SGU Episode 589
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|SGU Episode 589|
|October 22nd 2016|
|SGU 588||SGU 590|
|S: Steven Novella|
|B: Bob Novella|
|J: Jay Novella|
|E: Evan Bernstein|
|C: Cara Santa Maria|
|Quote of the Week|
|Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.|
|Vera Rubin, astronomer|
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:37)
- 3 News Items
- 4 Who's That Noisy (58:33)
- 5 What's the Word (1:02:45)
- 6 Science or Fiction (1:08:40)
- 7 Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:27:09)
- 8 References
- Cara's birthday. Cara attended a skeptical conference in England.
You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.
Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:37)
- Stanislav Petrov: Stanislav Petrov is a superhero because he didn't trust his computer. Because of that, he probably saved more than a half a billion people
Musk, Obama and Mars (5:11)
- https://www.wired.com/2016/09/elon-musk-colonize-mars/ http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2016/oct/16/nasas-mars-mission-on-standby-for-next-president/
Encyclopedia of Life (21:24)
(Commercial at 32:30)
Science and Colonialism (34:14)
S: Let's move on. Guys, have you seen this video I blogged about earlier in the week? This video circulating. It's a
S: South African panel discussion
J: Oh, god!
C: Oh no, I haven't. I'm excited. What's going on?
S: about decolonizing science. So, this is complicated. It's always more complicated than you think, right? Superficially, it's one of those things where you watch it and cringe. And I do think that it is cringe-worthy. But it is the tip of a deeper kind of story. So let me just tell you what the video shows.
Of course, the person who posted this one three minute segment to Youtube is somewhat taking that out of context, because they're showing just the most interesting bit.
B: Egregious, yeah.
S: Yeah. So, essentially, it shows a student who's sitting on a panel in a discussion, it looks like, just in a classroom. There is a fallist movement. You guys aware of the fallist movement?
E: I've not heard of it, not.
B: Is that a parachuting movement, where people jump out of planes?
S: so, it's the notion that some institution must fall, that it's so corrupt, so rotten to the core, it's so counterproductive, or represents some injustice in the world to the point that you really just have to get rid of it.
C: Well, that's kind of what Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump's platforms have been, in many ways.
S: Yeah, it's definitely an extreme
S: platform, on either side of the spectrum.
S: I do agree with that.
E: Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.
S: Let's burn it down, something new will rise from the ashes. Yeah, so, like, capitalism must fall, or whatever, just pick it. So, the idea here is applying that to science, as it manifests in countries like South Africa, that have historically been colonized by European or Western countries.
C: But science isn't an institution. It's a ...
S: Well, it is an institution, but I think it's different than a lot of other institutions. But this is what causes the controversy, right? So, the person in the video was essentially saying that science must fall, that if you take western science, it's just one more piece of colonization, of colonialism,
S: and that in order for South Africa to be truly decolonized, if you believe in the decolonization, then you must completely erase western science, and start afresh with African science. And she has two examples which establish her point. One is (and this is only a slight paraphrase; you could watch the video), she says basically, we learn that Newton, who is some guy, he saw an apple fall. He made up gravity, wrote down some equations, and now that is taught as scientific truth forever, all over the world, right? So that's her understanding of the science of gravity, you know, is like, “Newton saw an apple fall, made up gravity, and wrote it down.”
C: So she's not talking about the fact that that's how many kids learn about gravity, and that's a problem.
S: That's a good question.
S: There is a discussion about whether or not that was the context. I don't think that's what she's saying. And I did, at the request of somebody who commented on my blog, watch the entire two hour video,
S: bracketing this conversation, so not just this three minutes. And also, read several commentaries after the fact, to try to put this into context. So, I'll say that even the people defending the position that she was taking, were not arguing that she was being misinterpreted, or taken out of context. They were just saying that she was wrong, that her opinion is not representative of the other panelists or of this movement in general.
So they weren't saying, “Oh no! That's not what she meant.” They were saying, “Yeah, she did mean that, but we think that she's just one student who happens to be wrong, and is not representative.” That was their defence. She's not representative, not that she was taken out of context.
