.

S: No more baryon. We don't... Yeah, except baryons anymore.

C: Because the thing is, once your car is filled to the top with cardboard, you need to get rid of it that day.

S: Yeah, you can't drive around like that.

C: I hate the way it smells. You can't see beyond it. And it was, oh, it's infuriating. But then I vacuumed my whole garage. I cleaned everything up. So now it's just my car and my elliptical and then my one storage unit. And I think it's time to sell the elliptical. I think it might be time. I'm loving my rower, and I don't have my elliptical anymore.

B: There you go.

S: So sell it.

C: I'm thinking I'm going to wait until like people start to reemerge. Because if you remember early in the pandemic, there was panic buying of exercise equipment. And then everybody just like got lazy and did what they did. And I think once we reemerge into the real world, there's going to be another panic buying of exercise equipment when people realize they have to like interface with other people again. You know?

S: Got to lose those pandemic pounds.

C: Maybe I'll make a little bit more money if I wait a couple of months before I put it on Craigslist.

COVID-19 Update (6:30)[edit]

S: So very quickly, before we get to our regular segments, quick pandemic update. I wrote on science-based medicine today about the AstraZeneca vaccine and the concerns about it causing blood clots. Have you guys heard this?

C: All over Europe, right?

S: So 13 different countries have suspended it because of this. Not the UK, though. They're still giving it in the UK. And this is because of reported case reports of people developing different forms of blood clot, DVT, or pulmonary embolism. And a couple of cases of sagittal venous thrombosis clotting in the veins in the brain. So what's the deal with that? And so this is what I wrote about. The fact is that the World Health Organization and various scientific organizations in Europe, including in the UK, and the company AstraZeneca have reviewed the data, and there is no evidence of any correlation with the vaccine. So this is not peaking above the background rate of blood clots that should be occurring normally. You know, there's a certain background rate. So there's no excess blood clots from what you would expect in the population. The only possible exception to that is that the two, I think, cases of the venous thrombosis in the brain were in younger people. And some people were saying that is more than we would expect by chance. But actually, if you look at all the data, it isn't. It's outdated. If you look at the updated data on the incidence of that, it's actually still like below the background rate.

B: Nothing to see here.

C: So, but isn't this going to be one of those bad examples of where you can't put the genie back in the bottle? Like, so now we know that this is a fluke. But if they start trying to vaccinate with this vaccine again in the countries where they already halted it, aren't people going to, like, it's so much harder to correct information.

S: Yeah, I know. It's hard. And then the countries who suspended it are getting a lot of criticism for overreacting. Like, we're in the middle of a pandemic. These are vaccines that we're rolling out. We're monitoring them. But you can't freak out every time something like this happens. Just let us take a look at the data. You know, if anything peaks up above the background, we'll let you know. And they really overreacted. And the other thing I wrote about was, if you take a risk versus benefit approach to this question, even if every single reported case of a blood clot was actually caused by the vaccine, it's still, you're still better off getting the vaccine.

C: Right. It's still a lower risk than the risk of...

S: Yeah. Because guess what else causes blood clots? COVID. You know, it's... But also it'll kill you in other ways, too. But yeah, the absolute...

C: They'll disfigure you or... Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: The risk versus benefit is still in favour of the vaccine, even in the worst case scenario, which is almost certainly not the case. And the best evidence we have so far suggests that this is not an actual causal relationship to the vaccine. It's just background rate. And that's it. Again, even if there was like, oh, yeah, one of these cases was triggered by the vaccine, something in the middle like that happens, it's still way, way in favour of getting the vaccine. So it wasn't a reason to pause with these low numbers.

C: Well, and I'm glad you bring up background rate, because one of the things that I often see in the kind of misinformation that's being thrown around the internet is these stories. And I'll see them sometimes first person accounts, people saying like, I posted something about vaccination on Twitter, because I share a lot of science stories, I share five science stories a day, every day. And you know, I shared something about vaccination, and I got all these comments. And one person was like my aunt died the day after she got vaccinated, and I'm never going to get vaccinated. And it's hard, because it's like, it's an individual person, obviously, the motivation to believe that that's the link is going to be really high. But of course, other people see that and they go, oh, her aunt died after and it's like, yeah, because sometimes people die on days. And when millions of people are getting vaccinated, by chance alone, some of those people are going to die on those days.

B: Right. And you probably saw an episode of Friends that day, too. Does that mean Friends caused it?

C: Exactly and so it's a really hard thing, though, because death is traumatic.

J: And that's the power of those anecdotes. I mean, I know somebody who will not let their child get vaccinated because their child got sick after the vaccine, and they just she connected it in her head.

C: Well, think about all the people who say, I will never get a flu shot again, because the last time I got a flu shot, it gave me the flu, which doesn't happen. It simply doesn't happen.

S: Not from the flu shot.

C: No. Exactly. They either had a reaction to the shot, but more likely, they just already had the flu. And so the day they got the shot happened to be the day before the symptoms really got bad.

S: Yeah, because the incubation period is not that much.

B: And which yet again shows how horrible people are with statistics.

C: Well, yeah, and how when two things happen close together in time, we have a natural tendency to link them.

S: Well if you think about our evolutionary milieu, it probably was evolutionarily advantageous to really overhaul possible risk associations.

C: Absolutely.

S: But it just isn't anymore. We live in too complicated a technological civilization. Our monkey brains don't hold up anymore. Those algorithms, those heuristics in our brains are outdated. And that's why we need math and statistics and science and philosophy and stuff to deal with the complexity of the world.

B: When are we going to get an update, man? When does that patch come in?

S: Yeah, we need the patch.

C: It's so hard. You think about the perfect example of like, I ate those berries, and then I puked my guts out. I'm never going to eat those berries again.

S: Yeah, that's probably a good call.

C: But then I ate those jelly beans, and then I puked my guts out. I'm never going to eat those jelly beans. Probably not from the jelly beans, my friend.

J: Well, it depends on how many you ate. That's what I would say about that.

C: It depends on how many you ate.

S: So Bob, we do have the patch for that. It's called skepticism.

C: Right.

B: Well, yeah, there you go.

C: It's called the skeptic's guide to the universe. How to know what's really real in a world increasingly full of fake.

S: Thinking 2.0. All right.

Your Number's Up (12:30)[edit]

S: Bob, you're going to do a segment of Your Numbers Up.

B: Yes. Yes, I am, Steve. Welcome to Bob, Your Numbers Up. In celebration of Pi Day, most recently March 14th, which is celebrated around the world, by the way, I will talk about the very cool number pi. Pi Day is especially awesome since it's a no-brainer to celebrate it with pi, P-I-E. And as we all know, any day with pi, P-I-E, is a good day. So pi is clearly, I think it's one of the most famous numbers if you define famous as how many people have heard of it, right? I mean, pi is just everywhere. Pi itself, it's a constant describing the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The number itself is 3.14159265358979323846 dot, dot, dot, that just keeps going forever. So I just barely scratched the surface there. Although we have computers that have scratched the surface a lot deeper, well over 50 trillion digits and beyond. It's hard to get an exact number with the latest number is surprisingly, but 50 trillion plus is good enough. Pi is an irrational and transcendental number. It'll continue infinitely without repetition or pattern. It's irrational because it can't be written as a ratio of two integers. So if you have 22 over seven, that's not bad, but it's 3.1428. It's not 3.1415. And you're not really going to get too much closer to that with two integers. So that's why it's irrational. It's transcendental because it's not an algebraic number. That means that pi is not the solution of an algebraic equation with rational number coefficients. And I'll end it there. Many have known, including the Babylonians four millennia ago, that the circle's circumference is about roughly a little bit more than three of its diameters, no matter the size. No matter the size, that will stand up. Many cultures have made estimates of the exact figure, but they didn't quite nail it. A proof was created only, I think, in 1790. There was a proof that proved that it was an irrational number. Let's see. Oh, yes. I'm going to end with Pi Day again. Physicist Larry Shaw at San Francisco's Exploratorium realized at a staff retreat in 1988 that March 14 has the first three numbers of pi. And I wonder what they were doing at that retreat, Larry. Anyway, now it's a day to celebrate math and science and eating pie, and we need more days like that in the year. This was Bob. Your number's up. I hope you enjoyed this more than when your number's up.

S: Thank you, Bob.

'C: In most of the world, though, they don't do March 14th, they do the 14th of March. So it'd be 1.43.

B: I think they're just rolling with it because one Pi Day is from what I can get. I didn't know how worldwide it is, but multiple sources are saying that this is like celebrated everywhere. So that's whatever.

S: Cara, it's American pie, baby.

C: It's American pie.

B: Nice.

C: Oh, no.

B: On multiple levels.

News Items[edit]

Landing on the Moon (15:35)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about the science of landing on the moon.

J: So a paper was published in the journal Acta Astronautica by researchers from Skoltec and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about this question, Steve. So it's very fortuitous that you just asked it. So they have done an assessment of many different ways to land on the moon, and what they try to do is they figure out what the best overall method is. And it's not just landing on the moon that they studied. They included getting the ship like back into orbit and how to use a system that will get a craft to and from the moon. And it's pretty complicated. So to go back into history a little bit. So NASA has not landed people on the moon since Apollo 17, and that was back in December of 1972. And as you probably know, NASA has been committed to landing a man and woman on the moon by 2024. Now, I think we all can agree this is probably not going to happen by 2024. It's going to happen, though. I'm guessing probably within the next six years, we might actually see a mission happen. Landing on the moon is the prime directive of NASA's Artemis program. The Lunar Gateway, this is an orbital platform that stays in the lunar orbit, and it's going to be the last way station for astronauts who land on the moon. This is a really cool advancement that we're going to make. It's going to improve the number of missions, the quality of those missions. It's going to give another level of safety, which is fantastic. Now, since the Lunar Gateway was conceived, though, it requires engineers to rethink how we should actually get people to and from the moon surface. Probably not rethinking how we get from Earth to the moon, because I think that we've already pretty much nailed that. It's more about going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to the moon from orbit around the moon. The plan, of course, is to use reusable modules, and this is a huge money saver, as we've seen. The question is, keeping limited resources in mind, what is the optimal way to do this? That's what they tried to figure out. If we look back on the only way we ever landed on the moon, once we had a ship in orbit around the moon, the Apollo program had a two-stage system. In short, the lunar lander would separate from the command module, the lunar lander would hit the rockets, slow itself down, gravity would pull it down to the moon, and as it came close to the surface, they had to fly it in and land it, sometimes with almost no fuel left, but that's another story. And then when they were done, they would get back in the ship, and they would be in the area that was intended for the crew to be, and they would lift off from the surface of the moon, but they would leave the lander part, the legs and the whole bottom part of the lunar landing module there, right? So that is considered a two-stage system, a system that brings them down, and then a smaller ship that goes up and connects back up to the command module. That's really cool, and that's what they came up with for the Apollo mission.

