SGU Episode 887
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|SGU Episode 887|
|July 9th 2022|
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
G: George Hrab
DS: Dave Stanton
|Quote of the Week|
Don't keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!
Walter Kotschnig, U.S. political expert
Introduction, updates on missing Rogues
Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 6th 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody!
S: ...Evan Bernstein.
E: Hello everyne!
S: And our recurring rogue George Hrab. George welcome to the show man.
G: Gentlemen! It's been far too long. It's been, what, four weeks? Three weeks? Eight weeks? What's it been? (Transcriptionist's note: July 6 was 14 weeks after March 27!)
E: They're all far too long as far as we're concerned.
G: Oh how sweet. Nice to see you. Hear you.
S: Yeah so we have a lot of missing rogues over the summer. Cara as we said last week is getting her surgery which actually the surgery was yesterday. She's back home already doing well. She's recovering nicely.
S: Everything went well. Jay is on vacation. He was gonna try to skype in tonight but he couldn't get his audio to work on his laptop.
E: That's what I would say too if I were on vacation. Which I was last week.
E: And I'm back.
S: He'll be back next week. Cara will be back in three weeks. So we're gonna have some guest rogues over the next few weeks starting with George.
G: I will do my durndust to live up to the standard that you have all set. Especially jay. Jay and Cara. Doing double. Double duty here. Awesome.
E: That's right you have to know everything about what psychology and meatballs George. So you have to fill in those gaps. Oh and teeth.
G: I'm halfway there.
E: Something about teeth as well.
Recording Audiobooks (1:43)
S: So yesterday was my first day in the studio recording the audiobook version of the Skeptic's Guide to the Future.
B: How'd it go? How'd it go?
S: Good. You have to get back in the groove. It took me a half hour or so to like find my mojo again.
B: Your voice.
S: Yeah. It's different. It's different than doing a podcast. It's different than anything else. You're you have to read prose and especially a non-fiction book in an interesting engaging way. You know what I mean? It's like you're reading words but you have to put some pizzazz into it.
E: Yeah give it life.
G: Not like for the show where it's just wrote and just going by just whatever. This has to be interesting.
E: Or you have to sound like Morgan Freeman. Either one works.
S: It's just different. Like role playing and improv is different than acting. Tight this is closer to acting because the words are scripted but you have to read it as if you were having a conversation with a listener. And the challenge is that like I don't have the book memorized. It's a whole book. So I'm just sort of trying to infer what the sentence is as I read it and sometimes I get it wrong. I miss guess where the sentence is heading. You know what I mean?
S: And then I just have to--it's not that big a deal you have to stop and read it again.
E: Yeah especially on the lengthier one. On the lengthier sentences that could be challenging.
G: What is the setup like? What is the setup like? Do you have I mean is it on sheets of paper? Do you have a book actually you're reading out of? Like what is it? How is it laid out?
S: It's an iPad. It's all in─
G: Oh iPad okay.
S: ─on an iPad and I'm just scrolling through as I read. So sometimes one of the other tricky things is like when there's a page break like in the middle of a sentence. But that's why I just it's not it's not that hard. I mean you get used to it. And also the pacing is very specific. And I also have a producer. There's somebody from the publisher who's there. So there's the technical guy-producer and then there's the the publisher who is sometimes he'll just stop me and say slow it down a little bit or read that sentence again and emphasize this word. So he'll coach me every now and then. It's not a lot. It doesn't happen that much but just every now and then he'll like he just wants me to nail something that I didn't quite nail.
G: Fewer f-bombs Steve. If you could just fewer f-bombs please. It that's possible.
S: Whatever's on the page. If it's on the page I gotta say it.
G: They're recording the whole time or do they stop and start. Like do you if you make a mistake do you think─
S: They're recording all the time.
G: ─do they mark it? So it's just rolling.
S It's like last night I recorded five chapters and I think there were five files.
S: It's like one file per chapter. So just it's not one huge file. So they sometimes they'll even like go back so you know what let's go back and do this paragraph again because I like the way you're sounding now and whatever. Like they're just and it's their job to edit everything. Then occasionally we have to stop to like look up how to pronounce a word. The producer reads ahead and is supposed to set that all up for me. But we got beyond the point where he had prepared.
E: Ahead of the curve, yeah.
S: So there were we got to some Chinese names and stuff like that are french names and they wanted to make sure I was pronouncing it exactly correct.
G: Navala? Is it Navala?
S: So it's its own skill set and I haven't done it for three years but it's like you get right back into it. It's it was fine.
G: How long will it take? Top to bottom. How long is it gonna take? Weeks or days or what?
S: Yeah it's all month. It's basically July but I'm only doing two three days a week for four weeks but I'm hoping to finish early. Last time I finished a couple days early so my pace is a little bit ahead of like the average pace.
B: Steve do you wear glasses or do you increase the size of the font.
S: Both. (laughter) I have to wear my reading glasses.
G: Eye patch.
B: Really? Didn't expect that.
Robot Narrators (5:52)
S: So the producer told me an interesting story though while we were on break. He said that he was given two audiobooks to rate just to say just tell us how the narrator is. One male one female. And he's listening to it and it was it was okay but he said but there's a couple of things that were odd about it. One was that the person mispronounced occasionally like mispronounced easy words. Like why would anyone mispronounce that word.
E: Not regional dialect kind of thing? Just like where Cara has you know Cara and I we all joke about that she's from Texas we're from the northeast so we sometimes run into that in which the same word we will pronounce differently.
S: She says umbrella.
S: But it wasn't that. It was just like they were straight up mispronounced some basic words. And then the other thing was that it just it's a little flat. Like there's it's just very perfectly consistent. And then he realized it's a computer. This is AI reading it.
G: Oh wow.
S: And then he realized yeah there's like no breaths. There's no breathing.
E: Huh. Interesting.
S: So he gave it a thumbs down he said this is not ready for prime time.
E: They need really oh so they need they need a algorithm that inserts a breathing sort of what effect.
S: Well that's what we were talking about is chatting with him about it─
S: ─they'll get it. This is like CG was 10 years ago where it was too perfect and you could tell that it was CG was kind of dead and flat. So they'll add in all the nuance and the character and the breathing and whatever it takes to get it to sound fully human.
B: Oh my god.
G: Well TikTok and Instagram have these things that as you post it reads it for you and you can kind of choose the voice. And they're not like the old Macintosh voices they're like characters so there's there's like this guy he like says ah look this ball was gonna go inside the house but it hit the car. Like there's that guy that's a it's a and I thought initially like oh this guy does a lot of voice-over but no it's a it's a program. And then there's like the woman that does it or whatever. And they do pronounce certain words that you would. It's weird like why it must be context like yeah whatever you know whether it's whatever the word may be. Like life or live or live and live. It'll mess up sometimes. That's the way you live.
E: I could see it having difficulty with proper names as well. In which my name Bernstein or Bernstein. Which way is the AI going to pronounce that. And some people do one way and some people do the other. There's no right answer.
B: Steve was that guy being tested like a surprise like see if he notices or did he know he was a computer.
S: No he wasn't told anything and he─
B: He figured it out.
S: ─he figured it out.
E: Oh he figured.
B: Good for him. Not he'll be looking for it.
E: They tried to trick him he broke through the matrix. Good for him.
S: But though the conversation was like he's like this is going to collapse the industry because if you really get this over the line where it's good enough.
E: So long human voices.
S: Yeah but he said but you know the thing is─
B: I don't know man.
S: ─yeah it's the question is how long is that gonna it'll happen the only question is how long to get to that point.
B: Can't deny that.
S: There'll be this zone where it's good enough but it's not as good as a professional voice actor. Bob you listen to a lot of books on tape.
B: Yeah there's a handful of guys that are just they're just magical. It's so reuter treats. I mean all of Game of Thrones books and a couple others. Even Tim Curry you know famous actor Tim Curry is a master narrator. Oh my god a master. And I just it's gonna take longer to reach that upper echelon. The last three percent of the masters. But I can't of course I can't deny that they'll get there but and it'll be kind of sad especially if you're if that's your job because I mean there's a people that they just do lots of books.
G: But you you'll get to choose.
B: I didn't see that coming.
G: You'll get to choose what actor you want to read your book because then they're gonna─
B: That's true.
G: ─already. I mean Roger Ebert was the famous example when Roger Ebert got cancer and lost his like whole lower jaw and he couldn't talk for the last five or ten years of his life. They took all the old episodes of at the movies and they synthesized all that and they figured out and they kind of made this Roger Ebert voice. So he had a pod I don't know if it was a podcast or something some kind of broadcast that he was doing where he would write articles and then his Roger Ebert voice computer would read it. And it wasn't great but it was, and this is this is 10 years ago whatever, it was so you'll eventually get to the point where you can have your Lord of the Rings and you want to have Bruce Willis read it? Okay. Or you wanna have Emma Thompson read it? Okay. Like you'll be able to choose. That's bound to happen. That's like totally bound. It's the same way in films you'll have that too you'll have oh you want to see a version of Star Wars where Richard Dreyfuss plays Han Solo? Okay we can do that. Here you go.
E: That's interesting it brings up a whole other subject about the intellectual rights for─
E: ─a person's voice. Is someone allowed to make an artificial version of my voice without my permission without me getting royalties or something like that.
G: Or a sound alike. What's that I mean Darth Vader all the time I think in a lot of the cartoon Star Wars things it's not James Earl Jones. He did the Kenobi series but they get a voice alike and he's like does he should he get paid for that because they're making them sound like him even though he's not doing it but it's his.
S: It was an impersonation I don't think you get paid.
G: I don't know was than an intellectual property?
B: It's a character. It's not really.
G: But it raises issues versus a computer doing it. It's a whole.
B: Yeah and you know what else is tricky? Doing someone's voice is one thing but doing someone's voice doing something else I think is is different. Like some narrators they've got a guy voice. They've got various guy voices and they've got one or two like feminine voices for women and they're very distinctive. Very distinctive. And some of them are like I like the way that they're done and you can't necessarily figure that out. You just got to hear it first and then duplicate it. You can't just be like well this is how he would speak in falsetto. Not necessarily. So those are the top characters.
S: But Bob you're thinking it's very steampunk. Why would you do that when you could just have a a female actresses voice do the female characters. You basically cast it. You have a different voice for each character─
B: But that's no no.
S: ─and a different voice for the narrator.
B: That's a different beast. That's a different beast. When you narrate when one narrator is reading a book in all the different voices that's one thing. But then having a cast often with with sound effects and stuff to in my mind that's a different beast.
S: Yeah but you don't have that.
B: That's fine and that's fine but if you if I wanna if I'm getting a book that that I want Arnold Schwarzenegger to read I don't want to have somebody else coming in. I mean I want Arnie. I don't want anybody else.
S: You could choose.
B: I mean it's just different.
G: I was the night before Christmas.
B: And that goes back to my point. How do you intuit how do you determine yeah how he's gonna talk. That's all I'm saying. That it's an interesting problem that might not be solvable really unless you actually hear the person doing it and then say oh that's how he does it.
