SGU Episode 934

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SGU Episode 934
June 3rd 2023
934 globular cluster.jpg

Globular clusters are very dense, spherical clusters that contain between around 100,000 and 1 million stars.

SGU 933                      SGU 935

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The plural of anecdote is not data.[note 1]

attributed to Erika Engelhaupt,
freelance science writer

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, SGU's 2024 eclipse plans, Pride Month[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 Thursday, June 1st, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone!

S: Jay is off tonight.

E: We miss you, Jay. I'm missing you already.

C: Just other stuff that's more important than us.

S: Yeah, other stuff.

E: Things happen.

S: So guys, we've been getting a ton of response to our announcement that we're going to be at the Eclipse next April in Dallas, which is really exciting. You know, there's so many people are going to be there. It's going to be a lot of fun. Now, a lot of people are asking us, like, where are we staying? But here's the thing. It doesn't really matter where we're staying because we're not doing anything there. We just found rooms, you know? If you're going, just find a room wherever you could find it. Man, it was hard to find rooms, right? Cara and Jay were like, they were double teaming it and going back and forth. And then Cara, you eventually found the hotel with the rooms available.

C: Yeah. Yeah. And we're staying sort of below Dallas because I think the idea is that-

S: Meaning south. Yeah. Not underground.

E: The southern outlook.

C: We're staying in the tunnels below Dallas.

E: The underground.

C: We're staying just south of Dallas in the burbs. Basically, I think the idea, right, is somewhere on that axis between Dallas and Waco. Because that's where we're going to get, like, the longest totality.

S: Right. Exactly.

E: Yes.

S: So we're going to find an open field somewhere, right, to watch the eclipse.

C: Ooh. We should ask.

S: Yeah. If anyone has an open field somewhere between Dallas and Waco, let us know. We'll definitely let everyone know where we are going to be during totality so we could have a gathering of skeptics. But then, of course, we're doing a separate private show the weekend before the eclipse. So there's that as well. And once we have details on that, and that will be at a specific location, we'll give that to you. So we'll let you know where the private show is going to be. We'll let you know where we're going to be viewing the eclipse. There's no point in letting you know what hotel we're staying at. I'm sure there's no rooms left by now.

C: And also, it's like, just book what you can. I know DFW is big.

S: Yeah. Book what you can.

C: Don't worry. We're not going to be in Fort Worth. Book in the kind of Dallas to south of Dallas area. And you should be golden.

E: And we had to spend some extra time because we're a large group of people coming. So we needed an exceptionally large amount of rooms. But take what you can get. Even if you all can't, if you're traveling with a group, you all can't stay together at the same hotel, you're probably just going to want to grab what you can. A room here, two rooms over there.

C: Or go camping.

E: Yeah, or go camping if possible. But don't underestimate how many people from around the country, certainly, if not the world, will be descending on Dallas, which will be one of the main cities for this eclipse. Because Texas, frankly, has one of the best chances of there being no clouds.

B: Except I will be there. So everyone bring your umbrellas.

E: Bob.

S: Now, really. You should have booked two months ago. But book now. It is really late. You're already late if you haven't booked yet.

C: Oh. Something else just came up. But something that I forgot to say because it triggered when you were like, it is June 1st. And I was like, it is June 1st. So happy pride, everybody.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: Oh, yeah.

B: Happy pride.

E: Yeah.

C: Starts today.

B: Sweet. Happy pride in Florida. I mean, lock your doors there. Who knows who might be busting in.

C: I've got all of my accoutrements at work to support. I've got my Say Gay shirt and my We Say Gay sticker.

B: Nice. Nice.

C: I've got my Trans Kids Rule stickers on my badge. And it's like, I'm still seeing patients who are in the LGBTQI community. And in Florida especially, yeah, I feel like they need all the support they can get.

B: Yeah. You might not have too many more of those in the future, unfortunately. I was reading just today that there's like a mass exodus.

C: Yeah.

B: Because, I mean, can you blame them?

C: Well, right.

E: People secretly fete the state level for all sorts of things. For many personal reasons, for tax reasons, and so many other reasons. The fact that people move from state to state because of reasons like that is not really unusual.

C: Right. But especially in states where they're unable to get affirmative care because it's literally against the law, yeah, you're going to see some reactions to that.

E: Yeah. And that's true of other laws as well that have recently been passed by certain states that are either banning certain things or putting limited on certain practices having to do with health among other things. So yeah. Yeah. You do. You have to sometimes seek relief at the state level.

C: Yeah. Show your support this month, folks. It's important. It's important for people to feel safe and be seen.

S: Yeah. People should be free to live their life as themselves.

C: 100%.

S: You know?

B: Right? I mean, come on.

S: I know. The idea that people don't-

B: Duh.

S: I mean, what's ironic in US politics is that the people who are most loudly crying liberty seem to be the most willing to take other people's liberty away.

C: 100%.

E: Look in the mirror. Always look in the mirror.

S: There is a massive disconnect there. It's like, yeah, I totally agree. I'm down with you on liberty. Liberty for everybody. You know? Liberty for yourself.

E: Oh, you're a libertarian.

S: Liberty, well I don't want to get into politics, but you know, I don't-

E: Too late.

S: Liberty is obviously a very important principle. I don't elevate any single principle to an absolute because you have to balance them against a lot of other legitimate principles. But liberty is absolutely an important and valuable principle. It's one of those things where you value it when you lose it, right? When you have it, you take it for granted. And when you lose it and you realize, oh the freedom to just exist is really important.

E: Oh my gosh.

S: And you take it away so quickly.

E: And also recognize it in the context of the entirety of humanity and civilization. You realize it is so fleeting and it is so minuscule as far as how much time people have had to actually embrace liberty. It's like a blip on the map.

S: It's more of an anomaly than the natural state.

E: It's special.

S: Do not give it away lightly.

E: No.

C: I don't know, but nobody's giving it away. It's being taken from them. So I might.

S: I mean, I'm talking about the people who are taking it from others.

C: Right. It may not come across that way.

S: When you take other people's liberty away, you are giving your own liberty away. That's the thing they don't realize because you can't have it both ways. When it becomes possible to take that liberty away, you've made it possible for yourself as well. And this is one of the things that comes up commonly throughout history in American politics is that when people get in power, they immediately forget that they will not always be in power. You know?

C: Right.

S: You have to behave when you're temporarily, very fleetingly, you have control of those reins, you've got to remember you are not going to have them for long. And you want to keep the infrastructure in place that will protect you when you're back again in the minority. And that's at the state and the federal level. And when you forget that, that's when really bad things happen.

B: Dare I say, do unto others, I guess.

C: I know. Golden rule?

S: Yeah, which comes from Greek enlightenment, by the way.

C: Right. Guide and principle.

S: Let's get on with some science.

Quickie with Bob: Brain stimulation (7:56)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [1]

S: Bob.

B: What?

S: Give us a quickie.

B: All right. Thank you Steve. This is your Quickie with Bob. Brain stimulation in the news from Reinhart Lab at Boston University. Steve and Cara, I've been curious to get some feedback from you at the end. Specifically, I'm talking about transcranial alternating current stimulation or TACS. This involves using a brain cap with electrodes to deliver harmless oscillating current at specific frequencies to specific regions of the brain. I wasn't really aware of this technique. The goal is to nudge neurons to fire more rhythmically to alter brain activity. That's the goal. This is based on research that suggests that neurons communicate better when firings are coordinated and conversely, that neuropsychiatric illnesses show problems with such rhythmic patterns that this could potentially treat. Studies in the past show that this does alter a mental function, but some other studies show that the current was too weak to have really any real effect on mental function. This is where this latest meta-analysis comes in. It used 100 studies, good quality studies that were published and combining 2,900 people altogether who had participated in the 100 studies. Based on this meta-analysis, the researchers concluded the following in their paper regarding this technique. We found modest to moderate improvements in cognitive function with TACS treatment that were evident in several cognitive domains including working memory, long-term memory, attention, executive control, and fluid intelligence. We also noted improvements in cognitive function separately in older adults and in individuals with neuropsychiatric illnesses. I saw one interesting demo of this technique, absolutely anecdotal. It was with the science reporter who went through the process of this TACS procedure and he said that he really didn't feel anything except when it was done, it was like a slight tingling and he said that for hours afterwards, he felt very, very clear-headed and they did a test with him and he basically had to look at the second hand of a clock. Imagine the second hand of a clock. He had to watch that second hand and whenever it skipped a second, it would go like for example from the 10th second to the 12th instead of the 11th, he would have to hit the space bar. It was mind-numbingly boring and horrible because it was just a monotonous crappy little thing but he tried it and when he was done, the guy said he hit half of them. He missed half of those little missed ticks. So then he underwent the procedure and he got every one. Every one. He said he was able to focus much, much better than previously. Of course, this is one guy. This is anecdotal but this meta-analysis dealt with many more, 2,900 people and it actually seems pretty compelling to me based on this meta-analysis and even some other studies and who knows what kind of applications this could have. And yeah, so that's it. I wanted to lay that out there and see what you guys say. This has been your Quickie with Bob. Back to you, Steve.

E: I have a quick question though. Does the effect wear off after the amount of time passes?

B: Yeah, it's like a few hours. One guy compared it to like twice as effective as caffeine and it lasted twice as long.

C: Bob, how is this different from TDCS? You said this. So I'm really familiar with transcranial direct current stimulation. This is alternating current?

B: Yeah, it's alternating current and the goal is to have the neurons coordinate their firings because that supposedly can help with mental function if it's coordinated. Neurons communicate better apparently if they're more in tune with each other.

S: But this is between specific brain areas that are involved with like memory.

B: Yeah, they target.

C: And TDCS usually is targeted as well but it seems to have a more of a lasting effect.

S: So Bob, when you said you were going to do the brain stimulation thing as your Quickie, I thought you were actually going to do a completely different study that I heard about that just came out.

E: Another study.

B: Was it TACS?

S: No. It was done on epilepsy patients who have electrodes implanted in their brain.

