Oct 23, 2007

Justin: Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer!

The following hour of programming is not intended for the weak minded. You’ll hear things here that are by design intended to brainwash you into being more autonomous in your thinking, may constitute actually an act of passive treason once the scientist revolution begins. No subject will be considered too brainy, too bascule or too unsexy to be undressed.

Natural resistance to learning new things will be pinned down and tickled until it pees itself. If you are afraid of being ostracized by those around you for quoting scientists or ruining a romantic moment by correcting misconceptions about quantum physics or if you’re just concerned about being irreparably enlightened about the environment, you are listening to the wrong show.

If on the other hand, you believe that science is better than small talk, knowing stuff makes you more sexy and that the only way to survive the future is to prepare for it, then, I have good news for you because This Week In Science, Extra Brainwashy Edition is coming up next.


Justin: Good morning, Kirsten.

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin.

Justin: Wow! So, where are you? You’re in…

Kirsten: I’m in Spokane, Washington.

Justin: Wow! And what’s it look like up there in Spokane this great Tuesday morning?

Kirsten: Well, it’s really foggy. We’ve had the best weather. Since I got here, it’s been like been like 30 degrees and raining.

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: Yesterday was actually really pretty. But today, we get the fog.

Justin: Fog is fine unless you got to drive somewhere, do something annoying.

Kirsten: Yes.

Justin: So, you’re up there for a scientist conference?

Kirsten: It’s a Science Writers’ Conference. So, I’m hanging out with a bunch of other people who are interested in spreading the word on science. We are here basically getting the low down on what’s going on in Washington within scientific research and they’re wooing us in trying to get us to write lots of nice stories and talk about them a lot.

Justin: Excellent! Excellent!

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, let me ask you Kirsten, how did you first get started in science journalism? All right, no…

Kirsten: Am I being interviewed right now?

Justin: Well, I figured, you know. Well, I got you not here I might as well interview you a little bit. Seriously, what was it because we never get interviewed on the show because we’re doing all the interviewing.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: Now that you’re not here, I feel like you’re a complete stranger to me.

Kirsten: Oh, no.

Justin: I feel like I can ask you anything. So, what was it, Kirsten? Because you were doing the show, four or five years before I joined the show.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And every Tuesday morning…

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: …bringing the science news, when did you first decide to do this so that this would be an idea that would be fun or interesting?

Kirsten: Well, it was like back in – I think I’ve always thought it was interesting but I never thought it was really possible. I always thought I just had to be a scientist.

And then, when we started doing the show back in ’99, I think it was, that I started realizing there is this like world of other possibilities and that I could actually do something else and like do something that I really enjoyed. And that was kind of when I first started really thinking about it.

Justin: And you’re already doing like radio DJ’ing on the show. I mean, you’ve done music and that sort of thing.

Kirsten: Yeah. I think in ’92, I started doing just music radio DJ’ing. And I always like the radio. I think when I was like seven years old, I had a cassette player that had a record button and I would sit there and I would record shows and I would interview people. So, I think, I just always have liked radio.

Justin: Nice.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s in my blood.

Justin: Oh yes, Kirsten, how did you get into science? When did you know that you wanted to work – excited by science? I mean, becoming a Neurology Ph.D. isn’t something you wake up in the morning…

Kirsten: Hey, I think I want to do that.

Justin: “You know, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Kirsten: I always liked science. That was something that, it was always something I was good at. And I always really enjoyed – I mean especially Biology because I grew up out in the country and so, there was always an earthworm to dissect. You know, there are always birds on the wire and something to pick out of the ground and something to look at. So, I always liked science.

Justin: Excellent.

Kirsten: Yeah. It would be tough.

Justin: And then, at some point, you decided that adding me to the show would be…

Kirsten: I did.

Justin: …the most brilliant move you could possibly make. And as you look back and are proud of that decision, we’ll just take moment, go ahead and take a moment of being proud of that moment and…

Kirsten: A moment of silence.

Justin: Wait. Isn’t that for bereavement and grief? Anyway, okay. So, this is This Week In Science. And we did actually bring some science stories today.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Big news from NASA.

Kirsten: Tell it.

Justin: The scientists from the agency have discovered new forms of life where few suspected life was possible. It has finally happened. NASA has discovered – oh, wait. No, it’s not on the moon, not on Mars, not aboard the space station.

Kirsten: What?

Justin: But on the clean rooms where space craft components are assembled.

Kirsten: Of course.

Justin: Yeah, okay. For years, they’ve been attempting to prevent microbial contamination of the components that they’re either testing or putting together to be part of the space program also, not wanting to contaminate anything they put in the space. So, they have these clean rooms where they do all the building and the testing.

So, these rooms are often clean, sanitized and checked for contamination. But they’re using sort of old tests where they’re just sort of checking the air or a few surface samples that they then go and they grow it in the lab and see what takes over, right?

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Now, they’ve gone through and done some more advanced sampling with ribosomal RNA gene sequence analysis and the findings were surprising and highlighted a cause for concern.