E: You want to take it another layer further? Books that are published in various languages you're gonna need you obviously need different readers who are fluent in those languages. So a book if it's published in 10 languages and you're going to have an audiobook you got to have 10 potentially 10 different people read it but not with AI. AI that solves that problem. Boom.
G: Right. You have Arnold Schwarzenegger in Cantonese reading the whatever. Wow.
B: I mentally just answered my own question because I'm thinking how could they do it? They can do it what you got to do is you'd have to mimic you'd have to have like an a digital analog of the the entire voice creation apparatus from your throat to your mouth to your tongue. If you had that then you could say this is how he would speak in falsetto because this is the but the biological apparatus that would make that noise. And you would get much closer.
E: Isn't that how they determined how certain animals that are extinct made certain noises─
B: Yeah exactly. Very similar.
E: ─they had. They were able to recreate what they feel is close if as close as they can get to noises that they made.
B: At least through the the hard bony surfaces anyway.
G: I'm a velociraptor. My goodness. That's what they sounded like. Who knew? Who knew?
Special Segment: The Fate of Fireworks (15:03)
S: George you wanted to talk about just as a like opening banter kind of thing the 4th of July and the fate of the whole culture of fireworks. Is that gonna change given other changes in society. What were you thinking.
G: Yeah I don't know it's been the 4th and I've always enjoyed fireworks. I've always kind of liked them. Because I was never really affected by the sound. I was never even as a kid I enjoyed it, I enjoyed the bigness of it. There's a certain aspect of it that gets old kind of quick. Like once you've seen the first six explosions the next 20 minutes it's you kind of know where it's going. It's kind of like okay it's cool.
S: It's still pretty though.
G: It's still pretty. Can be cool and interesting but I was out for a walk on the afternoon of the 4th of July and some fireworks went off. Subsequently I realized it was a kid had set off a couple fireworks in this park where I was walking. But there was this second or two─
B: Oh yeah.
S: ─where this sort of even though I know it's the 4th of July but this instinctual thing of like what it means to be an American today kicked in. And I thought like do what I need to and this is a split second but do I need to run? Do we need to cover? Do I need to like what's going on. What's the thing like where is this coming from. And it just occurred to me like wow that's kind of the mindset we're in now and then I went to the fireworks display that night and it just seemed kind of it just seemed kind of strange and invasive. It just seemed so for a local town that puts on a fireworks display. It's incredibly loud. There are all the animals freak out. I know some of you that have dogs. How are you how are your dogs with fireworks?
G: It's tough, right?
E: Terrible. I'm comforting my animals all the week leading up to the 4th of July and this week after because nobody limits themselves to the July 4th. It's a wind down. So it's two weeks of hell for my animals.
G: Yeah so there's that and then there's like people that maybe might have some kind of like I always thought the last thing that a veteran wants to necessarily hear is like loud explosions in the night.
E: Yeah there's that scene from Born on the Fourth of July with Tom Cruise at the parade and the fireworks are going up and he's having a reaction because he just got back from war.
G: Of course. PTSD.
E: I don't think these are recent sort of phenomenon or shifting. I think it's been happening actually George for some time slowly. But maybe it's more exacerbated lately with obviously with things going on but yeah I've over the years I've drifted definitely into that direction and away from the pageantry and celebration of it all. Rather to more of the annoying aspects frankly of what the fireworks are and have to offer and kind of the downsides to them.
G: And I wonder now with the advancement in drones like these drone shows that they put on that are really cool that you can spell things out and you can have images and whatever. And I was wondering about the cost sort of comparison. And for now the drone shows are quite expensive. I was looking up and there was there was one company that if you want the 200 drones that's a hundred thousand dollars for a half hour show. If you want 500 it's like 200 000. It's crazy crazy money. I'm sure that'll go down in time.
B: That's nuts.
G: But then I was looking at at the the spent money spent on fireworks in the US and most like town shows it's like a thousand bucks a minute basically. So it's like 20 grand for like a 20-minute show. Maybe like half of that or whatever. But this was interesting. I came across this. So in 2015 Americans bought 260 million pounds of fireworks. And then in 2020 during the pandemic that jumped all the way up to 385 million pounds. And then in 2021 it went even higher with 416 million pounds. So during the pandemic sales almost doubled of personal use fireworks. So if it feels like more fireworks are going off during the during the year and throughout the time. They absolutely are. Twice as much. And these are not even like show fireworks. These are personal use fireworks. And I'm just like wondering like why? Is this smart? Do we need to encourage maybe some like I'm wondering if there will be a watershed moment where like the Macy's Day. Not Macy's day. Macy's fourth of July thing that happens in New York City. Which by the way is a six million dollar show. Like will they go park drone and then full drone and then that'll kind of set up a thing. I just was wondering what you guys think of all of it.
S: I don't think it's going anywhere.
E: They're not going away.
S: The culture of fireworks.
E: Too cultural, right?
S: Too embedded too well established.
G: It's so old.
S: It's so old as an industry behind it. I mean I think yeah there will be times like oh there was actually people killed at a fourth of July parade in Chicago that it there's a new layer to it but I don't think that that's gonna make it go away. But it is interesting though about the the drone show instead. I think if there's a cheaper substitute. We could spend eight million dollars on one show or we could spend half a million dollars on drones that we could show a million times. Indefinitely. Or whatever. I don't know what the exact numbers are but something like that. That may happen. So we it may there may be a shift. I don't think it would entirely go away.
G: Yeah. I don't know. There's that myth of the one of the first Chinese like a Chinese monk or alchemist or something. This guy named Li Tan that is sort of recognized as being the first guy about a thousand AD. He stuffed bamboo with salt peter and and lit it and it exploded and threw some sparks and he thought oh that's kind of entertaining, that's interesting. And so he showed it to the emperor. And the emperor was like oh that's that's fun, that's neat. Could this be used for a weapon? And the legend is that Li Tan said if this was ever used as a weapon it would be the end of the world.
S: Yeah. We did.
E: Was that the reference you had or was it a different one?
S: No. It was different. It was this was like the stick you put in the ground and you would have the explosion. It's like buckshot.
E: Right where Kirk shoots the Gorn.
S: Yeah right it was exactly that. It was exactly what Kirk used to shoot the Gorn. That was the first like primitive firearm. But it does go back that far. It goes back a lot farther than you think. Most technological items do.
G: Yeah even just general gunpowder sort of that burning of gunpowder which again wasn't used. No one thought to weaponize it until much later and it was I just think it's so interesting that the initial thing was just for entertainment. And even then they realized the dangerous potential of like of this explosive power. So yeah I don't know it just got me thinking of like that there are so many invasive elements to it and I just was curious if if towns or cities or it's one thing if you're at a rock and roll show or at a football game or something. But a small local park that is setting off explosions in the middle of the middle of the night it just seems so weird like what are we doing? Plus the fact that you're celebrating things that dealt with explosions. You know what I mean? Like okay we had this war for independence so we're going to celebrate it with explosions or like in England when they do the Guy Fawkes day. Yeah we're gonna celebrate the fact that the thing didn't blow up by blowing stuff up. It's like okay I guess. It's weird.
E: Yeah when they destroyed the Death Star over Endor and there were fireworks.
G: There you go.
E: That was that was a long time ago.
G: Far far away yeah.
S: All right guys I'm gonna start out the news items with an interesting one as we like to say. Research looking at the possibility, a new vaccine technology that might get us to a universal coronavirus vaccine.
B: Oh boy. (George laughs)
S: Well listen to this though. I mean we've heard the promise of universal this vaccine of that vaccine for a long time. It's tough. It's you know the "holy grail" of vaccine science. Like the flu vaccine is the one where we hear about it the most. Why is it so hard to develop a universal flu vaccine. We have a vaccine for each variant. And you have that's why you have to get your booster every year and they cover three or four variants they've got the trivalent and the quadravalent vaccines but you can't just make one that covers all flu viruses. The reason is that these viruses are clever little bastards.
E: Right. Little buggers change.
S: They hide the important bits and they cover them with variable bits that change. So that you to it specifically to evade the immune system.
E: It's like an enigma code almost.
S: Right so it's hard to get to the the part of the virus that doesn't change because it's necessary to its function. All right so let's talk about coronavirus. Coronavirus is not necessarily as tricky as the flu virus. The corona viruses that family of viruses is so called because of the crown of spike proteins around the outside. And the spike proteins are the business end of the the virus outer coat. Those are the proteins that give it its affinity for specific human cells. Allow it to invade cells and undergo its replication life cycle. So the spike proteins are critical to its infectivity and to the symptoms that it causes and to its deadliness etc. And all the vaccines that we have so far they target one or more of the spike proteins. Which makes sense. Again there's parts of the proteins that can that change fairly rapidly creating new variants. Sometimes it does change the actual infectivity or deadliness of the virus itself because it's not it's it is part of the actual functionality of the virus. It's not just about the variance alter functionality. It's not just about evading the immune system. But the the trick is being able to target spike proteins that are universal to even just all of the covid variants would be nice. But the the virus is the SARS-CoV-2. Covid is the disease. The virus that causes COVID-19 is SARS-CoV-2 which is one species of the coronavirus family. The other ones that are that caused big outbreaks of human infection was the SARS-CoV the first one which caused SARS epidemic and then MERS which caused the MERS epidemic. So there's SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2. Those are the three big ones now that they spill over coronaviruses from animal to human populations. And they have different spike proteins. They're different enough that a immunity to one would not necessarily convey immunity to the another and again even just over the last two years of this of the COVID pandemic we have the delta variant and now the omicron variant and they're different enough that they the vaccines are less effective against them. Immunity is less effective against them. You need to get really high titers. They don't completely evade immunity but you need much higher titers to to maintain activity and so that's why we needed to get the boosters. And now the vaccine manufacturers are trying to make new vaccines against the newer variants. Like an omicron specific that booster. So that right to retarget like reacquire the target and maintain immunity.
B: And they're all SARS-CoV-2, right? What would warrant a CoV-3?
S: Yeah it's a fuzzy line. They have to be different enough that we would say okay this warrants a new designation rather than just a variant. And there's also like there's omicron BA.4 and omicron BA.5. They didn't get their own Greek later letter they're just sub variants of omicron. It's all fuzzy like I don't know how they started like where to draw the line. It's like with software. When is it 1.1 and when is it 2.0. I don't know.
S: So but what if we could design one vaccine that would target all of the variants of SARS-CoV-2? And not only that what if it could also target MERS and SARS and even potentially other coronaviruses that don't even exist yet as a human infection that haven't spilled over yet into the human population and we might in the future.
B: Yeah. And we could deliver them in our flying cars.
B: And jetpacks.
S: So this is what the researchers did. This is the new bit now right the new study. This is Pamela Jerkman from Caltech and her team created a nanoparticle Bob.
B: Uuu. Nano! Nano!
