Category Archives: Science

Judgement Day

By Cato

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Study Finds That Merely Thinking About Science Triggers Moral Behavior

Science Alive

According to researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, simply thinking about science triggers moral behavior:

They hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral pursuit — its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else. Their new study, published in the journal PLOSOne, argues that the association between science and morality is so ingrained that merely thinking about it can trigger more moral behavior.

The researchers conducted four separate studies to test this. The first sought to establish a simple correlation between the degree to which individuals believed in science and their likelihood of enforcing moral norms when presented with a hypothetical violation. Participants read a vignette of a date-rape and were asked to rate the “wrongness” of the offense before answering a questionnaire measuring their belief in science. Indeed, those reporting greater belief in science condemned the act more harshly.

Participants were “primed” with scientific buzzwords, and were then administered a series of “moral quizzes”:

Participants first completed a word scramble task during which they either had to unscramble some of these science-related words or words that had nothing to do with science. They then either read [a story about date-rape] and answered the same questions regarding the severity of that transgression (Study 2), reported the degree to which they intended to perform a variety of altruistic actions over the next month (Study 3), or engaged in a behavioral economics task known as the dictator game (Study 4). …

Across all these different measures, the researchers found consistent results. Simply being primed with science-related thoughts increased a) adherence to moral norms, b) real-life future altruistic intentions, and c) altruistic behavior towards an anonymous other. The conceptual association between science and morality appears strong.

(Photo: Simon Fraser University)

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Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) Forced To Leave Somalia

A malnourished child in an MSF treatment tent in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia

Médecins Sans Frontières, a French secular humanitarian-aid non-governmental organization, has been forced to close all of its operations in war-torn Somalia after 22 years, citing the increase of violence and abuse against its staff as the reason:

“This is the most difficult announcement that I’ve had to make as MSF president,” Dr. Unni Karunakara said at a press conference from Kenya. “Respect for humanitarian principles no longer exists in Somalia today.”

Over the past 22 years, the nonprofit has provided basic and emergency health care to millions in the country through chronic wars and famines.

“Armed groups and civilians are increasingly supporting, tolerating and condoning the killing, assaulting and abuse of humanitarian aid workers,” Karunakara said. “We have reached our limits.”

In the last 22 years, 16 people working for the group have been killed. Dozens have been attacked.

The exodus, while understandable, does leave many Somalians without hope of care, as MSF was, in many cases, the only group offering such services in the country. Just last year, MSF delivered more than 7,000 babies, treated more than 30,000 malnourished kids and vaccinated 60,000.

(Photo: from DFID)

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Californians Use Less Electricity Than Everyone Else — Here’s Why

Given the fact that we enjoy the best weather known to mankind, I won’t gloat too heavily that the average Californian uses roughly 33 percent less electricity at home than the average American as a whole.

But it is gloat-worthy and actually pretty surprising that California’s electricity use has stayed mostly flat for the last four decades, when the rate of use in the rest of the U.S. has dramatically increased. Plumer has the numbers:

Since 1960, household electricity use in the rest of the United States has more than tripled, climbing past 12,000 kWh per person on average (although it has plateaued of late). By contrast, in California, electricity use per capita doubled in the 1960s but then more or less stopped growing for the next four decades.

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Plumer goes on to cite a working paper by “Georgetown economist Arik Levinson, which argues that a few “long-run trends” — things unrelated to energy policy — can explain about 88 percent of the growing gap in electricity use between California and the rest of the country.”

First, there’s climate — though not in the way you might think. Everyone knows that California has lovely weather, and its residents use less air conditioning. But the real story, Levinson suggests, is what’s going on in the rest of the country. More and more Americans have been moving to hotter regions in the South and West and cranking the A/C as they get wealthier. That explains about one-third of the disparity in electricity use.

Demographics are another underrated factor. In most of the United States, the number of people per household has been shrinking over the last 50 years. That has a big impact on electricity use: A person with his own home uses more power than a person sharing a house with others. But, oddly enough, household size has stayed roughly flat in California over this period. That fact alone accounts for 40 percent of the gap in electricity use.

