June 30, 2022
What are some surprising discoveries in the science of sex? What should we do when animals break human laws (e.g., when they commit manslaughter, steal, or even jaywalk)? Is a capacity for suffering the primary characteristic — or perhaps even the sole characteristic — that imbues an animal with moral status? How do science writers ensure faithful and accurate accounts of fields in which they may not be experts? Is there any evidence that humans could have psychic abilities like telepathy, telekinesis, etc.? People often err by being too credulous or too skeptical; so what level or shape of skepticism should be brought to bear on claims that are surprising, counterintuitive, or outlandish?
Mary Roach is the author of the New York Times bestsellers STIFF, SPOOK, BONK, GULP, GRUNT, and PACKING FOR MARS. Her newest book FUZZ: When Nature Breaks the Law, debuted in September 2021. Mary has written for National Geographic, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine, among others, and her TED talk made the TED 20 Most Watched list. She has been a guest editor for Best American Science and Nature Writing, a finalist for the Royal Society's Winton Prize, and a winner of the American Engineering Societies' journalism award, in a category for which, let's be honest, she was the sole entrant. Find more about her at maryroach.net.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Mary Roach about the value of animal life, medical misconceptions, and scientific scrutiny.
SPENCER: Mary, welcome.
MARY: Thank you.
SPENCER: I'm really excited to talk to you because I've loved so many of your books. I think the thing that I especially love is the way you approach investigating different topics. I wanted to start by asking you, when you go to write a new book, how do you think about your selection of what you're going to write about?
MARY: I'm thinking a little bit like a documentary filmmaker, I think (though I'm presuming to know what documentary filmmakers think). I'm thinking about what's going to be the scenes, the settings, the narratives that will bring this material to life for the reader. So I'm choosing what I'm going to include in a book, as well as the topic of the book, by just getting a sense of where will I go, who will I see, what will be happening, what will be an interesting or surprising or funny situation for the reader. So it's the topic and the subject matter, but it's also what will that topic lend itself to in terms of scenes and dialogue and characters.
SPENCER: Mm. But you write about such a diversity of topics. I'll just go through a few of them. The relationship between wild animals and humans, what happens with dead bodies, what's the deal with life after death and the scientific investigation of it, sex, issues around what happens in space, all these different topics. I assume you must go in not knowing very much about them; you can't be an expert in everything.
MARY: Oh, yeah, that's right. I go in knowing very, very little. Typically, I've stumbled onto one or two nuggets that have made me think, “Oh, this is a promising area.” For example, “Bonk,” which is a book about bringing the study of sexual physiology into a laboratory setting, which is (as you can imagine) kind of awkward for the researcher and for the subjects, particularly back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the first sexual physiology studies happened. It was particularly kind of shocking and surprising and awkward. I saw just a mention of Masters and Johnson, some of the things they'd done in the laboratory, and I thought that's a topic for me. That's something that will be fun to describe. So yeah, I know very little when I start the book. Obviously, I'm gonna learn a lot as I go along and I have to do a little bit of my homework before I pitch a book to my editor. But yeah, you're right, I know very little about it, but I know enough to see some potential for a fun read.
SPENCER: So you're kind of imagining, “Okay, there's gonna be some fun scenes there that I'm gonna be able to describe if I'm writing about it.”
MARY: Or take part in [laugh].
SPENCER: Yeah, there's a kind of gonzo journalism element to it, I feel. I read “Bonk” many years ago; I really loved it. But if I'm remembering correctly, you actually took part in a sex experiment as part of that.
MARY: You are remembering correctly. Yes, it was an ultrasound study. A lot of people say an MRI. There were people who recorded having sex in an MRI tube. That wasn't me. The one that I participated in was the ultrasound. But anyway, nonetheless, it made for a particularly fun scene to write up because it was very awkward.
SPENCER: You were actually having sex while a doctor was ultrasounding you?
MARY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was a project where they were testing the feasibility of making ultrasound four-dimensional — well, like 3D plus; it's over time (so that's the fourth dimension) — so a four-dimensional imaging technique, which is used sometimes pre-surgery. For example, somebody has a cleft lip. To be able to visualize how the musculature is moving or not, to do a four-dimensional ultrasound scan has (kind of) diagnostic promise. To be honest, the practical implications of that particular study were a little beyond me, but the researcher was legitimate. He had published before and done a lot of imaging work. I wanted to observe someone else, but he was having trouble finding a subject. So he said, “If your organization can provide [a subject] for study, I'll be happy to arrange it.”
SPENCER: What you do for the story, it's amazing. So it seems to me like your approach to teaching about scientific concepts is about bringing the reader to the scientific concept where they feel like they're literally there. They're there talking to the scientist and witnessing the experiment. Is that right?
MARY: I think that's a good assessment. I think some of my audience have a background in science, but I can't presume that, and I think a lot of them don't (like me). And I want to kind of take them by the hand and bring them along on this journey with me, which is not only fun, but as I learn, they learn. So that would be a fair assessment, sure.
SPENCER: So we were talking about “Bonk,” and maybe we should start there. What are some of the things that really surprised you, as you started investigating the science of sex?
MARY: Historically, it's kind of amazing how many centuries went by where nobody really had — nobody, meaning scientists — had really studied it for the obvious reason that it seems unseemly to bring people into a laboratory setting and have them either copulate or masturbate. How do you get funding for that? And how do you deal with the backlash? I hadn't really given it any thought. But it was kind of amazing, a lot of wrong assumptions, a lot of misinformation that was put out by doctors who didn't know any better. For example, there was a belief for centuries that orgasm was necessary for conception. Of course, we know that — just look at artificial insemination — that's not true.
SPENCER: Do you mean female orgasm?
MARY: Sorry, yes, female orgasm.
SPENCER: Because usually male orgasm probably is?
