October 2008


From the Sarasota Herald-Tribune:

Dear Mr. President-Elect,

Now that you prepare to take office, I write to remind you about one of the largest, and yet unspoken challenges facing your administration.

Americans are living in a conundrum. When asked, most citizens express a confidence that science and technology will fix all the challenges facing our immediate future. Here in Florida, we fully anticipate that meteorologists will figure out how to accurately predict (and perhaps even eliminate) hurricanes; that construction engineers will design hurricane-safe buildings; that marine biologists will solve red tide; that ecologists will eradicate our invasive pythons and fire ants; that hydrologists will solve our water conservation problems; and that medical researchers will cure any infectious diseases that sneak across our borders.

Yet we have witnessed significant declines relative to other countries in scientific research and development under the last eight years of national leadership. So how will your executive team weigh in on science?

I imagine it is easy to overlook the importance of science as key to solving most of our important security and economic issues. And it is even easier to cheer-lead the American public using words like terrorism, gasoline prices, and other fear factors.

But we are tired of hearing about fear and fighting — we need inspiration and innovation to return America to its global leadership of decades past. Given the declining supplies of natural resources and the increasing number of people squeezed into a finite planet, science offers objective solutions through experiments, technologies, modeling, and a unique combination of inspiration and perspiration.

We are on the cusp of significant advances in energy, agriculture and health; yet science seemed relegated to last place on the agenda during your campaign. This was perhaps not surprising, given the economic turbulence during your last weeks of campaigning, but nonetheless your administration’s approach to science will likely determine our ability to retain America’s global leadership.

I humbly offer some thoughts about six critical science issues: energy, education, agriculture, health, climate change, and security.

Full article

From SciAm:

Almost everyone has a tendency to imagine the mind continuing to exist after the death of the body.

Even people who believe the mind ceases to exist at death show this type of psychological-continuity reasoning in studies.

Rather than being a by-product of religion or an emotional security blanket, such beliefs stem from the very nature of our consciousness.

Full article

John Cleese on Sara Palin:

From Wired Science:

As a population of West African chimpanzees dwindles to critically endangered levels, scientists are calling for a definition of personhood that includes our close evolutionary cousins.

Just two decades ago, the Ivory Coast boasted a 10,000-strong chimpanzee population, accounting for half of the world’s population. According to a new survey, that number has fallen to just a few thousand.

News of such a decline, published today in Current Biology, would be saddening in any species. But should we feel more concern for the chimpanzees than for another animal — as much concern, perhaps, as we might feel for other people?

“They are a people. Non-human, but definitely persons,” said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. “They haven’t built a rocket ship to the moon. But we’re not that different.”

Full Story

From BBC News:

Internet use ‘good for the brain’

For middle aged and older people at least, using the internet helps boost brain power, research suggests.

A University of California Los Angeles team found searching the web stimulates centres in the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning.

The researchers say this might even help to counter-act the age-related physiological changes that cause the brain to slow down.

The study features in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

Full story

From Slate.com:

Vote for Obama

McCain lacks the character and temperament to be president. And Palin is simply a disgrace.

I used to nod wisely when people said: “Let’s discuss issues rather than personalities.” It seemed so obvious that in politics an issue was an issue and a personality was a personality, and that the more one could separate the two, the more serious one was. After all, in a debate on serious issues, any mention of the opponent’s personality would be ad hominem at best and at worst would stoop as low as ad feminam.

From TIME:

Has the so-called Prosperity gospel turned its followers into some of the most willing participants — and hence, victims — of the current financial crisis? That’s what a scholar of the fast-growing brand of Pentecostal Christianity believes. While researching a book on black televangelism, says Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside, he realized that Prosperity’s central promise — that God will “make a way” for poor people to enjoy the better things in life — had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending boom. Walton says that this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house.” The results, he says, “were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers.”

Full Article

From SciAm 60-second-science:

When we feel like we don’t have command of our own fate, our brains often invent patterns that offer a sense of self-control. Some folks knock on wood or step over cracks in the sidewalk. Scientists call this illusory pattern perception. Work published in the October 3rd issue of the journal Science offers a look inside our heads as they try to make us feel less helpless.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin devised six experiments to test students’ reactions to different situations of uncertainty. One experiment mimicked the stock market, while another asked students to search for images in television static. Time and again, students saw images where there were none and found stock patterns that didn’t exist. The authors then asked students to perform self-affirmation exercises instead of looking for external design. These exercises calmed them and increased their capacity to see, well, reality. But if you’re not changing your socks or shaving because it clearly helps your favorite team, go right ahead. Some unkempt fan in Tampa Bay has to be the reason behind the Rays winning the American League East.

Also see:

From Reason.com:

Does Religion Make People Nicer?
Only if they think Sky Big Brother is watching
Ronald Bailey | October 7, 2008

In his new movie Religulous, comedian Bill Maher makes wicked fun of the religiously credulous. But it turns out that the folks who believe in talking snakes and seventy-two virgins per martyr may be on to something. As whacky as some dogmas are, religions do appear to encourage generosity and honesty. At least that is the claim made in a fascinating review article, “The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality” (subscription required) published in the current issue of Science.

Evolutionary biologists argue that there’s nothing surprising about genetically related individuals making sacrifices for their kin: They are helping some of their own genes get passed along to the next generation. But what might cause people to make sacrifices for the good of unrelated strangers? Here, according to University of British Columbia social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff, religion plays a key role.

The authors have winnowed three decades of empirical evidence looking for examples of religious prosociality, which they define as “the idea that religions facilitate acts that benefit others at a personal cost.” Specifically, their hypothesis is that religion encourages people to sacrifice their individual fitness for the benefit of unrelated individuals or for their group. For example, young men may risk sacrificing themselves in war to protect their tribe. So how does religion encourage prosociality? The answer is that being watched by a Big-Brother-in-the-Sky tends to make believers nervous about being selfish.

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