Weekly Roundup

Never judge someone before you walk a mile in their pyjamas: thanks to “enclothed cognition” it turns out that clothes affect our perception [podcast].

The FIFA World Cup has begun. Here’s Scientific American’s rundown of soccer science, old and new. Open wide!

Be careful what you say around the cooler; Gwyneth Paltrow reminds us that water has feelings too.

Rare diseases often lack clinical attention, public awareness, and fundraising campaigns; many are undocumented, unnamed, or have no known cause or treatment. FORGE (Finding of Rare Disease Genes in Canada), a massive coordinated study, has identified the genetic mutations associated with 146 rare childhood diseases, thanks to high-speed sequencing technologies. 67 of the genes hadn’t been linked to a disease before.

It turns out economics is for chimps.

Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv), a livestock epidemic of uncertain origin affecting pigs in the US, has spread to over 30 states, wiped out nearly 10% of the American pig population, and increased the price of bacon.

Headlines far and wide proclaimed that a computer program has “passed the Turing test.” What they really mean is that by pretending to be Eugene Goostman, a teenager from the Ukraine with a poor grasp of English, the program won a University of Reading contest by convincing 1 in 3 judges that it was a human being, satisfying Turing’s predictions for the capabilities of artificial intelligence for the year 2000. So perhaps the resulting skepticism is warranted.

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The Ultimate Filter Bubble

Mike Thicke

As if we needed reasons to be more worried about Google taking over the world, a new study suggests that it could have an enormous impact on elections merely by manipulating search results. Researchers Robert Epstein and Ronald Robertson of the American Institute of Behavioral Research and Technology found that they could “sway the voting preferences of undecided voters by 15% or more” merely by biasing search results presented to research subjects. This is interesting—and scary—in its own respect, but it also has connections to some of my earlier posts about Internet filter bubbles and what I’ve called the “Internet Observer Effect“.

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Weekly Roundup

LEGO has announced that it has approved one of the finalists in its Ideas product competition: a trio of female scientists based on Ellen Kooijman (aka Alatriel Elensar)’s Female Minifigure Set. It will be marketed as the LEGO Research Institute, and will be eventually available in stores.

Here are anonymous comments made by “muzzled” Canadian government scientists about the state of science under the Harper Government. Yikes! On a related note, Stephen Harper urged Canadians to “listen to the scientific evidence” when it comes to vaccinating children.

How many polar bears are there? It turns out that’s a tricky question.

Solar roadways have made a big splash with a successful Indiegogo campaign and flashy video. The husband-and-wife team of Scott and Julie Brusaw want to replace asphalt roads, sidewalks, and parking lots with durable, LED-programmable, and replaceable hexagonal panels that would generate electricity, with additional benefits including warning drivers of obstacles or animal crossings, responding to parking lot conditions, and providing infrastructure for buried power, phone, and internet lines. Unfortunately, critics figure that the project’s estimated $56 trillion price tag will be an impediment to scalability, as will problems such as keeping the glass layers clean and preventing traffic hacking.

The Chemical Blog describes the chemical composition of tattoo ink, which is surprisingly unregulated.

There is more fructose in many soft drinks and sweetened juices than their labels disclose, according to a new study in Nutrition. This is a problem for the Corn Refiners Association, who claim that High-Fructose Corn Syrup (or “corn sugar,” as we learn in this helpful video) is practically equivalent to sucrose (table sugar; glucose-fructose in a 1:1 ratio).

The FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for new e-cigarette regulations includes a “lost pleasure” factor which accounts for the expected decrease in lifetime pleasure for those who quit.

Sometimes all you need is a good headline: Researchers Develop Robot That Lets Them Feel Softness of Virtual Breasts.

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These are not the voters you’re looking for

Mike Thicke

People across the political spectrum have long recognized that our democratic system disenfranchises the unborn. Those on the left tend to worry that those alive today are pillaging natural resources from future generations. Those on the right tend to worry that excessive public spending will force our children or grandchildren into economic slavery. Either way, people in the future will be forced to live with the consequences of our present decisions, but they have no say in those decisions (though Greg Lusk has problematized this reasoning).

How to solve this problem? Philosopher Thomas Wells proposes a direct solution: give voting powers to “trustee” organizations “such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks.” These organizations would have a block of votes equivalent to something like 10% of the overall electorate. If there are 10 million eligible voters in an election, we would assign 1 million votes to these organizations. Wells’s idea is that these organizations would vote with the best interests of the future in mind. Not only could they affect the results of elections, but Wells predicts they would shape the political conversation as politicians tailor their policies to appeal to this powerful voting block.

Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution finds Wells’s proposal “laughable”. He sees Wells’s proposal for a select group of trustees as merely replicating Wells’s own view of how the future ought to look. Instead, Taborrok proposes the economist’s universal solution: the market. Specifically, prediction markets. While I share some of Taborrok’s skepticism of Wells’s proposal, I find Taborrok’s proposal even less realistic. I shall focus my critique on two problems: an epistemic problem and a relevance problem.

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Weekly Roundup – Supersized

Welcome to a super sized weekly roundup! I’m on vacation next week; here’s a double helping of stories to keep you sated until next time.

A new, disputed study from Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab suggests that  eating chicken on the bone increased aggression in children compared with eating pre-cut pieces. It sounds like fun research: the drumstick-eaters “were also more likely leave the 9-foot circle radius, jump around, and stand on the picnic tables without permission.” The Cornell Lab, home of the endless soup bowl, studies the social and environmental factors influencing food consumption. 

A climate scientist explains how she explains climate change to her fellow evangelical Christians: why should they care about a changing climate?

Don’t panic, but Mount St. Helens’ magma is repressurizing.

“Selfitis,” or the obsessive taking and posting of photos of oneself, isn’t a new mental disorder, but many of us were fooled by the satirical story claiming that the American Psychiatric Association coined the new disease category.

Ketchup, perhaps the tastiest of the non-Newtonian fluids, is notoriously hard to pour from a glass bottle. NPR goes into the details of the condiment’s physics that were illustrated in George Zaidan’s TED talk. If manufacturers ever incorporate LiquiGlide, the food-safe, potentially profit-eating surface coating, into their containers, it will be a whole new ballgame.

Coke and Pepsi have bowed to public pressure and removed brominated vegetable oil (BVO) from their soft drinks. Popular Science explains what BVO is and what it was doing in soda in the first place.

We may know the secret of how the pyramids were built.

Gender, science, and bad reporting: A study in Nature [paywall] revealing genes on the Y chromosome that fulfill the same function as those on the X chromosome is publicized as demonstrating sexual difference, the very opposite of the study’s findings. What’s behind this “sex difference paradigm?” [via Feminist Philosophers]. Also, duck penises are all well and good, but what about duck vaginas? Ed Yong at Nat Geo’s blog Not Exactly Rocket Science explores the combination of biological and social factors that influence the differential treatment of animals’ sex organs.

Useful Science is a new site that offers bite-sized summaries of useful science, collected by a team of mainly Canadian grad students. Another new useful website is Something Pop, which helps you make decisions by ranking the components of your choices.

A meta-analysis debunks most of the headline-worthy claims about the strength of the ovulatory cycle over women’s preferences. [via Slate]

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Weekly Roundup

Morse code telegraph clubs, like this one in Omaha, offer public engagement and historical reenactments of a previously ubiquitous technology. No blockbuster protagonists should be without this pivotal skill.

In Oklahoma’s haste to conduct a science experiment on two men behind a veil of secrecy, our state has disgraced itself before the nation and world.” The most recent in a series of botched executions took place in Oklahoma after an untested mixture of drugs was administered to death-row inmate Clayton Lockett, fuelling the debate over capital punishment. States are unable to use traditional lethal injection drugs, which are no longer produced by pharmaceutical companies.

Food isn’t irradiated to prevent foodborne illness because consumers are afraid of the word “radiation.” I’m sure this topic was debated at the Food Safety Summit, right before the food poisoning.

Did you ever wonder how sloths breathe upside down? Me neither, but here‘s the explanation.

Google is removing ads for crisis pregnancy centres (counselling women to avoid contraception and abortions) that appear when users search for abortion providers; 79% of these ads falsely suggest that the centres provide medical and abortion services.

By now we know that sitting is killing us, but there are more benefits to being upright now that a new study links walking and creativity.

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Do sports perpetuate or help fight discrimination?

I look at an article from sports sociology that suggests descriptions of athletes might perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes.

Like many other people, I was shocked to hear the alleged tape recording of Donald Sterling saying that his girlfriend should not take photographs with black people, or bring them to basketball games (but she can bring them to bed). I don’t follow sports very closely anymore; I didn’t know that Sterling, at least according to the Guardian, made millions as a landlord through racist housing policies. Maybe we should have seen this coming.

Some have argued that the emphasis on Sterling’s comments obscured the larger, more

“In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, his old team the Dodgers had the exact same number of American-born Blacks on the opening day roster as they did in 1947: one.” J. R. Woodward (2004)

harmful, actions that he has taken (the Guardian suggests this, as does the link below).  In particular, they point to the housing discrimination he was accused of perpetrating as an owner of 100’s of properties in the Los Angeles area. Housing discrimination is terrible, and (like all forms of discrimination) should not be tolerated.

