SGU Episode 936

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to navigation Jump to search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs: proofreading, time stamps, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
How to Contribute

SGU Episode 936
June 17th 2023
936 Ivory-billed Woodpecker.jpg

The Ivory-billed woodpecker isn’t extinct (again!) [1]

SGU 935                      SGU 937

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


KJ: David Kyle Johnson,

professor of philosophy

Quote of the Week

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.

Susan Sontag, American writer

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, In Memoriam: Bruce Press, preparing for death[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 15th, 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: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone.

S: How is everyone doing this evening?

C: All right.

E: Not bad. Still light out in its quarter of nine.

S: Yeah I know we're getting to the longest day of the year.

C: Wait it's still light out for you guys?

S: Yeah.

E: I mean it must be for you as well.

C: No. Pitch black out.

S: It's getting a little, it's starting to get dark.

C: No it's hitch black for me. It must be a latitude thing.

S: Maybe.

C: Because we are at the same time zone that's fascinating.

E: It's a little further. You're a little further east than we are I suppose.

C: Do you, no, I think it's because I'm farther south no?

E: Is it south? I though that was an east west thing. Not an north south.

C: Time zones are east west.

S: Yeah but if you're a farther south you should have more light.

C: In the summer I should have. Oh you're right I should have more light in the summer less light in the winter. You're right. So why the f*** is it dark here? Maybe I am farther.

E: I mean it's not blazing sun out but you know I can still.

C: No but for me it's dark dark. I see city lights.

B: But there's photons.

S: We still have like a little glow after the sun. The sun dips below the horizon but the sky is still light you know.

E: I love this time of year.

S: Yeah me too. That's gorgeous. Unfortunately we do need to start this show with a little bit of sad news. Our very good friend Bruce Press died this week. So we knew he was sick. He had pancreatic cancer. He learned about it not too long ago. This is honestly faster than we thought. We were I think hoping he would make it to the end of the year. But the disease just the chemo didn't work out. Progress very quickly as liver failed. He was in the hospital for a week and unfortunately he succumbed very quickly. But just want everyone to know who Bruce Press was. First of all totally awesome guy. One of the just awesome people that we met in the skeptical community.

B: Oh my god, right?

S: Yeah. He was a professional photographer and we first met him at a lot of the live events where he would do a lot of photography with Tim and other events. And just so close friend of our other close friend George Hrabb and just became part of our circle. And the thing I just wanted to point out is that we had dinner with him not too long ago. And this is obviously he knew what his prognosis was. And I was struck I'm sure you guys were too by just how totally he had a shit together. So here he is staring down.

B: Oh my god.

S: His own mortality.

B: What an attitude.

S: Yeah and he had like this and he said to his skepticism really is helping him deal with this. He's not having to deal with any kind of bullshit supernatural stuff. It's just he was just very pragmatic and accepting and just and I hope I have my shit half as together as that if I had to face general right.

E: Especially yeah.

C: It's interesting how much I've been seeing that in my work on my dissertation working with people who are approaching death. Many of them are very secular and very skeptical and very just matter fact and they have high mortality salience. And there's something really humbling about talking to them about their intentions and their experience. I always say like dying I think is the bravest thing anybody can do because it's like the ultimate unknown.

S: Right.

C: And so when you see somebody go into it with such bravery wow it's I don't know it's humbling.

J: I think it needs to be said that we've met so many people throughout the years making this podcast all the live performances that we've done. Bruce was a total standout incredibly high quality person that was giving.

S: A classy guy.

J: Yeah he was so generous with his time and patience and that's who long ago we did a show in Bethlehem and he showed up to take pictures and Ian and I were setting up our game show set which we've never done before. It took us hours. For no reason Bruce just made it his project and helped me through that whole process. That's the kind of guy he was like he would just fill, he saw a need you can tell that I was stressing out and he's like I'm going to help Jay for the next four hours.

S: Not only that he always seemed to be having a good time right like the guy always had a smile on his face it was like what was happening never seemed stressed it was always just like he was enjoying whatever we were doing.

C: Yeah absolute mention and I feel like I can see it in the photos because of course we're all tagged in so many different photos that he took over the years. And he had this way of capturing us having fun. Capturing us in the moment really in it and I think that there's something really beautiful about his ability to see people and capture them that were so lucky that we have this now this kind of memento.

S: Yeah I mean I think that I think you're right I think like he had to like in this very rational logical secular attitude towards life that was also very positive. He enjoyed life he enjoyed what everything he did. I know Jay later on life like around the same I think that his pandemic project was to get into a bread baking just like you did recently. And he got awesome at it. He bring us these like incredibly awesome loaves of bread.

B: They were delicious.

S: Yeah he just again just sunk his teeth into life in a way that I think is admirable.

C: That we could all learn from.

S: Yeah, definitely.

E: Sure.

S: Definitely.

E: No doubt about it.

S: Just one of those random tragic crappy things that happen. I remember when we heard the diagnosed like oh Bruce like the nicest guy just gets this random crappy diagnosis. That's the universe for you. All right so but we did want to remember the good things about him again he was just a great person to to meet through what we do. We were lucky to be friends with them with real definitely gonna miss him. Sorry to see him go. But we do have a full show for you. We have a great interview coming up with philosopher David Kyle Johnson and I think you're gonna find very interesting. We're gonna get started with some news items.

News Items[edit]

Schizophrenia and Auto-Immune Disease (6:09)[edit]

S: The news item that I got hit up with the most this week was the patient who had schizophrenia and then it was catatonic and then it was found that they actually had an autoimmune disease and when they were treated for their autoimmune disease they "woke up".

C: Doesn't that remind you so much of all of Oliver Sacks Awakenings?

S: Yeah, totally.

C: Yes. It's like the subsection of people. Yeah, anyway.

S: But the reporting on it is I think misses the real story because they're focusing on the wrong things. And so the narrative that emerges in the lame press is that this person that actually it turns out that schizophrenia can be caused by autoimmune disease. And that this it was like this amazing discovery that this person who had catatonia for years just woke up when you treated them for their autoimmune disease.

C: As if that's what schizophrenia usually or even presents as.

S: I would frame it completely differently. This person it's not it doesn't turn out that autoimmune disease causes schizophrenia. This person did not have schizophrenia.

C: Exactly. Or they had a very specific subtype that was something.

S: So this gets to how we make diagnoses.

C: Yeah. Especially mental health diagnoses.

S: Especially mental health diagnosis. So schizophrenia is not a disease. It is a syndrome. And most you could say there's primary and secondary schizophrenia. I don't even think they do that.

C: No we say usually positive or negative symptoms. Yeah but what I mean is like if you have all right so I'm gonna part of this I'm coming out from a neurologist point. Whenever anyone gets a psychiatric diagnosis they refer them to a neurologist who rule out neurological causes.

C: Which is so funny because schizophrenia is partially neurological.

S: Well the thing is that there's there isn't a clean division between psychiatric and neurological. It's all brain stuff and the only real difference is what you specialize in treating. It's a psychiatrist specialize in treating disorders of mood, thought and behavior. And neurologists specialize in pretty much everything else that the brain does.

C: Cognition movements.

S: Exactly. Seizures and blah blah blah. And but but it's all brain stuff and we know it that's why there's the American board of psychiatry and neurology. It's the same board certifies both the neurologists and psychiatrists. And 20% of my neurologic boards was psychiatry and vice versa because we know that there's massive overlap. It's the same thing. But what so what is a psychiatric illness then? So it is one where there isn't a secondary cause. So if you have a brain tumor that causes a schizophrenia syndrome you don't have schizophrenia. You have a brain tumor.

C: Yeah literally everything in the DSM has a qualifier that says it's not better-

S: Right you can have a biology. So the way to look at it is that yeah it's gets a I mean psychiatric illness is when you have a disorder something. The brain isn't working in in an optimal way causing psychiatric like symptoms without demonstrable pathology because the the way the brain functions its function is determined biochemically, by the the networks and the wiring and all that sort of stuff, so you can have disorders of brain function without biological pathology. And so neurologists tend to deal with pathology of the brain and psychiatrists deal with the wetwere. Basically the bad wiring of the brain in the absence of pathology. Although even that split isn't clean because there's exceptions all over the place.

C: Schizophrenia is one of the lovely exceptions because there is clearly an organic thing going there.

S: Yeah but I think a lot of I thought of the big ones, I think anxiety has organic causes you can have organic depression.

C: They do. But you can't usually look at let's say an MRI of some of a person with anxieties brain and know they have anxiety. You can look at a schizophrenic brain.

S: You're right. I agree-

B: That could change though.

S That will change.

C: It will change when we have better resolution.

S: It's one of the more obvious biological psychiatric-

C: Yes that's a good way to put it.

S: I agree with that.

C: There are things like vascular depression, schizophrenia. There are a handful of psychiatric conditions that are more obviously organic. But that's only just because we're better at understanding.

S: Exactly. Well let me get back to the the core point was. From a practical point of view clinically if you have somebody who presents with a schizophrenia-like syndrome you have to rule out pathological disease and then you're left with schizophrenia as a diagnosis of exclusion. And so-

C: From a neurological perspective.

S: Yes it is. Practically from a clinical perspective it's like, for anything. If somebody has anxiety you rule out thyroid disease. It's the same thing. If there is some underlying non psychiatric pathology that's driving the alleged psychiatric illness and in the absence of that you're left with a psychiatric diagnosis. It is by definition a diagnosis of exclusion. When you have the positive features that meet that diagnostic criteria. So in fact I had a case that was very similar to this in that a patient was admitted to psychiatry while I was on the inpatient neurology service with a 20-year history of schizophrenia. And the family brought them in because they were getting worse and they couldn't take care of them at home anymore. And this patient was basically lost to medical follow-up for 20 years. The psychiatry unit admitted them with a decompensating schizophrenia diagnosis. They consulted neurology sit just for this like this person really hasn't had medical care in a while can you just make sure there's nothing neurological going on. It's like I know I'm sorry to bother you, it's kind of a bullshit we consult but just the attending wants to make sure we're not missing something. So then we review the case you're like yeah I you're probably not missing something. Their exam doesn't show any signs of neurological disease but let's get a CAT scan to be sure.

B: Just in case.

S: Just in case. We got a CAT scan. This guy has the front half of their brain filled with tumor. And it was a benign tumor. It was actually outside the brain. It was just pushing the frontal lobes.

B: Oh my god.

S: So the frontal lobes couldn't work creating a schizophrenia like syndrome. The neurosurgeons removed the tumor and the guy was cured. Recovered to his pre-schizofrenia baseline.

C: I mean it's great but-

B: How many years?

E: 20 years.

S: 20 years.

B: Who the hell screwed up.

S: Well in fairness the family took this guy home and took care of my home without any further medical follow-up. That was the problem. But anyway that's the same kind of serious and now you have this case of this woman who was in a catatonic state. It was thought that she had severe schizophrenia with catatonia. I don't know what kind of workup she had years ago when they first made the diagnosis.

C: Right she was older, right?

S: Yeah.

C: Catatonia was also. It was a diagnosis of exclusion. You look at the Parkinsonian post-encephalytic Parkinsonian patients and awakened things. All of them had diagnoses like catatonic schizophrenia like state.

S: Yeah right. Just placeholder diagnoses.

C: Yeah it was like I don't know what this is.

S: Not based on any demonstrable pathology or anything like that. So a psychiatrist saw this patient 20 years ago was involved with their like initial evaluation. And then is getting the presented the same case like 20 years later and it's like wait a minute is this that patient I saw 20 years ago?

B: This sounds familiar.

S: Yeah, this sound familiar. So he essentially initiated a rework up of the patient because he realized she's just been essentially warehoused for 20 years in chronic care, long-term care. They did a full workup and it turns out that she had encephalitis. She had lupus encephalitis. And they treated that. It's basically autoimmune disease her brain was inflamed. They treated it and she didn't just wake up. That's kind of- she's slowly improved over months with treatment.

C: Tons of rehab too.

S: Tons of rehab. She's significantly improved. She's still significantly impaired but she's much more functional than she was before treatment.

C: And also how much of that impairment is not having used your brain or body for 20 years.

S: Honestly it's probably a lot of it. But probably it's mostly that the brain's been inflamed for 20 years.

