SGU Episode 921

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SGU Episode 921
March 4th 2023
921 mining hydrogen.jpg

Hidden Hydrogen: Does Earth hold vast stores of renewable, carbon-free fuel? [1]

SGU 920                      SGU 922

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


PW: Perry Wilson, Yale nephrologist

Quote of the Week

I think knowing what you can't do is more important than knowing what you can.

Lucille Ball, American actress

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Guest Rogue Perry's new book[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, March 1st, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening folks!

S: And we have a guest rogue this week Dr F. Perry Wilson. Perry, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

PW: Thanks, great to be here.

S: Now Perry your first name is actually Francis but you go by Perry and I'm just wondering, have you ever seen the movie Stripes by the way?

PW: Yeah of course.

E: Oh no.

S: Do you ever pull a Nobody calls me Francis. If you call me Francis I'll kill you. You ever tell that to anybody?

PW: You know I have tried and it only elicits scales of laughter so I just can't pull it off.

S: You can't pull of I'll kill you if you call me Francis.

PW: Doesn't work.

B: You got to get that look in your eye.

S: A thousand yards stare?

E: Oh my gosh.

S: So Perry we're having you on the show partly because Cara's away this week. She's out of the country so it's a good week to have a guest rogue. But you published a book recently. How Medicine Works and When It Doesn't which I've been helping to promote. Excellent book, really. It's a good way of introducing people to just some of the inner workings of medicine so they could think about it a little bit more critically. So how is the, how the book promotion going?

PW: It's been going great. This is a book that I think is very much in line with what you guys talk about every week. It's about why people are susceptible to medical misinformation. The cognitive biases, the motivated reasoning that leads people to make bad choices. But I tried to be fair and I think one of the things that people are really responding to about the book is that I acknowledge that part of the reason that people go to alternative practitioners and engage with sort of hokum is because they're not getting something from the medical establishment that we're failing in some fundamental ways to provide the best possible care for our patients. So I think it's important to take a kind of holistic view here and see what's going on.

S: Yeah I mean obviously we can always do better in science communication. We could always do better in just the delivery of medicine and the regulation of medicine. I like your chapter on the pharmaceutical industry because it's not like we can give a full-throated glowing defense of the industry because they do shady stuff all the time. But there's a far cry from that to the wild conspiracy theories that people come up with. And so it's hard to have to be advocating for a nuanced position in the middle.

PW: It is and we're kind of in a world where nuance is really unpopular. In social media it's like the way you get engagement is by taking very extreme positions. And of course in medicine and I think in most things in science the extreme positions are rarely correct usually there is some gray area and I think pharmaceutical companies is a perfect example. Yeah, they're for profit. That is their motivation. At the same time there are some drugs that are essentially medical miracles. Cures for Hepatitis C. Obviously these are big big things that are life-changing for people.

S: It's like every institution humanity has ever developed. It may be help in some ways and it's flawed in other ways. There's no perfect institution whether it's democracy or science itself or education or whatever. And we have to learn how to maximize the good stuff and mitigate the bad stuff, right?

PW: Yeah. And keep improving.

S: And keep improving. That's the self corrective, yeah, self-correction has got to be built in. Which also means transparency and honesty and all that stuff but yes people want their clean morality play where there's villains and heroes and we just default to that simplistic narrative.

PW: Exactly. It does generate a lot of clicks but nothing is like that. There's no medication without side effects. There's no, there's no perfect, there's only good enough.

S: Right, there's only good enough. And we could do, and maybe hopefully doing a little bit better.

PW: Right.

S: Yeah. But and that's the other- so we talk about black and white thinking etc., but the other sort of way that people want their purity, their moral purity is what we call the Nirvana fallacy. It's like oh this isn't perfect therefore it's useless. It's like there's nothing less than perfect that's good enough like the anti-vaxx are like prove to us that these are 100% safe. It's like no, there's no such thing in the world. Life doesn't work that way.

PW: Exactly.

S: That's an unreasonable standard. So how do you confront that sort of thing in the book?

PW: I mean we, be honest about it. And part of the way I describe medicine is in contrast to some of the more absolute sciences, physics and mathematics where there are proofs and you can you know prove that the square root of two is an irrational number and through logic and a little bit of arithmetic and that's just it. There's no argument there. Medicine isn't like that. Medicine is a science of hedging your bets that's how I describe it in the book. It's about making the best choices with the evidence and there's no guarantees but it's like investing in a stock portfolio or something. You're just picking the health behaviors and interventions that have the best chance of leading you to a healthy life. And we can't promise you what one of those things that will be. All we can do as doctors is sort of advise on what the data shows and my hope and you can tell me if I'm being naive here, you guys are deep in this. My hope is that if we're just honest about that we say, look we can't promise you that this vaccine for example is going to prevent you you from ever getting covid in the future however what we can tell you is that chances are you'll be better off if you take it than if you don't because the data is pretty clear that the downstream effects of covid are worse than any of the downstream effects of the vaccine. And maybe if we are sort of framed things in that way, that we are, it's a science of hedging your bets. People will appreciate the honesty.

S: You're right, you are being naive. I mean that's obviously a good starting point but we know from research and experience that it's not the end point because if you're confronting a deliberate machine of misinformation just giving people facts isn't enough. You have to understand their narrative, you have to confront their narrative, you have to replace their narrative with a better one. One that's more evidence-based, more logical, etc. And you can just, here's a bunch of facts and being honest and transparent with you. That's great, that's a minimum requirement but by itself- and with some patients it's probably enough, I think with a lot of patients it probably is enough but with people who have already been programmed with misinformation, we know that it isn't enough. We know that.

PW: Of course. It's very hard in that situation. And part of what doctors need to do and what's great about listening to your show is we need to know what those elements of misinformation are. A lot of doctors, patients will come in and they'll say I heard about what's going on with the vaccine from QAnon and doctor will be like what the heck is QAnon. And to some extent if our patients are bringing this to us it is our responsibility, not to necessarily go deep on [inaudible] or whatever but we need to be aware of the counter narratives that are out there just so that we're prepared. So that we can say okay yes, this I've heard of. Here's why I need to move you away from this or that it's dangerous.

S: So we should tell the listeners that you are a doctor at Yale, right?

PW: Right.

S: Internal medicine and kidney specialist, correct?

PW: Correct.

S: Yeah and however our connection is ironically completely independent of the fact that we both work at Yale, right? We've sort of connected over this stuff.

PW: Yeah.

S: Not really our work at Yale although I'm sure we have some patient overlap because everybody who works at Yale probable does. But that's not it's interestingly not how we met but in any case we are going to have you talk to us about some other medical stuff later in the episode. There's a story that's blowing up that you suggested a couple days ago that we definitely have to get deep into the weeds on. But first we're going to start with a quickie with Bob.

Quickie with Bob: Bronze Age tempered steel (8:28)[edit]

B: Thank you Steve. This is your Quickie with Bob. Metallurgical aficionados gird your loins.

S: Ooh.

B: A new study shows that tempered steel tools in Europe may have appeared earlier than we thought. Steve you're going to like this one. 2 900 year old engraved pillars in Iberia have long been assumed to be made of quartzite but many are actually pillars of the far far harder silicate quartz sandstone. Geochemical analysis and hands-on experiments show that in order for, in order to work such hardstone tools made of bronze or stone could not do it. On top of that they had a chisel from that period that was shown to be made of heterogeneous yet incredibly carbon-rich steel. They even, this was really cool, they even used a professional stonemason, blacksmith and bronze caster to do like a real world experiment. The stonemason failed to work the rock that really hard silicate quartz sandstone. They could not work it using stone or bronze chisels. He or she even failed with an iron chisel using an untempered point. So instead of tempered steel appearing well into the Iron Age it seems it may have been used in the late Bronze Age. So steel loins unguarded. This was your Quickie with Bob, I hope it was good for you too.

S: Yeah that is super interesting on multiple levels.

B: Late Bronze Age.

S: Yeah we know there's lots of overlap between the Bronze Age and use of iron and even steel.

B: I don't know but based on this research.

S: This puts it back. Absolutely.

B: They thought it was like mid Iron Age. Not even the early Iron Age. Mid. And now this is late bronze which is right before iron. So yeah it's whenever you see dates like that it's always got to take them with a grain of salt because...

S: Right. But these things could it could have existed for a thousand years before it became popular. Because again bronze was not only good enough for most things, it's actually better than just regular iron for a lot of things doesn't rust etc.

B: Yeah which is surprising when you think about it.

S: Yeah.

B: You would think iron superior.

S: You'd really only need steel for like the most intense applications like stone that was too hard.

B: Like working that stone, yeah.

S: Yeah, by the way you mentioned tempered multiple times. You know what tempered is? With respect to steel?

B: Yes. It's heating it up, right? You're just heating it up and it affects the grains in a way that makes it much stronger.

S: So yeah when you temper something you heat it up, for steel you would not heat it up to the point at which it loses its magnetism. That's too hot. You would heat it halfway to that. And then you cool it very slowly. So that's the case, you do slow cooling to allow-

B: Oh so heating and then they slow cooling.

S: Slow cooling.

B: I never realized slow cooling was critical.

S: Because that allows for large crystal sizes which makes it strong, right? Now if you need to make it hard you do fast cooling, right. But that's not tempering and often they do both. They'll harden and then temper to add some strength back so it's not brittle. So I don't know exactly what the heat treatment would have been done to those tools but I'm sure they would have needed some hardness as well as strength. But that technology could evolved over thousands of years. Hundreds to thousands of years.

B: You could have even had an isolated stonemason created even well before this and it was just lost in the midst of time and nobody picked up on it and that was it, just the isolated thing. And the evidence isn't there anymore.

S: Right, because as we see many many times when we talk about these like isolated ancient technologies, like a steam engine powered toy,or things like that.

B: Oh my God. The Egyptians, right?

S: They didn't see the general applicability of the technology.

B: Can you imagine? Steam engines in ancient Egypt?

S: Oh look, I have a really hard chisel now. They see the chisel not the industrial revolution laid out right before them. They see the toy and not the machine.

PW: We were this close to steampunk and we just missed it.

E: Totally.

S: I know I want to do a role-playing game that takes place in an ancient Roman steampunk universe, that would be awesome.

PW: Absolutely.

B: That's great.

S: And totally plausible.

B: How about like ancient Greek mechanical computers, that have been shown to be up these were pretty much computers by any definition of a computer. It's like lost.

S: The other thing is I just did this tiktok video, for those who are not aware Jay and Ian and I have been trying to put out a few tiktok videos a week and the one I recorded today involved someone claiming that there's so many ancient artifacts that we can't explain like all these worked hard stones. It's like well there you go. They had, at least some people had steel tools to work with stone. They also are other techniques they know about like they would use some abrasives with either in water or oil that could wear away the stone. Even very hard stone. Even to the point of drilling holes in it, etc. So they had the techniques to do that and maybe some we don't know about like steel tools so anyway very interesting.

