Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer! “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates in defense of his life lived in endless pursuit of examinings, so what of an unexamined universe?
While many people find the unexamined universe worth living in, they are likely the same truck of folk living the unexamined life, never questioning, ever mindless of the vast intricacies of the oceanic abundance of the reality that surrounds.
It is an illness of mental potential. Have they ever stopped for a moment to consider why it is that they don’t examine themselves or the world around them, they would be cured of this mindless fate?
While the following hour of program does not necessarily represent the views of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsors, it does attempt to keep you on the path of mindful pondering, endless examining and tireless thinking.
Together, we will pursue the life worth living with This Week in Science coming up next.
Justin: Good morning, Kirsten.
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin. How’s it going today?
Justin: Going good, very good, had a great morning. Everything is terrific.
Kirsten: Where did you put Justin? What’s going on here?
Justin: I got these emails that say like, “Be less, more professionalish and less…
Justin: …enthusiasticable so…
Kirsten: Right. So you…
Justin: …today I’m going to try my anchor voice for the remainder of the show.
Justin: Give the people what they want at least in small in small doses.
Kirsten: Well, I hope we continue to give people what they want. This is This Week in Science. We’re going to be here for the better part of the next hour talking all about the science stories over the last week. And we have an interview at 9 o’clock with Donald Prothero. He is a paleontologist, not an (opinionotologist) as Justin.
Justin: That’s what I was. And I was very impressed because…
Kirsten: I said, “No. Paleontologist.”
Justin: I was like, “An (opinionotologist)? Opinionotologist, that’s right. I could be that. That’s a degree I can have.” It’s like I’m going…
Kirsten: I think we can give you one of those nice degrees that universities give out.
Justin: I’m totally getting that. That’s going to be my own. I invent that one, (opiniontology).
Kirsten: Anyway, Donald Prothero is a professor of geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. And he’s written a book called “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.” And this is pretty much to date the most complete text on the fossil evidence for evolution.
And he starts the book out with a really, really great introduction. He goes from basically, what is science? What is evolution? He starts answering these questions, talking about the differences of opinion that people have between the scientific community and the general public.
Justin: Crazy, between the scientist and the crazies of the world.
Kirsten: Yes, okay. All right. But it’s a fascinating book. I started reading it and I’m really enjoying it. And hopefully, we’ll be able to get some good information out of Dr. Prothero today.
Justin: Long-held belief that women are more talkative than men is being challenged by a new study. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review by SAGE. A Gallup poll confirmed that men and women both actually believe that women are the most talkative, that they are the ones that do all the chatting.
Some even believe that it’s women that have like biologically built-in conversation portions of the brain that just don’t shut down.
Kirsten: They haven’t met you, have they?
Justin: I called this (got)…
Kirsten: You talk more than I do. Geez.
Justin: The article describes well, the recent set of meta-analyses conducted by Campbell Leaper and Melanie Ayres basically have found that actually there’s a small tendency for men to talk more than women but it depends on the context. And overall men talk a little bit more but the context were different.
The type of speech was explored so that women are generally more talkative when it comes to using speech to affirm connection to the listener whereas men’s speech is more focused to attempt to influence the listener. Friends and family conversations, there was a very little different between genders in the amount of speech.
It’s kind of interesting because I was up in the Tahoe where I’m doing some sports betting this weekend.
Justin: And yes. If you want to see a bunch of chatty cathies, go to a sports bar where there’s a roomful of men trying to pick odds on the sporting game for the tomorrow’s games. And it’s just, blah, blah, blah. He’s got that defensive (inaudible).
Kirsten: They talk, yes.
Justin: It’s just like they’re on some kind of talking drug. So yes, like if you took, a conversations about sports or something that like I could see that maybe guys are extremely talkative in comparison to women who probably don’t talk much about sports. I would assume. I’ve never had really like these sports conversations.
Kirsten: It depends on the girl. In college, I had a really good friend who loved football. She could talk about it forever. She knew all of the, she knew everybody. So, you can’t generalize that way I mean it is a stereotype that girls don’t like sports as much as boys. Boys talk more than girls, whatever.
Justin: Although as I was like reading that story last night in a café…
Kirsten: Psychological impressions.
Justin: …there was this girl sitting next to me on her cellphone while doing chat on the computer and conversing over the phone at the same time …
Kirsten: That’s good. That’s talented.
Justin: …and I’m like, “Oh, my God. That’s the stereotype.” And then, she went back to her studies of some sort of insane mathematics on the screen that I couldn’t even comprehend.
So, she was busting one, that girls don’t like math things because she was math (major)…
Justin: …while reinforcing (unintelligible).
Kirsten: While reinforcing the other.
Justin: So, guys talk more apparently or at least I’m attempting to prove that…
Kirsten: Right now.
Justin: …rambling on incessantly.
Kirsten: Oh, my goodness. What else do we have in common with monkeys? Well, researchers are figuring that out. There’s a principle of human behavior – oh, well, okay. Justin (obviously).
Justin: Huh? What?
Kirsten: What? Huh? It’s too bad we don’t have a camera in here, too bad. Humans in their behavior…
Justin: I’m practically swinging too.
Kirsten: That’s right. In our behavior we have this tendency for self-deception or something that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Yes. We’ll basically rationalize irrational decisions.
So if two things are of the exact, same value, if you have to chose one of the two things, suddenly, people decide that what they have chosen, they’ve made the best decision.
And so, if they’re given a choice again, they’re more likely to…
Justin: Pick the same one.
Kirsten: …pick the same thing, yes, as opposed to going back and forth at a 50/50 basis.
This has been studied for a long time, 1956 was one of the first actual studies of the principle by a researcher at Yale.
Recently though, there was study published in Psychological Science again at Yale – oh, wait. No, the first experiment wasn’t at Yale. But anyway, this one’s at Yale.
Justin: I believe you.