MARY: Well, no. Artificial insemination can be...but yeah, somebody has to ejaculate. Anyway, yes, you're right, female orgasm. In that case, it was kind of a good thing for women, because they were being counseled by the royal court physician. There were some...I forget the name of the princess, but she was having difficulty conceiving. And so the court physician advised the husband that she must be titillated for some time prior to intercourse [laugh]. So it was wonderful for women that that was the belief back then. But there was a lot of wrong information out there because it didn't seem like the sort of thing that respectable scientists would ever study. That was not that surprising when you think about it. But just to think about somebody like Leonardo, having gotten things really wrong was kind of a surprising thing. But there were lots of small-level surprises along the way with that book. There was one study where they had captured, on an ultrasound, a fetus masturbating. Again, probably shouldn't be that surprising [laugh]. It's pretty boring in there; what else are you gonna do? Well, there's a million smaller surprises along the way but I guess that was the larger surprise.
SPENCER: Speaking of the sensitiveness of that topic, we've done some research on gender and personality, like if you ask men to report things about their personality and you ask women, how do they differ? And one of the really fascinating things we found is that the single biggest difference in self-reported personality in people in the US is not in the standard model of personality, The Big Five, that a lot of scientists use. And I found that interesting, because it's like, “Oh, wow, that single biggest difference...a lot of personality research is predicated on The Big Five, and it's just kind of missing there.” And what it is, is how sex-focused people are. It's questions like, “When you meet an attractive person of the opposite sex, do you think sexual thoughts?” Or, “Do you think sexual thoughts often?” Things like that. It did make me wonder, did they just omit those questions from the early Big Five research because, 50 years ago or whatever [laugh], it would have seemed unscientific to do so? Or it could just be that they did include the questions, and they didn't come out as being significant enough to include. But I just thought that was interesting.
MARY: Yeah, I bet they probably just didn't include it. Or it may be that sexual behavior and sex drive is so much a product of hormones, and men and women have such completely different levels of hormones, types and levels. We all have a little of each, but some of us have a lot more estrogen or a lot more testosterone. So that's such an obvious determinant of that difference that maybe, when you're trying to figure out personality, you're trying to keep that particular facet of biology out of the mix? I'm not sure.
SPENCER: Okay, so let's go into another one of your books. You more recently wrote “Fuzz.” Do you want to tell us a bit about the premise of that?
MARY: Sure, “Fuzz,” the subtitle is “When Nature Breaks the Law.” And obviously animals and trees don't break the law because the laws are written for people. Animals follow instincts but, nonetheless, animals do commit the crimes that we refer to as manslaughter, breaking and entering, aggravated assault, jaywalking, robbery, littering, vandalism. Pretty much all the crimes and misdemeanors that we have, animals do. So it's a book that looks at what do you do about that? You can't fine or arrest an animal, although that was done in centuries past. So there have to be better ways of dealing with this and how can science help with that? It's basically a book about human-wildlife conflict, but I felt like it was a little more fun to present it in the context of crimes.
SPENCER: In investigating it, did it change your mind about anything?
MARY: I became a little bit more of an advocate for the animals that don't have a lot of people speaking up for them, and that's the animals that we call pests — like rodents and small birds — the animals that pester people who have farms or apartment buildings. Because I think when we use the word ‘pest,' it gives us permission to just call someone to deal with it, and we don't really give much thought to how they're dealt with, how humanely they're dealt with. And it's a little hypocritical that we are very concerned often with the larger, the cuter, the fuzzier animals. And yet, we don't seem to care that glue traps are still sold. There's plenty of more humane ways to kill a rodent than a glue trap but people don't give it a lot of thought. We have pretty strict protocols for how to treat and to euthanize laboratory animals but we don't have anything like that for the animals that are in our yards and homes. So I guess that opinion maybe just made me more thoughtful in that arena.
SPENCER: Yeah, just seems like opinions on animals are one of these things, where so many people love animals, and really, the idea of a dog or cat being hurt is so upsetting to people and it seems sometimes like people even take them more seriously than humans being harmed. But then it's like there's some kind of dividing line. As soon as you put an animal on the other side of the dividing line, people show this incredible indifference towards the life of the animal.
MARY: True. I think people have a kind of a double standard. Squirrels in the park are adorable. Squirrels digging up your planter and chewing on the roots of the plants is deplorable. You love animals until they get in your way. That's a generalization. Some people are a little more thoughtful about it. But, by and large, we have opinions about things that are shaped in one way, and then that shifts when it becomes our own world that's affected, our own home, our own business.
SPENCER: I sometimes have these funny thoughts when I'm dealing with my cat, where the cat will really want something that seems pointless to me, like it wants to get going in and out of the closet over and over, and I keep opening the door and then it comes out, or something like this. And then I think to myself, okay, it seems to really have this preference, and it makes no sense to me. But in some sense, his preference to get in the closet might be as strong, or stronger, than my preference to not keep opening the closet over and over again. And it's just interesting to think the natural instinct a lot of people have is to put human preferences above the animal preferences. I think in a lot of ways, that makes sense. But insofar as animals are capable of suffering, I'm not really sure how to think about that, like whether their preferences should really count less than ours, if you just consider it on a pure suffering basis. I'm wondering if you have an opinion on that.
MARY: I think it's pretty tough to convince a culture that animals' livelihood and welfare matter more than, or even as much as, our own. That's a tough call. The only brush I had with that was speaking with a wildlife expert in Michigan, who had spent time on the Tibetan Plateau, where bears cause some problems when nomadic herders (who leave behind their houses for months at a time) come back and the bears have wreaked havoc. And the culture and the religion is such that people don't kill the bears. They don't even particularly mind that they do this. They are very accepting. And the guy in Michigan — and Michigan is a state where I believe you're encouraged to deal with critters as you see fit on your own land, and that means shooting a bear if you want to (I'm pretty sure that was...of course, if I get that wrong, the entire state of Michigan will come gunning for me) — anyway, he was a little surprised by that. And he said to this man, “Well, what would you do if you saw a bear mauling a person? Would you shoot the bear?” And the man said, “I don't have the right to decide which life is more important.” And that's not something that you would encounter in very many places. And probably even in Tibet, if that was where that was. It's at the Tibetan Plateau, I believe. It's in “Fuzz.” But anyway, I think we've come a fair distance in the past couple centuries, in terms of what we think is the right treatment of animals. The animal welfare movement and the environmental movement have really shifted American thought patterns a great deal. Of course, it's very red state, blue state. You can't really generalize about the country as a whole. But even nationally, I think we have come a long way from the era when there were bounties on wolves and bears and coyotes, when they were just viewed as varmints or threats to your livelihood if you were a rancher or a hunter. They were competition. Wolves were viewed as taking too many deer that you wanted to hunt yourself. We've come a ways but I sometimes wonder if, in 100 or 200 years, we will look back on this era when we raised animals for food or even for their fur, as something as barbaric as keeping slaves. I don't know. I still eat meat, I'm ashamed to say. It's hard for me to imagine giving up pork. I'm still wearing leather shoes. So it's not like I'm in any position to judge. I'm just saying I wonder if someone like me in 100 years will be viewed as hideously cruel. It's just an interesting thing to think about when you think of the evolution of thought on a timeline of centuries rather than years.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's an interesting question. When I was 18 years old, I was reading Jeremy Bentham, this utilitarian philosopher.