So, no real lessons here for the rest of the world to emulate. Both Plumer and Levinson correctly note that California’s efficiency standards have played an important role in keeping the red-line steady. But we’re basically just really fortunate to live in a place where 60 degrees is considered cold.

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So You Want To Live Forever? Americans Say No.

Pew Research on Tuesday released a really eye-opening survey that posed to Americans this question: would you — with the help of life-extending science and medicine — prefer to live until 120 or more, or die earlier? The majority of Americans chose the latter.

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In fact, most Americans answered that they thought the “ideal” lifespan hovered somewhere between 79 and 100 years old. Only 4 percent said that they would want to live beyond that.

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The reason I’d fall within the 78 and 100 range is because I don’t want my latter years to consist of me in a degenerative state being a nuisance on my family (assuming I have one). But Pew identified some other pointed reasons as to why Americans are trepidatious of extending lifespans — not only for themselves, but for the rest of society as well. Many respondents were weary that any sort of treatment program to extend life would be offered before the science was sound, thus having potential side effects. Most — and I would be one of these — said that extended lifespans would have serious consequences on natural resources. And a majority simply agreed that extending life to 120 years — like this National Geographic cover suggests — would be “fundamentally unnatural”.

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I do think that extending lifespans would cause undue harm to natural resources. Then again, if people live longer, they can theoretically work longer, meaning that the already archaic rule of “retire by 65” could be pushed to somewhere like 80. That would assume of course that there would be plenty of jobs to go around (there isn’t). But I have to think that most Americans, and really most people in general, would be more optimistic about living longer lives if they were confident that their later years would be at least semi-productive.

Anyway, i’m not greedy. Give me 80 good years and i’ll leave with no complaints.

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Proving Global Warming True In 13 Seconds (Video)

Data courtesy of NASA, in case you were wondering.

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Photo Of The Day: Just A Speck In The Universe

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See the tiny blue speck? That’s earth. NASA JPL explains the beautiful shot:

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. It is only one footprint in a mosaic of 33 footprints covering the entire Saturn ring system (including Saturn itself). At each footprint, images were taken in different spectral filters for a total of 323 images: some were taken for scientific purposes and some to produce a natural color mosaic. This is the only wide-angle footprint that has the Earth-moon system in it.

Earth, which is 898 million miles (1.44 billion kilometers) away in this image, appears as a blue dot at center right; the moon can be seen as a fainter protrusion off its right side. An arrow indicates their location in the annotated version. (The two are clearly seen as separate objects in the accompanying narrow angle frame: PIA14949.) The other bright dots nearby are stars.

Now back to the royal baby.

(Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

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The Moral Dilemma Of Abortion

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Leonhardt gathers and evaluates the data:

As with so many other areas this blog covers, abortion is one in which selective readings of the polls can seem to prove opposite conclusions. After writing about abortion and public opinion in Sunday’s Times – arguing that the issue does not benefit Democrats as much as other high-profile subjects, like immigration, guns, taxes and same-sex marriage – I wanted to dig more deeply into the polls and their trend lines. For all the assertions that advocates make about public opinion, I think that a few consistent messages emerge.

The main one is that most Americans support abortion access with some significant restrictions. If you were going to craft a law based strictly on public opinion, it would permit abortion in the first trimester (first 12 weeks) of pregnancy and in cases involving rape, incest or threats to the mother’s health. The law, however, would substantially restrict abortion after the first trimester in many other cases.

Here are the results of a February 2013 New York Times/CBS News poll, showing much the same thing:

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And Gallup’s results have been consistent with this over the years:

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It surprises my friends on the left when I tell them that I have a moral, humane dislike of late-term abortion, despite the fact that I am pro-choice — up to a point not to exceed the first trimester. The discoveries of biology and embryology over the years have made it clear to me that the concept of “unborn child” is a real one, not to be so easily dismissed as so many of my friends invariably do dismiss it. Something else that has put me in the center of quite heated exchanges has been my reluctance to agree that the decision to abort a fetus — at a certain point beyond the first trimester — is one that should be left totally to the woman who is carrying the living being. I cannot help, as a humanist, to consider an unborn child who has existed in the womb for a considerable amount of time, as anything other than a candidate member of society, thus to say that it cannot be only the responsibility of the woman to decide upon it. It’s a social, ethical and moral question that must be left to the whole of society to decide upon, since the whole of society is affected by the outcome.

