We’d be nothing without facts. They ground us in reality, help us make new discoveries and allowed us to build the modern world. In this episode we explain how we developed two of our most powerful fact finding tools: science and journalism!

Plus, we’ll fact-check some conventional wisdom about ladybug spots and explain how surgeons operate on fish in our Moment of Um. All that and a Mystery Sound!

Listen to the rest of the series:
Part two: Science under the microscope
Part three: The scoop on journalism
Part four: How to find the facts

Audio Transcript

Download transcript (PDF)

You're listening to Brains On, where we're serious about being curious.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Brains On a supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

LADYBUG: Hi, earthworm. Thanks for coming to my third birthday party. Oh, junebug, looking sharp. Thanks for dressing up for my third birthday. Oh, dung beetle. You made it.

DUNG BEETLE: Hey, ladybug. Where do I put my present?

LADYBUG: You can leave it over there. It's not--

DUNG BEETLE: No. No. It's not dung.

LADYBUG: Oh, thank goodness.

DUNG BEETLE: It's a drawing of dung. I made it myself. It will look great in your living room.

LADYBUG: Oh, great. Just what I needed. Excuse me, snail. Snaily. How are you? Can you believe I'm already three? Where does the time go?

DUNG BEETLE: Can you believe, ladybug? Three? Three years old. What a load of fertilizer.

SNAIL: What do you mean?

DUNG BEETLE: Come on. See how many spots he has? Count them.

SNAIL: One, two, three, four. Four.

DUNG BEETLE: Exactly. Everybody knows a ladybug is as old as the number of spots that it has. It's a fact. He's four. I don't know why everyone's pretending he's three.

LADYBUG: Oh, ant. I didn't see you there. So glad you could come.

ANT: Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it. By the way, you just look so great, for three.

LADYBUG: Oh, shucks. You're the sweetest. Later.

ANT: Bye, bestie. Save me some cake.

DUNG BEETLE: What a phony.

MOLLY BLOOM: This is part one in a series called Prove It: How to Find the Facts.

MAN: How can we debate what we declare?

WOMAN: Theorize and test for errors.

MAN: What if what we say feels right?

WOMAN: OK, sure, but let's just shine a light.

BOTH: We can prove it. We can prove it. Let's check the facts and prove it. We can prove it. We can prove it. Let's check the facts and prove it.

MOLLY BLOOM: Hi. I'm Molly Bloom, and this is Brains On from American Public Media. My co-host today and for this whole series is 12-year-old Katie from Fairfield, Connecticut. Welcome, Katie.


MOLLY BLOOM: We are kicking off a series about separating facts from fluff. Katie, in your words, what is a fact?

KATIE: I think a fact is something that doesn't change from person to person. It's proven and true.

MOLLY BLOOM: Yes. That is a really good answer. A fact is indisputably true. Something that is proven to be the case. So what about that claim that you can tell a ladybug's age from its spots? This is something listener Avery asked us about.

AVERY: Hi. My name is Avery. I'm from Belmar, New Jersey. Is it true that ladybugs are as old as they have spots?

MOLLY BLOOM: So, Katie. What do you think? Do you think that is true? Is that a fact?

KATIE: I had always heard that when I was younger, but I think it's probably a myth.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK. Well, we are going to find out if that's true in a minute. But first, Katie, you are no stranger to facts because you read a lot of news, right?

KATIE: Yeah. I love to read the news.

MOLLY BLOOM: So how did you become so interested in reading the news and become such a newshound?

KATIE: Well, when I was little, I got this offer for a free trial on my Kindle. It was for the Washington Post. And I just clicked on it, and I've been addicted ever since.

MOLLY BLOOM: So how does reading the news most days change how you see the world?

KATIE: I think it's sort of taught me to see the world more critically and carefully, and now I just don't accept information as easily without looking at it.

MOLLY BLOOM: Is it hard to find other people your age to talk about the news with?