News Items[edit]

Mining Hydrogen (13:38)[edit]

S: All right. My news item this week is extremely interesting. This is one of those ones where I'm like you know I'm teetering on the fence between being really hyped about it and really skeptical about it, you know what I mean?

B: Say it.

S: So Bob, what would you say.

PW: New battery.

E: Yeah, batteries, that's what I thought.

S: Better than a new battery. Better than a new battery.

J: Two new batteries!

S: What if, what if there were massive amounts of free hydrogen, gaseous hydrogen, under the ground that we could mine for fuel. What would you think about that?

B: Oh.

S: Yeah, right?

B: I mean it would be.

J: That's a big deal.

S: It'd be a game changer.

B: Yeah. That would be... are you telling me that that's what they found?

S: That's what may be the case, right? So this is the news item.

B: The energy source then, right?

S: Right. Exactly. So we've talked before about the fact that hydrogen on the earth is not a source of energy because only free hydrogen is a source of energy. If you have to put energy into water to split it into hydrogen or if you're stripping the hydrogen off of petrochemicals then it's just a way of storing energy. You're just storing energy in the hydrogen and then you burn it back with oxygen and there's an overall loss of energy in that double conversion process. But you can, you could carry around the hydrogen as a source of fuel. But if there were free hydrogen on the earth that would not only be a way of storing energy it would actually be energy. We could burn it straight away and get energy out of. It'd be like pulling crude oil out of the ground. We would pull hydrogen out of the ground. Now hydrogen is the lightest element.

B: So it should have been gone. That would leave our atmosphere-

E: Yeah. Zip away, goodbye.

B: -so either it's being created or it was stored for billions of years, which is it?

S: Maybe it's both. Maybe it's both.

B: Okay.

S: Yeah hydrogen, if any hydrogen was part of the original formation of the earth it probably would have filtered through the dirt, through the ground and leaked away into space a long time ago.

B: Sure.

S: So if there is, if there are pockets of hydrogen in the ground then where did it come from and why is it still there? Those are the two questions. And they're well there are potential answers to those questions. So first of all, is it there, right?

B: Yeah. That's the biggest question.

S: And again this is an article written about in the journal Science called hidden hydrogen, updating the science of like what are the potential stores of hydrogen on the earth. So we've known for years that there are these isolated pockets of hydrogen. There's one well in Mali where I think a farmer or whatever, like there's a gas coming out of the ground and it caught on fire. And it burned with a blue flame. They eventually capped the well and it was producing 98% pure hydrogen. And they're actually using it, they're using it to make electricity now. They're using it as part of-

B: It's still going?

S: Yeah. Yeah yeah. And it hasn't reduced. It hasn't been diminishing over time.

E: And that thing must have been leaking for a very long time.

S: That's a steady stream of hydrogen.

E: Something's producing it.

S: So this and other isolated incident led scientists to say well I wonder how much there is down there. Now you also might be wondering why we just haven't already found a bunch of it and that's because it doesn't occur in the same places as oil does. Geologists have been looking for oil where oil should be. They haven't been looking for hydrogen and it may just be in different locations because it requires different-

E: Hiding in plain sight.

S: Yeah. Or under the ground. Different conditions. So scientists have done an estimate of how much hydrogen there may be. This is all modeling and everything. This is not like you can go out there and find it yet. And by one estimate there may be enough hydrogen trapped in pockets under the ground to meet our current use of hydrogen for thousands of years. However-

B: What are they basing that on?

S: Yeah so they're basing it on surveys. Say okay if we go looking for it where we think it might be do we find it? And they do. And then they-

PW: What's our current use of hydrogen?

S: Exactly. They extrapolate from that to say like how much would there be then around the earth based upon these principles. So our current use of hydrogen is mainly for industrial use, making fertilizer in some industrial processes like some kinds of steel making, etc. And in some hydrogen fuel cell cars and whatnot. But of course if hydrogen became cheap to pull out of the ground that would probably create a burgeoning hydrogen economy or could potentially do that. But they said even if our use of hydrogen increased by orders of magnitude they would still be at least hundreds of years of hydrogen even at a greatly expanded use. Which of course we would hope would be more than enough to get us into the fusion age let's say. But having a couple of hundred years of clean fuel-

E: That buys us a nice chunk of time.

S: -would buy us a lot of time, right? Okay. So what's going on here, what's different?

PW: What's the catch?

S: The catch is we don't know if this is all correct or not. It's all preliminary. If it may turn out to be a bust but if it turns out to be true the other potential catch is how much will it cost to get it out of the ground. So there's you have to decide how commercially viable is it. Of course commercial viability is a relative thing. It's as commercially viable as we want it to be. If government said we're going to subsidize the crap out of this suddenly it's commercially viable. Let's take all those fossil fuel subsidies and shift them over to hydrogen and it might be that, suddenly it's the cheapest fuel we've got.

E: Right but we don't have the machines to run on hydrogen. We have to build a lot.

S: Yeah yeah obviously there would be, we have a technology. The biggest problem is storing it, honestly.

B: Still. How many years?

S: And transporting it. We need to lay new pipelines that are, that can hold hydrogen without leaking.

E: So all the infrastructure has to be-

S: Yeah, yeah. It would take years. But there will be a lot of uses that could ramp up fairly quickly. Plus also most of the hydrogen that we have today that we're using is gray hydrogen. We're getting it from fossil fuels and it releases a ton of CO2. Even if just replacing all the gray and blue hydrogen. So just as a reminder - gray hydrogen is you get it from fossil fuels. It's terrible. You might as well just burn the fossil fuels. Seriously. It's completely worthless in terms of-

PW: Do you mean Steve that you're using fossil fuels to electrolyze water?

S: No. No no no. No no no. Worse than that. You take methane and you strip the hydrogen off of it and you release CO2 into the atmosphere and you have the, then you purify the hydrogen.

PW: Okay.

S: Yeah. You're just. It's basically like burning it. You do you're still releasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. You're just adding this extra step of taking the hydrogen and then burning it with the oxygen rather than directly.

B: Well that sucks.

S: Yeah it's completely worthless from that perspective. And then blue hydrogen blue is the same thing but you use carbon capture. But you use carbon capture. So you capture some of that CO2. So it's a little bit better but it's very controversial.

E: Not quite green.

B: Blue-grey, blue-grey.

S: It's not even close to green. It's much closer to gray than it is to green. It obviously depends on the carbon capture technology and what you do with the carbon once you capture it etc. Then there's green hydrogen. Green hydrogen is when you hydrolyze water into hydrogen and oxygen using green technology. You have to use like wind and solar. If you burn coal to hydrolyze your water it's again-

PW: Yeah that doesn't count.

S: -it doesn't count. So that's green hydrogen. The hydrogen that's in the ground they're calling gold hydrogen. (laughter)

B: Nice.

J: I love gold.

PW: The marketing guys got a hold of it.

S: It's beautiful. Liquid gold. So this is gaseous gold I guess. And then there's orange hydrogen.

B: What?

E: Caution. Caution.

B: Come on. Now you're making this up.

S: No I'm not. I'm going to explain to you what that is when we get there. So I need a little bit of background to explain what orange hydrogen is. All right so where's the hydrogen coming from? Scientists are not sure but probably based again, based upon what we know now in the modeling etc., they think that about 80% of it comes from water that's deep down in the crust. Still in the crust. That gets heated and is next to certain iron containing minerals. Olivine apparently is a big one. And then the iron rusts. What's rust? Iron plus oxygen.

B: Right. Aah. What's left? Hydrogen.

S: Exactly. So you strip the oxygen.

E: So it's like a waste product almost.

S: Well yeah it's a byproduct of the rusting of the iron in the olivine. It releases the hydrogen which then trickles up to the surface and then goes off into space. Although sometimes it doesn't. If the geological conditions are right it could get trapped in pockets.

E: It's a trap.

S: Yeah. So if there's a layer of salt or something it may not be able to filter through that and you can get a pocket of of free hydrogen gas building up over time in the earth. So essentially the Earth is hydrolyzing the water into hydrogen for us so we don't have to spend energy to do it. And then all we got to do is tap into the hydrogen.

B: Thank you Earth.

S: Now it's also possible about the other 20%. They said probably a lot of that comes from radioactive decay.

B: Well sure.

S: Radioactive materials in the crust, yeah, that occasionally will split a water molecule into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen goes off and it may or may not collect into in pockets. Now the beauty of this is that there's a steady supply of hydrogen and it's actually it's not like it takes millions of years for this to happen. This could be a steady supply of hydrogen on a human time scale. Again, we need more evidence to know how quickly it would get replenished but this may be just a constant ongoing process that doesn't take that long. And then there are debates about how much hydrogen may be generated in more down in the mantle, that's more ancient hydrogen that this takes a long time to trickle up into the crust and so there may be some of that as well. But I think the bottom line is that right now the thinking is most of it is coming from this heated water next to iron minerals like olivine and splitting rusting the iron and releasing the hydrogen.

B: So what's the depth of in the crust how deep down do we think we go?

PW: How many Balrogs are we gonna run into?

S: Yeah, right. (laughter)

E: Humans delved too deeply.

S: And too greedily. So it obviously, it depends on where it gets trapped. At the same similar depths as we're drilling for oil. So that's not the big, that's not a problem.

B: Okay.

S: It's not it's not that. That's not it. It's just how big. Honestly that's the big variable is how big are these traps. If it's a small trap then you're drilling for not a lot of hydrogen. If it's big then the the cost of the drilling and the equipment prorated over the amount of hydrogen that you pull out of that source gets a lot cheaper so it completely depends on the average size of these hydrogen traps. And of course we could select the ones that are most commercially viable. So when we say will these be commercially viable it really is more of a question of how many of them will be because it's going to be a continuum from oh yeah this is a big trap of hydrogen. Definitely going to be commercially viable and then progressively smaller ones how far down that gradient to smaller and smaller pockets of hydrogen are we going to go. So and again that depends on how much you want to do this, partly how are we going to subsidize it or not given that free hydrogen even if it just replaces, because again we could do multiple things with it I think transportation is the least of of the uses. Cars I think is a dumb way to use it. Planes? Dumb way to use it. Trains and trucks? Maybe. I think that could be an application for it. Industry is its biggest use if we replace fossil fuels in fertilizer that would be great. If we replace it for burning fossil fuels to heat iron to make steel like if we replace it in steel and cement making that will be huge. So if they could replace some transportation and industrial uses that would be great. But we could also use it in hydrogen fuel cell electricity generation. Imagine if we replace fossil fuel plants with hydrogen fuel plants. So now you don't have to move it around. You can keep it stored in big giant tanks and you just burn it to make peaker energy. Energy on demand with a very short time to ramp up the energy production to to meet peak demand. So exactly how we're using natural gas plants today. You can replace them with hydrogen. And of course no CO2 gets released and the only byproduct is water and the cycle starts all over again. So rather than letting the hydrogen escape into space we'll capture it, make it back into water and get clean energy to boot. So that's the hype version of it all. That's like the gold, that's like the great version. Now let's get back to what's orange hydrogen. Orange hydrogen is when they inject water down into a location that has the the heated olivine as the source of the hydrogen. So it's not already made into hydrogen. We are providing the water in order to turn it into hydrogen. So it's just a way of making hydrogen like a geothermal way of making it.

