Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!
Being brilliant is easier than you think. All it requires from you is that you learn, teach or otherwise share information. Sparking of new neurons ever small or seemingly uneventful is the very thing that all human knowledge is based on.
From a student perceiving the previously unknown, the furrowed brow of confusion that follows and following that in illuminating detailed explanation leading to a nodding head of newly acquired knowledge.
As though defying the thermo dynamic laws of conservation, new knowledge has been created and nothing has been lost. This ability, incredible ability to learn, to create something out of nothing is in the hands of both teacher and student. The patience to teach, the desire to know and the willingness to be mindful for a few moments in time that such thing is giving and getting information can be productive for the greater and personal good of all mankind.
While the nodding heads of mindful, thermodynamics 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.
Every discovery that brought about the enlightenment of the modern age from fire to the Phoenix Lander, from the first water wells to the latest in stem cells could not have come about if not for the simple acts of people talking, thinking and sharing.
If we all take advantage of our ability to spark new information, the future will not only be bright, it will be down right brilliant. Speaking of simple acts of information sharing, get ready for This Week in Science, coming up next.
Good morning, Kirsten!
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! Yeah, that’s right. Welcome everyone to This Week in Insomnia, no, I mean, Science, I mean…
Justin: I got no sleep last night and I’m crazy right now. It’s amazing.
Kirsten: Maybe that’s the coffee? I don’t know.
Justin: No, I didn’t even tried it yet.
Kirsten: Lack of sleep.
Justin: This is just straight on neuron exhausting whatever energy they had left.
Kirsten: Yeah. You got an imbalance of those neuro-transmitters. And this is what happens…
Justin: Firing it at once.
Kirsten: …welcome to This Week in Science everyone.
Justin: Stop noise.
Kirsten: Yeah. This week is going to be crazy. We’re back from our little, little vacation last week.
Justin: Well un-rested from our vacation.
Kirsten: Little un-rested. But we’re here and we’re ready to bring you the science. And on this week’s show, we are going to be talking to Sherry Seethaler after the half hour break. And she has a book that she’s written.
Kirsten: ….Damned Lies and Science”, it’s the title of her book.
Justin: (It’s a neat book.)
Kirsten: Yeah. So, the subtitle of the book is “How to Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and Other Scientific Controversies”. She is a science writer and…
Justin: It’s actually only one page and it has the link to our show, actually.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: It’s all it is.
Kirsten: Hey, thanks Sherry.
Justin: Yeah, good job.
Kirsten: Yeah. Very excited to be speaking with her about a number of issues in science media and how the media report science and how you, the listener, the viewer, the receiver of that information can be critical.
It’s a very well written book about how to take a critical look at what you see in the world. And probably most people won’t read it. So, hopefully they’ll get something from this interview.
Kirsten: I’m kidding. I’m kidding.
Justin: Everyone will read this book eventually.
Kirsten: Everyone, everyone. And I brought stories about – to sleep or not to sleep, which is fairly timely considering both of our lack of sleep last night; shedding some light on the brain; and a heavy bombardment.
Justin: I’ve got a whale of a tail, I’ve got a, by hook or by crook some brilliant birds, why sex doesn’t matter?
Justin: And a double correction of a something that needed to be corrected and they’ll be corrected and then uncorrected by the end of the show.
Kirsten: Correct, correct, not correct.
Justin: Something I got wrong that it turns out that I might be right about.
Kirsten: Correction, correction.
Justin: Yeah. It’s a correction with a correction to the correction at the end of the correction.
Kirsten: Yeah. All right, science news. Big story of this last week which we weren’t able to report last week because we weren’t here. But it’s been reported everywhere so, I don’t really know why I want to report it. It’s big evolutionary find…
Kirsten: …the 47 million year old fossil found in Germany. But it wasn’t found recently. It was actually found a long time ago.
Justin: Still finding stuff in a basements of…
Kirsten: 1983 is when this was found in a shale quarry near Darmstadt, Germany, the Messel Shale Pit. This fossil is possibly from the Eocene period. Very interesting, this fossil was found by a private fossil hunter, excavated and then split into two parts and it’s taken these many years for scientists to find and buy the separate fossil parts so that they can actually put them together.
Justin: I’m already – see, I’ve got chain of command issues already.
Kirsten: Yeah. So anyway, this is a big find. It’s been overhyped by the scientists…
Kirsten: …but at the same time, I’m kind of excited about the scientists hyping their own work. We have a caller.
Justin: Good morning TWIS minion. You are on the air with This Week in Science.
Kirsten: Or not. Yes, no? Not there.
Kirsten: No, okay. You’re not on the air with us. Yeah, but like I said, I am…
Justin: The chain of command though, it bothers me, Kirsten.
Kirsten: The chain of command?
Justin: Well, it went away, it was split up, it came back. How do you know like, you know, some other parts didn’t get, you know, yeah.
Kirsten: Right. And I think that is – hopefully the fossil has not been messed with, you know, or…
Justin: It’s definitely a red flag to look at this…
Justin: …with some skepticism in the beginning, really.
Kirsten: A critical eye. I mean, it is a big find. It’s an important primate fossil in the evolutionary history of primates and primate-like organisms. They hope and they think that it’s from a stem group from which higher primates may have evolved. So, it’s an ancestor of our ancestors kind of a thing. I don’t know, I think it’s very interesting. It’s a great fossil. It’s a great find. And it’s worth…
Justin: I get to say (the thing again)…
Kirsten: I don’t know if it’s worth all of the hype, but we’ll see.
Justin: Good morning TWIS minion. You are on the air with This Week in Science.
Steve: Hi! This is Steve from Australia. How are you doing?
Justin: Hey, Steve.
Kirsten: Is Steve from Australia? Really?
Steve: Yeah, really.
