Archives For research

lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

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intense blue eye

It’s a frequent societal stereotype that women in porn must have been sexually abused as kids, otherwise they would never go into this line of work. You can hear it from social conservatives in their dire warnings about porn addiction and from feminists who find all porn to be merely an exploitation of women for the enjoyment of men, alike. So one would think that to put the idea of the typical porn star as dealing with molestation or abuse through hypersexuality to rest, all one would have to do is have them take a survey, right? It seems fairly straightforward and it’s just what one study has done. After a survey administered to 177 women being tested between their videos, it found that 36% report being molested as children. If that sounds rather high, a control group of women who presumably had nothing to do with pornography reported a stunning 29% rate of sexual abuse. Basically, when taking the small sample sizes into account, it looks like the stereotype is wrong and women in porn are not predominantly survivors of molestation.

Oddly, note that according to the surveys, nearly a third of all women have been molested and often cited numbers say that anywhere between 20% to 40% of women have experienced some sort of sexual abuse as children. That’s disturbing to say the least, but the matter if also rather problematic because nearly all of these studies are relying on self-reporting on surveys given to convenience samples of women, which is science jargon for "asking whoever’s first available to fill out the questionnaire." This could easily produce a skew because the samples are not a truly random slice of the population but more homogenous demographic groups and the answers will reflect experiences typical for their group as well as their interpretation of what it means to have been sexually abused. Some groups of women may report a very low incidence of abuse during one study and a totally different group would report a very high one in a later one. And while a sample of women will consider a particular episode in a gray area during their childhood to be abuse, others would have forgotten and never reported it, or considered odd but not abusive.

So what does all this mean? It means that this study is certainly not definitive and could well be skewed, especially because women in porn know that people are eager to stereotype them into their image of what a female porn starlet should be: a hapless victim degrading herself because she was denied a proper childhood and now suffers from self-esteem issues that manifest as an over-active sex drive. When they’re doing self-selection and self-reporting, a bias simply could not be ruled out. And this, as well as the comments on the results of this study on news sites, is the other result from this study I find extremely disturbing. There really seem to be people who want female porn stars to be "damaged" so they can rationalize their choice to have sex on film as something only a person who "has issues" would do. And I’ll bet cash money that those exact same people commenting on how those poor abused dears whose father figures had boundary problems would go on to watch porn with those poor abused women. It’s not just a few weirdos watching it; only social media use exceeds online porn viewing. And not by much at that.

There’s something fundamentally unhealthy and downright bipolar in how we view porn and sex in general here in the U.S., and even this small study and the issues it raises gives us a peek at that. We cannot be a society that promotes unrealistic, self-indulgent piety and prudishness, just as we also can’t demand that everyone must embrace every sexual position, arrangement, kink, and relationship with nothing less than an orgasmic grin. This is absolutely a case in which the golden median is not a fallacy but a good approach. Humans are wired for sex. We enjoy it, we enjoy watching it, entire areas of our brain are dedicated to lust and encouraging us to find new mates, and all this enjoyment evolved to coax us into reproduction. To stigmatize natural urges and demean those who we end up watching doing the very things we said only "damaged" people do, fueling an industry that pays them for doing them in the process to the tune of billions per year, is hypocritical at best. And it’s especially bad when it’s done for irrational reasons like the wholehearted embrace of cold, haughty, snobby prudishness as the social norm…

See: Griffith, J., et al. (2012). Pornography actresses: an assessment of the damaged goods hypothesis Journal of Sex Research, 1-12 DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2012.719168

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black model

If you don’t know who Satoshi Kanawaza is, here’s a brief bio. He’s an evolutionary psychologist whose claim to fame are racist and sexist op-eds thinly veiled as scientific research. Last time he wrote about his supposed ironclad evidence that black women and Asians are ugly based on childish simplifications and cherry picking so obvious that you could smell the acrid stink of pure bigot through your browser, he vanished for a year, trying to escape the pillorying he swiftly and very justly received. But now, Big Think, decided to play the controversy card and got him a gig to drive some traffic and give him a soapbox to spew more of his typical bullshit. PZ has a pretty accurate dissection of his claims and I don’t think I could really add much at the detail level. The big problem comes down to this: Kanawaza looks at how many partners certain groups of people have and instead of examining cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and how they affect the subjects’ sex lives, he cherry-picks data to make them fit his stereotypes.