However, many of these arguments that suggest housing discrimination is “actually harmful” imply that Sterling’s other actions were largely inconsequential. I thought that, perhaps, this position might stem from a belief that in the realm of sport, discrimination was not significant. In fact, it might even be thought that sports are a way for those frequently discriminated against to get ahead, since, on the face of it, it would seem that on-field performance would be the dominant driver of athletic success. There are obvious reasons to resist at least the first part of this description, for example, racism against black soccer players in Spain is so pervasive that the players can plan their responses in advance. 

Still, I wondered, do sports perpetuate or help fight discrimination? There is obviously no cut and dry answer to this question. It is too broad a question to be answered directly: there are many different sports, and too many ways of thinking about discrimination for the question to be taken seriously. However, in thinking about the question, I took a look at the academic literature on sociology of sport. I found it surprising that this literature is not more heavily cited in recent discussions of racism in sports.

Here I’m going to share excerpts from a paper entitled “Professional Football Scouts: An Investigation of Racial Stacking” by J. R. Woodward (2004). The study covered in the article analyzes draft guides that describe the suitability of college athletes for the NFL draft, paying particular attention to the descriptions of the perceived physical and mental capabilities of white and African American players. I quote this paper it because the study is interesting, but also because it has a fairly detailed literature review with some interesting studies. Given that it seems the sports media perpetuates the messages discussed in this study from 2010, and broadcasts to millions of people, I would guess the messages we receive about sports and athletes portray more bias than we immediately realize.

Literature Review

“Coakley (1998) notes, there are roughly 20 times more African American physicians and lawyers than top professional athletes; nor have most sports truly integrated to allow for equal participation and rewards between the races. In 1997, the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson joining Major League Baseball, his old team the Dodgers had the exact same number of American-born Blacks on the opening day roster as they did in 1947: one.”

“Whites dominate most sports at the collegiate and high school level; football, basketball, track, and baseball—sports where Whites are underrepresented—make up only 4 out of at least 40 sports played competitively.”

“The belief that sport has been a source of upward mobility for African Americans has been rebutted in previous research and is not the object of this project (see Sailes, 1998; and Smith, 1993, 1995). What is of interest, however, is the tenacity of this view. Personal beliefs about race and sport are often solidified when society at large seems to share and reinforce these beliefs, regard- less of their veracity.”

“One manifestation of our “race logic” (how we come to understand racial phenomena in society) is the link between race and athletics, principally the belief in African American athletic superiority. Unfortunately, concomitant with this view has been the conviction of mental inferiority; i.e., the “dumb jock” stereotype (Hoberman, 1997; Eitzen, 1999). American history is replete with academic, intellectual, and social discussions of the primitive nature of Blacks, whose supposed strength, power, and sexual aggression made them appear almost animalistic, an assertion strengthened by their perceived lack of innate cognitive abilities (Mead, 1985).”

“Racial ideology, then, was situated in a particular, disparaging view of African Americans as physical, not mental beings. Athletics was just one of many endeavors in which this view was manifested (Coakley, 1998).”

“Racial stacking is the over- or underrepresentation of players of certain races in particular positions in team sports (Coakley, 1998). For example, quarterbacks in football and catchers in baseball have traditionally been White, whereas Black players are more often found playing in the outfield in baseball and as running backs or wide receivers in football.”

“Loy and McElvogue (1970) presented the first study on racial stacking by examining the racial makeup of baseball and football in America. Their findings suggested that White players are more likely to be found in what they termed central positions (i.e., discrimination is most likely to occur at central positions in any social organization, where the most interaction occurs).”

The Study

“In this study, an assessment was made to determine whether scouting reports of college quarterbacks, centers, inside linebackers, and tight ends relied on mental descriptors of White players and physical descriptors of African American players. At a basic level, scouts are individuals raised in contemporary U.S. society with all the implied racial beliefs. Because physical and mental abilities relative to football can be extremely subjective, it follows that descriptions of athletes in various positions would differ for Whites and African Americans, based solely on the ascribed characteristic of race. The first three positions, which were included in the pilot study, are commonly referred to as “thinking positions.” A question for this research, following the dominant U.S. race logic, is whether White players in the thinking positions are described more in terms of their mental attributes and, conversely, whether African American players in these positions are described more in terms of their presumed physical attributes. The fourth position, tight end, is not typically considered a thinking position and will be used, in essence, as a control group.”

