SGU Episode 881

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SGU Episode 881
May 28th 2022
881 JWST.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 880                      SGU 882

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


NRG: Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney,

NASA planetary scientist

Quote of the Week

With less critical thinking comes more vaccine hesitancy.

Nedra Rhone, columnist, AJC

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, WETA Doc, AQ6[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, May 25th 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening folks!

S: So.

J: Yes.

S: Some exciting news. You know Jay, Bob and I have been doing alpha quadrant six which is our science fiction review show. And right before the pandemic we recorded a documentary at WETA in New Zealand. The special effects company that did Lord of the Rings and other movies.

E: I've heard of that.

J: District 9.

S: District 9.

J: I Am Mother.

S: Yeah that's right and King Kong. The most recent King Kong.

E: Oh yes.

S: And they did that really awesome World War I museum where the the statues were giant size.

B: Oh my god. And crazy realistic. Like crazy realistic.

S: Hyper detailed, hyper realistic and like what were they five times normal size?

B: Something like that.

S: Which is a lot bigger than it sounds. Because you think about that means you're 30 feet tall. Like the scale, that was the scale. Amazing. Anyway we did a documentary basically all about their process. And we finally published that as an AQ6 episode what two weeks ago Jay?

J: Just about.

S: So check that out. So we all do a lot of side projects every now and then we bring them up. But this is, the Alpha Quadrant 6 we've been we've done on and off. The pandemic really kind of torpedoed our schedule with this because we couldn't physically get together.

B: Photon torpedoed.

S: Yeah we tried to do some online and they were all right but you know just wasn't the same thing. Like we couldn't get in the studio together and crank out a bunch of episodes. But now we can. So so we're back on schedule putting out a video and a podcast every week.

J: Every Tuesday.

S: Every Tuesday, yep. So yeah so we want you guys to check it out. We did recently The Batman we reviewed that movie.

J: And Strange New Worlds

S: Strange New Worlds. So we try to hit that if something just comes out we'll try to hit it right away so that we could recommend it or not recommend it. Like we'll watch the first episode and give you an idea. Then we'll do wrap-up reviews or we'll do themed reviews. Like the top 10 spaceships or whatever. How many episodes total have we put since the beginning every published chance? We're getting up there.

J: You know 80 episodes.

B: Wow.

J: Oh if you want to find us you can go to That's Alpha Quadrant and the number 6. Or you can go to We have you know Facebook page. We have a Patreon so you can find us pretty much anywhere. Just look for Alpha Quadrant and then number 6.

S: Yeah doing that show's a lot of fun.

J: I love it.

B: And what are we gonna do what are we gonna do next guys? How about Love, Death & Robots review?

S: I already watched the whole season.

B: Season 3 baby. I'm partially through, no spoilers.

J: Bob Obi-Wan, Obi-Wan literally drops the day after tomorrow.

B: Yeah, we could do that.

J: Now I don't know if that's gonna be, if they're gonna drop the whole thing or if they're gonna do it episode by episode. Probably episode by episode so we'll get to review the first episode at least.

S: Then we're gonna do futurism in science fiction movies. And we've got to do Doctor Strange.

J: Yeah.

B: Yes. Hello? We got to get to the damn theater and watch it.

S: So those are the next shows that we're gonna review.

B: Let's go right now.

COVID-19 Update (3:22)[edit]

J: Can I tell you guys something else that's going on in my life?

S: Yeah.

J: So you know you covid, right?

S: Yeah I'm familiar with that, yeah.

J: So long story short my daughter did not get covid over the wave during Christmas when everybody got covid except my daughter.

S: She dodged Omicron?

J: She did. She dodged the big wave of Omicron. Well she got it last week. A week and a half ago So I have not literally seen my six-year-old daughter since Friday of last week because she stayed with her grandmother who also got covid literally the same day from the same person. Keep it in mind, you know, keep in mind man, covid is still swinging out there. There's, in Connecticut the numbers have been skyrocketing. It's happening in other states in the country probably in other places around the world as well. But just be careful. Carry masks in your car. Make sure the people that you know and love are vaccinated. Get your boosters. Like keep it in your head. You don't have to think about it every day like we did two years ago but be smart and keep up with it.

S: Speaking of which and we're actually going to talk about the monkey pox a little bit later in the show when we get to the news items. But you guys all know Mark Crislip, right?

J: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

E: Oh yes.

S: Yeah. He's awesome. So he he was writing for Science-Based Medicine for years but in 2018 he retired from Science-Based Medicine and now he's back. And he wrote his first post─

B: Awesome.

S: ─yesterday.

E: Un-retired like Tom Brady.

S: Yeah, exactly. He actually last Thursday he published it. And it was basically all about covid. It's like where are we with things right now. He's an infectious disease specialist but you should read it. He's very very funny writer just a lot of tongue-in-cheek humor but also totally on point. He basically says yeah we're never going to be done with covid. Like covid is never gonna be over. It's now permanent part of the infectious disease background. And we're definitely in the learning how to live with that face but he says things so matter-of-factly like as a specialist. It's like we know how to deal with this. We totally 100% know how to deal with this. You have to mask and get vaccinated. Those are the two things that really work right. Everything else is kind of nibbling around the edges but masking works and getting back. And then the only way to get to herd immunity is with vaccination. That's it. We're never going to get there by natural infection. That's always been a fantasy. It doesn't you know, infectious disease─

C: What about a hybrid of the both.

S: ─don't work that way. The problem is─

C: No really. I mean what about the people who do vaccinate and then the people who refuse who ultimately catch covid?

S: The problem is with the, as he explains, the problem with the relying on natural infections. Is that this virus mutates so quickly that by the time it comes around again it just reinfects you. So like omicron's really good at reinfecting people who were infected previously with covid for example. So it just doesn't work. You would need everybody to get infected at once with the same strain. Which is never going to happen.

C:' So just that is what vaccination kinda is.

S: That is what vaccination. Vaccination you can literally give everybody the same immunity all at once. That's the only way that we're ever going to really deal with pandemics like this. It's just so frustrating that's like okay here's the answer and then a bunch of people refuse to do it. And there's not really much we can do about it or are willing to do it. I mean we could.

Ulvade, TX Shooting (6:24)[edit]

C: I mean this is kind of the story of our American lives right now. Is clear and present problems that we have a clear answer to that people just refuse to.

S: I know. I know. I mean we haven't brought up yet what happened in Texas. And it's just absolutely horrible another school shooting. Another elementary school shooting. This was basically Sandy Hook redux. This is just.

C: Yeah this was the worst mass shooting in quite some time. Like we do have mass shootings nearly every day but this was the worst in quite some time.

S: Basically since Sandy Hook. Yeah totally. I mean can you just imagine just the whole classroom of young children being mowed down like that just like. You can't even wrap your head around it.

E: It's beyond horrific.

S: Yeah it's just beyond horrific. Every time there is a big, like national headline grabbing mass shooting, it's interesting to see the zeitgeist in this. Like what how are people basically responding. Like after Parkland there was this sense of this time something's really gonna happen, you know?

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: And of course nothing happened. After Sandy Hook it was like well this is so shocking. This is gonna shock even─

B: Yeah, little kids.

S: ─the cynics. I mean yeah those are little kids but nothing happened. This time around the vibe that I'm getting is everyone's just saying nothing's gonna happen. Nothing's gonna. That's nothing's gonna change. We're gonna do absolutely nothing in response to this.

E: Pretty defeatist.

C: Well you've seen the onion article, right?

B: It's just practical at this point.

C: It's getting so much coverage. There's an onion article that they published in 2014 and the headline was "No Way to Prevent This", Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.

B: Awesome.

C: And they have now republished it 21 times and only changed, like the exact same article, they've just only changed the details of the shooting. 21 times since 2014. And that's the thing a certain segment of the population sees that and goes yeah WTF. And another segment of the population sees that and goes second amendment. So yeah. I mean there's a lot of memes we could be listing here and there's a lot of I guess political discussion that we could be having which we try to to be smart about how we approach it here on the SGU.

S: So we try to be, try to be evidence based and neutral when it comes to partisanship. We're doing a very very quick coverage here. And we probably should do a deep dive at some point soon. And we've talked about it before. But the bottom line is that sensible gun safety regulations work. They work. We have enough data to know that that is the case. But also the one of the best articles I saw which is again it's one of these ones that gets republished every time there's a mass shooting. So it's still relevant like every six months or so. And it compared the amount of research money that the NIH and the CDC are spending on different problems. And the number of people those problems kill, right? So you have these tiny little dots of diseases with huge budgets researching them. Then you have this massive bubble of of gun violence deaths and a teeny tiny budget to research it. So like if you look if you take a public health approach to this which is reasonable and rational but also one you know political party is against looking at this as a health care issue. A public health issue. It makes absolutely no sense. There's a complete disconnect between the magnitude of the problem and then the research priority that we're giving it. And that's by design again that's not just because no one thought of it. That is by political design. So those are the things we need to be talking about. We should be doing the science. We should be doing evidence-based rational. And the other thing is 80-90% of people want these regulations. They're not even unpopular. That's the most frustrating thing is that we lack the political will in the face of overwhelming public support. Something is broken there, right? That's what's so frustrating.

C: Well the lobbying system. Yeah. The gun lobby. That's what's broken. Is that the interests of politicians. They're placing them over the actual lives of children.

S: No absolutely. Yeah that's the that that's really, our democracy isn't working when the public can't exert their will through their elected representatives. That's, this is, it reminds of that every time one of these things happens it's like and of course nothing's going to happen because. But I the thing is. I just really hate the defeatist attitude. And that's why I'm─

B: Oh I embrace it.

S: ─I'm not happy with the overall response that I'm seeing in public of nothing's going to happen, there's nothing we could do. Because it's self-defeating, right? Even if it's true it doesn't matter.

C: It also really doesn't makes sense given the administration we're in. Like we can do something.

S: Well yeah. Well I think honestly I think the thing that we can do is vote. That's the real. I don't think we have the political people in place now to do anything because you need you need 60 votes in the senate basically. And we don't have that. And if if the public really wanted if we really wanted to do something about this it would require people voting on this issue and getting off their butts and voting. And the problem is people forget about it in three weeks and they go on to the next thing.

J: And that's also incredible that's a very slow process.

C: Yeah. Like I think we can be doing more right now. And part of that is speaking up. It's putting pressure on the people that we already voted into office by just plastering them with the message that they are failing their constituents. And by acting locally as well because yes we know that the second amendment is this big Goliath that David is facing but we can affect change at the local level. We can make sure, we can make sure that the states that we live in have the strictest laws possible. In so far as they don't encroach on on the constitution. I mean obviously─

E: [inaudible]

C: Yeah. I mean we can make sure that our neighborhoods are safe. That's what we have to do.

B: Yeah but I mean I keep going back to for me Sandy Hook was a real real watershed in many ways because that was the time I really really felt well of course something's going to happen. When we're talking 20 some odd five and six-year-olds slaughtered. I mean that I mean it was really egregious and from that angle. And it didn't happen. So then I'm thinking what will it realistically take for something to happen. And I don't have an answer to that because I can't imagine what it's going to take for something to happen. This isn't gonna do it. Sandy Hook didn't do it.

S: All right well we're not going to solve this problem today unfortunately but it is a conversation that we need to keep having. So guys let's go on with our news items.

News Items[edit]






(laughs) (laughter) (applause) [inaudible]

Monkeypox (13:29)[edit]

S: All right Cara so we've been talking about covid but what about this monkey pox I keep hearing about?