C: Right, and that can cause long-term damage.

S: Yeah yeah. That's probably just caused damage to the brain. So yeah it was missed 20 years ago that's just the bottom line. And this is a notoriously difficult diagnosis to make. I've had several patients with similar things. This is always the case as I like to say, this is the kind of case that gets presented on grand rounds. And when the other thing is like when when cases like this are being presented on grand rounds is a few things that's a good guess. Like the fact that this is being presented on grand rounds as a unusual case. Like there's a few things you're going to guess out of the block just as just like a chat GPT kind of statistical answer. And one of them is encephalitis. That limbic encephalitis or whatever somebody missed encephalitis.

C: Somebody who's been catatonic unresponsive in long-term care yeah. Like yes they could be schizophrenic but that's also I think what bugs me is the way that the media has presented this case. Like that is what schizophrenia looks like. And that no, that's a very small subsection of people who have the diagnosis where honestly I don't know if in time those people would still have that diagnosis. The better we get at figuring out what's really going on all of those people might, all of those people who have those presenting symptoms yeah may not end up being people with schizophrenia.

E: Sure I mean because you're basically putting them in a basket in which nothing else works. You're going to eventually learn more things and take them out.

S: Yeah we're constantly nibbling away at these kinds of scenarios where you have essentially, we don't have pathology, we don't know what you have we're going to diagnose you with this syndrome syndrome placeholder diagnosis but over time we realize oh a certain percentage of these patients actually have this disease. And another percentage have this other disease.

C: And even schizophrenia it's so like like I usually will say like psychotic disorder or thought disorder because also there are so many different things. There's schizopersonality disorder there's schizotipal, there's schizoaffective disorder. There's all these different disorders that have a psychosis component. Some are mood disorders with psychosis and some are psychosis with mood problems. And it's a whole specialty.

S: Absolutely.

C: It's not just oh yeah there's schizophrenia and all people with schizophrenia are the same because we also you mentioned but schizophrenia can have positive or negative symptoms. You can have people with schizophrenia who are paranoid delusional.

S: There was that study we talked about a few years ago were they identified five subtypes of schizophrenia.

C: Yeah I actually would need to look at and see how they're how are they slicing and dicing it today.

S: ANd there's genetic ways of slicing and dicing it now.

C: Yeah but this one is like this very very extreme case where they're so totally frozen catatonic that they're not even responsive.

S: And the other thing one final point before we move on is that because of this one of the things I learned over the years as I matured as a clinician is that when you see cases like this just give them steroids. When all else fails just empirically give them a round of IV steroids just to see if they wake up. Because you risk very little in doing that and just make sure you're not missing a case like this. Because these are notoriously hard to diagnose. The workup can be negative.

E: Why isn't that the standard then?

S: It basically is but it's like you have to identify when you're in the right clinical scenario where that's appropriate.

C: And it's only going to be the standard if you're if that person is in the hospital. If that person never makes it.

S: It's always in the context treatment when you're in the hospital.

C: Yeah they're not going to have an IV ever.

S: But sometimes I will do, I'll do like if I'm seeing somebody as an outpatient who I think might be at the beginnings of this I might give them a course of oral steroids. Like a weak pulse of steroids just to see if it dramatically helps then. It's a diagnostic therapeutic trial. Saying let me see if whatever you have is something that can respond to steroids. And sometimes the other point that I make to my residents. We get to the point where we've done all the workup and we don't know what's going on and something confusing is happening. I'm like all right, let's list all the things this could possibly be that's treatable.

C: Right. Do you workup for infection too?

S: Oh you always do that before.

E: Sounds like an episode of House.

S: Before you give the steroids you always rule out all kind of infections. The ID workup is completely negative. Whatever, you do all the things. They're not having seizures. They're not on drugs. You rule out all those things you just left with the brain cyst on fire it's just not working. Whatever's left, the list of things that we haven't ruled out that are treatable are all treatable by steroids. So let's just give them steroids and see what happens.

C: Because they're linked to inflammation.

S: Yeah it's just all that's what's left. It's just some kind of autoimmune inflammation and if they don't get better it's like okay well we could check that off list but sometimes they wake up. I've had patients who I did that too. I just gave empiric steroids and they got better because that was all that was left to do.

C: What's so interesting is that I wonder if that would have worked with Oliver Sacks patients because they used L-DOPA because it was actually a form of Parkinsonism.

S: Yeah no it would not have.

C: It might not but if it was post-encephalitic Parkinsonism so I wonder if there would have been like a little bit of an inflammation component?

S: I don't think so because they had well they had they had encephalitis lethargica.

C: Because they had encephalitis in like the twenties and then this was like in the fifties or something.

S: But what that did was it burned out their dopamine cells. And so the inflammation was gone but that cell population was destroyed. So they had acquired end stage Parkinson's disease from the infection. And so then then when you gave them to the L-DOPA they briefly woke up but that burned out whatever few neurons they had left. So it was a short window. So it's not Parkinson's disease it was Parkinsonism, secondary to a viral infection that happened to destroy that population of neurons.

C: That's what I remember. They were calling it post-encephalitic Parkinsonism.

S: Yeah, Parkinsonism not Parkinson's disease which is whatever, that has a more specific-

C: Fascinating.

B: Kind of like Parkinsons-ish.

S: Yeah well just Parkinsonism describes the syndrome. Parkinson's disease is a pathological entity.

C: Right so it's Parkinson's like symptoms.

B: Yeah like I said, ish.

S: All right let's move on.

3D Printing Glass (21:04)[edit]

S: Jay tell us about 3D printing with glass.

E: Glasses.

J: 3D printing is really starting to do some incredible stuff. I mean throughout the years just like most other things it's just getting better. Every year they keep making improvements and applying it to new and different things. So listen to this researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology have come up with a new process for producing transparent quartz glass structures at lower temperatures. That might not sound impressive to you but let's dig into the details a little bit. The ability to create transparent quartz at lower temperatures opens up new applications and optics photonics and semiconductor technologies. And this is important because especially with semi conductor technologies it allows us to do a lot more with semi-conductors. And that means more power which means smaller semi-conductors, less battery power, it bleeds into a lot of things. The historical way of creating transparent quartz involves a process called sintering. And sintering is the process of forming a solid mass of material through heat and pressure without melting to the point of liquidification. Did I say that correctly?

S: Yeah we talked about sintering a number of times on the show. [link needed][v 1] I think the first time we talked about it in the context of platinum because platinum has a very high melting point but some cultures developed the ability to heat it to the point where they could sinter it. They could just make it sticky so they semi-melted so we could stick together but without liquefying it.

J: Keeping that in mind for transparent quartz silicon dioxide nanoparticles need to be at temperatures above 1100 Celsius. That's super hot.

S: That's very hot.

J: So it's way too high for a direct deposit onto a semi-conducting chip. So you couldn't take the quartz and put it onto a chip. It would it would destroy the chip. So the new process that they came up with which was led by dr. Jen's Bauer, they utilize a hybrid organic inorganic polymer resin call the name that nobody in this show could pronounce. Just forget it. I was going to leave and look it up I'm like I'm not going to bother, you're not going to remember anyway. So they have this polymer resin. The resin is 3D printed into nanostructures. So they make an architecture out of it and then they heat it to 650 degrees Celsius to remove the organic components and form a continuous quartz glass structure. So that process right there allows them to print right onto a semi-conductor chip. So they need half the temperature of conventional sintering methods. The end result is that the glass structure is high resolution. It has excellent mechanical properties and it's stable under challenging conditions.

S: Jay can I pause for a nerdy pedantic thing?

J: Yeah.

S: So you said half the temperature which all the reporting on it says the same thing. Although the mainstream reporting not the technical article. But just with temperature that kind of reference doesn't work unless you're talking about Kelvin.

J: Okay.

S: You know what I mean? Because it's not really half as hot. It's like 100 Celsius is not half as hot as 200 Celsius because it doesn't work that way. But 100 Kelvin is half as hot as 200 Kelvin.

C: Right because yeah-

S: Because it's absolute.

C: It's a lot cooler.

S: It's cooler, it's cooler but it just doesn't make any logical sense to say half the temperature unless you're dealing with kelvin because it's the absolute temperature.

E: That's a good [inaudible].

J: I didn't really know that Steve so that's a great thing to say.

E: Good reminder.

J: So anyway that was basically it. It's this new process that they came up with and it's going to make some what I think to be some significant changes and what they're going to be able to do. And think about it I mean this is 3D printing. The 3D printing process is doing this at those temperatures.

S: If you look at the pictures I mean there are 3D printing at like the nano scale, these really intricate structures. It's not just like a blob a glob of glass. It's like this these crystalline really complicated structures at the nano scale. So yeah it's one of those things where it sounds awesome and you're just wondering what they'll be able to do with it. They talked about printing directly onto circuit boards for example. And printing really tiny optics. Imagine being able to print a really tiny optics I could then go into your cell phone and you have like these incredible zoom cameras or whatever. I don't know. I don't know if that's going to be-

B: In the VR goggles.

S: Yeah. Or just even, exactly VR goggles. Holy shit I mean it even if it just reduces the cost of making them.

C: What about instead of VR goggles VR contacts?

S: Yeah, right. That's the ultimate.

B: Those bad boys.

C: Yeah.

S: All right thanks Jay.

Smoke Blocks Solar Energy (26:02)[edit]

S: All right Cara. So this is upsetting but tell us about the effect of all of this smoke from the wildfires on solar energy.

C: Yeah so if you guys remember. We record the show usually on Thursdays. So last week, last Thursday when we were recording you guys were talking about Evan, you were like packing up a lung. And snotting everywhere. And you guys were talking about how bad it's been outside. That's because it turns out that June 7th top the charts. It was the worst day of wildfire smoke on record. Yep. So fun times. And now one week later we are getting a fair amount of data from kind of the effects of that. Obviously we don't know the effects yet on health and human safety. We know it's not good. But we do know some interesting things. It was the worst wildfire smoke on record. It was a record shattering air quality disaster. And you could physically see it the skies were actually hazy. So because of that at 1 PM last Wednesday compared to this Wednesday solar farms in New England produced 60% less electricity.

E: 60% drop.

C: 60% drop. We even saw in like the midwestern states as much as a 25% drop. And that might have been in places where it wasn't even perceptible. Like maybe your weather app on your phone was telling you it's a bad air quality day be careful but you didn't see it or smell it outside. New York was hit the hardest and here's another statistic. They lost over 1400 megawatts in solar energy between June 6th and June 7th and a 24 hour period. And I know we talk about this all the time and when we talk about it might years go I don't know what that means so for scale this verge article compared that. A single megawatt is about enough to power between 800 and a thousand homes. And they lost almost 1500 megawatts in one day because of the smoke.

S: Yeah.

C: There was like they do mention that there was a weird kind of positive benefit that it didn't net it out to zero but it sort of offset the burden of lowered production which is that the actual blockage of the sun made it cooler outside. And so people didn't have to crank their ACs up as much. But they couldn't, yeah, so but it didn't offset how little energy was produced. And ultimately it's very hard to predict these kinds of things with any fidelity. And so being able to calculate and predict energy demands during a wild fire season is now going to be very very difficult for these grid managers and for production. Now New York is probably not a place where the bulk of the energy production does come from solar. California's grid it's something, it's much higher. It's like 15%. Almost 15% of California's energy comes from solar. Across the country it's only about 3.5%. This thing that happened in New York is really salient or in New England is really salient right now because we just experienced it. But of course as you guys heard me say last week like welcome to our world on the west coast. We have seen like really bad wildfires in the past. And like for example there is a bad wildfire season in September '22. It cut solar power generation in California by 30% which was pretty crippling to the energy supply because again 15% of all power comes from solar there. And then we also saw that that year was a record year for blackouts. And now let's talk about something else that happens on top of this. When grid managers or production companies know that wildfires are afoot they will sometimes have to cut power because of the risk of fire. When the conditions are good for wildfire we've seen these like transformers and these large generators sparking. This has been the cause of a lot of some of the worst wildfires on the west coast has been old equipment that hasn't been well managed. And so you've got this added burden of now it's wildfire season, the wildfires themselves could potentially screw up our power production from solar but also even before it gets to that point we might need to cut power because we don't want to cause a fire.