S: They called a cage protein. Not the cage protein is a platform and essentially you can attach other proteins to it. You can attach 60 different proteins to this one cage protein nanoparticle. So what they did was they made three vaccines. One contains just the naked cage protein, that's a control. One contains 60 particles all from the SARS-CoV-2. That's they call that homotypic because it's all the same virus the SARS-CoV-2. Then they created one from eight different coronaviruses. Now this is a subset of the coronaviruses that are the beta coronaviruses. Those are the ones that infect humans. The beta coronaviruses. So they took 60 proteins from eight different beta coronaviruses and not just spike proteins but the receptor binding domains of those spike proteins. The RBDs, the receptor binding domains. Again that's the business then. That's the important bit. So then it's that's the third one. So they have the what they're calling mosaic eight. So there's the just the naked cage protein control, there's the homotypic just SARS-CoV-2 one and then there's the mosaic eight from eight different beta coronaviruses. But specifically though while it's eight different coronaviruses they did not include any receptor binding domains from SARS-CoV. From the first SARS virus. For a reason that'll become obvious in a second. They then injected them into mice. These are mice that have been genetically altered to have human immune systems kind of. So in other words they have the same receptors that humans do and so that these coronaviruses would infect them. And also the mice if they get infected they die. So it's really easy to tell if they got infected or not. So against the naked cage protein all the mice who were challenged with the SARS-CoV-2 they all died. Against they said they challenged them with with SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1. SARS-CoV, the first one. Both killed all the mice in the the control group. In the SARS-CoV-2 homotypic vaccine the mice survived when challenged with SARS-CoV-2 but died when challenged with SARS-CoV-2. The first one, right? Which makes sense, right?
E: What works against one doesn't work it's another.
S: Yeah so the homotypic one that's just got the SARS-CoV-2 protected only from SARS-CoV-2. But the mosaic eight the mice that were vaccinated with the mosaic eight so the the cage protein with 60 receptor binding domains from eight different coronaviruses but not the SARS-CoV virus. Remember that. So they survived challenges from both SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV. So that's important. So they survived a challenge with a coronavirus that they were not vaccinated against.
E: Right the CoV.
S: Yeah so the other eight sort of protected them against the SARS-CoV. Does that make sense?
E: Did they figure out why that was the case?
S: Well they think that there's you're the it's resulting in antibodies that are cross-reactive against so many different parts of the receptor binding domains that every coronavirus has to have some of them. So every coronavirus will get targeted enough even ones that are novel that are not part of the mosaic eight will also get targeted and provide effective immunity. So that's pretty cool.
E: To cast a wider net basically.
S: Absolutely. It's casting such a wide net it could theoretically protect against a future spillover event of another coronavirus. Theoretically. So they did follow-up research looking testing the effectiveness because so this is kind of like genetically modified mice. So it's kind of a weird target and it may not translate to how humans would respond. So they tested it in non-human primates and they found the same thing. That it did replicate so that the the mosaic eight was protective against SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 in non-human primates. So that's where the research is. So the the next step is to do a phase one human trial now that we have the animal data. Remember phase one studies are mainly about safety and pharmacology and stuff. We just wanna make sure that they're not gonna shut down the liver or how it how much of a dosing like just measuring antibodies. It's not really about measuring clinical effectiveness it's just like how it works and how safe is it.
E: How were they able to figure out the original cage protein though? That this would happen?
S: They designed it. They designed a protein that the nanoparticle protein that would bind to these spike proteins.
G: Are they physically manipulating that nanoparticle or is this all chemically just done in terms of modifying it?
S: Yeah that's a good question. I didn't get that deep. I didn't really go into that or if they did it was so technical I just glossed over it.
G: It's just magic man. It's absolute magic.
S: That would be it's an interesting question. I'd like to do some further research I might have to talk to somebody who─
E: Pamela should come on the show.
S: ─understands the technical aspect of how you create it. Is it just chemical or is it how do they build that cage protein.
B: I'd say it's purely chemical at this point but be happy to be wrong.
S: But think about it. This is a platform. This is a new vaccine technology. This is like going to mRNA vaccines. It's not just a new vaccine it's a whole new─
E: A whole new weapon.
S: ─vaccine technology yeah.
E: New tool in the toolkit. Great.
S: Maybe we will develop a universal flu vaccine from this. I mean you get basically 60 targets in one vaccine. That could be 60, I don't know. Could that give you specificity against 60 different flu various variants. I mean that's like 60 years worth of vaccine flu vaccines. I don't know.
B: Could there be too much variation that you might then start attacking something you never imagined that your immune system would build antibodies for?
S: Well that's always the risk of vaccines. Vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system. To provoke an immune response. And there are diseases that occur after an infection. The so-called post-infectious syndrome like Guillain–Barré is the classic one. So Guillain–Barré there are different types but the main type of Guillain–Barré you get infected with the virus. There are proteins on that virus that look a little bit like the proteins on your nerves. Your immune system─
E: Oh it attacks the nerves.
S: ─gets confused. So there's a there's the initial phase of the infection. Remember antibodies are not black and white. It's not like they have a 100% affinity for their target or 0% affinity. The way your immune system works is that just blankets it just pre makes antibodies against everything.
E: Almost like chemotherapy except for cancer.
S: Yeah except for self. It's like all right don't make antibodies against self. But everything else to make antibodies. The self ones get selected out. And so you don't attack your own body but that's where autoimmune diseases are when that process fails. But anyway it and then when you have an infection or some new thing invading your body chances are some antibodies are going to be 20% affinity for it or 30% affinity for it. And then those cells that make those antibodies are stimulated to make even more antibodies with with like now there's variations on that theme. And some of those will be 50 or 60% affinity. And then you may so they literally evolve we evolve antibodies during the infection to get more and more affinity for the target. That's why vaccines work. Vaccines are doing all of that up front so that you have the cells ready to go. You don't have to spend days and weeks evolving the specific antibodies for the infection while it's killing you. You immediately go to an optimal antibody response. But sometimes what if the antibodies that have 80-90-100% affinity for the virus have 20 affinity for your nerve proteins? Then those get stimulated and you have this secondary response six weeks later or whatever. Like four to six weeks later against your nerves. That's Guillain–Barré. That's exactly what that is. It's this secondary immune response because there was some crossover affinity. So that's always the risk. A vaccine could do the same thing. You're making you're targeting proteins that may unfortunately have some crossover affinity for something in your body. But that's why they get tested. That's why we test the vaccine to make sure that that doesn't happen. But it's always gonna, there's always gonna be the million-to-one side effects that happen with vaccines. There's no way around that. And that's about the level of like the serious side effects. It's about one in a million.
B: Screw that risk! [sarcasm]
S: Statistically yeah the the risk is extremely small. But it's never going to be zero. And that's part of the reason why. So listen hey imagine if we can in two years or three years, I don't know how they're going to fast track this, I mean hopefully they will could get a one booster one vaccine that will cover every possible variant of SARS-CoV-2 and also give pretty good coverage of any beta coronavirus even if we have another pandemic 10 years from now-you're covered. Know the other issue is how long will the antibodies last but even if it's if your antibodies have faded the vaccine's ready to go for any infection. We just we don't have to make a new vaccine. This vaccine will cover it. And again of course like if the technology works for flu vaccines imagine any one flu vaccine and covers every variant? That's the big question mark with flu vaccines from year to year is how close is our guess of which variants are going to be circulating.
B: Sometimes their guess sucks.
S: Sometimes the guess sucks. Sometimes you only get 20-30% effectiveness because the guess was off but if you had a universal flu vaccine you wouldn't wouldn't be an issue we'd have really really good coverage.
G: Do you think the pushback would be the same on on a flu vaccine as it was with COVID?
G: Like that they would be identical.
G: Not because the flu is more of a yeah but just even would it be the same I guess the same people would have the same problems with it, right?
B: Plus it's a new technology.
S: I mean there's the core--yes. Will it become political like COVID did? Hopefully not. I mean hopefully that was a one-off because of─
G: That's what I'm wondering about.
S: ─the politics of it but who knows. We'll have to see. I wrote that's what I wrote like I concluded my article when I wrote about it on science-based medicine that fortunately we have the infrastructure of scientific research to combat these pandemics which are probably going to be increasing in frequency going into the future. But we may lack the political and social infrastructure to adequately deal with these pandemics. So we have the science. We have the technology but we're just too dumb to implement it as a society unfortunately. But still it's good to have the science. And it's still progressing. So hopefully this will all work out and hopefully it won't take too long. This is pretty encouraging technology.
E: It's a neat tool.
S: Yeah. Absolutely.
Preserving Ukraine's Landmarks (40:44)
S: All right George this is a one of those sort of good and bad news items at the same time.
G: Yeah yeah.
S: The efforts to preserve Ukraine's landmarks before they all get blown up.
G: Yeah. Now there's this, there's this we all know the price of war is is always steep. Te price of conflict and battles is always steep. There's always a human cost. There's always a political cost which isn't as important but there is a cultural cost that often happens in that many cultural items. Items of import. Artistic items or just historic items tend to get caught in the literal crossfire of wars. If you go to the wiki page which has cultural sites affected by war it is disheartening.
G: There's like hundreds if not even thousands. I mean just some I went through the mosque of the prophet Yunus which is an eighth century mosque was destroyed by ISIS militants in 2014. The Christ Church Greyfriars The was a beautiful church that was during the the blitz and World War II. Nazis bombed the site. Beijing's Old Summer Palace in 1860 during the Second Opium War british and french troops bombed it. Destroyed it. The Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo was damaged by a suicide bomber. It's like it doesn't matter what culture. The Royal Opera House, Valletta was destroyed by Luftwaffe bombers. The Buddhas of Bamiyan. The taliban blew those up. I remember when that happened back in 2001.
E: Yeah, that was big news.
G: I remember thinking like what this is not a good like what kind of a organization would destroy these sixth century statues. Like that's ooh this is going to be troublesome. I'm putting that in the back of my mind. So we get to the present day and the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol had 2 000 exhibits and an extensive collection of prominent Ukrainian artwork. And back in march the Russian military had just destroyed it. They blew it up. So UNESCO started this program that they're calling up Backup Ukraine. And it uses polycam 3d scanning apps to quickly and easily scan and upload digital renderings of landmarks, artworks, cultural sites, whatever. And this can be done by anybody. It's an app basically that is on your phone. It's quite wonderful again like Steve said bad news good news. It's a horrible reason that this thing exists but they get volunteers to go to either areas that are going to be attacked or may be attacked or that are even under attack and they say hey these things, these particular cultural artifacts are in danger of being destroyed. Like go scan that thing. So the scans are turned into 3d models and they're instantly uploaded to the cloud where they can't be affected by Russian bombs, Russian interference. Any kind of anything. They can then make digital replicas that they can share with the world and then it can potentially even aid in reconstruction. So if you're on some site you know a church and a whatever a hundreds of year old church or some gathering site or something you scan as much of it as you possibly can into this app it gets uploaded and the quality is so high that then you can actually use it for not just making models of the thing but you can use it for reconstruction. So what is it Tao Thomsen the creative director says UNESCO has never done anything like this. They did one thing with a small mining town where they used drones to sort of scan the whole town and see if the technology was there. And that worked really well. And they've done other stuff with museums but they've never done something in real time during a war or during a conflict. And so far they've got thousands of things that they've scanned in and are being protected. It's quite I mean at the very least there's this idea that this stuff won't be lost forever the way so many thousands of other things have. What it say "Backup Ukraine isn’t recommending civilians try to capture works in public without first enlisting in a volunteer corps". So it's not just randomized. It's there's a Ukrainian heritage emergency rescue initiative and they say we need this, we need this, we need this, this is on this is in danger. This item is not as important or we already have that so don't put yourself in danger. But there is a real concerted effort to save these cultural artifacts in real time which I just makes me feel a little bit of relief and happiness. And it's using technology kind of in the best way possible to have this thing have these items uploaded and saved forever hopefully.
