SGU Episode 873
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|SGU Episode 873|
|April 2nd 2022|
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|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
|AJR: Andrea Jones-Rooy, |
political, social, and data scientist and professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the NYU Center for Data Science
|Quote of the Week|
I beg of you, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily "supernatural" or the work of "spirits" just because you cannot explain them.
Harry Houdini, Hungarian-American escape artist, illusionist, stunt performer
Introduction, Live from NYC
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. (applause) Today is March 25th, 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. (applause) Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody! (applause)
S: Cara Santa Maria...
C: Howdy. (applause)
S: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys. (applause)
S: ...and Evan Bernstein.
E: Hello New York! (applause)
S: And we have a special guest Andrea Jones-Rooy. Andrea, welcome to the SGU. (applause)
AJR: Hello. Thank you for having me.
S: You've been on the show before.
AJR: I've been on the live stream.
S: The live stream.
AJR: I've never done a, I've never done a SGU.
E: Not on SGU.
S: You're first time the guest rogue. A virgin. Yeah. (Cara laughs)
AJR: So, we'll see. I'll just just wink and I'll leave whenever [inaudible] (Cara laughs)
E: Not before science or fiction.
S: Andrea you are a political scientist and a data specialist.
S: That is accurate?
AJR: Political scientist and data scientist.
S: Data scientist.
AJR: Yeah. I don't just specialize. I science. (Cara laughs)
J: It that two PhDs?
S: Is that two separate PhDs?
AJR: It's one PhD and a rebranding, is what it is. (Cara laughs) Yeah. So I have a PhD in political science and then all the students in the entire world wanted to study data science and I said "yeah, I teach data science". And so now I'm a data scientist.
C: That's what you can do when you have a PhD, people don't seems to know.
AJR: Exactly, exactly, Cara you're ready you can, you can change it all around. So I did do quantitative political science. And so I was doing statistics and now I just said yeah, I can look at other numbers, they don't have to be about politics. That's where I am now, yeah. And I did the programming side of analysis in political science so it was sort of related.
B: What kind of program.
AJR: I started in R and now I'm in Python, what do you think about that?
B: I've heard of Python, I've never heard of R. Is that like a pirate language? Arrrr.
AJR: Yes, yeah. Well there's a hilarious statistics joke, I don't know, I'm sorry a programming joke, are you ready?
B: Please please yes.
AJR: So the joke is: what is a pirate's favorite programming language?
AJR: Stata. (Cara and Evan laughs) And we like it because it makes someone say arrr and you're hilarious. (laughter) So we had fun in grad school. I have a, I have an actual statistics joke if you want to hear it. I'll stop. Is this why you want to go?
J: Go ahead.
AJR: Do you know the three statisticians who go hunting?
AJR: No? You know this?
S: I think I've heard this.
AJR: Okay, so three statisticians go hunting. Don't say if you know what it is, right, they go hunting. One of the statisticians shoots at the duck and hits 10 feet in front of it. Another one statistician shoots at the duck and hits 10 feet behind it. And the third statistician says "you got it!". (laughter)
C: I like it.
AJR: And those were the two times we laughed in grad school. (laughter)
S: I had a doctor duck hunting joke.
AJR: Oh let's hear it.
S: So there was a family practitioner, neurologist and a surgeon go duck hunting.
S: Right? So they're waiting for the [inaudible] for the ducks to come. A flock of ducks flies by. The family doctor says "There, oh duck, wait do you think it's a duck? What about you? Do you think those are ducks?". By the time he was done getting consultations they had, they had flown by. Then another five minutes go by, another flock of ducks come by and now it's the neurologist's turn to shoot he aims his gun "It's a duck! Wait that could be a goose. Or it could be a, you know, a swallowed tail but before he would caught up, you know, figured out exactly what the species was, they were gone. Then a few minutes later another more ducks come by now it's the surgeon's turn. As soon as they come into view he raises his gun blam blam empties both barrels. Grabs the other guy's gun, there's birds falling all over the place. Then he turns to, actually, there's supposed to be a pathologist there as well (Cara laughs), turns to the pathologist and says: "Go make sure those were ducks".
C: Yeah, there you go.
AJR: Yeah, that's good. All right, I have one for being stranded on a desert island. And it's, what is it, it's a physicist, a chemist and an economist, okay? Does anyone know this one? You might know that, in the front you know this one, okay. So let me see if I get this right. So they're stranded on a desert island. Everyone is starving. It's a physicist, chemist and economist. And a political scientist my PhD's in political science so we added ourselves to the joke, right? It's the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we have. They're stuck on a desert island. All there is is one can of food and no can opener. So they say: "How we're gonna open this?". And the physicist says: "Well, we could set up some kind of lever and then have it catapult against the thing and then crack it open and blah blah blah.". The chemist says: "Well we could apply heat", I don't come from the natural sciences, so I don't know it might work, "We could apply some heat and crack it home and it would expand". And the economist says: "Assume there's a can opener.". And then the political scientist says: "Assume the economist is right.".
C: There you go.
AJR: But if you're a political scientist that's uproariously hilarious. (laughter)
Special Report: Political Science of War (4:36)
- James D. Fearon: "Rationalist Explanations for War"
S: So Andrea we were chatting before the show and you said that a paper came out recently which completely changed your entire field. So let's, let's hear about it. Well I first won a challenge recently, because maybe I misled you. It came out in 1995. (Cara laughs)
S: You didn't mention that.
AJR: I didn't mention that. In the scheme of knowledge is very recent.
C: When people cite papers now, that I'm editing a book, right now and I'm seeing like citations from the 90s and they'll say things about things and I'm like no, that doesn't fly, I need something a little more reasonable. A lot has changed since 1995.
S: It depends on your field.
AJR: But this was a revolutionary field, or a revolutionary paper that spawned research that's going on to this day. And so the paper is "Rationalist Explanations for War by James D. Fearon, who's a political scientist at Stanford. You can look it up, I checked ahead of time, there's no paywall, you can look, free PDF. It's an amazing paper. And he said in 1995: "The main puzzle with war is that it's costly but it nonetheless recurs". So war is─
S: Recur or reoccur?
AJR: I think he says recur.
C: It does recur, it does not reoccur. Actually it probably reoccurs and also recurs, yeah. I think recur is more specific than reoccur.
AJR: Right. I think so. Right. And the idea is that wars are exposed inefficient. So exposed inefficient, meaning once we get to the end of a war, and there's a reason, this is on my mind and I'm sure you're all imagining what that reason is these days. After the war, you're gonna get to some settlement, wars end and some settlements sorted out. But we've all paid the cost. Big capital C of what that war was. So why can't rational actors figure out their problems and not incur that huge cost C and just get to that settlement without all the violence. Like literally without all the stuff going on in Russia and Ukraine. And a lot of researchers until 1995 said well the explanation is, I'm oversimplifying, but the explanation is egos, irrationality, crazy people. And that may be the explanation, right? But this person said, James Fearon said, what if we could mathematically figure out a rational reason to incur this capital cost C. If we could figure that out, then maybe we could do things to prevent or shorten wars. So I've been thinking about Fearon's paper and that spawned a whole revolution in the field where we started using math and assuming economists were right to understand and predict war. So it's a huge landmark paper. The three reasons that a rational actor would choose were, by rational I only mean, I think I'm giving a lecture, sorry everyone. By rational I only mean you're doing what's best for you, you don't have to get too wound up on the definition, right? Three reasons. One - incentives to misrepresent private information. So my private information if I'm Russia or I'm Ukraine is how far I'm willing to go to fight for this thing and how much power I actually have. Both sides have incentives to act like they are stronger than they are, and so you're going to escalate to a point of no return. There's some brinkmanship and shelling if you know that game theory as well. And so the idea is you escalate, escalate, escalate and incur something called audience costs where everyone else is watching, and you can't back down, and so you're better off going to war in incurring this C than saying "oh just kidding" and this was, you know, the Iraq invasion and George W Bush, like, that was very big, you know, a very strong example of this particular mechanism.
The second is commitment problems. I can't commit to not fighting you because there's no world government. And I can't commit that if we get to a settlement where we say well this is where Ukraine ends and this is where Russia. The paper wasn't about Russia and Ukraine but it'd be amazing if it were, right? We can't commit to not fighting tomorrow, so it never goes away.
And the third is one, that this this researcher said it might not be a real problem because there are creative solutions around it, is issue indivisibility. Which is it's just an issue you cannot come to an agreement on, so you think like Israel-Palestine or you practically can't divide it up, because it's on the same land. Oor you're disputing, you think of all the territorial disputes around the world like that could be it. Political scientists like to think well in practice, we could figure it out. You could have this territory on weekends and holidays, and you could have this territory and it's like, but in reality there's political reasons you couldn't get to those.
So those are the three big reasons for war. And one thing the political scientists like to do is watch every war and see which of those three things explains what's going on. It's a very grim pastime, and we're not very fun people to hang around, right?
B: Did they watch a news and eat popcorn?
AJR: Yeah exactly. We say incentives to misrepresent private information, yeah, that's it, we bet it's all very fun. The thing with Ukraine and Russia is that I don't think either three of those apply. Maybe issue indivisibility. But what's so jarring, one of the many things that's so jarring about Ukraine-Russia is that you, most of our models of war, since 1995 have assumed two sides that participate in this escalation. And it's so rare to see the cases where one side is like, I'm not escalating, I'm not going to fight, don't come fight, and then you see this huge escalation. Now there's fighting of course. But so I actually don't know and I've been wondering what James Fearon would say about these huge asymmetric wars.
J: I think you said it though, I mean this one is actually driven by ego.
AJR: I mean that's the thing and, so I'm like is Fearon wrong? This is my whole, you know, religion this past 30 years.
C: But did he even consult a psychologist when he wrote that paper? I mean that's the thing, like to, I get to say like maybe we can't say it's as simple as irrationality. But to say let's take irrationality out of the algorithm altogether seems short-sighted.
AJR: So he's not arguing that it's not irrationality.
AJR: He's saying if if it's if we have two rational actors, why would it still be rational for them to go to war.
C: Right but in in many cases we don't have two rational actors. And I think that's also part of the problem with Ukraine-Russia.
AJR: Well one of the frustrating things with political science and the world is that we, all the leaders that we are concerned about, Xi Jinping, you know, North Korea, every country that we're nervous about we debate are they rational actors, are they not rational actors. Trump - is he rational, is he not. What is rational, doing things in his own, how do you define that? And so we kind of get lost in circles, and this was why this paper was cool, was because we were like given that the argument, well they're crazy, it doesn't help us better understand.
C: Right, because they still are going to act in the interest of whatever their crazy algorithm is. And so understanding that is important. But rational versus irrational is sort of a construct that you're never going to be able to come to an agreement on.
C Is there pathology, is there not pathology.
AJR: Right, though I will read all those papers from psychologists, who are like, I shouldn't do this but I'm gonna analyze this later from afar (Cara laughs).
C: Yeah, go for it yeah, yeah.
S: So it's my understanding is, I mean I think the indivisible thing does sound right here, and if, tell me if you agree with this analysis, that Putin thinks that there is no Ukraine. Ukraine thinks there is a Ukraine. And that's an unresolvable difference.
AJR: Right, right.
S: And and I think you know Putin, from everything I'm reading about, is staking his entire country and political future on this notion that he can just absorb Ukraine because it doesn't actually exist or whatever.
C: But it's not that he thinks it doesn't exist, he thinks that in his moral universe he gets to own it. [inaudible] But that's what all of the coverage that I've seen. It's like it, it's historical, it's based on how he came up and developed his leadership. And he misses mother Russia desperately and wants to be that leader again.
S: Yeah but these two things are not mutually exclusive.
C: True, true.