Kirsten: It’s a Yale. They looked at capuchin monkeys and four-year-old humans to see whether or not the same principle held up. The little kids, they gave stickers to pick between and the monkeys got M&Ms.
So basically with the monkeys, they gave them three different M&Ms and of three different colors. And the monkeys had to start picking them. And the monkeys chose these three colors on an equal basis, there was no preference for any one of the particular colors.
So then, they gave the monkeys a choice of two of the colors of M&Ms and the monkeys would choose one. So if it was like red and blue, they’d pick red. And suddenly, every choice after that, the monkeys chose red or at least at a higher percentage of times, they chose red.
So the monkeys, these animals that supposedly social psychologist supposedly think that cognitive dissonance is of some aspect of our higher cognitive abilities and that this is something that only animals with a higher brain function and consciousness would be able to do trick themselves into believing something irrational. But it turns out that these monkeys do the exact same thing.
And the four-year-old children again with stickers, they did the exact same thing. Four-year-old children when given a choice between things that are originally exactly the same then starts choosing the one that they have chosen.
And the idea for this is that basically, the reason that people do this is that it might be evolutionary or monkeys also, that this might be something that’s help up evolutionary in this social creatures because once you’ve made your decision, why go back and think about it again? Why waste time on it?
Second guessing is a time waster, an energy waster and it doesn’t help you get anywhere any faster.
Justin: Yes. But how could St. Louis have won by that many points, Kirsten? This is still what I don’t understand I mean how did they do it? I just don’t – oh wait. No, I see what you mean.
Kirsten: You know…
Justin: There really isn’t any point.
Kirsten: Yes. This article that was sent in by (Ed Dyer) from IHT.com. This article is really interesting. It brings up another experiment by a guy named (Lieberman) where he looked at people with amnesia versus normal people.
And these people with amnesia had impaired short-term memory so they couldn’t remember anything in the short-term. So, they should forget the choices that they’ve made, right?
And in fact, they did forget the choices that they made consciously. But when it came to actually going back and making another choice between the same two objects in which they had chosen one preferentially earlier, they tended to go back to that same object preferentially.
So, there is something that is like at a lower level of the brain stem or there’s some kind of connection that’s being made. That’s a pretty strong connection whereas the actual memory of making the choice is forgotten, there’s something that’s held over in the brain. It’s really fascinating.
Justin: Or the memory would still have to be there and what it would be curious then is then, it’s the memory directing the choice even beyond our consciousness…?
Justin: …which is kind of cool.
Kirsten: Kind of cool.
Justin: That means our subconscious is…
Kirsten: Once you trick yourself, you’re totally hoodwinked. Totally. Never go back.
Justin: Well, if you want your little monkey to achieve even greater cognitive skills, teach them math.
Kirsten: Yes, do it.
Justin: Educational study finds that children who went to kindergarten with elementary mathematics and reading skills are most likely to experience later academic success. They found that the most important factor was how well they were prepared for the kindergarten.
This was more important than the social behavioral…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: …attitude and experience of the kid from then on. And this is like starting with five year olds going up to 7 to 14 year olds to track, that some 35,000 preschoolers in United States, Canada and England.
Paramount importance? Early math skills. Beginning the school with knowledge of numbers, the number order and other rudimentary mathematics was the number one sort of sign that the kid is going to do well.
Actually, this mastery of early math skills predict not only of future math achievement. It also predicted future reading achievement. So the more your kid can sort of figure out numbers and the order of numbers and how that works, the more likely they’ll pick up reading and be really good at that too.
The reverse however, kids who were really good at reading going into kindergarten but they had no math schools did not pick up the math skills unlike the math kids pick up the reading skills.
Justin: They didn’t do quite as well.
Kirsten: That’s really interesting. I remember taking the anecdote time. I just remember…
Justin: Anecdote time?
Kirsten: Yes, anecdote time. I remember taking the SAT in high school and there was always, it seemed like the people in my class who took the SAT – they did really well in the writing and English portion of the SAT.
The scores were either kind of even across the board or it was really good in the English side and not good in the Math or it was really good in the math but not good in the English.
There are those people who are amazing at math but when it comes to reading…
Justin: I’m a mix.
Justin: I’m a mix. No, I would get 100% reading comprehension and like 40% on spelling.
Justin: Like the spelling aspect of anything, I’m just dumb. I’m like, “I can’t tell you how many letters are even in the word. I don’t even know. But when I’m reading it…
Kirsten: It’s fun.
Justin: …I thought I can read but I can’t write. That’s almost what it feels like. It’s that bad.
Kirsten: Partial literacy.
Justin: It’s not a dyslexic thing. I don’t write put write letters backwards, I just have – I’ve tried to think of the word and I don’t know. Is it E before I except after W? Like there’s all these laws and rules, I just can’t handle it, man. But comprehension, 100%.
Kirsten: Right. I’ve got a bunch of neuroscience news this week. There is…
Justin: Bring the brain. Bring me the brain.
Kirsten: Yes. That serious brain news published this week in Science Magazine. Researchers have – they’re from – let’s see, where are they from?
Justin: Science Magazine.
Kirsten: They are State University of New York. So, SUNY, Stony Brook and they have colleagues at Brookhaven National Laboratory. These researchers have done a magnetic resonance scanning study of the brain. They started with mice and rats and looked at the brain.
So in mice, in humans, there’s been this question for a really long time. What happens to neurogenesis or the birth of brain cells as you age? The idea 20 years ago 30 years ago was that you’re born with all the brain cells you are going to have and they just died off, you know.
Justin: And they just died of. And that’s it.
Kirsten: Yes. And we’ve gone through the last 30 years, research given evidence that that’s not actually true, many areas of the brain, yes. They grow and then you prune them. So basically like your brain cells are growing when you’re a baby and then during your adolescence there’s pruning that’s going on, making all those connections.
Kirsten: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Justin: You mean loss of brain cells?
Kirsten: Not loss of brain cells but pruning of the branches of the brain cells so like…
Justin: Hormones, marijuana and too much homework. What?