So, in any case, the other pieces that she says that there are practitioners of black magic who believe that they can summon lightning, and send a lightning strike, and kill somebody else.
S: And that western science can't explain that.
C: They can't explain why they say it?
S: No, why that happens. They can't explain that somebody could summon lightning and kill somebody else.
C: Because they can't.
S: And therefore, western science is not compatible with African beliefs.
C: Oh no...
S: And they need a science that's by Africans, that's compatible with African culture, that is meaningful to Africans, to their society, to those people, not like learning about what some white guy said two hundred years ago, and then trying to apply that in a village that has no idea what they were talking about.
Yeah, I had a lot of problems, of course, with that position. I always try to be fair, I'm trying to be fair to her. I'm trying to be fair to the panel, and to this movement, this position. Clearly, there are other people, Cara, who take the interpretation – not of what she said, but of the movement – as to what you say. The problem is not with our understanding of gravity, but how it is taught, that it's taught in an authoritarian, some white guy said it, so believe it sort of way, rather than ... and also in a very sort of Eurocentric way.
A lot of people brought up the point that, “You know, science that we have today was not all invented by European guys.”
E: That's right!
C: Yeah, a lot of it was middle-eastern ...
C: Like, most math was middle-eastern.
S: Asian, Greek, middle-eastern, absolutely! There's a lot of influences. It's a rich and complicated history. It's not all European.
C: There's also a lot of good African science.
C: A lot of what we know about epidemiology and disease control has actually happened by African scientists in these epicenter – these places where certain diseases started. A lot of what we know about HIV, we know from African scientists and European scientists (or Australian scientists, whatever) working in Africa. But there were many, many African scientists involved in that.
S: Absolutely. So, my take on this was, I think it's very similar to postmodernism in that, yeah, the whole intellectual notion of postmodernism has a point. You just can't apply it to science in the same way that you apply it to art,
S: or culture. And my argument was that science is inherently anti or trans cultural. That does not mean that it is not embedded in culture, because scientists are embedded in culture. And they cannot completely remove themselves from their biases, or their culture. And there's a lot of decisions about what to research, how to fund it, how to ask questions. There's a lot of priorities in science, which are established culturally.
And of course, there's tons of historical examples of science being abused for some political, ideological, cultural purpose. Sure. But that's the institutions of science. The methods and the process and the philosophy of science is all about rising above cultural biases,
S: weeding out biases, getting to some truth that is correct regardless of what culture you come from. And I think that while that's hard, and we have to grind that out over a long period of time, the history of science is actually one of scientists eventually coming to conclusions that are the opposite, or very different from what their cultures believed, and in fact, changing – it's not reinforcing culture, it's actually hitting us over the head with reality is different
S: than your cultural biases tell you it should be.
S: We're not at the center of the universe. We're not at the peak of evolution. We're not the superior race to others. You can abuse it all you want, but eventually, it's like, hmm, nope, that's not true.
And the other thing about science is that it's transparent. It should be transparent. It's egalitarian. You know, it's kind of everything that you want it to be, if you're looking for international, universal kind of process, yeah, that if you want to be decolonized, then embrace frickin' science! That's a good way to do that, in my opinion. And, you can engage with the international scientific community purely on the merit of your work, and your ideas, and your arguments, regardless of where you're from, or what culture you're from, or what part of the world that you're from. And so, I think it's very misguided to
S: like, throwing out the baby with the bath water. It's very misguided, in my opinion, to say that we have to get rid of western – there's no western science. There's just science.
C: Yeah, but I think part of the problem really is the terminology, and the way that the vast majority of people don't know, or don't think of science as a process. They do think of science as an institution, or as a body of knowledge. And I think that they also don't make the distinction between basic science and applied science, and medicine.
C: So, that's where you really get into problems, when you go into cultures where western medicine – science-based, evidence-based medicine, is very offensive to individuals that have deep rooted, non-western approaches to medicine. And you actually will make it so that it's harder to bring treatments into certain areas. Because I do think that you have to have a little bit of that, more of a sensitivity than a pure relativism, which I do disagree with the idea of cultural relativism in most cases. But when it comes to actually trying to come in during an ebola crisis, or come into a nation in South or Central America, and do humanitarian work; if you come in with a quote “western” idea of science, and you don't respect at all, cultural opinion, you're actually gonna make people more afraid of treatment, or turn them away from treatment.
