SGU Episode 897

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SGU Episode 897
September 17th 2022
897 skulls.jpg

By comparison, Neanderthals needed more brain to control their larger bodies.

SGU 896                      SGU 898

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
Quote of the Week

If I want to know how we learn and remember and represent the world, I will go to psychology and neuroscience.
If I want to know where values come from, I will go to evolutionary biology and neuroscience and psychology, as Hume and Aristotle would have, were they alive.

Patricia Churchland, Canadian-American analytic philosopher

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Show Notes
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Introduction, Black Mirror reflections[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, September 14th, 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone!

S: You know what, guys, I'm rewatching the Black Mirror because I haven't seen most of those episodes since they originally aired.

B: Really?

E: You mean you started at season one, episode one all over again?

S: Yeah. I'm just going through in order.

C: Those are so good.

S: And I forgot most of the details of the episodes, you know? I sort of remember what the episode was about, but don't remember the details. So it's almost like watching it again. So good. It is a brilliant TV series.

J: So you just watched the first season?

S: No. I think I'm in the third season now. I mean, there's not that many episodes, like four episodes a season, so I'm burning my way through.

B: Yeah. There's some good stuff in there, man.

S: Yeah.

B: For sure.

S: Very, very good futurism, actually. Quite good. Even though they're mostly like cautionary tales.

E: Oh. So speaking of cautionary tales.

Cheating at Tournament Chess (1:09)[edit]

S: Yeah.

E: If you're going to enter a chess tournament, okay? Don't cheat. Now, what the heck?

J: Why are you saying that?

E: Where did that come from?

S: Why are you bringing that up, Evan?

E: Because of this particular news item I ran across today. Of course, I'm a gamer, I've been a chess player, I've been in tournaments. So chess is something that's near and dear to me. So when chess pops up in the news, I do pause and I read about it. And in this particular case, this headline, it's the New York Post, so take that for what it is, but it reads: "Huge chess world upset of grandmaster sparks wild claims of cheating — with vibrating sex toy "

B: What a title. I love it.

E: So if that's not click bait, I don't know what it is. (Bob laughs) But here's the thing. The Magnus Carlsen is currently the world's chess champion, he's like a five time world chess champion. He's on a long streak of wins, I believe he had 59 wins coming into a particular tournament in which he was matched up in the first round against the lowest rated player, which obviously makes sense. Highest versus lowest and you meet in the middle and that's usually how the first round works. And he was upset. He was beaten. He was beaten by somebody who's effectively relatively new to the professional chess circuit and tournaments and other things. And it's causing obviously a controversy, a big one in the world of chess. You see, because the person who beat him, his name is Hans Nieman, he admitted to cheating in online tournaments when he was younger.

B: Oh boy, not good for him.

E: Yeah. And so he has this cloud of accusations hovering over him that there is really no plausible way in the world of chess that the lowest rated player can beat the highest rated who happens to be the current grandmaster, world grandmaster, five time world champion in the first round of a tournament like this. Apparently it's so statistically nearly impossible that it likely would not have happened unless there was some kind of cheating. And you add on top of that the fact that this person has admitted to cheating before. He's being questioned by certainly lots of professional organizations about it, this kid Nieman. He has also been banned from, the world's number one chess website because of the accusations.

B: I thought it was

E: I'm sorry, is it or I thought it was And he's been banned from them because of these cheating accusations.

J: Evan. The part that I don't get is you can make the accusation. Well, first of all, I'm very triggery about someone like, I didn't win so therefore it must be cheating, right, because we're seeing that.

E: Yes.

J: Number two, they either caught the guy or they didn't catch the guy. You can't say afterwards.

S: They didn't catch him.

E: They did not catch him.

J: Let's say he had a device on him. Let's say he was cheating, right? They don't catch him during the competition. He gets up, he walks out, he gets rid of anything that could incriminate him. So now they're making an accusation that is virtually unprovable.

S: So what I read, first of all, Carlson, the champion who lost, did not directly accuse him of cheating, but he implied it. He "all but accused him", but he didn't straight up say he cheated. And you're right, Jay, from what I'm reading, we're not experts, but this is an interesting story is that it's all based on plausibility and game analysis. It's based upon what's more likely to be true. There's no direct evidence that he cheated.

B: Yeah. Speaking of game analysis, though, I just read that both, if you look at gameplay, both sides were making mistakes and the author was claiming that, something that would make you think that maybe he really wasn't cheating if he was also making mistakes, which isn't necessarily true because you could just cheat not for every move, but for just some of the critical moves, so you could still make mistakes.

S: So the initial analysis was, when people were watching the game live, if you were listening to the commentary from what I'm reading again, it said that Carlson kind of underestimated. He was like, this is the first round, this is a low strength player. He kind of rushed and that he messed up, he did not play well early in the game, but that he should have still been able to play him to a draw. But then he made a bad move late in the game that Neiman exploited and won. So it just it looked like he choked because he underestimated.

B: Based on what you just said, man.

S: However, once Carlson brought up the possibility that the guy cheated and people analyze the game in detail, some people are saying that Neiman made a clutch, brilliant move really quickly and that that might imply that he cheated, that he was, that there was some sort of guidance. But of course, we don't, this is all─

E: Speculation.

S: ─speculation and probability. It's possible that it was just an upset. The thing is, unusual outcomes are going to occur from time to time. And when they do, you can point to that's an anomaly and therefore there must be something going on. But anomaly should happen pretty regularly. And there are upsets in chess. It does happen.

E: Oh, in all sports. Sure.

S: Sure. So it's not enough to say, oh, this guy should not have won. They would they would need to show evidence that he actually cheated, not although it is interesting to this idea that we can, "prove cheating" to a high degree of probability by analyzing the game. So let me give you an example from a game if you guys remember this. But I can't remember the specific video game, which a lot of our listeners know. But somebody how they do like a you try to run through the game as fast as possible.

B: Yes. I've seen that.

S: Somebody did that in one of the games on the portal, whatever it was, one of the some game where you could play through the beginning to end and broke all records. And I think it was from Minecraft. I think he did a Minecraft run through like faster than anybody else. And somebody calculated the odds of him getting the drops that he got in the game. And it was like astronomical. I just defied all probability. So he said he must have been hacking somehow. He was cheating. That it wasn't just─

B: Based on drops, not speed, but but drops.

E: And when you say drops for people who aren't familiar with Minecraft.

S: So in other words, like you kill a bad guy and he drops treasure and that that drop is random and there's a very hard probability. It's coded into the game. There's a one percent chance that you'll get this drop.

E: Perfect thing.

S: Yeah. So if you calculate the odds of him getting the favorable drops that he got, it defies all. It's like winning a lottery.

C: But somebody always wins the lottery.

E: Well, that's that's kind of the point.

S: It's different. No, but it's different.

B: The numbers are different. It's not 10 million people playing that game.

C: But that's what I'm wondering.

E: But so many attempts at it if it's a large enough number, shouldn't there be?

S: But it wasn't even close. Not that many people do this. Do this like fast running, run through of Minecraft. The probability that somebody doing this, let's say there are thousands of people doing it, whatever. It still is trillions to one against like orders of magnitude off.

E: Trillions is a tough number to overcome.

S: Yeah. It just should not have happened by right by chance because that doesn't mean it's impossible. We're just saying probabilistically it's a huge red flag. It's I think a little bit harder to say that with chess because it's not hard probabilities that you can calculate. It's just like maybe the guy choked and maybe the other guy got lucky or he made a he made a move. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move, but he could have just got lucky. I mean, could have just been.

B: The big thing for me was Steve was when you said that this guy made some bad moves.

S: He did.

B: A bunch of uncharacteristically bad moves. And to me, that really kind of sways it back into this guy's corner, I think, because if he if the champ still played a brilliant game and the guy still took him out, then that would be it would be different.

S: More suspicious. Now, in terms of the cheating. I mean this is why you don't cheat, man, because then your reputation's in the shitter.

B: Yeah.

E: That's right.

S: Then if you do get lucky, no one's going to believe you. But he said and even said, listen, he admitted it. I admitted that I cheated once when I was 12 years old and when I was sixteen years old. He's now 19 years old, but he says, oh, I know he's sorry about those. He's reformed, whatever.

J: So he cheats about every three years. That's what you're saying. (laughter)

S: You can kind of take that for what it's worth. If you were 30, I would say, OK, it was like he was a child and I was. But he's 19. It's still 16 to 19 is a huge deal, but it's not so much time that we could say he's out of the woods in terms of still right bearing the burden of having a reputation of being a cheater. But it's interesting. You could make a case any way you want with something like this. It's all about you.

J: You're missing like a part of this, Steve. Evan, did I hear you correctly? Did you say that they accused him of cheating with a sex toy?

S: Well, that's well, yeah, that where does that detail come from?

E: I'm not one 100% sure where that detail, I think they're saying how could he have possibly cheated using a piece of technology? And this was one scenario. And because it is, because of the nature, the sexual nature of it, it obviously gets a lot of attention more so than perhaps other.

J: But what's the cheat, what sex toy did this guy have that was helping him play chess?

E: Well, according to the accusation, it's something, you anally insert.

C: And how would that help you?

S: And you vibrate Morse code or something?

E: And it vibrates. And it vibrates.

S: Somebody would have had to have been controlling it remotely.

E: Well, yeah, you can, another person or a computer or something else can control the vibration. And use it as a means of communication.

J: That's it's basically a way to send him information remotely.

S: Yes.

E: Correct. Yeah. And that is a known thing in cheating when somebody places a device upon their body and it gives them a shock or a vibrational pulse or something that is very well established that people have done that in the past.

J: Do you think the guy was sitting there playing chess and every like five minutes he'd be like, oh. (laughter)

C: I hope so.

S: Well-disciplined. That sounds awfully like an argument from lack of evidence.

E: There you go.

S: There's no evidence that he cheated. That means he's a really good cheater because he had something in his butt.

B: I love that.

S: But that's not a very compelling argument.

B: But it is technically feasible. You can communicate with very little information. I think it's like three characters, three or four characters for any given chess move. So it wouldn't take, so that that can be done. But yeah. Yeah, you're right.

E: Yeah, that's right. Every piece has a designation, a letter number combination. So very, very easy, like you said, to pass those codes along.

J: Let's follow this. So he had to have a co-conspirator here that was like in the audience pressing─

B: Was it televised?

J: ─the button, he'd have to have somebody like looking up the information and then radioing it to his butt, right?

E: Yeah. So I have to check and I haven't looked for the video. I think it was somehow being televised or was able to be watched in real time. And so, yeah, there would be some sort of─

B: In the audience would be too too risky.

E: ─co-conspirator or with them or something that's or a I don't know if there are automated programs that read the chessboard or it's somehow programmed in or somebody online is putting in the moves and then that is being relayed into whatever device supposedly this thing is can transmit. You're right. It's total speculation and unprovable at this point. And it does smack of kind of sour grapes overall, if you ask me.

J: Evan, Evan, queen to 2D. Oh.

S: Carlson is denying that he accused him of cheating because that I think he knows that is bad for him now, unless you have proof. You don't accuse the other guy of cheating.

J: Have them play five more games. Let's see how this guy does that.

B: It doesn't matter. It's irrelevant.

S: No. That proves nothing. It proves nothing.

J: Why?