C: Yeah I don't know if you guys watched a recent episode of Last Week Tonight but he sort of intros it with like this is going on, this is going on and monkey pox I'm not going there, I can't deal with this right now. He's like we're a bit fatigued. I'm not going there. And I think it is an important conversation to have especially amongst as you mentioned the background of covid. What is monkey pox. Should I be afraid of monkey pox. What's going on. Because we're hearing it on the news and I think we can go, well we can go one of several ways but we can go one of two extreme ways. Which is the same way we went in the early covid days. This is happening somewhere else, it doesn't affect me. Even though we've seen a few cases spreading around the globe I'm not concerned about it. Or we can go the other direction which is freak the f out. And I don't recommend either of these directions. I think it's probably somewhere in the middle.

S: And to our credit though. I you know remember and have listened back at this at the v- our very first reaction to covid was be concerned but don't panic.

C: Right.

S: That was our first. And then of course it was yeah we probably should have been panicking (Cara laughs) but initially we were like yeah, this, but definitely don't ignore it. Be concerned about this. Keep an eye on it. It's too early to panic. But I think we're in the same place with the monkey pox but go ahead and give us the overview.

C: I think we probably are. I think you're right. But for individuals who here. I mean there's a reason that John Oliver was like I can't deal with this right now. Like don't tell me that there's a monkey pox infection going around the globe right now. So let's talk about what this is. This is not a pandemic. This is not an epidemic. Maybe an outbreak is a good term to use.

S: It's an outbreak. There's a very specific definition as you know that─

C: Yeah.

S: ─WHO uses outbreak epidemic and pandemic. This is at the outbreak stage now.

B: Covid was at the outbreak stage at one point. Go ahead.

C: Any pandemic starts as an outbreak. You are correct about that. So let's talk a little bit about what monkey pox is and what we know about it. So monkey pox actually is sort of a misnomer. It was identified in 1958 among lab monkeys. So we first kind of got wind of this idea of this disease because lab monkeys showed symptoms of it. But it's not a monkey disease. They're not the natural host a natural reservoir and it's very likely that individuals who catch it, now it is a zoonotic infection, but it's very likely that they're catching this as a spillover from rodents. We haven't really pinned down the exact core reservoir but it's very likely that rodents are the ones carrying monkey pox. The first cases in humans were in the 70s in the DRC. We actually saw an outbreak here in the US in 2003. I don't remember that. Do you guys remember a monkey pox outbreak in the US? I mean it happened.

E: No.

J: I remember reading about it but I wasn't aware when it happened.

C: Right. Okay. So that happened, I think they were they prairie dogs. I think that were sold from a pet store and those had come from Ghana. We're seeing that most of the spillover events are happening in Africa and there are sort of two regions. There's the West African endemic version of monkey pox. And then there is the DRC, Democratic Republic of Congo, remember that's formerly Zair kind of cluster of monkey pox. Monkey box is a pox virus. It is similar to smallpox. It's not the same thing as smallpox and here's some of the good news. We're going to be doing some good news bad news today. Some of the good news is that it is generally more mild than smallpox. It is generally less deadly. The symptoms are generally less severe. It can be quite dangerous though especially for individuals who have compromised immune systems, like many viruses. So children, older individuals, pregnant women. It can look kind of like chickenpox. One of the, there are multiple symptoms and they happen in a very particular order. You get these flu-like symptoms, a fever headache and then you start to develop, and swollen lymph nodes, and you start to develop this blistering rash that happens after that. It usually takes about four weeks in total. About a month for the entire course. Although it can be shorter. By the time the pox actually show up you've already usually been showing these other symptoms. The deadliness is low. And one thing that I think people are getting confused in their coverage is that whereas the DRC cluster of these viruses can have a case fatality rate of upwards of 10%. The outbreak that we're seeing right now is actually the Western Africa virus and it has a case fatality rate of closer to, actually under 1%. In practice it has been slightly higher 2-3% but that's usually because of poor health care not because the virus itself has that high of a fatality rate. So with proper treatment it's very unlikely that individuals will die from the type of monkey pox that is currently circulating. When we look at where it is in the world we have some, it's, depends on if we're looking at confirmed or suspected cases but the majority of them right now are in the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. We're also seeing cases in the teens in Canada and the Netherlands. And then we've got two cases here in the US, two in Australia, two in Denmark kind of down the line. And these are all within the last several days. Like going back to earlier this month but these are updated all within the last several days. There is some idea, we still don't know where the the first spread took place, but there's some idea that it likely took place in Spain because that's where the virus was first being tracked. It could have been at a rave. It could have been at, or actually it's like a pride parade because early reports pointed to the virus spreading within the community of men who have sex with men. So we actually are seeing some parallels to some of the early panic that we saw with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Where there's some misunderstanding about how it's spread about who can catch it. Monkey pox, anybody can catch monkey pox. If we are seeing a cluster within a particular community it's just because that happens to be a community that was exposed. A monkey pox does spread through particles in the air but it doesn't spread as quickly or as easily as covid. And that's something that's important to remember. Monkeypox is not covid. It's not a coronavirus it's a completely different type of virus. Although it can be meaningful for us to make comparisons like we did early on with covid when we talked about the flu. Because it's what we know and it helps us find an established jumping off point. It is important that we remember that just because it's a virus, there are a lot of viruses out there. Remember that science or fiction we did on viruses? Didn't we all miss it?

S: Yeah. How many there are?

C: Yeah yeah like how many infect. Yeah it was a banana's number. It was like orders of magnitude more than we thought. One of the things that's important is is about finding that balance. Because what we don't want to do is say well we know about monkeypox, we know what it is, we've dealt with it before. We have actually by the way smallpox vaccines in our stockpile. And smallpox vaccines are like 80 to 85% effective against monkeypox because they are so similar. Unfortunately the original smallpox vaccine that we do have stockpiled also has like some pretty nasty side effects. Which is why when the CDC first grappled with whether they wanted to inoculate the entire population or vaccinate the entire population they decided against it. Because the risk wasn't worth the benefit at the time because there was no real risk of of catching small packs since smallpox has been eradicated. But we've always had a concern about bioterrorism which is why we've maintained these vaccines. Since then a newer vaccine has been developed so that's really promising. It was developed only like a few years ago. Right 2019 JYNNEOS, I'm not sure how to pronounce that. And it has a a lower side effect profile. And we also have an antiviral that was developed for orthopox viruses. So smallpox and monkeypox it works on. It's called Tecovirimat and so we have all of these different treatments available to us. So in some ways this is completely different than covid because we already know about it. It's a known entity. The problem is we've never seen a spread like the spread we're seeing right now. Most monkeypox outbreaks have been in either West or Central Africa and they've stayed in West or Central Africa if they have spread around the globe it's been one or two people and then they've been contained very readily. So there still are some questions has there been any sort of mutation. Is there something different about the way this virus spreading. So we really want to do exactly what we were talking about before. We want to be cautious but we also don't want to panic. Collect more data. Know that we have appropriate prevention strategies and treatment strategies on deck if we need them but hopefully we won't need them. One last thing I want to say before kind of we open it up is that there was some good reporting in the Washington Post recently I think it was just yesterday. The headline was "As monkeypox panic spreads, doctors in Africa see a double standard". And I think it's an important perspective because when we say should we be worried, well, yes or no. We're very often talking about should we in the west be worried. But this monkeypox outbreak did not just happen in specifically in Nigeria. It's been spreading for years. It's not actually new just because it's new to those of us in the west. And the fact that we have these stockpiles. And the fact that we have these treatments available really does I think lead to the question of why aren't we doing more to help it in it's or to stop it in its tracks where it's where it's happening to prevent these global outbreaks. So food for thought there.

S: Yeah I mean totally. This is like Ebola. Same thing where we need a an international rapid response team for any outbreaks like this no matter where they happen. First of all just for you know equality we want it─

C: Yeah just from a humanitarian perspective.

S: ─from a humanitarian point of view. It doesn't matter who you are we want to stop an outbreak. But even if we're being selfish and being western and privileged whatever. There are, the best way to protect everybody in the world including ourselves is to stop these outbreaks at the source where they happen. We don't want Ebola to break out we don't want the monkeypox to break out. And because every time they do then it creates the new opportunities for more mutations to happen.

C: Absolutely. Zoonotic infections are not just humanitarian problems. They are economic problems. They are public health problems. They are geopolitical problems. And to pretend like they don't play a role in all of these different contexts is to be utterly naive and isolationist in our in our response. And ultimately it's going to bite everybody in the ass.

S: Yeah I mean and when I wrote about this the I said this is, you know, you would think that covid was a wake-up call. And it only sort of was but my fear is that you know the world is getting kind of covid fatigued and before we like really learn the lesson and maybe the one-two punch is necessary. Like a near-miss. Like yeah even when covid is running its course and we start to adapt to it and live as with covet as the new normal. We have to remember it's not gonna be a hundred years before the next pandemic. That's just not the world─

C: Absolutely not.

S: ─we are living in. We're living in, yeah, there's too much international travel. The human population itself is just it's we're approaching 8 billion and we are encroaching upon nature in such a way that zoonotic infections are more likely to jump to humans. And this is just this is that's not only is covid the new normal. Pandemics are the new normal. We are living now in pandemic world. And we have to adapt to that. We realized with that first really massive outbreak of Ebola that we were not ready for it. And then we said okay we have to fix this and then we only halfway did we. But we didn't fully fully fix it. And then covid happened. We got caught with our pants down. I mean magnificently. And you know it was okay now we really have to fix it this time. And now we got the monkeypox and you know the WHO sounds like they're on top of it and that sounds good. And they say this is containable. There's no reason to panic. Yes, it's an outbreak but this is at the containable stage. But like the world's got to get its shit together. That we and we're not. We're not. To the degree that we need to be.

C: Yeah you use that term caught with our pants down and I literally was thinking while you were talking I was like that's the thing. We're not caught with our pants done we see it coming a mile away. Every pandemic started as an outbreak. Like how how were we not more prepared. We know it's gonna happen. And we this is one of those examples that we always talk about on the show. Where it's like we have the tools. We have the knowledge. We have all of the things that we need to either prevent mitigate or treat. And yet we continue to walk down the street and whistle going it's not gonna happen to me.

E: What are the roadblocks specifically?

S: Political will.

C: Political will. Financial roadblocks. It's really I mean that's what it comes down to where do we want to put our money. How do we wanna prioritize.

S: But the thing is it's not really a money issue because it doesn't cost─

C: It's not that expensive.

S: ─it's not that much money and it's a good investment. We would save so much more money. It really is just political will because we're just politically dysfunctional. That's the bottom line. There are international organizations like the World Health Organization and there are national organizations like the CDC who contribute to this. And it's just a matter of giving them the resources and the priority etc. to so that they could set up the infrastructure. I remember like when the Ebola outbreak was happening the characterization was we're building the firehouse after the fire is─

C: Right.

S: ─and you can't do that with infections. I think that what covid really that what I hope comes out of covid and again it's still kind of a mixed bag is that we realize that pandemics are a worldwide global problem that we all have to solve together. You cannot think locally when it comes to a pandemic by definition.

C: You can't be isolationist. You can't.

S: You can't be isolationist. You can't be my country first you can't do any of those things because it doesn't work.

C: It doesn't work.

S: Whatever you think. Whatever your philosophy or ideology or politics are. It doesn't work. You have to treat it like a global problem which means it's everybody's problem everywhere. And we need to treat it that way. And if we don't we're gonna get keep gonna keep getting bitten in the ass by these pandemics. So is the monkeypox going to be the next one? Probably not. But if it isn't there's something else coming down the line.

C: Absolutely.

S: As again as getting back to Mark Crislip up as he as he noted in in his recent SBM article. It's like covid is not the worst thing out there by a long shot.

C: No it is not.

S: There are even if just the respiratory viruses there are things that are much worse. Like if we get hit with a bird flu pandemic it would be much worse. Imagine covid but with like a 10% fatality rate that's─

C: Like imagine something like─

E: We're going through a bird flu right now in the in the country, aren't we?