Kirsten: No, just experience. Just experience. Experience makes connections strong, some connections stronger, some connections weaker. And maybe the very weak connections die back so that the connections that are necessary for survival for moving forward in life are the ones that stay connected in the brain. That’s the kind of the idea.
But in some areas of brain like the hippocampus, which is related to memory and the formation of new memories, there’s actually some kind of a turnover of brain cells. And so, there are new brain cells that are born.
But the question has been how can we actually see that? You can’t see it in an adult human or I mean, in mice, you have to chop their brain out to be able to see it. You let them grow to a certain age and then you chop the brain up and you look at it.
Justin: So you need to design a chopable brain, one we can rebuild and put back into a living thing, that’s one way.
Kirsten: Great. And that’s basically what they’ve done with scanning technology. So, to date, scanning technology has been really hard to use on humans because you have to inject some kind of a magnetic dye or some kind of particles, radioactive stuff, things that react to…
Justin: Things that you don’t want in your brain for one.
Kirsten: Not necessarily. Exactly.
Justin: Right, yes.
Kirsten: Don’t stick a needle in my head and put my stuff in there, exactly. But researchers at – so Cold Spring, Harvard, SUNY, Stony Brook, Brookhaven National Laboratory, they set up this scanning machine to look for the signals that are given off specifically by new cells.
So, by looking at mice to begin with and comparing the brains of baby mice and adolescent mice to adult mice, they were able to find that there is a specific signal that’s given off by what are called neural progenitor cells or the stem cells that are in the developing mouse brain. And that turned out to be the same signals that are also in the young human brain.
So, they did a mouse study then they took it to people and they found that they could detect these neural progenitor cells, these brain stem cells in young and adult brains. There’s less of them in adults because, you’re adult and not producing as many brain cells anymore but…
Justin: Could use a (unintelligible).
Kirsten: …they are there. So, this is an amazing advancement in technology. And they don’t really understand what they’re detecting. I think they might be detecting like specific lipids, fats that are being produced in these new cells. But they don’t really know what exactly they’re detecting. They just know it’s a signal that’s specific to these young cells.
And the thing next that they are hoping that can use these technology for is discovering what’s going on in degenerating brains of adults. So, in adults who have Parkinson’s or just any neurological disease in which the brain cells start deteriorating and dying off. Maybe they can start finding out what’s going on by doing this imaging stuff and catching the progression of diseases so we can learn more about what’s going on in the brain.
The headlines for these have been like, “Scientists witness neurogenesis” and that’s not accurate because they haven’t actually witnessed a neurogenesis, they’re witnessing a signal in the brain.
Justin: But that’s…
Kirsten: And so, it’s a correlation.
Justin: Yes but…
Kirsten: I’m just being…
Justin: I know. I know.
Kirsten: …scientifically stringent at this point, yes.
Justin: You’re being stringent but I – it’s like…
Kirsten: But it’s cool. It’s still cool.
Justin: …like recently how they discovered some of those – what do you call them? I think I actually have the story here somewhere. Yes, high energy cosmic rays.
Justin: And they’ve found out a way where they’re just limiting the view of what they’re actually qualifying as the high, high energy stuff and where it’s coming from. And they may actually be able to observe where some giant black holes are in the universe that we can’t see through any sort of light…
Justin: …through any other means…
Kirsten: Because they suck light into them.
Justin: Right. Or anything else magnified around it.
Kirsten: Nothing escapes.
Justin: But it’s only a small group of high energy cosmic rays that they’re witnessing that are telling them the location of where these things might be, which is an observation. So, maybe we are observing neurogenesis it’s just…
Justin: Indirectly but we have to go well beyond our senses to take in this universe.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: It’s so big. It’s so vast. It’s so small. It’s so vast. It’s so everywhere.
Justin: We can’t rely on eyes.
Kirsten: No, we can’t but we’ve math.
Justin: Math. That’s such a good point.
Kirsten: It’s all about math.
Justin: Math is really helpful in a lot of these things here. No, no, no. Go ahead.
Kirsten: I got more. So, there’s also a couple of…
Justin: I’m surprised that earlier study. Is that women don’t talk more or (unintelligible)?
Kirsten: So, there’s another study that’s published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by researchers at the University of Washington. They have discovered a signal that keeps stem cells from helping to regenerate nerve cells in the spinal cord.
Justin: Yes. That’s awesome.
Justin: That’s weird first of all that you stem cells in the spinal cord that when there is an injury, they leave the area. They bail.
Kirsten: Yes, there’s a signal. It’s a protein called netrin-1, NETRIN-1. And in the developing nervous system it says, “Come here” and it…
Justin: (Build), (build).
Kirsten: …attracts stem cells to come. And then it goes, “No. Go away from here.”
Justin: Stop, stop.
Kirsten: Exactly. But in the adult, when the spinal cord that gets severed or injured in some way, for some reason it only says, “Off.” It says, “Go away” and the stem cells go away.
Justin: It tells them to leave the area of the injury…
Justin: …which anywhere else in your body, you have some sort of regenerability just about…
Kirsten: Our skin or – yes.
Justin: There’s other creatures that can actually rebuild their spinal cord because their stem work there. Ours are…
Kirsten: It don’t do it. You’re done.
Justin: …like, “You’re done and we’re not even going to try to help you.”
Kirsten: That’s right. That’s right.
Justin: It’s like the ambulance is driving the opposite way, like an ambulance witnessed you get, injured on the side of road…
Kirsten: See you!
Justin: …turns the siren on and drives away from you. That’s basically what stem cells do in the spinal cord.
Kirsten: Exactly. But they found that if they block the netrin-1 signal, they were able to do this no in vivo but in vitro. So, they’re in a dish. They’re basically able to block netrin-1 and they find that stem cells do migrate toward the injured site.
So, maybe there’s something to be said for this in the future of helping out people who have spinal cord injuries.
And the final one, there are two stories out this week. One from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University and another from a group of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology first in the Charite Hospital in Berlin.
