SGU Episode 837

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SGU Episode 837
July 24th 2021
837 balloon telescope.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 836                      SGU 838

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

When people don’t search for scientific evidence for things, they find a very compelling, convincing person with a very sympathetic story and think they must be right. They’re convinced that this is true. But it’s not true. You need to be able to question it. If people aren’t conversant in science, they mightn’t ask those questions.

Aoife McLysaght, Professor in the Molecular Evolution Laboratory of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, University of Dublin, Ireland 

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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, July 21st, 2021, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone.

S: Welcome back, Jay. You had a two-week hiatus.

C: I missed you.

J: I missed you guys. It's funny. No, I didn't originally select to go away for two weeks, but I wasn't opposed to it. But I didn't realize that's a long time to be away from work.

C: Wait, were you in Hawaii for two whole weeks?

J: I was there for two weeks.

C: That's a long time. Were you in a remote part of Hawaii or were you in Honolulu?

J: I went to... No, we didn't go to Honolulu. We went to Kauai and then we went to the Big Island.

C: That's a long time to be vacationing.

J: It's a long time.

C: I feel like I start to get itchy to come home.

J: Yeah, at day 10. So day 10 and 11 is when I felt it turn in my head. I'm like, I could go home. You know what I mean? Plus, I was with nine other people. There was 10 of us. It wasn't like I'm just alone with my wife and it was quiet and we're doing all sorts of fun stuff. It was kids. So it was a kid-centric vacation.

B: So sex wasn't happening.

J: Yeah. I mean, that's a funny thing, right, Bob? Yeah. But you know. So bottom line is though, Hawaii is the second prettiest place I've ever been to in my life. Of course, New Zealand being the first.

C: Well, Hawaii and New Zealand have a lot of similarities.

J: Yeah. They do.

C: Yeah. Yeah.

J: Yeah. So but wonderful trip. You know, we did a lot of really cool stuff. I was trying to expose the kids to as much as we could. We swam with a manta ray and we went on a really cool snorkeling thing, saw the volcano. There's just so much in Hawaii and all the islands are different. They have they have different kind of vibes and climates and all sorts of stuff. It's a beautiful place to go. And if you can afford it, I recommend you go. You're going to spend a lot of money there because everything has to be shipped to the islands. Like everything. Everything that you-

C: Yeah, it's a very expensive place to live even.

B: Except the sugar cane.

C: Did you, when you guys went to Volcanoes National Park, did you stop at the like orchid farm at the base of the mountain?

J: I wasn't told about that. What is that?

C: There's like a really pretty little orchid greenhouse-y farm area where they have all these really exotic and I don't know, they grow a lot of really gorgeous orchids that you've never seen before.

J: So but you know, so you know, then you know this and Steve, you've been there as well, right? So like you have a viewing spot where you could see the mouth of the volcano and it is like a mini Grand Canyon. It's huge. It's huge. So it's hot there. It's hot, right? So the water seeps down into these cracks and then it spews back out because it turns into steam. It's kind of like a mini geyser, right? So you just see like steam coming out of the ground, but sulphur and other nasty things are coming out with it because it's just kind of oozing out, I guess, of the soil and everything. So you're seeing like these holes, and there was a picture of a warning picture where this kid like veered off the path and fell into one of these holes.

E/C: Oh my gosh.

J: Yeah, it was terrible. I don't even want to go into the details because like my kids are there and we're like, oh my God. You know, but bottom line is it's dangerous. It's a dangerous place to go. You never know when something's going to happen. They have a very good idea on what's going on and everything, but still, it's a volcano. It spewed intense amounts of a billion yards of lava like two and a half years ago. Like it's no joke. It's one of the wonders of the world. Like God, I wanted to see lava so bad, but you know, not to my detriment, right? I don't want to ever be in a situation where I'm like, I've got to run.

C: Yeah, that's horrible. While I was in the Big Island, I took a helicopter trip from Kona to Hilo and back and we flew over a lot of lava flow and it was really cool to see it like from that perspective because not only could you see the beauty of the lava, but you could also see how it changes the landscape and becomes rock becomes the landscape. How cool is that?

J: Yeah, well the airport, the airport at the Big Island, they built a new airport on lava that flowed 200 years ago. Like it just made more land and I'm like, oh, this looks pretty stable. Let's build an airport. Now, Cara, I have some news for you because you were not at last Friday's live stream, which I was-

C: Yes, please.

E: Is this about the pineapples?

J: Yeah, I have to talk about it again, Evan, I'm sorry. Thank you. But I did experience some alternate bananas to tell you about. First, I could not get my hands on a Gros Michel banana. I tried. I found out that they're called bluefields in Hawaii. Didn't help. I kept asking, kept asking, couldn't find any. I was really disappointed. Okay. But I did get to eat apple bananas and candy apple bananas and I ate ice cream bananas. I found out that ice cream bananas are cooking bananas, so they don't taste like ice cream. They're not creamy. There's nothing nice about them. They're just like cooking bananas. Kind of, I don't want to say like plantains because plantains are really weird if you bite into them. It's still an edible banana.

C: I love plantains.

J: Yeah, you can't eat a raw plantain.

C: No, yeah. You want to cook a plantain. Oh, that's what you mean by cooking bananas. Okay. Got it.

J: You can't cook a plantain out of the ice cream bananas.

C: By the way, to interject, Jay, have you had cotton candy grapes?

J: Nobody has ever offered me them, no. I want them, though.

C: They're so good. Cotton candy grapes, keep your eyes peeled for them. They're so yummy.

J: Oh, I thought, yeah, they're in my local grocery store. But okay, the apple banana and the candy apple banana, which was my favorite, were delicious. And they don't taste like apples. They just have a tartness to them. There's a dimension of flavor that's added that is special and it's wonderful. And if you ever have the opportunity, please try them because I really, really enjoyed them. And then, oh my God, the other thing I got to try is called a sugar loaf pineapple. All right. They selectively bred these pineapples. So this is what they did to them. One, I think it's an artifact and not done deliberately, but the flesh of the pineapple got to be a much, much more white colour than like the typical yellow, like dark-ish yellow colour that a normal pineapple has. So imagine if it's a lot more white. There is no center core. You can eat the whole thing. And it's got four times the sugar and I dare say like 10 times the flavor of a regular pineapple.

C: Wow.

J: Yeah. They're amazing.

C: Did you learn about how pineapples grow? It's so weird.

J: It is weird. It doesn't make any sense. It looks like they grow from the tops, not the bottoms. It's so weird.

C: I'm wondering. And there's just the one and they take forever. It gives you a better appreciation every time you eat a pineapple, like how much work goes into it. But did you notice that with this sweeter pineapple, what'd you call it? What was its name?

J: A sugarloaf.

C: The sugarloaf pineapple. Was the papain content as high as a normal pineapple? Because I can't eat raw pineapple. It like burns my throat.

B: Really?

C: Yeah.

J: Cara, guess what? It's damn near acid-less. It doesn't have any.

C: Oh, then I would love that.

J: Yes. I mean, they said that they genetically bred it. They didn't do it. It's not GMO. They just selectively bred it out. They're like, you don't want it.

C: It's really not. It's not about, I think, acid. I think the issue is that pineapples have a high level of papain, just like papaya do.

J: Enzymes.

C: Yeah. It's an enzyme and it's like a digestive enzyme. We used to use it in the lab to help break down like cell membranes and stuff. But yeah, it hurts. I find that when I consume pineapple, it's painful.

E: That pineapple sting?

C: The sting and the itchy throat.

J: It'll make you bleed.

C: It's hard for me.

J: So this was the ultimate. Evan, I endeavour to have one of them with you. We can order one. Now look, we'll drop 80 bucks at some point and we'll do it.

E: I'm so in on that.

C: It costs $80 for one pineapple?

J: To ship it. No, you can buy them out there for about 13 bucks.

C: Oh, I see. But then to ship it. And you have to do it on the up and up because there's the rules about shipping fresh food.

S: So guys, I want to tell you about this email I got recently.

B: Oh, you got an email?

S: Yeah. Occasionally do get actual emails. So this was from somebody who, I'm just going to paraphrase, he said that he's been a long time fan of the Science-Based Medicine website. He's like some kind of teacher and he often will send his students there. But he no longer can recommend Science-Based Medicine because clearly, clearly we are now a propaganda organ promoting what? What do you think this guy was upset about, Science-Based Medicine?

E: Vaccinations.

C: Oh no.

J: I read it, so I know the answer.

S: Vaccinations.

C: Oh, no.

E: What is going on?

C: Has he not read any of the other articles on Science-Based Medicine?

E: What happened to the years prior to this all about the vaccination articles? Never piped up then.

S: Well, I think I know what's going on. It's always amazing how when people disagree with whatever, like on any articles I wrote they immediately go to, you must be getting paid by industry or you must be in the pocket of big government. Whatever it is.

C: Oh, for sure. Shill, shill.

S: It's like immediately they assume that we're compromised. It's like, no, we actually have these opinions because the cognitive dissonance is too much for them, I guess.

B: And we came to those opinions using the same methods we used to come to other opinions.

S: Yeah, yeah. Right. So anyway, I want to use this as a segue to our COVID update this week, which is all about vaccine hesitancy.

COVID-19 Update (9:26)[edit]

S: So in the U.S., the U.S. did a great job with a vaccine roll-out program. They really were able at the peak we were getting three million vaccine doses delivered a day. And now we're essentially pushing up against vaccine hesitancy. That is now the limiting factor.

C: Oh, yeah.

E: Which we knew at some point would happen.

S: And the question was always, what's that point going to be?

E: You hope it's much, much later than it turned out to be.

S: So right now in the U.S., 68.3% of adults have been vaccinated, close to the 70% goal that the Biden administration set, but not quite there. But we'll get there by the end of the month.

C: Wait, that sounds high.

S: That's of adults. So that's not including children who are not eligible for vaccination. It's only 48.6% of the U.S. population.

C: Yeah, I was going to say, I think that California is like 49, 50% of the population and we're like ahead of the curve.

S: Yeah, it's 56.1% have gotten at least one dose, 48.6% fully vaccinated, 16.3% of adults. And so we're we don't know exactly how to calculate in people who have immunity from being infected because we don't know how much overlap there is.

B: Interesting.

S: So the question is, are we at herd immunity? And the answer is yes and no, because this 68.3% is not evenly distributed around the country. And in certain locations, it seems that we are having some functional herd immunity, meaning that the virus doesn't have enough people to spread to and so it can't be self-sustaining. And in other locations, there are high concentrations of people who do not want to get vaccinated. So we have lower vaccination rates. And the virus is happily spreading in highly unvaccinated populations. The data is overwhelmingly clear. So we have not achieved enough distribution of vaccination to prevent COVID from spreading. Now back in February, and I wrote about this and I know we talked about it in the show, that we're basically in a race between variants and vaccination. And the question was, by the summer, who was going to win, right? Not that kind of variant. So the viral variant. So what do you guys think, did the variants win or did the vaccination program win at this point?