S: Yeah.

C: Imagine something as infectious as covid but as deadly as Ebola.

E: I, forget I mean.

B: The United States just passed what the million deaths?

S: One million.

B: I mean imagine if at this point that was 10 or 15 or 20 million which easily could have been the case if this was a nastier virus which is absolutely could have been.

E: It's again it rewrites it rewrites everything at that point.

C: And something, I mean one of the points that we didn't make about monkeypox and it sounds like a negative but it's sort of a veiled positive. Is that the symptoms are really obvious with monkeypox. The unfortunate thing is that they're delayed but in infectious diseases where there is a rash associated with it, it becomes very easy to identify the infected. And it becomes a little bit easier for treatment due to that. You don't need necessarily to be doing certain, you don't need to develop certain types of tests to see if somebody has the disease you can identify it point blank.

S: It's got its own marker.

C: Yeah it's got its own marker which can be beneficial but the problem is it's delayed.

S: One of the things on the good news is the technology and Moderna is already working on specific vaccine, mRNA vaccine. So again we'll have another vaccine that we won't get to enough people. All right let's move on.

NASA Mars Plans (30:45)[edit]

S: We're gonna we have a great interview with a NASA scientist coming up later in the show. We have a couple of space news items starting with you Jay. You're gonna talk, talk to us about NASA's recent plans for Mars. They've basically fleshed out what in more detail their their plans for going to Mars. Give us the update.

J: NASA released a good block of details on their first human mission to Mars. So here are some details. So NASA said that the mission will be 30 days. So 30 days at the planet. Of course the total mission is going to be way longer than that. I think it's like 500 days round trip. Two astronauts will be on the ship in orbit while another two astronauts are planned to go down to the surface. This is kind of like they had one person in the orbiter when they when we went to the Moon with the Apollo missions. So they planned to double that. And NASA has asked pretty much anyone who wants to give them feedback on their mission planning feel free to do that. The new deadline for that feedback is on June 3rd</ which I find interesting. They want to hear from the public if anyone has any good ideas or you know just give them your feedback on on what they're doing.

S: Jay how would you feel about going to Mars and then not stepping foot on martian soil? (Evan laughs)

J: You know I thought of that actually Steve, I was─

S: You have to think of that.

J: ─I've thought of it a couple of times you just I watched a few documentaries about the Apollo missions and the astronauts that get picked and you think, people were asked. You're going to be left in the essentially the command module and you're not going down to the surface. But I will say this Steve, that the work that they do there is very important.

S: Of course.

E: It's critical.

J: You would think though if they're all the way there. Mars is so much farther than the Moon that they would be like well we'll let everybody go down. But it's complicated. It's expensive. It's dangerous. Somebody has to stay back.

S: But here's one difference Jay. So I mean the astronauts were in rotation we know that. You know during the Apollo mission. And there was a lot of competition to get one of those spots. If you were going to be in the command module there was a good chance based on what you knew at the time that in a later mission you could go down to the Moon. They didn't know that Apollo was going to get cut short. If you go all the way to Mars and back I doubt you're going again because you basically used up your life of radiation exposure. and you're probably not going to go back. So it's different in that way.

J: That's true. I mean it I think I guess to some people it's still an honor and still─

S: Of course. I get it.

J: ─a really exciting thing to do.

S: And I'm sure that's what they would say. It's like it's you you're still, it's better than being somebody left back on Earth, right? You get to go to Mars. Even if you're only going to be in orbit.

J: But Steve I thought you were gonna say this is what I thought you were gonna say. I thought you were gonna say that if you're left in the command module there's a pretty good chance that you the astronauts that went down to the Moon surface we're not gonna make it back.

S: Well that the first time that was true.

B: I was thinking about that too.

S: Collins was prepared to come back by himself, right? I mean he had he was essentially─

E: I was a contingency, yeah.

S: Yeah I mean he knew that there was a good chance that he would be making a three-day trip to back to Earth by himself and he was ready to do that.

E: You have to psychologically prepare yourself for that? Boy it's awful.

S: Training psychologically everything, it was a very real possibility.

J: So they said Steve that they're thinking late 2030s early 2040s for the first Mars mission. For the first crude Mars mission.

S: 20 years basically.

J: So I know we talked about this previously on the show but Bob and Steve mentioned it already. We talked about we talked to two people from NASA last year at NECSS and they said that speed is of the essence for many reasons. Like getting people to and from Mars as quickly as possible and of course one of the main reasons is the dangerous radiation that people will be exposed to because we also found out that there isn't like shielding and things like that there are really going to be significant. So we they said we need to get the astronauts to Mars as fast as possible to minimize the amount of radiation that they're going to have to deal with. Now gravity is a big player in this too. When we go to Mars the lack of gravity is going to be a problem. The astronauts will be in microgravity which essentially means that they're weightless for months at a time. This means that they will have muscle and bone loss. And once they get down to the surface of Mars, guess what? They will be in a weakened state. The third, the one-third Earth gravity on Mars will still feel like a ton of gravity to them. So what, one idea NASA had that they're talking about right now is in order to handle this issue that they'll have the astronauts live in a rover. This will let them get around, do science and acclimate safely. It'll be kind of like they'll be like the people from WALL-E, those people on the ship. (laughs) So once they're in good enough shape to put on the spacesuits if they're strong enough and their endurance is at the right spot then they can go outside do more science. But in the beginning man they're gonna basically have them be lying down doing more exercise to beef up so they can put those suits on. So before the astronauts get to Mars there will already be approximately 25 tons of hardware and supplies and equipment and everything poised for their use. When they arrive in orbit around Mars their ascent vehicle will already be there 100% ready to go to fly them down. So they'll be leaving probably when all of this stuff has already been put in place. NASA knows that their current plans are definitely likely to change. I mean they're talking about it right now because they're going to be pouring much more time into consideration into these missions. Right now what they're doing is they're saying that the habitat spacecraft that will be able to bring them to and from Mars surface will be, it's going to be a hybrid. It's gonna be a chemical and electrical propulsion. Preparation for these future Mars missions of course are significantly, I mean utterly influenced, and hinging on the success of the Moon missions once we get to the point where things are going very smoothly on the Moon and we get it and we have all this stuff in place. Then we could start sending equipment to Mars to prepare for humans going to Mars. But the pathway to pave that road to get there it's a huge amount of money and work. Which I find utterly fascinating. You go through this list and you're reading about just all the different things that they've realized that have to be have to come into reality at some point within the next 10-20 years.

Linear Bias (37:47)[edit]

S: All right let me ask you guys a question. This is a math question. It's a hypothetical question. So let's say you are the CEO of a company and the company's business requires two fleets of vehicles to do deliveries or whatever. A smaller fleet in a big and a bigger fleet in terms of the size of the vehicles. But it's the same number of vehicles. And they each drive 10 000 miles a year. So same exact number of miles driven per year by each fleet. Fleet A is comprised of vehicles that get 10 miles to the gallon. Fleet B is comprised of vehicles that get 20 miles to the gallon. Now your accountant says we have enough money to upgrade one of these two fleets but not both. And because of just advances. You can swap out the fleet that gets 10 miles to the gallon for one that gets 20 miles to the gallon or the one that gets 20 for one that gets 50. Which would save more money? Going from 10 to 20 miles per gallon or 20 to 50 miles per gallon.

C: And we're only concerned about money.

E: And the same number of vehicles in each fleet?

B: Ten to twenty.

E: It's the same quantity.

S: Same number of vehicles and miles driven in each fleet.

S: So this is like a backgammon question.

B: Ten to twenty.

S: All things being equal except 10 to 20 versus 20 to 50. 3934

E: Because 10 to 20 is a 50% gain versus 20 to 50. That's a smaller ratio.

C: Yeah it doesn't matter we're just looking at the total gain.

S: What do you think? Just give me an answer. Just give me.

C: I don't I have to do the math. I can't do the math that fast in my head.

B: 10 to 20.

S: What your gut? What's your gut tell you?

C: I don't like this gut questions.

B: Come on why else would he ask if it wasn't 10 to 20?

C: Yeah it's 10 to 20 is my gut but.

E: But they said 20 to 50?

B: So you got a gut.

C: But the other one's way bigger 20 to 50.

E: Yeah it is 20 to 50 it is more than double.

C: But so do you have half your fleet dragging ass in the last century or do you get both of your fleet like slightly better? Steve I changed my mind I think you want to go 50.

S: 20 to 50?

C: Well cause you're saying it's 50:50. So in my so in yeah but I don't care about the ratio. In my head this is how I'm calculating it and this is probably wrong. 0.5 times 10 plus 0.5 times 50. Or 0.5 times 20 plus 0.5 times 20.

S: Yeah.

C: And you're gonna get better gas mileage if you upgrade the higher fleet.

S: What do you think Jay?

J: I would. I don't know. My gut is for some reason telling me 10 to 20.

S: So the people use two heuristics when confronted with these questions that are both wrong. (Cara laughs)

C: And we just demonstrated both of them.

E: Yeah, shortcuts don't work, great.

S: So one is, well there's only two choices so some of you are abvously right but─

B: Exactly.

S: ─so one is to assume like to do a linear calculation to say well 10 to 20 is the difference is 10. And 20 to 50 the difference is 30. So that's obviously a much bigger difference so that's the one you should prefer. Evan you were essentially stating the ratio bias. 20 is twice 10. 50 is more than twice 20. So that should be better, right?

E: That's what it sound like, yes.

S: Both of those are wrong. And this is the linearity bias over that's like the the umbrella cognitive bias. I can't resist cognitive biases.

B: We noticed.

S: But not only is the is not only is this strict linear bias wrong actually even the ratio bias is often wrong and obviously depends on context. So Bob is correct 10 to 20 is the much bigger advantage. It's very counterintuitive though. And the other thing that's happening here is you're thinking of it backwards. We our instinct is to think about how much of a gain you're making rather than how much of a decrease of a loss you're spending. So think about it this way Cara you could think of it this way. When you go from 10 to 20 you're having your fuel. The 20 is already at half so it's impossible for it to have as much of a gain as the 10 to 20.

C: But I wasn't even looking at it like a dip like a change.

S: But that's the question.

C: Right but I was literally looking at it like if half your fleet 0.5 is operating at 20 miles per gallon plus.

S: So the here's so your approach is you're looking at the miles per gallon. You should be looking at the gallons per mile.

C: I see.

S: That's the logical fallacy. These you should not be looking at like how far you're getting on a gallon but how many gallons are you spending to go that 10 000 miles.

C: Then why don't we term it that way?

S: We should people argue that we should it should be miles per gallon. I mean it should be gallons per 100 miles or something and make it meaningful because then it is more intuitive. When you know what I mean because then when you when then your your instincts are aligned a little bit better with the reality you still might think linearly. But yeah when you actually think about it in terms of how many gallons of gas you're saving you would have to go to zero just to equal. You basically have to have infinite miles per gallon in order to equal going from 10 to 20. Because you're already spending half at 20. So the the potential savings is less. So actually so you would say for example for for every 500 gallons you save from going from 10 to 20 you're only going to save 300 from going from 20 to 50. Let me give you another example. And this is also like designed to be a little bit mind-blowing but I know you guys are prepared for it now. Also with driving. Let's say you increase your driving speed from 40 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour. How much would you need to increase your spree speed from a starting point of 80 miles per hour in order to save the same amount of time on the journey. Would you say 100 miles per hour or 120 miles per hour?

E: Oh I see what's the right what's the equivalent.

C: I have a very hard time with these.

E: [inaudible] is the same as 80 to a [inaudible].

J: I'd say it's a higher number.

S: How much so you think about how much time do you save by going from 40 miles per hour to 60 miles per hour. Now how fast would you have to go in order to save the same amount of time if you were starting at 80 miles per hour?