MARY: I love Jeremy Bentham.
SPENCER: Yeah, he's such a thoughtful person and has such interesting ideas, and so long ago as well. And he has this passage about what makes animals morally different from humans and it really struck me. The passage was about how the question is not whether the animals can reason, but it's really about whether the animals could suffer. And that really struck me, had a profound influence on me, has influenced me and my thinking on this ever since. And I do think there are a lot of differences between animals and humans that make them morally different. For example, it's not clear to me that all animals have distinct goals for the future, or that all animals can understand what it means to die or things like this. These are moral differences and I think they're important. But on the other hand, is kicking a dog in the face any more acceptable than kicking a human in the face? I'm not sure. Because it feels like, from the point of view of the dog and point of view of the human, it feels equally bad to me. So I think it's really interesting to consider what gives a creature a moral status. And I do wonder, if we live in a future (eventually) where there's no reason to eat animal meat — because you can get fake meat and it's just as tasty, cheaper and healthier and so on — I do wonder whether the tide will turn and we'll view it really differently. Even today, I think I do see cases where people treat some animals as being as important or more important than humans. The main examples are, I think there are a lot of people that would hurt a human to save their pet. I also think that there are cases where, with animals that are very majestic and maybe going extinct, there are times when people would choose them over human welfare, like with tigers and stuff like that.
MARY: Yeah, I think that pets are almost less animals than family members. In the same way that people would kill a stranger to protect a family member, I think that people view their pets more as a family member than as an animal. And so I think, in those cases, it's almost outside that framework in a way.
SPENCER: Absolutely, yeah. I agree.
MARY: By the way, Jeremy Bentham, you know that he's preserved, right? You can visit him. I know that he's dead, but...
SPENCER: In college, I was studying abroad at University College London, and one day after class, I'm walking around a corner in one of the buildings and literally, there's Jeremy Bentham's dead body in a glass case.
MARY: Ok, you've seen him.
SPENCER: I'm like, “What?” and I had no idea about this at the time. And there's some kind of plaque on it as well, saying that his supporters (I don't remember), like his supporters can meet there on his birthday and celebrate his life or something.
MARY: Yes, it is fascinating. He was kind of a utilitarian, and I'm not clear on the details. I've seen a photograph of Jeremy sitting in his chair. But anyway, I just want to make sure that you knew that I knew that he was dead [laugh]. Okay, you have seen him and that's great.
SPENCER: I have seen his dead body in the flesh, yeah. So finishing up on “Fuzz,” I'd love to hear just a couple of scenes that stand out for you during your investigations, that you thought particularly had an impression on you.
MARY: One of the most interesting visits for me was the forensics of wildlife attacks on humans. I went to this wildlife-human attack response training outside Reno, Nevada. It's taught by a lot of Canadians because there's a lot of bears and wolves and mountain lions in Canada, and so those guys have all the experience. The conference rotates around, and so it was being held in a low-rent casino outside Reno. It was a very surreal combination. The way that we were taught, part of it is that there were these soft-touch mannequins — full-size, male and female mannequins — that had been altered to show replications of actual injuries, like faces pulled off and eyeballs hanging out and huge gouges and limbs missing. It was held in a conference room and, right next to us, there was a bingo game going on. And the bingo people would walk to the bathroom and look into this room, and these mannequins, they're very realistic. The people must have just glanced in and thought, “What the hell is going on in the Ponderosa room?” So I guess that scene was memorable, both for the grisly nature of some of the wounds, but also the people next door and the setting.
SPENCER: Are there certain journalists or writers that you took inspiration from in terms of the style of putting yourself in the action?
MARY: Well, the two writers that inspired me back when I started writing were Bill Bryson and Susan Arlene, and I think both of them do put themselves into the story for sure. But they also do a tremendous amount of research and they're able to balance good and thorough reporting with an engaging narrative that often, but not always, involves their interactions with the subjects. So I guess those two were people that I read, and I was inspired by them. I didn't consciously model myself after them, because I'm me, not them. But the first time I had encountered that sort of writing done really well, I just thought this is the kind of thing I'd like to be doing. So yeah, those two.
SPENCER: How do you approach getting the science right on these topics? Is it mainly discussions you're having with scientists or you do your own research?
MARY: Well, each chapter typically takes a lot from my interactions and conversations with the researcher and/or their papers. But I always have to do a fair amount of research in the form of looking at other journal papers — archives sometimes, and also calling other researchers — your typical collection of reporting sources. And I try not to use secondary sources, that is to say, someone else's book, because they're often not fact-checked. So those are pretty much the resources that I turn to.
SPENCER: It's fascinating how many things in society come from someone citing someone citing someone citing someone, and you get this kind of slippage [laugh] each time a citation occurs.
