SGU Episode 865

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SGU Episode 865
February 5th 2022
865 Tesla Bot.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 864                      SGU 866

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Officials, educators, media personalities, and opinion makers must do everything they can to educate the public, assuage people’s fears, and show that the pandemic is being handled fairly and rationally. Lives and people's well-being are at stake, for years to come.

Nidhal Guessoum, Algerian astrophysicist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 2nd, 2022 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: Well it's Groundhog's Day again.

S: Groundhog's Day? Yep it's 2 two two zero two two.

E: And numerologists heads are exploding all over the planet.

S: Yeah February 22nd will be the next date where it's all 2s and then I think that's the last time that happens this century, right?

E: Until the year 2202, so 20 000 years from now.

J: I didn't see any weirdness about it which was good, you know you figured somebody would have said something stupid.

S: Yeah it's true I even didn't, didn't know it was Groundhog's Day until Evan mentioned it right before.

E: You forgot?

C: So I have to tell you guys something fun that happened the other day.

E: Oh OK.

C: And by the other day I actually mean it happened in December and I've been trying to remember to tell you every week and every week I forget. So I'm very excited now. This past December I went to Vegas with a friend who is a physician and we attended a conference that was put on by the City of Hope here in Los Angeles about end-of-life stuff. Also went and gambled in between sessions and by the way here's my advice if you got to stay in Vegas stay in a hotel that doesn't have a casino it was so nice.

E: They have those?

C: Yeah the Waldorf doesn't have, I mean it's too expensive the only reason I was there because we had block deals for the conference but yeah no casino so no cigarette smoke no nothing like very clean, very nice.

B: Also no gambling.

C: No noise yeah but you just walk to the casino next door.

B: That's true.

C: Leave that behind. Anyway so we decided to go someplace off strip and we, we called it a Lyft and the Lyft picked us up we're in the lift we're talking talking talking in the back seat like you do, fully masked you know because this is height of the pandemic and the Lyft driver goes "Are you Cara Santa Maria?" and I was like yeees.

E: Maybe.

C: And he was like "I listen to you all the time on the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe" (laughs) and he recognized me by my voice because─

B: Wow.

C: I know he couldn't have seen my face I was like wearing a black mask and a black, it was cold too so I was wearing like a beanie and a─

E: All bundled up, yeah.

C: ─puffy jacket and stuff yeah and he─

B: Wow.

C: He could hear my voice and.

B: Is that what he said tell me all about Bob?

C: (laughs) He did I forgot about that Bob yes he did he did, he asked for a lock of your hair.

B: That's amazing though you're just your voice.

J: Did it creep you out at all?

C: No I loved it the guy was so sweet I asked him like what Vegas was like, he told me his whole story, he definitely was working in a in a kind of skeptic-y kind of a field you know, was kind of answering all my questions about what it's like being a local in Vegas, that must be kind of an interesting phenomenon right? Vegas is one of those cool cities where the population is relatively low but the floating population is very high.

S: Yeah the tourist population's high.

C: It's huge yeah and so just kind of what it's like being an insider in Vegas and everything and he was super sweet so shout out to Jonathan my Lyft driver.

E: Hey Joe.

C: Hopefully you're listening right now. You were very nice.

J: He's gonna drive off the road Cara.


S: We've all been recognized you know a couple of times, out in the wild you know, like not associated with a skeptical event or something where people are coming to see us but just like in the general po, gen pop you know and it's usually my voice.

B: Gen pop (laughs)

C: It's weird when it's by voice.

S: Because you think about it, you're you're more likely to attract attention that way, you know people will hear you know you hear a voice you recognize in an airport or a lobby or whatever.

B: Or a horror convention.

S: Yeah.

E: Especially when our medium is an audio based medium so.

C: But it's weird that sometimes they they say a lot like I didn't know what you looked like, so so for the vocal recognition to overpower any lack of visual recognition, is just that much more powerful.

E: Oh I could easily identify people if they were in the room just from their if they were radio personalities from you know─

C: Really?

E: ─from past 20 or 30 years absolutely I feel I could recognize them and pick them out of a crowd.

S: But think how much more weird that must be for them than for us right, so imagine you're a Lyft driver and you hear a voice you recognize. Yeah that that's, it's a much less likely event for them.

E: Right.

S: I so the first time that happened was in an airport you know, and it wasn't associated with it, it was like a vacation or something, there was no skeptical event and just some random person walked up to say "Are you Stephen Novella?". So I calculated what the odds of that would be, and it was it was very high because you think about the number of listeners we have versus the number of people in the country. You know it's order of magnitude about every 3 000 people you know there should be somebody in there who listens to us. And so I was in an airport with you know several thousand people someone in there probably was a listener of the show. So it wasn't that that big of a coincidence you know.

C: But being paired up with a with a driver.

S: That driver's a little bit more yeah.

C: Yeah that's that's funny.

S: Are you a, Cara you are but are you happy that this is a rare event or like how?

C: Oh for sure. I there there have been times in my life where I got recognized more often when I was on like bigger tv shows and actively on them. And I mean it never was huge I was always very lucky it was like minimal. And there have been times when I've been recognized for you know the podcast and for other work that I've done. But of course I've dated people and I've had dear friends in my life who have quite a bit of success and it's annoying to them. Like I feel kind of bad for them. I think there's a part of it that's exciting but there's also a part of it where they struggle to have privacy. Like they have to think about what they look like every time they leave the house. And they have to you know there have definitely been times when I've been out at dinner with somebody and people just walk up to the table and start talking to them and they're like "thank you so much but like i'm on a date".

J: Yeah sure.

B: Oh yeah.

C: You know can you give us a privacy?

E: Yeah.

S: Right.

C: That must be tough you know and even those people would say I'm lucky I don't have paparazzi waiting in my driveway for me to leave my house.

S: Yeah, there's different levels of fame, yeah.

E: That's right.

B: Yeah the upper levels.

C: Like I just get a good table at every restaurant but I don't have people like you know hounding me all the time.

B: Yeah there are certain levels that must be like totally life-changing, absolutely life-changing whether you can't go out in public and you you know you always have to think of you know boy what's going to happen today with the paparazzi. What are you, what are they going to you know they're going to catch me picking my nose in public again? Or or something worse far worse these poor people that are caught you know, getting out of a car I mean this is like oh come on really?

C: But not all of them are that's the other sad thing. Some people are famous because of something that happened to them because of a court case they were involved in right because.

S: Yeah this is you know part of a bigger issue of just privacy in general, just for regular citizens you know let alone you know the people who are famous. And we may have to figure out ways to carve out islands of privacy you know in the otherwise social media you know constant you know life where we at any point somebody could be filming us or taking our picture recording us or whatever.

B: It's just going to get, it's just going to get worse.

S: It's going to get worse.

B: Yeah imagine when there if there's when there's you know quintillions of particles of smart dust floating─

E: Oh forget it. Right, exactly.

B: ─everywhere each one is like a high-res video camera it could be anywhere.

C: Oh god stop.

E: You'll be breathing cameras into yourself.

C: You're so good at describing the most like dystopic scenarios.

B: Oh I got lots of them here's Bob's you-ula.

J: Cara, Bob likes it.

C: I know. It's utopic to him.

E: It's the Brave New World, right?

B: Yeah, yeah the tech is awesome but some of the downstream effects I'm sure won't be. But many of them will be, double-edged sword.

Quickie with Bob: Flubber (7:57)[edit]

S: All right Bob you're actually going to start us off with a Quickie with Bob, and this Quickie I'm going to tell you what it's about because you stole my one of my science or fiction items.

E: Good, we'll only have two items to guess from tonight.

S: And you just tell me, tell me until right at the beginning of the show you were, you were late in telling me your topic for this so you're gonna tell us.

B: So now you're gonna...

S: I'm gonna, I'm gonna steal your thunder I'm gonna say you are gonna tell us about scientists who basically invented flubber.

E: Fiction.

B: Yes thank you Steve I knew you had your eye on me this this is your Quickie with Bob now gird your loins this one is cool.

C: Ugh.

B: That's an expression I don't know. That's a great expression.

C: What does gird mean, what does that verb mean?

E: You look at your loins and you're like grrrrd.

B: It's only you know it's only used in the context of gird your loins as far as I can tell.

C: I'm looking it up.

B: And I love it, please do. Okay while you do that, so teams a team of researchers from the university of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a new meta material, my third favorite material in the world, with properties not seen in nature. Which is kind of what meta materials are. So researchers compare it to a rubber band for example, a rubber band that you know, you can fling it across the room right? You pull it back you let go and you fling it across the room. But this one if you go with this analogy, this one if you stretch it past a certain point before letting it go it flies for a mile. So that gives you an example of kind of what they're talking about in a way. It's an elastic material with magnets embedded in it. It's elastomagnetic material that harnesses the energy released by phase shifts. Now think back 11th</supe>, 11<supe>th grade physics. Phase shifts like when liquid turns into a gas, water turns into steam, releases energy right, there's a lot of energy that can be released in these types of phase shifts. Now there are some phase shifts though that happen when you go from one solid phase to another solid phase and but you still have this energy that's released. Now this phase energy if you will can be released or absorbed and the magnets can control when that happens. So what this could do then is this met- this elastomeric meta material can do then is allow a large amount of energy to be absorbed or it can be released quickly, very quickly for an explosive movement. So yes this is the path to a black panther suit. Clearly, because his suit if you remember the movie had two of those, had both of those properties but I'm sure they were you know well whatever. So until until that happens we may see it in robots to give them more power─

E: Oh yeah.

B: ─using it without using additional energy, conventional energy anyway. We'll see it in helmets and other protective materials which would be able to dissipate a lot of energy very quickly. So I have to keep this under a minute which I think I blew past. So now Cara loins ungirded this has been your Quickie with Bob I hope it was good for.

C: Bleh, it took on a whole new meeting with the girding and ungirding.

B: Yes it it seems especially good for this Quickie with Bob so I may keep it.

E: So the magnets retain the energy and you it can be released upon a trigger happening is that?

S: No the magnets are more about controlling the the the phase shift, the phase shift is what stores the energy so a phase shift is like going from liquid to ice you know but it could also be one state of matter to another state of matter and if one and if one of those states one of the configurations requires is a much greater higher energy state when you shift from the low energy state to the high energy state you absorb all that energy that's now being stored in the higher energy state. And if you go back it releases all of that energy so it's a you know it's a rapid energy storing system but that also because it's like a rubbery material it could be used as Bob said for armor or the soles of your shield so that you could dunk baskets.

B: Meta materials are endlessly fascinating because when because when you when you describe a material by invariably, this is a material that is not found in nature I mean it is do when you pattern things at the at the nano scale like like this like like they're doing with typical meta materials, it is amazing what they're accomplishing and I, I cannot wait to see you know what what other new materials are are coming out. It's it's like never ending there's like one new meta material after another. I've read about another one just today that the description of it was electro momentum, look it up, I mean it's just so fascinating and this is one that I just wouldn't have even imagined electro you know elastomagnetic meta material. Incredible. And and harnessing phase that you know the energy released by a phase change, my god, incredible. I think we're just scratching the surface with just with this specific meta material. Who knows where this could go.

Random Asides about English Words (12:44)[edit]

S: Bob I want you to imagine doing the following things let's say you're wearing a tunic that goes down to your ankles. You pick up the bottom of your tunic pull all the fabric above your knees.

B: Yep.

S: Now gather all the material in front of you right. So it's tight around your bottom but all the extra material is in front of you. Bring that material down between your legs to your backside.

B: Gotcha.

S: Then you grab each you know sort of half of the material bring it around to the front and tie a knot in it.

B: OK.

S: You have now girded your loins.

C: (laughs)

B: Nice.

C: Exactly, yeah, to encircle or bind and secure and yeah it has translated into we're girding for battle we're getting ready to action.

