SGU Episode 978

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SGU Episode 978
April 6th 2024
978 RobotaxisNewYork.jpg

"New York City could soon have scores of autonomous vehicles (AVs) jockeying their way through bustling streets." [1]

SGU 977                      SGU 979

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella


AJR: Andrea Jones-Rooy,
political, social, and data scientist

Quote of the Week

As always in life, people want a simple answer . . . and it's always wrong.

Susan Greenfield, English scientist

Download Podcast
Show Notes
SGU Forum

Introduction, knives, Hawaii, Alaska, snow, treats stories[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 Tuesday, April 2nd, 2024, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: And Andrea Jones-Rooy. Andrea, welcome back to the SGU.

AJR: Thank you. It's always lovely to be here. Hi to all the Novellas and Novella fans.

S: You and the Novella boys.

AJR: I'm just invading a family reunion at this point.

B: Yeah, basically.

S: We had to record on Tuesday because we're going to Dallas later in the week for the Eclipse weekend thing. Cara's working tonight. She's literally working impatient. Evan is-

J: Tax season.

S: Tax season madness. Work until midnight every night. He's got to do extra work because he still had to carve out time for the eclipse, even though it was like worst possible time of the year. So you just have us tonight, Andrea.

AJR: I'll be playing the role of Evan and Cara at various points. I've been practising my impressions.

J: Remember back in like the 80s and 90s? It's a very special episode of Blossom. Remember they used to say shit like that?

AJR: Blossom is a deep cut. Well done.

J: Oh, yeah. It's a deep cut. All right. Andrea, tell me something.

AJR: Okay. How is my butcher knife in your kitchen doing?

AJR: It's doing just fine. It's missing its glory days of being on stage at NOTACON. And it is resigned currently to its sad fate of resting in a drawer, which is very depressing for everybody. I haven't.

J: I don't like that at all. If it's not on the wall on.

AJR: No, I keep making the excuse, oh, we moved recently, so I haven't mounted it on the wall. We moved in May, which is nearly a year ago, but I just haven't found the time somehow to mount them to the wall. So the butcher knife and all its friends are sadly nestled away. I like to think of them as hibernating until their next time to shine.

J: Well, you don't eat a lot of meat, so I guess you don't really need it.

AJR: I really – the NOTACON cooking show is probably the most use it ever got in its life. And I've had it for like seven years. We opened a coconut with it once and otherwise I think I might put googly eyes on it for fun at some point.

J: Speaking of coconuts, I don't know if I ever told you guys this. Did I tell you that when I went to Hawaii that one of the places that we – we rented Airbnbs, right? One of the houses had a coconut tree and I ate two coconuts off the tree that I pulled down myself. Did I tell you this?

AJR: No.

B: No.

J: Yeah, like I had to get the outer, what would you call that?

S: The husk.

J: The outer husk, yeah. That was not freaking easy at all.

B: Yeah, right?

J: I'm thinking like, did I burn more calories ripping this thing apart than I would get from eating the coconut?

B: Yeah, if you saw Survivor, you'd know that.

J: But what I did was I roasted it. I made roasted coconut and it was freaking amazing.

AJR: Like you roasted the meat that was on the inside?

J: Yeah, yeah. I took it out. I broke it into very, very small pieces and then I roasted it in a pan and it was like really, really flavourful, like awesome.

AJR: Wow.

B: Speaking of coconut, I went to Alaska last week. That's why I wasn't on the show. I was visiting my daughter, Ashley, and her boyfriend, Cormac, in Girdwood, Alaska. Alaska is amazing. It is so beautiful. Ashley works at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and she is amazing. She takes care of bears, foxes, bison, eagles, and of course, as we all know in the family, Twix the porcupine. Such an adorable porcupine. But it's an amazing place. And Alaska is even more beautiful than I anticipated because when you're driving around in this time of year, there's snow-capped mountains everywhere you look. And it's mind-boggling how beautiful it was. I came back home to Connecticut and I'm driving around and I'm like, something is missing. This place looks horrible because you look at the horizon. It's like I don't see anything, maybe tiny hills. But it was such – oh, man. I can't even imagine living there.

AJR: Where in Alaska is Gerwick, you said?

B: Yeah. Girdwood.

AJR: Girdwood. I wasn't even close. Where in Alaska is that?

B: It's about 45 minutes from Anchorage.

AJR: Okay.

B: The other striking thing, of course, when you go there, and this will be no surprise, is that there's so much snow everywhere.

J: Oh, it's crazy.

B: It's like snow used to be when 30 years ago before climate change really kicked in, in Connecticut anyway. It's just like so much snow. They would get like, oh, yeah, we got three feet of snow two weeks ago. Like what? Three feet?

AJR: And it's not even like news probably for them.

B: No. Oh, it's nothing. They're just like, whatever, nothing for them. But just a huge accumulation of snow that I haven't seen in so long because it's just like doesn't really snow much anymore in the Northeast.

AJR: Yeah. No, because I'm in New York, New York City, and I've forgotten what it's like to have more than a dusting of snow. And that's now I'm depressed. You're right. I forgot about that.

B: So thank you, Ashley and Cormac, for an amazing time in Alaska.

S: I don't miss the snow.

J: Oh, I do.

AJR: Steve is pro-climate change.

S: I do jokingly say that all the time. Thank God for climate change. We have a nice weather. It has been literally years since we've had a harsh winter. I remember 10, 12 years ago, the last really bad winter where snow was piled up 10 feet on the side of the road. They had to come in with backhoes because they couldn't even plough it anymore. I was snowed in my house for three days.

AJR: A friend of mine is from Buffalo, and he was there when they got snowed in. Last year or the year before. And that was the first time I recalled that we would have like snow days where you truly couldn't leave the house. Because I've just gotten so used to being like oh it's snowing it's like slightly more complicated than rain. And that's sort of all I think about at this point. All right, Alaska it is. I'll see you there.

J: Yeah, I've been wanting – my wife and I were going to go, but the thing that Bob didn't say, it's really expensive to go there.

AJR: Is it?

B: Well, depending where you're coming from, but yeah, it's across the country.

J: It is, yeah.

AJR: Yeah. I once flew there – this is embarrassing. I'm causing all the climate change that Steve is enjoying because I flew there on a miles run at the end of a few years ago. I needed to hit a certain number of miles, and I happened to find really cheap tickets to Alaska there.

B: A miles run.

AJR: A flew Delta. I needed to hit a certain number of miles traveled to hit the medallion status for the following year. So between Christmas and New Year's, I flew from New York to Seattle to Alaska, back to Seattle in like 24 hours.

B: Oof.

AJR: Just for the miles.

B: That's so funny.

AJR: Yeah, it was probably not worth it in the end. And again, for climate change, but I did get diamond medallion status for any of my fellow Delta obsessives. And it was very big for my ego. So this is-

AJR: Awesome. Yeah, this is what happens when you don't have any hobbies. Is you end up in situations like this.

B: Yeah did you like sight-see a little bit or did you just go from gate to gate.

AJR: I literally I landed. I guess I landed in anchorage and I had four hours and I slept in a little kind of landing area on the floor and I got back on a flight return and returned. I had to hit it before the end of the year and I thought I was gonna make it and then I didn't. It was like kind of fun to fly to nowhere in a way, because everyone's like, we're going on a trip. We're coming home. And I was like, I'm not doing anything. I'm literally just sitting here and watching a TV show. Yeah, I don't know that it's the best use of my time ever, but I have technically been to Alaska.

B: Jay, I had six of those Delta biscotti cookies.

J: Oh, yeah, man.

AJR: Those are good.

B: Oh, my God. I always say, can I have two, please? They're my favorite.

J: I found those at Costco, by the way. I had a whole sleeve of them.

B: Yep. I got a whole sleeve once and it was gone in three days.

S: But are they as special when you're not getting it only on plane flights?

B: Yeah. After like you have like a dozen, it's like, all right, these are still awesome, but it's not quite as special as being on a plane and getting just a few of them.

AJR: That's right. Like, I don't really drink soda very much, but I'll get a Diet Coke on the plane, and I always really like it. And I think apparently it's very annoying for flight attendants if you order soda because the carbonation is much higher, and so it's more of a pain to pour. But I once had a Diet Coke recently on the ground, and it wasn't as good. And I think, A, it's less carbonated, but, B, there is a special kind of ritual to it when you're flying.

S: I remember when we were kids, I don't know if you guys remember this, there was this one restaurant where we could get root beer. And that was the only time we ever had root beer. And I think we all just assumed, because we're kids and we don't know what's going on, we don't know how the world works, that that was it. That was the only place you could ever get root beer. Until eventually, you could just buy it at the store. And you probably always could buy it at the store. We just didn't know it. And then once we had like a bottle of root beer in our refrigerator, it was no longer quite as special because it wasn't like the kind of thing that happens once or twice a year, only when you go to this one restaurant. You know what I mean?

AJR: One of the best college lectures I ever attended was in a – I believe it was an intro microeconomics course where we were learning about diminishing returns and – the professor did this exercise where he had a student volunteer. He said who's the student who's like willing to eat a lot right now? And it's you're not allergic to popcorn or whatever. And so he had the student sit in the front of the classroom and had a little thing of popcorn like a little movie container and said have a few bites of popcorn and describe how you're feeling. And he was like oh, it's really good oh, I'm really enjoying it oh, it's great. Then have a little more. Oh, yeah, yeah, it's really good. And then over the course of almost, I don't even know if you could get away with this. This was the early 2000s. You could do whatever you wanted in the classroom at the time. 9-11 hadn't happened. You know, we could do whatever we wanted. And so he would eat all this popcorn and reported we watched in real time. He was like, I've kind of had enough. Like, it's not that interesting anymore. Like, I'd really rather stop. And so we all witnessed it in real time, which I thought was a very creative way to describe what's otherwise kind of a dry concept.

B: Yeah, then you get Homer in the front of the class and he's eating those donuts in hell and it just like doesn't work as torture because he depletes the entire supply in hell. That was the room of ironic punishment. I'll never forget that one.

Quickie with Bob: Silicon Spikes (9:58)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [2]

S: All right, Bob, why don't you start by telling us about silicon spikes?

B: Silicon spikes. Yes. Thank you, Steve. This is your Quickie with Bob. Do you like silicon? How about silicon spikes? How about silicon spikes that kill 96% of the viruses that get on it? Would you like those? That's exactly what an international research team led by RMIT University has designed and manufactured. This is really cool. The inspiration for this material came from that one place that has already done millions of years of R&D, and that, of course, is nature. In this case, the inspiration were the wings of insects like dragonflies and cicadas, which have tiny spikes to kill bacteria and fungi on them. Fungi on them. Fungi, fungi, fungi. The process to create a similar surface, though, to kill viruses had to create spikes that were far smaller because viruses are, in fact, far smaller, generally speaking, than bacteria. The researchers started with a smooth silicon wafer, which they then slammed with ions specifically and selectively to remove material, leaving the spikes on the surface, which were pretty tiny, as you might imagine, only about two nanometers thick. Which is 30,000 times thinner than your hair and only 290 nanometers high. They tested it on HPIV-3 virus, which causes bronchitis, pneumonia, and croup. And they showed that within six hours, 96% of the viruses were either totally ripped apart or damaged beyond function. They say that this material can be incorporated into commonly touched devices and surfaces to prevent viral spread and reduce the use of disinfectants. By doing so, we aim to create safer environments for researchers, healthcare professionals, and patients alike. Very cool. Hope to see that in a hospital near you soon. This has been your Quickie with Bob. Back to you, Steve.