B: Probably yeah, probably 120.

C: Yeah tell me if I'm wrong but I remember always being told that like sort of at 60 or beyond you're sort of peaked.

E: Optimal performance.

C: Like you're not gonna save anything.

J: Oh because of wind resistance, right?

C: Like, no not because of wind resistance but just like because of the way that the math works.

S: Because of diminishing returns.

C: Yeah like you're not gonna get there any faster if you go 90.

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah.

S: So the the answer is 240 miles per hour.

C: Right yeah like you're never gonna get to 240. So if if you follow a linear thinking you would say a hundred. If you follow ratio thinking you would say 120. But in reality you need to be thinking exponentially which gets you to 240. So the part of the linearity bias is that we underestimate the advantages of improving things at the low end and we overestimate the advantages of improving them at the high end. So that that works for both of these examples that I gave. So like when you go from 10 to 20 that advantage just blows away anything you can get beyond that. And when you go from 40 to 60 that gives you such an advantage in speed that you can't make it up unless you go like 240 miles per hour beyond 80. So the part of it is the thing that with this example what people don't take into account is that you're getting there a lot faster when at 80 miles per hour as your starting point there's a lot less room for improvement. And at 40 so like when you're if you're you're calculating a journey you really want to avoid the choke points. Even if it's like it would be you would save much more time taking back roads than speeding along the highway and then getting into bumper to bumper. That the time you lose when you're going super slow vastly outweighs even a relatively decreasing speed overall. But yeah you're right so after when once you get north of 60 miles an hour again the thing is at 60 miles per hour you're pretty you're gonna get there reasonably fast. There's just not that much room for improvement. So when you go even faster you're starting you're talking about for even 100 mile journey. Like just a couple of minutes. Like it becomes negligible. The time savings becomes increasingly negligible when your starting point is already pretty high.

E: Unless you're an ambulance.

C: But to be fair.

S: No even you shouldn't speed that's right and ambulances don't really speed I don't know if you paid attention.

C: No what they do is they get the benefit of the cars moving out of their way, that's all they'll get.

S: So they make it up at the low end. They're not waiting in traffic they're but they're not speeding.

C: And so to be fair Steven I only wanna clarify because this isn't just a conversation we're having but people are listening and learning from us. Some things in life are linear. Like we have to be clear that this bias only applies to these specific situations and others like them.

S: Yes I mean or you could say that we have a linear bias whether it's true or not.

C: Exactly.

S: It's true sometimes but even when it's not true we still stick to our linear bias. We just tend to think linearly.

E: We grasp it more easily.

S: Yeah and so yeah.

C: Because I think some of the things that are really fundamental to our evolution are linear. Like it it the heuristic has served us in so many ways.

S: Yeah that's why we have that heuristic.

E: Yeah generally speaking. You can survive life in a linear way of looking at things.

C: It's just bites you in the ass sometimes.

B: Two brontosaurus burgers are twice as good as one. (laughter)

S: That's exactly right and we we think of that that the bias comes from like if I have one bookshelf of books and then I add a second one I have twice as many books. That's correct. That is linear. So of course Cara that's why we have this heuristic. Maybe it's that in our evolutionary milieu, as I love to say, that there wasn't a lot of things happening that were geometric. But now we live in a civilization that deals with stuff. Like we have Moore's law where we have a geometric increase in the in the processing speed basically. Of computers, the number of transistors on on a computer chip and over like every eighteen months to two years. And that has produced just unbelievably massive increases.

E: Is that still holding true? Did Moore's law taper off or with computing power?

C: Not yet. I don't think.

E: We're still on the course?

S: Well it's just that it's different. I mean it's there's a complicated answer to that.

B: Yeah it's that's not it [inaudible].

C: But it's still not linear.

S: It's still not linear. It's just like those other aspects of computing power that are being focused on. It's not all about the central processor. Like adding cores does that really, it's just different. But there but the industry is maintaining the overall performance increase one way or the other because that's what's best for the industry and for sales. The benefit of understanding the heuristic biases of how your brain works is that you can fix them. You can think. So how for example do we do this? So here just getting out of yourself and thinking oh wait is this a linear progression or not. And just sort of add new modules to to modify your heuristic but you're doing it sort of consciously. But and this gets to what you're saying Cara. It's always going to be like amazingly more helpful to pick the low hanging fruit. Rather than push for incremental advances at the high end. Always deal with the lowest end first. You're going to get so much more bang for the buck at the low end than you will at the high end. Because we vastly underestimate the benefits of shoring up the low end. And we the over estimate─

C: Yeah we never apply this to our economics principles.

S: ─I mean economists do. But even sometimes they get it wrong when they fall for this heuristic but generally people don't. Like intuitively we do we don't do it. So but there's a lot of people who are like not expert economists or whatever who are the heads of companies and who make decisions, who make purchasing decisions and business decisions based upon this faulty linear heuristic. We also run into this, we talk about this a lot in our book. We don't run into it we're trying to extrapolate future progress because from both ends. Because we think of progress as linear just intuitively and we also think of problems as linear. And problems are not linear either. So you get diminishing returns there. Like for example I like─

E: Batteries?

S: ─well like one of my. Last 5% that last 5% could be ten times as hard as the first 95%, right? So like with speech recognition. Kurzweil in the 1990s predicted that by like the early 2000s we will we would have cracked speech recognition. And we got to like 95% which sounds great but that still means one in 20 words is wrong. And it got stuck there. It took 20 more years to like really get to the point where it's more like a the greater than 99%. And then we ran into that with self-driving cars. Where we're like okay yeah we're going to be all driving we're going to be all riding around and self-driving cars by the early 2020s, right? Now. And that's not happening because that last few percent which is important. Not having accidents it turned out to be an order of magnitude harder than the first 95 to 98%. So when you approach problems first of all you have to be aware of that but it also means you should just grab that 95%, you know what I mean? And just make sure that you do all of those things first. That's why like my approach to the energy problem is like let's grab the 95% of every option we have and not try to push the last 5% of any one option where you get into incredibly diminishing returns. It's the same thing if you try to go 100% solar in wind it's a lot harder than just letting it get to its natural sort of equilibrium point where we're picking the low-hanging fruit. Anyway. So this it's really an interesting bias. And like once you really wrap your head around it it does help you think about a lot of things. Make sure you're calculating things the right way. I love the gasoline one because it is it's like you're thinking of miles per gallon but you really should be thinking of gallons per mile when you try to do comparisons.

C: It doesn't help that the question is couched [inaudible].

S: I know I mean but that's the that's the way we think of things.

E: Reverse engineer.

S: That's the world we are interfacing with. So anyway good to keep that in mind. And it comes up in a lot a lot of places like more than you would than you would think. Okay let's move on.

Who's That Noisy? (52:46)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Water lapping up against metal gutters of pool

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

J: Oh my god. All right guys last week I played this noisy:

[perhaps an oscillating, long, taut cable making strumming, chirping vibrations]

So? You guys have any ideas? What do you got?

E: Something underwater. Kind of. I sense a sloshiness to the noisy.

S: It sounds like a web of wires being plucked.

J: Yeah there's a lot of─

S: Web of cables.

J: ─there's a lot of people─

B: Exactly.

J: ─so Charlie Ross, you guys know Charlie, right?

E: Yeah he bit my finger. (Cara laughs)

J: This sounds, Charlie Ross, very long time patron. Good guy. Good friend said: "This sounds exactly like the sound you get when you bang on a cable that is under very high tension."

C: Right. It's pew-pew.

E: Right the screwdriver. Right they use it for sound effects in Star Wars.

J: Yeah, pew-pew-pew. Charlie represents probably about 50 people who wrote in the exact same thing. This is not correct.

Eric Engman wrote in: "First guess ever, I think this sound is made by a spring in a tube. This is not a spring in a tube. But that is, I have heard a spring in a tube and I know exactly why you say that because it that sounds like that to a certain degree.

I have another guest by Milo Silvestri. He said: "Hi guys, almost a beginner into the skeptics world thanks to your podcast. It will be now in forever part of my life and I will make it part of my daughter's too." That's great to hear Milo. "So this week's noisy is an underwater recording of ice cracking due to temperature dilation."

E: A-ha! See? Underwater.

J: You were both correct in the fact that you used the word water.

E: Excellent.

J: Another listener named Jody Paul said: "Hi Jay listening since 2015. Thanks to you all. My five-year-old Laurie guesses it's a flamingo." I would like more explanation about that one. "My seven-year-old Alistair guesses it is someone shooting lasers at a baddie".

E: Yeah, that's right.

J: And then Jody guessed: "It's some kind of tropical fish.". I wanna know more about the flamingo. That's what I want to know now.

We have another listener named Chris who said: "Hi Jay I heard this noisy while I was mowing my lawn. After hearing the noisy I ran inside to compose this email. This Who's That Noisy sounds to me like the gameplay from the video game Tempest." My god you are correct. It does sound like Tempest. There are definite parallels to the game Tempest in there. You're not correct but that was a wonderful guess.

I'm going to read one more and there is no winner this week. A listener named Ben said: "Ben here from"─

S: Dover?

E: Steve!

J: ─Ben is the Frenchie from Japan. He says: "This sound pattern is a classic but I think this time water seems involved."

E: Yes, thank you.

J: "Big structure under the tension that is making vibrations. The ice sheet on the water and the very famous cable or things of the past for Who's That Noisy I would say so my guess this time would go to an underwater communication cable being laid down on the bottom of the sea." So I will tell you this one has to do with water. This sound is the sound that you hear when water is coming out of a swimming pool and lapping up against the metal gutters at the side of the swimming pool that collect the water. This is the sound that a lot of people are familiar with because these are typically the way public pools are built. And with the right position of a microphone you can get a really cool sound like that sound. So take a listen again. So this is water going into the metal gutters that collect the water on the along the pool.

[plays noisy]

B: Wow.

J: You hear it now?

S: Yeah.

J: It's remarkable how it sounds like so many other cool things. That's a great noisy. All right so thank you so much Jeff for sending that in.

New Noisy (56:37)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy from a listener named William Grew Mullins.

E: What? Did I hear that right?

J: Yes, you did.

S: William Grew Melons?

E: Mullets.

C: Mullins.

E: No mullets. Like the haircut.

C: Mullins.

E: Oh Mullins.

J: All right I want you guys to be specific please with this Noisy. You'll understand when you hear it.

[Michael Jackson-esque squeals, screams, and scatting]

(Jay laughs) Okay so please be specific. Don't be unspecific with this one. That's all I ask.

S: Unspecific?

J: Yes. If you think you know what this week's Noisy is, or, my God, people, if you have heard a Noisy that you think is cool--you found it on the web, it could be something from your life, at work, at home--as long as it's interesting and doesn't sound like white noise--if it sounds like this, [imitates white noise], don't send that to me.

C: (laughs) How many of these you get a week?

J: Lots, a lot. You'd be amazed. People have this long wind up. I had this unbelievable machine at work that oh my god I've been listening to it for years and I've been thinking I really got to record that for Jay. Let me record it for you. Here's the recording, [imitates white noise], like it's just white noise. So but please send me these noises at

Announcements (58:16)[edit]

J: Steve there's one more thing we got to discuss. So.

S: Yes.

