Kirsten: Welcome to This Week in Science this is Kirsten Sanford. And I am Justin-less today.
Disclaimer. Disclaimer. Disclaimer. There is no Justin in the house. And anything that I say probably can be held against me [laugh] but it doesn’t represent the views of University of California or anybody at this radio station. Today, it’s all me, there’s no Justin. This is such a sad day.
Anyway I have an interview for everyone. Dr Gary Marcus. He’s written a book called “Kludged” and it’s a fascinating analysis of the way that our brains are put together. I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago and recorded it and I brought it today so that I can share it with everyone here.
Additionally at 9 o’clock we will be talking with Michael Stebbins with the Weird from Washington. And sometime after that I’ll be doing a brief rundown of the headlines in Science News – things that are interesting that I think you guys might enjoy.
Not to in depth today because I’m not so much fun to listen to when Justin is not around, that’s all I have to say. So without further ado I’m going to give you the Interview with Gary Marcus. I hope you enjoy it.
Kirsten: And were here with a recorded interview with Gary Marcus from New York University, professor of physiology written a book that will tell everybody that their brains are kind of screwed up right?
Gary: Ah that’s sort of true – called Kludge the hap hazard construction of the human mind. I wouldn’t say the brain is totally screwed up but there are some bugs left in the system and the book is about those bugs.
Kirsten: I think it’s a fascinating book. The whole idea, the basis behind it being that the brain has been built as an inelegant solution overtime to the problems of survival.
Gary: That’s right. Evolution doesn’t know from inelegant or from elegant. Evolution can’t look ahead if there is no hind sight; it has no foresight. It just build stuff and sometimes that stuff is clever and sometimes is not. So we have an eye that can detect the single photon of light in a darkened room and yet it is installed backwards. So have a bunch of wires running through and have a blind spot.
Kirsten: Yes, so it’s not just the brain that has come to be the way that is…
Gary: The whole thing is sort of pocked with kludges. Some of it is great and some of it is totally kludges, clumsy, it’s inelegant. It gets the job done. It could’ve been better.
Kirsten: [Laugh] I’m just thinking “Meta-kluged”
Gary: “Meta-kluged” – I never met a Kluged I didn’t like.
Kirsten: [Laugh] Exactly. When you’re thinking about the brain though, like to me it really helps to explain a lot of the social and physiological problems that we have in our society today.
Gary: Totally, so one of the examples that I talk about a lot in the book is the way that our memories are kind of Klugey. So instead of being systematically organized like in computers, our memories are sort of a shoe box full of arbitrary stuff and you can’t quite find what you need.
And our brains aren’t really set-up either to deal with that or to recognize that fact. So the clumsiness of our memory often comes out in the way we think about how we interact with other people for example.
So if I asked a few people in the same apartment who did more of the dishes and what percentage did you do. And one person will tell you 70%, the other person will tell you 75% and the numbers will never add up to a 100%. They always have to something higher. And that’s because we remember what we do but we don’t take to account that we’re not really remembering what other people do.
Kirsten: Right, do you think there’s any – what other examples can we think of that people are not really noticing anything aside from what’s important to them?
Gary: Well I think it happens all the time – it’s just the last thing that we heard totally influences whatever we’re thinking about. And the fine details of it matters. So if you hear something that some soap is 99% pure you think that’s really cool because purity has all of this happy associations. If you hear it’s 1% toxic, you’re like “I’ll just leave that one on the shelf.”
Kirsten: So advertising is definitely taking advantage of the way that we looked at the world.
Gary: Exactly! Advertising preys a lot on our subconscious associations on the way that our memory just acts automatically and it’s influenced by the little fine details. And it preys on the facts that we’re not systematic; that we don’t – say “Well okay that’s a really nice advertisement but I wonder what the data are here?”
People aren’t built to naturally think about that. It takes training to care about the data and what naturally happens is you hear “death tax” and that makes you think of death and you think it’s a bad thing.
Kirsten: Or the clean skies initiatives or whatever – the “spin” happens…
Gary: Exactly! Spin doctors and advertisers are totally, I think aware of limitations of our brain and they prey upon them. So what we need to do is as consumers is to recognize our limitation so that we can work around them and not get suckered.
Kirsten: Now there are people – your book basically is for the average person but there are people who have kind of exceptional brains and or are – maybe the Kluge has come together in a more unique manner. So we have people who are autistic or savants and they are able to remember things in an entirely different fashion. Their brains somehow work like a computer.
Gary: I’m not sure they really look like a computer…
Kirsten: Or it seems they are able to access that information so much more easily.
Gary: As it turns out that anybody can improve their memory. There are lots of tricks we can use. So we can kind of out-kluge the kluged like wouldn’t it be better if we had a computer’s memory in the first place that was as systematically organized? But given that we don’t, we can try to work around it. There are a lot of tricks that we can use to sort of out wit our inner Kluge.
So for example, one of the oldest ones is the method of loci where you assigned everything to like a room and a building that everybody knows. So like if you have a shopping list you remember the eggs belong in the vestibule and the lettuce belongs in the next room after that and this thing belong in the kitchen and so forth. So we can use these little tricks.
And if we practice those tricks that can become automatic. There is this amazing study that showed that an ordinary person – not someone who is autistic could learn to memorize numbers that were 70 or 80 digits long. And the way that he did it was a kind of trick, he learned to break those numbers down to smaller units we called them chunks.
