SGU Episode 966

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SGU Episode 966
January 13th 2024
966 total solar eclipse 2024.jpg

Why the 2024 total solar eclipse will be such a big deal: a particularly active sun will make for spectacular viewing and science opportunities [1]

SGU 965                      SGU 967

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

I'm not sure why I enjoy debunking. Part of it surely is amusement over the follies of true believers, and partly because attacking bogus science is a painless way to learn good science… Another reason for debunking is that bad science contributes to the steady dumbing down of our nation. Crude beliefs get transmitted to political leaders and the result is considerable damage to society.

Martin Gardner, American mathematician

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, winter sicknesses[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 January 11th, 2024, 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's everyone doing this week?

B: Good, good, good.

J: Nice.

E: Surviving the storm?

S: I don't know if you guys could tell, but I'm getting over a cold.

J: We can tell.

E: A little bit.

C: Just a cold?

S: I think so. I mean, I tested negative for COVID twice.

C: How many times? Okay.

S: Twice, 48 hours apart, like I'm supposed to. So I'm inpatient ward attending last week and this week. So I'm going around the hospital working in small rooms with lots of people. And so I'm not surprised that I picked something up.

E: Yeah, the crud.

S: I had to actually get coverage for two days. I couldn't go in. Both because I was just too sick to work. But also I was I had to test negative. I had to follow protocol.

C: Right.

S: Yeah, it was pretty bad. Pretty bad cold. Not the flu level definitely not COVID level. Just a pretty bad upper respiratory infection. My voice was much worse yesterday and the day before. I was like squeaking on Tuesday. It started with a pharyngitis.

C: Do you test for RSV at all?

S: No, not routinely. I mean, I guess if I were not getting better, if it were more serious, we would. But there's a lot of COVID, flu, and RSV in the hospital.

C: Yeah, they're calling it a tripledemic, which is, we know that none of those are actually an epidemic or pandemic right now, but still. Yep. Tripledemic.

J: Theoretically, you could catch a dozen viruses at the same time, right?

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah. In fact, you're more likely to because your resistance goes down.

B: Steve, did you say pharyngitis?

C: Pharyngitis.

B: Pharyngitis?

C: His pharynx was irritated.

B: Don't let that word just slip by. Give us some details. How is that different than laryngeitis?

C: Instead of your larynx, you've got your larynx and your pharynx.

B: The pharynx.

S: Yeah, the pharynx.

E: Right, Bob?

B: I don't think I've heard that word in decades.

S: Pharynx. So, yeah, it's a typical course for me. Like, it starts with a sore throat. I'm like, oh, boy, here we go. You know, I get a little bit of a sore throat. Then that gets really bad. And then that progresses to the runny nose and stuffy nose. And then it all solidifies until it's really, really junky. Lasting two to three days. The one variable is will I get any bronchitis, which I did not this time, which is good. Because if you get bronchitis, then that's like weeks of coughing.

C: Yeah, and like using an inhaler. Yeah, it's not fun.

E: Jay just got over a bout of that, right.

B: I think he's still coughing.

J: Yeah, my cough is way better. I mean, but damn, I had a cough for a month.

C: And that sucks too because if you – Let's say that you have an upper respiratory infection and then you clear it, but you've still got this lingering cough, right. So you're no longer infectious. You're no longer communicative. But you're like walking around in public coughing. I don't want to go anywhere near somebody who's coughing right now.

S: Yeah, I know.

C: There's a massive spike in COVID right now. As we expect, after the holidays, everything's up. Deaths are up 12.5%. Hospitalization is up 20%. I don't know, when I'm hearing people coughing, I'm just having to assume the worst. And I think the scary thing is we're seeing that hospitals are upping their mask policies again. But I didn't see a big change. Like I'm in Scotland right now, like one out of 40 people had a mask on. And that's not country specific.

S: They changed the mask policy at Yale too fairly recently from mandatory to voluntary. But also if you have symptoms, you have to mask. And I still have to mask whenever I'm treating a patient in the hospital. But just walking around, most people are not masking.

C: But a lot of hospitals are re-upping their mask requirements.

S: I know. I think they should. The thing is, I went two years without a cold.

C: I know, right. Isn't that amazing.

E: Yes, I know. I did it as well.

S: And then when they changed the mask, I got sick, I remember, the week after they changed the mask.

E: Yeah, as soon as they–

S: And I've now been getting my two, three per year like I used to pre-pandemic. So the masking and social distancing, that whole thing works.

C: Yeah. I wore an N95 the whole flight. But the funny thing is just like I was – there were a handful of other people but not many and almost none of the – airport personnel like almost none of the flight attendants were wearing masks either.

E: Yeah.

C: And you know you hear the little ekhm, and you're like oh god that person's giving the whole plane COVID.

E: Yeah. Now how robust are the filter systems on these airplanes? I hear they're good.

S: They're good.

B: I heard they're very robust.

S: They're not going to prevent COVID from spreading if somebody's got it though, you know what I mean. It's not going to filter out every virus.

E: Then – I mean playing a little devil's advocate, we're not hearing about a plane load of people that landed and it turned out 200 of the passengers all came down with COVID, right. We're not hearing those stories.

C: Well, but I don't think we would hear those stories anymore because A, like the general population is mostly vaccinated and mostly has immunity from having had infections. So not everybody that has exposure is going to catch COVID the same way that they used to. B, people aren't testing anymore. Like a lot of people are catching it and it's mild or it's a cold it feels like a cold or whatever. And they just are assuming they have a cold. Like I'm still testing, but a lot of people aren't because they're like, eh, whatever. You're going to get it, you're going to get it. Like the culture around it has changed.

E: I have test kits at home. I have them at work and I even have one in my car.

C: Just in case. I have them at home. I always order them when the post office or whatever that thing is where the government gives you free tests. I always stock up on them. And they're easy to get now. You can go to any pharmacy and buy them over the counter. Like people aren't out of them like they used to be.

E: Oh, gosh, right. Remember that.

C: Yeah. But yeah, I think a lot of people aren't testing. Also, the last time I got it, I tested negative the first two times. So that's happening to a lot of people too. They're testing negative and then they're going, oh, well, and they're just not retesting.

B: Are you symptomatic and negative.

C: Yes. When I – the first – the only time I've had COVID, I was symptomatic and negative on a rapid antigen test for the first two tests and then I was positive.

S: Yeah, that's why you got to repeat it in 48 hours.

E: And we haven't come up with a cold test, common cold test.

S: Too many viruses.

C: Yeah, there's too many different types of cold.

E: I see. It's too many ways of going.

C: But it would be nice if we had at-home flu tests.

E: Wouldn't it. Yeah. Yeah, that would be nice.

C: It would be great. I would love it.

E: But I think I mean, if you got the flu, it's kind of–

C: I don't know. I feel like a lot of people underestimate the flu and they'll say they have the flu when they have a cold.

S: Yeah.

E: Right.

C: And so I would love for culturally us to reacquaint ourselves with how severe the flu really is.

E: What's the hallmark?

C: I think body aches, right. For me, that's the hallmark.

E: Oh, gosh. The aches and the chills and the spiking of the fever.

C: Like malaise.

S: Mark Crislip would say with the flu, it feels like you're coughing up a lung, right. And that's the big difference. You feel like you're going to die. You're really sick.

C: Yes. It's been my experience. It's like mild malaria. They say malaria is like the flu on steroids. But a cold can sometimes – like sometimes I don't have malaise at all with a cold or a fever. But I think different people have different experiences.

B: I don't think I ever had a flu. I don't ever remember having the flu.

E: I've had it twice.

B: I must have, though.

E: Last year was the last time I had it.

S: I had it, I think, 20 years ago was the last time I had the flu.

C: Yeah, the last time I had the flu was in college.

E: Prior to that, I had it about 20 years, yeah.

C: But it was brutal. I mean, I had to go into urgent care. They almost gave me an IV.

B: Whoa.

C: Yeah.

E: Oh, well, yes.

C: My heart rate was so high, and I wasn't really getting enough fluids.

E: It's a terrible feeling, Bob. You feel like you're on the verge of dying.

C: Death, yeah.

B: I feel sad for you mortals.

E: It's a painful experience. Yeah, and you said that about COVID too until you caught it at Disney World.

B: I held it off as long as I could. I didn't want to stand too far from humanity.

C: Don't you think the thing that's bananas about COVID is that even though it does have hallmarks, right. Like we've all heard about them, like loss of smell or taste like all these different things that are very specific to COVID. It seems like everybody's COVID experience has been wildly different. Like some people get so sick when they get COVID. And for me, It was indistinguishable from a cold. I would not have known it was COVID if the test hadn't told me it was COVID.

J: Yeah, I mean, and you were vaccinated when you got it, right.

C: Uber vaccinated.

J: Yeah, that's probably a big difference there.

C: But some people who are still uber vaccinated are getting super severe cases and then getting long COVID symptoms. So it's quite interesting. I mean, obviously not as many. The vaccine is saving so many lives and it's obviously doing exactly what it said it would do. It's preventing serious illness. But it's an interesting virus in that the personal experience of catching it does seem to be very variable.

S: Yeah.

Dumbest Thing of the Week (9:22)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [2]

S: All right, Evan, you're going to start us off with the dumbest thing of the week.

E: Yep, dumbest thing of the week. Okay, by show of hands, who would like to hear the dumbest thing of the week theme song.

S: I don't see any hands.

E: Who's raising their hands. Oh, it's a podcast. That's right. Maybe we should take a, what, a verbal vote on that. No one. Oh, I got no one. Okay, I'm sure we'll have some emails about that disapproving of your choice, but maybe next time. All right. Let's get to it. This week's recognition goes to the man on the throne, the Wizard of Windsor, the Sorcerer of Scotland, the mightiest of all muckety-mucks, that King of Kings, Charles Philip Arthur George, you know him best as King Charles III. Steve, you can insert an applause track there.

C: Or a boo.