Kirsten: Wow! Is this like the middle of the night for you?
Justin: No, no, it’s like midday.
Steve: I’m not actually in Australia.
Steve: But that’s the thing…
Steve: Here in Los Angeles, I’ve only been able listen to your podcast before. But I thought I’d ring in since I’m here in Tuesday morning in Los Angeles.
Kirsten: That’s right. You sent an email and you asked when would be a good time to call. Well, I’m so…
Steve: I did. That’s right in you go.
Kirsten: I’m so glad you’re calling in. How are you loving California? Are you loving Los Angeles?
Steve: I am. Yes, it is a very nice weather here. It’s winter back home. So, this is fabulous.
Kirsten: It’s a good vacation. You came here to stay away from the swine flu, didn’t you?
Steve: That’s right. I was just going to say, I’m the guy who sent in the Question of the Month a while ago about the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. Did you remember that?
Justin: (Of course), absolutely.
Kirsten: I do and we kind of stopped there. And I haven’t gotten back. We had guests and the show hasn’t been able to talk about that question really on the air.
Steve: Yeah. I that’s …
Steve: I was hoping someone would ring in and say it was all non sense and there’s no way that human activity could ever affect the oxygen content of the atmosphere. But no one is coming in to do that.
Kirsten: Right, yeah. I don’t know if anyone has come up with that point. I don’t know.
Kirsten: I don’t know if I’ve ever heard that actually.
Steve: Yeah. Well, I hope it’s not true.
Kirsten: We’re probably affected indirectly, maybe.
Kirsten: You know…
Justin: Well, I mean…
Kirsten: …if I could –tipping the balances.
Justin: Look, we’re absolutely can be affecting the oxygen level in the – absolutely. The global warming, you know, we don’t know what direction it’s going take on plant-life yet.
It could actually increase it. It could make vast, swaths of land that right now aren’t, you know, aren’t very full of foliage, take a turn at tropical. If we turn at Greenland tropical, all of Siberia and then have some rough plants down to the sun, we could actually increase the oxygen level back over the point where we get larger snakes, the giant insects again. We can get all those things back.
On the other hand, you know, if the heat goes up too quick and the plant life can’t react in time, you know, we can have all these little areas of habitats that die off because it’s all happening so fast, they don’t have time to adjust, we can end up with less plant life and foliage on the planet and therefore less oxygen. We could get smaller insects, smaller snakes at least.
Steve: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: And also if we kill off all the plankton, the photosynthesizing little organisms in the oceans, you know…
Justin: They’ll be fine. We got rid of all the fish that feed on them. They don’t explode.
Steve: So, I’m looking forward to having my own pet giant dragonfly.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Wouldn’t that be cool?
Kirsten: Instead of a little piece of string that you tie around its neck, you’re going to have to use like some of like high-gauged rope.
(Steve): Mm hmm.
Justin: They’re going to be massive.
Kirsten: I take my dragonfly for a walk on a titanium leash. Thank you for calling.
Steve: Okay. I better go now.
Kirsten: You’re being called to the airport, your flight.
Justin: Good luck.
Steve: I’m just going to say, I link to you on my website which is called Cheap Astronomy, www.cheapastro.com.
Justin: We’ll go check it out for sure. Awesome.
Kirsten: Thanks, Steve.
Steve: Yeah. Good to talk to you.
Kirsten: Yeah, you too. Thanks for calling us all the way from Los Angeles, Australia.
Steve: Okay. I have a…
Justin: (Via) Australia.
Kirsten: Take care.
Kirsten: Bye. Yeah, we have another caller. I think he made some points that might…
Justin: Good morning TWISminion. You’re on the air with This Week in Science.
Man: Hey! How are you doing today?
Kirsten: Great. How are you?
Man: Pretty good. So, in the previous caller about the oxygen levels…
Man: …I did post something to the forum about it. There was that paper published recently about the great oxidation event where they link oxygen levels to the level of methane in the atmosphere.
And they used that as the explanation for why oxygen levels didn’t dramatically increase for a couple of hundred million years after photosynthesizing plants existed because the methanogens were generating methane.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Man: And that balance of the oxygen, there’s apparently some kind of dynamic relationship with the amount of methane in the atmosphere and the amount of the oxygen in the atmosphere.
Man: Now, that relationship (fill holes) and humans through, you know, having cattle and everything dramatically increase the amount of methane in the atmosphere. I guess that would result in the decrease in the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere.
Justin: Decreasing oxygen and on top of that, I mean, we’ve done some massive defoliage. But then, we’ve also been doing…
Justin: …(formatting) and then, I don’t know.
Justin: It’s hard to say.
Man: I just like to throw that one in there. I haven’t seen anyone do any papers on that thing. Well, if this holds – if that paper holds…
Man: …it was published like a month or two ago.
Kirsten: Right. So, someone still has to come out with the modeling or at least some kind of experimental…
Kirsten: …result. Yeah.
Man: Saying, here’s another dangerous thing that’s probably unrelated to – it’s an atmospheric change issue, not even a climate change issue, you know.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Man: If something like that happens. And would we have documentation of any corresponding decrease in oxygen levels versus the amount of methane we’ve been throwing in the atmosphere based on our agricultural activity.
Kirsten: That’s fascinating. Thank you so much for calling in.
Man: Anyway, well, take care. Have a good day, you guys.
Kirsten: Yeah, you too, thanks.
Justin: Thank you. Thanks for checking in.
Kirsten: And if anyone wants to – I should try and bring that up on Ye Old computer. But the TWIS forums are at twis.org. Go to Forums, on the menu. And the Question of the Month, which is the last Question of the Month.
That’s where you’ll probably see the link to that story, to that article, if you are interested in looking at how oxygen is related to this whole, whole thing anymore. Justin, you got more stories?