B: Oh no, no. The link, yeah, the link I sent you was.

S: I know. I eventually read it and go, oh, this is a completely different study than the one I thought you were going to do.

B: Okay. Oh, okay.

S: And they did the same thing basically. They stimulated, essentially synchronized these two specific locations in the brain and the task that they gave the subjects was they would show them pictures of a celebrity and their pet. And then they had to remember which pet went with which celebrity the next day, right? And they did the stimulation before they went to sleep or it might've been during while they were sleeping. And then the subjects who had the stimulation did better on the task the next day. They remembered, they consolidated their memory overnight more effectively.

B: Oh, nice.

S: So it's still a modest effect. It's like, yeah, it works, but we don't know how sustainable it is. We don't know if there's a long-term downside effect. It might down regulate something in the long term. So too early to get excited about it, but it's a proof of concept kind of thing. At this state, it's definitely interesting, but you just never know how these things are going to pan out.

B: True.

S: Like hacking the brain is tricky business.

B: It is.

S: It's never as simple as we hope or think.

B: I was surprised though that there is something there. This is not just like marginal. There's something there, man.

C: Why does that surprise you?

B: I don't know, because a lot of times when something that gets me excited, when I read the details, it's like, oh no, it's bullshit.

S: It's a good first reaction though.

E: Synchronization of neurons. I mean, so that must have played out in other experiments as well or in other studies that have been done prior to this showing that this is likely a good positive effect.

B: Oh yeah. They did the first meta-analysis in 2016 and even that one was favorable. The reason why they did it again was because since then, of course, there's been many, many more high quality studies that they wanted to throw together into a meta-analysis. It still looks even more promising than it did in 2016. There's definitely something there. Right, but who knows what long-term effects might be or how useful it's going to be. Some people were saying that they expect in the future that doctors will be prescribing this for people with ADHD potentially and Alzheimer's.

S: Here's my quickie sense of where we are right now.

B: Quickie with Steve. Go, Steve.

S: I think that this sort of brain stimulation, neuromodulation as we call it, and we did a talk on neuromodulation at Nexus a couple years ago. We're at the infancy of this whole approach and it has tremendous promise because the brain is an electrical organ. This is another way to functionally alter the way the brain functions. It's going to be a lot harder than, again, we think or we hope. I think the low-hanging fruit is going to be modifying unhealthy states. Boosting a healthy brain is always going to be a lot trickier because if it were that easy, evolution already had millions of years to tinker with it. Why wouldn't it have done it already? Usually we're dealing with trade-offs. I bet you there's a trade-off somewhere. That would be my gut feeling. Again, if you have ADHD, if you have some kind of a functional issue, then you might be able to compensate for it with this kind of thing. I think that's where the real strength is going to be, not boosting healthy function.

C: That's the thing that I think is so important to remember about neuromodulation, like when we talk about TDCS or TACS, is one of the arguments, one of the fears around these kinds of things, maybe not the fears, but the skepticism around these things is like it's a panacea, right? It's like, oh, it just is like stimulate any part of the brain and it gets better. It doesn't work that way. I think at first some people are like there's kind of an over skepticism, which is fair, right? A reasonable amount of skepticism that says, well, you can't just like zap anything and see improvement, but that's like saying you can't just take a drug and see improvement. Drugs are specific, you know? Neuromodulation is specific. The frequency is specific. The magnitude is specific. The location is specific. And all of those things actually change its effect. And I think we have to remember that.

S: You have to think about this as pharmaceuticals, right?

C: Exactly. That's what I'm saying.

S: Neuromodulation. Yeah, yeah. You can't say like drugs work. What does that mean? Which drug?

C: Exactly. What does that mean?

S: For what indication, you know? And without side effects, you know? So it's the same thing. It will, if you target the right, as you're saying, Cara, you target the right part of the brain with the right frequency, you could increase or decrease its functionality with effects that may be positive, may be negative, whatever. We got to sort all of that out and the long term effects of overdriving these neurons, you know what I mean? It's not like-

C: And we already do this with magnets and it works. We know that TMS is as effective or sometimes, and sometimes safer than ECT. We know it works for certain psychiatric conditions.

S: That's like a one time reboot, not a continuous thing.

C: It's amazing. Right. It's amazing. And so we already know, but TMS is intense, right? It's almost like a knockout effect. This is like a little bit more subtle and potentially more specific. So there's, yeah, there's so much possibility here. But I don't think we should-

B: It really is. It is exciting. And I tell you, I bet you the army is going to be seriously looking at this. I mean, you've got people that are like controlling drones or whatever that have to look at a computer screen for hours looking for like, say, a person of interest or whatever they're doing. This is the kind of thing that this, from what I've seen, it will help. Right now, they could do it and it will help.

C: Agree. But we also have to remember that like there are other avenues to the exact same thing. And it's really interesting to look at a meta-analysis and look at a before and after effect in a within subjects model. But like, has it been compared to, I don't know, Adderall? Like, is Adderall more effective? You know what I mean? Like, we already have Adderall.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: And we already have all of its efficacy testing.

E: And let's face it, there are a lot of physical limitations to hooking up an electrode cap to your brain. You know, it's not exactly like swallowing a pill.

S: They're pragmatic.

B: Conversely, I could also say you're not ingesting chemicals in your body continually.

C: It's true. It may have a different side effect profile.

B: Right, exactly. It could be. And who knows? It could be minimal and like, holy crap, we're not seeing any side. Or it could be like, holy shit, look what happens after a month of doing this every day. You become a super villain.

E: I see dead people.

S: All right, let's move on.

News Items[edit]

Harvesting Energy from Air (18:49)[edit]

S: So this is one of those, again, one of those news items where I'm like, I pretty much have to talk about this this week. So the headlines, this hit national news in the US.

E: I love headlines.

S: Harvesting energy from the air.

E: Woohoo!

S: You guys heard about this?

C: Oh, I saw that. Yeah, I saw that trending everywhere.

S: Yeah, it's like, OK, we got to look at this. And it's a good example of how to think about and evaluate these kind of news items when they hit. So let's talk about the science itself first. This is a study which was, it's kind of a proof of concept study where they created a nanopore structure, like a layer. And what they were able to demonstrate, and this phenomenon has been demonstrated before, but they were able to demonstrate that they could do this with any physical material. The material is not important. What's important is the structure at the nanoscale, right? So it comes down to if you have this device which has a thin film and a, with these pores that are less than 100 nanometers, and they're at a certain size, a water molecule can squeeze through, but the different layers of the film have different amounts of electrical charge on them. Basically, you could think about it as like stripping the electron off the water molecule. It creates a differential charge and you could generate a small current. So basically, it just sits there soaking in water from the air and generating electricity, basically, from the humidity. Does that make sense?

B: Wow.

E: Yeah.

B: Okay, keep going.

S: Now, of course, you can't just report that as science news. You have to say, what could it be used for? And anything that generates electricity, you're going to talk about it as if we're going to be running our civilization off of these.

E: Right. Or am I just running my feet in socks over the carpet and getting a carpet shot kind of level of electricity.

S: And I think one of the main authors here, author Jun Yao, is contributing to a lot of the hype. Probably innocently, but I think it's still, the hype is originating in the article itself, not just the reporting.

B: Is it passive?

S: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. It's just there's air molecules, water vapor in the air.

B: Bumping up against it.

S: Bumping up against it, yeah, producing electric current. And he said there's a tremendous amount of energy in the humidity, in the atmosphere of the earth. We could be-

B: Vacuum energy.

S: Tapping into that energy. And he said that if you stacked, you should be able to stack these on top of each other. He said if you stacked a billion devices of these little nanoport things into, it would basically take up the size of a refrigerator and it would generate one kilowatt of power. So this is, of course, the claim that everyone runs with now, right? So imagine if you had a refrigerator sized device in your home generating a kilowatt of power.

E: You can tap into and use, right?

S: Well, yeah, that's not the issue. Tapping into it and using it is not the issue, Evan. You can absolutely do that. It's generating a kilowatt of power. And the average American home uses how much power do you think?

B: Far less than that. Far less.

S: No, 1.2 kilowatts. A little bit more.

B: Oh, really?

S: Yeah.

B: I must be thinking of petawatts.

S: Definitely less than petawatts.

C: Good save. Good save.

S: So, but we could draw three to five kilowatts at peak demand. All right, so kilowatts is power, not energy, right? Energy is like the amount of electricity you're consuming. Kilowatts is how much power you need at any one moment, right? Like if you have a 40 watt bulb, you're running 10 40 watt bulbs, that's 400 watts you need to make those bulbs go. You do that for an hour, that's 40 kilowatt hours, you know? And that's energy. So at any way, so how could you power your home with this? Because it's like constantly generating electricity, but your demands are going up and down. So you would probably-

B: Store it.

S: Yeah, you'd probably need to like include a battery or you would need to have some overcapacity so you could produce more energy at peak level and then they turn themselves off when you don't need the power, whatever. Some combination of those things would be necessary. Or you're hooked up to the grid, which kind of defeats the purpose to some extent, but you could use the grid as a backup. Like if you have solar panels today, you could just hook up to the grid. Yeah, same idea. Or you could be off the grid with battery if you have enough batteries to store it, et cetera. So it could work and it certainly could displace a lot of power generation if these things were efficient enough. So there's a number of questions and I found that the reporting did not answer all these questions, right? Some of them just mentioned, some experts say that it might not scale up, right? That was like the most skepticism I found in the mainstream reporting. It's like, yeah, the whole scaling up thing kind of is the deal killer here in my opinion. Because think about it, where's all that water going and how is it getting regenerated, right? So if you had one of these things running in your home, would this dry out the air in your home? And how long would it take for that to happen? And then of course it would stop generating electricity and you'd be living in the Sahara Desert. So what I could not find anywhere was an analysis of how much energy exists in your home in humidity, right? You'd be able to run it at one kilowatt for how long?

E: Yeah, it's still a limited amount, whatever that humidity level is.