S: So everything you're saying is correct, but, but I'm also reading, you know, from people who like wrote the book on psychology, that, you know, he really, there's this mythology now. Whether he believes it or not is anyone's guess. But the mythology is that Ukraine does not have any existence apart from Russia. It is Russia, right?
C: But he sees that they have a president.
S: No but that's not legitimate, it's just, it's just not legitimate.
C: Yeah he sees it all as not legitimate, not that it doesn't actually exist.
AJR: And we see examples of that elsewhere around the world as well.
E: Oh yeah.
AJR: Countries claim to be autonomous. And many people think they are. And other countries say I don't think so. You know, you can have your president, that's very cute but you're not actually that country.
C: Western Sahara, yeah.
S: I've read previously, and not a political scientist, don't know, but my late understanding was most wars are about resources. Is that still pretty much true or is?
AJR: It depends because resources as well is one of those things, where it's like, well how do you define resources, right? Usually we think natural resources and we're talking oil and this and that. And you can pin a lot of conflicts as I think through the ones that I'm aware of, it's like, yeah resources. But resources could also be human capital, it could be, I don't know what enough about the natural resources of Ukraine, I would imagine that there's more to it. The mythology around Putin is, it's not, if Putin was just trying to maximize natural resources, I don't know that Ukraine is where I would go, sorry.
J: Actually Ukraine is resource rich.
S: They're like the bread basket of Europe and you know without Ukraine Russia is a lot poorer. And so there would be a huge gain for Russia if they did absorb Ukraine.
AJR: That's true.
J: As an example Ukraine produces 75% of the of neon in the world. And you can't make CPUs without neon.
AJR: Look at us not supporting Ukraine or supporting Ukraine by running computers.
C: Couldn't you make a make a distinction though between geopolitical conflict or like war, straight up war geopolitical conflict, whether it be over ideology or over, you know, these these these three descriptions. And the very specific situations in which there's like an imperialist attitude, right? Because that's a different situation where one group wants to take ownership of one another's land. And that is the, that is what promoted war a lot historically. But I think you should, we have to look at those wars differently than we we look at conflicts between two nations where they have no intention of rewriting their boundaries. Or of sort of occupying or taking ownership. Like that's a different kind of a war.
AJR: Well I'm glad you brought that up for two reasons. One is that I think something, you're hitting on something that political science, to my knowledge, has not studied as much as they should. Which is, what are we fighting over in the first place.
C: Right. Like that does matter.
AJR: Right. We often assume in our models like, given a fight, how do we, what causes two countries that are in a dispute to go to war or not go to war. And most countries that are in disputes do not use violence against one another, right? The second thing that I love that you brought up about this is that measurement is one of my favorite fields or subfields, or techniques of all time which is, how do you even define and measure what a war is, right? Does it count as a war if you're like, I don't know, a whole bunch of people die and you're fighting over something. But is that 100 people, is it 50 people, is it, do they have to be civilians like it gets very grim.
S: It's 50.
AJR: It's 50?
C: Is a drone, is a coordinated drone strike a war.
S: Are economic sanctions an act of war?
AJR: Right, exactly. And, I think to to both of your point, I mean are we fighting over the land Ukraine, are we fighting over the physical resource or are we fighting over the idea. And I think the fact that it's a physical movement, I mean seeing, you know, in the New York Times you see these red arrows that just look so 100 years ago, right? Seeing the physical takeover of land feels like war in the sense. And maybe this is some American bias that I have, sending drones to fight an idea is super bad. But not a war in the same kind of sense that is causing us to freak out. I'm coming around Steve, I think that it's hard to think of any war where I would believe that there weren't resources under the hood, right?
C: But again, resources can be human capital, it can be land, it can be all of those things.
AJR: Right. The only other thing I'm going back to to fear on, because you know, he needs someone to defend his ideas. But, you know, these Stanford professors, no one's sticking up for them. (Cara laughs) Thank goodness I'm here, right? Is maybe Putin is playing a game of escalation not against Ukraine but the rest of the world.
AJR: Right? NATO, US, other powers, China, not the China, you know they're trying to get China on their side. But that might be what they're doing. They know Ukraine isn't going to fight back though they're fighting back more than they expected. But is Biden going to do something, that's the escalation that maybe he's playing.
J I question that because the one thing that I felt like all the analysts were sure was, that Putin did not want NATO to do what NATO did over the last month. NATO, the NATO nations really became arm and arm nations with each other. And it flew in the face of what he wanted. He was like trying to make it so he's suppressing NATO. And now NATO is an order of magnitude more powerful and resilient, you know?
C: But the worst possible thing that could have happened was that Ukraine went Euro and I think that's what really really, you know, exacerbated this.
J: What do you mean, they're wearing tight jeans?
C: Yes. All the things.
AJR: Even Eurovision and Santa Claus?
C: Funny thing is like, as silly as it sounds, that is part of it. Like their, their president wears blue jeans. Like he is very western in that way. And so all of these very kind of European and western influences from something that used to be the USSR. Like it's one thing if, if Ukraine was like this defunct, you know, old russian nation that sort of just was like languishing. But when they were, you know, talking about joining and when when sort of they started to get all this backing I think that scared Putin shitless. He does not want that, he does not want the world to go Euro. And that happened in his backyard.
J: Well Ukraine actually it was like doing better economically than Russia, right.
C: Of course, you don't want to be proven wrong when you're, you know, like it's really hard for some people to be wrong.
C: And sometimes instead of like going "okay, you're right", which is never going to happen with Putin, they're going to throw a temper tantrum.
S: Andrea how does, like just a gross miscalculation play into the rational actor thing? Because I think that's the one thing that everyone I've read on the Ukraine-Russia war says is that Putin totally miscalculated. Pretty much everything. His power. Ukraine's resistance. NATO's resilience. Pretty much across the board. And was he rational, given his assumptions and that the escalation was due to the fact that his assumptions were wrong?
AJR: Or yeah, or is he just─
C: Or is he a narcissist?
AJR: ─like he saw the math, was like I don't care, I'm gonna die soon anyway. And then so, we had a projector. There's a beautiful number line between for the two wars. So Russia-Ukraine and what their costs are, what they're willing to do. And there's all these different variables, and you hit on the main ones, which are like the things you could, you guess about, and you could get wrong. So the incentives to misrepresent, and this is where I think it happened less with Ukraine but maybe the other countries, is I want to make it look like I'm more willing to fight back. If anything Ukraine, Putin might have correctly thought that Ukraine wasn't willing. And then Ukraine surprised itself by being more willing. We don't actually know, there's a capital T true value for all of these variables. But we don't necessarily know what those are. Historically though these are the cases that we tend to observe because they're interesting. You think of US and Vietnam. We totally miscalculated how willing Vietnam was to fight. How able they were. So it's how willing are you to fight, it's what are your resources to fight. It's what's the match up of your resources versus our resources. And it's, that's where it kind of gets frustrating going back to the, the irrational, irrationality story because you can't know. And so the question is, given these variables, how do we either make it look like that Cost is going to be so big that Putin is incentivized to back down. Or how can we more transparently reveal how far everyone is willing to go to put an end to this. If we are. Right? And so so it's more about, how can we change the math as opposed to what he, because I don't know, what he thought. I don't know if his math was wrong or if it was right and he doesn't care, I don't know.
J: So I think, I think he well, he lives in a bubble, right?
AJR: That's the other thing.
J: That's the problem. He, I don't think he's actually hearing like hard reality.
C: And so how can you be a rational actor if...
J: If you're not getting real information. Another fair thing to say is, aren't we all surprised that Ukraine lasted this long? I thought it was going to be a two week thing.
C: Not just that they're lasting this long, that they're actually like they're taking things back now. Like they're, they're wearing Russia out.
J: Yeah. I wouldn't mess with Ukraine, I mean like, think about like, the like Russia's percep, you know, the world's perception of Russia I think is like it's massive, the army's huge, they have a ton, you know, like a ton of equipment and all this stuff. And then when we see it, it's like a clown show what they have going on in Ukraine. Like everybody miscalculated I think. Nobody said before this war Russia's gear is super old and their army is not [inaudible].
C: I think they kinda did, but they were like, but Ukraine has like not a lot to go back. I think it has always been kind of really.
J: I don't know, I didn't read any of that.
C: I think that's kind of the big kind of global joke is that Russia's a little like, you know, all their nuclear like, like they don't keep their nukes under lock and key and everything's like rusty and falling apart. I mean I think that's always kind of been everything's still cold war era.
AJR: I mean. I flew on Aeroflot in the early 2000s and I thought I was gonna to die, so...
C: I liked my Aeroflot.
C: Yeah, when I went to Kazakhstan. I thought it was kind of [inaudible]
AJR: Oh man all the stereotypes, like we took off and it's immediately bouncing. All the seats. The things don't latch shut at the top. And all the people, I'm not even exaggerating, all the people on the plane who were all like old Russian dudes, stood up and immediately started passing around vodka. Like as we're going.
C: That sounds horrible.
AJR: Is this a joke, am I being punked?
C: That is not how my flight went.
AJR: I had water in [inaudible] it was wild. So I'm assuming that's how they got to Ukraine, I don't know.
C: It's on Aeroflot.
AJR: But there is another line of research that's like okay, one thing we tend not to think about are the people on the ground, who are doing the fighting. We get so wound up with the leaders, that it's like well, who's doing the fighting, right, who are the the players on the ground. And in this case, what is Russia, what are the Russian soldiers fighting for.
AJR: Versus what are the Ukrainian people fighting for. And I would certainly imagine that they would fight a lot more if you're on the Ukrainian side.
E: You're yeah you're defending your it's a different strategies, absolutely.
AJR: You're playing two different games, right? You're doing what you're supposed to do.
C: But but but but again if we're working under legitimate, valid data and assumptions it's one thing. But if we're operating under the construct of the propaganda bubble that the Russian soldiers are fighting under it's different. So they they may be fighting for something that we fully don't understand because we haven't been living under that propaganda machine for as long as they have.
AJR: What I would love is a bit of survey research on the front lines for the Russian and Ukrainian soldiers and then we'll know..
J: Well they have.
AJR: Think you're right because we don't know, we don't know what they think.
J: They have prisoners of war, I mean they could be asking those soldiers that they've captured, you know, what to do, I'm sure they are, I'm sure we just aren't getting the intel.
AJR: I mean are we so in the, I don't want to be politically biased, are we on Ukraine's side, what do we think?
C: Pretty, yeah.
J: I mean, you know.
AJR: I mean Putin has some interesting ideas (Cara laughs) Please don't use that [inaudible] out of context.
[talking over each other]
E: I mean it's pretty clear to me.
C: The longer you're in media the more you realize you can't make statements like that, that somebody can pull completely out of context and then air somewhere.
AJR: I'm gonna have to slip Steve a lot of money [inaudible].
B: You're clearly not a rational actor.
AJR: I'm just trying to misrepresent.
S: All right. Let's move on to some news items. We have a few news items to get to.
Transgenic Plants and Space Travel (22:55)
S: We're going to start with one about transgenic plants in space. So this is a study looking at a transgenic lettuce. And the the idea was, you know, that, you know, space is a pretty unforgiving place, you know, there's there's no food there.
B: It's cold.
S: It's very cold. Or hot. It could be, it tends to be either it'll boil you or freeze you, one or the other. There's no air or water like it's pretty, pretty [inaudible] place.
E: Lots of radiation.
S: Lots of radiation.
E: Lots of radiation.
B: But it's pretty, it's pretty.
S: And yeah, NASA's planning on going to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
E: Good luck.
