Justin: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Online searching for a story of sciencey news lore.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my farmhouse door.
‘Tis just Kirsten”, I muttered, “tapping at my farmhouse door –
Only this and nothing more.
Open here I flung the portal, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my farmhouse door –
Perched upon a bust of Plato just above my farmhouse door –
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my late night study into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of its countenance it wore,
‘Though scientific names escape me, I bet Kirsten, she could name me.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore –
Tell me what is new in science on this night before the show.
Quote the raven…
Justin: “Prophet!” I said, “thing of evil!” – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by deadline haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
“Is there – is there news of science? Tell me – tell me, I implore!”
Quote the raven…
Justin: What of monkey cats or spunky probes, quantum physics, nanonodes,
Yes tell me tales of Buckyballs, global warming neanderthals,
Quote the raven,
Justin: Come now, some cure of cancers. MRIs of ballet dancers.
How diet soda makes you fatter, must be news of that dark matter
Quote the raven…
Justin: Some word of research wonders new found insight from past blenders
Surely, bird flu is your domain, a word of human’s robot slain
Quote the raven…
Justin: Back to your thumb, Myrtle I will send thee
If you can’t but one tale tell me of new dinosaurs discovered,
What has mouse DNA uncovered?
Quote the raven…
Justin: Ah, forget it raven for I have Googled science stories by Viewdle
Be the minions well assured, This Week In Science is my keyword
Quote the raven…
Kirsten: “Coming up next”.
Justin: Good morning, Kirsten.
Kirsten: Good morning, Justin.
Justin: It’s almost Halloween.
Kirsten: Well, very sciencey holiday indeed.
Kirsten: Yeah. Do you know that one in three Americans believes in paranormal activities, paranormal thingies?
Justin: Yeah. What’s funny is that it’s actually more people than support the president.
Kirsten: Yeah. That’s really interesting. Today, on this week in science, we’re trying again, we’re going to attempt an interview with Ian Ayres who has written Super Crunchers. We’re trying it once more. I got his phone numbers. We’re going to give him a call. We’re going to try and find out about crunching numbers…
Justin: Yeah. I’ve got a…
Kirsten: …and how then – there’s a new breed of person out there crunching numbers to tell the future.
Justin: And I’ve got a great idea for number crunching that would change politics of the future.
Kirsten: Really? You’re going to test it out? You’re going to spring it?
Justin: Yeah. I’m going to spring it. (Unintelligible) with things, yeah.
Kirsten: Oh, dear. We all know what happens when you spring those on people.
Justin: No, no. This is different though. This is something that’s – it’s a little bit different.
Kirsten: I’m just giving you a hard time.
Justin: That’s okay, (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Always giving you a hard time. You can call us down here at the station for the next about 25 minutes or so. It’s 7522777 in the 530 area code. Our website is www.thisweekinscience.com or twis.org. And anything else we need – numbers, anything?
Justin: Yeah. T-shirts, all kinds of stuff. You’ve heard the show before.
Kirsten: Yeah. You’ve all heard it before except for those of you who haven’t. Those of you who haven’t, well, you’re in for a treat because we’ve got science news coming out our headphones.
Justin: In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. In the land of science however, the three-eyed frog has begun a storming of the best deal against the one-eyed (unintelligible).
Kirsten: Three eyed frogs, no.
Justin: This is a story I got through Jeanna Bryner of LiveScience. She’s a staff writer over at LiveScience.com. It’s a good site. Genetic switch that gives tadpoles three eyes…
Justin: (Unintelligible) stem cell scientists to eventually grow human eyeballs…
Kirsten: In a dish.
Justin: …in a dish. Eyeballs in a dish.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Eyeball farming is going to be a career path of the future. Yeah, so if you knew all the genes, and how to turn them on, that you needed to make an eye, you could start with the very early embryonic cells and turn on all the right genes to grow an eye in a dish, said co leader of the study, Nicholas Dale, a neuroscientist at the University of Warwick in England.
What I think is more realistic possibility is to make precursor cells for different bits of the eye, which could then be transplanted and differentiated in-situ to replace damage to the retina or the lens or the iris.
So instead of making a whole eyeball and trying to pop it in there…
Justin: …most usual aspect, most probable one they’ll be able to do first at least is to come up with the parts and portions of the eye to do…
Kirsten: Replacement surgeries.
Justin: …replacement repairs. This is so crazy cool.
Kirsten: It’s neat. Yeah. It’s right up there with long — a few years ago — I want to say years ago but really in the scheme of things it’s not that long ago when they started growing ears on the backs of mice and that sort of thing.
That’s something that’s become a fairly simple procedure for the stem cell scientist and the plastic surgeon. But this idea of putting — they’ve been able to grow photo receptive groups of cells on the tails of frog of tadpoles as well.
So it’s not just…
Justin: Oh, yeah. Tails, the size.
Kirsten: …it’s not just multiple eyes. It’s putting eyes in places where they don’t usually belong.
Justin: It’s a 40-eyed frog, yeah.
Kirsten: That’s right. It’s just it’s really neat that scientists are coming up with the instructions and getting these instructions correct so that they can put things, cells where they want them to go and always with the inevitable, it’s going to help humans someday.
Justin: Yeah, they’re working with ectozymes on this.
Kirsten: Ectozymes? Is it a…
Justin: Ectozyme is the triggering mechanism on this on the external surface of cells that have contributed to the development.
Kirsten: Mm hmm. Ecto, outside. Zyme, enzyme. So some kind of enzyme on the outside.