Gary: Exactly. So he happened to be interested in running and he knew like the 256 was a good running time and so he would just memorize the whole longer sequence in terms of a little bits that he knew very well. That’s mostly what autistic people are doing. We could do that more if we wanted to.
Kirsten: But they’re more – just naturally – their brain finds those patterns within …
Gary: They’re more focused on it.
Kirsten: … numbers or whatever it happens to be that – yes.
Gary: Yes that a time that I spend in high school learning how to (earth) triangular and how to impressed girls you know the autistic people might put to other fancy uses.
Kirsten: [laugh]Exactly. Yes, I have a friend who has a photographic memory. She remembers everybody’s birthdays if she hears it at once, she’ll remember your birthday forever. She remembers every band, every song, every album that that band has ever played and she doesn’t forget these things and…
Gary: I would like to interview her on our next step with the – see if I can stump her.
Kirsten: Oh, It would be a good experiment if we try it all the time. [laugh] But was there any evidence looking at – she’s not autistic but more average person. She has this ability to remember things so…
Gary: There are individual differences.
Kirsten: Yes, is there evidence as to how people with photographic memories actually – are they using the room technique?
Gary: I mean I am not really accepting your premise that there are actually people with photographic memories. The best thing that I’ve read about it is an article that I think it was in Slate. We can come up with a link afterwards in which they talked about the one article that’s in the scientific literature about photographic memory and the inconvenient fact that if I remembered it correctly – my memory is not so good.
The inconvenient fact that the subject in the study was something like the wife of the – or maybe the husband of person who wrote the article and people haven’t really been able to replicate the results. So there are people that certainly have much better memory, but I’m not sure that anybody really truly has photographic memory.
Kirsten: That’s really is interesting because in cultural means I guess people think that there are individual that really do have this memory – for remembering everything that has been read or seen or what ever…
Gary: Exactly. Another mean that just won’t die is the idea of that we can repress our memories like Freud said it and anything that Freud said has sort of become part of our culture and some of it is true – like we have a kind of Id versus super ego conflict. And some of it is just bogus like Oedipus complex. There was no data for that and the idea of repressing memories like it could be great if you could say “Well, that really stinks I don’t want to ever remember it again.”
Kirsten: Yes, that would be great. [laugh]
Gary: That would be awesome but you look at people who are say holocaust survivors or war veterans that are trying to forget. And people aren’t really that good at it. They work really hard trying to forget it but we’re not actually set up to do that so that’s another one of Freud’s myths I think.
Kirsten: Yes, until they come out with drugs that can actually be used to block the memory…
Gary: This actually some pretty good research I think not yet published about how we might go about doing that. So it turns out when you remember something, you kind of reopen the memory and so people are trying to work with that.
Karim Nader at Mcgill University at Joe LeDoux at my own university, New York University are working on ways of trying to figure out how you could use drugs so you would reopen the memory and then sort of interfere with its being rewritten.
Kirsten: Right. So it’s basically like open access you get in there, when you pull it out you change the way that you remember something.
Gary: Yes so that actually seems to have happen all the time, every time you remember something, you reopen the memory and what they’re trying to do is to find a way when its a traumatic memory – it gets reopened that you somehow sort of fix it up before you sort of close it back up.
RH: Right. Well I don’t – I mean If we can really get to the point were we can understand the chemical nature of memory there is no question that we should be able to just get in there, stick the right drug in and…
Gary: Yes, the funny thing is that we don’t – in the first place have what computers have which an erase operation. I mean its – in a computer it is a sort of trivial thing to say “Okay, I don’t need this piece of information anymore, delete it.” And the brain doesn’t set-up that way so again we can try to find ways to work around it.
And I think the reason to do the kind of research that I’m doing where you look at the limits of the human mind is to say “Well, what can we fix? What can we improve?” But that’s just a sort of accident of evolution that we weren’t given factory installed the way to erase memories.
Kirsten: Yes. So in your book you talk a lot about the way we remember NOT being the same way that computers do and that, you’d go in you’d have a box [Unintelligible] There is one thing put in a box. We have – you call it context or cue dependent memory. Can you explain a little bit how that works and how that affects later memory?
Gary: I will in a second. First I will just tell you a line that popped into my head. It’s from Charlie Brown I’m thinking – they all get presents or something like that and in the end he said “I got a rock.” — He sort of got a raw deal.
And I sort of feel that way about our memories. So the sensible thing to do would’ve been to organize our memories in a way that – the computers have a master map and everything has a sort of exact location where it belongs and they can look everything up by looking at that location.
But what we have is – we have no idea where in our brain or anything is actually storing. Okay, it’s all in the frontal lobe or in the hippocampus or something. We can’t say anything more specific than that. We can’t say where one memory is compared to the next, instead what we seem to do is we kind of like broadcast the signals like “Hey all you memories out there, do you have anything about what I have for breakfast recently?”
And the problem is some times you get way to many responses and you’re all confused. So you really want to know what you had for breakfast yesterday for some reason. You’re likely to get confused with what you had for breakfast the day before and so forth. In other words, if you had to find your keys it’s a more serious problem because you are remembering all the place you usually put your keys and not, sort of one idiosyncratic place that you put it the last time.
So we use these clues to remind us what we’re looking for but some times the clues get too many things or some times it’s not enough. So I could say “Who is this 16th President of the United States?” Most people would have trouble. That’s not a good enough clue even though they actually know the guy’s name and they probably once learned that he is the 16th president. But I have to do something else and say like “He was a good writer” – maybe that help some people or I go a little bit further that I say “He freed the slaves”. And then hopefully you get it and you realize what I’m talking about Abraham Lincoln.