E: I'm not really supposed to tell you how to edit. I know I've told you that before. All right, what has His Majesty done to be so deserving of such a high honour. Well, it seems that a few fortnights back, while many of us were all distracted with the merriments of the season and the changing of the calendar, Charles III was busy naming Dr. Michael Dixon as the new head of the royal medical household. Who is Dr. Michael Dixon? Well, he's part of the Royal Victorian Order and he carries the title The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Most Excellent. He's a triple board certified health practitioner dedicated to a scientific approach to medicine and an outspoken skeptic of pseudoscientific claims. Just kidding. He's a quack with a capital quack. He is. He's the chair of something called the College of Medicine and Integrated Health established in 2010. And I don't know. When I hear integrated health, I think that's a red flag. Yeah. Dixon believes in homeopathy. And the practice of verbalism. And apparently he's open-minded about faith healing. Yep. He once invited a Christian healer into his surgery to treat chronically ill patients and experimented with prescribing an African shrub called devil's claw for shoulder pain, as well as horny goat weed for impotence.

C: Ooh.

E: I've heard of that one before.

S: It's right there in the name, Evan.

E: I know, right. Horny goat weed. How can you go wrong with a weed so aptly named. Dixon has apparently also championed such things as thought field therapy.

B: Oh, boy.

E: You've heard of that one before, right.

S: Yep.

E: Christian healing – oh, and an Indian – India, Indian – herbal cure of ultra – called – it's ultra diluted with alcohol, whatever that is, which claims to kill breast cancer cells. Not even really sure what the hell is going on there, but that was in the write-up. So he's now head of the royal medical household. What is that. The person with the title of head of the royal medical household, they have duties which include the overall responsibility for the health of the king and the wider royal family. And he even – or she – get to represent them in talks with British government agencies, officials, and representatives. Dr. Dixon once wrote a paper for the British Journal of General Practice. The title of the paper is The Physician Healer, Ancient Magic or Modern Science? In that paper, he wrote the following. It seems that the physician healer is now poised to rise again like a phoenix, not on a wave of nostalgia, but because modern science demands it. Placebo research and psychoneuroimmunology are beginning to clarify a role in which caring is no longer an act of compassion or indulgence but has everything to do with curing or in the preferred modern term, effectiveness. Yeah. So in other words, modern – I'll translate for you. In other words, modern science demands that we incorporate age-old treatments and practices which have little or no scientific merit whatsoever. I read about this most recently through an article over at The Guardian written by Martha Gill, who asks, why do the elite put their faith in snake oil. Which is absolutely one of the correct questions to be asking here. Here's what she writes. Why are kings, movie stars, and the rich so susceptible to this type of snake oil? Two factors are at play. First, the elites tend to overestimate the value of their instincts. King Charles, as well as someone like Cindy Crawford, spend their time surrounded by suck-ups. They are themselves exception to the rules that govern others. If a gut feeling leads them to thought field therapy rather than modern medicine, they might be more inclined to believe it. And the second is something first observed by Charles Percy Snow in his famous remarks about the two cultures in the West. Ignorance of literature and the arts, that will exclude you from highly educated circles. But it's perfectly acceptable to have no grasp of basic science. The second law of thermodynamics, for example, or how to define acceleration. You combine overconfidence and an ignorance of science and you get an aristocracy convinced that crushed bees and aconite are the answers to all their problems. Now, aconite is a strong, fast-acting poison that causes, well, it's sometimes used to. They say it's medicine, but if you take it with too much of it, it will cause side effects such as nausea, vomiting, breathing problems, health problems, and death. But if you claim that there's a memory of that molecule in the substance in a litre of water, then it's a cure for nausea, vomiting, pulmonary issues, heart maladies. It can't cure death. Sorry about that one. So therefore, it's with great fanfare that the appointment by his majesty of this most excellent quack allows them both to add to their many list of titles and stations. They are now officially the dumbest thing of the week.

S: This is old news for King Charles, that he's been enamoured of homeopathy and alternative medicine and all that stuff.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Yeah, I agree with that assessment of why I think the elite are susceptible to this sort of thing. It is a combination of overconfidence and scientific illiteracy. But also I think there's something about – I mean the wellness industry, alternative medicine industry, it feels like a special hack, right. Like you have like here's the real treatment that they don't want you to know about sort of thing. And I think there are especially – the elite are especially vulnerable to that kind of con game where it's like you're getting a peek behind the curtain. You're getting the special real stuff.

C: Right, because they actually do get that a lot in other aspects. So yeah, it doesn't feel like a scam. It feels like, oh yeah, I'm special.

S: That doesn't exist in medicine. It's like we give the fake medicine to poor people and real medicine.

E: There seems to be a historical correlation to this as well, Steve, with astrology, right. The courts and kings and emperors and whomever else would have court astrologers because they would be able to predict things and have special access, like you said, to information. That other lesser people aren't entitled to, shouldn't have or whatever. So that's why they relied so much on astrologers and other forms of divination. Nostradamus is the most famous example of one of those people.

S: Rasputin, another example.

E: Oh, yes. Right.

S: These guru-type figures find their way to nestle up to the rich and powerful.

E: And there they are now with full title and privilege.

S: Very, very common. All right. Thank you, Evan.

E: You're welcome.

News Items[edit]

Dual Sympathetic Reset (17:10)[edit]

S: Have you guys ever heard of the dual sympathetic reset?

B: No.

C: Dual sympathetic reset.

J: No, I have not.

E: Dual sympathetic reset. Is that a key on my keyboard somewhere. Hold on. Let me see.

C: I feel like this is some like psychology annoying thing.

S: Yes, it is some psychology annoying thing.

C: Yeah.

S: Yeah, this one is especially for you, Cara. This is becoming an increasingly popular treatment for PTSD and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea is that you give a stellate ganglion block. You're blocking a nerve bundle that's part of the sympathetic nervous system. This is an established treatment for certain kinds of pain, especially like facial pain that has an autonomic component to it like the autonomic feedback is somehow feeding and sustaining the pain syndrome and it can be effective on everybody and sometimes it's only short term, etc. But yeah, it's one of the treatments that we have for it. So they're using the same procedure, using a type of Novocaine and steroids, injecting it into the ganglion, this clump of nerves in the neck, in order to block sympathetic activity, in order to treat PTSD and anxiety. So how does that work? How does blocking a nerve affect PTSD? I mean, the short answer is it probably doesn't.

C: Are they trying to look into the startle reflex and some of those issues?

S: Yeah, so it's based on this notion.

C: Like hyperarousal.

S: Yeah, that people with PTSD have hyperarousal, like their sympathetic nervous activity their fight or flight activity is jacked up. And therefore, if you physically block that, that sympathetic response, that will then treat the PTSD.

C: I suppose I could see it could potentially treat a symptom of the PTSD. But not the actual PTSD. You need psychotherapy for that.

S: If you have anxiety and your heart is racing and you're sweating and you have headaches, we give you beta blockers to block the sympathetic response that's being driven by your anxiety.

C: But that doesn't treat the anxiety.

S: Does not treat the anxiety. However, the only thing we can say is sometimes the physical symptoms of anxiety make people anxious. You know what I mean? They get anxious about the symptoms that they're having. And if you short circuit the symptoms, that can help from triggering the anxiety. But you still need to treat the underlying primary anxiety disorder. You still need to treat the PTSD. So this is where the pseudo neuroscience comes in. So this is why you might wonder, why is it called a sympathetic reset. The treatment is a sympathetic block. But they call it this dual sympathetic reset. Why? Because they're rebooting the brain by doing this. Right.

E: Brains reboot?

C: Yeah. I mean, we use that. It's annoying.

S: Yeah. So they're like, I know, it's annoying. So they're resetting the sympathetic nervous system to basically flip the switch from on to off. And that actually was causing their PTSD or sustaining the PTSD. Again, not just a symptom of the PTSD. And therefore, it... cures it like it cures the PTSD. That's the idea. So it is, in my opinion that's pseudoscience that that's is a very hand wavy metaphor type of explanation that's not grounded in any kind of legitimate science. But let's look at the evidence. What clinical evidence has there been? Precious little. So there there have been a couple of recent systematic reviews that look through the literature myself to see what's been published out there. Basically, most of the studies are case reports and case series, i.e. anecdotal. Now, it's to be expected that there's going to be a strong placebo effect here, right. Because you are actually treating a physical symptom. And it's a procedure, and procedures, especially invasive procedures like needle sticks, have a higher placebo effect than less invasive interventions. There's sort of a – people have to justify the procedure and the cost and all that and so they convince themselves that it must have worked because they invested so much in it, et cetera. But in any case, so there's an expected high placebo effect for this. But of course – and this gets back to what you were saying, Evan, like with that quote of the guy that Charles appointed. That's all about placebo medicine, right. That's about, well, the placebo effect isn't just a solution. It's a real curing. They use the word cure, which is like mind-blowing because the evidence clearly shows that that's the one thing it absolutely is not, right. It is not disease-modifying. It is not curative. It doesn't change anything objective. It is purely subjective, symptomatic, and, in fact, self-limiting. But in this case, they're saying it actually is curing the PTSD. So the anecdotal evidence is worthless. It's exactly what you would expect. It's just complete bias. There's only two double-blind placebo-controlled trials that have been published. They're both small, should be considered preliminary. One positive and one negative. So that's a wash.

C: So it's 50-50.

S: So that's what we see. That's what we call heterogeneity. That's the technical term that you will see. The outcomes were heterogeneous, meaning that they're not consistent. In this case, it's basically one positive, one negative, which is like that's random. That's consistent. And this is even in preliminary studies where there's a greater chance of it being positive. So this is consistent with this doesn't work, right. This is what you would expect from a placebo intervention.

C: I feel like this is also – this is a medical intervention. So it wouldn't be psychologists doing this. It would be psychiatrists.

S: Yeah, or–

C: Right? It would be like physicians.

S: You're right. Yeah, it could be physicians. But non-physicians can do these kind of outpatient procedures.

C: Yeah, but I don't think psychologists can. Maybe like PAs or nurse practitioners.

S: Yeah, right. Exactly.

C: Yeah, but like medical – psychologists don't do any sort of like physiologic –

S: Yeah, so you hire a PA to do the stick for you.

C: Yeah.

S: So my concern with this is, again, the idea that treating a physical symptom may help with the management of anxiety or PTSD is fine.

C: Yeah.

