Transcript-TWIS.ORG July 14, 2009

Synopsis: Skinny Monkey with less calorie intake live longer? Bacterial Bloat, Flower Power burst confounds Darwin, When Good Words Go Bad, World Robot Domination–crickets, bats, Bad Words Done Good, and Interview w/ Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

Science! The act of learning by a careful observation that often starts fast in a question, a “how”, a “what”, a “why”, sort of a thing is followed up then by experiment, observation. This is the basis of the whole scientific set up, observing, testing, observing some more and then learning from it.

We have taken the simple act of looking at things to a wide-range of amazing places in recent years. Making observations of everything from spinning electrons to orbiting planets and distant stars, from the double Helix to galaxy clusters, billions of light years away from our Earthly observatory.

And between the gathering of the stars, we humans plot these points of interests, seek out more and even create new ones ourselves. The picture that is forming is actually quite stunning, both in what it reveals and in our ability to reveal it.

If the human may be allowed a narcissistic moment to lavish phrase upon humanity itself, I think we’re doing a really good job. And while spinning clusters of observant narcissistic humans, much like the following hour of our programming, do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors.

We can all take pride knowing that, of all the life forms on planet Earth, it is we humans who have contributed the most to scientific knowledge. We are so well adapted to learning new things that at times it seems, we just can’t get enough. Even now, even this very moment, we are eager to perform the act of observing as we turn our attentions to another episode of, This Week In Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten!

Kirsten: Oops! There’s my microphone. Good morning!

Justin: You might need that.

Kirsten: I was just going to yell into the air.

Justin: You’re going to come in (handy).

Kirsten: Yell into the air. Oh, I guess, good morning, good morning, good morning! Welcome everyone. It’s This Week In Science. We are back for another week with all the science that is fit for us to discuss.

Justin: Yeah. And we’ve got a great re-guest.

Kirsten: Yeah. The re-re-guest.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: We’ve interviewed him before and it’s time to interview him again. Chris Mooney is back on the warpath with his science and politics slant. He’s the author of “The Republican War on Science” from a couple years of ago. “Storm World” where he wrote about hurricanes.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And now he’s back with “Unscientific America”.

Justin: He writes a book like every six months.

Kirsten: Yeah. This time, he has a co-author, Sheril Kirshenbaum, who is I believed an environmental biologist or something like that. My facts are not straight.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: But anyway, we’re going to be talking with Chris. And as always – I don’t know, I’m guessing, he’s going to be a good person to talk to. I usually enjoy talking to him and – I don’t know.

Justin: Don’t have doubts now.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s a little late now.

Justin: I guess it’s natural. Don’t have doubts now.

Kirsten: Yeah. But it’s interesting to talk about this kind of a topic. It’s been hot on people’s lips for the last couple of years, this idea that large majority of America that aren’t so into science. And why is that? What is the disconnect? And does it matter?

I don’t know. Everyone out there listening to the show, I’m supposing enjoys science. And I actually have a question for people out there. I’d love you to write-in and tell me what it is – tell us what it is that, why do you enjoy listening to This Week In Science or even to any other science programming out there.

Whether it’s on the radio or television or podcast. What is it that gets you to watch that or listen to whatever science programming it happens to be?

So, you can email me at or you can Twitter me @drkiki on Twitter. You can talk to Justin too, if you want. But I’m the one asking the question. You can tell Justin. He might not tell me though.

Should we go on with the science?

Justin: Yeah. What did you bring?

Kirsten: I have World Robot Domination, pretty flowers and monkeys.

Justin: Monkeys.

I’ve got a low-fact dentistry diet, how self-help leads to self loathing, why cursing makes you happy and if it doesn’t happy before the end of the show; I will have a This Week in the End of the World to report on.

Kirsten: Hopefully, it doesn’t happen before the end of the show. I’m hoping that we can get to that story.

Justin: Yeah, if we have time. If we have time, well, I’ll tell you what’s (impending) (doom).

Kirsten: And we don’t have time to get to it, does that mean…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …it’s all over?

Justin: It doesn’t really matter. The point, it’s not going to be news.

Kirsten: Oh, man! In monkey news, what do people love to do in the science world? Take food away from monkeys.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: Because it helps us live longer.

Justin: Oh, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, there are a couple of studies out this last week on the whole idea of caloric restriction. What is caloric restriction? Well, it’s this idea that if you don’t eat as many calories as you possibly could, if you don’t give in to that will, you want more food…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: If you don’t give in to that, and you decrease the number of calories, maybe take in about 70% to 80% of the average caloric intake of the average person then, it’s possible that you’re going to extend your life.

Justin: You can live forever.

Kirsten: Maybe not forever.

But the idea is that by reducing your caloric intake, it can kind of slow your metabolism down. You don’t have as much oxidative damage and also, there’s evidence that your core body temperature drops.

There are lots of things that just kind of happen. And there have been studies in fruit flies that suggest with caloric restriction, you live longer and more healthily.

So, less – lower rates of diabetes, lower rates of cardiopulmonary disease, lower rates of cancer. So, lower rates of disease and diseases related to aging and death due to aging. Well, I guess everyone, not everyone…

Justin: So, food kills you? Is that the…

Kirsten: Breathing kills you really. I mean, just being alive kills you.

Justin: No. How do we prevent this?

Kirsten: How do we prevent it?

Well, it looks like – it’s very possible and the two studies that came out this last week from the University of Wisconsin and also the University of Alabama, they suggest that they had monkeys that they looked at for – they are rhesus monkeys, they looked at for 20 years.

So, they have one group of monkeys that were on caloric restriction, had 30% fewer calories than the average monkey diet and then, a group of monkeys that were just monkeys. They didn’t do anything. They just got the normal monkey diet.

These two studies say that 20 years into the experiment – it was one from the University of Wisconsin says, 20 years into the experiment, they say that their data demonstrate that caloric restriction increases life span and slows aging in a primate species.