S: Three-year mission is what they're planning. 10 months to get to Mars. About a year on Mars carrying out the mission. 10 months to get back. And they, you know, they are researching all the things they have to research to figure out how to do that. They don't have all the answers yet, they're just assuming in the next 10 years or whatever we're going to figure out all the pieces to the puzzle. And the the research that's happening on the ISS, a lot of that is to figure out how are we going to get astronauts to Mars and back, right? So one of the things that is a huge challenge is microgravity. The fact that you know for 10 months there, 10 months back, they're gonna, the astronauts going to Mars will be under microgravity, essentially no gravity because they'll be coasting. And on Mars, Mars surface gravity is 38% Earth's surface gravity. So they'll be under reduced gravity for three years. Now aboard the ISS the data that we have from there is, lots of bad stuff happens, right, in microgravity. One thing in particular is bone loss. Astronauts lose 1-2% of their bone mass per month in microgravity.
AJR: Oh god it's that bad?
S: 1-2% per month.
S: So if you're there for a couple of months it's a nuisance, right? 30 months, you know, do the math, it's, that's a problem, right? We don't have, we haven't had you know somebody that long, but, what's the longest one on the ISS? It's getting up to a couple, a year or two.
J: Well over a year.
C: Is that bone loss, sorry, just to. just to clarify. Is that bone loss all things being equal, no other variables, or is that like the best we can do?
S: That's the best we can do.
C: So that's with supplements and exercise.
S: With exercise and everything else. That's with the program. Because they're not having astronauts not exercising to see what happens.
C: Right, they can't, yeah.
S: So that's that's with the best exercise program that we can have on the ISS they still lose 1-2%.
B: And that's crazy exercise, I mean, it's like what a?
E: They spend a lot of time.
C: I think two hours a day.
B: It's two hours a day? Who does two hours of exercise a day?
J: An aquanaut?
AJR: I don't know that word but I like it.
C: Somebody who does like undersea research and spends a lot of time under sea.
J: That is cool.
C: To train, mostly to train to be an astronaut but I had her on my show, I just interviewed her last week so her episode will air on Monday. And we talked a lot about those experiences of like, you have to strap yourself into bed because otherwise you'll like float around and hit your head on shit. And yeah, she said about two hours a day, is what's generally just a baseline just to try and combat.
B: And you still and you 1-2%.
S: Still lose 1-2% of your bone mass. All right so one of the ways to mitigate that, again I always like to go back to fact, we asked a couple of NASA scientists: "What do you do about the whole gravity thing?". And their answer, and radiation and all that. Their answers were basically twofold one - get there fast, and two - we'll find out we'll medically mitigate it, right? That's─
S: ─we, you can't shield against the radiation there's, forget artificial gravity, not happening this century.
C: Yeah they're locked eagles.
S: The engineering problems are too severe.
B: Right, even, even like a rotating habitat, it's not gonna happen, it's not gonna happen soon.
S: Maybe a space station, that doesn't have to go anywhere but not going to Mars, not going to happen. So every science fiction show lied to us.
AJR: Yeah I'm watching the Expanse, so this is crap, yeah.
S: Well Expanse is actually pretty good, they actually are in microgravity, they're using Velcro to the ground and everything, all their hair is up. They're very careful about that. But anyway, so how do you mitigate bone loss medically? With hormones, right? Parathyroid hormone which stimulates bone growth. This is a hormone that you have to inject, so you could just give, you know, give a daily injection of parathyroid hormone.
J: Right so every bone in your body will get thicker?
S: No. Yeah yeah. It's a hormone, so it just makes your bones store more calcium, right? So basically...
C: Do you have to also supplement calcium or do you have enough calcium?
S: Well you know, this assumes you, you're not dietarily limited.
C: Right, right.
S: Your diet is adequate.
C: Probably they would supplement it also.
S: And vitamin D and all that stuff.
J: Will that work on elderly?
S: Yeah, sure, yeah.
C: But not from osteoporosis.
S: But here's the thing, it could, it could work with osteoporosis. But, it's a daily injection.
C: It's daily.
S: So imagine taking to Mars three years worth of syringes and drugs for daily injections for every astronaut on the Mars mission. It's not feasible. It's not feasible. S that's not going to work.
B: Probably cost 10 million dollars just to launch the drugs off the ground.
C: Don't you think every astronaut's just going to have an IV, they're gonna have to, right?
S: Not necessarily.
C: There's a lot of medical mitigate in Mars? I don't know.
AJR: Everyone just have one syringe.
C: There a lot of, yeah, or a port. I don't know there's so much medical mitigation we talk about, so many different things that they might have to do.
S: But ports can go wrong man.
C: They can.
S: They can clog and get infected, you don't want to be on Mars with a clogged, infected clogged port.
C: But you also don't want to be every day on Mars.
S: Of course. But list-, but wait. (laughter)
[talking over each other]
S: So this is the transgenic plant story that we're going to talk about now.
J: Steve get to the point. (laughter). Just teeing it up.
S: So, you can make, you can make a form of parathyroid hormone that you can eat. Basically. You could modify, you attach a fractionated crystallized, whatever, protein to it which you get from an antibody. And that does a few things. For one it stabilizes it. Makes it so it's more bioavailable. So you could eat it and actually absorb it. And it makes it stay longer in your blood. So it prolongs the duration of the effect, right? So you could have that, now how are you gonna have, again, enough of this parathyroid hormone for everyone to have a three year supply? Well, you could grow it.
B: Aaa, see?
S: If you can insert the gene for this modified parathyroid hormone protein into a plant, let's say a lettuce plant.
B: Yeah but we can't insert genes willy-nilly what do you?
C: We can't? [sarcasm]
S: This is the research they did, they made a transgenic lettuce with this inserted protein. They actually haven't gone through all of the ones that they've created yet. They've only looked at the first like 10 out of 400 that they made. But it had enough of the parathyroid hormone modified in the lettuce, that if you had eight cups per day, which they admit is a big salad.
B: A lot of salad.
AJR: A lot of salad.
E: How much is that?
S: I would be okay that, I love salad. But every day?
C: Yeah juice it. Or blend it.
J: Can't they just make it make more?
S: So, can't they make it make more? That's of course the goal, right? So obviously this is this is version 1.0 and we have 10 years or whatever to make better versions of it. So hopefully they'll be able to get the content up enough where it's only half that, let's say, you know, four cups becomes a lot more manageable. Whether it's juiced or eating eaten raw or whatever. So that's the goal, right? We'll deal with the bone loss by giving by growing parathyroid hormone. And they're growing food too, which I understand you need that too if you're going you're spending three years going back and forth for Mars.
J: This means though they absolutely are going to have to grow plants when they get there.
S: If, this is the plan if, this is the solution then yes, they're going to absolutely.
C: I think they have to do that anyway.
C: I think that's always been known that they have to. I would think they would choose something with a little more nutritional density.
AJR: I was wondering about lettuce.
C: Like it seems like a wasted vehicle.
[talking over each other]
C: Put it in a potato!
E: Easier to grow than other options?
C: Put in something that has more calories.
S: I don't know why they chose lettuce.
AJR: Coconut would be nice. (Jay laughs)
J: Takes two years for the palm tree to grow.
C: Pineapple yeah.
B: Can't you just take the 8 cups and distill the hormone down into something that is in the shot glass?
S: Theoretically. But again, we're trying to make it easy on─
B: Yeah I get it.
S: ─Mars, not give them all this complicated stuff to do.
AJR: Well it sounds like they have two hours a day to walk on a treadmill, they might as well eat lettuce at the same time (Cara laughs)
E: Oh, at the same time?
J: Maybe this is easy to grow, maybe that's more than anything.
S: Yeah I mean lettuce is easy to grow, you can grow it hydroponically.
B: It's a proof of concept, it's not necessarily gonna be lettuce.
S: You're right and they might put the same thing in multiple different things so they're not just eating lettuce every day, you know, tomatoes whatever. Cucumbers, you know, that'd be nice.
AJR: It's like all right you have to eat one food when you go to Mars, like pick carefully because that's the one.
B: Peanut butter.
S: Beans? Beans are good.
AJR: Pick like, Reese's Puffs cereal.
B: Oh my god yes. I had it just last week it was awesome.
S: Yes, the Reese's Puffs plant, yes, that's what they'll do. (Jay laughs) So anyway, so more, to me, more interesting than this one application is the technology right, is the idea. So seeds, very tiny. And they don't weigh very much. So you could take a bunch of seeds to Mars because weight and size is everything when you're getting stuff to Mars. And then you basically have a pharmaceutical factory that you can just you know prop up just by growing stuff on Mars. So once they get to the point where they like all right we have simulated Mars soil, we can, we know what to do to make it, so that we can make it into soil you can grow stuff in. That's, it doesn't, it gives you food, it gives you oxygen, very important. And it could also give you pharmaceuticals. Like, your growth hormone or whatever, your your parathyroid hormone so you don't lose your bone mass. But think about all the other things that could create. This is just a technology that could be used to produce any protein, whatever, you could produce theoretically in this way. And so there you know there may be again a whole suite of transgenic or modified plants.
J: Can they make a Xanax salad that would be actually.
S: Xanax salad? Theoretically.
AJR: Prozac coffee.
S: Bring in a bunch of seeds and you have them as, yeah, there might also be industrial uses not just pharmaceutical uses that you know you might be able to make stuff out of it. So growing these transgenic plants on Mars could be very very useful for a lot of things. Again plus you also get your food and it would be nice to also, you know, genetically modify them so that they can grow on Mars. Also you might want to optimize them so they can be grown hydroponically. And of course these all can have applications on Earth. For example, there are countries in on Earth where people don't have good nutrition, they don't have adequate medical care and they can't get these daily injections of parathyroid hormone, of course that's a separate problem that we should be fixing. But in the meantime mitigating that by saying well: "Here, you can just grow these plants" and that will be better than nothing. It could be a partial solution to that. So there could be a lot of runoff from this technology that has earthly applications. But I definitely think that genetically modified plants are going to be playing a huge role in any future space colonies that we have, settlements.
J: One thing that sticks in my head when I hear this is, how much space are they going to have to grow plants indoors? I mean, imagine if they had a space as big as this room. Which is huge on Mars, right? How much food can you grow in a room this size?
C: Vertical farming is how you have to do it. It's all hydroponics so it's like rows and rows and rows, you can grow acres worth of food in like no space.
E: And like how many people are going, it's not, I don't think hundreds of people probably could be a dozen, maybe.
AJR: The six of us and who else? (Cara laughs)
J: Can they use and is the Sun intensity there different enough.
S: The Sun intensity on Mars is 50% Earth. 50%.
C: They probably use grow light anyway.
S: But you can use grow lights.
C: Grow lights are more efficient anyway.
S: So they did they, you know, that's why people Jay have been experimenting with the, the self-contained, you know, places. To see like well how could can they grow their food.
E: The biodome.
S: The biodomes, yeah. So the ones that they've run so far have been able to grow 70 or 80% of the food that they need, so they haven't made them yet intensive enough that it was 100%. But it creates more than enough oxygen. Actually, you know, I read an interesting paper, if you grew enough food to feed everyone there, you would actually overproduce oxygen and that would be a hazard.
E: Well you have to vent it.
S: Unless you vent it. Yeah because it would blow up, you know.
B: Or turn it into fuel.
S: Yeah or turn into fuel. So that would have to be built in. So you have to overproduce oxygen then siphon off the excess for fuel, right? That's a great fuel.
J: They have that moxie machine that's converting the atmosphere into oxygen for fuel.
C: And when you grow in a closed system, a fully sealed closed system like they're doing with some of the shipping container systems, you have no loss of water.
S: Yeah water use.
C: Because it doesn't evaporate, it evaporates, condenses, it's always the same water being used.
E: All contained.
C: Yeah, it's 100%. So that's really really beneficial too.
AJR: I want to move into one of those now.
Homeopathy Trials and Publication Bias (37:13)
S: Jay, this is, this is old news but it's, it's good to see it being applied to something that we talk about a lot, homeopathy. Tell us about this homeopathy research and why homeopathy, one more reason why we know homeopathy is totally bogus.