S: And it might improve outcomes. Again, I would delete the neurosudoscience about the whole resetting the brain BS. So that's one problem with it is the way it's being sold. It's being marketed as this works. It's a cure, right. So that's like way ahead of the evidence. But the preliminary promotion of this with the absence of adequate evidence is really problematic. And this is, I think, endemic to health care. This is not just on the fringe or with this sort of thing. And it really is something that we have to do a much better job of policing. I do think that within the upper reaches of academia and medicine, we are much better about it. And definitely, it's horrible when you get to the fringes. But it is, I think, a problem that's pretty extensive. And that is... You know, it's very easy to bias the language that you use, that creates a lot of misconceptions. So this treatment is almost universally described in all reporting on it as an emerging treatment. Which is a biased term. When you say emerging, that comes with the assumption that, first of all, it's being accepted and that it's inevitable that it is going to become mainstream. The other thing that I often pick up on is when they say that the optimistic use of the word yet, like this hasn't been proven to work yet.

C: Right, which is that it will be.

S: As if it's just a matter of dotting the I's and crossing the T's, but again, it carries the assumption that it does work. Or we need to do further research to see how it works and how it could best be used and optimal, blah, blah, blah. It's like, no, you need to do further research to show if it works. They never say that magic word, if. If it works, that's what the research is still trying to determine, not how it works or how best to use it, whatever. You haven't gotten past the if yet. You haven't established efficacy with scientific data. And then they call it evidence-based, which is completely inappropriate, although I do think it's partly the fault of the evidence-based infrastructure because they sort of set themselves up for this. But, again, to be fair, it's not evidence-based. The evidence-based turned from a quality control mechanism into a branding mechanism and got exploited by every quack and alternative medicine practitioner. You know what I mean? Which is part of the reason why we had to create science-based medicine. To say no to basically insulate it from that exploitation. You know what I mean? But anyway, so it's not evidence-based. The fact that a study, whatever, that there's anecdotal case reports or whatever showing that it works, that's not evidence-based.

C: So APA, American Psychological Association, considers what's the pseudoscience that, oh, EMDR, an evidence-based practice.

S: Yeah.

C: For that same reason.

S: Which it absolutely is not.

C: Yeah. It's not.

E: Oops.

S: It absolutely is not.

C: But because of the bad science, it looks like it works. It doesn't work. The therapy behind it works. It doesn't matter if you're doing EMDR on top of it. And yeah, we see that over and over.

S: This is how fake treatments become mainstreamed, right. It follows the same path. It's just at some point along the path. And then I think the biggest example of this in medicine today is acupuncture. It's mainstreaming through all of this bullshit without ever having established efficacy. All through this anecdotal type of evidence and playing with the terminology and the hand-wavy explanations for how it works without really ever having a solid mechanism of action. And it is, as Cara says, bananas. But it's, hey, are we witch doctors. Are we practicing pseudoscience. Yeah. Or are we science-based practitioners. And there's a very clear difference between those two things. But there is so much pseudoscience infiltrating modern medicine, and this is the pathway. Because then once you get invested in it, once you have a clinic dedicated to this treatment, it's never going to go away.

E: Nope.

S: They're not going to stop doing it because the evidence doesn't support it, you know.

E: Yeah, you get things like the College of Medicine and Integrated Health sprouting up in the last 10 years.

S: Right, right, right. It's terrible.

J: So there's nothing there.

S: Well, the evidence does not establish advocacy, right. So the terminology they should be using, not that this is an emerging treatment. This is an experimental treatment. That's what that is. And it should be used like an experimental treatment with all the ethics and informed consent that goes along with that. And it should preferentially be done in the context of a well-designed clinical trial. And only when you have established efficacy do you start to then build it out as a treatment. This is putting the cart before the horse. Significantly.

C: I wish that there would be more specificity in how it's being described, right. Like this block may reduce symptomatology associated with PTSD. Not reduce PTSD or cure PTSD.

S: If you want to hypothesize that the physical symptoms somehow drive the PTSD itself, that's not a crazy idea.

C: No, not at all. But it's probably a combination.

S: But you've got to prove that. You can't just assume that. But that gets me to the last thing. When you brand the treatment with an assumed mechanism of action, right. This is the dual sympathetic reset. No, it isn't. It's a sympathetic block that you are using on this new experimental hypothesis that maybe it might be disease modifying and PTSD, which you haven't yet established. So it's experimental. But don't call it, don't name it an assumed mechanism or whatever that has not yet been established. That's marketing. That's politics. That's BS. That's not science.

Peregrine Moon Mission (29:27)[edit]

S: Okay, Jay, tell us about this private moon mission.

J: So on January 8th at Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Peregrine Lander mission was launched. Have you guys heard about this one?


E: Yeah.

S: Oh, yeah.

J: Yeah, it's pretty cool. So the mission was developed by a Pittsburgh-based company, Astrobotic, and it was contracted under NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Service, the CLPS program. And the goal was to achieve the first American soft touchdown on the moon in 51 years and also the first ever private company to be involved with that. So the lander was aboard the United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur rocket. Lots of cool names in space programs. So this was this particular rocket's debut flight. The rocket engines are a new type of methane-fueled rocket. And the lander was intended to go to the Bay of Stickiness. Ever hear about that.

E: No. Wow, that's a new one.

B: Love it.

J: Yeah, there's a Latin term for it that I could not pronounce, but the translation is Bay of Stickiness. It's a smooth lava plain on the moon, and Peregrine's mission was integral to NASA's strategy to resume all the astronaut missions that are coming up. They want to leverage this commercial robotics for the delivery of scientific instruments and supplies and basically everything that we need to get up there. So on board the lander, there were five different instruments designed to study the moon's surface and radiation environment. It was going to search for water, I mean, water ice. And among the scientific instruments, there was a peregrine ion mass spectrometer. And this was developed partly by the UK's Open University and RAL Space. So in addition to the scientific gear, right, it has all these different instruments that they wanted to take measurements and everything. There was lots of other stuff. They had a collection of small rovers that were going to leave the lander. The lander was equipped with equipment from Mexican and German space agencies and several universities and, of course, some other companies that were building parts for this as well. There were some odd things on here as well. There was a physical Bitcoin. You could basically make a Bitcoin that actually has the data embedded in the coin, the token in there. Bottom line was it was kind of like a publicity stunt. The Japanese included something called the Lunar Dream Capsule. It had 185,000 messages from children from around the world, which I think is pretty cool. There was also cremated human remains, including the British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Some of his remains were put on that ship. So 50 minutes after launch, the lander separated from the upper stage and it was well on its way. Seven hours into the mission, Peregrine experienced an issue where they couldn't orient the craft correctly to have the solar panels be in the right angle of the sunlight. And they kept trying to make a correction and it wouldn't stay in the trajectory that they needed it to. So the problem was traced back to a malfunction in the propulsion system, specifically a propellant leak. So that leak was basically off-gassing and turning the spacecraft around, right. They just couldn't keep it on track. So unfortunately, this issue made it impossible for the lander to complete its primary objective, which was, of course, to do the soft landing on the moon. And Astrobiotic, the company in charge of all this, confirmed that it will not be able to do the soft lunar landing ever. That's it. It's just – it's not capable of doing it. So the team continued to work on maximizing Peregrine's operational life, meaning they wanted it to last as long as they could because they were still getting measurements and readouts and collecting data.

B: Telemetry.

J: Yeah, I mean, it's always good to have this stuff because, again, like what SpaceX does a crash is worthwhile if it gives you valuable data, right. So they're like, well, let's collect as much data as we can and this will help future missions. So Peregrine was scheduled to land on the moon on February 23rd. And like I said, that's not going to happen. At this point, it's rogue. I don't think they're going to be able to obtain orbit or anything. It's just out there. And at some point, we might be able to find out where it's headed and what's going to happen to it eventually. But at this point, I just think it's just out there and has no capability of steering itself or positioning itself correctly to fire the retro rockets to land on the moon. So it's never going to happen. Now, this failed mission is the beginning of a new phase of lunar exploration, right. It's unfortunate that this happened, but it does mark a very important occasion. The mission is the first in a huge push to get the private sector involved in space exploration. And it is happening. It's absolutely happening. Astrobotic is preparing to launch Griffin, which is a larger robotic lander later this year, scheduled to be launched on a SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket. Griffin's mission includes delivering NASA's Viper rover to the moon's south polar region. And there's other missions actually happening, too. So with the failure of Peregrine's mission, a company out of Houston called Intuitive Machines said, could very well become the first private company to soft land a probe on the moon because they have their Nova C lander, which is also part of NASA's CLPS program, and it's set to launch next month on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. So we're peppering the moon with missions because we need to – We've established basically a functional way to bring gear to the moon because we're going to be bringing a ton of stuff to the moon. And we need information about the moon and we need to basically start establishing a base pretty much right now in order to make any of these deadlines that NASA has for Artemis.

S: So, Jay, I was trying to understand exactly what went wrong. And from what I pieced together – because it's very sketchy in a lot of the reporting – was that there was a fuel leak, right. And the fuel leak was pushing the rocket out of orientation or the lander, forcing the thrusters to reorient it until they ran out of their own fuel. So the leak didn't directly cause a loss of fuel. It just forced the realigning adjusters to constantly fire until eventually they couldn't. They didn't have the fuel left to keep the solar panels reoriented to the sun.

J: Yeah, I mean I took it like there was a malfunction and the craft was off-gassing, right. Just like Apollo 13, right. There was some type of thing that created the fuel being shot out of the spacecraft and they couldn't – as they told it what to do, it kept turning off the course that they told it to obtain. So yeah and I agree though Steve there wasn't any like there was not a piece of information that said and right here this is where an explosion happened.

E: They may still be trying to figure out exactly yeah but they're not going there yet.

J: And it's okay, look this is so much money and so much time and attention and everything and they don't want to put out misinformation I'm sure. And you know what? They might not know. They might not know what event actually took place.

Solar Eclipse (36:44)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, you have some exciting news about the solar eclipse. Why is it going to be so awesome this year.

E: Because it's awesome.

C: Because we're going to know, as everybody knows.

E: Well it's not going to be worse.

C: We are very excited to be attending the solar eclipse, to be traveling to Texas to do some events around the solar eclipse and, of course, witness it ourselves. Many of you may have experienced what they call the Great American Solar Eclipse in 2017. I don't know what they're going to call this one then, the Greater American Solar Eclipse. Experts are basically letting us know that there are things about the solar eclipse on April 8th that are going to be even more kind of exciting, even more ramped up than the one in 2017.

B: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

C: Yeah. So I saw 2017 in Oregon. So did you, Evan, right.