This is the first time they’ve really done a long-term study in a primate species because, I mean with humans, we live so long. It’s hard to regulate your diet, all that kind of stuff.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And so – and rhesus monkeys they live 20 years to 40 years. So, you have to wait out the entire life span of the monkeys to know whether or not the diet is having any kind of an effect.

Now, there are people who are not so sure about these findings. They’re critical of them because, some of the monkeys that died in the study, they removed them as outliers. They said, “Their deaths don’t count because they died while they were under anesthesia or they died from this other cause. But they didn’t – they took out all of the monkeys that died from what they deemed non-aging related deaths.

Justin: All right.

Kirsten: So, the problem with that is that how do you really know that what they died from didn’t have something to do with the caloric restriction in the first place? So, maybe the fact that a monkey that died while under anesthesia had a weaker immune system had its metabolism…

Justin: Because it is (so bright).

Kirsten: Because – maybe there was something physiologically that was compromised that led to that death, that was related, linked to it, but, not – maybe not directly.

And so, there is this question of whether because if you don’t take those monkeys out, there is no statistical significance in the study at all. It’s only after you remove these monkeys that they’re like, “Oh, they died for other causes. They had nothing to do with aging.” So, and then, it’s significant.

Justin: That can really mess up an experiment.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: I’d actually almost trained a cat to live without food. I was reducing its food portion by half every time I fed it. And then, it was almost – I think if I had another week, it would have been successful.

Kirsten: And…

Justin: But it died.

Kirsten: I’m not just going to talk about it anymore. So anyway, to end this caloric restriction craziness, don’t do that to cats.

Justin: It was science.

Kirsten: Oh, man!

Justin: If I had another week, it would have been able to live on just getting its nutrients from the (air).

Kirsten: Yeah. And I…

Justin: But it naturally causes…

Kirsten: I still have to say that there are, years and years to go before these kinds of studies really give us the kind of data that would suggest whether or not this is the direction that you as a human might like to go in to extend your life.

The data really is still not there to let you know that this is a way that you should decide to change your life, restrict your calories…

Justin: Unless you’re really broke in which case you might already be doing it.

Kirsten: College students, yes. I don’t know. So, this isn’t definitely — not a definitive moment in the caloric restriction world of science.

Justin: Yeah. But next time, you have to choose between food or a textbook. Think, “Yeah, I’ll live longer if I get the textbook.” Just think that, then maybe it’s true, go ahead, go ahead. So, this is…

Kirsten: I’m going to hurt you about the cat. Oh, my gosh!

Justin: I wouldn’t do that to a living thing. Oh, come on!

Kirsten: Oh, my gosh.

Justin: So, here’s the – this is my favorite study – whatever research, published stuff this week. From the journal of Dental Research. I’m going to read some of it just right from this research.

The worldwide explosion of overweight people has been called an epidemic, which is I’d like to sound just like, obese people exploding then, it sounds like, really I (didn’t) know about that.

Kirsten: Really? I don’t think so.

Justin: So, the basically, could it be an epidemic involving an infectious agent? In this climate of concern over the increasing prevalence of overweight conditions in our society, we focus on the possible role of oral bacteria as a potential direct contributor to obesity.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: So, like a couple of weeks ago, I guess, dentists lost the “oral bacteria are connected to heart problems”, that kind of – was disproven.

Kirsten: Oh, was it?

Justin: Yeah. It was shown that there isn’t really a strong correlation at all.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: There are bacteria that show up around the heart that are similar to the ones in the mouth, but it’s not that, you’re swallowing bacteria and it’s going to your heart and it’s causing a heart condition or…

Kirsten: There are certain conditions where it does happen. Like, if you have – not just normal mouth bacteria, but like, if you have an abscess in your mouth or you have something really, you lose a tooth and there is a big infection in your mouth, that can get into bloodstream and that basically causes a systemic problem which can cause problems in the heart valves.

Justin: Anyway, I’ll go find that study. I should have brought that one, too.

Kirsten: Yeah. You should have brought it.

Justin: I should have brought that one. I think it was one of the ones that (unintelligible) list, one of the weeks and didn’t make it because of time. To investigate this totally unswerving possibility that obesity is cause by not going to the dentist.

They produced the study that did find some sort of correlations where they say, with 98.4%, if they were just looking at the oral flora of the mouth, they might be able to predict whether or not somebody was obese by their micro flora because it is a little bit a different.

So, that’s kind of interesting, actually. And bacteria in the oral cavity can be altered by disease conditions. So, such as oral cancer, one of the things they mentioned.

But it’s kind of like – I don’t know if – that correlation still bothers me. I don’t know me if it’s something about the disease that’s then, being expressed in the mouth. Or, I’m not sure – I think that’s what the study…

Kirsten: Well, that’s something – correlation is always just correlation.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: And you can’t – you really…

Justin: They almost are trying to suggest here in the study and this goes on for like ten pages and some of it is kind of hilarious. It’s – and this is my favorite, overweight individuals were recruited from a Boston population by subway advertisement.

After obtaining informed consent, re-screened – this time we’ve got consent – sort of picturing dentists in the subway just sort of like grabbing people and…

Kirsten: Swabbing their mouth…

Justin: …swabbing them without consent. “What are you doing?” “We’re dentists. Be quiet. Spit!”

Kirsten: Oh, man!

Justin: I don’t know. I think it may – they’re arguing here is that oral bacteria may actually contribute to the development of obesity. And at first, I’m just laughing at this saying, “This is just so ridiculous dentists. Come on!”

But one of the interesting points that’s in here that really got me, was this – because we know that bacteria are involved in the digestive system quite a bit.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: But they said that an increase of 5% – an increase about a 100 calories – if you had a micro flora that was just able to eke out another 100 of calories a day for you.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That adds up to about a ten pounds a year, which is kind of over the long haul – I suppose, I could sort of see how your micro flora could be different.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But – I don’t know. Very correlative and then, some of the wording…

Kirsten: So, I’m just going to blame bacteria on that last five pounds.