The first one is this guy Todd Kuiken who has created a technique called targeted muscle reinnervation.
Justin: Oh, yes. This is good stuff.
Kirsten: Yes. His study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology by the American Physiological Society has shown that they’re able to – what they do is they take nerves that originally used to direct towards say, your hand.
If your hand is chopped off, the nerves don’t go there anymore but they don’t go away either – and the brain still for a long time actually thinks that it’s sending signals to a hand, took those nerves, kind of cut them and then innervated a patch of muscle on the chest…
Kirsten: …so that the brain thinks that your hand is now kind of on your chest. It doesn’t matter where it is but…
Justin: The reason for that is if you’ve got a prosthetic and one of the ways you can control a prosthetic is like squeezing a pectoral muscle because your arms are not there and you can move the hand up or the hand down or clasp around clasp.
So, if you can trick your body into actually thinking that’s where your hand is in that chest muscle to re-act that muscle, it makes it much more natural. That way, it’s like you’re not trying to wiggle your toe to scratch your nose.
Justin: It makes more sense to the brain to you. You don’t have to redo neural pathways.
Justin: They’re already built there in the brain. They are designed to work that hand. It becomes very natural action.
Kirsten: Right. Exactly. And so, what they found so far that people who have received this TMR technique, they only have four movements, like open, close and then move the hand up or down or whatever. So it’s not a lot…
Justin: Four is pretty solid.
Kirsten: This new study, they showed that by using a more sophisticated analysis with a larger number of a nerve innervations, they can identify like 16 new movements.
Kirsten: So, for the elbow, wrist, hand, thumb and finger and they identified the movements with 95% accuracy. So now, the next step is to actually – since they can identify the movements, actually be able to train up the prostheses to do what it’s supposed to do.
Justin: I kind of turned that off.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: So, that’s really pretty awesome, intense. Part of what helps train these things too. It’s like those monkeys that were operating the prosthetic arm with just their mind power.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: It’s the ability for the brain to sort of redirect and re-channel the information that’s coming in and out so that if you’ve lost your arm, you can figure out a way for your mind to make a prosthetic arm move. It will take over those functions. It will figure it out.
Justin: It’s like it’s constantly trying to problem solve and figure out why it’s not happening, you know?
Kirsten: Right. So the other study out of Germany is this project called Brain2Robot. And it’s basically relying on electroencephalogram.
Justin: The monkeys.
Kirsten: Yes. Basically, that’s what it is. So it’s like a cap on your head pretty much that reads the signals that your brain is giving off. And it’s a chair that you sit in pretty much that if you’re completely paralyzed, you can just think about stuff and…
Kirsten: …it will do it for you. It’s pretty amazing that this robot has been in development for over seven years. The electrodes on the scalp measure the electrical signals and then there is the self-learning technique. So, you do the signals and see what the computer does and learn everything and your brain translates to this new extension of your body.
It’s just like a car is an extension of your body now and you can control it by using your hands and your feet, grabbing on to these levers and pedals and wheels. Now, you don’t have to touch anything but your brain still extends itself to this new extension in a much the same way.
And hopefully, they’ve got some grant money and hopefully, they’ll be ready to commercialize it in just a few years. It’ going to be fascinating.
Justin: I wonder how many artificial limbs you could control at once? Like if you really practice, could you get to the point where like you’re, Dr. Octopus with the eight mechanical…
Kirsten: That would be really interesting to find out. What is the limit? What is the limit?
Justin: Yes. It’s like we’re so used to walking on two feet that we, “Oh, if I had to control four feet” but you don’t really consciously think, left, right, left, right as you walk, right?
Justin: So, it just becomes – and I don’t think that dogs and cats do that. So maybe you could get like a couple extra feet and legs and stuff and it would just become comfortable after a while and you could do that. But my goodness, that’d be kind of fun to try.
Kirsten: I’d love to. So if anyone has a Brain2Robot system that they want to let me and Justin borrow, we want to play with it a little bit.
We have a phone interview coming right up. So, we are going to go to our break.
Justin: And we’ll be back in just a few moments with more This Week in Science.
Kirsten: And we’re back. We have Dr. Donald Prothero on the line. He has written a book called “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters.” He is a paleontologist and professor of geology at the Occidental College in Los Angeles and he’s a lecturer in geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
He’s also on the editorial board of Skeptic Magazine. He has written so many scientific papers I just can’t even count them all on two hands. Without any further ado, let’s bring him on the line.
Justin: Welcome to This Week in Science.
Kirsten: Hi! Can you hear us?
Donald: Yes, just fine.
Kirsten: Excellent. It’s wonderful to have you on the air this morning. Something that has come upon again and again in our program over the years is just the question of evolution and how it works and the evidence for it. And there is a lot of debate that personally I don’t think is a warranted debate as to whether or not evolution actually happens.
And you’ve written a great book here that really gets to the nut of how evolution occurs according to scientific evidence. And can you tell me a little bit about what brought to you to the point of writing this text?
Donald: Yes. I’m been actually involved in the creation/evolution debate for much of my career ever since I became a paleontologist. In my first teaching job in Illinois, I actually taught courses in creationism and evolution and debated the number one guy in the creationist agenda, Dr. Gish.
So I got to know their arguments pretty well. And about two years ago I was talking to my published about an idea for a book I gave a talk in his topic and I realized, there are a lot of other books out there that talk about biological side of evolution or the political and philosophical side of evolution but none of my colleagues in paleontology have said about to write a book that really showed how much we learned in the fossil record and that was my focus.
Justin: How did those debates go by the way? Because I mean it seems like I’d be pretty much just why are we on the stage in the debate and just be like, “Okay. Men have nipples. Males have toes. What do you need?”
Donald: You’d be surprised how that doesn’t impress anybody who’s already a fundamentalist.
Donald: I did this one against Duane Gish in 1983 at Purdue University and I beat him pretty badly according to everyone who was there as a witness and I have tapes to prove it.