S: Yeah. Cara, do you know what what percentage of wildfires in America are caused by human negligence?

C: Probably a lot of them. And wait, are we we're not counting just climate change being a function of human negligence, right?

S: No no.

C: We're actually like direct causes?

S: Direct cause. Like not lightning.

C: You're talking a flip cigarette bud, a camp fire or even are we also talking about the-

E: Probably not control burns.

C: Not control burns. But are we also talking about these power-

S: I don't know to be honest with you. It wasn't what explicitly listed or excluded.

C: It if includes that I'd say it's probably like half.

S: 80%. 80%. But the good news is that means we could prevent four out of five four fires just by not doing stupid stuff.

E: Smokey the bear was right. 50 years ago.

C: Smokey the bear was telling us to do that.

E: I mean, come on, since I was a kid.

C: So the good news is thiis is one of those tough things where it's like the good news is that theoretically in the bad news is we already knew that and still haven't made the change.

S: Right but there's, a lot could be handled with education. People don't realize that just if you're dragging your muffler or behind your car like that those sparks could set off as forest fire or shooting rifles and guns. Those sparks can set off fires as well.

C: Or doing a gender reveal party.

S: During gender reveal parties. Lighting those floating lanterns not knowing we they come down.

C: That's so sad though because-

E: Firework season is right now. It's happening everywhere.

C: I don't think it's that people don't realize I think it's that they don't care. I think you're right there's a certain percentage of people who don't realize but a larger percentage of people don't care.

S: They may be underestimating the risk. And they may be underestimating how significant it, like I think-

C: I love your endless optimism Steve.

S: I know like the Caldor Fire was caused by a father and a son who were just riding an ATV. All-terrain vehicle. ATV around. That was it.

C: Yeah I mean it's this really complex scenario that we're seeing where human behavior is causing these terrible wildfire. And we know that wildfires are natural and there is a healthy way for forest to burn they need to burn we do prescribe burns, it's a part of forest ecology. But the the quantity and the devastation of wildfires recently is clearly indicative of changes to the climate. So you've got these climate change either induced or exacerbated wildfires that as you just mentioned are often caused by more direct human behavior that now have this downstream negative effect of actually intervening. Screwing with the attempts that we have to circumvent or at least to mitigate climate change.

S: And it's kind of the feedback because the more climate change, the more wildfires, the less well are solar panels work.

C: Solar panels work.

S: And not only that Cara. I sent you, I pointed out to you when we were prepping for this-

C: Yes! Oh yes you did.

S: That the increased temperatures caused more droughts which means they have to shut off a lot of the hydroelectric plants too. So it's like we're burning coal to replace the electricity we can't produce because the climate change which is worsening climate change.

C: It's so, this negative feedback loop-

E: And the problem perpetuates.

C: And then you add geopolitical conflict to it and my head explodes. I just read an article the other day we won't get into this but about how we need I think a certain amount of these basic materials. Like uranium or something in order to do our, in order to make our nuclear power plants run and we rely on like a huge amount of that from Russia.

S: Yeah.

C: And it's like oh jeez, really? So it's complicated.

S: We need to develop other sources of the uranium.

C: Yes yes.

S: And the other thing is we often talk about like what was the cause of the the fire. And it's always multiple things at the same time. They're not mutually exclusive. So global warming makes it more likely to happen but there's often a trigger like human error, sometimes natural. Bt also it's bad forest management and this is-

C: Oh, it's a huge problem.

S: Yeah Canada has not especially in the east where these fires are coming from were not doing a good job of forest management. They didn't didn't have the resources, they didn't put the resources into it. You can't have a bunch of trees laying around drying in the in the warm sun and creating a bunch of fuel for these fires.

C: They may not have needed the same kind of forest management that they need now because of climate change and that's the other thing. Climate change is like you said at the beginning, these warmer temperatures are causing it combined with this combined with this but it's also exacerbating it. Not only are there more, they're also hotter and larger and harder to put out.

S: Right.

E: And they're happening in at times of the year which they're not used to.

C: Yes, exactly.

E: They say this was particularly early in the year to have the fires.

S: Fire seasons are growing and now it's just all year round in some places now. It's not even a fire season anymore.

C: So our old methodologies which weren't perfect even then even though, we know a lot about forest management we just don't always practice what we preach, might not be optimized anymore because the conditions have changed so rapidly.

S: Alright thanks Cara.

Retooling Ribosome Translation (35:48)[edit]

S: Bob tell us about retooling ribosome translation. That requires some backstory.

B: Yeah this this was pretty pretty cool. Scientists have made recent progress in this fascinating goal of programming cells or specifically ribosomes to create proteins that have never been made before in the history of the earth. So why are they doing that? What could it mean to humanity and especially of course what could it mean to me? So this is from the journal Nature Chemistry and ACS Central Science and these chemists were centered around University of California Berkeley. Okay so this news item is all about complex cellular nano machine known as ribosomes. So let's go over what a ribosome is before we do anything else. Now ribosomes exist within cells. They're essentially nano machines for making one of the most critical and versatile molecules of life - proteins. Did you know that the word protein is from a Greek word that means of utmost importance? I did not know that.

C: I didn't know that.

E: I didn't know that

B: So think of a mammal cell. Jay, I think you're a mammal. Well technically anyway. Each of your cells have about 10 million ribosomes. I had no idea. 10 million? I figured you got one big ribosome and you're good. No.

C: No, they're all over.

B: Million like-

C: And they're on the rough endoplasmic reticulum baby.

B: Yeah they're all over. They're in the core, they're in the outskirts are all over.

C: I love the core in the outskirts. This is how I want to start talking about cells.

B: I think it's called nucleos. I think it's the nucleosome in the interior and then by the cell wall. Because where the proteins are created actually determines where they're going to be used. I didn't know this either, this ribosomes got two subunits and they wrap around. They each wrap around the recipe that's in the messenger RNA and they start stringing together these amino acids. And once the string is done then the amino acids fold into any one of the the critical proteins that the organism needs as that's trying to create there. Now proteins of course are amazingly versatile. Surprisingly versatile. They can be purely structural molecules. They can be just protective. They can be used to transport. They could be storage. Proteins can be membranes, enzymes, even toxins. Most of what cells do essentially involve proteins in one way or the other. Pretty much all about proteins in a really important way. Now with all this versatility ribosomes though are still surprisingly limited in a way. The ribosomes can only choose among about 20 of the canonical so-called alpha amino acids. About 20, technically it's kind of- the amount of amino acids available can be 22 but that's as to you know we don't need to go that detailed. It's about 20 alpha amino acids that are used and that's all because of what? Contingencies of evolution, right? That's what evolution has made available to them, to the ribosomes. So why? Why is it just those 20 or so amino acids? Because there are a lot more that are not just not used and it's been described as a frozen accident in history. And it really is. It's hard to say precisely why this it's just those 20 but scientists generally think that the magic 20 are linked to a couple things like the frequency in meteorites. If you look at meteorites you're going to see those amino acids more than than other ones. And also that experiments that were done in the prebiotic soup billions of years ago. So based on the different kind of experiments that were done that long ago that kind of also makes sense that that's why it's those 20 that have been used.

C: Also isn't it just kind of a principle of biology conserving? It's like if these 20 are good enough. Why need more?

S: It's partly that. Also there's, we need the genetics to control the amino acids and we have the trinucleotide system. So would we need to go to four if if we had more amino acids that we had to code for?

B: Right.

C: Right.

S: But it is, it's like it's like somebody who's famous for being famous. This is the system we have because this is the system we have. At some point it gets locked in.

C: Exactly.

B: Yeah, right.

C: Yeah, it's what worked and then we didn't feel the need to improve it.

B: Yeah and I read one comment somebody was saying that if you reset evolution that there probably would be 75% of the ones that are used now would probably still be used. But there still would be a 25% variation potentially. And that's assuming all things were essentially the same as as they were. But how many proteins are possible if you thought of that. What's like the total space of possible proteins.

E: Viable proteis?

B: 20. No. Possible proteins.

E: Possible.

B: [inaudible] puts it at 20 to 50,000.

C: Yeah.

B: That's a big number. But that's kind of like the total space. That's just the outer limits. More realistically if you assume say approach a typical protein length of say 300 amino acids which is reasonable. Then those 20 amino acids can conceivably be arranged to 10390 different proteins. Still a gargantuan. If you made a molecule-

E: 10390? It wouldn't fit in the universe.

B: You're right. There's not enough atoms to create an example of each one of those. So that's an amazingly high number. But you can get even more even more realistic than that only about one in a billion of those are actually stable and usable. Any of the other ones that were not stable, they would not have lasted long. They would not have been passed down and that's why we're not seeing a lot of those unstable ones of course. Now far fewer than those have actually been created on the earth. Humans use about 20,000 distinct proteins. Estimates vary but 20,000 is the number I see most often. 20 to 25,000.

E: Is that true with most mammals? Are they around that number you think?

S: No, there's huge differences.

B: Even more variable though was the entire earth's proteome. One number that seemed hopefully maybe more reliable than others. Maybe 10 million unique proteins potentially. Some have much higher numbers and that but 10 million seems reasonable. What if we can create proteins using that much wider palette of amino acids. What can we do? Is it worthwhile to use far more than the 20 alpha amino acids that are available to biology on earth. So that is what these chemists from the National Science Foundation Center for Genetically Encoded Materials. C-GEM, it's called C-GEM. That's what they've been working on. They want to retool the cells polypeptide manufacturing plant as they put it, the ribosome, to make what nature cannot make. Now the the crux of this latest new item is the fact that three separate papers have been published recently covering significant advances in this field. One paper dealt with how to reprogram cells so that ribosomes can handle these different building blocks that I've been talking about. The second paper talked about how to predict which building blocks make the best substrates. That's important to know which ones are worthwhile pursuing in terms of the substrate. The third paper dealt with how to change ribosomes to actually use these new building blocks and make them into polymers. Now sure they haven't solved these problems but they've made some significant strides in these three key areas to achieve these goals. Now speaking of goals, their ultimate goal here the scientists say is to be able to make this new system fully programmable as they put it. So that the new mRNA instructions and the new building blocks can be made available to the cell so that it could then essentially make an unlimited variety of new molecular chains. Things that have never been seen before. These can be made into new biomaterials. They could be made into new enzymes, new drugs. Maybe even, Jay, maybe even new and revolutionary types of meatballs. You never know. So see the C-GEM director Alana Sheppard was a distinguished chair and chemistry professor of molecular and cell biology at UC Berkeley. She said C-GEM was working to biosynthesize molecules that have never before been made in a cell. That are designed to have unique properties. The tools could be applied broadly by polymer chemists medicinal chemists and biomaterial scientists to generate bespoke materials with new functions. Now these novel polymers could have specific applications that have been specifically designed or they could be created just to see what was created and what new applications could be there that have never been imagined before. They offer a couple of examples. One was creating new compounds to deal with antibiotic resistance which of course is hugely popular especially with the potentially new era of antibiotic resistance in the future would be devastating. Oh my god. So another possibility that they discussed involves synthesizing a protein-like polymer that's a mixture of spider silk and nylon. Think about that. Mixing spider silk and nylon. Microbes could then make an essentially infinite variety of these. Each they say. Maybe near infinite. Not technically infinite. But each compound would be new to chemists and with never before seeing properties. I mean what would you even call a mix of silk and nylon. Maybe a sylon?

E: Absolutely.

B: Maybe that wouldn't be a good portmanteau. But very cool stuff. I'll be tracking this. This is one of those advances in synthetic biology that I think is just has such an amazing potential. It would be a major game changer. Talk about potentially disruptive new technology. Fascinating stuff.

S: All right, thanks Bob.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Again) (45:48)[edit]

S: Evan.

E: Yep.

S: The ivory-billed woodpecker is back. Or at least discussions about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

E: Yes.

S: Maybe not the woodpecker itself.

E: Steve have you ever seen an ivory-billed woodpecker?

S: Nope. I've seen pileated woodpeckers.

E: Now is that page even in a bird book? In other words does a bird book have all the birds in it and then you check them as you see them? Is that how that works?

S: There are but no one book has every single bird in it. It's usually just a subset. It may be a regional or birds of North America. But even then there's like there's a lot of birds. But yes, some do have a lifeless checklist for you where you could check birds off. Yeah, sure. Those exist. But not all bird books have that necessarily.