Justin: why not?

Kirsten: I just can seem to loss that last five pounds, it’s my bacteria. I don’t know.

Justin: But on the other hand, it could be – it could be that there – because I think those probably in a healthy diet. There might actually be more bacteria in less processed food.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It could be that those bacteria were – aside from the processed food that you’re eating maybe, maybe. But there’s so many correlation to this. It’s like one of these things…

Kirsten: We could just go off and not make all sorts of assumptions and extrapolations. It’s – yeah.

Justin: Weight can be a mental – such a mental issue for – I mean, folks – I mean, the desire – like, I can literally sit here and have — 20 people around me eating different kinds of desserts, right? And I have no interest in them. I just don’t have – I don’t have that (wiring) for…

Kirsten: Right. So, there’s the mental, psychological side of it.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: There’s your metabolism. There’s maybe bacteria, there’s all sorts of things that now we can put into the entire puzzle.

Justin: I think the dentists are reaching.

Kirsten: It’s probably easiest – yeah, brush your teeth, lose weight.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: Maybe it’s just easier to go to the gym.

Justin: But just in case you might want to gargle with hydrogen peroxide.

Kirsten: Caloric restriction.

Justin: Gargle with hydrogen peroxide, I’m telling you.

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: That will keep you skinny forever.

Kirsten: You should be careful about that.

Justin: Why should I be careful? It’s hydrogen peroxide…

Kirsten: Moving on…

Justin: It’s over the counter.

Kirsten: …I’m not going to suggest anything like that to people.

Justin: I am not a medical doctor. But I…

Kirsten: No, no.

Justin: …sometimes I sound like one.

Kirsten: And the same way that you should not be giving medical advice.

Justin: Doctors shouldn’t either.

Kirsten: Should pigeons really be art critics?

Justin: Probably! They do a fine job, actually.

Kirsten: Well, in truth, they actually do. And I want to thank a little hot tip to (Eric Lawrenson) for sending this story. And so, some researchers in Japan, I believed, trained pigeons to discriminate between children’s paintings.

So, they had a group of adults classify kids’ paintings. The nice, cute little things you hang up on your refrigerator…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …that you shouldn’t be classifying as good or bad anyway because it’s the kids’ art. You don’t just – whatever. Anyway, the kids…

Justin: Try again, kid.

Kirsten: So, they classified the paintings as good, beautiful or bad, being ugly. And then, kind of made a generalization of, “Okay, this makes up good. And this makes up bad.”

They trained pigeons to peck at beautiful paintings by kids. And then, they put them to a test and have them discriminate between the different paintings. And the pigeons overall once they took away the training stimulus kept choosing the beautiful paintings.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And so then, the researchers were like, “Maybe, there is other – what’s going on here?” And so, they reduced the size of the paintings and they shifted them from color to gray scale and again, tested their ability.

And their discrimination was maintained, even when the paintings were reduced. And then – but performance decreased when a gray scale was added. So, take away the color and add gray scale, it reduced their ability to discriminate between good and bad.

So, the pigeons had some taste in color, the choice of color that the kids were using.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And then, they also had a mosaic effect that was added to try and mix up the painting a little bit. And if you mix up the painting, it screwed with the ability of the pigeons to discriminate between good and bad paintings.

So, anyway, it’s just the results, like what they’re saying, the results that the pigeons can learn this concept of what in the human mind, human perception is beautiful or ugly.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Good or bad. That pigeons are capable of learning the concept of beauty. And that’s what the researchers are concluding.

Justin: Or of a critique.

Kirsten: Or critique.

Justin: Because I was thinking of art – if you’ve a had a chance to read a lot of criticism, of print criticism of art or just, reviews of art, art reviews, there’s some of the most horrible writing that…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …I’ve ever subjected myself to using my eyes for.

Kirsten: All we have to do now is teach the pigeons how to type.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: I mean, they know how to peck.

Justin: All you would need would be like – all you would need would like, like 20 words and they can just hop around and those words keep popping up, “paradigm”, “shift of new”, “delightful”, “intriguing”. Like, all these words just keep resurfacing in art criticism or art reviews. That it is, it’s a (mad lip).

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Art review is a (mad lip). The people – anybody gets paid for that job…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …it’s stunning to me.

Kirsten: So now, I don’t know. Art critics might have to worry about pigeons taking over their jobs.

Justin: Yeah. But the artists are still safe, right?

Kirsten: Yeah. The artists, they are still safe. I don’t know.

Justin: Hey, Kirsten…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Help me help you help yourself…

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Help me help you help yourself.

Kirsten: You’re making me feel icky.

Justin: Help me, help me.

Kirsten: This is creepy.

Justin: Yeah. Are you feeling creepy? You should.

Kirsten: Ew!

Justin: This stuff is creepy. Self-help guidance and self-affirmation books are so popular these days, right?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: There are everywhere. You go into like your major chain bookstore…

Kirsten: The entire section…

Justin: …and they’ve got like a whole wall, huge wall for ways of helping yourself be a better you. So, positive affirming statements suggest in these books like, “I am a lovable person,” “I will succeed,” “I won’t be late for TWIS today,” “I will pronounce things properly”.

These are all designed to lift the person’s lower self-esteem, push them into a positive action and that positive action, that positive thinking is suppose to then, just take over and then – because like, yeah, now, I’ve been thinking positive. Now, I feel positive, right?

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: That’s the idea behind it.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Because they observed people who are really positive and happy and have a healthier high self-esteem. It’s like they always say nice things about themselves. And like, maybe I should think positive, too.

But psychologists are now saying, perhaps, the individuals with low self-esteem will actually end up feeling worse about themselves after repeating lots of positive self-statements.

Kirsten: Huh?