Justin: I do. I’m going to move quick too.
Kirsten: You’re moving it quickly?
Justin: Actually, I’m going to switch over my favorite story of the week, researcher Bird finds bird’s brilliant at creative tool use of all being researched by birds. Wait, what?
By hook or by crook, rooks, which are a member of the crow family are capable of using and making tools even modifying them to make them work better and using them in sequence.
“This finding is remarkable because rooks do not appear to use this tool in the wild. Yet, they rival, habitual tool users such as chimpanzees and other intelligent crows when tested in captivity, in captivity, it’s where the only place that they’ve seen this behavior in the rooks,”…
Justin: …says, University of Cambridge Ph.D student Christopher Bird. Take a close look at him people. Take a very close look.
In the series of the experiments, the rooks quickly learnt to drop a stone to collapse a platform to acquire food. That’s a neat trick. Then, they showed the ability to choose the right shape of stone without any training. They weren’t trained in which ones to use, they just pick up the right one and use it.
Not only could they use the stones to solve the task, but they were also flexible enough in their tool choice using modified sticks to achieve the same goal. When the correct tool was out of reached, they used another tool to get that tool.
So, they were using a sequential tool use. They have tools that could get tools. They made another tool to use that tool to drag the other tool to – very cool.
In further tests, the rooks were able to use a hook to get food out of a different type of a tube. And eventually, creatively bent a straight piece of wire to make a hook when the hook was not provided.
What? Really? This is like…
Kirsten: This is impressive.
Justin: Yeah. I’m like, early man probably wasn’t doing this. This is maybe – this where we picked up the, you know, the tricks, watching the birds. So, it’s sort of an…
Kirsten: I know, we just have the primate brain, we were just able to learn from the birds.
Justin: Which really is…
Justin: …also the further implication of this is that this is something that – this tool use is something and somehow intuitive in the bird to be able to adapt and create a tool because it’s not just a product of their environment that they have been encountered the need for these tools. It’s not something that’s…
Justin: …you know, that’s generational thing or learn from other bird thing. It’s something that they – here’s a problem…
Kirsten: Here’s a problem.
Justin: …let me solve it.
Justin: I think that’s amazing. And doing that with the bird brain…
Kirsten: No, no, no.
Justin: I know people with big brains that can’t solve any kind of problems for themselves.
Kirsten: And that’s one of the things that, you know, just has astounded me for the years of looking at the bird brain at the problems that is able to solve given the, you know, area, the volume of neural tissue that’s there.
The bird brain is highly efficient. And there is a lot of stuff going on in there and really truly if someone calls you a bird brain…
Justin: Thank you.
Kirsten: …it’s a compliment.
Justin: Thank you very much.
Kirsten: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, yeah.
Justin: Thank you very much.
Kirsten: It’s the same thing if somebody call, you know, there is the old thing of like, “Oh, you’re so dense.” You’re like, “Oh, yeah. Thanks. I’ve got densely packed neurons. Yeah, thanks.”
Justin: I won’t even be called obtuse. I keep forgetting to look it up.
Kirsten: Obtuse, open angle.
Justin: I think it meant dull, but never mind. I’ve got more. You got more?
Kirsten: I have lots more. Wait, Nathan Emery, I know him. I used to work with him. I just realized who you were talking about. One of the…
Justin: Oh, yeah, Nathan Emery was one of the researchers and who authored it. It was actually his lab that they did the study.
Kirsten: Oh, Nathan. Yeah, I used to – I know him. He was here at Davis.
Justin: You know all the bird people.
Kirsten: He was here at Davis for a while. And he’s actually a primate researcher. And he works, collaborates with Nicola Clayton, my old adviser. Anyway…
Justin: It’s a small world.
Kirsten: …the bird world is – the bird-research world, it’s a small place, very small place.
Justin: Small hands, small people.
Kirsten: So, okay. Once a upon a time the Earth was bombarded by asteroids. And, you know…
Justin: It’s like in the mid 70’s or something.
Kirsten: Yeah. And there’s this idea that – yeah, mid 70’s, right.
Billions of years ago, like, 3.9 billion years ago, asteroids boom, boom, boom! The idea is that life could not possibly have survived through that kind of heavy bombardment, that the surface of the Earth would have been molten, that, you know, any water that would have been on the surface would have evaporated and, you know, been steamed in the atmosphere. And you know, there would be no place on Earth that would support life.
And so, this point of bombardment is the furthest point at which we’ve really consider the idea that life would possibly exist. That that, you know, 3.9 billion years ago, it’s like, well, maybe that’s the upper limit.
Kirsten: However, a new study that looks at three-dimensional computer models of asteroids bombarding the surface of the Earth, that a group out of the University of Colorado at Boulder has put together, they simulated asteroids destroying the Earth.
And they realized that, “Hey, okay. So, the crust of the Earth is this thick. And we think of this area that’s, you know, about 2.5 miles down as the habitable zone of the Earth’s crust.”
What they found with their simulations is that not all of that crust gets completely destroyed. And in fact, there are areas on the surface of the Earth like the hydrothermal vents, these deep, deep vents where organisms, they’re amazingly able to survive harsh conditions that we found now…
Kirsten: Extremophiles could possibly have hidden out and survived the bombardment. That very possibly there would have been nooks and crannies within the surface of the Earth that would have kept life alive.
And so now, they’re saying based on this simulation that life may have emerged as far back as 4.4 billion years ago.
Justin: Which is amazing to me because I thought the Earth was only 4 billion years old. So, I’m confused now. I need to go redo my Math.
Kirsten: But maybe, you know, maybe also that life could have come on those asteroids and then, been…
Justin: It could have been. It could have…
Kirsten: …stuffed in the crack.