S: Yeah, but that's a PR problem, it's not a science problem. That's -
C: No! Exactly. It's a huge PR problem, but most people think of medicine as quote “science.” Like, they really don't make a distinction.
S: Yeah, that's true.
C: Which is tough!
S: Yeah, so, I agree that that's tricky. But I think we have to learn how to engage with indigenous cultures and historically oppressed populations and colonized areas of the world so that they don't feel like they need to chuck out things like science
S: in order to throw off their shackles, or that by telling them, “Hey! This is what science has discovered,” that we're saying that your culture is wrong, or your beliefs are wrong. But it's tricky because I also don't think that we should just say, “Okay, you could keep believing in your cultural beliefs, even when they're objectively, scientifically wrong; even when they cause demonstrable harm to you and your people and your culture and your society,” because this idea of relativism, or because – I think that is
S: racist in a way. I think that's racist in saying that, “Yeah, you people are not able to appreciate real science, or participate in real science, so ...”
C: It's true! And I think because of that, I wonder how popular this woman's opinion really is. I bet you she's getting a lot of backlash within her own community.
S: Well, on the Facebook page promoting this conference, the person responding to the response to the YouTube video was saying, “Hey, this is one student. We don't agree with her,
S: this is not representative.” We get into the same issue when there are indigenous populations who hunt whales, and they're like, “We've been hunting whales for a thousand years, and you're telling us we can't hunt whales any more?” It's like, yeah, sorry, they're kind of going extinct. Sorry about that.
C: Yeah, but
S: It's false, but
C: yeah, it's kind of like, you're not the reason for it, we're the reason for it, but because of that, you can't do it any more. It's kind of shitty!
S: It's shitty!
S: I know, it's shitty.
C: It is.
S: But I argued in my blog that I think that getting rid of science because you associate that with western colonialism actually, in my opinion, magnifies the harm of racism and colonialism, because it deprives people of participating in this international effort, and what I consider to be the best thing that humanity does,
S: which is science, right?
S: And you're now being deprived – this is more harm being done to you, because of the psychological harm, if you will, of colonialism. But we have to try to convince 'em, “Don't do that! Don't give into this. Don't magnify this harm by isolating yourself from the good things,” you know? “Embrace the good things. Sure, if you want to reconfigure them in a way that's more compatible with your culture, that's fine.” If this is only talking about the way science is taught, I would have no problem with it.
C: Yeah, that's true.
S: You know? So, again, that's what some of the defence says that's all she was talking about. Like, well, I don't think so. I think you're being a little bit too generous. I think that's not what she was talking about. That may be what other people are talking about, and that's fine.
C: Yeah, it's like, the only way that we can really deal with what she is saying, is like, “Oh! Maybe if she said this, it would be appropriate.” But
C: that's not what she's saying.
S: But we know that there are people who think that, right? We know that
S: there are people who think that science has no special relationship with the truth. This is the postmodernists, who over-apply it to science. It's all just culture, and it is oppressive, and it's just a way for one person to oppress another person by saying they have science on their side. It's all nonsense. It's just philosophically defunct as well. It's just not true. The methods of science actually are designed to grind towards something objective, and universal, and transparent.
It's hard, and there's a lot of missteps, but the process is inherently anti-cultural. That's the whole point. And I think that they miss that. They just essentially miss what the very nature of science is.
C: Yeah, I wonder if it's the case (and I could be completely speaking out of turn here), but I wonder if it's the case that many of the institutions in the parts of Africa where she's speaking from, or speaking about, - cause obviously, Africa's a continent, it's not a country.
C: There's a lot of different places in Africa that are at varying levels of scientific inquiry. I wonder if part of the problem is that there's still colonial universities, you know what I mean?