KATIE: Yeah. It's pretty hard. But I can talk to older people about it, and I think kids are starting to tune into current events more and more these days.

MOLLY BLOOM: Well, back to that curious claim about ladybug spots. Is it totally right, or more like, yeah, right? To help us find out, we've called in a professional.

KATIE: Linda Qiu is a journalist, and her job is to check facts. She works at the New York Times. Hi.


KATIE: So Linda, what exactly does a fact-checker do?

LINDA QIU: So my job is basically to look at claims being made by politicians, public officials, or just anything in the news, and see if it's true or not.

KATIE: How do you check a fact? What kind of tools do you use?

LINDA QIU: That's a great question. So I guess I rely on primary and secondary sources. So a primary source is someone with direct knowledge of the topic. So for example, if I'm going to check a fact about ladybugs, I'll talk to someone who studies ladybugs. A secondary source is something that I'll read. So for example, I might read a newspaper article about a study on ladybugs. So that would be a secondary source.

KATIE: So is it true that you can tell a ladybug's age from its spots?

LINDA QIU: It's not. So this myth probably comes from the fact that there are many, many species of ladybugs. And I actually asked an expert about this who works at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. And he said that each species actually has a corresponding number of spots. And there's about 5,000 species all over the world. Some will have seven spots. Others have two. And there's even one ladybug with 15 spots. It's from Asia, and it's called the harlequin lady beetle. And once a ladybug becomes an adult, it just never changes its spots. Also, ladybugs usually live for just a year or two at most. So if they really did gain a spot every year, all of these ladybugs would only have one or two spots.

KATIE: Wow. That's amazing. Do you have a favorite fact or misinformation that you debunked?

LINDA QIU: During the 2016 Olympics, do you know who Usain Bolt is?

KATIE: Yeah. Yeah.

LINDA QIU: So he's one of the fastest people in the world. He was talking about whether he would be scared or not going to Brazil to participate in the Olympics because there was a disease called Zika. And during the time, he joked that he wasn't afraid because he could always outrun Zika mosquitoes. So I fact-checked that, and it turns out he can. He's much faster than. mosquitoes.

KATIE: What happens if a bit of wrong information gets into the newspaper? How do you fix it?

LINDA QIU: So we issue what we call corrections. And in the print newspaper, there's like a section that says all the corrections of mistakes that we've made previously and online. It'll be at the bottom of the story. So for example, if we said something happened in January but it actually happened in February, the story will be updated to fix that error. But also at the bottom, we recognize that we made a mistake, and we're sorry about it. So we always own up to our mistakes.

KATIE: Thanks for helping us today, Linda.

LINDA QIU: Yeah. No problem. This was fun.

MOLLY BLOOM: Linda is going to be back next episode and every episode of this series, checking facts that you, our listeners, were wondering about. One reason facts are so powerful is because they're true for everyone.

KATIE: It doesn't matter where you're from, how old you are, or what you believe in. A fact is a fact.

MOLLY BLOOM: It's easy to take all the facts we have for granted. You can search for them on your phone. We have libraries full of them. We learn them in school every day.

KATIE: But it wasn't always that way. It took centuries to develop reliable ways of finding facts and sharing them around the world.

MOLLY BLOOM: Here to tell us that tale is producer Sanden Totten.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Hey, team. Are you ready for some light time travel?



SANDEN TOTTEN: Great. Because I want to trace the history of two very excellent fact-finding tools. Journalism and science. And to do that, we need to jump back just a little bit to the dawn of humanity. Finding facts begins with asking questions, and we've probably been asking questions for as long as we could talk.

GROG: Hey, Og. Ever wonder why fire hot?

OG: Yes, Grog. Also ever wonder if ambient air temperature increased rate of fire combustion or if speed of burning is unrelated to external factors and instead dependent on composition of material being consumed?

GROG: Yes. Grog wonder all the time.