S: That was quick.

B: Yeah. It's a quickie.

News Items[edit]

Havana Syndrome (11:55)[edit]

S: All right. Thanks, Bob. Let me ask you guys a question. Have any of you heard of Havana syndrome?

B: Yes.

AJR: Yes.

J: Yeah, I have heard of that.

S: What do you know about it?

B: Well, they thought it was–

J: The Russians poisoned people, right?

B: They thought it was a device that was being used by the Russians to mess with people like diplomats and people.

AJR: Right.

B: But then recently, there's a new bit of information that I guess you're going to discuss about it.

S: Yes.

AJR: But it was a big mystery for many years, right?

B: Oh, yeah.

AJR: All these diplomats or foreign mostly U.S. government officials, I believe. And they were having, like, headaches. And we thought it was, like, this weird sound. And it was quite mysterious for quite a long time. And there was nothing else like it anywhere. And no one really knew what to do about it.

S: Yeah, you guys sort of know the news item, so you've got a lot of the details right there. It started in 2016. There was a cluster in the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, hence Havana Syndrome, of people feeling that they were dizzy, they felt lightheaded, they were getting migraines and headaches. They were confused, like they couldn't think. They had ringing in their ear. Sometimes they described like a buzzing or a pulsating noise, like a bizarre noise in their room. In their ear it was very disruptive. Some of them claimed that all they only had those sensations when they were like in a certain room and if they left the room they would feel better if they went back to that room they would get the symptoms back. That and that's kind of like the most interesting feature of havana syndrome although not everybody displays that feature, right? So the question has been basically one of two major hypotheses here. Either this is due to, as you say, some foreign power, some foreign adversary, let's say, not necessarily Russians, could be Chinese, could be North Korea, could be somebody else. We don't know. Some foreign adversary using some kind of cutting edge or experimental device to induce these symptoms at a distance in people. And the two thoughts were that either it's a pulsed sonic device or a pulsed electromagnetic device. Those are sort of the two ideas. The people who were experiencing this were American and Canadian diplomats and military personnel. So that's the cohort, American and Canadian diplomats and military personnel. There has been some investigation. We do have some new data. But I'll say, we'll cut to the chase a little bit, is that the answer is not yet definitive. There is still some debate and disagreement about what the ultimate answer to this is. There are two main hypotheses. One hypothesis is that this is an actual attack by a foreign adversary using some kind of device, as I mentioned, some kind of ranged device that induces these neurological symptoms. The other hypothesis is that this is a mass delusion. These were preexisting conditions or people with whatever, new onset migraines or benign positional vertigo, like known neurological phenomena that maybe there was a coincidental cluster. And that led to the belief that maybe something is going on, which then takes on a life of its own.

AJR: Right, and it's like power of suggestion. Oh, I am feeling funny now that you mention it.

S: Yeah, and we've spoken on the show before about so-called sick building syndrome where somebody in a building has an asthma attack and somebody else has an asthma attack and then pretty soon like there's black mold in the building and whatever. There's believed to be something environmental in the building that is making people sick. And then you have all these other cases, which may be partly due to suggestion or just confirmation bias or just you're looking for it more, where people are more alert to their own symptoms. You know, it's like, I'm having a little bit of a scratchy throat. You know what I mean? Like, it's very easy. It's not necessarily like you're delusional or you're psychosomatic, although some people probably are, right? Enough people could potentially be involved. You're going to run into that. It could just be a little bit of confirmation bias and people don't realize how much background symptoms there are in any building of people. You might underestimate how many people are actually working in a building and you don't realize that it's not that unusual for 10 or 20 people to all be having these symptoms.

AJR: I mean, we all experienced a version of that, not in a building, but in COVID when of course, people were getting very, very sick. But every single day when they would list out all the symptoms, I would sit and I'd be like, my throat is itchy. I can't draw a full breath. Like what we would all kind of convince ourselves that what was in a sniffle that I wouldn't have thought twice about because I stirred up some dust was now something to be worried about.

S: Yeah, we call that being hypervigilant, right? You become hypervigilant about symptoms. And then just the background noise of day-to-day symptoms of life, if you focus on it, you can convince yourself that, is my throat a little scratchy today? Am I feeling a little hot?

J: Steve, did they not find anything?

S: All right. Let's break it down. Here we have this question. Honestly, we haven't spoken about this on the show and I haven't written about this until now because I wasn't quite sure what take would be the best or the most appropriate one on this because the information is just so ambiguous. Let's break it down and work our way through it and I'll tell you the bits of information that we have as we go along. So when we are confronted with a claim like this, Havana syndrome, is it real? Is it not real? How do we decide what is the likely to be the– What's the better answer? What's the more likely answer? Maybe we just don't know. We have to just say it's currently unknown. So one thing we could do is we could analyze it based upon plausibility. How plausible is the alleged phenomenon? So here there's a few elements that we could pull apart. One is the plausibility of the technology itself, like our pulsed sonar guns or pulsed EM projectors. Is that technology plausible? And it is.

B: Yeah, absolutely.

S: There's nothing implausible about that notion. Is it plausible that such a device could cause the symptoms people are reporting, right? The government's calling them anomalous health incidents, AHIs. Reminds me of the unidentified anomalous phenomena. They always have their diplomat speak, their government speak. And there I think now I'm sort of putting on my neurologist hat. It could have pulsed sonic weapon cause people to have like migraines and tinnitus and feel dizzy. And the answer is absolutely yes. Those are all things that could be triggered. You know, people who have migraines or maybe have a predisposition to migraine-like phenomena can be triggered by varying pressure in the air. Absolutely. The closest I came to that, one of the cars that I have, if you open the windows to a certain amount and you're driving at a certain speed, you get this pulsating pressure in the car from the wind.

AJR: Yeah, it makes me want to throw up.

S: Yeah, right. It makes you want to throw up. I can't stand it.

B: Oh, my God. It's torture. It's torture.

S: Yeah, yeah. My wife is not bothered by it at all.

J: Oh, my God.

B: She's weird.

AJR: No, I'm pretty sensitive. My boyfriend is even more sensitive. And if you even pass through that level on the way to a better level of the window, he'll be unwell.

S: Yeah, so there you go, right? A lot of us have experienced a similar kind of thing. Imagine if you have a device that was designed to maximize that and was aimed right at your head. So anyway, totally plausible that it could cause the symptoms being reported.

AJR: It feels very sci-fi in a fun way.

S: Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, it does. But not like breaking the laws of physics, right?

AJR: Right, right.

B: Yeah.

S: So we could take a technology plausibility, a medical plausibility, and then we have to go to a intelligence agency plausibility, right? So what do we know from an intelligence perspective, a military perspective about? Does anybody have this technology? Have they ever used it? And was there any investigation? And did they find anything? So the American intelligence agencies have investigated Havana syndrome, from a spy perspective, not like a medical or technological perspective. And they could find no evidence that such a device exists or was in use or that there was any identifiable perpetrators. So the intelligence investigation came up negative. So now we could, I think we could ask some further plausibility questions given the negative investigation. Is it likely that such a device could be used and we missed it? Our intelligence agencies were not able to detect it. I don't honestly know the answer to the question of how plausible that is. Are they saying like, listen, they always just say there was no evidence of anything, blah, blah, blah. But I haven't heard an interview with somebody saying either, look, if this were happening, we would know. Or who knows? We didn't find anything, but we probably wouldn't. Like if this was spies doing this and then with a portable device that then scrolled away, how would we know? I don't know. I don't know where along that spectrum it is.

AJR: Or if they were using it previously on an individual, the individual might just say, well, I wasn't feeling well and I went home or whatever.

S: Yeah, right. The other thing is you could think that they're lying to the public. I think that's very implausible for a couple of reasons. One, why would they? Again, the motivation is not there. Why wouldn't they say, yeah, we caught the Chinese doing this to us and aren't they bad? And they're breaking diplomatic protocol and blah, blah, blah? Right? I mean, they would just leverage that for political purposes.

AJR: I mean, we heard about the balloons. We'd hear about this.

S: Right. Right. Exactly. And also, they're not supposed to lie to the American public, whatever you believe that they adhere to that or not. But I just don't know why they would lie about that. It seems like it would be more advantageous to tell us the truth. So I don't know how that affects overall plausibility. But I think it has to move it down at least a notch that they weren't able to discover who was doing this and any evidence that this was actually an external attack. And they concluded that you could explain all of the cases on the basis of pre-existing conditions and environmental factors. That was their conclusion. All right, now we come to the new bit, and that is taking a look at this from a medical perspective. So if we examine the people who have these AHIs, the anomalous health incidents, can we detect anything objective that might indicate that they were subjected to this external disease?

J: Yep. That makes sense.

S: Right. So that makes sense. So there was a study a few years ago where they looked at MRI scans and they looked at people who had Havana syndrome and people who didn't have Havana syndrome and they found some differences in their brains. So they found, for example, that the people who had the symptoms had a little bit more atrophy, like shrinkage of the brain tissue, than the people who didn't have it, for example. That was a 2019 study. Now, it was a small study, and I read through it. The thing that gets me is that it was kind of an exploratory study. They were just saying, hey, let's see if we could find anything, right? They didn't really have any very specific hypothesis. And the things that they found seemed kind of random to me. It's not the things that I would expect. And in fact, it would be perfectly reasonable to find nothing given the symptoms. Like if people are having like migraine-like symptoms, they wouldn't necessarily have to have any objective findings.

AJR: Did they know who had been experiencing Havana syndrome when they were looking at it? Or was it randomized or blind study?

S: Actually, I don't know. So I would imagine it was a blinded evaluation. Of course, it wasn't randomized. It was retrospective. You've had Havana syndrome. Okay, let's take a look at your brain. Yeah.

AJR: But they didn't know like, okay, this is a Havana syndrome brain. Let's see what we can see. So they at least protected against that.

S: I hope so. All right. But now there were two follow-up studies published this year where they did a larger sample size and they did a more detailed analysis.

B: Well, how many people are we talking about?

S: In the new one, I think I had 60 people. The old ones were like 20.

J: Oh my God. I was thinking of a handful of people.

S: Yeah.

AJR: How many people were affected by it do we think?

S: But in this study, they had 81 participants who experienced it and 48 matched controlled participants was the recent study. So that's a good number of people. They found no difference in the brains, none whatsoever. So those findings did not replicate. And not only did the specific findings not replicate, they found no differences. Now, these more current studies have come under some criticism. So specifically, when the studies were published, they were published with an accompanying editorial by Dr. Relman, who was one of the neurologists who was part of the original government investigation of AHI, of Havana syndrome. And he has a lot to say about he thinks it's real, right? He thinks it's a real neurological external attack by foreign adversaries. I think the most salient thing he had to say was that the recent studies did not specify whether the individuals with Havana syndrome had the location-specific feature. And he thinks that's the most specific feature. And so that means they might be including a lot of people who don't have Havana syndrome, who just have migraines or vertigo or whatever. And that would dilute out any findings. So it's like, okay, yes, technically that's true. I'm not sure that that really invalidates the results or that we wouldn't see that. You could go back and do a subgroup analysis. I think that would be an easy way to deal with that. But nevertheless, I think that the fact that these studies didn't replicate the findings, again, it doesn't put it to rest. But it's another blow against the notion that this is a phenomenon, meaning a specific, there's some specific external attack happening as opposed to just, pre-existing conditions or some nuance that known neurological phenomenon, migraine, etc.