C: There are branches of western universities where kids are practicing. And if there was more of an encouragement of African-based universities that are doing scientific inquiry, not feeling like they're doing it for a parent institution somewhere else, if that wouldn't help.
It's the same way that we're seeing the movement away from charity in regions where it's just giving, giving, giving, which actually has the opposite effect that it intends.
C: And planting seeds in places where the charitable work is actually to enable the individuals to earn their own money.
S: No, I think there are a lot of structural problems
S: in South Africa, in the universities, and they're addressing those. This was just going off the rails, in my opinion. This is similar, I think I can make an analogy between this and Van Dana Shiva in India, saying that GMO's are western colonialism in India. No, it's not. It's science and technology that can be used to help people. And you are wrong to equate it to imperialism.
C: Yeah, and you're forgetting all the Indian scientists that are on the
C: freakin' papers!
J: Steve, you're being very generous.
S: I think it's important to address the most generous interpretation of somebody else's position, but I'm disagreeing fundamentally with her point, Jay. Don't get me wrong.
J: Yeah, I mean, I think you're just being incredibly polite. I mean, and I'm not saying you're wrong, and that any way. It's fine. But I'd like to – the other way to interpret this, or to react to this is: This is a dangerous person with very, very dangerous things to say. I find that anti-intellectualism, and anti-science sentiment, no matter what her filter is, her sentiment, at its core, is anti-science. And I'm amazingly opposed to that stance. I don't care what her philosophical bend is, or what her reasoning is, to be honest with you. It's almost irrelevant from the fact that her end message is that science is like a demon product of a demon society, and they all need to go away.
C: And I would agree with you, if this woman was speaking here in the States, or if she were speaking in an area where contextually, she grew up with the same experiences as you or I did. The reason that I think it's, you have to be somewhat charitable, is that we don't know the context, and we don't know what it's like to grow up in these areas, and we don't know what it's like – we just cannot possibly empathize with all of the experiences that they have.
Like, we have the blessing of living in a place where postmodernism is a thing that we get to combat!
C: So I think I want to have a charitable interpretation only because contextually, it's completely unfair to say, like, “I know exactly where she's coming from.”
J: I don't have to though! I get you! Look, it's like, we all arrived in different ways. The way that we were brought up, and societies that we live in, and the language that we speak, which is all handed to us. That shapes our thinking. And everything we get exposed to. But I'm looking at her – this is an adult, this is a person that has access to the internet. She was in a learning institution,
J: in a school building. So I don't think I'm making a big assumption there. I've had to learn an extraordinary amount of humility, Cara, you know what I mean. And I know you know that. I know you know there's a lot of humility, and just educating yourself, and learning about the world. I just don't find this to be a humble person at all. This is someone that is threatened by the outside world, and wants to burn the building down!
S: So, Jay, yeah, I think that that's totally fair,
S: to say that she is guilty, I think, of hubris, and it needs to be more humble. She is not humble. She's arrogant, I think, in her position, 'cause she's confusing her own understanding of science with the science itself, and isn't giving the side a fair shake, in my opinion.
I absolutely, one hundred percent condemn that approach, that sentiment, that position. That doesn't mean that I have to condemn the person. I could understand that the context is, first of all, very different than what we're used to. We don't fully appreciate it. It's also deriving, I think a lot of legitimate points. But she got to a place that was, ultimately, I think, arrogant, and anti-intellectual, and wrong. And I think we can correct that without being blind to the context that created it. That's all.
And this is just, again, just a way of communicating, 'cause I think what happens, if you don't do that, then people will assume that you're attacking the person. And Jay, you know we get that all the time. “Why are you being mean to people? You call people stupid!” No, we don't! We don't tolerate anti-intellectual or pseudoscientific or anti-scientific positions or arguments or beliefs. But we are charitable to the people. We don't really blame people for having the wrong ideas. She's the product of what she's learned, and what she's been exposed to.
And one of the tricky things that skeptics have to do, I think, is try to lead people to a more skeptical point of view, which not giving a free pass to pseudoscientific, or anti-intellectual ideas or arguments.