Many of the microbes were either previously unknown to science, which means they are also kind of unpredictable what they’re going to do, you know, once they leave and go up on the space station or shuttle or what have you.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And they were thriving under some conditions that were just completely unnatural to them. What they think has happened of course is what we’ve been seeing in other places like in hospitals with the MSRA, MRSA, MSRP, multi…

Kirsten: The multidrug resistant staphylococcus.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: There’s a lack of competition which has allowed this really rare and in some cases unknown bacterium to flourish. One interesting microbe is thought to have adapted itself to deriving nutrients completely from paint.

Kirsten: From paint?

Justin: From paint.

Kirsten: Fascinating.

Justin: I mean….

Kirsten: It’s a clean room so obviously, what’s there? What are they eating, right?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: I mean, it’s just…

Kirsten: What are they living off of?

Justin: It’s one of these things too that just keeps like – this is the same thing that’s going on hospitals where we’re getting these really resistant strains of bacterium. And it’s not just that – there’s certain amounts of it that are gene sharing, you know, very resistant strains getting to share their resistant genes more often, swap DNA with other microbes.

But another part of it is really, I think competition is the biggest factor. Once, you know, bacteria fight each other constantly for resources in space. So, once you get rid of some that may not be really that bad for us, might be kind of innocuous, might be, you know, bacteria that’s commonly found on the skin that happens to be able to dominate another microbe that if allowed to flourish could cause some horrible skin rash, you know.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, the thing is, it’s sort of my one of those – like my enemy’s enemy is my friend kind of a thing.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: A lot of the bacteria that they’re wiping out has been possibly controlling these more virulent, more harmful bacteria that by getting rid of the competition for them, we’ve allow them to grab a large foothold. So, very interesting.

So, they’re going to go back and look at new ways that they can clean the clean rooms. But it’s an interesting environment because they did this at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Kennedy Space Flight Center and the Johnson Space Center in Houston and they found that each lab had a very unique environment of the microbes. Like there wasn’t a whole…

Kirsten: It’s like a unique population.

Justin: Unique populations.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And something like 40 something microbes that they’ve never identified before anywhere else, just were completely unknown to science.

Kirsten: That’s not hard to do though. I mean, there are so many bacteria that are unknown to science.

Justin: Right. But in these environments though, they’re the mainstay. I think they’re not rare in these little micro-environments that were created by having a clean room for, I don’t know, how many decades.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: They’ve managed to build up population and flourish to the point where they are not a rarity in that particular environment. It’s, you know, one of those things…

Kirsten: I love it.

Justin: …when you’re changing the planet. That’s the thing that always bugs me. It’s like living on a new planet if you’re in that room, you know, because it’s a different microbial environment than your DNA and your ancestor and your microbes are used to dealing with. So, you don’t know what would happen to you.

You know, it’s like one of those things like, if you put somebody on, if there turned out to be microbes on Mars and, you know, you wouldn’t allow an astronaut to walk around there and touch everything and then rub his eyes and then come back to Earth, he’d be quarantine because we wouldn’t know what it will do.

Same thing, I think applies for these clean rooms and what’s going on in hospitals now. There’s just an epidemic of this very resistant strains.

So one strain I was reading in here there was an ear infection that a kid got and they used 18 different types of treatment that used to work of antibiotics and none of them worked anymore.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Eighteen different ones and the microbe – the little ear infection was like, “Uh-huh. No.”

Kirsten: The microbes like, “I think I’m past that. I don’t need that. I’m not going to succumb to your puny antibiotics anymore.”

Justin: I’ve seen this. This is like 20 years ago. Medicine, you’re going to beat me with this.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s interesting. I mean, the question is, with the clean rooms, did we just make an environment that was, you know, created an environment that was really good and the type of environment that these microbes really enjoyed and just or did they, you know, eventually mutate and gain new abilities to be able to live in these clean rooms?

Justin: Yeah. The one that…

Kirsten: Would they have been able to survive elsewhere? But this just happened to be a good place for them because there’s no competition from anything else.

Justin: No competition. I think that’s the biggest key.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Because it’s also like, you know, when people talk about using antibacterial soaps and removing microbes from the human body, you know, they’re going to be replaced.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: There’s going to be microbes on your skin. It’s a question of what microbes? And if you’ve got a colony of microbes on your body, and you’re not constantly itchy, you’re not constantly breaking out in rashes and you’re not getting colds all the time or something strange, if you’re relatively a healthy person, your microbes are probably pretty healthy. They’re probably beneficial.

Kirsten: Uh-huh.

Justin: You might not want to go mess with that ecosystem by slathering antimicrobial soap all over your body.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: It seems like it would be a bad plan anyway.

Kirsten: Yeah. I think what’s really going to be interesting is when we actually discover – I mean the clean room is, you know, nobody expected anything to be there but there was.

But we know there are bacteria on us. We know there are bacteria inside of us. I think the most interesting thing is going to be when we actually figure out what those bacteria are and what they do and how they help us.

And so, then, we can start working on different ways that we can help to maintain the good bacteria that we liked on us.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Maybe there are bacteria that help with, you know, as a sunscreen. You know, maybe there – I mean in hippopotamus, there’s, you know, the possibility that they have a microbial population that helps them to have sunscreen, not get burned out in the Savannah of Africa.

Justin: Can you imagine the spa in the future where you go to get slathered in beneficial bacteria?

Kirsten: I know.

Justin: It’s kind of hot.