J: Steve, is there any data that you got to see that would give you an opinion on what's going on personally?

S: No, no, not really, no. I have been sort of paying attention to this and I've been reading into it. I wrote about it recently, so I did a fairly decent deep dive. I don't have any good firsthand information. It's all just these conclusions based on analyses and data, et cetera. I would like to get a little bit more details and I could be persuaded one way or the other. Right now, I think we just don't know. Because it's plausible, but we haven't found any smoking gun, right? Either biologically or through intelligence investigation. So what does that mean? So I think if let's say this is a real phenomenon, the other thing is it's been eight years? I would think by now, wouldn't they have caught the guy? You know what I mean?

AJR: That was my question. Yeah.

S: You know, after eight years, I could see if we were two years in, you could say, hey, we have to they're doing their investigation. Who knows? I think the more time that goes by without us figuring out like who did it, makes it less likely. I think eight years is kind of a long time.

AJR: It's like, oh, there is that guy holding the funny looking pulsar gun, but he's probably fine.

S: Yeah. Like, could you put like an EM detector in the embassies around the world, the American embassies or pressure sensitive detectors like we can detect these things, you know? If your head can detect them, we have instruments that can detect them.

AJR: I mean, are there still ongoing attacks? Or is it like, yeah, there was this period that was weird and the big thing that got it started and that's it. Or are people still experiencing this when they're in Havana?

S: So I don't think it's – it's not specific to Havana. These have been reported now all around the world.

AJR: Oh, I thought it was just Havana.

S: No.

AJR: I see. Wow. Okay.

S: So that's another thing. And here's the other possibility. So even – it's possible that this was a real external attack or they were testing this new weapon to see how disruptive it would be or whatever. But it was very limited. But that that sparked the mass delusion, right? And then everything else- And in fact, if this is real, I'm sure there is also a penumbra of delusional cases or just confirmation bias, whatever. There are cases that are not real that are just being attached to it.

AJR: I would be the first to claim such a thing. Power of suggestion is something fierce for me. I'm like, I have it. Yeah. I watched The Diplomat. I'm experiencing it.

S: I think if it's not real, we'll never know. We'll never be able to put it to bed.

J: Steve, why out-rule a poison of some kind?

S: Because that's not the claim, right? Because that wouldn't explain why it's-again, the most specific feature is the location specificity, which implies some kind of directed weapon, directed effect, space-related effect.

AJR: And maybe this is naive, is to what end, if this were a plot some spy, some something, is it they're disrupting meetings or they're making people who are government officials uncomfortable? And what are they doing?

S: That's a good question. And I don't think that really cuts either way, in my opinion. Because do governments do stupid things sometimes? Sure. You know, could you, I could imagine them saying, oh, we could disrupt the military intelligence meetings or whatever by doing this. And they thought that this would somehow be worthwhile and it turned out to be a bust. So they gave up, so they gave it up, you know. It turned out to be a mild annoyance or whatever, you know.

B: Yeah. And they're really giggling now. Like, look what we caused.

S: Yeah. I don't think it was a big geopolitical success in terms of whatever device that they were using. But they probably were trying to see what potential does it have if this is real. So at this point, I think it's probably more likely than not that it isn't real, but I'm not firm on that. I think there might be a real phenomenon at the core of this and then surrounded by, again, just cases that sort of attach to it. And I think the lack of any biological smoking gun is, I think it's irrelevant, honestly. I wouldn't expect there to be, to be honest with you, given the symptoms that people are reporting and the mechanism. Like, we don't see anything in people with migraines. Can't see that on your MRI scan, you know.

AJR: I was going to ask because I get migraines and I was like, is my brain tissue smaller than everyone else? It may be, but it's not.

S: No, I mean you have a little bit more white matter changes with age, right? Like it's the same thing if you have a little bit of high blood pressure or diabetes or if you smoke or whatever. All these things could increase like the amount of white matter lesions and migraines are one of those things. But it's very nonspecific. You can't really diagnose migraine based upon that. And you don't always have that. It's just like if you're 50 or 60 and we see a little bit more than we would expect for age and you have migraines, like, ah, it's all right. There's no smoking gun, but there wouldn't necessarily be one. So I think at the end of the day, we just don't know. It wouldn't really surprise me either way.

J: It fits right in that zone. Like blurry UFO images. You know what I mean?

S: Although I think that I'm much more confident that we're not being visited by aliens, right? I mean, I think that their plausibility is really, really low. And then the evidence, like we would expect there to be evidence that there isn't, et cetera.

AJR: Well, Steve. I think the only evidence you need is that these aliens are causing people to experience Havana syndrome.

S: There you go. The aliens are doing it. But it's interesting, too, because we think about our biases as a skeptic. So certainly, as a skeptic, the mass delusion explanation would be far more satisfying, right? Because it fits the skeptical narrative. We understand mass delusions. We know a lot of historical cases. This would be a great one to add to our list. As I wrote, every skeptic talking about this topic would have a slide about Havana syndrome. We're like, see, it's a cautionary tale, et cetera, et cetera. But I don't think we're quite there. I think that the door is still open for, yeah, this may have been some hostile entity experimenting with a pulsed. I think the sonic weapon is actually more plausible than the EM one. But I totally believe that some kind of post-sonic thing could have made people feel bad and have migraines and feel nauseated, etc. And then didn't really do enough to make it worthwhile. Then people started talking about it. So they stopped doing it and they covered their tracks. And that is compatible with all the information that we have.

AJR: And even the part where it's happening all over the world, not just in the initial location.

S: Again, if it's a real phenomenon, there's also not real parts of it.

AJR: Right.

S: Definitely. Because that would almost have to be. That's just the nature of the beast.

AJR: Right.

S: Yeah. So it doesn't have to be 100%. Like every case of Havana syndrome is real.

AJR: Right. Which is true for every case of any disease.

S: Of everything.

AJR: Yeah. Of everything is the real one. And then the rest of us who feel like we also have it.

S: Yeah. Right, right, right.

AJR: You're right. No, it is a nice story from a skeptical perspective. And I need to check my own lack of skepticism because I like how nice it would be to be like, yep, we're all delusional.

S: Yeah, right. It'd be nice. But it's good to break it down. And so this is how you analyse it and this is how you think about it.

J: So, Andrea, you're basically calling them all liars. Is that what I'm saying?

AJR: That's right. Yeah. I'm experiencing it right now. I don't know what you all are talking about.

J: I'm feeling it, man. I'm disoriented.

B: Yeah. I feel pretty good.

AJR: They're not interested in you, Bob. Okay. They want the state secrets from Jay and me.

S: Clearly.

Robo Taxis in NY (34:10)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about robo-taxis in New York.

J: Let's start here. Let's start with this. We're all in New York City together, right? We hail a taxi, and this is happening tonight. Everything that you know of right now, right? And a driverless car pulls up. Would you guys want to get in or not?

S: Sure. We're in the middle of the city?

J: Right now, in New York City.

S: Yeah, I'd do it.

AJR: I think my bias is if the Novella brothers will do it, I'll come. I don't know if I would do it on my own.

J: Bob?

B: Would we know about it? If it came as a surprise, like, wait, what's happening? Then I'd be a little skeptical. But if we're like, oh, yeah, let's try this new service, I'd want to read up on it.

J: Steve's a yes. Andrea is I'll do what we do.

AJR: Bandwagon effect.

J: Bob, you're being skeptical. Personally, my answer would be I absolutely would not get in.

AJR: Yeah?

J: Yep. Not yet. We're not there yet. This is what's in my head, right? We all have a little bit different information going on. The reason why I ask is because this is going to be a choice that some people are going to be faced with at some point soon in New York City. Maybe not like in the next few months, but it could probably – maybe within a year or so, this could be happening. So what New York City did, they made public this new safety requirements that they came up with. You can think of them as requirements and guidelines. This will be for testing autonomous vehicles in the city. So outside companies that want to test AVs are required to have – of course, there's a whole bunch of stipulations. They have to have something called the safety driver behind the wheel. This isn't some rando person that they just hire. It's not like somebody working for Instacart. This is actually–

AJR: Shots fired at Instacart, but okay, yeah.

J: But this is a real deal. This is going to be someone that's really trained. So this training and having a safety driver in the car has not been required in other cities. Like Phoenix didn't do that. They just let the driverless cars do their testing and didn't require a safety person in there. But New York is really pushing it, saying, no, no, no, we're not going to do that. We're going to have humans behind a wheel and watching the whole time. So the guidelines also stipulate that only companies with prior testing experience in other cities will be considered for the permits and that the permits will last a year. Now, they could be renewed, of course, but they have to renew every year and there's hoops to be jumped through every time you renew them. The safety drivers have to have, of course, a current driver's license. They have to pass background checks. And when they're testing, they're required to take breaks so they can keep their focus up. You know what I mean? Like you don't want someone being a safety driver having to concentrate for hours at a time. Like I think they would be giving them breaks quite frequently. Also, to comply with New York City's safety protocols for autonomous vehicle testing, the applicants need to outline the selection and training process for their test operators. This essentially means that the companies have to very openly show exactly what they're going to be doing to train their drivers. It has to pass whatever the people working for New York City say. They're basically going to give them stipulations that they're going to have to meet. They have to make sure the testers follow the Society of Automotive Engineers best practices, and they'll have to do background checks, like I said, and give the drivers tons of specific training on how to be a test driver. Now, this is again, this is happening in New York City and this isn't the case in other places where they've had driverless cars. And I think it's the right thing to do. I think we're not at that stage yet where we could just be testing driverless cars without having a backup, particularly in New York City, right?

S: Jay, is this going to be the kind of service where they scan the city and these cars are going to be working off of an internal map of the city?

J: I didn't find anything specific on that, Steve, but I was taking my own notes, like asking questions just like you did. So I would assume that they're going to have to do that because it's not just going to be using global positioning. Like they're going to have to know very specific details like things like this at four o'clock the grid is going to get really tight. They're going to have to pick different routes. They're going to have to change the car's behavior because there's going to be way more people in the street at four than there would be at two because of rush hour. Like all that city-specific, corner-specific data that needs to be collected. And the scary part, good but scary, is that there's cameras everywhere in New York City. They could easily be already collecting this information if they already don't have a good dossier on it already. I don't know, but I would imagine that they're going to get as detailed as possible on this.

AJR: I mean, one of the things that actually is sort of heartening about it being in New York City, and I guess it depends on where in the city, like I would hope it would stay off of the highways, sort of the FDR and the West Side Highway, because most of the time, especially in high traffic periods, cars are going very slowly. The concern, obviously, is that they would hit pedestrians. But if anything, I would hope that they would engineer them in such a way that they'd be too cautious around pedestrians and then just never go. And that would be the main reason traffic progresses during rush hour is because some dude decides that he's going to run a red light even though he really shouldn't because the pedestrian's about to take over. And so if the cars are more cautious, we're actually probably going to get more traffic, which is a good problem to have compared to cars recklessly sprinting up and down these streets. If anything, I think that the high density might be safer for testing or you'd have more bumps but fewer fatalities. I don't know.

J: It's hard to predict right? You know because like people who know or New York city, I know New York city and New York city traffic very well and I know you do too Andrea. There is some type of ballet in the chaos, though, right?

AJR: Yeah.