S: Yeah you couldn't fight or work with tunic going down to your ankles you had to gird your loins before you could go into battle.

C: And of course yeah what about the word girdle, yeah similar.

B: There you go there you go.

C: Also such a gross word. Girdle.

S: My girdle.

E: Girdle the turtle.

S: Girdle the turtle.

B: Is there, Steve and Cara, I haven't looked it up is there another give me a use of the word gird that that's you know that's viable.

C: Yeah I need to gird my sword to secure it with yeah.

B: It makes sense but nobody says it I, I think it's one of those words that really only remains in this one expression in English, gird your loins, otherwise.

S: The first definition is encircle a person or part of the body with a belt or band.

C: But interestingly Merriam-Webster actually lists that as the second definition and their first definition is to prepare yourself for action.

B: Yes that's it.

C: So they sort of seeing this as sort of Bob's way.

B: Yeah that's one of those words that just it's one of those words that when you think about it you're like yeah, I know this word it's in this expression I know it very well I've known it for decades. But that word is not used anywhere else. It's a remnant.

S: So like fell, like one fell swoop do you ever use the term fell as in one fell swoop in any other context?

B: Yeah.

S: You could.

C: Or like or like home in on or like a homing pigeon those are the only references you ever use the word home. But I guess it's more specific there I don't know. My favorite is once I had a friend ask me Cara define the word such and I was just stumped, couldn't do it.

J: I can't do it.

E: Such...

B: Wow it's a good one.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah.

E: What part of speech is "such".

S: It's a and such.

J: Like similar to it was like.

C: The first definition in Merriam-Webster is "of a character of a kind or character to be indicated or suggested", what?

S: Yeah it's a weird, it's a weird one.

B: That must be a very hard word to learn, when you're learning English, how to use that word properly.

E: Or pronounce it, they all say suck.

C: I bet you interestingly I bet you a lot of people for whom English is not their first language unless they really are fluent they probably just don't use it because it's not really necessary.

S: Well I mean but there's something like if you say oh he is such a jerk how would you say that without?

C: He's a total jerk.

S: He's a yeah.

C: Yeah he is the jerkiest of all jerks. I think there are ways to work around it.

S: Yeah yeah.

B: There's a lot of ways, to of ways.

C: It's kind of like in Spanish if you don't know the if you can't conjugate in the future tense, you can just say "voy a" like "I'm going to". Just put that before everything and it's a crutch─

B: Voy a hablar conmigo.

C: ─and you see that a lot with people for whom English is not their first language they might use the same tense over and over because it's like why do I need to learn all these tenses I can just speak in the present tense.

S: I'm liking this very much.

C: Exactly, yeah right that's a function of language learning.

News Items[edit]

Machine Learning and Mental Health (16:32)[edit]

S: All right well Cara you're going to start us off with the use of machine learning and mental health.

C: Yes and spoiler alert─

B: Got my attention.

C: ─someone named Dr Steven Novella wrote about this today on Science-Based Medicine

B: Oh he's a punk.

C: I really like this story because it's not really about the background, I'll give you the background, it'll be quick and dirty. But really it's about it's, it's about the conversation that it opens up. So long story short a researcher from MIT and a researcher from Master General one of whom is a computer scientist or really an AI researcher who focuses on machine learning. The other of whom is a mental health researcher, you know behavioral health. Decided to join forces and try and see what happens when we collect data about mental illness and specifically they were looking at depressive disorders. Let's see what happens when we collect a whole bunch of data, about depressive disorders and feed it into a machine learning algorithm. And so we know that machine learning is like a kind of a sub type of, AI in which, and we talk about machine learning on the show all the time. We've actually dug really deep into the mechanisms of machine learning before on the show. Although it is to some extent still a black box. But the idea here is if you feed a machine learning program a bunch of information, like real world data it will then be able to categorize sort and start to make determinations based on that data. And like I said it's a bit of a black box we don't really know what the algorithm they're using are because it it's iterative. Or I should say recursive?

S: It's, it's both but yeah yeah, it was recursive because the other layer I would add there for this kind of machine learning is that there had the the program has to make some kind of determination.

C: Yeah.

S: And and then gets feedback, like it knows if it's correct or not. And that's.

C: Right right there has to be an external sort of validation to that.

S: Yeah, there's got to be some feedback, yeah.

C: Yeah and so the idea here is okay what are the determinants of a depression diagnosis. So some self-report stuff some assessment information and then also like what are some behaviors that are associated with depression. So they were looking at things like wearables which I mean we're going to talk about that in a second but they're looking at things like heart rate and skin conductance and blah blah and sleep and and activity level. But they were also like data mining with texts which I think is probably honestly the number one piece of data that's the most predictive. And and the self-report surveys of the individual saying you know this is how I feel you know let me rate my symptoms x to y. And then the idea is with external validation they wanted to first say okay does this comport with clinical diagnoses. I think that's like in in many ways the first step, right? Like does this work? Well we have to know and we need to externally validate it well what's the way to do that if these people sit down with a clinician is that clinician going to diagnose them with you know x disorder. People love to talk about this in a really saccharine way and say oh it could be great, it could be you know, it could blow the cover off of access to mental health treatment. And to some extent I feel very very hopeful about the democratization of the sort of "new self-help movement" I think because the "new self-help movement" in mental health is much more evidence-based. But there's always room for for quack technology and and and quack not technology but quack utilizations of the technology. And when I make that statement I want to caveat it. We are living in a culture and a society that is more obviously, has more access to to tools online than ever before. And a lot of mental health treatment is actually psycho-education. It's about learning about what a disorder is learning cognitive behavioral interventions tools and tricks to help understand our thought disturbances, and our thought distortions. And help correct some of these things that's not all of mental health treatment but it's an important part. And so whereas in the past, and still to a huge extent today, sadly people would think oh I want to better myself I'm going to read some like Tony Robbins. Now people do have access to reading legitimate literature about mental illness and they have access to evidence-based apps and evidence-based workbooks. Manuals that are used within mental health treatment. The problem is they're not guided by a clinician.

I think there's multiple things that are important to tease out here. The first one being and it's it's something that I don't think has been pointed too much in in the coverage of this, is that there's a big difference between having a diagnosable mental illness and experiencing "typical symptoms". Like there's a difference between having major depressive disorder and sometimes being depressed. And that difference is somewhat arbitrary because it's a construct right? It was invented by people but those people have all kind of come together to agree and publish standards. Those standards are constantly in flux but for the most part they publish standards about you know, these are the the sort of qualifications for somebody to have a diagnosable mental illness and maybe they need medication management or therapeutic management. Versus you know sometimes I get sad. And I think there's also a difference in how you approach the sometimes I get sads with the this is clinical depression that is interfering with this person's ability to function and potentially there are some like concerns around suicidality or concerns around you know really terrible dangerous outcomes. And and I think making that distinction is important when we talk about the use of these technologies in the future. And I think sometimes sadly they get lost in the shuffle. People love to talk about oh maybe you could send an alert you know their smart watch could send an alert to their physician to tell them that they're potentially suicidal. And I'm like first of all I don't I don't know if that's ever gonna happen. Maybe. But second of all that's a very different utilization of this technology than indicating to you you're feeling low maybe it's time to go on a walk.

S: Yeah there's definitely different levels there but it's sort of all the same idea that it's going to gather data, look for patterns, correlating your behaviors with your mood either self-reported or evaluated by your physician. And then when it starts to see the same pattern of behaviors happening again it tells you hey you're slipping into the same pattern maybe you should sleep more. Or get some more physical exercise get out of the house you know or whatever. But that is would would have to that's beyond the scope of the development of this technology.

C: For sure that's all in the discussion section.

S: Yeah now you're getting into clinical trials of applying this technology. Then again when I wrote about it as of my main fear is I mean the technology will work it will do what it's supposed to do. I mean these AI algorithms are way more powerful than need to be for something like this.

C: Yeah we know this from marketing data right like yeah like Facebook knows more about me in some, in some ways than I know about myself.

B: Yeah.

C: Like they know what I want to buy they know what I'm gonna click on just based on my patterns that I've never taken the time to introspect about and that's sort of what we're talking about.

S: That's kind of a deeper question of how predictable are humans. We like to think that we're all individual snowflakes (laughter) but psychological research is kind of based on the idea that people kind of do the same thing. At least 60-70% you know what I mean, like it's not never 100% but you can.

B: It's not a coin flip but yeah.

E: There are patterns that can be determined sure.

C: Yeah and a social social psychologist, you know think think Kahneman think these different researchers who have you know kind of joined this idea of economics with psychology. Yeah we can predict behavior pretty pretty well. You're right some people are going to be on the tails of that normal curve but, yeah, but there's a normal curve.

S: Yeah, but there's a normal curve. We're not all over the place. Richard Wiseman talks about this all the time that's what he researches his interest is in looking at how to predict how people will behave with very specific stimuli.

E: Isn't that what like mentalism is practically about?

'S: Yes, yes absolutely.

C: For sure.

S: Mentalism wouldn't work if people were unpredictable, magic wouldn't work if people weren't predictable you know absolutely. So it's partly based on that premise, that people are going to be fairly predictable although this could theoretically also individualize the basic pattern you know, it's looking for your patterns not just the patterns of depression.

C: Right.

S: But then figuring out how to use, it's going to be the tricky part. And you know it could be they they talked about in the article recommending changes but that could be flipping the direction of cause and effect. It's like you're not sleeping as much and you're depressed so sleep more. Or it could just be that not sleeping is not causing you to be depressed it's a result of you being depressed. Or they're both the result of something else happening like increased stress and just saying sleep more is like a facelift it doesn't really treat the underlying problem which is changing a marker so this is where this is where the clinical research has to come in.

C: Yeah. I think in some ways that's one of the biggest problems with CBT, I think that you know we have made this the gold standard because it easily can be utilized in randomized controlled trials it lends itself to scientific. Like the way that we test drugs we apply to these psychological interventions and CBT just is good at that because it's highly manualizable, it's highly consistent, you can sort of do the same intervention to different groups that are randomized. The problem is that very often what we're looking at is a very acute intervention for a very acute symptom. And we're not really looking necessarily at why is that person having the panic attack. Like we might be able to intervene and teach them really good tools to sort of get grounded again, to get their breath back and to feel calm and feel safe and sort of not not go into the throes of panic. But what we're not getting deep into is why panic attacks consistently happen in their lives.

S: Yeah and that's I don't think this tool is for that you know.

C: That's what mental health treatment is for.

S: I agree, I think this will this is obviously not going to replace mental health treatment this is one more tool that could be useful for gathering behavioral information about specific individuals. And then also maybe providing some useful feedback either to them or to their practitioner. And you know you could you can envision a lot of situations where somebody who has obsessive-compulsive disorder they're starting to get into more and more obsessive behavior. Or someone who's anxious, who's starting to get physiological signs of anxiety that's starting to ramp up.

C: That they may not now this right away.

S: Oh yeah or somebody with depression or yeah leaving the house as much as they did yeah whatever. They might not be consciously aware of it yeah until it gets more severe and it might just trigger and sort of a more of an early warning system. So it'll be useful I think. But but at the same time I mean I think it will be used appropriately. But it will also then be completely abused it will be like─

C: Absolutely.

S: Download this app and treat your depression with this individualized personalized AI powered algorithm that will find out what what's making you depressed, you know what I mean. It'll be─

C: Yeah. Traditional therapy is hard and expensive but you can do this in only five minutes a day.

J: While you're sleeping.

E: So it'll unfairly target those who can't afford otherwise, to get the right kind of.

S: Well I don't know I don't know about that I, because this these kinds of things tend to target the worried well people who have disposable income. In fact there was a recent study that's that showed that the advent of tele-health you know with the pandemic, decreased socioeconomic disparities in access to healthcare.

E: Cool.

C: For sure it did.

S: So it's good it's been a very positive thing.

C: Yeah and I think an app could do that too.