Kirsten: Abraham Lincoln. Yes. [laugh]
Gary: Right. But it’s all about the cues and that makes us do really weird things like “I’m telling you all the stuff right now you’re sitting down, you’ll remember it later – better – if you’re sitting down than if you’re going for a swim, you won’t be able to think of it then.
Kirsten: Yes I remember back in college as an undergraduate it was one of those big jokes “Oh, if you’re going to study stoned make sure that you take the test. [laugh]
Gary: … you might as well study while you’re stoned. I don’t think there is any empirical data on that.
Kirsten: You’ve got to take the test stoned.
Gary: It might actually be true.
Kirsten: I don’t know. Or if you studied drunk….
Gary: It might actually be true. You’d be better off not being stone in the first place but the state of being stoned might facilitate your memory.
Kirsten: Yes. I have a friend who actually…
Gary: Gathered the empirical data?
Kirsten: He smelled things. So he had rose petals or things that had unique smells, odors and he would bring those things with him when he went to take his test.
Gary: That’s very clever idea.
Kirsten: Yes. And he was great but I mean he was smart enough in the first place to come up with an idea so… [laugh]
Gary: That’s very clever. And much more fairer than like writing it all on down on your wrist or something.
Kirsten: Yes exactly. Little piece of paper on the inside of your water bottle. [laugh] Oh what was I going to ask you after that, oh right. I did a lot of research on avian memory with a woman – Nicola Clayton who is doing a lot of research on episodic memory…
Gary: She has the most astonishing memory studies where this bird seems to remember where they put all kinds of seeds for a very long time. They understand like how long ago those seeds were hidden there and so forth. But I don’t understand is if the birds can do this why humans are so desperately poor at the same kind of task.
Kirsten: That’s exactly what I was going to ask you. [laugh]
Gary: You are going to ask me. But I’ll ask you since I don’t know the answer.
Kirsten: Yes. It’s fascinating, There’s a one species, the Siberian tit that can store a quarter of a million individual seeds over a winter or fall to winter storing season and then recover them and survive off of those stores for rest of the winter and spring into the breeding season.
And scrub jays are amazing at doing it and those are the sort of birds that Nicola worked with and they could remember weeks later what kind of food they stored in a particular location and how long ago they stored it and whether or not it would’ve perish or whether or not it would be good idea to go back and retrieve the item. I can’t remember things in my own refrigerator.[laugh]
Gary: Exactly. I don’t know what Scrub Jays have got that we haven’t got but I wished we had…
Kirsten: Yes, and when I think it is a – fascinating model system and I’m just wondering how much – I mean researchers tend to especially, within psychology to stay within the humans or you stay…
Gary: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …within rats or you stay within birds. But never the tweaks shall meet, you know? So, I mean what…?
Gary: I mean the basic finding that I’m talking about is something that’s truly in lots and lots of species so…
Gary: It’s actually first discovered in rats, this idea that the context matters for things. And I don’t know if anybody has actually sort of done the right, relevant study in scrub-jays…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: ..But in rats a guy named (Carl) who was a student of the famous John Watson was studying how well rats could run a particular maze. And he discovered that if you change the overhead lighting, the rats couldn’t run the maze as much, couldn’t run the maze as well anymore. So…
Gary: … if you turned on the fluorescent lights then the rats would just forget about it. And then he did all the controls and he found that it wasn’t that they didn’t like the lights because he could train them with lights and then if he went into daylight they would have trouble.
Kirsten: So it’s actually the context of…
Gary: That context really mattered.
Kirsten: …of the environment.
Gary: Exactly. Sometimes we call it state-dependent memory. There are a whole bunch of things that I think are really the same underlying mechanism. And you see it in rats, you see in fruit flies, you see it in snails. I’m sure you see it in scrub-jays too although they do seem to have something extra special. But then, I don’t know exactly how that works.
Kirsten: Now your research has a lot to do with language acquisition. You did your graduate work with Steven Pinker…
Gary: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …and you’ve also worked with Noam Chomsky. How did you get from language to just this over-arching theme?
Gary: To the kluginess of the human mind?
Kirsten: yes, yes.
Gary: And so, I wrote an earlier book called the “Birth of the Mind” which is about genes and how they build the brain. And it was sort of like Chomsky meets the genome almost basically the idea. So there’s all these stuff coming out from the human genome project.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: And then you look at question of language acquisition and Chomsky has this theory that we’re born with this built-in language acquisition device. And a lot of people don’t really like that theory. They don’t like the idea that we’re built – that we have any kind of built-in structure.
Gary: This sort of innate idea that I think people have is that we learn everything just kind of ironic.
Kirsten: Even though other animals like birds have a template and there’s like…
Gary: People are totally happy to have other animals have a template but…
Kirsten: But not us.
Gary: …but somehow they look at babies, the babies seem helpless and they think, “Well, okay. The babies must not have anything in there.”
Kirsten: There’s great goo inside of their heads.
Gary: Exactly. In, I mean it’s actually illogical because if you had nothing in there to start with, then you’d have what we call boot strapping problem. You wouldn’t be able to learn anything.