E: Yes, I did.

C: And then the rest of the guys, did you see a partial or did you see a total.

B: We had a total on the internet.

E: No. Where were you that moment.

C: Have you guys seen – those of you who didn't see the total in 2017, have you seen a total eclipse before?

B: No. Never, man.

C: Okay. So – Right there. This is going to be huge.

B: Oh, my gosh.

E: For you guys. You are about to – oh, I'm just getting excited for you guys thinking about it coming up. That's how excited I am.

C: So not only is this going to be a significantly longer totality, which we'll dive into, it will potentially – not potentially. It will be darker. The sky itself will be darker and the sun is very likely going to be significantly more active.

B: Yeah.

J: What specifically does that mean?

C: Part of that has to do with the darkness, but we'll come back to that. But the sun will be really close to its solar maximum in 2024. So there's kind of an 11, roughly 11 years. It's a bit variable, but roughly an 11-year cycle on the sun. And so there's a good chance that we'll be seeing much more activity during the eclipse, meaning these like streams of plasma. The solar corona may be much more, I guess turbulent would be a good way to put it. That ups the chances of a coronal mass ejection. I mean that's a total crapshoot. But if it happened, scientists would be over the moon because –

E: Could you imagine.

C: Yeah, being able to observe something like that during an eclipse gives you just like this access that you do not have when you're observing the sun otherwise.

S: Now, would we be able to see that naked eye?

C: Yeah, probably. I think you could because you can even see –

E: How good was that.

C: I saw activity. Like I saw turbulence with my naked eye.

S: Yeah, you said-

E: They had a glimmering.

C: And there were no coronal mass ejections. So if you saw something huge like that, like a big loop or a big stream coming off of it, yeah, I think you'd see that with your naked eye.

B: So yeah, but I would think, as awesome as that would be, I would think the odds of seeing a CME during the four and a half minutes.

C: Yeah, it's not great.

B: It's like super, super crazy low.

C: But it's higher than it would have been in 2017 simply because it's going to be a more active sun. So even if we don't see a CME, we're likely going to see more activity, which is exciting.

B: Oh, yeah. Just seeing like a streamer, like a Corona loop or whatever coming off into the Corona, that would be amazing.

C: It would be super cool.

B: You don't really see that during eclipses very often at all.

C: And even if you're just – yeah, you don't really see that. I mean I saw a little bit of activity during the 2017 eclipse. I don't know if you remember, Evan. Especially looking at photos after the fact, you can see some activity. But yeah, it's very likely that this will be more turbulent. And that's exciting for researchers, of course, because they want to be able to view this. But the second thing that I mentioned before is that it's potentially going to be darker simply because of the position of the moon, it's going to appear larger, which means it's going to block out more of the sun.

E: That's great.

B: It's actually closer to the earth, so it's going to be legit a little bit larger and block more light.

C: Right. To us, it'll seem larger. Yeah, exactly. And it'll block out more of the light. And then, of course, as we know, totality is upwards of four and a half minutes in certain places, which is like twice as long as the previous eclipse. So that just gives, not only does it give us as sort of amateurs or casual viewers, just that much more magic, right. That much more emotional experience, that much more, gosh, I don't, there's so many words I could be using to describe how incredible it is, but it also does give researchers that much more time to take observations. And there are going to be so many cool observations going on. So just so that people who maybe have not looked at the map yet are aware, we're talking kind of northern Mexico all the way up through eastern, southeastern Canada. So it's sort of... makes this band that goes across Texas, across the Midwest, across Buffalo, New York, up towards Montreal. And so there are a lot of places in the country, there are a lot of urban centers that are actually within reach of that. So even places like New York City or Boston, which are not directly in the path of totality, are within, like, driving distance. And so because of that, it's projected that just more people are going to be able to experience the wonder and awe of a total eclipse this time than they did during the last time.

B: Yeah, I read because of its path, the majority of the United States will be within fairly easy access to check it out.

C: Yeah, it's really just the Pacific Northwest, kind of the Northwestern quadrant and the like, kind of Florida region are a little bit farther away, but you're right. Just because of how obviously more people in the US live in big cities and more big cities are sort of up in the new England area. You're right. We're going to see that a lot of major population centers are hitting it, but the West coast of course is quite far. And also the cool thing is because of just the random location of this one, unlike the last two eclipses in North America, this year, the eclipse is going to be within the observing range of three different radars that are in what's called the Worldwide Super Dual Auroral Radar Network. They are literal monitors of the Earth's ionosphere. And so they help understand how that plasma is changing the atmosphere of the Earth. And they help understand how that affects things like GPS satellites. And so it's studying the sun all the time. It's studying the plasma of the sun all the time, these monitors. But the last two eclipses were not within their range. So now these monitors are going to be able to actively look at the shift during the solar eclipse. And what's important, which is different between like nighttime and a solar eclipse, is that during a solar eclipse, the shift from, quote, day to night is, I mean, it's not nighttime, but it looks like nighttime during an eclipse. When all that radiation from the sun goes away and the atmosphere becomes less ionized, it happens immediately in an eclipse. And so it's really, really important data to see what happens during an eclipse for these different observations. So that's going to be really interesting. NASA's Parker Solar Probe is going to be looking at the Sun. The European Space Agency's Solar Orbiter is going to be looking at the Sun. There are terrestrial observers and space satellites that are all going to look at the Sun. So if a coronal mass ejection or just some sort of interesting activity did occur, like all eyes are trained on it right now. There are some other instruments that are being planned, like the WB-57F jet. It carried instruments to observe 2017 by flying along the path of totality. It's going to be doing the same thing this time, but it's got brand new instruments on board that are updated. And because the solar maximum – the fact that it's solar maximum and the fact that totality is so long – Like we get four and a half minutes on the ground, but that means they get six and a half minutes per airplane because they can chase it, which is like really cool. And they also are going to be looking at some cool stuff that I wouldn't have even thought of. Like they may also discover some asteroids thought to exist within the orbit of Mercury, which are difficult to detect without the moon blocking the sun. Like that's cool. They're going to be sending up a bunch of– They, I'm talking about a lot of different scientific groups here. But one group out of Honolulu is going to be sending up a spectrometer on a kite down in Kerrville to get above any clouds that might block the view. Because, of course, if there's cloud cover, they'll just go above them.

E: What's a cloud?

C: Yeah, exactly. We don't speak of that. Weather balloons are going to be looking at pressure waves in the atmosphere. There's even a spectrometer that's going to ride on a Gulfstream jet that's going to chase the eclipse over Texas. Here's a really cool thing. There are a bunch of ways that those of us, we mere mortals, can help contribute to the effort, one of which is this movie project. So look it up online, but there is a way that anybody who is taking amateur photography can then go and contribute that amateur photography to a large database where they'll make like a big kind of living movie out of it with everybody's info.

E: That'll be fun to watch.

C: Yeah, so that'll be really, really cool.

E: Amazing results.

C: And let's talk about like why this is – why else this is so special just in terms of its rarity. We know that eclipses occur all the time all over the planet. It's just they're mostly over the ocean, right. And most people aren't lucky enough to observe them. Well, this one this year in 2024 in April – is going to be the last one in North America before 2033. But that one only is going to be in Alaska. And it's the western part of Alaska, which is good for them because they're really far away from it this time. So it's good that they're going to get their own. But after that, there's one over Canada in 2044. The next one that's going to cross the U.S. other than Alaska –

E: It's like 2099 or something.

C: Well, there is one in 2045, but it's going to be more southern. So they are – like they come, but they're – it's not rare, rare. That's quite a loaded term, rare. But for some people, this is going to be the last of their lifetime. For some people, this is going to be the last one they'll be able to travel for and just so many things are lining up to make this a really remarkable viewing experience.

E: Remarkable.

C: And not just for us as casual observers, but for scientists as well. There's just going to be a wealth of data that they're looking forward to getting. We're talking so many observations and hopefully tens of millions of people are going to be able to observe totality, maybe hundreds of millions, the partial. Although if you have the chance, take it from me. Do not assume that a partial – a partial is cool, but it's nothing like a total eclipse.

E: They are distinct experiences.

C: Completely different phenomena. Yeah. So if that's what you've got and you are able to observe a partial, I want everyone who's even within remote range, go outside that day. Go outside, get yourself some eclipse glasses and look up. I mean, it is going to be mind-blowing. Or make yourself a pinhole camera. You can literally bring a colander outside and just hold it up and look at the ground or just look underneath the leaves of the trees. Like there are a bunch of different ways that you can see the partial eclipse. But if you're able to get within totality. And it's like a six and one have to – I don't know. Do I want to do it. Do I want to take off work early or do I want to – do it. Do it, do it, do it. If you can, do it.

E: Oh, my gosh.

C: Because it's –

E: Absolutely.

S: Cara, walk us through what we should be doing to maximize our viewing. So first of all, like when the moon is moving in front of the sun where the sun is partially obscured, you cannot look directly at that sun.

C: Unless you have eclipse. I would wear eclipse glasses during that portion.

S: And then during totality, you can take off –

C: You can take them off, yeah.

S: You can look naked eye at the sky, yeah.

C: You'll know because when you're – yeah, you 100% can. Oh, you'll know. Yeah, you 100% can. When it's got that – oh, what do they call it. Like the diamond ring phenomenon where it's just starting to peek behind, the sky goes black. Like there's a massive shift. Even a little bit of light pouring over when it's not at totality is blinding just like the sun is, right. So if you were trying to glimpse with your naked eye, which you should not do, it would just look like the sun. Because it's so bright, it spills over everywhere. Obviously, with eclipse glasses on or looking through a solar filter telescope or binos, you can get solar filters for your binos now. Solar filters for a telescope generally cost more money because telescope lenses are generally larger, but you can get a relatively inexpensive solar telescope online. But if you have binoculars already, you can buy solar lenses for them that just pop on the ends and that's a really good way to do it because it's just bigger in your field of view than with your naked eye. So you might be able to see more detail. But I recommend definitely have solar glasses on hand. They make paper ones. They're relatively cheap and you can buy them in bulk for large events or for your whole family. If you have anything more powerful like binoculars, I think binoculars are better for viewing than a telescope for amateur viewers because it's just easier to find it and lock in on it. With the telescope you're having to track the whole time. With binos you just have to move your head. And really the sun is big. Like you don't need, you don't need a telescope to be able to see a lot of detail. But yeah, the minute that it goes into full totality and you get that amazing ring of fire, you can take your – and really, I don't want to say should, but I take my solar glasses off because you want to get all that great detail. And you want to – I say because you've got four and a half minutes, another way to really take it in is take your eyes off the sun at some point and observe how – weird and alien-like, the landscape becomes.