This is generally what racists who want to justify their bigotry tend to do. If they want to "prove" that black men are more violent and less intelligent than white men, they’ll cite how many end up in prison, do worse on the SATs, or occupy senior management posts at big companies. At the same time they’ll ignore the fact that black boys go to woefully underfunded schools where the top priority of the administrators is discipline rather than education, are racially profiled by many police departments, and discriminated against by racists who hire managers, and that decades and decades of this created a legacy of social problems that make these statistics reflect much more than just what happens to black men in the United States. Race relations are a very thorny issue across much of the world, but the racists are too busy feeling superior to others to care. In the case of Kanawaza’s "scholarship," we see a very similar cherry picking happening as he oh so conveniently forgets that there are a lot of very attractive women with few partners and a fair bit of… ahem… aesthetically challenged men whose sexual tally rivals that of porn stars.

Has he bothered to ask whether there was a reporting bias at play since women are well known to significantly underreport their number of sexual partners while men are known to do the exact opposite? What about the cultural attitudes of the subjects’ communities and their views on sex and dating? A liberal city is more openly promiscuous than a conservative town where to say that you had more than "two or three" sexual partners is taboo. Likewise, someone who doesn’t feel that casual sex is a bad thing is going to have a lot more partners than someone who thinks that having steady, long term relationships is the only proper approach to intimacy. How does he try to reconcile Ron Jeremy, the homely, beer-bellied porn star with more than a thousand sexual partners, and a Southern ultra-conservative beauty queen who had maybe three partners in her entire life? He doesn’t. Why? Because that would undermine his narrative that black women and all Asians are sexual untouchables and the only people who would object are politically correct liberal ninnies. I could go on and on and on with things he could consider for a genuine study. I once lived with an honest to goodness sex researcher so I got a really good look at what proper studies in this area ask their subjects and how they grade things like attractiveness.

The kind of pseudoscience that Kanawaza practices is best left in the 1930s where it belongs, and regardless of how much he whines about being persecuted by evil leftists and the PC police for his "research," the fact is that he’s a shitty scientist and a bigoted simpleton to boot. Just in case you needed more ammunition to despise him, note how calmly he advocated large scale nuclear bombardment of the Middle East in response to 9/11, seemingly unaware of all the U.S. assets in the region, the devastating health, environmental, political, and economic effects of a nuclear first strike against countries that just so happen to be in the Middle East, even if they’re not known for widely supporting terrorist groups. The fallout from such an attack — fallout, oh I slay me — would make World War 2 look like a minor skirmish by comparison. But when you got an enormous mouth and don’t bother to think before you speak this is the kind of stupid that will come pouring out. Kanawaza isn’t too bothered by the criticism though, he’s busy assuming the favorite position of most far, far right wing bigots: hapless victim of the liberal elites…

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mars lander

If you allow me the indulgence, I’d like to once again take an article about something not exactly all that relevant to science and technology, and go off on an important tangent. In this case, the article is a rumination on American exceptionalism and the seeming insecurity of a wide swath of Americans who constantly need to be assured that their country is still number one at everything no matter what happens. Now, exercises in armchair anthropology are a political pundit’s bread and butter so it’s actually surprising that there aren’t even more pieces like this, but what does it have to do with science? Well, it features a very critical review of the previous president’s shot at reaching for the stars just like the nation did in its heyday…

When George W. Bush suggested in 2004 a manned mission to Mars, the proposal was mocked to death. Rightly so, perhaps, because it smacked of desperation and, what’s more, [was] designed to distract attention from troubling events and setbacks elsewhere.

Sounds about right and as far as the article is concerned, enough attention has been paid to it so we can move on. But for me there’s something even more important here. Certainly, many a space exploration enthusiast would object to mocking a manned mission to other worlds, taking it as a symptom of a society losing its ambition in favor of mundane, self-induced misery, but this is actually one of those cases where criticism is appropriate. What was being proposed was a flag planting mission, a chance for NASA to send astronauts to Mars to do some solid science, which is actually a very good idea, but more so, a chance for politicians to chant something patriotic as the lander touches down, check the red planet off the to do list, and gut the program as soon as the flights became too routine for the public. Keep in mind that even those who enjoyed tuning in as the unfortunately now late Neil Armstrong took his one small step, mostly thought the whole thing was a giant waste of time and money, and supported it only because it would prove that of the newly minted post-world war superpowers, the United States was the greatest.