[talking over each other]

S: We know that the champion is better than the lowest ranking ranking guy. It's just that did he underestimate him and choke? That's the question. That the other guy get lucky, that's the question. And then nothing will answer that because it's done because the guy's clearly not going to underestimate him a second time. He's going to bring his freaking a game.

E: I played one Grandmaster in my life.

B: Really?

S: How badly did he wipe you?

E: He destroyed me in like nine moves. It was pretty much done.

C: Nine's not bad. You held out for nine moves.

E: It was. It was. Yeah. It was humbling. It was just fun. It was a friend of mine from high school. His father was technically a Grandmaster.

S: I'd just like to be one of those guys. You don't like to have the Grandmaster play 20 people at once. Defeats being one of those people. You're taking up one twentieth of his attention and he's still wiped the board with you.

E: It's humbling.

S: So many moves memorized. They're thinking so many moves ahead.

E: The Korovinsky move from 1947 when he played Stratsky in this game and, really it comes down to that. They analyze they were they you they can memorize all the moves of a particular game from a particular tournament from a particular, year 90 that was played 90 years ago. It's impressive.

S: What's interesting from a skeptical point of view is that so many people now are trying to infer whether or not he cheated based upon circumstantial and tangential evidence and the logical fallacies are flying. The motivated reasoning is flying. So it's interesting to watch that from the sidelines having zero stake in the game. But it's interesting. And if any objective evidence emerges, we'll we'll let you know, because that would be then then you have the hindsight. And we'll look at all those statements and inferences with hindsight. All right. We're going to start off.

Is It Real: Ear Snake (16:08)[edit]

S: Evan, you sent this around. This is a segment. I think we've done this once or twice before. Is it real? Is the segment. Is it real? Have you guys all seen the YouTube video of the ear snake?

B: Oh, yeah.

J: I was going to watch it and then I realized I don't want to see whether it's fake or not. I don't want to see.

B: Oh, my God.

J: A snake come out of somebody's ear.

C: I'm watching it right now.

S: It's a high creep factor. It's like a horror movie.

J: I'm glad I didn't see it.

E: Snakes is a natural fear, Steve, or the brain? We have a disposition towards fear of snakes?

S: Oh, yeah. Primates generally.

E: So right there is the cringe.

B: You don't see it come out, Jay. It's just basically hanging out in the ear with the opening and closing its mouth.

J: I don't like that either.

C: Its head is facing outward.

S: Yeah.

E: It's like a portion of a video, of a longer video, which is cut strategically to only show that there's a head of a snake protruding from a woman's ear and someone with gloves and tweezers is kind of poking it and provoking it into making these mouth gestures.

C: Oh, my gosh. And there's tweets and they're so funny. How did it turn inside? Did it enter from another ear? (laughter)

S: I know.

E: It's crazy.

S: So as a neurologist, I could tell you this is 100% fake. There's just no place for the snake to be. You would be dead. If there was if there was a body attached to that snake head. There's the only place for it to be is in your brain's brain, you're freaking dead if that were real. If that were coming out of a corpse, OK, then there would be some plausibility there. And the other thing is, the doctor is clearly not trying to remove it. If you were trying to remove it, you would freaking remove it. He's just poking it to make it move.

C: He's poking at it. Yeah. There's no species of snake that's just a head, right? That would be the only plausible thing is if there was just a living head of a snake there.

E: Right. My guess is─

B: There's two options. Either CG, which doesn't look CG, but I mean, it's possible.

E: No, it doesn't.

S: It could be. CG.

E: It could be.

B: It could be.

S: It could be animatronic.

E: That's damn good animatronics.

J: Do you consider, Bob, that it was a ghost snake? It would be ethereal. It wouldn't be actually.

E: Bigfoot snake.

S: It's a Bigfoot snake. It's a psychic, ghost, Bigfoot snake from the future.

E: That's the most plausible explanation I've heard yet.

B: Or the most likely explanation, right, we pretty much, most people agree or Snopes agrees or whatever, is that it's just a decapitated snake and they will move for a while, even after decapitation.

S: And that's why he's poking it. Yeah, they cut the snake's head off, stuck it in her ear, and they're poking it to make it move.

E: Okay, so if that's the, ooh, if that's the explanation, I don't know what's worse. The false story or the actual explanation for this thing.

C: Also then, the question with no context, is this real? Yes. There is a decapitated snake head in her ear.

S: Well, it's not real as presented, as a living snake nestled in somebody's ear.

C: And that is what we're supposed to get from it, because the first thing I said was, why is there just a snake head in her ear? Because of course, any reasonable person knows that there's nowhere for the body to go, because your ear canal, how big is your ear canal?

S: It's teeny.

C: I don't know. Like a centimeter or two? An inch max? I don't know.

S: And it's narrow.

C: Yeah. That's what I'm saying. It's short and narrow. There's no, it's stupid.

S: And then there's your cochlea, your inner ear, and then there's your brainstem. There's no place for the snake body to be. So there's clearly no snake body there. That's that we could say for sure. Whether it's CG or a recently decapitated head or whatever, there's no body attached to it. It's an illusion. It's an illusion, right?

C: And even the title of this YouTube video is surgeon in quotes, struggles to remove live snake bones there. It's a surgeon in quotes.

S: Because apparently it started as a clip to Facebook, posted on September 1st by India based social media star named Chandan Singh, of 20,000 followers, whatever. And surgeon, it was written in a foreign language, I can't read it, but the word surgeon was in there. And also in quotes, it says the snake has gone in the ear. So that's why surgeon is quoted the way it is.

S: That guy's not a surgeon. Or if he is, he's not trying to remove that snake skin because if he were, he would freaking remove it. And the other thing is, if he removed the snake, why are we not seeing that portion of the video?

E: Right. Why is it so conveniently cut before you get to see the head pop out or whatever? And after the removal of something other than just poking the snake head. But sitting there and allowing yourself to be used like that for this purpose is─

S: Heroic.

E: ─brave or weird.

S: I've seen people do weirder, grosser things on the internet, so not surprising. All right, let's move on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

What Children Believe (21:18)[edit]

S: Cara, you're going to start us off with what children believe.

C: Yeah. This is one of those, I could approach this two different ways because as I was reading the coverage of this, the headlines made it sound kind of juicy. And then the more I dug into the actual paper, the research study that we're about to talk about, the more I was like, uh-huh, uh-huh, well, duh. And so let's talk a little bit about how this is a well, duh subject, but also why it matters. So an article published in Child Development by some Canadian and I think and U.S. researchers, yeah, University of Toronto and also Harvard, were saying kind of do kids believe everything that they're told? I think any of us, like as you're reading coverage of this, it's really funny to me because you're like, have you ever been around a child? Like yes, kids are gullible, but yes, kids also are explorers. And so the question here, they're observers and they're explorers. So the question here is how do those things converge? I don't think it's really well answered by this study, but let me tell you what they did in the study. So there's sort of two paradigms. In one of the paradigms, it was quite simple. They basically had kids come in and they asked them straightforward questions like, is this rock hard or soft? And the kids were like, well, the rock's hard. All of them said that because these were four to seven-year-olds, by the way, because even a four-year-old knows that a rock is hard. They have seen and felt rocks before. And then they sort of randomized them into groups and in one group they were like, yeah, it's hard. And in the other group they were like, no, this rock is soft. And then the researcher was, oh, quick, I got a phone call, BRB, and left the kids in the room. And so unbeknownst to the kids, they were being videotaped and their exploratory behavior was being observed. And that's really what the study was. What do the kids do after they're told that there's a surprising piece of information that doesn't comport with their preexisting understanding of the world? Kids explored. I mean, what do you expect them to do? I guess you might expect that one or two kids are going to sit there and go, I guess the rock's soft, weird, and like never touched the rock. But most kids did exactly what you would think they would do. They started to observe and explore and see for themselves, see if that adult's claim was real.

J: What age?

C: Four to seven.

J: Yeah, sure.

C: What I love about it, though, because they have to summarize the study exactly, is that in the pretest or in the pre-experimental condition group, so they ask them all, is the rock hard or soft, all the kids said the rock was hard. And then in part of the two different groups, one group, no, the rock is soft. The other group, yeah, you're right, the rock is hard. Most of the kids, it's really funny, they say most but not all of the kids concurred. In the group where they were reinforced that the rock was hard, most but not all of the kids continued to concur that the rock was hard. This is my favorite part of the study. That means at least one child was like, no, the rock's hard. And then the adult goes, yeah, you're right, the rock's hard, and the kid goes, I think it's soft. Which is like, because they had to report it that way, right? They said most, not all. Anyway, that's an aside. So some of the kids said, okay, maybe it is soft. Some of the kids said, no, I think it's hard. But regardless, they went in and they explored for themselves. Then they did another study where they actually kind of compared the differences between the younger group. So they sort of arbitrarily split them after the fact into a four to five-year-old group and then into a six to seven-year-old group. And in that one, they were given the vignettes, specific vignettes. I think they were sort of based on the ideas from this first group. And in those different vignettes, they asked the kids, what do you do if an adult says to you, the sponge is harder than the rock? What do you do if an adult says to you, blah, blah, blah? And so they presented the kids with these vignettes of kind of unbelievable claims or claims that shouldn't compute for them because they're between the ages of four and seven and are old enough to know that a sponge is soft and a rock is hard. And what they found was that the older group kind of identified strategies that were more specific and more efficient. So the older group would say things like, they should touch the sponge and they should touch the rock and compare them. And the younger group was less likely to have, I guess, a more sophisticated approach to that problem solving. This is being reported all over the place. And basically, the quote that a lot of people are citing is from one of the researchers that says, there's still a lot we don't know. This is a senior author from the Toronto Lab. It's called the Child Lab. But "What's clear is that children don't believe everything they're told. They think about what they've been told, and if they're skeptical, they seek out additional information that could confirm or disconfirm it." And I think for me, this is the like, well, duh, haven't you ever been around a child situation? Because children aren't completely naive to the world by the time they're four. They've lived for four years, and they've made their own observations. And so Steve, you wrote this up, and you took sort of the study, and you said, well, let's think broader. Because of course, the findings, the outcome findings of the study are not surprising.

S: It's pretty narrow and not surprising, yeah.

C: It's super narrow. It's really trying to test, are kids ultra gullible? And it's like, well, yeah, sometimes they are, but obviously, sometimes they're not. And then the bigger question is, do kids believe everything they're told by adults, kind of when does that start to change? And sort of what are the factors, I think, that are involved here? If the paradigm had been something that was a little bit vaguer or harder to confirm, we may have seen a different outcome. Very often, we're running into claims that we can't confirm ourselves, that we have to confirm by figuring out who are the experts? What are they saying?Is there a consensus? And this skill is not the skill that the study looked at at all. This study looked at very basic scientific reasoning skills. And so, I'm a little, the headline's fine. Children don't believe everything they're told, well, again, duh. Or children as, it's hard to lie to children according to scientists, that one's a stretch for me. Not liking that headline. It's hard to lie to children about things that they can directly observe themselves. They said an adult, an authority figure is telling them something. But whether the child agreed or not, the child then explored to try and test that observation for themselves. And I think that is a fundamentally important aspect of this study. But I don't think there's a lot of inferences that you can draw from it about how to develop really strong critical thinking skills later in life.