J: The Arizona dates. There's four shows that we have planned in Arizona. We have decided to move the dates to a later time this year. It's very very likely that these dates are going to be moved to November. There are lots of reasons behind this but one of them and the most important one is that covid is coming back and we feel that in two months things could be so dicey that we would be canceling these shows outright. So it's safer right now when we have a lot of lead time to delay the shows. We're thinking that November is basically the next time frame that works for us and the venues. So we will be picking probably the second weekend in November. That's that's what it's seeming like right now. I will be emailing everyone that has purchased tickets. Everyone will be told exactly what's gonna happen. We're sorry about this but we've been dealing with the pandemic now for over two years and we know how it goes and a wave is coming and we don't want to be brushing up against a hard-hitting pandemic where nobody can show up to these shows. And there's a lot of time and money invested in these things by us so we have to be careful. So we will be moving them. Tickets are still available. We will be giving you the firm dates next week but for now just know if you're a ticket holder you'll be told everything that you need to know. And if you're interested in buying tickets feel free to go ahead and buy them but the dates are going to be changed to probably that second week in November.

S: Yeah you get a full refund no questions asked up until like seven days before the event. So yeah there's no risk there. If you're obviously for the tickets that we're selling for the private shows again 100% refund if necessary but also you will automatically if you want you'll be, your tickets will apply to the later dates. This is what we had to do in Denver, which was at the beginning of the pandemic. The same thing and it worked that well. So yeah we we do this reluctantly but we really had no choice now. We're gonna have to delay it until a later date. Probably better actually to be in Phoenix, Arizona in November than July anyway I'm thinking.

J: True that.

S: Just from a temperature perspective. All right thanks Jay.

Name That Logical Fallacy (1:00:26)[edit]

S: All right guys we have a Name That Logical Fallacy this week. I don't think we've had one in a couple of weeks. I'm trying to do a lot of them but we get a lot of questions where people say what fallacy is this and I can't resist those. So this one comes from Chris and Chris writes:

"Hey gang, I'm a longtime fan of the show and really appreciate your hard work. I was trying to figure out what logical fallacy this one is. Recently someone mentioned the Amber Heard trial and someone else said that the world is heating up and there is all this gun violence so we shouldn't be paying attention to a celebrity trial. It feels like an either or but it doesn't feel quite right. Is there a specific logical fallacy for someone saying you don't have the bandwidth to pay attention to several things at once. Keep up the good work. I love my signed book and have purchased several as Christmas presents for friends and family, Chris."

Well thank you so much Chris. So what do you guys think about this? What's this logical fallacy.

B: Relative privation come to mind.

S: Yeah relative privation. So Amber Heard for Evan.

C: For Evan. (laughs)

E: I lived under a rock.

C: Johnny Depp. Amber Heard.

S: Yeah, they've been, yeah they're having a very public nasty separation with Johnny Depp. I haven't been paying that close attention either but I know what's happening. It's kind of all over the mainstream.

B: All over Reddit.

C: Lots of claims of abuse and yeah it's really ugly and public.

S: It's ugly. Yeah. So obviously garnering a lot of attention. But is it a fallacy to say we shouldn't be paying attention to that because there are more important things to be paying attention to?

C: Steve and help me with this. Because I feel like there is probably a fallacy that could say that and like Bob you started to mention relative privation. There's others that we could probably point to. But is the question really is in this particular situation it a fallacy because I would say no. And you and I have kind of argued about this before when it comes to things like why are we putting money here when we could people be putting money there. And my argument is often because it's a zero-sum game there's only so much money. But often your argument is no but there might be enough to go around in this situation. Which is sometimes the case. So I feel like this is a great example of those times where like informal logical fallacies can apply but also it's very context dependent.

B: Yeah.

S: Absolutely. That's the very nature of informal logical fallacies. That they are, they're informal because they're context dependent. The formal logical fallacies are always fallacies in every context. They're fallacies by the inherent design, right?

C: Right of the basic breakdown of logic.

S: They're always not valued, the logic always fails. Whereas the informal logical fallacies, which are most of the ones that we're talking about in terms of critical thinking and making good arguments and policing your own thought process etc. They're very context dependent. Like the argument from authority is a great example of that. It's actually legitimate to sight authority when appropriate and in an appropriate way. But you can also abuse that, it's really the abuse of authority that is the fallacy. So here, let's just talk about the logical fallacies that are potentially relevant here and then we can probe the limits of those fallacies, the context portion of it. So Bob brought up relative privation and I do think that's the main one. That if there is a potential fallacy in here that's the main one. Which is saying that something is not important if there's something else that's more important, right?

C: Right.

S: But of course there's always something else more important.

C: It doesn't nullify.

S: And it doesn't nullify things that are still important unto themselves because it's relative to something else. Doesn't make any-- the relativeness is irrelevant. Again unless you are in a very narrow context where it is literally a zero-sum question. If you're saying oh oh should we do A or B then you can make a comparison because you're literally making a choice between A or B. But other than that it is again a fallacy to belittle someone's concerns or legitimate concerns because you can think of a more important fallacy.

C: Which happens all the time with like oppression Olympics.

S: Yes right.

C: Right? It's like wait this person's suffering is not, doesn't exist simply because this other person is suffering more.

S: Right. Bob and I, without mentioning names, Bob and I were recently in an email exchange. I won't go into details but it basically was that the whole argument was something along the lines of that guy has no right to complain because my friend had his legs blown off in Afghanistan.

C: Right.

S: Like it was like the most irrelevant argument you could possibly make. But also it was just a hundred percent relative privation. Because I know somebody who had something horrible nobody with any lesser problem can ever complain about anything. It's just a ridiculous standard. And it's and the thing it's used that kind of formula of the fallacy of relative privation is used to deny or diminish someone else's legitimate concerns or complaints, right?

C: Right.

S: It's just not fair to do that to somebody.

C: But I could also see that the reaction, and not in this situation with the legs blown off in Afghanistan, but the reaction to this person who wrote the email. Who said these school shootings the stuff that's so like so important and yet people are really caught up in this like Amber Heard thing. The reaction would be the false equivalents. Well they're not the same thing. And maybe we shouldn't be comparing them as if they have the same weight.

S: Right.

C: Like that's the problem with relative privation is you can take it to such an extreme that it's no longer meaningful.

S: Yes, exactly. But let me give you another example, relative to the the recent shootings. Like there was a basketball coach who was in a press conference and they were asking questions about basketball. He said I'm not going to talk about basketball. I'm going to talk about why kids are being killed in schools. So he's making a choice to use his time on the stage to say let's focus on something that's way more important. And that's fine. He's can make that choice to use his platform to focus attention on something that he thinks doesn't get enough attention. Not, again, it doesn't matter relative to basketball because you will talk about basketball at other times. And this that's just very much in the moment, it's a very much in the moment thing. Like it and there is there's legitimacy to that. Like when people's attention is focused on something very important bringing up trivial matters. Whether not that they're not important or never important. They're just relatively trivial matters may just like read the room. Like it's just not─

E: Yeah tone deaf.

B: Exactly.

S: It's not what people are thinking about now.

C: Yeah we have to do this all the time on the show. We have to say what is going on in the world right now when this episode is going to air. Is that remark going to seem insensitive because that's not the topic of conversation. But it's of course against the background of what's happening in the world.

S: Sometimes it would be weird if we didn't talk about something, you know?

C: Right.

B: Right.

E: [inaudible] inappropriate.

S: Right right right. So the other thing that might be lurking in there in terms of as a logical fallacy is a forced choice. And that's where I think it gets the either or question. And it's and that you have to be wary of that too. It's like we can't do A because we're doing B. It's like well we can do both. That's perfectly fine. There's eight billion people on this planet. We don't all have to be doing the same thing. And we can go through our day giving an appropriate amount of time and attention to different things but still go about our life and and do the things we need to do and maybe even engage with other people and whatever. Like life, you still have to live your life. It doesn't mean that 100% of our attention has to be focused on the single most important thing. Sometimes it does. If there's a zombie apocalypse we're going to be talking about the zombie apocalypse and pretty much nothing else, right? That's appropriate but those are unusual circumstances. Now you might argue that we're in one of those circumstances now and that's fine if that's your argument. If you're saying I personally can't really think about anything else right now because I think this is more important. Now the other context here that you may apply is what should the mainstream media be giving their limited time and attention space, physical space to. Should they be writing columns about Amber Heard or should they be focusing on more important issues of the day. And that's a different question because then it is a zero-sum game because there's only so many inches and that doesn't really apply to online anymore. But it's still there's only so much space and above the fold kind of attention that they can give. And they are prioritizing. So there's a, that is a zero-sum game priority thing. Where what are you going to put in front of people's, your readers faces. And that's a judgment call of value judgment you're making about what is the most important story to be talking about today. And that is, that's the editorial policy sort of issue. You have to put that into context of the outlet as well. If you are a celebrity gossip columnist you're going to talk about Amber Heard, you're not gonna, that's what you're gonna talk about. That's, and that's fine. If you if you're like if but if you're a serious newspaper that talks about the news of the day this is pretty much the news of the day.

C: I guess I'm curious too about and, because I just I the list of informal logical fallacies is so very long, I'm curious too about it seems like some of the miscommunication or that feeling that's arising in the writer's email of I talked about Amber Heard, I think that was the framing, right? I talked about Amber Heard my friend said how can you possibly be talking about that.

S: Someone mentioned Amber Heard. It wasn't them.

C: Someone mention Amber Heard.

S: Someone else said you can't, we can't talk about that there's so much gun violence going on.

C: Right like that's not valid. And it almost, there's almost and I don't know what informal fallacy it would but the assumption that they know the reasoning behind their behavior. Because for example this person could be watching the Amber Heard stuff and talking about it because that's palliative to them. Because they're so overwhelmed by the trauma of the other things that they can't talk about those things not because they're not thinking about them.

S: I agree. I agree. And I think sometimes when I encounter arguments like that. Nine times out of ten it isn't a serious discussion about priority and limited attention whatever it's usually just a way of virtue signaling a little bit. Like I'm more serious than that. Like I'm not going to soil myself talking about celebrities when there's real important things happening in the world. So I think you have to be careful not to create that vibe when you do that. You're kind of shaming people for paying attention to things that you are deeming trivial. It's very easy to slip into that when you're making that kind of argument. Be very very careful. And you're right you don't know what there's the fundamental attribution error, right?

C: Yeah.

S: Where we assume other people are doing that. You're talking about that because you're a trivial person as opposed to maybe this is how you are dealing with all the stress for example. Like there's a situational factor that's going on. There's a lot of layers here.

C: The devil's advocate that I would say to that, and it's not to minimize what you said because I completely agree with you, is that I think there's also something to be said about boundary setting for your own mental health. And so it's one thing to say you shouldn't be thinking about that. I mean that's not okay. But to say I'd prefer not to talk about this right now because it feels like it's minimizing what's going on in the world. That's perfectly okay.

S: Absolutely. And then the the email was framed as we shouldn't be talking about this. Not I personally don't feel like I can pay attention to this right now because I'm distracted by─

C: Big difference.

S: ─young children being slaughtered in their classroom. That's kind of has my attention for the moment. I can't really, yeah, that's fine, you're right I absolutely agree. If somebody's making a personal statement about their choice that's 100% fine. As soon as you generalize it that we should be doing this because it's the correct thing to do, it's the morally right thing to do right, then I think you're being judgmental basically.

C: Absolutely.

S: Okay I think we beat that dead horse. Thanks Chris. All right guys let's go on with our interview.

Interview with Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney (1:13:08)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Dr. Naomi Rowe-Gurney. Naomi, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

NRG: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

S: Great. And you are a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Howard University. And we wanted to talk to you tonight about the James Webb Space Telescope because your job now is well is going to be very soon working with the James Webb. So tell us a little bit about that.

NRG: Yeah so what I do, I'm a solar system ambassador. So what that means is I kind of rep the solar system for the James Webb space telescope. Because everybody thinks when they think of the James Webb that it's just going to be looking at distant galaxies and stars and other solar systems and exoplanets. But actually a lot of the time is going to be spent looking at our own solar system. So I'm here to kind of tell people about it and let them know about it.

J: What would be like some of the more important things that we want to look at locally.

