4/28/2009 3:33:28 PM
Pseudoscience runs rampant throughout the claims of many nutrition experts who extol the virtues of vitamin supplements, Reynold Spector writes for the Skeptical Inquirer. “There is no rigorous scientific evidence for the utility of dietary supplements,” according to Spector, and there’s some evidence that pumping large amounts of vitamins E, C, or A into people’s bodies may actually increase mortality.
The multibillion dollar industry that hawks vitamin supplements may be one of the driving forces behind the proliferation of bad science, according to Spector. And he accuses established journals including the New England Journal of Medicine of proliferating the erroneous research.
It is true, Spector admits, that vitamin supplements can be helpful for certain people, including pregnant women and the elderly. He does, however, encourage moderation.
Image by Ragesoss, licensed under Creative Commons.
The Skeptical Inquirer
(article not available online)
4/27/2009 12:05:41 PM
Virtual settings allow preteens to try on a variety of personas—they can be athletes or bookworms, preppy or punk, female or male. A recent study by psychologist Sandra Calvert suggests that, despite this opportunity to create a new identity from scratch, the behavior of a child’s avatar tends to stay true to the child’s real-world self.
Calvert and her team studied pairs of fifth graders, having them create avatars and play with one another in a multi-user domain (MUD). About 11 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls experimented with gender-bending, or choosing an avatar of the opposite sex. These opposite-sex avatars, however, still showed play preferences and behavior consistent with the users’ biological sex. Boys largely preferred action-oriented play, while girls opted for typed conversations.
The fact that these behavior styles continued to hold in the virtual realm suggests that MUD play functions like real-world play in providing a space for self-exploration and discovery. And, as in real-world play, social norms such as gender roles can color this self-exploration. Psychologist Kaveri Subrahmanyam concludes, “People don’t go online to leave their bodies behind and find new selves, but instead seem to be taking their offline selves, including their biological selves, with them.”
Source: Science News
Photo by Dan Taylor, licensed under Creative Commons.
4/20/2009 8:47:25 AM
When parents talk about the birds and the bees, it’s usually a metaphor. When scientists talk about the sex lives of animals, the conversation tends to get interesting.
Researchers recently discovered that male chimpanzees give pieces of meat to females in exchange for sex, the BBC reports. For some time, scientists hypothesized about food-for-sex deals, but previous studies tended to look for short-term, payment-on-delivery exchanges. The researchers form the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany found that such exchanges can take place over time. Researcher Cristina Gomes told the BBC that males “might share meat with a female one day, and only copulate with her a day or two later.”
The researchers found that male chimpanzees who shared food with females were able to mate twice as often as the more selfish apes. Gomes thinks the findings could give clues into human evolution, and may provide a link between “good hunting skills and reproductive success.”
Similar food-for-sex exchanges have also been observed in flies. In fact, according to National Geographic, male flies have been known to cheat the system by presenting females with worthless gifts—wrapped up to look like food—to fool females into copulation. The strategy may work in the short-term, but the National Geographic reports: “the female dance flies that received the largest nutritious gifts copulated for a significantly longer amount of time than when given either a small nutritious gift or a larger worthless one.”
Though the strategies are similar, flies tend to be more indiscriminate about their sex lives than the chimpanzees. In Green Porno, Isabella Rossellini said flies “have sex several times a day: any opportunity, any female.”
To see Rossellini’s exploration into the sexual lives of flies, watch the video.
4/20/2009 8:26:24 AM
If there can be such a thing as an artisan octopus killer, Jack Whitten is it. In an essay for the quarterly Art Lies, he starts with a lesson in evolution:
“Millions of years ago the octopus had a shell, but they lost it. Since then, the octopus is always looking for a home. They occupy the abandoned shells of other sea creatures, cans and car tires or make their own houses, which I call ‘octopus architecture.’”
From there it’s an experts guide to hunting the “Houdini of the sea” where it hides: “They are addicted to the color white, like a bull is to red,” explains Whitten. “They can’t control themselves. Thus, I always keep a white handkerchief tucked into my wetsuit, which I use to seduce them from their lair.”
Once he’s done that, well, you really ought to just read Whitten’s essay. Here are the crib notes: stab or bite the nerve between the eyes; don’t lose your cool in the cloud of squid ink; and beat your catch at least 100 times against a rock to tenderize the flesh.
Whitten is ruthless. He closes out his piece with this chest-beater of a boast: “I remember once finding two octopuses locked in mortal combat. They were literally eating each other. I caught and ate them both.”
Source: Art Lies
Image by Stuart Horodner.
4/17/2009 7:00:44 PM
Artist and educator Jer Thorp has done something extraordinary and absurd—he’s wired a smoke alarm to his computer and set it to go off if the New York Times Newswire registers something catastrophic
It’s all because of a nagging feeling we can all relate to: “When I check news websites in the morning,” Thorp writes at his blog, blprnt, “somewhere in the back of my mind, I suspect that the world might have caught on fire while I was asleep.”
Thorp’s news alarm tutorial is almost as delightful as the back and forth in the comment section:
Commenter: While I applaud your ingenuity, I must raise the question as to whether it’s wise to use a smoke alarm as the alert signal. Smoke alarms have a distinctive, fairly-unique alarm sound that has so far been reserved for the event of smoke or fire. Using this sound for another purpose diminishes its capacity to do its intended purpose effectively.
Thorp: This is an art project. Quite frankly, you’d have to be insane to want an 85 dB alarm telling you when news has arrived.
4/10/2009 5:24:03 PM
As more authors have taken to researching, writing and rewriting on computers, archives are presented with a complicated tangle of obstacles in trying to organize and store digital data.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, archives are grappling with organizing a whole new species of information as the acquire more and more floppy disks, computers, external hard drives, and other digital content.