S: Yeah, this one study is such a tiny slice. You have to look at it in the context of so much of the research. I didn't talk about it in my write-up, though, but we also, there's also research looking at if an adult tells a child, gives them a toy and shows them how to use the toy, the child will use the toy in the way that they were shown, even if it's a very narrow, simplistic way of using the toy. If they're given the toy with no direction, they will be more creative and they'll explore and they'll use it in different ways and they'll try out different things. So one factor is does it contradict or conflict with things they already know or are they being told information in a vacuum? And also, as you say, is it part of, like, are they being told, this is part of our identity of who we are, right? Obviously, parents convey religious beliefs to children and children believe them. Most people have the religious faith that they were raised in.

C: And that's one of those things that you can't just turn around and observe for yourself.

S: Yeah, you can't say, is god there? There's nothing you can do to test that. But what's interesting about testing kids, first of all, it's interesting to say, when do certain modules engage?

C: Develop.

S: When do they start to do things? And you can see how they get more sophisticated and nuanced and how they approach things. But also, there is this question about like whether or not children are more curious and more sort of questioning younger, and then it gets beaten out of them by the desire to conform to society.

C: Right. And is there something almost bimodal there, right? Where when they're so young, they believe everything they're told because they don't have context and they don't have anything to connect it to. And they have no reason to question. And then as they get older, they start to be more questioning. And then as they get even older, still, they want to conform and belong because the idea of social in-group, out-group status becomes more salient to them. Perhaps it does kind of follow that to some extent. I think creativity is the same way. Creativity, I mean, it's interesting, you were talking about the research about giving a child a toy. And this is maybe a little bit of a departure. But I worked with a professor who was like fascinated by creativity research. And I hated it because I was like, how do you define that? Oh, my gosh. It's so vague. It's all over the place. And they often talked about, give a child anything, a piece of equipment, a paperclip, and have them list all the things it can be. And for me, I would get frustrated when people would say it's super creative if they just made a list of things that it could never be. But creativity seemed really in that sweet spot when they would think of things that were outside of the box, but they still used some amount of constraint. Like a paperclip can't be an airplane. It just can't. But it can be this, this, this, and this. And maybe those are things you wouldn't think of if you're always thinking inside the box. And so there does seem to be some amount of developmental correlation there, right? The older that you get, the more constrained your thinking becomes. And so it is that sort of the more conformist you are, the more it's being beaten out of you. But I think that also comes not just with age, but it comes with the amount of time you spend in a certain paradigm as well. Because you see this a lot with people who work in a certain field being brought into another field to try to solve problems in that field. And it's amazing what happens where they're like well, did you try this? And people are, oh, my god, how have we none of us have ever thought of that before. Because that's not how you were trained to think.

E: Fresh set of eyes almost. Fresh approach to it.

S: I always think of the fact that the Iceman, they didn't know how he died. And meanwhile, there's an arrowhead clearly visible on the X-ray in his chest that they looked at for years and didn't see it because they weren't looking for it.

E: No, no. They kept saying, wow, what is this arrow pointing to? It must be a clue as to what might have killed him.

S: Someone's like, hey, what's that arrowhead? You know, whatever.

E: Or what's the other one, the gorilla and the scan of the monkey in the brain?

S: They did a research study where they showed radiologists a CT scan of the chest. And they said, tell us what pathology you see there. And there was literally a gorilla in the middle of the chest.

E: And nobody found it.

C: Oh, that's great.

S: Not nobody. It's like a large percentage of them didn't see it because, of course, they're not looking for it. They're looking for what they know to be pathology.

C: There's a classic psych experiment that you can Google it. You can watch the video. It's a super classic video where they tell people, count how many times the ball is passed. And it's a really complex video where basketball is being passed amongst a lot of people. You really have to focus to count the passes. And while focusing on it, it's inattentional blindness. That's the phenomenon that they're highlighting. While you're focusing on the ball, you literally don't see the gorilla walk completely through the scene.

E: It's amazing.

C: It's amazing. And professors love to show this to first-year psych students and go, anybody notice anything weird about the video? It's pretty cool how many people are like, what do you mean?

S: About 30% see it, 30% or 40%.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah. But that's why they used a gorilla in the x-ray study.

C: Yeah. Because it was like a nod.

S: An homage to that original gorilla video. Yeah. Fascinating.

[commercial brake]

Health Effects of Gas Stoves (35:18)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Jay, is my gas stove slowly killing me?

C: It is, isn't it, Jay?

E: Check the gas.

J: Do you hear it moving around the house at night when you're in bed?

S: Is that what it is? Is that my noise?

J: Yeah, the question is, is having a gas stove in your house dangerous to your health? Yeah, unfortunately, we've known this for a while, but recent research strongly suggests the answer is yes. Gas stoves are considered, this is my opinion, but lots of people feel this way. Gas stoves are considered the best of all versions of stoves out there.

C: Disagree. Induction.

J: I'll explain to you right now why I like it better than induction. Because you have more control over the temperature because I can visually tell what my, once you learn your stove, I can visually tell where it's at just by looking at the flame.

C: You think you have more control because you can visually see the flame height once you get used to it as opposed to being able to dial in a digital display? Of course you have more control when you're using technology.

J: Yeah, but this is gas.

C: (laughs) I love you, Jay. You don't have more control. You just think you do.

J: It's also instant heat.

C: You like the flame go vroom, vroom, vroom.

J: You don't have to wait for it to heat up, which is another thing that I like about it.

C: Induction is instant. It boils water in 90 seconds. It's true. I have one. Look into it. It's amazing.

J: You never have invited me over to show me. You've never done this.

C: I know. Sorry. Sorry.

J: See? You're talking like we hang out.

S: Induction can be very fast. The one thing I don't like about induction is that you have to use special pottery.

C: Not special, just magnetic. So long as everything's magnetic. And yes, okay.

S: So that's special.

C: Go through your cookware.

S: You can't use all your cookware. You got to now have all cookware that's consistent with the induction.

J: Cara, this is a good throw down. We should have George make this a throw down for the Excavator.

C: We should have. Oh, it'd be great. I just can hear the sounds of all of the European listeners nodding their heads vigorously because for some reason it's so caught on in Europe and like here in the U.S. induction is really rare. Anyway, I will not continue to fight for induction.

S: I have an induction stove top. I have a gas stove, but I have an induction plate.

C: Oh yeah, that's not uncommon to have like that, the hybrid kind of thing.

E: Oh, so you have a hybrid.

J: Let's circle it back. So the important topic here tonight is whether or not the gas debate will put down for a little bit. The question is, does it pollute the air in your home? And the answer is yes. Let's get into the details. Gas stoves give off nitrogen dioxide when combustion happens and nitrogen dioxide exposure in the home is associated with an increase in asthma symptoms. Also it's associated with a higher level of use of something called a rescue inhaler for children, right? So that's doing things to people's lungs. So that's bad. And as far as asthmatic adults go, they're affected as well. And breathing in nitrogen dioxide increases the occurrences or worsening of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. So you know, that's not good. Definitely not good. Keep in mind that nitrogen dioxide can come from the outdoors as well, right guys? It's not just coming from your stove. People who live near busy roads, they're exposed to higher levels as well. Indoor emissions of nitrogen dioxide are typically greater than outdoor sources though. And this is important. For example, during times when people cook. It's dinnertime and you get in there and you start turning the oven on, you're cooking. We call this peak exposure and half of those people that are cooking are exposed to higher levels than what health standards suggest that we should be exposed to. That's not good. That's a lot of people. The obvious question is how could one stove expose you to more nitrogen dioxide than all of the cars that are driving around where you live? And the simple answer is that there is a significant amount of air outside compared to the air you have inside your home. All of that pollution outside is dramatically diluted in the unbelievable amount of air that exists outside. But when you're inside your house, you have a very small amount of air. And when that air gets polluted in any way, it's significant, and it can stay in your house. So another factor to consider is that the layout of a home also impacts your exposure. So things like a stove exhaust, if you have a range hood with a vent on it, if these vent outside, I'm not talking about the microwave one, which just blows air, away from the stove, it has to vent outside. Or if you happen to have a well ventilated home or even a larger home that has a lot more airspace in it, this could help limit your exposure to what's being what's coming out of your your stove. So a lot has to do with air circulation. If your kitchen is in a small, non ventilated area. This is very typical in apartments or if you're living in a city, for example, you're in a small apartment, the kitchen could be in a little, galley way. That's very bad. This is very, very, very likely you'll get greater exposure than a kitchen where the air in the kitchen can mix with, the living room and dining room or like an open kind of thing. I have I have that kind of layout in my house where there's not a lot of walls. It's just connected rooms that are open for the most part. And that happens to be better because then the air in your kitchen will mix with the other air and it dilutes down all all of the toxins. So simply opening a kitchen window can dramatically decrease the amount of nitrogen dioxide exposure that you have in your kitchen. So keep that in mind just crack open a window, get it open or have a fan sucking air out while you're cooking that that can make a big difference. All right. Now, let's get to the part where things get a little troublesome. Even when your stove is off, you could be exposed to pollutants that can affect your health. That sucks. So a study conducted this year concluded that stoves that are not currently in use emit a colorless, odorless gas, also known as methane. Methane is a major component of natural gas. A study conducted this year estimated that gas stoves in the United States emitted enough methane equal to about four hundred thousand cars in the same time frame. That's bad. Now, this is we're talking about little leaks here, like many methane leaks found in the home go undetected because it's just a tiny little bit of methane. But there happens to be a lot of people. So you add up that methane. I mean, I remember the few times I lived in Manhattan two times in my life and so many times while living in Manhattan, you smell natural gas. Walking by a building, you smell natural gas. That's because that building was built a hundred years ago. And the pipes that they use to carry the natural gas to the stoves is old and they leak and you're just smelling it. You go into an apartment building and you're smelling natural gas the whole time you're there. It's just natural gas.

S: And just to be pedantic, the the odors put in the gas, the gas itself is odorless, as you said. They actually they put a chemical in the natural gas so that it does smell so that you can detect it. You know, because otherwise it would be odorless.

J: That's right, Steven. That's very important. And a lot of gas leaks are found that way. But sometimes that smell is not strong enough and people can't detect small leaks. Because if you have a very small leak, you're not going to be able to detect that smell even though it's there. Another study found that five percent of homes that had an active natural gas leak significant enough to require repair went undetected. That five percent is significant. Did you know that benzene is also present in natural gas and it causes cancer? So one of the worst case scenarios is to be in a poorly ventilated home that has a natural gas leak because you're just breathing this in all the time. It's there. It's just this leak is constantly putting out this gas 24 hours a day. It's not just when you cook. It's just happening all the time. Now, I'm not saying that you need to get rid of your gas stove. It wouldn't be a bad idea, but you don't really need to do it. There's some things you could do. My wife and I just got a new stove about a year ago, and I am absolutely not going to get rid of that magical box that I now have in my kitchen because I adore this stove. But that's just me. What should you do if you have a gas stove in your home? Well it's it's not a bad idea to improve the overall ventilation in your house, open windows, particularly when you're cooking. Use your kitchen ventilation over your stove if you have it. That that can help a lot. And if you have someone in your home that does have some type of breathing condition, then it very well might be a good idea for you to get rid of your gas stove and go with a magnetic inductive stove, Cara. All right.

C: Thank you.

J: I said I said it. Cara, you live in the United States, correct?

C: I do. I live in Fort Lauderdale now.