NRG: Yeah so there's loads. James Webb can look at everything from the smallest asteroid all the way through to Mars and Jupiter. Like really bright objects. The only things that can't look at in the solar system are anything that are towards the Sun. So you know that big umbrella on the back, the big like silver thing? And there's like the size of a tennis court? Yeah that blocks everything from the Sun and also the Earth, the heat from the Earth. And makes sure that everything on the other side is nice and cold. So it's important that we don't look at the Sun.

B: Yeah that would that would just fry it, right?

NRG: Yes. (laughs) Or if we looked at Earth that would also fry. Anything that's like super hot. Because we're looking at something called infrared which is basically like heat instead of light. It is light as well but if you go far enough into the red you go into the infrared. And that means you're looking at heat. So all those security cameras that you use at night they'll be looking at heat of humans and animals and things. And we're using that same technology to look at the stars.

E: We know our solar system relatively. Well I mean how much further, how much more is there to learn about our nearest neighbors?

NRG: Well there's loads. I mean everything that we do outside of our solar system we can help by doing things in our solar system. Our solar system is kind of like a big playground that we can use. A big sandbox that we can use for experiments that stop us having to kind of assume things that are further out that we can't actually go to and touch and see really close up. So all of our planets we can see very clearly. Whereas the ones in exoplanets in other systems we can't see because they're so small and far away. So all of the things that we see here are experiments for things we see out there.

J: Naomi when the whole thing was happening like I-- it was a nail biter for me and I'm not even at NASA like knowing the blow by blow. Like was it scary when all, like what was there like 300 different stages of deployment that had to happen? And what was that like hearing about it every day? Was it a scary thing? Or did you feel very confident it was gonna go well?

NRG: Yeah it was pretty scary but also exciting. I knew that they'd taken a lot of time to do a lot of testing and it was still nail-biting but I had a lot of confidence in the fact that it was going to be successful. I'm glad that I was correct. But yeah you were talking about all of those like failures that could happen. So they're called single point failures which means that anything, any one of those things breaking meant that the telescope wouldn't work. And it had more single point failures than any other mission of this size. So including things like Mars landers. So Mars landers usually have about 100 single point failures and James Webb had over 300 single point failures but now we don't have many. We've only got the normal ones in a normal mission. So all of those unique ones have have gone past now. So we've been successful in all of that new science.

J: So when that last one clicked green, did everyone freak out? Was it like a celebration moment or was it more of just like a like a sigh of relief? What was it like?

NRG: Yeah it was a massive sigh of relief and everyone celebrated but unfortunately because of covid a lot of the things that we did were remote. So for example we were meant to go in on Christmas day to be able to celebrate together on the launch. But we ended up all staying at home and so I was in my pajamas in the morning of Christmas day with my dog. With a Christmas hat on and celebrating in my front living room. So very different but still exciting.

E: Neat. So can you give us an update on where James Webb is right now? It's not quite 100% functional yet, right?

NRG: No correct. So it's in the place where it's meant to be. So it's rotating around this L2 Lagrange point that's 15 million kilometers away. But it's not completely-- it's deployed. So there are three stages of what we call commissioning which is what we call the stages that it takes to get to where the telescope is, a working telescope and all of the instruments work. And we can then use it for science. So the first stage was our deployment launch and deployment. And that was all of the exciting stuff. Was all about unfolding and bringing that boom down and making it look like what it is now. Physically. And then the second stage was aligning all those mirrors. So making it so that all the light goes into the right places on the instrument. And that's over now too and that was successful. And now we're in we're just beginning that third stage which is where we commission the each scientific instrument. So there are four instruments on board. The MIRI, the NEARSpec, the NIRISS or FGS and the NIRCam. And all of those instruments need to work properly for the telescope to work properly.

S: So in your your particular area of research is looking at Neptune and Uranus, correct? Even before the James Webb.

NRG: Yes.

S: So which which aspect of James Webb are you going to be using?

NRG: Yeah so I am a massive fan of Uranus and Neptune. They are my favorites and have been for a really long time. And it's mostly because we haven't really seen anything about them since Voyager in the 1980s. So we haven't been there and we haven't really been able to even look at them properly. We've had ground-based instruments look at them. And we've had Hubble look at them. And Spitzer and all those space-based telescopes but we haven't been able to go there since Voyager 2 in 1986 and 1989. Which means there's so many unanswered questions about them and they are a whole class of planet that we haven't really explored yet. So we've looked at Jupiter and Saturn. We've looked at the rocky planets like Venus and Earth and Mars─

B: Pluto.

NRG: ─but we haven't looked at this last class of planet. Yeah, exactly.

B: Not a planet.

NRG: We've even been to Pluto. And Pluto's even further away. So we just missed them and they've been neglected.

B: That's true, interesting, yeah.

S: What's the official name of that class of are the ice giants or is it─

NRG: Yes.

S: ─that the [inaudible].

NRG: Ice giants. Yes.

S: So which of this that the James Webb components will be you'll be using and when, more importantly, when do you get access to it. I'm sure there's a ton of demand for the James Webb. Are you waiting in line?

NRG: Yes so at the moment there's something called the GTO or the guaranteed time observations. They've already been like tentatively scheduled for this next year coming. And Uranus and Neptune are on the list. Both of them for this coming year. So we'll be able to see a lot more about them and the we're using both the NEARSpec and the MIRI instruments so that's in the near infrared and the mid infrared. And the one that I'm most interested in is the MIRI instrument, the mid infrared instrument because it's got the longest wavelengths. And that means it looks at thermal. So that all of that heat. So the near-infrared one looks at heat but it's only like the beginning of like the heat part of the spectrum and then MIRI looks at the rest of the heat spectrum and that's the most exciting for us planetary scientists because it's looking through the clouds instead of looking at the cloud. So we can get a little bit more about what the what's happening underneath with the circulation and the temperature and try and figure out all of these mysteries that the Uranus and Neptune have.

B: How deep can you look with MIRI?

NRG: With MIRI we can look down to around two bars of pressure. So that means one bar is kind of the pressure of where we are at sea level. The pressure of sea level - that's one bar. So we can't really liken it to Earth apart from with that because it doesn't have a surface so we can't say it's like 20 kilometers above the surface because it doesn't have a surface it's just gas giant. So it just as we go further in you just get this gas compressing and compressing until it becomes lots of crazy weird things because of the pressure and the heat that's happening inside. So we use pressure.

B: What's the latest thing on the core of Uranus and Neptune? Is it kind of like metallized hydrogen or what are they thinking? Especially compared to Jupiter.

NRG: Yeah so it's still completely unknown but and they're just making educated guesses with the infamous the very small amounts of information that they have about it mostly from Voyager. They found something very interesting in a lab recently called super ionic ice and that's water ice so H2O that has been squeezed so much that it becomes this weird state that isn't, it's not a gas, it's not a liquid, it's not a solid. It's something completely different. And it's black and hot and it's like a sea of hydrogen atoms that are like surrounded by like a lattice of oxygen. It's very strange and cool.

B: Wow.

NRG: So it could be that but we don't know. One person even said they might be rock giants rather than ice giants. And that's a topic of an entire paper so who knows. We really don't know.

J: Have they been able to take just random pictures outside of our solar system just to see are they like-- I know that they're doing things about focusing the mirrors and all that. But has there been any pictures that have just been out and did we see anything cool?

NRG: They have been taking pictures mostly of asteroids and star systems etc. so far. But as I said they're still in commissioning so they're just picking very convenient objects to look at so that they can calibrate and check that everything's working correctly.

J: Yeah I read that they were tracking an asteroid with it.

NRG: Yes.

J: And I was wondering like would we use James Webb for asteroid prediction? Like course predictions and things like that and we could use it to target known asteroids and known comets and Kuiper belt objects out near Pluto and moons of the solar system as well. So anything like that. And actually I'm on the team that's doing the commissioning with the moving objects. So that asteroid that they looked at, asteroid Tenzing is what it's called. Named after Tenzing Norgay one of the first people to go up Everest. It's named after him and that was the first moving object that we looked at. And I'm part of that team that is helping with the data analysis of that and checking that everything's working which is really exciting.

S: So when can we expect really pretty pictures of (laughter) of Uranus and Neptune?

J: Right? We just want more colors.

E: Something other than a blue marble.

NRG: Yeah, right? Exactly. Oh my gosh. I am asking the same thing honestly the-- we think that the Uranus observations are going to be soon but the Neptune ones will probably be around this time next year. Just because of we have to check that the planet is in the right place. If it is anywhere near the Sun obviously you can't look at it. So we've only got these certain windows in the year that we can look at each planet. So yeah, Uranus should be this summer hopefully and Neptune will be maybe next summer.

S: Are you going to be taking a look at the moons of these planets as well? Like Triton? Or really just focusing on the planets themselves?

NRG: Yes. We are looking at moons. Probably not looking at moons in this first stage for Uranus and Neptune. We're not focusing on them anyway. They might show up in some of the images which is gonna be fun but they're not the focus. But we are focusing on Titan which is one of Saturn's moons. Yep. Very exciting moon because it has─

B: Atmosphere, yeah.

NRG: ─an atmosphere. Very similar to Earth except it's made of methane rather than our nitrogen-based one. And that's very exciting. And they're also looking at Enceladus and Europa.

B&E: Two of my favorites.

NRG: Yeah they're really exciting because they might have oceans yeah with yeah exactly yes. So that's gonna be good. And we're also gonna be looking at small moons of Saturn and there will be some moons of Jupiter that will be being looked at as well.

B: All right I'm gonna ask the question that everyone's thinking. Of course, so I'll just do it. What is the ratio of scientists who pronounce the planet Uranus and others that pronounce it Uranus?

J: (laughs) Oh my god.

NRG: I think it's very geographical. I think a lot of English people say Uranus and a lot of Americans say Uranus. But I'm trying to change people's minds on Uranus because it's a great icebreaker (laughter).

B: I love it.

J: And I'm gonna say something else.

NRG: It really makes people listen and it makes kids laugh. And why wouldn't you want that? So yeah. And I spent the last four years studying the gases of Uranus so I'm very used to─

B: Love it.

'NRG: ─used to the ridicule so it's great.

J: My son's going to love this podcast.

S: But it's hard like when Bob, Bob basically asked how deep are we going to dive into Uranus.

J: Don't even. So I was looking at some pictures. I don't know if these are real or not. But I was looking at like Hubble compared to Webb, right? And I guess they're showing like the same piece of space. And I don't know if this is real though. Like I don't know if this was like a simulation on how much sharper it is or whatever. But the, do those pictures really exist or are those just showing you─

B: Projections.

J: ─what it is but it's not real.

NRG: Yeah so there was an image going around or two images going around that was Spitzer compared to Webb. And that's a real one. Because and it's a real comparison of the same field of sky and that's a really great picture because it shows how much more like signal that we're getting and all the details that you can see and the resolution is much better. And it's very very exciting. Especially for people who are looking in the mid-infrared like I was talking about before.

J: Yeah I've seen that picture. Those two pictures and oh my god it's the difference between looking at something completely blurry and looking at something that's in focus.

B: Yeah.

NRG: Yes. Exactly. And yeah they haven't even started yet. So it's really exciting that, that's just like they turned it on and pointed it at something convenient. So imagine what they can do with time and and investing the science into it.

B: Now it's as high-res and amazing as James Webb is and it certainly is it's a marvel but when you think when you'd like think about oh man if if only. Or I can't wait until like what kind of resolution what kind of things would you love to see that even James Webb just does not is nowhere near having the capability of discerning.

NRG: Honestly I don't know. I mean all of the questions that we got for the James Webb space telescope came from the Spitzer space telescope. So until we answer questions with James Webb will we know what questions we have for our next generation [inaudible].

B: That's science. That's since. (Cara laughs)

NRG: Yeah exactly, exactly. We don't know what we don't know.