E: You are on a different planet. I promise you.

C: It is night.

E: You will be standing in a place you've never stood before.

C: Yeah, it's night during day. And just like at dawn and dusk when you can see the sun on the horizon but it's only in one part of the sky, this is just like that except it's all around you. It's the most bizarre experience. Observe what the animals around you are doing. Observe the joy on the faces of all the people around you. You know, I think there's a lot more than just looking at the sun. It's looking at how this phenomenon affects our experience. Also, if you're into photography, prep for it in advance. I personally don't like to do photography during these kinds of events because it's just. It's not what I do. Other people are going to take better pictures than me that I can enjoy and it takes me out of it. Like focusing on trying to get the right picture.

B: Oh, yeah. That's something you got to just embrace it and don't be distracted.

C: But for some people, that is their passion. They are –

B: Oh, and that's great. But it's so fleeting.

C: Do it too because you're – exactly. So I'd say the good news is four and a half minutes gives you enough time to do both. That's true. That's true. So if you do want to take photos and stuff, just do your research in advance the best way to take a photo. Make sure you have the right equipment and the right materials. And then make sure that if you're going to do it and you get these amazing photos to share with your friends and family that you also share them as a citizen scientist with some of these networks so that you can contribute to this big thing.

B: Imagine a selfie with an eclipse right behind you. If it would even come out, that would be a awesome selfie.

C: Oh, I think it will.

E: Oh, sure.

C: I think everybody could probably do that easily.

B: Wow.

C: You'll have plenty of time to take it and it will be – I mean it will be tiny but I've seen a lot of them. Yeah, it will look like a weird – dot in the sky, but like a circle. It looked like a circle in the sky.

E: A black hole.

C: It does. It feels very black hole-like.

B: Guys, hang on a second. Hey, Siri, remind me April 6th. Siri: What do you want to be reminded about? Bring binoculars. Siri: Okay, I've added it All right. I'm good. Thank you.

C: Nice.

E: Good thing. Wow. That's so much – yeah. You didn't have to write it down or anything.

B: Yeah.

E: Siri does the heavy lifting. Can I add something else?

C: Please.

E: Because I did this and this took me by surprise. This is a multi-sensory experience. We're not just talking visual, folks. We are talking the sounds. The sounds change because of the birds and everything else that is going on around you. There's a definite audible quality to this as well. And also it's a temperature change.

C: Oh, massive. Yeah, make sure you have a jacket.

E: Yes.

B: Really?

E: The temperature is going to drop like 15 degrees or something.

J: Is it frightening in any way?

C: It could be it wasn't for me but I could. I remember having a distinct thought and I think a lot of people had the same thought of like can you imagine if this happened pre-scientific revolution.

E: Oh gosh you know that the world is ending.

B: Oh yeah.

E: Okay this is it.

C: It's like what would you? Yeah obviously the myths the like you can imagine all of the magic that was sort of, that came out of this because it's so bizarre. So I could see it being frightening, especially if you didn't know it was coming or if you're somebody who does deal a little bit with like anxiety around looking through telescopes or like doing astronomical viewing. For me, it wasn't anxiety inducing because I think the awe was so much more prevalent than anything. I think the main experience for me was all.

J: You know what cracks me up? There are people who absolutely don't know that it's going to happen.

C: I know, there are.

J: And then they're like they have to like, I just want to know what that experience is like. What fear goes through their head then do they figure it out or do they call the police like what happens?

C: Or they're like, oh, there's some sort of weird storm and then they look up and they're like, oh. My hope is that most people are remotely educated enough to be able to be like, oh, I think I heard something about this. But you're right. There are going to be some people who – it will just go dark and they'll be like, what.

B: I would think that if they're actually caught by surprise, that their thought would be, oh, crap. Man, am I out of touch. Right. What else could you think. Like how could I not know that this was going to happen. It's like ridiculous. I can't even imagine.

C: I think the first thing people are going to think is there's a storm because if you're not actively looking at the sun –

E: Yeah, you think it's cloudy.

C: Yeah, what's going to happen is it's going to suddenly get dark but like darker than it's ever gotten during the day.

B: Crazy dark like there's a-

E: We will see stars.

C: Yeah, crazy dark like there's a very serious storm, like worse than overcast dark. But that would be the first thing that I think my head would go to if I was like driving in my car. And it got that dark at an odd time of day. I would be like, oh, shit.

B: Wouldn't they say, wait, but it wasn't cloudy.

C: Right, exactly. And then you would look up. And that's when you would discover what was actually going on.

E: Very difficult to put myself in the mind of somebody who has absolutely no clue that this is going to be happening, especially if they're living or existing somewhere along that totality line in the country.

C: Yeah, if they have access to the radio or television or anything.

S: Yeah, wouldn't their first thought be, why are there thousands of people along the side of the road looking up at the sky.

C: Right. You do want to look at things like – I know I mentioned it before, but look at – The way the animals react. You mentioned, Evan, birds. Cows are interesting.

E: Yeah, right. The animal kingdom has its own set of reactions.

C: Yeah, so they're just like, guess it's night. Okay, guess it's day. Whereas apes will be like, what's going on. And they'll look up.

E: But the birds is probably the one we'll be seeing and hearing the most.

C: Yeah, just because they're so active. And insects too, potentially. Maybe crickets. Yeah. You know, Texas has a lot of cricket, so it might be interesting to listen for those sounds.

Boy Beats Tetris (57:17)[edit]

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S: All right, Bob, this is a little bit of an unusual news item, but tell us about Tetris. What happened there.

B: This was really interesting. So apparently some punk kid actually officially beat Tetris recently.

E: Wait, wait, wait.

B: Tetris. So this raised some questions in my mind, maybe yours too. First, is Tetris still even much of a thing anymore?

E: Oh, sure.

B: And what does beating Tetris even mean and how do you even do that. So – So if you've only recently arrived on Earth, Tetris is a popular puzzle video game from the mid-'80s, still chugging along after all those decades. There's many incarnations of the game, but the mechanics are always the same. You've got seven different four-block shapes called tetrominos.

C: No, they're not. Really?

B: Huh?

C: That's what they're actually called?

B: Well, that's what the game maker called them.

C: No way.

B: Technically, they're tetrominoes, the shape. But he calls them tetrominoes. So these tetrominoes, they need to be moved and rotated as they slowly descend or not so slowly descend so that they all fit together at the bottom in completed rows. And then a completed row will then disappear. But uncompleted rows don't disappear, and they just pile up higher and higher on the screen until they hit the top of the screen, ending the game. That's usually how the game ends. And making this whole process harder is the fact that the tetrominoes fall faster and faster every level, making it harder and harder to slot in each shape to complete the row. So it starts going really fast. It's really hard to kind of navigate it and rotate it into the perfect spot that you wanted it. So yeah, simple game, wickedly addictive. As the game's creator, Soviet software engineer Alexey Pajitnov, he quickly discovered back in the old days, it spread like wildfire. There were some companies where they just had to ban it because it was just like everybody was playing their game and not doing the work over there. So this was in – In the old days of 1985 when he created it. So it's so addictive, in fact, that Tetris has been ported to 65 different platforms, a Guinness World Record. You guys remember Tetris on Game Boy, best-selling game of all time.

E: Isn't that amazing.

B: Yeah. And Tetris goes even beyond gaming. It's really kind of embedded in popular culture in a lot of different ways. They say things like costuming and architecture even and things.

E: The music itself.

B: Oh, yeah. I've even said something like the following on more than one occasion. I Tetris the crap out of our suitcases in the car. Who hasn't said that.

E: Spatial awareness.

B: And Tetris is even cited in real research studies on the brain. They even coined the term the Tetris effect. So yes, Tetris was a juggernaut and is still quite popular. There's a large community of players that constantly try to break Tetris records using the NES, the Nintendo Entertainment System version from 1989. To them, that is the iconic version of the game that they all play. And this culminates annually at the classic Tetris World Championship.

E: Yeah.

B: So what are the milestones that led to this latest punk supposedly beating Tetris. Now, you may have heard my air quotes there because when I said beating just then, it's because how do you beat a game that doesn't have a specific coded ending to it, right. In Tetris, there's no equivalent to a final boss or a princess to save. And this is part of the reason why this story is so interesting to me. And it's this lack of a definitive ending in gaming that's that often results in what's called a kill screen, which you may have heard for the first time in reference just into this topic, this scenario. So essentially a kill screen is an ungraceful and abrupt ending, very generically speaking. So think of the infamous blue screen of death. That's kind of like a kill screen. So Tetris has something like a kill screen around level 29 because it's at that point that the Tetraminos, that they're falling at their maximum speed. And it's crazy fast. If you've never seen it, it's ridiculously fast. I just can't even imagine.

E: Like raindrops falling to the ground fast.

B: It's so – it's like how do you –

E: How do you manipulate it. How do you even get a move.

B: Well, the thing is, it's so fast that the in-game controller literally cannot keep up with it. So even if you press the button and held it down so it's constantly moving it across the screen, it still can't keep up in a lot of situations. So, of course, when that happens, then those unfilled lines of blocks that are on the bottom, they just keep piling up and up at that point. And the game just stops. When the pile hits the top of this playing screen, bam, it ends, and that's basically kind of like a kill screen right there. It seems obvious when you look at it. It seems obvious that if the original designers, the game developers, if they even thought how far people could take Tetris, level 29 was probably the number that they said, yeah, no one is getting past 29. Because of that reason, this really was a limitation of the in-game controller. So that sticking point lasted for decades until 2011. Someone got to level 30 and they were using a technique called hypertapping. This is kind of weird. It involves, as far as I can tell, tensing your muscles and essentially vibrating your fingers in a way that lets you bypass this game controller limitation. It's a weird technique where you're just like – it's like an uncontrolled vibration, and this let people get to level, say, 35 by 2020. They broke that 29, 28, 29 barrier, and they got to 35 by 2020 using this technique. And then there was a new finger technique that was imported from other arcade video games, and this one was rolling. We've all rolled our fingers where you hit like one finger at a time in succession. You could do it really fast. You could roll the tips of your fingers on a hard surface very fast. Players would do this. They would essentially roll or tap their fingers one after the other on the bottom of the controller. And that would push up the controller against their finger on the top of the controller on top of the button. Can you picture that?