J: As a human, I understand. If you're getting into the left lane and you're going to be making a left-hand turn, don't do it too early because you're going to piss people off. If you're four blocks before that turn, cabs are going to be trying to get around you. There's all of these heuristics that we come up with as drivers that frequent the city that you have to understand. And those cars have to understand that human level thinking in order to kind of get with the flow. Because they didn't say how many vehicles they're going to allow in the city at one time. And I hear what you're saying about it having an effect on traffic and it absolutely will. I mean, especially in the beginning when they haven't really tweaked it up. But if you were to replace 50 percent of the cars in New York City with this, right, then their behavior would kind of take over in a sense. You know what I mean?

B: Oh, sure.

J: Which I think in the long run will be way better because you won't have those crazy cab drivers that are going 60 miles an hour anymore.

AJR: Right. I don't drive very often. I don't have a car, but I am definitely part of the problem in that I will do the last minute get to the left lane so I can turn without having to wait or slow anyone down. And oh, it's yellow, but I'm going to go through because otherwise I'll sit there forever. It's no good. And if everyone drives like me, you're going to be in a place. I used to say that when I was living in China, I was like, everyone in China drives like me and that's bad. And so there's chaos all the time. And so you're right. I think there would be a threshold effect after which we would all be really following the rules and it could actually be more orderly.

J: I was envisioning – I don't know what country this is from or it's definitely happening in multiple countries. But you ever see like those just fantastically complex, crazy traffic systems where like – it's almost like a bunch of insects moving from one place to another because when there's enough people that are kind of pushing in to cross the street, then the cars will kind of stop and then they'll sneak around. That chaos is like the extreme version of what we're – like New York City is not that chaotic but – those cars are going to have to be able to handle like really complicated, quick and life-threatening decisions because of just – the stakes are pretty damn high in New York City when it comes to driving.

AJR: Well, I'm almost thinking of those stories you would hear about when we're training algorithms that play – computers to play chess and they do really well against really good chess players. But you put them up against a novice who does all kinds of random crap. They actually don't perform as well. I feel like the robots have to deal with that because in New York, it's just all manner. I mean, I ride bikes a lot in New York and then there's the e-bikes that people are on and their scooters and people are weaving in and out. And it's just. I'm going to keep an eye out now more like. I don't think a robot like the algorithm would have to be pretty nuanced. You know, it's like, oh, at First Avenue, you can kind of do that right, even though you're not supposed to, because otherwise you'll never get anywhere or whatever, you know.

J: Yeah. So let me tell you some more things that I think are pretty interesting. So the applicant companies are also going to have to give comprehensive overviews of their AV technology, the automation level, the safety performance. This will include previous testing outcomes and crash records. So New York City is not messing around here. They're like, you're going to have to have completely open books with us. We want to be on the inside and see everything so we can assure residents that this is going to be safe, which I think is the absolute right way to do it. New York City DOT, Department of Transportation, wants to make sure that the A.V. testing doesn't interfere. Like we were talking about with the usual traffic flow and overall safety, which is good to hear. But I really don't know how they're going to do that. Like they are definitely making lists of wants here that I would love to see how they become real. Like how are you going to get it from like a piece of paper to like actually built into the software on these autonomous vehicles? The other thing too is as the – an interesting stat here. The safety of driverless vehicles goes down as the number of pedestrians goes up, right?

AJR: Yikes.

J: Right? It's a one-to-one. As one goes down, the other one goes up. So I'd say like I said before, like I consider New York driving and pedestrian density as pretty damn hostile. What I'm worried about is they might be trying to start something in an atmosphere that is just too aggressive to learn there. You know what I mean? You would think that they would want to–

B: Baybe steps?

J: Yeah. Do something like maybe only let them do it in a certain region at a certain time. Start out like that and kind of branch out from there. You know, I know that the testing, like I said, has been done in other cities. And progress is being made, guys. Like driverless cars are functioning better today than they were five years ago. They are. Like we said many times on the show, though, it's a slow, steady creep here. We didn't get to the finish line as quick as we thought. We were making just like battery enhancements. It's not dramatic changes, but worthwhile changes and updates are happening all the time. And efforts like this, I think, can really help. But, man, New York City I can't get over that.

AJR: Yeah. I mean, I'm also now thinking through there are a lot of cultural differences in terms of how people drive here. And it's if you grew up here versus if you grew up driving somewhere else, or if you're a taxi driver versus if you're a courier versus if you're just rented a car and just trying to make your way. Like, I just feel like, yes, there are other places, at least in the U.S., where there are drivers that are like, some are commuters and some are local and whatever. But I feel like New York is just such a mix of you can't even learn like overall driving styles because it's just such absolute madness.

J: So now that we've talked about this, guys, Steve, would you change your mind?

S: Well, one of the main reasons why I said yes is because I think of New York traffic as being really slow and like you're constantly in a traffic jam. So it's not that risky.

J: Well, I don't know about that. I mean there are very frequently when I'm in the city, like there's the crazy cab drivers going on your left and on your right. There are streets where you would think I should be able to take a left here because the streets are one way, most of them. And then when you want to take that left, like this particular corner, you can't take a left.

AJR Right.

J: You know what I mean? Like there's all of that stuff. Like I would think right now I would just not do it. I would want to see the safety records and all that stuff.

AJR: One of the things I found myself thinking about as you described this, Jay, is like one of the hardest parts about driving in New York is the parking signs are very confusing in some places. And the number of times that either I or I have—

B: Oh, my God, yes.

AJR: Right? You watch people and you're like, okay, no standing between 4 to 6. Taxis only from seven to nine. I mean, I can stay here from six to seven. Do I pay? Do I not pay? And then you get a ticket anyway. And so if these cars can figure that out my my brother has a car. And when he comes to park near me, we just have to go out and study every single time. Like, well, there's this one area that says you can park here except on a school day. And I found myself in my rental car looking up the academic calendar and being like, is there summer? It was like an early May Sunday night. And I was like, is Monday morning a school day? I don't know. And it's madness. So if they can figure that out.

J: Andrea, you know what? I've thought about this. I mean, I've been towed in New York when I was younger. I've been towed.

AJR: Yeah.

J: Let me tell you something. I don't think that that is an accident. I think that is deliberate.

AJR: Yeah.

J: Because they make a shitload of money. When they tow your car. You're in it for hundreds of dollars.

AJR: It's very expensive. That's true.

J: If they tow a couple of thousand people a day, that adds up quick.

AJR: Yeah.

B: I totally buy that. There was even people who would go street to street and they would investigate every sign and then they would create another sign that said it – that had the same effect but in plain language. So it was obvious what the stupid sign meant. And I don't think they still – I don't know if they even do that anymore. But I love those people, whoever they were, because those signs pissed me off.

AJR: Literally, I've lived in the same neighborhood forever, and people will visit and say, oh, can we park near you? And I actually don't know. I think if it's before 6 a.m. on a Sunday, yes. But other than that, I really couldn't tell you. Yeah, I think it is on purpose. That's a good point.

Rebellions and Cultural Memory (48:01)[edit]

S: All right, Andrea, you sent us a really interesting article about rebellions and cultural memory.

AJR: Yes. So I was so excited to find this article and so thrilled that our timing for this episode is such that it's relevant. So I was looking up the other day what kind of social science goes on during solar eclipses, particularly total solar eclipses like the one coming up, because there's so much excitement around the solar eclipse for many reasons. And one of the things that I'm reading a lot about, and I'm sure you all are reading it and talking about it, is there's all this opportunity for citizen science, and NASA can take all these great pictures of the sun, and da-da-da-da. So I was digging around to see if I could find anything interesting related to solar eclipses and social science, and I was so thrilled to find this paper. Now, I want to say it's not peer-reviewed. It's a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, so you can find it online. There's a couple different versions of the PDF. The one I'm working from is from 2022. But it's called Eclipses and the Memory of Revolutions Evidence from China. And now I want to start actually by asking you three, what would you say are the top reasons why? What causes protests in a society? Think of like BLM or if you want to call January 6th a protest. Like what are the big drivers of protests that come to mind?

S: Yeah, I would say it's economic.

B: Yeah, that's pretty big right there.

J: Also, if you're a minority, just not being treated well, just not being equal from your perception.

AJR: So some inequity or inequality, right? So I have no resources. Someone over there, usually the government, usually someone rich has all of them, so I'm upset. Or I'm experiencing some other kind of inequality, inequity, lack of justice that often is tied financially but is some sort of thing. And so why would you say that one country, so this kind of level of inequality exists in different forms all over the world. What do you think might make one country more likely to deal with that problem via protests as opposed to deal with that problem via some other route, maybe waiting out elections, maybe some other kind of disagreement with the government that isn't a protest form. Maybe you go on a boycott or something like that or a sit-in. What do you think would make a country more prone to protests?

S: I think probably how desperate the people are.

B: Well, like less fear of like a government overreaction.

AJR: Like less likelihood that you're going to get thrown into jail or more of a belief that it's going to actually do something. Probably, right?

B: Yeah.