Harvard has acquired 50 floppy disks from John Updike. Emory now has four laptops, an external hard drive and a “personal digital assistant” once belonging to Salman Rushdie. At the University of Texas there is a zip drive and a laptop acquired from Norman Mailer.
Such a vast amount of information presents a problem to archives. The article's author, Steve Kolowich, warns: “Mining, sorting, and archiving every bit of data stored on author’s computers could become a chore of paralyzing tedium and diminishing value.” But Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, associate director at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, describes how researchers might use this unparalleled quantity of information: “You could potentially look at a browser history, see that he visited a particular Web site on a particular day and time. And then if you were to go into the draft of one of his manuscripts, you could see that draft was edited at a particular day and hour, and you could establish a connection between something he was looking at on the Web with something that he then wrote.”
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Image by Carlo Pico, licensed under Creative Commons
4/7/2009 2:22:53 PM
Dogs, with their highly attuned senses of smell, have been trained to find hidden drugs, bombs, and now endangered species. The Scientist reports that conservationists are training dogs to track down rare species of plants, some of which can be extremely hard for humans to find. Greg Fitzpatrick of the Nature Conservancy is exploring the possibility of using dogs to sniff out the Kincaid’s lupine, an endangered plant that is the one place where the endangered Fender’s blue butterfly lays its pin-sized eggs. He plans on submitting the results to conservation biology journals shortly.
You can watch a video of a dog searching out the rare Kincaid's lupine plant below:
, licensed under
Source: The Scientist
4/7/2009 12:50:00 PM
Questions of morality and free will are often relegated to the smoky libraries of philosophers. A new school of thought, known as the x-phi, is trying to change that by integrating brain-scanning technology, questionnaires, and field experiments to figure out the fundamental questions of human existence. Writing for Prospect, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton of the delightfully cerebral podcast Philosophy Bites, explore this emerging trend that straddles the line between philosophy and neurology.
Adherents of x-phi, or experimental philosophy, are trying to “to kick down the walls of recent philosophy and place experimentation back at its centre,” Edmonds and Warburton write. Instead of relying on traditional philosophical assertions like “we all know…” or “ we can all agree that…” the x-phi adherents rely on evidence to test assumptions about the human mind.
The experiments are yielding thought-provoking results. Edmonds and Warburton explain in depth how x-phi experimentation suggests surprising (though complicated) answers to fundamental questions of free will, responsibility in a world where free will may not exist, and the role that emotions play in clouding human judgments.
A recent finding that could be considered x-phi was published in Science a GoGo, contending that “specific brain circuits and pathways might be responsible for wisdom.” The researchers found that common areas of the brain are involved in moral decision making, conflict detection, and other traits associated with wisdom. New York Times columnist David Brooks has touched on similar ideas, most recently writing about an evolutionary approach to morality.
The popularization of x-phi also attracted plenty of detractors. Many question x-phi’s reliance on technology like brain scans. Current MRI technology is too crude to yield meaningful results, according to philosopher and medical scientist Raymond Tallis quoted in the Prospect piece. If an MRIs can’t differentiate between physical pain and social rejection, which both light up the same areas of the brain, they can scarcely be relied upon for meaningful real-world philosophical insights.
Criticism aside, the school of thought continues to gain adherents. There are now x-phi blogs, books, a logo (of an armchair on fire), and even an anthem posted on YouTube. Edmonds and Warburton write, “If philosophy can ever be, x-phi is trendy.”
4/1/2009 9:14:59 AM
Alt Wire is a morning digest of links and information collected and explained by a different guest blogger every weekday. Today's guest is Jason Marsh of Greater Good magazine
. We asked him for five links. Here's what happened:
Over here at Greater Good magazine, we spend our days reporting on “the science of a meaningful life.” What makes people do good? What makes them happy? What makes them get along well with others?
Of course, we can’t help but ask these same questions of ourselves—and wonder how we stack up against the rest of humanity. Fortunately, the web is home to several scientific tests—well, at least tests designed or inspired by scientists—that can help us (and you) determine just how good we are. They’re short (most take just a few minutes), fun, and illuminating. Here are five we like best.
How moral are you? University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues are the brains behind YourMorals.org. Questionnaires on the site provide a window into your morals and where they come from. Check out their “Moral Foundations Questionnaire,” which reveals your core moral beliefs and how they inform your political views.
How prejudiced? Researchers at Project Implicit have created a series of fascinating tests that help you detect your unconscious biases (along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation, and much more). They’ve found, for example, that most Americans have an automatic, unconscious bias for white faces over black ones. Do you?
How empathic? Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen has devised the “Mind in the Eyes” test to measure how well people can decipher the emotional states of others, just by looking at their eyes.
How socially intelligent? This experiment created by the BBC, based on the work of legendary psychologist Paul Ekman, tests how well you can tell the difference between a fake smile and a real one.
How compassionate? This test, developed by sociologist Sue Sprecher and psychologist Beverly Fehr, measures how much “compassionate love” you feel for others, including strangers and even all of humankind. To take it, you’ve got to register through the University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” program, which features lots of other questionnaires you can take to gauge your levels of happiness, gratitude, and more.
BIO: Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good magazine and an editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness, an anthology of Greater Good articles forthcoming from W.W. Norton & Co. His article on why sadness makes us want to buy things appears in the March/April issue of Utne Reader.
Previous Alt Wire Guests: David LaBounty, Jen Angel, Will Braun, Regan Hofmann, Josh Breitbart, Andrew Lam, Jessica Valenti, Jessica Hoffmann, Noah Scalin, Rinku Sen, Paddy Johnson, Melissa Mcewan, Fatemeh Fakhraie , Joe Biel , Anne Elizabeth Moore
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