S: Yeah I'm looking at this so it's actually using not just using your camera it's using lidar scanning which is─
G: Oh wait that was okay right yeah yeah.
S: ─the polycam is an actual lidar scanning app that you can use with certain iPhones. Like the iPad pro I think they're saying has it.
S: The iPhone 13.
G: Right but just to have that in a person's hand. It's pretty amazing. Yeah polymetric scanning through yeah lidar and the polycam app so it just it made me smile when I read about that. Again the reason's awful but it just made me smile.
S: Yeah I'm just it's really high quality. That's what I'm surprised.
G: Oh yeah. It's not just a photo.
S: Yeah it's not just taking pictures of it it's 3d scanning. With a freaking iPhone.
G: On your freaking iPhone yeah. And then in the future too that would be nice that you can eventually in non war conditions you'll be able to have this kind of thing where you can again enters into the whole concept of ownership and all that kind of stuff. But just for even organizations to be able to save and record. I mean archaeological sites you don't want to disturb. I think it's really cool.
S: Yeah I'm confirming I think it's just the most recent iPhones have it so it's not universal. But hopefully this is the beginning. Hopefully every before too long every phone will have it it's just someone's got to be the first but then everyone will get it. But that would be amazing. You could scan your whole home.
S: Make a 3D model of it.
G: Yeah for like even like for non-essential stuff like oh you wanna buy furniture oh will this couch fit. Or we wanna paint─
G: ─check just paint this paint color on these walls. Okay, cool. Just out of your phone let alone rescue thousand-year-old cultural artifact because it's going to be destroyed by some douchebag in Moscow.
S: I mean obviously it doesn't replace the object itself but it is something.
S: At least it's something.
E: Better than nothing absolutely.
S: Yeah. And this is the same technology because I have the VR goggles and one of the things that you can do is you could do virtual museums. Where there are lidar scanned 3d models of museum exhibits and it's pretty darn cool. I mean it's not the same as being physically in the in the presence of the thing but it is pretty good. I mean again the whole VR experience hits you on that visceral level. So you're not just seeing a picture of a t-Rex you are standing in the present relatively speaking in terms of size. You get the the perspective of being in the room with a with the t-Rex skulls and just as an example. So it is a very different experience than just looking at a picture. So that's nice that could be done but it's just the indiscriminate destruction of war sometimes is just you have to shake your head.
G: I mean I hate seeing like big old trees get cut down. That like bothers me. Like if you see a tree that there's some construction happening somewhere and you know that tree is what 50 years old, 75 years old. I understand it has to happen but there's like a part of me that's just like oh that's oh it's an old thing that you're uh. Let alone god some beautiful architecture or a bridge or a church or a street or a statue or whatever. Artwork. It's just oh it's heartbreaking.
S: George I don't know if I've ever asked you - have you, you've been to Ukraine?
G: I was yeah. I was one time right before the iron curtain fell back in 89 I went.
S: Just once?
G: Yeah just one time and it was just at the very end of the whole soviet kind of experience. If you had told me while I was there that in two years the soviet union would be no more I would not have believed you at all I had a number of really cool experiences. I mean there was there were people that were trading with us and they saw us as being American students and so they wanted to trade cigarettes and jeans and all kinds of stuff. Like that cliched story. I had one connection with a guy. I was, I started speaking Ukrainian to him and he kind of looked at me with a side eye and I said you know my parents are born here and I speak it. I live in New Jersey but I speak Ukrainian and the guy teared up. And he looked at me and he's like oh we're brothers. We're brothers. I was like oh my gosh I was overwhelmed. I went for a walk in Lviv. I went for a walk it was towards the end of my the trip and I thought all right you know what screw it. I went for a walk by myself. I had my red ski parka on and I don't know if you remember but the sportsman walkman was the bright yellow walkman. I don't know if you remember that back from the 80s.
E: I did.
G: But they had it was the waterproof walkman that had this gasket and it was a bright yellow thing and I'm like you know what I'm going to put this on my hip. I'm going to put these bright yellow headphones on and I'm just gonna scream American. And so people just started coming up to me and like in broken English trying to speak. And I would respond in Ukrainian and I watched their minds being blown. It was it was the coolest thing. And this crowd gathering. I was talking like 30 people. And they were just asking questions and it was a wonderful experience. I mean it was a really really wonderful experience and to see the soviet union kind of in its last, not that I knew it at the time, but in the last dregs of its existence. Was really something that put all of my my disdain for going to Ukrainian school on Saturdays and having to work on this stuff and why are we learning this and why am I speaking Ukrainian and why do I have to read these things. It really put it in a perspective that made me appreciate it even at 18 for as stupid as i was at 18. It made me appreciate it. Let alone two years later when it was all so different.
Detecting Particles with Gravitational Waves (52:01)
S: All right Bob tell us about detecting particles with gravitational waves.
E: No way.
B: Yeah black holes in the news and actually they're kind of always in the news (George laughs) which is awesome but this one happened to raise above the Bob waterline.
B: That elicits for me something that sounds like hmm. When I hear that I'm like maybe I'll talk about this one on the show. So this one has to do with the possibility of a cloud of particles around black holes and how we might detect them. I learned a lot with this research. This was really fun to do. This is from physicists from the University of Amsterdam and Harvard University and recently published in the Physical Review Letters. So if one word encapsulates this news item it's superradiance. Which I had heard before but I really did not appreciate. The superradiance it is fascinating. And I actually covered it kind of like an aspect of it on the show before in episode 814 as a matter of fact. When I was talking about using the frame dragging ergosphere around a black hole's event horizon to basically harvest its angular momentum. Or its rotational energy. I talked about that. Probably maybe almost nobody remembers it but it was fascinating stuff. So I did kind of talk about it but in this but superradiance or in this case rotational super radiance in the context of black holes is more of a general term referring to an energy transfer process in which the rotating black hole has actually put some of its energy into the vacuum surrounding it. Which can then be extracted. Either by some ridiculously high-tech strategy as I discussed on the show in that earlier episode or another way would be creating a black hole bomb. Look that one up. It's a doozy. It's a real kind of thing. But on the other hand this energy extraction could manifest naturally. It doesn't have to be this man-made super high-tech idea but it could be something as natural as hawking radiation for example. Which is thought to result from super radiance and actually we've talked about Hawking radiation. It's thought to slowly transfer eventually the entire mass of a black hole back out into space causing the black hole to essentially die out. In a long long time but it does the thinking is that it does happen. But now another way that super radiance can manifest and in line with this specific news item is as a cloud of super light particles around the black hole. So if you imagine the black hole you've got this cloud of these particles around it. They call that a gravitational atom. Which I had never heard that term before. Gravitational atom. Why do you think that's so?
E: I don't know but there must be a gravitational Eve.
B: Haaa! Religion's got nothing to do with this.
G: Because of the rings?
B: Yes kind of about the rings. The cloud of particles around the black hole is analogous to the cloud of electrons around the cores of atoms. We think of it not as like an orbiting electron. But it's like a probabilistic cloud of electrons around the atoms. So they call it a gravitational atom for that kind of loose analogy.
E: Why not?
B: Yes and of course here is the point where I reference that stoner scene from Animal House where they discuss parts of the remember that parts of the universe being one atom in the fingernail of some giant being which of course I had to bring up and I'm sure only about 23% of our audience will know what I'm talking about. (laughter) So but it turns out that that analogy of this gravitational atom compared to a regular atom, that analogy actually runs a little bit even deeper because the researchers invoke the photoelectric effect in this as well. Now we've all heard of the Einstein's photoelectric effect. The one thing he actually won a Nobel Prize for. The one thing. He didn't win it for relativity. But in the historical context you understand why. Photoelectric effect describes the process of electrons being ejected from atoms when light hits them. When photons of light hit the atom that have the right right amount of energy. Now this is historically important as an aside because this was the critical clue a critical clue that light is, at least in this context, not continuous but discrete bundles of energy called photons. And that kind of got the whole quantum revolution going so that was critical historical event there. So okay so the scientists compare the electron absorbing light and being photoelectrically ejected from a conventional atom. They compare that to gravitational atoms ejecting some of their cloud particles when they absorb the gravitational energy from a nearby binary partner. Say you've got a black hole with a cloud of those particles around it. And it's in orbit. It's a binary system where it's in orbit around another black hole or a neutron star. So that gravitational interaction of that binary pair can can basically kick out those clouds of particles and eject them so that they that's why they compare it to the photoelectric effect. It's a loose analogy but it's interesting. So now if you take this to the next step then the researchers and one of the big pieces of news here is that this process can have this kind of like gravitational atom photoelectric effect process can have major implications for the evolution of these binary systems. It could actually have an effect on maybe like when the black holes merge. Because of the movement of these particles it can actually cause them to merge sooner. And the other the big thing is that they think that this photoelectric effect around this gravitational atom could leave an imprint on gravitational waves. So that's kind of like the big thing. Is that we could actually potentially use our gravitational wave interferometers like LIGO or VIRGO which we've discussed on the show many times. We could use them or theirs they're you know their successors their more advanced versions. We could use them to detect the imprint that these particles would leave on the gravitational waves themselves and say hey look here is absolute 100% evidence essentially that these particles do exist as these clouds of these particles do exist around black holes. As just further evidence for the effect of super radiance. So yeah so this was really fascinating and I'm curious to see if they could when will we be able to create these other interferometers like the successors to LIGO to see if they really can detect these. And this was really interesting stuff. I suggest or I urge you to look into the details because I can only cover such a tiny amount of the details here. And this whole idea of super radiance and how it's related to like the potential energy extractions of black holes in the far distant future. If when all the stars have winked out at the end of the universe we may be talking about super radiance or our descendants of course may be talking about super radiance in terms of like trying to just trying to live in the universe that has gone cold and dark and with very little energy left. And it's just a just a fascinating topic.
E: Was that 10 trillion years from now Bob?
B: Oh no no dude. We're talking 120 trillion years most of the stars will be gone. So we got time. We got time to talk about it. (Evan laughs)
G: How long do we get like the LIGO binoculars? That's what I want. I want the hand held. I want to walk outside of my yard.
B: Oh my god.
G: Look up into the sky with a handheld LIGO binocular and just look at black holes collapsing, you know? How long? Someone get on that please.