AJR: Yeah, no, you're absolutely right. The general set of research on protests is around, look, there's two reasons kind of two big levers. Is this society going to lead in a protest? Yes, there's some grievance. That's particularly bad. It turns out that it can be equally bad in different places. You know, the level of inequality or the lack of justice in one country versus another or one county versus another is roughly the same. And we do see protests in one area and we don't in another. And the big drivers there are, yeah, do you think the protest is going to make a difference? And then the two levers that social scientists have focused on are, one, individually, am I upset enough that I'm going to protest? Sort of like, what's my individual rational choice calculation on whether or not I should protest, whether it's going to do something, whether I really care enough about this issue? And then the other one is this social aspect, which is protests happen. It's a collective action. And so protests tend to happen when I believe other people are going to protest, too. And this gets to the point I think, Bob, you just made, which is how how likely am I to get what I'm protesting for? And am I likely to get thrown into jail? And the more of us that hit the streets, the fewer of us the higher the chances are that I can protest without. They can't put all of us in jail, right? And so social scientists have been studying protests. Why do we see protests? Why do we not see protests? In all kinds of different areas and mostly focused on those particular things. Like, why would an individual participate in a protest? Like, if I'm sitting at home, I see the BLM protests after George Floyd, or I see these other protests, what makes me individually join it? It turns out one of the biggest predictors there is whether I've been in a protest in the past. So it's your... Whatever your gateway protest was, it makes you more likely to participate in future protests. And then the collective action problem is, is there some big thing that's happening that signals to everyone that this is the moment and we can get over the coordination problem of not running the risk of hitting – I hit Union Square and I'm the only person in there and the police cart me away, right? And so the George Floyd summer – is a classic example of this, where this big event took place. Everyone in the United States observed this event, and then it was very clear, like, okay, we're going to take action, and that moment is now, which is why we saw it at that particular moment. This paper, so I'm getting to eclipses, because this paper says, what about a third... possibility or all three could take place. But what about a third possibility? And this is a possibility that tends to live more in kind of like cultural and humanities research, which says that some cultures or countries or places have a history or a culture of protest. And I'm not an expert on this, but just anecdotally, France comes to mind for me. I feel like that's one if there's something going on in the country that people disagree with, protests seem like a first reaction as opposed to, oh, letters to the editor or petitions or elections or whatever. And I lived in Bolivia for a little while, and I felt like every other day there was a protest about something. So some countries, some cultures have a stronger inclination to use protests as a tool than other countries, even if you hold constant their level of grievance or inequality or probability of getting thrown into jail. Or whatever else. So that's kind of the idea. But there's never been a meaningful way to study that. And so you're kind of left with these just so stories that are like, well, there were always protests. And so you're more likely to keep having protests. And if a culture had a protest in the past, it had a protest in the future. But you couldn't ever tease out what was causing it. And like maybe there was just a lot of injustice during that time. So this paper, I just am stunned, and I hope it comes out and is peer-reviewed, and it looks plausible to me insofar as I've been able to parse through the data. But they took advantage of a cultural belief in China that it's a Confucian belief that that solar eclipses are a sign from the heavens. This is scientific, I promise. Solar eclipses are a sign from the heavens that the emperor is not doing a good job. So during the Qing Dynasty, which is the period that they studied, and this was between 1644 and 1912, which is 268 years, so almost three decades, During the Qing Dynasty, Confucianism was kind of the way of life, and they show a bunch of evidence to say that a lot of people believed this. This was kind of the main way of thinking. It was what everyone agreed on. And in the Confucian tradition, any natural disaster or celestial phenomena that happens is interpreted as the heavens weighing in on how well the emperor is doing. So some of these things could be a sign that, oh, the emperor is really great. Some of them could be a sign that the emperor is really bad. And we almost see this in the U.S. where they say, oh, we had Hurricane Katrina because God hates conservatives or whatever. We kind of drum that stuff up. But in this case, it really was taken very seriously. And total solar eclipses were seen as the most serious condemnation of the leaders. And total solar eclipses are something that are widely observable by everybody in a particular area. So just like the murder of George Floyd was something that everyone in the U.S. could observe, a total solar eclipse we have one coming up in the U.S., everyone can see it. And so their argument, and it's like slightly complicated, but it works out in the data in, I think, a pretty compelling way. Their argument is that total solar eclipses happened in China over these 300 years of the Qing Dynasty. And during the times that we had these total solar eclipses, that was a coordinating moment for people who were going to have uprisings. And they were largely, Steve, as you said, they were peasant uprisings against inequality of wealth. They were much more likely during these total solar eclipses because it was a shared signal that, aha, see, the emperor is weak. The emperor is no good. We're going to actually get what we're asking for if we go to a protest. And so they have a three-tiered study. Step one is, are peasant uprisings in the Qing dynasty more likely during total solar eclipses in China? And they map— protest data against NASA data on total solar eclipses and find, lo and behold, yes, you are more likely to see protests during the periods when there is a total solar eclipse. Then they compare it to protests today, and I believe it's from 2001 to 2013 is what they do. So it's not super, super recent, but recent enough to be interesting. So they compare protests in China between 2001 and 2013, against the history of protests in these places, and they find that places in China that were in the path of the total solar eclipse way back in the Qing Dynasty, this is 1600s, 1700s, and so on, are today more likely to see anti-government protests about wealth inequality than those that were not in the path of totality hundreds of years ago. And I just found it to be stunning. Some caveats. So the magnitude is not massive. The coefficient here is very, very small. So one additional rebellion between 1644 and 1912 predicts 0.2% more episodes of social unrest from 2001 to 2013. But it's insofar as we care, it's statistically robust and they do a number of different estimates. Is it overall protests? Is it protests per capita? Is it protest participants? Is it how serious is the unrest? So it's robust to all of those things. And what's so cool about this to me is they've also made sure that these solar eclipses are orthogonal to anything that might be causing social unrest. So you could be thinking, well, maybe the total solar eclipses in China happened along the coast more often or in an area where there were more farmers, and so therefore it was agriculture. And they were able to... Hold constant those various things and also show that total solar eclipses they have some maps of the paths like the one we're seeing in the U.S. It's really stretching across a big stretch of the country. And over 300 years, there were quite a lot crisscrossing. And so they, I think, pretty compellingly hold constant any other effects of like, yeah, something else could have been going on in that area that made it both more likely to have. And more likely to have total solar eclipses. So I'm a fan of a natural experiment. They're very hard to pull off, but this is a very cool one where they took advantage of this fact that, hey, we interpret total solar eclipses to mean something. Therefore, we're going to behave in a certain way. And now, hundreds of years later, we're seeing that there are actually slightly more protests in these areas. The last piece I'll say on this, and it's a fascinating paper. It's free online. Again, not perfect. The weakest argument, but one that I do want to mention because I'm curious what you guys think, is their third one, which is what is it? What's the mechanism by which this memory, this shared history of protest is passed on from a place hundreds of years ago to now? And it could be storytelling. It could be the people who were involved. It could be the families. They zoom in on whether or not after these protests took place, this peasant uprising took place, whether or not there were statues or other public monuments put up to commemorate that uprising. So a lot of revolutions in China have been the result of uprisings. And so they play a very, very big role, kind of like how we put civil war leaders in statues and other things, which obviously is... is controversial. They argue that the places that have these monuments to that social unrest are the ones where you're even more likely to see social unrest today. I find that to be kind of less compelling. A, is that really the mechanism? And B, it also kind of muddies the causal story that they're telling about a culture of it. Like maybe it was just something that was so significant, therefore I put up a monument, therefore I'm going to continue to protest. And so I actually think it kind of weakens their argument. But overall, I think the stark difference of if you experience the total solar eclipse when Confucianism was the rule of the day, you're more likely to see protests now, I find to be very exciting. And you think about parts of the US, you think about other parts of the world where we follow protests, the Hong Kong protests. And it's interesting to think about the impact of a culture that we're building today for protests. I think about it in light of January 6th and what sort of culture. A single event isn't going to do it, but... But just being able to trace this historical effect is interesting. But mostly, I think it's just a brilliant research design. And so rarely do we get to see this kind of stuff in the social sciences. So I was just thrilled that they're doing it.

S: Yeah, I mean, I think on its face, the idea that that cultural memory can last for centuries, I think, is plausible. You know, a lot of people, historians think that there's a lot of a lot in the American character today that derives from the friggin pilgrims. You know what I mean? Like we're more puritanical than Europe is. Still after hundreds of years. You look at the different regions of the United States and why are Minnesotans like Minnesotans? Well, because it was settled by people from Nordic countries. You know what I mean? Like the character of the people who settled different regions of the U.S. 200, 300 years ago is still observable in these regional cultures today. So I think that to me, it seems totally plausible that there would be some cultural influence that goes back centuries. I mean, culture has a lot of momentum. And from what you're saying, if I understood it correctly, that cultural inertia is just this sense that we're more likely to protest if we think other people are going to protest with us. And an eclipse is when people protest. So that will make it more likely for me to protest.

AJR: Right. It helps us overcome the collective action problem or the coordination problem, which is you know, and that's why you see after George Floyd is such a sad example, but a very strong example of this where there's been injustice against black Americans for a very long time. But then this thing happens and everyone says, oh. I know that if I take to the streets today, a lot of other people are likely to join me because we all just observed this same thing. And then, of course, there's network effects, and we can get each other – encourage one another and communicate. But generally speaking, a challenge of protest is – collective action problem. And so it's helpful to see a big thing. You know, you think about the Arab Spring it was the incident in Tunisia that sparked, literally, I shouldn't have used that word, everyone to take to the streets. So usually something big has to happen. And so their argument is this total solar eclipse is a rare enough yet totally shared experience that helps us overcome this collective action problem because we know that it's a sign that government's not doing their job and what better signal of weakness and what better moment to take to the streets than this

S: Right? Interesting. That's really fascinating. Yeah.

AJR: I mean, I don't know if any of you are planning on protesting during the solar eclipse coming up, but I think it could be a good moment to do it.

J: I think I might just spontaneously do it.

AJR: Yeah. Yeah.

B: If there's cloud cover, I will certainly be protesting.

AJR: Yes, there you go. There you go. Well, the other piece of this that I guess I was just excited about is that, and maybe you all are reading this in the news too, is that most of the social science research I find on this, and it's valuable and it's fine, but most of the research that I'm seeing is, oh, total solar eclipse are a wonderful time for humanity to come together. And the Washington Post had an article this week that said despite our differences and it's a polarized country and blah, blah, blah, we can all experience the same eclipse. And won't that bring harmony to our country? And there's a study a couple of years ago that even evaluated tweets and people who were in the path of totality in 2017 were more likely to tweet things related to awe and shared experiences and humanity. And those just sort of seem like, I guess, I guess that's fine. And I guess that's good. And of course, I love that. It's like an awesome event and people describe it as life-changing and that's wonderful. But as far as social science goes, I find it more kind of descriptive and slightly obvious, maybe. Maybe I'm being jaded. But this, to me, just the fact that they were able to leverage this into a natural experiment felt very exciting. And I wonder what else we could do take advantage of events, natural events that are largely, if not exclusively, orthogonal to human experiences and see what we can learn about humans and society's.

Gravitational Waves and Human Life (1:05:30)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us how gravitational waves are responsible for human life.

B: Yeah, this was kind of an interesting little talk. It reminded me of Connections, the show Connections, Steve, showing the linkages between various technologies. So this was a new study that links gravitational waves created by neutron star collisions to the existence of life on Earth as we know it, including, of course, humanity. This paper was submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and has not been peer-reviewed yet. You can see it on the online archive server. The name of the study is Do We Owe Our Existence to Gravitational Waves? Now, you may think that colliding neutron stars and the gravitational waves they produce are quaint and mildly interesting astronomical phenomenon. First of all, shame on you. They are far more than that. I know. Of course, I'm kidding. I know everyone is desperately in love with gravitational waves. Even evolution deniers like them. Yeah, they're just endlessly fascinating to me. So life as we know it absolutely requires many of the fundamental elements of the universe, obviously, right? Hydrogen, for example, is forged in the Big Bang, and it's critical for us for obvious reasons. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, they're high on the critically important element list as well. They come from helium fusion within many, many different types of stars. In total, there's over 20 elements that are generally considered to be of vital importance to our existence. But it depends what website you're looking at, right? Because some websites say there's 20 of them. Some say there's 25. Some say there's 28. So that's why I'm just going to say there's over 20 elements. Whichever elements they are though, if the atomic number is less than 35, as most of them are among these most important ones, then they were synthesized in giant stars and dispersed in supernovae explosions. But two elements though that are generally considered to be incredibly important, they're distinctive though in this context. They're iodine and bromine. Iodine is an element found in thyroid hormones, which critically impacts our growth and development, our heart rate, even our body temperatures. Bromine is also very, very important. It's critical for collagen scaffolding in our bodies, tissue development from the most primitive sea creature to the most primitive human. This is very important stuff, elements that are – life on earth would not be as it is if it weren't for just iodine and bromine. For iodine and bromine, for those elements to exist. As we see it, supernovae don't really cut it like the other elements. The process is incredibly complicated in supernovae and we're not sure exactly what's going on and how iodine and bromine are created. Primary source is thought to be neutron star collisions because that's where a wonderful thing happens called the R process. The R process refers to what's called the rapid neutron capture process. This is what's creating these elements and many of the heavier stable elements. So this happens when a heavy atomic nucleus holds on to and grabs a series of very, very free neutrons one after the other really, really fast. And it has to be fast because if you have a lot of neutrons jumping into a nucleus, it's generally just going to radioactively decay, right? Specifically beta decay. So if it happens really, really fast, though, these neutrons get together really fast. You get two critical things happening. You get a very high density, which is thought to be 10 to the 24, which is about a septillion neutrons per cubic centimeter. And with that, you also get, as you might expect, a very, very high temperature. For this, it's around a billion Kelvin. Which is pretty damn hot. So if you have both of those, that incredible density and temperature, then the neutrons are absorbed and heavier isotopes are synthesized. And so that is a rapid neutron capture process, the R process that can create many elements, many of the heavier elements, but especially iodine and bromine. Now, like I said before, the R process in supernovae has a lot of theoretical uncertainty with it and for that reason, the authors don't focus on that. The one place though where we are very confident that the R process happens in abundance is a kilonova explosion, which happens when neutron stars collide. So now the authors then take this step back and they ask, well, what caused this collision that created those critical elements? And they say in their paper, neutron star collisions occur because binary systems lose energy by emitting gravitational waves. So these fundamental physics phenomena may have made human life possible, which is kind of like the big bottom line of their study. So in the future, the researchers would like to more solidly link this gravitational waves to human evolution. With the core collapse supernovas, we're not really sure theoretically and mathematically exactly what's happening with the R process. We're not really sure how much supernovae are contributing to bromine and iodine. But the other thing that they suggest is that we could potentially more definitively prove that iodine is created in neutron star collisions to really augment their argument in their paper. They suggest that we might detect iodine in lunar regolith that could then be tied to a specific historic kilonova explosion. And in that way, we could say, yes, see, there is this link between gravitational waves and life on Earth. So perhaps we'll see in the future if they do those studies. It's fun though – and that was my approach to this. It's just fun to imagine yet another roll of the dice, another contingency of life as we know it on Earth due this time to ultimately an incredibly rare collision in the universe, colliding neutron stars. They happen and we're detecting them. But imagine in the immensity of the universe, it's very, very rare and yet it could be a critical – they could create a critical component to life as we know it caused ultimately by their release of gravitational waves. So that was their study.