C: Oh, well, at this point, yeah, at this point-

E: There's a lot of variants.

C: I think it's hard to say, did the variant win or did the vaccination program win because there's like self-sabotage of the program.

S: That includes that.

B: One in a sense.

S: That includes all of that.

C: Yeah. Then I think the variants are winning. I don't know.

S: Unfortunately, the number of cases are starting to turn back up. So it's still a little too early to say hopefully that'll be, because we don't know when that's going to turn back down again. You never know.

C: But in California, we just rolled everything back. We're back to, I mean, it's not lockdown, but it's mask mandates everywhere. It's you know, I think social, I don't know about social distancing going into effect, but schools are starting to change their rules. Yeah, it's, we're going backward, not forward now.

J: We were just pulling out.

C: I know. This is why I get so mad. This is why we can't have nice things. These people are ruining it for the rest of us. Like we're all working so, so hard. And then there are people out there who, and this is, again, I'm not talking about the people who are afraid, who for medical reasons have an inability to get vaccinated, but I'm specifically talking about the people who ideologically are choosing not to get vaccinated. It makes me crazy. And I think part of the reason that it's so frustrating is that we use words like vaccine hesitancy. But I think that the vaccine hesitant community is a community that I empathize with and that is a smaller portion. There is an agenda out there. It's not vaccine hesitancy. It is anti-vax.

J: Yes, yes, anti-vax. It's anti-vaxxers.

C: And those are the people I'm frustrated with, not the vaccine hesitant.

S: The thing is, I always have to say this the SGU is a nonpartisan show and we don't get involved in directly political issues. We do involve politics because politics are involved with science and with medicine. And in a lot of the things that we advocate for, we can't talk about vaccines without there being a political angle. Unfortunately, not us, but some people have made vaccines incredibly political. And in the United States, the data is absolutely clear that essentially the Republican Party has decided to make anti-vaccination part of their ideology. And if you look at the right wing media, the conservative media, they're all in on anti-vax right now. They're pushing it hard like this is just part of their narrative now. And I think that that's what was behind that email from that email, this vehemence of you're a government stooge if you're pushing the vaccine for COVID. And the other reason why I say that is because the having been a follower of multiple science denial campaigns, especially ones that are politically motivated, you start to see how the media ecosystem feeds on certain narratives, right? And that's what we're starting to see. We are seeing a huge increase in those kinds of narratives being marshaled for this anti-vaccine ideology. So in other words, when you start to get email from people, and it's not like I heard this or I'm concerned about that, they come prepared with this narrative that they clearly consumed in some media outlet. And it's the same one that I'm getting from multiple, multiple different people. It's like, okay, you guys are all feeding in the same ecosystem here. And this is now this is the narrative of the day. This is what you are being fed. That's what we're seeing now, this essentially program of anti-vaccination among the right wing media.

J: Steve, my observation, though, is this is like one of those things like, where are you? Do you want to be a skeptic first? Or do you want to be a political party follower first, right? Of course sitting in the seat that I'm sitting in, people have to put their critical thinking first. That should be your first filter. Politics should not be your first filter. Everything should be going through your absolute most critical mind that you have.

C: Right. But the problem is that, Jay, it doesn't feel like politics when you're watching the news. It feels like you're just getting information. And I think that's the frustrating part about this approach is that it's a deeply biased source of "news". The good news is, I think Hannity recently begged people to get vaccinated. I think but the problem is on the other extreme of that, you've got a Tucker Carlson who is, digging in his heels. And that's frustrating.

J: But Cara, even if that is true, and I wanted to make sure that got out there. There were a couple of talking heads that said, I got vaccinated. I believe in vaccinations. Please get vaccinated. That's great. They should have said it a long time ago. But the problem is, even with Hannity, if you look at what he talked about before he made that comment, and after he made that comment, it just complete like opposite, basically opposite so he just like shoehorn that in there. And it's just it's ridiculous.

S: And listen, there's a lot of there's a lot of Republican politicians who are saying go out and get vaccinated.

C: Yeah, for sure.

S: Especially if you're like a governor, or like, it's your job, you like to, to vaccinate your state. So I'm hearing a lot of that.

C: But it is my dad's a Republican. And he's he's actually Fox News consumer, he got vaccinated as soon as he could.

S: So yeah, it's certainly not uniform, but it is it is making it more challenging. But Cara, I think you hit upon something. And that's also a key difference between vaccine hesitancy and this current crop of anti vaccine that we're seeing that the people who are vaccine hesitant, have questions and concerns and they're legitimate questions. They're not the fake just asking questions there. They honestly don't know. I heard that people are getting myocarditis and that scares me and I don't know what the truth is.

C: Or I am actually have a predisposition to X, Y, and Z. And this scares me. Am I a candidate for this?

B: It's not FDA approved. It's using a new technology. Sure.

C: Sure. It's scary.

B: That makes sense to be a little scary.

C: And it's confusing.

B: But not anymore. Not in July 2020.

S: That's true, Bob. But that's why the new crop is not this vaccine hesitant. I don't understand. I have concerns. This is people who have the illusion of knowledge. Because as you say, Cara, they have information. They're just loaded up with misinformation or selected information. And they're much more challenging to deal with. Like the people say, oh, what about the myocarditis? I can say it's 12 cases per million doses, and mostly mild no one was harmed by it. So the numbers are very reassuring. But then you have people say, yes, but I heard it's really 6000 cases. And they're high. And it's probably a lot more. And they're like, full of misinformation that gives that they gives them the illusion of this confident knowledge. And so you can't just cruise, yeah, they're, they're hopeless, they're hopeless.

C: And this is something that I asked her. So I know this is okay. But like, this is something that hits home for me, because my own mother recently got COVID and my mother is vaccinated. And she was vaccinated as soon as she was able to be in Texas. Because she was exposed to somebody who has anti vaccine ideology, and chose not to get vaccinated. And because of that, she got sick. And and she didn't just have most of the cases of people who are vaccinated, catching COVID. They're asymptomatic, they probably wouldn't even know it, except they had to get tested because of work or because of whatever. But my mom, it was short, but it was sick. She did not feel well, for many days. And now she's having to isolate quarantine at home, she did everything right. And she's paying the price.

S: And it's not only that, it's also just like, how about we'd like to get the economy going again which in itself causes a lot of harm. This is why like the Biden administration is really pivoting to directly confronting vaccine misinformation, because that's the that's the problem now. We have the doses, we have the ability to get it out there, it's just that people don't want it. And so we are paying the price for allowing pseudoscience to fester in our medical system and in our social media, etc. for all of these years. People ask, this is this is definitely one of the harms from alternative medicine, too, because alternative medicine industry is completely rife with anti vaccine sentiments, as well as anti authority anti expertise, anti institutional medicine, etc. And so, yeah, we created millions of people who were susceptible to anti vaccine propaganda. And we shouldn't be surprised when in the middle of a pandemic, this is now biting us in the ass. I don't think we will learn this lesson. I don't think we'll learn the lesson from it. But it's absolutely true.

J: What's happening out there, though? This is this is the information that I can't find. Are people responding to this mini non vaccinated pandemic or are they are they digging their heels in?

S: My personal experience that they're mostly digging their heels in. I'm sure the needle's gonna move a little bit, but I don't see any massive change in the people who are think that they're justified in being anti vaccine. Also, the longer and the more you dig in your heels, the harder it is to admit that you were duped. You know, people in a cult when the UFO doesn't show up, they go on a they go on a membership drive. They don't say, oh, I guess I was gave all my property away for nothing. You know, they don't easily admit that they were that they were wrong.

B: And then they say, then our efforts save the day. We changed history.

C: Yeah. I think my favorite meme that I've seen going around, and I hate that I'm not giving credit to the original person that wrote it, but I have no idea who it would be, was something like, I think it's time to retire the phrase, avoid it like the plague, because clearly we're not smart enough to do that.

B: Oh, I like it.

S: They've ruined that phrase, avoid it like the plague.

C: Yeah. Like, we clearly are like, no, I'm just not going to avoid the plague. Like what? What?

S: Well, I think as we've said before, if humanity goes down, it would be will be because of our own stupidity. That's the greatest threat to humanity is, is this is just is our, the dark underbelly of our psychology. And that's what we're facing right now. All right, let's move on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Plastic Tipping Point (22:15)[edit]

S: I hate to move on to another dark one. Jay, we've got some brighter times ahead, I promise.

C: Good, get it over with.

S: But Jay, you're going to tell us about a, are we reaching a plastic tipping point?

J: The answer is yes, unfortunately, I'll give you guys an update, but I just want to ask you guys a couple of questions like, so decisions we make every day can and do have a dramatic impact on the world because everybody like, just like what we were just talking about, right? So if you're not getting yourself vaccinated, your little tiny part in not getting vaccinated is part of a bigger problem. And something you might not think about is the amount of plastic that you use. Do you really sit around and just think about how much plastic you interface with and you purchase and you dispose of in your daily life? We all need-

E: Lately, more and more, but probably I can do more.

C: I'm kind of obsessed with this.

J: Yeah. And, and I know you're interested, Cara. I am too, by the way. I'm right along with you. Every time we talk about this, I'm like riveted when I hear about it. Just as a fun and maybe a little unnerving exercise, just scan the room you're in right now real quick. Look around. How many things are made of plastic?

E: Pip, pip, pip, pip, pip.

J: Right? Plastic, plastic, plastic. It's everywhere. Everything. I got plastic in my eyeglasses. I'm wearing plastic.

B: My plastic robots are awesome. They're not going anywhere.

E: Well, as long as my plastic stays plastic, it doesn't break down and go into the ocean and in other places.

C: Yeah. But where's it going to go when you're done with that plastic? That's the problem. It doesn't break down. The reason it breaks down in the ocean is because it breaks apart, not because it biodegrades.

J: All right. So do you guys do this? Like, I started doing this. When I drink soda, I refuse to drink soda, pretty much drink anything out of a disposable plastic container. I just don't do it.

C: I don't buy it. I buy, I only buy Mexican Coke in a glass bottle. That's my...

J: And as weird as I thought this was probably five, 10 years ago, I bought myself a nice stainless steel Camelbak drinking container. You know what I mean?

C: And one of the greatest ploys that these corporate behemoths that produce single-use plastic, one of the greatest things that they, like fleeces that they pulled out on us was shifting the onus to the consumer and not taking responsibility.

J: Exactly.

B: Yeah.