MARY: I tracked that in “Packing for Mars,” my book that deals with the strangeness of trying to survive in space, which is a place for which our organisms did not evolve. There was a rumor about one of the space chimps — the second one to go up — Enos. And there's the story that was reported in a book that said that Enos, at a press conference, was masturbating, and that that's why he's called ‘Enos the penis.' And I tracked that from the sources because this is a book that had footnotes and it footnoted another person's book who footnoted another person, and that story would change a little bit every time. And finally I tracked down, I think it was Jerry Finnick (or maybe he was Ham's trainer). Anyway, I tracked down the trainer of this animal who's in his 80s now, and I told him about the story in this book, and it turns out it's completely apocryphal. He said, “Mary, all chimps masturbate, and that chimp was no different than any other. We called him ‘Enos the penis' because he was a dick. He was an ornery chimp and nobody liked to work with him.” So anyway, unless somehow this press conference happened without his knowledge, which is unlikely because he's the trainer. But anyway, the nickname did not come from that. But it was just kind of amazing to see how the story morphed from book to book. And just because you put a footnote in a source doesn't mean that's a fact.
SPENCER: Yeah, we made one of our programs for our website ClearerThinking on common misconceptions. The way it works is we have 15 things that are common misconceptions and 15 things that sound like they might be common misconceptions but they're actually true. And you have to try to guess which are which and we actually analyze whether you're overconfident and can give you information about yourself. But one of the facts we have in there is about honey and whether it can last for a thousand years and still be good to eat. And originally, we had said that this is true because we have lots of sources backing this up. But one of our users told us that, in fact, we were wrong, and they claimed that if you trace down the sources, you'll realize they go nowhere, which is kind of an interesting claim. So we tried to do that, and then they were indeed correct. All the sources just cited each other in some giant web, but nobody seemed to know where this information had allegedly come from. I think there are cases of honey being a hundred years old or something like that but I don't think that anyone has said that...
MARY: Yeah, I think there's that researcher...
MARY: Yeah, exactly. He did a similar thing where he took the top 10 or 15 medical beliefs, the things that everyone assumes is true, and took a closer look. And they weren't — any of them — true, I believe. I'm starting my own because maybe seven of them were false and three were true [laugh] but my memory is that they're all false.
SPENCER: Did you hear that everything we believe is false about medicine? I heard it on a podcast [laugh].
MARY: Yeah, exactly [laugh]. But it is kind of amazing. So honey, I bet that comes from... honey is a good preservative, because things that are so sweet... For whatever reason, you'd think bacteria would love it, but for some reason, the intensity of the sweetness...maybe that's a myth, too, but that's what I've always heard. So I assume that that's maybe where that comes from. If it's an antibacterial substance, then there's nothing to break it down. But given enough time, most things find a way to break down. There's other organisms besides bacteria. There was something in “Stiff” that I came across in the Chinese Materia Medica, which was something called ‘Mellified Man,' which was a very bizarre medicine that came from people deciding (I don't know who these people were) but they decided they're going to become this medicine and they would eat honey, nothing but honey. The belief was that they're sort of infused with honey and then they would be put in this stone sarcophagus and left for 200 years. And then the moosh that resulted would be medicinal in some way.
SPENCER: What? Wow [laugh].
MARY: But outside Chinese Materia Medica, I could find nothing on mellified man. But I put it in the book anyway, because how could I not? It's so entertaining. But I've probably contributed to resuscitating this story of the mellified man, and it's probably spread all around by now. People are going, “You know that there are people who eat nothing but honey, and then they put them in a stone sarcophagus and that's really good medicine.” If you look closely enough, everything seems to fall apart.
SPENCER: Yeah, it is really interesting. I feel like some of these things spread because they're so weird or surprising that people want to tell them even if they're not true. And I think others spread because you kind of would assume they're true, you know what I mean? Like if you've never bothered to check, you're like, “Oh, that's probably true” [laugh].
MARY: Yeah, exactly. And I think we rely too much on our sense of intuitive knowledge, like, “Oh, yeah, that's gotta be true, because it seems to fit the general schema that I have in my head of how the world works. Oh, yeah, that's true.” And also the general tendency of humans to just mouth off when they don't know about things. The more you know about something, I think the less sure you are about it. Do you know what I mean? If you know very little, it's easy to have an opinion. But the more you dive into something (I find this with my books all the time), the more I dive into a topic, the more I realize how nuanced it is, and that you can't make sweeping statements and that there are exceptions to the rule. And then there are lots of unknowns that we still haven't figured out. And all of that adds up to kind of the big shrug like, “We don't really know that answer.” There's so much that we don't know. But we don't like to not know. We like to know, we humans.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think on almost every topic, when you start digging in, you realize there's enormous complexity that you didn't even know existed when you didn't know that much. And this applies to pretty much everything, even some seemingly simple topics like (I don't know) how do you repair a wall? My guess is there's probably an incredible amount of knowledge that I know nothing about, about how to repair walls.
MARY: Yeah, when I was doing “Fuzz,” when I was researching the book, there's a chapter I went to the Vatican because they were having an issue with the gulls vandalizing the floral display at the Easter Sunday Mass.
SPENCER: Those gulls are going to hell for sure.
MARY: Those gulls are hellbound [laugh]. So the thing that they decided to do was to bring in this guy who had developed a laser scarecrow, and I wanted to just answer the simple question, “Wow, is a laser an effective and harmless answer to the problem of birds eating people's crops or vandalizing the Pope's floral display?” It's easy to scare away birds but it's hard to keep them away because they figure out very quickly — they call your bluff — they figure out, “Oh, that thing that looks like an owl is just a piece of stone and I shouldn't worry about it. And that loud noise, it's unpleasant, but it means nothing. I can still keep coming back here and eating what I want to eat.” And I thought, okay, lasers, that's exciting. Maybe that is something that really works. And there are so many papers and the answer is, well, it depends on the wavelength of the laser, the color of the laser, the species of bird, the time of day, is it light or is it dark? So the answer was, “We don't know.” Sometimes it seems to work, and sometimes it doesn't. Depends on the laser, depends on the bird, depends on the time of day. It depends on who knows what else that we haven't even figured out. So, yeah, I kept contacting people. Yeah, they'd send me six papers that all said, “Well, with these cormorants, it seemed to help. But with these starlings, it didn't seem to affect them. For pigeons...” And I was like, “No, I just need you, the expert, to say to me, is this an exciting and promising thing that seems to work or not?” He's like, “I can't answer that question.” This is a long answer to what you were asking, but it is true. The more you look into it, the more complex and unanswerable these questions seem.