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UCLA Study Finds That Sex Addiction Is Not A Disease: You’re Just Horny!

SEX

I have two so-called “controversial” theories that people have actually gotten angry with me over. The first is that obesity is not an illness — you just like eating. The second is that sex-addiction is the stupidest thing i’ve ever heard — you’re just horny.

UCLA just proved my second theory right:

Actors Tiger Woods, Russell Brand and David Duchovny all blamed their copious amounts of sex on a disorder: sex addition.

But UCLA researchers say sex addiction does not appear to be a disorder, according to their study, which appears in the current online edition of the journal Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology.

The study involved 39 men and 13 women who reported having problems controlling their viewing of sexual images. UCLA scientist Nicole Prause and her colleagues monitored the volunteers’ brains while showing them erotic images.

“If they indeed suffer from hypersexuality, or sexual addiction, their brain response to visual sexual stimuli could be expected to be higher, in much the same way that the brains of cocaine addicts have been shown to react to images of the drug in other studies,” a UC press release on the study explained.

According to CBS, “sex-addiction” affects 16 million Americans. Well now it affects zero Americans because it’s not a real thing. Hurray science!

Here’s the actual abstract for you nerds:

“Modulation of sexual desires is, in some cases, necessary to avoid inappropriate or illegal sexual behavior (downregulation of sexual desire) or to engage with a romantic partner (upregulation of sexual desire). Some have suggested that those who have difficulty downregulating their sexual desires be diagnosed as having a sexual “addiction”. This diagnosis is thought to be associated with sexual urges that feel out of control, high-frequency sexual behavior, consequences due to those behaviors, and poor ability to reduce those behaviors. However, such symptoms also may be better understood as a non-pathological variation of high sexual desire. Hypersexuals are thought to be relatively sexual reward sensitized, but also to have high exposure to visual sexual stimuli. Thus, the direction of neural responsivity to sexual stimuli expected was unclear. If these individuals exhibit habituation, their P300 amplitude to sexual stimuli should be diminished; if they merely have high sexual desire, their P300 amplitude to sexual stimuli should be increased. Neural responsivity to sexual stimuli in a sample of hypersexuals could differentiate these two competing explanations of symptoms.”

(photo by flickr user Jean Koulev)

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Louis CK Shames The Human Race For Screwing Up The Environment

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John Roney animated this short segment from Louis CK’s standup “Live at the Beacon Theatre,” which takes less than two minutes to thoroughly shame the human race for screwing up the earth.

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Proving Global Warming True, With One Chart

In a new report, the World Meteorological Association finds that, ”The period 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record since modern meteorological records began around 1850″:

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It’s just more effective to consider decades, rather than individual years, when charting temperature; in any given year, loads of factors can be blamed for a rise in warming. NASA found that since 1998′, 9 of the 10 hottest years in history have occurred, and 2012 was the ninth warmest year on record.

Fact: the earth is getting warmer.

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Modern Language & Speech Can Be Traced Back To Neandertals

Neandertal man replication

Since the discovery of Neandertals 200 years ago, scientists have been gathering copious amounts of data indicating that our last common ancestor shared a lot more in common with us than previously realized. Recent focus has been directed at figuring out whether or not Neandertals had anything like modern speech and language. According to a new paper in Frontiers in Language Sciences by MPI for Psycholinguistics researchers Dan Dediu and Stephen C. Levinson, they did:

Initially thought to be subhuman brutes incapable of anything but the most primitive of grunts, they were a successful form of humanity inhabiting vast swathes of western Eurasia for several hundreds of thousands of years, during harsh ages and milder interglacial periods. We knew that they were our closest cousins, sharing a common ancestor with us around half a million years ago (probably Homo heidelbergensis), but it was unclear what their cognitive capacities were like, or why modern humans succeeded in replacing them after thousands of years of cohabitation. Recently, due to new palaeoanthropological and archaeological discoveries and the reassessment of older data, but especially to the availability of ancient DNA, we have started to realize that their fate was much more intertwined with ours and that, far from being slow brutes, their cognitive capacities and culture were comparable to ours.