S: But Jay, this is a bit of an aside, but how familiar are you with the story of how that system, that Apollo system, came to be?

J: Yeah, why don't you tell us about that?

S: Yeah, because that wasn't their first idea. Their first idea was called the direct ascent approach, where basically they launched a ship. It was still a multi-stage rocket, but that final rocket that goes to the moon, the entire thing would land on the moon, blast off from the moon, and return to Earth.

J: So one ship the whole way.

S: Yeah, that's right.

B: That's silly.

S: Yeah, we look back now and say, well, that's silly. But that was their first idea, and that was the one that had a lot of support.

B: You know what's sillier? Shooting a cannon into the moon's eye.

S: That is a bit sillier. So they actually designed a rocket to do that called the Nova. It was obviously never developed. But this rocket was much bigger than even the Saturn V, and that was the big-

J: Steve, they called it a Nova?

S: Nova.

J: That means no-go.

S: Yeah, well, it's not Spanish.

B: But Jay, you know that didn't happen, right? The Nova sold very well in Spanish.

J: Yeah, I know. I know, but it still means no-go.

B: I know.

C: But it also means-

B: New star.

C: New star, yeah.

S: In any case, so the Nova was a huge rocket, and that was the limitation of that plan, and they had doubts that they could finish it in the timeframe that Kennedy asked for, by the end of the decade. Another idea was the EOR, or the Earth Orbit Rendezvous. When that planned, they would launch multiple Saturn Vs into Earth orbit with the pieces of the bigger rocket that goes to the moon. They would assemble them in orbit, based out of a space station, and then take that rocket to the moon, land it, take it off, again, single stage down to and from the moon.

B: Wow.

S: NASA liked that idea, because like, hey, we get a space station out of it. We could use that space station for other things as well. So that became the most popular idea. But this one guy, he did have a team of engineers with him, but it was a very small group of engineers led by one guy called John Houbolt, H-O-U-B-O-L-T. I don't know if I'm pronouncing that correctly. He said, you guys are crazy. We're never going to get either of those things done in the timeframe that we have. This is what we have to do. And he outlined the whole multi-stage to the moon that you just laid out, Jay. We're not going to take anything one step further than we absolutely need it. We don't need the landers. We leave them on the moon. We only land the smallest component possible on the moon, and only take off the smallest component possible from the moon. Everyone else, all the big hitters in NASA, hated that idea. They thought he was crazy. They really were.

B: Crazy?

S: Yeah. They really were mean to him. It wasn't just brushed aside. He was really criticized for that idea. But he persisted. He would not let it go. He would not let it go. And finally, he went over everybody's head and wrote a letter to the head of NASA and said, dude, I'm sorry to break protocol, but none of these other ideas are going to work. This is the only thing that's going to work. At least give it a serious hearing. And just to get him off his back, they entered that idea into serious consideration. Two months later, that idea went out, probably because at some point, Wernher von Braun flipped and supported the idea. And then that became the way he went to NASA. So even though Humboldt left NASA in 63, when Apollo 11 was landing on the moon, they invited him to the control room to see it. And von Braun said, thank you. That was a good idea. Like, he was acknowledging that we would not be standing here right now landing on the moon if it weren't for you. You pushing, not only having that idea, but pushing it against all of the heavy hitters at NASA.

B: And what was his name? Humboldt?

S: No, H-O-U-B-O-L-T, Humboldt.

B: Okay.

J: I just find it really interesting that you have one engineer that had the idea, the correct idea, the only idea that was going to work. And you have a room full of people who are incredibly skilled at what they do. And it really was, it just took him pushing it really hard to make them realize it. You would think in that story that other people would go, oh yeah, he's right, right?

S: But the thing is, we're looking back with 2020 hindsight, and it all seems inevitable now. Like Bob said when he first heard, really? They're going to take one giant rocket and land it on the moon? That's nuts. But yeah, but that was the idea.

C: Right, but we hadn't done this before.

S: Yeah, we hadn't done it before. And so yeah, once it all works out, then it all seems inevitable. It's just that hindsight bias is so powerful. But if you go back to the point where they had no idea, they really had a blank board. It's like, how are we going to get to the moon? Let me add a little bit of one, sorry, last thing. The main reason for their opposition, the main reason for their opposition was perfectly reasonable. They were skeptical about their ability to have a two ships rendezvous in lunar orbit. Because you have the lander, after it takes off from the moon, would have to hook back up with the command module circling the moon. And they're like, that's going to be hard. And if we fail, the astronauts are dead. If we try to do that around Earth, if they fail, they come back down to Earth. But you know what I mean? You can't fail to do that in lunar orbit. So that was perfectly reasonable. The difference was that Humboldt says, we can do this. And yes, this is tricky, but not only can we do it, it's easier than the problems with your other ideas. It's easier than that Nova rocket.

J: So interesting. They did test that in Earth orbit, which was really cool. If you see some of those missions, read back on some of those missions, they were scared. They didn't know what was going to happen. They knew it was a tricky maneuver. All right. So to continue on here, I just thought that that story that Steve just told gives some context to the complexity of what we're doing here. I mean, this is a big deal. This is not easy stuff. The next series of lunar missions that are going to happen will be landing in a location within the lunar South Pole. They picked that area for several reasons that you can read up on your own. So the researchers took into account that the astronauts were going to be leaving from the lunar gateway. Where would it be in orbit? Where's the optimal place to leave to make a landing, to make their way down to the moon surface? They factored in a four-person crew with approximately a seven-day mission on the moon. And the amount of time you spend on the moon is important because the time that you take off from any location will dictate where you can get to, right? If you're in orbit or if you're going to take off and you want to rendezvous with something in orbit, you don't just take off whenever you want. There's windows of time that you got to make. So anyway, so they had to consider what propellant was best and also how many stages should be used. The cost involved was a huge factor. And they ended up having 39 different scenarios that they considered. And each of these scenarios that they tested had different configurations of the number of stages, different kinds of propellant used at different stages. And they used, of course, mathematical models to run through all the varieties of system architecture. So at the end, this is a very detailed process. What do you think they ended up finding is the best option?

S: I know because you told me already.

J: Well, I was wrong when we were talking, by the way, Steve.

S: What you said was that the exact system that Apollo used.

J: Right. Now, that is partly correct.

S: Okay. It was only mostly correct, not completely correct?

J: Yeah. We're reading on this, of course, because we're researching pretty much up to the last minute when we do the show. So their analysis showed that a two-stage architecture like the one used in the Apollo program, this is the best system to go with. The overall weight of the vehicles needed and the propellant was less, which would inevitably result in a lower cost per mission, which is the factor, the overarching factor here. So then, though, when they factored in using reusable vehicles, they found that a one-stage or a three-stage system was comparable to a two-stage system. And ultimately, they ended up selecting a single-stage reusable system that would run on liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. So in their preliminary analysis, they did not factor how likely each mission's success would be overall or crew safety. And of course, this would lead them to have to do more testing.

S: This was just efficiency?

J: Yeah, this was just efficiency. So they have to do more elaborate modeling to factor in all of the other stuff that goes into it, which is a ton of other stuff that they have to consider to get those types of answers. So this is very interesting if you think about how much they have to do, all the factoring that they have to do just to figure out what is the best way to handle bringing people down from orbit around the moon. And I find that this information is like, I don't really understand how they do all of this. I'm sure they're crunching numbers like crazy. But they still have to come up with like, okay, so how would we do this? What would one stage look like? What would two stages look like? What would three stages look like? Then they have to figure out all the different reasons why they would use different fuel at different times during all of these moments during the move from the orbit around the moon to the surface of the moon. So they have to have perfect knowledge of how heavy these materials are, how they'll burn, what they're good at doing. The fuels behave differently at different places. It's a staggering amount of things that have to be considered, and they factored it down to 39 different setups. So we have to keep in mind, though, that they selected a two-stage system because they didn't have a permanent orbiting lunar station, like Steve said. They knew that they weren't going to end up having that, so they had to go with the two-stage system. So when they left the moon during the Apollo missions, they ended up connecting back to the command module. Back then, there was zero consideration for reusability, as Steve was saying. We weren't even thinking about this stuff back then, so reusability wasn't on the table. They also discovered that without having the orbiting lunar station, using a three-stage landing system was not possible. This was the research that they just did. It just wasn't a possible scenario without the orbiting station. So reusability, in the end, is what moved them away from two-stage to either one-stage or three-stage. I don't even know what three-stage looks like. Do you, Steve?

S: No, that's what I was going to ask. Is the station one of the stages, or no? They're saying you have the station, then you have three stages, but you're reusing all of them, one of them? The one stage makes sense. You send one ship down, it comes back up, the whole thing is reused. Whatever money you lose on fuel, you make up on not having to throw away half your lander. I get that. That makes sense. You'd have to do a little more research to find out what would the three-stage system be like and what parts would be reusable.

J: Yeah. If you think about the floating platform, they're going to be sending something to and from the moon, to and from the moon, back and forth, back and forth. Now, it doesn't go through a burning atmosphere. It doesn't deal with any water, corrosiveness, or any of that stuff. It really is just the shock of turning those engines on and off if they don't have a rough landing. Those modules are going to be able to last, I bet, a pretty long time without having to worry about all the crap that they go through coming down back to Earth. It's a really good system if you think about it like, yeah, reuse it. Just keep reusing them, refuel them, and send them back down over and over again. That's the way to do it. You want as little material out there as possible.