“As with the 5-year sample, African American athletes described in the 2003 draft guides (see Table 4) were more likely to be described by pro scouts in physical (â = .298, p < .001) terms relative to Whites, and were less likely to be described in mental terms than were Whites (â = –.599, p < .001; see Table 5).”

“Of primary importance for racial stacking is the way we “interpret actions and relationships” as Coakley (2004) contends. At the most basic level, stacking involves individuals witnessing action and trying to make sense of that action using preconceived notions and racially informed cogni- tive grids. When scouts assess a player’s talents and abilities, they are not doing so in a vacuum, rather, they are filtering this new material through countless layers of conscious and unconscious understandings, both real and perceived. Objectivity can, therefore, be very difficult to attain and prior beliefs quite difficult to eradicate.”

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Weekly Roundup

You’re not you when you’re hungry: research suggests low blood sugar and irritability are linked, especially irritability at one’s spouse as measured by pricking voodoo dolls and punishment via loud noise. Cartoonist Maki Naro at Popular Science illustrates the “hangry” phenomenon here and here.

It’s a big week for ancient history: puppy prints on Roman tiles and a translation of a fixed Greek wrestling match.

What does your baby cry? According to evolutionary biology, to stop you from getting to work on a sibling.

Cats make terrible research subjects: “Very often, they didn’t participate in the experiment or they walked in the wrong direction.”

Our brains are bad judges of distance, imagining our destinations to be closer than equivalent distances behind us. In addition, we evaluate people and businesses more favourably if they are ahead of us rather than behind us.

It’s been an interesting week for language use in the communication of animal research. Here’s an interesting debate about the “female penis” of Neotrogla curvata. NPR describes how “Albatrosses are 100 percent faithful. That’s not to say that albatross dads don’t occasionally have a dalliance with ladies who aren’t their mates.” Finally, at the Daily Mail, we are treated to “Men really are less likely to say ‘not tonight dear, I have a headache’ than women, new research shows” and “Women lose their libido when they are in pain while men do not.” Top-notch reporting on the research on sex differences in libido response to pain, as long as you keep in mind that the men and women were mice.

YouTube science show Smarter Every Day has a wonderful video showing counterintuitive behaviour of a helium balloon in a moving minivan. There’s a great explanation at i09.

If nothing gets done, it’s not your fault: you just have the lazy gene. Or the procrastination gene. I’m sure the boss will understand.

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Infographic: Americans use more energy in 2013 than in 2012

Greg Lusk

The bad news is that Americans used more energy in 2013 than in 2012.  Unchanged is the fact that US energy efficiency is still terrible. The good news is that 2013 saw  more renewable energy produced!

Each year the Lawrence Livermore Labs releases an energy flow chart, which is a great infographic that displays the origin of US energy, the sectors that use that energy, and the efficiency of each sector. This year’s infographic was recently posted (click on the image to make it larger).

Lawrence Livermore Labs Energy Infographic

Some highlights from the lab’s news release:

  • “Wind energy continued to grow strongly, increasing 18 percent from 1.36 quadrillion BTUs, or quads, in 2012 to 1.6 quads in 2013.”
  • “Natural gas prices rose slightly in 2013, reversing some of the recent shift from coal to gas in the electricity production sector.”
  • “Petroleum use increased in 2013 from the previous year.”
  • “Rejected energy [roughly energy lost to inefficiency] increased to 59 quads in 2013 from 58.1 in 2012, rising in proportion to the total energy consumed.”

What I enjoy about this infographic is that it highlights the rejected energy, which highlights the inefficiency of  US energy use. Transportation, as you can see, produces a lot of rejected energy (probably due to the inefficiency of the combustion engine). If we can’t curb our energy use (which I think we should) then we absolutely need to be doing a better job finding efficiencies.

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Children are NOT the future.

Greg Lusk

Should we motivate concern for climate action through the wellbeing of our decedents? I argue that it is time for change.

Michael Mann was promoting his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars last night with a lecture at the University of Wisconsin. I attended and live-tweeted it on my twitter account @WxPhilosopher for any of you who missed it. For the most part Mann’s talk followed what has become the standard climate talk format: here’s some science we’re sure of, here’s why models are helpful, this is how the topic was politicized, we’re all doomed unless we act fast. Possibly even more cliché than the format itself is the trope with which such talks, including Mann’s, usually close: Consider the legacy of our children, and how climate change could affect them. Let’s ensure they are better off, and leave them a world in which they can flourish. I’ll call this the child trope.

I hate the child trope, and I find my own hatred of it somewhat strange. Of course, I want preserve the planet’s ability to support life, and I want humanity to flourish. So why do I have these negative emotions toward it? After hearing Mann evoke the trope, I sat down to rationalize my emotional position. I realized that I find the trope not very compelling, but also that it possibly reinforces what I think are dangerous presuppositions. I’ve listed a few of the reasons below.