When we let politicians plan our missions, this is what we get. Science is turned into a major PR project and as soon as the been-there-done-that effect sets in with the voters, they cancel the whole thing. Just think about the possibilities if NASA went forward with its plans for future lunar expeditions. There were drafts for lunar bases and the longer stays on the surface would allow a lot more research and science necessary to confirm a building site and lay down the foundation for a permanent outpost on another world. The advances in medicine and technology to treat all sorts of degenerative conditions and exposure to radiation would’ve been amazing, and when a colonized Moon was ready to become a launch pad to Mars and beyond, we would’ve seen even more of a research and development spike. This was a vision for the future that motivated many young men and women to go into the STEM fields, hoping to be part of this amazing journey at a very special moment in history. The politician’s response? Well, we beat the commies, yank the nerds’ funding, we need it for riders! The 2004 proposal would’ve been an encore of that.

Yes, I’ve written about the problems with listening to technocrats a little too much, and do realize that we can’t live in a world where budgets are dictated by research labs and billions are handed over without question for every blue sky idea. But we’re so far away from a world like that, we’d need to shift how almost $1 trillion in tax receipts is being spent before we start worrying. In truth, we’re living in another extreme, in which politicians who spend the vast majority of their tenure in campaign mode, and whose vision generally extends only to the next election, dictate the course of our technological and scientific advancements. And being completely ignorant in the subject matter doesn’t faze them one bit as they treat big projects and highly innovative concepts with thinly veiled disdain, looking at them from a purely political standpoint. Rather than wonder how many jobs the project can create, its practical applications, and its contribution to all of us in the grand scheme of things, they size it up for its potential to be cited as a waste of money and time in an attack ad by an equally self-absorbed, visionless politico. If it wasn’t for the sheer good will and prestige build up by NASA, they would gut space exploration completely, and if it wasn’t for DARPA and the military, robotics research would be nowhere near as well funded.

Consider living in a future in which politicians didn’t decry the price tag of exploration with such antagonism and embraced the idea that guided expansion into space came with huge benefits, hosting competitions for the most innovative and feasible ideas and designs to bring the space stations, robots, and cyborgs imagined in the 1970s and 1980s by this point in time, from retro speculation to science fact. We can grumble and say that these things aren’t very practical, but building the first houses and farms, then protecting them from marauders and weather, instead of carrying on with hunting and gathering and living in caves wasn’t all that practical either once upon a time. Computers and satellites were once luxuries for a small clutch of people and few believed that anyone outside of the military or various scientific research labs would ever have a use for the internet, hypertext, or large scale satellite imagery and communications. But we took a risk, we tried, and now look where we are. The exotic, bizarre projects of the 1950s and 1960s are today’s defining pillars of the First World. All it took was vision and patience, traits that are sorely missing from today’s political scene and stamped out when they are.

And at risk of repeating myself ad naseum, those who ask "why would we possibly spend any tax money on this when we need more jobs," need to consider that all these things aren’t just going to get built and tested by themselves. Contractors, universities, private companies hoping to win a contract through a competition, and government agencies, will need to, gasp, hire experts and support staff to engineer the complicated new machinery and perform highly involved tests that will require specialized equipment. You cannot outsource such high end research because just a small handful of nations in the world have the state of the art labs and facilities to do it, and of all those countries, the United States is the most innovative and technologically advanced thanks to its mix of first rate colleges and their wide collaborative networks stretching across the globe. We know the benefits of the research and development involved in these high brow projects, and we have plans for what to do with the technology if we had it. The real reason why we’re not making it happen is because the politicians refuse to do their job. They would much rather spend their time in the partisan muck, flinging insults at each other and fueling the party faithful.

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exchange abstract

There’s a part of the Republican economic policy that I never understood and really can’t seem to wrap my mind around because the more I think it about it, the more self-contradictory it gets, and the more it resembles an almost prayful fantasy rather than a sound plan. Now I know that the ardent disciples of the right wing will chuckle and say "well duh, you don’t get it because you must be one of those stupid liberal Obamocrats, I mean hell you’re from the former USSR," as it tends to be the level of partisan debate nowadays. But my problem with this policy doesn’t come from some sort of meditation on morality and society. It comes from my wallet since I’m not just a consultant by trade, I’m an independent consultant, so according to the Republican speeches, it’s a miracle that I haven’t been strangled out of business by the socialists in Congress and if I vote for GOP, I’d make so much money thanks to their tax cuts, I could hire a whole staff. This is, in a nutshell, their plan for nurturing the economic recovery. Give entrepreneurs and business owners tax cuts so they hire people in appreciation.