S: Yeah. It seems to make sense. If you have a lunar orbital platform and you're going to be making multiple trips down to the surface, having a reusable lander makes the most sense. As long as you have the ability to not only refuel, but refurbish it in lunar orbit. It's not going to be in a hangar in NASA on the Earth. It's going to be in orbit where you're going to have to make sure it all works again. That process is probably going to be the limiting factor there.

B: Yeah.

Seeing Thylacines (30:41)[edit]

S: All right, Cara.

C: That's me.

S: Tell us about sightings of Tasmanian tigers.

C: Yes. In other words, today we'll be talking about confirmation bias. Yeah, so you guys know about the Tasmanian tiger, aka the thylacine, because it's not actually a tiger. Sometimes also referred to as a Tasmanian wolf, also not a wolf, but the thylacine is an extinct marsupial. I think it was the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world. It evolved quite a long time ago. The last known, I think it was declared extinct in like 1936. Originally, it roamed all across the continent of Australia, and also Tasmania and New Guinea. Unfortunately, when Europeans came in and started to displace both the aboriginals and also many of the animals, the thylacine was pushed out of its main kind of home range and ultimately ended up sort of being trapped only on the island of Tasmania, which is where we get the name Tasmanian tiger. I think it's related, actually, to the Tasmanian devil. There are some extant species that are related to it, like the numbat. I don't know if you guys have ever seen a numbat, but they're really cute. Yeah, I would look up the numbat, it's a cute one. And it may actually be one of the confusions when people cite Tasmanian tigers. So I don't know if people listening know, but I would be kind of surprised if they didn't, especially if you're into these kind of skeptical topics like cryptozoology. But Tasmanian tiger sightings are very common. They sort of peaked in the 1980s, there was a big push to try and find Tasmanian tigers. After they were first deemed extinct, of course, for many decades, there were legitimate scientific expeditions trying to find remaining individuals. This is not out of the realm of possibility at the time. We have found even today organisms that we thought were extinct in little pockets in places where we didn't expect to find them, like the black brown babbler, which was apparently extinct since the 1840s. Two of them were caught in Indonesia and were named and identified. There's another example of a bee called the Australian cloaked bee, which was last seen in 1923. But a tiny population of them was discovered by an entomologist. So it does happen. And of course...

S: Yeah, but bees aren't large carnivores.

C: Bees aren't large carnivorous marsupials, yeah. And that's the other thing. Oftentimes, when we think of cryptids or cryptozoology, we think of things like Bigfoot, we think of things like Sasquatch or Loch Ness Monster or something. These organisms that never existed. What we're talking about here is something that did exist, went extinct, and has never again been seen in nature, yet undeterred, there are groups who still look for them. There's even a group called, I love this, I mean, I don't love it, it's annoying, butI kind of love it, Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia. And so just this past month, the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, I think led by Neil Waters. Yes, of course, led by, aka, only Neil Waters.

S: I suspect they don't want people to be aware that they're extinct.

C: Yeah, exactly.It's like, I'm not sure what that, yeah, what they're going for with that. There were some YouTube videos posted that promised conclusive photographic proof of a family of thylacines with a juvenile within their mix, and it was moving through the brush. And a bunch of people got really excited. These photographs were sent off to experts. They were quickly debunked by multiple experts. Yet, of course, this group is saying, no, no, no, no, no, this absolutely is a thylacine. It can't be anything else. I mentioned before that it very easily could be a numbat. Actually, some of the expert groups that looked at these images said, you know what, we think it's actually probably something called, and I'd never heard about this before, but they're very cute. A Tasmanian pademelon, actually, that's the American pronunciation, pademelon, I looked up how to say it out loud. The British and or Australian pronunciation, I think, is more like pademelon, like the E, pademelon. And they look sort of like a cross between a wombat and a quokka. They're adorable. But apparently they're a common looking, a common organism that's mistaken for a thylacine during these sightings. Also there are a lot of wild dogs in Tasmania, and thylacines are very dog-like. And so it's moving through the brush, you don't quite get a good image, it's a little bit blurry, you know that old joke about how Bigfoot is just blurry, and that's why you can never capture him. This is a complicated issue. So why is it that we can see something, we don't exactly know what it is, and our minds go to this extinct animal? And really, it comes down to what we were just saying is confirmation bias. We have very good evidence to support the idea that wildlife sightings are often ambiguous, right? We know that it's rare that in a camera trap, for example, an animal is going to walk right up to it and pose for you. We've all seen beautiful camera trap footage. Oftentimes that's because they're in feeding sites, or they're actually baited. And sometimes you're lucky that you get a camera trap image of a clear view of an animal. But very often, camera trap footage, and even less often, footage where an individual is out, "hunting", and they see an organism, and they try to snap a picture on their cell phone, usually we're getting ambiguous stimuli. Maybe there's an ear poking out here, maybe you see an eye, you might see a little bit of a tail, and your brain pieces together what that animal is based on the template that you have in your mind. That template comes from experience. And this is something you guys remember, like way back in the day, and maybe it's still an issue when we talk about computer vision, that one of the biggest problems with computer vision is they don't have the ability that the human mind has to fill in the gaps. We're able to do that, we do it naturally, we do it without noticing. The problem is we often do it wrongly. So we see the ears, we see the tail you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras, for those of us living here in North America. If you're living in South Africa, you might think horses or zebras or donkeys. And so oftentimes, the compulsion that we have through motivated reasoning may actually net out to be a case of mistaken identity. And if you're already in a group called the, what did I say it was called, the Thylacine Awareness?

S: Of Australia, yeah.

C: Of Australia, yeah. If you're already in a group called the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia, you probably have a vested interest in finding thylacines. So if you see a dog-like animal, you see a pandemelon or pandemelon-like animal, and you're able to piece together these little bits and pieces, I mean, yeah, you're going to go thylacine first. Of course, then when the experts look at these images, they say, no, clearly not a thylacine. Most likely one of these other things. We see this time and time again when sea life or sea mammals more often wash up and they've had, they're missing their skin, for example, or you'll see organisms that are partially decomposed and they look not human. They look alien, or sorry, not human, but not of this earth. They look alien. And our minds can go to really wild places to try to understand what they are. But there's almost always a very rational explanation. Another thing that comes up, I think that's important to remember too, is that photographs are two-dimensional snapshots. So we have to imply things like depth from a photograph. And that's why oftentimes it's really hard to see scale. So we've all seen the perfect fake flying saucer pictures where you just threw up a hubcap or a plate and you're able to capture it just right, and it looks just like a flying saucer. And so we'll see these situations too where a cat, like a wild cat or even a domestic cat or a small dog, wandering just right in the brush actually looks like a huge carnivorous beast. And that's really because it's hard for us to recognize scale in photographs. That's why at forensic crime scenes, there are scale markers. This is why when you look at images in published paleontology papers, you'll see a dollar bill or a ruler or a coin next to the specimen, laying next to it so that you can see scale. Because out of context, we often can't. So I guess in conclusion, the thylacine is still extinct. If you hear about a thylacine sighting, yeah, unfortunately, I wish it weren't either. I mean, it's a beautiful creature. It's fascinating. Its history is really interesting. And actually the story of its extinction and the story, sadly, of basically the ethnic genocide in Tasmania around the same time period is a very sad story. But the ultimate takeaway here is that if you hear about a sighting of something that's been long extinct, you have to approach it with appropriate skepticism. Doesn't mean that once in a blue moon, something incredible might happen. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And unfortunately, in this case, this evidence is just pretty thin.

S: And this happens with other creatures as well. We talked about the ivory-billed woodpecker. Same thing.

C: Totally. And what did they think it was?

S: They found out it was probably pileated.

C: It was probably pileated.

S: And it always comes down to, is the evidence unambiguous? Are there field markings? Is there information that really can only be that thing? Rather than look at the glowing eyes and the ears, okay, that'd be any of 30 animals.

C: Absolutely.

S: It's probably not the least likely of those animals, the one that's been extinct for 100 years.

C: And you think about it this way. I mean, think about when there is an abduction, like an amber alert or something of that nature, or when there is a terrible crime is committed and there's a police sketch or even a real image. Like we know who the person is and we have a photograph of them and the police decide to go public with that and say, here's our Crime Stoppers line, community, please dial in. How many calls do they get that are not that person? Way more than and of course it's helpful because then they can comb through it. But very often, because of the emotions are high, because the stakes are high, we're going to see, oh, well, that person has dark hair and dark eyes, and they're sort of around the same height. Maybe it's them. And I think it's a very similar process with these extinct animals.

S: Yeah. We fill in the gaps.

B: The panda on the train tracks.

S: Yeah. The red panda. There's a red panda that escaped from a zoo in Europe, I forget the exact one. And they announced to the public, hey, our red panda has escaped. Let us know if you see it. There were sightings all over the city all day of the red panda. They found it dead on the train tracks. It never got 20 feet from the zoo.

C: And so they saw it all day.

S: Oh, yeah. Because that's what they were looking for.

C: Yeah. And I mean, I've never seen a red panda out in nature.

B: Yeah. It's a red panda. It's not like it's not like a dog like creature. It's a red panda.

C: Yeah. But I could see people thinking that raccoons were red pandas for sure.

S: Yeah. I mean, they are trash pandas. Yeah, absolutely.

C: Exactly.

S: All right.

J: What? They deliberately killed it with a train?

C: No, no, no. He's saying it didn't get far away. Oh, you're being funny. God damn it, Jay.

B: Good, Jay. Jay, you got me too on that one, dude.

S: Didn't get me for a moment. All right.

Losing Yourself (42:49)[edit]

S: All right. Let me ask you guys a question. I know you, Cara, you watch Game of Thrones?

C: No.

S: Oh, the other guys did. I know you guys did. Was there a character that you particularly identified with?

B: The dragon. No.

J: I mean, Jon Snow was my favorite character, but-

C: I was about to say Jon Snow, but that's because that's the only character I know from Game of Thrones.