E: Well you might have been able to check this particular one off if you lived in the southeastern United States or Cuba. Maybe about 80 or 90 years ago. Which is about the last time perhaps there was an official sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The bird itself, it averages 20 inches from beak to tail. It was the largest of the woodpeckers north of Mexico and third largest in the world. And of course it is no longer around. At least we believe because of the destruction of its habitat. Severe population declines and the 1800s almost wiped them out. Only a small number survived in the 20th century. And again it's believed to have gone extinct in the middle of the 20th century when one of the last official reported sightings was made in 1944. But do you guys remember back in 2004? I recall this was a big news at the time.

S: Oh yeah.

E: Bird was reportedly rediscovered in Arkansas.

B: Yeah. People went crazy.

E: Yeah. That led to a multi-year search effort for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker. However the Cornell laboratory of ornithology, which was involved in that search for the bird reached a conclusion saying having searched more than 523,000 acres over eight states, beginning in Arkansas where the compelling sightings and a few seconds of video were captured in 2005 no definitive evidence for surviving ivory-billed woodpecker population was found during the searches. So yeah, could not substantiate it unfortunately. But the reports have continued. None has reached the threshold of quality for general acceptance by ornithologists or the bird watching public. And in 2021 the US Fish and Wildlife Service opened for public comment a proposal to declare the species extinct. And the US Fish and Wildlife they're proposing removing the bird from the List of Endangered Species and that report or that decision is expected later this year. Yeah, it's technically still there but they're supposed to make a decision later this year which my guess is they'll probably make it officially extinct at that point. At least by their measures. However don't don't don't close the door immediately because a recent study published last month in the Journal of Ecology and Evolution suggests that multiple lines of evidence suggest the persistence of the ivory-billed woodpecker in Louisiana. And that's that's the title of the actual paper in fact. Present evidence suggest the presence of the ivory-billed woodpecker at this study site based on a variety of data collected over a 10 year search period. 2012 through 2022. These data are drawn from visual observations. Roughly 70,000 hours of recordings. These are acoustic recordings. 472,500 camera hours by camcorders or recorders captured by 34 trail cameras. And over a thousand hours of video drawn from drone flights. Over 3200 drone flights.

B: Cool man.

E: Here was the-

B: Drone flights?

E: Yeah.

B: That's the best man. What's the best evidence?

E: Yeah what is the best evidence? Here's their conclusion. They say using these multiple lines of evidence the data suggests intermittent but repeated presence of multiple individual birds with field marks and behaviors consistent with those of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Data indicate repeated reuse of foraging sites and core habitat. The findings and the inferences drawn from them suggest that not all is lost for the ivory-billed woodpecker and that it's clearly premature for the species to be declared extinct.

S: The thing is if we had evidence of an ivory-billed woodpecker we wouldn't need multiple lines of evidence. We would need one piece of evidence. You would need one clear photograph. That's all you would need.

B: That's like low-grade pseudo science.

E: Yeah.

S: Well I think it's again falling into that pattern of the ambiguity is the phenomenon. The fact that all of this, it's all the evidence that's right at the limit of our detection in terms of being able to distinguish a pileated woodpecker from an ivory-billed woodpecker. So after all of those hours and all of they had one solid piece of evidence. That's the only thing that we would be seeing. But they don't have that.

B: One good video, one clear close-ups video would do it.

E: I know and unfortunately they're blurry images and things.

S: Or they're just too far away.

B: Blobsquatch.

S: So I looked at one of the videos that's on this article and it shows a pretty good video of a woodpecker flying and then landing on the side of a tree. But it's at that distance where you could tell yeah it's definitely either a pileated or an ivory-billed but you can't tell between the two of them. And I'm not seeing the like clear markings of a ivory-billed. Or you're not getting a good enough view of the bill itself which is like a very distinguishing feature from a pileated. And you have to wonder why that's the evidence that we're seeing. Now I'm a part-time amateur birter who occasionally picks up a camera if I think I'm gonna see birds. I have perfect close-up full-frame pictures of pileated woodpeckers.

E: There you go, right.

S: They're big birds so they're easy to get nice pictures of and they're not skittish. And they're not that fast. They don't like these little birds that are constantly flitting about. They're these big birds. They're easy to get really good pictures of. And I think the fact that we don't have a definitive picture is because they're extinct. And this edge of detection kind of evidence is just never going to cut it.

B: I'd be surprised if it weren't there that low-grade evidence. What about DNA?

S: Yeah.

B: DNA evidence? Corpses.

S: No. Yeah, that's right.

E: Can't find them.

B: The same arguments for Bigfoot. Same arguments.

E: Piece of a shell from an egg? Something?

S: The thing is when you do enough birding you realize that what's presented as this is like the type of this species there's a lot of variation. And there's regional variation. So I wonder if we're just looking at a sub-population of pileated woodpecker that's just a little bit different than the main population. And maybe it even has a little bit of blood from 100 years ago from from the ivory-billed woodpecker.

E: It's a hybrid.

S: Yeah.

B: Humans with Neanderthal blood.

S: Yeah, exactly.

E: Of all the footage they took Steve and they I didn't see this in the paper or anyone else picked up, where are the pictures of the pileated woodpeckers that these drones captured, that these cameras captured. Right? Like you said.

S: I don't know.

E: I mean isn't that part of the body of evidence is like we have all these clear pictures of the pleated woodpecker but only perhaps these possible blurry images of something resembling the ivory-billed woodpecker. And to me that that's a stark contrast and I think says a lot.

B: Yeah, right?

S: Yeah I don't know what, I don't know if they have... If that evidence includes definitive pictures of other birds we know we're not extinct. I don't know.

E: I didn't see anywhere where that was considered a part of the evidence.

S: That would be a really good point though. If that same body of evidence includes definitive pictures of pileated woodpeckers that would be a really I think fatal argument against.

B: But wouldn't it have to? Think about it.

S: I don't know. Unless it's just the nature of the where they have the-

B: If that's the nature of it then they're doing a crappy job.

E: Well-

S: I just mean because they have like camera traps and stuff like that but I had a camera trap once. I got a lot of close to pictures of a lot of birds. It just boggles the mind that they did they don't have one piece of clean evidence.

E: Yeah.

S: Unfortunately because I would love for the thing to so exist.

E: Yeah. It would be would be quite the story.

B: They're dead. Steve, they're dead.

E: The bird is dead.

S: All right, thanks.

E: If Woody have had gone right to the police this would never have happened. Thank you.

S: All right thanks Evan.

Who's That Noisy? (54:55)[edit]

S: All right Jay it's Who's That Noisy time. You've had a couple weeks off.

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

[High pitched scratching/wheezing/whistling/crackling]

Yes, very dramatic.

S: What was that?

C: No idea.

E: I don't know but I don't know that if I liked it or not. Probably not. Remind me too much of a dental drill kind of breaking down mid procedure.

J: Oh god yeah, I could see that.

C: It did have a horror movie vibe to it for sure.

J: Dave Satula wrote it and said: "Hi, this noisy is clearly a recording of the sound a remote controlled modeled car. My specific guess would be a model ZMZ formula one car as I hear both right and left servo steering as it would sound if 1/12 scale humans were actually driving the cars around.

E: That's one of the most specific guesses I think anyone he's ever offered.

J: A ton of people wrote in like these small remote control cars. It is not correct. I have heard the sound that some of these cars make and there was a little bit in there. A little bit.

S: I can hear that.

B: I can, yeah.

J: Visto Tutti wrote in and he said: "Definitely grinding or drilling sound in this noisy", right Evan? "Normally I would say it's just an angle grinder but because you are Jay I'm saying it is the Mars rover drilling into rocks on Mars". I don't know, I haven't heard a recording of a Mars rover drilling into rocks or anything like that so I don't know what that sounds like but this is not correct.

B: Would be very hard to hear since it's such a thin atmosphere.

J: I wonder how much that would it would sound differently because of the thin the atmosphere is. Another listener wrote in Charles Robinson he said: "I finally think I know a sound. It's a red hot metal ball being placed on a block of ice and melting its way down into the centre of the block. Very cool to watch and hear. There is some similarity between this sound and that sound. If you've ever heard that lots of people have done this experiment they've also put the hot metal ball. Different types of metal ball into lots of different things always makes like a high pitched kind of squealing noise because there's a lot of water evaporation and whatnot. But that is not correct. There was a guess that was kind of getting to the core of it but not fully there. So this was William Steel he said: "Hi Jay at the end of the noisy I think I hear something electric. My guess for this week is this is electricity arcing through grapes." So this indeed is electricity. But it is not arcing through grapes. The winner for this week Brian Masters. He wrote in he said: "It sounds like a tree that is shorting out a power line." And that is indeed what it is. This is a tree branch that has bridged a gap between two high-powered lines. I won't play the whole thing for you but this is basically an incredible amount of electricity going through the tree. And the wood is fully on fire and dealing with the wrath of the electricity as it is coursing through it. So here it is again [plays Noisy]. So that the high pitch squealing that you hear is gases leaving the wood.

E: Oh! Yeah.

J: Because it's catching on fire and there's a lot of energy going through it. So all the liquid that's in there is this being turned into gas. At the end of that noisy there is a very strong electrical sound that I thought would give this thing away much easier. Because to me it's very obviously electricity. But I knew what it was when I was listening to it so I can't put anybody down. I got lots of guesses and thanks everyone for sending those in.

New Noisy (58:42)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for this week. This noisy was sent in by a listener named Justin Fisher.

[animal chitting/cackling laugh sounds]

C: Do not like. (laughter)

J: I didn't realize until I played it right now if you guys that that could be something so Halloween.

B: Oh yeah man.

C: It is very be uncomfortable.

J: That could be.

C: But you know whatever that was well you don't know but I'm guessing whatever that was it was alive and I like that even less.

J: Well you're just going to have to wait, just have to wait until next week. Before I go I want to remind everyone that you could email me at if you have guesses or if you heard something cool this week.

Announcements (59:28)[edit]

J: Steve becoming a patron of the SGU right now...

S: Yeah?

J: Is a very good time to do it because you might notice that our primary ads that we read - we're not doing them.

S: They're drying out.

J: And that is because things have been in the ad industry lots of companies that have been doing advertising. This happens from time to time. They'll be dry spells but this is a particularly long one because we don't have anything booked until the end of the year.

S: Yeah.

C: Wow.

S: It's partly because we had to reject some advertisers because we didn't like there were things that we were uncomfortable with.

J: Yeah we had an advertiser that we had to say no to that was already booked quite a bit because of that.

C: Same.

J: So we are we're very selective on who our advertisers are and if we're doing a host red ad we are going to have vetted it. Now would be a great time to support the SGU if you were ever thinking about doing it we would really appreciate your support. We could use it, we need it. So please do consider doing that for all the entertainment that we give. Even a little bit would be a wonderful thing to do to help us keep going. And Steve─

S: Mhm?

J: ─I don't have anything to say to you.

S: Okay. Thank you Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:00:42)[edit]

Question #1: UFO Sighting[edit]

Been listening since 2006ish, love you guys. Had feet in hot tub with wife and we noticed a string of lights in the sky. Immediately joked it was a UFO but it was something I've never seen in 13 years in Ocean View, Norfolk [Virginia, USA]. To me it reminded me of the speed of a slow plane pulling a sign message. Not sure how how to get images but it would be awesome to share. If you debunk I'll sign up to patreon!

Very respectfully, Andrew Albertson, Norfolk, VA, USA

S: We're going to do one email. This one comes from Andrew Albertson and he writes: "Been listening since 2006ish, love you guys. Had feet in hot tub with wife and we noticed a string of lights in the sky. Immediately joked it was a UFO but it was something I've never seen in 13 years in Ocean View, Norfolk. To me it reminded me of the speed of a slow plane pulling a sign message. Not sure how how to get images but it would be awesome to share. If you debunk I'll sign up to patreon!" Okay so Andrew did send us the pictures. Before he sent us the pictures I ctually said okay well without the pictures it's hard to say for sure but here's my differential. Number one I think this is probably you're seeing a trail of starlink satellites. But it could be drones. It could be ultra light aircraft. It could be lanterns. Then he sent up the pictures and pretty much a 100% this is a trail of starling satellites. I've seen pictures of them before. Evan you saw them.