S: Yeah, right. There's not an infinite amount of water. Now these things might work better outside rather than-

B: How about in your pool?

S: Yeah, so it's got to be in the air. I think it's got to be in the air.

B: Air, okay.

S: It's got to be water vapor, not just water. You have to think about where's the energy coming from? I guess like the sun evaporates the water into water vapor. There's a little bit of that energy in the electrons on the water vapor and it's harvesting that to generate a tiny amount of current. So I think it possibly could have some utility. It's not going to be powering our civilization. I just don't see how that's going to work. But it may be a great self-powered dehumidifier. You know what I mean? Put one of these things in the oven and just run itself and pull water out of the air. And it may be able to generate electricity in certain small niches. But I just can't see like every home having one of these things. Just doesn't make any sense.

B: Well, don't you need the answers to those questions before you can come to that conclusion?

S: Yeah, we don't know. We don't know. I mean, I just, but think about it, Bob. How much energy could be floating around in the air in your house? You know what I mean?

B: Yeah, but if it's a kilowatt-

S: Bob, it's not a kilowatt. He's just saying theoretically if you stacked a billion, he's just multiplying what he was able to generate in the lab times a billion without making any mathematical evaluation of how-

B: Oh, he has no small scale models of this?

S: Yeah, yeah. But you're generating a tiny amount of electricity. I'm just saying, he said, oh, if we had a billion of these, it could generate a billion times as much electricity. But he is assuming that the humidity is not a limiting factor. But that's the deal killer assumption, in my opinion, in terms of scaling up.

B: Yeah, his next step is to build one that's as big as a college refrigerator. What can that do?

S: Also, a mini-fridge, yeah.

C: I mean, maybe this is a stupid question because this is not obviously my forte, but can you assume that it's just linear? That if you just times it by a billion, that its output is times by a billion?

S: No.

C: Yeah, I wouldn't think so.

S: No, you can't assume that.

C: And I don't even mean without a rate-limiting step. Let's say that there was enough humidity by some form of magic. You still can't assume that it's linear, can you?

S: No, because the thing is, how much water is moving through this system at any given time?

C: Right.

S: So it's not just the presence of the water in the atmosphere, it's also the movement of the water. So is he saying there's a billion times as much water vapor available moving through this system? You know what I mean? How would that work?

C: And also, will the system break down when you're up to that amount?

E: Yeah, a couple of those layers go kaplooey. What happens to the system?

C: Exactly. I don't know. There's a lot of assumptions there.

S: There's a lot of assumptions. Just saying, you're going to stack a billion of these things together is ridiculous. You cannot scale like that.

C: I know. You can't scale anything like that.

S: I know.

C: I'm trying to think of all the things in my house where I'm like, oh, that's good. Let's see what happens when I do it a billion times.

S: And also, even if it theoretically could work at usable scales, again, remember, we're talking a billion times with this guy who's able to do it in a lab, then you still have to answer questions of what's the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity from this? Is it ridiculous?

B: That's the bottom line, basically.

S: And what would be the energy and carbon necessary to make the thing? And what's the payback time on that? Do you have to run this thing for 100 years before you make back the energy you put into making it in the first place? I don't know. I'm just throwing out made up numbers. I'm just saying, until we see that kind of analysis, we have no idea if this thing is viable or not. But the thing that, for me, again, the deal killer that no one even brought up in any of the reporting I saw on it was, is there that much moisture in the air to multiply this by a billion? And would the throughput be enough? I mean, just because you could stack a billion of these things on top of each other doesn't mean it's going to work.

E: Some places on the planet, maybe, and others, probably not.

S: Right. Yeah, but even that maybe is, I don't know. I mean, we could be orders of magnitude off from that. I mean, that's the thing that I'm saying. Maybe it turns out that you could only stack 100 of these things on top of each other, or 1,000. I don't know. We could be several orders of magnitude off what this guy is calculating. And even if we're one order of magnitude off, think about that. Then you're only making 100 watts with a refrigerator-sized device. You would need 12 of them, yeah, to be 12 refrigerators of machinery to meet the average needs of an average person.

E: Yeah, it's like having UNIAC as your computer in your house. It's not going to happen.

S: It very quickly gets out of control.

B: Yeah, I mean, I would like to see some more research on this.

S: Yeah, yeah, totally. Totally. All right, so here's the other thing, though, to get to the positive end. Bob, we talk about this a lot in our book, about how to evaluate new technologies. Oftentimes the application that a technology is initially created for or imagined for turns out not to be the thing that it's good for. But if it does something interesting, somebody might come along and say it sucks as a source of energy. You're not going to be running your home off these things, but we could do all this cool stuff with it. And that is just really hard to predict. Because you're trying to predict the creativity of millions of people somebody coming up with a great idea about how to exploit it. So we'll see. It's the kind of thing, like maybe it works at a scale that it could function in some way. Like self-powering certain remote devices, for example. It's running off the moisture.

B: In certain locations.

S: Or again, as a dehumidifier, maybe it would be great for that.

C: The world's biggest dehumidifier.

S: Right. Or maybe moisture harvesting on Tatooine. Who knows?

B: Right. Or Arrakis.

C: I got that reference.

S: Yeah. Did you get the Arrakis reference?

C: No, I did not.

S: That's Dune.

C: Got the first one.

E: That's Dune.

C: You guys went too deep.

E: A bridge too far there.

S: By the way, part two of Dune's coming out, I think, in December this year. Can't wait.

B: Can't wait.

S: I loved the first part.

B: Yeah, we'll have to sit down to even watch the first one again on a big 4K TV.

S: I've already re-watched it. It was actually better the second time than the first.

B: Oh my God.

E: Cara and I want to see it too.

C: Sure we do.

S: Cara, you're always welcome to nerd out with us, Cara. Always.

C: Thanks. Open invite. Love it.

Breakups and Hindsight Bias (30:41)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, tell us about hindsight bias and romantic breakups. What do these things have to do with each other?

C: Well, I love social psychology research. I'm just going to put that out there. And I love a good, just clean, beautiful study that kind of helps maybe offer just a little bit more insight into a phenomenon that we know exists and that we're curious about. Human behavior is bizarre and fascinating. And when we can figure out an interesting way to sort of take something that we all kind of know happens in the real world and systematize it, I think it's quite interesting. We've all been in this situation before, right? Where we had a breakup and then after the fact, we're like, how did I not see this coming? Or like, oh, so many red flags and it's so obvious. Or like, especially we see this with our friends. Think about a time when you have a friend who had a breakup and then it's like, I told you that was going to happen. I knew that the writing was on the wall. And we're so confident about it. And so the question is, is that confidence coming from data or is it coming from a hindsight bias? Do we know it now because we know it or did we know it all along? And so the researchers came up with a kind of interesting study design. They basically, and they did this twice, mostly with college students, but also, actually not mostly, with some college students and also with community adults. So they really wanted to look at which I appreciate because most of these studies are only done with college students, assuming that they are representative of the general population, which they are not. And so what they did is they basically offered a bunch of people a vignette, a little story about a couple. And the story was a really balanced story. It basically had some positive traits and some negative traits. And they counterbalanced how they introduced the positive traits and the negative traits. And then in the control group, immediately after they had them read the study, they gave them two different scales. One of them was asking where they expected the couple to be in six months. Basically, like they will have a breakup or they will still be together or it's hard to say. And then the other scale was basically their level of agreement. So like a Likert scale, right? A seven point scale asking about like, is their relationship unstable? Are they a good fit for one another? Do they have a lot in common? Should they date other people? Do the negatives outweigh the positives? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Right? So that was the control group. Basically, they read the vignette and they immediately rated it. But in the two experimental groups, they told them what happened. In one of the group, they said, and now they're still together. In the other group, they said, and then and now they broke up. And then they gave them those scales to rate. Basically how, but the scales were slightly changed for them. It was sort of like, how confident were you that they would break up? How confident were you that they would be together? And what do you think they found?

S: Oh, yeah. I mean, people would be very confident of the outcome that they knew happened.

E: Hindsight bias.

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

C: But here's something that's kind of interesting. There was a big, obvious outcome in hindsight about a breakup. There was not an obvious hindsight bias about staying together.

S: So it was asymmetrical.

C: The staying together and the control group were equally strong.

E: Do you think that's math? In other words, because probably I would assume statistically there are more breakups than there are people who wind up staying together. Just as a pure mathematical expression.

C: No. 100 percent. I don't. I think it's it has every I mean, I could be wrong, but talk to me a little bit more about your thought. Because the idea here is not that they were guessing whether they would break up or not. Right. That was only in the control group. The idea here is they were told whether they broke up or whether they stayed together. And then they were asked how confident they were that that was going to be the outcome of a neutral scenario.

E: In suggesting that they break up instead of suggesting that they're going to stay together.

S: It doesn't matter how common it is in the real world, Evan. This is an artificial situation. They're given a neutral scenario and half the time they were told they were breakup, half the time they were told they would stay together. And then people were way more confident that they were.

E: I suppose what I'm saying is if a person is aware of that math that goes on if they're going to think that ahead of time, does that play into their calculation about what they're-

C: But the calculation. Sorry, I'm just going to be really clear about this because I think that might be what we're missing. The calculation is not whether or not they would break up or stay together. The calculation is how confident they were that they were going to break up or stay together.

E: But can that math influence someone's confidence level level of confidence in that decision that they're making?

C: You're kind of, OK. This is actually really a complex question. But what I'm what I think I'm hearing is a almost like a negative variable. It shouldn't make a difference between the two groups because they have the same information. So the background rate of togetherness versus break upness, I don't think would make a difference.

E: You don't think people have a predisposition to assume breakup rather than get together just because.

C: But again, we're not asking them if they're if we're not asking if they think they're going to break up.

E: I'm not expressing myself.

S: So Cara, Cara, would it have biased the results if people have a baseline assumption that most couples are going to break up? Then they hear the couple broke up like, yes, I figured that I was very confident that was going to happen. If they heard they stayed together, they're not as confident because they most couples break up. Right? So it's just a breakup bias, not hindsight bias. That makes sense?