Justin: Although, you know, the thing is though, the idea that the thermal vents because there’s a lot of hypothesis if that’s the origin point. That somewhere within these thermal vents and those extremophiles and the clays and the methanes…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …and the escapings being able to – methane is being able escape far enough away from the heat within the clay.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: Like that may have been the catalysts for life starting.
Justin: So, the fact to that that was predating means they have life – could very well be much older than on the planet then, yeah.
Kirsten: It very well could. And I think also, looking at the implications of these studies, okay, well, if life possibly existed through the bombardment of Earth, what about Mars? What about Mars with its, you know, it lost its atmosphere probably…
Kirsten: …as a result of being slammed by, you know, so many asteroids. And because of it, you know, it’s internal magnetic field like slowing down and that life – we may have hidden out on Mars as well. And maybe it’s even still there.
So, I mean…
Kirsten: …I think from this kind of a study or a simulation, we can actually take it even further and look at other planets as to what may have survived on the surface of those planets or inside the surface of those planets.
Justin: Because then, the perspective could be there were extremophiles on Mars that were just getting along all right, just making it. They get to – Mars gets bombarded really hard. Some elements of that matter goes floating out in the space. Some of the extremophiles land on Earth, find Earth to be…
Kirsten: That’s another possibility.
Justin: …an easier habitat to get along in than Mars even was and go, (woohoo).
Kirsten: Yeah. That’s another possibility. The idea of that panspermia.
Justin: Yeah. But it’s still could be local.
Justin: Like it wouldn’t be like, you’ve been hitch hiking around those asteroids from, you know, well, outer…
Kirsten: But it could have.
Kirsten: It could be like, you know, intergalactic pinball.
Justin: I don’t know how much of that really gets intergalactic though or even outside, I mean, not intergalactic at all.
Kirsten: Yeah, outside of the solar…
Justin: But even outside of the solar system, even.
Kirsten: Yeah. It’s a question.
Justin: I doubt it.
Kirsten: I don’t know.
Justin: I just doubt it. It’s a long way to go.
Kirsten: Okay. All right, you doubter and skeptic, give me a nice story.
Justin: Yeah. And there’s – all right. I’m going to go quick. Here we go.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Psychologists suggest that sex doesn’t matter, that it’s all in your head.
Kirsten: Oh, really?
Justin: Yes. Because nodding while talking is a common aspect of non-verbal communication. Now, a team of psychologists and computer scientists led by Steven Boker of Professor of Psychologists in the University of Virginia have delved into the gender differences of this cranial gesticulation.
They have found that women used more active head motion when conversing with other women than men use when they talk with other men. So, women are nodding along, confirming and confirming and confirming, confirmed, received…
Justin: Confirmed, received, confirmed, received.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah, I nod my head a lot.
Justin: Okay. But however, when men and women converse together, men use a little more head motion and the women use a little bit less. The question was are they adapting their own behaviors based on learned expectations of the other gender? Or are they subconsciously just mirroring the movement frequencies that they aren’t seeing in the other?
So, what they’ve decided what would happen if you change the apparent gender of the conversant while keeping all the motion dynamics of the head movement and facial expression the same.
So, they use some the computer technology where they can implant faces and do like a conference call. And then, they would change the voice sound and of course the face would be the reverse gender.
So, they use these avatars, right. And they found that basically, the conversations, it would be a mirroring thing.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: So, they would slowly be adapting to the other nodding. So, if it was – if somebody was nodding a lot, they’d start nodding more, if the person is nodding less than them, they nod a little bit less. And they would try to find that middle ground in there.
Kirsten: I’m going to nod in time with you. Okay, you’re nodding little slower, nod a little faster.
Justin: Yeah. So, it had nothing to do with sex. It was just the communication. And maybe it’s this mirroring process, coordinating facial expressions and noddings and that sort of thing is a way for people to sort of find more empathy and be able to understand each other more by actually physically emoting what the other person is emoting.
Kirsten: Right. It’s being that person’s mirror.
Justin: Which I think also, funny about this is having been in car sales. One of the first things they train you to do is continually nod, yes. Just like a little bobble head, you’re sitting there nodding yes to every part of the conversation.
And sure enough, people start doing it too and the next thing you know, it’s sort of an affirmative thing. So, people are saying, “Yes,” subconsciously the entire time. Science should just go ahead at a car dealership for a while. There’s a lot to be learn. Yes.
Kirsten: I think you’re right. A lot of…
Justin: Psychological warfare is going on.
Kirsten: Yeah. The psychology of it is amazing. And the understanding of, you know, what salesman understand of the basic behavior in human psychology is.
Justin: Yeah. It’s very response oriented.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: But, yeah. That’s…
Kirsten: This also comes back to the idea of the mirror neurons…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …I think. And so, there is that idea of- as you mirror, you know, externally. So, if your behaviorally mimicking, those mirror neurons are also going – it’s going to get your neurons, your entire, you know, your mental state to be the same as that other person.
Kirsten: So, it’s not even just external behavior, there’s actual internal neural mimicking going on, the firing of your neurons in particular areas.
Justin: I’m glad we have some control over that though.
Justin: You know. It’s not automatic.
Kirsten: Not completely out of your control.
Justin: Yeah. Like somebody just decides to flop out of a chair and like five other people are like…
Kirsten: They fall.
Justin: Why did you do that? I just want to see…
Kirsten: I just want to see if you’re going to fall.
Justin: It’s a good thing we have some sort of…
Kirsten: Right. It’s a good thing.
Justin: …self-regulated device (unintelligible).
Kirsten: To sleep or not to sleep. This is another self-regulating…
Justin: So, topical.
Kirsten: So, topical. And it’s a self-regulating system within the brain, right? So, in science this week, there’s a paper looking at a brain pattern called the K-Complex or called KC, for short.