J: Yeah.

B: So using that rolling technique, this made them twice as fast as the hypertapping technique. And using that technique, players immediately or very quickly, once it really started spreading, they got into the 90s and then well into – into the hundreds in terms of the level of the game. So that was a huge, huge change right there. But then there's other hurdles. Once you get that high in the game, Tetris has these other hurdles. And these were essentially weird glitches or quirks in the game caused by the game code itself with its limited RAM, right. And also because the game developers just never imagined that anyone would push the limits of the game so hard so far in the future. Nobody ever imagined that they would get – that anyone would get the game well into the 100. So of course you're going to see these unusual glitches, things that were just unanticipated because it was never even coded to go that far. So one such glitch was revealed when players hit level 138. At 138, the color palette of the game changes. It kind of goes random. It picks random colors instead of going through. Instead of going through, it's 10 different types of color palettes. It had 10, and it would just cycle through the 10. But when you hit level 128, it just goes random, and it would create color schemes where you can't distinguish the block from the background. So the blocks are coming down. Say it's like a – imagine a black block and a black background. You're not going to see it. It's very, very hard to see with some of those color schemes. So that was a huge hurdle that you just had to kind of tough your way through it and just try to get through it because it's very, very difficult. So it was at this point that AI rolls up its sleeves and enters the room. Somebody created a program called StackRabbit, which is essentially – it's a modified version of the game. And it's essentially an intelligence gathering tool. This wasn't meant to like, oh, look – my AI beat the game. It was essentially just intelligence gathering and they wanted to find the levels where the glitches would get so bad that it would result in a kill screen, a crash. Because a crash like that, if the game just stops and you get a kill screen, that's when you could say – somebody could legitimately say, I beat Tetris. I beat it into submission. So that's – to them, to the players, that – if they could do that, that's when you beat the game. That's the end of the game right there, and it was legitimate. So StackRabbit was able to play all the way to freaking level – get this – 237. It went all the way up to 237. Now remember, this is a modified game.

E: What's in level 237?

B: It was optimized for the program to run through the game. So at 237, it hit a game-stopping kill screen at 237. And that's like 100 levels beyond what the record was at the time. But the benefit of that program—

S: Now we know where the endgame is.

B: Huh?

S: Now we know where the endgame is.

C: Now we have a new goal.

B: Well, kind of. Not really. Basically, you know what one endgame was because it showed – but more importantly, what it showed was that a game-ending glitch could be triggered – And it could be triggered by a very specific scenario, different scenarios. Like if you have these specific tetrominoes and if they were all in play and you clear, say, three lines in a row, you will very likely trigger a kill screen. So those are the kinds of scenarios that they determined. Because they used that data and they did a lot of – really a lot of hard work, a lot of math skills, a lot of extrapolation to the NES version of Tetris. And they were able to determine that such a scenario could happen not at 237 but you could make it happen at level 155. And that was only like a little higher. I think the world record at that time was like 135. So they were really on the cusp of a kill screen already. But now they knew what they had to do based on extrapolating from that AI program that brought it to the first kill screen, the first time it was identified. So this is where 13-year-old William Gibson steps in, also known as – Blue Scooty, that was his name, his game name. So he was the first one to trigger such a kill screen. And he missed the opportunity at the earliest point, which was 155. But he was able to trigger it at the next predicted kill screen just two levels later on 157. So absolutely kudos to Blue Scootie, to William Gibson. It really is an achievement. Tetris CEO Maya Rogers described this as a monumental achievement. He said, congratulations to Blue Scootie for achieving this extraordinary accomplishment, a feat that defies all preconceived limits of this legendary game. All right. So what's left now? Where else can Extreme Tetris play and go? There is an answer to this question. There's one more way to beat Tetris, and I think it's more satisfying than forcing a kill screen glitch. This one is better, obviously tougher. So now remember the Star Trek Next Generation episode when Data can't beat that cocky, funny game master guy. They're playing some sci-fi game, and Data couldn't beat him, and he was like, oh, my God, how could – I'm a super fast computer Android dude. I can't beat this guy. What's the matter with me. But he realized that on his second attempt, he tried a different strategy. And in that strategy, Data didn't try to win. He just tried to keep on playing. And that's it. He didn't try to make game-ending moves. He just tried to keep playing. And that's what he does. And he plays the guy for so long that that game master guy quits in disgust. It was really a funny scene.

E: Rage quits. He does. He does a rage quit.

B: So this is similar to the strategy for what is truly the final level of Tetris and maybe we'll see it one day. Gamers found – they found it using a tool-assisted speed run. They did these speed runs. And I predict somebody will do this at some point. The strategy is to avoid all of the glitch crashes instead of triggering one. You don't want to trigger one to end the game. You just want to kind of like slide around them. Just don't trigger a glitch. Keep going and keep going. This eventually gets very hard because the code is so unstable at these high levels that it's actually hard to avoid a kill screen eventually. It's hard to do. It would be very, very hard. But if you can do that, you should be able to get to level 255. That's the final level because that's the last one that can be stored in memory. That's it. It can't go higher than that. And if you can clear that screen, I think what happens is all the blocks are red. They're like a very cool shade of red. But if you achieve that screen, you should be able to roll over back to level zero, the very first level. And you will have hit what they call the rebirth screen. They're calling this the rebirth screen. And I think it's much more satisfying than just causing – triggering a glitch kill screen.

E: Like rebooting the brain.

B: And it's even theorized that if that happens, humanity will – well, wait. Sorry. I can't tell you that. Sorry.

E: Here we go.

B: Cut that out, Steve. Thank you, people.

E: And that happened in Pac-Man as well Bob I don't know if you've seen the history of Pac-Man. When the first when the first player reached the 255th screen of Pac-Man and got to 256 what happens.

B: It's a kill screen. It gets all glitchy.

E: Yep, a bunch of half the screen is like a normal maze. The other half is a bunch of letters numbers and a bunch of gobbledygook.

B: I have seen that. I have seen that. So yeah similar idea. So interesting very such a goofy little story and I just took a deep dive. Like man this is kind of fascinating shit.

J: There's lots of stories out there of people taking a video game to the absolute limit.

E: Yeah, break it.

J: Yeah, I saw one that was about Donkey Kong. And there's personalities involved in these stories. There's drama and people that are lying and cheating and doing all sorts of different things. It's just a fascinating genre to read into.

E: And there's prize money involved, Bob. You alluded that there was the World Tetris Tournament and stuff. You name the game, there is probably a world tournament for it with prizes and money and other things at stake. So it's actually serious business for a lot of people.

S: That was an interesting story, Bob.

B: Thank you. All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

Who's That Noisy? (1:12:43)[edit]

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

[Zipper-like zings, and a clack]

So two weeks in a row, guys. This week, not as bad as last week.

E: Well, it was good.

J: It blows my mind how many people actually know exactly what this thing is. And all of you out there, you know who you are. But very good job, right. A lot of people – I don't think anybody guessed. I think everybody said, I know what that is. And they told me what it was. And when you find out what it is, we can talk about it. So I got two emails that were incorrect this week. That's it, if you could imagine. Visto Tutti wrote in and said, while it could be a lyrebird, I hear a more radio through the ionosphere vibe to this noisy. So I say it is the X5 solar flare that blacked out a lot of radio comms at the end of 2023. That is a marvellous guess. That is incorrect. But you know what? I bet you that there are so many things that sound similar to this and I have to look that sound up to see what it actually, what that is. But you know, you're wrong and it's okay. And then the other second person, Michael Blaney, wrote in. Hi, Jay, new Noisy. It kind of reminds me of the walkie-talkie I had as a kid. Always picked up a lot of static, and it had a Morse code button on it that just made a beeping sound when you pushed it. I remember those walkie-talkies.

E: My first toy walkie talkie was a set of Star Trek communicator walkie talkies.

J: I had those as well.

E: 75.

J: They didn't work.

E: No, but they sounded cool. You pressed a button and it made a beep and that's all you really cared about.

J: Right. I know. They were great. So the winner today, this was the first person that sent in the guess. And the winner is Dan Teifke. I hope I pronounced that correctly. And he said, the noisy this week is an audio variometer in a glider or sailplane. This instrument is used to provide an audio signal to the glider pilot telling him or her if they are in lift or sink going up or down. That way they can keep their attention outside the glider. So they don't have to look at the instruments. I will say it again. Oh, my God. So many people got this right. And so many people are like, I'm a glider pilot. How many freaking glider pilots are there out there. I thought this one was going to be obscure. Anyway, take a listen again. And now you can imagine what's happening. That is the variometer in a sailplane. Very cool.

New Noisy (1:15:46)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy this week, and I'm going to warn you ahead of time because people have asked me, please warn me if you're going to play a loud or irritating noise, and this is both. This was sent in by Curtis Grant. I hope you're prepared for this one.

[Echoey squeaking with some musicality?]

Oh, so many possibilities. If you think you know this week's Noisy or you heard something cool, email me at

Announcements (1:16:26)[edit]

J: Everyone, we have two events coming up. They are both happening in Dallas, Texas. If you didn't know already, you must have just heard Cara say this is her hometown city. There's lots of great food there. But we are going to have two shows in Dallas. On April 6th, we will have an extravaganza. This will be, of course, with George Hrab as our host. And it's going to be a great time, and it's going to have an eclipse theme to it. If you could imagine that. Yes. Yes, it will. So you could join us for that show on the 6th. And on the 7th, we are going to be doing a private show in Dallas. I am making final arrangements now with the hotel. I'll have that address soon, but it'll be in downtown Dallas. And to get tickets for both of these events, you can go to There's two buttons on there. And we please hope that you join us because we're going to have a ton of fun.

B: Join us.

J: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean this weekend, this arrangement here where we do the extravaganza and we do the private show together, to me it's very exciting and it's just two very different shows and they're a lot of fun.

S: Yeah, they are. Sometimes people like come to the extravaganza thinking we're doing a private recording. It's like no. The extravaganza is a stage show. The private recording is a private recording of the podcast.