S: I think it's important for us to make that distinction. And often, even when we do, we're accused of not making it. We have to go out of our way to be careful to make that distinction, and to remind ourselves that we're not – people are people. Everyone believes things that are wrong, or stupid, or not well thought out,
J: Let me clarify. It's all right. You, Cara, right in all ways. What I'm saying though is, I feel bad, and I can have enough empathy for her in a lot of ways, 'cause I really do feel sorry for people that are that misguided and blind and completely, a hundred and eighty degrees away from what I think the truth is. But I have spent twenty-plus years of my life fighting her brand of anti-intellectualism.
J: And I'm extraordinarily offended by her statements. I was screaming when I heard the video, and I can't divorce the person speaking the words from the words that are being spoken. I can't do it. Sorry, she's ...
C: That's fair. I think, my one thing that I would say in response to that is that if you just move away from the idea that she's speaking as though she's talking about science as a process. But if she personally is mistaking science as a process for science as the aftermath of that process, for science as an institution, science as psychology, science as medicine, if she's mistaking the fundamental definition of science, then I think we can be much more charitable with some of the things that she's saying, because there is truth to some of the things that she's saying, if she's not referring to science as a process.
And it's not that I want to give her the benefit of the doubt, but I also don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, because I think that it's dangerous to be on either end of that spectrum.
S: Yeah, we don't want to make the same mistake that she is,
S: and throw out what
C: what is valid about it.
S: the valid points that movement is making, because, at the extreme end, they go too far, and become anti-intellectual, or anti-scientific. I also, for myself, one final point is that I do develop a sense of whether or not somebody means well. And I will be as charitable as I can remember to be to people who I think ultimately mean well. Then there are people who I think don't mean well.
S: And I'm much less – if I think they are a con artist, or a fraudster, you know. Or if they are a shiftless, lying, self-promoter like Van Dana Shiva, I'm not charitable to them.
J: I do
C: I take the exact same approach when it comes to misogyny and sexism. I know many women who think that if a man says something on the internet, or a man says something in life, he should know better. He doesn't need you to teach him how to be right to a woman, blah blah blah. But for me, I do think it's important to know what the context is, because sometimes people will write things to me, and I know they mean well, they just don't realize that what they're saying is insulting. And then there are other times when it's like, “You're a sexist prick!”
C: Like, I don't have to stand up for that. For me, there's a big difference between those two things,
C: but I do know people who don't see it that way.
S: I agree, and I think – I agree. If you don't distinguish, you end up attacking people who mean well, but are just, whatever, mistaken.
C: And who could be learning from you.
C: Isn't that the point of being a good skeptic?
C: Helping people learn?
S: Who could be learning, who could be an ally,
S: and you're just solidifying them as an enemy if you make it personal when you shouldn't.
Who's That Noisy (58:33)
- Answer to last week: Wood frogs
What's the Word (1:02:45)
S: All right, Cara, What's the Word?
C: The word this week is taphonomy, and taphonomy was suggested by a listener named Karoline with a K. And Karoline was actually talking about it in a slightly different context. So I'll get to what she said in a minute. But taphonomy is the branch of paleontology that deals with the processes involved in fossilization, specifically burial, decay, preservation, how fossils factually form.
The term can also refer to the process of fossilization itself. So, taphonomy can be the study of fossilization. Taphonomy can be what happens during fossilization. It's a noun. Related words include taphonomist – also a noun, referring to the person who does taphonomy – taphonomic, which is an adjective. The word, and really the definition of the process itself, was coined in 1940, by a Russian paleontologist and science fiction author (which I think is super-cool), Ivan Yphremov.
And it actually comes from the Greek roots taphos, meaning burial; and nomos, which means law. So it's kind of the law of burial, how things are buried. Now, Karoline, when she suggested the word, she actually mentioned it in the context of archaeology and anthropology, and said it refers to the study of decay, and anthropology, it's the actual decaying of the organism, so very similar to paleontology there.
But she said in archaeology, the term is used more broadly to describe the process by which an archaeological record is created, beginning with the production of the artifact, and its purposeful or accidental deposition to the ground. It includes various factors, like soil, climate, weather conditions, animal and human interference, the choice of excavation places and methods, as well as biases held by the archaeologists.