Kirsten: I would like the microbial rub, please.

Justin: I like the skin tightening microbe. You know, the lifting.

Kirsten: Yeah. Maybe there’s some bacteria that will help stimulate our skin to produce more collagen. So, as we get older, we just put on a cream…

Justin: Bactox maybe, wait.

Kirsten: Bacteria.

Justin: Bacteria (tox).

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: This is a different story. I’m sitting here, looking at from that’s talking about the MRSA problem in hospitals. And one thing it’s pointing out is this is just something I didn’t know.

Twenty five years ago, virtually all E. Coli was harmless. Harmless, 25 years ago.

Kirsten: Really?

Justin: Yeah. And they’re talking about…

Kirsten: Interesting.

Justin: …one agriculture that was just – they kind of looks like they tracked it – a bovine form acquired genes from a potentially lethal strain of a toxin producing shield which I never even knew a shield existed.

The results have been the food science nightmare. Cows, however, are still immune to this bug but it’s the emergence of things like – we have the spinach E. Coli recently.

So, it’s a lot of antibiotics that they’re using not just on ourselves, not just on pharmaceuticals but in livestock as well.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: That is, you know, that’s taking place everywhere constantly. I mean…

Kirsten: Yeah. They give livestock a large quantity of antibiotics in the hopes that they will remain healthy and give us healthy, healthy meat or milk or whatever it happens to be that we get from them.

And then, down the road, the question is, how does that affect the E. coli? And how does that affect, you know, if they are, you know, going to the bathroom and their feces contains, you know, some kind of mutated form of some bacteria and that it gets put on to the crops of fertilizer…

Justin: Exactly.

Kirsten: …how is that going to – and then, it gets to us when we eat the plants. You know, how is that going to affect us?

Justin: So, I think in this conversation, we’ve solved the problem, Kirsten. What we need to find is the highly aggressive, completely benign bacteria that will just spread everywhere.

You know, what I mean? Something that can beat up all these other microbes out for resources and just take over their environment but it really doesn’t do much. Of course then, it would probably gene swap.

Kirsten: Right. Of course, it would. Horizontal gene transfer, it would be fantastic.

Justin: They’re going to win.

Kirsten: It doesn’t – yeah – there’s nothing we can do. We can try but the microbes, they are crafty.

Justin: So, did you get sent a link to the robot that was killing people in South Africa?

Kirsten: Oh I did – the robot that went crazy and killed nine people?

Justin: Eleven I think.

Kirsten: Was it eleven? I think, yeah. It injured nine or eleven people.

Justin: Oh, yeah. Killed nine, injured eleven.

Kirsten: Talk about This Week in world robot domination.

Justin: Yeah. This was – what was it? Some sort of anti aircraft twin barreled gun, the Swiss-German make, Oerlikon 35 millimeter, MK5, sprayed hundreds of high explosive canon shelves round the five gun firing position, emptied a 250 round auto-loader magazine. They’re saying a computer glitch. Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That’s a great alibi.

Kirsten: It’s an automatic like a defense system specifically…

Justin: National defense system.

Kirsten: …that it’s suppose to fire when it senses particular things within, you know, whatever is taking its mind.

Justin: That’s radar and laser range fighters got all that kind of cool stuff.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah. Think star wars like, you know, anti-missile defense program only, you know, smaller.

Kirsten: Yeah. And then, it goes crazy and just starts shooting up everything.

Justin: And now, the thing that’s interesting about this too is there is no accountability here. You know, I mean, somebody might lose a job, some computer programmer, you know, might not put that on his resume going forward.

Kirsten: Yup. It was a computer glitch, right?

Justin: The robot itself is not going to be in any trouble.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: So, what’s to stop them from doing it again?

Kirsten: Well, they might, you know, they probably are putting down the robot.

Justin: You think or are they going to repair it?

Kirsten: No. They’re probably going to put him down.

Justin: I bet you anything, they’ll just repair it. I guarantee. There’s probably so much money invested in that and they’re like, “Oh, glitch. We’ll work through it.”

Kirsten: Yeah. They’re going through. They’re going to figure out what the software bug was. What happened to it?

But if these kinds of remote weapons have, you know, some kind of wireless internet capacity, maybe they’re, you know, connecting via satellite or something to some kind of – and have some kind of military internet connection.

What’s to stop people from breaking the firewall, breaking the code that, you know, keeps people from getting into it and actually programming a software glitch…

Justin: Wow!

Kirsten: …a bug, a virus into something like that? You know, so, I mean, it’s probable that this probably was not connected to any kind of internet or anything.

Justin: No. Actually, I’m reading further…

Kirsten: But there’s a question there.

Justin: …that it is saying here that it also could have been a mechanical problem, which means there could have been a mechanical jam that the computer was trying to get past but (unintelligible) around.

Kirsten: Yeah. I think there’s actually a video of it somewhere.

Justin: Oh, I don’t want.

Kirsten: No. It’s not the incident. But there was another incident a few years ago. I’m looking at right now and they’ve got a story, who is this link – sent to me by – (Jay Scottburge) sent me this link.

And basically, it said, there is an XM151 remote weapon station that did a similar thing where something happened and it just started firing into the air and hurt and killed a bunch of people. So, this is not the first time this has happened. Interesting.