J: That's right. You moved to Florida for your internship. Well, if you live in the United States, I'm sure other countries have incentives as well. But specifically in the United States, if you look into the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 that Biden passed recently, this offers rebates if you purchase certain high efficiency electric appliances for your home so you can get a break on the cost of some non gas appliances, which is a good idea.

S: But I sort of put the gas stove thing into a little bit of perspective as well. Everything you're saying is true, but the relative risk here is actually fairly small in terms of like the asthma risk. And if you don't have asthma or somebody in the in the home with asthma, I haven't seen any data saying there's any other health risk, asthma and COPD - chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. You also have to put it into the context of the fact that there's lots of other pollutants in the home, pet dander, candles, your fireplace, insects, basically they leave their bits themselves all over the place.

B: Flatulence.

S: Dust, flatulence, especially in Jay's home. So there's lots of sources of pollutants inside the home. It's not like if you get rid of your gas stove, your home, the air inside your home is going to be magically perfect. The best thing to do for all of those things is to have good ventilation. Just think like we ventilate our home whenever we can, like whenever the weather is permitting, we try to have as much ventilation going through the home as we possibly can. Especially in the downstairs kitchen area. So that's a good idea. You could run a fan, you know, which should be pointed at an open window just to get the air circulating. It's got to go outside the house, just moving air around inside the house. You can have a HEPA air filtration system with a HEPA filter, the HEPA carbon filter. So that would be another way to remove particulate matter and certain contaminants from the air in your home. So those are all, those are all good ideas. Just good ventilation, especially around your kitchen, especially when you're cooking is probably the best thing to do. I think if you have a choice between a gas stove and a not a gas stove, whether it's electric or induction, there's a lot of reasons to not choose the gas stove because of the methane issue, not just the pollutants inside your house, but also contributes to global warming. So we're trying to minimize the amount of natural gas we're pumping around. There's basically a certain amount of a minimal amount of leak leakage that happens in the system. And it's significant. It's a significant contributor to global warming that's up absolutely. Okay, let's move on.

Neanderthal Brains (46:55)[edit]

S: What do you guys know about Neanderthal brains? Let me ask you a basic question.

E: A bit rubbery.

S: Do you think that Neanderthals were smarter, as smart or not as smart as modern humans?

J: Well, I think the knee jerk reaction would be not as smart, but I've lately been leaning towards pretty much just as smart.

C: I mean, we were having sex with them. Something about them that I mean, they couldn't have been significantly different cognitively from us.

J: When you say we care, what do you mean by that?

C: Human being, homo sapiens.

J: A long time ago, like you're not something you want to tell us?

C: Well, I mean, there are no I mean, the more interesting aspect of that would be if there were a Neanderthal among us [inaudible].

J: That would be awesome. Whoever that person was would be, there'd be so famous.

S: Peaople would have sex with anything.

C: Exactly.

E: Is there a chance one of us has some Neanderthal DNA?

S: We all do.

E: Yes. All right. So hey, five Neanderthals.

S: 2-4%, depending on where you come from. Europeans have the most around more like 4%. All right. So Neanderthals as a species officially lived from about 400 000 years ago to 40 000 years ago. They are extinct. There's been a little bit of a controversy about whether or not humans and Neanderthals are subspecies that like homo sapiens, Neanderthal lenses, but I think the current consensus is that they're a distinct species from homo sapiens, which is modern humans. There's also and also just this is not a scientific controversy, but just a lot of people might be confused about the fact that we did not evolve from Neanderthals. Neanderthals and modern humans have a common ancestor. And that common ancestor is is about 700 000 years ago. Probably something related to homo heidelbergensis was our common ancestor. And now there's also the Denisovans who are very close to Neanderthals, but they're recognized as a separate branch. That's basically like Asian Neanderthals were the Denisovans.

B: Cool.

S: Yeah. So there's probably a lot more nuance that will come to light as we find more specimens. Neanderthals were Ice Age adapted. They were more robust than modern humans. So they were they had bigger, thicker bones, heavier muscles. So on average, their brains were a little bigger than homo sapiens brains. But if you take the ratio to body size, they're basically the same. So they're a little bit bigger, but they were a little bit bigger.

B: But how many data points do we have?

'S: We have quite a few.

C: We have a lot.

S: We have quite a few Neanderthal skulls.

B: Enough to say that on average, it's a little bit bigger.

S: Yeah, we do. And if you look at the skull, so if you just look at a human skull and look at and look at Neanderthal, like adult Neanderthal skull, you could see they're just everything is big. You could say that looks like their brain should be bigger. But in any case, it's proportional to their overall robustness. So that doesn't necessarily mean that they're more encephalized [v 1] than humans are. So from that point of view, we could say, yeah, there are very closely, they're like the most closely related species to homo sapiens. Their brains were basically the same size as ours. They can't be that different, from ours. So maybe they were the same. So how could we know. How could we know? We don't have Neanderthals. We can't give them IQ tests or whatever. We can't figure out, evaluate their neurological or cognitive functions. We have to infer it from indirect evidence. So the two basic kinds of indirect evidence we have are one, biological and two, cultural. So the cultural evidence is basically, well, what did they do? What did they leave behind in terms of their toolkit? Did they have any art? How sophisticated was their culture? How sophisticated was their language? And what can we infer from that? The problem with that line of evidence is we don't know how much is biological potential and how much is just culture. You know what I mean? Would a Neanderthal raised in modern human culture be just as smart as a homo sapiens? We don't know. That'd be obviously very, very interesting, but we don't know that. But we do know that their toolkit was not as sophisticated as homo sapiens. Homo sapiens stone tools were more delicate, were harder to make. They had longer blades with more cutting edge. They had way more variety.

B: That's it. We win. Done.

S: Well, it's just, but the Neanderthal tools worked really well. And in some ways, for some applications, they were superior to the more delicate tools, but still there are a lot of paleontologists do infer from that. There's evidence of greater tool making skill among.

E: Any cave paintings we can look at? Anything like that?

S: So for a while the evidence was homo sapiens had art cave paintings and there was no evidence of any artistic creations among Neanderthals. But more recently they have been discovered. So the very first cave paintings were actually Neanderthal. But definitely there is more types of art, way more production of art among homo sapiens than homo neanderthalensis, but it's not an absolute difference now. It's just a relative difference. There is no evidence that Neanderthals developed ever developed written language. And of course, homo sapiens did. And we also have to point out that Neanderthal culture was completely unchanged over 400,000 years. It was pretty much what it was, you know, they sort of developed their toolkit early on and that was it.

J: Do we have DNA, Steve?

S: Yes, we do. So you're getting to the second line of evidence, which is the biological evidence, and so one is we could look at their their brain cavities and not just that sheer size, but we could say, well, we can infer something about, the anatomy, the gross anatomy of the brain from the shape of the skull. And there are some studies which show that Neanderthal brains were bigger in the parts of the brain that had to deal with motor and sensory function and not as big in the parts of the brain that had to do with like the higher cortical function.

B: Kind of makes snse.

S: So their frontal lobes weren't as developed as homo sapiens and more of their brain tissue is probably dedicated to motor and sensory function, which also goes along with the they were physically more robust. They needed more brain just to map to that bigger body.

B: But did their brains pulsate?

J: You bastard.

S: Yeah, they probably did pulsate. I think they pulsated even more than homo sapiens. Now, Jay, you bring up the genetic evidence. That's the latest evidence because we do have a lot of DNA evidence now from Neanderthals and Denisovans. And there was the reason for the actual news item here is a recent study looking at a particular protein called the TKTL1 protein.

E: TK421, why aren't you at your post?

S: TKTL1. And modern humans have a different version of this protein than Neanderthals. And the version that modern humans have when they look at it in the effect that it has on brain development is correlates with greater neurone genesis, especially in the frontal cortex, which then goes along with the brain anatomy evidence. So probably homo sapiens have greater neuronal density than the Neanderthals, especially in the frontal lobes, which is where all the action is in terms of the higher cortical function. So the brain anatomy and the genetic evidence is pointing back in the direction of, OK, we probably were smarter than the Neanderthals when it comes to higher cognitive function.

E: We can resort to the old tropes then.

S: In much less time, we developed cars and the computer and the Neanderthals over a few hundred thousand years didn't get beyond their starting toolkit. But again, is that because one genius kicked it off? It's hard to say how much of this is cultural contingency rather than biological destiny. And sort of uncomfortable with the notion that this is sort of biological destiny. But even still, there's multiple lines of evidence now to suggest that homo sapiens did probably have greater neuronal density and greater size of their frontal lobes and their higher neocortex, like the executive function, the highest level of cortical function, the cognitive function.

B: So they would have won all the gold medals, but we would have won all the Nobel Prizes.

S: We would have won the chess games.

E: Unless they cheated.

J: I saw a video where they were showing a Neanderthal and like it dislocated a couple of fingers on its hand and it literally just popped them back out and put it back like it was nothing. I don't know how accurate that is.

S: I have no idea where they would get that information.

J: I agree with you. But I guess they were trying to express how physically tough they were.

C: But how could they even know that?

E: Yeah, but a human could effectively do the same thing ignore that pain and fix themselves like that.

S: But unfortunately, we only have one data point. We only know how history played itself out one time and we have to infer a lot from that. You wonder how is it possible that a genius Neanderthal would have been born that could have kicked off agriculture and then once that happens, all of modern society eventually unfolds from that, or did Homo sapiens really just tick over the neurological threshold necessary to have a technological civilization? And is it that close? Is it really that fine that Neanderthals could never develop technology and we did or it's just interesting to think about that because we really don't know.

B: Could DNA last 40,000 years?

S: Yeah. We have DNA from Neanderthals. Absolutely.

B: I mean, how much? How much of a genome?

S: We've pretty much sequenced their genome at this point.

B: Well, crap, man. That's it. One day we'll make one.

S: Well, yeah. Now, that's ethically complicated.

B: Not at all. Not at all.

E: What I suggest, Bob, instead is we allow AI to help us make certain inferences, play out various scenarios using what? Computer modeling.

B: Oh, yeah. We could simulate one.

E: That would say, give you, okay, we did this 8 million times, ran it through our systems, and in all these scenarios, in every scenario, Neanderthal didn't, did not emerge.

S: That's hard to simulate convincingly by, yeah.

E: I'm not saying it's going to happen in five to 10 years, but.

S: Computer simulations will help inform that as well at some point, absolutely. And we may be able to, with enough genetic information, imagine making a Neanderthal brain in silicon, basically an Android Neanderthal brain, and then we can test it, and see what its limits were, but as long as the model is accurate enough. But I find all this extremely fascinating.

J: Yeah, it's awesome.

E: First question we'll ask it. How are you? I dislocated my finger.

Synthetic Microbiome (58:43)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, you're going to give us an update on synthetic microbiology.

B: Researchers have created the most sophisticated synthetic microbiome yet with over 100 species of bacteria, and they've tested it inside very special mice. So why would they do such a thing, and what makes the mice so special? If you want to find out, listen, or just go right to Cell, which was published on September 6th of this year. Author of the study was Michael Fischbach, he was associate professor of bioengineering microbiology and immunology at Stanford's Sarafan ChEM-H. Interesting place, Sarafan ChEM-H. Okay, so if we learn anything about the hundreds of species of bacteria in our digestive systems or our gut microbiome, it's that not only do they help us digest otherwise indigestible food, but recent decades have clearly shown that they've got a connection to many of the scourges of the day, obesity, depression, anxiety, Parkinson's, the list goes on and on. There's some major connection going on there, it seems. So the potential benefits from fully understanding our gut microbiome seems as great as the complexity of these bacterial ecosystems that we've evolved in partnership with. Up until now, if you wanted to study our microbiome, it involved words that probably dramatically change the expression on your face every time you hear them. Fecal transplants.

