Scientists versus the public

So, this is interesting, comparing the attitudes of a representative sample of the public versus a large survey of the membership of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science:


So, what’s with the scientists against vaccines?  I also think it is notable that far and away the largest discrepancy is on eating GMO foods.

Photo of the day

From an In Focus photos of the week gallery:


Lemurs eat at Qingdao Forest Wildlife World in Qingdao, a seaport city in China’s Shandong province, on January 27.

China Daily/Reuters

It’s hot in here

Very cool data visualization of our warming planet.  Though, I’m sure it’s all just sun spots or some other natural cycle.  Nothing to worry about.  James Inhofe said so.  This is just a screen shot, click the link to watch the animation.



Mega quick hits (part I)

1) Fascinating NYT Magazine piece on kids with Prader-Willi syndrome.  It basically turns off your brains ability to feel stated from food.  The sufferers perceive as if they are always starving.

2) Lawrence Krauss says, no, astrobiology has not made the case for God (I did not realize people were arguing that it has– but they are wrong).

3) Stop playing too long, boring games with your kids and play these instead, says 538.  I’m going to order Pocket Hive and glad to see our family favorite, Carcassonne, made the list of top games.

4) Really nice Op-Ed from Zephyr Teachout on big money corruption in US politics:

Corruption exists when institutions and officials charged with serving the public serve their own ends. Under current law, campaign contributions are illegal if there is an explicit quid pro quo, and legal if there isn’t. But legal campaign contributions can be as bad as bribes in creating obligations. The corruption that hides in plain sight is the real threat to our democracy.

Think of campaign contributions as the gateway drug to bribes. In our private financing system, candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors’ interests. Politicians are expected to spend half their time talking to funders and to keep them happy. Given this context, it’s not hard to see how a bribery charge can feel like a technical argument instead of a moral one.

5) Maybe putting it a little strongly, but I really liked this piece entitled, “If you don’t understand poverty, you’re a sociopath.”

6) The Vatican has stopped releasing doves because they have been getting killed by other birds upon release.

7) The A-10 is an awesomely effective plane and super-affordable to use compared to others.  But it’s old technology and the Air Force wants to replace it with the astronomically more expensive F-35.

8) The social pressure people place on their peers to drink is so absurd.  Here John Ore shares all the strategies he uses to deal with this when he takes January off from drinking.  People just shouldn’t care so much whether their friends are drinking or not.  But they do.  As a mostly non-drinker– simply don’t like the taste of most alcohol and I really don’t need a drug for a social lubricant– this drives me crazy.

9) Five useful pieces of advice for raising nicer kids.  Definitely need to use this more on at least one of my progeny.

10) “Giant snow penis demolished at Texas Tech.”  The headline says it all– though there’s a nice video at the link.

11) I keep reading articles on why I should turn down my heat.  Sorry, hate being cold.  Actually much prefer being hot.  I suffered through graduate school freezing through the winters to save money, but have since rewarded my professor self with not freezing through the winter (much easier in NC than OH, too).

12) A universal flu vaccine may be coming down the pipe in a few years.  That would be awesome.

13) This profile of a Boston marathon bombing survivor trying to decide whether to amputate her one remaining (and very painful) leg or not was a tremendous read.  Long, but totally worth it.

14) Did cutting unemployment benefits lead to more people getting jobs.  Some economists think so.

15) I did not realize that there was such a controversy raging over “American Sniper” until quite recently.  I gotta say, this piece hoisting Chris Kyle by the petard of his own words, makes a good case.

16) Haven’t been hearing much about Russia lately, but it’s economy is in big, big trouble.

17) Some research shows that registering young people to vote before they turn 18 is actually a really effective way to increase turnout among 18-year olds.  Naturally, NC Republicans did away with our law that used to do just this.

18) Enjoyed this “medical mystery” account.  Kind of amazing the ultimate source of this retired nurse’s very serious medical problems.  (Sorry, not going to give it away– quite an interesting surprise).

19) The moment when the purpose of college went to simply getting a job– we have Ronald Reagan to thank.

20) For the moment, this oh-so-disturbing New Yorker article on how the Albuquerque PD just love to shoot people and get away with it is ungated.  Read it while you can.

Should you vaccinate your kids?

Love this:

A Simple Flowchart to Help You Decide If You Should Vaccinate Your Child

Photo of the day

From the National Geographic Tumblr:

Young lovers embrace beside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1960.Photograph by Thomas Nebbia, National Geographic Creative

Young lovers embrace beside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, 1960.PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS NEBBIA, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Just a rat in a cage

Really enjoyed this Wired story about the scientific debate on whether rats have empathy (I’m quite persuaded that they do).  First, some of the experimental evidence:

On a table in Mason’s University of Chicago lab sits a plexiglass box about two feet square. Inside is a white Sprague-Dawley rat, a strain bred for laboratory study, and a plexiglass canister holding a black-and-white Long-Evans rat.