Gary: We’ve got to have something there to get things going. And my own laboratory work shows that seven-month-olds for example, are already like trying to understand the language that they hear around them. And they can abstract grammar from what they’re hearing and so forth. So, there’s lot of reason to think that there’s stuff built into the mind.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: And I went and learned something about developmental biology. I really emerged myself in that literature. And I discovered that there’s actually lots of room in the genes. People say, “Oh, there’s only 30,000 genes and there’s 10 billion neurons. the genes couldn’t have that much to do with the neurons.”
That’s totally wrong. The genes are actually really powerful. They’re like a compression system like an mp3 that packs in a lot of information in a small amount of space.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: And they’re extremely sophisticated and they’re sort of like a recipe that’s been scaled up. So, once you have the recipe you can build a really a big cake if you want to. But the thing is that that supported Chomsky’s idea of innateness…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: …that there’s something built in. But Chomsky’s other idea that language acquisition is sort of different from the rest of thought doesn’t really fit with the biological data I’ve discovered.
Gary: So, what evolution does is it tinkers with what’s already there. So the buzz word is I’m sure you know biology is conservation — that new organisms use mostly the same sets of genes as those that came before and that’s certainly true of human being. So…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: …our genomes are the same – not the same but are nearly identical to chimpanzee genomes as 98.5% overlap.
Gary: And what that says is language can’t be completely different from the rest of what’s going on in other creatures. So, we’re using something differently but it’s going to be basically made out of spare parts.
Gary: Francois Jacob has this wonderful phrase about evolution being a tinkerer. And once you realize that then you realize that language itself must be tinker. And I sort of changed…
Kirsten: It’s something that came from the (tippity tap) of evolutionary’s little hammer.
Gary: Well, evolution has sort been hammering together a bunch of stuff that was already…
Gary: …already there but doing different – for different purposes.
Gary: And once you realize that, you start looking around for kluges just because if things are made out of old pieces that were designed or not really designed but evolved for other reasons then, you’re going to expect that not everything is going to fit very well. And I started looking for mismatches. And once I started looking I found a lot of them. That’s what kluge is all about.
Kirsten: And once you start looking, you see them everywhere. That’s something else that you brought up at one point is that our brain – being human we define patterns and everything and that that’s one we find out as like…
Gary: There’s a term called apophenia, which is like this love of patterns even when we’re not there. So we’re always – the mind just cannot stand randomness, like we see anything..
MIchael: …and we just try to put a pattern on it…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: …even when it’s not really there. And that’s another klugy thing about the mind, like it’s good that we look for patterns but we don’t have like an off switch to say, “Okay, maybe there, this one really is random.” We have trouble accepting that.
Kirsten: Right. A pattern or an explanation or some kind of this is where maybe our supernatural explanations for phenomena that we can’t understand come from. Oh, well, you know?
Gary: Yes and then the other problem there is the way our memories are set up. We noticed evidence that confirms our theories. And we don’t notice evidence that dis-confirms our theories because that doesn’t match the cues that we’re looking for. So we wind up noticing everything that supports our wackiest ideas and it’s very hard to persuade us otherwise.
Kirsten: Now, your book “Kluge” is available in stores now?
Gary: It is indeed.
Kirsten: It is available. And in addition to having great amount of information on the way the human mind works, it also has some tips and tricks in the back – the last chapter.
Gary: It does indeed. The last chapter is sort of divided into two parts, that both are on the same theme, which is recognition is the first step. If we can see what’s wrong with our minds we can try to do something about it.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: And so, part of what I do is to talk about some advice, some of it is familiar, some of it is new, and why in the context of how our minds work, bad advice is good advice or what we should do to cope.
Gary: And then part of it is about what we might do in schools. So in schools, kids are mostly taught to remember facts, you know.
Gary: So like, “Mr. Dickens, what I want is facts, nothing but facts. Read everything else out.” And you need to know some facts like you need to be able to memorize a times table for example. But you don’t really need to know in this day and age all the state capitals. You can just look that up at Wikipedia.
What I think people really need to know is the limitations of their own minds, like we teach kids about how digestion works and how the heart works…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: …but we never say, “ your brain is actually vulnerable to all this kind of stereotyping stuff and you have all these kind of problems with memory and here is what you might do about it, right?”
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: We don’t teach children to reflect on their brain. We just teach them to sort of take their brain for granted and we never talk about it. So, the book ends with discussion of this great book called “Harry Stoudemire’s Discovery” which is basically philosophy for seven-year-olds.
And there’s good evidence that we teach philosophy to seven-year-olds. They can really learn something.
Kirsten: Oh, it would be pretty interesting. I’m sure a seven-year-old would have a lot more to say than many people I know now.
Gary: Well, seven-year-olds are more curious.
Gary: They haven’t gotten reinforced for memorizing facts at that point. And they’re like, why is the sky…
Gary: …blue? Or, how does a car work?
Kirsten: And kids are natural scientists…
Kirsten: …until we somehow beat it out of them in the educational system.
Gary: Exactly. And so part of the book is a campaign to stop beating our kids up and start, let them enjoy their inner curiosity.
Kirsten: Absolutely. So what is your next step now that you have written your book? And is there another book right on the way or are you heading back to research? Do you have any really pressing questions that are driving you?
Gary: Well, there’s two things. In my lab, I’m starting to look at sort of differences between individual human beings and what that might – I’m trying to use that as a tool to understand the relation between language and these other spare parts that we borrowed from the chimpanzees.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Gary: I’m very excited about that project. And then, I have an idea for a new book but I’m not sure I should, you know…
Gary: …say it on the air yet. It’s not quite ready for primetime but maybe next year.