But the basic idea is that he was a machine as he’s always is. He then gives us same sequence of slides, the same order all the time. He completely ignores his opponent, never answers or acknowledges him. And so, I had in this particular format a first and third half hour of the first two hours of four-hour debate.
Donald: And so, I knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. And I pretty much debunked his arguments before he got to them.
Justin: That’s nice.
Donald: And I even stole a couple of his jokes.
Kirsten: That’s so great.
Donald: And he didn’t change a thing. His slides were the same. His pattern was the same. Even the jokes which made no sense when I had them of course, sounded very strange when he said them after I’ve already stole them.
Donald: But the point is his audience doesn’t get it I mean the audience discredit his argument as clearly as you can. And his audience who are fundamentalists don’t understand what they’re talking about.
He just gives them a simplified version they get can around and of course, they come in that room already pretty much pretty sold on the fundamentalist idea and they don’t want to listen at evolution at all.
And the problem is they held this on a Saturday night on a big college campus like Purdue charged a lot of money for it which meant the only people showed up for that debate were people bused in from all of the surrounding churches.
And I pretty much had a 95% hostile audience when I got up there.
Donald: Most Purdue students have better things to do with their time and money on a Saturday, unless they’re very dedicated with this issue were still not that many who were so.
Justin: Also, I think especially on a college campus if there was a debate about creationism versus evolution, you would assume that it was put on purely by the creationists because…
Donald: It was always. That’s – yes.
Justin: …there’s no debate, like what are you talking about?
Donald: Well, and generally the rule of thumb is you don’t bother with debating these guys. It’s a waste of time. It gives them legitimacy they do not deserve. It makes them sound like their peers when they’re not because these guys are not legitimate scientist. They don’t practice the rules of science.
And so, most of the time, I’ve been invited many times. This is the only time I made exception. And I really did it just for my own experience, just to say I’d done it once. And prepare myself and to get to know the ins and outs of the arguments and to say, I beat this guy and I did.
And I never took up another chance to do it because it was pointless repeating it once you’ve done it.
Donald: And likewise, I get invitations all the time to go on these things. I did one TV panel here in Los Angeles a couple of years ago but most of the time it’s very frustrating because you’ll never going to win these debates.
You’ve just been pushing to a draw basically because the audience is already pre-sold against you because their arguments are easier to distort in 30 seconds than they are to explain in 30 minutes. And that’s the way they work to Gish and all the rest.
And they do what they called a Gish Gallop which is a jump from astronomy to anthropology to paleontology to thermodynamics. They run all over the gamut of science topics. They threw out one mistaken and distorted idea and they race to something else.
And when it’s your turn, you have to spend twice as long as they did just to get a damage undone and explain the concept correctly.
Donald: And the audience usually has completely forgotten what was said in the first place.
Donald: So, you never win in that contest.
Kirsten: Yes. And oftentimes it just seems like a lot of examples are put out there to confuse people because…
Kirsten: …the majority of people don’t have the scientific experience to really evaluate the evidence that’s been thrown to them.
Donald: Right. They sound convincing to someone who doesn’t know anything about science.
Donald: And that’s all they depend on. So, their one of the most famous examples is routinely distorting the second law of thermodynamics and…
Donald: …claiming the world is running down and that cannot allow evolution to occur. Well, that’s not what the second law says.
Justin: Well, see. That’s where I would go the opposite direction and I would start quoting creationism. See, if there was Adam but no Eve and then they decided…
Donald: Right. Right.
Justin: …they needed woman. Well, Adam not only didn’t have nipples…
Justin: …he was also missing someone else that would have been required for later procreation.
Donald: Right. That’s right. Well, see. That’s the problem though because in that format it just happens to just about everyone, they always take an aggressive stance. And they virtually never defend their own position. That’s the standard technique they do. They’re not allowed. They pretty much buy their debating rules to actually step back and defend what they say because then they would sound ridiculous.
Donald: And so, in a debate format where they can shift and they can focus on what they want to focus on, they tried to keep you on the defensive, they stay in the offensive and it’s very hard to shift any other way.
When they’re in court which happened back in ’82 when they were in the federal court decision in Arkansas that struck down the younger creationist attempts and then just recently in the Dover trial where they’re now going to have a, PBS thing on tonight as a matter of fact.
In court, you can’t make speeches and you can’t avoid a direct question. If the judge says you got to answer direct question, you got to answer it. And that’s why they get demolished…
Donald: …because the thing that they are actually pinned and all reviewed in written form, if you actually, quote them directly from what they actually say, then their ridiculous idea show up as what they are.
Kirsten: Yes. One question is, there are the people that we cannot convince…
Kirsten: …because they’ve already made their…
Donald: Maybe 40% of the country actually.
Kirsten: Yes. It could be quite a log.
Donald: Like some polls say that so.
Kirsten: Which is kind of scary but…
Donald: Very scary, yes.
Kirsten: …but in terms of other people, there are, the 10%, 20% who are, pretty scientifically convinced. They study science, they’re interested in this topic.
And then, there’s the rest who are unconvinced by either side. They don’t really understand the science. But the media is putting this out as an actual debate when inside the scientific community, there is no debate as to whether or not evolution happens.
Donald: That’s right. The only people who have this agenda behind them are people from the extreme right wing, religious fundamentalism, people who want to push their narrow view of God on the rest of the country and that of course is a violation of the first amendment.
So, those are the people we’re dealing with. And the problem you have is that they way they play the game is that they try to play to the Christian sympathies of the majority of our country by saying anyone who doesn’t agree with them is an atheist.
Donald: And so, the only people actually who are effective against them in debate format are actually people who are good Christian scientist who cannot be called atheist and then, their main lever again their opponent is lost.
But overall, the bigger problem is that they paint the walls in black and white terms. you’re either a fundamentalist like us or you’re an atheist and you’re going to hell. And…
Justin: What if you’re a devout atheist?