There are a few slight problems with this rosy outlook. First and foremost, have you noticed the surge in productivity as fewer and fewer people have jobs? That’s thanks to new technology. An uncomfortable truth is that a lot of jobs are being made obsolete which is why the job training for those other than master treadespeople will need to be tied to the STEM fields and into a major coalition of research and development labs for government and big corporate clients if we ever hope to make a serious, permanent dent in unemployment. So why would I want to run off and hire someone if I get a tax cut if I can just build some software to do things for me? I can write a program to look for differences in data for tens of thousands of reports and it’ll do the job in just a couple of seconds. Certainly the GOP would balk at the idea that instead of writing a program, I should’ve went out and found someone to manually sift through the reports for me for days and bill me $10 to $15 an hour. But why would they expect me to do the same thing if they give me a tax refund or a tax holiday, especially if I need the job done today, not next week?

Secondly, employees are expensive and the hiring practices of many companies to ensure that the money they spent will go to an employee they’re 100% sure should do the job make it even more expensive and tedious to hire someone. Basically, companies hire as a last resort and for every job they don’t create, they can divert more towards paying down debt, buying new tools, and paying dividends to those who invested in them. There’s nothing corrupt or evil about this. It’s really the same as you not going out for nights on the town to save some money so you can buy that new couch and pay down your credit card bill. You need the couch, your savings need some replenishing in case of a rainy day, and the bills don’t pay themselves. And when the GOP argues that you should spend money because dammit, people are counting on you to pay them so we can maintain a strong economy, I’m sure your first question is whether they’re paying any attention to what they’re saying. But that’s exactly what they’re proposing. Go out to spend your tax refunds, give them to businesses and the businesses will hire you. This view of the economy is simplistic to a fault and ignores what companies actually need to do to stay profitable.

People who are in business do it to make money. If they feel charitable, they donate and get to write off the money they donate off their taxes, which if fair since they’re using it to help those in need or to advance a project that helps educate others. What the Republican idea proposes is an unworkable merger between the two, in which people who need to make money for those who invested in them expecting a return within three to five years, are being relied on to give jobs to people who need them as a reward for their spending despite this arrangement not being in the best long term interests of the companies they run. On top of this, the Republicans play a rather bizarre blame game in which companies that don’t want to hire people because the profits they earn can be invested elsewhere, are victims of a government that’s not creating the necessary environment to get companies to hire. And when people are laid off, the government is blamed for mishandling the economy even though whether people stay or go depends on the policies of an individual company. There are businesses who lay off right and left to make the quarter look better and there are those who refuse to lay people off even in hard times.

The fact of the matter folks is that blaming the government for why you’re not doing well or why you had to lay people off is terrible management. I’ve heard conversations in which people who closed their businesses said that they were lucky they closed up shop before Obama took the oath of office and it always struck me as a handy way of excusing one’s mismanagement. If you had a successful business that brought you a lot of money and with which you paid yourself well, why would you kill this golden goose just because a certain politician came to power? What kind of savvy businessperson decides to do this sort of thing? Maybe the business wasn’t doing very well and you had no idea how to fix it, so you closed up shop and blamed Obama so it doesn’t look like you failed but that you had no choice but to get out? Companies with good models and great products and ideas almost always make money regardless of who occupies Congress and the White House. And our goal should be to give these companies the incentive to invest here, rather than in an emerging market by offering new and more innovative technologies and ways of doing things to help boost their bottom line over the long haul.

We can’t do that with a tax cut and spewing fire and brimstone about government regulations as talking points are chanted with the zeal of a cultist at the apogee of an incantation. We have to expand R&D grants to help improve industrial designs and manufacturing techniques, play up all the strong intellectual property protections American law gives and the kind of infrastructure and government protection of their international interests no emerging market can offer. A quick and easy tax cut is the lazy politician’s way of solving big problems and the effects are short term. If a lawmaker drops my rent for three years and promises to raise it on the fourth, guess what I’ll be doing when the third year is up? That’s right, moving. These inducements are like the weekend sales at the mall, there to help bring in the crowds for those three days. Investments in R&D for retooling our economy which yield tools that can help companies more profitable over the long term and prompt them to hire workers who actually understand how these tools work is what will require hard work and long term planning, but will bring the biggest bang for our buck. Though for an average politician with a two year shelf life, this is simply too big of a project to consider…

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create poster

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Why is NASA spending $2.5 billion to land a rover on Mars when there are poor people still starving on Earth and the national debt has to be paid down? I’ve posted about this again and again, but it bears repeating. If you’re someone who thinks that we shouldn’t peruse high budget, high stakes science because there are starving orphans in the world, then you simply don’t understand math or science, and may well be a hypocrite to boot. Allow me to explain. How many of those who expect us to equate a Martian rover with starving children have a roof over their heads, food in the fridge, and computers on which to vent their frustrations at NASA’s “waste” in news story comments and on Facebook? Why do they not give up most of their possessions and give them to the needy? Why bother with a computer when half of all people on Earth can’t read? How do they justify a trip to the grocery store to buy fresh produce when more than a quarter of the world’s population has to go to bed hungry? And if they take vacations, what possible excuse can they make for such luxuries when a third of the planet is mired in abject poverty?