And this really huge – it’s been characterized for years. This neurological event where when something stimulates the brain, there’s this really brief high amplitude wave form that’s then followed by like a negative voltage peak.
So like, if you were looking at the voltage of the brain in a certain area, the voltage will go up and then, it would dip negative. So, kind of depressing, the nervous activity in that area.
And they found that during sleep, KCs are elicited by all sorts of sounds. So, if something at night is making a noise, beeping or knocking or whatever, or yeah, maybe, yes. Well, maybe not that consistent of a sound.
You just woke me up and I’m never getting back to sleep again. Oh, my goodness.
So, what these researchers have been looking at, at SRI International’s Human Sleep Research Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, they’ve been looking at the idea that these KCs actually function to keep you asleep when a disturbance during the night is not dangerous. Yeah, when there’s a morning dove.
Justin: That’s penguins.
Kirsten: Oh, it’s…
Justin: That’s penguin.
Kirsten: That was…
Justin: Does anybody hear a penguin? That’s penguin.
Kirsten: I think, if you heard the sound of a penguin while you were sleeping and you live in California, it might wake you up because that’s not a normal noise.
But they studied these sleeping subjects and they played a short beep sound and then they observed KCs in the brains of – these were epileptic subjects who were sleeping and they actually stuck needles in their brain and also measured, also EEG activity. So, they have double electrical monitoring going on.
And they found these KCs seem to be activated and that they’re isolated cortical downstates. So, that they’re silencing neurons, keeping the brain asleep so that you can actually, you know, do the memory consolidation, do the stuff that has to happen during sleep. So, it’s an interesting idea.
Kirsten: There’s definitely more research that needs to be done to understand exactly how this KC signal works. What did they get exactly functions for? But this is a step in that direction.
So anyway, even though, you have a hard time getting to sleep, maybe once you get to sleep, these KCs work out in your favor. We have to go to a break.
Justin: Wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen one for a while.
Kirsten: I haven’t hang out with KC for a while either.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: And it’s time for us to go break.
Justin: Oh, man.
Kirsten: We have Sherry Seethaler when we get back. Please stay tuned for more of This Week in Science in just a few moments.
Justin: And we’re back with more of This Week in Science.
Kirsten: Yes, I thought Justin would appreciate the sleep music.
Justin: Thank you, Kirsten.
Kirsten: You’re welcome.
Justin: Thanks. That hit the spot.
Kirsten: We’re also on the air with Sherry Seethaler. She has written a book, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Science: How to Sort through the Noise around Global Warming, the Latest Health Claims, and other Scientific Controversies”.
She is a science writer and educator at the University of California at San Diego and help scientists, explain their discoveries to the public. Sherry, welcome to the show.
Sherry: Thank you.
Kirsten: It’s wonderful to have you here. One of the things we, you know, like doing here on TWIS is trying to sort through all of the muck of…
Justin: The muck and the mire.
Kirsten: The muck and the mire.
Sherry: There’s a lot of it.
Kirsten: Yeah. And we also like, you know, having a good time with it. But at the same time, it’s important to get accurate science out to the public. What brought you to this topic of your book and like helping the public kind of understand science?
Sherry: Several long journey, I actually did a Ph.D. in science education and I studied how people make sense of scientific controversies especially the GM food controversy.
But I actually came to it and through an epiphany that I had that after I studied science as an undergraduate and graduate and someone asked me a very reasonable question about my opinion on genetically engineered food, this was back in 1996 when the first commercial crops were being planted.
My response was very much just to describe the technique. I didn’t really answer the question very well. And I didn’t realize it until later that I had no real knowledge of any implications either positive or negative of GM foods and how they would connect to the environment and human health.
I thought about science and the world as sort of just set of techniques. And I think that that is a lot of times what we teach our students. There’s just set of facts to be memorized. And we don’t make those connections to the real world.
Kirsten: Yeah. I mean, as part of what we’re trying to get around is, you know, okay, science is not a belief system. Science is a tool. It’s a way of looking at the world and that’s one way it’s taught. But you’re right that, you know, here are the facts but how do you use those facts?
Sherry: Exactly. What does it mean exactly by facts? Because a lot of times when we teach our students of this really set of disconnected things, you know, this is new Newton’s 3rd law, this is how photosynthesis works, this is, you know, theory of gravitation between two objects.
But we don’t stop and say, all right, now, you have the set of facts, let’s synthesize them. Let’s analyze them. Let’s put them in context. So, you know, going back to the GM food example, one interesting thing is that often when we see discussions of GM food, we rarely see them compared to the other methods of growing food.
So, conventional farming is sort of the alternative, right. So, we this discussion of genetically modified food in isolation. When Europe decided that they were going ban imports of these foods, they didn’t say, “Well, here’s the pros and cons of GM foods. Here’s the pro’s and con’s of conventionally farmed food.”
And we find that the pros and cons of GM foods are so much – or the cons are so much worse for GM food. They don’t do that. They just looked at them in isolation.
So, it’s this very flawed method of logic. You can’t just look at one technology in isolation an say, “Oh, it has negative features. Therefore, we can’t implement it.” Because if that were the case, we wouldn’t have cars. We wouldn’t have fertilizers, right?
Fertilizer is great for our crops. But at the same time, you can use it to make bomb. So, every technology has negatives. So, understanding one fundamental thing our students need to understand is this, you need to compare things to one another. Otherwise, it doesn’t make sense. There’s no logic to it.
Kirsten: How do you know? I mean, think, this is something that’s important when you’re looking at something in the newspaper or is online now or in a magazine, how do you know when they’re not giving all the sides, that it’s only like a very one sided discussion? I mean, what kind of a cue can you look for?