E: We've talked about those. So that technique essentially just drops in the entire gut microbiome of one organism into another, the whole thing, tweaking it and then learning from such a transplant though is pretty much doesn't happen. Since there's really just no tools now that would allow researchers to edit any of those fecal bacterial species, it's a real shitty problem. Come on, I just had to get it out of the way. So author of the study, Michael Fishback said: "So much of what we know about biology, we would not know if it weren't for the ability to manipulate complex biological systems piecewise. That's exactly what we cannot do with fecal transplants." So their solution was to just build a microbiome from scratch, which sounds hard, but is actually in reality still hard. (laughter) All the bacteria had to do two critical things or it wasn't going to happen. They had to get along with each other without one or two of them just taking over. Imagine you throw a hundred bacteria into one's place and it's like one or two of them just like, that's it, we're kings and they just dominate and take it all over. They also had to actually be functional. Like a natural microbiome, they actually had to perform some of the functions that our biome does, otherwise what's the point? So now they couldn't use a natural microbiome as a template because there is no real template out there. If you take two random people, they only share about 50% of the bacterial genes. Now of course, the closer you are genetically and I guess location wise, I think that increases the similarity. Like Steve and I probably share 80 or 90%. I would be my guess, I have no idea, but I would guess it'd be more than 50%. So the researchers compromised on using a hundred strains of bacteria that 20% of all people share. So then of course they had to do it right. They didn't just take them and throw them together. They grew them individually and then mix them together and they called it Human Community 1 or HCOM1, which I guess is a decent, it's okay. I've heard worse, but I think we could have come up with something better. Okay, so they then tested this community in that special mice that I was talking about. Now these mice were bred to be literally germ free. I mean, amazing. Imagine that, no gut bacteria at all. So they basically implanted HCOM1 into these special mice and they found that 98% of the HCOM bacterial species colonized and stayed stable and balanced over two months, which is pretty sweet. But they really were just getting started though, nowhere near the end. Next was the stage to make HCOM more robust. So to do that, they took advantage of a theory, interesting theory called colonization resistance. So that means if I, for example, say distracted Jay and introduced a new bacterium into his established colony, that bacterium would survive only if it fills an unoccupied niche. So that's the essence of colonization resistance, but not Jay, it's just the idea that if you introduce a bacterium into a colony, it's not going to get a job unless it fills a job that is not currently being taken. For the second part, they introduced to HCOM1 in a mouse, an entire human fecal microbiome. So they have the mouse, they have HCOM1 already in there and established, and then they throw at it, bam, here's a fecal microbiome, which is the entire suite, right, A to Z. And a lot of people thought that, what do you think would happen? I mean, just a gut feeling, so to speak, what do you think would happen? It seems, I agree with a lot of the scientists who thought that, hey, this fecal microbiome has been around for a long time. This one specifically was 10 years. It was an established colony of bacteria for 10 years and they put it up against this HCOM1, which has just been inside this mouse for three weeks. So a lot of the scientists thought that the fecal bacteria would just decimate them, but that's not what happened. HCOM1 had girded its loins─

C: Ew.

B: ─and survived, it totally survived, but the resulting new community now had 10% of its constituents from the fecal transplant. So then of course, the obvious implication there then is that the fecal bacteria filled roles in HCOM1 that were not yet filled yet by other bacteria per the colonization resistance theory. So they then individually, of course, now they had to start from scratch. Now they learned something about what new bacteria were needed, were important, so they individually grew the now 120 bacterial species. They regrew the community and put them together and then they renamed it. Because you got to rename it at this point because it's kind of new. They called it, of course, HCOM2, which was now much more resistant to any more attempts at shitty interference. So they, all right, so then they weren't even done there. Then they tested HCOM2 against E. coli, an E. coli infection, and showed that the synthetic microbiome resisted infection just like a natural one does. So that's great news, but now what, okay, what's the next step? Okay, so in the future, what they want to do is, and of course, this makes perfect sense, they want to more fully take advantage of this new research paradigm because now we can tweak, think about it. They can now add or delete the individual components of an engineered microbiome to learn who does what. So first up, what they want to do is they want to identify the critical bacteria that confer the observed infection resistance that they saw, and perhaps they can make it even better. And then after that, they may do the same for those strains that may now, that may show at some point immunotherapy response, for example. So you can kind of see, all right, it's doing A, so let's find out which specific bacteria of these 120 bacteria are filling these roles, and they could find out, which bacteria, all the roles that they play and how they interact, pretty amazing. So engineered microbiomes certainly seem to have an amazing potential, in my eyes anyway, for therapeutic interventions to enhance health and treat disease. The deeper future of this technology's potential, it seems like right out of a sci-fi movie.

J: Like what?

B: Imagine, what could an engineered gut microbiome do if the bacteria themselves were engineered? So you're not just tweaking the constituents of the microbiome. You're also, imagine at some point, and we're doing this now where we're taking individual bacterium, and tweaking it genetically to be even more efficient or whatever at what it does. Or how about altering, fundamentally altering the DNA, changing the base pairs and using things that just aren't found in nature and then sticking that into a microbiome. I mean, I'm really going many decades in the future where, we could really tweak the crap out of this. It's really fascinating to think what could be possible, but even beyond our own personal gut microbiome, looking non-selfishly outward, we could have engineered biomes that could dramatically impact environmental preservation and restoration. We could tweak oceanic biomes that can mitigate microplastics pollution and on and on. It's really interesting to think at where this could be even five, 10 years or 30, 40 years, this could be really, make some dramatic changes, not only to our health and the treatment of disease, but also the environment itself as well.

J: Sounds like we need it today, Bob.

B: Tell me about it, dude.

S: This is potentially a really big, big step.

B: Oh yeah.

S: Essentially, now that we have like a starter microbiome ecosystem, because it's─

B: Exactly.

S: ─why the whole probiotic thing, it's like, oh, you're going to take some, one or two or three different bacteria and, and add that to your ecosystem. It does nothing. As you say if you have a stable, complete ecosystem, adding something new, isn't going to do anything. Mark Chrysler made an analogy it's like planting rows of corn in the rainforest. It's not going to do anything. It's not going to affect the ecosystem.

B: Nice analogy.

S: Here we have a good, you have a complete ecosystem as a starting point and now we could endlessly tweak it. And as you say, like this could be a platform for like a totally new therapeutic paradigm. People have been researching this for the last 20 years or so, but they haven't really been making any headway because again, they're trying to, add one or two bacteria. But here, if they could say, all right, we're going to replace this ecosystem with an alternate gut ecosystem, one that will reduce inflammation or will reduce depression or will, will cause you to have to be, have better weight control or whatever it is, or all kinds of things that theoretically it could affect. Or maybe just get rid of that excessive flatulence that you have or whatever. But I do think it's going to be 20, 30 years before we see like the real, the real therapeutic applications emerging.

E: Just saying, we'll have to give you an update on episode 2,374 at that point.

C: Oh my god.

E: Right Cara? But first, what's the word from Cara gentrification.

J: Cara will be done with her internship by then.

S: That's right.

C: Hopefully.

UFO Videos Classified (1:10:03)[edit]

S: Evan, tell us about the latest on these Pentagon UFO videos.

E: Yeah. There's some new news about this. I first read about this at The article was authored by Jason Kobler and the news story headline is this Navy Says All UFO Videos Classified, Releasing Them ‘Will Harm National Security’.

B: Oh my God.

E: The US Navy. First paragraph. US Navy says that releasing any additional UFO videos would harm national security and told the government transparency website. We'll talk about that in a second. That all of the government's UFOs videos are classified information. So vice links to the original source of the news, this government transparency website,, which is a place we've talked about before, co-founded by the lead singer of Blink 182 and some other celebrity enthusiasts who all happen to be true believers. Build this as the largest privately run online repository of declassified government documents anywhere in the world, 2 million pages of documents to read, blah, blah, blah. So if you remember back in April of 2020, we were in full lockdown with COVID so things are a little fuzzy then, but in any ways that's when the Navy released the three videos of UAPs, right, unidentified aerial phenomenon videos. And they released them officially after they had been leaked years before and there was a lot of controversy and back and forth and talking about it. So they deemed them unclassified and officially released them. And the statement from the Navy that accompanied the videos says this, the department has determined that the authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems and does not impinge on any subsequent investigations of military airspace and combat incursions by UAPs. The Department of Defense is releasing the videos in order to clear up any misconceptions by the public on whether or not the footage that has been circulating was real or whether or not there are more videos. The aerial phenomenon observed in the videos remains characterized as unidentified. That's their statement. The next day, this is April of 2020, on the next day, Black Vault sprung into action and hit them with a freedom of information request. They pursued this. Yep. So U.S. Navy, they wanted the release of all of their videos that held a UAP designation. And they got their answer in March of 2022. All right? So you go from April of 2020 to March of 2022. And they basically said that they have to deny the request because they found no additional videos with that official designation. Now in the meantime, the Black Vault had put through another FOIA request. This was in February of 2021, but specifically with the Office of Naval Intelligence or ONI. And they asked them to release any and all video footage with that designation of UAP.

B: Ani or Oni?

E: I don't know. O-N-I? ANI? ONI? It could be either.

B: I was trying to make a joke.