Seems a little ridiculous to be so demanding, doesn’t it? Well, it’s equally absurd to argue that we need to give up advancing the species forward until Earth is a utopia where no child goes hungry and no adult falls victim to a terrorist or a secret police of an authoritarian thug. Ultimately, there’s only so much we can do about poverty in general and this well-meaning effort to save the planet despite the fact that throwing money at poverty and hunger won’t solve these problems alone, can’t become a giant anchor around our neck. The Martian rovers are generating jobs and technology we can use in the future. Manned space exploration helps us discover more about our bodies and come up with new ideas for treatments of degenerative diseases, the kind that almost invariably kill or hobble us. To forgo this research so another wad of cash can end up in the greasy palms of some neo-feudal warlord or dictator, as it so often does, is a far greater waste than even the worst scientific experiment. At least we’d learn something from that.

And when we tackle the idea that ditching Curiosity could’ve helped us pay down the national debt, that’s when things get really asinine. Do the people who advocate this know how big the debt is? Do they realize that they’re talking about the equivalent of helping to pay off the mortgage on a modern luxury apartment at the London Ritz Carlton with change they find on a street corner? The entire budget of NASA amounts to one tenth of one percent of the debt, a rounding error barely even worth mentioning in the same breath. But then again, Americans think that NASA’s funding is on par with the Department of Defense despite the fact that if the space agency had a tenth of the defense budget, it would be so ecstatic, it would redefine what is it to have a multiple nerdgasm. If those were the figures with which we were dealing, humans would be flying to Mars on plasma rockets on a routine basis by now and we’d be taking vacations on the Moon. In fact, NASA provides such an amazing bang for our buck that to start ridiculing it for “wasting” $2.5 billion on building and landing a nuclear-powered SUV on another world while helping thousands of jobs in the process, is utterly absurd.

The national debt is as bad as it is today not because we flew to Mars just a few too many times but because more than a trillion dollars were spent on war (some necessary, a good deal not so much, to put it mildly), another trillion plus was spent on bailing out banks which gambled with the mortgage market, lost, and threatened the public into a lucrative bailout, and many billions were spent trying to induce them into hiring more people in the bizarre belief that companies will magically give people jobs if they get more tax cuts, tax incentives, and tax havens rather than do what’s in their best interests and pocket the profits. At no point in American history has the nation spent so much on science that it didn’t have enough money to buy ammo and issue social security checks. Likewise, no nation that I can think of was ever held back by investing in science and technology. Muslim sultans and European kings didn’t lament that astronomers found better navigation techniques, engineers built better roads and more advanced weapons using algebra, optics, and new advances in physics, and more soldiers could be treated by medics who found new medicinal uses for herbs that would make their way into modern medicine. We constantly underfund science and education, and yet it helps us move the world forward on a pittance. To lament that even this is too much is simply not a sane or informed argument.

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Once upon a time, I was talking to a friend about some of the more popular utopian sci-fi worlds, particularly, the world of the Jetsons in which we were predicted to have primitive robot maids, apartments in the sky, vacations on a lunar base or a city on Mars, and 30 hour work weeks for even the most workaholic nations. As we discussed the likelihood of all this happening in the near future, she brought up a point about George Jetson I didn’t even bother to consider. If he was a real person who lived the way all residents of his future do, he should weigh a ton, literally. His lifestyle isn’t even sedentary, it’s stationary! Everywhere he goes there are moving walkways, escalators, elevators, hover-pods, and so on and do forth. The man only needs to lift a finger to eat and that’s actually not always the case. And considering his near-constant immobility and certain morbid obesity, he, as well as every other typical resident of the future, would contribute to private and public healthcare budgets that would soar into the hundreds and hundreds of trillions, dying between two years and two decades early.

