Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

Woman becomes mother at age 70, sets record

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

The Flag of India is a horizontal tricolor with the 24-spoke Ashoka Chakra wheel in the middle

Rajo Devi of Alewa, India has become the oldest woman ever to give birth, as reported by Slate. She is 70 years old; the father, her husband, is 72.

Obviously, she is two decades past menopause and incapable of having children normally.  However, there are fertility treatments now by which a woman can have a child at virtually any age.  But just because we can do a thing does not mean that we must do that thing.  Or even that we should.  Rajo Devi and her husban will be octogenarians by the time the kid is 10.  I’m not sure what the age of majority is in India, but the mom will be 88 when the kid is 18.  How is this a good idea?

The desire to be parents is natural and understandable.  But if you can’t have children naturally, as Rajo Devi and her husband couldn’t, why not adopt?  There are surely enough orphans in the world (a lack of them would be a problem worth having). Why create a new child who will be deprived of parents while still young?  I think that maybe we should think a little bit more about this whole old people having babies after drastic medical intervention thing.

Washing your hands may make you evil

Cleanliness may not be next to Godliness after all. Researchers have found that experimental subjects who had been primed with concepts related to cleanliness (e.g. pure, immaculate, pristine, et cetera) or who had just washed their hands were less likely to be troubled by questionable behavior, which they rated on a scale of 0 (perfectly okay) to 9 (very wrong).  The Economist has the story.

The researchers report that those who were given the “clean” words or who washed themselves rated the acts they were asked to consider as ethically more acceptable than the control groups did. Among the volunteers who unscrambled the sentences, those exposed to ideas of cleanliness rated eating the family dog at 5.7, on average, on the wrongness scale whereas the control group rated it as 6.6. Their score for using a kitten in sexual play was 6.7; the control group individuals gave it 8.3. Similar results arose from the handwashing experiment.

Dr. Simone Schnall conducted the research, which is published in Psychological Science.  The Economist reports that her hypothesis is that “feeling morally unclean (i.e. disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong.”  The article concludes by saying:

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Anyway, if you want to manipulate someone into doing something wrong, get them to wash up before making your proposal.

Burlington, VT is healthiest city & Huntington, WV is unhealthiest city in America

Burlington, Vermont may have healthy residents, but they have a terrible flag

Burlington, Vermont may have healthy residents, but they have a terrible flag

The Centers for Disease Control has completed a survey of the United States and found that Burlington, Vermont (pop. 39,000) is the healthiest city in the United States.  The city is among the best in exercise and among the lowest in obesity, diabetes, and other measures of ill health; and 92% of residents report being in good or great health.

At the other end of the health spectrum is Huntington, West Virginia (pop. 49,000).  Many of their health challenges there are related to obesity.

Huntington is essentially tied with a few other metropolitan areas for proportion of people who don’t exercise (31 percent), have heart disease (22 percent) and diabetes (13 percent). The smoking rate is pretty high, too, although not the worst.

However, the Huntington area is a clear-cut leader in dental problems, with nearly half the people age 65 and older saying they have lost all their natural teeth. And no other city comes close to Huntington’s adult obesity rate, according to the report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on data from 2006.

The dental statistic jumps out at me: 48.1% of people over 65 in Huntington have none of their original teeth left.

Some of the differences between the healthiest and unhealthiest cities are interesting:

  • Burlington is younger, with an average age of 37, compared to 40 in Huntington, according to the Census Bureau.
  • Burlington is better off financially, with 8 percent living at the federal poverty level, compared to 19 percent in Huntington.
  • It’s much more educated, with nearly 40 percent of area residents having at least a college bachelor’s degree. Only 15 percent in the Huntington area do.

This flag is an abomination.  In a 2004 flag survey conducted by the North American Vexillogical Association only one city had a worse flag than this

Huntington, WV's flag is an abomination. In a 2004 North American Vexillogical Association flag survey only one city in the country had a worse flag than this

Poverty is a significant factor in Huntington’s high obesity rate and other health problems; people there don’t have much leisure time to exercise and often can’t afford to eat healthy foods. The news story refers to “the KFC $10 Challenge” which the the fried-chicken chain is advertising.  They challenge a family to go to the grocery store and put together a dinner for $10 or less that was comparable to KFC’s seven-piece, $9.99 value meal. “This is what we’re up against,” said Keri Kennedy, manager of the West Virginia health department’s Office of Healthy Lifestyles.  She notes that it’s an extremely persuasive ad for a low-income family that is accustomed to fried foods. “I don’t know what you do to counter that.”