Justin: Being a people, I’m against the killing of people whoever they are. You know, hey, look, Al Gore, we never talked about this.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Al Gore…

Kirsten: His Nobel Prize?

Justin: Well, no. I was going to talk about his being TWIS man of the year the last two years in the row.

Kirsten: Was he?

Justin: Yeah. And the subsequent fame, he’s gotten since that time, you know, we brought him enough exposure that he’s won the Academy Award and the Nobel Prize.

Kirsten: Yeah. Pat yourself on the back, Justin, because you made a good job.

Justin: No. I’m just saying we were ahead of the curve for the whole handing out award. Anybody who hands him out an award now, they’re just late to the game.

We were there before he’d done anything significant with his life which I think, I’m proud that we’re that tied into the pulse.

Kirsten: We’ve been behind him the whole time.

Justin: But here’s the thing. At this point, he can’t win again. He can’t be TWIS Man of the Year again or person of the year science oriented something of the year.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: He can’t be that again because he’s already got those other, you know, trophies on his mantle now.

I’m calling to the minions to help come up with the person – who in science this year has contributed significantly enough, interestingly enough, profoundly enough or just sexually enough to be named TWIS Person of the Year.

So, and send those into or

Kirsten: And a TWIS in the Subject.

Justin: TWIS in the Subject, right otherwise…

Kirsten: TWIS Al Gore or TWIS Man of the Year.

Justin: Now, if it doesn’t say, TWIS, it immediately goes to my Trash Folder.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: That’s the thing.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: Because otherwise, I mean it is interesting how the type of – I wonder if everybody gets the same kind of spam emails because…

Kirsten: Oh, I get like a ridiculous amount of spam emails. But luckily when I’m not doing web mail, I have really great filtering software.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: So, I’m lucky.

Justin: The show’s email is the only one I see. It’s like hundreds upon hundreds a day of spam. And they all do get filtered out but they’re still there. It’s like you can see how many you’re getting and it’s like – anyway. That’s a whole different.

Warning from University of California, Berkeley, you know, those tests you can go out and take? They do your DNA then they tell you where your ancestors came from?

Kirsten: Right. Yeah.

Justin: University of Berkeley says a lot of those can give you really false information. They don’t really help you track down a homeland or even an ethnicity necessarily.

Kirsten: No?

Justin: No. Part of the problem is it’s what they’re correlating things to. You know, you take these tests and you find okay there’s some European connection here, some Egyptian connection there or this, that and the other.

And maybe it’s, you know, in a region where they found it before. But it doesn’t really tell you anything beyond that. I mean, you have to have other DNA. You have to go back in history. I’ll give you a for instance.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: Part of my ancestry is Italian. And the family name there – part of that name can be rooted back to Yugoslavia. But now I was told as Yugoslavia. Now, what’s Yugoslavia?

And what era and what region and what – I mean is it pre-Ottoman and post-Ottoman? And is it the Serbian, is it the (Ukraine) I mean, what is it?

Kirsten: Right. It doesn’t let you track that down like a timeline kind of thing.

Justin: It doesn’t tell you anything.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And while you might have genetic, with similar genes as people in that region, perhaps your family left, diverged from that region thousands of years before.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: And moved somewhere completely different. So, they’re just sort of saying, for one, it’s not the most accurate system because they don’t necessarily have markers throughout history, all the markers are relatively recent, for one.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: And the other thing is, yeah, the tests themselves might not give you very accurate information. It might not be very specific. So, just a little grain of salt if you’ve taken one of those and you found that you weren’t related to Alexander the Great, it doesn’t mean you weren’t. It just means, you know, we need to do more research here to figure out. I like the idea of it though.

Kirsten: Yeah. It’s great, but…

Justin: Like mine would be too confusing. Mine wouldn’t work.

Kirsten: There’s still definitely more that needs to be understood, right?

Justin: Right. Oh absolutely. And specially, you’re like Irish at all. If you’re at all Irish, you don’t know what are – you know, British I should say, that could be, you know, extensively there probably weren’t any red headed, blue-eyed Celt. That’s more of a Scandinavian feature. And then, there was also the whole Germanic and Anglo-Saxon thing.

So then, which over bred the kind – so, it’s hard to say, what even Celtic genes would like, like nobody can even tell because it’s such a mishmash and all of the regions of the world that really in some sort of a way, a mishmash. And we didn’t talk about Mr. Watson’s comments yet.

Kirsten: Yeah. I blogged about that on my blog.

Justin: Which is – go ahead and plug your site there.

Kirsten: My blog It’s pretty simple to go to.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: It’s called the bird’s brain. But basically, yeah, I think his comment – I don’t know exactly like the background behind it. And he may have had some other – there may have been other comments to put his comment into a framework or perspective that were left out somehow that he just didn’t bother mentioning when he was talking. But yeah, his comments were ridiculous that basically there is a difference in intelligence between races of people.

Justin: Which could be true because, you know, this is the touchy subject which is like, we know there’s differences…

Kirsten: Any kind of issue around this is touchy. Yeah.