Justin: Oh, is that it? I don’t know, it sounded more like…
Kirsten: Yeah, the ectoderm is like the outside of your (skin).
Justin: It sounded more ghostly.
Kirsten: I know.
Justin: Ectozyme. Ectoplasm. Yeah, yeah, yeah?
Kirsten: Right, there you go.
Justin: I’m trying to make the Halloween link here, Kirsten. Work with me. Work with me.
Kirsten: Ectoplasm, slime. That’s what Slimer was covered in back in the Ghostbusters.
Justin: Is it going to be 40-eyed frogs someday.
Justin: It just totally is.
Kirsten: Oh, one frog escapes from the lab and see where it goes. Another study really interesting – looking and the genetic bases of obesity and that also has given us some information on aging.
Study published – that will be published in the Journal Synapse by a group out of the Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory has looked at dopamine receptors in rats. So they took obese rats that were genetically predetermined for obesity. And lean rats that were genetically designed to be leaner than the others.
And they looked at their brains. They did imaging studies using two different techniques. One is called microPET or micro-Positron Emission Tomography in which they take a radioactive tagging molecule. So it’s a molecule that can be injected into the blood or directly into the brain that then goes and attaches. It’s like a puzzle piece and it attaches specifically to particular molecules. In this case, the D2 dopamine receptor in the brain.
And when it does, it is radioactive so you can sense the radioactivity and get an image of how much, how many receptors are in a particular area.
Justin: Very cool.
Kirsten: They used another technique that’s called autoradiography that similarly, it’s a tracer molecule that binds like natural dopamine to the receptor. It’s a very similar molecule, it latches onto the receptor.
But it’s stronger so it grabs on and it doesn’t want to let go. The only problem is it can’t be given – it can’t be injected or given to the rats while they’re alive. So this is one that has to be so the microPET is while the rats are alive and the autoradiography is after they’re dead. And they slice up the brain slices and then they do this technique and they can – using the two – brains.
Kirsten: This is very Halloweeny. Yes, they use the two techniques to be able to you compare and get an absolute measure of how many receptors are in an area, how big of signal they’ve got. And so they can then compare between these obese rats and the lean rats and find out which have more.
What they found is that the obese rats have lower numbers of these D2 receptors for dopamine than lean rats. So there are fewer of them in the obese rat brain.
They don’t know whether or not obese rats eat more and then – okay, so dopamine is like one of the make-you-happy hormones to generalize slightly. But it’s involved with mood and pleasure and the reward system.
And so it’s thought that – one hypotheses is that in obesity, you eat more and so that increases because – oops, I smacked the microphone — your brain then is happy because you’re feeding yourself. You release lots of dopamine. And then because you’re flooding your brain with dopamine, the body actually — the brain itself actually down regulates the number of receptors. So that could lead to lower numbers of receptors.
Or it could be causative in that you would have low numbers of these receptors…
Justin: Well, that’s why.
Kirsten: …which simulates you to eat more because you’re trying to fill as many of them as you can with dopamine at one time.
Kirsten: And so, there are these two competing hypotheses and they still don’t know which one is the right answer but we’re getting closer.
So, they found this but another interesting thing is they looked at adolescent rats and young adult rats. And they found that with aging, they found that if they food-restricted the rats, so they gave one group adlib food. They could eat as much as they wanted. And the other group, they gave 70% of the amount of food that the adlib group ate on a normal basis. So they were having this restricted diet.
Justin: (Mini) Craig diet.
Kirsten: Right. And so, the rats that were food restricted, they actually had – they had an increase or they have more dopamine receptors than those rats as they aged than rats that were not food restricted.
So this also means that it’s attenuating in some respect or lessening the effects of aging. So it’s maintaining dopamine function within the brain. And there have been lots of questions in terms of why food restriction diet. There’s this whole group bunch of literature on food restriction increasing longevity and in rats, in little worms, in fruit flies. And there’s some people…
Justin: And people, there’s evidence in people too.
Kirsten: There’s some people – well, there’s no evidence in people…
Justin: There is.
Kirsten: No because you can’t actually – and people were starting to do studies. They were looking at measures of what could be health so like cardiac fitness, you know, like…
Justin: Here’s one. I think Cuba. I think they’ve done this study in – I think it was Cuba because they’re looking at after the fall of Soviet Union – the diet restrictions. Food got a lot scarcer. Things had to get ration. And what they found was people were living longer. I think it was Cuba that did this one.
Kirsten: That’s interesting.
Justin: That was a…
Kirsten: That’s a natural experiment.
Justin: Yeah. You know, not an intentional one. Not one where they were restricting people’s diet. But one where an entire nation became – had to ration its food, had to eat less than they had previously. And they found that people got skinnier. There was less health problems and they were tending to live longer.
Kirsten: That’s really interesting.
Justin: I’m pretty sure it was Cuba and it had to do with the fall of the Soviet Union and not being top priority for them anyway.
Kirsten: That’s fascinating. Yeah, as far as I have read, there’s no like designed experiments because in terms of a laboratory experiment, it’s really hard. I mean we’ve got longevity here in the United States of, you know, the average is 65 but we’ve got people who live like 80, 90, 100 years,
Kirsten: And you can’t wait 100 years for your experiment to finish, you know. And of course, to really replicate it, you’d have to do a couple of generations, you know, so you’d be waiting really long time in the laboratory (sense then).