J: So we've talked about reporting bias before on the show. Reporting bias is also known as the file drawer effect which Steve likes to remind me. Like you just throw it in there and you close the door. So researchers in general they, they analyze scientific studies and how the studies were conducted, what, to help them determine which ways actually work, right? So some ways of of studying or like they'll say the scientific method. They want to improve the process of the scientific method. Some ways that they go about doing that actually produce usable data and important data. And some ways that they do, it produce data that's untrustworthy and not and not good. And, you know, this is called meta science or the science of science, right? They're studying how to perform science. So a group of Austrian researchers have applied metascience to the study of homeopathy. And you might ask yourself who gives shit? Why would they do this to homeopathy, right?
S: Well you, I mean the fact that it's Austria is significant. Homeopathy was invented yeah in Austria. I was in Vienna once and there were homeopathy shops on every corner. I mean it's just taken for granted it's real.
J: But it's also a good, a good topic for them to apply what they're doing here. So let me, let me get into what they're actually doing. So they, they first set out to understand why a not insignificant number of clinical trials on homeopathy homeopathy produced positive results. And this makes sense, right? So we know homeopathy has zero basis in science. So you would figure that most of the studies wouldn't have positive results but that's not the case. So why do some studies show positive results?
E: Bad studies.
J: What's that?
E: Bad, they're bad studies.
J: Exactly. But there's more to this which is interesting.
S: Or just chance.
C: Or chance, yeah yeah.
E: Right, it does it, right.
C: Not very robust statistical analysis.
B: Or maybe we're wrong. (laughter)
J: Another important element to this is I found that, it was found by the research, is that the trials that showed homeopathy did not work were less likely to get published. Think about that, that's a bias right there. So researchers of course have come up with a plethora of ways to test potential treatments. But as time passed researchers discovered that most methodologies had problems. And this is why it became obvious that the double-blind randomized clinical trial like I said before ended up being the most reliable method. And we're still improving it by the way, there's still, there's so many variables when we do a double-blind test. So many ways that bias can creep in, it's ridiculous. When you, I've heard Steve talk about this ad nauseam and it really is like unbelievable how hard it is to design a study that's effective, that produces worthwhile data. It's so easy to just completely waste millions of dollars in time. So that's why they studied this stuff. So the other methods allow biases to sneak in, right? These are the ones that, the former methods that I'm talking about that we've moved away from. And those biases can actually change the results. Now still, double-blind trials can have faults and let bias affect the results. For example if a study showed that a treatment works for some reason there there is a bias to publish these. Because the scientists are like "Hey! It works! This is great" Our, you know, our research is working this is awesome.
C: Well and on the flip side of that if you don't get positive, I'd say the bias almost is in the other direction. Everybody's trying to publish all the time. So the bias is that if you don't get what you're looking for very often you never even submit it for publishing.
J: Exactly. So that's the other side of that same exact point is that the, you know, there's a, there's an impetus there for them to not publish the negative one. So of course this skews the ratio between you know, you know good research and bad research. It skews the ratio between as an example, how many studies show homeopathy works, when all of these other ones that show it doesn't work are the result of the file drawer effect where they just say a screw it, we're not gonna finish the study or hey we actually, we ran out of money, whatever their excuse is. They just don't, they leave the study alone. So this leaves those who read scientific studies questioning if they're reading positive studies simply because they're positive or, you know, they're questioning, all right I've read a bunch of these positive studies. But scientists are smart enough to know maybe there's a whole bunch of studies that I'm not reading that simply weren't published because they weren't done well and they're showing a negative effect. And as a good example of that like Covid-19 is riddled with this. Like tons of bad studies, Ivermectin as an example, you know, you're reading these positive studies. Well for every one positive study there could be dozens of negative studies that, that you're not reading about. So about 10 years ago the government, the US government and researchers decided that they would do something which I considered to be obvious but pretty intelligent. They said let's pre-register clinical trials, right? Pretty cool. Let's, it seems so obvious once you hear. It this means that they would make public the design of the trial, so the scientists have to outline the whole thing what they're going to do, exactly how they're going to do it. And then they also have you know not only are they talking about what they're researching they go through the methodology and everything. And this is even before anything has started. No trial has started yet. Many of the the top research journals now, the publications that actually show the results of new studies, they agreed that pre-registering a study would become a requirement. Which I think is awesome too, right? So a really good journal is going to say, if you're not, if you're, right, if your study isn't pre-registered, we're not going to publish you. Which is fantastic.
C: It also prevents you from p-hacking.
C: If you set up exactly what your n is, exactly what the power you're going for is. And you just, you do what you said you were going to do.
C: You don't collect more data after that.
J: Yeah and you could also safely assume that like less prestigious journals don't require pre-registration which means that they're, you know, they're crappier, you know, they're just not going to be having the same level of data. A meta-analysis showed that trials that were not pre-registered outperformed placebo by a significant margin. Those studies that were pre-registered showed no statistical difference than placebo. I mean that's it, that is, that is the most important thing I'm gonna tell you guys.
C: And that specifically, sorry, just to reiterate, this is about homeopathy trials only?
S: Yes, specifically.
J: But it does apply to everything. It applies to all scientific research, it just in this case it's very pronounced.
AJR: And I think Ivermectin that you brought up, any pseudoscience right, it's like you can find the random study in the terrible journal that supports something. A it's probably bad but also it's the p-hacking and the chance and all the rest.
J: I know it's like on Facebook, you know, people will put up, you can find a freaking article about anything.
J: And they, they'll post an article and I always do so just write "irrelevant".
J: Like okay so you found a study online that says what you like, like that's meaningless.
C: In the journal of "we don't have any reviewers".
J: So let me put it plainly. When researchers pre-registered their studies, which means they had to stick to their original studies, to their design of their study. Their results show that homeopathy is not effective. When researchers were not held to their pre-registration study designs, which means they're p-hacking, they're changing it along the way oh it's not turning out the way that we want, so let's start collecting data here and let's stop collecting data at this point, right? In the sweet spot. You know, those, those studies showed a positive result. So this is really cool. I dig what these researchers are doing. It's improving science at its core. And it's also kind of disproving this whole recent thing with homeopathy having a lot of positive results.
S: Although it was never really that positive to be honest with you. So, this is probably the best innovation in clinical science in the last 20 years. Pre-registering trials it is huge. We cannot over, you know, overestimate how big an impact it has. Still hasn't fully penetrated but it's getting there. I go to clinicaltrials.gov all the time, that's where the trials get registered. But there are lots of other ways to know when a research paradigm, like homeopathy, is is bogus. This is just a really powerful good quick way to do it. But you could do something called for example a funnel plot which I think we've talked about on the show before. You look statistic, this is all data statistics you know about this. Where if you have any phenomenon the, you look at all the studies and plot them out, they should be a normal curve, right? Around the effect size. But if only the right half is showing up and the left half isn't showing up in the data, meaning the negative half then they're not publishing the negative half. Like that's not a─
AJR: You can literally see it.
S: ─you can see it, it's not a statistical distribution.
J: What do you mean you could see it?
S: You could see it in the data, you plotted the data.
C: The data has a skew like this.
S: And you can see the missing data.
J: What they have lines in there, like the data is missing?
S: No. You have a graph of the power of the study and the power of the effect, and the effect size. And then you, you plot it. What you're going to see is a random distribution, that'll be like a bell curve. Because they're, you have to have a statistical distribution, right, with when you have a lot of data. But what if there's only dots on the right side, the positive side and there's no dots or there's very few dots on the negative side. You're seeing statistically that the negative studies are not there.
J: How can they get away with that?
S: You can't. That's one of the things we do to detect the publication bias.
B: Can you say they're just not publishing the negative ones?
S: They might not be publishing.
AJR: Well that's the thing is that there's so many ways in, right? It's the p-hacking that Cara talked about, it's the you know, in our field we would do the thing where it's like, you don't get the results you expect you say, well this must be something wrong with my program. But the minute you get the right answer you're like "nailed it, I'm outta here" because your job is to get, your your goal is to publish a paper with results. And so it's the publication bias. It's the steps along the way that you take, it's the p-hacking, it's all these different things. And, I mean, I'm curious what you think is, or all of you think it's the, my friends in grad school you always talk about like we need a journal of no results.
AJR: Where do we publish these things.
C: We have those. In psychology─
C: ─we have the journal of negative results.
AJR: And do people?
AJR: Okay. Because what I, I agree is a great and it's one of the rare times I feel good about humanity is like pre-registering your hypotheses or what you expect to find. But the, until non-results are normalized as discoveries, I don't know, we're still only going to see the results that are positive but it's an improvement, right?
J: There's something here that just seems so obvious. Like isn't, if the study doesn't work or if it shows negative results, isn't that data?
C: It is data.
S: You have to think what's the business model of the journal. If the business model is impact factor then you have to say, well who's gonna cite the study, positive studies get cited more than negative studies, that's citation bias. And also the studies that show something novel and new and interesting are more likely to get cited as well. So they have an incentive to publish positive studies that show something weird. And those are the most likely studies to be wrong and later retracted. Now if you are a an open journal that pays, that gets paid to publish stuff, your incentive is to publish a lot of crap. So that's where everything else goes, right? So but at what end of the spectrum you're at, you have a perverse incentive to distort the published data yeah. So how do we fix that? That's what, that's where the pre-registration is about.
J: And how, in your opinion how much has it helped? A tremendous amount.
C: But. It helped a tremendous amount with drug trials. And I think that's the thing we have to reiterate. A double-blind, randomized control trial is the gold standard for drugs. It's the gold standard for very specific types of interventions. It doesn't work for everything. I can't do a randomized controlled trial on the type of therapy that I do. It's impossible.
S: There's some things you can't control, you can't blind, whatever.
C: Exactly. Like so so we do have to remember that, that's why homeopathy is such a ridiculous pseudoscience because it's so easy to study yeah, yeah, yeah.
S: So there's other things you can do too like with homeopathy. There are other ways to look at the data to say, yeah, there's something not right here. So one way is to say, what's the, does the effect size hold up when you replicate it, right? So homeopathy strangely doesn't replicate. So there's a lot of positive studies, but you can never get one effect, that consistently replicates. Why is that? Because they p-hacked their way to a positive result. Someone tries to replicate it. It fails and they don't publish it. Or they do publish it, you know, sometimes we do see those negative studies, you know, you have to go digging for them. So it's, the data is there for a lot of things and you guys. For any single indication, is there an arc of research that shows a consistent effect that replicates over time even, and survives even the more rigorous data. And the answer is no. Not for a single thing. And that pattern in the research tells you it's nothing there. So that's, that's the bigger umbrella I think is looking at patterns in the research not just individual studies. This is one pattern. Register, pre-registered studies don't show a positive effect, in fact only non-pre-registered studies do, that's a glowing neon flashing light this is bullshit, right? That's what that means.
C: And good meta-analyses are exactly what he's talking about. Because a meta-analysis by its very name meta-analysis is a study of studies. They've taken all the studies in the literature, looked at their quality compared them to one another. Done some statistical analyses on them and said the entire body of literature with these parameters is showing us X. And that's why they're so important.
AJR: One of the things I do see happen in social science that I think is encouraging but I don't know if it works in in your fields. Not in social studies, but in other sciences besides yours is we do things like we, we try to frame it where it's a surprising result. Someone did actually, did a text analysis and said the word surprising is showing up in political science and economic journals way more. It's like oh we got more surprises? No, we just learned that we can publish papers if we say our results are surprising. But one benefit of that is that we could say, you would expect an effect, but we don't see an effect─
C: How surprising.
AJR: ─that's a surprise. So the reframing is like, obviously we're just surprise hacking and that's not good. Actually it is getting some results, you know, we would expect from Fearon's model that this would be this and we don't see it.