The trapped Long-Evans is clearly agitated. The white rat is too. Instinctively, she wants to stay in the corner; rats avoid open spaces, and navigate by touch, which is why you often see them scurrying along walls. Yet she rushes again and again to the canister, sniffing at the rat inside, nosing the glass, nudging the door. Eventually, she opens it, freeing the rat. They rub together.

At a purely descriptive level, you could say one rat helped another. Why that happened is the question. According to Peggy Mason and collaborator Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, the free rat appears to empathize with her trapped comrade. She recognized the rat’s distress, grew distressed herself and wanted to help. This appears to be a powerful impulse in rats. In tests of whether rats would rather eat than help another rat, the researchers found empathy’s pull to be as strong as their desire for chocolate — and rats do love their chocolate.

The two researchers first claimed rats might feel empathy in a high-profile 2011Science paper describing rats freeing their cagemates, rats they had been cohabitating with. They expand on those findings in the latest study, which describes rats helping strangers. It’s a radical, even controversial, claim. Some scientists recognize that chimpanzees, a few cetaceans and perhaps elephants could be empathic, but few have ascribed that trait to rats. If R. norvegicus can be empathic, that fundamentally “human” trait might in fact be ubiquitous.

Seems like a lot of the objections basically boil down looking for any explanation other than empathy or almost re-defining the word so that’s not what the rats are doing.  But I think the strongest case is actually a very logical one:

Other researchers defended the possibility of rat empathy. “Ants are not rats,”quipped Frans de Waal, an Emory University ethologist who has written extensively about empathy, on Facebook. “It would be totally surprising, from a Darwinian perspective, if humans had empathy and other mammals totally lacked it.” …

Frans de Waal thinks empathy originated with maternal care, with evolution favoring those mothers most attentive to their offspring. Of course it could work in the other direction, too: Evolution favors offspring who pay attention to their elders. Rat mothers, it should be noted, are historically renowned for their devoted affection.

“Given the importance of social learning in rats,” said Emilie Snell-Rood, a biologist at the University of Minnesota, and its usefulness “in a situation where a novel predator like humans are trying to kill you all the time, I would expect increased selection on social learning.”

Anyway, plenty more good stuff in here about how rats can help us understand cognition, etc.  Or as one scientist puts it:

As neurobiologist Peggy Mason, a pioneer in rat empathy research put it, “I’m perfectly happy thinking of myself as a rat with a fancy neocortex.”

Or, in other words… despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage.

Politics at its worst

Okay, maybe it does get worse than what’s going on with attempts to repeal the medical device tax, but it does highlight a lot of what is so wrong with our politics.  Nice NYT Editorial on the matter.

First, there’s the matter that the whole point of this tax is to actually pay for the ACA and make it budget neutral:

In seeking to dismantle the Affordable Care Act piece by piece, congressional Republicans have placed a high priority on repealing a tax on medical devices that would raise some $29 billion over the next 10 years to help ensure that health reform will not increase the deficit…

The health reform law imposes a modest 2.3 percent tax on sales of medical devices, to be paid by the manufacturers or importers. It applies to such products as X-ray machines, M.R.I. scanners, pacemakers and artificial hip and knee joints but not to eyeglasses, contact lenses and hearing aids. The $29 billion to be raised from the device industry is less than the amounts to be raised from insurers and drug companies, all of which will benefit from increased business under the act and should pay their fair shares of the cost. If the lost revenues from a repeal of the device tax are offset by reduced spending on other health care programs, as they might well be, many patients could suffer medical or financial harm.

Okay, it’s a tax of any kind, so no matter how sensible, Republicans are against, but Democrats?  Even the populist Elizabeth Warren?  How could that be.  Well…

Repealing the tax is a terrible idea that has been given a veneer of respectability by support from liberal Democrats in states with large concentrations of device manufacturers. They include Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken of Minnesota and Representative Ron Kind of Wisconsin, among others.

These are solidly liberal Senators.  But when it is companies in their state, we see what happens.  Of course, Congress is designed to put the interests of single states and districts ahead of the national interest.  And, how much will the companies suffer.  Well, they’ll tell you quite a bit:

Trade groups say the tax has already caused a big loss of jobs, has reduced spending on research and will lead to a total loss of 195,000 jobs among manufacturers and suppliers and in the general economy over the next five years. They also say the tax will stifle innovation, drive up health care costs and provide an incentive for manufacturers to locate facilities overseas.

Damn that’s a lot of doom and gloom for 2.3%.  Why do people ever take this kind of stuff seriously?  Someone needs to do a study of how fabulously wrong most doom and gloom predictions from trade groups turns out to be.  Seems that they never say, “there will be a modest reduction in profits that we’d rather not see, but this is no fundamental threat to our industry.”  As for the actual harm, independent analysts suggest:

Independent analysts believe the industry’s dire forecasts are malarkey. The Congressional Research Service estimated that the tax would have “relatively modest” effects on jobs, research and company profits and a “negligible” effect on the price of health care. Some jobs would be lost, but they account for a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the industry’s work force. The C.R.S. said the tax should not affect decisions on where to locate production facilities because domestically produced devices and imported devices are subject to the same tax.