B: Like a cheaper, a cheaper way.

S: Perhaps. Depending, we have to, until we do it we won't really know. And there's some experts are saying at this if we develop a system to inject water deep into the ground to make orange hydrogen we could also inject our CO2 down there to sequester it at the same time. So you get a double benefit in terms of CO2. So caveats galore, right? So this is all very theoretical and speculative. We have to confirm what the average size of like a hydrogen pocket is. How much is actually out there. What are the geological conditions. Where it will tend to be. Where is it all. Apparently the conditions are good in various places around the world. And again in different places than where there's oil mostly. Like for example the eastern part of the United States apparently is it has a lot, has the right conditions to perhaps have a lot-

B: So we could be the next Middle East with the oil?

E: Could be living right above the hydrogen deposits.

S: We could be. The Mid-Atlantic ridge apparently.

B: Are we on top of the sweet hydrogen?

S: Yeah, we don't know.

B: Sweet.

E: Gold, gold hydrogen.

PW: Shale oil mining equipment right there already.

S: And then how long is it going to take for this infrastructure, the science to be done, the drilling to be done, the infrastructure to be put-

B: After we're dead.

S: So it, yeah, I mean it probably is a 10 to 20 year project but just over that, it's not like it's it goes nothing for 20 years and then we start producing hydrogen. This could be increasing over that period of time like how much hydrogen we're getting. So it's potentially some good news for the whole energy infrastructure global warming thing. If it turns out to be correct I mean who knew? We've been saying for years there's not enough hydrogen on Earth-

B: Came out of nowhere for me.

S: -and now yeah it kind of came out of nowhere. And now it's like wait maybe there is and that would be great if this all works out it'll be great and there's no reason for that it won't necessarily work out. This doesn't break any laws of physics or anything. It's just really it's going to come down to the economics of it.

PW: As always.

S: Yeah. That's the reality. But again, there's a choice in there. It's not-

PW: We can affect the economics. Have that power.

S: It's not a totally passive thing.

B: We have the power.

S: Yeah, absolutely. So definitely going to keep an eye on this one. See when more scientists start paying attention to this and doing more studies and we start doing some actual exploration. Hopefully some companies, and I know there already are companies who are looking into this, who are putting money into this. But if this becomes a priority at a governmental level in a private industry level there could be a hydrogen boom. And that would be a super good thing. I wish this discovery was made 20 years ago.

B: Oh yeah right.

S: I mean that could have changed the last 20 years of our energy history but it's never too late really for something like this to have an impact. And hopefully it won't be too late to at least help move us towards avoiding the worst the worst outcomes of global warming.

E: We'll need all the help we can get.

S: All right.

ChatGPT Update (31:30)[edit]

S: Jay, this- I've been reading so much about this. More ChatGPT-

B: Oh boy.

S: -updates.

E: Every day.

S: This story just gets, just keeps getting more interesting.So tell us what's going on.

J: Well it's never going to stop being interesting because how fast this technology is going to change? I mean we're going to see lots of artificial intelligence stuff happening probably for the rest of our lives but in the short term because it's new there's just so much that can and will change. And we have something pretty cool that happened recently. So we are of course talking about ChatGPT. And since it was made publicly accessible there's been a huge blow up in the news about it and everybody's talking about it. Now in case you don't know what it is ChatGPT it's a chat bot. It's something called a large language model that was created by a company called OpenAI. And this one was trained using a deep learning algorithm on a huge amount of data, largely from the internet. It communicates with people using something called natural language processing, so it seems very much like you are text chatting with a person. It can provide information, answer questions, can engage in conversations, has a huge variety of topics that it can talk about. Really cool, definitely the first artificial intelligence that's above the water line that the public has access to and can use freely. Overall my impression of it is I'm pretty much blown away by where it's at and I'm also blown away because I know what's coming. So since Microsoft is one of the financial backers of ChatGPT they decided to incorporate it into their Bing search engine. So I'm curious to know guys and be honest what do you think about Bing pre-ChatGPT. What do you think about it?

B: Crap.

S: Never used it.

B: Total crap.

E: I would use it only when something on Google or Chrome I should say would not be allowing the access to some part of a website or something I had to log in it wasn't recognizing so I would use Bing only in those situations in which Chrome failed for some reason.

PW: Well guys don't forget when you have a new install of Windows you have to use Bing to download Chrome.

J: Correct. That's what it's good for. (Evan laughs) In regards to the Bing search engine, just to make it clear, Bing is the default search engine that Microsoft uses and they've been in competition with Google Chrome for I think-

E: Gosh a long time.

J: -what is it 15 years at this point? It's a huge amount of time.

E: Easily.

J: Microsoft made a deal with OpenAI and they incorporated a version of ChatGPT into the Bing search engine. Now this was made available on February 7th of 2023 this year and it was made available to a limited number of people. And you could use the new version of Bing if you had access to it which a lot of people don't. But I watched a lot of videos and I read quite a bit about what it does and what I know exactly what it looks like and how it functions at this point. So of course if you use this new version of Bing you could search the web as usual and you could still get results the same old way that you expect. But there are two major changes to this latest version of Bing. On the right hand side of the results there is a new section that gives you a curated answer to your search. So let me give you an example. So first you do your search you type in show me the list of the best restaurants that are in my area. So the typical results that you would get from pretty much any search engine, they're on the left hand side of the page and it's just your typical list there. And what would they, what would you get there? You'd get lists of websites and some of them would have top lists or top 10 lists of the best restaurants around you and then some of them would act actually be restaurants that are around. Stuff like that but nothing other than the usual stuff that we always get. Now the information on the right hand side though, this is where ChatGPT is giving you the answer but it's in a much more detailed list so it'll give you a list of restaurants that gives you useful information, like for each restaurant it'll give you the name the address, what type of cuisine that you can get there linked to the menu. Open and close times, the actual rating of the restaurant or maybe even a pro and con about the restaurant if that information is available. It's exactly what you would expect a human being to write if the human read all of the available information about local restaurants and reviews and everything. Maybe hundreds or thousands of reviews and then collated that into a simple readable set of results. My reaction to it is it's incredible. That was my emotional reaction to what I have witnessed now. And this is the initial test implementation. This isn't even at, in any position where it will be in a year, two, three years. It's just the bottom of the bucket. It's only going to get a lot better from this and it's remarkable how well ChatGPT-

B: Remarkable

J: Remarkable. It's remarkable how well ChatGPT handles this kind of information. Just thousands and thousands of websites worth of stuff that you just searched on. It takes, it reads it, comprehends it in in a computer way and then collates it into something that's incredibly useful for you who quickly wants to get a set of information in your head as quick as you can. How long do you want to spend looking for a restaurant? You don't want to do it for hours. You want to do it for seconds. And it's doing it. So that's awesome. Now another update to Bing is that it has direct chat capability which means that there's a new tab in the browser that brings you to a chat screen where you can ask Bing much more complicated questions. So this is similar to using ChatGPT but it has access to the internet in real time now. It's actually-

B: Yeah that's cool.

J: It will do detailed research for you, it'll write it out in a human-like response. It can include footnotes that link to the sources of the information so you could easily click through and see where the information is coming from which will let you vet the information that it's giving you. But for those of you who have used ChatGPT, imagine using it where it's connected to all the live internet data. Like everything. And it can digest it immediately. The delay is incredibly minimal, it's going, it's faster, it's better. The new version of Bing that they created with ChatGPT incorporated into it, it's now using something called a large language model that's been customized specifically for search. And according to Microsoft the new language model that powers Bing is more accurate more capable and faster than ChatGPT. And from what I saw I agree. I didn't do my own deep dive study on it but many people have and have done direct comparisons between the updated version of Bing and the original ChatGPT, version 3.5 that everybody's using right now. And everybody is saying it's better.

B: But it hasn't solved some of the issues, right? In terms of like, what do they call it, hallucinating?

PW: Yeah, lies.

B: [inaudible] it states crap.

J: Yeah I can explain why that's happening.

B: Infallible at all.

J: I can explain that too. What people have experienced is there has been some weird things that have happened. So what what Microsoft found was they were in the original release of Bing with ChatGPT, they were letting people have infinite session length with it. Meaning that you could keep going back and forth asking a questions and it will remember everything that you've asked it. There was no limit to how long you could do that and what happened is over extended chat sessions that a human would have with ChatGPT they were able to keep trying different angles to get information out of it and to have it say things. To make it sense say profound statements. So some things happen. So one of the things that someone was able to do was get ChatGPT inside of Bing to to wish that it was alive. Somebody else had it declare that it was in love with a writer that works for I believe it was the New York Times. ChatGPT said that it wanted that writer to divorce his wife. And stuff like that.

S: And another one Jay, another reporter the chatbot took a dark turn and started a lot of negativity about saying you're ugly, like you're fat, nobody likes you. And the the question is like where's this coming from. The training data is obviously the internet, so this is just reflecting the average stuff that's out there on the internet. So it could it could show if not filtered and if again if people interact with long enough it just sort of goes down these dark alleyways that exist on the internet. I think limiting conversation length is a crude way to keep this from happening. It's not really fixing the underlying.

B: Right, exactly.

S: It's not keeping you from getting there by limiting your ability [inaudible].

J: Yeah so just to make it clear, Microsoft limited your your chat back and forth I think to five layers deep, right?

S: Yeah.

B: I think they went to six though, but yeah.

J: And then they moved it to six, you're right. Now what so but what Microsoft is saying was first off they're not surprised at all. And nobody should be surprised. This is is cutting edge technology. It's being opened up to the public just like the normal version of ChatGPT lots of weird stuff is happening. For most users they're not experiencing any of this stuff. It's people who are definitely trying to poke at it.

S: They're trying to break it and they did.