E: July, they got there. So that was a second request. They got their answer to that in July of 2022, so just a couple months ago, in which they said that basically, don't ask us. You asked the wrong department. You have to put this in through the Office of the Chief Naval Operations. So you basically barked up the wrong tree. So then they put in the third request in July of 2022 with the Office of Chief Naval Operations. And they got their answer. They got their answer just last week. Request denied. Here's what they said. The UAP task force, this is the response to the black vault from the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. The UAP task force has responded back and stated that the requested videos contain sensitive information pertaining to UAPs and are classified and exempt from disclosure under this particular exemption. They cite a code in the law in accordance with Executive Order 13-526 and the UAP Security Classification Guide, blah, blah, blah. The release of this information will harm national security, as it may provide adversaries valuable information regarding DOD and Navy operations, vulnerabilities, or capabilities. No portions of the video can be segregated for release. So yeah, they basically are saying that they shut them down, said, we're not giving you anything else. There are, but at the same time, sort of tipped their hand that, yeah, there are videos, but you're not getting them. Which is a bit of a departure in past denials of these kinds of requests by these departments in which they'll say it's called a GLOMAR, G-L-O-M-A-R response, also known as a glomerization or glomar denial, and refers to a response request for information that will neither confirm nor deny or N-C-N-D, the existence of whatever information you're seeking. That's been the standard, but this is a departure from that. So that's effectively what this new news is, is that they are not using that standard that they've used in the past, but instead they're saying you're not getting any other videos that have that designation. So that's the whole news story in a nutshell, and I have a few observations, if I may, and then you guys can maybe chime in. So my first observation is kind of about our culture, specifically our American culture, our Western culture, maybe in a broader sense, but we're absorbed in the UFO mythology, and it's reached a saturation point. With the discussion of the evidence of alien technology, alien beings on Earth, the discussion of that evidence has been pretty much subdued, if not totally shoved to the side. And it's because of our institutions. It's our news media, our social media, our political media. They've allowed it to fester. They've not done a good job in asking that very basic fundamental question, and instead years, decades pass, and the culture just gets used to the fact, all right, yeah, UFOs are probably real, just matter of figuring out what they are and who's covering what up. So I think it's a reminder that this is cultural influence, and in this case, I think cultural damage that the belief in UFOs and alien visitations and alien abductions and all these things, they have real effects on the qualities of our institutions, and unfortunately, our institutions fail us at protecting our culture against these kinds of crazy ideas. It's a waste of time, waste of energy, waste of person power, waste of taxpayer money in a lot of cases. And it's not just the wastefulness of it all, it contributes to the dumbening of the society. It makes people less skeptical, less informed, more detached from reality, and these beliefs, and it translates to other equally fantastical beliefs. So that's one thing I have to say. The next thing, we have to remember there are throngs of people who really want these things to be true for a myriad of reasons that we've talked about in the past, but the media amplifies those values. And then you have a government that's really incapable of handling this situation with any good techniques or effectiveness. Congress is feeble. I mean, really, it's ill-equipped to deal with this, I think at best, and at worst, it's politically calculating, trying to make the most political currency out of it. They lack the ability to communicate this correctly with the public. We had the chance earlier this year, those congressional hearings about UAPs, that should have been the chance to explain to the world, and really this world stage, the values of skepticism and rational analysis, but instead it just added fuel to the fire. Now, as far as the Department of Defense goes specifically, they are put in an impossible situation where they have entirely justified and valid reasons to keep a lot of secrets from getting into the hands of enemies of the country. That is their job. But that's also why they are a prime target for organizations like Black Vault. And it goes back to a very old playbook. You keep asking questions of the people who are incapable or will never give up the answers that you're seeking, or they're going to lie to you outright, but it feeds the beast. You keep doing that, and then you can claim the government is involved in massive cover-ups involving extraterrestrials. This takes back right to the late 1940s when this whole thing basically started. It's the same old patterns, and this really hasn't changed. In fact, it's gotten more sophisticated and kind of worse as time goes up. And here's my wrap up. The Department of Defense or the Navy office that released this answer to Black Vault, I think they made things worse. The runaround and ultimate response that they made that they have these videos but you're not getting it is exactly what the believers want to hear. It helps cement their distrust of the institutions. I mean, the Navy, have they ever consulted with organizations that have experience in dealing with scientific explanations for UAPs and UFOs? Are you at all involved with psychologists who specialize in understanding how the human brain works? Neurologists? Why things operate they do? Why people believe they do? The psychology of mass delusions? Does any of this go into their equations on how they structure their answers to these kinds of questions? But I don't think they do. They fail to give reasonable scientific analysis to what the people are seeing in the videos that they release. And it dates back earlier this year when we had the chance to really set the record straight, and they totally, totally blew it. They fumble the ball time and time again. Those are my thoughts on this.

S: Yeah, I think you hit all the points I was going to make, Evan. So I think you hit the nail on the head. They don't have the skill set necessary to deal with the situation. It's kind of a no-win situation, as you say, they get trolled because if they release it, they'll make hay out of it. The true believers will make hay out of it. They'll anomaly hunt the hell out of it. And if they don't release it, then it's a cover-up. There's no legitimate move that the government can make. But at the same time, they completely fail to appreciate the situation, to know that they lack the expertise to deal with it, and to respond appropriately. It's kind of like the way universities and professional institutions respond to snake oil. It's the same thing. They don't have the skill set, so they don't know what they're doing, so they flub it. They just utterly fail to do it. And it is a no-win scenario, but the best you can do is to have as transparent a process as possible where you, again, have the people who do have the expertise patiently, continuously explain what the science actually shows. The thing is, there's always going to be some information that they're not going to be able to release. And it's not necessarily even about the information itself. It could just be about how they obtained the information.

E: Right. Their methods.

S: Or the technology they are using. It's not even necessarily about the information itself. It's not like those videos are showing something that they don't want the world to see. It's that we don't want the Chinese to know that we have equipment that could do that, that we even have the capability of producing videos like that, or whatever it is.

E: Or seeing what the inside of a cockpit of one of these fighter jets looked like. There may be sensitive, secret information in there that they would otherwise glean. They don't even care what the heck that they think that their sensors are depicting as far as what this unidentified object is. No, it's, oh, look at this dial. This fighter jet is capable of doing this. We didn't know that. That's a sensitive piece of information. That kind of stuff.

S: I agree with you, though, they need to partner with the people who know what they're actually talking about when it comes to things like UFOs. And again, the frustrating thing is that that knowledge base, those skill sets are out there, and they're clamoring. They're like, hey, we're here. But it's just they don't know what they're doing.

E: Nope. Nope. They fumble the ball every time. And it made it worse.

S: All right. Thanks, Evan.

[commercial brake]

Who's That Noisy? (1:23:35)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy Time?

J: All right, guys. Last week, I played this Noisy:

[musical boings and dings]

E: I don't know what's making the sound, Jay, but you know what it reminds me of?

J: What?

E: Our opening music to our skeptical extravaganza.

B: Really?

E: It has the same sort of initial buildup, those first few notes, and then it gets right into the main thrust of the music. That's what it reminded me of a little bit.

J: Anybody else?

B: Was it a didgeridoo?

S: Well, I know it's a mouth harp, but I think you want more specific information than that.

E: A human mouth harp.

J: You don't have it?

S: Which I don't have, yeah.

J: Well, I'll start off by saying, like, so many people got this one 99% correct. Because it does, if you know it, you know it. You know what I mean? So let me read some of these to you. So a listener named Alex Vickery wrote in: "Hey, guys, short term listener, first time guesser. Is this week's sound, someone playing a mouth harp connected to a Peter Frampton talk box." I thought that was a really cool interpretation of this because I kind of hear that now when I listen to it, it has a little bit of that like vocalization aspect to it. That is not correct.

E: I have a question for Cara. Sorry to interrupt. Cara? Have you heard of Peter Frampton?

C: Yeah, of course.

E: Oh, okay. Just making sure. (Cara laughs) Sorry. Go ahead.

C: It's only the sci-fi fantasy stuff, guys.

E: All right.

C: That's the stuff I don't know about.

J: Okay. Another listener, Edward Myers, wrote in: "Hi, Jay, I think this week's noisy is a Jaw harp also known as a Jew's harp, a vargan mouth harp, gewgaw, guimbard, khomus, Ozark harp, Berimbau" words I can't pronounce. Lots of names.

E: Is that one guess or eight guesses?

J: Well, no, he's saying there's a lot of names for this type of instrument. And that's very true because lots of different cultures have their own version of this instrument. I mean, I'm curious to know how many times this was discovered, you know what I mean? Around the world. But very cool. I mean, I thought that kind of this answer kind of shows you like the incredible variety. So I'm trying to ask which one is this out of all these different varieties, which one is it specifically? So I have a couple of people who, I got a lot of people who guessed some type of mouth harp correctly. And I actually got quite a few people who got the exact right answer correct. But I have a couple of people. So first off, Anton Evans wrote in first and he said: "Hi, my name is Anton Evans. I started listening as an undergrad, continued to listen through my master's during my time in the pharmaceutical industry, and now sitting here on a Saturday in lab, finishing up the last experiments of my Ph.D. in microbiology." Very cool. That's so awesome. "This Noisy comes from a Tik-Tok, which I found on the Reddit post link below showing a guy he has a triangular object in his mouth, he then proceeds to create sound while smacking his mouth with his hand in the shape of the peace sign and eyes wildly rolling in his head." So this is exactly correct. So this particular this particular one is an Indian Morchang. It is a type of jaw harp. It's a mouth instrument. The instrument consists of a metal ring in the shape of a horseshoe with two parallel forks which form the frame and a metal tongue in the middle between the forks fixed to the ring at one end and free to vibrate at the other. So basically use your mouth to to make resonances. And that's where you get like the idea that there is like a voice behind it almost. And if you've never seen someone play a mouth harp, you should look for it. It's pretty cool. Pretty cool what you can do with the instrument.

B: How hard is it to you? It's probably pretty hard.

J: I don't think it's that hard.

B: Really?

J: I really don't. I used to have one when I was a kid and I used to get noise out of it. It's, you get really good at it. I don't know. I honestly don't know. Like, how good can you get at one of these?

E: I played a mean kazoo once, you know.

S: Yeah, I've played that before. It's not hard. Yeah, like a lot of like a lot of the instruments, it's not hard to get a sound. It's hard to make it sound really good. There's a you could get that difference between an amateur and somebody who's just very, very good at it. It can be pretty big. But it's not a challenging instrument just to make a basic musical noise.

E: I mean, who else can play the pan flute like Zamfir? No one. He's the best.

J: So the another listener, Nikhil Somaya, also wrote in and guessed correctly. So thank you both for writing in your correct answers. And thank everyone this week for all the people who got it right or got really close. I knew that a lot of people were going to get it, but I didn't realize like there was there was hundreds of people who guessed it correctly this week. Yeah, it was pretty intense. But that's the work that I do here, Bob.

New Noisy (1:28:51)[edit]

J: I have a new Noisy for you guys this week. This Noisy was sent in by a listener named Claire Distin. And check this one out. I will tell you that this is one of my favorite Noisies. Every once in a while, I'll repeat a really cool Noisy that I played a decade ago because it just worth I want people who haven't heard it yet to hear it because it's pretty cool. It's one of my favorites.

[whooshing and deep woodwind-like tones and vibrations]

I'm sure some of you are going to get this, but I will give a little bit of hint. Let's see what you come up with. That's my hint. If you have any answers or you heard any cool Noisies this week, you could email us at

Announcements (1:29:54)[edit]

J: Steve I got some announcements real quick. So if you didn't know, Bob, Steve and I wrote a book. It's called The Skeptics' Guide to the Future. It's coming out September 27th. On September 24th, we will be having a live stream. It'll be an extended six hour live stream where we will be, among other things, we will be discussing chapters in the book and talking about the backstory behind the book. We will also be recording two live podcasts that you could see us watch and listen to us record a podcast live. We'll have a couple of special guests that'll help us discuss elements of the book. And Evan and Cara, of course, will definitely be there for that. So that's happening on September 24th. That'll be from 12 Eastern noon time to 6PM and you should be able to, you can go to our website or go to our Facebook page. Any place where we're at, you could see, you'll get the link for that. It'll be on YouTube and Facebook. We also have shows coming up in December, guys. They're not that far away. And I will say this, airline tickets have been purchased. Vehicles have been rented. Knives have been sharpened.

E: Careful.

J: This show is going to so we have four shows and Steve and I keep discussing this. We want to make sure because some people write in moderately confused about what is the difference between the private show and the extravaganza.

S: The extravaganza is basically a stage show and it's a lot of fun and it's hosted by George Hrab who does a great job. So there's music, there's games. We pit ourselves against the audience. We're basically demonstrating a lot of skeptical principles, but it's all mainly fun. Then we have our SGU, our private shows where it's a live recording of the SGU, but we're doing a new thing where we're doing an enhanced, expanded private show. It's going to be at least three and a half hours where we're going to, in the middle there, we will be recording a live podcast, but in addition, we'll be doing things just with the audience that are not designed to go into the podcast. So there'll be, obviously we'll have a lot of time to do pictures and book signings and talking with everybody, but we're also going to be doing specific events with the people that are there at the show. So there'll be specific either games or whatever bits that we'll be doing with you. So those are always a lot of fun and we're just basically expanding on them.