Dediu and Levinson review all these strands of literature and argue that essentially modern language and speech are an ancient feature of our lineage dating back at least to the most recent ancestor we shared with the Neandertals and the Denisovans (another form of humanity known mostly from their genome).

Science!

(photo by flickr user Jacob Enos)

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Mapping The Anti-Science, Climate Denying 113th Congress

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Tiffany Germain, Ryan Koronowski and Jeff Spross relay their shocking findings in a recent survey of climate change deniers in Congress:

Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus and high costs to taxpayers, there are still elected officials in Congress who refuse to accept that climate change is happening.

Almost 70 percent — 125 members — of the current Republican caucus in the House of Representatives deny the basic tenets of climate science. 65 percent (30 members) of the Senate Republican caucus also deny climate change. What this means is that they have made public statements indicating that they question or reject that climate change is real, is happening, and is caused by human consumption of fossil fuels.

This refusal to accept overwhelming scientific evidence is not just a symptom of the rank-and-file backbenchers. Members of GOP leadership and the committees that make critical decisions on national energy policy and air pollution have even higher concentrations:

    90 percent of the Republican leadership in both House and Senate deny climate change

    17 out of 22 Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, or 77 percent, are climate deniers

    22 out of 30 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, or 73 percent deny the reality of climate change

    100 percent of Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Republicans have said climate change is not happening or that humans do not cause it

Check out the full interactive map here.

(Image: via ThinkProgress)

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700K Year Old Horse Yields World’s Oldest DNA Sequence On Record

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According to a new study carried out by a group of expert researchers and published in Nature, the oldest DNA to ever be found comes from a horse. The researchers sequenced the DNA of a 700,000 year-old foot bone belonging to a wild horse, found in Canada’s Arctic, and discovered that the animal can trace its origins back 4 million years, making it the oldest creature — so far — whose DNA modern science has been able to study:

Dating techniques revealed that the animal lived in an epoch when woolly mammoths, saber-toothed cats and giant beavers shared turf with ancestral humans.

The work “opens great perspectives as to the level of details we can reconstruct of our origins and the evolutionary history of every animal on the planet,” said study leader Ludovic Orlando of the Center for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark.

(…)

By comparing all of these genomes, the researchers determined that the most recent common ancestor of all these species — as well as zebras — lived 4 million to 4.5 million years ago. That’s about 2 million years earlier than previously thought, and allows for far more time for horses to have evolved into the animals we know today.

(Photo: courtesy of Wikicommons)

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Hunger Modifies Behavior, Affects Pathways In The Brain

Drosophila on buttercup

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Martinsried conducted experiments on the fruit fly, Drosophila, and have found that hunger not only modifies behavior and mood, but affects decision-making abilities and perceptions of risk:

…the fruit fly, Drosophila, changes its behaviour depending on its nutritional state. The animals usually perceive even low quantities of carbon dioxide to be a sign of danger and opt to take flight. However, rotting fruit and plants — the flies’ main sources of food — also release carbon dioxide. Neurobiologists in Martinsried have now discovered how the brain deals with this constant conflict in deciding between a hazardous substance and a potential food source taking advantage of the fly as a great genetic model organism for circuit neuroscience.

In various experiments, the scientists presented the flies with environments containing carbon dioxide or a mix of carbon dioxide and the smell of food. It emerged that hungry flies overcame their aversion to carbon dioxide significantly faster than fed flies — if there was a smell of food in the environment at the same time. Facing the prospect of food, hungry animals are therefore significantly more willing to take risks than sated flies. But how does the brain manage to decide between these options?

The scientist who headed the study, Ilona Grunwald-Kadow, explains the significance of the findings:

“If the fly is hungry, it will no longer rely on the ‘direct line’ but will use brain centres to gauge internal and external signals and reach a balanced decision,” explains Grunwald-Kadow. “It is fascinating to see the extent to which metabolic processes and hunger affect the processing systems in the brain,” she adds.

(Photo by flickr user Sandy__R)

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