SPENCER: And this is just bird lasers. Imagine something like how do we solve poverty or how to build a healthcare system.
MARY: Exactly, homelessness — or rather (that's the wrong word now) — the unhoused, people who temporarily or permanently don't have houses. Because you'd think, “Okay, we're throwing so much money at this problem. Why can't we fix it?” And the people who do try to work on it will sit you down for two hours and tell you, “This is what's going on. This is why we can't fix it.” Anybody who says to you, “Why don't you just fill in the blank?” knows nothing about it really. They [inaudible] and they don't have very much knowledge.
SPENCER: This is why I really wish we had really nuanced smart people in power, because they're never going to be able to fully explain the complexity of really complicated topics, like healthcare. There's not time to explain that so that everyone can understand it. It requires just an insane amount of research. But you want to be able to trust that the people in power, they're going to do their due diligence, they're going to really understand the ins and outs, the complexity. They're not going to just fall into weird political views. They're gonna actually figure out how to improve homelessness, how to improve healthcare. But I just, I don't believe [laugh] that's happening very much.
MARY: Yeah. And also they're going to surround themselves with people who do understand that complexity or poverty, are going to be informed by the people who do know all those complexities and have, if not the answer, a sense of what does and doesn't help. Start right there. Bring in the best people. You, as the leader of a state or a country, can't know everything, but the least you can do is bring in the best possible teams of people to inform the policy.
SPENCER: I'm really excited about the idea of adversarial collaborations, when people who disagree, work together to write a joint paper on something. I feel like that'd be really effective on topics like how do we reform healthcare. Bring in respectable, smart, different sides of the topic, have them work together to come up with a plan that none of them are going to think is the perfect plan, but they all agree is better than what we have now. You know, whether they're on the left or right or libertarian, surely there are things that are better than we have now that they can all agree on. But it seems like that doesn't happen.
MARY: Yeah, you know I've been touring, doing events for “Fuzz,” and sometimes people would say, “Well, is there anything hopeful coming out of this seemingly intractable issue of people and wildlife getting in each other's way?” Then the answer is, “Yes.” There are a number of groups that are based on promoting coexistence and the way that they're doing that — that is to say, people and wolves, that's sort of the hot topic flashpoint these days — how do we coexist and what's the best policy to inform that? And what these people, the coexistence groups, are trying to do is bring into the same room for 2 or 3 days, people from both sides of the divide, so that you have hunters and ranchers and animal advocates and environmentalists sitting down and talking with people trained to moderate groups like this, trained to figure out how to get them to communicate effectively and to listen. And by the second or third day...I was talking to someone in the book, who runs one of these carnivore coexistence groups, organizations. He said that, “You know, by the second or third day, there's people who are feeling like the dialogue is hopeful and people are kind of meeting in the middle a little bit.” And the other thing he was saying is, the hope in the future is that a committee made up of these people from both sides of the divide informs the policy, and that it's not just done by popular vote, because people don't know all the issues. And if you throw something on — something emotional, like wolves — if you just throw it on the ballot, people are not voting in an informed way. They're voting by what they've been told by groups that can be manipulative, and I'm talking about both sides. Or they're just voting emotionally and that's not necessarily the best thing for the animals or the people in the state. So if you have these groups of people who represent both opinions, and those people inform the policy, that's the ideal to my way of thinking.
SPENCER: Yeah, I like the point about a moderator as well, because it feels like, if you just bring people into a room, it's not necessarily gonna go well.
MARY: Yeah, you need somebody who's skilled at human-human conflict. I talk a lot about human-wildlife conflict in the book, but in some cases, it really comes down to human-human conflict, and how do you manage that? And you need a professional just as you would need a professional to be involved in what to do with human-wildlife conflict.
SPENCER: I remember learning about (I think it's called) the ‘Oslo Accords.' It was like agreements between Israel and Palestine back in the ‘90s. And the negotiation process was rather fascinating, where they just brought the people to live together, essentially, in a house. And then they had a moderator as well. I think that's such a cool idea, because you eventually come to like another person. And even if they're on the opposing side, eventually you're like, “Oh, they're kind of a friend though,” at some point. [laugh]
MARY: Yeah, it's like the phenomenon where, if you know and like your neighbor, and your neighbor makes noise in some way, you don't really mind that noise; whereas if it's somebody that you don't know, or you actively dislike (but often it's just someone that you don't know), you think, “That is so annoying that they make that noise,” that they're practicing their electric guitar, that they're using a leaf blower. But if your neighbor across the street that you are friends with does it, you accept it. And it's the same if you take it to a cultural or a national level. I think the strongest and most inflammatory positions are held by people who've never sat down for a meal with the people that they're hating on. I think that's why international travel is so important. Just spend time with people who don't look or dress or maybe think like yourself, and just see that the basic core of humanity, at the heart of them, that there's common ground everywhere because we're all human beings. It sounds kind of Pollyanna, but I just feel like there's a reason why people who live in urban areas are liberals, because these are our friends, these are our neighbors, these are people we see all the time. If you live in an isolated world where everybody looks like you, then you're left to just make assumptions and take your information from the media and social media and not your own experience. And so we're becoming more and more isolated in our own world of the internet and social media and whatever media we follow, rather than just getting out in the world and spending time with other people. I just think that's the answer. There, that's the answer. I solved it, Spencer. Peace on Earth, there you go. [laugh]
SPENCER: A while ago, I did a podcast episode where I brought on a liberal and a conservative to discuss — not to debate, but to really discuss — what they disagree about, and try to see if they can agree on what they disagree about. I had a social justice advocate and someone who identifies as being anti-woke and, in both cases, I asked them to have a conversation in advance with each other alone, where they're not allowed to talk about politics [laugh]. Yeah, and I think that really helps. It's just like, “Okay, this is a human being. I'm talking to a human being, not a policy, not a team.”
MARY: Yeah, you're talking to a human being, not a platform and not an opinion. You're talking to a person. I think we all have these people in our lives whose opinions don't entirely mesh with our own, so you don't focus on that. I think it's great that you do that.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I want to just ask you a little bit more about some of your books. I think the first book of yours I ever read was “Spook.” I think it's such a cool concept for a book. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that?