S: Yeah. Or is there a work of popular fiction where you really identify with one of the characters?

J: Yeah.

C: Yeah, of course.

B: Yeah.

S: What do you think is happening in your brain when you are watching that character on the screen or you are thinking about that character?

C: Empathy.

S: So that was a question that some neuroscientists asked.

B: He's cool. He's like me. That makes me cool.

S: Well, yeah, Bob actually is the closest to what the study looked at. But specifically, they were interested in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, of course, because that is the part of the brain that gets activated when we think about ourselves, when we engage with autobiographical information or are self-reflective. We think this is the part of the brain that enables us to reflect about ourselves, right? So the question was, how does that part of the brain also get activated when we are thinking about or when we are thinking about other people? And so they're building on existing research and that's starting from scratch here. So what the research shows is that generally, no, it does not get activated as much when you think about anyone other than yourself. It definitely gets the most activated when you are self-reflective. So it's clearly somehow involved in that process. Again, it's really hard to infer exactly what these brain regions are doing. All we know really is that they're active when subjects are doing particular tasks, but they could be involved in many ways in that task. You know what I mean?

C: Of course. All we know is that there's like oxygen there.

S: So we have to be cautious about this. So what the recent study looked at was, all right, let's look at the people thinking about themselves, thinking about really close friends, and thinking about fictional characters. And they chose six different fictional characters from the Game of Thrones, just because they think it was popular enough that they would have subjects, they could find subjects who were familiar with them. And they chose characters that were very different from Game of Thrones, just so that they could be as distinct as possible. So when thinking about very close friends, the VMPFC the medial prefrontal cortex, also became active, but not quite as active as when they're thinking about themselves. And when thinking about fictional characters, it was even less active, right? So that makes sense, and that's consistent with prior research. But here's the new bit. This is what they did in this study. They had people answer like a personality questionnaire about themselves, about their friends, and about the characters, the six characters from Game of Thrones. You know, like, do you think this guy is ambitious, or kind-hearted, or depressed, and mopey, or whatever. They then looked at the characters, they arranged the characters based on how similar they were to the subject. And the more, in a linear relationship, the more similar they were to the subject, according to the subject, right, according to the person in the study, the more that part of the brain lit up. So, again, this was their hypothesis going in. So if we personality identify with a fictional character, or the more we do so, the more we engage the part of the brain that gets active when we think about ourselves. And so that sort of supported their hypothesis that for certain fictional characters, ones that we strongly identify with, we actually start to look at their story through a first person self perspective. You know, we start to get invested in that character as if they were ourself, right? Previous research established that people can react to, like, beloved fictional characters as if they were close friends. They have the same kind of reaction to loss as they would if a close friend died, you know?

B: It's like they died.

S: And people can certainly, it could certainly alleviate loneliness. Having a "relationship" with a fictional character on your favorite TV show makes people feel less lonely.

C: Of course.

S: They can actually feel a connection. So this is just sort of a building on that. Not only can you feel a friendship connection to a fictional character, you can identify them to such a degree that you start to neurologically at least start to think of yourself in that role. Like you actually start to merge those two things a little bit. Now anecdotally, some people certainly do that to some extent, right? And that also gets you, remember we talked about too long ago about the fantasy prone personality profile. But this is also along similar lines that people differ in their ability to become immersed in a narrative story, in a fictional story. And the more people are able to get immersed in a story, the more this phenomenon is present, right?

C: Right. Interesting.

S: So then that, so the, at the fully immersive end of the spectrum, it may be that people like really fully take on the personality, the character as if it were themselves.

C: We've seen that psychopathology before where individuals will fall in love with characters on television shows. And then they will reach out to the actors and become very obsessed with the idea that they're a real character. Or they will see themselves as the girlfriend in the television show or the boyfriend in the television show. And there's almost like there's a psychotic component to it on that extreme end.

S: Yes, it can get pathological. Absolutely. But even at the sort of healthy, non-pathological end of the spectrum, it could still be profound. And we're just, this is just one tiny slice of sort of the neurological phenomenon that's going, that's underlying it. But a couple other things that I thought were related to this one study. The question then becomes, why would this be? And I think this is an epiphenomenon of just how our brains function. You know, first of all, our brains are massive parallel processors that make connections. That's how we think, we make connections among things. So that's just, I think, fundamental to how the brain works in that respect. But also, our brains are wired in a typical brain wiring to distinguish between things out in the world that have agency and things that don't have agency. We've mentioned this before as well. And our brains do this in a very quirky way. If something is acting as if it has agency, our brain assumes it does. And acting as if you have agency is just that you move in a non-inertial frame, right? So you're just moving in a way that is consistent with you moving under your own power. Like not explainable as passive motion in gravity. And so if you're moving as if you're moving of your own volition, our brain slots you as that's an agent working out there in the world. I have to be wary of them, think of them as an agent. And that attaches to the full suite of emotions. Because that's when our brains decide that something is an agent, it then connects to our limbic system and we assign emotion to it. So that's why we care about people and not rocks, right?

C: And it's also why we can trick ourselves with things like those car dealership sock balloon guys. And they have faces painted on them and they're dancing around. And you're like, that guy's funny, I have emotions towards him.

S: That little robot is happy, yeah. So that's the thing. But again, just now this is the sort of evolutionary speculation part though. If you think about, again, the vast majority of our evolution as forever up until very, very recently, over millions of years of neurological development, there was no such thing as cartoons or movies or writing or, you know what I mean? That didn't exist. And so our brain didn't have any reason to make a distinction between real and fake. It was all real. And also over-assuming, what we call hyperactive agency detection, just assuming, erring on the side of assuming something does have agency and assigning emotion to it was probably evolutionarily advantageous because that's, again, how our brains work. So enter the age of not only storytelling but the written word and then pictures and now movies and everything that we have now. Our brains just did not evolve to make a distinction between any of that and the real world. And so emotionally, we treat it all as if it's real because that's how our brains are wired.

C: And storytellers know that and they know how to manipulate it in such a way that it's undeniable.

S: Yeah, absolutely. This is why narratives and storytelling are so powerful to us because they can engage our full emotions and we can become fully invested in them. We could see ourselves in that story. We could see our friends in that story and we care about what happens to them. I mean, I'm sure you guys have been in this situation, I think any self-reflective person. At some point, you're watching a movie about characters and you're crying or you really care about those characters, what happens to them, good or bad or whatever. And you say, why do I care so much? This is complete fiction. This has zero effect on my life. This means nothing. It's just whatever the writers decided to have happen is what's going to happen. Why do I care so much about how this story turns out? But you can't help yourself. You do because your brain gets invested in it and doesn't make that distinction, you know?

C: Of course. And I think there's a layer to this, Steve, too, which is really interesting from an evolutionary perspective. I've read a couple of books recently about this phenomenon of kind of co-evolution, like kinship evolution, because we often think about individuals as existing in a vacuum and just no human in the history of time, except in the most aberrant situations, was born and developed outside of human experience. We developed in kinship relationships and we have intersubjectivity. Our sense of self and identity is dependent on other people and how we reflect upon them, how they see us, how we see them.

S: Yeah, we're tribal.

C: All of that. Yeah, we're tribal. But our actual sense of self is not because of how we are in a mirror. It's because how other people treat us. It's because how we reflect upon other people when we communicate. And so this idea, too, of being able to identify with characters as if they are our friends, as if they are our family. The self aspect is fascinating, this kind of added layer to this study that you're talking about. But this idea to identify with them as if they're ourselves, I would be amazed if we didn't do that.

S: Yeah, yeah. Oh, absolutely. One last layer to this, which is often why we talk about this on the show, there was also a recent study that just looked at the past 50 years of TV aimed at preteens, preens, right? And they found that the virtues, the values that were espoused in these TV shows has really shifted over time. The big one was that valuing fame has generally been very, very low, the value placed on fame. But it spiked in the 2000s and now is coming back down to its previous baseline for some reason.

C: Oh, that's good.

S: That was sort of one bit that stuck out on the daily. Why was this huge spike in valuing fame right around the time social media hit? I don't know.

C: Well, right. Because there's also now this democratization.

S: Yeah. Well, then we're not going to assume cause and effect, right? We don't know. This study was not able to establish that. But I think turning this around, I do think that our dominant narrative stories that we tell each other shapes our culture and societies. It reflects our society, but it also shapes our society. And that's why we care so much, like the way scientists are presented in the media or the way believing in the paranormal is presented in the media. This actually shapes the way people think and feel and believe because narratives are powerful. We identify with them. They are emotional. They they're not just stories. And anyone who dismisses our concerns by saying, it's just stories that's not what the science shows. That's not how our brains work. They affect us dramatically. And so we have to pay close attention to the stories that we put out there in the world because it affects. It affects our culture.

C: Read some Jeffrey Campbell.

B: It affects attitudes on how minorities are presented as well, right?

S: Yeah, totally.

B: Take that, Dr. Seuss.

S: No, well, seriously, that's why we care about, like, stereotypes and tropes and bigotry in literature and popular culture and narratives because it absolutely reinforces those stereotypes. But anyway, there's I'm sure there's a lot of variability. There's a lot of different contexts. There's neurologically, I'm sure it's just really, really complicated. This is just scratching the surface. But it is interesting to think about the bottom line, like how powerful neurologically, psychologically, culturally, narratives can be. All right, guys, let's move on.

Reading for Fun (56:36)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us why reading is fun.

B: Yeah, this is a quick little news item, a little atypical, but it made me smile. A new study claims that reading fiction, even guilty pleasure reading a fiction like trashy novels, we all know what that is, actually is a predictor of better language and verbal skills more so than reading nonfiction. So I tell you, this one made me feel good because right now I happen to be in the middle of a few really good fiction books, like a hilarious and serious sci-fi novel, The Gangster by Scott Sigler. Scott's amazing. But my most guilty pleasure of all, yet another sci-fi novel by Neil Asher. It's really just weaponized sci-fi porn, basically, is what this is. I mean, there's no sex. There's no future sex. But it's just like A.I.'s, robots, and augmented humans fighting bad A.I.'s, robots, and augmented beings and spaceships and all that. And part of me is like, damn I really should get back to Sean Carroll and Katie Mack's physics books. And I will. I really will. But perhaps I don't need to feel quite so guilty if this study is true. This is published in the journal Reading and Writing. Never heard of that journal before. Sounds cool.