B: Well. Okay. (laughs) Can you imagine such a device?
G: Can we do a kickstarter for that or something? Is that possible? Some kind of.
E: George it wouldn't even need to be binoculars. Just it's an app on your iPhone.
E: Point it and go.
G: Point and shoot.
B: That's adorable. (laughter)
S: I always find it fascinating though how like we discover these new layers of information that's─
B: Oh god, right?
S: ─already there like hiding in the stuff that's bathing the Earth. It's just amazing.
B: Yeah I mean I and of course Einstein is the man. I mean he predicted this decades and decades ago and it never thought it would it would have been possible and of course it was possible.
Who Owns the Moon? (1:00:37)
S: All right Evan you're going to finish up the news segment by a discussion about who owns the Moon. We've talked about this before, [link needed] but this is now rearing up again.
E: The fireworks display that you may have missed this past week were the result of NASA. And actually the words spoken by its chief administrator Bill Nelson. You see he was interviewed and the article was published in Bild. European magazine. German magazine I believe or German online magazine as well. But according to Wiki Bild is the best-selling european newspaper. Has the 16th largest circulation worldwide. I didn't know that. Here's the headline: "China wants to occupy the Moon NASA boss sounds the alarm". And the second line of the article is this: "NASA boss Bill Nelson warns" and this is a quote "There is a new race to space. This time with China." And he's later quoted as saying these other statements: "We must be very concerned that China is landing on the Moon and saying it is now ours and you stay out. China's space program is a military space program. China is good but it's good because they steal their ideas and technologies from other. And what do you think is happening on the chinese space station? They learn their how to destroy other people's satellites." Yep Bill Nelson. He lit the largest string of firecrackers that I had heard in a long time.
B: Yeah man. Damn. Jeez.
E: They are right in time for the fourth of July here in the USA. And the response from China in the meantime also came out on the heels of that. But Bloomberg reports: "China slams NASA chief Nelson as race to the Moon gets heated". Reuters: "China rejects NASA accusation it will take over the Moon". But of course the most direct one came from the official newspaper of the chinese communist party called the Global Times. Here's their headline: "Colonial-minded Bill Nelson hypocritically hyped China's takeover of the Moon." They were they they came out really really lambasting Nelson for his statements. They said as the chief of the of the US Space Agency and a former payload specialist who has flown in space, which is true. Nelson who is supposed to be mindful of the future of humanity is too narrow-minded by hyping the China threat in space. That the US is viewing the Moon with a colonial mentality. The US itself has been eyeing militarization of space that the same that it accuses China of doing so. And the chinese idea of building a community with a shared future for humankind is forward thinking apparently not a choice of the United States for now. Yeah this is a quite a war of words here flying back and forth. But the impetus eally for it was NASA dispatched the satellite to the Moon. CAPSTONE which I don't think we talked about at all. The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment. That's C-A-P-S-T-O-N-E. And it was launched a week ago out of New Zealand and it's set to orbit the Earth it's going to break away and eventually establish an orbit around the Moon.That's actually a news item unto itself but I won't get into the details now. CAPSTONE. You can look it up in the meantime. Maybe we'll talk on about it in the future in the coming months as it establishes its cool orbit around the Moon. Which is definitely worthy of discussion. But for now we've got these fighting words between NASA chief and the China diplomats. Yeah. And the news articles are basically saying that the Chinese diplomats are blasting NASA for having made these statements. Plus lying. Accusing Nelson of outright lying. And they say it's not the first time the chief of NASA has lied through his teeth and to smear China. In recent years the US openly defined space as a war fighting domain. The US side has constantly constructed a smear campaign against China's normal and reasonable outer space endeavors and China firmly opposes such irresponsible remarks.
G: This is like the the first season of Space Force on Netflix. When they have─
E: Ooh my gosh, is it? Oh no.
B: Oh my god.
E: But yeah but it does kind of boil down to the question Steve you initially raised. Who owns the Moon? And I know we have spoken about this before on the show. Maybe not in recent years. Maybe many years ago but it's worth a quick revisit. And the short answer to the question is of course no one. No one. No country. No individual. No company. Nobody owns the Moon. And that was based on a resolution adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations established in 1966. Basically article 2 of that resolution: "Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means." It's pretty clear.
G: And that's all co-signed by the the whole security council co-signed on that?
E: That is resolved. That is a resolution. That is a resolution of the United Nations which is all good and fine assuming everyone abides by it.
G: Right, right.
E: But what it boils down to is this real deep-seated distrust that the United States has for China and that china has for the United States obviously. And each for their own reasons. Each with their own set of accusations and there's history to sort of back up what has been going on here for many many many years. Obviously the United States has been in the space exploration endeavor longer than china but when it boils right down to it Bill Nelson is not necessarily wrong in the things that he stated. Because there are many point, things that you can point to that back up what he's what he says. And he would know. I mean Nelson is not a novice when it comes to these things. He's as you know he was on one of the space shuttle missions but he is a legal expert. He's former senator. Former house of representatives member. Served on the Science and Technology Committee while a member of the house for a better part of a decade. And yeah again payload specialist on mission STS-61 aboard the space shuttle Columbia. That was back in 1986. So technically really nobody owns the Moon but it is a race to the Moon.
S: Yeah. We're gonna have to keep an eye on this. But have you guys any of you been watching For All Mankind? Which is actually I think a closer analog than Space Force. Although it's with the Soviet Union. This is like back in. The premises and you'll learn this in the first episode is that the soviets beat america to the Moon.
E: Oh I see.
S: And what would happen─
E: What changed.
S: ─if that would be the case and of course what happens is that it spawns. It keeps the space race going for decades. And we're like flying to Mars in the 1990s. It's a very interesting thought experiment. But also the race for the Moon went to a very dark place. With the soviets and America fighting on the Moon. And so that would be the worst case scenario. We certainly don't want to replicate a confrontational approach to the Moon with China or with anybody now. The idea is that no one does own it. It has to be for everyone on the planet and we should only have peaceful developments of the Moon. So the thing is we don't know what's going on. We're just getting third-hand information from the media. We don't really know if the NASA director had a reason to say this. Of course China's denials are exactly what they would say no matter what the reality is. So it's of no evidence either way about what their actual intentions are. They always do that. They just reflect back whatever they're being accused of you're doing that. That's just their modus operandi. So it doesn't really mean anything. But we can yeah but we don't know what it's based on in the first place. So hopefully maybe by calling them out the point of that was to publicly basically get them to say they're not doing it. That they're not going to─
E: Get them on the record.
S: ─yeah get them on record and say no we're not going to muscle their way out of the Moon and keep anybody else off. But it's also that we got to pay attention to this because who knows what what the real intentions are.
E: That's right. Yeah it's one thing to state it and again with the United Nation resolution for all this. That's all good and well as long as people, as long as countries abide by these rules that hasn't always been the case in history. That people of or countries have been abided by Geneva conventions and other things. So we've seen it not work out the way it's supposed to work out. So yeah it is of concern.
G: I'm shocked that was passed in 66.
E: Right a contentious time. That's right.
G: Think of what was going on then to have both Russia and China all sign that. That's pretty amazing. Wouldn't happen today probably.
Question #1: What is a Skeptic? (1:09:54)
A skeptic is defined as someone who questions "factual" evidence and maintains a "doubting" attitude. This is contrary to what I believe your show is about, in terms of convincing people that their belief in pseudo-science is invalid. My question is, what is the best way to overcome the conventional attitude associated with the word skeptic when trying to make a valid argument with someone who questions the foundation upon which the argument is built? Questioning the questioner?
– Nicholas O'Meara, Australia
S: All right guys one quick email. This comes from Nicholas from Australia and he writes: "A skeptic is defined as someone who questions "factual" evidence and maintains a "doubting" attitude. This is contrary to what I believe your show is about, in terms of convincing people that their belief in pseudo-science is invalid. My question is, what is the best way to overcome the conventional attitude associated with the word skeptic when trying to make a valid argument with someone who questions the foundation upon which the argument is built? Questioning the questioner?" So yeah this is the perennial question Nicholas that we have been dealing with─
S: ─the entire duration of the modern skeptical movement. It's there's no one perfect answer to this. So we will often say when we are talking about this topic that what we are promoting is scientific skepticism. It's not skepticism in that we just deny anything.
E: A priori.
S: Yeah it's not being a denialist or being a contrarian or being a cynic.
G: The cynicism thing yeah it's not cynicism. That's the thing.
B:' Yeah I mean it's more about scale. It's more about scaling the doubt based on plausibility I would say.
E: What the claim is.
B: Just to bring it to the next level of accuracy because I mean that's a very simplistic kind of definition I would say of skeptic. Not yeah not scientific skeptic.
S: Yeah but I think he's just saying this is the like colloquial definition of skeptic and when you deal with the general population the general public this is what they think of when they hear the word skeptic. We might be using our own internal definition and we could obviously talk about that for a long time about what is scientific skepticism and the use of methods to decide what's really real and what isn't real. We have wrote a whole book about it. It's a process. But that we're having a conversation with ourselves when we're dealing with the public they have a very different idea about what the word skeptic means. How do we deal with that. And that's the thing where we don't have an answer for that. We don't know. So some people have proposed, within the skeptical movement, well let's just come up with a different word that doesn't have baggage. But it's hard to create.
S: Yeah bright. They've all failed. There's they all have baggage or they have some kind of connotation or you're just trying to invent a word it's hard to by fiat just say this is what we're gonna start calling it now. So the approach that we've taken is just to teach people what we mean by skeptic. Just to try to rehabilitate the word skeptic if you will.
B: Yeah right and I would right and I would argue Steve we have had so not but in general skeptics have had some measure of success because I would say that the word skeptic isn't necessarily it doesn't you know evoke that knee-jerk cynic reaction quite as much as it as it used to.
S: Yeah I think I mean whatever. You got to just pick your path and I think that's the path we've chosen to try to just make skeptic mean scientific skepticism. In the mind of the public. And not cynic or denier. That's why we it was really so upsetting when yes when when climate change deniers we're calling themselves climate change skeptics. You're not skeptics. You're fake skeptics. And you're denialists. You are deniers.
B: At some point you are a denier. Like there's no there's no moon landing skeptics anymore. No. They don't exist. They're moon landing deniers. Not skeptics.
G: Holocaust deniers.
B: Not holocaust skeptics. Exactly.
G: Although it's interesting that the term does sort of get used by flat Earth, round Earth skeptics. Or Earth skeptics or science skeptics. That term which I think over the last 20 years has gotten some value imbued into it as being sort of a legitimate way to approach problem solving gets then stolen and usurped by people that aren't doing actual skepticism but they like the term. So they can call themselves a holocaust skeptic. Or they can call themselves a climate skeptic. It's like no. You don't get to call yourself that if you're not doing the process correctly. You are a denier. You are denialism.
S: George make an interesting point that the fact that the climate change deniers want to call them climate change skeptics is a marker of our success.
E: Yeah that's right.