AJR: As you were describing it, Bob, I kept finding myself thinking about all those salt containers that I've seen over the years that say, this salt contains iodine, a necessary nutrient. I was like, you don't even know how necessary.

B: Thank you, killanova.

AJR: Yeah, yeah. I was like, now I understand why I need it. Yeah.

S: Yeah, but again, life evolved to use what was there, right?

B: Exactly.

S: So if it wasn't there, there would be life that wasn't dependent on its existence. The fact that there's some stuff in the universe that's unlikely to exist or that is the product of a rare process makes sense. The universe is big. It's been around for a long time. So a lot of rare stuff happens all the time.

B: Yeah. To me, it was just fun to have this connection between this esoteric astronomical subject like gravitational waves, which a lot of people – if you don't – if you listen to this podcast, you have heard me blather on about them many times. But for a lot of people, they are just like whatever. They've never even heard of it. And to think that there could be some tight link between something like gravitational waves, which are these utterly ethereal vibrations in spacetime itself, could potentially – auger the existence of life forms on Earth that need these critical elements. And of course, absolutely, if they didn't exist, then life would exist without them. But it's just funny to see these connections.

AJR: Do you think very dense gravitational waves could be causing Havana syndrome?

B: Ah, interesting. No, because then everybody on the Earth would be constantly like...

AJR: Nauseous.

B: Yes.

S: Yeah, unless somebody has a gravitational wave producer, like a gravitational wave gun.

B: Oh, God. Good luck with that. And it weighs a nonillion tons.

S: I didn't say it was practical.

AJR: That's the problem with science fiction is it breaks all the rules.

B: Tell me a good story. You could break it a little. Don't go crazy with the breaking. You know, give me a couple of gimme's and then tell me a good story with it and I'll be very happy.

AJR: But you're right. And to Steve's point, we could all be sitting here as different forms of life who don't need iodine and bromine to live and be talking about. Imagine if we needed those things, how silly we'd be.

B: Yeah, for that, I think it would be – it strikes me that it would be a little bit trivial to get around them. But if you said, yeah, do away with carbon, then that's a problem. That's a huge problem. Then you're talking about a life form that's just like, oh boy, so different, ridiculously different and probably not as adaptable, not as variable because as we all know, carbon is just an amazing element to base life around because it just – it could – It's easily changeable and adaptable. It could hook up to so many different things that it's really – there's nothing like it. There could be life forms based on other elements out there.

S: Silicon?

B: There probably are. But I think they would be very diminished in terms of the types of life you could have.

AJR: I'm hearing that Bob is quite the carbon-

S: Affitionado?

AJR: -superiority. Carbon supremacy advocate over here.

S: Carbon makes a lot of bonds, and they're very flexible, right? So you can go to silicon, which is right below it on the periodic table, and it does make a similar number of bonds, but they're not as flexible as carbon is. So it just won't have the same chemistry. Carbon chemistry is unique, which is why there's carbon-based life, right? There is a whole branch of chemistry dedicated to carbon.

B: It's a pretty easy bet to say that. I bet most life in the universe is based on carbon. It seems like a solid bet. But yet again, we have one data point. Who knows?

AJR: Would silicon be the next most likely or is that even that question too muddied by my own?

B: There's actually a bunch that are reasonable to expect. Silicon is kind of up there, I think. And there's even more that can plausibly create some type of life. But as we've been saying, though, nothing is like carbon. Carbon is king in that regard.

AJR: Carbon is king.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:15:28)[edit]

Email #1: Evolution of gullibility[edit]

S: All right, well, we have at least one email this week. This one comes from Malcolm, and he writes, Great show, as everyone says. Nevertheless, it is. My question, what's the evolutionary benefit of gullibility? My premise is, one, there appears to be a long history of received wisdom about how the world works. e.g., it is what it is. That goes back to in written text at least as far as Gilgamesh and therefore probably further. This trait, despite on the face of it inclining towards not very useful because, well, reality, dude, has survived and flourishes. Traits can survive without being useful if they're not harmful, but given the small percentage of skeptics, it suggests an advantage. Given this, is there an evolutionary benefit to gullibility, and if so, what? Asking for a friend, he says with a winky eye emoji. Keep it up, guys. Seriously, lots of us out here admire what you do. Thank you, Malcolm. So basically he's saying that given that gullibility is pretty much a universal human condition throughout history, that it's not useful because it doesn't allow you to track your beliefs with reality. And yet it seems to be the dominant form of humanity. Why is that? Is that because there's an evolutionary advantage or benefit to gullibility? What do you guys think?

B: Well, I mean I think gullibility is a byproduct of being a social species, having an open mind, being social. But I think that culture has amplified and exposed our gullibility. It's weaponized it in ways that you wouldn't have – I don't think you would have seen centuries ago or millennia ago.

AJR: Yeah, I'm inclined towards where Bob began, which is that, yeah, it seems to be kind of like an outcropping of cooperation, being in a society, listening to one another. But maybe on a collective evolutionary perspective it's individuals, traits that are advantageous for individuals matter, of course, but traits that matter for groups probably matter even more. And so groups that have higher gullibility, meaning they listen to their leader and will march into war with them, might actually outperform those that think for themselves and separate. And so it actually might cause, you might want cultures from an evolutionary perspective, cultures that are more gullible because then you listen to whoever's in charge and you kind of work, all the coordination problems we were talking about earlier. But I agree with Bob that there is a level at which information either travels too fast or the wrong information travels and gullibility becomes a problem and maybe we're running into that. But I could certainly see it being an advantage. If you're trying to defeat another country, you want everyone to be as gullible as possible because then they'll listen to you.

S: Yeah, I think the best way to think about evolutionary forces like that, selective pressures, is that everything's a trade-off. You know, like we tend to think of like better or worse superior and inferior out competing. But in reality, most evolutionary pressures are a lateral move and most of them involve a lot of tradeoffs. And like, for example, birds can fly and flying is a massive advantage in terms of evading predators and hunting for prey and whatever. But, right, comes at a massive calorie cost, energy cost and therefore it persists in species that their behavior makes it a good trade-off but it may tip over to being just not a good trade-off and then they lose their ability to fly-

B: Flightless birds.

S: It's not an always a net positive it's. Even having eyes, like if you live in a cave, the eyes are a detriment because you can poke them and get infected and whatever. So there's an advantage to not having them. So especially when you talk about behavior, which is so complicated, I think you guys hit upon the big one. So oftentimes, not only are traits trade-offs, but there are competing traits. And often evolution is a balance among multiple factors. And that balance is in some kind of sweet spot, but there's probably a range of different balances that can occur depending on different strategies, even within a population, within a species. You know what I mean? Like you could adopt an alpha male strategy or a beta male strategy in the same species, and they're both viable. They're just different choices that individuals make, which create different selective pressures, et cetera. So I wonder if the same kind of thing is at play here. So I think the other pressure that you guys are talking about is the cohesiveness of your population, your tribe, your village, your people, right? For war is one thing, but not only that, just – hey, we're all going to go over there now. We're all going to migrate to do whatever. We know that humans have hard wiring to listen to our leaders. There's MRI studies now that show if you listen to a charismatic leader within your in-group, it literally turns off your reality testing. You get more gullible. You literally get more gullible when you're listening to somebody speak who is charismatic and you identify with as part of your group.

B: We've seen that writ large in American politics.

AJR: I can't think of who you'd be referring to, Bob, but okay. Yeah.

S: Well you wonder, like, how could somebody like Adolf Hitler capture a country? And that's how that happens.

AJR: I wonder less these days, unfortunately. Yeah.

S: And we've talked before also about another tradeoff. And this is the false positive versus false negative tradeoff. So let's say that your friend says, hey, don't go over there. I was over there and I heard a tiger growling, right? Now, are you going to just believe your friend and stay away from there? Or are you going to say, I don't know. That could have been anything. How do I know it was a tiger? How do I know this guy isn't lying to me? I'm going to check it out for myself. I think we are descended from the people who just believe their friend and didn't go over there and that the people who went over there were eaten and we are not their descendants. Right?

J: So fear is really powerful.

S: And so there may be an evolution. The evolutionary balance of like false positive to false negative may favour false positives, meaning that you're better off believing potential threats and being gullible actually will probably make you really cautious. Whereas being a curious skeptic may not be the most advantageous in terms of your survival. But ultimately, it's very context-dependent. But you can certainly see how those balances, those trade-offs would exist, right? And they would be different in different contexts at different times, different places, different cultures, etc. And also, again, and you hit upon this, Andrea, although the whole idea of group selections are controversial, I think, still within evolutionary biologists, as is many aspects of evolutionary psychology. But the idea that are there group level selective pressures like is the balance of traits within a tribe be selected for? Are some tribes more likely to survive than other tribes or other groups of people, other sub-populations? Because they have some percentage of their population who's able to do something like lead into war. While they contain other subsets of people who are more thoughtful and able to problem solve. And other groups of people who are more nurturing or whatever. And so it's not like this trait is always in every context superior or more advantageous or selected for versus these other traits. It depends on what role you're fitting in society. And also there's so much variability. There's so much neurological variability. I have to wonder if variability itself is selected for. You know what I mean?

AJR: Right. I mean, you want a mix of and this is an oversimplification, but you want a mix of people who are going to look for the tiger and a mix of people who are definitely not going to look for the tiger.

S: If we think about modern society we need soldiers and doctors and politicians and whatever. We need all these different and scientists and teachers. We need all these different kinds of people to make society work. And engineers, and thank goodness there are engineers who have maybe a different statistical profile neurologically than, say, somebody who's a rock star. Although, I don't know, do we really need rock stars? I don't know. Well, entertainers, you know what I mean?