Justin: We know there are differences genetically and different things like height. That one is pretty simple. If, you know, compare the heights of Inuits or Mong people to those of Western Europe, there’s going to be differences.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: The thing that I find really – none-coming back from, over a cliff from which no amount of scrambling can come back with from – is that you would apply intelligence to a people, to a continent in any way shape or form. Because intelligence is so…

Kirsten: Such a broad topic. And the reality is there’s no real definition of intelligence even.

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: I mean we have tests that we use to try and judge intelligence. But, you know, the intelligence that, say, an artist has maybe completely the creative intelligence. It may be completely different but it’s still just as valid as the intelligent that somebody uses in computational physics, you know.

Justin: Yeah. And the other thing too is like in taking the continent of Africa, it may be true and I might be wrong about this – it may be true that no member of the Zulu tribe has ever graduated from Harvard.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: But I would take any Harvard grad working out there in the sub Saharan, wherever Zulu is, I haven’t actually have any idea. I bet you anything, they would starve to death before they could fell anything.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: You know what I mean?

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: So, there’s also your environment that you’re in like what skillsets are you talking about?

Kirsten: Yeah. What do you need to be good at to survive?

Justin: So, I think Watson did a good job in his retraction or no, he didn’t retract his comment, exactly. But in his somewhat conditioning caveat and saying, there’s no scientific basis for anything that he said in his apology which just kind of, you know, once you’ve removed that, at least he’s not standing behind any sort of science on it.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: It just sort of makes it a blatantly racist comment at that point.

Kirsten: Yeah. I know.

Justin: Which is kind of sad.

Kirsten: Oh, great. That makes it so much better.

Justin: Yeah. I mean I like the fact that he backed off and said, “No. This has nothing to do with science. I just had a racist moment. And I’m sorry.”

Kirsten: Yeah. He has a history of making just inflammatory comments. And I just wonder, you know, he has his book that came out recently and he’s on a tour. And I just wonder, you know, was it just…

Justin: Publicity?

Kirsten: …a slip of the tongue on one too many interviews or was it, you know, purposeful? Did he say this to kind of incite interest around himself?

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: And to get people maybe thinking about him and talking about him more than they were. And, you know, would that get increase of book sales? You know. Is it a planned PR move?

Justin: I don’t think so, because I honestly – when he says he’s mortified about the words that came out of his mouth, it doesn’t sound – I don’t know. It is a great subject though. I mean, it is something that people are afraid to talk about.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: And as a geneticist, not myself but him as a geneticist, anybody who works in the field of genetics, it’s probably very hard to avoid considerations of race.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: I mean that’s got to be something that you start to look at not necessarily a eugenic or western superiority sense. But at some point, I mean, and granted he also didn’t say that, you know, whatever he is, is (could it be) like when you really factor in and figure out who the most intelligent people on the planet are, a lot of us are probably going to lose.

I feel pretty lucky though because I have a large – it would hard to be quantify or qualify even what continent I completely came off of. So, I think I got all – just about everybody’s covered.

Kirsten: Did you come off of just all of them?

Justin: Yeah, pretty much.

Kirsten: (Unintelligible) complete.

Justin: You know, I’ve got such a good mishmash of everything. It’s impossible. I can’t be offended by any sort of racial humor.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: Just because I, you know, it can’t relate to any of them. You’re all strange to me. You’re all a bunch of foreigners. I don’t know where I’m going to find an Irish, Italian, Mexican, Jewish, Swiss, some possible Yugo, Iranian person, sub-Saharan, Inuits, Novoho who I can really get to agree with me on this. But once I find them, I’m sure they’ll agree that the rest of you are strange.

All right, Kirsten, we are past the break. My goodness. We’re into the future.

Kirsten: Yeah. You got to take a break and then, you got to call Michael Stebbins.

Justin: Yeah. I’ll call Michael Stebbins. Hopefully he’s not thinking I gave up on him.

Kirsten: Probably not. I’m sure he wouldn’t go that far.

Justin: No. All right.

Kirsten: He’s probably just waiting.

Justin: Are you coming back ever?

Kirsten: I am coming back tomorrow actually. But I have to go learn from a whole bunch of scientists today and let’s see what’s on the docket. I get to learn about primates and disease, deep carbon sequestration and climates. I’m going to learn about emotion, play, ADHD, and depression, Saturn and Titan and virtual worlds and web 3Ds. That is what’s on the schedule today.

Justin: Sweet. Hey, that carbon thing, that’s going to be huge because they’ve got a couple of new studies out just this week talking about…

Kirsten: Yeah because there’s actually some really interesting research going on here in Washington at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories.

They’re looking at ways – so when the carbon goes into the ground, it actually combines with other molecules in the ground to create like something of a carbonate kind of compound, so, like a calcium carbonate or something like that and it just becomes locked up.

So, that even if something happens and an earthquake opens up wherever it is, that you’ve been sequestering the carbon, it stays there. So, it won’t accidentally come back out. Pretty cool stuff.

Justin: (Awesome-nacity).

Kirsten: Yup. So, you go. Have a wonderful time talking with Mike Stebbins. Tell him, I say, hello. Great! Have a wonderful rest of the show. And I will, I guess talk to you later.

Justin: Yeah. Swing by. You know, farm house. Once you’re back from the great northwest there.

Kirsten: All right.