Donald: Well, I mean…
Justin: If you actually believe that God is an atheist and therefore…
Donald: Yes, right. But…
Justin: …you’re actually practicing a religion.
Donald: That’s such a small minority. I don’t think we have to worry about them in this context. But the context we’re talking about here is getting the American public at least be a little more science literate…
Donald: …even if it does, require these, big battles we’re fighting. And that’s the bigger problem. It’s that so much of the American public generally speaking is scientifically illiterate — from their limited high school science exposure and the fact that most of them don’t have anymore exposure even if they go to college.
That’s the bigger issue. And that’s the reason we are so pathetically behind I mean every poll that’s ever been done comparing science literacy among westernized nations, Japan, China and most of the Western European countries are near the top and US is down in the very bottom of the list along with Namibia and the former Yugoslavian states just like that.
It’s so pathetic compared to anything else that we should be doing…
Donald: …like giving our science and technology edge…
Donald: …at the higher level so.
Kirsten: Well, let’s start off with a little bit of education here. I think terminology is one of the things that causes confusion in our country. So, what is a theory?
Donald: Yes. That’s the first issue that has to be cleared up. There’s two different words where it uses the word “theory”. Scientists use theory to describe an idea that’s extremely well supported, it’s been tested many times.
Gravitation is a theory, okay? And we don’t even understand how gravitation works but it works and nobody debates it exist, okay? An evolutionary theory is the large body of evidence that we use to describe and try to understand evolution.
And at this moment, we don’t understand every detail how evolution works and that’s fine. Science is always going to be that way. It’s always open-ended but we still know that evolution occurs.
We watch it happen at every scale you can imagine from fruit flies in jars to stuff going on in bacteria and viruses and our flu bugs to stuff going on in nature which is being documented all the time now.
Donald: And then we can watch it from a very much larger perspective in the fossil record which is what I work on.
And the bigger problem is that there is a different concept to science as, people get the concept of science from, the movies and TV with the mad scientist and the bubbling beakers and all the rest.
But scientist are not about what they wear I mean I don’t wear a lab coat and I don’t do any of those other things. I only have camera apparatus around me.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Donald: Scientists are defined by the way they work. And the basic principle of science is that science must be testable.
Donald: The hypothesis must be capable of being proven false or you’re not performing science. And you must be always wiling to reject and throw out your ideas and move on to new ones which means that science is always tentative, it’s never about final truth.
And that’s something the public completely misunderstands. They think science is all about final truth. Well, scientists themselves know that’s not the case.
And so, you have this kind of a misconception that’s built on this idea any time an evolutionist talks about something and they just point out this discussion or debate is tentative, well, that’s the way science is supposed to work.
But to a creationist who believes in absolute certainty, this is sign that we aren’t doing our jobs when in fact…
Donald: …it’s actually the way it should be. And so, we got this complete, basic, fundamental misconception about science is the root of all of this. And that’s the fundamental reason of course why creation in itself can never be science because their conclusions are pre-determined in advance. They will not change it no matter what the data says.
They even sign a loyalty oath if you’re a member of the ICR in San Diego where you have to agree to certain conclusions and you have to sign off on that?
No scientific organization would ever insist upon because, conclusions are never fixed. So, that’s the crystal clear difference between scientist and creationist.
Kirsten: Right. So, that gets to another point of the differences in terminology. So, we have our- in science the theory of evolution which…
Kirsten: …which people don’t believe evolution, they attack the word theory by using…
Donald: Right, because the word “theory” has different meaning in the lay public. It’s that wild, hair brain scheme like…
Donald: …theory of why JFK was assassinated, that kind of thing.
Kirsten: Right. But then, scientists come back. And even though science is not something that’s ever final, we come back to the public and say, “This is a fact.”
Kirsten: And we change our terminology…
Kirsten: …to communicate with the public.
Kirsten: Ando so we think that in itself creates confusion too.
Donald: That is a problem. The reality is that scientific language is different from public language and it always has been and probably always will be. And we’re at a situation where, we have to translate.
So we say fact even though in science we tried to say something is never proven finally. But in the public parlance, something that we, the Earth goes around the sun is a fact and every public says the word even though it’s still a hypothesis in the scientific term it’s been extremely well corroborated.
Donald: And so that’s the problem. We’re jumping from a scientific, philosophical set of words to – the way the public understands it. And those are two different terms and oftentimes, like the word theory used two different ways. So, creationists take advantage of the public conception to attack it the way scientists use it so.
Kirsten: There was a question that was brought up at a conference for science writers that I attended recently where we were talking about the problem with language in terms of communicating controversial subjects to the public.
Kirsten: And the question was raised as to whether or not we should stop calling it the theory of evolution and whether or not we could convince scientists – I’m saying this generally.
Kirsten: But whether or not we could start saying law and stop calling it a theory and call it the law of evolution or the fact of evolution.
Donald: Yes. Well, that’s because the 100, 200 years of entrenched scientific philosophy…
Donald: …and things like that already – scientists have used those that way for a very long time.
Donald: And we clearly understand what they mean and we have no controversy within our profession as to what it is intended. And so, I am sure that it is a problem because the public because the public doesn’t see it that way. But it doesn’t help up a lot.
I don’t – because, it’s still going to be a semantic gain. They’re still going to attack you the same way they’ve always attacked you.
And even if it’s not the theory, there are so many other ways they come at you, if one, attack after another that, that’s only a small part of the issue I mean yes, it would be nice if we could communicate in such a way that people didn’t doubt us because of the words we use but we’re talking about a bigger issue, one of credibility of people who are not scientist who pretend to be a scientist.
Justin: Well, I think, we should remain in the ivory tower on this issue completely and just – no, and just laugh. If you’re ever on one of those shows again, don’t worry so much about defending evolution, but just laugh at the ridiculousness of the opponent.