J: So researchers from Sweden, Norway, and Germany published a paper on July 2nd in the journal Science and they're now saying that the amount of plastic emissions globally is coming to this kind of a tipping point where we could not reverse the damage that's done. The authors say that plastic pollution is a global threat. It's not like this is just happening in your country. It's happening everywhere and it's moving... The plastic is moving everywhere from everywhere. You know what I mean? So we need to, they say that we need to drastically reduce the amount of plastic that makes it into the environment. Today's plastic can be found pretty much everywhere. Like I said, now it's everywhere, meaning it's in our house, but it's everywhere on the planet as well. You can find it on any mountain. There's just plastic. You know, people have been there and they've dropped plastic and there's plastic particles, all the way to the deepest parts of the ocean, to the hottest deserts in the world, to the coldest Arctic climate. So global emissions in the world's waterways, like oceans, rivers, and lakes range from nine to 23 million metric tons per year. Now look, we don't know. Who knows what that is, right? I can't visualize that. But it is, all you need to know is it's a fantastically enormous amount of plastic.

C: There's so much plastic, Jay, that it's in our blood chemistry and it is packing the abdominal cavities of marine animals left and right.

J: Yeah. Not to mention that their heads are getting caught in plastic bottles. So okay. So I said nine to 23 million metric tons per year are entering the waterways of the world, right? That's the same amount that's happening on the land as well. So you just double that.

S: Jay, there is a technical term for that amount. It's technically a shit ton.

J: A shit ton.

C: Yeah. I thought you were going to go F, but S ton.

J: Yeah, me too.

C: Yeah. I know. I was like waiting for it. I was like, Steve.

J: So these are estimated emissions and they're forecasted to what, guys? By the year 2025, where will this nine to 23 number go?

E: Double.

J: Double. Right, Evan. It's going to freaking double in three years, guys. I don't know how, Bob.

S: Well, a lot of it too is that we're seeing the effects of the industrialized world. And now as we develop the developing world, that they're adding to the total numbers.

C: Yeah. And then the gross thing is that the industrialized world turns to the developing world and blames them for our problems. Like, oh no, you can't have cars and put off emissions. You can't have all of these nice things because we already did that and created a tipping point. And now you're going to put us over the edge.

J: And even though people have been made aware, I've known for a very long time, it took me way too long to upgrade to a steel water bottle. We significantly continue to increase our use of plastics and the use of plastics is deeply ingrained in our society, right? And it's also now, today, it's a political and an economic issue, just like Cara, like you were saying. I have a question. Why can't companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi just say, no more plastic? We're done with it.

C: It's cheaper to use plastic and they have really good lobbies.

B: It's the bottom line.

J: Lobbies.

C: It's all about the bottom line.

E: Yeah. And their models are built on plastic.

S: Well, part of it too is, and this is something, this is a concept, you don't have this concept in your repertoire, you need to add it. The notion of externalized costs. If you allow a company to do something that's cheaper for them, but then shifts the cost on to society, for whatever reason, so we're like, we all have to now pay for the plastic cleanup that they profited on, and so we're allowing them to externalize that cost. So if you just don't do that, you say you have to pay the actual total cost of your industry, then things that are more environmentally friendly become cost effective. So like it might be then cost effective to switch to glass from plastic.

J: Let me lower the boom here, guys, on like cleanup and recycling technology, right? Because this was, you remember, I remember the first modern Earth Day that happened, I forget, was it 20 years ago? There was a big Earth Day that happened that was like, yeah, and if you recycle, everything's good. Well, plastic recycling, no bueno. Not good.

C: Oh yeah. Not good at all.

J: All governments need to do, world governments need to immediately invest in technology that can help remove plastic from the environment, right? That's one thing. That's not even recycling, it's just picking up plastic that is out in the world. Consumers need to make, and this is every one of us, and if we all, everybody listening to this show could just listen to this, and if we all make changes right now, we need to make a dramatic change in the way that we perceive plastic. It's not as simple as putting it in your recycling bin at your house. Like I said, the researchers say that we have to dramatically reduce the production of what they call virgin plastic. So that's brand new plastic if you didn't figure it out. How do you do that? What's the deal with this? If we reduce the amount of virgin plastic that's being made, this will increase the value of recycled plastics, and companies will become economically invigorated to work with recycled plastics more, and we also have to globally reconfigure how plastics are recycled because right now, plastic recycling is not what you think it is. It's not-

C: It's terrible. You can really only recycle one in two plastics. Yeah. Most people throw stuff in their recycling bin that's not recyclable and that completely Fs up the recycling machines that most municipalities use. You should never be throwing away plastic bags, plastic films, blister packs, that really thin crappy plastic that most things come in. It's not actually recyclable.

J: But Cara, you could spend a week, I don't know if you've ever seen this. I know Bob has, but there are people that have dedicated the time to say, we're going to clean up this beach, or we're going to clean up this roadway, and they take all the garbage and they get rid of it. Well, a huge amount of it is plastic, right? But here's where things get scary. Okay, so they pick up the plastic and then they bring it to a recycling center and it gets returned back to nature. You know what I mean? It's like we can't-

C: Yeah, because it's not recyclable.

J: So here, let me give you some more information. So when plastic is in the environment, however it gets there, if it goes into a landfill, if it's just being thrown out a car window, or if it finds its way into the ocean, it breaks down and it's known as weathering, right? So we can't rely on the degradation of plastic in the environment, and I'll tell you why. Plastic breaks down in the environment. It happens very slowly, and in many cases, it causes a constant flow of pollution into the environment. So plastics break down in the environment. They create micro and nanoplastic particles as they break down. They're shedding plastic particles as water and sunlight hit them and stuff in the soil starts to break them down. What's happening is these things are slowly cracking and breaking off of the plastic polymer backbone, right? So it's like you think of plastic as one big molecule that slowly is shedding pieces of that molecule, right? Chemicals also leach off the plastic and get into the environment, and this means that plastic is constantly shedding pollution. One of the last things that we want to do is put plastic into a landfill. We have to change plastic production. You know how we always hear these news items about, oh, they came out with a plastic, and it's 89% recyclable or whatever. We're not seeing anything change fast enough because money and attention aren't being put into it, but also these things are probably not scaling up. The technologies aren't able to make it to the big games because they just don't work when we try to make them happen on the level of soda bottles, you know what I mean? So the researchers say that plastic adds stress to natural environments. It can increase climate change because it disrupts the global carbon pump, right, which is basically the reabsorption of carbon back into trees and everything. It contributes to biodiversity loss, and as it goes on to damage animal habitats, it's dramatically affecting many different species. So we have animals dying because of plastic and suffering because of plastic, and we have the leaching of chemicals into the environment is slowly choking our world.

C: Don't forget that you're eating those things. The things that are the lowest on the food chain are either absorbing the chemical toxins from the plastic, or like you said, they're physically eating microplastics. And then bigger things are eating them, and bigger things are eating them, and then we're eating those bigger things.

J: Because of my research on this item, and it's kind of like a light went on with me reading this and learning more about this. I've heard Cara talk about it a million times. We've all talked about it on the show before. But I did. I had that click happen. I am disgusted with the amount of plastic that I'm surrounded by right now. I like plastic. It's a really cool medium. It's very-

C: Oh, and it's necessary. It's necessary for medical purposes. There are places in our life where like, thank goodness for plastic, but we don't need to be drinking soda out of plastic.

J: Right. Every time you throw away a piece of plastic, analyse it. Like, where did this come from? I have things that will let... Look, right now I'm picking up... I have one of those like grip enhancer things. I was using it when I got my carpal tunnel surgery. I pulled it out. I've had this thing for 30 years. I've owned that piece of plastic for a very long time, and it's held up, and it's great. It's the ones that we throw away. It's drinking a whole bottle of water, and then you squish it down into nothing, and you throw it in the garbage. You don't think about it. Or you put it in your recycling bin as if. But no.

E: Commonly referred to as the single-use plastic. Very bad.

J: So please do me a favour and just think about it.

C: Well, and the truth is, you're right, Jay, because if we... It's frustrating. It shouldn't have to start with us. That's the part that pisses me off. It shouldn't have to start with us, but the truth of the matter is, it does. That's the way our system is structured. So knowing that it starts with us, two things happen downstream. Number one is, we physically put less plastic into the system. But number two is, the companies don't sell as much. And when they're no longer selling it, they're going to stop producing it. As long as they feel like there's not a market for their product because we choose to vote with our dollar, we're going to affect change. But again, that comes back to that really, really entrenched problem, which is that it is a privilege to be able to vote with your dollar.

J: Yeah. That's right. Yeah. Let's move on, Steve, because I'm just going to keep getting pissed off here.

C: It's just raging over here.

E: Yeah.

C: For good reason.

Balloon Telescope (34:55)[edit]

S: All right. Bob, tell us about a balloon telescope that's going to rival the Hubble.

E: What?

B: Yes. Yes. Basically stole my thunder from the entire first part. But yes, the famous HST, the Hubble Space Telescope, may be on the way out, but a cheap and in many ways better alternative is being tested, and it's called Superbit. And as Steve said, it's carried by a balloon, a balloon. So this new kind of astronomical telescope is a result of a team up between Durham, Toronto and Princeton Universities and NASA and the Canadian Space Energy. So Superbit. What is a Superbit? It stands for Super Pressure Balloon Born Imaging Telescope. It's essentially it's an imaging system lofted 40 kilometers into the stratosphere by a helium balloon. It will get high resolution images rivaling those of Hubble, which is saying something. So just let that simmer for a second in your brain. Hubble like images, but just using a balloon instead of a rocket. Hubble, of course, is the current standard, right? Primarily because it's in space, which is an awesome place to be for a lot of astronomy.

C: I thought you were going to say primarily because James Webb still hasn't lost.

E: Any day now.