S: We have changed the perception of the word skeptic into something that other people want to steal. So we're just going to keep, we're just going to keep doing that.
All right. We have a great interview coming up with a scientist who's going to talk to us about his research into dog evolution. Let's go to that now.
Interview with Dave Stanton (1:14:32)
- Ice Age wolf genomes home in on dog origins
- Ancient wolf DNA is being used to sniff out where our love story with dogs began
S: Joining us now is Dr David Stanton. Dave welcome to the Skeptics Guide.
DS: Thank you for having me.
S: Now Dave you are a research associate at Queen Mary University of London. And you had contacted me over email to alert me to a cool study that you and your group recently published about dog evolution. I'm like yeah that's cool, why don't you come on the show and talk about it with us. And you you you happily obliged. So tell us about the work that you're doing. You're a paleo geneticist, right? What is that.
DS: So I study really old animals basically. So I get DNA out of super old, super old animals. And in this paper we were looking at wolves and their evolution. And that how that's intertwined with dog domestication.
S: So what's the oldest wolf/dog out of which we have DNA?
DS: So our oldest wolf sample is about 100 000 years old. So we work a lot in incredibly well-preserved areas that preserve DNA really well. So in Siberia. So a lot of these samples come out of permafrost. And we can actually dig them out of ice tunnels in the permafrost and they use ice cannons to dig into this permanent ice. And you can sometimes get remains that come out of their woolly mammoths and occasionally wolves. So the oldest sample that we had in the data set was about 100 000 years old. Which is much older than the earliest of confirmed dog previous to that time.
B: How degraded is the DNA that's a hundred thousand years old?
DS: Really degraded. So I mean it gets over time it gets sort of broken up into small fragments. Which it causes a lot of problems. And not only that but a lot of the stuff you sequence isn't the thing that you want it to be. So a lot of it's gonna be bacterial DNA. So in a lot of cases like 99% of it is bacteria. So you end up throwing a lot of it away. But every now and then you get any an incredibly well preserved specimen. And we've pulled out these twenty thousand year old wolves which they look like they died yesterday. There's one called Dogor which is sort of at one point we thought maybe it was sort of the the ancestry of of dogs but it didn't turn out to be the case.
S: So what what have you found? What's the main finding? I mean I've read the headlines that dogs apparently evolved from two populations of wolves. Tell us more about that and how did you figure that out.
DS: Yeah so I mean there's kind of two angles of the paper. The first one was wolf evolution. But in terms of the dog domestication the really challenging thing with dog domestication is that we think that dogs are domesticated from a population of wolves which is now extinct. So that population isn't around to study anymore. So it in intrinsically makes it a really difficult problem to study. So it means this is these ancient DNA techniques we use are kind of essential. So we found that this domestication process started at most 28 000 years ago. So it's still a very long time ago. Way before any other animal was domesticated. And the primary origin for it was east Asia. Although there does so there is a component which also comes from the near east as well. Although it's unclear whether that's a separate domestication event or if it was just a separate population which is so but that population has has been important in the dog lineage as well.
S: So yeah so it might have been a single domestication event but then they interbred a little bit with this other population versus two separate domestication events?
DS: Exactly. With the data we've got at the moment you can't tell between those two hypotheses. But their hypotheses you could test and you kind of we need to do that by getting some ancient samples from some of these more southern locations. So if we could get it from sort of directly from that time period and that location then you could pinpoint it exactly.
S: And so what would you be looking for? Would you be looking for evidence of domestication in the middle eastern lineage before it mixed its genes with the asian lineage? Is that, do I have that right?
DS: Yeah exactly. So I mean if you could get some wolf that was characteristic of that middle eastern lineage. Prior to the time of domestication you could at that point you could say okay this this was a separate domestication event potentially.
G: I'm just curious when did the progenitor species become extinct? The original wolf.
DS: So we don't know that it's entirely extinct. It could be that there's some remnants of that population still in around wolves today. And it's just homogenized across the entire globe. But the present-day wolf populations are. There's nothing like that progenitor around anymore. And this is one of the really interesting things we found about the wolf evolution as well. Is we found that they were across the last 100 000 years. They were able to spread their genes across their entire distribution really really quickly. So from the west of Europe to North America wolves were moving across vast distances and so this this process of homogenized their ancestry really quickly over time. So it's kind of muddied the water a bit ever since then.
S: It must be tricky because I mean can't dogs and wolves interbreed now? I mean and produce fertile young. So if you're asking when was the last common ancestor it's like well they never stopped having mixing their genes together, right?
DS: Yeah exactly. And it gets even more complicated as you go closer back in time towards that. Even to call it a point of domestication is probably not entirely true. It's going to be a continuous process over a long period of time.
S: Is there any way we could test the hypothesis genetically that dogs domesticated themselves at least for a period of time. Essentially adapting to the fringes of human civilization prior to humans deliberately domesticating dogs. You know what I mean?
DS: Yeah I think that's a really tricky one. I think that's an archaeological question more so than a perhaps a genetic question and but it's yeah that's that they're kind of the two hypotheses that seem to be predominant at the moment. Either dogs exist- wolves existed around the fringe of humans and kind of I've heard people say that that's dogs domesticating us rather than the other way around I'm not sure I kind of like that. I'm not sure about that terminology but yeah essentially it was more of a natural process like that rather than a human driven process. But those two things I think that that's it's very hard to tell apart and especially because the archaeological evidence is very scant as you go back in time as well.
S: Yeah that reminds you like the relationship is so symbiotic. We have a relatively new dog. My wife and I. And he is an Australian shepherd and very bright. Very lovable dog. Also has these quirky stubbornness. Like there are just things that he does and we can't get him to do. And my wife goes through this elaborate ritual to get him to come into the house at night. And she thinks he's training him. You like to come into the house. Honey. He's training you. He is absolutely, he is training you to do exactly what he wants you to do and he won't do the thing until he gets his treat or whatever it is that he wants you to do. But it's like it's hard to separate those two things. The behavior is so symbiotic, you know what I mean?
DS: Yeah and I mean they're sort of there's something about dogs which just people obviously find compelling to spend time with. And they have these certain traits which different from wolves like the the drop ears is a classic one which makes them look kind of more friendly. And that actually so there's a gene which is supposed to be associated with that and that's one that we found was strongly under selection in wolves in the last 20 000 years. So it appears to have originated a long time ago in the wolf population. And we don't know exactly the sort of, we don't have a good mechanistic understanding of that that gene yet but that was one that was selected quite a long time ago.
S: So are you saying that wild population of wolves are developing some domesticated traits? Is that what you're saying?
DS: It's kind of hard to say. It could be that that's due to kind of back crossing perhaps from the dogs back into the wolves. And we we saw evidence of that. So a lot of evidence of dogs gene flow between dogs into wolves. But much less so the other way around, we didn't detect anything the other way around. Not to say didn't happen but it was just it's just much harder to detect.
S: Interesting. So the populations that were getting domesticated were then feeding those domesticated "genes" back into the wild wolf population to some extent.
DS: And yeah again that was one of the neat things about this study because we had this kind of time series data set over 100 000 years we could see evolution in action, happening in real time.
G: Dave do you get to work with live wolves at all? Do you get to be exposed to the those huge amazing creatures?
DS: I'm afraid not. No. I deal with I get it I get them in generally in in bone or tooth form. We have a very high tech lab where we have to sort of kit up. We have special, it's higher pressure inside the lab to make sure any that the air moves outward so we don't have any kind of any contaminating things coming in. We powder the sample we get DNA out of it and then we sort of do loads of sequencing on it and then sequence these genomes. So no. Unfortunately not.
G: I was on a photo shoot years ago with a wolf and it was like I couldn't believe how big. Because you always see wolves by themselves on the T-shirt. It's just the wolf. In the video it's just the wolf. But then you see one in the room with you and they're just I mean it's like four dogs. They're just massive. It's so cool.
S: So getting back to the frozen specimens though because you said that you were, you would you would get these samples out of permafrost. Is that something that is becoming problematic due to global warming?
B: Yeah right.
S: What we've been hearing is that if you yeah if you want to get your samples from permafrost do it now. Because you don't know how long they're going to be around. How much is that impacting your work?
DS: Yeah. Definitely. I mean more things are becoming available because the permafrost is is melting. So in terms of our research it's obviously it's good because we're getting these samples in but it's kind of terrifying as well because yeah this this process is happening for sure. And it kind of ties in as well to some things you talk about the show sometimes. Sort of bringing back woolly mammoths. And there's people that want to clone those and bring them back to sort of release them into the Siberian permafrost because there's this idea that the trampling effect would kind of compress the ice and reflect the sunlight out and slow the slow the melting. (laughter) I'm not too convincing myself.
E: That seems like yeah farfetched.
S: Yeah it's worth a try and then we get woolly mammoths stomping around.
E: Yey! What could go wrong?
DS: I can't see I know there's research groups saying that they're going to bring woolly mammoth back. I mean I think we're such a long way away from doing that. I do think as well there's a there's a question around to what point sort of what is the point? If we're going to essentially they're going to be genetically engineering elephants to look like woolly mammoths and they're kind of a fraction of the way there. And even if they do get there, they're never going to be behaviorally anything like what a woolly mammoth would have been like. So they're going to be they'd have to be brought up by elephants. So I mean it's an interesting sort of sci-fi endeavor but I don't know what extent it would.
E: Sure just because you can possibly do it doesn't necessarily mean they should do it.
S: But it would it would be cool.
G: Ultimate cost though.
E: Yeah that's true.
S: How different were the wolves of a hundred thousand years ago from now. I mean can can we say from the specimens that we have? Would they be fully recognizable or where we would know like that's an ancient wolf. Like you would know from looking at it that something was different about it.
DS: So they were they were bigger. They had larger, more robust jaws. I think you'd have to be pretty good at identifying wolves to be able to tell the difference just by looking at them. But if you could kind of measure them like that you would be able to tell. Because you can based on the on the fossils. So this kind of led to an idea that there was perhaps a so-called please to seen wolf. Or a cave wolf. Like a distinct wolf lineage that went extinct before the last glacial. And there was a turnover event to the wolves that we have today. Sort of a cryptic extinction if you like. So this is one of the things that we looked at in this paper as well. And the first one of the first results we had was that the wolves before and after the last glacial were very different to each other. And we thought wow okay there was this this turnover event but actually if you look at any point going back in time over the last hundred thousand years you see the same effect. So it's rather than being a distinct turnover event it seems to be a very continuous process. And we found that that was occurring from Siberia and that ancestry was spreading out across the globe very quickly. So this is when I mentioned that we we found that they could move very quickly across their range. They've basically been undergoing a continuous evolution and turnover for a hundred thousand years. Quite a remarkable kind of dynamic going over that across a global scale.
S: Is that mainly because they're just a very successful group? I mean like a pack of wolves just they're very successful hunters and survivors.