Donald: Well, I’ll try when I get the chance I mean in this format where you’re allowed to attack them or where they’re forced to answer, you can put them at a disadvantage.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Donald: And even in a debate format, I did the best I could by going over his arguments before he got to them and showing how ridiculous they were. But of course, they’re so much blinded by their narrow view of the world. They only hear and they only see what they want to hear and see.
So, no matter how many times you point out the wrong, they don’t get it or they don’t want to get it. It’s a very much typical American psychology issue of people who just has one narrow point of the world and nothing else around them will impact them because they simply don’t see what they want to hear. And there’s like we have the balkanization of media now where if you want to hear about the Bush successes in Iraq and watch Fox News…
Donald: …and the rest of the media don’t matter because the people who only want to hear one point of view can find a point of view that basically distorts the world that favor them so.
Justin: Extremely dangerous.
Kirsten: Absolutely. So, let’s get to some of the actual fossil evidence that you talked about in your book and that you’ve been studying throughout your career. One of the arguments against evolution and using the fossil record as evidence for evolution is that we’re missing…
Kirsten: …lots of transitional species that should be there.
Donald: Right. Right.
Kirsten: So, what’s going on?
Donald: Well, the basic argument is one of the weakest spots for creationist is the fossil record. And they know that if they have, that if a fossil record were shown to be convincely against them, they would have their biggest problem defending it.
And so, they go about pretty much in a systematic campaign of distortion and outright falsification and lying to deny what is apparent to anyone who wants to look at it.
And so, when you read what they write about the fossil records, first thing you have to remember is they may throw a Ph.D. around in the cover of their book but none of them have PhDs in the relevant areas.
Donald: They can’t tell one bone from another. Not one of them is a legitimate paleontologist who works in the animals I’m talking about in this book. So, they have no credibility.
It’s just the same as if they were talking about music theory or automatically mechanics. I wouldn’t listen to them because they don’t have any formal training in the field to actually talk about it.
When you read what they write about fossils, it quotes out of context from usually very old sources or very marginal sources which don’t prove anything and usually of course, they’re out of context. They aren’t actually saying what they claim they say.
So, I go over that a great length in the book. But then, the strength of what I’m trying to point out and the book’s latter half is all about this is just how much we have – and especially in the last 40, 50 years and maybe even specially last five or ten years have an enormous increase in the quality of the fossil record.
Now, it’s never going to be complete and we never pretended it was but it has the amazing sequence of trenches and forms from many different things. And I have an examples of how we can have many fossils making the transition from fish to amphibians and from dinosaurs to birds and from land animals to whales, all of which are extremely well documented mostly in the ten years or so.
And I’ve got specimens there about a manatee with feet and hands and not flippers and specimens of things like – there’s a breakthrough in my book I sort of scooped. I got a fossil of a giraff with an intermediate length neck between a primitive giraffe and the modern giraffe.
Donald: And also, it’s halfway to being long necked. And that was – now you have formally published literature about my friend who’s the author of that. The specimen is getting it published right now.
So, it’s just full, chunkful of examples. And that’s one of the things my publisher and my artists and I were trying really hard to do is to show as much as possible the actual physical evidence and not just talk about it which is where the problem lies in communication of it. Let people look for themselves.
Donald: And so, we have like 16-paged color section in the middle. And I made a point of getting the very best, most beautiful specimens of fossils that, they could not at any doubts are transitional forms and showed them the real fossil as it really looks, and not just a cartoon or a restoration so people could see these things are not made up.
That’s an issue of credibility on. That’s detail of enlisting creations long enough now that some of these people don’t people believe these stuff exist and they think it’s all hoaxes.
It’s scariest that, the Flat Earth creationist – and that’s a legitimate movement out there. By the way, the Flat Earth creationist who convince because their revelation of the Bible, the earth is flat and everything NASA has shown is the hoax. So that’s kind of scientific illiteracy is going on here so.
Kirsten: How can they know that your book is the better source than one say, written by an anti-evolution group who are…
Donald: Well, the number one reason is credibility. I actually worked on these fossils. In most cases, I’ve described things I’ve actually physically seen and worked with to some degree. And in quite a few cases, they’re actually specimens I’ve studied and published on myself.
And so, I have the credibility because I have the credentials and because I’ve actually physically worked with them. And if you look closely at these creationist and the way they write and especially if you know something about it, you’ll know right away they don’t know what they’re talking about.
They have no formal training at this stuff, they don’t one bone from another and they make mistakes that’s ridiculously obvious to anyone who’s actually a qualified paleontologist.
And it’s all because that’s all I care about. They just want to find something, distorted and they don’t have any incentive to actually learn about it. They just want to deny it.
Justin: So one of the distortions that I hear quite often is actually represented in the creationist museum – Kirsten is showing me this picture of a fish with hands.
Kirsten: That’s a frogfish. It’s so cute.
Donald: Yes. Yes. I thought that was cute just to show how easy it is to make the transitions in the land because ray-finned fishes have done it multiple times as well as (low fin) fish so.
Justin: So in the creationist museum what they’ll show is dinosaurs and early man together.
Justin: Right. So, it comes down to how we date things, like okay you’ve got this fossil record but a lot of stuff has died off in the last 2,000 years or whatever.
Justin: What is the method for actually dating – finding out how far back things are and how reliable is it?
Donald: Well, I mean there’s something very simple there. You can look at the strata for example in a place like the Colorado plateau and the last dinosaur shows up at the top of the cretaceous and then, we have thousands of (unintelligible) deposits sitting right on top of them and no evidence of humans until the very, very end of those.
That’s physically separate by too much to be explained by any kind of Noah’s flood thing or anything else. It’s not a made up fantasy in the mind of geologists.
And then, if you want to actually get dates on it, we have many places on Earth where you can actually get volcanic ash layers or volcanic lava flows which give us very reliable dates usually by potassium-argon dating that tell us the youngest dinosaur is no younger than 65 million and the oldest human depending on how you define them in Africa as around 6 or 7 million.