Justin: And this is not scientific at all. But what is that morning TV show that’s got the weather guy and he says like all the people’s birthdays were like 104, 105 years. I don’t know what it is.
Justin: But anyway, I remember watching that 20 years ago as a kid at some morning. And there was a little old lady, and they asked her, you know, what the secret is and she goes, “Never eat ice cream.”
Justin: That was her – how she has lived so long. She has eaten that demon ice cream.
Kirsten: Never eat the demon cream.
Justin: Don’t eat ice cream. That would kill you. That’s why I lived so long.
Kirsten: You know, this rat study is just really interesting and that they’re – it’s showing one possible mechanism in how movements, motivation and maybe cognitive function could be maintained and upheld to a greater level with dietary restrictions…
Justin: Low calorie diet.
Kirsten: Low calorie diet, yeah. So it’s just kind of interesting that food intake could, you know, how it possibly might be able to allow us to live longer. Very interesting I tell you. Yeah.
Justin: You know, I know that you’ve got a Ph.D. in neuroscience, Kirsten.
Kirsten: I got my foot in my mouth.
Justin: But while I’m looking at this, is there a chance that you might be related to a Neandertal.
Kirsten: Oh, dear. What? Wait, I know this.
Justin: Yes. I got this from the Mac Planck Institute.
Kirsten: It was my great, great grand pappy.
Justin: At least 1% of Neandertals in Europe may have had red hair. According to report where researchers working in the — oh lots of names I’m not going to be able to pronounce but having to do with the Mac Planck Institute.
Red hair is caused by – you know, like, what’s the choice. Like you look at the name, you know you can’t pronounce it. I can either slaughter this poor person’s name. Hopefully, they’re not listening, cringing, you know, ruining years of ancestry through destroying a last name or I could just skip it.
You know, you go to Mac Planck and try to decipher the names yourself. Red hair is caused by mutation of the gene MC1R. The resulting change in the protein, it controls – causes those who have the gene mutation to carry the (feminin) instead of the dark melanin in their skin, hair and eyes. This gives them much more sensitive light colored skin and in many cases, freckles. So, yeah, red-haired, freckly light skinned Neandertal.
Scientists from Mac Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in collaboration with their colleagues at the universities of Barcelona and Leipzig have now discovered that at least 1% of the Neandertals in Europe had red hair. Not dyed, the researchers have tracked down Neandertals’ hair color by means of genetic analyses.
Kirsten: Neandertal genes.
Justin: Mm hmm. Mm hmm This is getting – it’s all getting closer to Justin’s theory of cohabitant meditation. I’m telling you.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: It explains why the Swedish were so short. And now, red hair on top of it. I’m telling you. Man ahead of his time, that’s what they’ll talk — the history will know. You’ll just have to assume it for now.
But thanks to a series of complex – but it is a little bit different than Virginian people. It’s actually – reduced activity also known in modern man but the results of the mutations are a little bit different. Interesting.
Kirsten: There’s another Neandertal story that came out a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if you talked about it while I was gone or not. But Svante Pabo from Mac Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology looking at the genetics of Neandertals…
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: …found the gene called FOXP2.
Kirsten: Yeah. In the genome of the Neandertals. Now, what does FOXP2 have to do with Neandertals and why is it important? Well, it turns out the FOXP2 was one of the genes that’s – yeah, involved in speech.
Justin: That’s right.
Kirsten: Involved in speech in humans. And to find it or a variation of it in Neandertals suggests that either they – it came from a common ancestor, years and years and years and years ago.
Justin: That could also possibly talk.
Kirsten: Or it suggests that there was interbreeding and Neandertals gained the gene from humans. So it’s a very interesting story. We have a phone call.
Justin: Man ahead of my own time. Good morning TWIS minion here on the air with This Week In Science.
Man: Hello. I’m sorry I couldn’t get through a little sooner. I was trying to tell you that newsman’s name was (Floyd Meriweather).
Kirsten: (Floyd Meriweather).
Justin: (Floyd Meriweather). Nice.
Man: And he was also the voice on the Beastie Boy album, the one with the city on it. I can’t remember the album’s name but he is the guy that says it’s a trip. It’s got a funky beat. I got to plug out to it.
Kirsten: Well, that’s great.
Man: That’s exactly a cut for (Floyd Meriweather).
Kirsten: What a piece of trivia. Thank you very much.
Justin: Thanks, dude.
Kirsten: I would never have remembered that name.
Man: And I love your show.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Justin: Thank you.
Kirsten: Where are you calling from?
Kirsten: Great. Thanks for calling in.
Man: All right. Have a good day.
Kirsten: You too.
Justin: Thanks, minion.
Kirsten: Sacramento minions, they know the…
Justin: Sac town.
Kirsten: …(Floyd), (Floyd Meriweather). I never would have remembered that.
Justin: I would never have known it.
Kirsten: Never would have gotten it. You want to talk about dinosaurs?
Justin: Yes, let’s talk about dinosaurs.
Kirsten: Dinosaur bones. Well actually not bones – footprints. Dino footprints. Researchers – a team of international scientists. Right.
They published in the European Journal, Naturwissenschaften. If – I don’t speak German so…
Justin: Gee, I forgot – you took the shot though. I’m proud of you just for that.
Kirsten: I did, I tried. They published in the European Journal with a German name, about a find that they made back in 2005 discovered by some geologists, the institute of marine geology and of the Fourth Geological and Mineral Resources Survey of Shandong in China.
And they found a bunch of fossilized footprints made by a couple of different kind of raptors related to the velociraptor species that was so popularized in Jurassic Park.