Please, by all means, comment on this post. I might be a little pessimistic, and I want to know if this trope actually is effective in demographics other than those in which I reside.

How the trope works:

Think of the children!

I take it that the child trope is one way of personalizing the harm that climate change will cause even though climate change works on long timescales. Because it isn’t us that will be hurt most by the affects of climate change, but our progeny, and because we are the cause of climate change, the child trope is relied on to make currently existing individuals feel responsible for what happens in the future. The trope creates this feeling of responsibility for yet un-actualized people through two social norms: 1) needing to provide for blood relatives, especially children and 2) the culturally accepted desire for parents to want their children to have a better life then they (the parents) had.

Reasons to question the trope:

It fails to address the link between population and consumption. The trope presupposes that the audience is going to have children. However, population growth and consumption are linked, and consumption is one problem that needs to be addressed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One way to address consumption is to manage population, and this means seriously questioning the social norms supporting unfettered procreation. It is hard to seriously discuss decisions to procreate if what motivates our responsible action on climate is the product of that procreation.

UPDATE 4/19/14 2 PM Eastern: As some commenters have pointed out, the link between population and consumption is a complicated one. I did not mean to imply in the original post that it was a direct relationship (more people = more consumption). Please see my response to Nathan in the comments for a bit more considered response.

Whose kids? I’ve seen this trope evoked most frequently with a majority white middle/upper class North American, college audience. There is good reason to think that children of this audience will be fine in the future – they have the advantages of being privileged and in developed countries rich enough to take adaptation seriously. They may even find ways to profit from climate change. Children in less privileged countries (especially the sea-side ones) are likely to be hurt more seriously, and much sooner (as in, they already are suffering climate change related affects). These are the people we should care about. But the child trope doesn’t motivate us to do so, because it is predicated on concern for blood relatives.

Wanting more and better (partially) got us into this mess. For much of this century, the “better life for our children” meant the acquisition of wealth and goods, and led to a bigger, faster, and cheaper mentality. This drive towards easy consumption helped create the climate problem. I believe that in order to address climate, we need to learn to be content with only what we need (or at least a lot less), and create efficiencies in providing those needs. Insofar as this trope relies on an unquestioned desire for a better life for offspring, this trope doesn’t steer us towards sustainable living.

The trope doesn’t seem to be effective. Is there any evidence that this trope is at all effective? The trope has been part of the climate discussion since I can remember, and action has been slow. Can’t we do better?  It was interesting to hear Michael Mann say that we need to make climate change relevant to daily life, and then evoke the child trope. Let’s hire a good marketing firm.

Why are non-actualized future individuals assumed to motivate action better than actual existing individuals? The trope presupposes a kind of selfishness: we are motivated primarily by our own interest, in this case, the wellbeing of our future decedents. I think evoking this trope helps to perpetuate this selfishness especially the effects of climate change are becoming visible. The most vulnerable humans are already being harmed, and the biosphere is already experiencing negative effects. Why are we still talking about abstract non-actualized future individuals? If we aren’t willing to go beyond self interest to help those we have never met who will suffer because of our collective actions, then the effects of climate change will be disastrous. We need to work to develop this kind of global awareness.

There is an economic counter argument. A common retort to proposed action on climate change is that it is too costly. The US and other privileged countries benefitted the most from burning the fossil fuels that largely created the climate change problem. One might think that puts privileged nations on the hook for the cost of cleaning it up.  Paying for clean up may diminish the economic standing of these countries, and as a consequence, children in those countries might be worse off. What this shows is that the status of our children doesn’t directly relate to our moral obligations – those who created the problem have a responsibility to fix the problem regardless of the wellbeing of our children. The trope misses this point.

Future peoples can’t be better off! Derek Parfit brought philosophical attention to the non-identity problem, which has interesting consequences when applied to climate change. Here’s the quick argument from one of his papers: 1) Identity biologically depends, very sensitively, on the timing of conception. 2) Energy policy interventions will shift future human behavior, which will in turn change times of conception, 3) Changing the time of conception will result in different persons being born than would have without policy intervention. 4) This means that future individuals can’t be better off, because the actions that will result in a better environment will bring about different individuals.

Parfit actually thinks this argument doesn’t hold much weight; he says we should continue to talk as if individuals will be better off. However I’ve always found it compelling, precisely because it brings to the fore of the climate discussion an important point: What we do now has consequences in the future that we don’t even think about. It’s time to start thinking about those consequences.

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