E: I witnessed them about two weeks ago in my sky. And I was outside with my dogs and looked up and there it was. It was a straight line bead of about 20 of these things. Exactly as he described it. An airplane pulling a sign behind it. That was sort of the pace that it seemed to be going.

S: Yeah because it's very far away so it looks like it's slow and I was way fast far away.

E: So my first thought was airplane or airplanes something and I'm like but I can't be right. I said this could be satellite. A string of satellites. Did I really just witness this? It was really cool. I followed it for about a minute as it as across my my view. And then I went inside to my computer and I said well I basically did a search for string of lights in the sky and of course immediately a hundred websites pop up and talk all about the starlink string of satellites that were exactly. And of course the images confirmed that's exactly what I saw. And brought me to websites in which you can actually track these things and you can get really cool websites in which they'll tell you exactly when in your sky at what time you'll be able to see those strands pass overhead on clear nights. So very cool.

S: So Andrew I think we have positively identified your UFO. So we're looking forward to your upcoming patreon membership.

E: Welcome.

S: Yeah, welcome. But yeah so every time they put something new up in the sky there's a new kind of UFO sighting basically. People wonder why is there so much stuff buzzing around the sky? Because we're putting tons of crap in bothin orbit, in the air. There's so much of, there's mylar balloons and drones and lanterns and all the kinds of stuff that we're putting up there. And there's secret military aircraft. There's all kinds of things that you can misidentify.

E: You can go to the website or find It'll give you a global view of everything and wait to see how many dots. These are just the satellites for starlink that are around there. Oh my gosh it's a staggering amount. They are swarm. Jay it's the scene out of what Wally practically if you think about it. You know like people have a germ cloud we've talked about our germ clouds. Well earth has a satellite cloud.

S: Yeah. Not quite that bad.

E: No not quite that bad but it it's impressive in a way when you look at it.

S: All right we have a great interview with David Carl Johnson coming up. So let's go to that interview now.


Interview with David Kyle Johnson (1:04:14)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Dr. David Kyle Johnson. David, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

KJ: Thank you so much for having me on. I'm really excited to be here and talk about this incredibly interesting topic.

S: You are a professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania. And do you like to go by David or Kyle?

KJ: Call me Kyle.

S: Kyle, yeah. And you wanted to come on to talk about one of the quotes that Evan used in a recent segment of name that quote. Evan you have the quote handy?

E: Dang, I'm telling you it was David Attenborough, not Richard Attenborough. Oh that hole thing.

S: Not that one.

E: Oh, not that one. That one became infamous. No, here's the quote. "If evolution is true, you could not know that it's true because your brain is nothing but chemicals. Think about that."

S: Right.

E: And that was that was Kent Hoven.

KJ: Everybody thought it was Kurt Cameron, including me. I was mowing my lawn while I was listening to the cast. And I was like, oh, that's definitely Kurt Cameron.

E: I think part of us wanted it to be Kurt Cameron.

S: It's definitely his level.

B: True.

S: I mean, they're all they were all plausible, but that don't want to just smelled the Kurt Cameron. But anyway, so you're and then you emailed us, let us know that there's a lot more depth to the history of of what he's kind of tangentially referring to in that quote.

KJ: Yeah, right. So again, I was mowing my lawn. I heard you guys rightfully laugh at kind of how ridiculous it was. But the way that you guys treated it, it made me realize that you didn't know that there was like, he's borrowing from some serious philosophers and thinkers and kind of Christian and theism, academic circles, which maybe makes it make more sense that it's Kent and not Kirk. Because maybe he's done a little bit more studying and is aware that he's borrowing from from some philosophers. And so I was like, oh, they clearly don't know that. I could just send him an email and say there's actually a little bit more to this. I've published on this argument that he's actually referencing here. It's called the argument from reason. And thought you might be interested to know that there's a little bit more to the story. It's still a bad argument, but I think it's it's kind of interesting. It also has an interesting story that kind of ties in with sci-fi fantasy stuff, mainly fantasy stuff. I'd like to tell you that story.

E: You really struck a vein with this quote, didn't you?

B: Yeah man.

S: Let's start with what is the argument from reason? What is that?

KJ: Okay. So the argument from reason is it originates with C.S. Lewis, at least he's the one that really popularizes it in the modern day. The basic idea is it's an argument against naturalism. Now, when Lewis puts it forward, he kind of lumps naturalism in with what you would think would just be the denial of the supernatural, but he also includes in this, the theory of evolution. He just kind of thinks they go hand in hand. And then Lewis also kind of includes in that definition, a kind of deterministic view of the universe where everything is just physical particles, cause and effect relationships. Everything is a result of that cause and effect process. And he just kind of lumps all of that under naturalism. But the idea, like the basic idea of it is, is that if naturalism is true, then knowledge, like knowing anything is not possible. Knowledge is impossible if naturalism is true. Why? Well, it depends on what version of the argument you're looking at. The quote kind of references the two main versions of it. One kind of version of it is, well, if naturalism is true, then your brain is just chemicals. And if your brain is just chemicals, like it's just cause and effect interactions, right? It's just neurons firing. If that's the case, then you can't know anything. And if you can't know anything, well, then you can't know that naturalism is true. And so the theory is self-defeating. That's the idea. The other version of it is if naturalism is true, like if evolution is true, then knowledge is impossible. And if knowledge is impossible, then you can't know that evolution is true. And therefore it's self-defeating. And I can break down the kind of two version. That's kind of what I'm prepared to do is articulate the two different versions. But that's the basic idea.

S: Yeah. I mean, it seems to me that the huge leap there is that if naturalism is true, if the brain is just chemicals or evolution is true, you can't have knowledge. That's where are they getting that from? I mean, it sounds like they're just, that sounds like circular reasoning almost. Like they're assuming that that naturalism can't be true. Therefore they can't work. You know what I mean?

KJ: Yeah. So there is, I mean, it's not a leap in the argument. There is, like everybody who gives this argument tries to fill in that gap. They try to explain why if naturalism is true, then knowledge is impossible. And then from there, that the rest of the argument just kind of follows out. And so that's the interesting part of it, I think, is to see how that argument works.

S: Why can't the brain being chemicals have knowledge? That those two, how do they get to that point?

KJ: Okay. So there's kind of two versions of it, right? I'm going to do the, I've kind of broken this down into, there's the chemical version of the argument and then there's the evolution version of the argument. Okay. So when C.S. Lewis originally gives the argument, basically he, again, he's lumping all of these theories together naturalism, evolution and determinism, all kind of together. But basically what he's arguing is that in order for knowledge to be possible, in order for a conclusion that you draw to be rationally justified and be able to get you knowledge, it has to be the result of what he calls grounds consequent reasoning, right? It's a mental process by which someone recognizes premises, understands them, understands the logical relationships between them, how they entail other premises, and then draws the conclusion based on like the recognition of that logical relationship, right? So he calls it ground consequent reasoning. That's when a conclusion, that's when it, that's when it would be justified. All right. Lewis says, but if naturalism is true, then the reason that you draw your conclusions is not because of that. The reason that anything happens on naturalism, says Lewis, is all physical cause and effect relationships. Like, so he thinks like there's two different explanations for why you believe that there could be two different explanations for why you believe what you believe. One is that this grounds consequent recognition, right? The other is, well, there's causes, effect, there's physical things that happen in your brains, your neurons fire in a certain corner way, and then the belief is produced by that, right? He says, if that's what's going on, if that's the explanation for why you believe what you believe, then it doesn't really count as knowledge. That's not grounds consequent reasoning. And on naturalism, that is what's happening. And so the initial version, the 1947 version of the argument, which is part of the story that I want to tell, but that basically says it's either one or the other, right? It's either it's ground consequent or it's this cause effect process on naturalism it's the cause effect process that can't, that if it's just a cause effect process the belief isn't justified. Therefore on naturalism, knowledge is impossible. On supernaturalism, where reasoning is something is a completely mental operation and think in terms of like substance dualism and soul talk and that kind of stuff, right? Well, that's what can get you grounds consequent reason. So knowledge can be produced there, but it can't be produced on naturalism. And so therefore knowledge is impossible. That's the very first version, the kind of 1947─

S: Which the assumption there is that they both can't simultaneously be true that you can't have cause and effect and do reasoning, but that's a false premise. You can.

KJ: Here's the story I want to tell and how it like links into sci-fi fantasy, okay? So I don't know if you guys know this or not. Hopefully you don't because this will be interesting. You may or may not know that C.S. Lewis was originally an atheist.

S: Oh, yeah, I didn't know that. I mean, he wrote the line, The Witch and the Wardrobe, which is a well, famous Christian allegory, right?

KJ: Yes. Well, he was originally an atheist and line in The Witch and the Wardrobe that the Chronicles of Narnia come much, much, much later. In 1931, he has a conversation with his colleague at Oxford, J.R.R. Tolkien.

B: Aah, I hear a hint.

KJ: And Tolkien convinces him, converts. Yeah, I figured you did, right? And he, and Tolkien convinces him essentially to become a Christian/Catholic. He has this kind of bad argument about mythology, but there's like kind of a sort of record of the conversation that they have and Lewis converts to Christianity. And then after that, he starts writing apologetics. And so he's doing a lot of kind of arguments in favor of Christianity and that kind of stuff, right? And that's his main focus. He does a little bit of fiction and that kind of stuff. But even when he does that, it's like screwtape letters, right? It's stuff that's, that's kind of geared towards trying to convert people and make all apologetic arguments. So in 47, he publishes this book on miracles called Miracles. And in chapter three, he gives this argument for reason, the version I just, I just gave to you. And then in 48, he is the president of the Oxford's like Socratic society, like their Socratic club, their philosophy club, even though he's not a philosopher, he's president. And they decide to have a debate as one of their events, right? And so in this debate, they want Lewis, the president to present his argument from reason from chapter three of Miracles, this book he had just published. And to take the con, as it were, they get this, what is who essentially is like a little budding grad students, right? Who really should be completely intimidated by CS Lewis, right? Because he's the big professor. And she's just kind of an up and budding philosopher, but it turns out that it's G. E. M. Anscombe, who they get to do the other side. And if you don't know, Anscombe turns out to be one of the biggest figures in analytic philosophy of the 20th century. She single-handedly revived virtue ethics with a single paper. She studied under Wittgenstein and translated his works and was authority on hand. She just, she's just huge, huge. But at this time, she's like this a grad student. And for lack of better terms, hopefully I can use the language here. She hands him his ass. Like, she just completely demolishes him. And one of the main things that she points out, one of the things is like, he doesn't even understand what valid means and logic, like the argument equivocates on valid, doesn't use it appropriately. But she also points out exactly what Steve just points out is that, look, it's not, you've got a false dichotomy here, right? Like it can be both, right? In the same way that when I look at a picture of Darth Vader, it reminds me of my childhood for two different reasons. One, because it looks like Darth Vader, but also because it causes a certain kind of causal effect process to go on to my neurons and it brings up childhood memories or whatever. Both of those explanations can be true. And Lewis has just neglected the fact that that is the case. And Lewis is, he's eviscerated. He's humiliated. He is, a lot of C.S. Lewis fans will deny this that he was, but in his letters later, he reveals that he was just completely like his confidence as an apologist was lost. And so he shifts from doing mainly apologetics and a little bit of fiction to mainly doing fiction and a little apologetics. And the last thing he like, he does mere Christianity after that, and then he's done with the apologetics. And what he turns to instead writing is the Chronicles of Narnia. And so a lot of C.S. Lewis fans kind of are thankful for this run in with Anscombe because had he not been turned his attention because of it, we may never have got a Chronicles of Narnia. And of course, they love the Chronicles of Narnia. But that's the kind of interesting part of it. Like it's the failure of this argument is partly responsible for the Chronicles of Narnia. Now, he does go on to revise the argument. He admits that it doesn't work and it's the form I just gave you. And so he tries to revise it. And so the way that he revises it in 1960, basically what he says is, OK, I admit that they can coexist. Both kind of explanations can coexist at the same time. But in order for knowledge to be justified, the like, the real explanation, the fundamental explanation for why you draw your conclusions has to be the grounds consequent relation has the grounds consequent reasoning. It can't be the physical stuff, right? It can't be the cause-effect explanation. And on naturalism─

S: Why?