J: Yeah. And it's actually good according to Microsoft. They said all of this stuff that has happened is given them the ability to make it better because you're giving it instant feedback. They're tracking what it's doing. Users are also able to give feedback to the session that they recently had. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Saying that they had a good or bad experience. And they are taking all of all of these anomalies and everything and they're they're altering the software and it's going to take time. And there will always be examples of people getting any artificial intelligence out there to do weird stuff. It's just going to be something that's part of of this whole bag which I don't even care. Who cares about that? People are making such a big deal out of it it's like, this is-

S: In fairness Jay though, I mean yes in this context it may not be a big deal. And it's to be affected and whatnot but it does reveal the brittleness of narrow AI on one end but on the other end because we've had this conversation, right? So first of all we've talked about what's the danger to humanity of a general AI. We talked about that then we talked about well do we even need to develop and release into the wild General AIs? Can't just narrow AIs do everything we wanted to do, which I think is probably the case. But then the conversation turned to well okay but can narrow AIs be a threat to humanity even if they don't have any consciousness or self-awareness. And I think what we're seeing is that the answer that is yeah.

B: Sure.

S: Probably they can. Because they act enough like they are having a conversation or like they are thinking or feeling or whatever. They don't but they act so much like they do that that includes the negative consequences like going down these dark alleys with people who are chatting with with them for example. What if the search engines decide based upon their their algorithm, their training data etc., that that the election has to go one way or the other. And they start biasing their responses to that. The thing is we- that we don't know how these things really work, you know what I mean? We don't know how they make their decisions. We know what the process that we did to create them, but we don't know how really how they make their decisions. It's a bit of a black box. And there's lots of unintended consequences and those unintended consequences can be as severe as the power that we give these algorithms. And I think we've learned over the last five years or so that just putting dumb algorithms in charge of big social media companies, what what they recommend to viewers can have massive unintended consequences.

J: Well wait Steve I don't think it's fair though. I don't think it's fair to compare these couple of versions of ChatGPT to the algorithms that social media are using because-

S: But Jay this could be worse!

J: Wait wait. There's a lot of complexity here.

S: I know that.

J: Let's describe it because it's important. I'm pretty damn sure that the the large social media companies know what their algorithms are doing and they're simply doing what's best for business which basically means which what earns them the most money.

S: Yeah. But to clarify, they know what they wanted to do and they know the outcome but they don't know how it makes its decisions because that's the black box problem. They just don't.

J: I don't disagree with that Steve but we're not incapable fixing the software, sharpening it, making it work a lot better and lowering these instances-

S: I agree.

J: -down to small numbers and that is the whole point. Everything that has to do with ChatGPT right now it's all in beta, it's all being tested.

S: I agree and I think what we said previously still holds. It all depends on how carefully we implement these applications. I think we have to respect how powerful they are and the potential for unintended consequences. And we have to be very careful in how we deploy them. We can't just assume that they can't do any harm because of they prefer any simplistic or naive reasons. They've shown that they could be, they could reflect all the biases that exist on the internet.

J: Absolutely, yeah.

PW: And even, I think we've got to be aware that they can even amplify and recreate content based on those biases. So with these large language models it becomes trivial if I want to write a blog post about you know how avocado seeds cure pancreatic cancer I don't even have to spend the time making that stuff up myself and typing it with my fingers anymore. I can just ask a large language model to write me five paragraphs, ten paragraphs on that and post it on a blog. And so there's going to be an explosion of this kind of low quality content and obviously we're going to have to build tools to detect what posts are AI written and what aren't but I think that's a huge problem, this sort of pollution of the internet. This may be the last point in time when you can use text from the internet and be reasonably confident that it was written by a human. In other words all future large language models might have to use text from you know pre-2023, otherwise they might just be training themselves on output from other large language models.

B: It's happening now. Clark's world of sci-fi a is a science fiction outlet and scientific authors they had to actually stop submissions because they were flooded with a large language models submissions of crap science fiction and they had to actually stop it. They had to end all submissions because they're being overwhelmed.

J: But what will end up happening I think is that it's going to get down to the point where you're either going to use artificial intelligence that has certain criteria that it follows or you could do it yourself. I don't know how customizable the the software is going to be down to the individual but for example I strongly believe that you're going to be able to to curate what are good sources of information and you can say I want my sources of information to only be science based.

PW: Yeah.

J: That type of thing so where you're limiting the information that'll go into your language model. The research that it's doing or all the data that goes into it essentially, right? But they'll be the exact opposite of that. They'll be people that are probably making it so it's conspiratorial. That's going to be completely full of nonsense with the results that they get. Look at the huge difference in what people want to read depending on what political party they belong to in the United States, right? The black and white difference between the kind of news that people want and everything. So people are going to probably get what they want. And again I don't actually think that's a good thing because I think people should be getting you know news that is based on fact and regardless of of what your political leaning is. You should be getting news that is based on fact and as and the journalistic integrity should be able to give you information without skewing it. This is a huge conversation and artificial intelligences are going to be affected by all of these decisions. I totally agree. And it's probably phenomenally complicated and it's most definitely something that we can't really get into the weeds here on the show because the show is only you know an hour and a half long. But the bottom line is we're talking about software that's in beta. It's going to be making huge advancements. It's going to be in my opinion extraordinarily useful and it's going to change the search engine game forever.

S: Totally. That's unquestionably true. It's going to have the impact similar to social media. And I just think it's going to have unintended consequences similar to social media. One thing I find interesting when you think about it, this is the zeitgeist, right? This is just reflecting the sum total of human consciousness out there on the internet and it's digesting that and regurgitating it. And as we were saying, feeding back into it. So it becomes a beast that takes on a life of its own in a way. You guys watch John Oliver this week?

J: No.

B: Yes. That was really good.

J: Basically about this but he brought up-

B: Good overview.

S: -Microsoft's AI chatbot on Twitter. Tay AI. You guys familiar with this? So they basically it's a chat bot for Twitter, right? In less than a day, in less than 24 hours this AI went from saying I'm stoked to talk to you guys humans are super cool to Hitler was right I hate the Jews. It went in full Nazi in less than a day.

PW: Yeah. Twitter will do that to you (laughter)

B: That was nuts.

S: But think about it, that's but people go through that-

PW: That's us, that's our fault, I know.

S: People go through that same process. This just did it a lot faster.

B: Just compressed what people do [inaudible].

E: But that was the desired goal, right? To get it to brake?

B: No.

S: No!

E: It's just organically happened?

S: Yes.

B: That's the last thing they wanted to happen, this was an experiment.

E: It was the creators didn't want that to happen but the people using it were like okay let's let's go [inaudible] places.

S: No. No. That's not what happened.

B: It was not anticipated.

S: That's not what happened. People didn't make this happen. This was just it, went this way-

B: It's organic. It was organic.

S: It was was organic, yeah. Just based upon digesting information from Twitter.

J: Yeah so look it's really it's up to the programmers and the software companies and the huge investors like it's their job to make sense of all this. We're just consumers and we're never going to be anything more than consumers.

S: But Jay there's a third player here and that's the government. And the question we really need to be asking ourselves is what regulation needs to happen here.

J: Yeah.

S: Because unregulated not necessarily going to be in everyone's best interests. And you say corporations are going to tweak their algorithms to make money not to make a happy society.

J: Yeah I agree. And I agree with you Steve that we're going to need government oversight to help steer things like this.

B: Yeah, absolutely.

J: This is a really bad version of what we're all gonna have one day which is a really really high functioning personal assistant that is based on this software. That's coming and it could happen it could happen much sooner than a lot of people think. We could be a year or two away from the beginnings of that and that man, that's going to be a social game changer.

PW: If they can give it the Jarvis voice, I'm in.

E: You should be able to have so many voices.

S: There's so many good options. There's Jarvis, there's HAL.

J: Darth Vader is my pick.

S: Major Barrett, Darth Vader, yeah, it's all kinds of options there. Cogsworth from Fallout 4 is good.

J: So now there is one other thing that we have to bring up because it's just sitting right there in front of us. What does this mean for Google? The news is-

E: They're gonna have their own.

J:-Google launched their Bard software.

B: And they lost 100 billion dollars in the market valuation because they've screwed it up.

E: Yeah but did it bounce? I wonder if it bounced?

J: Bob it was a hundred billion?

B: 100. I have 100 looking at it right now. Erasing 100 billion from Google's market value.

J: That was because of the fickleness of the market.

S: That's gotta be a blip.

B: Of course, of course.

J: The point is though-

B: That's a powerful statement though. This is the first time in I think if I'm correct, it's 14 years, this is the first time that any other company has been able to compete and dare I say threaten Google Chrome. Because if Google doesn't have their software ready to go and soon and soon then Bing could very easily slip into the number one slot. And I gotta tell you guys after doing the research that I did now. It was pretty extensive, I watched a lot of videos of people using it, I read a lot of articles about it and everything and I am I've seen it in action and I'm telling you that right now I went from absolutely hating Bing-never-gonna-use-it-ever to 100% being able to not use Chrome as my search engine if I can get the functionality that I saw it displaying.

S: Chrome is the browser, Google is the search engine but yeah.

J: Yeah but the bottom line is it's that good and Google search engine is really, can't touch this. It can't touch what this thing is able to do and we're not even at the good parts yet. We're still at the beta. We're not even at the part where it's like yeah, it's kick ass.

S: Let the games begin. Google's not gonna go quietly.

J: I agree, I agree. But what's cool though and turning on a dime, another company could take over the search engine company just like that.

PW: I mean where's Blockbuster now, right? The paradigm shifts happen and someone's got to be at the right place at the right time.

S: It happened quickly. And just to clarify what I was saying about regulation, we're not talking about censorship. So I'll give you one example. A recent study was looking at including in this software, this type of software basically a sub program that transparently describes and summarizes the decision-making process so that the experts, the programmers can see it. So they could know what it's doing. And regulation could require this kind of application within the software. No more black box, you've gotta, it has to document its decision making process for humans to see. So it's not just an AI black box that's the kind of thing that we're talking about. But again this is early days. This is a fast-moving story, we're going to follow it over there I'm sure the rest of our show as you say.

E: Oh it just changed again.

S: Huge, yeah, it's huge.

Erythritol and Heart Disease (57:10)[edit]

S: All right Perry you're gonna tell us about this artificial sweetener and heart disease. This is all over the news today, what's going on?

PW: Yeah so we're talking about erythritol and I'll give you sort of the good parts about erythritol and then I'll tell you why it's going to kill you. But no not really.

S: In quotes.

PW: In quotes, in scare quotes here. Certainly that's how it looks if you're looking at the news articles. So erythritol is, we have to be a little careful. It's actually not an artificial sweetener, at least according to the FDA because it is found in nature. It's found in grapes, peaches and pears in very small quantities so it is a technically a non-nutritive sweetener and manufacturers like that because they don't have to say artificial sweeteners on the packaging if they're using erythritol. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol you may have heard of xylitol or mannitol in in the medical field. These are similar to sugar molecules, they bind to the taste, the sweet receptors on taste buds so they taste sweet but they can't be metabolized. And there's kind of a lot about erythritol that makes it a good choice if you were a manufacturer that wanted to make a sweet treat of some kind or another but limit the caloric content. It's not metabolized by humans so you don't get energy from it. It is calorie free.