Justin: Yes. And I think that’s what’s important to point out is that to deny evolution isn’t just to say that the paleontologist is wrong but it’s also say that geologists have it all wrong, the climatologists have it all wrong, the chemists have it all wrong.
Donald: That’s right. the real fundamentalists actually deny all of the (unintelligible) as well. And they have this weird model they called floodgeology where they tried to squeeze the entire…
Donald: …spectrum, everything we know in the geologic sciences in their silly little model of Noah’s flood. And I just actually gave lecture on that on Sunday which debunked the whole topic. And the Chapter three in the book has got a short version of that in there. But the basic idea is that their attack is not just in evolution. That’s just the most obvious target and the one that’s the weakest in the public mind.
They actually want to destroy all of geology, all of astronomy, all of anthropology, anything which goes against their (literal) view of the first books of the Bible. And so, it’s really an attack on science in general because they’re trying to retreat to a world that goes back 2,000 years ago.
And so, you really had a disadvantage if you try to deal with them because they’re actually, they have a broader agenda. They don’t talk much about the other ones until they get an audience that’s more sympathetic.
But, I mean for example, they were capable of actually doing real geology. And if they actually did geology in the real world, we’d have no oil or gas or coal because you can’t find oil or gas or coal if you’re a creationist. They don’t have the models of what actually explains how it’s formed and where it’s found.
And we would be sitting there with much higher gas prices right now than we have. And there’s a lot of practical problems to their attack on science…
Donald: …that comes from not just, attacking a part of biology that’s central but, it’s a fundamental attack in all aspects of science including some that are economically very important to us.
Kirsten: Okay. We have to finish up our interview unfortunately. This is so much fun to talk to you.
Donald: Thank you.
Kirsten: But I have one last question, what is…
Kirsten: …what is your favorite fossil that you’ve ever worked on?
Donald: I worked on a lot of them but fossil rhinos are actually the group I worked on the most for the last 20 years or so. So, I’ve got a whole series of specimens of rhinos I’ve worked on in detail. And I published a book in 2005 on all the evolution of North American rhinos. So, I guess you could say it’s that.
A friend of mine actually named a fossil rhino fairly recently out of Oregon after me so I’ve got my first (unintelligible).
Justin: Oh, that’s awesome!
Donald: And you can’t do it for yourself. You have to have a friend do it for you.
Justin: Is that right?
Donald: Yes, the laws of…
Kirsten: You were wondering that?
Donald: …state you cannot actually name an animal after yourself so it’s always had to be done as a tribute by somebody else.
Justin: Because, yes, I was actually wondering that. Because there was a beetle that they found a while ago that hadn’t been given a scientific name yet.
Justin: And I’m like, “How does that happen?” I would just call it (Justinicus beetlifus rhidos) as soon as I discovered it.
Donald: Right. Well, lots of beetles have not been named. There’s thousands of them out there that haven’t been. But the rules are very strict and one of the things you cannot do is name something after yourself and you have to justify where you got the name from.
But it’s common in science, if someone respects you, they often name things after you especially I spent 20 years working on rhinos. So, someone who got to name a rhino decided to name it after me which is very nice. It’s nice honor so.
Kirsten: That’s neat. Congratulations.
Justin: So, did you hear that minions listening in the audience? If you’re discovering new beetles and stuff, just keep me in mind, you know?
Donald: Yes. If you want to get into systematic biology there’s a lot of room to name a lot of animals. You just have to…
Justin: I’ll even take a bacteria.
Justin: I want something.
Donald: Yes. It’s just either six or eight years of Ph.D. program and…
Donald: …a lot of post doctorates are just all it takes.
Kirsten: That’s all. Only a little bit of hard work.
Donald: And a lot of grant money too unfortunately so.
Kirsten: Yes. Well, thank you so much for joining us this morning.
Donald: You’re welcome.
Kirsten: It’s been fascinating talking with you. I hope that this conversation extends to our listeners and the debate goes forward and moves on.
Donald: Okay. Thank you very much.
Kirsten: Thank you very much.
Justin: And the book is…
Donald: (Unintelligible) PBS tonight if you want to watch about the Dover trial so.
Kirsten: Yes. That’s a good idea. Thank you.
Justin: The book is “Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters”.
Donald: Thank you very much.
Kirsten: And this is Dr. Donald Prothero. Thank you.
Donald: All right. Bye-bye.
Kirsten: Bye! And that’s about it for us At TWIS we’ve got a couple of comments from listeners. (Brandon Wilhelmson), a TWIS minion wrote in to say that he wanted to mention that Mike Huckabee took the same quiz that you took, Justin. And it was told that he should vote for Mitt Romney and that he agreed with his own platform 71% of the time.
Justin: Oh, wow!
Kirsten: “Let’s stick to making our own minds up,” he says. And then, (Jake Hartman), a research analyst wrote in to say, “Having listened to claim on this show this week, which you are rightly skeptical about, that alcohol had caused more deaths than all the wars together. I thought I do a bit of research beginning with the revolutionary war.
There have been about 1,542,897 US deaths attributed to war, counting the most up-to-date numbers in Iraq right now. In 2005, the number of deaths attributed to drunk driving was only 16,855 according to the CDC.
They only way that deaths attributed to drunk driving could be as high as US war casualties would be if this rate was held for the last 100 years which obviously, it hasn’t — given that cars 100 year weren’t exactly what they are today, not to mention the fact that the population has grown dramatically.
So, all in all, the numbers are probably closer than they should be but wars went out mostly because they’ve been around longer. Love the show. Keep up the good work.”
Justin: Wait, wait. Did they start in the civil war? There were no cars. You can’t start with the civil war, there were no cars. What? Did they keep records on drunken cart accidents?
Justin: Because if so, I bet a lot of people fell off the wagon and that’s where getting on the wagon, off the wagon even come from is probably because people had wagon even though they were drunk.
Kirsten: All right.
Justin: If you learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It is all in your head.
Listen to the podcast here: http://www.twis.org/audio/2007/11/13/156/