Justin: And as we now know, had feathers, at least when they were young.
Kirsten: Right. So these are about 120 million year old rocks that they found these footprints in it. It was pretty neat to be – it’s always very neat to find footprints in fossils because that’s nothing – that’s such a temporary phenomenon.
Justin: Yeah, it’s amazing.
Kirsten: I have to sneeze. Excuse me.
And so they found this one spot, they found this one spot. They found these track ways actually made by a group of animals together and the way that the footprints were laid down suggests that they were actually made by animals walking together in a group as opposed to different animals passing over the same space over some length of time.
Justin: Got you. So like a pack of velociraptor you think.
Kirsten: Like a pack of raptors, exactly. Like a flock of birds.
Kirsten: Interesting. So they named the track ways Dromaeopodus shandongensis.
Justin: Brave woman. Brave woman.
Kirsten: I had to start that over a couple times. And so it indicates that they were moving together as a group. One of the other things that these scientists have been trying to discover is whether or not they have – whether or not they walked on one of their toe claws. So they have this second toe claw that kind of goes off in different direction and they’re wondering whether or not they actually put any weight on it and walked on it as a balancing unit.
But based on the footprints that they found, they do not. They actually probably walked with this second toe claw held off the ground, up in the air, exactly.
Justin: You ever see a chicken?
Kirsten: Right. So that’s the helix, the third — the toe and the back. It’s like the fourth toe actually. So it’s the three toes in front and one in the back. And the helix is not necessarily one that’s laid.
There’s – I forgot what the little knob is called this – anyway, there’s specific names for each of the avian toes.
Kirsten: There are. They also showed that these particular dinosaurs called (Dinoncosaurs). They were about 4 feet tall at the hip. So they’re pretty big birds. Like 4 feet tall probably comes up to right below my shoulder.
Justin: A (Dinoncoduncasaurus).
Kirsten: Yeah. That’s a tall bird. That’s their hip.
Kirsten: So it’s a big animal. And at the time when they’re in that same period of fossils that are laid down, pretty much the only size that are being found in Asia during that same period are chicken to turkey-sized feather-covered species. So this is like a very large species. It’s completely different from what’s being found at this – around the same time period.
And they think that maybe the same – a similar species of (dinoncosaurs) that lived in North America around the same time probably descended from immigrants that came over a land bridge from China.
Justin: If they even needed one. Well, you know, I mean…
Kirsten: If they were that big, I don’t know if they were flying very easily.
Justin: Well, I mean birds can swim pretty (well), so.
Kirsten: Right. But on the interesting things, so they’re living in groups, you know, the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, they showed them hunting in packs and having organized group behavior.
Well, these footprints don’t actually tell that story but they do a show for one of the first times that these animals did actually live in a group.
Kirsten: And so they were a flock. They did act together. But the question now is whether or not did they act as wolves or did they act as, you know, zebras, you know. Were they predators? Were they prey? How did they actually behave in a group.?
Justin: But don’t they — I mean they’ve got the velociraptory jaws, they’ve got the ability to gnash flesh like that.
Kirsten: They’re probably flesh eaters and predators but you never know.
Justin: Because, you know, I haven’t seen too many like herdy animals that have like the big teeth, you know. Because I think other…
Justin: Yeah, but they…
Kirsten: They’re scavengers mostly.
Justin: They’re scavengers but I don’t think they startle easily. I mean they fight lions.
Kirsten: Yeah, true. True.
Justin: You know what I mean? Like something that’s going to get startled on the high planes isn’t going to have the teeth to defend itself because nobody is going to be coming after it.
Kirsten: You haven’t got the chops.
Justin: That’s looks like dinner but then it’s looking at me like I’m dinner. I’m going to pass. That’s kind of my rule of thumb. If they can eat me back, no.
Kirsten: Just don’t go for it.
Justin: I won’t even try.
Kirsten: Just go away.
Justin: But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Kirsten: Oh, yeah.
Justin: More eyes. It’s only skin-deep. More skin and thanks to cosmetic surgery completely fakable. What? Staggering numbers of people are interested in having cosmetic surgery. UCLA scientists report in the October issue of Journal of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reports 48% of women surveyed said they were interested in cosmetic surgery, liposuction or both.
Another, this is additional 23% say they would possibly be interested. So 48% said, “Yeah, I’d do it.” And another 23% said, “Yeah, I might do it.” That’s like almost all the women surveyed.
Among men, 23% said they would be interested with additional 17% expressing potentially interest like, “Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I might look into it.”
Kirsten: Is that including like all kinds of plastic surgery like, you know, botox which is like a much simpler or, you know, some kind of a basic injection as opposed to like a massive surgery, you know.
Justin: This is surgery. This is plastic reconstructive surgery or liposuction.
Kirsten: Nobody’s taking my face off.
Justin: I know, you know.
Kirsten: (They see) no shows.
Justin: I think if we went into to TV like we’re fine on radio, I know the complaints. But if you’re on TV and we got, you know, emails about, you know, I’m getting e-mails about my chin like four a day. What’s wrong with my chin? I didn’t know there’s anything wrong with my chin. You start looking in the mirror, “Yeah, there’s something wrong with my chin.”
Kirsten: Maybe I do need an implant.
Justin: But, you know, the thing here is also they did a — they also asked about body image.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Justin: And they said that generally, this is not about poor body image. People interested in cosmetic surgery did not report less satisfaction with their body or face than people who were not interested.