C: That's kind of what we did with our, because it was basically like do kids who are bi-cultural. So kids who grow up Latinx but also grow up in you know a western, American I should say, English-speaking society, are these kids more likely to have high scores on measures of creativity than kids that are unicultural. Either you know American only or Latinx only. And nope, it doesn't seem to be the case. You thought that there would be though.
AJR: The other benefit of publishing that is if nothing else, you're going to save some other researchers some time, because that's─
C: [inaudible] benefit.
AJR: ─hugely done because no one bothered to say oh I did that, there's nothing there that would be a service.
E: Doesn't stop the homeopaths.
C: But it really, you're right, a really robust intro section, like if somebody's dissertation or something really should dive into, according to so and so, this was you know, they were barking up the wrong tree, so that's why I decided to go this way.
S: Some systematic reviews, their protocol requires you to like call up researchers and labs and say: "Do you have any unpublished studies or data?"
AJR: That's cool.
S: Look in the file drawers and in order for it to be a thorough, systematic review, that's hard to do, that's a lot of work but that's the bar for someone. Like if you want to do a thorough review this is what you need to do to try to control for that. But the pre-registration is basically taking, handling that. But it's interesting, I like these "surprise" hacking which we see everywhere except for the French journals because they hack suprize, other than that, it's the same thing.
S: All right, Bob. I know you're itching to talk about this.
J: Look this better be good man.
S: Tell us about─
B: It's awesome.
AJR: He told me he doesn't want to go actually.
B: Gird your loins for this one.
B: All right the new theory out there. New theory postulating the existence of a mirror universe made of antimatter going backwards in time.
S&E: Where everyone has a goatee? (laughter)
C: Of course.
B: It's not necessarily evil but I'm just, all right. So has anybody heard about, heard about this? So it's in the journal Annals of Physics. It's just so, I think it's just so fascinating. This is like a top five new theory that I've ever heard of. I mean how cool, imagine if this really existed, that they could show somehow that an Anti-Universe existed that was moving, that was going backwards in time.
C: Is it really interesting though, if it's like the tree falling in the forest and we don't hear it? Does it really matter if we can't access it?
S: But we can.
AJR: Just watch Benjamin Button.
S: Sort of.
E: Sort of, in a quantum realm.
B: You're not going to be traveling there let me, let me just say that.
J: I'm not impressed.
AJR: I need a lettuce.
B: All right so this theory has to do with symmetry in nature. Symmetry in the universe. Symmetry in physics. It's critically, critically based on symmetry. Now we see symmetry every day. Humans are symmetrical, we're bilater, bilaterally symmetrical. We appreciate, we really appreciate things that are symmetrical. We think they're beautiful. Look at any study about what's beautiful and symmetry plays a very important role in that. But it's not just true in the macro world, you shrink down into the micro world and there's also symmetry everywhere in there. But not just, not just in the atomic realm, but it's also in our in math, in the equations, in the theories and the laws. Symmetry is embedded into a lot of them. And it gives insight. When it when a physicist says: "Look, this is this is symmetrical" it gives them some insight into the law. Look at quantum mechanics and relativity, that is based on symmetry. So symmetry is huge, it's huge. Biggest thing in physics and symmetry is called CPT, that's an initialism for charge, parity and time. That's, that's the biggest prob- most important symmetry in physics. And but, it's simple charge is essentially, you know, positive or negative charges on particles. And what they mean by it being symmetrical, is that if you change, we take a whole bunch of interacting particles, change their, their charge from positive to negative or vice versa, the interaction is going to be the same. That's, that's symmetrical. Parity is basically the mirror, the mirror image. You take a system and you make it its mirror image and the end result is going to be the same, that's, that's symmetry. Time is the same way, in some, in a lot of cases. Most cases, if you reverse the time, it will be symmetrical. Now you may say, well Bob what if I'm looking at a movie of a cracking egg and you played forwards and backwards, it's obvious what, which one is following the direction of time. That is true, but if you if you could zoom in on that cracking egg and look at the the you know the molecular and atomic interactions, and you showed it to a physicist, forward and backward, he could not tell you which one was forward or backward in time. So it's symmetrical in time as well. Now there are, there are certain cases where they're not symmetrical, where charge is not symmetrical, or parity or time is not symmetrical. That's rare, it happens, but if you look at charge parity and time together in one system and reverse it, it will always be symmetrical it will never fail, and it's never been observed. So this is where this theory started from. It's, this theory, these scientists said all right CPT: charge, parity, time it's taking it happens, it's a thing in our universe. All these interactions exhibit CPT. What if we looked at the universe itself. The entire universe, does that follow CPT as well. So they looked at that and when they looked at it, they realized the math was telling them that something huge is missing from the universe. And that's something huge was an Anti-Universe. So that pointing to a universe traveling back in time, that's a mirror universe made of antimatter. That's what they found, they found this amazing possibility. Of course it's, it's still maybe not even a theory, it's still a hypothesis at this point. But it's still possible, it's still something that that was intriguing. So when they looked they said all right this is really cool an anti-universe. What flows from this theory, what would have to be if this is true. And they found some really interesting things. They discovered first of all that inflation, we've talked about inflation a lot. Beginning of the universe inflation happened. A tiny tiny sliver of time, the universe expanded exponentially and it explains so many things about our universe that were mysterious. So inflation is is a thing that a lot, most scientists believe. It's, it's really huge. But this theory is saying that, well if, if this theory is correct with the Anti-Universe inflation might not exist. And to me this might be the weakest part of this theory, because there's, we have some good observational evidence why inflation makes sense. But it's kind of shaky, it's on shaky ground I would say. Because think about it. The universe, Big Bang happens and then you wait a little while and then, bam, you got inflation and then it then inflation stops. Why did that happen? It's, you know, it's kind of like kind of.
S: Seems like a fudge.
B: It seems like a fudge or kludge potentially.
S: And when you say that the observations support it, they only, it's only that the inflationary model explains things that we see.
B: It has utility which is a good sign of a good theory.
S: It's a very good sign. But if, this makes it unnecessary.
S: Then which is even worse than being wrong in science, right being completely unnecessary.
S: Then it goes away.
B: So, you might ask well, what else did this theory?
J: What else Bob?
B: Okay, thank you Jay. (laughter) This one's, this is, this is the real interesting part of this I think. This theory predicted something about neutrinos. Now we've talked about neutrinos as well. These are ghostly particles, no charge, count a second. One second, okay about 100 billion neutrinos just flew right through your body right now. They're created from nuclear processes like in the Sun. Neutrinos are everywhere, they go through everything, they can go through six light years of lead before interacting with anything because they only interact with the weak force and gravity. So they just go through everything. They have to hit an atom head on if they're going to interact with it. And that happens so rarely. That's what, that's what neutrinos are.
J: And when that happens, what happens to the atom?
B: When we, when we look for them. If you have it happen in a big medium like underground neutrino telescopes it glows, it glows and you could see you can see the glow.
AJR: So is that what fireflies are?
B: That's a secret jeez. All right and there's three types of neutrinos. Tau, muon and what's the other one?
B: Electron. Three, three different types of neutrinos. And they travel, they spin, there's a chirality, right? Chirality to them. In their direction of movement they, angular momentum, the spin is, is left. But only left. All three of them only spin left. That's weird because other fermions spin left and right. So where's the right spinning neutrinos?
S: (gasps) In the Anti-Universe?
AJR: Or, in the file drawer.
B: It could be in the file, they didn't look there yet. Sm so this theory predicts, hey, there's going to be at least one neutrino, one type of neutrino that spins to the right. And this neutrino only interacts with gravity. Now what do you, Steve, don't say anything. What do we know of, that it only interacts with gravity and we can't detect it any other way?
E&B: Dark matter.
B: Dark matter. This has been a huge mystery for how? 20 years? 25 years? We don't know what the hell it is, but it accounts for like a quarter of the entire universe? 24% of the entire universe is dark matter, we don't even know what it is. This might be it, this this might be exactly what, what dark matter is because of this Anti-Universe, that kind of exists, not with us, but kind of like, it's like a twin.
S: System, same system, it's a meta-system.
B: It's a twin, it's a twin. And this also makes sense because if you follow dark matter, when dark matter first hit the news people were like well it's either a WIMP or a MACHO. Which are great acronyms so the MACHO was a massive astronomical compact halo object. Like, like tiny black holes. Maybe dark matter is really a whole bunch of tiny black holes that we can't see. They kind of rule that out, that's not, they, it can't be that. They also said maybe it's WIMPs weakly interactive massive particles, that's exactly what a neutrino is. We've been saying this for 20 years, it might be a WIMP and it looks like potentially if this theory or hypothesis is correct. It could, this can be exactly what it is. So the other, now the other thing you ask for a good theory is, is it testable? If it's not testable then you're like well, okay. Like the multiverse. Multiverse is fascinating, it might be true, but how do you test that? You never, you probably will never be able to really test for a multiverse if, even if we can, it's not going to be easy. But this crazy theory is actually testable. You know, we've talked about gravitational waves. If the, if inflation happened, it would have created gravitational waves that would rock the entire universe with these subtle vibrations in space time itself. We can detect those vibrations but we can only detect little ones now. These primordial gravitational waves are really big and we're going to need really sensitive machinery to detect it. But when we do, if we don't ever detect it, then that would be a check box for this theory. If we do detect gravitational waves caused by inflation then this theory is dead in the water. They're not compatible and that we could just scratch it off the list and I would cry that day if that happens.
S: But it's falsifiable we could do observe something that would completely rule out this theory.
B: But it's falsifiable, right, so that's one major prediction, there's other, there's other predictions it makes like, it predicts that one of the, one of the right-handed, one of the right spinning neutrinos is massless. If we can ever detect a right-spinning neutrino and it's massless, this would be another thing we could check. Or if it also predicts that left-spinning neutrinos are its own anti-particle. If that's the case, then it's another check mark. So, so here's an amazing theory that's fascinating, that is testable and if this is true, you're going to see multiple Nobel prizes for this because it's just, it's just too awesome. An Anti-Universe, it also predicts dark matter and other things like the matter antimatter asymmetry in the universe. Why, why is there more matter than antimatter? We're not 100% sure but it could be because of the existence of this Anti-Universe.
J: Yeah but it doesn't matter.
B: It doesn't matter, but, I'll end it right there I guess. So, I'm glad that's over.
J: Bob (laughter)
B: It's like an explosion.
J: So wait, now wait.
AJR: It's brain breaking.
B: It's fascinating.
J: I've been listening to you talk about this for like three days (laughter). Where I sit, this whole thing just sounds absolutely ridiculous.
B: Were you paying attention?
B: But Jay I mean, but it's based on CPT and that's like some solid stuff.
E: It's an initialism not an acronism (Cara laughs).
B: It's an extrapolation of a of a CPT symmetry that is like, that is like iron clad and copper bottom, it's like solid.
J: But wait, am I correct in saying that they think that there is a mirror universe where there's exactly everything that's here, but going back?
B: No, they don't know the details about. It's not like you're walking backwards in this Anti-Universe. It's like, it's a mirror universe of our universe, but it's not necessarily happening.
J: Okay so it's not mirroring, so it's not science-fiction like there's versions of us.
B: No, you're not necessarily there. And, if living beings exist, they probably think that that everything is fine. Cause and effect is happening normally. They don't, they wouldn't perceive themselves as going back in time. Wait maybe are we then, are we going back in time?
AJR: I wanna, I claim the rights just here and now, I'm glad this is being recorded, to the sci-fi show where it's Jurassic Park and they make a park, the dinosaurs make a park of humans (Cara laughs).
B: I love that idea.
C: It's like Fantastic Planet.
AJR: I claim that, you all wanna be [inaudible]
E: Homo sapiens part?