Justin: That was Dr. Kirsten Sanford. Wait, no that’s – I’m trying to figure out how to do the outré music. What button do I push again?

Kirsten: Press the red button. Push up the slider.

Justin: This is all like season two music. I couldn’t find the season one CD.

Kirsten: Awesome.

Justin: We’ll be right back with the second half of This Week In Science, coming up right after this.


Kirsten: We want the money. Yup, This Week In Science is looking for sponsors and advertisers. If you’re trying to reach a new audience, sell a product or support a good cause, contact me, for information.


Justin: Good morning. We’re back with more of This Week In Science. On the phone…

Michael: Is that my new theme?

Justin: I’m missing the season one music which is your theme song is part of that mix.

Michael: Fabulous.

Justin: I came down here. I got the season two CD of the show, so I’m running with. Men, Kirsten does a lot of button pushing. Again, this always amazes me when I get on this side like where I normally sit, there’s a microphone and a dart board.

Michael: And all you got to do is be funny.

Justin: Yeah. That’s it. I just kind of, you know, pipe in once and a while, throw a couple of darts, Hey, you know, improve my score month by month.

But no, between the CD, there’s some commercial you’ve got to play. You got to work the phone, hit those buttons, bring people on, take things off, it’s pretty intense.

Michael: She’s a talent.

Justin: She is. She’s amazing. She says hi when she called in. While she’s conferencing over there doing the news writing thing, she had found time to call in to home and said hi.

Michael: Excellent!

Justin: So, it’s Dr. Michael Stebbins with the Weird from Washington. We’ve got all our policy updates on what’s going on over there on the swamp.

Michael: Yup. And since Kirsten’s not here, I can actually just give you all bad news today. Actually, I have no say in that, unfortunately.

So, I’ll launch off with a couple of a doozy. So, Security of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff waived several environmental laws yesterday so that he could continue building a border fence through a national conservation area in Arizona.

Justin: Nice.

Michael: Now, this move was in spite of an October temp ruling by a federal judge that halted construction of the fence because the judge found that the government had “failed to carry out the required environmental assessment.”

And Sean Sullivan of the Southeastern Arizona branch of the Sierra Club pointed out something that actually I guess escaped them which was that you do not need to actually impact an environmentally protected area in order to manage the border.

But earlier this month, actually, Chertoff defended the construction of the fence because he argued that in fact the fence itself was eco-friendly even though it’s basically bulldozing a large area and building a giant wall and that illegal immigrants are actually the real problem with the environment because you’ve seen pictures of…

Justin: Litter.

Michael: …waste, garbage, discarded bottles and other human artifacts in pristine areas. And “believe me, that is the worst thing you can do to the environment.”

Justin: Wow!

Michael: Definitely not a bulldozer threat.

Justin: So, I guess federal law, federal judges, that sort of thing versus Homeland Security…

Michael: Yup.

Justin: …wanted to build a fence. Is that supposed to play out like that? Like, just, “We’re going to do it anyway?”

Michael: Yeah. It really is extraordinary. And especially with, you know, the very idea that this fence is actually going to stop illegal immigration in the United States is naïve on the best of days.

Justin: I’m just thinking…

Michael: I mean, this is – and that’s not just my opinion. I mean that sort of, you know, well-accepted by many people at this point. It’s sort of a bump in the road. I mean, if someone is actually willing to travel, you know, hundreds and hundreds of miles on foot, that a fence in the way isn’t really going to be much of a deterrent.

Justin: Yeah.

Michael: Even if it’s a quite a large one.

Justin: But looking beyond the fence for a moment, forgetting the fence even, completely the idea that Homeland Security can enact things above the order of federal judge, doesn’t that just imply that the wheels have come off democracy?

Michael: In the name of national security, they’re allowed to do quite a number of things.

Justin: Anything?

Michael: I didn’t say anything but in this particular case, yes.

Justin: It’s frightening. Okay. Now, I’m scared. You got me on the edge of my seat now. Look at that.

Michael: Okay. Well, it gets worse. So, the President recently appointed Dr. Susan Orr to the position of Acting Deputy Secretary for the Office of Population Affairs.

Now, this is the agency that oversees something called Title X, the Federal Family Planning Program that serves about 5 million (unintelligible) Americans annually through more than – about I think it’s actually over 4,000 community based-clinics. And to put that in context, about 75% of US counties have at least one clinic that receives Title X funding.

Now, what Title X does is it just made it over 1 million unintended pregnancies are prevented each year through contraceptives made available for low-income Americans through Title X services, the family planning fund essentially.

Dr. Orr was formally at the uber-conservative Family Research Council and supported Bush’ move to strip federal employees health insurance of contraceptive coverage and told the Washington, “We’re quite pleased because fertility is not a disease. It’s not a medical necessity that you have.” Yeah.

Justin: I love the reverse at world.

Michael: Yeah.

Justin: It’s just…

Michael: Title X supported clinics provide a lot more than just contraception though. It provides clinics with patient education, counseling, breast and pelvic examinations, cervical cancer screening, sexually transmitted disease screening, HIV screening and prevention counseling, testing. It goes on and on and on what these centers too with not a lot of money.

And the Center for Disease Control called family planning one of the ten greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, and for good reason.