Don’t just take my word for it. A recent study shows that a sedentary lifestyle costs two years of your life and at least every twenty minutes, you’ll need to get up and walk around to mitigate the ill effects of sitting still. No matter if you put in an hour a day three to five days per week at the gym as doctors recommend, a job in which you sit at a desk, or wheel, or a machine, all day is going to be detrimental to your health. Trouble is, it’s not as if you can just excuse yourself from the typical hour long meeting or an intense assignment to go stretch. This is simply not how white collar jobs are designed. So what about blue collar workers who get to stand most of their day and move around on a regular basis? Why don’t we re-finagle our cubicles and offices to allow more mobility and require less time that our rear ends press down into our seat cushions? Well, there’s a problem with that too because standing too long and too much causes joint pain. So we’re back to the 20 minute break schedule that’s downright impossible for most workers, from mail room interns to CEOs if we want to live just a few years longer. Guess that’s another argument for why cubicles are pure evil and humans don’t belong in them and why we shouldn’t be standing in the same few spots on an assembly line year in, year out…

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Generally, when researchers studied children in same-sex households and measured how well they fared in terms of education, criminal records, and income, then compared them to heterosexual households with the same criteria, they found that as long as the kids get love, support, and attention, they tend to grow up happier and go on to do generally well in life. Obviously, bullying and discrimination are a bigger problem for kids who grow up with same-sex parents, but they usually bounce back from such episodes and in some communities that’s not even an issue since more parents and adults in charge have a life-and-let-live policy towards gay or other nontraditional couples with children. These findings mean that when a study purporting that children of gay parents fare worse in every possible life outcome, from being subject to more sexual abuse, to ending up requiring food stamps, to considering suicide more, it better have really, really good evidence behind it. In the light of a recent much-covered retraction of a paper that justified therapy for homosexuals, you’d think that anyone studying gay couples wouldn’t simply conduct the study his donors wanted. But he did just that.

You see, the problem is not in the fact that Mark Regnerus’ study was contrary to current scientific consensus because science corrects itself based on new data and were he to have good data, the consensus has to be reconsidered in light of new evidence. And it’s not even in the fact that the study was funded by two think tanks which promote social conservatism as the solution to all our problems, and one of which hosts a forum that questions the separation of church and state. Good scientists follow the data rather than the donors, which is why a study funded by the Koch brothers and trumpeted by global warming denialists as the imminent end to the current scientific view on global warming, ended up agreeing with the prevailing consensus and was ultimately denounced by its backers, who up until the last week or so before publication were praising it as an exemplary undertaking in climate science. No, the problem with Regnerus’ study is that it was just weird and has all the obvious traits of cherry-picking data to suit his goal, repackaging the results of previous studies of children in broken homes as a survey of kids from same-sex households. He essentially did the equivalent of studying the likelihood of having your car getting damaged on any given date based almost entirely on data he collected from visiting body shops until he felt he had enough data points to make his conclusions.

After hiring a survey company to contact some 15,000 people over several months, Regnerus got a sample of only 255 subjects who said that one of their biological parents had a same-sex relationship. Which is odd. I’m pretty sure that if you’re studying how well children fare after being raised in same-sex households, you would build your sample out of those who live in committed same-sex relationships rather than people who left their partners for someone of the same sex for an unspecified period of time. And what’s more bizarre is that we’re also told that 58% of the respondents had a biological mother in a same-sex relationship leave. The figure is said to show higher than average instability in the family but what average we’re talking about is not specified or cited. What about instability in heterosexual households in which infidelity caused a split? Regnerus spent no time trying to control for such situations in heterosexual families and simply barreled ahead, calling many previous studies obviously unreliable because they don’t represent "how gay and lesbian parents really are," apparently meaning that because in the sample he collected parents who had a same-sex relationship even once are now officially gay, and therefore, this is an accurate picture of how same-sex couples function.

Obviously the respondents came from broken homes and we know that in such situations, kids are very often neglected, which makes them more prone to do badly in school, get worse jobs, feel depressed, and expose them to sexual predators or inappropriate behavior by their parents. Less than 1% of the respondents had an established same-sex couple as parents and were planned either through IVF or adoption, so the sample of people studied to figure out what effect same-sex parenting have on kids are barely a blip on Regnerus’ radar and he justifies his omission of them by declaring that he captured real same-sex households rather than an idealized convenience sample. Again, don’t let the fact that he didn’t separate bisexual experimentation from a committed gay relationship or consider that his sample showed broken homes in which one parent decided to pursue a same-sex relationship rather than leave for a heterosexual one. We know kids raised in a broken home without constant contact and support from their families are prone to all the negative outcomes that the study found and that’s not what we’re studying. We don’t use broken homes in which both parents had strictly heterosexual relationships as the benchmark by which to judge straight parenting. Why would we use broken homes where a homosexual relationship occurred as a benchmark to evaluate gay parenting?