SANDEN TOTTEN: But to go from questions to a world of facts, you need to make observations. You need to gather those observations and put them into categories, like hot things, cold things, things that will kill me if I eat them, things that won't kill me if I eat them. It's about creating a way of sorting information.

ALIX HUI: You can probably find that in really early forms, probably the earliest in medicine because survival is imperative.

SANDEN TOTTEN: That's Alix Hui a historian of science at Mississippi State University.

ALIX HUI: Medical traditions, like let's say, traditional Chinese medicine, is thousands of years old, right? Where you have people systematically trying to understand how these different herbs and therapies and various sort of treatments of the bodies and movements of the body align with the way in which they understand the world. And then using that to maintain health.

MOLLY BLOOM: These traditional Chinese doctors, they sound a lot like early scientists.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Yeah. Yeah. Doctors and healers kind of helped us get on the path to science as we know it, but they weren't able to test their ideas in the kinds of labs people use today, and they didn't have an easy way to share their findings with doctors in other parts of the world. It would take centuries before that kind of science showed up. Same with journalism. Journalism didn't start as we know it today. It took a while to get there.

KATIE: So where did journalism start?

SANDEN TOTTEN: Well, people have always gossiped and spread news through stories. But in ancient Rome, something interesting started happening. Emperor Julius Caesar began putting up posters in town squares, so people could read what his government was up to.

ROMAN WOMAN: Huh. It says here only elites can wear purple togas now. Better change your outfit, Brutus.

BRUTUS: No. But purple is my power color.

KATIE: So I'm guessing these posters are sort of like the early ancestor of the newspaper.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Exactly. They included stuff that had nothing to do with the government too, like news on big fires, or a cool festival, or a swanky party. But there was a problem with getting all your info from Caesar's posters. Can you guess, Katie?

KATIE: Well, let's just say it's probably not wise to get all your from one source.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Yeah. Exactly. Here's what Andie Tucher, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, had to say.

ANDIE TUCHER: We can guess pretty well that somebody like Julius Caesar is going to put a good spin on the stuff that he's telling people he's done for them.

SANDEN TOTTEN: I mean, it makes sense, right? You control the news, you're going to want to make yourself look pretty good.

ROMAN WOMAN: Huh. Check it out, Brutus. The poster says Caesar is doing a great job running Rome.

BRUTUS: All of it, lies.

ROMAN WOMAN: It also says he never has morning breath. He can do a thousand hundred push. His middle name is Danger. He can ride a horse backwards. Oh, and he looks great in purple.

BRUTUS: That's my color. Mine. Caesar must pay.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Andie Tucher says despite these flaws, the posters still inform the public about stuff they wouldn't know otherwise. But information still took a long time to go from place to place. Around the world, people were engaging in early science, making observations, creating ideas about the world, inventing math. But sharing those discoveries was not easy.

ASTRONOMER: Star light, star bright. Whoa. I think I discovered a new star tonight. You guys, I found a new star. You guys? Anybody? I'm so lonely.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Here's science historian Alix Hui again.

ALIX HUI: You know, astronomers would tell their technicians and their assistants and the next royal astronomer that gets installed at the observatory would have these generations' worth of observations that were documented very carefully. In that way, it's actually kind of neat because you have this collection of data that exists beyond the lifetime of a single person.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Now, if you were really ambitious, you could handwrite a book sharing what you learned.

ASTRONOMER: Dear everybody, this is a book to inform you of my many super rad discoveries, of which there are many. First, I found a new star. Second, I can touch my tongue to my nose, and it is cool. Third, I think space is made of a blob.

SANDEN TOTTEN: It was a slow, expensive process. But sometimes, these books would be translated into different languages, and they would be passed to different people in far off places.

ALIX HUI: A lot of mathematicians I guess you could call them or philosophers in the Middle East, a lot of the mathematics that they developed returned or moved back in sort of interesting circuitous ways back to Europe. You get this really interesting circulation of ideas. But yeah, it's limited to a handful of people because there just aren't that many people that have the free time, and the energy, and the interest, and basic sort of ability to communicate in written word.