It’s not the end of the ACA if this tax is repealed, but it’s sure a bad precedent and would definitely represent so much of what is wrong with politics winning out.

Photo of the day

Love this Telegraph gallery of a frozen lighthouse in Michigan:

Ice engulfs a red lighthouse as a fierce winter storm grips South Haven, Michigan

After each coating the water quickly freezes to ice and the pier is transformed into a slippery, white wonderland

Picture: Mike Kline/Barcroft Media

Map of the day

Love this world map of countries resized according to their population via Vox (click here for the big version).  It’s actually kind of interesting how many countries don’t actually change size all that much.  Other than the obvious gigantism of India, the most eye-catching part to me is the amazing shrinking of Canada and Russia.


Why don’t women run

As mentioned before, the reason there’s not more women in political office is not that women lose elections when they run (they win and lose at the same rates as men) it’s just that women don’t run enough.  There’s all sorts of reasons, but in significant part, similarly-situated women lack the same ambition for higher office as men.  We also know that women are more likely to wait until their children are older to run, which puts them behind similarly-aged men, but some research suggests that’s not really an issue, as John Sides writes:

But studies of political ambition have often struggled to show that responsibilities at home affect women’s decisions about whether to run. For example, some research finds little correlation between household or child-care responsibilities and political ambition in their surveys of men and women in occupations, such as the law, that regularly feed into political careers.

But some new research finds some good evidence on how family responsibilities may very well matter:

Now, a forthcoming paper by Yale doctoral student Rachel Silbermann provides some interesting evidence of how women’s family responsibilities might matter. Silbermann uncovered a striking correlation: The farther away a state legislative district is from the state capital, the less likely it is that there will be at least one female candidate in that district or a woman serving as state legislator. Notably, these districts are no less likely to have women serving in local office, suggesting that these more remote districts aren’t simply lacking women who are interested in running for office, period.

It always seemed to me that here in NC, the women legislators were disproportionately from the Triangle– no accident!  Silberman also conducted an interesting survey experiment–the results would be a lot more compelling of based on professional adults rather than college students, but still telling:

Silbermann also conducted a simple experiment among a national sample as well as a sample of Yale undergraduates. The students were asked to choose between serving in Congress or the state legislature.  One group was told to imagine that the state capital was “five hours from home.”  Another was told that the state capital was only “15 minutes from home.”

Both men and women were more likely to choose the state legislature over Congress when the state capital was only 15 minutes away, compared to five hours away. But women were much more sensitive to location. Men were 14 points more likely to choose the state legislature when it was close by. Women were 28 points more likely.

Taken together, this evidence doesn’t definitely show that family responsibilities are causing women not to run for office.  But such responsibilities — or , in the case of college students, the anticipation of these responsibilities — could quite plausibly explain why women may forsake a long commute to the legislature. And, as Silberman notes, her finding may capture only some of the impact of family responsibilities, because travel is but “one component of what makes political careers incompatible with family responsibilities.”

Interesting!  I know for me one of the reasons I would never want to run for office is toll on family life and I often marvel at the fundamental unfairness of how much easier it is to represent Cary than Asheville.  Clearly, I’m not alone in this, and I guess, to quote my post popular karaoke performance ever, “Man, I feel like a woman.”

Video of the day

Why yes, this is a video of a grown woman opening and playing with a Barbie set where Barbie picks up her dog’s poop.

Now, prepare to have your mind blown…

Videos like this are the top-earning videos on all of Youtube.  Yes, more than Taylor Swift:

An unidentified individual or group responsible for uploading videos that simply show a woman opening Disney toys made an estimated $4.9 million last year, more than any other channel for 2014, according to OpenSlate, a video analytics platform that analyzes ad-supported content on YouTube.

Disney Collector is part of a new, highly lucrative genre of online videos called “unboxing.” Unboxers with seemingly no active sponsorship will decide on a set of consumer items, from electronics to makeup, and didactically discuss a given product’s parts and features. But it’s toys that seem to have taken off — at least two other unboxers, DisneyCarToys and the aforementioned BluCollection ToyCollector currently sit on OpenSlate’s most-viewed list and could crack its top-earner list for 2015.

“A lot more of these toy channels have started showing up in our platform,” Ritchie said. “They’re doing a good job [with] engagement, showing consistent influence, which takes into consideration things like social media and sharing.

Disney Collector’s particular success seems to be owed to her having hit the toy spot earlier than her peers, cementing her status as a superstar among children. Maria Moser, a mother of three who blogs at, said she stumbled upon the videos about a year ago when she and her youngest son, then two, were searching for Thomas the Tank Engine videos.

She said her son just “really likes seeing the different toys opened and played with.”

Why do I know about this particular video?  My four-year old daughter was entranced by the whole thing (I gotta admit, I couldn’t resist watching Taffy pooping) and watches these all the time.  I think she is write now actually while I’m typing this post (mind you, I queued this for later posting).  She’s helping these people earn millions.  Who would have ever guessed little kids couldn’t get enough of watching other people open and play with toys.  Bizarre.

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