Women wearing red are seen as more attractive

New research has found yet another way that our thinking is often much less rational and far more influenced by external factors than we’d like to admit.  These findings, produced by a team led by psychology professor Andrew Elliot of the University of Rochester in New York, indicate that men find women who wear the color red to be more physically attractive than those who wear other colors.

Ladies, wear this color if you want to be seen as more physically attractive to men

Ladies, wear this color if you want to be seen as more physically attractive to men

They did several sets of experiments.  In one, researchers used a computer to modify the color of clothing worn by women in various pictures.  Men who saw a picture of a given woman wearing red rated her, on average, as being more attractive than did men who saw the same woman in the same photo but with her shirt changed to a different color.  In the other set of experiments, men were shown pictures of women that were unmodified but that were framed with a colored border.  Women were rated as more physically attractive and sexually desirable when their pictures were framed with red than when they were framed with another color.

Homosexual men and color blind men were excluded from the study, which utilized about 100 men, mostly college undergraduates.  They did not rate women wearing red any differently in terms of intelligence, likability, or kindness—only attractiveness.  Researchers conclude “The women shown framed by or wearing red were rated significantly more attractive and sexually desirable by men than the exact same women shown with other colours.” The study is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The lead researcher notes that:

throughout history many cultures have linked sex with the colour red, ranging from ancient peoples who used ochre body paints on fertile females to modern-day “red-light” districts.

But Dr. Elliot speculated that men’s response to red may also have deep biological roots that go beyond a learned cultural response. The sexual parts of female baboons and chimpanzees take on a conspicuously red hue when they are reaching ovulation. In similar fashion, many human females will become flush-faced when they are interested in a male, Dr. Elliot said.

“It may well be that males have this deep-seated sense of red indicating sexual availability,” he speculated. “I think females can use that to their advantage—and to wear it or not, depending on their desires.”

So, ladies, this should make it easier for you to decide what to wear on your next first date.  If you like the guy, wear red; if you want to lose him, wear another color.  Or maybe just wear red anyway, because in other research conducted by those same scientists, men said they were willing to spend more money on a date if she were wearing red than if she were wearing another color.

Watching certain TV shows correlates with teen pregnancy

The results of an interesting study that’s been reported on today demonstrates a meaningful positive correlation between the amount of sexual content that teens view on TV and their chances of getting or causing a pregnancy.

The RAND Corp. study is the first of its kind to identify a link between teenagers’ exposure to sexual content on TV and teen pregnancies. The study, released Monday and published in the November edition of the journal Pediatrics, found that teens exposed to high levels of sexual content on television were twice as likely to be involved in a pregnancy in the following three years as teens with limited exposure.

The study was paid for by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and follows a 2004 study by some of the same scientists that indicated watching sexual content on TV can make teens more likely to have sex at earlier ages.  The authors, lead by Anita Chandra, point out that teen pregnancy is a complicated issue influenced by many variables.  While the study found that the correlation remained when factors like grades, family structure and parents’ education level were considered, the study didn’t control for other issues, like self esteem, family values, and income.  Looking at those variables would be a good next step.

The researchers are calling for more realistic plotlines in television that address the possible consequences of sexual activity, which is rarely, if ever, shown as leading to unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. “Right now the message teens are getting is that everything is great, and there really are no consequences to sex,” Chandra said.

Two recent high-profile teen pregnancies, those of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin, also have some of these qualities.  Both individuals have many advantages in terms of finances and family that will help them as they move forward and raise their children; they won’t be as inconvenienced and limited by having to raise children as many young women would be, possibly giving a false impression on how easy and glamorous it is to raise children as a teen who hasn’t even graduated from high school yet.

Many social conservatives will welcome this news.  If so, they should also accept the massive amounts of data that indicate that abstinence-only sex education doesn’t work to prevent teen pregnancy or STDs.  (See, for instance, here, here, and here.) All sex education includes information on abstinence; abstinence education isn’t the problem, the problem is abstinence-only sex ed that excludes information on everything else—and which frequently even give incorrect information to students.

It seems to me that to have the best chances of teens—and other people—making the best sex-related decisions, we should make sure our schools are giving the best information possible and that those messages aren’t being drowned out by a bunch of misleading and unchecked messages from TV and the rest of our society that give people wrong impressions.  Let’s give people good information, help them think critically about the issues involved, and then trust them to make their own decisions.

Cheetahs on a plane!

No, this blog entry doesn’t share a title with an upcoming Samuel L. Jackson movie; it’s about a real event!  There were cheetahs.  And they were on a plane.  And one of them was loose!  Well, okay, it was just in the cargo hold.  But still.