S: Sure.

C: Because I think what a lot of people, what's important to realize if you've never gone through a heavy course of mental health treatment or sort of peeled the curtain back behind this whole industry, is that you know I had a supervisor who said it really well recently. She always tells her patients at the beginning my goal is to make myself...

S: Irrelevant, redundant.

C: Yes thank you not irrelevant or redundant but like my goal is to make─

S: Unnecessary.

C: ─unnecessary, my goal is to help you become your own therapist.

S: Yeah and that goes beyond mental health Cara because, especially with the advent of smartphones and technology you know a lot of modern medicine is teaching patients to take care of themselves.

C: Yeah it's like preventive care.

S: Yeah. Like yeah you can't be looking over your shoulder. You're gonna treat your own diabetes or migraines or whatever it is I'm just going to give you the tools to do it and teach you how to do it, but you've got to do it day-to-day because you're the one living with yourself you know I can't be there─

C: Absolutely.

S: To monitor what you're eating and you give you your insulin or whatever you got to do that. So this that's these kind of apps I think will help with that paradigm where we are really helping patients manage themselves. Because now this becomes an extra tool.

E: Patients generally do bad poor managers of their own when left to their own devices?

S: They're all over the place there but there are patients who are excellent, who are you know just like almost too much, like they're so completely on to you know on top of things and at the other end of the spectrum there are people like they don't even know what medications they're taking.

C: Yeah.

S: You will see the full full spectrum.

C: This tool could be used for very nefarious purposes or incredibly beneficial purposes.

S: Yeah and it will be used for both.

C: And it will be used for both yeah yeah.

S: Totally.

Hardy Tardigrades (30:07)[edit]

S: Yeah okay let's move on Jay you're going to tell us about how hardy tardigrades are. Hardy tardy.

E: Hardy tardy.

C: Party tardies.

J: So we've talked about tardigrades before many times, they come up on the show every once in a while I think Bob you love them, don't you?

B: Oh yeah they're so cool. I've been following them for many years.

J: In case you don't know, tardigrades are microscopic eight-legged micro animals. They're about the size of one grain of salt.

C: Animalcules.

J: They are they are. They were discovered in 1773, they like to live in moist places so you know dirt, damp, moss, lichen, underground.

C: Pods, right?

J: Yeah underwater sediment they love it. They're found all over the world, wherever these conditions exist and the most interesting attribute they have in my opinion is how tough they are. They're super tough, they have incredible fortitude or seemingly you know their fortitude is is incredibly high so the question is why?

S: It's so high Jay they have five etudes.


J: So why would this micro animal be so capable of extreme environments? So for example they can withstand 500 times as much radiation that would kill a human being. And this includes all types of radiation from gamma rays to x-rays so on top of that they can survive in extreme temperatures from -273°C which is -459°F to 180°C which is 330°F. That is a massive, massive temperature spectrum. Where humans can live where Steve? What would be your summary on human temperature?

S: I mean comfortably you know we like 70° but we could live in places that you know having average temperatures that are range from you know 0 to 100.

J: Not without special clothing though.

C: We also have like, we have like houses.

S: We have structural clothing, oh yeah totally. Think about how fastidious we are.

C: How quickly do people get hypothermia like what temperature?

J: Yeah, we're not we can't we're not even close to what what these tardigrades can do as far as temperature and pressure changes it's important─

S: You mean naked it's very narrow.

J: It's very narrow 75°.

E: Naked and afraid.

J: So it's it's important to note that that's colder that temperature -173°C that's colder than anywhere on Earth, right? Weird. Like what, so why would they why would they be able to withstand that type of temperature that doesn't exist on the planet that they're from. So we also mentioned previously on the show that they can actually survive in outer space, remember that article we talked about?

B: Yeah.

E: Yes, mhm.

J: They've been tested to survive up to 10 days in raw outer space they can be desiccated shrivel up and when put back in water you know they act like nothing happened. Which is amazing this this is truly amazing from an outside perspective you know scientists were saying things like, that's not like what the natural world does, like they shouldn't be able to do that because why would they be able to do that, right? Those these are the questions that scientists are asking. So when they shrivel up their their metabolism is stopped, right? When they're desiccated they have no metabolism that means they're not breathing that means they're not using oxygen anymore. But, it's still alive. There is still life there even though the metabolism isn't happening which is another thing which is incredible to think about, right? Because metabolism is life so it's suspended in some kind of stasis. Now by the way a human will die if we lose 30% of our water and in most cases that I've read about here with the tardigrades that they're losing you know north of 97% of water. You know which is almost 100% desiccation. So when a target is dried up it's called cryptobiosis which I love, I think that word is so cool. We know that most places often dry up at some point on Earth, right? You know it's not like it's wet all the time everywhere. So tardigrades in response to that they had to evolve to handle those dry spells. So they could do it for months and probably longer. This is an important piece of information, when you're deducing why tardigrades are so hardy it seems that being able to be desiccated, means your bodily tissues can withstand some serious extremes right, that's what it seems like on the surface. But let's dig a little deeper. A lot let me go into details of what happens when when when tissue is desiccated. So cells will shrink and then they'll eventually rupture or crack. You know they shrink down they'll look you know look like a raisin and then at some point you know the fissures will appear and you know the cells interiors interior will seep out which is very bad. Desiccation can also make proteins found in the cells unfold and stop functioning you know protein is no longer a protein at that point. And this is a very bad thing to happen because proteins do a lot of the things for your for the cell, right? The proteins are are a major major factor in the function of a cell. They control chemical reactions that cells need to metabolize food which is huge. Desiccation also causes the water and cells to break down, right? To break down the water breaks down it's no longer water it breaks down into hydrogen and hydroxyl. Once that water turns into hydrogen and hydroxyl those chemicals now let's call those chemicals they can damage the cell's DNA because they're considered free radicals. The DNA contains all the instructions to make all the needed proteins, right? So if your DNA gets damaged once that once it's damaged it's over that is the true end. Well our little buddy's DNA does actually get damaged when they dry out. So what's going on? They have evolved to withstand DNA breakages to a certain and certain and survivable degree. So right when your DNA starts to break down the strands fracture they disconnect and it just turns into a bunch of free-floating different kinds of proteins at that point. And as we know─

C: Nucleic acids.

J: ─yeah sorry nucleic acids. Right so it breaks down into into the base nucleic acids and then what?

C: Probably just becomes a waste product so I mean and really that's not even the dangerous part, right? It's not all the like bits of of not necessary DNA. It's the fact that you now no longer have this important coding.

J: Of course.

C: Or, it's broken so I mean this is cancer this is most diseases right it's DNA damage like this is very scary stuff.

J: Right like speaking of like DNA damage like we know radiation damages DNA, right? That we I already said it here and it's a big deal we don't that's why it's hard for humans to travel in outer space, you know because it the radiation is a huge problem. So this is why tardigrades can tolerate radiation. Because of their ability to be desiccated. In fact they've been observed to lose 24% of their DNA and still survive. And just so you know that's a lot yeah that is a lot. So scientists believe that tardigrades are probably able to repair their DNA somehow they're not sure but they're they're just assuming now if it gets damaged in some way, it's probably getting repaired because the the creature lives on. So the the strands we're going to have to reconnect somehow where the breaks occurred. But, Cara there's more because I figured you'd want to hear this. Another team of scientists found that there's a unique protein produced by tardigrades that attaches onto the dna strands, like a protective coating it's like armor. Now check this out those scientists took that special protein gene and inserted it into human cells to see what would happen. Of course they did of course.

C: Yeah that's what I would do.

J: Yes of course, yeah like why wouldn't you? So they have these they have these new cells that you know cells are reproducing in the dish. They they now insert the genes into these cells you know so the cell can make the protein themselves. And that one gene one gene was able to make the cells make the protein which is really cool. Then they expose the cells to a deadly amount of radiation WEEH right you turn that thing on. But the special protein was able to protect the DNA and the cells freaking survived.

B: Wow.

C: Oh this is, this could be a game changer.

S: You know what this means Jay?

J: What?

S: Means we're going to be inserting that gene into our astronauts, so they can survive the radiation of space.

J: Dude that's where this is heading, that's why they're studying, that's why we built her. So okay, so all in all they found five unique special proteins that help tardigrade sell to survive. I just explained one of them to you I'm not going to go into all of them but I'll give you a little more cool stuff. The tardigrade's ability to withstand drying out also likely explains why they can handle low temperatures and high temperatures, right? Because that that destroys the interior of cells as well. So as cells temperature drops for example water seeps out of the cells. The cells lose their shape and they crack this is what happens when human tissue go it gets you know very low temperature. Now tardigrades have a protein that helps maintain the shape of their cells. So check this out as the cell dries up this gooey protein becomes stiff and it turns into rods and those rods essentially hold the shape of the cells.

C: Well that right there is what's keeping them alive when they're metabolically inactive, right? Because really when our metabolism breaks down, that's what death is, when our metabolism breaks down are those phospholipid layers, those those cell membranes if they break apart we're done.

J: Yep.

C: Like it is what keeps us functional is to have these these boundaries. These boundaries between ions, these boundaries between molecules and you know very often when we experience trauma or when we experience a metabolic breakdown and those things fall apart - that's it. And then all the toxic crap leaks out then that's death that's decomposition and the fact that they can keep their cells intact is massive.

J: And it's not just that the you know so this gooey protein turns into rods that end up being like architecture inside, but then when water is reintroduced that protein turns back turns soft again it goes right back to where it was, right?

C: Right because it won't work if it's not.

E: Just add water.

J: So the scientists again tested these proteins in human cells and they were able to function and protect the cells. It's like what it's like─

B: Man I want some of that stuff.

J: ─we're getting handed this playbook you know like somebody this is this technology is is really well, I shouldn't call it technology it's evolution, you know these genes that produce these proteins the fact that they're testing them in other species cells and their functioning is incredible. And that they're seeing it you know they're actually doing it and seeing it work it's unreal. So other researchers have tested inserting these proteins into plants, right? Now follow this, they turn they put them in to plants to see if they could withstand more radiation right so or similar amounts of radiation found in space. And again the plants that had the added protein survive better than the non-treated plants. You know now again what you said Steve let's let's fully shift into that now. So now okay why do why do scientists study tardigrades? Who cares? Why do scientists study all sorts of weird things out there that may seem worthless?

E: Yeah right, who cares?

J: Right we stumble on these you eureka moments where we find something you know we discover something that has actually has an application and impact on future technology and future applications. So yes Steve it is possible that someday some version of this protein astronauts could be altered genetically and be able to withstand temperatures withstand radiation better. Who knows who knows where it could go?

S: Yeah.

C: Well and who knows how this would, how we could utilize this to fight against certain disease processes. I mean that to me is much more interesting than making super astronauts.

S: Or astronauts.

C: (laughs) right.

J: Cara I have to admit the sci-fi fan in me when I was reading this and you know, and I'm trying to read as much about it as I can all over the place and I got to a certain amount of data in my head and then it occurred to me. I'm like this I go we're the this is pretty amazing. Like maybe the the idea of mutants is ridiculous, right? That they could do all this crazy stuff you know Wolverine and all that. But the if there is any freakish thing that's going on in a good way that's going on in human cells it could be like this type of stuff like proteins that do specific things that are profoundly effective, that's almost like being a mutant. Imagine if we came up with hundreds of them or thousands of these improvements you could you know just think about the potential here of what proteins can do.

C: I just can't stop thinking about cancer.

S: If we if we did inject these protective proteins some into somebody would they grow four extra limbs?

J: Who knows man that's up to that's up to those people.

B: I'd be okay with that.

J: I am just a humble servant of science here. I just, I just wanna. I love finding out things like this because not only does it make me branch off and think of so many other things but just think you know this is where it all happens guys this is what one of the things that science does that is truly discovering the way that our universe works.