C: Let's see what the control group said, because I think that's going to tell us. Right?

S: Yeah.

C: No, 100 percent. It can't be because there was no significant difference between the group that was given either no information and the group that said they stayed together.

S: So there wasn't a breakup bias.

C: It was only the breakup group that that showed that hindsight bias. That's so there was no breakup bias and there was no hindsight bias when they stayed together.

S: Got it. OK.

E: Right.

S: That's why we do controls.

E: What a clever way to design a study.

C: I know. This is why I love social psychology. It's so fascinating.

E: It's super clever.

C: It's clever and it's also something that like a college student can do. Like all you've got to do is dream it up and then it's actually not that hard to run a study like this.

E: No, no. But I don't know that I would have been able to even conceive a study like this on my own without the help of a lot of other people.

B: Inconceivable!

S: That's because you don't have a PhD in psychological research.

C: Right. Right.

E: Is that why? I don't know. I better get one of those.

S: That's what people learn when they get PhDs is how to design clever studies like this.

C: And thinking along these lines. So here's a quote from the researchers. "As individuals update their knowledge and use newly acquired outcome information to make sense of experiences, they may forget or reinterpret thoughts and predictions they previously had." OK, obviously that's hindsight, right? "Thus memory might be reconstructed with more weight placed on the negative elements of the relationship. Likewise, aspects of the relationship might be reinterpreted to make sense of the outcome. After a breakup, for instance, what was previously interpreted as constant attention and affection may be reinterpreted as neediness of an overbearing partner. Similarly, differences in beliefs that were previously interpreted as opportunities for perspective taking and negotiation may be reinterpreted as insurmountable barriers." So we like we live our life with a frame and that frame is always being updated, hopefully. But that frame is very much constructed based on our own experiences, our past, our history, our culture, all those lovely things. And our frames shift when we get new information. And that doesn't just apply to our right now frame or our future frame. It applies to our past frame. We rewrite history all the time. And it's why I'm always when I work with clients, we talk about this a lot. It is very, very hard to remember past suffering. You can sort of remember it cognitively. You're like, I remember I was in a state. I remember I wasn't getting out of bed. I remember I wasn't eating. I remember that was a really hard time of my life. But it's really hard to empathize with the feeling, to put yourself back in that feeling.

E: I suppose unless you kept a diary or something, you would have had to do something like that.

C: No, even doing that, even doing that, putting yourself in the emotional frame is very hard. It's kind of like think about the last time you were sick.

B: Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. Yeah.

E: Yeah, right. I can think about it.

C: You can think about it, but you can't feel sick again.

E: I can't feel it.

S: Do you think it cuts both ways?

B: Yeah.

S: Do you think extreme pleasure is the same thing?

B: Exactly my question.

C: I do think so. I think it's actually, I don't know, this is pure speculation, but I think it's evolutionarily beneficial for us.

S: Yeah, I agree.

C: To not be able to take that frame again because otherwise we wouldn't, it'd be really hard to grow. And it would be really hard-

E: To satisfy the issues.

C: And I think our fear would become paralyzing. We need an ability to have new hope, to reset our frame, to be able to look towards the future in an open way.

S: Cara, mothers would never have a second child.

C: Exactly. So many things wouldn't happen.

E: Good point.

B: Oh my god.

C: Just think about literal predators and prey relationships. You wouldn't leave your nest again.

S: Right.

C: It just doesn't make sense evolutionarily if you can continuously go back into that frame. The problem is we color these things. We color them based on new information. And I face this a lot when I'm working with clients who are dealing with a lot of, like, the portions of their depression and anxiety are colored by a lot of regret. And they're colored by a lot of negative self-talk about past decision-making. They'll be like, oh, I was so bad at making that decision. I ended up in this bad relationship. I should have seen the signs. I should have whatever. And it's like, or maybe not. Maybe there were no signs for you to see.

S: Yeah, right, right.

E: Do they do that? Do they also express some of the positive things that they experienced as part of that? Or they concentrate more on sort of those negative thoughts?

C: Are you talking about my patients?

E: Yes.

C: Oh, well, I'm treating people for depression and anxiety, not for happy.

S: Yeah, so they don't.

C: So you've got to remember that, too. There's a bias there. Like, somebody who is actively depressed or somebody who is dealing with an anxiety spiral has these intrusive thoughts very often that are cycling. But there may be this bias for negative emotionality that is also, again, evolutionary. We need to protect ourselves from suffering. We don't need to protect ourselves from happy and from joy. We want to go towards it. But we're not going to survive as species if we go towards suffering. That's dangerous for the fitness of the organism. So I think there's some interesting, I don't know, there's some interesting stuff there. But I like this study because any time I come across a social psychology study that I can actually bring into the therapeutic space and I can literally say to people, the evidence show that we do this. We have very good experiments that show that this is a bias that we have and this is how it can affect us. It weighs a lot more with clients, I find. So yeah, super interesting.

S: Yeah, it's helpful. It intellectualizes it a little bit. I do think that hindsight bias is a subset of the confirmation bias in a way.

C: Yeah, it's just you're looking behind instead of forward.

S: Yeah. It's just you're searching for information that confirms what now is your assumption about what is true. Like if they broke up, oh yeah, that's right, they had this fight three weeks ago. And I thought, you know what I mean? You look for things to support the outcome.

C: And this is why in like from a forensic perspective, you have to separate witnesses. And you've got to make sure that witnesses aren't exposed to biasing data. Yeah, it contaminates their statements. Like the minute they have more information, they're going to completely re-narrate their old information without even knowing they're doing it.

S: Exactly. All right. Thanks, Cara.

C: Yep.

AI Seance (43:06)[edit]

S: Evan, are we going to be able to talk to our dead loved ones using artificial intelligence?

E: What a good question. And if you read this article that I happened to cross at, you might think maybe. Well, so are you guys familiar with the concept of grief tech?

S: You mean like the Black Mirror episode?

E: I don't know. No, I didn't see that.

B: Oh, yeah, Steve. I think of the same thing.

S: The Black Mirror episode where they basically reconstruct somebody mentally from all of their social media presence.

C: Oh, right. It's just like a trained AI. It's only trained on one person.

E: Technology designed to be used by people who are experiencing grief as the result of a person having died.

C: So you can chat bot with your dead lover or something.

E: Right. Yep. And using the technology, it effectively captures and recreates things like images, voices of the departed in order to help.

B: Thoughts, opinions, writings.

E: Yep. A whole set of data that can be included in this. And the idea is that it helps the bereaved cope with what is often these overwhelming feelings and emotions that are related to that person's death. So it's an algorithmic version of a person's, like you said, Bob, writing memories, recollections, also capturing vocal recordings, still images, moving images, all cobbled together to present back to the living people who can then interface with this algorithm. So it goes just beyond the images and sounds to reflect on like you normally have. It's actually technology that you could "speak with".

S: Interactive.

E: Right. It will answer back to you. But the person who died, okay, is they were actually communicating with the living in some way? No, of course not.

C: No, the living is communicating with the person who died. It's not. It's the other way around.

S: It's the simulacrum [inaudible].

E: The technology is simply putting the information that the data is what it's fed in order to craft responses that make some level of sense or some level of meaningful connection to the people that are interacting with this technology. And in recent years, there have been several startup companies in this grief tech industry. And they've been looking at various ways for, well, marketing it as a viable service. And one of those companies in particular is using generative artificial intelligence as its backbone for their product. So much so that they've named their technology Seance AI.

C: Oh god.

E: Right. And as the headline of this article reads, "AI company says it will perform a seance on your dead loved ones." And here's a direct quote from the creator. "We're trying to make it sound as magical and mystical as possible." Yep. It's still it's they're deliberately marketing in this way.

S: But is it like a wink and a nod? Is it transparent?

C: Yeah. Is it just a cute name?

S: Yeah. It's just like we're simulating the experience of having a seance with your dead loved one.

E: Right. Correct. They're not directly implying that this is a real seance occurring and something magical is occurring. Right. It's marketing. It's just it's a skin that they're basically putting over. But again, their technology is called Seance AI. It's a product of AE Studio. The creator's name is Jaron Rocks. And it's powered by OpenAI's Application Protocol Interface API. In this article, Jaron Rocks says that he likens his product to an AI generated Ouija board for closure rather than means of immortality. He says it's essentially meant to be a short interaction that can provide a sense of closure. That's really what our main focus is here. It's not meant to be something super long term. In its current state, it's meant to provide a conversation for closure and emotional processing. He says you can think of it as like a digital psychic briefly summoning a digital representation of the deceased so that the living can have one last conversation with them. And he says that for short conversations, I think it feels decently human. But it falls apart a bit when you start to pick up on repetitions. It's following a pattern. It doesn't know exactly what's going on. So there's the acknowledgement saying that this thing is limited. And it really in only short bursts, apparently, it has, I guess, the desired effect. But it doesn't take much data to make or essentially make, pull in the information about the person. You need the deceased name, age, cause of death, a short list of personality traits that the user can adjust to suit their loved one, plus a snippet of text from the deceased, along with the deceased relationships to the users and other. That's the information. Once that information is given, the computer screen apparently puts up this animated flame and burning and greets the user while the chat bot loads. So kind of give it that mystical sort of feel to it. So here are my two main points about this. Number one, I don't like it. I don't like when people have tools of actual science and they're using pseudoscientific terminology as marketing. I don't know. I see it as wrong. Seance, magic, mysticism, psychic, Ouija, all that is part of the skin that they're putting on this. And those we know these are words and the actions used by unscrupulous people all throughout history. And I don't know.

C: Do you believe that there's not like a component that there can't be a component of kitsch that's just fun. That like people who don't believe like when I was a kid, we would play like light as a feather, stiff as a board. Like I didn't believe any of that. It's just fun. Like ghost stories are fun. I don't think ghost stories are necessarily irresponsible.

E: But I don't know. Are they taking advantage of people's dispositions, maybe either towards the supernatural and kind of maybe blurring some lines about what might be reality versus fantasy here? I don't know.