J: During the private show, we actually do a two-hour live recording of the podcast, and then there is a separate hour of something else. Other things that we do interact with the audience, have fun. We call that the private show plus. But the extravaganza, I mean, we've been doing this show for years now, and it's a great show. It has a science backbone to it, just so you know. We are going to teach you about how your brain fools you every single day.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:18:15)[edit]

Email #1: Dimensional Weight[edit]

S: All right, thanks, Jay. One quick email. The subject line is Dimensional Weight. This comes from Ron Moczynski in Fairfax, and he writes, Love your podcast, long-time listener. Have you guys, Gal, done any shows talking about the subject title here. I was caught off guard as would see many others have been on late additional shipping charges that come back as dimensional weight or volumetric weight charges by FedEx UPS and USPS. Almost seems like a cash grab, but seems like it's standard practice. But third party shippers do not disclose this up front. Just wondering if you guys ever broached the subject. Thanks and keep up the skeptic work.

E: I'm familiar with the concept because I've shipped things that are very light, but the box itself is so big.

S: Yeah.

E: It's either very flat and long or something that they have to charge accordingly to have the space in whatever transportation things they need to get it from A to B.

S: Right. That's basically what it is. So dimensional weight or volumetric weight, those are the same thing. Those are synonyms. They basically – it's not weight at all. It's volume. But the way it got that term, which is a bit misleading – is because I think these companies used to just charge by weight. But then they figured that really big light boxes are taking up a lot of space in the shipping containers, whatever, and we're not getting paid a lot because they're light and we're losing money. So they came up with this idea of dimensional weight, which is really volume. It's just length, height, width. And so you have different calculations of price based upon actual weight or volume and then they charge you the higher cost. So – and the thing is it's legitimate in itself, right. The idea that you're paying for some combination of weight and volume and they have an algorithm of how to determine the price based upon those two things. That's fine. I do agree, though, that calling it dimensional weight is a little confusing unnecessarily. And just call it volume. Call it what it is. But the other thing is they really need to disclose it.

B: Volumetric weight.

S: Why call it weight at all. I think it's confusing. But anyway, you have to disclose it up front with total transparency so there's no hidden fees or, again, these sort of late additional shipping charges or whatever that happens because people didn't realize that. But definitely when you're packing a package for shipping you have to consider the volume that you're taking up, so you want to pack it as efficiently as possible. Because if you're too inefficient in how you pack it, you're going to pay for that waste in volume. Also, if you're shipping something that's super light, but happens to be big, don't think it's going to be cheap because it's just because it's very, very light. The volume itself may, may make the price higher.

B: So what would they charge you in terms of dimensional weight if you tried to mail like a four-dimensional hypercube.

E: Yeah, or a Tesseract.

S: That's called dimensional hyperweight, Bob.

B: Hyperweight.

E: Get your terms right.

S: That has extra fees attached to it. But you have to pay those extra fees in Kwatlus.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: All right. So, yeah, it's like it's not really a scam. It's just kind of a shady business practice then mainly because they don't fully disclose it. All right, let's go on with Science or Fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:21:45)[edit]

Theme: Positive global trends

Item #1: Cigarette smoking has decreased dramatically among US teens between 1991 and 2021, with daily use declining from 9.8% in 1991 to 0.6% in 2021, a greater than 16-fold decline.[6]
Item #2: The global literacy rate has almost tripled since 1990, from around 30% to 89%.[7]
Item #3: Extreme poverty is on the decline – there are over a billion fewer people living below the international poverty line today than in 1990.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Global literacy rate tripled
Science US teen cigarette smoking
Extreme poverty declining
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Global literacy rate tripled
Global literacy rate tripled
Global literacy rate tripled
Global literacy rate tripled

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. So I wanted to end the show on a positive note this week. And this is also the flip side of what I did last week. Last week I had three statistics about which countries were the worst at something. And this week, I'm going to give you three positive trends happening in the world. But one of them is incorrect as stated. Get it.

J: When you say positive, you mean good?

S: Yeah, good trends. These are all good things that are happening. Okay.

E: "Good news everyone!"

S: (in Professor Farnsworth voice) "Good news, everyone!" Here we go. Item number one. Cigarette smoking has decreased dramatically among U.S. teens between 1991 and 2021, with daily use declining from 9.8% in 1991 to 0.6% in 2021, a greater than 16-fold decline. Item number two, the global literacy rate has almost tripled since 1990 from around 30% to 89%. And item number three, extreme poverty is on the decline. There are over a billion fewer people living below the international poverty line today than in 1990. This is obviously all involved in the last 30 years. Bob, go first.

Bob's Response

B: Oh, boy. So, all right. Cigarette smoking, a huge decline makes sense because I think vaping has just kind of exploded. But that's a – from 9.8 percent to 0.6, that's bigger than I would have anticipated. But I don't necessarily – discount that. All right. So then we got the literacy drop. Let's see. Global literacy rate has almost tripled since 90. From around 30 to 89. That's huge. No, that's fiction. I'm done.

S: That's fiction. Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response

E: You stop right there. Oh, gosh. Cigarette smoking decreasing dramatically. Yes, I believe that one is correct. That it should be science. Like Bob said, it's the vaping stuff. You know, the e-cigarettes, I guess, would be part of that. We're talking about traditional tobacco analog cigarettes in this particular item that you're listing, Steve. I'm making that assumption. And absolutely, I believe that that is correct. The day of the... Mad Men smokers of the 50s or Johnny Carson and everyone on TV basically smoking all over the place. That is long gone. And the second one, global literacy rate has almost tripled since 1990 from around 30% to 89%. I don't think that's right. And I'm going to agree with Bob on this. That's a huge jump. And I'm trying to think of how or why that could be the case. Not the internet. Since 1990, right. So what would be the cause of – I mean the first thing you'd point to would be the internet. So what. Have – they unlocked some sort of key that was boxed to something that they missed for all those years prior to that. Something suddenly – Popped out in the books and everything to someone. No, I don't think so. On the last one though about the poverty decline, that seems – that also seems like a very high number, a billion fewer people. That's a lot. But that poverty line is – was probably comparatively in 1990 like so down that – Yeah, by today's standard, I guess you could say a billion. So yeah, I think of the three, the least plausible one here is the global literacy one, fiction.

S: All right, Cara.

Cara's Response

C: Yeah, I think I have to agree with the guys. I totally agree that cigarette smoking has decreased dramatically, especially here you're saying daily use. I think that that's probably an important note because I don't know if like having ever smoked has changed. I mean, I'm sure it has changed also, but I think probably a lot of teens have had a cigarette or sometimes have cigarettes, but I don't think a lot of teens are regularly smoking cigarettes anymore. I think they're vaping and yeah, the poverty one is tough. Like it's, but I think the global literacy rate one is just more extreme. So like it does seem unlikely that, but it's really hard because you don't in the, in the extreme poverty one, you don't really give any, indication of what those thresholds are. So you're just calling it extreme poverty being on the decline. Poverty, like overall poverty might not be, but maybe the worst of the worst isn't as bad as it has been. I don't know. What is the international poverty line. Has it changed. But the literacy rate going up from 30 to 89%, I wouldn't be surprised if the literacy rate is quite high now, but I think it was probably already high in 1990. That's probably – I could see that being a statistic that you pulled from like 50 years of difference or 80 years of difference, but not – oh, my God, 1990. Is that 30. No, it's like 35 years ago.

E: I know, Cara. It's a third of a century.

C: Oh, my God. Yeah, I don't think – I don't think even in that – that is actually a very long time, but I don't think even in that amount of time it would have gone from 30 to 89 percent. That 30 percent figure is not sitting right with me.

S: And Jay.

Jay's Response

J: Yeah, I'm just going to cut to the chase because everybody said everything. Yeah, going from 30% to 89% since 1990 just doesn't seem plausible in any way. I would have that number be like 10% maybe. So that's got to be the fiction.

S: Okay. So you all agree on the second one. We'll take these in order.

B: Yes, everyone agrees with me. Yes.

E: I agree with you, Bob.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Item number one, cigarette smoking has decreased dramatically among U.S. teens between 1991 and 2021, with daily use declining from 9.8% in 1991 to 0.6% in 2021, a greater than 16-fold decline. You guys all think that one is science, and that one is science. That is science. That's a good thing. And it's not just daily use, like every way you mark it, like ever smoke in the last week, in the last six, whatever. All markers are decreasing significantly.

C: Yay.

S: Now, I had the same thought that you guys had. It's like, well, I wonder how much of that is just – switching over to vaping but it turns out that is not the case.

B: Wow.

E: Good.

S: Or at least it's not clear. I found a study that said that the decrease in cigarette smoking is independent from e-cigarette vaping use. They're independent. It's not like they're correlating. The timings are all different and everything. So there there seem to be independent things.

C: It blows my mind.

B: That does. I'm just like, what the hell.

C: That is really hard to believe.

S: I disagree. Basically, what happened is smoking was on the decline before vaping took over. It's not like vaping replaced smoking.

C: No, it didn't replace smoking but it was marketed as a replacement for smoking.

S: But a minority of people literally switch from smoking to vaping. Most people who are vaping now didn't switch. They just are – so...

C: Yeah, they're new. That's true. A lot of young people started vaping who never would have had a cigarette.

S: Right. That's the problem. Vaping was partly marketed as you could switch from smoking to vaping and it's safer and it was kind of promoted that way. We've written about this on science-based medicine is that actually true or not. And it's actually mostly not true.

C: There's a good doc about, what's the really big vaping company that - jewel. There's a really good doc about jewel on Netflix right now that shows like all the missteps in their marketing and And that they're really in their heart of hearts were trying to say, let's create a safer cigarette. Like that's what they wanted. They were like, how can we let people still do the thing they were going to do but not be dying of cancer. And it became this horrible thing that children – like it's all flavours and like children.

E: I know. Yeah, bubble gum and –

S: All right, let's go on to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: The global literacy rate has almost tripled since 1990 from around 30% to 89%. You guys all think this one is the fiction, and this one is the fiction. Good job, everyone. What is incorrect about those numbers?

C: The 30% has to be incorrect.

E: Cara thinks it's the 30%.

S: Is the 89% too high. Is the 30% too low.

C: No, I think the 30% is too low.

J: 30 is too low. The change had to be much smaller than that.

E: I mean there are some countries that have 95% illiteracy rates. There are countries out there that have them.