DS: Yeah I think that's it. And I think their environment was was much better suited to them in the past. It's obviously a lot warmer now. The climate has changed and humans have encroached a lot so I mean to a wolf in Europe and a wolf in North America. 30 000 years ago they would have been very similar now they're incredibly different things and which is concerning for wolf conservation. But that means you end up getting these distinct populations which wasn't the case in the past.
S: Because they're isolated and previously they were just spreading all over the place.
DS: Exactly. Yeah. So you've got this homogenization process going on in the past whereas now they're isolated and they and they kind of adapt to their local environment much more and so you get these sort of local morpher types they're called sort of local variants.
B: So there's far fewer wolf orgies, is that what you're saying?
DS: (laughs) That's yeah and us we put that in the discussion at the end of the paper as well.
E: A are they considered predator species?
G: That's the Bob footnote.
S: I mean are they considered predator species still are they hunted are there cullings that take place in other words and are there greater efforts now compared to years ago to protect the wolf populations in various places?
DS: Yeah I mean it's very location dependent. And it's a very contentious issue still. They have lots of problems with farmers. And there's certain governments sort of protecting them much better than others. So it really varies depending on where. But different wolf populations have different, there's a lot of them still across the world but there's certain populations are obviously much more isolated and smaller than others.
G: Have you had to deal with any fallout like embargoes in terms of getting samples from Siberia with Russia and what's going on now? Has that affected your research?
DS: This. So this I mean it's going to. Yeah it's certainly going to. This paper was, it was kind of all done and dusted really by the time that this all started but but going forward yeah I mean it's you know it's just a nasty situation and we've got a lot of collaborators in Russia so yeah I mean it makes a very very difficult situation to deal with.
G: Yeah. I bet.
S: Yeah you'd like to think that science could transcend the politics like that's always the the hope but we know that it doesn't quite always do that.
DS: Yeah and certain institutions have been had their employees asked not to collaborate with certain Russian institutions and things. Yeah I mean it's, I wouldn't like to sort of say comment on that really but it's certainly it's just not good. It's just not good for science.
S: That's too bad. All right well Dave it was really fascinating talking with you about this. This is one of the stories that we sort of follow on the show as you probably know. Just the evolution of dogs and how they're changing ideas about it so that the paleogenetics angle is fascinating. Definitely keep us up to date on any future research maybe we'll get you back on the show when you have something else to talk about as well.
DS: Absolutely. Sounds good. Thanks so much for having me on.
B: Thank you.
S: All right take care.
DS: Take care bye.
Science or Fiction (1:33:16)
Theme: Weird Science
Item #1: Shortly after Alfred Wegner proposed his theory of continental drift in 1912, English geologist, Henry Peckingham, proposed that the primary mechanism was the prevailing wind and ocean currents pushing the continents, a theory that enjoyed substantial, although minority, support into the 1930s.
Item #2: Dr. Henry Cotton became the famous superintendent of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital from 1907 to 1933, during which time he and his assistants removed 11,000 teeth and performed 645 surgeries to remove organs in the belief this would cure mental illness.
Item #3: In 1894 Hanns Hörbiger developed his World Ice Doctrine, the notion that ice is the fundamental building block of the universe, a theory that remained popular until 1945, and was even officially adopted by Hitler and his government.
|Fiction||Continents are pushed|
|Science||Removing teeth & organs|
World ice doctrine
|Continents are pushed|
|Continents are pushed|
|Continents are pushed|
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week. The theme is weird science.
E: The movie?
E: Starring Anthony Michael Hall.
S: It's a─
G: Great tune.
S: ─are things these are scientific hypotheses of the past. That might seem a bit quaint today. All right?
E: Oingo Boingo wrote the song by the way.
G: Oingo Boingo heck yeah.
E: Which was Danny Elfman, right?
G: Danny Elfman. Yep yep yep.
B: Yeah man. Danny.
E: So there you go.
B: Nightmare Before Christmas fame and lots of other things.
G: Batman theme. [hums tune]
E: Oh my gosh Elfman's everywhere.
G: He just played Coachella last year. He's─
B: No way.
G: ─he's 63. And he did a Coachella set with a full orchestra and it was amazing. He did like Simpsons stuff, he did movie stuff, he did Oingo Boingo stuff, he did his original stuff. It was so varied and so cool.
S: All right.
E: I think he's from Connecticut too. Okay go Steve. Sorry.
S: Here we go all right. Item #1: Shortly after Alfred Wegner proposed his theory of continental drift in 1912, English geologist, Henry Peckingham, proposed that the primary mechanism was the prevailing wind and ocean currents pushing the continents, a theory that enjoyed substantial, although minority, support into the 1930s. Item #2: Dr. Henry Cotton became the famous superintendent of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital from 1907 to 1933, during which time he and his assistants removed 11,000 teeth and performed 645 surgeries to remove organs in the belief this would cure mental illness. And item #3: In 1894 Hanns Hörbiger developed his World Ice Doctrine, the notion that ice is the fundamental building block of the universe, a theory that remained popular until 1945, and was even officially adopted by Hitler and his government. All right Bob you go first.
B: All right so let's look at winds causing continental drift. All right I'm gonna say flat out that's baloney. The first one. Winds causing continental drift because I don't think that anyone even bought into the idea of drift itself. Let alone alternate mechanisms for it. So I just kind of just that doesn't make any sense. These other ones are wacky too. That one's just removed a lot of teeth and he did surgeries believing it would cure mental illness. Oh boy. And then this ice doctrine. Never even heard of that. Yeah I'll say that I'll say in the continental drift is fiction.
S: Okay. George.
G: Yeah you know what I think I'm gonna agree with Bob. The tooth thing sounds very familiar and seems like one of those whacked out 19th century. Oh yes remove teeth from people and children and animals and replace them with goat testicles or whatever. Like that was that that kind of stuff was so going on. And I think I also have some recollection of this world ice deal going on as well.
G: Yeah I'm gonna go. Yeah. I'm gonna go with Bob and say because it seems like the num- like the dates are wrong. The like you said the continental drift in 1912? Because it was plate tectonics were like 60s-70s. So yeah I'm gonna agree with Bob. Number one is the real fake one. The fake real one.
S: All right and Evan.
E: So what makes these science or fiction statements challenging is that there's a Steve you didn't make these up whole you know out of whole cloth like you do sometimes. They're all based on facts but which one has been, which one has the element within that turns it into the fiction for this particular case because that's what's going on here. You have to figure out what part of it is incorrect. Bob and George think that the wind ocean currents part of it obviously is the fake there. Alfred Wagner obviously the continental drift 1912. Yes. So you have to yeah so you have to know you know you have to know a couple layers into the onion. In order to try to figure it out. And sometimes you do and often you don't and I can't remember if Henry Peckingham proposed that the mechanism was the wind currents or if it was something else that he proposed as the reason for the continent drift. That piece. But I think the rest of it is science. So I have to figure that out. The Henry Cotton one's the one I know probably the least about. The Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. Yes I've heard of the infamy of that. But I had never heard about the teeth and the surgeries. At least not these numbers ever expressed. It does sound like that is crazy enough that that that it did happen. It does sound believable. The one I've heard the most about of the three I think is the world ice doctrine. Definitely was something that Hitler was fascinated by. In fact I think at a certain point there was a concern that the V-2 rocket technology that was that was being developed, Hitler had concerns that the V-2 rockets would fly too high and actually shatter the sphere of ice that supposedly existed around the entire planet.
E: Yeah. Crazy crazy stuff there. So yes it's either the continental drift or the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital for me. It's a guess kind of at this point. All right I'll go with the guys. I think they're on to something here. Yeah the wind and ocean currents so I have a feeling yeah that that's the part of it that's the fiction.
G: Potential sweep. Potential sweep.
S: All right so I'll take these in reverse order and Evan I'll tell you up front that the one that's fiction I did make up out of whole cloth.
E: No seriously? You made up out of whole cloth. Oh gosh.
S: So let's start with the third one.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: In 1894 Hanns Hörbiger developed his World Ice Doctrine, the notion that ice is the fundamental building block of the universe, a theory that remained popular until 1945, and was even officially adopted by Hitler and his government. Yeah Hitler was a kook he believed a lot of weird things. But was this, was this one of them? Well this one is science. This is, you you are correct, this is something that Hitler actually believed. Now the what do you think the big motivation was for Hitler and Himmler and those guys to believe this?
E: Oh because of the gods. The Norse gods or something had something?
S: Well Hanns Hörbiger was Austrian. And they were excited to have an Austrian theory that was that they could say replaces the Jewish theory.
E: Oh yeah the Aryan supremacy of it, right.
S: Albert Einstein.
S: Yeah the Jewish science is not correct we have our Aryan science.
G: [in German accent] It's all ice cubes. It's all ice cubes and snow like my mother.
S: Ice is nice.
G: Oh dummies.
S: And the guy came by this theory like from a dream and it was just like ridiculous. Just made it up. It's just absolutely absurd the idea that this and of course we probably would never have heard of the world ice doctrine because it was immediately rejected by the scientific community as absurd as appropriately so. So what did Hörbiger do? H took it to the public. He tried to sell his theory to the public and then─
G: He went on Joe Rogan.
S: ─yes he did the equivalent going on Joe Rogan at this time. And that gave it legs. And that's how and then once the Nazis got a hold of it that gave it another 10-15 years or whatever of life. So just ridiculous. Just absolutely ridiculous.
E: Yeah crazy stuff.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: Let's go back to #2: Dr. Henry Cotton became the famous superintendent of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital from 1907 to 1933, during which time he and his assistants removed 11,000 teeth and performed 645 surgeries to remove organs in the belief this would cure mental illness. You guys all think this is science. Meaning that this actually happened.
E: Maybe not anymore.
S: And this one is science. You guys got it.
B Yeah baby.
S: And this guy was a wack due. Wack job.
S: He was the head of the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital. He became famous and his services were highly demand. In high demand. And rich people threw boatloads of money at him to remove the teeth from people in their family who had who were "insane". This is a treatment for insanity.
G: Did you watch The Knick on cinemax.
S: I was hoping so you didn't watch the Knick but [inaudible].
G: John Hodgman. John Hodgman played. John Hodgman who was the PC and the PC versus the Mac commercials? He played Henry Cotton. That just that just occurred to me like oh my gosh that was his character. And he messed up that one woman how like teeth was pulled out so awful.
E: Don't people die if they have all? Was it all their teeth got pulled? Of these patients?
S: Cotton claimed an 85% success rate for his procedure. The theory behind this procedure was that focal infections caused insanity. Caused the brain maladies. And if so if a tooth like a tooth was infected you could pull out the tooth and get rid of the infection so just pull them all out just to be safe.
E: Oh my god. And then but he was shocked that that didn't always work and so he hypothesized that it didn't work because the infection had already spread somewhere else. And so maybe it was now sitting in one of the organs inside the body. So then he started removing organs. Like taking out the pancreas and taking out one of the kidneys and whatever. But he was a horrible, not only was he again another whack job horrible clinician who had no respect for his patients and for the Hippocratic oath and whatever. He was just the looney tunes. The notion that this guy became a respected famous psychiatrist at in charge of a hospital just incredible. He was also just a terrible scientist. His records were abysmal. And when there were independent audits of what he was doing first of all he killed fully 30% of his patients. He just killed them with his surgery.