Justin: Yes. Researchers asked participants with low self-esteem, high self-esteem to repeat a self-help book phrase, “I am a lovable person.” Psychologists then, measured the participant’s moods and their momentary feelings about themselves.

As it turned out the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse. Felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group did not repeat the self-affirming statement.

Individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement but only slightly. They are already kind of up there.

So, the follow-up study psychologists allowed the participants to list negative-self thoughts along with positive-self thoughts. They found that paradoxically, low self-esteem participants, moods, faired better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than they were asked to focus exclusively on the affirmative, positive thinking moods.

Kirsten: Right. So, it’s like you think to yourself, “I am a lovable person.” And you go, “Why does nobody love me?”

Justin: Exactly. It’s like the follow-up. “How come I have no love?”

Kirsten: “How come I (unintelligible).”

Justin: (Unintelligible). Oh, my goodness!

Kirsten: Yeah. I can see that. I can totally see it. Nice!

Justin: So, beware or like, you know…

Kirsten: Be honest with yourself.

Justin: It’s – you know…

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Justin: Some of these are always like, “I accept myself completely.” They’re sort of sterile. It’s like, you know…

Kirsten: But if you don’t accept yourself completely, you’re lying to yourself (on how does that) going to help.

Justin: Well, you can lie to yourself. But do it with better words. Those words I think are just what the problem is, you know. Like, I dig myself (warts and all). Like, (warts and all) is a good one, you know.

Unless maybe you have (warts). And then you have to say, I love myself (warts) and hunchback and all. Even if you don’t have – the idea of being, you go more negative then – it’s like assuming the worse and then, being pleasantly surprised when things are just normal.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s like another – I don’t know.

Kirsten: Okay. So, flowers are pretty. They’re normal. They’re all over the place, right?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Flowering plants rule the world. Well, maybe not rule it. But at the same time, during the cretaceous, there was a huge explosion, explosion of flowering plants into the world.

But they don’t know exactly how it happened. And Darwin even called it, according to this article from the BBC, an abominable mystery. Yeah. Because it just…

Justin: Abominable.

Kirsten: Because it was as if in the fossil record, it was like no flowering plants? Boom! Flowering plants. And it just didn’t make sense how it would show up like that. And with Darwin’s theory of gradual change, it really bothered him because it was pretty abrupt…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …and it didn’t make sense…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …according with his idea. So…

Justin: With his hypothesis.

Kirsten: With his hypothesis, yes. So, now there’s a new hypothesis. Some researchers publishing in the journal Ecology Letters, they have come up with an idea that the flowering plants maybe got a foothold because the older plants, the gymnosperms that were more seed-producing, they have broader leaves, hardier leaves. They could exist in kind of more difficult to exist in soils.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And maybe flowering plants have like, they were certain pockets where they were starting to show up but they really hadn’t done much yet. And what they’re suggesting and it is that flowering plants are better at making compost. And so, the compost helps to lead to more flowering plants.

And so, if the flowering plants could get a foothold in an environment and just kind of push out the gymnosperms that have these big leaves that don’t compost very well…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: And…

Justin: And probably don’t – like most flowers will die off every year or two. So, they’re creating a compost constantly.

Kirsten: Constantly creating a compost.

Exactly, and they’re saying that it’s – that the angiosperms, flowering plants actually create a better soil environment for themselves by their process of life. And it’s just a hypothesis and so now, they’re going to go test it further and look for geological evidence of changes in soil fertility…

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …to kind of support their hypothesis. Yeah. I think, it’s an interesting idea.

Justin: Very cool.

Kirsten: It’s all about compost, folks!

Justin: And speaking of compost, researchers from the School of Psychology at Britain’s Keele University have found swearing can make you feel better even if you have a – you can even have a “pain-lessening effect”.

So, if you’ve – immediately, if you’ve been injured and you’d let out a whole rant of curse words…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …it may actually be dimming the pain. It maybe…

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: Maybe this is – maybe we should combine this with the self-help study. Maybe, it’s just a few affirmative curse words thrown in there. Like…

Kirsten: Don’t say – bleep.

Justin: I’m a bleeping wonderful, lovable person.

Kirsten: Bleep.

Justin: I bleeping love me. I have a bleeping great day. “Swearing has been around for centuries…” apparently – although, I think, says this – “…it’s almost a human linguistic phenomenon,” says Richard Stephens, one of the researchers involved in this.

Their study had a number of volunteers who were asked to put their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swear word of their choice.

Kirsten: Nice.

Justin: That’s fun. They then repeated the experiment using more a commonplace words that they would use to describe, say, a table or a chair, a piece of furniture, something just, you know…

Kirsten: Spoon!

Justin: Yeah. Researchers have found the volunteers were able to keep their hands in the ice water for longer while swearing, establishing a link between swearing and an increase in pain tolerance and determination in the mind.

Stephens said it is not clear how or why this link exist but it could be because swearing maybe associated with increases in aggression which may have other effects of running through the body at the moment.

“What is clear is that swearing triggers not only an emotional response, but physical ones too, which may explain why the practice of cursing developed and still persist today.”

Kirsten: (Unintelligible).

Justin: That’s brilliant.

Kirsten: It is brilliant. And quickly before we go to the break, I really want to run through This Week in World Robot Domination.

I have to add something new on there, I don’t know why. Researchers at the University – or Engineering students at the University of California San Diego with their Einstein robot – he has a nice little face.

They’ve given him a mask, this robot that looks like Einstein and lots of little robot facial muscles. And they have taught him how to make realistic facial expressions.

And the keyword here is “taught”. They didn’t program him. They actually sat the robot down in front of a screen and showed the robot pictures of faces that go along with certain emotions in humans and had the robot observed in the screen – at the mirror so we could see what he was doing at the same time.

And so, the robot moved his face around, kind of the way that babies scrunch and move their face around when they’re little. It’s kind of that practicing…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …figuring out what all the muscles do. And then, actually started learning to put the movements, particular movements with certain facial expressions.