MARY: Sure. Yeah, “Spook” is a book about efforts to use scientific methods to prove or disprove the existence of a soul or an afterlife. And I just loved the creativity that was applied to this subject. It's a subject that has typically, historically landed in the realm of religious belief and philosophy. But there were folks who tried to really pin it down in a scientific manner. And so a lot of it is historical, and some of it is...there's not a lot of places anymore in this country (I mean universities) that have any kind of research in this area. The University of Virginia has a large endowment that came from the founder of the creator of the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson. He left a lot of money to University of Virginia specifically earmarked for investigations on the persistence of personality after death. I spent some time there where they've got some near-death experience and reincarnation research going on. Also University of Arizona has a researcher there, and a couple of them in Europe as well. But that's the premise of the book, just looking at how people have gone about it, trying to figure it out, and how they've used scientific research, sometimes a little bit squishier than others [laugh]. And when I say scientific research, I don't mean the guys with the Radio Shack where they've got the detectors.
SPENCER: Like ghost hunters?
MARY: Yeah, in infrasound or ultrasound. I forget. There's both, infrasound, ultrasound, things that were designed to measure invisible stuff so that they kind of can go around and go, “Look, you can't see anything, but it's registering a presence,” like, “Yeah, there's probably an iron deposit underneath the basement.” But anyway, not those guys.
SPENCER: When I was in college, I had some people in my life who kind of believed in paranormal stuff, psychic stuff tied into science, talked about quantum theory and stuff like that. And I started wondering myself, “Huh, if psychic powers are real, I definitely want to learn how to do that.” And so I spent a year reading about it and trying to decide, is this for real? Because if so, I want to learn this stuff. And yeah, I ended up deciding it's total BS. But it seems totally reasonable to me for people to try to apply the methods of science to this stuff. I think some people read it, they immediately dismiss it. But it's like, “No,” it seems like a great use of science to actually figure out, is this stuff real? If science works, we should be able to determine if this stuff is fake. We should be able to figure that out using science, right?
MARY: Right, exactly. The people in this book (far from being... though some of them were kind of goofy), there was a heroism to what they were doing because, across the board, they faced ridicule; in some areas, there was a little more acceptance. Even today, the researcher at the University of Virginia, sometime after the book came out, told me that he'd been asked by the university not to talk about that work. They wanted to keep doing it because that was a big chunk of money that they didn't want to lose. But they just said, “Could you please not talk about it in public because we're ashamed that we're doing this work,” because there's a stigma attached to it. A little bit less so in the era of the ‘60s, when people were doing the tests with the cards with the triangles and the squares and just trying to influence events, like the roll of the dice or whatever. There was some legitimacy — Duke University had a famous lab — there was a bit of legitimacy attached to it and it was kind of an exciting new field. And then over time — I think because there's a lot of bullshit and it attracts a fair amount of bullshit thinking — it developed a stigma. But I agree, I think if there was an interesting way to look at it...like there was a study at UVA, where they're like, “Look, people after they have surgery, where they came close to dying but they didn't die, some of them would report looking down from above and seeing themselves on the operating table.” So what the researcher did (and I love this), he just put an open laptop, he affixed it to the top of the lighting above, the lamps above an operating table, and it's a laptop that's running a series of randomly-generated images. And so when people came out of surgery, he asked them, “Just tell me what you remembered. Did you remember anything?” The thinking being, if they remembered seeing themselves from above, would they also have seen the laptop computer? And could they say with any accuracy, what they saw on the screen? If they were able to say, “Yeah, I saw an image of a flower,” that would be pretty amazing.
SPENCER: Like they have an out-of-body experience or are floating above themselves.
MARY: Yeah, they have an out-of-body experience because it's a near-death experience where they floated above themselves and they looked down from above, because there's a lot of reports of that and some of them were in kind of surprising detail. That work is really interesting and I don't see any reason why that should be treated with scorn as long as the method is sound. Sadly, because the anesthesia that's used these days causes amnesia, nobody remembers anything of their surgery. Yeah, he just got for months and months and months people going, “Yeah, I don't remember anything.” But I liked the idea, I liked the creativity behind it, and I thought it was an exciting project. How cool would it be if ten people actually reported having had that kind of experience, and that they saw — it wasn't just a figment of their imagination, because they saw — and they identified which image was on the screen at a level that wasn't just random chance. That would have been pretty cool.
SPENCER: I think very often with this kind of new age or spiritual stuff, it's actually not that hard to test it scientifically, if someone really is motivated to do that. There are claims that are so vague, you can't really test them. But as soon as you get people to be specific, you can often develop tests for it. Many years ago, I actually had someone I worked with that believed in astrology. And I was like, “Okay, cool, you have an astrologer. Would you be willing to put the astrologer to the test?” And they said, “Sure.” And so what we did is, everyone in the office, we submitted their birthdate and time and the astrologer wrote a brief description of each person in the office. And then we took those descriptions, and everyone else had to pair them up with who they thought it was a description of, and, and then we did the statistics on it. And it turned out, it was frustratingly right in the middle ground where there was (I don't know) a 7% chance they'd do that well by chance, or something where it's like, “Ah, that's not gonna convince me to believe, but it's not gonna convince this other person not to believe.” So that was slightly frustrating. But you just need to do this kind of thing with a larger sample size. For almost any claim, there's a way to design a study for it.
MARY: There was a journal paper — and it was a fairly respectable journal years ago — where they looked at astrological signs (I think that's what it was.) But it was a pretty profound drubbing that astrology took from that. The other thing is that, with those descriptions, they're often applied to just about anybody. They're general enough that you can read yourself into most of them, you know what I mean? Personality traits. You can read all 12 astrology listings on a given day. (Are there 12 of them? Is that right? Yeah.) Anyway, you could read them all and make a case for any of them belonging to you. They're vague enough. So it's a tough one.
SPENCER: I think they call it the Barnum effect or the Forer effect. There's that famous study where a psychologist gave all his students a personality assessment, and then gave them their report, and they tended to give it really high ratings as matching their personality. But of course, everyone got the same report [laugh].
MARY: Yeah. When I was reporting “Spook,” someone said, quite accurately, the client determines the quality of the psychic.