B: Here, so here's one way to think about it. If you're familiar with virtual particles. Virtual particles can in vacuum, the vacuum of space particle anti-particle pairs are created out of the nothingness of the vacuum. They're created and then annihilate each other but they come out of nothing. So, so our universe could be part of a Universe Anti-Universe pair that kind of appeared out of even more nothingness than the vacuum.
S: So the balance sheet─
S: Completely balances.
B: Yes, absolutely.
S: And the two universes together are nothing.
B: Right. Right, right. It's so elegant and it, and it, and, by the way, it explains dark matter, like, oh my god, what a, what a what it fantastic [inaudible].
S: Icing on the cake.
B: More, it's like more of the cake itself.
Psychedelic Treatments (1:04:49)
- AI maps psychedelic ‘trip’ experiences to regions of the brain – opening new route to psychiatric treatments
S: Well perhaps appropriately, Cara, you're going to tell us about new research into psychedelics.
C: There's a link, a link there.
AJR: Are you going to be passing psychedelics around please? [inaudible] Bob say that again.
C: The researchers who did this research have a pretty broad working definition of what a psychedelic is. So they're not making a distinction between something that is a traditional, well they kind of are, a traditional hallucinogen like LSD or psilocybin or DMT but they're also I think including marijuana and including─
C: ─and including, maybe even, well marijuana, marijuana is kind of classed as a hallucinogen. I think sometimes those classes are a little fuzzy because a lot of our distinctions are based on like illicit versus not illicit. But like obviously psychotropic medications have been around for a long time. And so what really is the difference between an antipsychotic for example which is like a something that we prescribe all the time, and maybe a psychedelic and also, the dosages aren't very, you know, everybody who has done drugs knows that like you can microdose and it has a very different effect than taking way too much of something. So obviously there are a lot of labs. Now I think, UCLA Harbor, I visited their lab once for a TV Show. They, they're doing this maps program, where they're looking at MDMA specifically for treatment of PTSD and they've got some really really good results. We're starting to see more and more literature being published in this area. So we know that for example ketamine, ketamine is now a legitimate aboveboard treatment for depression. And people can get infusions of ketamine, they can take pills.
B: Doesn't that give you out-of-body experiences?
C: Yeah but again it's dose dependent.
AJR: I did the ketamine infusion for depression last week.
C: Oh you did?
AJR: I've been doing it for two years.
C: And so, you, they're not giving you doses that high.
AJR: I'm a little out of my mind, I actually recorded myself for the full 90 minutes that I did it─
C: But you could use your arms and legs?
AJR: I'm afraid to watch it.
J: Wait so, you, is it helping your depression?
AJR: It has helped. I do worry, especially mentioning it at this table, because it does feel very pseudosciencey but I did it after I tried a bunch of other things and it's been really helpful.
J: But they're giving you enough that you feel.
AJR: Oh yeah.
J: You do?
C: But you're not.
AJR: Sorry that was too emphatic.
J: Is it unpleasant?
AJR: No it's lovely.
B: For 90 minutes, does it, does it last?
AJR: It's the two big variables, sorry.
C: Yeah, that's okey.
AJR: The two big variables are your dosage and how quickly they give it to you. And so normally it's 60 minutes. But I hadn't been in a while and so they kept me at my regular dose and they said we're gonna spread this out cause it's gonna get intense. And I did one about a year ago that was so intense I was out of my mind.
C: So do you go regularly or has it only been twice?
AJR: I was deep in the universe. Usually you're with it it's just the sky is kind of crawling.
C: Do you go regularly or has it only been twice?
AJR: I did the series where you do six like within two weeks and then you go every, you spread it out after that. So you go like every month and then you go every few months and now I went a whole year, you go when you feel bad.
B: Oh nice.
C: I definitely had a patient who did ketamine infusions as clinical trials. And then later when she was given a script for pills she did not feel any effect and so there was a concern that she may have developed a resistance to the ketamine. So they're, obviously the dosages, it was clinical trial, they're still trying to work that out.
S: So even, say even in the field of neurology, there's a renewed interest, you know, looking at the ketamine psychedelics, psilocybin is one that's that's being researched. For things like just treating migraines─
C: Migraines, yeah.
S: ─treating, treating chronic pain. It's just a way of affecting brain function that, you know, there's a renewed interest in that.
C: Because these are drugs that we know do something.
S: They do something, they bind the receptors in the brain. And so the fact that they are also psychedelics or hallucinogens really has sort of tainted the research for many years.
C: Well it used to be illegal to do research with them.
S: Yeah, you couldn't do it for a while. But even still, then you get like that, is this pseudoscience? Because it's like you're dealing with weird stuff. But if you just strip all that away, that history, and say hey these are, these are brain drugs, right? They affect brain function and maybe we can exploit them to reset brain function in one way or another. And they're, they're definitely powerful. They do what they do. They, you know, they're no panacea, nothing is. But we probably are going to be able to extract some useful treatments out of these.
C: And that's really the question, right? Is a, what is it that they do and how do they work. And so, and just a quick question for you Andrea, just because I'm curious. Like you mentioned that you tripped but you didn't, you weren't anesthetized? Right? Could you move your arms and legs?
C: Yeah, so like the only time I've ever─
S: Or you thought you could.
AJR: Well you said you recorded yourself.
E: Yeah, you have a video.
AJR: Yeah I do, I did, I, there's a lot of pictures of me like barely in the picture going like Taylor Swift is great, like you're supposed to listen to upbeat music, so I listened to Taylor Swift. Old's Taylor Swift, anyway.
J: I've read about this quite a bit too but I didn't know that people feel anything. Like I know with the microdosing of LSD.
C: That's not a micro dose that she took.
J: So why are they that microdosing then, what's the difference?
C: Because it may not have a therapeutic effect. I think some of the pseudoscience comes in with the, and I don't want to call microdosing pseudoscience, I don't think we know enough about it yet. But if a dose is so low that it doesn't affect you behaviorally, it may or may not be doing something neurologically that has an outcome. Because the goal here, right, with a lot of these, these are subjective measures, right? When we talk about psychological or neurological conditions. Even something as intense as migraine headache. It's still a subjective measure. On a scale of one to ten, how do you feel? And so if somebody takes a drug and they say I don't feel any differently it's a little bit hard to know whether or not the drug is working. You have to do these more objective outcome measures, you know, how many headache days do you have a month, blah blah blah. Same thing with depression, right? You can take a drug and I don't know if this is helping or not. And sometimes you have to take a long time to say oh, I haven't had a depressive episode since I started this drug. Or oh I'm feeling a little bit too numb or whatever. And you work with your psychiatrist to get get that dosage working.
J: That's sounds scary, like I would not want to to be, you know, hallucinating and all that.
C: Here's the thing, right, so all of these drugs have different dosages that have different outcomes. But really these drugs affect your brain. And when we talk about something that's psychotropic.A nd that's really how these researchers kind of define these hallucinogens. Are they psychotropic? First of all they have to be, they're just psychoactive, right? They affect not just brain states, because pretty much every drug is going to do something to your brain. But they affect your mental state. You have a subjective experience on it. And that could be euphoria, very often MDMA induces euphoria, some other drugs do as well. It could be hallucinations. Very often we have auditory hallucinations before we have visual hallucinations. But we might also have visual hallucinations. Especially with drugs like LSD or psilocybin or even like, you know, there are drugs that, that can affect just your, your sense of like oneness with the world. They can affect your kind of spiritual sense. And so those are the types of things that these researchers were interested in looking at. So they did something cool. Because most drugs, most drug studies, especially in the sort of illicit or hallucinogenic category it, are these really, really controlled laboratory studies. Where somebody comes in, they give them the drug they ask them a million questions. They have leads on their head, they put them in a scanner and they go, oh my god what's going on with this one person. And then they collect enough of that data and they, they have outcomes. And that's really helpful and beneficial. And that's how we know a lot of what we know. We also have mouse models. Give these animals the drug, look at changes in their brain, map their brain, that's how we know what we know. What these researchers did is they said, we want to add a component to that. We're going to take everything the literature has told us about the regions in the brain that light up in the scanner when somebody's on a particular drug. And also down to the molecular level, which receptors are involved with these drugs. So we know there's these different, a bunch of different serotonin receptors, that's a really heavy one. Some dopamine receptors, noradrenaline, you know, these different sort of neurotransmitters that all have these different receptor subtypes, that are in different parts of the brain, are involved in different brain circuits. And so they they kind of mapped all this out. And, and took all this data about where these drugs act and what they do to the brain. And then they looked at a database, and I'm going to try and remember what it was called. The Erowid Center who had collected written testimonials of hallucinogenic experiences. So not people in a controlled laboratory setting, but just people who had done drugs who gave these really rich phenomenological testimonials of what it felt like to be on that drug. And they had 6 000 written testimonials and they did AI analysis of these testimonials and they said, what are the words that they're using, what are the kind of general themes that they're saying. And then they said based on the drug they took, and what we know about these brain regions, we're going to start to look at the physiology of what's happening in the brain when these very particular experiences are described. And they found five factors and they're pretty interesting so I want to tell you what they are. So the first, and so they did kind of like a really complicated, it's not even a classical factor analysis, I don't fully understand it because the two researchers, one I think is a neuroscientist and the other is a data scientist and so they work together.
S: Oh you can't trust data scientist.
C: No, I just don't understand the work that they do. Let me actually tell you who they were.
AJR: Steve and I did the [inaudible].
C: Right. So Galen Valentin is from SUNY Health Sciences and then Sam Friedman from Harvard. Yeah, one's a psychiatrist and one's a machine learning expert. And so they looked at, they worked together on this which is really cool. And so what they found in this more complicated than a typical factor analysis, but in typical factor analysis you take all these themes or all these words and they load on these different eigenvalues so you see like all of these are clustering around the same thing, we can pull out that factor, all of these are clustering. So they did a more complicated version of that using AI in machine learning. And so they found that the strongest factor explained the largest portion of variation between the different receptors that they were looking at and the experiential terms, the words. This factor accounted for, let's see, a theme of sensory phenomena including terms like visuals, nausea, sleep, fatigue, mild. Like they were talking about sort of the sensory experience. And they found that that was highly related to the 5-HT2A receptor which is one of the receptors that's most commonly cited when we look at hallucinogens, which is a serotonin receptor, yeah. But they also found other, like three other serotonin receptors. An adrenergic receptor and then also a couple dopamine receptors. And then their next dominant factor revealed by their algorithm, which was not already detected and not included in factor one was a theme centered on positive emotions including not only terms like friends, love, wonderful, dance, dancing, amazing, magic, happy. But also negative emotions like depression, loss and crying. So these more emotionally induced themes from the drugs. And they found that those were also heavily loading on the 5-HT2A but also alpha-2A and then other receptors. Of course these are all going to sound redundant because like a bunch of dopamine receptors, a bunch of serotonin receptors, a bunch of norepinephrine receptors. But they were able to specifically point to those receptors. There's a laundry list of them. And then their third was about visual terms. So patterns, colors, seeing tracers, waves, swirling, breathing, moving, all of these things if anybody's ever done acid you know that this is a really big part of it. Along with unpleasant physiological processes, because these sometimes go hand in hand like nausea, vomiting, discomfort, vertigo and then, and then they map that to the receptors. And then they also found, the fourth was somatic intensity. So this is where euphoria and some extra receptive descriptors, so things that were like sort of outside the body visuals, whispers, colors. And then the fifth, I think, yeah, they did five factors here. Was levels of discomfort. And then opposite somatic levels. So they were able to sort of figure out using really complicated statistical modeling, well not modeling, but statistical analysis of these visual, or these verbal descriptions of people's drug experiences. Sort of what was maybe responsible in the brain for that particular experience. Which they hope will actually help researchers be able to start to tease out what do we want in a treatment, right? What do we want in a targeted treatment for PTSD, versus a treatment for anxiety, versus a treatment for depression, versus a treatment for headache. And what do we not want? Because I think many people, I mean think about cancer, this is a great example and of course I have this bias because I work with cancer patients all the time. The great thing about cancer treatments is that they stop mostly they work by stopping particular cells from dividing but they can also stop, what is it called, angiogenesis, they can stop different hallmark features of cancer. But in doing so very often they also target healthy cells and they can be very, very cytotoxic and they can make you very sick. And a lot of people who have experimented with drugs have the experience of going, well it's worth it so long as you can puke really early, you know, or whatever. Like I really liked it except that I felt super sick the whole time. And so there are these kind of negative consequences. DMT is a really, you know, they are like ayahuasca trips in Peru, right, people always talk about just like vomiting like everything they ever ate out. And then they felt awesome. And so being able to target exactly what parts of the brain are responsible, what's going on there, I think is important. And it's cool as you dig more into their outcome measures, because you do see some other experiences that are described like a feeling of oneness with the universe or a disillusion of sort of the body boundaries. Which is a common experience in euphoria. And it's really I think one of the most meaningful experiences for PTSD treatment is sort of feeling less separate and feeling now one with humanity which can really, really improve outcomes and depression I think as well.