J: How about that for an answer Bob.

B: I like it, I like it.

J: What would you want to look at that's even better than the one that we're just celebrating now? Like come on. (laughter)

B: Come on Jay.

J: Bob let the James Webb settle in man. Let it do its magic.

B: Yes it's it has settled in but I can't help but thinking as awesome as that is. What can our grand kids, what are they going to be looking at. I can't help but thinking.

NRG: They already have planned that one. Or they're planning it. It's like the LUVOIR/like HabEx) and it looks like a giant James Webb.

E: Oh gosh.

NRG: So they are like scientists are just as impatient as you Bob. (laughter)

B: Okay well I kind of doubt that because I'm thinking about like solar gravitational lenses. So that's kind of many generations down the road. But that's yeah see let's look at an exoplanet 100 light years away and look at the continents. That's the kind of stuff I dream about but James Webb is good too.

S: No but seriously.

B: I am serious.

S: For studying the outer planets, right? I mean they think a probe is going to give us better images─

B: Well true, you're right there, that's true, I was.

S: ─then any telescope near Earth. So I guess what I'm asking is. When are we gonna probe Uranus?

B: Ooh.

C: Steve!

NRG: Well actually you mentioned this. We had something called the planetary decadal. And that means that the National Academy of Sciences announced kind of what the priorities of science should be for NASA. And NASA usually follows it. And they said that the priority mission the flagship mission of the next decade should be a Uranus orbiter and probe. So you won't have to wait long.

B: Oh my goodness.

S: Awesome. Yeah because it has been a while. Like since Voyager.

NRG: Exactly.

S: I would imagine that that would be on the short list.

J: Naomi will Hubble help James Webb like find stuff? Like will they-- is Hubble going to be turned into kind of like let's have Hubble look first and then we'll have James Webb come in with the big guns.

S: A spotter telescope you mean?

J: Yeah.

NRG: They're actually very complementary. So it's not going to even act as its sidekick. It's going to be its partner. It's going to be looking with it because Hubble looks in the visible, so in the same light that we look in. And it also looks in the UV, which is even further towards the blue. And then it also looks at a shorter range of the near-infrared. And so that means that we can look at planet in this entire range and that's really exciting for scientists because lots of different things happen in each of the bands. All the way from UV through to the mid-infrared. And it means that you can deduce lots of different scientific conclusions and do science better with more wavelengths. Hubble's not dead.

S: I know the Hubble has lasted way longer than I thought it was going to, you know?

NRG: I know it's 32? Is it 32?

S: Still kicking.

NRG: It's the same age as me.

E: No.

NRG: Yeah.

E: You can't. Yeah you can't have those problems with Webb though. It's no getting there.

NRG: Yeah exactly it is. It's pretty far away. It's a bit too far away to go for a servicing mission, yeah.

J: Do we know how long it'll last?

NRG: We know how long it could last. So when it went up the ESA so the European Space Agency were in charge of an and as an airbus? I can't remember. They shot it off and launched.

B: They killed it. They did so well. I know where you're going. Go ahead, I'll let you finish. (Cara laughs)

NRG: Yes they did the best job ever. We love them. Because the fuel that we needed to get to where we went was minimal. And that means that we have over 20 years of fuel. And that was the major like limiter to our time frame. And now we just have to wait for one of those single point failures to to fail. And that's probably going to be it's going to happen before the fuel runs out. So yeah we're looking at maybe hitting 20 years.

B: That's fantastic.

J: Wow, that's fantastic.

NRG: It was a five-year mission. Five and a half years maybe. Maybe ten. And now it's 20.

S: So Naomi what's your what's your biggest hope for the James Webb with regard to your research specifically. Like what what is it that you think in 10 years you'll be looking back and go this is what we discovered.

NRG: Yes so my PhD was using the Spitzer space telescope and that kind of asked the question why is, as Uranus spins, why is it changing in its like brightness. Like what's happening. And we can't answer that question until we have James Webb. So my specific research will gain a whole paper about why it was changing when it was spinning hopefully. And that's going to be a big deal. And then hopefully that kind of thing is going to ask more questions that can only be answered with these missions hopefully that are gonna happen soon. And so in 10 years time I'm hoping that there'll be a mission on the way to Uranus and Neptune to answer those questions.

S: Awesome. Well Naomi was wonderful talking with you. We love talking about to scientists who are excited about their work. And we're all excited about James Webb. Maybe once you do get that next paper out we'll have you back on the show to tell us what you found.

NRG: Yeah that would be great. This is great fun. Thank you for having me.

B&J: Thank you.

S: Take care.

Science or Fiction (1:35:49)[edit]

Theme: Which one is older?

Item #1: The first cities predate evidence for iron use by about 5,000 years.[4]
Item #2: The first dinosaur walked the Earth 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees.[5]
Item #3: The first firearm was invented about 900 years after the first steam engine.[6]

Answer Item
Fiction Dinosaur → true tree
Science Cities → iron use
Steam engine → firearm
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Dinosaur → true tree
Steam engine → firearm
Cities → iron use
Dinosaur → true tree

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts two real and one fake and then I challenge my panel of skeptics tell me which one is the fake. You guys remember the theme from last week? Which one is bigger. I like that so much I decided─

E: Oh no.

S: ─similar theme this week (Cara laughs). Which one is older. Which is older.

C: Okay.

E: Okay.

S: Here we go. Item #1: The first cities predate evidence for iron use by about 5,000 years. Item #2: The first dinosaur walked the Earth 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees. And item #3: The first firearm was invented about 900 years after the first steam engine.

Jay go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: The first cities predate evidence of for iron use by about 5 000 years. I mean, can I ask you what your definition of a city is?

S: That's a very good question because the experts that don't agree on what the definition of a city is. There's no very specific operational definition. And it actually is also a little bit depending on context. But the first generally agreed upon cities we'll say.

J: I mean I could imagine that that is possible. I'm just I'm thinking about like early cities. I mean iron. I wouldn't say is a requirement but I don't know. I just feel like at that point in a civilization when they're manipulating iron it helps. Anyway there's a lot to unpack there. Let me just move forward now. The first dinosaur walked the earth 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees. What I do know is that sharks predate trees and there might be a dinosaur version of a shark. (Cara laughs)

C: I love that statement.

J: Right? I mean it is pretty provocative.

C: Dinosaur version of a shark, I love that.

E: Why wouldn't there be?

J: I would say it's a sharkasaur, you know what I mean? They're basically dinosaurs right now, you know what I mean. Like they're that old. But when yeah so when you say dinosaur Steve you're talking about?

S: The clade dinosaur. The evolutionary the clade.

E: Clade.

J: "To blaaave" . All right so.

C: The only thing that's saying something is a dinosaur would refer to probably.

J: Gotcha. All right.

S: That one does have a technical operational definition.

J: That's why when you when I think about the creatures that were living 40 million years before trees came around. I don't know if that was the time of the dinosaurs. So that's that's another one. That's one like whoa. I have to really put a lot more a lot more time than I have right now. The last one here. The first firearm was invented about 900 years after the first steam engine. I think that one is science. Wait 900 years? Yeah you see. These are good Steve. This is really really good. I don't have a toe hold anywhere on any of this. Not the first firearm was vented 900. Almost a thousand years after the first steam engine. Well now I'm doing a complete reversal on that one. All right I have to make up my mind.

S: Yes you do.

J: I'm gonna say that I think that the dinosaur one is the fiction. Because I of all the reading that I've done on dinosaurs I don't think they existed that long ago because trees are incredibly old.

S: Okay Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Okay cities versus iron use. Five thousand years, huh? Yeah because I think Jay kind of hit on at the definition of cities. It can be kind of nebulous. So I think you could make a case in which that would be a span of time that would be 5 000 years. The other two. I'm having problems with both of them. Dinosaurs walking the Earth 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees. True trees I think is what kind of you have to know there. What were there like? Proto trees before true trees? Something like that. So it gets very messy. And then the first dinosaur walked the Earth. So what crawled out of the muck and technically walked and it was 40 million years before the emergence of the trees. What the hell did they eat? I mean if not each other. So that's the problem I'm having with that one. But I'm also having a problem with the first firearm invented about 900 years after the first steam engine. That sounds reverse to me. Wouldn't the first? When this was? The first firearm? I mean that's, I mean you define firearm we think 900 years after the first steam image. So what the steam engine there was a steam engine in? If the first firearm was in the 12th century or something like that. The first steam engine was in your what 300? 400? Is that right? That can't be right either. Both two and three are fiction. (Cara laughs)

C: But which one is more fiction?

E: I don't know. I guess I'll go with the firearm one as the fiction. I just that seems totally backwards to me. Like you just flip-flopped those two. So I don't see it.

S: Okay Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: The thing is just because when you say first steam engine that doesn't mean people are riding around in the steam engine. There could be a toy steam engine. And I think there might have been a toy like evidence of a toy steam engine that for some reason the putzers didn't think they could scale it up. Like there were like wheeled toys? Toys with wheels before there were vehicles with wheels. Kind of a similar idea. So that one actually makes perfect sense to me. And so I think that's that's what's happening here. And the dinosaur one. Yeah people think of dinosaurs from 60 you know 65 million years ago when the meteor hit. But they were around for well what was it? Hundreds of billions of years. So I just don't know about the emergence of trees and the distinction between true trees. But I'm gonna say that. So I'm gonna say that one. I can kind of make that work in my head as well. The cities and the evidence for iron use are much more unsure about so I'm just gonna by default say that one's fiction because I think the other ones might be true.

C: Wow you guys are spread out?

S: Yeah Cara no help [inaudible].

E: All over the place.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Okay so I'm gonna take them in order. I definitely think that hunter gatherers decided to cluster before they were working with iron. That one just seems reasonable to me. That individuals were clustering and learning how to pool resources long before they had really sophisticated tool use. And so, I mean there's still tool use but long before they were honing like I don't know whatever. I just think that people were settling down into what we would determine to be a city. Which is a cluster of people. It's a cluster of people who don't. Are no longer nomadic. So yeah that one seems reasonable to me. The first dinosaur walking there 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees. This one's very hard for me to buy. I think trees are incredibly old.

J: Thank you.

C: Dinosaurs are old but they're not that old.

B: true trees?

C: Yeah even true trees. I think what we call trees are true trees whatever that is.

B: False!

E: They're the trees that sprout true fruit. True trees.

C: That one gets me. The firearm and the steam engine. The thing about this that I feel like who freaking knows honestly. It's so arbitrary. Is that is the choice of terms. Firearm. You did not say gun. You said firearm. Which like what is a firearm? It's something you can hold in your hand I assume that blasts something? I feel like we've had that technology for a really long time. And the first steam engine. It's funny because you said Bob, you said people weren't riding around in it. I don't think people ride in the engine.

B: No you know using [inaudible]─

S: In a steam powered vehicles.

B: ─for locomotion. Steam power.

C: Right but I didn't go to train when you said first steam engine. I went to like just power to power something.

E: Yeah to make a conveyor belt turn around.

B: Same yeas.

C: Right like that could be super old.

B: That was just an example I was giving.

C: Oh I see, I see. It doesn't have to be for like a vehicle.

B: No but large scale used to do work and not just a toy.

C: Totally. Or but it didn't have to be a toy either. It could have been to do work. It could just have been to do really old work.

E: Depends on a definition of engine.

C: And it could have been very rudimentary. So I don't know. To me it's like those could be stretched back. They're probably way older than we think. And who knows which one comes sooner.

B: Steve does.

C: But to me the one that's really bugging me is the dino-- yeah Steve does (laughs) is the dinosaurs. Sinosaurs are not as old as tree. No there were trees. There were trees when dinosaurs were around. Even the first one.