S: Yeah. The potential applications are huge. Of course, whenever you're talking about genetically modifying humans, that's a really high bar in terms of proving safety, but it's theoretically possible. And we may have to do it if we're really going to be a spacefaring race. But we'll see. Alright. Let's go on.

DNA Microfossils (43:29)[edit]

S: Have you guys ever heard of DNA microfossils?

J: No.

B: Yes.

S: This is really cool, so you know about environmental DNA right?

C: Oh yeah yeah.

S: Now we can either like take a sample of water or soil using amplification methods we can sequence a bunch of─


S: ─DNA fragments in that sample and we can because everything that's alive is shedding DNA all the time and when they die their DNA just basically gets spilled into the environment.

B: I don't shed DNA.

S: Absolutely. And if you get eaten something will poop out your DNA and in any case you can just DNA is just flush in the environment so you can take a sample of this environmental DNA even in the air you know air, water, soil and you could do a survey of everything living in that environment.

E: Yikes.

S: So yeah it's really really powerful if you remember we talked about this when we were they did that to─

B: The ocean.

S: ─they did the Loch Ness.

B: Oh okay.

S: And they said yeah, there's no plesiosaur in this loch, nothing happens to it but here's the thing with now they're using the same techniques to study environmental DNA that has been preserved in permafrost. Ancient environmental DNA..

B: Wow.

E: Sure why not.

B: I hadn't thought about that that's cool.

S: So now they could go back in time and say what was everything that was alive in this place at this time in this environment. You know the DNA half-life is over 500 years, 521 years and so you know, you can use this technique up to tens of thousands of years not millions of years, you know so not Jurassic park level but. So what what a team of researchers did was they were studying some arctic biomes for permafrost environmental DNA. DNA microfossils. And looking for anywhere from several thousand to thirty thousand years ago and they were trying to reconstruct the prevalence of different animals in these environments at those different times. So of course you know one of the big charismatic megafauna species from the you know the previous Ice Age was the─

E: Santa Claus.

S: ─oh yeah yeah, and it's one of the one of the things that we're looking at specifically was, you know how how long did the mammoth survive and what was changing what, not only that but just their population frequency. You can sort of infer that from the fossil records by how easy it is to find fossils of something. But that's a very, there's a lot of sampling error when you're using that as your method. But this is just here here's a chunk of permafrost let's just sequence everything there and that'll tell us pretty much how much uh how many woolly mammoths were in the environment at that time. Now when they do that 99.99% of the DNA that they find, 99.99 is bacteria, fungus or unidentifiable. It's just too small a piece. So they're looking for the other 0.01% which is DNA from animals and birds and and other species. Now of course there's a you find tons and tons of fragments and then they can use AI and computers to assemble those fragments even into a complete genome.

E: Neat.

S: A complete genome.

B: Where they fill the blank spaces, with frog DNA?

S: There's no blank spaces because you know if you have DNA fragments at random, they're going to overlap so you just right sort of click the overlapping segments together until you build out a full genome.

C: It's like building a skeleton a dinosaur skeleton from multiple dinosaur remains.

S: Yeah from thousands right but they each have the identical DNA sequence or you know, very similar very within a very 1% or so.

B: Steve quick question how how much does the fact that this DNA is in permafrost extend its lifespan?

S: Significantly. It's frozen.

B: Yeah so that's got to be the perfect place to get this because if you go you go to you know more temperate areas of the world I bet you the fossils there, the microfossils would last far far fewer years.

S: Far less we have to if we're getting DNA from a non-frozen sample it's got to be like inside the bone marrow of a fossilized bone you know, it right it's got to be inside something, it wouldn't, DNA won't survive in the environment unfrozen for very long. All right so a couple of big takeaways that they learned from this one is, unsurprisingly mammoth survived even longer than we previously thought based upon the fossil record. So they found that woolly mammoth's DNA as much as 7 000 years later than the fossil record indicates in those regions. As well as 5 700 years ago. Now this is in North America they they've found fossil woolly mammoths in Siberia, different continent, right at 3 900 years ago.

B: Thirty nine?

S: So this is not later than any woolly mammoth specimen but it is in that region so what they also found is that well the woolly mammoths, so they eventually initially they were everywhere, right? But then at the end of their temporal range they only survive in isolated locations what they call refugia, isn't that cool name?

B: Yeah I like it.

S: Yeah so which makes sense like you have these isolated pockets of the last sort of surviving populations of the woolly mammoth and then they eventually die off. And it wasn't just the woolly mammoth, it was also like large species of horse and and a lot of other species that they were looking for, a lot of large mammals at the time.

B: How do they date how do they date the DNA?

S: Yeah well they're dating the they don't date the DNA they date the sample right, they're dating the permafrost.

B: Yeah that's embedded in okay.

S: Yeah that it's embedded in yeah exactly. Which I'm assuming they're using carbon dating but they may be using some other method as well. Yeah so this is a powerful technique it's allowing us to reconstruct fossil or ancient ecosystems with them with an entirely new lens with much greater detail. Always the earliest and latest of a range of a species is always based upon the oldest and the youngest fossil evidence that we have of it. Which we know is an underestimate because we're never going to find the very last fossil you know, of the species. Or the very very first one and so we're always sort of estimating those ranges. So it's very common for new discoveries to expand to that range. So that's clearly now we have a not only a new find but a new technique which is which is much more sensitive and so we're definitely going to be expanding the ranges of when we these animals survived. Especially if we were able to in it the other thing is like when you get to these isolated small populations in refugia the probability of a fossil goes way down, right? Cause that's you know fossilization is a rare event, most individuals don't get fossilized and the probability of a specific individual dying in an environment where they their remains get fossilized and then they later get found is extremely rare.

E: So you need a high population for that to happen.

C: Well and just all the conditions have to be right.

S: Yes exactly but so but the higher the population the greater the probabilities that's why we use sort of how many, how easy is it to find these fossils how many do we find is a good rough indication of you know compared to other things in the same location, cause again it is condition dependent as well. It's a good indication of how common the species was. But now we could just we'll be at some point they fall off the fossil record because there's just too few of them. But now we could look for their environmental ancient DNA their microfossils. And even at a time when the probability of finding an actual physical bone fossil is is is too low you know, it's too late and we probably won't find them. So this is just really really cool I mean you know the the bits of information we learned about woolly mammoths and other animals at the time is interesting but the bigger story is the technology itself. This was done by the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, which is cool so there's you know researchers who were dedicated to, to this process and now it's just this is going to open up a whole new line of evidence at least for like the last 30-40 000 years you know of our ability to reconstruct these ancient ecosystems is now got a huge boost. However one potential downside here I don't know if you guys would think about this but the permafrost is going away, right, because of global warming. And so yeah we may have a limited time where this is is going to work I mean hopefully that's at least decades but even still you know this is a lot of information that's about to go bye-bye when the when we lose the permafrost. Permafrost was a great way to store a lot of environmental data.

B: I mean how long has permafrost been perma I mean you know is it never been warm enough to to [inaudible]?

S: Not since the last Ice Age so yeah for tens of thousands of years. That's that's the whole idea about permafrost, it's been frozen for tens of thousands of years.

B: That's pretty perma.

C: And that's the range of these organisms too, I mean a little beyond that but we still would need, right Steve? You still need reference DNA like this wouldn't be that helpful for a species for which we have a tooth and we that's all we know about the species and we've sort of reconstructed everything we know based on one sample.

S: I mean reference DNA helps but but if you have enough fragments, then you can still reconstruct it like you know I don't know what these fragments are to, but they fit together, and then you can keep building them out. That way until you might end up with like an unknown genome but then you could if you could sequence it completely you say oh this was some type of a tape here or whatever.

C: How crazy that we would have the opportunity to uncover species for which we have no physical, I should say macroscopic yeah evidence, that's amazing.

S: Yeah, that would be cool yeah. And you know again because we can reconstruct entire genomes using this method can we de-extinct them using this.

B: Sure, sure absolutely sure question just document it.

C: Follow-up should we de-extinct them?

B: Yes

E: Yes.

S: Absolutely.

E: Yes, turn it to an amusement park.

S: I know Cara's gonna say no we're gonna say yes (laughter) because it would be too cool. I mean listen oh yeah Jurassic Park isn't gonna happen but Pleistocene park? Absolutely.

E: Yeah, sure.

C: (laughs) You just refuse to learn from these cautionary tales.

E: Permafrost park?

J: If you can't learn from a movie you're never going to learn.

B: That's right.

C: I know.

S: I do agree though that we probably shouldn't de-extinct human ancestors like Neanderthal men or you know Homo erectus.

C: I don't think we should be de-extincting the woolly mammoth either.

S: Yeah I, I'm willing to risk it.

C: It doesn't it doesn't have an ecological niche anymore what we're just saying about the permafrosting.

S: It does it's a zoo.

E: Let's put it in cryo you know stick it in one of those cryotubes that Joe Rogan loves.

B: Before why not just reconstruct it virtually and just and grow a virtual machine?

C: Thank you.

S: Eeh.

E: Yeah fine, I mean I can virtually walk on the Moon too it's not gonna be the Moonwalk tough.

C: That's all we're ever gonna get.

Belief in the Paranormal and Credibility (54:55)[edit]

S: OK Evan you are gonna tell us about a very interesting question. If somebody believes in the paranormal does that make them unreliable as a witness?

E: Yeah, yeah what a very interesting question and the reason this question comes up now and we're talking about it in the news items section of this episode is that there's a lawsuit occurring right now, in which Stormy Daniels. That's the adult film star who rose to prominence as a result of her former relationship with Donald Trump. She is testifying in a US Government case against her former attorney Michael Avenatti. Now it's alleged that Avenatti stole 300 000 from Daniels when he received and kept an advance from a book deal that Daniels had signed.

C: Oh gosh.

E: Yep. Now Avenatti has pleaded not guilty to both charges of fraud and identity theft, and he portrayed his dispute with Daniels as a disagreement over legal fees. But if he's convicted he's going to face a maximum penalty of 22 years in prison.

B: What?

J: Oh wow.

E: And I imagine he's going to pay the money back.

J: That's a lot.

E: Yeah, you know fraud identity theft government's gonna come down on you for those. Avenatti is defending himself in the trial and as such he's allowed to question the witnesses. And on January 28th Avenatti questioned Stormy Daniels. As part of that questioning Avenatti asked Daniel's questions related to her belief in the paranormal. So this lawsuit came up as part of a, back in 2019, where the charges were brought. And in June of 2020 in a pre-trial maneuver as part of the court filings Avenatti's lawyers wrote that Daniel's, Stormy Daniels and I quote: "Has made a number of bizarre fantastical claims that call into serious question her truthfulness, her mental state and ability to competently testify". The document goes on to specify that these claims involve things Daniels had said in interviews about paranormal investigations, psychic practices and practicing witchcraft. Okay there's no doubt Daniels is an outspoken believer of the paranormal, heck she has a self-funded TV project called Spooky Babes, which she produced and paid for 13 full episodes and since late 2020 she's been trying to get a network to air them. Several details about her paranormal beliefs were brought up in the trial and, by Avenatti's questioning of Daniels, for example Daniels had encountered. under oath, unexplainable experiences, physical attacks from invisible assailants, poltergeist phenomenon shadow figures and unexplainable sounds and prowling voices emanating from her home in New Orleans. And also under this testimony she had to basically admit that she had a medium who told her that a portal opened up in her house and a dark entity came through, and was responsible for basically taking over or invading the body of her boyfriend who then took over, you know the spirit took him over and he went and abused her basically. Choked her and broke her collarbone as a result of that abuse. Avenatti asked if he had called her if if the boyfriend had called her nuts before he left, because the two of them then broke up and Daniel's confirmed that he had questioned her sanity. So basically the legal strategy here is that Avenatti is trying to employ the fact that, and this is a jury trial he was trying to convince the jury that Daniels is crazy. And that her testimony is merely the ungrounded outburst from a mentally unstable person. So there's the question a person with such strong beliefs in the paranormal, are they unfit for testimony and does it discredit every anything or everything that that person has to say in the course of a legal proceeding.