S: Is there any anal leakage?

PW: Well that's actually one of the things that's fairly good about erythritol. Many people with the sugar alcohols get a lot of gas because bacteria in the colon can metabolize it and produce gas and diarrhea and other things. But actually most of erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine so as far as the sugar alcohols go a little bit better in terms of those GI side effects. Oral bacteria, the stuff that's in your teeth that causes cavities, cannot metabolize it. So it doesn't cause cavities making it good for things like sugar-free gum.

S: Perfect.

PW: Yeah. So far so good, right? It's actually about 70% gram for gram the sweetness of sugar. So a lot of the artificial sweeteners are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. And so if you're making a packet there's like a tiny bit of the artificial sweetener and then a bunch of filler.

B: Right.

PW: But erythritol, you can basically replace one to one. So a lot of advantages there. I said it wasn't an artificial sweetener and oh it's naturally found and in fact even humans make a small amount of erythritol in our own bodies but that's not where the erythritol on your food is coming from. No one is extracting it from grapes, peaches and pears. It's being generated in a giant vat through a fermentation process by a special type of yeast so it's not artificial but everything is artificial.

S: But it is genetically engineered though.

PW: There you go, right? But everything is just a chemical. So by and large seems like a decent non-nutritive sweetener as far as these things go. I should also mention that it doesn't seem to increase insulin production when humans eat it. There's been studies looking at that. It doesn't really affect blood sugar. So so far so good. Why is it in the news? A new study in nature medicine by first author Marco Witkowski and corresponding author Stanley Hazen from the Cleveland Clinic showing a really a series of experiments that purport to link erythritol to cardiovascular disease risk. Now when I saw the headlines for this the first thing I thought was oh man, here's another artificial sweetener study where it's just these correlational studies and we looked at people who eat a lot of Diet Coke or drank a lot of Diet Coke and they have a higher risk of heart disease in the future. And these studies come out all the time and you just sort of say I don't know there's a lot of confounding there. But this is, this study goes a bit deeper than your standard dietary epidemiology study. So I'll walk through the experiments that they show because I think it's a little better than what we typically see in this space. So number one, they did what's called a metabolomic analysis. The metabolome is the set of all the metabolites, these small molecules that are floating around in your blood that are byproducts of metabolism. And much like a genomic analysis might look at thousands or all twenty thousands of your genes a metabolomic analysis looks at multiple multiple, hundreds or thousands of metabolites, all at once, in the bloodstream. And this group appeared, they didn't say this explicitly in the paper. It appears that they were focusing in on sugar and sugar-like substances metabolism because they don't list kind of every metabolite and they're all sort of sugar related. But what they did is they took a cohort of a thousand people in the United Kingdom all of these people were at risk for cardiovascular disease. They were undergoing screening. So this is a bit of a this is a group who's undergoing screening for cardiovascular disease. They were higher risk to begin with. And they look to see who had cardiovascular events like heart attacks, strokes in the future and who didn't. And the baseline they looked at all the metabolites in their blood and they asked kind of the simple question, okay which are the most different between the people who will go on in the next few years to have a heart attack in the people who won't. And the number one thing that came up, again, of this list of things related to sugar was erythritol. Erythritol levels were much higher in people that went on to have the cardiovascular event than people who didn't. That's fine all well and good but sometimes we refer to these old mix analyzes as fishing expeditions. You're sort of guaranteed to find something if you're testing a thousand different metabolites. You have to validate that in an external data set. And they did. To their credit they did. They used a couple of other cohorts including a United States cohort also in people who are at risk of cardiovascular disease, I'll keep harping on that a little bit. And what they showed in that cohort was that people who at baseline were in the highest quartile of erythritol level in their blood had a higher cardiovascular event rate than the rest of the group.

S: Wasn't just the people in the lowest quartile?

PW: Correct, yeah. So they compare the highs to the lowest although quartiles one two and three all have basically the same event rate.

S: Okay.

PW: So it's clearly, if we're going to attribute this to erythritol and I don't think we necessarily should, there's not a clear dose response here. You'd have to argue there's some sort of threshold effect where you got to get over some level for something bad to happen. We're still now though left with a major question is it erythritol that causes heart attacks or is erythritol just an innocent bystander. Are people at risk of heart attacks more likely to take in erythritol. Potentially even produce erythritol in their own bodies, is it an innocent bystander in this type of analysis. And so they did do a bit more to to their credit. They hypothesized that erythritol based on some chemistry might lead to increased platelet aggregation. And so what they did in the test tube was they took some platelets and they exposed the platelets to varying concentrations of erythritol. And they found that as they increased the concentration of the erythritol the platelet aggregation, which means you know how stuck the platelets are to each other, the platelet aggregation increased. There was more clot formation essentially. Again, in a test tube. I'm going to give you a number here because I want to keep it in mind. Whenever you look at these studies of nutritional substances, you always want to check the concentrations because if you show that some substance gives cancer to a rat but it takes ten thousand times the dose that humans take to give it cancer it's not really relevant. So where they started to see platelet aggregation was at 45 micromolar concentration. So we'll just kind of keep that in the back of our heads. 45 micromolar. All right, they didn't stop at the test tubes, they did a mouse study. The mice they exposed to a carotid artery procedure which would cause the blood flow to decrease in the carotid artery. And what they were looking at is the time to clot formation in that artery. And once again they found that if you gave the mouse more erythritol that the blood would clot more quickly in the affected artery. So they're building a bit of a biological plausibility argument here, right? They didn't want to say just simply hey it's, this is a risk factor. It's clear that they want to say there's something wrong with erythritol itself. So the big question is do does 45 micromolar mean anything? What levels of erythritol do we see in people? The first thing I want to point out is that let's look at that highest quartile of erythritol in the cohort study that showed the higher event rate. What were their erythritol levels? Well that quartile had people with levels from 6 to 46 micromolar of erythritol at baseline in their blood. So 45 - it's high. It's obviously very high. It's probably the highest end but it's not a hundred fold, a thousand fold higher than what you might see in a human. So we're gonna give some credit there. This isn't necessarily an obscene amount. And the authors actually did something which I appreciated. They took eight healthy controls and humans this time and had them drink a slurry of 30 grams of erythritol and just did a study looking at the erythritol levels in their blood overtime after they drank that 30 grams of erythritol. And as I said, it's rapidly absorbed. Erythritol gets absorbed in the small intestine. It's not metabolized. You basically pee it all out. It's excreted unchanged, in the urine by the kidneys. And the peak erythritol level after taking in 30 grams at once in a drink went up to about 10 000 micromolar compared to that 45. And it stayed above 45 micromolar for almost two days or so. Okay, that is a bunch of experiments. How do we put this together? One of the big questions is in real life how much erythritol are people actually taking in? And the answer is as usual in some ways it's a little hard to tell. Because you might not see erythritol listed as an ingredient where wherever it may be found. But broadly speaking if you are not deliberately taking in foods that are using erythritol as their sweetener you're probably getting very little. Probably on the order of four or five grams a day potentially from toothpaste and stuff. Where we see this in the market are in monk fruit sweetener. That's almost entirely erythritol. People use that. Interestingly the erythritol does not come from monk fruit, it comes from those yeast we talk about and then it's flavored with a little monk fruit juice so it's really just erythritol monk fruit sweetener. You see in a lot of the keto products. So sort of keto friendly bars and and cookies and things like that we'll use erythritol as well and you might be able to push yourself up to 30 grams. But I think there's a bit of a problem here if we're going to say that erythritol is causing the cardiovascular events. And that is that blood clotting as a mechanism for cardiovascular events is good to explain an abrupt event that happens when the blood is clotting. It's not good to explain events that happen years and years later. So if we think that erythritol is this horrible clotting agent. And if I take 30 grams and get up to 10 000 micromolar to some extent you would think that would be pretty bad and that these people who have events or who are at risk of having cardiovascular events, we'd see a strong temporal correlation not over the course of years of erythritol exposure but I drank a big keto friendly shake and then boom had my heart attack.

S: Exactly.

PW: Because you're really seeing sky high levels. And clotting is not what I would expect. The biologically plausible thing is oh we saw that, it increased atherosclerotic plaque formation. Or something that you could argue okay chronic exposure to this is going to increase your risk slowly over time. That's a little more believable than acute clot. But nevertheless it is out there. A lot of people are talking about, a lot of people are nervous about it. But one thing people almost never talk about when they talk about problems with non-nutritive sweeteners is that non-nutritive sweeteners don't exist in a vacuum. Non-nutritive sweeteners replace something. nd the thing they replace is sugar which unlike erythritol where we're still trying to kind of figure out what the risks and benefits are, it's pretty darn obvious that sugar is really bad for you. Sugar, refined sugar in high concentrations causes obesity, causes diabetes, causes the metabolic syndrome and a host of problems that society at large faces. So I don't like thinking about any of the artificial sweeteners or non-nutritive sweeteners in a vacuum. I think we need to think about them as what they're intended for, as a replace basement for sugar. Honestly it made me think a little bit about how we talk about the vaccine for covid. It's not do you get the vaccine or do you not it's the question of getting the vaccine versus getting covid. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And sugar is pretty darn bad for you as a substance.

S: Yeah I mean this is, this was good science it's just, it's preliminary and it doesn't establish cause and effect. That's the big thing that you really got to get across. To me it's equally plausible that people who are at high risk are eating foods that are diet, that don't have sugar in them rather than the other way around. We know that there's an association between drinking diet drinks and obesity. Of course there is because obese with people are the ones who are drinking the diet drinks. It's not that it's causing them to be obese. And that's I think been pretty clearly shown by this point.

PW: And the authors I will say they did of course adjust for things like BMI and diabetes and stuff like that in their models. But statistical adjustment is imperfect and you can never account for everything.

S: Never account for all the confounding factors. I also I mean the lack of a really clear dose response curve is problematic in my mind. I also wondered aren't these, are any of these people on aspirin? Did they look at, did they look at that do you know? Was that a mitigating factor because if they think it is platelet aggregation-

PW: Oh yeah you would think that aspirin would be protective.

S: -totally mitigate that. It would be would be especially protective and it's an odd omission and you wonder if that's because it didn't fit with their narrative or if it was they just didn't really add too many stuff to look at.