B: No, but actually, well, you will see that that's not technically correct. But that's because why? Why is it such a good place to be for astronomy? And that's because our atmosphere sucks in a lot of ways. Imagine visible light from a distant exoplanet or star or a whole galaxy, that light travels for years, millions of years, billions of years. And that light is essentially pristine for for all that time. And then, bam, the last one point six thousandths of a second as the light goes through our atmosphere and it turns into a huge, distorted mess, the last little bit, it gets completely screwed up. So that's basically just a goofy way to say that, yes, observing lots of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation from orbit is great because the atmosphere doesn't you just bypassing the atmosphere, atmospheric distortion. So it's great. It's fantastic. That's why everybody loves the Hubble. And that's why lots of observatories are on mountaintops, right? I mean, all the good ones are on these great, great mountaintops. Jay, you were really close to a bunch of them in Hawaii. And because that gets it up, that gets them above as much of the atmosphere as possible. So what Superbit with a special balloon is allowing to happen, it's like putting the telescope on a 40 kilometre high mountain. That's pretty much exactly what it's doing, putting it about as high as you can get and still be kind of like technically in the atmosphere. Now it's called a super pressure balloon because of advances in in material science. Cara, I know you'd love to hear that. Another advance in material science that's having some amazing impacts. So and essentially it has a lot to do with the stitching and it does not lose pressure. So it's basically allowing it to stay aloft, not for the typical three days, but for three months. And that's where you can do some real science. If you're three days is not enough, I don't care how well you can see up into space. Three months is where you can get some really good stuff done. Now this balloon is is big. Even when it's deflated, it's about as big as a couple of buses on the ground. But by the time this thing floats up to 35 to 40 kilometres in the stratosphere, which is above, say, more than 99 percent of the Earth's atmosphere, it grows to half a half a million cubic meters, which is the size of a small football stadium, apparently. A small football stadium. This thing is it gets gargantuan and it needs to be because you're hauling up a lot of mass there. But as cool as that is, though, the balloon is wonderful technically, but it's still just a balloon. The real business end and the real technology is what's hanging under the hook under the balloon on the hook. And my first thought, maybe you guys had this, my first thought when I was thinking about a balloon holding something like a a telescope, a big half a meter telescope. I mean, how do you stop this thing from swinging it back? How do you get a stable image off of something like that in the in the stratosphere? I mean, way up high. You know, what's the atmosphere like? I mean, there's no real weather up there. It's kind of it's got to be stable and kind of above. Well, actually, actually, they they weren't sure how stable it would be, because I don't think there's been a lot of studies in the stratosphere of like what's what did you know? What's the air? What's the wind like? What's going on right there? At least that's what one of the scientists was said. So it's actually more stable than they than they had thought it would be. But still, that apparatus still swung back and forth like a pendulum. And what they found was that when it went up there, that it's it's it's swung about an arc minute, which is one sixtieth of a degree. And that doesn't sound too bad. You know, a sixtieth of one degree, that's kind of tiny, right? But that's actually a deal breaker in terms of blur. You can't you can't do good, much to good astronomy if you're if you're swinging a sixtieth of a degree. So they added passive dampening on the hooks, right? So the movement that's transferred from the balloon to the hook would not be transferred down to the observatory below. So that's kind of like low hanging fruit. Yeah, let's put a dampener on that hook. So it's not transferring any of that swing. But then they added gyroscopes and frameless motors. So essentially what it's doing is that if it swings a little bit to the left, then it actually looks a little bit to the right and vice versa. If it swings a little bit to the right, it looks a little bit to the left to counter that. And when they when they did that, it brought the swing down from an arc minute to an arc second RMS. RMS apparently stands for residual pointing stability. I think it might stand for residual movement stability because it doesn't match the initialism. But that's what the scientists said. So I'm going to go with residual pointing stability. So so that's still that's really good, right? An arc second. That's a sixtieth of an arc minute or one thirty six hundredths of a degree. That's small enough. No, it's not small enough. It's really tiny, but it's still they need to go down another notch. So for that, to prevent even that tiny little swing, they use adaptive optics. We talked about that in the past, but in this specific case, adaptive optics. So this uses a fast tilt mirror, which essentially keeps target on a guide star. And so it stays locked on that guide star and it makes corrections based based on that. If it moves a little bit, it makes a correction back. And when they did that with the adaptive optics, they brought it down to 50 milli arc seconds. Super, super tiny. And finally, that was that was good enough. And that was well within the diffraction limit, which means that for that specific half a meter lens, any smaller swinging wouldn't have made any difference. It wouldn't have been able to discern it. So for that mirror, that was that was as good it was going to get. Only if they had a bigger lens would they need something that was even more stabilized. And that probably will come in the future. But the thing that makes me most excited about this is the advantages of this system. And they might not be obvious. But then when you hear about them, you're like, oh, damn, yeah, this makes so much sense. So first advantage, number one, super bit costs five million USD or three point six two million pounds, a lot cheaper. That's a thousand times less than a similar satellite, three orders of magnitude cheaper. Balloons are cheaper than rocket fuel, right? Who would have guessed? So so that level, that level of cheapness makes it possible to have a fleet of space telescopes. You could make a fleet of them that could offer time to astronomers all over the world. It's amazing just to think about that. Besides being cheap, the second advantage is a really big one. This is the ability to return the payload to return the observatory to Earth and fix it and tweak it as often as you want. So try to think about doing that with a satellite satellites really, really, really wait one, two, three. I'll give you these three release. They really, really, really need to work the first time because because of that, that makes them very, very expensive because you got to add redundancy. You got to add safeguards. You got to even throw in meatball sometimes. It has to work because if you don't survive space, if you don't survive the launch and if you don't survive in space, no one's going to go in for a house call. It's not like your Hubble was the exception that that proved the rule. No satellites get a house call. If it's screwed up in orbit, it's screwed up forever, essentially. So they've got to make it work. But you don't need to do that. You don't need to do that for this. And you have to remember with satellites, you have to lock down that design years before launch. That's standard practice. You know, you make jokes about, oh yeah, remember that satellites got technology from the from the 1990s. That's like a classic joke because you got to lock down technology well before it launches. So that's why anything that's in orbit or on Mars right now is already way out of date. Even before it was launched, it was already out of date because that's just how it works. So Superbit never needs to do that. It never needs to be obsolete because after a mission aloft, if it's up for a month or even three months, it comes down by parachute and then you could just upgrade the shit out of it and then put it back up. You know, that's that's just how it works. So for example, we modern digital cameras, we know that they improve every year, right? Every new phone that you get, even if it's every year, is a much better camera. So for example, the development team for Superbit, they actually bought this cutting edge camera and used it for a test flight three weeks before the launch. Three weeks. You will never do that for any anything that's going to go into orbit or anything that's going to go onto a planet. It just doesn't happen. Even even more dramatic, the day of a launch, the morning it was going to launch for a test, the Superbit, they got a GoPro, a GoPro camera, and they gaffer taped it on onto the thing just like, yeah, let's just tape this on and to see what it can record. Yeah, let's do that. No way is that done with satellites, I guarantee you that doesn't happen. To me, that's a huge advantage. You can just over the years, it's steadily improve it and you will always be cutting edge instead of- Hubble is great, but it is like decades out of out of date in terms of having good technology. This technology is much better than even what Hubble already already has. All right, so the last advantage of Superbit over space observatories, I will call the coming optical graveyard. The Hubble telescope is clearly near the end of its life, right? You can hear that you can hear the death rattle, right? Because just it was out of action for a month just just recently for one whole month. It's like, sorry-

S: They got it back.

B: I know. Let me finish the sentence.

J: Bob, why do you hate the Hubble?

B: That's why I said, yeah, it was out of action for a month. They got it back. I think that what they did was they tried turning it on and off again. I think that's what did it.

C: That's amazing.

B: They had to back up the IT.

E: They had this thing switched to evil.

B: Evil. So the payload computer failed. They got it going. It took a whole month. But the Hubble is never going to be repaired again. They could do some troubleshooting from the ground. But clearly its days are numbered. All right. That's a given. It's sad. But hey, that's just that's just a fact. The problem is when the Hubble telescope finally dies, could be tomorrow, could be next year. We don't know. But when that happens, we will no longer have a space telescope with high res optical and UV imaging. It's gone.

E: What?

B: It's going to be gone. All of the future missions that you talk about, Jack Webb the Webb, all the other ones that you've heard about.

C: James.

E: Jack Webb was from Dragon.

S: Yeah. James Webb.

B: I love that guy. I love that guy. Just the facts, man.

E: I love it.

B: Now listen. So Webb, Webb is going to be great, but it's infrared only. It's not. It's not optical. It's not UV.

J: Bob, why do you hate the Webb?

B: Other telescopes that are going to go up, they're infrared as well. Or at the very least, they're not optical or they're not UV. So there's going to be whole fields of astronomers that are going to be screwed. It's going to be like, sorry, nothing new for you for a while. Now that Hubble's dead, you're not going to get anything new in your field for a long time. So that niche can be filled by super bit. And I think it will definitely be filled because if you don't know why it will definitely be filled, just rewind for about seven minutes and listen again. And hopefully it'll be clearer the second time. Seems pretty obvious. So in the future, a super bit is scheduled to launch a long duration balloon mission from Wanaka, New Zealand in April, this coming April. It's going to circumnavigate the earth a few times. It's going to image at night. It's going to recharge during the day. And hopefully it goes really well, well enough to warrant putting that putting this thing full steam ahead. And they're already talking about they have funding for an upgrade. They already have the funding for an upgrade. They want to bring it from point five meters aperture to one point five meters. And that upgrade will actually make it better than a Hubble in many respects and light gathering and megapixels, this and that. It's going to be clearly superior to Hubble when they go to one point five meters. And the balloons that they have now can actually go to two meter, two meter class. And NASA is actually encouraging the team to submit a proposal for a two meter class observatory. But that's the limit of the current balloons. But as you know, the balloon technology, I'm sure we'll be getting better and maybe we can get to two and a half meter observatories and even then be some amazing, amazing astronomy going on better than far better than than what Hubble has done ever. But what I find really exciting about this is that I think we're going to see a time within the next decade where you're going to have scores of universities launching not their own Hubble Space Telescopes into orbit. What we are going to see, I think, within 10 years are these universities with their university budget launching this these superpressure balloons and observatories into the stratosphere and doing Hubble class work for much cheaper. I mean, imagine 20, 30, 40 universities having each having their own essentially own Hubble. It's great. I think it's great to imagine. And I think it seems like a no brainer. Now, I've been wrong in the past, but I think this this is going to absolutely take off. This is just too much of a no brainer. And hopefully the next April mission in Wanaka, New Zealand, does very well. And it'll be even clearer that, yeah, we got to go this route. I just didn't even see this coming. So cool.

J: And Bob, maybe Jeff Bezos can wave to the balloon the next time he's flying in his space penis.

B: Yeah, right.

C: Space penis.

J: I mean, seriously, it looks like a penis. What the hell?

C: It looks like a penis.

E: We'll come to that later.

J: We will come to that, Evan?

C: No one disagrees with you.

S: All right, let's move on.

AI Creativity (49:22)[edit]

S: I've got a artificial intelligence related news item. This is a study where they tried to teach AI creativity. Now this is not like human level creativity, of course, but they're trying to do, which I think is common among as they're developing and advancing narrow AI, right? Artificial intelligence that is not like a general AI that is self-aware or anything like that, but is able to do things like beat experts at chess or go and drive your car, et cetera. Part of the process of that is to try to deconstruct or reverse engineer the mental cognitive processes that humans go through in doing the similar kind of task. It doesn't mean the AI has to do it in the same way, but if they could understand the milestones along the way, then maybe they can build towards that same kind of functionality. So that's what they're doing now with creativity. What do we mean by creativity? So that's, again, that's part of it. What do we actually mean by it? What is actually happening? So in this concept of creativity something that humans are very good at, and that is being able to categorize things and then extrapolate within that category. So let me give you an example of what I mean. Let's say a young child has seen several different kinds of dogs in their life, right? And then you introduce them to a new breed of dog that looks nothing like any other dog they've ever seen. They will instantly know that it's a doggie, right? You show a kid that knows Newfoundlands and German shepherds, a chihuahua, they'll go to the chihuahua and they'll go, a puppy. They know it's a puppy. It looks nothing like a German shepherd, but somehow they get this idea that this is all part of the same category, right?