SPENCER: That's probably true.
MARY: Yeah, there's good clients. Psychics are all about the same, but some clients are better than others [laugh].
SPENCER: That's funny. The best proof of astrology I've ever seen — and I recommend people check out this chart if they've never seen it — is OKCupid, the dating site that asks tons of questions to try to figure out who you're a good match with. And they've done all these studies showing that this match score actually does correlate with who has a good date, and who responds to messages and all this stuff. And then they said, “Well, what is the average match score between different zodiac signs,” like Aries to Aries, Aries to Taurus, Aries to Gemini, and so on. And this chart is just amazing, because it's just 60% match on every single square of this [laugh] and you're like, “Oh yeah, there's actually literally no difference in compatibility based on people's zodiac signs,” which is I think one of the big-use cases people claim of it is for matching for romantic compatibility.
MARY: Yeah, it's funny. To me, the idea that the positions of the planets would determine your personality is so absurd. Not on the basis of having read astrology or visited astrologists or anything else, I dismiss it just on the basis of ‘what the fuck?' Why would planets determine my personality? [laugh] My genes determine it, and my upbringing. What the hell difference does it make...? This friend I have said, “Well, of course the tides determine, of course the position of the planets is powerful enough. Look at how it determines when women menstruate.” And I'm like, “Hold on a minute. Do you actually think all women are menstruating at the same time in accordance with where the moon is? Are you that ignorant? [laugh] Have you met a woman? We're all menstruating at different times.”
SPENCER: To be fair, the moon does determine when werewolves turn into werewolves.
MARY: [laugh] Well, that's true. Everybody knows that, Spencer. Yeah, I know it's a big force. It's a tidal thing, I know. But personality, I don't know. It's hard for me to wrap my head around. But the thing is, it's fun and it's entertaining to believe in it. And so in some ways, people who believe, they have more fun and it adds a little mystery to life. So who am I?
SPENCER: Well, you know, I think also the scientific study of things like this are interesting because they teach us about science. I don't know if you heard about this paper that came out a number of years ago by Daryl demonstrating that, yes, ‘P' is real. I think it was called “Feeling the Future” and he had these fun studies where you would have people make an assessment before he showed an image to them and then he showed that their assessment was correlated to the image that they hadn't even seen yet. And there's funny results like, well, if the image was pornography, people were more accurate and stuff like this. But what's so fascinating about this is, if you analyze this paper, you can find plenty of flaws with the science, but they're the sort of scientific flaws that you can find in lots and lots of papers. It wasn't especially egregious by the standard of science, except that of course, nobody believed it.
MARY: Daryl Bem is a name I recognize from psychology. He's kind of a big name, right?
SPENCER: Oh, yeah. He's a fairly well known psychologist. And he's...
MARY: So he published a paper saying that everyone has psychic abilities?
SPENCER: Well, I don't know about everyone but the people in his study had psychic abilities [laugh]. Yes, he did. It was a big deal in 2010, it was a really big deal because I think their general reaction was, “Well, of course, this isn't true. Therefore, let us find the flaws with the study.” But then that led to a sort of big thing, where the flaws in the study were like the flaws in a lot of studies. So what does it say about the scientific process? If you can prove that people are psychic, okay, you either have to accept that people are psychic or you have to say, “Okay, there's something wrong with our way of doing science.”
MARY: Yeah, the one complaint that a lot of people who I talked to in “Spook,” we as researchers are held up to a standard that is...we are picked apart like no other paper. Years ago, there was a study of telepathy that was done at the University of Edinburgh. And the reason I was interested in it is because of the way these studies are picked apart by skeptics and debunkers. I support their work, but the people who do this parapsychology work know what they're up against. So it was designed jointly through the University of Edinburgh Psychology Department and the committee for investigations into claims of the paranormal, PsychOp. All the protocols (experimental protocols) were approved. And they did find, with the telepathy study, that in certain populations, — musicians, I think (Juilliard students was one), math prodigies and also people with a lot of experience in deep meditation and altered states — in those three subsets, If I'm recalling correctly, it was a greater than chance ability that their descriptions of what was coming into their head matched the images that the other person was “sending” (in quotes), based on viewing. They were viewing a little film clip, like a spider spinning a web. Anyway, it was just fascinating, first of all, that he did find an ability in certain groups. And second of all, just the way those studies are analyzed with a fine-toothed comb in a way that other papers are not. The status, it's interesting.
SPENCER: Yeah. And I think they really are scrutinized more, because people view them as unscientific. But I really think it illustrates just that the scientific process is not that robust.
MARY: I was a psychology major and I have to say, so many of those papers, I would — not to bash psychology — but it's so difficult to just agree on a definition of, say creativity or love. When you're dealing with facets of personality, there's so much squishiness in how they're defined. How can you study them objectively? It's so hard to do a study that stands up to scrutiny like that. Yeah, anyway, it's tough.
SPENCER: Yeah. And if you're a believer in paranormal phenomena, you can find scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals that support almost anything you want, right? If you want to prove that people can see what symbols are on the zener card from the other room, there's papers that show that. Or almost any one of these things, there are papers that show it. It would be wonderful if we got to the place where science was so robust, that it would actually be possible to disprove things like this, and also prove things like this. I think as it stands, you can have scientific papers showing just about anything. And furthermore, let's suppose we lived in a world where sacred powers actually were real, but they weren't so powerful that you could just obviously tell and everyone could tell. It's not clear to me that science could even prove they were real, because these papers are going to come under so much attack anyway, people aren't going to believe them [laugh].
MARY: Yeah, the other thing that seemed to be going on with somebody who has moments where they feel that they saw something, or the experiences that they have, it's not something they can switch on. Because people will go, “Oh, if you're psychic, why didn't you know I was going to be late today?” That kind of thing where you know that it isn't something you can control and demonstrate to a committee. It seems to be this weird, fleeting thing. I have no idea if anybody anywhere has any of these (psychic) abilities. I really don't know. I'm not prepared to say yes or no. The jury's still out, in my opinion.
SPENCER: So you're agnostic. See, I'm like 99% on the no. But I think...