People interested in liposuction however did report lower body satisfaction but not face, so. So people are pretty comfortable with their faces. It’s in a weird way I think they think they can either improve them or maintain them because it has to do also with aging, reversing effects of aging.
So it’s not so much that they want to look like a different person.
Kirsten: Right. They maybe like to be a little younger.
Justin: I’d like to like me…
Kirsten: And get rid of those wrinkles there.
Justin: …with – yeah, without a couple of wrinkles without — because I broke my nose skateboarding with my, you know, teenage kids which was ridiculous because, you know.
Justin: I got no skills on that.
Kirsten: But it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself.
Justin: No, you don’t feel bad about yourself but maybe – yeah, you’re trying to look younger or something like that, a skinnier you. So it’s not necessarily that you don’t like yourself.
But according to American Association of Plastic Surgeons, nearly 11 million cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in 2006. That’s a 48% increase from 2000 and roughly 90% of the cosmetic surgeries in 2004 were performed on women. Eleven million people went under the knife in 2006.
Kirsten: That’s a lot of people.
Justin: For cosmetics.
Kirsten: Yup. Well, if you are worried about, you know, your weights, you know, you’re thinking “Oh, maybe I should get liposuction. But maybe I should just not eat chocolate. Maybe I should cut back on what food I eat.” You know, maybe you think that maybe you should just go on a diet and watch what you eat and everything.
And so, you go out and you go to cafe with some friends, you go, “I really shouldn’t get that chocolate cake. I really shouldn’t get that chocolate cake. I really shouldn’t get that chocolate cake.”
Well, according to a study published in appetite by a research team at the University of Hertfordshire, the more you think about something you don’t want to do, the higher the probability is that you’ll actually do it.
Justin: Yeah, that’s so true.
Kirsten: There’s something about thought suppression that actually increases your motivation to act on it.
Kirsten: So when you think about not eating something, not doing something, you’re actually reinforcing the action itself. So it’s more likely that it’ll happen.
In this particular study, males and females who were thinking about – who tried to not think about chocolate and suppressed that thought ate more chocolate than those who are just allowed to think about it whenever they wanted to.
Kirsten: And males, for males, thinking about chocolate actually made them eat more chocolate than their female counterparts. So when a guy suppresses his thoughts, it just leads to even more.
Justin: Well, I wonder if there’s a reverse angle, reverse psychology you could do on yourself because I find myself all the things that I want to do I end up not doing out of procrastination or time delays.
Justin: If I consciously thought about, you know, I don’t want to get, you know, I don’t want to prepare an extra story for this. I don’t want to — and then I would actually just break down and do it…
Kirsten: Okay, fine.
Justin: …like flip the script on yourself.
Justin: Like I really got to go out there and eat a ton of chocolate and then…
Kirsten: Yeah, but you have to suppress the thought to not do that.
Justin: No, no, no. But if you do the opposite, if you just constantly think about – yeah, I got to get – oh, I’m got to eat so much chocolate. And then you just won’t get around to it because you’ll procrastinate.
The other thing is, you know, you got to trust these studies written about food and thinking patterns around them from these people because I guarantee you, and this is totally unscientific, this is just me guessing, about 90% of nutritionists and people who work on diet and food are probably having eating disorder and they’re probably very well attuned – I just…
Kirsten: People who are really – they really in tune with like the thinking of food and the…
Justin: You know, thinking too much about food is in itself I think potentially a disease because everybody who I’ve met who’s really on target about knowing all their nutritional, knowing what calories in anything, like, you know, what’s in a grape? That’s a half and a – like what? Who would know? Who would care? People with eating disorders. But that means they’re brilliant when they go to science and they can really help us.
Kirsten: They can really help people out. But I don’t know about your statistic. That was pulled out of the hat.
Justin: It was pulled out of my hat…
Justin: …as it were. Yeah.
Kirsten: We have to take a break. We will be back in just a few moments, hopefully with Ian Ayres.
Justin: Yeah, bring him.
Kirsten: Stay tuned.
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Justin: We’re back.
Kirsten: We are back and we have Ian Ayres on the phone. Without further ado, let’s bring him on the line.
Justin: Good morning, Mr. Ayres. Welcome to This Week In Science.
Ian Ayres: Hi. It’s great to be here.
Justin: Yes, finally. This is — you have written a book which I have to say is not only my favorite book I’ve read all year, I think it might be the only one. But it was…
Kirsten: Yeah. That’s pretty – that’s a big feat there, Justin.
Justin: I go through a lot of books but I do like — I usually do sort of a skim reading, like, “Okay, I get what they’re going at. Oh, this part is interesting. Oh, a lot of fluff. Blah, blah, blah.” I was absolutely riveted and glued throughout this entire book. It’s…
Ian Ayres: Well, thank you.
Justin: …the – yeah. It was the best book I’ve read all year for sure.
Justin: Even though, even though…
Kirsten: It was the only book. No.
Justin: No. (It was) I actually read because like I say normally I’d lose my interest at some point. Even though I disagree with some of the things you cite in there, I think it’s brilliant, the book overall.
Kirsten: I’d like to ask, just to get started, what’s the difference between an economist and an econometrician.
Justin: An econometrician is just an economist who crunches numbers.
Kirsten: All right, excellent. So in your book, you bring out this whole idea of crunching numbers and the fact that there are more people than ever using data collected to be able to make predictions, to be able to assess the quality of things. Why is it that this number crunching is becoming more and more popular?