And so now, we’re just that much closer to robots that are scarily similar to people. It’s very close to that uncanny valley where within robot technology, where there are just a little too close to human but different enough that it makes you uncomfortable. It’s uncanny.

And North Carolina State University researchers are building tiny robot bats.

Justin: Oh, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Those are pretty awesome.

Kirsten: Very cool. They’re building prototypes that are the equivalent of a bat’s skeleton with metal alloys and using data of how bats fly to actually get these bats to fly. So, robot bats are going to be taking over pretty soon. And robot cars…

Justin: And bats are also – I’m sorry, the bats are pretty wild because they can fly like inside of a house. I mean, they don’t need…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …a huge area to fly in. And I think, they’re going to be the observers. They’re the…

Kirsten: The observer…

Justin: …the front line…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …observation key of robot overlords to come.

Kirsten: And news out yesterday, I think DARPA is funding cyborg crickets.

Justin: Oh, my goodness.

Kirsten: So, putting little controllers, there’s electronic controllers on crickets to send crickets out into battlefields or places where explosions have taken place to…

Justin: I just don’t think they’re going to make very good soldiers.

Kirsten: …the reconnaissance cyborg crickets. Oh, my God, I would step on them so fast. I hate crickets.

Justin: I love crickets. What’s wrong with crickets Kirsten?

Kirsten: Robot cars…

Justin: Cricket (hair)?

Kirsten: …robotic technology of Potomac, Maryland and Cyclone Power Technologies of Pompano Beach Florida have completed initial stage in collaboration leading to the world’s first grazing robot, a story from Ed Dyre.

And the system would have gain energy by engaging in biologically inspired organism-like energy harvesting behavior, foraging and in using that forage to burn up and create steam power and run itself.

Finally, thanks (Shurman), robots are not recession proof. In Japan, which has been the forefront of robotic research and production, shipments of industrial robots fell 33% in the last quarter of 2008 and 59% in the first quarter of 2009.

It’s expected that the markets are going to shrink by as much as 40% this year. And investment in robots has been the first to go as companies protect their human workers.

There is a robot researcher who says, “The recession has set the robot industry back years.”

Justin: Yeah, but thankful nobody’s going to lose their jobs over this because everybody working there is a robot already.

Kirsten: A robot…

Justin: We’re going to do a whole show where you just make sounds.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It’s just to like – for the hour, noises.

Kirsten: Noise hour.

Justin: If you have a request, call in for noises that we would – never mind. We’re at the break. We’re going to the – and Chris Mooney is going to be here.

Kirsten: Chris Mooney in just one second or a minute or two. This is This Week In Science.

If you’re enjoying today’s show, if you learn something new or if you would just like to support our attempt at infotaining you, feel free to donate to the podcast by visiting and clicking on the Donate button. Donations of any size are always welcome. Thank you for listening.

Kirsten: That song just gets me happy and singing every time. Every time, Roundy round, roundy round, round, round, round the sun. It’s Monty Harper on the 2009 TWIS Science Music Compilation.

And on the line, we have Chris Mooney, who has written a book with Sheril Kirshenbaum called, “Unscientific America”. The book is related to – what is termed – he is calling The Crisis of Scientific Illiteracy. He’s written several other books, “The Republican War on Science” and “Storm World”.

Without further ado, let’s bring him on the line.

Justin: Good morning – no, it’s still…

Kirsten: No love.

Justin: There we go. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to This Week In Science. Welcome back, I should say.

Chris: Good to be back.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s great to have you back on the show talking about – I guess what we – I don’t know, this scientific illiteracy crisis is – I mean, did you get right off the bat? Do you think that it is a crisis? And that – I mean, the subtitle of the book says, How It Threatens Our Future. Really?

Chris: Yeah. Basically, we believe that the society is not – that we live is not nearly enough attuned to the importance of science to the future. And that that is going to be a massive problem for us going forward as we continue to encounter science-centered policy today – the generation as there are stem cells and global warming.

Kirsten: How did you end up – so, after writing the last couple of book of yours, how did you end up coming to this thesis?

Chris: Well, this is kind of sequal to my first book. My second book was about a particular science today.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: But my first book was called “The Republican War on Science”. It was about how conservative – we’re interfering with scientific information. And in the Bush administration and that was the real, big problem, something very serious that we have to criticize, I have to criticize.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: But I knew that it wasn’t the only source of the problem. And so, the second book is an attempt to sort of broaden the scope and look at what the other causes, besides just politics or for us having the society in which the science doesn’t get translated into action the way that it ought to.

Kirsten: Right. So, is there a way – I think there’s a little feedback on the line. Are you on a speaker phone?

Chris: No.

Kirsten: Can we put you on a handset? Is that possible?

Chris: I’m on – is this live?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Yes. It’s always live.

Chris: All right. Well…

Justin: We work without a net.

Chris: I’m not…

Justin: (She quit) a while ago.

Chris: I’m on a bluetooth. Let me try something else, all right?

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Cool.

Chris: Sorry.

Kirsten: No problem.

Justin: It’s okay. It might have been – because I’m still hearing it here with us.

Kirsten: I don’t know.

Chris: Still there. (I don’t know.)

Justin: Yeah. I’m not sure where it’s coming from. I don’t think we can – because I’m hearing my own voice and it sounds different and it normally – so, something else has happened.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: This isn’t used to be there when we first talk. I’m really sorry about it. Do you want to call me back?

Kirsten: Yeah. Why don’t we call you back.

Justin: We’ll going to try it.

Kirsten: We’ll do this really fast.

Justin: We’re going to see what…

Kirsten: So, put up some music and then, we will…

Justin: I can just rumble.

Kirsten: You’re going to rumble?

Justin: (I can just) rumble.

Kirsten: We’ll call you back in a second Chris.