AJR: What happens when Brian can't come on the show? We dismiss it. Another thing you said, Steve, made me think about the, you mentioned sort of like the in-group and the tribe and the, I'm thinking of like, you want a sense of belonging and one way to have a sense of belonging and communicate is your trust of others is to listen to what they say. But there's also a bunch of research in information and communication, which is basically, like you said, like you're listening to a trusted charismatic speaker, it's an information shortcut. And so at an individual level, it's just easier for me to listen to the person rather than have to work through every single problem myself. Should I take the vaccine? Is this happening? Is this real? Is the earth flat? I just turn to the person who I think is the authority and listen to whatever they say. And so on a local short-term level, it can be very advantageous for me to get these. In political science, we call them information shortcuts. I'm sure that's...

S: Heuristic.

AJR: Heuristic, yeah.

S: Yeah, so it's a mental shortcut. And listening to experts is not an unreasonable shortcut. They're not always correct, though. So if it's absolute, you will be led astray at some point in time. And also, there's the emotional desire for simplicity. If you feel overwhelmed, say, well, I'm just going to do whatever this guy says. He's smarter than me. He's more knowledgeable.

AJR: Well, I said that earlier about the driver-less taxis. So, yeah. Yeah.

Who's That Noisy? (1:24:58)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Modified sousaphone – The sousaphone playing triggers MIDI notes on synthesizer; video game controller lowers & oscillates frequency into dubstep sub-bass noises.

S: All right, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

J: All right, guys, last week I played This Noisy.

[deep musical warbling and pulsating, with light background percussion]

What do you guys think that is?

S: I mean, it definitely sounds musical, which makes me think that it's some kind of instrument.

AJR: Yeah, my guess was an AI-generated song of some kind.

J: What do you think, Bob?

B: I think frog.

S: A frog?

J: You think it's a digital frog?

AJR: I hope Bob's right.

J: All right, well, a listener named Darren Pecusick, he gave me the phonetics for his name. Yeah, okay, I can see that now. I don't know why I can't pronounce last names. Anyway, he said he's from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Canada, right? Now, have any of you guys ever been to Saskatchewan?

AJR: No, I'd love to go.

J: Well, it is like – talk about wide open space. Like, oh, my God. It's a huge area of land north of the U.S. And it's very – from what I've read about it, there is not a lot of people that live there. So Darren is one of the few who live in Saskatchewan.

AJR: Holding down the fort. Good, Darren.

J: So he says he's a longtime listener. This is his first time guessing. And he said, I believe this is an electronic wind instrument. Although they can be used to replicate the sound of traditional wind instruments, they are more often used to create synthetic sounds. I'm going to say that is a very good guess. Very, very good guess. Not completely there, but nonetheless a very good guess. Killy Hill wrote in, said, hi, Jay. I'll guess it's a contemporary song played through an early recording technology like a cylinder record. I know exactly what you're talking about, but you're not correct. Visto Tutti wrote in. He said, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo, woo. Wow, man. Acid flashback to the 90s. Sounds like analog worms attacking. So then he goes, this is a Korg MS-20 bass synth kicking in the E's.

AJR: Wow.

J: Man, I think he was drunk when he wrote that.

AJR: I love it.

J: You are incorrect, but I love your answer. And I have another listener here. This listener's name is Osha Johnson. Hi, Jay. Greetings from India. This week's noisy reminds me of horror movies from the 70s and 80s like Kubrick and Carpenter. So I think it's a synthesizer, probably a Moog. Okay, so all of these guesses are provocative and in their own way good. Some more close than others. But let me tell you what the answer is. So the winner for this week is a listener named Jordan, Jordan Smith. And he says, this week's noisy was definitely a modified sousaphone, right? You guys know what a sousaphone is?

AJR: No.

J: Well, a sousaphone is very similar to a tuba. So basically a sousaphone is considered a type of tuba. So for the purposes of this game that we're playing right now, just think of it as a – I think it's a smaller looking tuba, right? So this is a modified sousaphone used to play dubstep sub-bass noises. The Salsa Steps on Instagram uses his sousaphone playing to trigger a MIDI note on his synthesizer and has repurposed an Xbox controller to basically lower the frequency and oscillate the frequency. Very, very cool. So let me play this for you again, knowing now that you're basically hearing a modified tuba.

[plays Noisy]

If you played this for me and I had to guess what it is, some of the breathing in that instrument sounds like a didgeridoo.

B: Yeah, you're right.

J: I would have guessed probably something digitally changing a didgeridoo because it is really cool. I didn't realize that the breath in a tuba had a similar, somehow similar affectation as a didgeridoo does, but very cool. I thought that was a really, really fun one.

B: It reminds me of Logan's Run, some of the sound effects in Logan's Run.

J: Totally, Bob.

J: Yeah, I totally hear that as well.

New Noisy (1:29:22)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for you guys this week. It was sent in by a listener named Jared Zimmerman, and here it is.

[Animal? honking/squeaking noises]

You know, I keep saying this. One of the things I love about who's that noisy is that I can hear so many different things that could possibly make that noise. When I hear that, I'm like, I don't even want to say it because I'm sure people are going to guess. But I just think that's so cool. Like without context, your brain can just assign it to so many different things.

AJR: Yeah. No, I can't wait to hear the range of answers that people send in. And yeah, I'm sure what I'm thinking is very different from what you're thinking.

Announcements (1:30:06)[edit]

J: So, Andrea, do you know that we're all going to Dallas this weekend?

AJR: I did know that. I am very excited for you.

J: Yeah, I know. We're really looking forward to it. By the time people are hearing this, if you hear this show on the Saturday that it comes out, which will be the 6th, we will be doing an extravaganza that night. And then the day after, on Sunday the 7th, we will be doing two SGU live shows. Almost back to back. It's very unlikely that anybody that hears this will have time to buy tickets and go. But if you happen to be in Dallas, you can go to the Skeptic's Guide homepage where we still have some tickets available for the – we almost sold out of the extravaganza, which is amazing because we just – COVID just killed everybody's desire or willingness to go out. But now it seems like things are going back to normal. And, Andrea, we have two live shows because we basically sold out of one of them, so I split it in half.

AJR: Awesome.

J: Which is really cool. Yeah, I'm really excited about it. So anyway, after this weekend, we have the two Chicago shows coming up in August. So I'll give you more details about that. You can buy tickets for both of those events, though, on the Skeptic's Guide homepage. So yeah, on August 17th, we'll have the extravaganza. And on August 18th, we will be recording our 1,000th episode.

AJR: Whoa.

J: Right?

AJR: Oh, that's awesome.

J: That's just, you know.

B: And then we're done.

J: Unreal.

B: Finally.

J: Then we got to do it all over again.

AJR: Oh, congrats. I've been thinking about how your 1,000th episode is coming up and wondering how you were going to commemorate it. And that's amazing.

J: Yeah, by the way, I'm going to do this live on air. You ready, Andrea?

AJR: I'm ready.

J: How would you like to be a virtual guest on that show?

AJR: Sure. Me? Yes, I would love to.

J: You are invited.

AJR: Oh, my gosh. I'd be honoured.

J: We'll call you in as we usually do, like a live stream.

AJR: Yeah.

J: And then we'll chit chat with you. You could you could talk about like whatever your favorite moments like we'll just kind of reminisce about the stuff we've done together and your appearances on the show and other things that we've done as the SGU.

AJR: Oh, well, I'm going to cry. That's lovely. Yes.

S: Basically, you have to talk about how awesome we are.

AJR: Yes, yes, I'll be there. I'll mostly talk about the time that Bob insulted Steve as a podcaster during...

B: Yes! That was awesome when we did that. You were with me on that one. That wasn't just me.

AJR: Yeah, no, it was amazing. I just insulted him as a doctor, so we both have a cross to bear.

B: You tag-teamed him.

AJR: No, I would be honoured, absolutely. I'm thrilled.

J: I got you both beat. Whenever I talk, I insult Steve's intelligence. So a couple more things. If you appreciate the work that we do on this show, you could do a few things. One, you could join our mailing list. We send out an email every week that lets people know about everything that we have created the previous week, which is nice because you could see all of Steve's blog posts in various places and you'll see the podcast. You'll see the stuff that we do on TikTok and the stuff we do on YouTube. We're pretty busy over here. Another thing that you could do is you can become a patron of the show. You can go to If you appreciate the work that we do, that would be a wonderful way to show your support. And also you can give our show a rating on whatever podcast player you're using. I do know that iTunes is still a good place to do that because people use that to find new podcasts. Back to you, brother.

S: All right. Thank you, Jay. All right, guys. Let's go on with science or fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:33:31)[edit]

Theme: Eggs

Item #1: By weight the egg white is >90% protein, while the egg yolk is >90% fat.[6]
Item #2: Easter egger chickens are a breed that can lay eggs which are yellow, blue, green, cream, or even pink.[7]
Item #3: In the US eggs must be refrigerated once harvested and cleaned, while in Europe eggs are stored at room temperature.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Egg white vs. egg yolk
Science Easter Egger chickens 978 eastereggers.jpg
Refrigerated vs. room temp
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Easter Egger chickens
Easter Egger chickens
Egg white vs. egg yolk

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week.

J: What is it?

S: Do you guys want to guess what it is?

J: I want to know.

AJR: Eclipse.

J: It's got to be eclipse.

S: No.

AJR: Oh.

B: Nematodes.

J: What airplanes not to fly on?

S: It is based on a recent holiday, Easter, which we just celebrated.

B: Halloween.

S: Nope. It is all about eggs.

AJR: Eggs. Okay.

S: See how much you know about eggs.

J: I know a lot about eggs.

AJR: I know almost nothing, so let's go. Yeah.

S: Okay. Here we go. Item number one. By weight, the egg white is greater than 90% protein, while the egg yolk is greater than 90% fat. Item number two, Easter Egger chickens are a breed that can lay eggs which are yellow, blue, green, cream, or even pink. And eye number three, in the U.S., eggs must be refrigerated once harvested and cleaned, while in Europe, eggs are stored at room temperature.

AJR: Okay.

S: All right, Jay, you seem pretty confident about your egg knowledge.

J: I actually am, Steve.

S: Why don't you go first?

Jay's Response

J: I think I got this one.

S: All right.

J: All right, Steve, the first one, by weight, the egg white is 90% or greater than 90% protein, while the egg yolk is 90% fat. Yeah. I mean egg whites are the very low or zero fat way to eat eggs without getting all that fat, right? Because that's where all the protein is or so they've been telling me. I mean I just think that one is science. I mean I don't know – when you're saying that 90% by weight-

S: Greater than 90%.

J: Greater is protein. Okay, that makes sense. Yeah, I think so. I think I agree with that. I mean, everything I know about eggs, that is 100% on. Number two, Easter egg chickens are a breed that can lay eggs, which are yellow, blue, green, and cream. I highly doubt that one. But let me jump to number three real quick. In the U.S., eggs must be refrigerated once harvested and cleaned. While in Europe, eggs are stored at room temperature. That is – I absolutely think that is fact. Very confident that that one is science. I do not think that we could have selectively bred or even genetically modified chickens. I don't think that we have. I think we could, but I don't think that people have done this to make them lay coloured eggs for freaking Easter. No, that did not take place. That was a fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response

B: All right. The egg white is protein. I mean, yeah, pretty common knowledge. I don't know if it's greater than 90%. Maybe it's only 75%. But I don't think you're going to do that. So that makes perfect sense to me. We'll go to number three, refrigerated and not refrigerated. Yeah, this makes sense, although to me, having an egg not be in the refrigerator is weird and I would probably avoid it. But I think it doesn't matter that much because you're cooking the egg anyway. Any bacteria that may have arose, you're going to cook it anyway. So I think it probably wouldn't last as long unrefrigerated, but I think it's fine and that makes sense that they would do that. Yeah, it's a middle one that's just killing me. I mean, coloured eggs, never heard that before. I mean, what kind of effort would it even take to make that happen? And it's just so easy to colour them anyway. And just for one silly holiday, you're going to do some genetic engineering and breeding to get those eggs. It would be cool, but I doubt that's worth the effort or even how possible that is. So two is fiction, the coloured eggs.