AJR: I do feel that, that's a good description of what it feels like.
C: It's almost the opposite of the sort of, so like, I come from the existential psychology kind of world. And one of the things we often talk about is depersonalization. It's the experience that often happens during a boundary experience, whether it's a you know diagnosis of cancer for example the death of a loved one, something really shocking that puts you into an existential state. We often talk about the experience of feeling like sort of out of your body and disconnected from yourself. And it can go either way. Sometimes it can make you feel like you're part of something huge. Sometimes it can make you feel very separate and very alone and very small. And so how do we tap into some of these experiences that actually normal life doesn't really induce. Because that's the one thing that I think most anybody who's done a psychedelic can say. Nothing in the world feels like that. And it's very lasting, it's perspective shifting or perception, yeah, perspective and perception shifting. Many people are different after they've done hallucinogens than they were before.
S: It's interesting that they looked entirely at receptors, but it makes sense, because that's how drugs work. So if you're, if your question is, what are these drugs doing, then looking at receptors is helpful. But we have to understand the inherent limitation of that approach, because that's not how the brain works.
C: No, of course not.
S: The brain doesn't work, like when you activate this receptor you have this effect, that's not how it works.
C: Well they also looked at, that's why the AI stuff, they didn't just look at receptors but they looked at receptors in networks and then they lit up whole network.
S: You have to look at the networking because first of all the brain uses the same receptor in different networks in different parts of the brain. And they're different subtypes of the receptor with different affinities. And so it gets really really messy and complicated, which is why you're never going to fully get the side effects out of drugs because the brain is not that specific. You're never going to be able to disentangle the different networks using the same types of receptors.
C: Yeah it's gonna bind where it fits.
S: It's gonna bind where it binds, yeah.
C: And then you're gonna have these out, but they did make so, so based on what you were saying for example Steve, one of the good summaries. So they found for example "The changes in sensory perception were associated with a serotonin receptor in the visual cortex of the brain which binds to a molecule that helps regulate the memory" they're talking about serotonin there "feelings of transcendence were connected specifically to these very specific dopamine and opioid receptors in the salience network". So they were able to see sort of not only which receptors are involved but where in the brain are they involved. And then I think probably next stage research which would be interesting is before and after, you know, how dense are those receptors before treatment versus after. Are they up regulating, are they down regulating. So that's kind of what you were talking about Jay, how is the brain changing? And is this something that's actually going to help long stream or hurt or, sorry, long term or hurt long term. Because we sometimes see that that. The more you take a drug, the more you need the drug.
S: Because you're down regulating receptors. All right thanks Cara.
Plastic in our Blood (1:21:00)
S: Evan you're gonna tell us how we all have plastic in us.
AJR: Oh god.
C: Oh boy.
E: We all have plastic in us, yep.
S: Our brains are plastic and our blood is plastic.
J: And we're going backwards in time.
E: That's okay because we have things like Prozac, what else do we talk about?
C: Prozac salad.
E: Prozac salad.
C: Very important, needs to be in the lettuce.
E: Yeah, well, we've all heard the term there's iron in our blood and we've known this forever. But having plastic in your blood that's kind of a new thing that they've discovered. Yep, I read this on the Guardian at the Guardian website the other day, you may have read it as well: "Microplastics found in human blood for the first time". Okay, we know that they've been in our body, it's been measured in cells and among other parts of the body. But the blood specifically on this one. This is new research published in the journal environment international and particles are as as small as 0.0007 millimeters. Bob whatever that is, right? Yeah and they found, they tested 22, they took samples from 22 people. 17 of them had─
C: Who were these people, like does it say what the sample?
E: 22 anonymous donors.
C: It just seems like a really low number.
E: It does seem like low.
C: You could look at thousands of blood samples very easily.
E: Half of the samples contain PET plastic that's the stuff, the bottled water among other things. A third of them contain polystyrene which is packaging and food and other products and a quarter of the blood samples...
S: You're not supposed to eat those?
E: I know, it tastes so good.
C: Polystyrene is Styrofoam?
E: Yeah, basically Styrofoam, yep, polyethylene, which is what, bags and the you know the shopping bags and things.
C: And antifreeze no that's polyethylene glycol.
E: So to your point though, yes, it's it's a small study. Now you've got two different groups of scientists here who are saying two different things here. For example Dr Fay Couceiro an expert in environmental pollution at the University of Portsmouth said: "it was impossible to extrapolate the findings of such a small study to the entire population". But then you have other scientists who are saying that it's actually robust because of this particular study in which the researchers went to great lengths to exclude the possibility of contamination of the blood sample.
C: So these 22 people didn't all live under a plastics factory.
E: Apparently not. Right, yep.
S: And you can't really make a lot of conclusions about distribution or risk or whatever, just that some people have plastic in their blood. That's it.
E: And the ultimate question is, what is it doing? What's the negative impact? Is it having a negative impact on us? And they, that, the jury's still out on that because there's, they're just really, really scratching the surface on this. Because we also pass these plastics at the same time. You know they get filtered out, you know, we pooped them out and you know, so they do leave our body, so how much tolerance does the human body have, the human bloodstream frankly have to handle these amounts of microplastics.
C: So these were, and that's the interesting thing too, because they were looking at free floating particles in the blood. So we have no idea if they're bound up anywhere in our body either.
E: They also made note of the irregularity of the shapes of the plastics. And they said that has definitely has an impact. When they're doing the studies in laboratories and those kinds of controlled environments, they make these spherical microplastics. Which apparently do not, may skew the results because it doesn't have as many perhaps negative effect effects as these irregularly shaped ones.
C: Make sense, they probably have affinity in all sorts of weird places in your body. They stick to shit.
J: Evan, I mean, you know, the list that you gave like shopping bag plastic and like pop, you know, like you know package stuff. Like how the hell is that stuff getting into our bloodstream? It's not being packaged with our food.
S: No it breaks down in the environment, and then, so there's microplastics everywhere. It gets into plants, it gets into animals and we eat those.
C: Yeah but it also is in like water bottles, we're drinking straight out of them. Food packaging, we eat straight out of it. And it does leach into the food.
J: You've got to stop using plastics.
C: I know.
E: [inaudible] realizing that I think.
J: It's literally coursing through our goddamn veins, like, it's time, let's, can we just shift [inaudible] from plastic.
S: Yeah, but to be fair, or, the dose makes the poison, what we do not know is, if at these doses there's any physiological effects.
J: But you said it, we don't know.
S: We don't know.
J: It could be bad, right?
C: And it's just plastic. I mean that's the thing too. I think, do you guys remember, there's like a hallmark study that showed something like, I might be an order of magnitude off here. It might be 500, it might be 5 000. Chemicals that did not exist before 1950 that are found in our blood now. Like this is co- I mean we, there are so many things that have been synthesized by us. Whether it's paint or dyes or plastic packaging or Teflon. Like there's a documentary about Teflon, I don't know if you guys saw this fascinating, like they could not find a control to test the blood against because everyone on the planet had Teflon in them. They had to look at old blood samples that had been frozen before Teflon had been invented.
J: Oh my god.
E: And good luck going to some of the more remote areas of the planet because they're finding the plastics in those animals as well.
C: That's where most of the plastic is sadly. Because they were, because of like the ocean currents we're seeing really pristine beaches that are just devastated. And they don't have a means to get rid of the plastic.
S: Mountain tops and the Marianas Trench, I mean it's everywhere.
C: And there are, there are these like remote villages in these small archipelagos where they're burning plastic trash for fuel and it's because they have it and they have to and it's really devastating.
E: And Jay it is not slowing down in fact it's increasing. 2040 we will have twice as many plastics produced in that year than we are producing right now. Two times.
AJR: Unless we do something.
E: So we're going in this total wrong direction.
J: It's like global warming, like everybody's talking about it and no one's doing, not much has happened.
C: But that's the thing too, it has to be people, right? And like you said Steve, we have no idea. This may have no negative consequences, we may be very good at just like filtering this out or, you know, it just doesn't, it's biologically inactive for us. But we do know it has negative consequences we're so much wild life. Wild life is choking to death all over the oceans on plastics. Yeah on macro and micro plastics. It looks like...
S: It's not sustainable is the bottom line. You can't the environment, the Earth cannot absorb this much plastic that we're generating on a regular basis. We do have to figure out a way to make, to, there are, there are applications which are great. Plastic is a great material for certain things but we're leaning too heavily on it. And we need to figure out alternatives. Like I know there is like some bottlers are now using aluminum instead of plastic because it's recyclable and it's you know a bit safer.
C: Box water. I mean it still has plastic on it but it's much smaller. But yeah I mean I think if we could, even if we could just eliminate single-use plastics outside of a medical setting. Clearly we need single-use plastics in medicine. But if we could eliminate consumer single-use plastics right there it would make such a dent.
E: So the other podcast I'm a part of it's called Which Game First, it's a board game podcast. We review board games. And this is actually a topic that does come up in conventions and non-panels. And we talk about the environmental impact that these games are having. And companies are obviously very aware of it, you know, just these plastic wrappers that these things come in and people throw them away. So they're moving away from those kinds of materials and things overall. And the entire industry as a whole is definitely, definitely moving in a much friendly, environmentally friendlier direction. We're very happy to see that.
S: For things like that it's totally gratuitous. Do I really need my monopoly hotels in a little plastic bag?
S: No, you don't.
AJR: Two questions on this. One is, how depressed should we be that the pandemic, because Evan, you said well, when people start dying, then we'll do something. With the pandemic I've gotten like stuck on this, because the pandemic is good evidence to me that we're not necessarily going to do enough if people start dying like that.
C: Right, I remember seeing a meme that was like apparently we need to come up with a better phrase than 'avoid it like a plague' because people don't seem to avoid anything.
AJR: Right. And so climate change, microplastics, I don't know. And then my other question, and this is a sincere question. Is Mars about to get filled with microplastics?if we end up there?
E: Or we're gonna pollute Mars.
AJR: If it's at the tops of the ocean, tops of the mountains and the bottoms of the sea, then that's that whole planet is about to be in [inaudible]
C: Because again plastic is way lighter.
E: We've already, to a certain extent polluted Mars, yeah, already.
B: Oh boy.
J: And here we go.
E: It's inevitable.
Science or Fiction (1:30:55)
Theme: Ancillary skills of U.S. presidents
Item #1: President Nixon was an accomplished musician who could play the piano, clarinet, violin, accordion, and saxophone.
Item #2: President Lincoln was a champion wrestler, being almost undefeated and holding a regional title for several years.