C: Oh, cool.

B: Written by Sandra Martin Chang, a professor of education in the Faculty of Arts and Science and PhD student, Stephanie Kozak. The initial goal of the study was to determine what turns a young reader into an adult who loves to read, or maybe even an adult voracious reader, right? They want to know because, as they say at the very beginning of their study, the very first lines are, among the many benefits associated with leisure reading, perhaps none are more important than the advantages it affords to language and literacy. Voracious readers demonstrate superior reading and verbal abilities. So truly, they're extolling the virtues of reading, and they want to find out why, what makes somebody like that. So Martin Chang and Kozak, they looked at young adults who are in this transition period, kind of after school, I guess. They're becoming more self-directed readers. You know, they're not like, crap, I have to read this for my bio class. They just have to, like, they have to decide, all right, I'm going to have some leisure reading. I'm just going to pick whatever the hell I want. You know, what do they choose? Why do they choose? How do they choose? Everything about it. So now, the researchers consider the young adults to be a special age range because they're not typically studied in this context very much, right, because most of the studies you look at are going to be mainly for the young kids, right, because there's so many studies about reading and young kids and all that stuff, and as there should be. But this is kind of like an age range that isn't studied very much. And if it is studied, the few times that it has been studied, no one really cares about what genre are they reading. You know, it wasn't really a factor. So they wanted to make that a factor. So they used a reading scale that they developed called POLR. Now, I don't know if that's an initialism or an acronym, but I'm going to make it an acronym and call it POLR. And it stands for Predictors of Leisure Reading. And they use it, and they use POLR to elucidate the subject's reading behavior, right? It has, POLR has four subscales, the reading motivations, reading obstacles, reading attitudes, and reading interests. So they explored those very deeply with these 200 undergrads. The goal was to use POLR to see if they could predict what the language skills are for the undergrads. So the study itself had two major components. It had the 48 questions to kind of determine where they are on the POLR scale, to explore all the different things about the attitudes and the obstacles and their reading interests and trying to figure out where they are on the scale. And then they had other parts of the test had like this SAT-like section. And they call that the author recognition test for their language and verbal skills to see where they are on those scales. All right. So when it was all said and done, the analysis from the study, they said the following, we found that reading enjoyment predicts better verbal abilities. And this was often explained via exposure to fiction rather than nonfiction. In sum, it was reading enjoyment and identifying as a reader that uniquely predicted better verbal abilities in our undergraduate sample. And that kind of makes sense. I mean I mean, I love reading. I love reading nonfiction. I mean, I'm just eat up like the physics and astronomy books. But it is, it's more of a chore. It definitely is more of a chore. I mean, I'm actually like taking notes and it takes forever to get through it because I'm constantly rewinding and trying to understand some of the difficult concepts. But the nonfiction is just more of just like lay back and enjoy it. And it's just such a joy. And they're showing that that actually makes you better. It's a predictor for being better at language and verbal abilities.

C: I love that you said that also just identifying as a reader, like I'm a writer, I like to read.

B: Yeah, exactly. I love when people will say that. That's like one of the things that they say about themselves. Yes, I'm a reader. So one takeaway I take from this is to encourage reading, whatever it is, if the person enjoys it, encourage it, it doesn't matter and don't discourage anyone from reading fiction and never say to someone, damn, why are you reading such sci-fi trash? Because they may just say back to you, such terminological inexactitude is fraught with hepatitude and causes me to be markedly attristed.

C: They might say that. That's true.

B: I took 20 minutes to put that damn sentence together and I love it.

S: So don't shame people when they're reading their trashy fiction.

C: Yeah, their vampire novels.

B: They probably speak better than you do.

S: All right. Thanks, Bob.

Who's That Noisy? (1:02:20)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: people

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

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


All right, so it's a little long, but you need to hear all that to get the whole cacophony. So what is that, guys? What are we listening to?

B: Sounded like a rain stick as big as a house.

J: All right, we've got a listener that wrote in. This is John Mullen, and John said, hi, Jay, very interesting sound this week. My initial thoughts were radioactivity, but I actually think this is a sound of those spa treatments where tiny fish eat the dead skin on your feet. Cara, does this exist?

C: Yes, it does exist. I've never had it, but it definitely exists.

J: Yeah. We live in a very weird world, people. All right. Next listener, Kevin Walsh wrote in and said, hi, all. My guess is in the subject line. He said, it's hail on ice. Then he says, you're all great and come visit us on the Minecraft server from Discord. Hail on ice. So that would be hail, which are little orbs of ice hitting sheets of ice.

C: Yeah, I could see that.

J: You're not correct, but you're onto something. I will say that. Next thing, Michael Blaney said, hi, Jay. Hey, I wasn't far off with my stethoscope and breathing blockage guess last week, but you were wrong. Anyway, for the new noisy, wow, that's something else. I was listening to this with my earbuds in and it made me feel like my brain was popping one brain cell at a time. Michael, if that's happening to you, do not listen to Who's That Noisy anymore, because I don't want you. You're going to be brain dead eventually. It's not good. So with that in mind, he says, my guess is a super slow, but pitch adjusted recording of a bowl of corn popping into popcorn. That was interesting.

C: That's a big bowl of popcorn.

J: I was going to slow it down, but then I realized that it was kind of at the correct pitch of what popping popcorn would sound like. It's not correct, but it did kind of track to that and I could see why he guessed that, but that one is not correct. Another listener named Garrett Spyroden said, my guess this week, frying chicken in a pan. You asked for specifics, two thighs, two legs, light coating of Pillsbury flour, salt, garlic powder, possibly McCormick, but I'm guessing store brand. And Kirkland vegetable oil fried in heirloom cast iron pan at 375-ish degrees. So yes, I asked for specifics. Frying chicken in a pan. There's these noises that keep being associated with each other and everybody has heard them many times that this is one of them. My last guess for this week came from a listener named Ruby. She said, hi Jay. My name is Ruby and I am six. I live in Ireland. This is my first guess. I think the noise is water boiling on a fire. Ruby, that's a really good guess. That's a really good guess. Water boiling on a fire. You're right because when the boiling gets more and more aggressive, it starts to pick up pace and there's more popping sounds. You're not correct, but just wait for the answer because you're not as far off as you think either because this is something that builds up and this is something that has to do with people. This has to do with people, many people, and the answer is nobody's guessing. Phillip sent in the correct answer this week. Phillip said, Jay, I believe I know the answer. It sounds like something I did in middle school choir at the start of a song to imitate rain. The conductor had the choir rub their hands together, usually starting from the stage right to the stage left. This is the start of the rain or the sprinkling. Then the conductor goes back to stage right and has the choir start to snap their fingers, working over the stage to stage left. Then starts the sound of heavier rain and bigger drops. And then I'll take over from here, that the conductor will have the people start to pat and slap their legs for the heavier rain. And then guess how they do the thunder?

C: How?

S: They fart?

J: They jump. No, they jump. And when they land on the bleachers, when they land on the bleachers, it makes that big echo sound, right? So I'm not going to replay the whole thing from the beginning. I'll just give you sort of towards the middle. Take a listen. These are people being conducted to simulate rain. [plays Noisy] Here's the thunder.

B: Wow.

J: How cool is that?

S: Yeah, that's cool.

J: Look it up. You can see people do it. And it's really fun to take a look at. So thank you, Philip. Great guess. Well, you knew it because you did it. You lived through it. But that's fine because your life experiences, that's where we get answers from, our life experiences. Yeah. And Ruby, thanks for sending that guess in. I want you to keep listening and keep guessing because when you do this, that's how you get smarter. You keep trying to figure things out and you will start to be able to figure things out. And I'm proud of you for sending that guess in.

C: Also, these are intentionally hard and very few people get them.

J: Yeah. They're hard. I mean, I I engage my who's that noisies. You know, I pay very close attention to how many emails I get, the quality of the guesses and everything. And I've kind of hit my sweet spot. I know I can pretty much predict if people are going to be able to guess it after doing it for all these years. Every once in a while, like you missed it, Cara. And I did one. You said, Jay, can you please do some noisies where they are the thing? And I did it.

C: Oh, and I wasn't there that week.

J: It was the thing. What was that? Sonar, Steve?

S: Yeah.

J: That was it. And it was funny as Cara, it didn't sound like sonar. It sounded... Because real sonar is not movie sonar.

C: Exactly.

S: Movie sonar is fake sonar.

J: That's right. Fake sonar is made of people. All right.

New Noisy (1:09:18)[edit]

J: So I have a new noisy this week. This noisy was sent in by a listener named Carrie Hassan. Carrie Hassan goes way back to the old TAM days. And her twisted mind sent me this.


What is that?

B: Sounds like E.T. a little bit.

C: It does sound like E.T.

B: Right?

C: Yeah. But what's he doing? He's skitzing out.

J: Yeah. Oh, yeah. It's E.T. time. So what do you think that is, everybody? What is it? If you think you know or you heard something cool this week, email me at

Announcements (1:10:05)[edit]

J: Steve, several things.

S: Several. I have several.

J: I have made promises to start a new SGU store, a shopping experience for the listeners. You can go to stores, that's forward slash skeptics guide. I will be putting a link on our website, but that's the direct link to our store. There are several variations in there, and there are male and female targeted shirts, so they fit you better. Because I've seen my wife wear our SGU shirts many times, and they're a little big for women. So I definitely put in- There's two of them have the female cut, looks great. We have a NECSS shirt in there. We've got a couple of other swag items like an SGU tote and an SGU mug. All of these have been tested, and they are vetted. I am working on the SGU hat. I'm getting tons of emails that people want that hat, and I'm trying to get it manufactured and stored and shipped in a way that I don't have to ship it.

B: Of course you are.