C: I feel like at a certain point that you just have to put the responsibility on the human, on the consumer.

E: I suppose so. But certainly this company is tapping into the people's thoughts about these kinds of things and the fact that they believe that things like Ouija Happens, psychics are real, mysticisms.

B: Yeah, I mean, I would think it would tend to reinforce those pseudoscientific beliefs.

C: Maybe, but I don't know.

E: I don't like it when – I just – something rubs me the wrong way when it's being incorporated and used with something that's legitimately scientific. So that was my initial issue kind of with it. But I thought more importantly, more importantly, my second issue with this, technology like this, does this pass ethical tests?

C: No.

E: I mean I know what it is to be – we all know what it is to be bereaved. And there are – and we know also that there are industries that take full advantage of these raw emotions. And I think it's kind of disgusting when I think about it.

S: Yeah, it's exploitative.

C: I think even more than that, and I know that this is going to sound a little callous. The real ethical problem here is not so much the living. It's the data of the dead who didn't give that permission. And we've seen this with real complicated ethical questions around like actors kind of utilizing or around – it was the Pepper's Ghost thing. It was Tupac. You guys remember the whole thing, Pepper's Ghost of Tupac? And it's like is the estate giving permission for this data to be utilized in this way?

S: Yeah, that's an interesting – it does crack open that can of worms about who owns your digital essence once you die.

C: And then can they just do with it what they will?

S: Yeah. Like the moment you die, can somebody use you in a movie, like use your voice, your image, your persona?

C: I mean right now they can't. That's the thing. Ethically they can't.

B: It would be the state that has to okay in order–

C: Exactly. So how does that change if we're talking about somebody's voice?

S: Yeah. Well, I guess if you're the significant other, you basically are in control, right?

C: That's only if you're the legal significant other.

S: Yeah, right. But that's not, that probably might be the situation.

C: It's going to be a portion of the users. But I think a lot of users would be people who are like just kind of knew the person. And also ultimately I think we're assuming that this seance experience is one of deep kind of reverence and one of like these are like bereaved people who are really crying and who are really like wanting to reconnect with their dead loved one. I think a huge use of this is going to be like kitschy, a huge use. And at that point I think the exploitation is – kind of happens at a whole other level.

S: And I don't think we can assume this is a positive thing. I could see how this could be counterproductive to the grieving process.

C: But I also don't think we should assume that it is only that either. That's why I say I think the voice is on the user.

S: No, I agree. It needs to be studied.

C: It needs to be studied. And I think we have to allow end users some amount of personal responsibility in their choices.

S: Yeah.

E: We do.

C: Like maybe somebody is – like the Black Mirror episode I think is a good proxy. The person who – in the episode who like purchased this package knew what they were doing. They wanted their companion.

B: Bought their tickets.

C: Like the feeling of the companionship back. They knew that it was an AI and they wanted it anyway.

S: And it blew up in their face.

C: And it did blow up in their face. But that's also Black Mirror.

E: So there are other companies out there, Cara, that are taking that directly into consideration. There's one particular company. It's called Hereafter. And what it is, it allows the person before they die to submit their things and say, yes, you can use this. Here's my information and I'm giving you permission. You have to – they have to specifically state it, that you're using this information, that you're going to create something after I'm gone that's going to be this AI generated stuff.

S: Yeah. That could deal with that part of the issue, the permission of the person.

C: Like as if I would ever trust that. I'm sure it says, to be used however we want in perpetuity. Like, hey, I'm OK.

E: Hello, I'm gone. But you should buy a Coca-Cola.

C: Exactly. Oh god.

B: It's interesting though to speculate on extrapolating this into – at some point in the future if, for example – now imagine certain future scenarios. It doesn't seem unreasonable to say. Now imagine your social media presence in the future becomes even more dramatically embedded into your life. Or how about this? Or how about you've got yottabytes of hard drive space? You could essentially record your entire life. You've got a recorder on you 24-7 for decades.

E: Oh my gosh.

B: So imagine the training material for a future computer that can train on-

C: These could be very good, have very high fidelity.

B: -orders of magnitude more. Everything you've said or written.

E: Oh my gosh.

B: I mean it could probably create a simulacrum of the person that died to a surprising degree.

C: I think even now, to be honest, Bob, I think if – and I hate to bring this up because it's so tragic and dark. But like if a younger person died now.

E: The child of a parent, right?

C: Right. Like somebody – or not even that. I literally just mean the amount of training that a digital native has is wildly different than ours. We were there for the transition. But kids today were born on social media. And so you think about their entire life is documented on – and obviously some people are heavier users than others. But I bet you their AI would be significantly better.

E: Because of more information.

C: Yeah, there's just more training information.

E: More available data.

S: It's an interesting thought. After Perry died, I had this thought. So much of my interaction with him was online, right? We were playing video games, podcasting, whatever. We would spend a lot of our time just interacting with each other digitally.

E: Yeah, especially when he got ill and couldn't get around much anymore.

S: Especially when he was physically ill, yeah, and couldn't get around. I'm like if a really good digital simulacrum of Perry could fill a significant chunk of our social interaction. What would I think about that? Because obviously it wouldn't be him. But it would just be like an AI talking in his voice basically. What would that be like? I don't know, but I thought about that a lot after Perry died.

C: Yeah, and I think that's a good example of why this sort of complex question about value judgments is important. Because I think it's up to you if that would be healthy for you. It's not up to anybody else to tell you if that's a healthy thing that would be important for you in your life. I think it's up to you and maybe your therapist. But when it comes down to it, I think that it's a very difficult – it makes us go, ew, and so we immediately go to bad. Or it makes us go, cool, and we immediately go to good. But no, it's going to be very, very personal.

S: Yeah, I guess so.

E: I just hope some people wouldn't get bogged down by it in a sense that prolonging their period of grief and not being able to overcome it.

B: And move on, yeah.

E: Yeah, and be able to move on quickly enough. But like you said, Cara, each person is unique.

C: And also, who are you to say that somebody should move on at a certain time frame?

E: I agree.

B: Everyone grieves differently for sure.

E: It's a big set of questions.

C: There are some people culturally who – culturally, they're not to move on. And they are to grieve for years. Or if it's past a certain age, they are not to find another partner. Or if it's – it's just really – our values are our own because of our frame. And a lot of this is about value judgments for sure.

E: Yeah, important to remember, definitely.

C: Yeah, yeah.

Monster Stars (56:43)[edit]

[use template {{10tothe|##}} for various powers of 10 bob mentions]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about Monster Stars.

B: Oh, okay. Doing that, are we? Is that right?

S: Yes, we're doing your news item that I told you we were going to do.

B: James Webb, guys, in the news has made yet another fascinating discovery. This time, it found new evidence that could solve the mystery of globular clusters, which would mean that the early universe had stars far bigger than anything we could observe now, what the researchers are calling celestial monsters. This comes from the Journal of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Lead study author Corinne Charbonnel, astronomy professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Okay. So this starts off with globular clusters. I don't think we've discussed them much on the show as far as I can remember.

C: I love globular clusters. They're my favorite thing to stargaze.

B: Oh, wow. Cool. Good for you. Awesome.

C: They're the prettiest things through my telescope by far.

B: Oh, excellent. Globular clusters are not in fact what you find stuck under Jay's desk. I wish Jay were here.

C: Right? We don't quite have the same ring when we're talking about them.

B: They are soroidal collections of stars, little star clusters that could have tens of thousands or even millions of members. They're ancient, 10 to 13 billion years old. They could be crazy old. And they orbit the halo of galaxies, most spiral galaxies and the core. They orbit around them. Our Milky Way has about 180 globular clusters around it. So you may need to update your mental image of the Milky Way to incorporate them if you want to be more accurate. One of the biggest mysteries about globular clusters is that the individual stars often have incredibly different proportions of elements like nitrogen to oxygen or carbon to oxygen. And that's weird when you think about it because all the stars in a globular cluster formed around the same time from the same dense patch of gas and dust. So you'd expect that there would be more uniformity and there isn't. So one theoretical explanation for this involves a special type of star called the Wolf-Rayet, stars that continually eject gas into space including the nitrogen that had been created. But these researchers were looking at a different support of a different theory. A more interesting one in my opinion which came – I think it was from 2018 that the variable ratios of these elements were caused by a new type of star that could only really exist in the dense early universe and they're these so-called super massive stars. So what the hell are these guys? How come I never heard of these before? And how big could they have actually been if they existed? How big are we talking here? So let's start with our sun. Our sun, it's about 333,000 times the earth's mass, about 2 nanilion kilograms if that helps. So yeah, it's big. It's a lot. It's a lot of mass there. But that's nothing compared to the far end of the spectrum of the heaviest stars that we've documented like a star with a very boring name, R136a1. That star is the biggest we have detected. It has 300 solar masses, 600,000,000 kilograms, a lot of stuff there.

C: Is that the word you're saying?

E: Nanillion. It's between octillion and decatillion.