J: We're going to do a private show on Thursday, December 15th in Phoenix. Then we go to Tucson and we do our first extravaganza in Tucson. Then we have the private show on Saturday. This is Saturday the 17th. We have a private show, I think that'll be at noon, starting at noon in Tucson. Then we drive back to Phoenix and do an extravaganza in Phoenix on Friday night the 17th of December. So we have four shows, two extravaganzas and two private shows. We would love it if you guys joined us to one or more of those shows. Go to our website, for all the details.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:33:06)[edit]

Email #1: Climate Change Nihilism[edit]

S: We do have one quick email. This one comes from Siris, S-I-R-I-S, and they write: "Hi, long time fan. I've been listening since 2008 as an early podcast adopter. SGU was my first and longest running podcast. I own a hard copy and audio book copy of your first book and have pre-ordered the second. I believe in science and climate change. I am a dink." Cara, do you know what that is?

C: Dual income, no kids.

B: No kids.

S: No children. No kids. Dual income, no kids. "With a comfortable household income, we will not be having children. I fully appreciate the doom that will come to future generations as a result of climate change and with the strong political divides and ineffective global politicking, I do not believe that people will ever address the climate issue. With all that said, why should I care about climate change? Honestly, my household is well off enough to get through it without too much discomfort, we won't ever have children, so we don't really have to be concerned with the welfare of future generations. And even if we tried to do pro-social activities to address our individual footprint would amount to next to nothing in addressing the issue. Without overall structural change, which won't ever occur, anything we do as individuals would result in less than rounding errors." And then he says, parenthetically, I understand the fallacy of composition. He's a big fan, and apathetically and nihilistically yours too. I know Bob appreciates that. I abridged that a little bit, but those are his key points. So what do you guys think about that? So one is, there's a few pieces here that I wanted to address. One is, there's no way that we're going to address climate change. It's not going to happen. We're too politically dysfunctional for that to happen. And two, if you don't have kids, why should you care? And three, nothing I do is going to make any difference anyway, because there's one individual out of seven to eight billion. Our individual footprints are not the issue. It's the big governmental things, and they're never going to change. So how do you guys all feel about that?

C: There's a lot to unpack there.

S: Yeah, there is. What are your initial, what are your top line thoughts?

C: His views are valid. He is a human being in the world, and it's very hard not to feel that way. That doesn't mean that there's nothing we can do. It doesn't mean that there's not a reason to care about the future. But I think we also can't minimize the fact that, because I don't think what he's saying is we're screwed, so I'm just going to become super hedonistic. I think he's saying, I'm living my life with balance. I'm just worried that it's causing me so much anxiety and ultimately at the end of the day, it's all going to burn.

S: Yeah, although I don't know that he's not saying that he's just going to say, screw it. Why not live hedonistically, meaning that why pay any attention at all to my carbon footprint when it's a pinprick? It doesn't matter.

C: Right. And so obviously that's an extreme view that I don't subscribe to. So if none of this matters, why not just burn it all down? Yeah, that's terrible, but that's also a slippery slope fallacy. That's not the case.

S: So let me do this. Let's set aside the point of why should I care about the future? That's more of a philosophical, ethical question. We all have to decide for ourselves where we get meaning in this world. Personally I like the idea that humanity is self-sustaining and we'll at least live with reasonable harmony with nature sustainably into the future. If you don't care about that, there's probably no way I could convince you. If you're saying, why should I care about what happens after the second that I die from one perspective, it's like, you're right, you'll be dead. Nothing can possibly affect you at that point. And if you don't care about people beyond your life or your kids, and if you're not going to have kids and beyond yourself, then I don't know that I could convince you that you should. That's kind of a philosophical worldview thing. So let's just put that aside. Let's just focus on the two more concrete claims. One is that government is never going to get their shit together and do anything meaningful about climate change. So I would say that there is a lot of reason to be skeptical and even nihilistic about government, effective government action on climate change. But I am not nihilistic about it. And I think that that's a self-fulfilling prophecy, if we all give up, then we're definitely not going to do anything about it. And sometimes you just have to keep up that constant pressure over even generations and eventually you break through. And so I think we just need to keep doing that. And it's never going to be too late. It may be too late to keep it from getting bad, but it can always be worse. It's never going to be too late to keep it from getting even worse. And so we could lament what we didn't do, but that doesn't help us. So we just got to do what we can. I'd also say that there is recent evidence that governments can do things that are meaningful.

C: You mean can or are?

S: Are. I think there are. I mean, I think the recent the Inflation Reduction Act, which is really about health care and climate change, shows that there are policies that could make a difference. I mean, there were three independent analyses of the IRA and its effect on carbon reduction in the U.S. between now and 2030, 2035. And they found that it would significantly decrease, it's going to significantly decrease our carbon footprint between now and then. And it's already working in the United States, it's already working in that there are already companies saying, OK, in light of this, we're going to invest $2 billion in a plant that's going to make batteries or going to refine lithium or whatever, that are going to do things that we need to do in order to make this transition to clean energy. So it's working. It's not, it didn't get us all the way to where we wanted to be. But it was something. And everything helps. Everything will reduce how bad it's going to get, basically.

C: But we also know, we also know the exacerbating effect that the like negative feedback loop that's already in play. We know that we're not in a safe place right now and that all this stuff we already did leading up to today is still going to continue to play out. So we need to use that in the calculus.

S: Absolutely. But the bottom line is that the range of possible outcomes, it falls on both sides of very significant tipping points. So there are tipping points that we still may avoid. But if we don't avoid them, it's going to get a lot worse. So that's the uncertainty. So we don't know exactly how bad it's going to get. So my hope is that if we keep pushing, keep pushing, at the very least, we may avoid some of these worst tipping points. That's still on the table.

C: And that's the thing that I think is really clear. I feel like sitting here isn't made very clear is that you're right. The error bars are huge. The tipping points are─

S: Within the error bars.

C: ─Within the error bars. But it's all worse. The question is how much worse.

S: Totally. Absolutely.

C: And we have to remember there's literally nothing we can do now.

S: It's going to get worse before it gets better, no question.

C: There's a question of whether it could get better. It's just could it get not worse-worse?

S: Some tipping points are irreversible on a human civilization time scale.

B: Yes, we're going to lose a foot. Let's do all we can do to make sure we don't lose one leg or two legs.

C: Exactly. And I think that that's the part that we have to be so clear about, which is why I think it's valid when somebody is experiencing like existential climate distress. Because they're like, look at my foot's going away. I don't want to lose a foot. And it's like, well, that's kind of a done deal.

S: Yes, but it's not a valid reason to be nihilistic. Because it's not a valid argument that there's nothing we can do or that nothing we do will matter because we still can affect the outcome. We still can affect the outcome.

C: And I think the real question here, and again, this comes back to like the psychological profile and the philosophical profile of the email that we decided to talk about, is who is we, who am I as an actor in a system? And so it's one thing to say, well, it's no excuse to be nihilistic or it's no, I don't remember how you phrased it.

S: It doesn't justify nihilism.

C: It doesn't justify nihilism. And I would say that's right if you are a person in a position of power.

S: Well, but I disagree. I think that the most important thing we each can do is vote. And at least like in the United States, if enough people vote for politicians who are prioritizing climate change, it will matter. It will absolutely matter. Who we put in the White House between 2016 and 2020 was vastly different than who was in the White House now in terms of climate change. Vastly different. Those votes mattered. Absolutely mattered.

C: And I guess there's an assumption in what you said that being nihilistic means not engaging at all. And what I'm saying is that there are shades of gray. Like an individual can be like, yeah, I'm going to vote. Of course I'm going to vote, but I'm not going to spend all day every day eaten up by anxiety. And I'm not going to make a million decisions that are detrimental to my mental health in an effort to be like an eco warrior. And I think it's about finding balance. I do think you can have a touch of nihilism because it's authentic.

B: Yes!

S: I would say pessimism. I would say pessimism.

C: Sure.

S: Nihilism is kind of an absolute.

C: And maybe we're splitting hairs.

S: I agree with the balance issue, the balance in the middle of I'm going to be realistic, but find optimism where I can and find pragmatic things that I can realistically do. That's going to be the best outcome. And I also agree that you don't necessarily have to reorganize your life around it. You could still live your life, but take reasonable steps, like be informed enough to know who to vote for. If you just do that, then I'm OK with you.

C: Yeah, that's super important.

B: Yeah, that might be enough.

S: That might be enough.

C: In doing that, hopefully what we're doing is we're pushing the needle towards a structure that's organized because one of the biggest frustrations for me, and you guys have heard me bitch about this before, is how the onus has been successfully shifted to the consumer.

S: Yeah, I agree with that.

C: And that's the system itself makes us feel like the burden is on us.

S: It's a misdirection.

B: Yeah, good point.

C: And that's not healthy psychologically. So if we get the right people in power to make the right regulatory decisions, what we'll start to see is that our choices are better choices.

S: Yeah, we have better choices to make. All right, let's move on from a point that we all agree on.

Science or Fiction (1:44:11)[edit]

Theme: 2022 Golden Goose Awards

Item #1: The development of laser LASIK surgery was inspired by a case of accidental laser injury to the eye, producing precise perfectly circular damage.[8]
Item #2: Researchers developed a powerful microscope out of paper that folds like origami, with total material costs less than $1.[9]
Item #3: While examining the properties of cone snail venom, researchers accidentally discovered that it is a potent inhibitor of HIV replication.[10]

Answer Item
Fiction Snail venom inhibits hiv
Science Powerful origami microscope
Lasik from laser eye injury
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Lasik from laser eye injury
Lasik from laser eye injury
Lasik from laser eye injury
Snail venom inhibits hiv

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. The theme is the Golden Goose Awards because they are being awarded tonight as we record this show. Now, the Golden Goose Awards are scientific awards that are given to research that had an incredibly positive impact, but was also either fortuitous or unusual in some way. It's not like the Ig Nobles, where they're funny. This is just, that was like a very lucky find, but it led to something hugely positive. Okay? The Golden Goose Awards, you can look it up after we do the show. All right, here we go. Item #1: The development of laser LASIK surgery was inspired by a case of accidental laser injury to the eye, producing precise perfectly circular damage. Iem #2: Researchers developed a powerful microscope out of paper that folds like origami, with total material costs less than $1. And item #3: While examining the properties of cone snail venom, researchers accidentally discovered that it is a potent inhibitor of HIV replication. So you kind of get the theme there? Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: LASIK surgery inspired by a case of accidental laser injury to the eye, producing precise, perfectly circular damage. That almost sounds like too perfect, literally speaking. And I don't know if I've heard anything about this. I'm trying. I'm jogging my memory. No, it's not there. So I don't know. I'm leaning, I think, on this one being the fiction. The other two are quite extraordinary, so much so that not that I'm not giving you credit, Steve. I give you a lot of credit for a lot of things having to do with science fiction. But of the three, these next two are so extraordinary that I'm not sure you would have made these up. Researchers developed a powerful microscope out of paper. Huh? Microscope out of paper? What? That folds like origami and total material costs of less than a dollar. What is this? Is it nano size scale? Is that why it costs less than a dollar? What are we talking about here? Made out of paper. I have no concept. It's beyond being able to even think or invent.