Oh and one more thing, the sample of the study considered only people between 18 and 39, which would very easily miss a period in which more and more gay couples were settling down and planning families, omitting many functioning gay relationships from consideration. Odd, huh? Maybe we should consider Regnerus’ very generous donors, the  Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation, who gave him $785,000 for his work as you can see on page 5 of his CV. In fact, a cursory glance by The New Republic finds that Regnerus has a penchant for espousing the kinds of views that you’d hear from Focus On The Family or Heritage, views such as declaring that consensual premarital sex between adults is a male’s way of avoiding a proper marriage to a woman he finds attractive, and that women better net themselves a husband quickly or face spinsterhood in their 30s and 40s. So why wouldn’t two socially conservative think tanks read a few of his papers, and offer to give him some money to study life outcomes of children in gay couples? And they were extremely generous in their donations, especially Witherspoon, which gave $640,000 towards the venture. Curious minds really want to know how that money was spent since his surveying would cost $20,000 to $25,000, tops, and his sample could be easily analyzed in Excel by one person. A budget of $50,000 would more than cover this study even if he bought an equipped a new office especially for it. Are these grants for more than one study?

Here’s what irks me. If scientists take money from private companies or organizations, it’s not proof of bias in their studies by default because it all comes down to data. The issue is that the data and conclusions have to make sense. Were a scientist accept a million dollar grant from say, Sugar Inc., and publish a study that a lot of sugar in one’s diet does not in fact cause diabetes, red alarms should be going off in your head because a lot of existing work shows that it very much does. Likewise, when Big Pharma pays doctors to sign off on very, very laudatory papers about their latest blockbuster drug, we should thoroughly question any off-label use this paper would recommend. So when a social scientist takes money from wealthy conservative groups and then espouses their views in a study in which data screams of cherry-picking and spends a lot of time denouncing the existing body of literature as being just plain wrong while packaging those who grew up in broken homes as the end products of a "representative sample" of gay parenting, we should cry foul. Right wing groups saw literature that found few differences between gay and straight parents and they needed a study that supported their talking point. So they found a sympathetic researcher and bought one. It’s just that simple.

See: Regnerus, M. (2012). How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the NFSS Social Science Research, 41 (4), 752-770 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2012.03.009

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I’m sure that long time readers noted that this blog’s been rather slow for the last few months, slower than the time before my six month hiatus. Well, the good news, or possibly bad news depending on your opinion of my writing, is that Weird Things is not going on another hiatus even though once again the schedule gods refuse to have pity on this blogger. This crunch is partly of my own design because a fair chunk of my blogging time now goes to polishing my Hivemind prototype for open-sourcing. This means that I have to rewrite its code to better comply with certain architectural standards, polish the utilities I designed to make it easier to modify for future developers since I’m going to release what amounts to an extensible starter kit, and test each approach for performance and maintainability. Even for this starter kit there will be around 250 unit tests to ensure that a modification to any of the translators, or repositories, or container factories won’t break critical functionality, so as you can probably see, there’s a good deal of work to do before it’s actually ready for prime time.

Why spend the time to do this on top of my day job and some other important life events? Partly because it’s a project on which I spent years of study and research, the vast majority of which was used to come up with the working model of Hivemind’s architecture and learn the different technologies which would be involved, trying them out in individual projects, and assembling these individual components to further refine the design. If an existing toolkit within a framework I used didn’t suffice, I wrote my own, while in the meantime making sure it was consistent with not only the end goal but the relevant science. One of the obvious benefits of experiments like this was a better insight how the tools I use in my day job work and how they can be modified to do what I want them to do. The other is that they also highlight problems and raise questions I didn’t originally consider but really need to answer. Now, after all this time and effort, I want to see it in action and make sure it works in its intended context. One can spend inordinate amounts of time building theoretical AI tools and pontificate on their applications with no end in sight, or just build them and see how well they’ll perform in the real world.

On an unrelated, but important note, I’ve also been thinking about redesigning the blog itself since it seems to have been locked into a format that doesn’t really allow me to be as flexible with posts as I like. Whether I’ll try to build my own blogging platform from scratch and add all sorts of convenient little features to it or just spring for another WordPress theme to customize, I’m not sure but if you have any ideas on the subject, please leave a comment or drop me a line with your thoughts. On the one hand, building my own platform will take plenty of time but it will let me customize everything exactly as I see fit so once it’s up and running, it will give me a lot of flexibility for future posts and for layout options. On the other, using a customized template will save both time and effort, but it won’t necessarily give me the same range of options unless I happen to find a template that I know can be extensively modified without a lot of testing or compromising its functionality. Regardless, I’ll post an update when I come up with a decision and again, I encourage you to weigh in and let me know if you have any particular thoughts on the subject. Since the choice hasn’t been made yet, I’m on the lookout for ideas and options I haven’t yet considered before setting my foot down and getting to work.