B: So it's big. It's as massive as they get as far as we can actually directly see. Now, if these searches are – if these researchers are correct though, some of the earliest stars billions of years ago were far more massive than even R136a1. They weren't 300 solar masses. They theoretically – they believe that they were potentially 10,000 solar masses. That's 10 decillion kilograms. That's a lot. Decillion is 10 to the 34. Huge. 10,000 solar masses. There's nothing like that that we have ever seen at this point in the evolution of the universe. So, okay. Maybe it existed. Maybe it didn't. Let's see what the scientists have to say about it. They believe that a star that big could have potentially formed in these huge dense clouds of gas in proto-globular clusters, these clusters of stars that were not quite globular clusters yet but they're just kind of proto-globular clusters. When the universe was young and a lot closer together, stars would have collided a lot more frequently, building up to this massive, massive 10,000 solar mass size. That's the idea. But if you've got a star that big, you're going to have a core that's a lot hotter, right? They think this would be five times hotter than our sun at the core. It would take a core that hot to reproduce those weird element ratios, carbon-nitrogen to oxygen ratios that we see in modern globular clusters today. So now their model has an unusual name. It's called the SMS polluter model, supermassive star polluter model. So this is the theory that in the early universe, supermassive stars would form in these early globular clusters and then explode in hypernovas, not supernovas but hypernovas, which sound fascinating. Those hypernovas would then pollute or enrich, depending on what term you want to use, enrich or pollute the gas in the young globular clusters with those elements. So then some of the descendant stars that we see today, like say in our globular clusters, some of those stars would then have those high ratios of nitrogen to oxygen that would then solve this globular cluster mystery. So that's the idea anyway. That's the theory. So to find – start again. To find evidence to support this theory, the researchers used the powerful infrared cameras on the James Webb Space Telescope to look at one of the oldest galaxies that we know to find more direct evidence of supermassive stars. And this galaxy is GNZ 11, and that fit the bill very well, 13.3 billion light years away from Earth, very distant, very – one of the oldest or youngest galaxies that we have found. The light left that galaxy when the universe was far denser and only 440 million years old, just a baby universe. So they looked at the light. They looked at the elements that they can find based on the light and they found – they had two major takeaways from these James Webb observations. There was a high proportion of nitrogen and an extremely high density of stars. So lead author Corinne Charbonnel said regarding this, she said, "The strong presence of nitrogen can only be explained by the combustion of hydrogen at extremely high temperatures, which only the core of supermassive stars can reach." So they believe that it's likely that they are observing – they're actually observing in this galaxy young globular clusters, which potentially still actually have supermassive stars inside or at least it did right when the light left 13 billion years ago. I mean they didn't – they obviously didn't directly observe them, but they did detect all that excess nitrogen that could have been created by the cores of those superstars. So that's kind of where we are right now. So how are we going to get farther with this, these observations? So to prove that these supermassive stars really existed and solved and really finally solved this globular cluster mystery, they need more observations obviously. They need to look at more distant globular clusters. But to me, that's all secondary. That's like, oh yeah, that's kind of interesting. To me, the very fact that these supermassive stars actually could have existed is really the more fascinating thing. I'm just trying to wrap my head around 10,000 solar masses. What would a star that big be like, right? What about its solar wind? What's the solar wind like? Or how about this? Imagine the coronal mass ejection from a supermassive star at 10,000 solar masses. Wow. Or even a hypernova. I mean I've never done a deep dive on a hypernova before. How would that be different besides the obvious than a supernova? I don't know. But those are the questions that I want answered even more than this little mystery. These stars to me is the real thing that is really interesting about this and I want to just try to find out some more about it. Fascinating stuff.

S: 10,000 solar masses.

B: Yeah.

S: So what color are they?

E: Plaid.

B: Interesting.

S: What's their life expectancy? Do they burn up in a million years?

E: Oh, they must burn out quick, right?

B: You're absolutely right. Two million years. That's why we're dealing with what happened after they existed. Because you think, oh, there's so much more hydrogen there. It would last for billions or trillions of years. No. They burn so hot and so fast that the biggest stars, even that exist today, they only live maybe a couple hundred million years. And here's our sun that lasts, what, 10 billion? So, yeah, the bigger you are, the faster you live.

S: Yeah. And then the red dwarfs can live for trillions of years.

B: Oh, yeah. They're just crazy. They're just so sedate. Like, just burn a little bit.


Correction #1: Which Attenborough (1:05:49)[edit]

S: All right. Let's go on to the questions and emails. We're going to start with a correction. So I think roughly 3,000 people emailed us to tell us that Richard Attenborough and David Attenborough are two different people.

E: Yes. Yep. The strategic social engagement experiment we did totally worked. Absolutely.

B: Are they brothers?

E: Yes, they are.

S: I mean, the thing is, I knew that.

E: Right.

S: It was just a brain fart. So I'm trying to remember it because I didn't have time to go back and listen to it. So the quote that you gave us was from Richard Attenborough?

E: Yes.

S: And did you say Richard Attenborough?

E: What I had done? No, I'm sure I said David Attenborough.

S: You said David.

E: Yeah. So I triggered the whole avalanche.

S: You triggered it. It's your fault. I just want to be clear.

E: No, no. Wait, are you kidding? Steve, this is the most engagement we've had on any topic ever. I mean, our numbers are off the charts here. This was deliberate. They used to call these Easter eggs, right?

S: Yeah.

E: Or you'd publish an article or something.

S: That's how we're spinning it now?

C: 100%.

E: Steve, Steve.

B: That's the ticket.

E: Steve, I'd like to talk to you over here away from the microphone for a second.

S: No, that's fine. So yeah. So you gave a quote from Richard Attenborough, said it was from David Attenborough, and we all reacted as if it was from David Attenborough.

E: Right, because why would you have that immediate thought in your head? Look, this is – I've gotten this confused in the past too. I don't think it detracted from any – it didn't detract from anything. It was simply incorrect.

C: UK listeners lost it.

S: But again, the quote was about what, the Yeti or something?

E: Yes, that's right.

S: It certainly makes a lot more sense that an actor would believe in Yeti rather than a naturalist believing in Yeti. So I do feel a lot better about that.

E: And in the context of the other two people that were in the clues, they were all scientists as well.

S: Yeah, exactly.

E: So right. But obviously, people knew what it was. But hey, I love giving people the opportunity to come on and correct us all day long on something like that. Again, it's all–

S: It's all good.

E: It's all good. When engagement goes up, that is good.

C: Also, like we are people. You know what I mean? There are so many times where I'm like, come on. People are like, that was not the appropriate encyclopedia. It's like, yeah, because I said that off the cuff.

E: I don't think any of the emails we got were like harsh.

S: No, no, no.

E: Trying to, skating or, it was just having a bit of fun.

C: I hope that's true. I know it's kind of hard to tell.

E: That's how I took it.

C: Yeah, I know it's kind of hard to tell in tone. But like there definitely was an overarching like, are you kidding me?

S: Well, there was an angle to this of you Americans screwing up our British iconic heroes here like Richard Attenborough and David Attenborough, both icons of Britain. So Evan, as penance, you have to eat scones and tea every day for a week.

C: Yeah, but you need to pronounce it scones.

B: Can I do it too?

C: You got to pronounce it scones. Scones.

E: Scones.

C: Yeah, scones.

S: And you have to–

E: And English breakfast tea.

S: Eat a cookie and call it a biscuit.

E: Biscuit.

C: They don't call it English breakfast tea.

S: They just call it breakfast tea?

E: But I'm not in England. I'm not in England.

C: Go get some – What is it? PG Tips? Is that – Yeah, go get some PG Tips.

S: You have to watch a whole soccer match and call it football the whole time.

E: Wow. Steve, I'm not sure this punishment fits the crime.

C: I'm also not sure we're not going to get more emails now after this exchange.

E: We got to get an appellate court decision on this?

S: There is no appeal.

E: Wait, what? What's this?

S: There's no higher authority on this podcast.

E: Tyranny. Tyranny.

C: How about if you watch Ted Lasso?

E: OK. That I could do. I actually played the Ted Lasso board game with my Which Game First co-host.

C: But you haven't watched it yet?

E: No, I haven't watched it.

S: It's really good.

C: It's amazing.

S: It's really good.

C: There you go.

S: Do you watch the last episode, Cara?

C: I don't know. It's the most recent one that I watched, the last last?

S: No, the last episode, last night, is the final episode of the series.

B: Of the series finale.

E: Of the series finale.

C: This I know. I just didn't know it was last night. So no, I have not watched it.

S: Yeah. It was a good out. I won't say anything else.

C: I was like, was the penultimate episode the last last episode? Because that was like disappointing. OK, that makes more sense.

S: It's hard to end a series well, and they were successful. I'll just say that.But it was a little bit of a disappointment.

C: And they just did it too with Barry. Two series finales in two weeks.

S: I didn't see the series finales of Barry yet.

C: So sad.

E: I'm going to call him Tim Lasso so we get more emails from people.

C: Yeah, there you go.

E: See, you do it on purpose. You get engagement.

S: All right.

Question #1: Trees and CO2 (1:10:52)[edit]

Hi, I’m a recent listener to your podcast and I have a question for your panel. In the 5/29 issue of the New Yorker Magazine, an article on trees questions the wisdom of mass tree plantings as away to combat global warming. Specifically, it says that although the world’s forests absorb around 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, they also emit 8 billion tons. I know that some carbon dioxide is emitted due to respiration at night, but these numbers still seem way off. Can this be true? The online version of the story is dated 5/22/23: What We Owe Our Trees: Forests fed us, housed us, and made our way of life possible. But they can’t save us if we can’t save them.
– Jill Lepore

S: One more email. This comes from Jill Lepore. And Jill writes, "Hi, I'm a recent listener to your podcast. And I have a question for your panel. In the 529 issue of the New Yorker magazine, an article on trees questions the wisdom of mass tree plantings as a way to combat global warming. Specifically, it says that although the world's forests absorb around 16 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, they also emit 8 billion tons. I know that some carbon dioxide is emitted due to respiration at night, but these numbers still seem way off. Can this be true? The online version of the story is dated 522, what we owe our trees. Forests fed us, housed us, and made our way of life possible. But they can't save us if we can't save them." All right. Well, thanks for the question, Jill. So yeah this – we've talked about this a few times. I think the planting a trillion trees just talk global warming thing. Is this plausible? Does it work? How do trees help with global warming? So trees are a carbon sink. They're a pretty huge carbon sink in the world. A single tree will store, I think it's a ton of CO2 over their 40-year lifetime. It depends on the type of tree and et cetera. So yeah, they can store a lot of CO2. But it's hard – I don't know what exactly figure they're talking about in terms of emitting the 8 billion tons of CO2.

E: I've never heard that before.