KJ: Well, the reason he thinks is because he has this elaborate thing like the argument he gives in the revised version is basically because it's got to have that the only way that it's reliable is if it's you're recognizing premises and that kind of stuff. If it's just the cause-effect stuff, it's not reliable. And the ground consequent stuff is has to be part of it. And if it's if it's not, it's not justified. And on naturalism, the grounds consequent reasoning doesn't matter. He calls it a trifle. And why is it a trifle he says? Because you could subtract it and you wouldn't lose anything. So like on naturalism, he thinks that all that really matters is the cause-effect explanation. And if you subtracted the grounds consequent part of that explanation out of it, it just wasn't there at all. Well, how could that make a difference? It wouldn't make any difference. The same thing would happen. The cause-effect explanation is still there. And so the same beliefs would be produced and therefore it's a trifle. And so it doesn't matter. And so it's it's got to be the ground consequent part.

S: Sounds like he's making a category mistake.

KJ: Yeah. So it it might be the way that I objected to it whenever, when I wrote on this was that, I mean, there's, there's a couple of different problems here. Part of the reason he thinks that the cause-and-effect stuff isn't good enough to produce the knowledge has a little bit to do with evolution. I want to save that for a little bit later because there's another philosopher named Alvin Plantinga who tries to make that version of the argument. So I'll kind of set the evolution part of that aside for now. But the main mistake I think that he makes is not understand this. I think Jay is going to be interested in this because you like philosophical zombies. Am I correct?

S: P zombies. Yeah. He's talked about them before.

KJ: Right. So the mistake that he makes is not recognizing that for most philosophers, the relationship between the mind and brain is what we call supervenient. What that means is that you can't have a change. If X supervenes on Y, you can't have a change in X without some kind of change in Y. The way I was explained this in class is I'll use another Darth Vader example. In my dorm room, in my undergrad, I had a mosaic in my dorm room that was Darth Vader and what it was composed of was individual frames of the Star Wars original trilogy, right? And Vader emerges like from this arrangement of the 4frames, right? Vader supervenes on the frames. And what that means is, is that if you wanted Vader to look different, if you wanted him to change color, if you wanted him to turn his head, look a different direction, if you wanted the picture of him to look different, you would have to change the individual frames. You'd have to select different frames and put them in there, right? It's not possible to change Vader without changing the frames and it is also the case that if the frames are there and arranged as they are, Vader will necessarily emerge like Vader will be, you might imagine a world where people don't know what Darth Vader looks like so they wouldn't know what to call it, but the image would still be there. It makes no sense to ask, is there a logically possible world in which the frames are arranged just as they are? And yet Vader does not appear out of that, out of that arrangement. No, it necessarily Vader emerges from that. So for a lot of philosophers, when they talk about philosophy of mind, they think the mind's relationship to the brain is this way, that the mind is this property that comes out of the brain that is completely and totally dependent upon it so much so that the relationship is supervenient. Any change in the mental requires some kind of change in the physical brain. And so when C.S. Lewis says, well the ground's consequent must be a trifle because you could subtract it and nothing would change. The answer is no, you couldn't. If you subtracted the mental, you could only do that by fundamentally changing what's going on on the physical level. And if you change that, well, then the same conclusion is not going to be drawn. And so we just misunderstands what most philosophers think in regards to this. If the mind, if as most philosophers think the mind and brain do have a supervenient relationship, then P zombies are actually impossible. It makes no sense to think, well, is there a possible world where our brains are doing exactly what they do, but there's no mind that arises from it? It's like, no, that's not possible anymore than you could have the mosaic arranged as it is and not have a Vader emerge from it. Lewis kind of fundamentally misunderstands that aspect of it. Now, an even further revised version of the argument kind of sidesteps out a little bit and just says that, look, in order for the belief that it's produced to be justified, what has to be the case is that the real, the basic, like the reasoning has to be causally efficacious on the basic level. It has to be the most basic fundamental explanation for why the conclusion is drawn and that just can't be the case on naturalism. And the problem with that, and this is something I've, after listening to you guys for over 10, 15 years now, I've always wanted to talk to you about this.

S: Okay.

KJ: The problem with that is he doesn't understand the different kinds of theories, naturalist theories of minds that are out there and a lot of them completely naturalist theories of mind do think that the mental is causally efficacious on the most fundamental basic level.

S: Yeah.

KJ: Two different versions of this. And I'm kind of, because speaking generally, but there's a theory of mind called property dualism. It's not substance dualism. It's property dualism. It's a naturalist theory because it only thinks that matter exists. It doesn't have any other substance. The only substance that exists is matter.

S: That's Chalmers, right?

KJ: Yes. Chalmers is very much like a property dualist where basically the idea is that matter has two different kinds of properties, physical, like location, and then mental, like aboutness and quality and et cetera. And for property dualists, they think that the mental has causal powers that are not explicable in terms of the individual parts. You can't explain what the mind can do by just explaining how the individual, physical particles are interacting. It has its own unique causal powers. This is a completely natural theory of mind. And yet it has causal powers on the basic level. Another version. And I think after, again, after listening to you guys for so long, another version, I think is Steve's theory. I've given what you, whatever way I've heard you talk about these kind of things. I think Steve is an identity theorist. Identity theorists say that the mind and brain are one in the same thing. They are numerically identical as the way I explained it to my students in the same way that Clark Kent is Superman. The mind is the brain. They are one in the same thing. So that when you say that, well, the reason that I drew such a conclusion, such and such conclusion is because I reasoned through it and drew that conclusion. That explanation is exactly the same thing as the causal effect. My neurons fired in a certain kind of way explanation. They're one in the same. And so the mental is causally operative on the basic level because it is identical to the physical.

S: Yeah.

KJ: Right? And again, like Victor Reppert is another person that I've debated in prints on this. This is something that he doesn't seem to like fully grasp or admit or understand that there are naturalist theories of mind that do have the mental on the causal level. And so again, so like if we relate it back to the quote, this is the chemicals part of the argument, right? Lewis and Reppert are basically saying, oh, it can't be justified. The conclusion can't be justified because your brain is just chemicals. And the answer is like, even if that's the case, the chemicals could have mental properties that are causally operative or the chemicals could be identical to this mental operation that you think is necessary in order for the conclusion to be justified.

S: Right.

KJ: So that's that's the basics of it.

S: Yeah. I mean, and I think whatever, 60 years after Lewis, we could argue that computers completely blow away his his premise, right? I mean, because computers are physical, deterministic, all those things and they can process information. They can have data stored in them, right? They're not operating in the way our human brain does, but they're doing all the basic kind of stuff that our that our brain does. There's just sort of not the same emergent properties out of it because it's just not organized the way our brains are. But you can't say it doesn't have information. They can't how when you hit buttons on a calculator and a number pops out, that's just chemicals or whatever. It's just electrons. It's the same thing.

KJ: Yes, exactly. So this is actually something else that I was going to mention. So there's a couple of other theories of mine that do say that the mental is not causally operative. One is a limitivism that just says the mind doesn't exist at all. Another is called epiphenomenalism, which suggests that the mind is an emergent property, but it doesn't have any causal powers. It's just there presenting itself to us, but it doesn't actually do anything. And so to this the argument from a reasoned person might say, like, oh, well, they can't have knowledge because they admit that all that's going on at the causal level all the cause and effect is just going on the physical level and physical processes can't generate reliably generate true beliefs. That's part of the argument. Physical processes can't reliably generate true beliefs. And the answer to that is yes, they can. We have two really good examples of that. One you've already mentioned, AI, AI can reliably produce true beliefs, right? It doesn't believe anything per se, but it can, it can generate true conclusions and it can even produce beliefs in me if I believe it, right? And then there's also, and Steve, you could probably talk more about this, right? But we also know that a lot of reasoning happens unconsciously in the brain. A lot of things that we decide to do and that we reason out and all that kind of stuff happens without any kind of conscious operations at all, and yet it reliably produces true beliefs. And so we know that physical processes can produce true beliefs in the brain. We know the physical process in the brain can produce true beliefs.

S: Yeah, absolutely. And that's not even getting into the idea that consciousness, I think, I think people get tripped up a lot on our own experience of our own consciousness because it does seem magical, but that's where the whole, well, yeah, but it's kind of just an illusion, like your brain evolved to generate the illusion of consciousness because it is sort of part and necessary of the experience that drives all of our behavior. Like we need to do things like pay attention to ourselves and our own thoughts and whatever. I just think you could make lots of arguments as to why that we have to be in the loop of our own consciousness and from an evolutionary point of view, from a mechanistic point of view, it kind of makes sense, but it's hard. We're stuck in our own illusion. So it's kind of hard to really think about it, you know?

KJ: Yes, that's what a limitivist would say, essentially, is that the existence of the mind is just an illusion that is created by the brain.

S: I wouldn't say just an illusion. I think that's right. I think that there is, just as a neurologist, I mean, we all know this is a lot of our function, which is completely illusory, right? I mean, everything we see, everything we perceive basically is a constructed illusion. It just has a functional relationship to reality. An evolved, adaptive functional relationship, but it isn't reality. It's a constructed illusion. That's true pretty much all the way down.

KJ: And this actually kind of segues into the evolution end of the argument. Like there's another kind of version of the argument that has to deal with evolution. Before I say it, I'll just say that one of my favorite arguments, one of my favorite points in all this philosophy of mind debate is in favor of epiphenomenalism. And so the epiphenomenalists deny that the mind does anything, right? That it has any kind of causal powers. They say it exists, but it doesn't have any causal powers. And of course, the objection is like, of course it does. Look, I decided to move my arm and my arm moved and the epiphenomenals will say, yeah, but that's just an illusion created by the correlational fallacy, right? Like you assume that your decision moved your arm because you decided to move your arm and then your arm moved. And that's always constantly conjoined. But as we know, correlation does not necessarily entail causation. And so, right, there's a third factor. What happens is your brain decides to move your arm and your arm move. Your brain also produces the mental experience of a decision. You think one causes the other because they always go together, but they know.

S: And that's partly true. That's just from a neurological point of view. That is that the brain functions on some level in that exact way. And we know from certain experiments that it we could make people's brains do weird things and they invent a decision making processfor why it happened. So there is the illusion of decision making that we use. But I think again, just putting on my neuroscientist cap, not my philosopher cap. And I think that that derives from the need for the brain to have internal consistency. It said, well, I did that. I must have decided to do it because I did it. And there are literally circuits in your brain that actively construct that experience. And when those circuits break down, weird stuff happens. Like you feel like you have an alien hand that you're not in control of.

KJ: Yes.

S: So there is absolutely some level where neurologically that's true. But that doesn't mean we don't make decisions. That's the thing. There's all these things are true at the same time.

KJ: Yes. Right. It definitely raises questions about our free will. But that is different than saying that we don't make decisions. The decisions might not be free. The decisions might not be free, but we're still making decisions. And free will is something else that I work on. And we could I could talk for a while.

S: Yeah, yeah, I know. We'll have that conversation. So the evolution argument.