[ illustration by Marian Cerman ]

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We’ve already seen the scope-severity paradox, the tendency of humans to lose track of the heinousness of a crime when the numbers of those affected by it are high enough, which explains why millions are outraged when a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain shoots and kills a harmless teenager in his zeal, while a continuing genocide in Sudan wasn’t mentioned in the news until Clooney’s arrest. Basically, when a million people are affected by systematic crime, we start tuning out because we can’t visualize the scale of what they experience and muster up the appropriate empathy. But when we can imagine how someone would feel in a situation we can readily understand, our empathy kicks in. So, asked a team of psychologists, what about the way we process and react to violence? Is there a point where we also tune out, even when we actually have to be violent? As it turns out, there is a point where we do abstract death and violence but it only happens when we don’t have to be directly involved and can harm by proxy, while simulating or contemplating a violent act in person seems to produce a very powerful physiological revulsion to the idea of harming a fellow human.

One of the most compelling simulations of violence in the research involves an experiment in which subjects discharged a real, but unloaded gun into a researcher’s face. As you can imagine, their stress levels went sky high during the ordeal because they obviously didn’t want to shoot the researcher or be responsible for some sort of accident in which they kill someone. In the less extreme scenarios, the subjects also showed intense physical discomfort to violence. In fact, the only way they felt more at ease with a violent action was when they were given tools to distance themselves form face to face violence. Their results were consistent with classic morality thought experiments which revolve around a scenario involving a runaway train and six people out of which one could be sacrificed so the other five can live. In a setup in which the sacrificial lamb was simply an innocent bystander who could be pushed in the way of the train to save five people, 90% of subjects found the pushing to be unacceptable, even with the lives of five others on the line. But when the sacrificial human was in an alternative path to which the subjects could divert a train with a lever, almost 95% of the subject found it morally palatable to pull the level and kill him to save the others. In both cases, the concept and outcome are the same. The only difference is a means to distance oneself from getting one’s hands bloody.

And as odd as it may seem, I think that these findings can mesh with a much darker experiment which found that we can be persuaded to harm each other for cash. You would think that harming someone for a bonus would be contrary to our supposedly nice nature, but the simulated shocks were performed remotely, viewed via a closed circuit TV, and encouraged by the researchers. Were the subjects in that study be told to shock a person right in front of them, it’s likely that the outcome would be very different. Were the subjects deciding on whether to sacrifice a bystander to a runaway train told that there’s money for them in doing so, or that they will actually be using a convicted child molester or a wanted serial killer as a makeshift brake to save five people, it would be a safe bet that far, far more people would find the sacrifice more than acceptable if not outright an inherently moral course of action. And what if this hypothetical person to be sacrificed is portrayed as being a very depressed, borderline suicidal drug addict or alcoholic who came to the tracks to think about ending it all that night? What kind of interesting results and discussions would that thought experiment produce? I’ll bet a great deal of data and subjects’ options that would make for every interesting reading and debate.

These studies are terrific starting points to flesh out the intermediate steps between mindless acts we could classify as good or evil, and abstract human cognition that shapes what we consider to be moral and we can go even further with them because the complex questions they raise and the similarities they have point to an encouragingly consistent set of conclusions. For example, in the mercenary study, subjects who watched the simulated victims twitch from their shocks backed off, just like the would-be saviors in the morality experiment refused to agree to push someone in front of a train if they had to do it themselves and watch a person die by their hand. Meanwhile, both showed their willingness to inflict more harm on others when they didn’t have any contact with their victims and had a convenient proxy nearby. Overall it seems that we are not inherently violent and have a physical resistance to harming others. But give us incentives or what we think are valid reasons to harm others and a proxy by which to do it, we’ll justify our actions while meting out misery and woe. Put us in a position where our power is unchecked and we can easily abuse it with dire consequences, and when we are in a position in which we must harm others under duress, we’ll comply far more than we would want to admit to ourselves, much less to others. This is why we often don’t care to think about studies into our morality…

See: Cushman, F., Gray, K., Gaffey, A., Mendes, W. (2012). Simulating murder: the aversion to harmful action. Emotion, 12 (1), 2-7 DOI: 10.1037/a0025071

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