Archive for September 22nd, 2008|Daily archive page

Political views may have innate tendencies

Social scientists at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln have noted a correlation between the positions a person adopts on certain political issues and how he or she responds to frightening stimuli. They determined the later by measuring the subjects’ galvanic skin response (sweating) when viewing distressing images and also be observing their response to a sudden, loud noise. People who were more prone to being startled were more likely to adopt conservative positions on “hot button” social issues, like same-sex marriage, gun control, abortion, and the Iraq war.

The finding suggests that people who are particularly sensitive to signals of visual or auditory threats also tend to adopt a more defensive stance on political issues, such as immigration, gun control, defense spending and patriotism. People who are less sensitive to potential threats, by contrast, seem predisposed to hold more liberal positions on those issues.

[R]esearchers stressed that physiology is only one factor in how people form their political views — and far from the most important factor. Startle responses, moreover, cannot be used to predict the political views of any one individual — there are many liberals who startle easily and many conservatives who do not. What the study did find is that, across groups of people, there seems to be an association between sensitivity to physical threats and sensitivity to threats affecting social groups and social order.

Researchers also stress that this cannot be used to judge any individual’s political beliefs. “We are not saying if you sneak up on someone and say ‘Boo!’ and see how hard they blink, that tells you what their political beliefs are,” said John Hibbing, one of the involved political scientists.

We all like to think we’re completely objective and not influenced by external factors, only by the merits of the issues. However, it’s likely that we are all manipulated by outside forces and innate tendencies far more than we’d like to admit. Well, other people, at any rate—surely not the author or readers of this blog! The study was published in the journal Science.

Obama pledges fiscal conservatism

Presidential candidate Barack Obama has vowed to make deep cuts in federal spending, if elected. He says he’d cut federal spending on contractors by 10%, saving $40 billion; spending on contractors has increased from $203 billion in 2000 to $412 billion in 2006, by 10%, saving $40 billion. He also criticized no-bid contracts, which presumably he would eliminate or greatly curtail.

“I am not a Democrat who believes that we can or should defend every government program just because it’s there,” Obama said at a rally in Green Bay. “We will fire government managers who aren’t getting results, we will cut funding for programs that are wasting your money and we will use technology and lessons from the private sector to improve efficiency across every level of government.”

“The only way we can do all this without leaving our children with an even larger debt is if Washington starts taking responsibility for every dime that it spends,” he said.

Though it is normally Republicans who talk tough about the budget, federal spending–including non-defense spending–has increased greatly during the George W. Bush administration. The budget he submitted in 2001 was for $2.0 trillion; the one he submitted this year is for $3.1 trillion.

John McCain has pledged to help the nation’s fiscal situation by aggressively going after wasteful spending, including earmarks. He has promised to make the authors of bad spending bills famous and to wield the veto pen with abandon, if needed.

Hopefully, whoever is elected actually does get the budget situation under control.

Monday Miscellany: oceans, stars, and Gordon Brown

Here are some of the news stories that have caught my attention in the past week. If you find any of them interesting, please comment!

After a century of study, we're still finding new creatures everywhere we look in the ocean

We barely know what lives here. And don't build your house to close to this thing if you live in Texas.

The ongoing Census of Marine Life, an international effort to catalog all life in the oceans, has announced the discovery of hundreds of previously unknown species. They were found on various coral reefs and join thousands of other new species that the Census has discovered. Literally every where they look in the oceans, no matter how well previously explored, scientists are finding new species. The survey is expected to be completed circa 2010.

Speaking of the oceans and seas, hundreds of people on the Texas coast may soon lose their homes on account of Hurricane Ike and a 1959 state law that makes all coastal land between the low tide mark and the high tide mark public property and illegal to build upon. The hurricane has eroded many beaches severely, so many homes that were previously back from the water are now within that zone. Owners whose property is condemned by the state would probably get nothing in return, and it may take up to a year in some areas for the state to determine if the homes are indeed on public property now (it’ll take a while to see how the tides will act throughout the year). The law was last widely used in 1983 after Hurricane Alicia. I don’t think we should feel too bad for these people. “Every one of them was warned of that in their earnest money contract, in the deed they received, in the title policy they bought. … And whether you like it or not, neither the Constitution of the United States nor the state of Texas nor any law permits you to have a structure on state-owned property that’s subject to the flow of the tide.” These folks knew the risks and decided to take their chances. Unfortunately, they’ve lost their gamble.

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

If you've bought a Harry Potter book, this guy's party may have some of your money!

On the other side of the pond, Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has donated £1milllion (about $1.8 million) to the Labour Party, saying “I believe that poor and vulnerable families will fare much better under the Labour Party than they would under a Cameron-led Conservative Party.” This is the first time she has donated to the party and some cynics speculate that she is angling for a spot on the British honours list. Dame Rowling, perhaps? The Labour Party can probably use the money; they trail the Conservative Party in polls by about 12 points, though this is down from a 21 point defecit last month. Perhaps Gordon Brown’s declaration that he “wants to do better” as Prime Minister has helped his party out some? He doesn’t need to call elections until five years after the last ones, in May 2005, but they’re typically held a year before the parliament’s term expires unless the party in power is doing very poorly.

In American election news, despite none of the presidential debates having been held yet, millions of people can already cast their ballots in this years contests. In all, 36 of the 50 states have some form of early voting, though details vary by jurisdiction. In Virginia, considered an important swing state in the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain, citizens can already vote right now. In all, up to one third of voters are expected to take advantage of early voting or absentee ballots. Hopefully few of those voters get buyers remorse between now and election day. Of course, half the electorate gets buyers remorse after the election, so they’re really just doing that ahead of us too. (Note that I’m not posting a picture of Virginia’s state flag on account of it sucks really bad.)

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Dark matter probably helped form these galaxies, which probably contain some super-massive stars

Somewhat farther away, astronomers have identified the most massive star ever found in our galaxy. The previous record holder was about 83 times the mass of the Sun; this beast is 115 times the mass of our favorite star, and it happens to be orbited by the next most massive star ever discovered, which weighs in at 89 solar masses. The astronomers’ calculations have a margin of error of +/- 30 and 15 solar masses, respectively, for the two newly studied stars. Theoretically, the maximum size a star could possibly be is 150 solar masses. The larger a star is, the more quickly it burns out.

Some other astronomers have discovered a new galaxy, Segue 1, which despite orbiting the Milky Way was not previously studied on account of being only 1/1,000,000,000th as bright as our own galaxy. However, Segue 1’s gravity is about 1000 times greater than would be predicted based on it’s luminosity alone, indicating that it is chock full of way more dark matter than would be expected. Very little is known about dark matter, and there are still a few scientists who are skeptical that it exists, but the evidence is very strong. Most cosmologists think that dark matter plays an important role in the formation of galaxies, meaning we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t. It is thought that there is approximately six times as much dark matter as normal matter in the universe, but that it only makes up about 23% of the universe, with almost all the rest being even more mysterious dark energy, which drives the expansion of the universe. In other words, we don’t know what 96% of the universe is. We’ll not run out of things to learn any time soon!

I hope this helps get your week off to an interesting start. Have a good one.