The Evolution argument (1:29:16)[edit]

KJ: OK, so the other version of it comes from planning. And again, Lewis kind of hints at this. And then this argument is developed later in the 90s by Alvin Plantinga, who is a at the time was a bigwig philosopher at Notre Dame. I think he was at Notre Dame in the 90s. He eventually ends up at Notre Dame. He just retired about a decade ago from Notre Dame. But he's a real bigwig in Christian in Christian philosophy. And he developed it even further in like a 2011 book called Where the Conflict Really Lies, Nature [Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism.]. I've tried to think naturalism, science and evolution, something along that line. Sorry to have the exact title there. But the basic idea is that like the basic idea behind the book is everybody says that science and religion are incompatible. Well, what's really incompatible is science and naturalism. That's the kind of argument that gives. The way he gives that argument, the idea is this, if he grants like he's not concerned about theories of mind or anything like that, he'll grant supervenience. He'll grant all of that. What he'll say, and he even grants that evolution happened. But what he says is if evolution is the full explanation for everything and for how we evolve, we've got a problem with reason. So what he basically says is this, if evolution is true, then the mechanisms, the neural mechanisms by which you draw conclusions were selected for in the past. That's why you have them, he says. And if they were selected for in the past, well, they weren't selected because they were truth preserving. They weren't selected because they preserve the truth. They generated true beliefs. They were selected because they were fit. They made you more likely to survive. Well, that's all well and good. But being more likely to survive is not the same thing as truth. And so on evolution, the neural mechanisms that lead you to reason and thus conclude that evolution is true are these mechanisms that are just make you fit. They don't guarantee truth. And so you can't really, you can't really trust them. They're not really trustworthy, so they can't provide justification, so they can't provide knowledge that evolution is true, right? And therefore, naturalism, evolution is self-defeating. That's that's the basic idea, right? So in my estimation, there are basically three big kind of problems with this argument, all right? So first of all, if he's right, that evolution is selecting individual neural mechanisms that work in our brains to draw conclusions. If he's right about that, that's a big question. I'll talk about that in a second. But even if he's right about that, he seems to have overlooked the possibility that what made them fit is their truth preserving property, right? The reason they were fit is because they produced true beliefs, right? He thinks that like he makes a big deal about induction, like our ability to just kind of generally do induction, which generally is thought about as the ability to like to reason under the assumption that the future will resemble the past, right? Well, since the future does resemble the past, being able if like I have a neural circuitry in my brain that makes me assume that and reason in that way. Well, the reason it was selected is because it leads to true beliefs, right? The other people got too close to the cliff, they fell over. So I know not to do that, right? And so I'm more likely to survive. So he just seems to neglect the fact that it could be fit because it produces truth.

S: Yep.

KJ: The second thing that he that he seems to not understand is that, well, simply put the possibility of spandrels, that the reasoning processes that he's talking about that generate these beliefs may not have been selected for by evolution, they may be spandrels. In other words, like I assume that you guys know what spandrels are. The general idea is that they are like our ability to do these particular instances of reasoning that he's concerned with, that reason that we can do something like science and reason scientifically isn't because there's some neural mechanism that was selected for because a random mutation of DNA made us able to do that. And then it was fit and it worked a fixation. It's just something that our big brains can do. We got our big brains for other reasons. We got our big brains because they allowed us to be social and survive in social groups, allow us to hunt better, throw better spears or whatever. And then it turns out that big brains can also do other things that aren't necessarily fit like create music, create calculus and do mathematics and do science, but they weren't selected for, right? And in fact, we can know that our ability to reason scientifically is not something that was selected for because we know the history of how scientific reasoning was developed and it was only developed in the last few hundred years, right? And we know it wasn't something that just emerged in someone because they had a random mutation of DNA. It's something that we developed as a species, not something that evolved in a particular individual. So it wasn't selected for at all because it was fit. And then here's what I think is most ironic. And I don't think anyone's ever made this observation in print, but this is kind of like my final like a thing that I'll say. And then we can talk more about it.

S: Yeah.

KJ: Planning may have been like Cara always is in science or fiction that planning might have been right for the wrong reason or wrong for the right reason. I'm not sure exactly which one it is. So here's here's the deal. Planning is right that evolution, if to the degree that it selects for individual mechanisms that generate beliefs, it would do so because they're fit, not because they're truth preserving that like that definitely could happen. And in fact, we know that that has happened, I think, because there are a number of like reasoning heuristics that we have like our agency detection where we see agents behind everything when they're not there. Correlational fallacies, right? The representative heuristic where we think like events must have like causes, there are all these little shortcuts in our reasoning that were likely made us more likely to survive in the past, but generate false beliefs, right? Science was developed, not by evolution, was developed by humankind, specifically for the purpose of guarding against the way that those instinctive reasoning mechanisms lead us astray so that we're not led astray by them. And we can come to a true conclusion about the way the world is, right? And so I kind of think planning his argument actually raises a problem for theism, it doesn't, it's not a bolster for it actually raises a problem for theism. He thinks God stepped into the evolutionary process and literally put mutations in us to put these neural mechanisms in our brains for us so that we would reason, we would reason like reason like God does, but the problem is, is the ones that were put in us, like in our natural state, we are very bad at reasoning, right? We have all of like, you have to be properly educated and learn the ways that your brain leads you astray so you can guard against them in order to actually discover the way the world is. And our natural state, we're not good reasoners. We're not good at getting to the truth of the way the world is, right?

S: Exactly.

KJ: Like our perception definitely leads us astray far from what we realize. Our memory definitely leads astray far more than we, than we kind of average, that we usually realize, right? And so this is actually you have to ask, in the same way that the intelligent design person has to answer the question, well, if we're so intelligently designed, why do I breathe and eat out of the same hole in my head? It keeps making me choke, right? In the same way, the person who thinks that God naturally did, if that God designed our reasoning process, you have to ask─

S: He did a terrible job.

KJ: Yes! Right? Why did he put all these terrible, like heuristics that lead me to false beliefs? We had to develop a way to get around that to get to the truth, right? And so anyway, that's what I think was wrong with the evolution version of. And now I stop blabbering about.

S: Yeah, my immediate reaction was sort of two-fold. And I think it overlaps with what you were saying. So the first one was like, he's being a hyper-adaptationalist, right? The idea that every feature that any biological organism has, according to evolution, must have specifically evolved for a specific purpose. And we know that that's not true. As you said, you could develop generic abilities that could be used for lots of things. We obviously didn't evolve to play the piano, but whatever, our neurological ability allows for that as an epiphenomenon, or just as there are generic things like we didn't evolve hands to do any one thing. It's just a useful tool that we could do lots of stuff with. So the brain is the same way. But the other thing, and this is partly, this is not my neuroscientific argument, which is again, under this hyper-adaptationalist idea, is that he's assuming that our brain evolved one strategy, one adaptive strategy. When in fact, neuroscientists will tell you, this is the thinking fast, thinking slow thing, we have two basic strategies that we evolved that work in complementary fashion. We have the intuitive heuristic approach to thinking. And then we have the analytical approach, which says, is that really true? And that's the part that we leverage to create this cultural structure of science.

KJ: Yep.

S: Right? So he's just wrong on multiple, multiple levels. He doesn't understand evolution. He doesn't understand neuroscience. And he doesn't understand philosophy. And he gets it wrong on every level.

KJ: Yep. And for anybody who's interested, there's entire books dedicated to explaining what's wrong with like multiple scholars way in or whatever, explaining what's wrong with Plantinga's argument, that kind of stuff. And then I've got a lot of work on the other version on the first version we talked about. I've got a bunch of articles on that if anybody's interested. I did a whole debate back and forth in a book on C.S. Lewis with Victor Rappert. He ended up publishing even outside of that. I have another reply to that and it just goes on and on and on.

S: It always goes way deeper than you can imagine. And, and do you, how much of that do you think Kent Hoven understands? (laughter)

KJ: Oh, so I don't think he understands. I mean, he certainly doesn't understand what's wrong with planning his argument. My guess is that Kent probably has read something about Plantinga's argument or maybe Rappert or Lewis's argument right. And he's just trying to give a one sentence articulation of the basic idea behind it. I doubt that he's actually read Plantinga's book or an article on it or anything like that, but I could be wrong.

S: I, I would be shocked if he read anything article length or longer about that whole thing. I think he just said, yeah, he has some third hand blurb about chemicals and whatever.

E: Sounds good. I'll use that.

S: All right. Well, I think that was a very, like I say, a whirlwind tour of a very, book length, multiple book length, philosophical debate that happened over the last, what, 100 years?

KJ: Yeah, something like that.

S: But it sounds like we hit the highlights. Where could people find your work? And you have a lot of stuff that you've done for the general population. Tell us about that.

KJ: Yeah. So, almost any of my papers that I've published, especially my academic papers are available on They should be free there. If they're not, send me an email. I'll send you a copy. I do a lot of pop culture and philosophy work. And so most of my chapters I've done there, on that topic or on academia as well. I, like I edited the book on Black Mirror. I have a book on the Orville and, I also have courses with the great courses. I have a kind of introduction to philosophy class called the big questions of philosophy. I have one that's specifically on science fiction called sci phi science fiction as philosophy. The fi is PHI, a wonderful little pun.

S: Sounds cool. All right. Well, Kyle, it's always great to talk with you.

J: Thanks, Kyle.

S: Thanks for coming on.

E: Thank you Kyle.

KJ: Thanks for having me on.


Science or Fiction (1:40:17)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that human redistribution of fresh water has caused the Earth's rotational pole to drift 78.48 cm between 1993 and 2010.[6]
Item #2: A recent analysis of the Geminids meteoroid stream indicates that it likely originated from the Moon.[7]
Item #3: Scientists have developed a wireless muometric navigation system that uses muons from cosmic rays as their reference and can work even deep underground.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Geminids from the Moon
Science Redistribution of water
Muometric navigation
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Geminids from the Moon
Geminids from the Moon
Redistribution of water
Geminids from the Moon

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. And our listeners at home are free to play along, which I know most of you do. Three regular news items this week. No theme. You guys ready?

C: Yeah.

E: Ready.

S: All right. Here we go. Item number one, a new study finds that human redistribution of fresh water has caused the Earth's rotational pole to drift 78.48 centimetres between 1993 and 2010. Item number two, a recent analysis of the Geminids meteoroid stream indicates that it likely originated from the moon. And item number three, scientists have developed a wireless muometric navigation system that uses muons from cosmic rays as their reference and can work even deep underground.

B: Mewons.

S: Muons. Is it?

B: No, muons.

S: Muons or muons?

E: Yes.

C: Yes. I like Evan's answer.

E: Here we go.

S: Moo. All right. Boss for that you get to go first.

E: He knew it.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: All right. Let's see. A new study finds that human redistribution of fresh water has caused the Earth's rotational pole. What? Wow.

S: We've actually tilted the Earth.

B: Damn man. Rotational pole to 78 centimetres. Wow. Okay. Damn. Let's see. The second one, the Geminids came from the moon. Oof. That can't be right, man. Let's see. Three. Wireless muometric navigation system. Working deep underground. For sure. Trying to think how you could use them as a reference for navigation. I'm just going to assume that that's possible. The water. Yeah, water is heavy. All right. The one that just doesn't seem right is the Geminids meteoroid stream. My understanding is that we're pretty sure where that came from. So I'll say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I might have to go with Bob on this because I don't know what I'm talking about. The first one about the Earth's rotational pole being like us messing with water so much that we've actually shifted the rotational pole sounds bananas to me. But we have done so much horrible damage to this planet. Why not throw that on the pile? Okay. Scientists have developed a wireless muometric navigation system. What? That uses muons from cosmic rays as their reference and can work even deep underground. Sure. I don't know.

S: Yeah. So it's like GPS with muons basically.

C: Yeah. Cause words. I have no idea. I think that I actually do have to go with Bob on this because the Geminid meteor shower is like from really far away, right? It's not from the moon. That seems bad. That can't be right. I'm going to go with Bob.

S: Okay. Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. The first one here, a new study finds that human redistribution of fresh water has caused the Earth's rotation rotational pole to drift. That one doesn't sound right to me. I don't think that humans have had that much of an effect on the distribution of fresh water. Hmm. That's interesting. I don't know. I just don't see it. Even a lot of water for humans is not a lot of water for the Earth. A recent analysis of the Geminids meteoroid stream indicate that is likely originated from the moon. I think that one is science. And the third one scientists have developed a wireless. Moom.

S: Mu-o-metric.

B: Muometric.

J: Muometric.

C: Say it the way you said it, it's so much better.

E: We need five different pronunciations. One for each of us.

C: It's so much better. I love it.

J: Mu-o-metric navigation system that uses muons from cosmic rays.

B: Muons!

C: Bob and I are Team Muon.

J: Yeah. No, I didn't.

E: What team are Muon?

J: Jay and Steve or Team Muon.

C: What team are muons?

J: Brian Wecht corrected us on that, didn't he?

B: Yeah. No, he didn't correct you. He corrected me.

J: Yes, he corrected you on that. Okay. After analyzing these three news items, I'm going to say that the redistribution of fresh water is the fake.

S: Okay. And, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: This is fun. (laughter) I've got to come up with a different way to say Muon or Muon.

C: Well, he did it great already. Mu-aaw. Is that what he said? I love that.