Justin: I can tell, rumble on. So, this is going to fine because I think what we’re going to have ask him is whether or not we should blame the American people for being scientifically illiterate. I mean, that’s really where I think the next…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: …the next step is. Instead of worrying like, well, with (media) maybe they haven’t done enough. Or maybe there haven’t been enough translation. Are you going to music?

Kirsten: I am.

Justin: Like – she’s like, “No, you’re rumbling.”

Kirsten: Chris, you’re back.

Chris: I’m back. Sorry.

Kirsten: That sounds better. We push a lot of buttons and I tried the other line and hopefully, this is better. So, Justin, you had a question that you wanted to get to, so…

Justin: Yeah. I mean, I haven’t read your book because I didn’t get an advance copy from your publishing, you might want to mention that to them next time. But…

Chris: (Unintelligible).

Justin: …should we really be a accusing the American people of not being scientifically illiterate? Should we put it on their plate of something that…

Kirsten: Of not being literate? Yeah.

Justin: Of not being scientifically literate.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I didn’t say, they’re illiterate. But not, I mean, not keeping up.

Chris: Well, we should give them something like 50% of the blame. The book actually (invert) the idea and reject the idea that blaming the public is a productive strategy.

Justin: Mm hmm.

Chris: And what it tries to do is it tries to talk about a divide between scientists and the public for which both they’re responsible. So, there has been way too much blaming of the public, in our opinion and way too little engagement from the scientists with the public.

But at the same time, it’s lamentable that people don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to go around the sun or which is larger, an atom or an electron because, we want to improve those things. But you don’t want some scientists to think that they don’t have any responsibility.

Kirsten: Right. Do you think though that, like, is this divide any different from say, the divide between America and literature, like when people think about literature that, Charlotte Bronte and like the masters of literature or the arts. I mean is this divide between Science and America? Isn’t it the same thing or is there a difference?

Chris: It has some similarities. But we just find there’s much more – I mean, the same thing could be said of history, right?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: Americans get a lot of, historical questions (among) people. But the unique thing about science is that it is actually it’s on the path and it’s not (authentic). It’s actually driving policy everyday.

And we have a lot of issues on our plates right now and we will be continuing too in the future where the fact that there’s a giant gap between the public and the scientific world is preventing us from achieving anything.

So, global warming for example where you’ve got scientists overwhelmingly convinced of the science. Then you’ve got the public only like halfway convinced of the science…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: …and if you’re a republican you just absolutely think the science (bogus). I mean, that’s the recipe for an action and that’s really a problem there.

Kirsten: Yeah. But do you think that – so, we talk about say arts appreciation and it’s okay to just appreciate art, do you think, it’s enough to start or just get people to appreciate science? Or do we need people to know the facts?

Chris: I think, yes. You got to emphasize to some extent, knowledge of facts that don’t have a huge amount of policy relevance. So, for example, something like what’s larger, an atom or electron? That’s one of the standard science literacy question that people do not do at all well on it.

But our argument would be well, that’s not, I mean, it’s unfortunate people should know that. But at the same time, does that determine the course of the future, no. So something like, what is the science of global warming? What is the role of science in the economy in spurring innovation? Things like that, it really, really change and really affect policy decisions are far away more important.

Kirsten: Yeah. But when it comes down to – I mean, environmental science, atmospheric science is so complicated. I mean, unless you are a scientist actively working in that field, the possibility that you are going to understand every aspect of that is really small.

And for the public, they are not going to – I mean, it’s just has to be some kind of a gestalt, kind of like, it does come down to trusting the scientists in the end, doesn’t it?

Chris: In some sense, yeah, I mean, whenever people say we need more high school science education to get people to know the right answer on global warming, I say, well do you think Michael Crichton’s high school science education failed him? And that’s why he became a skeptic of global warming. He was someone who was an MD.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: You can take any university-based science is skeptical. Freeman Dyson at Princeton, you think his high school education failed him and he’s a top physicist?

Kirsten: Yeah – hey, no.

Chris: It doesn’t add up.

Kirsten: No, it doesn’t.

Chris: I mean, that’s not – that clearly that cannot be the problem when you get to this really high levels of scientific debate. So, with climate to some extent, you certainly want people to know more about science. But you also want a way to de-politicize the issue because politics is clearly the screen that’s preventing people from understanding it and that’s…

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: …and that’s causing a lot of this information to exist. And you certainly want people to have a better sense of why they need to trust scientific consensus when they exist.

In other words, why trust science when it comes to a very firm conclusion? Well the answer would be something like – because science hasn’t come to a very firm conclusion unless they really, really, really work on it and get over it a million times.

So, that kind of trust was also something that’s lacking whenever there’s a politicized issue.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, I just – I think about it, we’re having this conversation. And obviously, a lot of the ideas that are being passed back and forth is kind of preaching to the choir and probably even, to the audience of this program, who are interested in science. Otherwise, the likelihood of them listening would be very slim.

It’s all preaching to the choir and saying these things. But how do we get pass that? Do you put forward any ideas in your book for actually breaching the divide?

Chris: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the whole point is just the two cultures gap between science and the public. And how, do you get past that? I mean, we have a variety of different approaches and it depends on what sector are we talking about.

But one of the things we say is we get to train a lot more science communicators who can do this kind of work, who can actually bridge the divide. And we say that the academic science pipe line which is producing more scientists in their job score and academia will also be actually diverting some of those people in different kinds of area in each careers, they can – where they can do that kind of work.

And we also say, what are the road blocks that really prevent us from reaching people who think differently than we do. It really prevents us from doing anything but preaching to the choir.

One of those, we single out religion. When we say, we’ve got to de-polarize the fight over religion in the United States, if you want to reach the whole part of the public that thinks that science is constantly assaulting their beliefs.

Kirsten: Right.

Chris: So, that’s, there’s a variety of different strategy – the climate thing is going to be more about diffusing the politics than diffusing the religion angle.