J: I said it. That's right. So go to Feel free to email me at if you have any suggestions, recommendations, whatever just to tell me you like it. I'd love to hear from you because that'll help me figure out new stuff coming up. I already have two more t-shirts coming in in the next probably two weeks or so that I'm finishing up the details on right now, and I'm really excited about both of them. So please go and take a look. Thank you.

S: And one other quick thing. Jay and I basically spent the entire day yesterday in the studio trying to get it ready for NECSS and other things. And one of the things that we did, it's a little sad, it's a little sad, but we broke down our Star Trek bridge-esque console that has been the centerpiece of our studio for over 10 years because we just had to make way for the green screen studio that we're working on.

B: Ah.

S: I know. It's a big, huge thing. We just had to do it.

B: And they didn't tell me until after it was done.

S: Yeah, we couldn't tell you.

B: I couldn't even do any of my ceremonies or anything.

S: You would have changed yourself to it, Bob, and would not let us take it apart. Here's the thing. We took it apart mostly non-destructively. It's actually in good shape. All the different pieces are there. It wouldn't take too much. If somebody really wants it, you can come pick it up. It's in my backyard. But you've got to get to it before it's destroyed by weather or the next time we get a garbage bin to throw out all the big stuff that we have in the studio, which is going to be fairly soon. If you want it, let us know in the next week or so, a couple of weeks. And it's all yours. You can take it away. Otherwise, it's going to the dump. So it was a good prop piece. It was really great centerpiece for the studio. But if we're going to go all green screen, we've got to go all the way. You know what I'm saying?

J: I can't even talk about it. It was really such a hard thing to do. I mean, we've had that for 12 years. It's been involved in pretty much every set that we've done. That thing has either been there or been behind whatever was there. You know, it's just...

C: What did you do with all the props?

J: Well we have all the doodads.

C: Yeah. That's all your stuff, right? Was it like glued down?

S: No.

J: Well, we had it bolted down to the floor so it wouldn't fall over.

C: No, but the stuff on the shelves wasn't like glued to the shelves.

J: No, no, no. No. It's just very hard to say goodbye to that because when you walk into a green screen set, you're looking at nothing there's nothing there. It's all what you put on there and it's not as cool. You know, I would just tinker around in that set, you know. But to bigger and better things because we have so much use for green screens. We have four different projects going on in that studio right now. Which is fantastic. You know, we just love to work and it cannot hold back the expansion of the SGU because I love a big piece of wood that I painted 20 times, you know.

S: Let's move on to some questions and emails.


Email #1: Vaccine misinformation (1:13:55)[edit]

S: This first one comes from Joe from Downingtown, PA, which he hopefully tells us is in the United States. And Joe writes, "I got a message from a friend of mine who I consider a right wing conspiracy nut. She normally doesn't share her BS with me, but she shared this and I can't find any good info on it either way." Now he sent the link to an article and a video by a Dr. Geert Vanden Bosch. You guys heard of this guy?

B: I don't remember that name.

C: What kind of doctor?

S: A veterinarian, but also has a PhD and did do some work in virology, right?

C: Okay. And a lot of veterinarians do have some of that, obviously, infectious disease knowledge.

S: Sure. Why not? So I read the whole letter and it is just nonsense from beginning to end. So it's bad. The problem is it's really persuasive sounding arguments.

B: It's the worst kind.

C: Pseudo-science.

S: It's really, really bad. So, I mean just he reads, it's apocalyptic tone-

C: And got that fear component that makes it feel real.

S: Yeah. And it's also the guy's basic premise is that we're the entire world is doing the vaccine program wrong. And because of that, it's essentially going to lead to the extinction of humanity. So we all have to listen to him right now and completely change everything that we're doing about the pandemic.

C: Wait, what?

B: Sure. All right, man.

S: He's so full of himself in this and it's also like, oh he starts off by saying I'm not an anti-vaxxer. And of course, whenever anyone opens up an argument by saying I'm not an anti-vaxxer, you could be pretty sure they're an anti-vaxxer.

C: Right. I'm not racist. But...

S: Yeah, I'm not racist, but... Yeah. Yeah, it's the same thing. But this critical situation forces me to spread this emergency call as an unprecedented extent of human intervention, blah, blah, blah. It's like I wouldn't do this. I wouldn't normally bypass all of the peer review and talk to other scientists if it were if the fate of the whole world weren't at stake.

C: But I figure the best way to get this out there is to send a chain letter.

S: Yeah. I mean, it's like it's in the chain letter style. It totally is. But apparently, this is a real guy. Like, I would totally believe this is a chain letter. It's just fake. This guy's fake. The whole thing is fake. That's how it reads. But apparently, the guy's real. So his argument is that I'll try to boil this down because it's a very, very long thing. It boils down to there's two parts of the immune system. There's the innate immune system and the specific immune system where you make antibodies against stuff you're exposed to.

C: Yeah. We talked about that on the show.

S: Yeah, we talked about that. The problem with the vaccine is that we're going to give antibodies against this pathogen, which is going to prevent people from getting sick, but it's not going to prevent the virus from spreading. And so the virus and it's also going to suppress the innate immune system. So then we're going to be relying upon these antibodies. But the virus is going to evolve to become resistant to the antibodies. Then we're all really in trouble because then we're going to have suppressed innate immune systems. And so we're going to be relying upon these vaccines and we're going to breed these super viruses that are going to wipe out humanity. That's his premise, right?

C: Wait, his premise. So his premise is that taking the vaccine actually makes our ability to fight off infection worse.

S: Yes. Right.

C: And this is based on...

S: In the short term, we might be able to fight off the current strains of the virus, but we're just going to force the virus.

B: The variants are going to kill us. So the variants are going to kill us.

S: It's going to not only become more infectious, but more deadly.

C: And it's funny because I see this Steve chatter a lot online in the anti-vax kind of lettering, which is like, I have a perfectly functional immune system. I'm not going to screw that up by getting the vaccine. And it's like, wait, what? This does not compute.

S: So he's wrong. He's objectively wrong about this. And the thing is, so his plan would basically be just let the pandemic rage on. And if we're going to use a vaccine, we have to use a killer cell vaccine. What's a killer cell vaccine, you might ask? Well, that stimulates a different part of the immune system. Now we don't have any killer cell vaccines, but apparently he's working on one.

C: Of course. It's like Wakefield all over.

S: Yeah. Right. Exactly. Yeah. Like, yeah, this vaccine is terrible. You should use my vaccine. So there may be that angle of it. He doesn't have any patents or anything, but who knows? He definitely is pushing his own like new way of vaccinating.

C: Right. That he's working on in his lab.

S: So apparent. So why he's wrong is he's got the exact opposite of what's true. First of all, one of his premises is that the vaccines do not prevent the spread of the virus or asymptomatic infection.

B: Oh, boy.

S: We talked last week about the fact that it does, that all the emerging evidence is that it actually does prevent infection spread. And so it will get us to herd immunity. He says it won't get us to herd immunity. It will. It will work. But not only that, he says it will increase mutations. No, it won't. It will decrease the opportunity of the virus to mutate because there won't be as much of it replicating and going on.

C: Just letting it spread is what's increasing mutation.

S: Letting it spread is the worst thing you could do.

B: Why are we talking about this guy?

S: It's the opposite. Because the guy wrote us a letter because Joe Joe wants to hear the answer. And this is this is this is the cutting edge now of the anti-vax misinformation is this stuff. And it is dangerously sophisticated. It is. You have to understand things about the immune system and epidemics and vaccines and why this guy's full of shit.

C: Right. He sounds like he knows what he's talking about.

S: Semi-authoritative.

B: But he's saying, forget vaccines. I'm making my killer cell vaccine, which nobody has ever heard of. And I'm doing this myself. I mean, that alone should set off some claxons.

C: Right. But remember, Bob, it's all folded up. Steve's giving us the breakdown. He's not reading the language the guy's using. He sounds so sophisticated.

S: Yeah. I mean, yes, if you if you somebody wasn't fairly scientifically sophisticated or skeptically sophisticated, wouldn't be able to to distinguish this from, something that's legitimate. Because it all sounds good. You know, he's using jargon. He's tall, looks like he knows what he's talking about. He's describing how the immune system works, blah, blah, blah. It's just that we know that these these being he's going on several premises we know to be false. And he's also massively overstating his conclusions from those false premises.

C: The premise that getting a vaccine causes the rest of our immune system to be able to not fight off infection, I know, is bananas. And that's a really dangerous false premise, because I hear that narrative over and over again. Oh, since I'm vaccinated against it, my own internal body's ability to fight it like my body forgets then how to fight infection on its own.

S: So he makes an analogy to antibiotics and antibiotic resistance, which there's a tiny little bit of a legitimate point there. So sure, if we used an ineffective vaccine, then that would maybe cause some selective pressure to cause the virus to evade that ineffective vaccine even better. And maybe that wouldn't be a good thing. But when you have highly effective vaccines that prevent viral replication and shedding and actually reduce the opportunity for mutation and can achieve herd immunity, no, you're wrong. It all breaks. His argument, his chain of reasoning all completely collapses.

C: And Steve, the irony of this argument is that what will cause herd immunity to break down, what will cause different strains to evolve is not getting vaccinated.

S: Yeah, it's letting this pandemic rage on.

C: That's what's going to happen if we don't get enough people to take the highly effective vaccines out there. Because if all of us took it, or let's say even a fraction of the population couldn't take it. So we've got a vaccine that's 95% effective. Let's say there's another X percent of individuals who cannot physically take it because of some form of illness or some disability that requires that they can't be vaccinated. And we've still got a pretty high level of immunity. But if all the people who have developed an anti-vax view throughout this pandemic, added to the people who are already anti-vax, refuse vaccination, how are we ever going to get to herd immunity?

B: Yeah, we won't be able to.

S: So this guy's a dangerous crank, who is extremely irresponsible in putting this out there. And no, you are not justified in bypassing other experts, in bypassing this peer review, in letting the world's scientists review your claims before they get made to the public. You're wrong. What you're saying is wrong and harmful, and you're a completely irresponsible ass for putting this out there. That's the bottom line.

B: What kind of platform does he have?