C: Of course not.

E: Well.

C: That's like then we'd have to throw out the testimony of everybody who's ultra religious.

S: I know I was gonna say that. Exactly that's like everyone who has religious belief.

E: Right.

C: Yeah which is like a lot of freaking people who have been on trial.

S: But the way the legal system works and I can tell you, I've been an expert witness and this is what lawyers do you know, they find ways of impugning the witness and you know I've been asked questions about my skeptical activity in a way to make it sound like there's something weird about me. "Did you write this article about spaceships? Well yeah it's a science communication article.", you know it was, I always deal with it fine because it's very, it's always very easy for me to explain what I'm doing but they're just trying to make me seem weird to the jury, and it's for the jury to decide how to put that into context. That's the way the system works so was this a fair game? Totally.

B: Did they mentioned LARPing Steve?

S: Never came by no.

C: I don't know do you think it is though, like do you think that her lawyer can argue that that's it's beyond the scope, like that that has nothing to do with this trial?

S: Yeah but the credibility of a witness is always within scope and and if you're going to argue that it isn't and you can never say anything in any way that implies that you're a credible witness, because as soon as you do that it opens the door for any questioning about your credibility.

C: Yeah but if you don't, if you're very careful not to do that, would you be able to walk that line?

S: You know it's very probably very easy to convince the judge like hey this goes to the credibility of the witness okay fine that's basically an open already assumed to be a legitimate point.

E: But what about the legal precedence for for this?

C: Yeah it worries the hell out of me.

E: Because I mean you know you would think that someone I mean Avenatti, take him for what he is, I'll reserve my personal comments about him for the sake of this discussion, but you would think that you would want to be able to fall back on some sort of precedent in order to try to make that case. Now again he's not trying to convince a judge he's trying to convince a jury so it's sort of it's sort of a different tactic and an approach that you can take but if you, if he would have a hard time finding precedent to to go with in order to basically make the claim that Daniels is unfit because of those personal beliefs. In fact courts for hundreds and I am talking hundreds of years in US law have had to, well make either rulings or hand down opinions or cite references in which people involved with the cases did have very specific paranormal beliefs. And in just about all those cases there these people were deemed to not be insane, mentally incapacitated in some way or it doesn't seem to hold up in court.

C: But those precedents were probably set for the defendant, right?

E: Yeah, it's interesting it's kind of it's kind of a two-way street, in a lot of the cases especially in early on in US history like from the 1800s and the early 1900s, they had to do with people who were contesting wills. In other words people who went and went did and and claimed against the estate that the person when they made that will was not of sound mind because they had all these beliefs and stuff. And the courts and the courts and the cases sort of repeatedly, effectively in most cases said no, that's not a that's not a reason to invalidate the will.

C: Right because in that case what we're really talking about is like a capacity assessment.

S: Right exactly.

C: Competency assessment but in this case he's using the same playbook, the same I personally believe, sexist playbook that has been used throughout our judicial history. You see this all the time with victims of rape where the defense attorney against the person who's on trial for or the the defense attorney who's defending the person who's on trial for rape tries to sully the character of the victim.

E: Right.

S: But to clarify here we are talking about several different levels, as we said there's one level where you're talking about is this person you know clinically you know insane do they lack mental capacity.

C: Could they stand trial.

S: Yeah, could they is there does their will legitimate. So that I think is an easier call you know we could say yeah the belief in the paranormal is not does not render you diagnosable and does not mean you have mental illness because I think we could agree more easily on that. What I was talking about more with like the credit, just the flat up credibility of the weight is nothing not the mental health of the witness but just the overall credibility. And that depends I think that depends on the nature of the beliefs and on the nature of the testimony and their their role. Clearly there's if you're an expert witness everything is automatically fair game, right? Because you're─

C: For sure.

S: ─presented as a way you know so even though I found it annoying, like what they did in in my case, it was totally fair game and and if I couldn't defend myself, then you know that that's my problem you know.

C: But you weren't the plaintiff or the defendant.

S: No I was an expert witness.

E: And nor is Stormy Daniels in this case.

C: Oh.

E: She's like she is a─

S: Material witness.

E: ─she's witness for the government and the government [inaudible].

C: Well but that's a little yeah that's a little more confusing because the government's─

S: It is.

C: ─prosecuting for something that of which she was the victim.

E: Right.

C: So that's a little bit different like because regardless of how this goes she could follow up with a civil suit in which she would be the plaintiff.

E: Right, right.

S: Yeah but like if you're if you're a material witness like especially an eyewitness I think it's fair game if the lawyer you know to question your reliability as an eyewitness if you believe in spectral evidence I'm sorry you're not a great witness you know and a good lawyer would probably not put you on the stand.

C: I think it's you know I think I think the thing that's important here is the fact that she is the victim of a crime or at least that's what's being alleged and so to to and and this is such a playbook, especially with women to sort of discredit the victim so that then in the jury's mind they're like well she had it coming or well you know she was too weak or well she put herself in that position and I think that is ultimately the playbook that's being played here and that's not okay.

S: Yeah that's a it's another layer it's complicated which is why you know legal cases like this are often super complicated because there's multiple layers and you and you can make a reasonable argument from a few different perspectives you know.

E: Yeah, they're complicated and generally speaking from what I've read and people who have written articles and opinions on the paranormal and the legal system. They say that courts generally do try to keep them out of the equation of law, in other words they they sort of avoid it as much as they possibly can because it could otherwise sort of be problematic and doesn't really cut to the heart of the of the legal matter what's going on. So they'll generally not dismiss things because something was proclaimed to be paranormal or someone was said that they they had a paranormal experience, they will generally ignore those those kinds of rationales and reasoning. So Avenatti's tact here is is kind of a you know he's shooting for the for for the long fences and he's not─

C: It could also backfire.

E: ─yeah it could backfire.

C: Like there could be jurors who are like I believe that and identify with her.

E: And Cara you mentioned defendants also earlier it does work both ways and what I mean by that is you can't use your belief in the paranormal as a incompetency or and you know an insane plea essentially.

C: Right and only if it is a feature of a psychotic disorder.

E: Right.

C: Only if you know you have delusions of persecution and you believe that you were being chased and that's you know documentable and and it's being chased by paranormal monsters or something like that like that could be a function of a you know and also there's a whole thing about how you know legal definitions of insanity just don't line up with psychological and psychiatric definitions of mental illness.

E: Yeah I know when you enter the the legal arena it's it's subject to its really its own uh set of rules and and and guidance that you know don't always go hand in hand with you know the medical world or the other aspects of it.

C: Yeah that's why we have forensic psychologists like that's their whole job is like to kind of navigate the legal system.

E: So it's really interesting question and I think Avenatti's ultimately going to fail and Daniels's testimony will not be struck from the record.

S: Yeah. But whatever this is the legal system we have it's his job as a lawyer to defend his client and to explore every avenue of possible defense even if he doesn't personally believe in them, you know that's not a prerequisite and it's really up to the courts to sort out this question not up to the lawyer, right? So it's easy, it's easy to say oh you know whatever a dirty lawyer using a dirty trick but now this is the way the system works, the judge determines if it's valid and the jury could could weight it you know if that's depending on the kind of evidence in this kind of court case and situation etc. But yeah I think that obviously we all agree that those those beliefs are are nutty you know.

C: Of course.

S: But everyone has nutty beliefs by our standards.

C: Yes. And is is it that much more nutty than thinking that like the rapture is going to happen during our lifetime?

E: Sure or the resurrection heck the resurrection itself.

C: A certain percentage of people in that courtroom absolutely believe that the rapture is going to happen in their lifetime.

S: Yeah I mean out of context religious beliefs are magical fantasy beliefs.

C: Which is why there is actually a specific caveat in most psychological diagnoses.

S: Religious beliefs don't count. Because they're too messy, because they could just be cultural, environmental, you know taught by your parents.

E: And the courts are basically yeah yeah and the courts have gone along with that as well, they've they've recognized.

B: So it's like brain so it's brainwashed they're just accepting this brainwashing?

S: Well if you, that's one way to put it but they're basically saying you don't have to have a thought disorder to believe something magical if that magical belief is part of your culture, you absorbed it from your culture, your parents, whatever. It's not it doesn't it just indicates your culture, it doesn't indicate that you have a mental illness.

B: Yeah right gotcha.

E: And it doesn't make you an unfit witness or on you know or strike your testimony.

C: And it doesn't mean you're mentally ill.

S: All right Bob you're going to finish us up on the news items with a discussion of Tesla getting into the robot business.

Tesla Robots (1:09:17)[edit]

B: Tesla bot in the news again, so let's just dive right into this shall we? So this it started this past august when Elon Musk unveiled the new project, his new project at the end of Tesla's AI day presentation. It was called Optimus humanoid robot. Everyone just calls it Tesla Bot. It was planned on being like 5'8, 125 pounds or 57 kilograms. They showed a mock, it it was like all sleek and white. Kind of interesting looking, except for it had a black head and shoulders. It included autopilot cameras to sense movement. It had it was gonna have a screen to display information, I'm not sure where that screen was I just assumed maybe it would just be on the face. And it would of course be on the inside it would be running Tesla's full self-driving computer. Musk joked at the time it's intended to be friendly and it's going and and navigate through a world built for humans. Okay a humanoid robot, some people thought that it was really odd that they were that they had this project to build the humanoid robot, especially considering that in the past Musk had ranted about existential AI risks and and about weaponized robots. And he seemed to be aware of that and so he he seemed to encounter that. Apparently when he said stuff like that his robot will be slower and weaker than people you know that it could only like move five miles an hour and lift 150 pounds, basically that a human could beat it up if if it got if it got you know a little bit too terminatory.

S: Here's your problem somebody had to switch the terminator.

B: And he said what we're trying to do here at Tesla is make useful AI that people love and is unequivocally good. So that was back in August. So now more recently at the end of January, January 26th Musk made some comments this time to his investors at his Q4 and full year earnings report at that meeting. And he said that the humanoid robot's first application will be at a Tesla plant moving parts around the factory or something like that. So okay just puttering around the the plant doing moving things and beyond that he sees Optimus helping solve labor shortages. And he's he's said quite a bit about that recently. And he referred to the Tesla Bot, now here's where it gets a little bit more interesting, he referred to the Tesla Bot as the most important product that Tesla is developing this year. He said that his robot plans had the potential to be more significant than the vehicle business over time. Okay interesting. And then he then he put the icing on the cake earlier this week when he tweeted:

"Tesla AI might play a role in AGI (Artificial general intelligence) given that it trains against the outside world especially with the advent of Optimus"

So he raised the specter of AGI Artificial general intelligence, I think that comment probably got us a very good fair share of the attention, he got lots of shade as well from that. Some people were saying here's one of my this one that I came across, don't know who who said this but he said: "Musk overpromises everything, the bot will be a quadriplegic in a wheelchair". So wow okay. But so a little bit more constructive information was from professor of robot ethics Alan Winfield at the University of West England, he said:

"AGI is an exceptionally hard problem, the idea that you can crack AGI because you have created a driverless vehicle is absurd"