In 1992 he was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Item #3: Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, inspired by the long hours spent in drafting the Declaration of Independence.
|Fiction||Lincoln into Wrestling h.o.f.|
|Science||Nixon accomplished musician|
Jefferson's swivel chair
|Lincoln into Wrestling h.o.f.|
|Lincoln into Wrestling h.o.f.|
|Nixon accomplished musician|
|Jefferson's swivel chair|
|Lincoln into Wrestling h.o.f.|
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week. A political theme, actually. This is things you didn't know about the ancillary skills of US presidents. (laughter)
AJR: Political scientists are all over this.
S: So here we go.
Item #1: President Nixon was an accomplished musician who could play the piano, clarinet, violin, accordion, and saxophone.
Item #2: President Lincoln was a champion wrestler, being almost undefeated and holding a regional title for several years. In 1992 he was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.
And item #3: Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, inspired by the long hours spent in drafting the Declaration of Independence. (Cara laughs)
J: They all sound so ridiculous.
S: You can, we'll start, we'll just go right down. Starting with Andrea. Andrea go first.
AJR: So I think the fiction one is the president Lincoln one. And the reason I think that that's fake it's that he was a champion wrestler and deducted to the wrestling hall of fame. Because in 1992 my brother was in interested in wrestling and he, I feel like I would have heard, he's also very into history. I feel like I would have heard if Lincoln was inducted into the hall of fame.
S: I would have heard an argument.
C: It's a common argument honestly.
S: Used frequently on this panel.
B: All right the Nixon one. I cannot get a mental image in my head of Nixon playing the saxophone so that clearly didn't happen.
AJR: Now I have it in my head I don't like it.
B: But the other two, I have no idea I'm gonna go with Lincoln.
AJR: All right.
J: I know so Lincoln says here, he played the piano, the clarinet, the violin, the accordion. The accordion?
J: President Nixon. Yeah. How? When did he do this? (laughter)
AJR: After he stopped being president?
J: He didn't seem like a very dexterous type of person to me either. So I just can't see him like. The accordion? Could you imagine? So stupid. All right, Lincoln wrestling, that is just as weird.
B: He seemed kind of rangy and strong.
C: With the top hat? I wanna know (laughs)
J: I don't know, he just didn't seem very, very muscular to me.
B: He was a zombie fighter, right? Did you see that movie?
C: Oh yeah.
B: He killed zombies man.
C: He's ripped.
J: Thomas Jefferson inventing the swivel chair. If he didn't do it, I won't believe it. I'm sure he invented the swivel chair. I know, I got to go with Nixon here, there's just no way that guy played the accordion.
AJR: It's such a jolly instrument. Really hard to picture.
C: And it's not just. It's piano, it's for me, it's like the piano and the clarinet and the violin. Like Nixon, like I don't want him to be cool in any way. Like I don't want him to have played any instruments. So I hope that one's not true but I'm gonna say it's probably true, damn it. I think, I want to think that Lincoln was a wrestler, because that's just so weird and I love it. The one that got me right at the beginning was the swivel chair. I don't know, it's ridiculous. Because he spent so many long hours drafting the declaration? I'm gonna say that's the fiction. At least we won't have swept Steve.
E: Okay. Okay. Nixon. My understanding is, he's been portrayed, I've seen portrayals of Nixon playing the piano in several movies. I don't recall any of these other instruments being played but apparently he was, to some level, some, you know, had some knowledge of music. So I have a feeling that one's right. The Lincoln one about being a championship wrestler. Was he a wrestler or a boxer? I seem to recall you know those old, you know, tiny old-timey boxing photos, where you have your fists up in front of you, you know.
E: Yeah something like that. But that could have been wrestling. But inducted into the wrestling hall of fame. So, I guess, if there's an amateur one, yeah. There isn't really a professional wrestling like, you know like the, you know, Stone Cold Steve Austin and stuff. That, that's a whole other thing. So the Lincoln one's not really sitting well with me. The Thomas Jefferson one about the swivel chair, that one I believe is true. You know he invented lots of different things and also that has also been portrayed in other movies as well and shows. So I'll say the Lincoln one's fiction.
S: Okay, so we have three for Lincoln and then Jay said Nixon and Cara Jefferson. So we're gonna pull the audience. See what you guys think, see who is more influential up here. We're gonna do the single clap. We're gonna practice. When I get, when I get here, you clap single time. Ready? (claps)
C: God this audience is so good.
S: So if you think that the Nixon playing all those instruments is the fiction - clap (claps)
If you think that Lincoln being a wrestler is the fiction - clap (more claps)
And if you think that Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair is the fiction - clap (claps)
Pretty even but a little bit, pretty much following the panel. Edge to Lincoln I think but the other two solid representation. So let's take these in order.
Steve Explains Item #1
Item #1: President Nixon was an accomplished musician who could play the piano, clarinet, violin, accordion, and saxophone. Jay you think this one is the fiction. A lot of the audiences this one is the fiction. And this one is science.
S: So yes Nixon was famous for playing the piano. You were correct Evan, this is pretty much common knowledge. Although it may have faded from memory by now. But not many people realize he was an accomplished musician in general could play various instruments.
AJR: Good for him I guess. New favorite president, let's go. (laughter)
C: I really don't like that guy.
S: It does seem incongruous but you know? People are, people are multifaceted.
E: There's all sorts of dimensions.
S: We're looking at him from one dimension. From the history of like the─
C: The dimension he will always be here remembered by.
AJR: We just opened our eyes.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: All right, let's go to #2: President Lincoln was a champion wrestler, being almost undefeated and holding a regional title for several years. In 1992 he was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame. That one─
B: Say it, say it.
S: ─is the fiction. (laughter) Now but that is a common myth.
S: I didn't make that up, a common myth. But there were even memes on the internet of Lincoln with a wrestling belt, you know, that's you know it was totally made up. What's true is that Lincoln was a wrestler. I mean he was a hardy woods, you know, western or frontiersman, right? He was famously, you know, a very very tough and rugged individual. He had a lot of different jobs. He was a bartender for a while, a river, you know, worker for a while.
C: Riverman. (laughter)
AJR: Rivers, what did he do?
S: He would take [inaudible] down the river, you know.
E: Sawyer kind of a thing.
C: Okay then.
S: Those skills served him well during the civil war where he actually personally scouted landing spots for naval ships because he knew the the ins and outs of rivers.
B: So cool.
S: And he, and he was a wrestler and he did famously wrestle a local champion at one time. But the champion was informal. It was kind of like he was the toughest guy in town and he sort of challenged Lincoln when he got, when he moved to the town. Said yeah, you know, let's see how tough you are and and Lincoln either you know wrestled him to a to a stalemate or beat him or whatever, it's not really clear what happened. But he impressed this gang and they asked him to join him because he was such a good wrestler. But that sort of has been morphed into he was a regional champion. There weren't really any championships happening at that time.
AJR: There was a war, there's no championships.
S: And the wrestling hall of fame didn't, didn't induct him into the hall of fame. They gave him an award. For being a badass or whatever.
J: Yeah because when you say like wrestle, like you're not talking about like formal gym wrestling, right?
S: Wrestling. Rassling, you know? (laughter)
[talking over each other]
AJR: If you would have said I would go whole different path.
E: A guy who wrestles the bear.
J: So it's not legitimately wrestling.
S: The thing is, what you're saying legitimately wrestling, you're basically implying that there was a league with rules. It was none of that.
J: Wrestling shoes.
E: There's all sort of wrestling.
J: He just had a fight with some guy.
S: He had a fight with a guy, that's exactly right.
AJR: A wrestler is someone who's wrestled today. He couldn't play the accordion.
S: There's a little bit of truth to this but this, it's evolved into this mythology.
E: Turned out to be Stephen Douglas.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: All right. All this means that Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, inspired by the long hours spent in drafting the Declaration of Independence is science, I agree with you Cara.
C: Sounds so ludicrous.
S: This sounds apocryphal. Too good a story to be true, really?
C: Declaration of independence.
S: But, every source tells that this is a pretty well-known story. It's, it's definitely well vetted. He wrote about it at the time. He, and he clearly invented the swivel chair, you know.
C: I just can't believe it took that long for someone to.
S: Well so what you he took specific kind of chair.
J: And he swiveled it.
S: He basically detached the top from the bottom and he took some rollers from drapes or something and he repurposed them so he basically had like two, two circle plates that would swivel on top of each other. And he gave him more mobility when he was at his desk.
C: I just can't believe it took until then.
J: This is what this means.
S: It was engineering, you know.
J: Thomas Jefferson, like, spun it around and was like yeah (laughter) there's no way that that didn't happen.
C: Or for sure that happened.
AJR: I also feel like he should have like, the swivel chair is not what probably made sitting so bad. It's like the sitting. He should have just stood up. Walk around, take a lap Jefferson, you know?
B: Do you think do you think he was the first one to do that conservation of momentum trick where you spin with your legs out and you pull them in you go faster?
S: I'm sure he did it.
B: That's pretty cool.
S: The office chair, right? You're sitting at a desk for a long time you need to be able to get from one side of the desk to the other and and we probably take it for granted because we all have swivel chairs now right? Have you ever worked at a desk in a non-swivel chair? It's yeah, it's kind of kind of restricted.
S: I don't have a swivel chair now what is this?
C: How long have you had this iPad?
S: Four years.
C: And you use it pretty regularly?
C: His, his, what do you call it, weather is still set to Cupertino. (laughter) You've never updated your weather app on your iPad.
AJR: Maybe you want to know what's going on Cupertino?
C: So they, they auto, they default everything to Cupertino when you first buy it. That's really funny. You've never needed to see the weather on your iPad?
S: I used my, my phone's weather. I don't use my iPad for weather.
AJR: Steve can't get distracted by the weather.
C: No, come on.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:41:35)
I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily "supernatural" or the work of "spirits" just because you cannot explain them.
– Harry Houdini (1874-1926), in a 1922 letter to Arthur Conan Doyle after Doyle visited Houdini at his apartment in New York City to partake in a slate-writing session.
S: Evan give us a quote.
E: All right. New York City related quote, bear with me. "I beg of you, Sir Arthur, do not jump to the conclusion that certain things you see are necessarily "supernatural" or the work of "spirits" just because you cannot explain them." Harry Houdini who wrote that in 1922 to Arthur Conan Doyle after Doyle visited Houdini at his apartment in New York City to partake in a slate writing session.
C: Nice, yeah, that's a great one.
S: That's one of like those his stories in history it's like the author of Sherlock Holmes was a complete woo-woo. (laughter)
E: He believed everything.
J: It doesn't make sense.
S: It doesn't, something wrong there.
C: it like doesn't but it also weirdly does, yeah exactly.
E: He believed in fairies, oh my gosh.
S: The theory, this is, I'm going down another rabbit hole. The theory I read about that is that, you know, Arthur Conan Doyle didn't like the Sherlock Holmes character and he was actually a caricature of the hyper rationalist person.
C: And then he became a hero to so many people.
S: And he was very, he didn't like the fact that Holmes is like, you're not supposed to like him, I don't like this character. So he killed him off. And then there was so much outrage he had to like fake, bring him back with this total retcon.
AJR: And that was even before Benedict Cumberbatch was born.
S: That's true. (laughter)
All right well Andrea thanks for joining us. (applause)
Rogues: Thank you Andrea.
S: Thank you all for joining me as usual. Again thank you guys in the audience, it's been a lot of fun.
S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. (applause)
S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- Neurologica: Transgenic Plants and Space Travel
- Ars Technica: Reporting bias makes homeopathy trials look like homeopathy works
- Live Science: Our universe may have a twin that runs backward in time
- The Conversation: AI maps psychedelic ‘trip’ experiences to regions of the brain – opening new route to psychiatric treatments
- The Guardian: Microplastics found in human blood for first time
- History First: Nixon Played How Many Instruments?
- Snopes: Is Abraham Lincoln in the Wrestling Hall of Fame?
- Insight Publishing: How Thomas Jefferson came to invent the swivel chair and laptop
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]