Ian Ayres: I think it’s because of the revolution in our ability to capture and store digital information. It’s just so easy to now maintain terabytes and even petabytes of data digitally so there’s a lot more information now to crunch.
Kirsten: Right, we don’t have to use an abacus anymore.
Ian Ayres: Exactly. And part of the last — you know, tera comes from the Greek word for monstrous — for monster. And these datasets are monstrously large.
Kirsten: What are some examples of these monstrous data sets that people are taking advantage of?
Ian Ayres: Well one of my favorite ones is number crunching that is being done to help consumers by farecast.com. They have a dataset of several terabytes of airline prices. And you can go on to farecast.com and put in a flight that you’re interested in taking. I’m going to be going from Washington to Kansas City later this week and it will make a prediction based on historical data about whether you should buy your ticket now or wait because the fare is likely to decrease. So it’s a beautiful way of crunching numbers to help consumers.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Kirsten: What about – so that’s something that’s pretty predictable but what about those unpredictable events. The things that I think in other – there’s the black swan theory in economics where there are these things that you really can’t expect to happen at any point in time but then that have a serious effect on the outcome.
Ian Ayres: Right. There are black swans out there, some things you can’t predict and — but the thesis of this book is that quantitative predictions are going to do better than humans. Now, it might be that neither can do a very good job but to base your predictions on intuitions and experience are often a recipe for disaster.
Justin: Yeah, my favorite example in the book has to do with the prediction of what wines are going to be the next and the best because…
Ian Ayres: Yeah. This guy Orley Ashenfelter who’s one of the great number crunchers in the world, he has this passion for wines and so he set off to see if he could predict the quality of Bordeaux wines based really on just a handful of pieces of information about the rainfall and the average growing temperature.
And it turns out, he can do a better job than famous traditional wine tasters. And you’d think this is impossible, how could it be that numbers could beat the palate. But with Bordeaux, you don’t even have a shot to drink them for several months. And the first tasting is pretty putrid to be honest.
Kirsten: Right, before they’re aged.
Justin: And they’re guessing or exporting from there.
Justin: And he’s got it before the grape comes off the vine, right?
Ian Ayres: Exactly right, exactly right. A nd now the experts are starting to turn around and pay more attention to the very variables that his regression says are important.
Kirsten: Yeah, well, I would imagine, you know, there’s – winemaking itself is becoming much more scientific in nature. I mean here at UC Davis we’ve got the Viticulture & Enology program that – from which, we have people who are engineers, I just met somebody this last week who is an engineer. He gave up his profession in engineering to go into viticulture and now takes a very scientific stance on the way he makes his wines. Everything is highly engineered, everything is, you know, based on the data as you’re saying.
Ian Ayres: Well, I’m all in favor of science too but the first question I’d like to ask your friend is whether they’re doing randomization testing as well because there’s one thing to have a great scientific theory, but another thing is whether you’re willing to actually run some experiments on it.
Ian Ayres: And the other great technique that’s in this book is randomized testing. It’s not just for medicine and pharmaceuticals. It really should be spread throughout our lives, business, government. It’s happening more and more.
Justin: And I’ve noticed, I’ve noticed that because you’ve point out in the book that they do a ton of this with the online because it’s so inexpensive to throw out 5, 6, 7 different versions of your website and see which ones get more interactive with.
Ian Ayres: Exactly right. And it’s another circumstance where the web clarifies our thinking about non-web procedures, you know, it’s close to free to doing online testing. And now that people are doing so much of that businesses, they’re saying, “Oh my god, why aren’t we doing tests of our magazine or newspaper buys or of our HR procedures?”
There’s just tons of things that – and this by the way isn’t everything that can be tested but there are tons of repeated tasks in this world where you can just run a randomized test about whether you can do it better.
Justin: Yeah, they did that with my homepage. I got that on the Internet there. And I would notice that after reading the book that yeah there’s a couple links that are different. And there’s a couple different format changes that I was kind of curious like every time I go back to the site, it’s a little different.
And I’ve actually trained it now by clicking on the same one that same couple links that would disappear from the other. Now, it always stays that one. That’s the one I get every time now.
Ian Ayres: Interesting.
Kirsten: Fascinating. So you’re…
Justin: You could train…
Kirsten: You’re gaming your webpage.
Justin: You can train it to give you what you want. Yeah.
Kirsten: Gaming your Yahoo!
Ian Ayres: And even the title of this book Super Crunchers, it came from a randomized web test so I started off loving the title, The End of Intuition but I wanted to apply my own theories to this book itself. And so, using the free adwords facility at Google, I ran a randomized tests on two different Google labs, people that search for words like data mining, half of them saw the end of intuition and half of them saw Super crunchers. And my intuitions didn’t do so well. Super Crunchers had a 63% higher click through rate.
Kirsten: Now, I think it’s one thing to, you know, change if you have things that are randomized choices that people can make. But in terms of like an experiment or something of that sort where you actually adjust things. Do you think when it comes to human terms so like in government or even in medicine, is it some – how fair is it to put people through an experiment when they don’t really know they’re taking part in it?
Ian Ayres: Yeah that’s an excellent question and there are very important ethical questions about running a single blind, double blind, randomized experiment. I think the two ways that we should handle this and think carefully about it is one, are we really unsure about what the results of the experiment is going to be?
So, recently, there were two massive randomized experiments on the impact of circumcision on AIDS infectivity. And at the beginning of this randomized experiment which was taking place in Africa, they really didn’t know whether something as simple as a circumcision could reduce the infectivity of AIDS.