E: Sure.

B: Right.

S: So that's something that humans are very, very good at. But creativity also involves being able to disentangle, disentangle the pieces of what goes into that category, and then alter those variables individually, right?

C: That's a good way to put it.

S: Yeah.

C: I always thought of it as like a way to be outside of the box, but still with the constraints, like you have to know the box.

S: Yes.

C: You have to be able to operate outside of the box, because if you go too far outside of the box, it's no longer creative. It's like this test that we do in psychology of creativity, where we go, it's like, to young kids, it's like, what can you make with this paperclip and this whatever? And it's like, is it really creative if they go, it's an airplane, and you're like, that's not a freaking airplane. Like, that's not, what are you talking, that's not creativity. But if they literally can make it into something, that's there's a point where it goes too far.

S: Yeah. Right.

B: If you go too far outside the box all you end up saying, it's what's in the box.

E: It becomes too abstract, right?

C: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

S: So, let's do another example. Like if I say, imagine a red Corvette, right? Got an image of that in your head now. Imagine a blue Corvette. Like you could flip the red to blue mentally, even if you've never seen a blue Corvette before in your life, you could take your knowledge of the colour blue and apply it to a specific item. But also it would be like, all right, think about a car that's not a Corvette. You can think about something that's within the same category that has all the same pieces, but you could very them, you could extrapolate from that and still be within the category of a car. The AI would need to identify category by looking at examples. And then be able to disentangle specific elements of that category and then be able to extrapolate to new combinations of those elements. So that's what they were seeing if they could have AI do.

B: It's just a matter of a lot of training. There's a lot of deep learning training with thousands of images of what you want, I'm sure it's kind of what they did.

S: Yeah, but there was a difference. So it was a neural network, and it was with training. But instead of doing one item at a time, they did multiple items at a time. And what the AI was doing was looking for all the similarities among multiple items, not just this is an example of this category. These are all examples of this category and processing that in a different way than previous AI. Does that make sense?

B: Interesting. Hmm.

S: Yeah. So they call this controllable disentangled representation learning, that process.

E: Oh, gosh.

S: Controllable disentangled. It's just an initialism, right, Bob?

C: Very creative title.

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

E: Always check with Bob on these things.

S: And then the next step was, again, to create a new image with the disentangled pieces of the previous category. And they called that controllable novel image synthesis. Again, very creative. And they were successful. So, like, for example, you trained the AI on different transformers, like the cartoon, the transformers. And they said, all right, now give me a yellow one in Times Square. And the AI was able to do that. So this is not that impressive, honestly. It's kind of a proof of concept. t was just like, did it do what they wanted it to do? Yes, they were able to apply details to a category and combine it with other elements. When I wrote about this, I said, I'll be impressed when the AI can create a novel transformer that we still recognize as a transformer.

B: Oh, it didn't even do that?

S: No, no. It just changed its colour and its location. So, again, this is kind of a proof of concept of these processes the disentanglement and then the novel image creation. So it did that successfully. Again, very incremental, very, very incremental. But what I found interesting about it is that this is part of this bigger program to reverse engineer creativity, to try to understand, like, operationally, what is it? Because we tend to think about these processes, these subconscious processes as magic, right? It's like this black box. It by definition happens subconsciously. So you're not aware of all the individual steps that are that are happening. It just happens like you just think of something. I'm sure we've all been engaged in creative process. And sometimes ideas will occur to you. You don't know how that idea popped into your consciousness. You don't – you're not aware of what was happening in the background. But, of course, if you're trying to design an AI, it's all about what's happening in the background, right?

B: Right. I wonder what it would be like if we could peer in there and see what was happening in the background. Would that, like, just short circuit the entire process by like when you try to think something out that you've memorized and you're like you can't – you can't decompose it into separate steps. Because then you just lose track because it's a habit. Because I've come across, like, AIs in short stories. And the AI or the digital human comes up with this thing. It's like, wait, how did I think of that? And then they look into their mind and they trace it back to see where that thought came from. And they're like, oh, that's why I thought that. It's like, wait, what would that even be like?

C: Bob, it's weird because the thing that comes up in my mind with this, like, creative processing that you're talking about. And then, like, applying metacognition to it is almost like the yips. Like, I think about what happens when a sports person, like an athlete, like loses flow and starts to think too hard instead of being in it. And then it actually starts to make them not as good at their sport. And they get the yips. It's like a weird thing where deconstructing something that feels like a flow state might actually undo the flow.

S: Well, neurologically, that's because our brain's hierarchical, right? So when you first do something, you're engaging your conscious cortical processing. It's very—

C: Yeah, it's very frontal.

S: Very processing intensive, very hard to do. But then the way your brain—one of the ways in which your brain learns is that it automates the components of it.

B: Right. Internalizes it, basically. So it goes from conscious to subconscious.

C: That's why we practice.

S: Yes. Then you don't have to think about it. It just happens automatically. But if you start to think about it too much, then you interfere with that because obviously the conscious stuff is hierarchically above the subconscious stuff. It's like you breathe without thinking about it, but you can control your breathing if you do think about it, right? It's like you're interfering with your breathing.

C: It's super weird when after the doctor listens to your chest with his stethoscope, he goes, okay, now breathe normally. And you're like, don't know how.

B: What do I do with my hands?

C: Yeah, exactly.

S: So obviously one interesting question is how far will this go, right? How far will this attempt at reverse engineering creativity in narrow AI be able to go? Personally, I think there's no reason why it can't completely duplicate human creativity. Again, it won't necessarily need to do it in the same way that our brains do it. It just needs to duplicate the output. And in fact, there's no reason to think that it won't be eventually better than human brains are doing it.

B: Absolutely.

C: Right, yeah.

S: So far, everything we thought—and this is one of the history of our thinking about artificial intelligence— is all along the way we falsely assumed that an AI would need to have a general intelligence in order to be able to do something. Like going all the way back to chess, which is probably the first time this really came up. It's like, okay, well, in order to teach a computer how to play chess, it's got to understand how to think like a chess master. And that would require a massive level of intelligence that computers don't have. And so they'll never be able to beat a human in chess. And then we realized, no, you don't need to be able to think like a human. You can do it in a completely different way with narrow AI. And then this, okay, well, all right, now narrow AI can beat any chess master at chess, but not Go. That's way too complicated. You could just like—every time you make a move in chess, there's like 20 options. Every time you make a move in Go, there's like 200 options. And it's just literally an order of magnitude more difficult.

B: Right, it's too complex.

S: And now, recently, one of the World Go champions resigned. He said, I can't beat the AI. It's like there's no point in me existing anymore.

C: Oh, how sad.

S: He quit the game.

C: But how sad to like quit because of the computer. It's like, imagine what it was like to be one of those human computers who's like doing all the calculations. And then all of a sudden, you just push a button and like everything you did is like— And like, I don't know. I don't feel like—I mean, it must have been hard. Like, oh, gosh, am I out of a job? But at the same time, I don't think I would feel like, oh, my life's work doesn't matter. Like I'm still better than every other human being on the planet.

B: You can still celebrate human excellence. It's like I'm not going to be a runner anymore because of cars. Like, oh why?

C: Yeah, thank you. Bob, that was a way better example.

S: All right. But here's the deeper philosophical question. How far will this go?

B: All the way.

S: So far, I think it will, too. So far, narrow AI has been able to do anything that we tried to get it to do as long as—

C: Anything I can do.

B: I can do better.

S: Invested the time to develop it, right? And all predictions that narrow AI will never be able to do this have been proven wrong. So let's say that that pattern holds out and that essentially every single thing that human consciousness does can be replicated with narrow AI. Language conversation, pattern recognition.

C: What about reflection on consciousness?

S: So, well, all right. I have to say other than self-awareness itself.

C: Right. And that requires a certain level of metacognition that like a reflective quality that it's fundamental to consciousness.

B: Yeah, human level consciousness.

S: You're getting to like one level beyond where the next step I'm going to go. So first of all, could we have a sophisticated multifunctional narrow AI set of subroutines that duplicates everything that a human conscious does? So it essentially would be able to, to all appearances, be a human being, a human intelligence with zero self-awareness. Like is that going to be possible?

B: Like a P-zombie?

S: Like a P-zombie.

C: It'll be possible within—my hope at least is that it'll be possible within an application, like an assistant at work. That you'll have an AI assistant at work who can do all of the work functions that a human being could do and be a very good executive assistant.

S: But what? But not what?

C: It wouldn't then be able to be translated to be also a domestic partner or a—I don't know. I feel like—

S: No, I'm saying you could do everything. You could do anything a person could do. It has every capability that a person has. It's indistinguishable from a conscious human being, but it's just a bunch of narrow AI subroutines.

C: A bunch of narrow AI clustered together.

S: Yes.

C: Now we can't tell the difference kind of between narrow AI and what's the other one called?

S: General AI.

C: General AI.

S: Yes.

C: So that's—you're asking a Turing test question, right?

S: Yes. Yeah.

C: Like ultimately.

S: Sort of.

C: Because it's really—does it matter that it's capable of X, Y, and Z or does it matter that it passes to us as being capable of X, Y, and Z?

S: Again, we brought this up before too. It's like will it be self-aware and how would we know? If you could replicate a general AI with just narrow AI, how would we ever—unless you're the programmer who knows exactly how it works—how would we really know if it had any kind of experience of its own existence? And let's say, Cara, that we throw in a narrow AI subroutine that is self-reflective, that monitors its own internal state, that communicates among the different subroutines and—

C: So then it sounds like it has feelings.

S: Closes the loop on perception and output and all that stuff. Essentially—and so this is a philosophical question and I'm sort of answering my own question here. But, for example, Daniel Dennett says—and I tend to agree with him—when you solve all of the easy problems of consciousness, you have solved the hard problem. And now I'm just translating that into AI. If you solve all of the narrow AI problems, you've basically solved the general AI problem. Are those two things analogous? That's fascinating.

C: In a way, though, is that then saying that the gestalt—sort of the gestalt conceptualization doesn't apply? That the sum is not greater than the whole of the—or the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts? Because if we sum the parts, we get the whole.

S: Yeah, that's what I'm saying.

C: Yeah, and I tend to not agree with that, but the question is, does it even matter? Is it a moot point? Because I do think we'll get to a place where we'll have enough narrow AI that human beings are fooled into thinking.

B: Right.

S: Totally.

C: That it's conscious.

B: I could see that, but I could also see—don't forget, don't discount the possibility of once you're having all this complexity in one place, that there could be some emergent behavior that's completely unanticipated. Something like self-awareness, sentience, sapience, all that.

C: You're right, and then that solves both problems. It answers Daniel Dennett and the gestalt.

B: Right. I could see both things happening where it's just a collection of narrow AI, and the soul in the machine, if you will, isn't necessarily there, although it might be hidden from us. We might be fooled, or it could genuinely be an emergent behavior that gives it true human-like or human-level self-awareness.