But I mean, you’ve got to reach beyond, people who already know and people who already care. And that’s partly about getting through the mass media and that’s partly about, just be politicizing or taking the ideology of some of these issues.

So, it’s not of much of a blockage.

Kirsten: Right. If there are some way to get it into the media that we didn’t have to – we don’t have to put these two sides and create the controversy on a lot of these issues because…

Chris: That’s the idea, yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: I mean, it’s exceedingly hard to do. But the idea is to train people to do it.

Justin: I just…

Kirsten: What?

Justin: Look, okay. What I’m hearing from both of you goes — it just flies absolutely against anything and everything that I know about how media works.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Wanting to get it out into the mainstream media and to have it where you completely without any sort of conflict or controversy, those don’t work together!
That’s I mean, I bet you…

Kirsten: But maybe, they could.

Justin: More people know about global warming and stem cells because there was a debate, because there is an argument over it. Because you have sides to the issue. That’s why you probably have a lot of other issues that goes unnoticed because nobody is paying attention to it.

What really would be interesting is to see sort of – what has happen to politics and television and how there’s millions of pontiffs talking politics which is such an annoyingly boring subject. I mean, (gosh) knows what people actually do when they’re actually running in an office and that sort of thing.

Chris: Mm hmm.

Justin: But to have those sort of conversations about science where we’re willing to vet and argue all these things out in the open and talk about all these issues and invite the controversy, you invite the baker, the candle stick maker, the genetic scientist and the priest to go and talk about these things.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: So, you can hear all those points of view, but we never hear that, you never hear people talking science on television. You get that fact lists.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: Here’s what science may or may not said or if it’s got some cute, tag line to it, like, bacteria makes you fatter.

Chris: I’m all for that. I mean, I’m not against that at all. I think that, it’s the same time though current media coverage of science does focus on controversy, it’s often inaccurate.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: And that actually does not only polarize people, but misinform people and so, there’s a media responsibility angle there that’s very important. And of course, you can’t really expect the media to have a ton of responsibility when it is a profit making enterprise that it’s cutting science coverage.

Justin: They’re like teenage kids with credit cards.

Chris: What’s that?

Justin: They’re like teenage kids with credit cards and no limit. They’re ridiculous, the way that they…

Kirsten: Just spin it, just spin it.

Justin: Yeah. It doesn’t matter what comes out, just make sure that we’re getting the audience.

Kirsten: Yeah. Have you been getting any kind of feedback from these kinds of ideas of – okay, so, the idea, let’s start a dialogue. Let’s try and get into the mainstream media. Let’s try and get people talking.

Has anything, since, you’ve gone out in the public and started talking about this, has there any been any movement forward in that direction?

Chris: Oh, absolutely. Well, our book is currently getting two kinds of responses. And one response is like extraordinarily negative and angered because we’re criticizing a whole prominent swatch of people in science or related to science who has made attacking religion is the number one thing that they do.

Kirsten: Yeah. And I’m…

Chris: So, those people are just really, really mad.

Kirsten: And you’re specifically, I think, not saying the name of one person who is like…

Chris: Oh, I’m going to be happy to say all their names, we said all their names in the book and we repeat them when we sell them right and then we criticize them.

Kirsten: I know that PZ Myers is one person who – I mean, it really surprised me that he has come out with a very scathing review of your book.

Chris: Well…

Kirsten: And you’re responding to every point that he made in your blog, The Intersection on Discover Magazine blogs.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, here’s a guy who is the most popular blogger about science on the internet. And what is he best known for? He’s best known for desecrating a consecrated communion wafer and putting a picture of it on the internet.

Now, to me, that’s not really about promotion of science.

Kirsten: No.

Chris: That’s not really (unintelligible) trying to educate people and get them to appreciate science more. That is about fighting a culture war…

Kirsten: Yup.

Chris: …which divides us.

And it’s deeply destructive. And we have no problem saying that in the book. And of course, he’s angry because, you know what? He fought a culture war. And we wanted to do something very different. We want to communicate science to the public.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Absolutely.

Kirsten: And science to – and like you’ve said earlier, to get science out to the public, we need to get past that. And it seems the culture war seems to me, like this stems back to like, our evolutionary – our evolutionary psychology.

It’s like the “us” versus “them”, the tribal of they’re different so, they’re bad and there’s a lot of attacking going on. And I think, that’s very prevalent within the scientific community.

Chris: Oh, it’s just don’t – it’s completely prevalent. I mean, there’s a lot of taking sides. But we, on the other hand, we have people who are very, very enthusiastic about the book because they feel the gap between science and society. They want to do something about it. And this kind of book galvanizes them.

But there are definitely a tribal or something going on. And, it’s unfortunate, there is also just extreme (polemicist) and instability personal attack so that if there’s not, elevated discourse necessarily…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: …in a world of talking about science in the blogosphere. And that’s another thing that we criticize.

Unfortunately, we’re all just people, you know. And we even, – those who say that, science and reason are the things that are most important. I mean, not necessarily above responding the issues in a very emotional way.

And that’s something that we’re trying to (fit) in a science world, “Look, we know better than this. We know how to try to control our emotions.” That’s with the scientific method is supposed to be.

All those values, you’re supposed to be dispassionate. You’re suppose to have dialogue. You’re not suppose to, start attacking because, then, everybody’s defenses get up and things are no longer productive.

But so far, we’re not. We got to restore stability to the science blogosphere.

Kirsten: If anything, you’ve started a new conversation in the least.

Chris: I hope so.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean it’s – I think if, I mean, looking at the side, I mean, there’s the skeptic community. There’s the scientific community. There’s the atheist community. There are all these different communities that say they use, reason – logic and reason to decide things.

And then, they – and then going out and attacking people is not necessarily a very logical or even rational way to approach it.

Chris: It’s really what it is is the way I think of it is that the legacy of the enlightenment is a wonderful thing, the idea that we’re going to use science and reason to not only find out how the world works but to run our societies.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: And we’re going to educate everybody in science and reason. And then, all the nonsense is going to disappear.