SANDEN TOTTEN: So even though cool stuff was happening in science and math, most people didn't know about it. And a lot of the people at the time didn't read or write. But these problems didn't matter to another early ancestor of the journalist. The balladeer.

BALLADEER: Come gather round and hear this tale, the stories of our time. A horse chase and robbery. Listen to me at 9:00.

ANDIE TUCHER: People would gather up information about crimes, or wars, or politics, or eclipses, or earthquakes. And they would make songs out of them. And they would walk from town to town and stop at a street corner and sing those songs and then stop at a really tense moment until people paid him. And then he'd finish the song.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Still, for the most part, knowledge was localized. You had to travel long distances to learn the facts of another place or hope that a knowledgeable traveler came your way. But all that changed in the middle of the 15th century.

ANDIE TUCHER: Something really radical happens in Germany. A guy whose name is Johann Gutenberg invents a machine that is able to print many, many copies of the same page and distribute them widely. So all over Germany, people could be reading the same thing at the same time.

JOHANN GUTENBERG: I shall call it the printing press.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Gutenberg wasn't the first to try this. Some people in Asia were experimenting with other kinds of printing for small audiences. But Gutenberg's press was the first one to reach anything like a mass audience.

JOHANN GUTENBERG: I think it was the simplicity. All you had to do was take the tiny metal letters, line them up in a stamp one by one to spell out words, then sentences, and finally, whole pages. Add the ink, press it to paper, and voila. A printed page. It doesn't get any easier than that.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Actually, it'll get a lot easier in a few years. But still, Andie Tucher says it was a total game changer.

ANDIE TUCHER: For the people at the time, wow. You could read about when Columbus came back from voyaging to the New World for the first time, he wrote a letter about it, and somebody printed the letter, and pamphlets with this letter were circulating all over Europe. People in France could read it. People in Germany could read it. People in Italy could read it. And they all knew something was going on. They all knew that some great thing was beyond their daily lives.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Now at the time, a lot of people still couldn't read. Only the wealthy could afford to use this technology, and kings or other leaders would still get the final word about what was printed. But over the centuries, all that changed. More people could read. Printing became cheaper and faster. And soon, people were publishing radical ideas that challenged the powers that be.

MOLLY BLOOM: Sanden will be back to finish this tale a little later in the show. But first, let's take a break for some critical listening. It's time for the--


MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is. Any guesses?

KATIE: I think it's the ocean.

MOLLY BLOOM: Ooh. Excellent guess. Yeah. It sounded like there was something wet in there for sure. I'm going to have you keep thinking about it, and we'll hear it again a little bit later in the show.

KATIE: Do you have a question for Brains On? Send it to us. Just go to brainson.org/contact.

MOLLY BLOOM: And while you're at it, we'd also love to see your drawings of ladybug's birthday party.

KATIE: Can you graphically represent all that shade ant was throwing? If so, send it our way.

MOLLY BLOOM: Or you can send us a mystery sound or question, like this one from Mia.

MIA: How do vets take care of fish if they're inside a pool?

KATIE: We'll find out in A Moment of Um at the end of the show.

MOLLY BLOOM: We'll also announce the latest group of listeners to join the Brain's Honor Roll.

KATIE: So stick around.

MOLLY BLOOM: You're listening to Brains On. I'm Molly.

KATIE: And I'm Katie.

SANDEN TOTTEN: And I'm Sanden.

KATIE: Oh, right. Sanden. Should we jump back into your story about the origins of science and journalism?

SANDEN TOTTEN: Oh, I am ready. So we left off after the printing press pretty much rocks the world. Information started spreading faster than before, and it's inspiring lots of ideas, especially in science. You have a guy named Nicholas Copernicus publishing a book that says things revolve around the sun, not the Earth.

This inspires brilliant astronomers like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. Isaac Newton makes a book too, and it kicks off a physics revolution. And around the same time in England, a bunch of people get together to start a group called the Beatles. Wait, wait. Sorry, sorry. That's much later. This was in 1660, and this group was called the Royal Society of London.