Sherry: I think as you get more and more – I use the analogy, sometimes when I’m talking about the book that if you have never seen an optical illusion the first time you see it, you think, “Well, I can’t figure this out.” But if someone shows you, you know, this is, you know, the vase-face illusion, for instance, these were the faces are, this is where the vase is.
The next time, you see something similar, you can sort of start to say, “Well, I know what I’m looking for here. What should I be finding?” And I think that’s true also of making sense of a lot of these issues. That once you’ve seen a number of different issues, you start to look for specific things.
So, you know, no matter what the story, you probably can’t present all sides because your article would be too long. But oftentimes, what you’ll see is – and now, especially if it’s a longer article about a new health finding or something, often the headline is very controversial and it’s really in your face and then, oftentimes, tries to overturn sort of things you know so that you’ll buy the paper.
But if you look through that, what you’ll find is oftentimes – this is a tip I give to people because you may not have time to read that whole article, but read down the last column. Read the last three paragraphs because that’s a lot of times where they give the caveats, where they have the other scientists saying, “Well, I’m not really sure if this is a true finding.”
So, it’s kind of knowing where to look for that information. I mean, clearly if there is no other side at all, and there you know, it’s missing, right.
Sherry: But a lot of times, you really have to look for it and you really have to sort chase it down because a lot of what’s presented to us, you know, the media wants to sell us newspapers or the media wants us to hit their website. And so, they got to catch us with that headline.
But a lot of times, that headline is only sort of partial truth. So, it’s knowing where – you’re probably not going to sit there and read every single line. It’s sort of knowing where am I going to look for this information.
Kirsten: Yeah. There seems – but one of the downsides of that looking – having to look for that other side, I mean, sometimes, there are scientific stories where, you know, the media, whoever is, or the journalist who’s writing the story is only going to look for, you know, here’s the pro, here’s the con. This is the good, this is the bad.
And so, you have certain groups that are over represented as, you know, so like with, you know, one example is climate change or even, you know, evolution in schools. There are certain view points that get misrepresented and over represented as a result of that.
Sherry: Mm hmm. I think that one of the things that people become better at as they’re reading these various articles and putting things together. And one thing you often have to do is look at different sources for information so that you can get the range of stakeholders’ viewpoint.
But another thing is once you start to think about some of these issues, you can start to generate your own counter argument oftentimes. I find myself doing that – there was a recent study about strokes and how people who live in areas have a lot of fast food restaurants, there’s a higher risk of stroke.
And the study just looked at the population, whether you live near a fast food restaurants or you didn’t. They didn’t actually do any sort of causal relationship there. They didn’t actually prove that eating fast food even was causing it. It was just a proximity issue.
It was really interesting because I just thought a class of very bright undergraduates. And I gave them this association. I said, “Here’s what they found. Here’s the percent difference if you live in this area, if you don’t live in this area.”
And I asked them, you know, you’re going to write an article for your editor in the newspaper, “Tell me, what is going to be the thrust of your article? What do you want the public to get from the statement.”
You know, only one student in that whole class – it was almost like 12 angry men, only one student said, “I don’t really think this data shows proof that there is actually a causal relationship.” And I really, you know, I had a kind of poke him and I teased them a little bit at first like, “What do you mean?” Of course, it does, you know, kind of being the devil’s advocate.
Sherry: And he was the only one in that class – and all the students, as soon as he said it, as soon as it was out there, they got it. They understood. But none of them were thinking that way to begin with. Which I think is really something very interesting.
These were all science students, science undergraduates. And yet, they’re not trained to even think at THAT level that when you have an association, you haven’t necessarily proven causation. That’s just a fundamental aspect of making sense of nearly any science.
Justin: It is as a scientist. But the problem that comes up for the general public who isn’t trained that way.
Sherry: But I think that everyone CAN make that association. You didn’t need a specific, scientific knowledge in order to make sense of that, right? You didn’t have to have specific training about strokes to make that, to have that knowledge.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Sherry: So, you know, one of the things, one of the chapters in my book is actually about understanding how you can prove or get close to proving a relationship between a cause and effect and what doesn’t prove that relationship. And I think, that’s something that we DON’T teach people in school.
That anecdotes for instance might give you something to test. But they certainly don’t prove that there is a relationship between cause and effect. I mean, that’s obvious.
But I mean, I think the strokes study was a good example because they, you know, they collected data, they looked at this relationship, the relationship was found. But still, there was something missing there.
Sherry: So, understanding people that you normally – helping people understand that you need to have, you know, often multiple sources of data that point in a certain direction. Often, you want a mechanism. So, how does this do this. You want to test that in different population.
So, everyone can come to that understanding. It’s not something that just going to lit – if you can understand. The point is, we aren’t teaching people how to do that. And that’s so much more important than knowing every step than the kreb cycle or, you know, all the details of all these formulas that will make students memorize. You know, that information…
Justin: I totally agree with you. There’s no excuse for a lack of critical thinking. That should be upon everybody to develop within themselves. I mean, not even forced fed it. But that is – ignorance is no excuse in itself. I totally agree.
Sherry: It is, but I don’t think – I mean, here we have, you know, the cream of the crop students at my university, right? And yet, they aren’t making this association. Because no one taught them to do that.
Kirsten: At any point.
Sherry: I don’t think you just automatically come to that.
Sherry: If no one’s ever taught you that.
Kirsten: Yeah. This came up also in another state. It was like a BBC story about mocking birds, singing more complicated songs in areas where there is more complex unpredictable weather. And so, basically, the researcher just looked at the weather patterns over, you know, a couple of years and then correlated that with song complexity.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: And basically, that what he’s pulled from that is okay, well, unpredictable weather makes it a more stressful environment. You have to be a stronger bird to be able to survive. And song complexity means, your stronger, you know. And so, females are looking – and it’s okay, maybe.