S: It's being, well, now it's been taken up by the right wing media and by anti-vaxxers. And so now it's being spread far and wide, you know?

C: It's so scary, too, because I find that what we don't do a good job of, like our show does this, of course, and there's obviously really hardworking people out there who are working to do this. But what we don't do a good job of at the governmental level is saying, this is pseudoscience. This is dangerous. This is misinformation. Like why, when I go to the CDC's website, is there not a page that says is this legitimate?

S: Yeah, right.

C: Why isn't there a task force that's working on debunking these things as they roll in so that individuals can go to these government sources and saying, oh, okay, that thing that got passed to me that I thought was real it's already been vetted by experts and they've deemed that it's not real. Because we can't rely on everybody to do this for themselves. It's impossible if you don't have this training.

J: I know, but Cara not saying that you're not right, because of course I agree with you. But it's an incredible amount of money. You know, it all comes down to money.

C: Of course, it's very expensive to do.

S: But well worth it. First of all, it's totally within their budget.

C: Yeah, the ROI on that is the difference between life and death.

S: Massive. Yeah, massive. All right, one more.

Follow-up #1: Batteries (1:24:28)[edit]

S: We got a lot of emails from people complaining about Jay's segment on batteries last week where there was some confusion between power versus energy. Now, I assure you that here at the SGU, we know the difference between power and energy. And actually a lot of what Jay said individually was correct. Some of his examples were misleading or wrong. And the problem was that we were sloppy about being consistent throughout the news item. So let me just review power versus energy and make a pledge from this point forward, the SGU will be very careful to be completely precisely accurate when it comes to referring to power versus energy. So here's the thing. Power is essentially the amount of work that it takes to do something. And energy is the total amount of work that you do, right? So let's say you have a 100 watt bulb. You know, what does that mean? A watt is an amp times voltage. So if you have 120 volts and let's say 120 amp, 120 watt bulb, just to make it easy. If you have 120 volts at one amp, that's 120 watts, right? That's how much power it needs to light that bulb. How much energy do you use lighting the bulb? Well, that depends on how long you light it for. If you light it for an hour, that's 120 watt hours, right? So just a one watt hour is a watt of power being expended over an hour.

C: That is a little confusing. I could see why we got some letters, but also we didn't get a lot of letters. Probably a lot of people would not have noticed the difference.

S: It gets more confusing because batteries use both because a battery has a power limit and an energy limit. So when Jay was talking about how much battery capacity have we installed, that's two things that we could be referring to and the examples were bouncing back and forth between these without clarifying that was the problem. So for example, if you have to install enough batteries so we could simultaneously power 100 houses, that's power, right? It has to be able to put out enough power so that if it needs a megawatt all at once, then it needs a megawatt of capacity. But if you want those batteries to run those houses for an hour, then it needs a megawatt hour of energy. So when we're referring to how much battery capacity do we have, we're talking about power capacity and energy capacity. And so you have to be clear about what you're talking about. So for example, you might have a battery that can last a really long time, but doesn't put out a lot of power. So you could light one light bulb for a year, but you're never going to be able to light more than one light bulb at a time. Or you might be able to run 1000 homes for a minute, that has a lot of power, but not a lot of energy. So obviously, when we're talking about battery capacity, we need to talk about both like how many...

B: Those are good examples.

S: Yeah, how many homes could be run and for how long, you think about it that way. When we talk about like megawatts and megawatt hours, it's got to be clear what we're talking about. And if you're talking about like, connecting that to solar panels, I think this is really where Jay got into trouble, is those solar panels are putting out megawatts, right? But they're putting out megawatt hours over time. And you could average like how many megawatts they're putting out per hour over a year, and rate them based upon their average megawatt hour output or kilowatt hour or whatever. Right? So that gets a little confusing too. But the bottom line is, there's a power capacity for how much energy they produce at once. And you could say like at most or on average or whatever, and then how much are they putting out over time. And then that gets complicated on how that relates to batteries too, right? We need enough batteries to soak in all that power, and it will store energy, the equivalent energy that it could run whatever, so many homes for so much time. It's very easy to slip up if you're being sloppy, you're not being really careful about how you're referring to things. So we will double our effort to make sure we don't screw that up going forward. We try to be careful, but yeah, it's easy to get lazy when it comes to power and energy.

C: It still confuses me, but yeah.

S: Yeah, if you want to make it simple, it's just watts are power, watt hours are energy. It's like over time, you throw the hour in there. All right, let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:29:16)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that exposure to conspiracy theories, whether or not we believe in them, alters our behavior but did not reduce trust, in the experimental model.[5]
Item #2: A study of people who share false news online shows that more than half of them know or strongly suspect the news is fake.[6]
Item #3: Researchers demonstrate that the anchoring bias not only works for numbers, but also for sensory modalities including sight, hearing, and touch.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Sharing false news
Science Exposure to conspiracy theories
Anchoring bias
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Exposure to conspiracy theories
Sharing false news
Sharing false news

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. So this week we have a theme, but it's news items, right? So it's a themed news items.

J: Let's do it.

S: The theme is skeptical behavior. I thought it was appropriate. You'll get what I'm talking about when I read the items. All right, here we go. Item number one, a new study finds that exposure to conspiracy theories, whether or not we believe in them, alters our behavior, but did not reduce trust in the experimental model. Item number two, a study of people who share false news online shows that more than half of them know or strongly suspect the news is fake. And item number three, researchers demonstrate that the anchoring bias not only works for numbers, but also for sensory modalities, including sight, hearing, and touch. Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Can you expound on the anchor bias?

S: Yeah, the anchoring bias is like if you say, would you pay $100 for this? Now how much would you pay? Or would you pay $1,000 for this? Now how much would you pay? So if you anchor people to $100, they will pay less than if you anchor people to $1,000, even for the exactly same item.

B: All right, so a new study finds that exposure to conspiracy theories, whether or not we believe in them, alters our behavior, but did not reduce trust in the experimental model.

S: I think there should be a comma after trust, just so you know. It's not that it didn't reduce trust in the model. In the model, it didn't reduce trust in other people.

C: That changes that completely.

S: I know. I realize that there should be a comma after trust.

B: So you're exposed to a conspiracy theory, so your behavior might change by it, even if you don't believe it? Okay, let's look at number two, a study of people who share fake news online. More than half of them know or strongly suspect the news is fake. Yeah, I'm going to buy that one, because a lot of times people, if something fits your narrative and you might have an inkling that it might still be false, but I'm going to spread it anyway because it's for a good cause, that kind of belief system, I'm going to go with that one. Let's look at number three, this whole anchoring bias crap research, that anchoring bias not only works for numbers, but also for sensory modalities, including sight, hearing, and touch. Oh yeah, I totally believe that. I totally believe that expectation and belief can influence sense modalities, for sure. I believe that. It's been a long time since I've read about it, but I'm buying that. That means that the conspiracy theory one's got to be fake, because the other two I think are true.

S: Okay, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, the one that's giving me trouble here is the study that shows that people who share false news, more than half of them know or strongly suspect that it's fake. If that's the truth, that is super disturbing, if that many people are willing to spread misinformation. Oh man. But I did take a massive hit in my faith in humanity this year. That could be true.

S: As opposed to any other year?

B: Yeah, it was doing well.

C: It was just of a pandemic flavor, you know.

J: Yeah. All right, so let me go. So Bob says that the first one is a fake. A new study finds that exposure to conspiracy theories, whether or not we believe in them, alters our behavior, but did not reduce trust in the experimental model. I mean, I could see that being true, Bob. Yeah, I'm going to just say that the second one, the one about fake news, half of them know or strongly suspect that the news is fake. I'm going to say that one is the fake.

S: The fake news is fake? All right, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah, I think I got to go with Jay on this, you know. I think about how on Twitter now, if a story comes across and you just instantly retweet it, it has a little pop-up that says, are you sure you want to share this without reading it?

B: Whoa, I love that.

C: And I think that's speaking to something. I think that's probably evidence-based, that probably people are sharing fake stuff because they actually think it's real or because they just didn't really pay attention to it. Like something about it resonates, so they move it on. But if more than half of people were actively saying, I know or I feel in my heart of hearts that this is false, but I want to sow distrust anyway, that is really scary to me. I think there's a handful, a small but vocal minority of agenda-driven people who do that, but I got to hope that most people are spreading this crap around because either they think it's true or they just didn't even bother to read it closely. And that's why I think I got to go with Jay. The other two, I could buy them. They're kind of weird, but I could buy them. But this one is like, ugh, it's really going to bum me out if it's science, not fiction.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right, so you all agree on the third one, so we'll start there. Researchers demonstrate that the anchoring bias not only works for numbers, but also for sensory modalities, including sight, hearing, and touch. You all think this is science, and this one is science. Not surprising, but that's really cool that they talk about it. So yeah, the anchoring bias, whatever the opening thing is, that's why you always want to have the opening bid in any kind of negotiation because you anchor all further negotiation from that point forward.

C: Yeah, that's why you're in the power position when you play poker if you're after the button or if you're on the button, right? It's a very important thing to be in position.

S: The research has been done lots of ways. If you show people the same object, whatever it is, and say, how much do you think this is worth? And let them guess, there'll be a bell curve around that, whatever the average number is. But if you tell half the group, do you think this is worth more or less than $100? And then you say, now tell me how much you think it's worth. And you tell the second group, do you think this is worth more or less than $1,000? And then have them guess. The second group will bid much higher than the first. Like the effect is big. This is a big effect. It's not subtle. We get anchored to just the suggestion of a price. So the question for the study was, does this work for sensation as well? So for example, they might have subjects feel sandpaper of a certain grit. And then they will later have them feel sandpaper to find the one that was most similar to the one that they felt initially. So they're trying to identify the grit of the paper that they originally felt. Now you can have one group start from really fine and work their way coarser. And the other group start coarse and work their way fine. And when they do that, the coarser group gets coarse of the target. And the finer group gets as fine of the target. Does that make sense?

C: Yeah, they're primed.