E: Mew. Mu-o-metric. It does seem odd that humans, I mean, we're so good at messing things up on this planet. You can't really underestimate our ability to even have an impact, I think, on the Earth's rotational pole drift. We just I think we underestimate how much of an impact human beings for all these many, many years have had on the planet. So that one's probably going to wind up to be true. The Geminids meteoroid stream. So, every, is that the one? What's the one in August versus the one in December? I forget which one's which. The, well, whichever. It's one of those.

C: There's the Perseids.

E: The Perseids. I think the Perseids is the one in August. Yeah. So Geminids must be the December one. And as you're going, every time you go around, you go through like the same cloud. So, but did that come from the moon? Would that have, it seems like the moon would have been in a way too close unless the debris that kicked off of it way back when, went in a different direction. I don't know. That one's not really something, something seems not right there, but the muometric navigation system. I don't know anything about that. So I guess I'll go with Bob, with Cara as well. Geminids meteoroid fiction.

S: Okay. So you all agree with the third one. So we'll start there.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Scientists have developed a wireless, muometric navigation system that uses muons from cosmic rays as their reference and can work even deep, muons, can work even deep underground. You guys all think this is science. And this one is science. This is science.

C: Weird.

S: Yeah. This is cool.

E: Navigation system.

S: Yeah. So it's, it's like GPS, but it's not global. It is localized because so you think, how does this work? Best I could tell what they do is─

B: The angle?

S: Yeah. So they have four reference detectors and then you have a, the like, let's say above ground, right? You have these four reference detectors. Then you take your localized detector, your portable one with you, whether you're mapping out a tunnel or deep in a basement or your whatever in a, in a cavern system, whatever is underground that you need to map out or document where you're going. And now originally what they had to do was you had to have the detector wired to the references and that of course limited the range a lot. But what they recently developed was a wireless version. But you think, okay, if the references and the detector have to be communicating with each other and if they're communicating with each other wirelessly, how does that work? Because then the whole point is that you're doing a deep underground with like normal radio signals, whatever, can't penetrate. How do you think they solved that problem? You understand the problem I'm describing?

C: Not really.

E: Uh, no.

B: Wait, the problem of detecting it?

S: So you're using muons because they can penetrate deep underground.

E: Okay, right.

C: Right.

S: So then how are the reference stations communicating with the mobile one that you're trying to localize? Cause they have to be in communication─

C: With more muons?

S: No, these muons are coming from cosmic rays.

E: Gluons.

B: Cellphone?

C: I'm trying to get creative over here.

B: Muons muons are subatomic particles related to electronics.

C: I know, I know. So how are they able to penetrate something else from back out of the ground up to the receivers is what you're asking?

S: Yeah. So I'll give you the answer. The answer is they're not because you can't. So how do they do it without having real time communication between the references and the detector?

E: They capture the data and go get it later.

S: Well, but they still need to know what's happening when.

B: How do you navigate.

S: So they have an atomic clock.

E: A clock. Yeah.

C: Well, actually they're using a quartz clock. They're using a quartz clock synchronized between the detector and the reference towers. And that synchronization, the precision of the timekeeping is the limiting factor on the accuracy of this system. They say it's accurate at best to within two meters. But it could be more, it could be like 20 meters. And they really need to get it down to one meter accuracy, which is basically where GPS is. So they can do that if they use the nuclear clocks, but they need to get them small enough, and they exist. They have these sort of nuclear clocks on a chip kind of thing, but they're really expensive. So they're hoping that the cost of these sort of atomic clocks on a chip come down to the point where they become practical. They're called CSAC chip scale atomic clocks. Once those become cost effective, then they can incorporate those things into the detectors and that will get you your sub meter accuracy for this system. But still the system works in an area. It's not going to replace your GPS cause it's not global, but it could work. If let's say there is an earthquake and people get buried on the ground or whatever, you can set this up so that you can then start locating things underground, or you could do it to map out a volcano system of mechanics, it's more, you could map out a case that's more or whatever for specific, like geological applications or mapping out underground tunnels or whatever, that's what it would be used for. These chip scale atomic clocks are really cool. I mean, they're basically small enough that you can have one in your cell phone again, right now, the limiting factor is that they're just expensive. But imagine having an atomic clock in your cell phone.

E: Cesium.

S: That'll happen. It'll happen at some point.

B: That'd be cool and all. But what are you going to use it for?

C: To keep time.

S: Get really accurate time. All right.

E: Navigate underground.

B: I am one attosecond late.

E: You're fired.

S: But the thing is, Bob, people will leverage it to do this kind of stuff. It's not that you need the time to be that accurate, but if everyone's cell phone had the exact same time accurate within to that small degree, what applications can leverage off of that? That's the thing. Maybe it will make your GPS way more accurate, for example, it'll allow your GPS to work even in crowded cities or in places where it doesn't usually work. Cause it could─

B: You could tell that you're, and you're at a higher altitude because your clock is going at a different speed than somebody closer.

E: Yeah. Sometimes when I'm on a road and there's a parallel road to me, it will say I'm on the, I'm on the other road, not the road I'm on.

S: Or you drive under an underpass and things [inaudible].

B: No, they've got a timer clock so accurate that if you put one, like a couple of feet higher on the wall, for example, or on a higher shelf, time will diverge.

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah. The height.

B: Has gravitational time dilation.

S: So that'd be an altimeter. All right. Let's go back to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: A recent analysis of the Geminids meteorite stream indicates that it is like, that it likely originated from the moon. Jay, you think this one is science. Everyone else thinks this one is the fiction. Now, Cara, I wasn't sure what point you were trying to make when you said that the Geminids are far away because we pass through them. That's why it's a meteor shower.

C: But they come from really far away.

S: What does that mean? It has to be from something.

C: Well you tell me.

S: It has to be from something in an orbit that crosses Earth's orbit. Right?

C: Right.

E: Like a dust cloud we pass every time.

C: But from a really long time ago.

E: That's why every December we pass through this cloud.

S: Yeah, it definitely happened from a long time ago.

C: Right. But I think it was from a really long time ago. So I don't think so.

S: Yes. So that's when we actually, and Bob, you were wrong. We don't really know prior to the study where they did come from. It's kind of a mystery. The mystery is that most of these meteorite streams come from comets because when the comets get close to the sun, they put out a comet tail.

B: Right.

S: And then there's a lot of dust and other stuff in the tail. And then that just basically creates this this orbit of debris that went whenever the Earth passes through it, we get a meteor shower. Right?

B: Yeah, that's what I meant when I said we know what they came from, not moon.

S: But it's not that. But the Geminids did not come from a comet.

B: OK.

S: But they also did not come from the moon. So this is a fiction. So again, it's a little right for the wrong reason again.

C: The story of our lives.

S: What the analysis found was that it's came probably came from an asteroid, but not a comet. And the question has been, well we're seeing just an asteroid on the path of the Geminid meteor stream, not a comet. So one hypothesis was, well, maybe it was a comet, but it lost all its volatiles. And now we're just seeing the core left behind. But that's probably not true. So what the news item is, they used data from the Parker Solar probes. So for the first time, we're sort of viewing this from a different perspective. And they concluded that, well, probably it was a catastrophic event like another asteroid smacked into it through up the debris. And that's the the meteorite stream is from some catastrophic event. They modeled it and that and the data fits best with that model, as opposed to it's a comet core, which was sort of the other hypothesis. That's the news item. I just made up the bed about the moon. OK, let's go back to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: A new study finds that human redistribution of freshwater has caused the Earth's rotational pole to drift 78.48 centimeters between 1993 and 2010. That is science.

B: Science, baby.

S: Now, how much water do you think we've redistributed over that period of time?

J: No idea.

B: Gallons.

E: Yeah, yeah, yeah, quartz and quartz.

S: Two thousand one hundred and fifty gigatons.

B: The weight of water?

S: That's the weight of the water.

B: Why do they say two thousand gigatons, say two teratons.

S: Yeah, they should say that. You're right.

B: Come on.

S: Two point one five teratons of freshwater. And what we're doing is we're basically pulling it out of the ground and it's eventually finding its way into the oceans, right? So it's being redistributed from, say, under the continent to the oceans. And in fact, it's partially responsible for global sea level rise. Six point two four millimeters of our recent ocean rising has been due to this because we're putting fresh water in the ocean. The rest is coming from glacier melt and the poles melting, the north pole melting and stuff. So what they did was they modeled where the water distribution due to global warming. They modeled it without the human groundwater redistribution and it was off by a little bit. The observed tilt of the of the axis was off from the predicted tilt. But then when they added the groundwater redistribution, it perfectly aligned. So it explains if you you have to include all of the water redistribution, including the fact that we're pulling fresh water out of the ground and it's winding up in the oceans, and then that model matched observation in terms of the tilt of the earth. And if you're interested, the Earth's rotational pole has moved 78.48 centimeters towards 64.16 degrees east. That's where it's moving towards in case that matters to you for some reason. But yeah, it's always interesting. Like you think like we could make the we could change the Earth's tilt by moving stuff around. I mean─

J: Unbelievable.

S: But yeah, 2.15 teratons is a lot. Anything billion people do is a lot.

E: It sure is over a long period of time.

S: And I don't think it's having that. I don't think the readers, the the tilting of the Earth is going to have any problem.

B: It's just centimeters.

S: But the fact that I didn't realize that we're actually contributing to sea level rise, that this water distribution is contributing to sea level rise. The other thing, which is something I always was sort of niggling in the back of my mind, which is we talk about like, we're using up all of our fresh water. But I always thought, well, doesn't the fresh water just come back? Like doesn't it get eventually recycled? But I guess no, I guess a lot of it is ending up in the ocean. That's a one way trip. We are losing fresh water because it's starting out as fresh water in reserves.

C: And then it's becoming salinated.

S: And it's ending up in the ocean. Yeah. So now it's salinated water. So that's why we need water desalination or to reclaim it. But that takes a lot of energy, which then doesn't help if we're burning coal to desalinate our water. There are other ways of doing it. But it's just hard to do it, to do a lot of it. You guys remember when they were talking about chipping off a glacier from the North Pole and bringing it south to to pure fresh water supply? That wouldn't help this problem, of course. But it's that was kind of a desperate maneuver. I don't think we ever did anything like that, though, didn't we? Move on to the iceberg? And now one of the other sort of giant engineering projects they're talking about to deal with drought along the West Coast of the U.S. is just to build a giant pipeline from the east to the west so we could take whenever we get flooding in the east, we just shunt the water all the way over to the West Coast and refill their aquifers. But I don't know if that'll ever happen. So, yeah, good job, everyone. Jay saved me from a sweep. Thank you.

J: Yep.

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

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:59:13)[edit]

All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt.

 – Susan Sontag (1933-2004), American writer, philosopher, and political activist

E: All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it. All photographs testify to time's relentless melt. It's a quote from Susan Sontag. What this quote reminds me of is the importance of photography. Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world or a life in which there is no photographs or there's no, maybe just simply drawings whatever. Charcoal drawings and things. I mean, how different would our perception of everything be without photography?

S: I know. My most treasured possessions are like pictures of my children when they were little kids.

E: Oh, absolutely. My gosh.

S: That would suck not to have access to movies and everything as well. But I mean, just the thousands of thousands of pictures. And yeah, we're living among the first generations that have that. That actually have the that photographic documentation of our lives. And it does also serve that purpose of you see how old you're getting. You can see exactly how much you've aged along the way. It reminds me of there's a comedian who said, I love it when people say, this is a picture of me when I was younger. All pictures of you are pictures of you were younger.

C: It's Mitch Hedberg baby.

S: Show me a picture of you when you were older and I'll be impressed. It's true.

E: But at least we can capture it in these in these moments in photography. So important. So important.

S: Yeah, it's interesting, because you think that video is a better way of documenting a moment in time, in many ways it is. But there is something about a photograph that can capture something that video doesn't capture.

C: Because it's more curated than a video.

S: Yeah, it's yes. There is something in a moment that's frozen that can communicate things, which just video doesn't communicate.

E: Different. It's different.

S: It's different. Yeah.

E: It is different.

S: It is very different. OK. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

J: You got it Steve.

B: Sure man.

E: Thank you Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



  1. Wiktionary: sintering A process in which the particles of a powder are welded together by pressure and heating to a temperature below its melting point.
Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png