But he didn’t doesn’t have any of the actual proof of whether females are choosing the males with more complex songs, whether, you know, what kind of stress hormones. He hasn’t done any of the underlying mechanistic studies that would actually give the study the hypothesis more weight.
Justin: Which is still fine if you couch it in the terms of this could indicate that or, you know, you have a couple of terms in there that the disclaimer…
Justin: …the whole thing.
Kirsten: And the article unfortunately, goes from the direction of the headline…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …which is mocking birds, you know, like mocking birds sing more complex – climate change is affecting mocking bird songs.
Sherry: But then, I bet in the last few lines of the article, they have the caveat stored in there…
Sherry: …that nobody gets down to the jump page where there’s a last little bit but that’s probably where it was. It might say, “Well, but they need further research to determine XYZ” what you just said, right?
Sherry: I bet, yes. So, but once you know that, I mean, see, that’s something that now people know. “Okay yeah, gee, I should just look to the last few lines because I don’t have time to read this article.” So, it’s like those little things that you start to learn and you can use that, you know, to become more critical in the way that you think about things.
Kirsten: So, I’d like to know, other tips, things to look for. What kind of things pop up in articles that, you know, can be, you know, something that triggers a switch that people can go, “Hey.”
Justin: Yes, because we can’t just go based on where it’s published anymore.
Sherry: You can’t. Although one thing I do tell people is – I always use the analogy of that game broken telephone. Remember when you were little kid and you sat in the circle and, you know, somebody whispered something to the next person who whispered something to the next person who whispered something to the next person. By the time, it got around the circle, it was this crazy distorted thing.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Sherry: And one of my jobs at the university was to write press releases. So, it’s basically a translation of the scientific articles that the researchers have published in a scientific journal for the public, you know, 750 words. And that goes out to reporters, they decide if they want to write the story.
And it is very interesting, a story went out and a lot of media picked it up. And one of the names of the researchers was this unusual Chinese name. And what we found was that each time a new source picked up that name, it kept morphing. And you practically see that the sources weren’t coming back to the original press release that they were each…
Justin: Oh, no.
Sherry: …kind of building on one another. And each time, it was kind of like another mutation of the name.
Kirsten: Oh, my gosh.
Sherry: So, it really taught me a lesson about how you can get this broken telephone. I mean, obviously, that was just a name, it wasn’t that big of a deal. But you often see that happening with the story itself. Somebody tweaks it a little bit to simplify it and that actually the next person picks that up and makes it into something that’s incorrect.
So, I do tell people if they can to go back to the original source. Like for instance, you know, even if you don’t want to original scientific paper, at least go back to the original press release or read another article. See, if you can follow that chain down for something that, you know, you think is important that might be something you might base a life decision on especially.
Sherry: So, tracing things back to the original source if you can. You know, all you have to do is know the institution that the scientist came from and normally, you’ll find the press release on their website. You can just look for it.
Kirsten: And that’s something really important now with, you know, so many bloggers and people, you know, the AP, those press release. The AP picks it up, you know, it goes out to any number of news websites and from there possibly, you know, how many blogs and from those blogs to blogs.
And so, you really, I think now with un-vetted media, especially, we’re going to start seeing more of that kind of change.
Sherry: I think absolutely. And one of the things that’s so important is that there are certain people who are trying to convince you of something because they have a really strong stake. Like an advertiser…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Sherry: …or somebody who’s lobbying for particular thing. And so, they may deliberately twist things.
But a lot of times, the information that comes to us hasn’t necessarily been deliberately twisted. The people who are presenting that information may truly believe that this is correct information. But they have misinterpreted it.
And it’s really easy to misinterpret things, right? Because when you simplify something, you know, oftentimes, you do get these little tweaks going that sometimes the next simplification turns into something that’s incorrect or they shorten the story or something.
They leave out, you know, they only talk about a little bit about the headline and the first few paragraphs and they leave out the caveats at the end which is really the most important part of…
Justin: Circumcision reduces risks of AIDS by 50%.
Sherry: Yeah, yeah.
Justin: No. But really though, it would be nice if we just have more, I mean, we can’t have everybody be critical thinking, come on. People have busy lives. Should we just demand though that the first version, the first press release be the version that gets carried everywhere?
Sherry: You know, I actually disagree that being a critical thinker necessarily takes more time because what happens as I find myself when I read the headline, immediately I’m trying to generate, sort of counter arguments to that.
I’m not spending a lot of time doing it. I’m not necessarily even reading the whole article if it’s not something about which I’m going base a life decision or something. So, it’s kind of that habit of mind that say, well, but wait a minute, they haven’t really, you know, given all of the details.
Now, obviously, if this is something that’s a huge deal in your life maybe, you’re going to have spend more time to think about it. But I disagree that just absorbing information takes less time than thinking about that information as this is going. It’s a different way of filtering that information.
Justin: Not for you maybe. But for some of us, it takes a concerted effort to think critically in every moment that we are conscious.
Kirsten: I would…
Sherry: You know what though, I mean, everyone, no matter how bout a critical thinker, sometimes you fall for those same sorts of things.
Sherry: I mean, there’s a lot of things, like what are the things that I hear all the time is this we’re natural, “Oh, it’s more natural. You know, this make up is better for you because it’s more natural and there’s no chemicals used and things like that.”
Kirsten: Yeah. Stuff…
Sherry: You know, sometimes, I even find myself using the word natural. And I just want to slap myself in the head. Well, what does that mean exactly, you know, Poison Oak is natural. It doesn’t make it good for you, you know.
Kirsten: Good example.
Kirsten: I think that we have a few minutes left here. I really wanted to, you know, get from the other side of it. So, we have the being critical of the media and stories that are coming from the media, but more and more often, we’re starting to see scientists who are using the media to be able to generate interests in their work and in science.