Kirsten: All right. So there might be another book yet.
Gary: No doubt.
Kirsten: Well, thank you so much for joining me. If people want to get in touch with you or have any questions, is there any place that they can reach you?
Gary: Well, they can find out more about me at GaryMarkus.com and we can post my email on your show notes.
Kirsten: Okay, fantastic. The book again is called “Kluge”. The – you’ve got it over there. The…
Gary: Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.
Kirsten: Haphazard Construction of…
Gary: That’s KLUGE, Kluge.
Kirsten: Right. Not…
Gary: Clumsy or inelegant solution to a problem.
Kirsten: It’s not spelled the way I would probably phonetically spell it either.
Gary: It rhymes with stooge. And there’s actually great debate discussed in the book about one might spell it.
Kirsten: Fascinating. Well, I’m looking forward to now taking much more note to my kluginess. Thank you so much for joining me.
Gary: Or maybe you can send your listeners to my soon-to-be-released podcast, “Outwit Your Inner Kluge,” which will give people advice about what they can do.
Kirsten: Absolutely. You hear that people? Outwit your inner kluge.
Gary: Which will be at klugethebook.com. You can look it up there.
Kirsten: There we go. Fascinating. You’ll be able to do all sorts of things. Thanks again and that’s it for This Week in Science this week. Stay tuned for more.
This is This Week in Science and we are running the show. I am running the show without Justin today. Just heard an interview with Gary Markus that are recorded a couple of weeks ago. I am going to take a quick break for a moment with a few public affairs messages for those of who are in the local area.
And when we return, I will be speaking with Michael Stebbins with The Weird from Washington. And at the end of the hour, we’ll cover a few headlines in the Science news to make those of you (newzy) types happy.
And I’d like to welcome anyone who’s listening to this show who found us through the Skeptics’ Guide To The Universe podcast. Thanks to Dr. Steven Novella for inviting me on his show last week for an interview. It was a lot of fun. And I’m looking forward to maybe reciprocating and bringing him on here so that the TWIS minions can get to know Dr. Novella. He’s a great guy.
Without – see, yup. I’m going to take a break. So, we’ll be back in just a moment. Stay tuned.
And I’m back. This is This Week in Science. And on the phone I have Dr. Mike Stebbins. So, let’s bring him on the air. The Weird from Washington, Dr. Mike Stebbins.
Howdy, Mr. Stebbins?
MIchael: Howdy? How are you?
Kirsten: Great. How are you doing today?
MIchael: Oh, footloose and Justin free apparently?
Kirsten: And that’s right. We are running Justin free today. It’s kind of sad.
Kirsten: As footloose as we might be. How was the weirdness going over there in your neck of the woods?
MIchael: It’s insane which is…
MIchael: Yes. And one may think that after this many years of just weird, weird Science stories coming out of Washington but I would slow down a little bit, it accelerated so I’m actually crossing off amazing stories because there’s just too many.
Kirsten: There’s too much going on. That’s crazy.
MIchael: It’s unbelievable, yes. And stranger and stranger every time so…
Kirsten: I can’t wait. I can’t wait.
MIchael: I’ll start with good news because I don’t like doing that if I can.
MIchael: The Genetic Information on Discrimination Act. This is the bill that would prevent employers and health insurance companies from discriminating based on a genetic pre-disposition to a disease or a family history of disease. So in other words, you couldn’t get fired if you have a genetic test per se, a breast cancer gene.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
MIchael: Well, it passed both the House and the Senate since last week when we spoke.
MIchael: It didn’t pass the House and Senate before in previous years but never in the same year. And – so, it’s now waiting for the president to sign it. And the president has expressed on several occasions to support the bill. So we’re actually looking like we might actually get through the first piece of forward-looking civil rights legislation in the history of the US, which is just unbelievable. And am I still happy that it’s, because of science that we have to actually consider this sort of thing. It really is an amazing thing to happen.
Kirsten: Yes. It is really amazing that – I mean it’s Science that has kind of put us in this place that we have to consider it. I mean there have been so many films and books written about this kind of discrimination taking place in the world.
And you can imagine what would happen if someday, an employer could say, “I’m sorry, you have a genetic predisposition for this disease. So, I’m not going to hire you because you might come down with this. And so, you might end up being a less able-bodied employee.”
Or you wouldn’t be able to get a health insurance because of a genetic predisposition for something or you know. And you can imagine that for years this was never even an issue. This was not something that anyone even considered.
MIchael: No, not even close. I mean, that’s the incredible point. This is a direct product of the human genome project and something that’s been in the works for 13 years.
And they knew before they even finished the human genome project that this would become an issue. And now, there are over a thousand genetic tests on the market. And there are been wide reports of people being cast out of their own place because they’re afraid that they’ll be discriminated again.
And you can only imagine this sort of thing increasing and the fear increasing. But now, there’s going to be a law that’s going to allow people to take advantage of the personalized medicine that’s likely to come out of all this work.
Kirsten: Yes. I think that the personalized medicine is really going to be a step forward in having the medications you take and having your treatment perfectly tailored to you.
So, it’s not just something that works well for a certain percentage of the population. But will actually being tailored to your genetic make-up.
MIchael: Heck yes. See? Look at me grabbing the binocular of the kid.
Kirsten: That’s right. You’re super cool now.