S: If that makes you feel better.

C: Wouldn't it suck, Bob, if at that point, if that happened, it was still a black box, and we were still sitting here going, crap! It's happened right before our eyes, and we still can't solve this consciousness problem.

B: But Steve, you can't deny the power of unpredictable emergent behaviors in complex systems.

S: I'm not. I'm not. This is a philosophical—

B: It sure seems like it.

S: No, I'm not denying. It's a straw man. I'm not denying that that's emergent things occur. The question is, is human consciousness an emergent property, or is it an illusion? Stringing together a bunch of narrow AI.

B: I would totally buy into either one of those.

S: That's what I'm saying. We might not need to invoke an emergent property. It's just that when one part of the brain talks to another part of the brain, and then it talks to another part of the brain, and then it talks to another part of the brain, and if you keep doing that, you have consciousness. You are doing everything that we think of as consciousness, and we don't need to add any special sauce or emergent property or global workspace or anything.

B: But Steve, you could still call it emergent property because I think the key definition of something that's emergent, an emergent behavior, is something that was essentially unpredictable at the start.

C: I don't even think that's true. I think all it is is that it requires the substrate. So it's like when we say mind is an emergent property of brain, what we're saying is that as long as brain is braining, mind happens. And I think that says what you're saying and what Steve's saying. I feel like you're in agreement there.

S: I mean, it becomes a semantic thing. At that point, what exactly is the emergent property of all this? And if you try to define that, you may find that it's really not anything in addition to all of the narrow processes, the easy problem things to solve.

C: It's just that we don't understand it. That's the question.

S: Because we're trying to understand our own consciousness. We are all falling for the illusion of our own consciousness. There's no way for us to get out of ourself enough to realize or to really imagine or wrap our head around the fact that we're just a bunch of narrow AI algorithms just in a constant stream of consciousness. And there isn't any emergent self from all of that. Unless you're using emergent in a way that's not process-oriented, but that's just what you're calling our experience of our own existence.

C: Yeah.

B: It's like a flock of birds. They follow very simple rules. Flocking is caused – it's very simple. Stay at least a few inches away from the bird next to you and this and that. So you follow like very few rules and you have this beautiful flocking and flying behavior that you wouldn't necessarily have predicted just by looking at the rules. You got to like run it. You got to simulate it and say, oh, wow, that's beautiful.

C: The difference there, Bob, is that the bird itself can't see the murmuration.

B: Right.

C: And what we can do is we can actually reflect on the emergence and the consciousness. And that's the part where we get stuck in this loop.

S: But isn't that just another subroutine? The reflection, the ability to communicate with our own – parts of our brain communicating with other parts of our brain?

C: Maybe. But the fact of the matter is that we still have the ability to suppress. We have the ability to induce. We can actually control that reflection. It's not just something that happens passively. It's something where we can exercise power.

S: But that's yet other parts of the brain.

C: It's true.

S: The frontal lobe. Hierarchically exerting its programming over other parts of the brain. It still just comes down to you just keep going to one other part of the brain doing something.

B: Right. And we're too close to it, right? We're like right in the middle of it.We can never really appreciate this.

S: But the thing that's interesting is that even if we make general AI and we do it by putting together a bunch of narrow AI, we won't have solved the philosophical problems of consciousness.

C: I don't think we will either.

S: We'll still be at this point where it's like, okay. We can operationally explain everything as solving all the, "easy problems", which I think are analogous to the narrow AI problems. But it still doesn't tell us if there's something else going on when you put it all together, this emergent property that you're talking about, Bob. And again, I predict. I'm going to make a prediction. There will come a day when we have a general AI thing, and we have no idea if it's really self-aware or not or if it's just acting self-aware, and there'll be no way to objectively resolve the dilemma.

C: Yeah. That's kind of what I'm saying is we'll get to a point where we'll be dealing with the same black box and the same holy grail of consciousness neuroscience that we're dealing with right now. It's just it'll also be with a machine.

B: Right. And we'll just have to give it the benefit of the doubt.

J: If they truly create an AI that becomes conscious, we'll know that it's really conscious when it starts screaming.

C: Why? What if it screams just to fool J. Novella into thinking it's conscious?

E: There's a little scream subroutine.

B: Screaming subroutine, very easy.

C: Yeah, exactly.

E: If, for, then, next, whatever. Yeah. Scream.

J: I just wish that I would have been alive during this time because I'm really, really curious to know what it would be like to talk to a computer like that, talk to an AI like that.

C: You say that now.

E: Yeah. And then come away from that conversation feeling, oh, wow, I'm so small.

More Space Tourism (1:11:47)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, give us a quick update on the space tourism thing we were talking about last week because there's been another launch.

E: Yep, yep. As we alluded to last week, this one happened July 20, 2021, the first launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard reusable launch vehicle with humans aboard. That's the key here. First time, humans aboard. And including none other than the company's owner, Jeff Bezos. And if I have to explain to you who he is, I can't help you. Bob, we were talking off air about July 20. July 20 is burned into our memories as the Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Walking on the Moon date in 1969. No small coincidence, I think, that this one was scheduled for July 20.

C: And no small hubris either.

E: Well, I mean, from a purely marketing standpoint, it's brilliant, actually.

C: Is it? Is it?

E: I think so.

C: All right, whatever. He didn't go to the moon.

E: I mean, if you ask anyone what they think about July 20, anyone who is somewhat aware of the Apollo program will know. But in any case, technologically speaking, it's quite an accomplishment. Much the same way we praise the technical achievement of last week's Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic jaunt into space, the Blue Origin flight, and their entire team deserve credit for this feat. Onboard the ship were, in addition to Bezos, his brother, Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer.

C: How much do you love her?

E: Oh, my gosh.

C: Oh, my gosh. She's so cool.

E: She was part of the group of female pilots that formed the Mercury 13. They passed all the same tests that their male colleagues took, but they never sent Funk or her colleagues into space for, I'm sure, several reasons, not the least of which is space was a man's place only at the time.

S: What a lost opportunity that was.

E: Oh, my gosh.

S: NASA blew it. If you watch For All Mankind, a great TV show, they do focus a lot on the Mercury 13 because the whole premise is that the Soviets actually beat America to the moon, and this lights a massive fire under NASA and the space program, and they revisit the whole Mercury 13 thing. Women become a big part of the American space program a lot earlier than they did in the real world.

C: Yeah. And if we can all just take a moment to reflect on Sally Ride's first ride when NASA asked her if 100 tampons would be enough for her week in space.

E: Oh, my gosh.

C: If we can just think about how incredibly out of touch.

B: Wait, what are you talking about? That's real?

C: That's absolutely real.

J: Yeah, Bob, you've never heard that?

B: 100?

C: 100 tampons for one week to be safe.

E: I mean, talk about, talk about. Yeah, well, you're in progress. Also on board was an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands. His name is Oliver Damon. So you had both. This launch set a record for both the oldest and youngest person to fly into space all in the same flight. So that was kind of cool in itself.

B: Out of spice.

C: Spice. You like spice Bob?

E: The flight lasted roughly 11 minutes. And Bezos and everyone went past the Kármán line, the 100 kilometre mark, which is internationally recognized as the boundary of space. And we touched on that a little bit last week as well in the minor controversy surrounding that. So we won't revisit that. Top speed of the vehicle, 2,300 miles, just under 2,300 miles per hour. That's roughly three times the speed of sound. They reached three Gs at their maximum ascent. So they were that's quite a feeling. Three Gs. I can only imagine what that's like. It is, okay, so it's not at all like Branson's plane-like vehicle. This is more traditional rocket. Takes off vertically from the launch pad. It's a shorter, higher speed experience than Branson's Virgin Galactic. And it has the, it's easy to understand. If you watch the video, it doesn't take long. Obviously it's only about 11 minutes. As you're watching it, the nice thing about it is you can understand everything sort of as it happens. There's a capsule placed on top of the rocket booster. It all goes up together. You see them separate. The rocket booster itself then does a controlled landing, which is fascinating unto itself, right back onto the launch pad. The capsule then stays up there for a little while and then starts to come back down, deploys two sets of parachutes. And then at the very, very end, I mean, and we're talking about like the last, I don't know, second or less than a second. The capsule puffs out a little cushion or a pillow of air, as they call it, and gives you the soft landing. So they're going from 16 miles an hour as it's approaching the surface of the planet. I mean, really right to the last fraction of a second where it almost goes to zero and then touches down. So it becomes this nice soft landing. It's really, really cool to have watched this. This capsule I read has the largest windows that have ever flown in space. And that one third of the capsule's interior surface area is windows. So it's definitely, yeah, it's, I mean, one third.

B: Wow.

E: One third. That's a lot. I mean, I would love to see a totally transparent ship or vehicle or something. Yeah, exactly. You know, the Wonder Woman jet kind of idea. That would be cool someday. And some really neat features there, obviously, with space tourism totally in mind here. The seats were really neat. They have extra energy absorption for the landing. You know, they're in this scissor configuration, which absorbs much of the shock as you land. You really get this soft landing. And the system does have a built-in escape system, which some of the prior flights, so this was the 16th time the Blue Origin took off. And some of those prior ones, they specifically tested some of the safety features of the escape system itself on some of those test flights to make sure that it works. So they were touting its safety that comes along with it. You know, even in the worst circumstances, if there are ways to plenty of ways to survive in case something goes horribly wrong. So that sums up the technical part, certainly, of all this. And much of the news, obviously, of the day that it occurred was focused on the technology. But it was also part of the larger, larger conversation about this private space industry and these billionaires sort of taking what is considered to be a luxury ride up into space that only very few privileged people can frankly afford to experience. And the discussions that all circle around that, and a lot of it is legitimate. Those are questions that do need to be asked.

C: Ultimately. I think that's the biggest question that I'm still not satisfied with the answer, that somehow there's going to be a capitalistic downflow to the everyday person by this. Like, a lot of people are likening this unto the space race. That suborbital space tourism is the same as Apollo missions, where regular everyday people were going to space, and where it was funded by taxpayer dollars, and where, of course, there was like a lot of nationalism involved, and a lot of unsavoury kind of Cold War era motivation. But that this is really much, very much feels like a billionaire's game, in the hopes that maybe, like, please, sir, might I have some more? eventually, that somehow something will trickle down. But I don't see the evidence that that's going to happen. I think these guys are just going to get richer off the backs of these industries. I just don't understand the purpose or why everybody thinks that somehow the everyday person who's struggling on the planet will ultimately gain from this, except that we're just supposed to believe that.

E: If you take what they're telling you at face value from the folks at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' team, they are using perhaps some of this money that they are going to be getting from those people who are going to be purchasing those rides to fund their other projects, such as the, oh, it's called New Glenn. New Glenn is a transportation system to space to launch satellites, among other things, bring cargo payload up to space and do some other things like that. Also, they have a project called Blue Moon in which is going to be a lunar lander.