And taphonomic loss is the process by which information about an archaeological object is lost over time. I thought that was really cool!
S: Yeah, I've heard the term used in the sense of the study of anything that happens after something dies, basically.
S: Not just fossilization, but everything that leads up to it as well, you know. So it's predation on the body, mice eating the bones, getting buried in sediment, and everything.
B: The production of cadaverine and neutrasine?
S: Sure. Syponification.
B: I love those ...
C: Yeah, it's like there's a lot of different ways to kind of break it up. So, biostratinomy, is that actually the study of all the processes that take place after an organism dies, but before it's finally buried? And then there's like, different phases after that. There's the decomposition phase,
C: there's bioerosion, and also, we know that there's different ways that they fossilize, right?
C: Imprints, there are ways where they're like, remineralized, there're ways where they actually completely decay, and new kind of sediment moves into the casing that was made by it.
C: There are different types of fossilization. But specifically, I think taphonomy, or at least in its original definition, referred to the study of the remains or the products of organisms that went from the biosphere to the lithosphere.
C: So, cut the creation of
B: Oh, cool!
C: the way that fossils kind of occurred, naturally.
C: Because, you know, if you think about it, we didn't even know that dinosaurs were dinosaurs until the mid to late 1800's. We didn't really understand this idea of dead things being a part of the life cycle. And once we started to understand that the things that we dug up out of the ground were actually quite ancient, then we had to figure out, well, how did they get there? Why didn't they just go away like everything else does? So, even though it's 1940's, seems like it wasn't that long ago. It was pretty new science then.
S: Not only that, Cara. When they first started digging up fossils, they didn't realize that they were the remains of living things.
C: Yeah, isn't that crazy?
S: They thought they formed by some geological process. They were a
E: I know.
S: manifestation of some pattern inherent in the rock that was manifested
S: somehow. Weird ideas. Now that we would think I'm crazy, but
S: they didn't think that, “Hey, this is a part of something that was alive in the past, and then it turned into stone over a long period of time.
C: Yeah, they're like, “That rock looks really like a skull. That's crazy!”
S: Yeah, exactly.
C: But it's just a rock! (Laughs)
B: Are you serious? I mean, that they would pull up obvious bone shapes, like a skull, and other bones that were clearly bone-ific, “Wow! What a coincidence?”
S: Bob, keep in mind, this is pre-Darwin, right? Pre-Darwinian evolution. So, they didn't think it was a coincidence. They thought that living forms were inherent to nature. And those forms manifested in different ways as life, and as shapes in the rocks.
B: Whoa! That's
S: And it was in principle, yeah. But this was, you know, this is very antiquated way of thinking about the world, and reality.
S: So, yeah, they didn't think it was
S: a coincidence. They thought, “Oh look! This is these inherent forms in nature manifesting in the rock, just like they manifested in living things!”
B: That's fascinating!
S: They're very quaint.
B: So retro.
J: And that's what people would believe to this day if we strike science off the record
J: Start all over again.
B: Still goin' on about that...
E: All the mistakes! All of them!
S: All right, let's move on to Science or Fiction.
C: By the way,
C: at QED, people were going apeshit over science. So many people told me it was their favorite segment. They had fun playing along.
S: Oh yeah. It's gold.
S: That is our absolute nugget.
E: It's all in the presentation.
S: Oh yeah
C: Oh yeah
S: I mean, whoever thought of it – genius. Absolute genius. Okay.
Science or Fiction (1:08:40)
Item #1: Astronomers have demonstrated that the putative Planet 9 could explain the 6 degree tilt of the solar system compared to the sun’s equator, which is an enduring mystery astronomers have yet to explain. Item #2: Researchers have directly observed capuchin monkeys creating stone flakes, similar to the stone tools created by our hominin ancestors. Item #3: Scientists have found that the same species of yeast most commonly used in leavening bread causes many yeast infections in humans.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:27:09)
'Science is competitive, aggressive, demanding. It is also imaginative, inspiring, uplifting.' - Vera Rubin, astronomer
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