MIchael: So, that’s the good – (unintelligible). Okay, so that’s the good news. Now, there is a whole bunch of bad news unfortunately that also goes (unintelligible).
MIchael: Do you know who Mary Gade is?
MIchael: No. You wouldn’t because, well, she WAS the EPA’s Midwest Regional Office in Chicago. Mary has been fighting with the Dow chemical company over plans to address dioxin contamination in the soil and sediments in and around the Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron.
This is what an EPA official does out there. And they’ve been – so Dow has actually been, well, purportedly contaminating the soil around there with dioxin.
Now, dioxin at low levels of exposure has been found to cause cancer, as well as immune and reproductive system problems. It’s a byproduct of Agent Orange and other chemical processes.
MIchael: Now, when she was appointed to her post in 2006 by President Bush. She told the Chicago Tribune that two aides of EPA, Administrator Steven Johnson, stripped her of her power as the Regional Administrator and informed her that she could either quit or be fired by June 1st if she did not back off of Dow.
Now, this is all just hearsay at this point. It was reported by the Chicago Tribune. But last summer she invoked – there’s some evidence that Dow might be a little upset with her because last summer she invoked what’s called emergency powers to compel Dow Chemical to clean up three highly contaminated docks and sites near its plant in Midland.
November, she called for dredging and test after levels of – okay so, docks and level of 1.6 million parts per trillion, which is in Saginaw Park. This is the highest concentration ever recorded in the country.
Kirsten: It’s really high.
MIchael: So, she invoked emergency powers. And at that point Dow entered into negotiations with her. And she suspended the talks in January because they weren’t getting anywhere and Dow responded by appealing to EPA officials in Washington. And then of course she was forced out of her job.
MIchael: So, she was taken a tough line with Dow and maybe – it’s not clear whether she was taking too tough of a line. But one can imagine there could be two top of the line over something with record high dioxin levels.
MIchael: But that is the case.
Kirsten: And how about, yes, okay, you made the mess. Clean it up. I mean, parents teach toddlers to do that. If you make a mess, clean it up. And they shouldn’t have to be forced to do it. And they shouldn’t be putting pressure on anybody to lose their jobs just because they have to do some clean-up.
MIchael: I’m not a big fan of just demonizing all major companies out there. But in this particular case, if there really are records high dioxin levels associated with this plant, then Dow really should be going the extra mile to clean it up.
And if there’s this problem with this one administrator, one really has to ask, whether it’s a personality conflict with her or if there really is a problem with Dow actually getting to work in cleaning this problem.
Kirsten: Right. I think that’s the important question, definitely. Is it…
MIchael: And the news on this…
MIchael: …comes on the heels of a report by the Union of Concerned Scientist. Now, this is going to sound a little familiar.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
MIchael: And that is they found that hundreds of EPA scientists are actually reporting that they have had this political interference over the last five years.
Now, they surveyed 1,600 staff scientists at the environmental protection agency, 889 of which that they have experienced direct critical interference in their over the last five years that which is actually…
Kirsten: That’s 50%.
MIchael: This sounds familiar. Oh, yes, 60%. So, 394 of them which is 31%, but first said they personally experienced frequent or occasional statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.
So, 1/3 of them actually said that they had actually had problems with that. Two hundred and eighty-five said that they frequently and occasionally, personally experienced selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.
So, like really crazy stuff over at the EPA. So, when you hear someone like Mary Gade who’s going the extra mile, are you kind of wonder like, “What’s going on there?”
MIchael: And she is consistent with her this report. It seems consistent with her actually being shoved out for actually doing her job. So because of this history of the administration with this agency and others.
Now, we reported previously – we talked about this same problem happening at the FDA. Now, if the Union of Concerned Scientists seems to be going through every agency…
Kirsten: Yup, checking them out.
MIchael: …and surveying all their scientists and finding the exact same thing. But this is actually even higher than they found ever at the FDA.
So, really for the Union of Concerned Scientists, then we bring this to the surface. I mean, the numbers here are really staggering and disturbing on a very high level.
MIchael: where they’re reporting direct interference by the Office of Management and Budget of the White House in their ability to do their job. So, yes.
Kirsten: And the fact that a third of the scientists are reporting that their results are being misrepresented is – that’s insane…
MIchael: It gets worst.
Kirsten: …that results are getting – it gets worst?
MIchael: Yes. The Government Accountability Office reported earlier, I guess it was last week that the White House Office of Budget and Management and the Pentagon and other agencies had delayed or block efforts by the EPA to list chemicals of carcinogen by requesting more research and more time to review the risk.
Now, Senator Barbara Boxer who’s the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee requested the report and called the findings scandalous, of course.
In a hearing, she actually took James Gulliford, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Pesticide Prevention and Toxic Substances that has done all of this and has rimmed him. It was really quite stunning to see her ripping to him…
MIchael: …over this report. it really – and again, it gets back to the same issue of an overwhelming political pressure all the way to EPA. It must be just a nightmare to work over there right now.
And so, I mean one can only imagine what’s going to be happening in nine or ten months over there. I assume that a lot of the people working at EPA will be – well, they might get – it will be an agency-wide laxative of interference.
I imagine this is going to be a lot of people, a lot of political appointees losing their jobs in the next administration no matter who’s in the office because this is just disgusting.
Kirsten: Yes, it’s a kind of thing that whoever comes in really is going to have to do a house cleaning and shake things up and because it’s just to uphold something like this and to keep it going would just be even more scandalous.