S: Yeah, they're getting primed or anchored to whatever they were originally offered as the samples. But they could also do this for colour, for shade, for tone, for noise, whatever. It all works. You get anchored to whatever the thing is that you heard or saw or felt. So it all works. Now one thing that stuck out with me when I was reading the press release was one of the researchers, Jane, said, my findings offer marketing professionals another fundamental tool to guide consumer behavior by anchoring a product or message through their senses.

C: Yeah, this is social psychology for sure.

B: That's not news.

S: I know. But the point is, this research is being offered to marketers as a way to manipulate customers, right? To manipulate us through our senses. I just wanted to read that just to bring up the point that all of this anchoring bias, all of these stuff, it's all used. It's all used by marketers to influence our buying behavior. I just want to remind people of that.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Okay, let's go back to number one. A new study finds that exposure to conspiracy theories, whether or not we believe in them, alters our behavior, but did not reduce trust in the experimental model. Now, Bob, you think this one is a fiction. Jay and Cara, you think this one is science. And this one is science.

B: Crap.

S: Sorry, Bob.

C: Yay.

J: Yes. High five!�

S: Good job. So what they found was that they had subjects watch a video about how the lunar landing was all a hoax. Then they had the control group watch a similar video, similar length, all about the shuttle program, having nothing to do one way or the other about the lunar landing, about the Apollo mission. And then they had them play these psychological games, right? In this game, it's an interesting little model that they used, which I know has been used in previous studies. So you tell subjects, you have two subjects, and you say, all right, you guys can name me, name a price. This is European, so it was in euros. Name a number of euros between zero and 15. And if you, the lower of the two people will get whatever number they say plus 10. The other person will just get the number they say. So the game is designed to have a very specific strategy, right? So obviously you want to bid low. But if the other person bids super low, you're better off, like once you get to $4, you're better off just bidding 14, because even 14 is 4 plus 10. So if they go less than 4, then you're better off just bidding 14 or 15 euros, right? If you bid 7 and the other person says 6, you get 7, they get 16, right? So what they found was that the people who were exposed to the conspiracy theory were much more strategic in their bidding than the people who weren't.

C: Why?

S: That's a good question. They didn't really, they can only speculate as to why that was. But not only were they more strategic, they bid in a way that would actually make them more money. They actually played the game better.

C: Huh.

S: Yeah, so that was a significant effect. So it made them think more, they think that being exposed to conspiracy theories, even whether you believe it or not, just made them think more carefully about things, I guess.

C: Right. Maybe it just like upped their skepticism in the moment. Like you go in, you're passively credulous or gullible. And then all of a sudden you're like, wait, I'm in an experimental paradigm. I need to actually focus.

S: So then they did another version of this where your player, player one, they were called players. Player one is given five euros. And they say, you can invest this, any amount of this money as you want. And it will be returned triple. But that money goes to the other guy who could then choose to share some of that with you or not. So if you say, I'm going to invest all five euros, now you have nothing. The other person gets 15 euros, which they, and they could give you some of it or they can give you none of it. Or you could say, I'm going to bid nothing. You keep the five euros. The other guy gets nothing. Right? And so that's considered a test of trust. You have to trust the other person's going to split the winnings with you. And so do you invest an amount that trust that they will, or do you invest an amount that trust that they won't split the proceeds with you, at least to some extent. And the exposure to conspiracy theories had no effect on how people played that game. So it didn't affect their trust in the other person to share the money. So again, they're always using, as Cara and I always say, they're always using these constructs, in these kinds of psychological studies. But it was just trying to answer the question, is just exposure to the conspiracy theory have an effect whether or not you believe in it? And at least in this very narrow sense, the answer appeared to be yes. Okay, let's go on.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Number two, a study of people who share false news online shows that more than half of them know or strongly suspect the news is fake. This one is the fake. And Cara, you basically nailed it. So this here's the numbers. In their study, they found that people who shared false news online, about 50% did it because they weren't paying attention and they just did it without really reading the article.

C: Oh, geez. 50%?

B: See, you got too much faith in people, my friend.

S: Another 33% were mistaken about the accuracy of the news, so 33% thought the fake news was real. And 16% knowingly spread it as false.

C: Punk. That's a vocal minority.

S: Yeah. But only 16%. So half didn't even bother reading the article.

C: See, but if you had told me that 10% knew that it was false, and then you took the other 90% and divided it in half, I would think it was half-half. I cannot... Well...

S: If I anchored you, is that what you're saying?

C: Well, I'm just saying that's a really big percentage of people that just shared it. It's weird because it's a proactive thing to do to share a story. It's one thing to passively receive it and go, okay, and it ends here because I'm not going to engage. It's another thing to go, hmm, headline, interesting, not going to bother to actually investigate any of it. But I shall tell other people.

B: Can you imagine, though? It's like, I can't even imagine doing that.

C: Me neither.

B: If you're going to share it, you got to vet the crap out of that because you're going to get called out on it.

C: It's just bizarre to me.

B: And it's just bad behavior.

C: I work really hard on Twitter. Like I mentioned, I pull 35 news articles a week of interesting science stories and then I share them five a day, every day, and I've been doing this for years. And I'm like, I read them and I look at the bylines and I see where they're posted from and I look at how other people are writing about it. I can't imagine... Even just compiling things is work. I do it as part of my job. Why are people doing work?

S: Lazy.

C: I get that they're lazy, like they don't want to investigate, but isn't the more lazy thing to do to just not share it? That's the part I'm confused about.

S: Well, I guess there's people in that lazy sweet spot where they have just enough energy to share the fake news.

C: That's like, what?

J: You got to keep in mind the impetus behind sharing things on social media. People are looking for some type of satisfaction from that post.

S: Yeah. Right.

J: You're posting to share knowledge. A lot of people post to get likes and to get attention.

B: And get at it, boys, at it, girls.

C: Feedback, that kind of dopamine part. It goes back to that documentary, Steve, that we talked about before, do you remember that Netflix documentary about manipulating people online and ugh, so gross.

S: But this does suggest possible things that social media companies can do to reduce the sharing of fake news, such as occasionally throwing in feeds that talk about, that draw the attention to whether or not it's true. Or as you say, Cara, just draw people's attention, like when you click share, saying, have you thought about the accuracy of this before you share that? So it's just laziness and inattention. So if you somehow draw their attention to accuracy, just the very concept of whether or not this is true or accurate, that could significantly reduce that 50%. Obviously, the 33% who think the fake news is real, they have a deeper problem. The 16% who knowingly share it, yeah, that's obviously not going to address that.

C: That's the source of the problem. It's not the reason the problem is reverberating, but it's the source of the problem.

S: But half of the problem is addressable.

C: Absolutely. And actually, I think even that other portion, the not 16%, is also addressable. It's a deeper problem to address, but it's also addressable. But yeah, half the problem, you're right, can be fixed as simple as slow down, my friend. I'm not going to let you just do this willy-nilly. Take a beat.

S: Did you think about if this is true or not before clicking that button? Maybe then they'll be like, oh, I'm too lazy. That's enough.

C: Yeah, not worth it.

S: Something. It'll probably decrease it, how much needs to be studied. And it's not going to obviously fix the problem, but it might reduce its magnitude. All right. Well, good job, Cara and Jay. I thought that was a fun one just for the fact that it was three sort of skeptically related news items. All right.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:45:37)[edit]

One person recently, goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation, burst out ‘Don’t you believe in anything?’ Yes’, I said. ‘I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement, and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I’ll believe anything, no matter how wild and ridiculous, if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be.
– Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University.

S: I have a quote because everyone's not here. So I filled in for the quote. And here it is. "One person recently goaded into desperation by the litany of unrelieved negation burst out. Don't you believe in anything? Yes, I said. I believe in evidence. I believe in observation, measurement and reasoning confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything no matter how wild and ridiculous if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be." And that was said by Isaac Asimov.

B: Oh, man.

S: One of my favorite authors. That's why he was such a great science fiction author.

B: That was solid, too.

S: Solid. That was solid. And that's he said that a while ago, and that's pretty much a core sort of philosophy of skepticism.

B: Wow.

S: And I chose it partly. That's a great quote. If we haven't used it before, we needed to, but I partly chose it because I'm very excited that the Foundation Series is coming to the Apple TV, I believe.

B: Oh, my God. I can't wait.

S: This fall, they're promising 80 episodes.

B: Oh!

S: Eight seasons of 10 episodes. The Foundation Series is one of my favorite science fiction franchises of all time. And my whole life, I spent my whole life saying, why doesn't somebody make a movie or a series about the Foundation Series? Because it's so awesome. The source material is fabulous. Why isn't it happening? And now, 50 years later, it finally is. And I'm very excited about it.

B: I hope they kill it. I hope they kill it.

S: Yeah. Kill it in a good way. Yes. I know what you mean. So the previews are very exciting. The casting looks fantastic. You know, just, I hope it holds up to my expectations.

B: Yeah.

S: It's going to be hard. I'm setting myself high expectations.

B: I know. It's always so.

S: But I think there's a lot of, a lot of the networks now are looking for their Game of Thrones. You know what I mean? Good. You do that. You chase that gold ring, brass ring, whatever. You do it.

B: And do it with science fiction. Please.

S: Absolutely.

B: And next, and next I want to see somebody do Neil Asher's Polity Universe, the sci-fi porn.

J: All right. You ran out. You said it too much.

B: I was done. I was done anyway.

J: Every time we turn around, Bob's talking about the Polity Universe.

B: Oh, it's my favorite.

J: I feel like I read the books.

B: We are sci-fi beasts. And this is my favorite sci-fi. So of course I'm going to talk about it.

J: All right. You're right. You're right.

S: All right. There's so much good source material and good science fiction out there. That's why every time there's a crappy sci-fi movie or series out, it's like, why did you make this when there's so much good stuff out there?

B: Yes. Yes.

S: I'm sure there's legal reasons and whatever, blah, blah, getting in the way. But I mean, if you wanted to make it happen, you can make it happen.

J: Polity Universe.

Signoff/Announcements (1:48:19)[edit]

S: All right. Thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it, Steve.

B: Surely.

C: Thanks, Steve.

S: So we'll see everybody on our Friday livestream.

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

  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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