And I think, last week, with Ida, the little fossil…
Kirsten: …little primitive primate fossil that was reported, I mean, they had a tattoo or television special, the release of the paper in the public library of science, a book that I just got, you know, that was released and all of these and I’m sure that there’s is like a musical album coming up next.
Justin: Right and (totally).
Kirsten: You know, all of this came out within the same week. I mean, I’ve never seen such an amazing media blitz by the scientists.
Sherry: I sure didn’t know that there was a book that stunning.
Justin: It’s been actually – it’s been here and been for few days now.
Kirsten: Yeah, yeah.
Kirsten: Yeah. Everything released at the same time. You know, do you have any opinion of like – since you do work with scientists to get them help communicating their ideas, you know, do you have any comments before we end the interview?
Sherry: Well, I think it’s really interesting. There’s been a change because a lot of the federal funding agencies are really encouraging scientists to get their message out there and say what their work is about, say why it’s important. And I think that’s really good.
But obviously, you don’t want it being distorted to the point, I mean, something like you saw with (unintelligible) inflation ends, you know, cold fusion…
Sherry: …for example, where you’re going to the press and you’re saying…
Justin: No caveat.
Sherry: …that these things, you know, that…
Justin: No caveat, whatsoever.
Sherry: No caveat, whatsoever. So, I think it’s important to really find that balance, that you want to communicate things to the public. You want to show them why science is exciting and interesting and what this means and not being, you know, in your ivory tower.
And I think it is really great if the scientists themselves are doing the communication. So, it’s like one step closer to the consumer of information as oppose to being filtered down various chains.
But on the other hand, you know, I think it’s really important for people to know that publication is not the end of the scientific process. When you put your paper out there, now people are going to start using that information to make new hypothesis and those are going to be tested.
So, I think if the public understands that this is not the end, you know, okay, maybe there’s a book, and maybe there’s some musical and maybe there’s all these article coming out, but there’s going to be other scientists coming back and saying, “Well, wait a minute, maybe it’s not really from this particular lineage or maybe, you know, there’s another hypothesis to explain this.
So, it really – the publication is almost the BEGINNING of the scientific process in some ways. And I think, we’ve been trained to think about it as the end.
Kirsten: Yeah. Well, thank you very much for joining us this morning. It’s been great speaking with you. You obviously have a lot of enthusiasm for working with science and educating the public.
Justin: And more optimism in your fellow men than me, it’s pretty descent. We’ll let you get back to your ivory tower there.
Sherry: Okay. All right well, thank you very much.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Justin: Thank you for joining us today.
Sherry: All, right. Bye, bye.
Kirsten: Sherry Seethaler, “Lies, Damned Lies and Science: How to Sort through the Noise Around Global Warming, Latest Health Claims and other Scientific Controversies.” You may find it in your next class on communicating science if you happen, you know, if you happen to be a college student.
And this has been This Week in Science. You had a correction, very briefly? We’re running out of time here.
Justin: My correction, so, I got a whole bunch of emails, twitters, et cetera, mail brick through the window regarding statement I made, world population doubling every 25 years.
And it looks like I got it wrong. And it looks as though, I may have gotten it right as well because while the population has not been doubling every 25 years, the span between doublings has been falling by half each time.
1420, we have 375 million people on planet Earth. It took 300 years to double the 750 million people so, 1750. And a hundred and fifty-five years later, it doubled again to 1.5 billion. And a mere 85 years went by and we doubled again. Six billion or 40 years after that to the – what was that, it takes us about 2,000 millenium.
If this keeps up, by 2025, 12 billion should be no problem. Although this does mean that I need about 5 billion babies to be born in the next 16 years, for my prediction to be correct, it’s a tall order, I can’t do it alone. Lord knows I’ve tried.
I need a little help people, just remember, every year, you don’t have kids as one year less you’ll spend with your grand kids and at some point, that’s the only thing that’s going to be really important to you, the moment which you can do is now.
Kirsten: Now, people.
Justin: Now, people. Get to it. Don’t make me be wrong.
Kirsten: I guess we’re going to have to stick around so you can check your prediction. Thank you everyone for listening…
Justin: Don’t unplug me, yeah, please.
Kirsten: We will not unplug you. Thank you everyone for writing in. We appreciate all your emails and callers today, that was great. Thanks for calling in.
And for more information, on anything of you’ve heard here today, show notes are also going to be – will be available on our website, twis.org with links to source articles. And we want to hear from you, because we love you. So, email us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Justin: Be sure to put T-W-I-S, TWIS somewhere in the subject line or you’ll end up in the spam filter. But yes, definitely send us emails. Also, hey, you can get the (whole of the show) Twitter now at the @jacksonfly, that’s my handle. It’s my code name there.
Kirsten: That’s right.
Justin: @jacksonfly. And your Dr. Kiki…
Kirsten: @drkiki. That’s right.
Justin: So, go check out the twitter. There’s all kinds of fun people, newsfeeds. I thought I did the whole show off a Twitter this week. I didn’t even researched, I just take headlines. We’ll be back here…
Kirsten: We love the Twitter.
Justin: …at KDVS, next Tuesday 8:30 am Pacific time.
Kirsten: Yeah, we hope you’ll join us again, and again and again for more great science news or just, you know, stay tuned listening here on KDVS for more amazing music programming and other public affair shows.
Justin: And if you’ve learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It is all in your head.
Tags: KDVS, animals, archeology, astrobiology, biology, birds, cell biology, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, emergent behavior, evolution, global warming, mammals, microbiology, neuroscience, paleontology, podcast, psychology, science, sleep, space
Audio Podcast: http://www.twis.org/audio/2009/05/26/358/