Kirsten: Now that the news is coming out, now that these reports are coming out more and more frequently, yes.
MIchael: Yup. Hey, have you heard the good news about evolution?
Kirsten: What’s the good news about evolution?
MIchael: Well, apparently there isn’t any.
Kirsten: Oh, dear. I was hoping for more good news.
MIchael: State legislators in several states now are seeking those that question evolution in schools.
Kirsten: Oh, dear.
MIchael: Yup. Now Michigan introduced an academic freedom bill. Louisiana, Alabama and Missouri have legislation under debate. And Florida House of Representative just passed the bill that will require schools to teach critical analysis of evolution.
Now, critical analysis, of course, means teaching intelligent design and creationism together, well, intelligent design is creationism but under a different name.
Kirsten: Yes. I mean …
MIchael: So, anyone who thought that the evolution debate was going away, not at all. It is in full swing here. And it’s clear what the tactic is of the religious Yahoos on this particular issue. That it’s – down there they’re calling it an academic freedom exercise, so to speak.
MIchael: Where, “Oh well, we’re not allowed to question evolution?”
MIchael: Like, well yes, sure you are on the basis of Science but you’re not allowed to do it based on hooky, ridiculous, your notions like Jesus did it.
Kirsten: You know what, I mean, I am all for people questioning Science. And that’s what it’s all based on. You question things, you observe things, you test things based on hypothesis that you make.
The scientific method is one of the strongest methods for critically analyzing any information in the world. And I feel like if people are going to call it an academic freedom issue, criticize evolution from a religious standpoint in a religion class. But don’t criticize evolution from a religious standpoint in a Science class because that’s not where it belongs.
And honestly the language that they use is very intelligent because a critical…
MIchael: They’re not critical people, they’re just…
MIchael: Not all.
Kirsten: Not at all.
MIchael: This thing seems very – it’s cagey.
Kirsten: Yes. And critical analysis of evolution should be taught. I mean, critical thinking should be the way that our educational system teaches anything. We shouldn’t just be doing rote learning; we should be teaching people in our society to think critically. And so, I have no problem with that. But not when it’s couched in a way that is disingenuous.
MIchael: Yes. And it’s design to do one thing, which is to great creation as meant to the classroom. It’s not really designed because all these people have some sort of concern over the weakness of evolution.
MIchael: There’s a very explicit purpose for this, which is to get intelligent design brand of creationism into classes. It’s a sad, sad situation.
MIchael: Now one of the things that they do as well is they’ll say things like, “Well, evolution doesn’t tell us, you know…” Or they’ll say things like, “Evolution said that lightning striking on mud (unintelligible) was exactly how a life started.”
MIchael: Which is completely untrue. Evolution has nothing to say.
MIchael: Nothing to say on how life started. And that is not it really is sort of, hey, this is actually sort of the basis of Ben Stein’s crazy little movie.
Kirsten: yes. The arguments are all false arguments like they’re not…
MIchael: Oh yes, manufactured controversy.
Kirsten: Yes, exactly.
Kirsten: Yes, there’s really – the thing that keeps – I just can’t even conceive of how it continues to go but this controversy is continually manufactured and remanufactured and remanufactured, even though within the scientific community, there’s really not that much controversy.
Kirsten: Even among…
MIchael: And this is not exactly a bunch of lackeys who are “yessing” each other. The scientific community – I mean, if you got a room full of like two scientists, you’ll never get anyone to agree on anything. But, so it’s not exactly like this is some sort of a conspiracy against religion. It really isn’t.
Kirsten: No, not at all.
MIchael: It’s a mass misunderstanding of the scientific method as you said earlier.
MIchael: One more bit of that.
Kirsten: Okay, okay, more craziness.
MIchael: All right, riff raff.
Kirsten: I’m looking for, okay.
MIchael: Riff raff. I’m sorry. Yes, but that’s all – the National Marine Fishery Service just declared the West Coast salmon fishery, a disaster.
MIchael: Yes. So, the sudden collapsed of the Chinook salmon run in California Sacramento River and with salmon returned to spawn, they estimate only about 60,000 salmon are going to come back this fall…
Kirsten: Oh, my goodness.
MIchael: …which is not a third of the minimum said by Fisheries Manger for spawning the next generation. That compares with 775,000 that returned in 2002.
So, between 2002 and 2008, we’ve reduced it from close to 800,000 salmon to 60,000. And so, the Chinook salmon are in a real serious bind right now. And it’s really not clear what’s going to happen.
Kirsten: Whether they’ll be able to bounce back.
MIchael: It’s weird. The state’s governor is actually requested this declaration, and that being Oregon, Washington and California. And the estimate that the losses like the $290 million as they ripple through the economy, California is taking $208 million in disaster aid, Oregon, $45 million and Washington $36 million.
MIchael: So yes. It’s just an awesome amount of money that’s going to be lost because of really poor management. And this is not some sort of like there’s random act where all of a sudden there is a crash in the salmon.
It’s been really poor management of the fisheries during this administration. And, Californian’s are going to directly see the problem with it.
MIchael: People were complaining about the $300 million bond for stem cell research. (Try) salmon $208 million in disaster aid because the salmon were really poorly managed.
So, this is a direct – now here’ one of the few examples where you can see a direct tie between using good science to manage the environment…
MIchael: …and the economy. The strength of the economy really is based in a lot of situations on proper use of science to manage policy. And here, this is an excellent example of a time when abusing science and ignoring science for the profit or special interest winds up driving the economy south and really damaging an entire industry for people.