ALIX HUI: And so this was for people to gather and to study nature.

SANDEN TOTTEN: That's our historian of science pal, Alix Hui.

ALIX HUI: And this group of men would get together and perform experiments. And they would sort of see what was happening and discuss it. And they would write that down. Sometimes, people would see things far away. They'd observe an aurora, and they'd write a letter to the Royal Society and be like,

ROYAL SOCIETY MEMBER: Dear fellow society members.

ALIX HUI: I saw these sort of all these crazy lights, and they were really beautiful.

ROYAL SOCIETY MEMBER: And there was green. There was pink. And there were stripes in the sky. And there was a strange crackling sound. It was astounding. It lasted most of the evening. I stayed up all night to watch it. The rooster crowed, and then the sun came up, and it went away.

ALIX HUI: And they would read this out loud. And they would talk about that might have been.

SANDEN TOTTEN: A lot of historians think this was the start of modern science. You suddenly had groups of people working together, arguing politely, and checking each other's facts. Similar groups popped up around the world. And soon enough, researchers all over were working together to share observations and results from experiments. This allowed them to build a shared body of facts.

MOLLY BLOOM: We'll be talking a lot more about all that in our next episode, so look out for that.

KATIE: But in the meantime, what about journalism? What was going on with the news during this time?

SANDEN TOTTEN: Right. So publishing pamphlets, which are kind of like small booklets, this becomes a really big deal. In fact, across the Atlantic, a group of colonists are printing some pretty revolutionary stuff.

COLONIST: Fellow colonists, read this pamphlet here all about the crimes of vile morally bankrupt British King has committed against our fair, kindly, totally awesome people.

SANDEN TOTTEN: Eventually, these colonists start the Revolutionary War and win.

COLONIST: Victory is ours. One day, future generations will sing our praises preferably and hit Broadway musicals that sell out months in advance. Can someone get my future relatives tickets please? I know Hamilton personally. Anyone?

SANDEN TOTTEN: After this, newspapers hit the scene.

KATIE: Now you're talking.

SANDEN TOTTEN: We're going to get more into the modern history of journalism and science in our next couple of shows, so stick around.

KATIE: I can't wait.

MOLLY BLOOM: Thanks for that epic tale, Sanden.

KATIE: Yeah. What a ride.

SANDEN TOTTEN: No problem. Now if you'll excuse me, all that zipping through time made me really dizzy, so I'm just going to go lie down for a bit.


MOLLY BLOOM: So that was quite a history. But we should remind everyone, it's not the entire history, not even close. Sanden and his experts picked the details that stood out to them. They left out a lot too.

KATIE: Keep that in mind every time you hear a history or news report. What you hear is almost always just part of the story.

MOLLY BLOOM: Good point. Hey, I think it's time to check back in on that mystery sound. Do you want to hear it again?

KATIE: Sure.

MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is. Any new guesses after hearing it a second time?

KATIE: I'm not sure. I think I'll stick with the ocean.

MOLLY BLOOM: OK. Here is the answer.

ANNIE LUKE: Hi. My name is Annie Luke, and I'm a fourth year graduate student here at the University of Minnesota. And you just heard the sound of liquid nitrogen hitting the floor. Since liquid nitrogen has such a low boiling point, the minute it touches something warmer than it, it'll actually boil off, and that's what you heard.

MOLLY BLOOM: So have you ever seen liquid nitrogen being poured out before?

KATIE: Yeah, actually.


KATIE: Yeah. My science teacher did it once.

MOLLY BLOOM: That's awesome. What did it look like?

KATIE: It looked more like a cloud honestly.

MOLLY BLOOM: So it's like you're pouring out a liquid, but it just like turns to a cloud instantly?

KATIE: Yeah. Sort of.