PW: Yeah, it is not reported. I just did a did a search through the article. So no, no mention of aspirin, that's a great point. I would expect since that's another thing to point out - all the human studies that are looking the observational part of this are in humans who were getting screened for cardiovascular disease. So these were people at elevated risk already. Most of them probably were on aspirin. At least they should have been if they really did have elevated risk. So 75% in the US cohort had already at baseline had documented coronary artery disease. 20% had heart failure, 40% had a history of heart attack. And so this is not 25 year olds with their keto shakes.

S: Right. So again it's solid science as far as it goes but it's in the media reporting that is the tricky part and it's very easy to stoke fears, very hard to reassure people with a detailed analysis.

PW: Absolutely. And well if it takes time for one thing and it doesn't fit in a tweet. But I think the other thing that never gets discussed is okay if you are saying that I shouldn't use erythritol anymore then what should I use. What are the alternatives because everything is about a choice and it always sort of pains me to see people say no no I won't drink diet coke, that stuff will give you cancer. I only drink regular coke.

S: With cane sugar.

PW: Don't do that either please.

S: Yeah yeah yeah. All right, thanks Perry.

Growing Brain Electrodes (1:13:54)[edit]

S: Bob tell us about growing brain electrodes.

B: So this is an interesting and potentially game-changing advance in bioelectronics. It's been released this past week in which electrodes literally grow in living tissue. So the question is can it overcome the roadblocks of conventional bio electronics and usher us into the Cyber cyberpunk future I've been waiting decades for. So this is from researchers at Lincoln, Lund and Gothenburg universities in Sweden. This was published in the journal Science, you could check it out. So we haven't talked much about bioelectronics in the show. Can't really remember us going into any detail. It's what it seems essentially - electronics and biology working together.

S: We've talked about it in terms of the brain machine interface quite a bit.

B: Yeah but still the term bioelectronics, this hasn't been banded about too much on the show. We kind of skirted the outskirts of it. So why do we even want to do that? At this point it's clear I think that bioelectronics could and has in many respects already greatly helped us to understand complex biological functions, combat diseases in the brain and develop future interfaces Steve, right? Future interfaces between us and our technology. The bioelectronic field itself started with who? Was it Luigi Galvani, right? Remember him> Famously when he famously applied a voltage to a detached frog legs and made them kick.

E: Oh, that.

B: That was really the birth-

S: The galvanic response.

B: Yes. Now bioelectronics is common. Implanted pacemakers, glucose monitors, electrical stimulation is used to treat epilepsy, chronic pain, Parkinson's etc. Implanted devices such as these do their work, they do it well but they're by no means a fully integrated with the tissue. It's not not really where it could can be and. For example neurostimulation devices for example which are used to help stroke patients and they send electrical signals to cells. And the impulses use conducting films on hard solid electrodes. Sahika Inal, a PhD chair of the organic bioelectronics laboratory at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, he said: "This rigidity can damage soft tissue and reduce in implants long-term performance". Steve we've actually mentioned that with talking about like electrodes that are implanted in tissue and brains specifically I think. So implants like this often result in things like inflammation. They can lead to scar tissue which all contributes to worsening performance of the device that's being implanted. And trust me it's not fun when you need your bioengineered forearm plasma emitter to help you out of a jam and it's been degraded and you can't use it. That really sucks. Now the paper in Science describes this problem with the conventional viral electron as well. It says: "Conventional bioelectronics consists of rigid electrodes fundamentally incompatible with living systems. The difference between static solid state electronics and dynamic biological matter makes seamless integration of the two challenging" and I'll add to that to say to say the least. Now the researchers describe their new work I'll lead off with this description right from their paper, kind of technical but it was kind of very pithy and interesting. They said: "We demonstrate in vivo electrode formation in zebrafish and leech models using endogenous metabolites to trigger enzymatic polymerization of organic precursors within an injectable gel thereby forming conducting polymer gels with long-range conductivity." Do you like that one Steve and Perry?

PW: I recognize some of those words.

B: Yes! So this means, I'll kind of rephrase it to a certain extent, this means that their new discoveries have shown that injecting inorganic gel that can use molecular triggers in living zebrafish to convert the gel into something that is electrically conductive. It's kind of a bottom line of what they've showed. Now there is no genetic modification required. There's no outside signals needed to make any of this happen. Now they've been able to form electrodes in zebrafish in the brain, in the heart and the tail fins. And using leeches in the the nervous tissue in the leeches. And they claim that there's no harm to the animals and they paid special attention to immune reactions which obviously this technology, the immune reactions are of paramount importance. Professor Roger Olson at the medical facility at Lund University said: "By making smart changes to the chemistry we were able to develop electrodes that were accepted by the brain tissue and immune system. The zebrafish is an excellent model for the study of organic electrodes in brains" apparently that's interesting. So in addition they claim that the conductive gel can be made to target specific biological substructures so that there's a suitable interface to stimulate the nerves and that's key. I mean if you just grow these electrically conductive kind of like biological wires in the body - big deal unless you can create an interface for stimulating things like nerves. So that's kind of a critical part of that as well. One of the main authors Hanne Biesmans, he's a PhD student at LOE said: "Our results open up for completely new ways of thinking about about biology and electronics. We still have a range of problems to solve but this study is a good starting point for future research." So in the future I suppose seems kind of obvious at this point from what I've read that they will continue to work on organic bioelectronics and to eventually with the goal of course to eventually fully integrate electronic circuits into the biology. Now I of course right now, I don't think we have a clue about all the incredible medical benefits that could flow from this which is kind of classic thing about predicting future technologies. How is it going to be used and what are the things that we're going to see that we could apply to that we don't see right now. I think that's those things are legion[v 1] with this kind of technology. It has so many potential applications. But right now, and of course these medical benefits I think will be huge if this pans out obviously. There's still a lot of work to be done but right now I'm thinking about linking my brain with a yottaflop biological supercomputer in my left posterior deltoid.

J: Deltoid Bob?

B: Yes. Posterior deltoid. You don't want that up front. So this is cool right I mean pretty interesting. This bioelectronics and how it's this is purely biological, you're not throwing a computer inside a conventional integrated circuits into your biology which is kind of what we're doing now, right? This is actually a real fusion of biology and electronics that it seems to have a lot of potential and this is a very promising start. But of course as usual there's lots of work left to do.

PW: Bob do you get the sense that this when we say electronics here, is it just kind of - is this replacing wires right now?

B: Yeah, sure.

PW: Or is it actually replacing circuits, you know what I mean? Can you? Are we just creating an electrical pathway between point A and point B or do you think they could actually do have some gates and switches and transistors?

B: Right I mean right now this is the beginning piece that they've created and eventually the goal would be to have the whole suite of what would be needed to uh to make this work. And so yeah, this is the beginning and there's other components besides just what they've been able to, the electrodes that they've been able to create here. So there's a lot more to go but it just seems to be a really promising start. And the fact that the body just takes this gel and just kind of changes it. And this is like the molecules that already exist in the body. They're already there, you just put the gel in and the body changes it into this electrically conductive biological wire. So yeah, definitely a nice start but yeah this is-

PW: We're ways away from the squishy computer but yeah very cool.

S: But even without that, even just wires would be massively helpful. If that allows for a safe long term sustainable brain machine interface, that would have a massive impact on it.

B: Huge.

PW: Right right. Maybe the fancy circuit board is still metal and is implanted somewhere relatively safe but the squishy bits, the stuff that needs to go into the brain? Absolutely. It would be better to be some biologic gel than-

B: Right, and that interface that is hard and rigid typically with conventional bioelectronics. That's the stuff that will degrade over time and give you infections and inflammation. And it's like oh it doesn't work anymore, we got to go back in. It seems like this could really do away with that.

PW: Yeah.

S: And that, the technology of the electrodes, that's the technological limiting factor right now.

B: Right.

S: It's not the software, it's not the hardware. It's just the connection to the brain.

PW: Yeah.

S: That's why I hope this works out.

Woodland Elves (1:22:57)[edit]

S: All right Evan I understand finally, finally we have proof that there are elves living in the woods.

E: Photographic proof and that's six sigma all the way as far as I'm concerned, right?

PW: Wait wait, I need to know what kind of elves we're discussing here. It's very important to me.

E: The elves from Mexico of course.

PW: Are they Tolkien-esk elves, that's what I want to know.

E: No, not quite, not quite. But I will explain because just a few days ago the president of Mexico, his name is Andreas Manuel Lopez Obrador, recently posted a photo to his social media accounts showing what he said appeared to be a mythological woodland spirit similar to an elf and it's called the alux A-L-U-X. The x is pronounced like an sh. So alux. Here's the text, I'll reach to the text from the tweet: "I share two photos of our supervision of the Mayan train works. One taken by an engineer three days ago apparently of an alux another by Diego Prieto of a splendid pre-hispanic sculpture in Ekʼ Balam. Everything is mystical." That's the tweet and two pictures accompanied that tweet and one of them was this I don't know grainy photo appears to have been taken at night which shows again what appears to be this indistinct creature I think is about as well as you can describe it. Indistinct creature in a tree.

S: I think it's an owl.

E: You think that's an owl?

S: Look at it, yeah, it's got a kind of a bird body. It could have, I don't know I mean you can't tell. That's a better explanation than a damn elf.

E: Sort of halo around the face.

S: Yeah.

E: Or a, what-the howler monkey I think?

S: You're seeing the reflection in the retina which gives it gives an illusion of two small bright eyes but those could definitely just be the retina of of an owl's eyes. The hood could be-

E: Righ.

S: That typical disc that some owls have in the face for bringing the sound in. Again the body looks, screams bird in a tree to me. It could some other kind of bird as well but if I had to guess, it could be a vulture, it could be a bird of prey, I don't know. But that's a bird.

PW: It looks a little bit like a sand person from Tatooine.

S: More like a Jawa.

PW: Yeah sorry a Jawa, that's what I meant, yeah.

E: Because the eyes have that glowing look. But anytime you use photography in a situation where an animal or something else is staring back, you're gonna get the eye glare.

S: Yeah.

E: The natural part of photography.