B: No lens?

S: Well, to be clear, it's a usable microscope. It's not some nothing. No deception there. It's a usable microscope.

E: And so what would be the technical definition of microscope, I suppose, is anything that allows you to magnify something that's smaller, I suppose that would be. So I guess that one's going to be right. And then the cone snail venom. I don't know what the cone snail is, but apparently it has venom. And the researchers accidentally discovered it's a potent inhibitor of HIV. How would they accidentally discover that if they weren't looking for it? They must have been looking for it to be an inhibitor of something else. And along the way, at some point, they stumbled on it being the HIV. I guess I'll stay the LASIK surgery one. It just seems the most made up of the three to me.

S: OK, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I'm leaning towards Evans for the same reasons. I could see that this idea of something being an accident is that you're looking in one place and then you notice a property that you weren't looking for. And then you go, oh, that property might work over here. So when I think about this cone snail venom one, OK, I'm looking at it and, oh, look at this factor. Look at this protein. Back when I was doing research on retroviruses, I knew that that protein was really important. That's what I think of when it's like an accidental. It's not literally like they accidentally spilled some cone snail venom into an HIV patient's IV. You know, like that's not what's probably happening. So that one seems reasonable. So yeah, I think it's a laser surgery because that's sort of like what you're saying. Like, oops, they accidentally shot a laser into somebody's eye and they go, I can see. And for me, that seems less likely. So I'm going to go with Evan on that.

C: OK, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: I'm really curious about this paper microscope. Yeah, I just can't try to imagine how that could work. I'm having some trouble, but I still think that that's probably science in some weird way. The venom one yet to me just seems like, duh, of course. And yeah, this basic one is just I can't imagine first off, it's creating a perfectly circular I mean, I assume that takes a little bit of time. So I mean, how long would you be looking into that accidentally looking into that laser and then perfectly arranged on your cornea and not hitting like the sclera at all? It just seems too contrived. I'll say that was fiction, too.

S: And Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: It's funny that you guys all went that way because the laser one out of all of them seems the most likely to me. I don't know. It just doesn't seem that odd to me. The paper microscope doesn't seem that wacky to me either, just because the paper is going to hold up the lenses like you just have it's like it's the lattice work to hold the lenses. I would suppose that's what Steve is saying. And I've seen people build very substantial things out of origami. It doesn't seem that much of a stretch to think that someone would like fashion some type of structure that would be able to hold a lens or whatever. I don't know. I just don't think that's that big of a deal.

B: Well, my interpretation was that it says all all costs under a dollar.

C: It says total material costs.

B: I'm thinking no lens.

C: Well, it doesn't say that.

B: You're not going to get any lens for under a buck. A good lens, microscope a class of lens.

C: It doesn't say good.

B: It says powerful. What do you mean?

C: It says powerful. It doesn't say good.

E: We have to define that, too.

B: So wait, so you're assuming that there's a lens, there's a glass or some sort of lens in this system as well?

C: I think you can, based on how he wrote it.

J: Yeah, I guess so.

C: He doesn't preclude that.

B: Yeah but less than a dollar.

C: It doesn't say entirely on paper.

J: I don't know, that's a good question that Bob brought up. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know if the lens is.

C: Final answer, I don't know.

E: I'm going to ask for a lifeline on the next one, too.

J: And then the last one seems to be the weirdest to me, what kind of lab accident would have to take place where cone snail venom has accidentally, they accidentally discovered that it could inhibit HIV replication. Was this literally like, whoa, I spilled this green stuff into this thing?

E: That's what Cara just talked about.

C: You literally was not listening.

J: I got to be honest, I don't remember a word that you said, Cara, because I was thinking about these. (Cara laughs) So I must have just subliminally picked that up.

S: You were in your own head.

J: Yeah.

C: I love that you're the kid with his hand up, call on me, and the teacher's like, yeah, I just answered that question when the other kid asked it.

J: Well, I'm deeply thinking of it. I don't know. I'm going to just go with three. I don't want to go with everybody else, because first of all, I've realized that I shouldn't care about the results of─

S: The cone snail.

J: I'm going to go with the cone snail as the fiction.

B: Really?

J: Because I don't think that that happened. I think that that is made up.

S: All right. So you all agree with number two, so we'll start there.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Researchers developed a powerful microscope out of paper that folds like origami with total material costs less than $1. You guys all think this one is science, and this one is science. This is real.

E: You buy it at the dollar store.

C: Steve, can I tell you something?

S: Yeah. You have one?

C: I have a fold scope.

S: You have a fold scope. Yeah, it's a fold scope. That's what it is.

C: I'm really good friends with the people who developed it.

E: They charge you $2 for it. It's so cool. It's the coolest thing ever.

S: Yeah, it's a glass ball. The lens is a glass ball. There are magnets and paper. That's it. And it's not the manufacturing cost. It's the material cost. But still, and you can buy it for like 15 bucks. They're very, very cheap. They've made millions of them for distribution to poor kids or whatever school systems that are in underdeveloped countries or─

C: And field researchers.

S: And field researchers. They're good enough that you could put an iPhone next to the lens and take good pictures with it.

J: Wow.

S: Or you could just use your eyeball as well. So, yeah, they set out to create the cheapest microscope they can, so they made it out of basically origami.

B: How powerful is it?

S: 140x.

B: Jesus.

J: Not bad.

S: Good enough.

E: You'll see some animacules.

S: Cara is right. Powerful and good are two different things when you're talking about lenses. And pretty much─

C: It's not very optically clear. I mean, it is, but it's not a Zeiss lens or something.

S: It's good enough for a $15 microscope. But glass, as we say, you get exactly what you pay for, pretty much when that's true of cameras and microscopes and telescopes or whatever it is. There's so many things you could do to improve the quality of the lens. And you basically get what you pay for there. But just a glass ball can function as a lens perfectly fine, and it could be very cheap to make.

C: And it could have been plastic, too.

B: But I didn't think for under a buck you would get something that powerful.

S: I guess we'll go back to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: The development of laser LASIK surgery was inspired by a case of accidental laser injury to the eye, producing precise, perfectly circular damage. Bob, Cara, and Evan, you think this one is a fiction. Jay, you're all by yourself and thinking that this one is science. And this one is science. Good work, Jay.

C: What?

B: Nice.

J: Oh, boy.

S: That's what happens.

B: Good job, Jay.

E: That's what you get.

C: That's nutty.

S: So a graduate student at the University of Michigan Center for the Ultrafast Optical Science experienced an accidental laser injury to his eye. Fortunately, it didn't destroy his vision. The observation the people who took care of him observed that he had a very precise and perfectly circular damage produced by the laser. And they're like, huh, I wonder if we could cut eyes with lasers. Because up to that point, the eye surgery, the keratotomy surgery, was done just with a scalpel, with a blade. They basically do the same thing. They just were cutting it with a knife. And they say, well, we could make the same cut, but smaller and more precise and less recovery time and less pain if we could do it with a laser. It took them eight years to develop the actual procedure.

B: Really?

S: But that led to bladeless LASIK or all laser LASIK. They used a femtosecond laser to make the cuts. Yeah, but it was inspired by an accidental laser injury to the eye. Cool.

J: We're so lucky that people like are constantly pushing out there like, oh, look at this weird accident that we just had. Wait a second. You know what I mean? It's in those moments where incredible things happen.

B: What's that expression, Steve? It's not eureka. It's like, that's weird.

S: That's interesting.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means that while examining the properties of cone snail venom, researchers accidentally discovered that it is a potent inhibitor of HIV replication is the fiction because, yeah. But the cone snail venom did get one of the Golden Globe Awards, but it was for what they were looking for, which was for a painkiller. What they found was a non-opioid target for pain relief, which is huge. So identifying a new therapeutic target is always big in medicine, meaning something you could bind to or whatever you can affect that could alter the way something functions. So researchers are constantly looking for more ways to manipulate the pain system to get away from the opioid system because that's obviously what causes lots of problems. Now the cone snail, a lot of these animals that like have venom or they bite you or whatever, they do things like either they numb you so you don't feel them biting you or they thin your blood so it doesn't coagulate or whatever. So we use them to find things like anticoagulants and painkillers. Those are common things that we try to source from these snails and other similar critters. So they were looking for these properties and they found that, oh, this is acting through, the discovery was that it was acting through a non-opioid pain reliever, a pain receptor. That was the huge thing here. Still this hasn't fully played out through the clinical research. This is a basic science finding, but huge. And I just made up the HIV thing because I thought it sounded semi-plausible.

E: It did. It totally did.

S: I like to think that they were giving it to somebody who had HIV but they were testing it on something else and it's like, huh, my HIV counts are down. But I just made it up. That didn't happen. All right. So good job, Jay. I always like to reward people who go out on a limb and are not afraid to give an answer that departs from the crew.

J: What's my reward?

E: What's the reward? I didn't know this.

S: Your reward is that you won this week. That's what your reward is.

J: There you go.

E: Wow.

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

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:57:48)[edit]

If I want to know how we learn and remember and represent the world, I will go to psychology and neuroscience. If I want to know where values come from, I will go to evolutionary biology and neuroscience and psychology, just as Aristotle and Hume would have, were they alive.

–Canadian-American analytic philosopher Patricia Churchland, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and Adjunct Professor at the Salk Institute

E: "If I want to know how we learn and remember and represent the world, I will go to psychology and neuroscience. If I want to know where values come from, I will go to evolutionary biology and neuroscience and psychology, just as Aristotle and Hume would have, were they alive." Patricia Churchland, she's a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Very nice homage to Aristotle and Hume, I think.

S: Yeah, but it's interesting, though. If you look at the sentence, though, she doesn't say that she would go to philosophy.

B: Yeah, I was expecting to hear that come out.

S: And that's kind of, I mean, when you're talking about where values come from, that's pretty much philosophy. I mean, I think it's informed by neuroscience and psychology, but it's interesting to hear a philosophy professor kind of make that point, though.

C: But is it where they come from, or is that where we go to explore them? I think the idea there that it depends on your philosophies, but are philosophies natural? Are they constructed? Are they whatever? It's like the process, not the content. They're exploring how we come to those places, but they're not finding their values in philosophy.

S: But what she's saying, though, if she wants to understand them, she would go to these disciplines to understand them. And I would have just─

C: Grass is always greener.

S: Yeah, I would have just thrown philosophy into the list myself.

C: That's funny, yeah.

S: I'm sure Massimo Pigliucci would do that also.

E: Maybe it's because Aristotle and Hume were philosophers.

S: I think she's saying that the classic philosophers would have studied neuroscience and psychology. I will agree with that. I do think that if that's the point, I would agree. Maybe she's assuming philosophy.

B: Yeah, maybe.

S: That didn't have to be stated.

C: That's why all of our degrees are PhDs. It's like we're all studying philosophy, or at least that's how they view it.

S: Applied philosophy. Yeah. All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it, Steve.

E: Thanks.

C: Thanks, Steve.

B: Yes!


[01:59:48.340 --> 01:59:50.220] Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

[01:59:50.220 --> 01:59:51.220] You got it, Steve.

[01:59:51.220 --> 01:59:52.220] Thanks.

[01:59:52.220 --> 01:59:53.220] Thanks, Steve.

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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[11]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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