So that had yeah that has a little bit more meat on it than the first comment I read. I understood where this where where this professor was going from you know especially when I saw the following on the Tesla AI website. It said there that "we're seeking mechanical electrical controls and software engineers to help us leverage our AI expertise beyond our vehicle fleet". So to me reading that it made me think that you're going to need to add more to what you have now than this mechanical electrical controls and software engineers if you're going to crack AGI. It didn't seem like based on that just on that one web page it made me think that they're just filling in the ancillary spaces that they need and not necessarily filling out the AI holes in the company. But of course as I did more research I learned that they have, they've been hiring in fact many AI professionals and and they're clearly looking to embrace AI and robotics. I mean it's certainly going to be the main focus uh for the company for 2022. I mean they said that they're not going to be looking into their their what they call it, their their electric truck, there's been a lot of talk about it like a I guess electric pickup truck. There's also a lot of talk of like a really like a truly really inexpensive electric car Tesla. Like like 25 000 dollars, something like that. He said that they're not going to be looking at that this year either. It seems like that and if you look back into the past few years it seems like they're really making a concerted effort now to you know to potentially change the company into you know an AI and robotics company. That's that seems like it's it's going in that direction I can't really be sure if that's really what they're doing. A lot of times Musk will say things like, to energize his employees and his investors and and you know working on a project or talking about a project that can't be fulfilled by definition for for many years if if even ever. So it's hard to say with confidence what kind of focus that the company. Is he really going to change the focus of the company? It seems like that's where they they might be going, but also and a lot of people have been saying that there's a lot of people and a lot of companies who have spent a long time working on humanoid robotics and AGI. They'll talk about Boston Dynamics, they'll talk about you know a lot of the Google AI work. They don't have a long history, they do have some history with AI of course because that's involved in the in the navigation of the of the cars. But I mean that is you know by definition that's that's a narrow AI, it's not it's not really specifically AGI but I'm sure that their experience will help. But they're kind they are new to the game and part of me wishes that they went down this path 10 years ago. But when you have a billionaire who's got on his on his resume SpaceX and Tesla and they're saying that they just want to work on robotics and AGI I'd say absolutely go for it. I mean I'm you know how many how many years do I got left? I got stuff I want to see, and if this guy wants to devote that that amount of resources onto AGI then have at it please, I mean he could certainly help. He's you know he has shown that what he can accomplish you know if he could if he sets his mind to it and puts his money where his mouth is and most importantly hires a lot of good people. Like his chief of artificial intelligence, great guy looks really promising, he's he's clearly it's crazy smart. Get more people like him who knows you know what they can contribute to the development of AGI. So i just I'm going to keep an eye on and see where this goes if he really means it but you know it's interesting and hopefully something will come out of this.

S: Two ways to look at this is you know as people say, there's a lot of research being done on this a lot of companies are working on it it's not like we're starting from nothing or just because Tesla's getting involved it's going to necessarily change the industry.

B: Right.

S: But at the same time you know it's like we would still have electric cars to stay for Tesla. But the Tesla is a really nice electric car and it probably has pushed the industry forward.

B: Right, exactly.

S: Yeah this will just be one more contributor to the overall robotics and AI industry and so I'm sure it will it will help probably in and of itself is not critical or game-changing but but yeah at least in in some of the things that Musk has set his resources to SpaceX and Tesla I think being the two big ones has been remarkably successful, you can't deny that.

B: Yeah and to me though this is especially important because we're talking AI. I mean this is the technology that will is is obviously the game changer. This this you know just just AI and narrow AI itself amazingly important amazing contributions already and true AGI would be yet another game changer on top on top of this so when you were talking about that like say AGI and quantum computing those those two things. But but even more so AGI because that has the potential sure there's a potential downside that everyone likes to talk about but it also has the potential to solve problems that you know that we, that humans on their own just won't be able to solve and it could be the technology that creates all the other technologies that that we're also looking forward to because just by its very nature of automating and taking thinking and turning thinking into something that could just literally change the world and that's what that's what AGI can do.

J: Yeah I agree with you Steve I think it's not going to be this miraculous like oh they're in it so everything is happening now. Like you know how long it takes to develop and ramp up staff and technology and progress, I mean all that shit it could take them decades to get to get anywhere you know but it's good it's great to have that kind of money being thrown at it you never know you know.

S: All right well we'll see what yeah I suspect we'll be talking about Tesla you know robots in the future if this all works out.

All right Jay it's Who's That Noisy time.

Who's That Noisy? (1:18:50)[edit]

J: Okay guys last week I played this noisy:

[bang, rumble]

What do you think?

E: I heard some birds, did I hear birds back there?

J: Absolutely, there was definitely birds in there.

E: What like a thunder strike and then a bunch of birds scatter as a result?

J: All right well a listener named William Steele wrote in said: "Hi J my guess for this week's noisy is the loud shockwave from the JWST launch vehicle the Ariane 5 I think it's far away potentially in the jungles of French Guiana.", so that is not correct although a shockwave that does very similar sound, so that I think that's a great guess.

Richard Smith sent in a guess he says: "As it's the middle of the winter this week's noisy brings to mind an avalanche gun used to trigger small avalanches before too much snow can build up". I've actually seen one of these in use you know it was more like a cannon type of deal and yeah it's you know it's it sounds like that it certainly sounds like that but that is not what happened this week that's not what we're talking about this week.

Listener named Vince R sent in a guess he said: "The noisy sounds like a large tree being felled in a forest". Now the question here is would that tree make noise? Cara to you.

C: Is a bear shitting near it?

J: Exactly yeah.

C: I think that's part of the equation.

J: I don't hear a tree there I don't hear the tree falling noise but many people wrote that in so what do I know, I could be wrong.

So let me tell you what it is. We have a winner Kenneth Flatt wrote in and said: "Probably not because those birds don't sound very tropical but I'm going to say that the sound of the volcano at Tonga erupting earlier this month". And that is the answer that is the sound of the Tonga volcanic eruption. Let me play it for you again so you can hear this.

[noisy playing]

I'm sure that noise went on for for quite a while, so that's a volcano exploding and you know you can only imagine how loud and percussive that would be if you were any anywhere even close to that area you know listening to a sound file on your headset is nothing compared to like the real thing, so that is pretty cool and scary. Did you guys hear like was there any like tsunami like situation happening, like, did people lose their lives because of because of that volcano?

C: Yeah yeah yeah. I don't think a lot a lot but just because of the population density but all homes on one of their islands destroyed, three dead yeah only three people died I mean but that's still three deaths. But a lot of a lot of property damage I think yeah.

J: Well it's I'm happy that only three people died though you know, that could be a totally different scenario you know and we've seen cases of it.

New Noisy (1:21:44)[edit]

J: All right I've got a new noisy for you guys this week, this noisy was sent in by a listener named John McNeal.

[hissing, explosion]

Lots of things going on in that noisy, lots of uh lots of clues in that noisy, if you listen carefully you're hearing lots of different things happening in there so really think about that one. If you have any guesses or you you know you heard something this week, some of you heard something cool I can reach out and touch you right now you're there email those cool noisies to me at

Announcements (1:22:40)[edit]

J: Steve.

S: Yeah .

J: We have four shows right now scheduled that you could buy tickets for if you go to the, you could see that we have, on March 25th we have a private show in New York City. That's a private live SGU recording. On march 26th in New York City we have an Extravaganza at the Caveat that's going to be a ton of fun we on March 27th at noon we have a private show in Boston. And on March 27th we have an Extravaganza at 7PM at the Crystal Ballroom in Boston. So two shows in New York two shows in Boston I think it's going to be awesome and we as usual we're totally looking forward to it.

S: Yeah these shows are a lot of fun and it's always great you know to physically be in the same space with our with our listeners and it's also you know a really good way to support the SGU to support everything that we do while getting some you know extra entertainment for yourself. So check it out if you can make it you know book, start booking those shows, we often sell out so if you want to make sure you get a ticket I would sign up soon.

All right thanks Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:23:48)[edit]

Email #1: Joe Rogan and Spotify[edit]

S: We have one email this email comes from Lisa from Southern Australia and she writes:

I'm a longtime listener from Australia after being introduced to SGU circa 2007. I regularly listen via Spotify unfortunately this week with the Spotify Joe Rogan saga I have decided to cancel my Spotify subscription. I will also be boycotting using their free platform as I am aware they will still reap revenues from advertisers. I am not against free speech but I am strongly against people who deliberately promote false information especially when that information can be harmful. This has prompted me to become a SGU Patreon. And also after listening to to episode 862 I decided to finally give you positive feedback, although I've loved the show for many years I've just never gotten around to leaving feedback before.

Well thank you very much Lisa. So yeah this is just referring to the recent hubbub about Joe Rogan on Spotify. There was sort of an effort to have some specific episodes removed where he was you know spreading a lot of Covid misinformation.

C: Yeah especially the one with Robert Malone, that was like I think one of the linchpins.

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah Cara you were involved with, that's what you were involved with?

C: Yeah so a psychologist actually reached out to sort of public science communicators and academics and physicians hoping to build up a petition basically. Not so much a petition but an open letter you know kind of asking Spotify to do the right thing here. Because when we think about the just massive platform that that show has and we think about the vulnerable individuals like the demographics of who listens to his show. There's a lot of alignment between those demographics, Covid misinformation, anti-vaxx sensibilities and it could be I mean it is a recipe for a public health disaster. And so this letter was like a pointed letter to Spotify a lot of us ended up signing it. I think it was originally published by Rolling Stone and then a bunch of other outlets picked it up. And then since then, but of course Spotify didn't really do anything. And then since then Neil Young was like yeah hi I'm pulling my entire catalog. And they're like come again what now so I think that's where we're at, they were like you know do it and we support you in that, but so far they have not removed any of these episodes or really kind of made a statement of what their plan is going to be. I know Joe Rogan did a public apology but it was very much a I want to hear all sides kind of.

S: It wasn't an apology.

C: Oh you're right.

S: I watched the whole.

C: It wasn't an apology.

S: It wasn't even framed as an apology it wasn't.

C: Yeah, god I kind of put it in air quotes in my mind when I said it but that's a bummer. I only read about it, I didn't watch it.

S: I watched the whole thing, it's not that long you could watch, it's a few minutes. Okay so basically he just doubles down on what he's always been saying, justifying the way he does his show. So his main talking points were one it's like hey I'm just a guy who likes to have interesting conversations and that's all my podcast was ever meant to be so I'm not an expert, so it doesn't matter if what I say is true or not I'm not an expert, I don't know anything, I get it wrong all the time. And I'm just having I'm just want to talk to interesting people. But then he kind of muddies the waters later on when he says I guess I can do more research before the interviews to make sure I ask the right questions because I don't want to spread misinformation.

B: Oh wow.

C: But also maybe do more research before inviting certain people on your show.

S: Yeah I didn't mention that part so I- this is let me let me frame this up from my perspective. And in in honestly, I sort of get where he's coming from, you know yeah I do see his his perspective I sort of understand his perspective. In that in a very limited way, in that when especially when we were first doing the SGU i was just a bunch of guys talking about stuff that we like to talk about, you know what I mean, talk about science and skepticism. And we interviewed people and it was all fine. But we were small and we were just talking to a very small audience and there was no sense of like responsibility. I mean we we certainly wanted to have high quality information and to be scientifically accurate because that's our thing you know. But at the same time it's like we don't have any responsibility to a community or anything.

C: Because you don't have any influence.

B: Don't you dare compare us to him.


S: No just saying you know and then but at some point we're like, at least within the skeptical community, we had to think have a bit a bigger perspective about what the show was and what we were doing and what we were saying. So anyway so i could understand from his point of view like I'm just doing a podcast you know I didn't sign up for being some responsible media outlet.

C: But you kinda did when you when you took that deal with Spotify and when you looked at those numbers.

S: That was definitely a moment when he could have reassessed, but at some at some point he crossed that line too I think first of all I think everybody should have responsibility no matter what level you're on. But especially when you get to be that big, I mean he's undeniably huge, right? Isn't he the number one podcast in the world?

E: Yes he is.

C: I think so. His listenership is in the millions.

E: 11 million people listen you each episode.

S: Yeah dude, you can't do this humble folksy I'm just a guy having interesting conversations, you're the biggest media outlet of its kind in the world, with millions of people listening to you, so unfortunately maybe you didn't sign up for the responsibility at first but now you own it.

E: There it is.