G: (laughs) The good old days.
S: And then he said oh they were weak to begin with.
E: It was the infection.
B: A third.
S: He killed a third of them. But his records didn't when people actually went to his patients to find out what happened his records did not match reality. He claimed that some of his patients were cured that still had the same mental illness they had before they had their teeth pulled out surprisingly. So and then there was this ultimate study where that was done when the board of directors said maybe we should take a look at what this guy's doing. And they they compared his outcomes independently. Verified the outcome of his patients versus standard treatment. And of course the standard of care fared much better. They first of all they didn't die of unnecessary organ removal.
G: Details, details.
S: But also just that they're just whatever mentally they did better, physically they did better. But you would think that would have ended his career. But it didn't. Because they just essentially lost interest and the guy just kept doing what he was doing and getting rich people to come give him money to pull out their teeth.
B: As the head?
B: Oh my god they didn't get rid of him?
S: No he just kept his head down and then they forgot about him. He just kept doing what he was doing and he didn't end until he died in 1933. That's when it ended when the guy died. Unbelievable.
E: What a horror story.
S: What a horror story.
E: That is a horror story.
S: Absolutely. There's so many layers here of horror but it's partly because of just the stigma and and the bias against mental illness at the time. Just they had no advocates. It's just sad.
E: Human tragedy.
Steve Explains Item #1
S: All of this means that.
G: Which means.
S: Shortly after Alfred Wegner proposed his theory of continental drift in 1912, English geologist, Henry Peckingham, proposed that the primary mechanism was the prevailing wind and ocean currents pushing the continents, a theory that enjoyed substantial, although minority, support into the 1930s is complete and utter fiction, however.
E: How it was a complete fiction? It was Alfred Wagner.
S: The only part of it that's real. So but that's not the bit. It just says after Wegner proposes theory of continental drift. That was true. Alfred Wegner did propose the theory of continental drift in 1912. That's correct.
B: But nobody bought it.
E: I remember that.
S: There is no Henry Peckingham. I made him up and the whole notion of like it was the ocean current I made up entirely.
G: Good name.
S: That was a tricky one. I had to come up with something that was just crazy enough that it would be like on the level of the other ones but not so crazy that it would be obvious that this was the fake one. But whatever I guess you guys sniffed it out.
E: Oh boy.
G: Well done. Well done.
S: Yeah I was trying yeah I think maybe I was going to say like the Moon was pulling the continents like I don't know it's not crazy enough. The oceans pushed the continents around.
G: It was ze ice, it was ze ice was pushing ze continets.
S: Not crazier than the Universe is made of ice. I mean come on.
B: Well it is cold everywhere.
E: Yeah. The worlds ice theory is crazy stuff. Crazy land.
S: There's a lot of crazy ideas that were thrown around before the scientific method was fully established. And even the surprising thing about the real ones here is how late they survived.
E: I know.
S: Most of the pseudosciences of like the 19th century survived pretty far into the 20th century.
E: I know it's an overlap of modern science still getting going getting a foothold getting going taking prevalence yet the pseudoscience still [inaudible].
G: The problem being was that you had mass communication with expanding at that time. So you could have a quack who wouldn't be discredited locally. He could just expand his audience through radio, through newsprint, through whatever. And just be it wasn't a guy in a cart going from town to town. Now someone takes out a radio advertisement or uses modern printing for the 1890s or you know teens or whatever. And all of a sudden your audience is that much larger. It's like the same thing that's with the web now. And all of a sudden you can have this garbage that is absolutely useless. And the people that are using it aren't talking to each other. They're not in the same town going hey this tonic doesn't do crap. They're states apart. They're hundreds of miles apart from each other and so that can that can facilitate these quacks just and so of course there's this explosion I mean of quackery combined also with like actual therapies or actual inventions. Like all the electricity stuff that happened right at the turn of the century. Oh electric therapy for this hair loss.
E: Curing hysteria.
G: There's like 2% truth to what's going on but there's this new thing that's unknown whether it's quantum now for us or electricity or radium or whatever. And so those things just explode it's just it's it's such an interesting correlation between the capacity for mass communication and for mass disinformation at the same time. Which you would hope it's the total opposite but it never is.
E: It's no wonder people have confusion over so many things.
S: So I think there's another layer here too George. It's a lot harder to know what isn't true than to know what is true.
S: Takes a lot more knowledge a lot more information like even in medicine we say─
G: Specificity yeah.
S: It's you get to one point where you know what to do but it takes a lot more expertise to know what you don't have to do. Like to confidently know I don't need to do that test. You know it mean? But that's a much later stage of mastery of expertise. So as you think as these sciences just in general were developing. Like we were learning stuff but we didn't know enough to for the institutionally for the scientific community to definitively say no that's not true. We know enough to know that proposal is completely not true. So I think that these things just had way more legs. They survived. And yes the core of signs of the scientific community rejected these things. But like Cotton like there's no way that guy should have existed for 26 years.
G: Yeah that's insane.
S: There's no way that that could've happened.
E: The mechanisms weren't in place to weed out that person stop these crimes.
G: No oversight and then yeah.
S: Even though like with Hörbiger he didn't get acceptance in mainstream science but enough to capture a whole country in terms of belief and to survive again for like 50 years. Think about that. 50 years.
E: Lysenkoism, right?
G: Well again controlling the narrative he gets to have the voice of the governmental communication system so it's like yeah okay this is our thing. Because it's fulfilling this other narrative. It's not again going back to our skepticism thing of like no you can't have the preconceived notion and then fit the fit the theory to fit what you want it to be. It's got to be the other way around.
E: We've talked about Lysenkoism on this show.
G: Heck yeah.
E: Oh my gosh.
S: It's like the poster child.
G: The decadent west.
S: Yeah why politics should not determine science.
E: There you go.
S: You don't get to pick ideologically convenient science. It doesn't work that way.
E: Unless you want to kill lots of people.
S: Yeah they paid the price for it. They absolutely paid the price for it.
E: There's still fallout from it.
S: But again not to say this doesn't all exist today. It does. I mean look at the pandemic. Look at the the interference of political ideology and tribalism and everything in terms of just believing in basic science. And you had a whole political party pushing snake oil.
E: It's so dangerous.
G: How about that weekend everybody? (laughs)
S: It is interesting to look at the long-term arc. Are things really better now than. I mean I think they are but we get all upset about like the level of pseudoscience that we're dealing with today but it's nothing compared to the way things were 100 years ago. I mean everything was pseudoscience 100 years ago. Yu know what I mean? The real science was the voice in the wilderness there.
G: The existence of Cotton shows that you could have institutionalized pseudoscience that could exist in its in a vacuum. And just no one it wasn't affected by anything. There was no mechanism to regulate what this guy was doing. Even internally within the own its own organization. And that that is much less prevalent today. Thankfully.
S: Yeah well they just get they're just more clever about it.
B: Yeah they are.
G: I guess.
B: More nuanced.
G: But he was he was deluded though he wasn't I mean he believed his own stuff.
S: He was deluded absolutely. He was a nut job.
B: The only solace I have over Cotton though is like he's looking down now he's thinking holy crap everyone thinks I'm an asshole. Yes we are. Yes we do.
E: Or looking up Bob.
S: George this guy pulled out the teeth of his own wife and kids.
G: Yeah right. That was a selling point. He would say look I'm doing this to my own family so of course I believe in this. So yeah he's just.
E: That's cult-like behavior right there.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:54:32)
Don't keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!
– Walter Kotschnig (1901-1985), American political expert, from a speech given on November 8, 1939
S: All right Evan give us a quote.
E: George and Bob and Steve I'm going to ask you if you've heard this quote before. Here it is: "Don't keep your minds so open that your brains fall out!"
B: Oh my god.
B: So many times. I mean.
E: Isn't that famous. And to whom do you think that quote is attributed?
S: A lot of people.
G: Many wrong people.
B: Mr. T!
E: But if you want the earliest documented version of the quote which I imagine is about as official as you can get, thank you Tim Farley for doing the research on that, it was spoken by Walter Kotschnig, 1939 in a speech that he was giving. And Walter Kotschnig was an American political expert who was active for several decades as a consultant in US foreign policy and in particular UN bodies. And he may have also borrowed that quote at some point prior to that because there's talk that that quote perhaps was spoken by somebody else. But there's no documented evidence of that. Kotschnig's quote or attribution of it is the documented version. The earliest documented version of it. So he right now gets credit for it. Until they find out that somebody else said it prior to that.
S: Yeah so a lot of quotes are that way where they were bouncing around before it got written down somewhere or somebody said it in public and it's hard to track like who was the originator of it right. And then quotes like that always get attributed to famous people.
E: Yeah right. (laughs) Half the quotes are Mark Twain.
S: Yeah Mark Twain said everything.
E: That's right. Everything's a twainism. It's a great quote though. But right the point is right keep the open mind but don't open it so much that you're going to let in a lot of bad ideas.
S: Or you get rid of your critical thinking. But I think it's more that it's not it's not like yeah I think our minds are completely open. It's not really how much your mind is open.
E: What the filter is.
S: It's a yeah it's that having an open mind I think is a bad cop. I think that true believers use a "open mind" the same way that other true believers use the concept of faith. Like having an open mind is a virtue like having faith is a virtue. And what it really means in practice is believing without thinking.
E: You just have to believe.
S: Without critical thinking. Without any kind of filter. Without any kind of process. It's the opposite of skepticism but it's not but they assume this mantle of having an open mind is a virtue. It's like yeah having a genuinely open mind is a virtue. Skeptics and scientists have a genuinely open mind because we're open to any evidence or any refutation. The true believers, the pseudoscientists, the ones who are most likely to chastise you for not having an open mind have the most closed mind. They are completely closed to the possibility that their crank idea is not correct. They cannot be proven wrong. Like Cotton . Pulling out the teeth didn't work? The infection must have gone somewhere else.
E: That's right. Special pleading.
S: Special pleading absolutely.
E: All the way.
S: No evidence will disprove my theory. Absolutely. They're closed-minded. It's one of the great ironies of skepticism and true belief.
E: Yep. Oh boy.
S: All right thank you all for joining me. George it's good to have you on the show.
B: Yeah George.
E: Yey George.
G: Always nice to be here. Thank you gentlemen. Always a pleasure. Thank you so much.
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 theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to email@example.com. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- SGU Episode 881
- Science-Based Medicine: Possible Universal Coronavirus Vaccine
- Fast Company: UNESCO project aims to digitally preserve Ukraine landmarks facing damage by war
- ScienceDaily: Detecting new particles around black holes with gravitational waves
- NBC: China rejects NASA accusation it will take over the moon
- Nature: Ice Age wolf genomes home in on dog origins
- Popular Science: Ancient wolf DNA is being used to sniff out where our love story with dogs began
- No reference given
- No reference given
- No reference given
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]