MARY: I'm more on the no than the yes, and part of that is because the field is so swamped with bullshit, that I have a tendency to go toward “Bullshit,” just on intuition and impulse, just because so much of it is garbage. And there's also a lot of taking advantage of people who believe in it, so there's that element to it that I dislike. But yeah, I'm more on the side of...if I had to put a great deal of money on it, on whether psychic abilities exist, I would put my money on no. I don't feel I have the answer partly because of those, like the study I told you about, and because of (I don't know) Daryl Bem, who knows what's going on there? But there is stuff that makes me raise my eyebrows and think, “Well, that seems like it was fairly well done.” And I also think sometimes the skeptics and the debunkers, they can be lazy. I think they can be very quick to dismiss the thing without really having given it a fair chance or looked into it in any respectful way.
SPENCER: I think there's a temptation to mock things. You just kind of assume it's false and then you mock it. And I get that. Some beliefs are really silly. But that's very different from actually starting from a place of like, “Okay, what does the evidence actually say?”
MARY: Right. That gets back to what you were saying, antagonistic collaboration, is that the term that you used?
SPENCER: Adversarial collaborations.
MARY: Yeah. That's why I love that study, where PsychOp and the University of Edinburgh got together and they designed the study themselves. Just because we don't come at this from the same place, maybe that can make us stronger. Maybe working together, we will get somewhere instead of dismissing each other. And I think that's getting back to that being the secret to peace and harmony on Earth [laugh], bringing together people with different viewpoints and design studies together. And so both of you can come to the table and say, “This was a well-done study, and I don't see how it could be flawed in the ways that I usually find studies flawed.”
SPENCER: Yeah, I love that. I think it's so great. There actually is a hilarious example of that, where someone who believes in ESP phenomenon and someone who disbelieves came together, worked on a paper together. And the bizarre thing is, they designed the protocol together but, whenever the believer would run this study, it would work and, whenever the non-believer would run it, it wouldn't work. It was like, “What is happening here?” I think they might have even accused each other of cheating in the paper [laugh]. But yeah, there has to be that baseline level of trust in the other person, and respect.
MARY: Yeah, exactly. That's tough. Because, yeah, if it doesn't work, then you think the other person sabotaged it.
SPENCER: I think the main reason I don't believe in these phenomena is because, well, first of all, I just don't witness them immediately in such an obvious way that they're impossible not to believe. If people are constantly making super accurate predictions when they couldn't possibly know the information, okay, that'd be one thing, but I don't definitely don't see that. And then, when I think about it on a scientific basis, what seems to me to happen is that people will make a lot of these claims. As soon as you push them to be concrete, they sort of retreat into vague abstractions. And then when they actually are forced to put their money where their mouth is, they seem to almost always fail in their predictions. Like James Randi, I don't know if you're familiar with him.
MARY: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. He had that...I loved that. Was it a million dollars?
SPENCER: Yeah, he had a prize for people that can demonstrate some paranormal phenomena. And what he would have them do is submit an exact testing protocol which, you might say, “Well, why not just test everyone?” But I think to be fair, so many people would make these claims, but they won't make any concrete claim that could possibly be tested. They always are hiding behind this unfalsifiability of like, “Oh, it didn't work in that case. Well, that's just because of X, Y, Z.” So he would make them submit an actual protocol, experimental protocol. And then, if he approved it, he would agree that they would get this money if they could demonstrate it in the protocol, and they just failed every single time. There's a bunch of them that are videotaped, and there's something really upsetting about watching them, because the person who is being tested, they seem to believe it so much, they're convinced that they're gonna win. And so you really realize, at least the ones that get to that point — obviously there are a lot of charlatans out there — but the ones that get to the point where they actually submitted an experiment or protocol and are being tested, they believe it. It's really self-delusion at that point.
MARY: When I worked on that book, there was one chapter where this guy, Gary Schwartz at the University of Arizona, was testing mediums. And in speaking to some of the mediums — and also people at the Arthur Findlay College, which is in Britain, where they teach people how to be mediums — I never got the sense that people were there because they wanted to learn how to make money ripping people off. I got the sense that they truly believed that they had that skill, that ability. I never encountered somebody who seemed to me to be engaged in this activity to make money. I know that those people are probably out there but there are people who really did believe they had an ability.
SPENCER: Mary, this has been such a fun conversation. Where's the best place to start with your books, like if you were gonna recommend one of your books to a beginner?
MARY: You know what, I would just send people to my website, ‘Maryroach.net,' because all the books are there and there's an excerpt from all of them. I think it just depends on where people's interests lie. You know, they're all fun. It's not like some of them are very serious and others are fun. There's a fun element, there's an element of goofiness to all of them. But they're also serious, well-researched books. I'm just trying to say that the topics are different, but the format and the style is similar. So I would tell people to just go by whatever topic most appeals to them. That was a long answer. I should have just randomly said, “Oh, read “Bonk'' because it's hilarious.” [laugh]
SPENCER: No, it's great. I think I've read four books of yours at this point. I love them all.
MARY: Oh, thanks, Spencer.
SPENCER: Yeah, definitely, definitely recommend checking out your books, super fun books. Yeah, Mary, this was a really great chat. Thank you so much for coming on.
MARY: Oh, it was my pleasure. I really enjoyed it. Thanks, Spencer.
JOSH: How do you manage so many projects?
SPENCER: I do have a lot of projects. I think partly, it has to do with my unusual personality, in that, I think my ideal number of projects (just for my own thriving) is something like five to 15 at a time. And I think most people would think of that as like a nightmare and are happiest with maybe one to three projects depending on what their personality is like. There's just something strange about me where I really like moving between lots of different things, even in one day. I don't like moving between things every five minutes, that just kind of makes you crazy. But I find it really appealing to work on something for two hours and then work on a different topic for two hours, and working on a third topic for two hours, kind of cycle between totally different ideas and topics. And I think that's one thing that's reflected in my podcasts as well. I love just thinking about lots of different ideas and not just going deep on one thing for months or years. There are lots of podcasts out there that are literally on one topic, and they'll do that for years and this podcast might cover three or four quite different topics in a single episode.
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