A cheetah in its natural, non-airplane environment

A cheetah in its natural environment. Curiously, this picture was uploaded to Wikipedia by user "Jacoplane."

Yahoo has the story.  Apparently, the pair of 1-year old female cheetahs were being transported in the cargo hold of a Delta Airlines flight from the Wildlife Safari Park in Winston, Oregon to the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee.  Somehow, one got out of her cage and was eventually discovered in Atlanta by a surprised baggage handler when she opened the cargo hold (and presumably closed it again very quickly).

Happily the situation was resolved favorably for all involved, human and feline.   Delta got help from the folks at the Atlanta Zoo, who tranquilized both animals and removed them from the aircraft.  There was, however, a delay in passengers getting their luggage, but fortunately none was damaged by the cats.  Note that cheetahs are the only cats that cannot retract their claws.

I’ve always liked cheetahs.  I think as a kid I just thought it was cool that they were the fastest land animal on the planet, able to run up to 77 mph according to one book I had (peregrin falcons and some other bird species can achieve much greater speeds when performing an aerial dive). Unfortunately, cheetahs suffer from very low genetic variability, the result of going through an extremely narrow population bottleneck during the last ice age about 10,000 years ago; genetic research indicates that as few as seven cheetahs that were alive at that time passed on their genes.  The animals are so genetically similar that skin grafts between unrelated cheetahs are rarely rejected.  Negative consequences of this paucity of genetic variation include trouble breeding, high mortality among cubs, and poor immune systems.  I wonder if their inability to retract their claws is also related?

In any event, to learn more about these fascinating and beautiful animals, see Wikipedia’s article thereon.  And, hopefully, more cheetahs won’t be getting loose on planes anytime soon.

Researchers learn about lovesickness from rodents

A group of reseachers led by Larry Young, a psychiatry professor at Emory University’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, in Atlanta, have some interesting findings on the causes of lovesickness.  They studied prairie voles, one of the few animals that generally practices lifelong monogamy, and discovered changes in brain chemistry when a prairie vole is separated from its mate.  (See “Brain Chemical Could Spur Lovesickness“)

Young and his group examined the brains of a variety of adult male voles. Some of the voles had lifelong female partners, while other hadn’t had time to form such bonds and were best acquainted with brother or sister voles.

All of the voles were subjected to brief stress tests, such as a swimming challenge, or being placed in a maze.

“The ones who were [still] with a partner, or had just been separated from a sibling so they never formed a romantic bond in the first place, actively avoided the aversive or stressful situation,” Young noted.

But what about male voles who had been recently separated from a longtime female partner?

These voles “basically were passive — they gave up,” Young said. “I would be hesitant to say that these animals were depressed, but their behavior is reminiscent of what you would see in a depressed person.”

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

These guys may be able to tell us about romantic love

The brains of the lovesick voles had heightened activity of a chemical messenger called corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) in an area of the hypothalamus, an area of the brain heavily involved in emotions.  When the researchers administered a drug that blocked CRF activity, the behavioral differences between the voles who’d been separated from their mates and those that were not disappeared.  CRF activity kicked in only when the vole was separated from a longtime female partner, not a sibling companion.

This all suggests a mechanism designed to push mating pairs back together if separated.  It also suggests, according to experts, the possibility of a pharmaceutical fix for lovesickness.

The findings were published on Oct. 15 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Monday Miscellany: data mining, monarchs, and Mercury

False color image of Mercury, courtesy of MESSENGER

False color image of Mercury, courtesy of MESSENGER

Today NASA’s space probe MESSENGER made a flyby of the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury.  The probe, whose name is both an acronym for Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging and a reference to Mercury’s role as the messenger of the Roman gods, took photographs of previously unseen areas of the planet’s surface and numerous other readings that scientists are now eagerly studying.  This is the second of three flybys of Mercury, each of them serves to slow down the spacecraft to the point that it can enter orbit in 2011; it also got such gravity assists from Venus and from the Earth itself.  Somewhat counter intuitively to a layman, going to Mercury is a lot harder than going to Mars, due to the very large change in velocity needed to enter orbit (or land on the planet, which no spacecraft has ever done and which is not part of MESSENGER’s mission).  For more information on the mission, including many more photos, check out their official site.

The Economist has an excellent series of articles covering all aspects of the American presidential election. They also have a non-scientific online poll of their readers to see who would win the election if the electoral college were global and each country allocated its electors on a winner-take-all basis. Currently, Barack Obama is ahead 8375–15. McCain is ahead only in Georgia (the country, not the state), Macedonia, and Andorra. He is probably glad that this is just a poll of Economist.com visitors and not a real poll of public opinion in those countries, but, given that he’d probably still lose a worldwide popularity contest, he is probably very glad that this has no constitutional standing.