But while they were in the middle of the experiment, it started to come through gangbusters that it was reducing the spread of AIDS. And so they shut down the experiment before they had planned to because once you learn that you’re hurting the people on one side of the experiment, you need to…
Kirsten: Right. You have to make it fair to everyone.
Ian Ayres: You have to make it fair. But before that, when you don’t really know whether deworming program is going to help or not and there’s resistance to accepting it I think it is legitimate to do randomized experiments so that you can find out whether the drug works or not. And that’s why we require randomized experiments before we roll out drugs to the general public.
Even there – and the second tool is to make sure that people that are taking part in the experiment have informed consent that they are — there’s a 50% chance that they might get a placebo drug, a sugar pill or there’s…
But sometimes it’s – so informed consent is important and is not only – I’m actually working to do randomized experiments on weight loss and smoking cessation. There’s a very simple economic idea that if you let people put some of their money at risk that they may be they’ll have a better chance of achieving their goals, that you let them enter into a commitment bond.
Matter of fact, I have a – I’m part of an experiment myself. I have put $500 at risk a week to see if I can safely lose and keep off some weight. I’ve been a yo-yoer.
Ian Ayres: And I’m keeping data on myself and it’s working great for me.
Ian Ayres: But, you know, it’s not that powerful. It’s an anecdote right now and instead to do a randomized experiment, you take a bunch of people that are trying to quit.
A matter of fact, Dean (Carlin) has done this with people trying to quit smoking. Half of them, he gives the opportunity to enter into commitment bonds and half of them he doesn’t. And we’re seeing a huge increase in the success rates of quitting smoking. But more testing needs to be done and this is the way that you make progress.
Kirsten: That’s so fascinating the adage, “Put your money where your mouth is.”
Ian Ayres: Exactly right.
Kirsten: It’s coming true.
Justin: You turn your bank account over to like the people who are in charge of the weight loss or the smoking sensations, it’s like you only get – we’re only going to give you your money if you follow by your goals. You say, “Oh now, I really have to do it.”
Ian Ayres: That’s right. And not the whole bank account. We let people choose the amount of their stakes. And indeed one of things we’ll hopefully find out is how much of your bank account you have to give over in order to be effective.
Justin: Pain thresholds.
Justin: Right there.
Kirsten: What amount is it?
Justin: You’re doing what the casino does to us.
Ian Ayres: Exactly right.
Justin: Find out how much hurt we can take.
Kirsten: Oh, that’s fascinating.
Justin: So, now I figured like a lot of number crunching has been done by politicians and politics figuring out what issues are going to be important, how important and how many people they can garner to vote for them based on this.
And I happened upon a website that — I’m not going to give it out. I don’t even know what it was. But it was basically you went in blind. You went in by clicking a bunch of issues and how strong or not strong you felt about them. And at the end, it kicks out the candidate that most matches up to what you said. And to my surprise, it was a candidate I hadn’t really considered.
Ian Ayres: Yeah.
Justin: And I was wondering if we could really flip the script and really put the power of the number crunching into the hands of the populist. Instead of voting for a person, what if we went in and did a 500 sample questionnaire of the issues that are important to us. And throughout the nation, whoever the numbers got crunched out, whichever politician matched up with the most people got elected.
Ian Ayres: That’s, well, I like the first step of it, the (unintelligible) does (seemly same) websites which helps you match your personal preferences.
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Ian Ayres: I guess, you know, even the second step, if people wanted to tie their hands to that, I guess individually, I’d want to say if you – I’m happy to match my – to say my vote will be to whoever the — whichever candidate it fits more…
Ian Ayres: Or we could go to a system which we just had more things decided by a referendum on an individual basis.
Ian Ayres: But the idea — and then flipping it to what the politicians are doing, we do have this really brave new world where politicians are making predictions not just of neighborhoods or streets but of individual households.
And part of the lesson here is they’ll target three different houses on the street and then skip two and then target two more for get out the vote campaign. Or there might be a politician that figures that you and I are both going to vote for her but we’ll get different letters in the mail because they figure you care about the environment and I care about unionization. So….
Kirsten: So it becomes more personalized.
Justin: Very tailored, very one issue per person. Find your hot button and that’s it.
Ian Ayres: That’s right.
Justin: It’s all you get. Well, that’s why I was really surprised that I – because I thought I knew who I would vote for. And I’ve had to look at this other person that the computer told me that fit. And you know what, it’s right. That’s the scary thing. It would be one thing if it just told me somebody different and I’m like, “Oh, whatever.” But no, it’s right.
Ian Ayres: That’s — at least the sites that I have seen on this, it’s not really a statistical matching but it’s really more of a weighting over several issues. But it’s still a way that data can help guide us that we instead of being driven by the clothes that the candidates wear or the passion of their rhetoric, we can see what substantively we like the best about them.
Kirsten: Now, I’m wondering with statistics themselves and number crunching, you know, people seem to think that statistics is an exact science. And from my experience, you know, people, professors in my graduate program when I was in school, you know, going back and forth over the actual tests I was using to analyze my data, I’d have one professor tell me one thing and another professor tell me another.
And they each had different ideas about how the data should be analyzed, which tests should be used even to get at the same answer, you know, where I was trying to go is the same place for both of them but they had different directions of getting there.
And I’m just curious as to, you know, how this disparity between the different methods that different people can use can get you to different answers or to different things that – and how – what effect that has on the whole field of number crunching and the exact – the belief that it’s an exact science.