Now, Title X funding has declined by about 60% since 1980 when it’s adjusted for inflation even though about 17 million women rely on public funding to obtain contraception.

So, this is actually kind of extraordinary that you actually have someone who’s completely against family planning and the use of contraception being appointed to run this particular office.

Now, this is the second time in a year that the administration has pointed an anti-contraception activist to this position. In November of 2006, Bush appointed Eric Keroack who’s a gynecologist, a non-board certified gynecologist apparently who received two formal warnings from the Massachusetts Board of Medicine, ordering him to refrain from prescribing drugs to people who are not his patients and from providing mental health counseling without proper training.

Justin: Wow!

Michael: Now, that warning came just before he resigned in March amid Medicaid fraud allegations.

Now, somehow the people who support this position that – well, you know, abortion is a total abomination. But in addition that contraception actually leads to increased sexual activity, somehow these groups have not put two and two together and realized that contraceptives prevent unwanted pregnancies…

Justin: Right.

Michael: …and therefore abortions. And one will be forgiving for thinking that at the end the day that the real problem actually was sex because we’re talking here I mean real ideologues here who have shown an absolute willingness to forego scientific data and the best information we have on how to prevent unwanted pregnancies in exchange for a conservative, ideological view.

And this person’s being placed in charge of a very important title that serves the poor. So, it’s a bit horrifying in fact that this is the case and she is I guess she has an opportunity to do some real damage.

Justin: The only way to – you know, it’s kind of like if you put me in charge with the military budget though, you know, I would probably do the same thing. If you put somebody whose ideal, you know, completely oppose to the concept of what they’re running…

Michael: Yeah.

Justin: …they can’t help but bring it down. They can’t help it but do damage.

Michael: Right. But they might get dressed sharper or something, yeah, you know, or get cool video games or something. I don’t know what you’re doing in your free time.

Justin: My free time, if I had any.

Michael: Somehow I imagine you with a bag of Cheetos and Xbox. I don’t know.

Justin: You know, that’s not that far away. That ‘s pretty frighteningly…

Michael: Sorry, Justin.

Justin: Have you been spying on me?

Michael: How much time we got here?

Justin: We got plenty of time.

Michael: Okay, cool. There’s ten more items. So, an EPA law suits. Then state environmentalists are challenging EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard for particulate matter in court as to a series of tests to the extent to which this agency must heed the advice of its scientific advisers on human health environmental risk.

And because what happened was, that the EPA is not mandated by law to follow the advisers to clean – their scientific advisory committee but not doing so according to the law suit is arbitrary and capricious and that is exactly what they did.

Essentially, what they did was they lowered – they tightened the annual fine of particulate matter standards for the U.S. but not to the degree that their scientific committee did and recommended and the reasoning that they gave for it was that the committee had not actually come to a consensus on the science.

And so, basically, what they’re saying in the absence of a scientific consensus on exactly what level of particulate matter is safe, they’ll actually sort of arbitrarily make a decision on it.

So, basically, we’re in a situation now where environmental groups and some states are actually claiming that the EPA unlawfully used uncertainty to justify ignoring scientific consensus, recommending a more protective standard and demonstrating serious health impacts in areas that are meeting the current annual standard.

So, we’re actually getting to a place here now where we’re going to really test, you know, in court, how science can be used in policy because for several years, it’s been the very idea that science is imperfect has been used as a justification for ignoring recommendations of advisory committees to agencies. And so now, it’s going to court. It’s going to go to the Appellate Court, which is going to be really interesting in Washington here.

Justin: I’m always fascinated by when we’re talking about uncertainty in science and the decisions that are being pressed forward are always to err on the side of no caution and on the side of the danger, you know.

Michael: Yes. It really is remarkable. But here’s the interesting thing about all those cases. Industry groups are also suing the EPA for actually tightening the standards in several cases. So, they’re actually arguing that the standards should be loosened, in fact. And so, they are fighting it in the other direction.

So, this is going to be, you know, the Wild West over here in the D.C. Appellate Court. And we’ll see what’s going to happen. But it’s going to be fascinating because it really does put it to the test. This is, you know, do you have to follow the advice of your scientific advisory committee? Or if you don’t follow it, do you have to justify why you’re not following it?

Justin: And I think in the current system, it’s not mandatory. But when the scientists over throw world governments, it will all be mandatory. There’ll be no…

Michael: Exactly.

Justin: Yeah. So, that day will come.

Michael: You know, we’ll see. There are actually a couple of scientists running for Congress again this year.

Justin: Excellent.

Michael: In fact, in Dennis Hastert’s district, there’s a physicist who’s going to be running. So, I’ll be reporting on that next time on the show. But I’ll tell you guys more about that guy. And it’s really kind of interesting. He’s a career scientist and businessman.

Justin: Very good.

Michael: But I want to get to James Watson.

Justin: Yes. Oh, gosh.

Michael: Yeah. So, obviously, most people have probably heard already that James Watson made some off-color – James Watson is the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Laureate. And actually, was the head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory while I was there.

Justin: And most notably was on the show a couple of weeks ago.

Michael: Yes, exactly. And on the other day, over in the UK, actually an article came up that described some of his views on a couple of things that were off-kiltered to say the least.