MOLLY BLOOM: That is pretty cool. Annie is a scientist, and she uses liquid nitrogen in experiments where she needs really low temperatures since liquid nitrogen is way, way, way colder than ice. She and her team are working to create environmentally friendly plastics. Ones that will break down or degrade over time. Annie says being a scientist is all about asking questions.

ANNIE LUKE: If you are interested in science or interested in becoming a scientist, I highly encourage you to just stay curious. Every single scientific method that we use has to start with a question. So you look and you see something you don't understand, you ask why is that? And then you want to answer that.

MOLLY BLOOM: In our next episode, we're going to hear from more scientists like Annie about how they ask questions and find facts, and how that's helped all of us learn about our world. A fact is something that's been proven to be true.

KATIE: And a fact-checker is someone who researches statements to see if they are true or not.

MOLLY BLOOM: Science and journalism are two different ways we have to find facts about the world.

KATIE: And it took centuries for modern science and journalism to become the fact-finding machines they are today.

MOLLY BLOOM: And when you hear things from history, remember that it's only part of the story. That's it for this episode of Brains On.

KATIE: Brains On is produced by Sanden Totten, and Molly Bloom, and Marc Sanchez.

MOLLY BLOOM: We had production help today from Otis Gray, Emily Bright, and Ned Liebert Striker, and engineering help from Erik Stromstad, Julie Ferdino, John Miller, and Anthony Craven. Many thanks to Megan Reddy, Maya Sugarman, Brenna Everson, Jeff Jones, Meg Martin, Eric Wrangham, Tracy Mumford, Curtis Gilbert, Tom Scheck, Amy Graf Nelson, Phillip McCarty, Mark Zdechlik, and Denzel Baylin.

KATIE: And Brains On is supported in part by funding from the National Science Foundation.

MOLLY BLOOM: We are a nonprofit public radio production, and donations from our listeners help us keep making new episodes. If you're interested in supporting Brains On, you can head to brainson.org/donate.

KATIE: You can find more episodes of Brains On our brainson.org. And you can find us on Twitter and Instagram at brains underscore on.

MOLLY BLOOM: And if you have a question, mystery sound drawing, or high five to share, head to brainson.org/contact.

KATIE: Now, before we go it's time for a Moment of Um.

MIA: Hi. My name is Mia. I'm from Miami, Florida. And my question is, how do vets take care of fish if they're inside a bowl?

DR. JESSICA URBANIS: The easy answer is that we treat everything. The fish and the water that the fish are in. My name is Dr. Jessica Urbanis. I am an emergency veterinarian, which means that I work when your regular vet isn't there. So I see animals when they're really sick. And I work at a veterinary practice in a big veterinary hospital in Middletown, Connecticut.

With people and with dogs and with cats, we get them to take medication by mouth. So we give them a little treat, and we give them a pill. The way that we do that with fish is that because they have gills, which are these kind of almost blood vessels that are open to the water themselves, they just get bathed with the water. What we do is we put medication into the actual water, so we don't have to have them take it by mouth, but it will get absorbed through those gills. So it's a way of giving them medication without having to actually give them pills, or liquids, or anything like that.

It's kind of the equivalent of if you have an asthmatic, you give them inhaled medications. So the same idea with fish surgery it's kind of like when you go to the dentist or you go under for surgery, and they put that mask on your face, and they make you breathe in that gas that makes you sleepy. The difference is that the way that we do it is we put that gas into the water, and we actually move that water that has that gas in it over the fish's gills.

And what they do is they wind up absorbing that gas through their gills rather than breathing it in, like you or I. And then once we're done with the surgery, then what we do is we take clean water that doesn't have any medication in it, and we put the fish back in that clean water, and they wind up waking up.

MOLLY BLOOM: I'm feeling good and ready to breeze through this list of names. It's the Brain's Honor Roll these are the incredible listeners who power this show with their ideas and curiosity.


MOLLY BLOOM: We'll be back soon with more answers to your questions.

KATIE: Thanks for listening.

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