S: Because, well, they do emit CO2. And also, are you counting the death of the tree? Because it releases all of its CO2 eventually back into the atmosphere once it dies and decays or burns or whatever, however it meets its end. Unless it gets fossilized and buried or something the chances are some of that CO2 is going to get back into the atmosphere. And if you, like, build a house out of it, that will delay it for a while. But it's still eventually going to get, again, unless it gets sequestered under the ground, it's going to get released back. It's not so much that trees are removing CO2 from the air, like permanently. It's that the amount of CO2 in the system, a certain percentage of that in the carbon cycle is going to be in trees. And if we're cutting – if deforestation reduces the amount of carbon at any one time that's stored in trees, so more of it is in the atmosphere, that's a bad thing, right? And what we want to do is reverse the deforestation so a larger chunk of the carbon cycle, of the total carbon store is in trees. And this is only going to be a temporary measure. It's not like they're continuously going to store CO2. At some point, they're going to reach a steady state. Regardless of what you think about, like how much in, how much out, whatever, at some point, they've got to reach a steady state. And then they're no longer pulling additional CO2 out of the atmosphere. But just a large chunk of the CO2 will be stored in trees. Does that make sense? So we could say like over the next 40 or 50 years, we might be able to store an additional 40 million tons or whatever of CO2 in trees or it might be a billion. And that will mitigate some of the CO2 that we're releasing into the atmosphere. But it's just a temporizing measure. Still useful. Again, the whole – the game is – I think it's easy to lose sight of this. The game is minimizing peak warming. That's the goal is to minimize that peak warming we have before we start to turn things down again. And everything we do that keeps CO2 out of the atmosphere reduces that peak warming a little bit. So it's – yes, it's only a temporary measure. It's only a partial measure. But it will be one more thing that could contribute to it. If we – first of all, we have to stop deforestation, right? That's like the big thing. And we should be looking for opportunities to plant as many trees as we can. And it's going to blunt that peak warming to some extent.

E: Have we talked about the artificial trees as well? I mean, carbon sinks.

S: Yeah. You're making a tree that you can't absorb a lot of carbon. But they're like thinking of trying to design an artificial tree that could store like per volume a thousand times what a tree stores or a million times the CO2 or whatever, some ridiculous amount of CO2.

E: Hopefully without a footprint that would require that much.

S: Then you bury it. Yeah. So they put it under the ground. Then you're sort of permanently taking the CO2 back out of circulation. That would be a more permanent – that's sequestering CO2. You know, that's like permanently removing it from the carbon cycle as opposed to just having a greater proportion of it stored in biomass at any given time. So it's still useful, just not a panacea. It's not going to fix the course.

E: Right. No single solution here.

S: Right, right. All right, guys, let's go on with Science or Fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:16:02)[edit]

Item #1: A newly published clinical study finds that a daily eyedrop can partially reverse myopia (nearsightedness) in children.[6]
Item #2: A study conducted during the pandemic shutdown finds that over the short term reducing pollution increases global warming.[7]
Item #3: Researchers report the production of an organic solar cell with a record-breaking efficiency >19%, which is close to commercial silicon solar cells.** [8]

** The reference article here was not given in the show notes, but seems to line up better with the SOF item.

Answer Item
Fiction Eyedrops reverse myopia
Science Less pollution, more warming
Efficient organic solar cell
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Less pollution, more warming
Less pollution, more warming
Eyedrops reverse myopia

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. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. You guys ready? Just three regular news items.

E: Okay.

S: No theme or anything. Cara, are you with us?

E: Is there a theme song?

C: I am.

S: All right.

C: I'm just trying not to make a noise so you don't call on me.

E: Is that how it works?

B: That's my tactic.

E: Yes, Bob is the most quiet.

S: Let's see how well that works for you. All right.

E: Yeah.

S: All right, here we go. Item number one. A newly published clinical study finds that a daily eyedrop can partially reverse myopia, nearsightedness in children. Item number two. A study conducted during the pandemic shutdown finds that over the short term, reducing pollution increases global warming. Item number three. Researchers report that production of an organic solar cell with a record breaking efficiency greater than 19%, which is close to commercial silicon solar cells. All right, Cara, go first.

Cara's Response[edit]

E: Lead the way, Cara. Show us the path to the truth.

C: Okay. Myopia in children with an eyedrop? That's your lens shape and hyperopia. Not presbyopia. That's aging. That's the muscles. But the actual lens shape. So could an eyedrop make it back to your lens and like flatten it? And I like that you said just myopia. You didn't say hyperopia because it probably only works in one direction. Maybe. A study, okay, during the pandemic shutdown, the short term, reducing pollution increase. What does that even mean? That's what? I don't like this one. I'll look at the last one. I'll come back to it. Production of an organic solar cell with a record breaking efficiency of greater than 19%, which is close to commercial silicon. Solar cells only have a 19% efficiency?

E: Yeah.

C: That's shit. Okay. Well, so I guess the idea is that if they were made out of organic materials, they were like garbage before and then they figured out how to make them less garbage. I don't know. Sure. Oh, the eyedrop bugs me. I mean, that would be amazing. And then, okay, let me just read this one more time out loud. A study conducted during the pandemic shutdown. Okay. Got it. Finds that over the short term, okay, got it. Reducing pollution increases global warming. Okay. So there's less pollution. We're talking about, when you say pollution, that's a very general term.

S: Yeah, from energy production and stuff like that.

C: But you're talking about like pollution in the air. You're not talking about like plastic on the ground.

S: In the air.

C: Okay, okay, okay, cool.

S: I guess I should say air pollution.

C: Right. So people aren't doing as much and they're not driving, they're not doing whatever. So there's less air pollution. And then we saw a spike in global warming. Although, like, how many other variables are they thinking about there? I don't like that one. I'm going to call that the fiction.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Oh, boy. Cara, thank you. You kind of answered a question for me in regards to the eyedrop question here. How exactly it reverses it and specifically in children only. I imagine, is that because the eye is still kind of developing, like everything in children are? Like, why wouldn't this work in non-children? So what's going on in a developing, growing eye? I guess it's a growing eye. That an adult otherwise couldn't benefit from it. That's the only thing I'm not exactly understanding on that one. Doesn't mean it's wrong. Then the pandemic shut down over the short term, reducing pollution, increases global warming. Why would it increase? Why would it increase? Pollution, air pollution, something in the air acting as a barrier for the sun. The sun, there's more sunshine getting through because there's less crap in the air to stop it? Maybe. I don't like that one either. I'm kind of leaning on kick with Cara on that. And then the organic solar cell. Yeah, I think researchers report the production. Sure, they produced it. I don't know that they have a full panel ready to bring this into production. Probably on some very tiny scale maybe this is probably true. So I suppose, Cara, since you did not steer me wrong, I think with the eyedrop one I'm going to join you in saying about the pandemic shutdowns and pollution increase and global warming fiction.

C: Going first is so much responsibility.

S: And Bob. If they follow you like lemmings, Cara, that's on them.

C: That's true.

E: I would have gone with the eyedrop one probably as fiction.

S: And I know the lemmings thing is a myth, but we use it anyway.

C: Exactly. It's a figure of speech now.

B: It might be a myth, but I'm no damn lemming.

E: I hope we get 800 emails on lemmings.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: I can see that if you reduce pollution that the climate would have a bizarre kind of counterintuitive react, temporary reaction of increasing global warming. That doesn't shock me. There's probably some obscure reason that makes that make sense, which I don't know. But it just kind of feels like I bet you that's what's happening there. And then the organic solar cell with – yes, it's about time that the organic variety of solar cells had its day in the sun, so to speak. So I'm just going to go with that because why not? Which means that the eyedrops reversing myopia, reversing? I don't know, man. That's just kind of-

E: Partially reversing.

C: Partially reversing.

B: But still a partial reverse is still a reverse. I'm not buying that one. I'll say that's fiction.

E: It's a piece of a reverse.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay. So you all agree with number three, so we'll start there. Researchers report the production of an organic solar cell with a record-breaking efficiency greater than 19 percent, which is close to commercial silicon solar cells. You all think that one is science, and that one is science. That is science.

B: Cool, man.

S: Yeah, that was the easy one because I couldn't find anything else.

E: What are you saying?

S: It was a tough week, man. I went through everything this week. Anyway, but it's still cool. I want to talk about it. So yeah, organic solar cells, they are cheap and flexible, and they're great, but their efficiency is much lower than silicon solar cells. We've been in the 10 percent range. I remember maybe a year ago, we were like, oh, we're getting to the 14, maybe 15 percent range. Meanwhile, silicon solar cells are broken 20. They're at like a 22 percent now. So they keep getting better. They're probably going to top out at around 29, 30 percent, and then we will need perovskite or something else to get into the low 30s, and that's probably pretty much going to be it in terms of that basic technology. But who knows? We'll find some way to get whatever, push beyond that. But the question was, can we get the organic solar cells high enough that they can be commercially in the range with the silicon solar cells? So yeah, this is now the record. This is, of course, laboratory proof of concept, but again, just a year or two ago, we were talking about 15 percent, 19 percent, a great improvement. And again, it's putting you in. I mean, just a year ago, that's what your commercial silicon solar cell would have been, right? It would have been 18 percent, 19 percent. So it's right there now in the range with commercial solar cells. And again, they're cheap and flexible, man. These are printed by plastic. So if this pans out and can scale and industrialize and et cetera, this could be huge to the solar industry.

C: That's cool. Yeah.

S: I've been following this very closely because this is what we're waiting for like this to pop, really.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right, let's go back to number one. A newly published clinical study finds that a daily eyedrop can partially reverse myopia, nearsightedness in children. First, Cara, let me just correct a couple of things that you said. So myopia, nearsightedness and farsightedness has nothing to do with the lens. It has to do with the shape of the eye and the cornea, not the lens.

C: And the lens.

S: The presbyopia is the stiffening of the lens.

C: Yeah, it's the ability.

S: It's not the lens.

C: It's the inability of the lens-

S: The lens can change shape, right? The lens is flexible and can change shape.

C: Right, but I thought that the idea was that if it can't fully round up or it can't fully flatten out.

S: That's presbyopia.

C: No, but that happens with time, with age because the actual muscles.