Justin: If by off-kiltered, you mean, he sounded blatantly racist.

Michael: Oh, absolutely, they were blatantly racist, some of them. Now, specifically, what he said was that he has the hope that everyone is equal but that he counters that people who have to deal with black employees find this not to be true.

And that, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. That is not so controversial except that it ignores the fact that there’s been so much mixing amongst populations. And so, you know, he got into a real quandary here.

In fact, the federation of American Scientists where I work, we came out with a fairly strong statement condemning what he said because it was scientifically untrue that African-Americans or people of African heritage anywhere are in fact of lower intelligence. They often perform lower on intelligence test. But that’s not – intelligence tests or IQ tests or not a good test of intelligence.

Justin: Because they’re largely social driven as opposed to just, you know, actual aptitude.

Michael: There are all sorts of factors here. But the worst part of it besides, you know, misrepresenting some science here. And what I think he was trying to say was that basic tenet that, you know, people who are geographically separated when they evolved can’t evolve different capacities. Well, sure, of course that’s absolute possibility. But that hasn’t been shown yet.

He took it really too far when he said that anyone who’s ever worked with some of these black realizes that’s not true.

Justin: Yeah. I think that’s a completely racist comment. But there’s a subject that like, I mean if we can broach the subject in saying, “What if that’s actually true”, because it’s very likely that at some point we’re going to be able to identify markers for information retention and that sort of thing. How would you feel if…

Michael: Certainly we already know that there are genetic components to lots of different things.

Justin: Right.

Michael: And is it possible that there will be genetic components or genetic factors that go along with increased stability in certain areas whether they be cognitive or physical. Sure, we will likely find that.

Will those actually segregate with race? No. You’re absolutely not going to see that especially in the United States where there’s been so much race-mixing over the years.

I mean, the majority of genetic variability in the world actually exists in Africa. You know, so the great majority of these factors that are involved here are actually going to all exist in Africa anyway.

So, it really didn’t show a deep understanding of population genetics there which was surprising. But what wasn’t surprising was, you know, I mean Dr. Watson has made some rather controversial remarks over the years including, you know, some right over in Berkeley.

So, for example, after showing images of women in bikinis and veiled Muslim women, he suggests that there’s a link between exposure to sunlight and libido. Then, he said, “That’s why we have Latin lovers. You’ve never heard of an English lover, only an English patient.”

Yeah. So, and after showing picture of Kate Moss, he asserted that thin people are unhappy and therefore ambitious. “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad because, you know, you’re not going to hire them.”

And then, he said that fat people may also be more sexual, ones that are assertive because their bloodstream contain higher levels of the protein leptin.

Justin: Wow!

Michael: So, yeah. Now, what happened the next day or a couple of days later is actually a publicist for his book actually came out with a statement where he apologized. But the day following that apology, a piece showed up in the UK newspaper, The Independent, where he essentially defended what he said.

Justin: Right.

Michael: And he did not defend the racist comments. He defended what we were just talking about, you know, that genetic factors, you know, will be shown to be involved in all sorts of things including probably some cognitive abilities.

But that’s really not what people had a real problem with. They had a problem with the outright racist statements that were paired with that, with those comments. And so, I think he missed the boat a little there on that.

Justin: Absolutely. And it’s unfortunate because it’s going to be the asterix that everyone’s going to attached anything he says in the future or even going back in things you said in the past, you know.

And I think, it’s a great subject because I’m trying to picture, you know, if it comes about that we can finally use genetic markers that say somebody’s going to be more successful than the other and say do you personally don’t meet that marker group, whatever that group might be?

Michael: Does that mean you won’t be successful?

Justin: Does it mean you won’t be successful? Or would you even care? Would you be offended by – if the genetics found you to be one way or another? I don’t know.

Michael: No, I personally wouldn’t. But, you know, when you’re talking about racial groups, that’s a very different thing than talking about specific genetic factors.

And what he was implying was that people of African heritage have genetic factors that are inferior to those that Europeans might have and that is simply untrue. That has not been shown.

What has been shown is that there’s been a lower performance on IQ exams. And there’s been a lot of controversy in and around that and a lot of interpretations of that.

But for sure, we do not as of right now have any identified genetic markers that co-segregate with performance on those exams. So, that’s really, you know, he took it just not one step too far but two in misrepresenting the science and then making a blatantly racist statement afterwards.

So, it was really a disturbing and really an unfortunate way for him to try and express his thoughts on this. And now, as I went through before, he hasn’t been exactly careful with those expressions before. And he’s been controversial before. But this one, he certainly took way beyond what would be considered a reasonable academic discussion of the topic.

Justin: We’re out of time, Michael. If there’s one silver lining in Watson’s missteps and misspeakings and racist comments for, you know, last few days, I felt smarter than a Nobel Laureate in genetics. I felt like, “Hey, you know what? Maybe, I’ve got a couple of IQ points higher than this guy if he’s going to say these things in an interview.”

Michael: Well, I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. But perhaps, you’re more socially adept.

Justin: A little bit more common sense, perhaps.

Michael: Yeah.

Justin: All right, Dr. Michael Stebbins, the Weird from Washington. Thanks again for all the great input.

Michael: Thank you. Take care.

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