S: Okay, Andrea.

Andrea's Response

AJR: All right. So I'm going to go – after all that talk of coordination and sense of belonging today, I'm going to go against Jay and Bob on this.

B: Ah!

AJR: So I'm going to start with number two, this Easter egg or chickens laying eggs that are multiple different colors. That feels to me, and I think, Steve, I always try to over-psychoanalyze you and you always beat me, so I'm probably treading in the wrong here. I'm going to say that's science because it seems like something that's so obviously preposterous and unheard of that you wouldn't have just put it in. You were trying to trick us because it seems so silly, and we're doing all kinds of wild things, and so why not? I'm sure there's some corner of the market where someone's making a pretty penny by selling eggs that are multiple different colors. I feel like in China they've figured out how to do all kinds of wild things when I was living there, so I could totally see that happening. And that makes me think about number three, about eggs needing to be refrigerated once harvested in the U.S. I don't know about eggs, but generally I find when I travel that we refrigerate things a ton more than other countries. And so I'm inclined to think that that is science. And the only other one that's giving me some pause is this, the egg white being more than 90% protein, while the egg yolk is more than 90% fat. The protein sounds right, but the egg yolk as fat is giving me pause. So if I were to say that that were I need a fiction at this point because I've decided to believe the colourful egger chicken. So I'm going to say... As I'm stretching, and so I'm going to say that the egg white being not more than 90% protein and the yolk being more than 90% fat, I'm going to say those are fiction. I think the yolk is not that much fat, even though I know it's horrible for you and I know there's cholesterol and I don't really know how those go together. I'm going to say that one's the fiction.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay. So you all agree on number three. So we'll start there. In the U.S., eggs must be refrigerated once harvested and cleaned. While in Europe, eggs are stored at room temperature. You guys all think that one is science.

J: Steve, can I, before you do it, can I tell you more info now?

S: Yeah, go ahead.

J: That's because they wash the eggs in the United States and they don't have the protective coating that the ones in Europe do.

S: Okay, that's an interesting idea. Well, this one is, Jay, you might be surprised to find out that this one is, this is science. And you are correct, Jay, but it's a way more complicated story than that.

B: As usual.

S: So why do we wash the eggs? That's one question. But let me just say, you have to choose a strategy to minimize the introduction of salmonella into the egg, right? So the eggshell is there to protect the egg. So you need to protect the integrity of that eggshell. In the U.S., we tend to factory farm our eggs more, so they're less free range, which means there's more crap on them. So we decided we're going to clean the eggs because there's more faeces on them. But then when you do that, you have to keep it refrigerated and at a constant temperature. Because you don't want the egg shell to essentially allow you don't want it to get porous. You don't want it to get wet necessarily. You want to keep it cool so that the bacteria doesn't proliferate and doesn't get inside the shell. Whereas in Europe, they, rather than cleaning the eggs, they tried to have clean farming processes so you could harvest the egg without having to clean it. And there you can keep it at a constant room temperature, which also keeps the shell from opening up at any point and allowing the bacteria in. Also, when you do refrigerate it, you can't then let it warm up to room temperature. You're committed to refrigerating it.

AJR: Like beer.

S: Yeah, because then the shell does like expand and then lets the bacteria in. So you got to pick your lane. You're either going to keep it refrigerated until you use it or you could keep it at room temperature and it will last for a while. Because again, the shell works. It protects the egg.

B: So what does cleaning do to it, though, that necessitates refrigerating it?

S: It weakens the shell a little bit.

B: Oh, that's what I was missing.

S: Yeah, it weakens the shell a little bit.

B: It weakens.

S: Yeah. So in Europe, they keep the integrity of the shell by not cleaning it, but then they have to have cleaner farming practices so there's less faeces on the shells.

AJR: I see.

S: Yeah, something to be said for that.

AJR: So I can't do the thing where I was like, oh, I got back from Europe and now I'm cultured. I'm not going to refrigerate my eggs anymore. It doesn't work that way.

S: No.

AJR: Yeah. Noted.

S: You got to follow the rules wherever you are.

AJR: Yeah.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Let's go back to number two. Easter egg or chickens are a breed that can lay eggs which are yellow, blue, green, cream, or even pink. Jay and Bob, you think this one is the fiction. Andrea, you think it sounds too much like the fiction. So it must be me trying to... trick you so you think this one is science and this one is science.

AJR: Here we go.

S: This one is science.

J: What the hell.

S: So it's actually not that big a deal to lay eggs which are different coloured. Lots of birds lay coloured different coloured eggs. It says zero about the contents of the egg. It's just about the compounds that get incorporated into the shell and And so it's about the genetics of the breed. There are a lot of chicken breeds which lay blue eggs. And they are increasing in popularity among small farms or people who keep chickens. Apparently, the breeds themselves are very nice. They lay lots of eggs. They're very easy to take care of. And they happen to lay blue-shelled eggs, which are very pretty. So I wouldn't be surprised if they start showing up at some point or at farmer's markets or whatever you find blue eggs. So I was researching that when I was researching the chicken egg segment. And then I came across this Easter Egger chicken, which is a hybrid, right? It's a hybrid.

B/J: It's a hybrid. Of a blue egg laying chicken with other breeds, then they got it so that they could lay all these different colors. And it's amazing. It is like Easter eggs. I mean, that's why it's called the Easter egg chicken. They're beautiful, all the different colors. But here's the thing. Each individual chicken lays only one colour egg, right? But the breed, within that breed, there are yellow laying chickens and blue egg laying chickens and green egg laying chickens, cream and pink.

AJR: Right. It's a diverse group you'd have to get the Easter colors.

S: And they lay a lot of eggs. They're nice big eggs. The chickens are easy to manage. So there's no reason why our eggs have to be white or cream or whatever that tan colour. They could be any of these colors.

AJR: I like this.

S: All right. All this means that-

B: How come I haven't seen any of these damn eggs?

S: I know. They're pretty. Look them up online. The Easter Egger chickens.

B: I'm looking at them now.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: By weight, the egg white is greater than 90% protein, while the egg yolk is greater than 90% fat. Is the fiction. Andrea, you are correct. While the egg white is pretty much mostly protein, in terms of the macronutrients, the egg yolk actually has more protein per gram than the egg white does. But there's more egg white than yolk. So you get more protein from the whites only because there's more of it, right? But the egg yolk has actually more protein per gram than the egg white does. But it also has more fat. So it has almost all the fat that's in the egg is in the yolk.

AJR: Right.

S: Yeah. It's a little bit less than two-thirds fat and one-third protein, but it's still more densely packed with protein.

B: Wow.

J: I don't like that.

B: Just eat the whole damn thing. It's not a lot.

S: It's not a lot. Eggs are like 70 calories. There's a lot of nutrients in them.

B: Eggs are awesome. I have eggs every day.

J: Yeah, but one egg has 30% of the cholesterol that a person should eat, so be careful with eggs.

S: Yeah, but eating cholesterol is not that big a problem.

B: Right. Exactly.

J: Why?

S: Because it doesn't necessarily mean that you make more cholesterol in your body. So this is like a 1980s kind of myth about eating the eggs and cholesterol.

J: So now I'm learning about like I don't have to worry about how much cholesterol I eat?

S: Yeah, it's not as much of a problem as we thought 30, 40 years ago.

B: Yeah, a high-fat diet is worse for your cholesterol, I think, than eating a lot of cholesterol on your diet.

S: Actual cholesterol. I know that's one of those simplistic heuristics that a lot of people fall into, like how much you eat of something, you have that something in your body. It's so rife with the whole clean-eating health food guru nonsense. It's like, oh, chlorophyll's good, so eat chlorophyll. It's like, yeah, you know what happens when you eat stuff like that? You digest it. You don't have it in its undigested, unbroken-up form. Or like, oh, you need more melatonin in your brain. You'll take melatonin. It's like, well, it doesn't translate necessarily because you're making it in a specific part of your brain at a specific time.

AJR: What if I put it in my ears?

S: Yeah, right.

AJR: Is that closer?

S: And it's the same thing, good and bad. Like, so just because you're, like, you're having, and also remember, there's good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. It's more about the ratio. It is about the total number two, but the ratio is also important. And this is complicated, and it's a moving target, and the answer is always changing. But every time you read a study, actually, it's whatever. So they're constantly tweaking the recommendations and the evidence about this. Generally speaking, yes, you want to have your cholesterol less than 200. You want a good HDL to LDL ratio. And the way to do that is just keep lean, exercise, don't eat a lot of animal fat. But eating cholesterol itself doesn't appear to be one of the risk factors.

J: All right. Well, this is why I make this show because I always learn something.

S: Yeah.

AJR: Well, and this is kind of like the 90s movement for like fat-free products where it's like any fat you would eat must be bad for you. So we're all going to eat zero fat and we eat all this sugar instead. Obviously, the type of fat and how much you have, but it's not to say that all – any bit – I mean I avoided nuts until I was 30 because of this stuff.

S: That's kind of productive.

AJR: Yeah.

S: Because nuts have good fat. They're good for you.

AJR: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

AJR: All right. Egg and nut omelettes coming right up.

S: Exactly. I'm going to make an egg and nut omelette tonight.

S: Andrea, nice solo win this week.

B: Yeah, what the hell, man? It's not supposed to happen.

AJR: Thank you. It's all because I decided not to trust Steve.

S: Or Bob or Jay. You distrusted all of us.

AJR: Yeah, that's true.

J: I was so unbelievably sure that I got it all right tonight.

AJR: You were very confident, Jay. You did sound confident.

J: I am humbled.

S: Well, I got to tell you, when I saw the Eiger one, the Easter Eiger, I'm like, that's my fiction. That's my fiction. It was so good. I knew that was-

J: It seems so fake.

S: I had the same reaction. Yeah, it seems so fake and it's like how did I – now have I never heard of this before? Why aren't store shelves full of these eggs? I think it's just there's not many of them around. They're not industrialized. But apparently they're growing in popularity for local farms. Okay.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:48:25)[edit]

As always in life, people want a simple answer . . . and it's always wrong,

 – Susan Greenfield (1950-present), English scientist, writer, broadcaster and member of the House of Lords

S: Evan's not here, so I came up with a quote for this week. Here's the quote. "As always in life, people want a simple answer, and it's always wrong." That is from Susan Greenfield, who's a neurochemist who researches Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Susan Greenfield. Yeah, very nice. And I was just referring to this previously. People like simple answers. It's one of our core biases. But the world is complicated. So simple, compelling, satisfying answers, they're usually wrong.

J: Yep.

S: Yeah.

B: Yep.

J: We like stories that we can understand.

S: Yeah, and wrap our head around. Yeah, absolutely.

AJR: And tweet and share.

S: And tweet. I mean, think about Twitter. Twitter is all about short, simple blurbs. Think about it. All right, well, hey, Andrea, thanks for joining us this week.

B: Thank you, Andrea.

AJR: Thanks for having me. Always fun to hang out with you guys. And safe travels. Enjoy the eclipse, everyone.

S: Thank you. Yep, we're off to Dallas. The next episode will be one of the two shows that we record in Dallas. Should be fun.


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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