S: Yeah, but that's not what causes nearsightedness and farsightedness. It's the shape of the eye and the cornea. And so that's the idea is the drops would be changing the shape of the cornea, not the lens, in order to counteract myopia. But Bob is correct. This one is the fiction.

B: Yeah, baby.

S: Because what this does is it slows the progression of myopia in children.

B: Which is nice.

S: It doesn't reverse it.

C: Oh, okay.

S: The drug is atropine, which causes the pupil to dilate. Not sure if that's what the effect is coming from, but it works. And what's interesting is that we're having kind of an epidemic of childhood myopia.

B: Really?

S: Not really sure why.

E: Screens.

C: Is it, yeah, just increased eye tests?

S: So it's probably neither of those things. Actually, interestingly, the number one hypothesis is the lack of sunlight. Is that kids are not spending as much time in the sun. They're indoors too much.

E: No longer in agricultural society, right?

S: Whatever. But maybe it's a combination of all those things, but that's the one that I read about the most. And there's like so many grade school kids wearing eyeglasses. It's a real generational change. It's palpable.

C: Sorry to interrupt, Steve, but according to the NEI, and the NEI is National Eye Institute, nearsightedness happens when your eyeball grows too long from the front to the back, or when there are problems with the shape of your cornea, or when there are problems with the shape of the lens.

S: All right, so it's all of them. But I think the lens is by far the least likely of those.

C: You're probably right. Yeah, I think you're probably right.

S: Because again, because the lens is supposed to be able to change shape.

C: Right, the lens does round up or flatten out. That's what that is.

B: So you're both fighting for Steve's a little bit more right.

E: No, that would have totally changed my answer.

S: No, but the point is it does work on the cornea.

C: Well, no, actually-

S: This treatment works on the cornea.

C: Yeah, if I had said cornea, it would have been even more believable.

S: Yeah, right. You almost talked yourself out of it by focusing on the lens. Yeah, that's right.

C: Yeah, yeah. Because I was like, how is it going to reach the lens? But if it was just worrying about the cornea, that's right.

S: You were almost famously again right for the wrong reason.

C: Right for the wrong reason.

E: It happens.

C: So this is cool because basically even the – it's fiction, but it's only technically fiction.

S: Yeah, yeah. But I think reversing is a big deal. It's a totally different ballgame than just slowing the reverse.

C: I agree, but partially reversing is very confusing.

S: Yeah. I know that, but it's a different direction. So the the kids still got even more myopic over time, just not as much as the kids who didn't have the eye drops.

B: Like slowing down aging is one thing, but reversing aging, that's a horse of a different color.

S: I thought that was a big enough difference to justify a fiction.

C: Yeah, you're right.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S:Okay. And then that means that a study conducted during the pandemic shutdown finds that over the short term, reducing pollution increases global warming. That is science. Any of you want to take a stab at why that is?

C: Okay, let's think about that.

E: My stab, which is probably wrong, was that there's less material to reflect the sunlight.

S: You are correct.

E: Oh, hey, there you go.

S: So what material?

E: Fine particles.

S: Which fine particles?

E: Some of them?

S: Some particles.

C: The ones over there?

S: Some particles like CO2, methane trap the radiating heat, right?

E: It's a trap.

S: The sun will shine through them but then the ground warms and radiates away infrared, but it traps the infrared.

E: I was wrong for the right reason.

S: But other particles reflect the sun as it's coming in.

B: It increases the albedo.

S: And that would, yeah, so that has a cooling effect. And the particles that have the cooling effect have a shorter half-life in the atmosphere than CO2.

C: So this is an interesting situation where there is an effect and then another effect. And then we removed the masking effect.

S: It's exactly what they're calling it. It's a masking effect. There's a masking effect from some of the pollutants. And so if you would just like immediately cut off any pollution, not only would we have some warming because the CO2 would continue to have an effect for 10 or 20 years, but we would lose the masking effect from the reflecting particles and we would get some warming from that. It would be unmasked. So there's actually more of a greenhouse effect than we're feeling because it's partly masked by these reflecting particles and that would go away. And so there would be an increase in warming over the short term as those short-term molecules went away and we're no longer blocking some of the sunlight. So the article just says aerosols are the ones that reflect the sunlight.

C: That's not very specific.

S: Yeah, aerosols. Sulfur dioxide is one. So sulfur dioxide has a masking effect on the warming.

C: Interesting. How dare you, Bob, with your smarts.

B: Oh, I just lucked out.

E: Bob going last. I see what happened here.

S: Hey, he had the courage to break from the crowd and I'm happy that he was rewarded for that.

C: I agree.

E: I'm not as impressed.

B: Evan is correct because I happened to literally five minutes before Science or Fiction, I like, holy crap, I didn't even look at any news. I quickly scanned some and that was one of them.

E: Oh, boo.

C: Amazing.

B: Come on.

C: It's cool.

B: You know, that's like once in 50 weeks. Like, oh, look, I actually read it.

S: All right.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:30:25)[edit]

The plural of anecdote is not data.

 – attributed by listener to Erika Engelhaupt, freelance science writer

From a post by the Quote Investigator titled "The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data", "The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in an article by Kenneth Kernaghan and P. K. Kuruvilla in the journal “Canadian Public Administration” in 1982." (Also see Note 1)

S: Evan, give us a quote.

E: Great job, Bob. All right. So this week's quote comes from a suggested by a listener, Andy from Jacksonville, Florida. Cara, you're in Florida too. What are the odds?

C: Yes, Florida is quite big. Jacksonville is nowhere near me.

E: And he described this as an interesting quote. He says, in her book, Gory Details by Erica Engelhaupt, she says this quote, which is discussing sham or fake medical treatments. Here's the quote. "The plural of anecdote is not data."

C: I don't like that quote.

S: Now, is he saying that she's the source of that quote?

E: That's where he pulled the quote from because he.

S: That may have been where he pulled the quote from, but I doubt that she's actually the origin of that. I've heard that quote so many times from so many people. I bet you that's not the original.

E: You want to do you want a different quote?

S: No, it's fine. This is fine. So tracking down quotes can actually be tricky. We can't you just can't assume that that's correct.

C: I'm sure that quote is as old as modern null hypothesis testing. I've always you know, you guys know that I've always struggled with that concept.

S: Which one?

C: Because although I think that it is it is correct in context, it is also wildly incorrect in context. And you and I, Steve, have argued about this.

S: Yeah, it's definitely context dependent.

C: Right. Because because to some extent, data is the plural or data are the plural of anecdotes. Like sometimes that's what data are is collecting a lot of different accounts or experiences or self-report statements or whatever and then compiling them and then making sense of them. So I think but the whole context of the quote is that we have to study things systematically, but it's ignoring the fact that we can study anecdotes systematically and that would become data.

S: Yeah, it's just a different kind of data.

C: Exactly. Like I what I worry though, is that sometimes people who are like these really intense logical positivist purists, they hear like you see this with this like angry kind of like intense skepticism and you hear them go like the plural of anecdotes not data. Like you hear it thrown around a lot and basically they use it to minimize personal or even not even just personal to minimize human perspective.

S: Yeah, no, I agree with that. It's like also like people say like absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Yes, it is. It absolutely is.

C: It absolutely is, yes.

S: But it all depends on how much you've looked for the evidence. It doesn't prove absence. It's evidence of absence. It's not proof of absence, but it's you can't boil down scientific thinking to these aphorisms, these quips because they're always context dependent.

C: Right. It's helpful to understand. Yeah. Yeah. 100%.

S: So the way I look at it, I think a better summary for me of the role of anecdote in science is that anecdotes are a great way of generating hypotheses. They're not a great way of testing hypotheses. Because they're not controlled.

C: It's observational.

S: Yeah, it's observational, which is fine. Observational science is hugely important.

B: It's a start.

C: It exists. I wouldn't even say it's a start.

S: No, it's just a different kind of science.

C: It's a different kind of science.

S: It has its own strengths and weaknesses. That's it.

C: Yes. And this is something that I've been more passionate about lately because I'm doing like a phenomenological study right now. And this is the first time in my life I've been like dedicating a ton of my time to a different way of looking at data because I'm so used to doing clean, easy, I don't want to say easy, but super clean science. And there are different approaches and it's not just like we start with those and then eventually they become a randomized control trial. The vast majority of things on this planet cannot be studied with a randomized control trial. And I think that's the point that we sometimes forget to have a conversation about. It's the gold standard, but just because it's the gold standard doesn't mean it's always possible or even ethical.

S: Right. Yeah. We don't have a double blind placebo controlled trial that shows that smoking causes cancer because you can't do that. You can't do that.

C: You can't do that.

S: So Evan, the quote investigator gives the earliest reference of that quote to 1988 professor of psychology and primatologist Erwin S. Bernstein writing in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

C: There's no way that quote is from 1988.

S: That's just the earliest incident that he could find, but it may not be the first utterance of that phrase exactly. But he gives older references of like the same idea being said in slightly different ways. So anyway, it definitely predates the source that we were given.

E: Yeah. I'm not surprised my namesake came up with it. Not at all.

S: So yeah, I usually will, when I see something like that, I know that's a popular quote or especially if it's attributed to somebody who like every quote, Mark Twain said whatever.

B: Mark Twain.

S: Never believe.

E: Use the force, Frodo.

S: The quote investigator is a good resource to-

C: That's cool. I had never even heard of that.

S: Yeah. And sometimes you don't even, the answer is we don't know. It's just too old.

B: Especially the quote, my name is Mark Twain. I would suspect even that one was not right.

S: All right. But it's a good quote, though. I mean, it's a provocative.

C: Oh, 100%.

S: It's a thought provoking.

C: Well, look at that. It's a conversation starter, that's for sure.

E: Totally. And here we are at the end of the show.

B: More nuanced than I thought.

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

B: Sure, man.

E: Thanks, Steve.

C: Thanks, all.


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[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


  1. Here's an article: Don't forget: The plural of anecdote is data. "The purpose of this point is to preserve the true meaning of Raymond Wolfinger's oft-misquoted aphorism."


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