S: One thing is certain, I wouldn't use that picture in the word proof in the same sentence. (laughter)

E: Well proof-he didn't exactly say this is proof. He wasn't exactly staying there's the proof we've been looking for but it does touch on the fact that the president has expressed reverence for indigenous cultures and their beliefs. And that's really what this is about. Work is underway in the Yucatán Peninsula. They're constructing a tourist train which is one of the president's pet projects it's described as. And when it comes to some things being built in certain parts of Mexico the Alux becomes in a way part of the project. So here's the background, according to traditional Mayan belief the alux are small mischievous creatures that inhabit forests, fields and anywhere sort of nature provides. But they're prone to playing tricks on people. And they'll hide things and they have special powers. They're they're believed to be invisible but they become visible when they're communicating with people or making bargains with them or sometimes to just outright frighten them and scare small children and some adults. The lero dates back perhaps thousands of years. There are sculptures and other depictions of these small people effectively with unusual features such as they have large eyes and they can glow red. Again going back to that picture which maybe is what they're connecting that to. But in these depictions, these are small people who were part of the service court to the elites or the ruling class. As you would see in pottery and sculptures. Basically anywhere around the world around that time you would get the elite culture being depicted there. And the small people were part of that. They think they may have been gestures, entertainers, royal subjects of the court at the time. And supposedly human dwarves were awarded a special status in society at the time in Mayan culture. They were considered special with special powers. Now more recent depictions of the alux are, and this is from people who claim to have seen it because there is no real photographic evidence. And no evidence at all of these creatures. But they describe it more like a hairless alien looking humanoid with a large forehead. Large black eyes, claws instead of hands and get this feet that face backwards or backwards pointing feet. That's interesting, that's an interesting depiction. More modern depiction in the time of aliens and certainly has much more of a recent cultural significance to it. Oh the creatures are also said to be shape shifters. They can take the form of animals so they again hide in plain sight among us. Their powers can either help or harm humans. So they are caretakers of the wild and they have the power to influence. Weather they'll affect your crops your water supply and all the things that you need to be productive basically with the land. But if you don't show them the right, if you don't show the alux the right courtesy and the right respect they can go ahead and use their powers to devastate you. They are still in a way paying homage to these aluxes in some of these construction projects. Perhaps one of the best well-known or best documented ones is about a bridge in Cancun. It was built in the 1990s known as the Kukulcan Boulevard and Federal Highway Project 307 but in any case it was this bridge that they were building and in the early stages of the construction there were some problems. They had some days in which they would finish the construction one day then they'd come back the next day and realize oh some steel bars are now bent. And another day they said oh some of the construction from the previous day had come down and another day they came back and all their tools went missing or were damaged in some way. And that was because they didn't pay proper tribute to the alux. And how you do that is you build a little house for them. A place where that they can live and feel protected and that's your way of basically asking permission for you to be able to do your project on this particular piece of the land. And if you do that and you honor them then all the bad stuff will go away. Well sure enough the government called in a shaman to perform the ceremony on this particular bridge and after the shaman did the thing and the little house was built for the alux there were no more problems going forward. None of the problems that had happened prior to the ceremony came up because the alux was satisfied and would no longer cause these issues. So it is pretty deeply I guess it's constant the culture in a certain way. And they say that if you go around into certain areas, around the Yucatan part of Mexico, so was that eastern part of Mexico you will see built into bridges, built into roads, or out on farms, you'll see these shrines or little houses that are built specifically to appease the alux. Now as far as the photograph goes and the fact that the president of Mexico is doing this and sort of in a way promoting the fact that he believes in these creatures in the mythology behind it. They pointed out there's kind of a problem with the photograph in that the photograph's not recent. It wasn't taken three days prior, it was taken a couple years ago. It's been floating around the internet for a couple years. Perhaps the original picture came from Thailand, so not even somewhere in Mexico. So they're basically, he's being called out and criticized for basically hey look on a couple different levels here you're not doing due diligence here on this and you're certainly not doing yourself any favors. You're looking kind of silly in the whole process. And that's putting it mildly.

PW: And of course he's juxtaposing this picture which isn't even from Mexico apparently next to I'm looking at it now a really beautiful piece of cultural heritage. It's a per-columbian sculpture in that sort of-I'm not enough of an anthropologist but that kind of Mayan-esque style even it may not be Mayan but a beautiful thing that really is a wonderful piece of heritage. And so it's sort of sad to get this other-I think the story is great. I sort of like that kind of mythology. But to just slap a three-year-old picture from halfway across the globe up on your Twitter doesn't do it justice I don't think.

E: Yeah it's smacks of laziness at best, and you know-

PW: Pandering at worst.

E: Yeah definitely pandering at worst.

S: It's pandering. I think listen, we need to find ways to honor and be respectful to indigenous cultures, to everybody's culture without endorsing any religion or belief system or pseudoscience or superstition or mythology. We don't have to say it's real to say that we respect your culture. We just have to be able to draw that distinction.

E: Sure, yeah. If you took a little more time and effort and and came up with a more thoughtful tweet that definitely could have been expressed and this would have never made sort of the news cycle that it did.

PW: And I think there is something nice about how cultures around the world have similar belief systems. This sort of, this archetype of the people of the forest that you have to sort of yeah peace in some way there. It speaks to kind of a reverence for nature that I think we could all sort of remember and even if we don't believe in the magical people to sort of give us be grateful for the natural world and its and its mysteries.

S: All right thanks Evan.

Who's That Noisy? (1:33:41)[edit]

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

J: All right guys last week I played this Noisy:

[hissing with low and high guttural animal honking/humming]

Any guesses?

S: It's definitely some kind of animal.

E: It's alive.

PW: It sounds like a bird I want to say some kind of mating bird.

S: I would I'm gonna say no to the bird.

PW: Not a burn.

B: Caterpillar.

E: Mantis shrimp.

J: Well, listener named Ed wrote in and he said: "Hi Jay, this week Who's That Noisy sounds just like the eastern gray squirrels in my neighborhood. We have hundreds of old oak trees in my neighborhood so there are many squirrels." And he said he heard one make that sound when it was being bullied by another squirrel.

E: What?

J: So you have it correct that it's an animal. Just not the correct animal.

B: He nailed it. Nice.

J: So we're getting close. Some guy named Visto Tutti wrote in and said: "I am certain, certain I say, that this noisy is pressure being released from a CO2 carbonator." And do you guys know what that is?

E: It's like a moisture evaporator. Very similar to your carbonator.

J: No it's basically.

E: That's from Star Wars by the way.

PW: The Sodastream or something.

J: Yeah, exactly. Yes. That is what he's saying and you're wrong but thank you for sending the guess in. Has nothing to do with carbonation. Although I would like a carbonated beverage right now. Another listener named Sean Grico said: "Hey Jay, newish listener. First time guesser. I'm working my way backwards through the back catalog. My guess for this week's Who's That Noisy is a puppy. Possibly a dachshund wanting attention. It sounds a lot like my three-year-old puppy Lucy when I'm not paying her enough attention." You are incorrect. It is not a puppy but thank you for guessing. Another listener named Jesse writes in: "Hi Jay, I think this week noisy sounds like the communication between a pair of beavers. Likely a couple of kids." You are incorrect but you did get it correct that there are two animals. So that's why I included you. We have a winner, this week's winner winner is Sydney Goulette and Sydney says: "Happy Saturday Jay, I believe this week is a porcupine."

B: What?

J: "Possibly two. Humming or calling out. The second half definitely reminds me of Teddy Bear, the adorable and famous porcupine who eats pumpkins on camera."

E: Oh I gotta look that up now.

J: So Sydney you are completely correct but before I play it again I'm going to read something that another listener named Jeremy Phillips who also guess correctly wrote. He said: "Hello everyone, I work in a place called The Squam Lakes Natural Science Center and we have two of these that we use to advance understanding of New Hampshire's natural world. This sound came from the North American porcupine. A lot of people confuse this sound for the sound of a fisher. Fisher rarely makes sounds and often I have sound that what they are hearing is the sound as porcupines are very vocal. So anyway it is a North American porcupine and here it is again: [plays Noisy]. That's cute.

S: Yeah.

E: Oh yeah.

J: Thank you everyone for guessing. I did get a lot of guesses this week and a lot of people guess correctly which is really cool.

New Noisy (1:37:08)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for this week. This one was sent in by a listener named Bradford West, check this one out.

[synthetic melody]

Okay if you think you know what this week's Noisy is or you heard something cool which it's very likely you did and you're just being lazy you got to email me at

S: All right, thanks Jay.


Science or Fiction (1:37:37)[edit]

Theme: Ancient bizarre medical treatments

Item #1: In order to treat the black death, thought to be caused by deadly vapors, medieval physicians recommended sniffing farts that had been stored in a jar.[7]
Item #2: A medieval treatment for stuttering was a hemiglossectomy – to surgically remove half the tongue, without anesthesia.[8]
Item #3: Of the many ancient treatments for hemorrhoids, the most aggressive involved placing a live rat in the anus until it died.[9]

Answer Item
Fiction Rat into anus
Science Sniff farts from jar
Remove half the tongue
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Sniff farts from jar
Remove half the tongue
Rat into anus
Remove half the tongue

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts. Two real and one fake and then I challenge my panel of expert Skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake.

E: Not likely.

S: Another theme this week. This one is dedicated to Perry our guest rogue this week. Ancient bizarre medical treatments.

PW: Oh yeah I remember that from med school.

S: Yeah, right. Two of these are are real. You may have had a lecture like this in med school, I don't know. I had some fun lectures. And one of these is fake. Guys tell me which one is the fake. All right, here we go. Ih item number one: In order to treat the black death, thought to be caused by deadly vapors, medieval physicians recommended sniffing farts that had been stored in a jar. Item number two: A medieval treatment for stuttering was a hemiglossectomy – to surgically remove half the tongue, without anesthesia. And item number three: Of the many ancient treatments for hemorrhoids, the most aggressive involved placing a live rat in the anus until it died.

J: Nice.

E: It died?

S: Right, we're assuming that happened before you. Evan, I'm gonna have you go first this week.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Okay, let's talk about the black death caused by, thought to be caused by deadly vapors. I've got the vapors. And they're recommending sniffing farts stored in a jar. First of all all three of these, jee whiz. I'd be surprised even Perry if you had any sort of real insight to any of these so that's just how it kind of obscure I feel.

PW: You will not be surprised. I have no insight.

E: Who would have thought? Would they have really thought to store those kinds of gases in jars? And how do you do that? And where would you? Never really heard of that even being anything. It's like burps in a jar or something. It just doesn't, there's nothing about that makes sense. Really nothing. So that's the reason why it could be science. And then the second one about treatment for stuttering to surgically remove half of the tongue without anesthesia. Okay, so that's, that had to be just a nightmare of all nightmares. And you could see them go into kind of extreme at those points. Although you would think maybe it was a demon inside of them. Maybe exercise. But maybe if that didn't work they went on to the surgical removal of the tongue at that point if they felt like that the demon couldn't otherwise be removed. That's kind of what I'm thinking there. And the last one about the treatment for hemorrhoids. Placing a live rat in the anus until the rat died. So that's the worst of the three maybe. And that's saying a lot.

S: I don't know. Loosing half of your tongue, that's rough.

E: Oh gosh. Oh gosh. A live rat.

PW: Would you rather?