And so this is one of those situations where shortsighted views wind up hurting a lot of people. So hopefully again that the government will have – I mean there’s really no option at this point that the federal government is going to have to pony up some money in this particular case because that is disastrous. Sixty thousand salmon in that region is just extremely low.
Kirsten: Yes, it’s extremely low. It is. And that’s – that’s the kind of thing that it’s very possible that the salmon will not be able to bounce back from it even though they’ve put a moratorium on any salmon fishing in the area.
We’ve been seeing for the last couple of years, in the news. I mean it’s not just here on west but in the east all over, the fishing stocks have been going down and it’s all been a matter of mismanagement.
And to me it’s just – as it continue, it just boggles my mind how this mismanagement has been allowed to continue for short term gain. I mean basically it’s been so that people can continue to make money in the fisheries for the short term. They have been allowed to overfish and continue to use old practices instead of implementing new practices that might allow the fish to be able to bounce back.
Kirsten: Yes. And so, now we’re going to – and we’re going to start seeing the problems from it.
MIchael: If you look in Maine, amongst lobsters fishermen, now, that’s a major industry for Maine, okay, lobster fisherman. When they pull up a female lobster, they mark the carapace of the lobster with a little notch and they fill it back in. So it’s easily identified. So what they do is they’re constantly sustaining their activities there.
MIchael: And it’s a real focus on making sure that they are in the process of pulling off lobsters and making profit that they’re also sustaining their industry in the long term.
MIchael: Now, that’s a very simple example of what needs to be done on a much larger scale for the fishing industries across the US.
And so, we’re going to – it’s going to be a really hard economic time for fisherman who don’t have it easy anyway.
Kirsten: Right. That’s a hard life.
MIchael: So, it’s going to slam them really hard and it’s most unfortunate. And people are going to fear those stories as well. Watch for salmon prices which was for the last ten years has been a relatively inexpensive fish to buy.
Kirsten: I remember when I was little. It was like this delicacy and we never had salmon. Like salmon was this thing that you only had like twice a year. And like at Christmas, someone would give you a thing of smoked salmon and it was this huge – I mean our family would be so excited about it.
But now, I mean like you said, for the last ten years, salmon have been all over the place. Everybody’s got salmon. It’s become like the stake of the sea.
MIchael: Absolutely. And…
MIchael: …they dropped the price of it. You find it in absolutely every single restaurant. It’s got some sort of salmon dish on it because it is inexpensive and because there’s a lot of farmed salmon.
Kirsten: Yes. Right.
MIchael: That’s fine. Farmed salmon is not really the issue here. We’re talking about wild-caught salmon here.
MIchael: And so, we’re going to see the price of wild-caught salmon, it’s going to be absolutely, ridiculously high.
And the other thing that you wind up seeing in situations like this is actually is farmed salmon being labeled as wild-caught. Not enough you’ve ever had the (feel).
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
MIchael: But they actually – there is a substantial difference in (feel) between the two.
Kirsten: Well, they’re different fish entirely.
MIchael: Yes, they really are so. Anyhow, so that’s where we’re at.
Kirsten: It’s such a great, exciting, wonderful, weird world we live in.
Kirsten: Most definitely.
MIchael: So, and let me plug it again, Scientists & Engineers for America and everyone can check out the — if you’re looking to track your elected official’s stance on science and health issues, you should go to Scientist & Engineers for America website and you’ll be able to check everything out there and actually add to it yourself.
Kirsten: Oh, that’s great. Fabulous.
Kirsten: Thank you so much for joining me, Dr. Michael Stebbins. It’s been great talking with you.
MIchael: Thank you so much.
Kirsten: Even though you had mostly bad news today.
MIchael: Yes. But you know what…
Kirsten: It was great talking…
MIchael: …the passing , Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act passing is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Kirsten: It’s huge.
MIchael: And we’re just waiting for the President to sign it.
MIchael: So, it’s a great thing.
Kirsten: Yes. We’ll thanks for that.
Kirsten: Have a great couple of weeks. We’ll talk to you in two weeks.
Kirsten: Bye. Oh. I’m not going to get my music. There we go. Wee! That’s exciting.
And that’s about it for This Week In Science. The headlines this week, spiders, a species of spider has been found to use the Ultraviolet-B rays which is a cancer causing ray to humans for romance. The animals can see the wave length and they use it to attract their mates.
Additionally, fat cells have been found to die which is very, very good news of weight loss. For years and years, it has been the news that fat cells just accumulate forever, and ever and ever and it’s been kind of depressing. But it turns out that some researchers in Stockholm, Sweden have found that they do die anyway.
Species of fungus could possibly be the answer to cleaning up uranium pollution which would be very exciting. I guess the fungus does not sicken and die from the radiation from uranium 238 and 235. And actually eats it up a little bit, consumes it and leaves it in a less toxic form.
Oxygen zones are decreasing around the globe. Waters are warming, that means that the oxygen content is going down and that’s going to be trouble for sea life.
And what else that I want to — oh, yes. Another story, there are a bunch of little microbots being produced by the Army Research Laboratory, little tiny robots that they want to develop that can work like spiders, climb like geckos, fly like insects, hover like hummingbirds and cooperate like bees, all while gathering still images, video, radar and other information that can be sent back to commanders in the field.
That’s it for us. Stay tuned for the next great show on KDVS.