Kirsten: Yup.

Chris: …and people are going to be completely rational because we just get this argument out there and there’s so valid. How could anyone ever reject them? And, that isn’t actually how people’s minds work or how the media works. But there’s this idea that, if you just take religion straight on and destroy it, intellectually…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Chris: …somehow, you’re going to prevail over religion. And we’re trying to say, we know from science itself that that’s not how it works. So…

Kirsten: Yeah. But and then on the other side of things, there is a portion of this “Unscientific America” that 50% or whatever it happens to be who maybe they are – it is a backlash — their response and the kind of anti-intelligentsia and, all – I don’t know math, I don’t like science, all these kinds of responses where it’s okay to not be into science, math, engineering, any of these things, these pursuits, that there is some amount of a backlash against the enlightenment.

And that, this is 200 years later, it’s still kind of this wave is still coming.

Chris: Right, right. There is anti-intellectualism and there’s hyper-intellectualism, I guess, is what I’m saying.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: And the two completely cannot communicate with each other. And so, the way (to do it) is I think is they, anti-intellectualism obviously is a very unfortunate thing that we have in the United States that is part of our history for a long time.

But if you don’t understand the people who really fit into that category, then, if you go ask them as a hyper-intellectual, I mean, what are you achieving? Not much.

So, that’s kind of one of the – I mean, in some ways, one of the most controversial thing we’re saying. But since, I think the time has come in the world of science for a bit more of a unifying that issue, that more of the like, we do share the same cause, the same mission.

An Obama administration kind of (method) rather than like, what’s my culture (kind of thing).

Kirsten: Right. So, with this book and what you’re doing with it now, I mean, do you have hopes for this to lead somewhere or you’re just going to move on to your book?

Chris: No, I have great hopes because what we’re seeing is that, there’s almost the – to some extent a generational difference in science right now. And so, there’s a lot of young people coming up in science and they may not actually be deaf and to be bench scientist.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: But a book like this really speaks to them because they’ve got this sense that, “Research is great, we really enjoy learning how to do it. We really enjoy the process and all the rest.”

But we also want to do something more. We feel that our knowledge is somehow isn’t getting translated. And we’re wondering why and maybe we want to have a career trying to do something about that problem. There’s every chances that go to (just) people like that.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Chris: And this book is really written for them. It’s not written for, a scientist who’s (doing) the older generation who is just really mad at religion. That scientist is not going to like this book.

Kirsten: Right. And maybe, they’re too entrenched to change their position at this point. So, it’s just time to move on to the next generation.

Chris: (Not all) for the soul of science.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Justin: I say…

Kirsten: Wow!

Justin: …stick to your guns, kids. You don’t know what they’re capable of. Don’t turn your back on the God people.

Kirsten: Well, Chris, it’s been wonderful talking with you this morning. Thank you so much for joining us. Your book, “Unscientific America” is out now. And your blog is The Intersection or Intersection at Discover Magazine’s blogs. Any other websites that you need people to know about.

Chris: is there for the book stuff, you know.

Kirsten: Okay, all right. So, that’s a good place if people want to know more about the book. And thank you so much for joining us. And I hope that this conversation does continue and I’m a firm believer in the fact that we can get people appreciating science more.

Justin: Yeah.

Chris: So, are we.

Kirsten: We have to. So, thanks for writing the good writes and fighting the good fight.

Justin: Build robots that compel people to like science.

Kirsten: And have a great day.

Justin: Bye, Chris.

Chris: Yeah. Great to talk to you, guys. Bye.

Kirsten: Bye. It was Chris Mooney.

And again, Discover Magazine for blogs “Unscientific America”. It’s the end of our show. On next week show, we are going to be joined by Jon Singleton, who is a physicists with, I think he’s at Los Alamos right now working on something important in Physics-y.

And he – we had this cool story, a couple of weeks ago related to the breaking of the theory of relativity and these radio waves that supposedly were somehow able to travel faster than light.

Well, he’s the guy who’s made this incredible device. But he says that maybe the press release writer got a few things wrong.

Justin: Uh-huh.

Kirsten: So, we’re going to talk to him and set things straight and, find out that – maybe Einstein’s ideas were not smashed to smithereens, anyway.

Justin: Not to smithereens, probably not. But there’s still a room. There’s still room in Einstein.

Kirsten: There is still room.

Justin: There still room. They did mess with some stuff, you know.

Kirsten: Yeah. I’d like to thank (Michael Beavington), (Shurman Dorn), (Eric Lawrence) and (Jeff Jenelsky), (Justin Critendon), Ed Dyre, (Tony Steel), (Morphis13), (Sean McCarthy), (Jeff Bjola), (Frank Dominguez), (Mark Keith), (Melissa Templeton) and (Phillip Fujioshi), and (Dave Eckard) for writing in this last week. Thanks so much for your stories, your comments and your criticisms.

Additionally, Epicanis, Odle2, aminorjourney, (terarisick), Justin Reed, (Andy Moss), (senior square), DJ Prefect, (leslets), all on Twitter. Kind of hanging out, listening to us on the live stream. Thanks for joining us and playing along while we – enjoyed our show.

We hope everyone out there enjoyed the show.

Justin: Yeah, we do. We’re glad you enjoyed the show. We know, you enjoyed the show. We’re also available via podcast. Go to Click on Subscribe. You can also find this by looking for us in the iTunes.

Kirsten: And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, our Show notes are going to be available on the website, I want to hear from you. So, email us at or

Justin: Put TWIS in the subject or you will get spam-filtered. We’ll be back here, right?

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: Next Tuesday.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: 8:30 am Pacific time.

Kirsten: Specific time?

Justin: Specifically.

Kirsten: Specifically. And we hope that you’ll join us then again for more great science news.

Justin: And if you’ve learned anything from today’s show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

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