S: So, if you want to look at it optimistically, I mean, I think I agree with all of your criticisms. A lot of people are criticizing these private space tourism endeavours because of how they were funded and how the people made their billions and all that. But if you wanted to be fair and look at the optimistic view, the argument I think goes that this is sort of an early adopter, billionaire phase of a new technology, a new industry. And there are many industries that did get bootstrapped this way where you had wealthy early adopters paying a lot of money at the beginning, but that enabled the industry—

B: Cars, for example.

S: Yeah, cars, commercial jet travel, etc. And that allowed for the industry to develop and then it becomes more part of our everyday life. And it doesn't necessarily have to be specifically suborbital space tourism. It's just that it could be more general, just access to space for other purposes as well. Because this is not just about the tourism. It's also about shifting to a private space industry.

C: Right.

S: Which has worked out the way NASA said they hoped it would be, that there would be competition which would lead to greater efficiency and greater innovation. And the cost of getting a pound of stuff into space, the cost has plummeted under the private industry by orders of magnitude beyond what NASA was able to do. And so it is kind of working in that way. It's hard to predict exactly how that will play out, but I think you can't— I personally am not pessimistic about this piece of it. It may not be an end unto itself, but I think it's part of the bootstrapping of privatization of space, which I think could be a good thing.

C: And I think the hope and optimism that you're talking about and the great technological achievements and these things that we do know that we can get from this and even things as simple as the orbital perspective, none of these are things that I want to knock because I actually do agree with you guys at a fundamental level that this is a beautiful and important aspect of humanity. But I think the question is, is at what cost? I'm not saying the good is not good. What I worry is, is the bad so much worse than the good that the good, is it worth it right now? Is this good a good that we should be celebrating right now? Or is it against such a backdrop of bad and bad by the same actors? That's where I think my trust falters because this isn't NASA doing this and this isn't even a Warren Buffett or somebody who has a proven track record of ethical dealings. These are individuals who I don't trust at a fundamental level because they cheated their way into space.

S: History is replete with assholes who made important contributions to civilization.

E: Carnegies.

C: Yeah, but that doesn't mean we should give them a pass.

S: I'm not giving anybody a pass, but there still might be a good outcome from it.

C: There may be a good outcome, but I do not feel comfortable celebrating this. I think that's where I stand. Let's hope there's a good outcome, but if it were my dollar or if it were my nickel on a poker game or on a craps table and you're saying, where do you want to put your nickel down? Would not be on these guys. That's what I'm saying. Yeah, that's all.

J: I agree with that, definitely. To me, the optics were terrible.

E: And this isn't just anybody. It is Jeff Bezos. He is the wealthiest person by far on the planet.

C: And what did he say, Evan, after he got off the flight?

E: Well, here's the quote. I want to thank everyone. I also want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all this. Seriously, for every Amazon customer out there and every Amazon employee, thank you from the bottom of my heart. That's what he said.

J: He was trying to be nice, but it just shows you how out of touch he is.

C: It just shows how out of touch he is. And that's the part where I'm like, this is the guy making these decisions. I'm scared. I'm scared.

S: All right. Let's move on.

Who's That Noisy? (1:24:58)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:

S: Jay, we've been a couple of weeks without a Who's That Noisy.

C: Oh, it's been a while. Yeah.

E: It has been quiet around this time of the show.

J: All right, guys. Not last week. What was it, Steve? Two weeks ago? Three weeks ago?

S: Four weeks ago.

J: What? Yeah. Four weeks ago, I played This Noisy.


All right, guys. Any guesses?

E: No. I really don't.

C: It's something that's happening close to people, because I hear like a child in the background. I know that's not the important part, but clearly it's happening within earshot of a family.

E: It has a rain stick quality to it.

J: Yeah, you're right. I totally agree with that. All right. Well, Richard Smith wrote in and said, to Who's That Noisy, this week's noisy is from an ice shove, when ice is pushed ashore by currents or wind, sometimes creating large dunes of ice shards that creep inland heedless of man-made obstacles. So I have heard noisies about this before. So I have heard the noisies about this before as a similar kind of sound I definitely can see why you said that's not not correct but definitely a good guess. Another listener named Shane Hillier wrote in and said hey Jay I am I have many guesses but I'll commit to the front of a flash flood in the desert. I thought this one really was provocative I don't know I know that flash floods could happen in the desert I've never heard the sound I don't know if it has a water sound to me.

C: Is that like when the water hits the dry sand what he's saying before it gets wet?

J: Yeah I think so I think it's kind of like water shuffling on top of the sand. You're hearing it kind of scuttle along the top of the sand. But I'm not sure, I'd have to do some research to hear that sound I just couldn't couldn't find anything quickly with the time I had. That is also incorrect. Michael Blaney wrote in and said hi Jay it's really it really just sounds like a bunch of horses to me so I'm going to flip the common wisdom on its head and when I hear hooves I'm going to guess zebras. And it's not correct but definitely not the only person that guessed some type of horse related noise like the hooves and I could kind of see that as well. We had another guest here saying this is Mark and he said hi Jay long time listener and second time guesser is it a strand beast by any chance? Love the show, thanks folks. Strand beast, you guys know what that is?

E: Is it from Harry Potter universe or something?

J: So it's a construct. Somebody made this thing that is powered by the wind on the beach that walks via the power of the wind. So the wind pushes it and then it turns, it makes the legs, it has tons of legs. And it's kind of like rolling on these multitude of legs as the wind blows it. So it's propelled by the wind and the legs turn around and kind of make the thing walk. Very cool just look up strand beast B-E-E-S-T and you'll be able to see this thing that somebody built very cool little invention somebody made. No winner guys. Nobody guessed it. Nobody guessed it. So this sound, not by coincidence, is lava. I'll play it again but just imagine lava that's flowing but the outer portion of it has been cooling and as the lava is pushing on the inside it's kind of rolling on top of and dropping pieces of like the recently cooled lava rock right so the lava rock is like tumbling on top of itself can you visualize that? Listen again.


And those are people that are standing near the lava that are watching it as it slowly creeps along. So if you just had a stick that you could poke into it you'd poke right in and there'd be orange lava in there. Super hot, can't get close, I'm sure it's emitting very dangerous gases. But very cool. Very very very cool. This was sent in by Leslie Longhurst. This was a volcano in Iceland. I think it's pretty recent. So you can go and look on YouTube you can find I'm sure I've seen I saw a bunch of videos about this. Very very cool, cool interesting noise. Thank you for that.

New Noisy (1:29:12)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy this week. This may very well be the shortest noisy I ever play so I'll play it a few times and of course I just want you to identify what this is.


Let's play it again.

E: That's it?

J: Yep. [plays Noisy] This is one of those noisies that you either know it or you don't. But if you think you know what this noisy is or you've heard something cool over the last few weeks, don't hold out on me. Email me at

Announcements (1:29:42)[edit]

J: Guys we are as you hear this it'll be less than two weeks before NECSS arrives. So it's August 6th and August 7th we have so much to give you guys. Please go to, you could check out all the details on who's going to be speaking and that's where you could go to register. Thanks, we really are looking forward to it and guys. Please please do show your support and join us.

S: Yeah so we're also doing our first extravaganza since the pandemic. Our last one was in the end of January in 2020 so it's be more than a year and a half. We're doing one in Denver but we decided to try to do one in Atlanta since you know most of us are going to be there. However this is a bit of an experiment. We're still in the middle of the pandemic even though a lot of people now are vaccinated etc. And we're not sure exactly how willing people would be to open up and how many people are going to be even going to Atlanta. But we thought we would try to schedule our debut post pandemic or post onset of the pandemic extravaganza. However we're not booking very many tickets, which is not surprising, but we're not even getting to the minimal number that we need in order to cover the cost of the venue. So this is what we're going to do. Essentially we have one week to sell enough tickets in order to run the extravaganza in Atlanta and if we don't the promoter is going to cancel it. That's the bottom line. It's kind of out of our hands at that point. So if you are going to be in Atlanta or if you want to go to the extravaganza book your ticket as soon as you hear the show. Basically you have to do it before July 30th. If we get to the threshold then great then we'll do the extravaganza. If we don't book enough tickets then the promoter is going to cancel it at that point and then of course everybody will be refunded. There's no risk to doing this whatsoever so don't worry about. We hope that maybe people were waiting to see, or thought they would just get their tickets at the door. Well unfortunately we're not going to be able to do that because we haven't met the minimum requirements. So hopefully enough people will want to go that we'll be able to do the show. We were really looking forward to it. And you have until July 30th to get your ticket for the Atlanta extravaganza which is on Sunday September 5th at 6 p.m. in Atlanta, Georgia.

J: Right, and also conversely the Denver extravaganza that we're doing on November 18th, that's almost sold out, there's still some tickets left. So you could go to the events page as well if you want to book that. That's going to be at the Science Museum in Denver we're super psyched about that.

S: All right guys, let's go on to science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:32:27)[edit]

Item #1: A systematic review finds that elite athletes overall have a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population, by about 4 years in men and 2 years in women.[5]
Item #2: A recent study finds that elite runners spend more time in the air and less in contact with the ground than their equally trained but non-elite controls.[6]
Item #3: Not only do elite athletes have a higher concentration of mitochondria than the general population, their individual mitochondria are more efficient, producing 25% more energy.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Life expectancy
Science Runners
More efficient mitochondria
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
More efficient mitochondria
More efficient mitochondria
Life expectancy
Life expectancy

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. We have a theme this week kind of because of the Olympics coming up. The theme is elite athletes. All right here we go item number one, a systematic review finds that elite athletes overall have a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population about by about four years in men and two years in women. Item number two, a recent study finds that elite runners spend more time in the air and less in contact with the ground then they're equally trained but non elite controls. And item number three, not only do elite athletes have a higher concentration of mitochondria than the general population, their individual mitochondria are more efficient producing 25% more energy. Jay, you've been gone for a while so you get to go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Okay so the first one about elite athletes having a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population by about four years in men and two years in women. Wow. So I don't know, I could see football players as elite athletes. They damage their bodies to such a degree that they might be shortening their life expectancy, head injuries and everything but in general elite athletes-

S: So I'll say this includes across many sports.

J: Yeah, yeah. Just everything. All the athletes. We're talking about people who are in incredible shape while they're while they're in peak form but who knows what they do with the rest of their life. All right so let me just put that one as a maybe. Let's go down the second one here. This one is the recent study finds that elite runners spend more time in the air and less in contact with the ground then they're equally trained but non elite controls. Interesting. Interesting. I'm visualizing a runner running and just thinking the amount of time your leg is up versus when your foot is in contact. That's a really cool thing to think about. I bet you that science. And then the last one here, not only do elite athletes have a higher concentration of mitochondria than the general population, their individual mitochondria are more efficient producing 25% more energy. What? I don't know about that. That's huge. 25%, I'm gonna say that one's a fiction.