S: You may shirk it, but that doesn't mean you don't own that responsibility but he's still trying to have it both ways. He still wants to basically make an excuse for why he doesn't have any responsibility, he's, nobody should listen to anything he says because he's just some guy, he's not an expert and he's just talking to people it's on them. But but he is a you know I don't want to say journalist but he's sort of a journalist he he is a he's a media personality.

C: Yeah he's much more a media personality.

S: Yeah but you know in a way, people use him as a source of "news".

C: That's kind of sad but yeah.

S: Yeah, so what does that mean I think at the bare minimum you have to think about what you're doing and and think about the quality control and now you are having an influence on the society you know maybe a shock to you that you're in that position but it's true. And again so you can either step up to that responsibility, that reality or just continue to to to shirk it and pretend like it doesn't matter. So and as you you brought up one excellent point Cara, a few things he he should be doing. Now first of all no one's saying Joe you need to be an expert on everything you talk about on the show, that's not the role of a communicator of a media personality, no one's, that's a that's a straw man, no one is saying that. But but you you are making one very big decision one type of decision, that is who to give your platform to. Who to have on your show. That is the first and most important layer of quality control. You don't have to talk with people who have wacky beliefs that are potentially dangerous. But he's following the typical you know media algorithm of let's talk to the most "interesting people" who selects people who have ideas which are on the fringe, who are most likely to be wrong. So he doesn't realize it maybe explicitly, but he's using a an editorial algorithm that is, let me give my million multi-million people platform to the people who are most likely likely to be wrong. That's effectively what he's doing and he is not being a filter during the interview because he's admittedly not an expert. And saying hey I'll do some more research it's not good enough because he's not going to ever be a good enough filter. He he what he did the filter needs to be in, who are you giving a platform you know, your show's platform to. That's where the filter needs to be.

J: Well Steve I also think that he deliberately he did say something along these lines that he wants his show to be controversial he wants there to be dramatic guests saying dramatic things.

E: He wants the world talking about him, right?

S: You know if you want controversy then you get on two opposing experts, which may still be like a false equivalency but it's at least better than just giving an open platform to somebody who's spouting who's spouting dangerous public health nonsense.

E: Correct.

C: Yeah there's a big difference between controversy on a social issue, controversy on a historical issue, controversy on a political issue and controversy that has real ramifications for global public health.

S: For public health.

C: Yeah I just pulled up the letter that we wrote I'm not going to obviously read the whole thing because it's long but you can find it online spotify openletter.wordpress blah blah blah blah, but yeah just google it but there's there's a paragraph in it that says:

"The average age of JRE listeners is 24 years old and according to data from Washington State, unvaccinated 12-34 year olds are 12 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than those who are fully vaccinated. Dr. Malone’s interview has reached many tens of millions of listeners vulnerable to predatory medical misinformation. Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications.

And I think that's that's the other half of the equation it's not just the responsibility of what is he bringing to the table but it's the responsibility of knowing who is listening to him. It's it's the same for any media person it's the reason that Disney is very careful about the fact that children are watching their films and so they have to make you know decisions about the types of things they put in their films. I mean anybody who is in that position has that kind of responsibility to their listeners.

S: But now Joe Rogan is a microcosm for like one of the big problems with social media. Is that people can get to prominence, they can be influencers or whatever you'll be popular on YouTube or Facebook or a podcast or whatever, without there being any process or filter or, you didn't, you got there without having to pass any bars of quality.

C: Yeah I mean but that's free speech, right?

S: That's free speech that's the democratization that's that's the the benefit of it, but but at the same time this is what happens. So you get people who can have an audience of millions that thinks that it's okay just to have conversations with people who are spouting dangerous ideas. There is no responsibility, there is no quality control, there is no editorial control.

All right guys let's move on it's time for Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:34:36)[edit]

Theme: Materials science

Item #1: For the first time scientists have been able to create a two-dimensional polymeric material, that is six times stronger than bullet-proof glass, and twice as strong as steel at one-sixth the density.[7]
Item #2: MIT engineers have created a biological “duct tape” that can be applied to internal organs, adhering in seconds and lasting for months.[8]
Item #3: Scientists have engineered a cultivar of cotton that creates fibers with almost the tensile strength of Kevlar.[9]

Answer Item
Fiction Kevlar-strong cotton
Science Super-strong 2D polymer
Biological “duct tape”
Host Result
' win
Rogue Guess
Kevlar-strong cotton
Kevlar-strong cotton
Biological “duct tape”
Kevlar-strong cotton

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

S: Each week I come up with three scince news items or facts two real and one fake and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Luckily I had a backup for the one that Bob took for me at the last minute but we have three news items and there is a theme. It is these are still news items but the theme kind of emerged from the news items that were available the theme is material science. As in flubber. I was actually surprised Bob that none of the popular writing about that news item called it flubber.

B: Yeah right, right.

S: Maybe maybe we're dating ourselves.

E: I saw the awful remake of the of the not great original. (laughs)

S: But when we were young those movies were fantastic.

E: Disney.

S: Yeah. The computer and tennis shoes, loved it.

B: Oh my god.

S: All right.

E: Fred MacMurray, right?

B: Possibly.

E: In the original Flubber.

S: Yeah yeah totally. All right here we go.

C: I'm so glad I went first last week.


S: Cara you're not going first but Evan will go first.


Evan's Response[edit]

E: Thanks. Okay a two-dimensional, two-dimensional? Polymeric material.

S: Like a sheet doesn't mean it's literally two dimensional.

E: Okay yeah all right because I was like, fiction! Six times stronger than bulletproof glass twice as strong as steel one-six the density. Yeah those are all pretty amazing features and I've heard of these kinds of materials with these with these kinds of measurements you know measuring it as far as how strong is it versus steel or what's the what what fraction of density. So this sounds, because really I have no idea, that it sounds like how it's worded that it sounds like science. #2, MIT engineers created a biological duct tape applied to internal organs adhering in seconds lasting for months. That's kind of cool you know again with any of these I couldn't speak to the science behind any of this stuff it's just a matter of which one is the least least believable of the three. Yeah okay wow duct tape huh? I don't know I'm gonna have to think about that a little bit longer as I go to the third one, which is a cultivar of cotton cultivar of cotton that creates fibers with almost the tensile strength of Kevlar. Could you could you engineer? Could you could you engineer cotton? And their fibers have almost the tensile strength of Kevlar. All right I'll just have to put a nickel down on this thing right because I really don't know the science─

S: Do it.

E: ─behind any of these so therefore my nickel goes to the cotton one, I will say the cultivar cotton no, that one is fiction.

S: Okay, all right Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right so Evan picked the cotton one. So all right the first one here about the scientists the two-dimensional polymeric material, yeah I mean I have no reason to think that they couldn't come up with a new material that's stronger than bulletproof glass. I mean I have to admit I don't know how strong bulletproof glass is I've seen it in action.

S: I understand it can stop bullets.

J: Yeah I don't know how many how many times it can take a direct hit but that's not even relevant here. One-six the density but twice as strong as steel. Yeah I mean we should be creating things like this all the time as far as I'm concerned so I don't see like a problem with that one. MIT engineers they've created a biological duct tape. Of course they did because we you know this should have been created a long time ago. I would imagine that they had been they that many companies and and organizations have been working on something like this. So it doesn't surprise me that something like this exists, like it you can use it to slap on a wound or you know maybe put on an internal organ during surgery to help it heal and then it has to basically biodegrade in the body and not you know leave any bad stuff behind. The second you read this one about cotton Steve I would have believed it if you just didn't say it was as strong as Kevlar.

C: It says almost.

J: It's almost yeah and you know when we say strong we're talking tensile strength but yeah I think I'm going to agree with with Evan, I think that one's the fake.

E: Thanks Jay. Even if I'm wrong I don't feel as bad now that someone's with me.

S: Okay Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Two-dimensional polymeric material, all right six times stronger than bulletproof glass, twice as strong as steel. What kind of steel?

S: You know steely steel.

B: Steely steel.

E: Steel magnolias.

S: That's a fair point as but like you know industrial steel the kind of stuff you build a building out of.

B: All right that's incredible if that's true I hope it's true but we're still we're talking about a two-dimensional polymeric material, they don't have like a piece of glass sized volume of it and maybe, they probably can't make it that big so they're comparing that to a similar sized you know similar sample of say steel bulletproof glass, and comparing the strengths that way. Maybe they probably if it's true they probably can't, they can't make it in bulk yet or if ever there may be some real yeah real issues with scaling that up. But still that's that's quite an amazing statement, then we've got, let's go to the other side of the spectrum here, we've got cultivar of cotton. Almost the tensile strength of Kevlar. That's pretty awesome. So those two to me are the extraordinary ones which makes the second one kind of like the stand out a little bit because that's more quotidian and not as like dramatic. But it doesn't make sense to me duct tape inside, okay you put a duct tape type of material inside it lasts for months, then what? What's it gonna dissolve after months? So I'm not buying that there's something wrong with that it's rubbing me the wrong way I'll say that's fiction.

S: Okay and Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I like the duct tape, I think that this a has the like such useful applications I think that probably people have long been wanting to find basically like internal band-aids right things that can help close a wound or keep a keep infection out of a wound or keep a perforated bowel from leaking its contents. This could be huge I'm not sure how it would work but I hope that it does work, I want this one to be true. The two that are bothering me but I'll tell you why I'm leaning towards going with the other guys bob sorry about that─

B: That's all right.

C: ─is that first okay two-dimensional polymeric okay, so it's multiple, does that mean multiple polymers or it's just made of polymers which is a lot of different kind of materials put together, so a plasticky kind of a thing.

S: Plasticky exactly.

C: Six times stronger than bulletproof glass, sure, lots of stuff is stronger than bulletproof glass, bulletproof glass is cool because it's optically clear but you don't say it's optically clear, it doesn't have to be that, so okay it's stronger than bulletproof glass and it's stronger than steel. I mean okay lots of stuff is. One-six density that's a big deal, well but he doesn't even say in what way it's stronger than steel.

B: It's true but twice as strong as steel and twice the density oh no one-six the density, that's huge.

C: That's the kicker.

B: That's huge.

C: It's the one-six the density that's the kicker.

B: Oh my god.

C: The first two don't impress me that much but the one-six the density is the kicker and then if I look at the cultivar of cotton. This one confuses the hell out of me because even Kevlar is not a fiber. Like it they engineered a cultivar of cotton that creates fibers with also almost the tensile strength of Kevlar. Well Kevlar wouldn't be as strong as Kevlar is if it wasn't woven a certain way so are we talking about.

S: Yeah but Kevlar has a measured official tensile strength.

C: Yes.

S: And so does cotton.

C: It does.

S: And so does other material but yeah so this is whatever on that scale this new engineered cotton has the almost a tensile strength of Kevlar.

C: Yeah I don't know I don't think that they could cultivate something like that, I think that they could maybe code it, that they could maybe combine it with something else that they could make a meta material or a material that could do that but I don't think it's gonna be a naturally grown cultivar so so that's the one that bothers me the most so I'm gonna go with the boys on it.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right so you all agree on the first one so we'll start there For the first time scientists have been able to create a two-dimensional polymeric material, that is six times stronger than bullet-proof glass, and twice as strong as steel at one-sixth the density. You guys all think this one is science, Bob you made a lot of assumptions there or those are perfectly reasonable caveats that I might have neglected to mention but what if I told you that they can mass produce this material? And second what if I told you that they could layer these two-dimensional sheets into whatever size and shape and volume they want?

B: I would think that once you did do that then it explodes.

C: I think you're telling us things about the SCIENCE.


B: What's the atmospheric pressure Steve, what's the atmospheric pressure?

S: One atmosphere.

E: And what's the gravity?

S There's no gotcha, what if I say there's no gotcha, you could mass produce it, you could make it into big stuff, no gotchas it's just awesome what would you say? Science or fiction?

C: That sounds awesome.

B: I'd say I'd say I still might have to say fiction it's too too good too good.