J: I agree. (Cara laughs)

E: Well, two of us, at lease two of us are wrong.

S: Guess there's no reason not to take these in order since you guys are all spread out. So we'll start with the first one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: The first cities predate evidence for iron use by about 5,000 years. Bob you are alone in thinking that this one is the fiction. The rest of you think this one is science. And this one is science. Sorry Bob. The first evidence for iron use goes back about 5 000 years before the present. The now again experts debate about exactly what constitutes a city. It's more than just a cluster of people though Cara because that's a town. So when does a town and a village become an actual city.

C: Oh. I didn't know you were making that decision.

S: Absolutely.

C: I thought you were making like settlement versus non settlement.

S: No no city was specific. But so it's got to be urban in some way. The question is what are the criteria that we make a town an urban center. Is it density, is it total population? So some people think you need to have urban infrastructure not just number of people. But using all of these various definitions there's pretty solid agreement that the in the middle east, specifically Jericho which goes back about 10 000 years, was probably the first city. And then soon after that there were others. Like in India and elsewhere there were other similar. Yeah they probably crossed over the line to be called an actual city. They were an urban center and not just a town or a village. So that's 10 000 years. So yeah so there's a 5 000 year difference. Of course this was during the bronze age. Remember bronze was just perfectly fine. Bronze is an excellent material for tools, for weapons, for armor, for lots of things.

J: I like Bronze.

S: The problem with bronze was not the quality of the bronze itself. It's actually superior to iron. Remember this. Bronze is superior to iron. It's easier to cast. It's not as brittle. It doesn't erode with water and oxygen like iron does. Iron rusts. Bronze does not rust. Bronze was is a superior material. What killed bronze was that you had to bring together two materials. Copper and tin. And if you didn't have both of those supplies, which usually don't come from the same place, flowing at the same time you couldn't support a bronze infra-, you know, economy. And so when when that collapsed they used iron to sort of as a lesser metal but it was good enough. It was just, it was easier to─

B: Source.

S: ─yeah it's easier to source. It was harder to work with and need a higher temperature and everything, lots of reasons why it's hard to work with but by the time they were able to reconstitute the bronze economy they started to invent steel. And then once they got to─

B: Game over.

S: ─once they realized, yeah it was game over. Once they figured out how to make iron into steel with the carbon and everything then it was game over. So that's really. So anyway this is during the bronze age that they.

B: To this day even steel rules.

S: Yeah to this day. But even like remember when we was looking at Bermuda. The bronze cannons in the 17-1800s were superior to the iron cannons because they survived the sea water better. Anyway so that one is science. Let's go number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: The first dinosaur walked the Earth 40 million years before the emergence of the first true trees. Evan you are correct that true trees is important there.

B: Yeah I think this is the fiction now.

S: The first dinosaur, total bonus points if anybody can tell me what the first dinosaur species was.

E: No, sorry.

C: I have no idea but I think it was around 250 million years ago?

S: Nyasasaurus parringtoni. Believed to be the earliest dinosaur that ever lived. Again is like, it's close to the demarcation line. If it wasn't the earliest dinosaur it was related to the first dinosaur at the same time. It's very very close. Just first described in the 1950s but not formally described in literature until 2013 actually. So dates to approximately 243 million years ago.

B: Way off Cara, way off. (Cara laughs)

E: And then true trees...

S: Dinosaurs go back 243 million years. So the next question is when did trees emerge?

B: True trees, treu trees.

C: Before that, before that.

S: Let's see. So the first tree appears during the Devonian period. You guys if you know your periods you should either be celebrating─

C: There you go.

S: ─or crying right now. (Cara laughs) Between 350 and 420 million years ago. Yep. So yeah so trees pre-date dinosaurs by a couple of hundred million years. Yeah a long time.

C: Whoop whoop!

J: Good job Cara.

C: Good job Jay, you said it first.

S: But it's hard to think back that much. Again like the deep past is like a mishmash unless you really know the periods, know the epochs and can organize them in your mind in some way. I was hoping to get you with the true trees because certainly tree-like plants existed on land at that time. But there were remember the proto trees or like a different branch of things that looked kind of like trees. They didn't have the same structure as trees as modern trees do.

J: So you added the word true in there just to mess with us?

C: Yep.

S: No but it's accurate. This is when the true trees emerge but it was yeah, I was hoping that you would say oh he threw that in there because it was not the true trees until late or whatever you would think.

E: That what threw me off.

B: You know what came before the true trees?

E: The fake trees.

B: The like fungal. Like fungal trees. Like huge mushrooms. Dominated.

S: Yeah we talked about this too on the previous show. The pre, the previous things that were tree-like had a like a, they didn't have a core. It was like a circle of trunks, right?

B: Yeah yeah remember that?

S: Remember that?

B: Yeah.

S: But that line died out.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right all this means that the first firearm was invented about 900 years after the first steam engine. And this one of course is science.

C: This is nuts.

S: Bob. Bob so your your consolation is you totally nailed this one.

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: Because the first steam engine was a toy. It was─

C: Oh cool.

S: ─the aeolipile.

B: Yeah!

E: Bah!.

S: It was a steam turbine created by Heron of Alexandria and described in his pneumatica in the 1st century AD.

B: Oh my god.

S: It was a sphere with two tubes. Like through the middle axis and you would boil water and the steam would come up and it would rotate the sphere. It was the first thing to be made to rotate due to steam power. It absolutely was a steam engine but it was just it was just a divisive curiosity. They could have been, they could have started the industrial revolution eighteen hundred years earlier.

B: Can you imagine.

S: Or whatever.

B: We'd be in Alpha Centauri by now. (laughter)

S: Totally. Absolutely. But they never, they didn't close that loop. They didn't think that this could be made to do work.

B: Oh my god.

S: Can you imagine? They did it.

J: Those bastards.

C: It just comes inside then comes action not the other way around.

S: As we say in our book you couldn't even predict the present. I mean like you couldn't go back in time and predict how things would have happened because somebody could have decided that the steam engine was a tool two thousand freaking years ago. The first firearm and Cara you you were all over this one. Firearm is a very specific term here. It isn't a what we would call a gun or a rifle or anything. What was the first "firearm", anybody know?

C: No idea.

S: Give me a country.

C: Ball in a tube or something?

B&E: China.

S: China. It was called the fire lance. The fire lance.

B: How did it work.

S: In China. Or fire spear. I mean this is a translation from the Chinese.

E: It's probably like─

S: Remember they invented gun powder.

E: Yeah what captain Kirk shot at the Gorn.

S: Yeah exactly. It's exactly that. It's a stick. You have like a tube at the end or a gourd or something. You put gunpowder in there with lead pellets. You aim it at the enemy like you─

B: Yeah that's a total firearm.

S: Yeah it's a total firearm.

B: Chemical reaction, expanding gases and a hard propellant. That's exactly, that's a firearm.

S: It's basically a shotgun. But it's on a stick. Rather than your then being totally handheld.

C: But yeah Evan that's an interesting point. He said if you don't blow yourself up in the process. I wonder how consistent they were.

S: Oh I'm sure it was deadly. You ever hear the term hoist on your own petard? You know what it is?

C: No.

S: A petard is an explosive device. And so they were so likely to go up on the person doing it, right? So it's basically means that you got blown up by your own bomb. That's what that means. Hoist on your own petard. So I remember that because we used the word petard to refer to primitive guns in our larp. Anyway.

E: I do remember that too.

S: They're both older than you think but the steam engine was much older than the first firearm. First firearm was around the 10th century. The first, first steam engine was the 1st century. So that one is science but like yeah you like it's totally it totally mixed up in your head. So I like I really like this one because again it makes it forces you to think about like yeah about how far in the past were these certain things. And it's especially with technology. Technology always has far deeper roots than you think. Always. Like when you start to think about when you start to look at the history of it.

B: Oh yeah. The research we did for the book, Jesus.

S: Yeah everything is like oh yeah and this like the first thing like this was always like a thousand years before you thought it was. Like it always was much longer in the past.

B: How about what we discovered Steve like some. Was it the bow? The bow was invented not even by homo sapiens?

S: Yeah right there maybe maybe not. Maybe it wasn't even homo sapiens. When I was researching this like I did I came upon the steam engine when I'm like I'm 100% using this because that's going to throw some of the guys. But I had to come up with something that was invented later than you thought. And that was hard. It was really. I really couldn't do it. So firearm was late enough.

Alternate Item: Horse-drawn Carriage[edit]

S: But I was trying to come up with something that was invented later than you might think. And the closest I could come but it was too complicated to make a clean statement out of it was the the horse-drawn carriage. The horse-drawn coach is really like a very late like 15th century introduction. It's really renaissance. So if you but the thing is anyway it's difficult because you start to get into the details of like what's a coach versus a carriage. Like a coach it has to be covered and it has four posts. That's the thing you get into like a car. But carriages could be covered. Anyway it was too complicated to make a clean item out of it. And then what were they using it for. Like the Romans used covered carriages for military things. Where they had two-wheeled chariots. It was just there's so many permutations I couldn't figure out a way to make it clean so I just I rejected it. But it was interesting though that you think of like the horse-drawn coach. Like the coach. Getting in a coach. That was a relatively late introduction. Much later than I thought. And do you know why it was so late? This is very interesting.

C: Horse-drawn coach was so late.

S: Because roads were shite, that's why. Because roads were so bad. And I don't know if you guys have ever ridden on a cobblestone─

C: How bad were they?

S: ─they were terrible. That if you were in anything. So riding a horse you can kind of go along with the bouncing of the horse. But if you were in a carriage that did not have good suspension you would be bouncing all over the place.

E: You'd be injured.

S: Yeah you'd be injured. Even like just we took a horse-drawn carriage on a cobblestone road in Vienna and that was intolerable. Like I mean it was like bopbopbopbopbop, what the, how did people do this? And that was actually a high-tech road for the time.

B: I've seen good suspension on carriages. That must have been a late development as well.

S: So that was the key technology. So it started as leather they were just suspended by leather and that has a little bit of give. And then later on steel springs were added. That's when they became─

B: Yeah the steel springs.

E: Oh steel. Not bronze spring.

S: Yeah, well bronze is not springy like steel. Is that's there's definitely, that's definitely true.

C: Okay so what we all find interesting are very different. I have to say, I know you want to end I know you want to end but I have to say this reminds me so much of like those fun. Because we're so bad at time scale and like it reminds me of those fun things where it's like triceratops lived closer in time to us─

B: Cleopatra or whatever.

C: ─then to, no, then to Stegosaurus.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah, yeah.

C: And like Cleopatra lives closer in time to the iPod than the pyramids were built.

B: Right that's the one. Yeah. I love that one.

C: That's like blows people's minds when they think about it but it's just math.

E: Who's Amber Heard? (Cara laughs)

S: Evan give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:57:57)[edit]

With less critical thinking comes more vaccine hesitancy.
Nedra Rhone, columnist, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

E: With less critical thinking comes more vaccine hesitancy. (Bob laughs) That was a headline written by Nedra Rhone. She's a columnist with the Atlanta Journal Constitution and it's one of those cases where yeah you can read the headline and be satisfied that it's accurate.

S: Yeah. That's a deceptively complicated statement though because as a science communicator or the first thing I think of is it though? Because but it is. I do think we have to think about that because not all problems, not all belief in pseudoscience is a knowledge deficit problem. Not all of it is a critical thinking deficit problem either. But some things are knowledge deficit. Vaccine hesitancy is a critical thinking deficit problem. But it's also an issue of conspiracy thinking and identity. And so it is more complicated than that but I do think there's a core of critical thinking in there. I do agree with that. But deceptively complicated little statement.

All right guys well it's been a fun episode. Thank you for joining me this week.

C&E: Thanks Steve.

J: You got it Steve.

B: Sure man.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[7]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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