Justin: Until computers can come up with, yeah, what the parameters are for us.
Ian Ayres: There are – it’s one of the reasons that we need to have a kind of contestable super crunching that you don’t want to just rely on a single number cruncher’s conclusions. You want to have multiple studies, multiple researchers using different assumptions and different techniques to see if the results hold up.
And, you know, and there’s some great success stories, probably not as greater than the empiricism that built up on the dangerousness of cigarette smoking…
Ian Ayres: …which started slow. But then multiple researchers looked at different data and everything kept pointing in the same way.
There are other controversial issues where the researchers have not yet all – there’s still contention. And this same process that’s happening in the academy where there is much more today, there is a norm of sharing your data so that other people can counterpunch against you. That same contestability needs to happen over in business.
Ian Ayres: I think there are too many – oh, in the subprime lending crisis I think or some of these hedge funds, they are not opening up their data to even internal alternative crunching.
Ian Ayres: The other thing that is important here is there is more of a science to randomized control studies than there is to regressions and crunching historical data. And the randomized trials are just so transparent, you know, you…
Kirsten: Mm hmm.
Ian Ayres: Fifty percent of the people get the commitment bonds, 50% don’t. And then you just look at the average results and see how many – on average, how many people quit smoking with and without the bonds. And there’s not much to debate both as to the procedure going in or to the interpretation of the results. So…
Ian Ayres: … randomization has this great advantage that it’s not “trust me” statistics.
Kirsten: Got it.
Ian Ayres: It’s just look at – compare the two averages.
Justin: And we actually did that on this show. We had two shows for a while. One which was the science news show and one which was just satire and rant with a little bit of science thrown in. And that one didn’t do as well so here we are with the science show again.
Kirsten: People like the science. Yeah. And I guess getting to the final question, going back to the main point of your book is that you say that, you know, this number crunching has much more reliability than human intuition.
But in the case of things where it’s very personally related like, you know, Justin mentioned maybe voting or going to see a doctor. Are people really going – do you see people going to trusting a computer more than the personal hands on attention of another person?
Ian Ayres: Well I think that we’ve already started to see it happen. With regard our relationship to our doctors has changed dramatically since the advent of the Internet that people are starting to use Google diagnosis techniques and webMD and physicians are complaining that this is a less heroic age where some of their patients at least, an increasing proportion are seeing them as an alternative to a web portal that they want to reach through the physician and find out what the statistical study says is the best treatment.
So there are going to be some people that cling to a touchy feely world. And it doesn’t mean that you can’t have personal contact but you want to have the advice that your physician ultimately provides to be statistically informed.
Justin: I would trust the robot doctor.
Kirsten: You would trust the…
Kirsten: I would. Justin’s all for robots taking over the world. So…
Justin: Well, there was this other study where they were showing they had done recordings a while ago, recordings of doctors trying to have interpersonal communication with their patients to be more friendly to them. And like half the cases, it just ended badly with doctors going on about their own lives like not talking to the patient.
Ian Ayres: Or if you change it to the loan officer.
Ian Ayres: You know, in the old days, loan officers would look you in the eye. They develop a relationship with you and decide whether to make a loan.
Justin: Mm hmm.
Ian Ayres: And that just was horrible as a business model that they – it allowed not only for various types of discrimination but people overplay their intuition and experience. They tend to think it’s worth more than it is.
And recently, some of these computerized models have failed. But I promise you one thing. We’re not going to go back to human decision on loans, we’ll go to more conservative computerized models because just the humans just do a very bad job at deciding who’s a good loan risk or not.
Kirsten: Even though our brain is one of the best pattern generators out there, maybe that’s why our intuition is bad sometimes. We see patterns where they’re not – where there aren’t.
Ian Ayres: That’s — we are great at – matter of fact, we’re probably hard wired to see patterns. And then once we see one, we’re damnably overconfident that it’s the correct pattern. We fall in love with these particular hypotheses.
Now let me be very clear. To me, what’s really human is to hypothesize. We – the computers need us to generate the things to be tested.
Ian Ayres: But once the hypotheses are in, once you have a great intuition, instead of just falling in love with it, you need to be willing to put it to the test.
Kirsten: And test it out. Now, you’ve…
Justin: Ian Ayres…
Kirsten: I was just going to say now, we’re at the end of our hour. You had mentioned that you’ve got some fun widgets on your website.
Kirsten: Widgets. That’s the little things that people can play with to make predictions and see how their prediction stand up. Where can people find those?
Ian Ayres: Go to SuperCrunchers.com and you can just plug in a little information about yourself and it will tell you things like how tall your kids will grow to be or if you’re pregnant, when a more accurate due date or it’ll give you some political predictions or predictions about a small business even. There’s even a title score which will rank different titles that you might have for a book and whether it’s likely to be successful or not.
Kirsten: Sounds like a lot of fun. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. I’m really glad we got you on the show with us because this is just a fascinating topic.
Ian Ayres: Pleasure to speak with you.
Kirsten: Thank you.
Justin: The book is Super Crunchers, Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way to be Smart. Ian Ayres, thanks for joining us today in This Week In Science.
Kirsten: Have a great day. And that’s it’s for us today. Thank you for joining us. We’ll be back next Tuesday with more science goodness.
Justin: And if you learned anything from today’s show, remember…
Kirsten: It’s all in your head. Nevermore.
Listen to the podcast here: http://www.twis.org/audio/2007/10/30/154/