Speaking of the Economist, they have a thought-provoking article on “Data mining and the state.”  It discusses how all the information that the government collects about us and processes can be used both to increase security and safety and to decrease our privacy and liberties.  They discuss the future of such data mining and don’t pretend to offer clear answers as to when and how such technology should be used.

And speaking of the presidential race, linguists have analyzed the candidates’ remarks at the vice presidential debate (which I blogged about at some length here). They found that Palin spoke at the level of a 9.5th grader and Biden at that of a 7.8th grader. Palin, who spoke 5235 words, used the passive voice in 8% of her sentences; Biden spoke 5492 words and used the passive voice only 5% of the time. They both averaged 4.4 letters per word and were statistically tied on the length of their paragraphs; Biden’s averaged 2.7 sentences and Palin’s each had about 2.6 sentences. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln spoke at an 11th grade level, they report—quite interesting, when you consider how much less education people had back then—though the level on which a person speaks doesn’t necessarily make what they say any better or clearer.

Thanks to the aptly-named Virgin Galactic, no one will be having sex here anytime soon

Thanks to the aptly-named Virgin Galactic, no one will be having sex up here anytime soon

In wackier news, Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s company that will take paying customers into space, has rejected an offer of $1 million to use their spacecraft for filming two people having sex in space. “That was money we had to refuse, I’m afraid,” said company president Will Whitehorn (which, now that I’ve written it, sounds kind of like a male porn star’s name). If not for the fact that the company making the offer was unidentified, I would say that this was simply a publicity stunt. Virgin Galactic will probably begin flights in 2009 or 2010 and their spacecraft will carry six passengers in addition to two pilots. Tickets will cost $200,000. Even assuming that the $1 million was in addition to the $1.2 million that Virgin Galactic would pull in on a full flight it wouldn’t be worth the likely bad publicity that they would get. Besides, I’m sure a porn company could make much more than $1 million if they were the first to release a porn film of people having sex in zero gravity. Wait… maybe this is a publicity stunt, for Virgin Galactic. If so, it’s worked: I’m blogging about it.

These people, murdered by Communists in 90 years ago, have just been declared victims of Communism.

These people, murdered by Communists in 90 years ago, have just been declared victims of Communism.

The Russian Supreme Court has declared that Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed illegally and are entitled to rehabilitation by the state. This involves formally exonerating them and declaring them victims of communist repression; over four million Russians have been rehabilitated since the collapse of the Soviet Union; The Tsar’s descendants have been trying for years to have him exonerated and were surprised at the ruling. Hopefully this will help Russia’s process of coming to terms with its past. However, I somehow don’t think that knowing he would be declared a victim of communist repression 90 years later would have been much comfort to Nicholas as he and his family were gunned down and bayoneted.

2008 Ig Nobel Prize winners

The winners of the 2008 Ig Nobel Prizes have been announced and the awards ceremony was held yesterday at Harvard. The Ig Nobel Prizes, obviously punning on ignoble and the Nobel Prizes, are given out each year for research that “first make[s] people laugh, and then make[s] them think.” Many of the categories mirror the Nobels: physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace, but awards are also often given out for accomplishments in the fields of public health, engineering, biology, et cetera.

A full list of this year’s winners is available here, but here are some highlights from this year’s prizes:

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.

ECONOMICS PRIZE. Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer’s ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings.

I’m usually most interested in the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, the first of which was given to Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it.” Last year it went to The Air Force Wright Laboratory “for instigating research & development on a chemical weapon—the so-called ‘gay bomb’—that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.” (Don’t worry, the presumably non-lethal weapon never got beyond the concept phase.) This year’s peace prize winner?

The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.

Enshrining the dignity of plants in law? Funny, but it doesn’t come close to the most hilarious award citation ever. That distinction, in my view, is that for the 2005 literature prize. That award went to

the Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters—General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others—each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.

The winners are invited to the awards ceremony to accept their awards in person (last year, no one from Wright Laboratory showed up to claim the “gay bomb” prize, no Nigerians attended either); actual Nobel Prize winners serve as presenters. It used to be traditional for attendees to throw paper airplanes onto the stage, but that was discontinued in 2006 over “security concerns.” Apparently they are worried that al-Qaeda might hijack one of the paper airplanes or something. I guess.

Anyway, the winners of the Nobel Prizes will be announced soon. In the meantime, I’ll close this blog post the same way the Ig Nobel Prize awards ceremony is traditionally concluded: “If you didn’t win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!”