S: Okay Evan. Evan coming off a solo win, right?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Oh yeah, that's right. Adding pressure to me Steve.

S: I throw you off your game a little bit.

E: All right the first one elite athletes overall have a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population by about four years in men and two years in women. Okay. Must be stress on the organs to some degree? Although it's supposed to make the organs in a way stronger. Certainly the heart. But that could lead to there are other things that come along with being an athlete. If your head gets knocked around for instance you're gonna have problems later in life. Your joints start to give out and that could create other problems in which you can't exercise. Say your heart later in life and then maybe that has an impact on lifespan. So the second one about the runners spending more time in the air and less contact with the ground than equally trained but non-elite controls seems on the surface to be bunk. However and I can't speak to any expertise on this. They've looked at the science of running quite a bit and have I'm sure analysed the proper methods and techniques to use when running and I imagine that through the learning of the best techniques this winds up being the result. Is that technically they do spend more time in the air. So I have a feeling that one's right. I'll agree with Jay, I think the last one here about the higher concentration of midichlorians, I mean mitochondria than the general population producing 25% more energy. What? It gets down to that level? To the cellular, subcellular level. To that, you can train that to be the case. That just seems implausible. So I'll agree with Jay that one just doesn't sound right at all.

S: Okay Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I disagree with you guys.

E: All right.

C: I mean I know for a fact that Lance Armstrong has a higher quantity of mitochondria. I remember those being big studies that specifically Lance Armstrong, granted, we now know he was juicing too. But I think you said something interesting Evan because you said how could training do that. But do we know that elite athletes by and large would have been normal every day and they train themselves to the elite level, or is there something fundamental about their biology that made them go into athletics and continue that journey and that path. And I think it's probably a little bit of both. There probably is something where they could train into. Maybe a more efficient mitochondria but maybe they just naturally had more. I don't know, this one seems realistic to me. I think as we start to do more and more comparisons we'll start to see more and more biological differences between elite athletes and everyday Joe Schmoes. No matter how hard I work out I ain't never gonna be jumping over hurdles the way they do. For me it was between that one and the reduced life expectancy. Yeah, I think the elite runners one is fine. The reduced life expectancy one I feel like it could go either way. Maybe they beat themselves up but honestly they're probably by and large if you looked at every single sport, they're just more healthy. I think they just eat better, they exercise more. When we look at most of the recommendations of how to live a longer, healthier life it's that you get a high level of intensive exercise regularly. And these people do that. It's their job to do that. So to me it just seems like of course they're going to have a higher life expectancy and all the different types of Olympic sports out there are going to outweigh the handful of football and the things where the head injuries would maybe bring the life expectancy down. So I'm going to say that one is the fiction. I think they have an increased life expectancy.

S: All right, and Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: I guess I could buy the mitochondria potentially. 25 seems like a lot and it even seems like a lot for just natural variation but the other ones are problematic as well. I keep thinking for the elite runners I keep thinking that you don't want to spend more time in the air because you're not really accelerating when you're in the air. You're accelerating when you're pushing off the ground. So I think you would be at a disadvantage of spending more time in the air. I just can't get that out of my head. I could be wrong but it just makes sense to me. The reduced life expectancy, that doesn't make any sense at all. And I know that the better shape you're in does not mean that you're going to live a lot longer. It's your quality of life it's going to be vastly improved, generally, for the last decade of your life. But this is saying it's reduced. I don't know, maybe what do they find that there's some kind of reaction like after your peak years, your athletic years are done you just rebel and just like eat like pizza every goddamn night. And don't work out anymore, you're like saying screw that lifestyle.

C: I hope that's exactly what Steve's gonna tell us at the end.

B: So for me it's between the elite athletes reduced life expectancy and these elite runners. Screw it. I'm going with one, reduced life expectancy. Fiction.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: So that means we'll start with number two. A recent study finds that elite runners spend more time in the air and less in contact with the ground than their equally trained but non-elite controls. You all think this one is science. What I like about these all these items is that they could really you could make an argument either way, right? You could make an argument either way. That's why they're studied because it's not really completely obvious which way the answer would go. So this one is science. It's very interesting.

B: They do though, huh? More time in the air?

S: So one of the big advantages in being an elite runner. So when we say elite athletes you have to remember these are like world champions. They're in the top tier of athletes out of like almost eight billion people.

B: It's like top five or ten in their field.

S: Not necessarily that much but even if you're in the top hundred of your field out of, with billions of people on the planet that is just, you have to have everything going your way. You're definitely pushing the limits of human training and ability and talent. So what they found was that in running it's a huge advantage to have very springy legs because what you're doing is you're recapturing the gravitational you know energy when you hit the ground. You absorb the energy and then you release that energy again when you spring up.

B: Kangarooing it.

S: The really fast runners, their legs are like pogo sticks. Imagine running on two pogo sticks and if you looked at the para-athletes who have the-

E: Oh, the blades.

S: The blades, yeah. That's what's happening, there it's the spring, right? So it's all about the efficiency of recapturing that energy. So they said the elite runners it's not just a matter of training they're just physiologically, they had much more springy tendons and they were much more efficiently recaptured and then that energy and so they were spending less time on the ground because it was a very fast springing kind of step that they had. So their running was essentially more efficient and the end result of that was they were spending less time in contact with the ground because they were springing very quickly.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Okay, let's go back to number one. A systematic review finds that elite athletes overall have a reduced life expectancy compared to the general population, by about 4 years in men and 2 years in women. Bob and Cara, you think this one is a fiction. Jay and Evan, you think this one is the science. This one's interesting because I was reading the study I didn't know what the answer was, right? I'm just reading the methods and everything let's get to the results and you could make an argument either way because elite athletes don't train to optimal health. They train to maximize performance.

C: They could be wearing themselves out for sure.

E:' They want the outcome.

J: That makes a lot of sense.

S: Cara, you talked about runners. Have you seen runners? A lot of them are painfully thin.


C: But we have to look all the athletes.

S: I know. So you have the sports that are very damaging. You have sports that require very low body fat and if you look at just overall statistics people who are slightly overweight actually live longer than people who have no body fat. But at the same time they have so much endurance training that should be good for them. So it was really a question as to which way it would shake out? So this is how it shook out. This one is the fiction.

C: Yes!

S: Because the meta-analysis of lots of studies looking at hundreds of thousands of athletes collectively in this data, they didn't give one number to it because they went sport by sport. But all of these studies showed an increased life expectancy.

B: Makes sense.

S: It's not a huge factor but in general they had an extended life expectancy over the general population. So the conditioning wins out over any punishment they might be doing to their body.

B: Yeah, it makes sense.

S: If i said it the other way you could make it make sense the other way too but this is what it's-

B: It's would have been a surprise.

S: It was a huge meta-analysis so it's a lot of data.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right all this means that not only do elite athletes have a higher concentration of mitochondria than the general population, their individual mitochondria are more efficient producing 25 percent more energy is science.

B: Wow, that's awesome.

S: This is amazing. I was surprised by this.

E: Some people are born to be elite athletes?

S: Well so that is the question. So that is the question is this born or trained? So the number of mitochondria are clearly trained, when you train your myocytes, your muscle cells produce more mitochondria and just the density of kind of mitochondria per cell increases. Because the mitochondria are the energy factories of your cells you need to make more energy, so therefore you develop more mitochondria.

B: Yes, endosymbiosis, thank you.

S: One of the factors of conditioning when your endurance goes up it's because you literally have more mitochondria in your body. But what they want to know is what let's look at the individual mitochondria you may be surprised to find, I wasn't because I know this from just my medical background that there's actually quite a big difference in mitochondria from different people. There's a genetic range of efficiency of mitochondria. You get to the point where it's like a disease state where they have really inefficient mitochondria. They're just like cranking out oxidative chemicals and they could be so inefficient that they are actually a disorder. So they found that yeah, if they looked at the the mitochondria and the myocytes of elite athletes their individual mitochondria are putting out 25% more energy than a than a typical mitochondria. And they had that very question. Are they elite athletes, are they elite because they have this genetically superior mitochondria or did they actually condition their mitochondria to be more efficient. That's a very interesting question. This study did not definitively answer it but there is there is a suggestion that it may be trained because the mitochondria in the muscles that were used by their sport have more efficiency than the mitochondria in the muscles not used in their sport. And so that suggests that there is a training component.

B: Nice.

S: It's that fascinating.

J: That is really cool. Well, start exercising people.

S: Exercise is good for you.

C: Start playing sports.

B: It is. If there was a if they had a drug, I'll never forget Covert Bailey in his books years ago is like, if they could reproduce what training and exercise does in a pill it'd be the most prescribed pill in the world. There's so many benefits. Pages and pages and pages of benefits from exercise.

S: That's true.

B: Start moving people. Do resistance and weight training. And if you have an extra time maybe even a little stretching. Which something I've ignored.

C: And some cardio, throw in some cardio.

B: No no, I said cardio and weight, didn't I?

C: No you said resistance.

S: Cardio, resistance. Stretching you've got to be careful. The evidence on stretching is mixed. You actually can increase your risk of injury if you overstretch before you do engage in a sport or exercise because you're not protecting your joints as well.

C: But make it the actual exercise. If you can do like a yoga class once a week or something like that, a stretching class where that is what your exercise is that day. I think over time that's actually quite protective of joint injury.

S: Yeah, but being flexible is protective. You're absolutely right. Just don't overstretch right before a huge physical exertion is this kind of the caution

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:48:53)[edit]

When people don’t search for scientific evidence for things, they find a very compelling, convincing person with a very sympathetic story and think they must be right. They’re convinced that this is true. But it’s not true. You need to be able to question it. If people aren’t conversant in science, they mightn’t ask those questions.
– Aoife McLysaght, Professor in the Molecular Evolution Laboratory of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics, University of Dublin, Ireland

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

E: "When people don’t search for scientific evidence for things, they find a very compelling, convincing person with a very sympathetic story and think they must be right. They’re convinced that this is true. But it’s not true. You need to be able to question it. If people aren’t conversant in science, they mightn’t ask those questions." And that was said by Aoife McLysaght who is a professor in the molecular evolution laboratory of the Smurfit Institute of Genetics at the University of Dublin, Ireland.

S: The smurf institute?

E: Smurfit. S-M-U-R-F-I-T, the Smurfit Institute of Genetics.

C: Iss that why he said mightn't?

E: Yes.

C: Is that an Irish thing?

E: That is mightn't m-i-g-h-t-n apostrophe t. She's a science communicator among other things. Obviously genetics is her specialty, I've seen YouTube videos of her talking to kids, teaching them about genetics and science and she's engaging. Fascinating, the amount of information that she's able to convey at a very very consumable level. Really really great. She does a great job.

S: Yeah and this is very relevant to what we're talking about at the top of the show about the illusion of knowledge. Absolutely. All right guys, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it brother.

B: Sure man.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thank you Steve.

J: It's good to be back.

S: Yep, welcome back Jay.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

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