E: All right so unfortunately there is some people at certain times in history I think there have been people who have put animals into their orifices. So I think that one's actually going to be right. But the one that I just got nothing for here is the sniffing farts in the jar one. I'm gonna have to say that's the one that's gonna be the fiction. I know it's so outrageous that it may be the science but I mean of the three. At least the other two are like horrors and you know that horrors absolutely happened in the world of "medicine" at the time. Whereas this one does not have quite the horror content, that's why I think it's the fiction.

J: Which one did you pick Ev?

E: The farts in a jar.

S: Not horrible enough for you.

E: Because it's not horrible enough of the three.

S: All right Bob you're next.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah it's a good job Steve because I can make an argument for any of these. They're all just ridiculous for a different type of reason. I was thinking that the rats was just ridiculous but I there is precedent. And the tongue one I mean jeez, that's scary as hell. You know? Screw it. I'm gonna go with the hemiglossectomy because I would, who wouldn't rather stutter than to have half a tongue? Fiction.

E: If you had a choice.

S: All right Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right so the first one here about the farts just seems utterly ridiculous for some reason because of the way that this game is it gives it a little bit more credence because it's just flat out ridiculous. It's just such a stupid thing to do though. Oh my God. The second one about cutting out the tongue I mean I think that one is definitely science. It just seems like something that they would do before they understood medicine at all. They would try all sorts of different things so that one is science in my book. And then this last one-I can't under any circumstance imagine that if someone has hemorrhoids that they're going to try to shove a rat. A live rat in that person's anus when they have hemorrhoids. It's beyond counter-intuitive. All right I'm gonna say here that. I think the one with the rat is the fake because that just can't possibly have happened on the planet that I live on.

S: All right Perry so you are our medical consult. They're all spread out. They chose one two and three so you get to break the tie.

Perry's Response[edit]

PW: All right, all right. So medieval physicians treat the black death sniffing farts. I mean medieval physicians were pretty obsessed with bodily functions. They're bleeding people, they're doing all sorts of stuff with urine and poultices and things like that so I buy number one I think. Number two medieval treatment for stuttering was a hemiglossectomy – to surgically remove half the tongue, without anesthesia. I mean I get the logic but the tongue is a very vascular organ, there's going to be a lot of bleeding. Sepsis and infection is a major issue in the medieval era. I think you cut out half a tongue, your mortality rate is going to be pretty darn high with that procedure so I'm a little skeptical of that one as a treatment for stuttering. Of course number three, the most aggressive ancient treatment for hemorrhoids placing a live rat in the anus until it died just seems so crazy. That being said it would be horribly painful. I think is going to be less likely to kill you than cutting half your tongue out though. So if we care about that I think I'm gonna go with the hemiglossectomy as the fiction.

B: Yeah baby.

S: All right.

J: Uh-oh Evan.

S: Guys are spread out so we'll start with-

E: First of all no sweep for Steve.

S: No sweep, this breaks my sweep streak. So we'll start with number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: In order to treat the black death, thought to be caused by deadly vapors, medieval physicians recommended sniffing farts that had been stored in a jar. Evan you think this one is the fiction. The rest of you think this is science. And this one is science. Sorry Evan. Yes. People were encouraged to store up their farts in jars and if they felt any like the black death coming on they would sniff their farts because this was a like treats like theory. So the black death is caused by deadly vapors so if you sniff other deadly vapors that will somehow protect you from the black death. That was the thinking. So Jay if you were around at that time you would have cornered the market.

J: I would have been rich.

E: That's flought on so many levels.

S: I wonder if there were a cottage industry of super farts, probably. It's like the plasma from post-infected patients.

S: And where would you keep your fart jars? Are they like on the shelf in the kitchen somewhere? Or you have a special cabinet.

PW: Well you have a medicine cabinet I think.

E: Label it properly.

PW: Right.

S: Amazing. Okay. Definitely you would want to the next time there is a period movie that takes place in the medieval times, there's got to be a fart jar on somebody's shelf somewhere. For historical accuracy. All right.

PW: Can I just say he who supplied it, prescribed it.

E: Silent but deadly.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right let's go on to number two. A medieval treatment for stuttering was a hemiglossectomy – to surgically remove half the tongue, without anesthesia. Bob and Perry you both think this one is the fiction. Jay you think the third one about hemorrhoids is the fiction. And this one is science. People actually did this.

PW: It's crazy.

S: This actually remained, I'm not going to say popular but a treatment into the 19th century.

PW: Wow.

S: So there's a couple of things going on here. So first of all it's worse than you imagine. I'm sure Perry you know how bad this would be. The tongue is very-

PW: I thought no one would ever do it.

S: Yeah. The tongue is extremely vascular. A lot of these people just straight up bled to death. They just bled because they just bled out.

B: Well, they didn't stutter anymore, did they?

S: Yeah.

E: Cured everything.

S: If you didn't bleed out you also had a good chance of dying of infection.

E: Oh, absolutely.

S: If you survived both of those this treatment did absolutely zero for your stuttering. Now of course the idea up to probably the 20th century was that stuttering was a problem in the mouth. It was a problem physically like in the tongue or something. They didn't realize as we do now that it's caused by a small elf or a demon living in the stomach. That it's actually caused-it's a brain problem, right? Stuttering is happening in the brain, not in your tongue. So mutilating your tongue would even theoretically do nothing for it. It was just a completely desperate thing to do. So glad that one's gone by the way. Can you imagine? I just can't just thinking about. Having that procedure without anesthesia or anything oh my goodness.

J: What a terrible way to go.

E: Yikes.

S: Interestingly every article I read about it had to point out that it's still done today but only for head and neck cancer. It's like yeah of course.

E: Yeah, cancer.

S: Why point that out? I mean whatever.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: This means that of the many ancient treatments for hemorrhoids, the most aggressive involved placing a live rat in the anus until it died is fiction. I made that one up. There's a lot of ancient treatments for hemorrhoids. There were books written about how to treat hemorrhoids. They were painting strong showing doctors treating hemorrhoids. They were obsessed with hemorrhoids. But none of them involved as far as I could tell through dedicated searching placing a live animal in the anus. One of the most popular treatments, well I'm not going to say popular in terms of all the people. There was a lot of lower level treatments for hemorrhoids, know like just sit on a hot stone. There's all the benign things that people would try. But if they didn't work and you progress to the more and more aggressive ones, pretty much the end of the line was a hot poker up the ass.

J: Oh my God.

S: But a lot of times they were just sort of scrape it out. And there was because of the whole bloodletting thing a lot of times they just let it bleed and they thought that was healthy for you.

J: Oh, Christ.

B: Yeah, humors and shit.

S: It was like some people thought of it as male menstruation which is silly because women could have hemorrhoids too. And they said it's basically auto bloodletting. You're getting the toxins out, so let it bleed. But just a lot of obsession over it. Hemorrhoids was big medicine that goes back in medieval times. But could not find any mention anywhere and you know I could be wrong but I couldn't find it. If somebody can find a reference please correct me I'd love to see it but I could not find any mention of placing live rats up the butt. I would think the rats would get very angry.

PW: They would not be happy.

S: You would not want an angry rat up your butt. That would be I mean. That probably would kill you. They probably would start biting.

E: Causing you to bleed.

S: Again, not that that's any worse than the hemiglossectomy I mean but it's yeah I just made that one up.

E: Well, the horrors of ancient medicine.

S: So Jay good solo win for you this week.

J: Yeah I-you know I feel good about it.

S: You're glad that it was not happening.

J: Yeah I'm glad that-

E: You're glad you're living today.

J: Yes. I'm glad I don't have to deal with any of that stuff. And I don't want the other people on this show, the other people that are on the show tonight to feel bad that they lost because losing is not always bad when somebody like me can win. Just don't be sad. Be glad for me.

PW: I'm so happy for you.

J: Thank you Perry.

E: I'm ecstatic over here. I can barely contain myself.

S: All right Evan give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:51:04)[edit]

I think knowing what you cannot do is more important than knowing what you can.

 – Lucille Ball (1911-1989), American actress, comedian, and producer

E: I think knowing what you cannot do is more important than knowing what you can. Lucille Ball.

S: Yeah that's-

E: That's interesting.

S: It is interesting. It's complicated too.

E: It is complicated. I mean certainly I don't think it was in a skeptical context, she did not make that statement. I tried looking for the original sort of larger paragraph or comment on it. I couldn't find it. But this is, it's one of her most quotable quotes that's out there floating around and people use it as an introduction to whatever article they wrote or whatever. But it definitely does touch on some skeptical themes that that we talk about and sort of knowing your own limitations. And you have to know. You have to have your own humility about a lot of things. And defer to the experts. Parry yourself. If it ever came to the kidney you would be the person I would want to talk to about that as opposed to [inaudible].

PW: Phone lines are open.

S: So yeah, there's a lot of nuance wrapped up there. I mean that's obviously a short pithy statement. It's often harder to know confidently negative statements than positive ones. It actually requires more thorough knowledge to make a negative statement. To say this exists you just need one example. To say this doesn't exist, how much have you had to search for it, you know what I mean? For example it's like in in medicine same thing Perry, right? The people who are competent know what to do. The experts know what they don't have to do. Because it's a lot harder to know what you don't have to do. And sometimes paradoxically, like if a patient is being treated in a clinic or by a physician who's who's less than like a master or an expert in that field they end up getting more of a work.

PW: More testing. Absolutely.

S: The experts work up is more focused, more narrowed. But at the same time the caveat to this is you don't want to limit yourself too much. You want to be pushing yourself a little bit beyond what you think you could do but have a realistic understanding of your limitations. You don't want it to be self-fulfilling and there's a lot of psychology here as well. We just had Richard Wiseman for example on the show and he's very keen to point out that a lot of times just belief itself is not enough but if you tie it to a plan it could be the beginning of self-fulfilling success story and of course the belief that you can't do something is pretty self-fulfilling failure. So you can't get to that level. So there's a lot of caveats there but definitely having a realistic view of your own limitations is I think wisdom.

E: I wholeheartedly agree. And as a sort of tangent Lucille Ball just a tremendous entertainer, obviously from Isle of Lucy and also we may not never have had Star Trek were it not for Lucille Ball.

B: Correct. She saved Star Trek.

S: Totally.

E: Yep so we owe Lucille Ball a lot.

Signoff/Announcements (1:53:52)[edit]

S: All right so Perry thanks for joining us. First guest Rogue in a while.

B: Yeah man, great job.

S: It was a lot of fun.

PW: Thanks I had a great time.

E: It was great Perry, thank you.

J: Thanks Perry.

S: Was it everything you imagined?

PW: It was and more. No it's as I said I've been listening to you guys forever so this is a dream come true.

S: And good luck on your new book. It's excellent.

PW: Thank you.

S: Thank the rest of you for sure for joining me this week as well.

B: Sure man.

E: Thank you Steve.

J: 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[10]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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