C: Still today? I don't know if that's true. 95% is very high.

S: The 89% is accurate.

C: Yeah.

S: The 30%, I just made it way too low. It went from 67% to 89%.

C: That's still super significant. That's great.

B: Yeah.

S: No, I'm sorry. 67%. That was in 1976. 1990 was 74. From 74 to 89.

C: Yeah.

S: So it's getting better and it's pretty high now. I looked up like why.

B: C minus to a B plus, man. That's good.

S: Yeah. I looked up like why is this happening. It's hard to give one answer, but one hypothesis I saw.

B: Internet?

S: Multiple times. No, it's actually industry. It's because there are more jobs that require literacy. And so in order to have a job and to compete in more of a technical workspace, so there's a lot more pressure to be literate just to get a job. So that was one big factor that I saw. But I'm sure there's multiple factors. Okay.

C: Yeah, I think the lowest literacy rate that I'm seeing right now is in Afghanistan.

E: This breaks it down between youth, adult, and elderly. It has three categories.

C: And a lot of them break it down between male and female, obviously, because in Afghanistan, 52% of the male population is literate, but only 22% of the female population. But still, that's at 37%. The next lowest is like I don't know, in the 70s. No, there's 42. Benin is 42. But yeah, it's very –

S: It's an outlier.

C: But none of them are like 95 percent illiterate.

B: Yeah. People can read.

C: It's just not that bad anymore.

E: In some of these age categories, if you go to the – I'm seeing on the older age categories, some of them are in the single digits here.

C: Yeah, but that's because –

E: For elderly 65 and over.

C: That's true. But that's because – think about it. That's because that would have been the literacy rate 60 years ago or 80 years ago.

E: All right.

C: Yeah, the literacy rate was potentially really bad a very long time ago.

E: Yeah, Sierra Leone. If you're 65 or over, your literacy rate is 4%.

C: Yeah.

E: Ugh, gosh.

C: It's very sad. Yeah, because if you grew up during Civil War, if you grew up without an education – Yeah, and it wasn't prioritized.

E: Yeah, you never had to pick it up later in life.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All of this means that extreme poverty is on the decline. There are over a billion fewer people living below the international poverty line today than in 1990 is science.

C: That's amazing.

S: There has been some significant improvement in poverty, especially at the low end. So, yeah, over a billion fewer people. This is, I think, the WHO defines the international poverty line.

C: Which is great because there are – how many more people are there now than there were in 1990. A billion?

E: Yeah, a billion people probably.

C: Probably.

S: Yeah, so it's good. So interesting anecdote for me preparing for this Science or Fiction. So I had the idea. All right, so there's positive trends happening. Let me have two real, one fake. Finding real positive trends was very easy, and I had a lot of things to choose from.

B: Good.

S: I had a hard time finding a fake one, and this is why. Because that's why I had to exaggerate one. I couldn't even find – I wanted to find a trend that was getting worse and say it was getting better. I couldn't really find one. And so the other thing is it was easy to find the actual positive. The other criterion was that it's not something we've talked about a lot because obviously if it's something that comes up on the show all the time, it's not going to be that much of a challenge, right. So there was lots of things that we don't talk about that are getting better over time. The crime rate is going down. The murder rate is going down. A lot of health markers are getting better over time. Tons of stuff is getting better over time that we don't talk about on a regular basis. Any of the negative trends we talk about all the time. I couldn't find a negative trend that we don't talk about all the time.

C: So we would all just be like, obviously, we just were discussing this.

S: Right. So that was – the timing is interesting because by coincidence, I was reading a couple of articles recently, partly because of like reviewing 2023. There was like one article – A lot of people are writing about how horrible the world is, right. But there's a few articles saying when you look at all the data, things are going pretty well. You know, and like, here's like, here's the wonderful things that happened in 2023 or whatever. And some people are sort of, are making the point that, like, Steven Pinker is like, this is his thing, right.

C: Yeah, that's his thing.

S: If you look at all the data, things are actually getting consistently much better. But there's a tendency to focus on all the negative things. And you could make any year seem horrible if you just list all the bad things that happened in that year. But you have to put it in –

C: But he does have a massive blind spot for the fact that global climate change is out of control.

S: Yeah. Well, yeah.

C: That is not getting better.

S: That's the criticism of his position.

C: And like so many things are linked to that.

S: Yeah. But he will say, though, that, yeah, but there's so many things that are getting good. You have to look at everything.

C: Yeah, but none of those things matter if we can't survive as a species.

S: That may be the case.

E: I feel happy.

S: But I do think that there is something to this notion that the media and the public focuses on the negative. And we do it too because, again, it was easy to find tons of positive things that we don't talk about. And I could not find a negative thing that we don't talk about.

C: Well, and it's kind of like because definitionally that's not really news.

S: Well, but that's – we define – why isn't it news. Why isn't it news that extreme poverty is on the decline or that global literacy is doing great or that teens – teen pregnancy is down.

C: Because historically news, like actual – like classically –

E: It's tied to advertising.

C: Well, no, no, no. Historically, even before advertising, right. Like long before we had news tied to advertising. News was a way – and journalism in general was a way to hold truth to power, right. And so what was news. It was going out and finding injustices that people weren't aware of and bringing them out into the public view. So I don't – I just think that historically news wasn't like, here's a fun, nice story. It was, hey, here's a thing you should know that you don't know because it's being kept from you. Let's blow it a bit.

S: And there's legitimacy to that. There's – like when we do it too, like we talk about the things that need to be fixed, right.

C: Yeah, exactly.

S: So of course that has – that tends to focus on the negative because we don't talk about things that are doing just fine because what's there to talk about. But that, even though it's legit and there's a reason for it, it still creates a distorted view of reality.

C: Yeah, it's a massive bias.

S: Because we're constantly hearing the negative. And there's some interesting things. Like, for example, the majority of people think that crime is going up in the United States.

C: Right, and it's going-

S: And they've thought that for the last 30 years. During which crime, except for like the blip in the pandemic, other than that, crime has been pretty consistently going down for the last 30 years and people think it's going up. They think the opposite of reality.

C: Because of that, shitty policies are put into place.

S: That's the other thing. It has a negative effect.

E: Sure does.

C: Just so that you guys know, I looked it up because that little joke I made about, well, there's probably a billion more people. Guess how many more people there are now than there were in 1990.

S: Two billion more.

J: One more.

C: 2.6 billion more.

E: That's crazy.

C: There are 7.888 billion people, and that's in 2021. So because all of these statistics are lagged.

S: But we broke 8 billion.

E: They said 8.

S: We broke 8 billion.

E: Last year, wasn't it?

C: Okay. So, yeah, we broke an 8 billion. So it's even more than that. The world population in 1990 was 5.294 billion. Wow.

S: Yeah, I remember when we broke 6.

B: We thought that was a lot then.

E: So we're screaming towards 10 billion.

S: Yeah, we're probably –

E: Within our lifetime.

S: But we're probably going to max out at 10 and then we're going to start drifting down.

C: Yeah, population is – I mean it is growing but the rate – the fertility rate is a lot lower.

S: The fertility rate is – overall it's not at replacement levels.

C: No.

E: Right.

C: It was 3.31 in 1990 and now it is 2.30. So it is still slightly over replacement.

S: Yeah. Replacement is 2.1. I think it's more than 2.

C: Oh, is it. Okay. Yeah. So it's just slightly over.

E: So increasing at a slower rate.

S: This relates to the poverty thing again because poverty is the major driver of overpopulation because when people are poor, they have lots of kids as a hedge. And also if a lot of them are going to die, they overcompensate by having a lot of kids. And as soon as people are more secure and women are empowered, they have fewer kids.

C: Yeah, like education is another big part of that, but they're all related.

S: Yeah, so if you look at the West though, the West, like industrialized nations are not at replacement levels.

E: No.

C: Yeah, that's the global population. The growth rate right now is 0.9 annually when it was like almost 2. Yeah.

S: It's kind of a self-correcting problem. I know we're going to 100% get emails about this.

E: Oh, gosh.

C: There's only so much carrying capacity on the planet.

S: No, I know. But the thing is, you're right. But it's not going to increase forever. It will come down eventually.

C: I mean, it can't.

S: That's what I mean. The solution to overpopulation. The thing is, I've had email exchanges with people about this, and I keep saying, so what do you want to do about it. Seriously, who do you want to kill. What do you want to do.

C: I want to just educate more people. That's what I want.

S: That's fine. But they give me these like really suspicious abstract kind of answers. Like we have to stop this culture of whatever. But still.

C: Eugenics kind of.

S: Or how about this. We reduce poverty and empower women. If you do those two things, which are both good things in and of themselves, the population will come down over time.

C: A hundred percent.

S: Yeah.

E: And increase literacy.

S: Right.

C: Yeah, all of it. Increase education and especially among women and have women have more autonomy over their choices and their bodily decisions.

S: It turns out they don't want to be baby factories. Go figure.

C: Exactly. Yeah.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:41:00)[edit]

I'm not sure why I enjoy debunking. Part of it surely is amusement over the follies of true believers, and partly because attacking bogus science is a painless way to learn good science… Another reason for debunking is that bad science contributes to the steady dumbing down of our nation. Crude beliefs get transmitted to political leaders and the result is considerable damage to society.

 – Martin Gardner (1914-2010), American mathematician

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

E: All right. This week's quote was suggested by listener Patrick from Michigan. He says, thanks for making my Saturday special for over 15 years. So longtime listener, Pat. Thank you. Oh, and also he says, congratulations, Dr. Cara.

C: Oh, thanks.

E: I thought you'd like to hear that. Here's the quote. "I'm not sure why I enjoy debunking. Part of it surely is amusement over the follies of true believers, and partly because attacking bogus science is a painless way to learn good science… Another reason for debunking is that bad science contributes to the steady dumbing down of our nation. Crude beliefs get transmitted to political leaders, and the result is considerable damage to society."

S: You don't know the half of it.

E: Martin Gardner wrote that in 1998.

C: Oh, Martin Gardner.

S: Very prescient.

E: Oh, my gosh.

C: Love him.

S: All the more true today. Okay.

E: Absolutely.

J: Right.

S: All right, guys. Thank you all for joining me this week.

J: Hope you feel better, Steve.

B: Sure, man.

S: Thank you.


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


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