C: You never said fiction.

B: I know.

S: This one is, this one is science.

B: What's the gotcha man what's the...

S: There's no gotcha Bob I could not find a gotcha, this is they've been working on this for decades.

E: It's about time then.

S: The innovation is so you know polymer is like the plastics like Kevlar right, is a polymer and the the problem is that when you try to make a two-dimensional sheet of a polymer is that if any of the molecules are oriented in a different way, it starts to build up three-dimensionally so you end up with a blob of it rather than a sheet of it. So they had to come up with a process that kept everything oriented in such a way that they created, that they can't create a two-dimensional, meaning basically one molecule layer thick sheet of the stuff and they were able to do it, 2d crystals.

B: This is like this is like Nobel Prize dude I mean this.

S: Well this is this is potentially huge.

B: You can make a rocket out of this, why wouldn't you?

S: I mean they're talking about in terms of applications, like this could be a coding, here's another kicker it's completely impervious to gas and liquid.

C: What?

S: You can coat pipes with this thing and they won't leak you can coat metal with it like steel and it won't rust and so just as a coating it could be have amazing properties, but also as like structural material because it's light and strong right?

C: Is it a liquid can they, can they actually use it like a coating?

S: Yeah.

E: Spray it on?

S: It's like plastic, it's a spread-on, totally.

B: Jesus.

S: So this is one of those one of those materials that suddenly starts cropping up everywhere and they say they can mass produce it, like there's no real, all the things that I typically look for as the as the big caveat, and all we got to do is scale up or whatever, was not there.

C: And how much does it cost?

E: I hope it's not a carcinogen.

S: It's a polymer what's you know, what's Kevlar cost it's going to be you know I don't know.

B: That's a good question Cara that that could have been the kicker like yeah but it's a million dollars an ounce but I mean why would it be it's a you know it's a polymer.

S: Plastic, it's plastic it's just super strong impermeable plastic.

E: We don't like plastic.

B: Wow.

C: And yes Evan it contains materials known to the state of California to cause cancer.

E: There you go. They're gonna ban it.

C: Probably.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right, item #3, Scientists have engineered a cultivar of cotton that creates fibers with almost the tensile strength of Kevlar.

E: What happened to #2?

S: Oh guys I wanted to go to three, so I've got again I'm going to give you some more details to see if that anybody that would change anybody's mind so again I said engineered, this is not like just a, this is a GMO cotton right?

C: Right but it's still a GMO.

S: Yeah.

C: It's not a polymer.

S: No no it's not it's a GMO cotton, but here's the question what genes do you think they put in there?

C: The plastic genes.

E: The steel genes.

S: What's the what's the thing we've been trying to make for years?

B: Spider webs?

C: Spider silk!

B: Spider silk. That's how they did it.

C: Oh they didn't do it.

B: They did.

S: What if they put spider silk genes into the cotton?

B: Please please be real, please be real.

S: This one is the fiction, I made it up. But that what I was have I was hoping [inaudible].

E: You made it up out of whole cloth.

S: I did. But I was hoping one of you oh maybe they put spider silk in there because that's where my mind.

E: No I never made that connection.

C: No I didn't either, I didn't go there.

S: That's what they're trying to do, they're trying to get all kinds of things to poop out spider silk. But the problem is we can't, we get clumps of spider silk we don't get this strands. You need the spinnerets of the spider so that's been the technical problem there, but just getting yeast to make it or even like what sheep stomachs or something they have all kinds of ways to make the spider slug just not in a usable form. So anyway that's why this might be this kind of thing. So but if you want to know, cotton has a tensile strength, you have to you have to say like how much you know of it so if you have a size 35 cotton thread has a tensile strength of approximately 2 pounds or 0.9 kilograms, that's how much weight it would hold up before it breaks, right? Nylon same same thing was eight pounds and Kevlar 18 pounds so nine times the tensile strength of cotton. Kevlar is still the kind of the standard you know.

C: See and I guess I didn't realize that Kevlar is spooled, I thought the thing that is called Kevlar the you know Kevlar™ or whatever was the actual, included the weave.

S: Yeah so but we're talking about like for example we we talk about the the plausibility of a space elevator. Right now the best candidate for like what to build a cable out of is Kevlar. Even that wouldn't work. But that's still like the best thing we got going. We need to get beyond Kevlar─

E: Spider silk.

S: ─yeah spider silk might do it but if we can figure out how to how to mass produce it in a in a fiber you know in a arbitrarily long fiber.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: So all of this means that MIT engineers have created a biological “duct tape” that can be applied to internal organs, adhering in seconds and lasting for months is very cool science. This is also a very nice advance and because it is like an internal band-aid you know now. It was studied and developed specifically for intestines. You could actually tape intestines together.

J: Steve how long does it take to go away?

S: Several months.

J: Wow it's really strong.

C: That's brilliant.

E: Enough time for it to heal.

S: Yeah, yeah yeah.

C: Enough time to heal and prevent infection.

S: Exactly prevent infection, it will keep, prevent leaking. One thing they didn't mention in the write-up but what I thought of when I when I was reading this is like oh, I wonder if this would work on spleens. Because you know splenic tissue is what we call friable. Meaning it's very delicate, so you can't suture a spleen, right the spleen won't hold the suture, it's not strong enough. So if you get a ruptured spleen you've got to take it out, that's your only option, you have to remove it. There's no way you could suture it. But I wonder if this tape would work on spleens, I don't know it still may be not the surface of the spleen might not be strong enough to hold on to it, I don't know it might depend on the type of injury. But this this now we need to explore all kinds of applications for this but it's a you know biocompatible mesh that you can put inside the body, it has a adhesive side and a non-adhesive side so it's like tape in that way.

C: How does it stick to wet things?

S: And it sticks, yeah.

C: That's so cool.

B: You know why this one really sucks?

S: Yeah?

B: Because I spotted this stupid article and I skimmed it super fast barely read it.

S: Which one?

B: This one.

E: The duct tape?

S: No the duct tape one.

B: The duct tape and for some reason I had it in my head that this was an external closing the wound of the skin and not not the...

S: You thought that was what I changed. So I thought that's what you changed that it was external only not internal and then of course.

C: You can already do that with just duct tape (laughter), if you have to tape a wound closed.

'B: You've ever put there is duct tape on your skin? You will only do that once. Twice at the most.

C: If you have a horrible injury you're out in the middle of nowhere and you have duct tape like you better believe you're gonna tape that wound closed. People glue wounds closed it could save your life.

B: Sure, but no one's gonna even think of using regular duct tape in the hospital setting so.

C: Yeah it' in quotes.

S: Duct tape was in quote.

B: Of course, duh, of course I knew that.

J: Steve come on.

B: I thought this was only about skin. The outside of the skin because my big problem was dissolving, three months it takes three months to dissolve well it turns out it does, but that that didn't make sense to me.

S: Bob I thought that too when I read the headline─

B: HA!

S: "Engineers developed certain duct tape as an alternative to sutures", I'm like okay that's for closing external wounds, but then I read the article and it's like oh this is for use organs.

B: See, that's my problem, I didn't read the article.

E: Steve, I have a question, Steve was this the item that you replaced with the item that Bob presented─

B: Oh shit.

E: ─as the Quickie with Bob?

S: No no so the flubber was going to be number one and I put the the two-dimensional polymeric materials when I put it instead.

E: The irony of that if this would.

B: Yeah, I hear you.

S: Nobody went for it, nobody went for one number one I kind of had a sense that you guys would figure that was all very plausible. So that's why that was the my alternate.

B: No I might have picked that, I might have picked that if I wasn't convinced I read goddamn number two.


E: Can't trust what you're skimming.

C: (laughs) you can't trust what you're skimming.

B: Right. Right? Especially when it comes to science or fiction.

S: Damn headline writers. All right well good job everyone with Bob. All right Evan give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:53:56)[edit]

Officials, educators, media personalities, and opinion makers must do everything they can to educate the public, assuage people’s fears, and show that the pandemic is being handled fairly and rationally. Lives and people's well-being are at stake, for years to come.
Nidhal Guessoum, Algerian astrophysicist

E: And this is from an article he wrote a very good article I liked it, from titled: "Tackling pseudoscience amid the COVID-19 pandemic". And he just wrote that last week, a very very good article.

C: The problem with that quote out of context Evan is that it doesn't always hold, there are definitely like, look at Brazil look at America in the previous administration.

E: Yes.

C: Experts weren't doing everything within their power and they weren't necessarily making evidence-based decisions. and so I can see why trust has eroded in a lot of places and it's really it's incumbent upon us to earn it back .

S: Yeah I agree and yeah we've gotten some emails recently as well about like our handling of anti-vaxxers and saying oh you're going too hard on the anti-vaxxers, maybe if you were nicer you know they would come around but the fact that it's just not true, the evidence shows that's not the case, there's like no communication strategy that works and I have a hard time with blaming you know scientists and public health officials etc. when there is a group of people who are deliberately spreading horrible misinformation and the people who are maybe not as successful as we would hope for them to be. It's like blaming the firefighters for not putting out the fire quickly enough, when it was started by an arsonist.

C: When it was arson yeah exactly.

S: When you blame the arson not though the firefighter should have got there a little earlier or whatever like okay sure you can you know.

C: We can blame the firefighters who want to just I don't know sprinkle gasoline on the fire instead of using water like those firefighters.

S: I wouldn't even use the word blame like when it comes to firefighters the firefighters have no blame do you think.

C: No I'm talking about like pseudo firefighters.

S: Oh yeah I know, stick with my analogy, without trying to deconstruct it. What I'm saying is that you don't if there's an arson, you blame the arsonist you you don't nitpick the firefighters for how well they did to put out the fire, the firefighters can certainly self you know talk about how could we do better this time and how can we get our response time down, fine, that's all great like we're talking about how can we communicate better and whatever but it's not our fault we're not communicating optimally, when there are people who are actively spreading misinformation. Those are the people to point to when you're when you're saying you know what is the cause of this problem. You know not the people who are trying to solve it because they're not solving it well enough you know it's just.

C: Right but that assumes that you know who those people are and what I'm saying is that there are examples at the at the governmental level of public health experts actively spreading misinformation across the globe, there are examples of firefighters who are arsonists.

S: Yeah well I think that that is that makes, it complicates the whole thing. But then but that's not the problem with firefighters, that's the problem with those specific ones who are betraying their job and their, it's like blaming physicians for Dr Oz, it's like no, he is a physician but he's not representative of our profession he's an outlier.

C: It's blaming the whole medical establishment.

S: Yeah who's abusing his his authority and his position.

C: And I think it's also important to to clarify that when we talk about anti-vaxxers we're talking about anti-vaxxers we're not talking about vaccine hesitant.

S: Yes we're not talking about the rank-and-file vaccine hesitant, who are victims of misinformation. We're talking about the people who are actively spreading that misinformation and have an infrastructure where they make money off of spreading that misinformation etc.

C: And absolutely those people should be shamed and I think prosecuted.

S: We say marginalized, all we said is marginalized that's at the very least yeah I mean I'm not going to─

C: Prosecuted.

S: ─you don't have to, prosecute, that's a different kettle of fish but they should definitely be culturally marginalized. And you know there's yes there is a time and a place for you know the the soft approach and that's our always our default you know take just educate people, empathize, understand. Critical thinking is a tool we can't blame people because nobody ever gave them that tool, you know? That's an and that's an endless cycle that you just.

B: Yeah not stupid but you know more you know uninformed and misinformed and maybe ignorant but not stupid.

C: Yeah but we can blame the people who are actively spreading that misinformation with an agenda.

B: Absolutely, absolutely.

S: Yes. People who know better or should know better or simply just not taking responsibility for what they're doing.

C: They're in positions of power yeah yeah for sure.

S: All right guys well thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it man.

B: Sure man.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thank you Steve.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

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  • Fact/Description
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