Wednesday, May 26, 2010

(Not So) Grumpy Old Men

So, I have started reading a new book, and it couldn't be more appropriate for this blog.  The book is called "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology" and tackles many of the same issues I have been blogging about here, like: whether or not we only use ten percent of our brains (we don't, we use all of it), and whether or not lie detectors work (they don't, or at least not well enough to be truly reliable).  Of course, there are numerous other myths that I haven't gotten to, or didn't know about myself.  For example, it is a pretty common conception that old people are grumpy, crotchety, miserly, and easily upset.  Just look at the films "Grumpy Old Men", "Up", and "Gran Torino".  Or picture a person who might yell: "Hey, you kids get off my lawn!"  Does the person in your mental image have gray or white hair?  Well, as "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology" points out:
    "One team of investigators surveyed adults between the ages of 21 and 40 or over the age of 60 about their happiness and (their perception of) the happiness of the average person at their current age, (at) age 30, and at age 70.  The young adults predicted that people in general would be less happy as they aged.  Yet the older adults were actually happier at their current age than were younger respondents (Lacy, Smith, & Ubel, 2006)
     Population-based surveys reveal that rates of depression are actually highest in individuals aged 25-45 (Ingram, Scott, & Siegle, 1999), and that the happiest group of people is men aged 65 and older (Martin, 2006).  Happiness increases with age through the late 60s and perhaps 70s (Mroczek & Kolarz, 1998; Nass,  Brave, & Takayama, 2006).  In one study of 28,000 Americans, a third of 88 year-olds reported they were "very happy", and the happiest people surveyed were the oldest.  The odds of being happy increased 5% with every decade of life (Yang, 2008)."
Of course, general happiness may not account for instances of irritability, but it does seem likely that isolated encounters, and small numbers of individuals (as well as Hollywood caricatures) are what's really driving this stereotype.  As the data suggest, most elderly people don't see themselves as "grumpy" but rather, they are quite content... more so than the rest of us young whippersnappers, anyway.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A good warning sign...

In my last post, I lamented not having enough time to write a proper book review of Richard Dawkins' latest work.  The reason being that I am trying to graduate and finish my dissertation/thesis.  I have been wanting to put up a "website under construction" warning sign or something like that for a couple of months now to warn people that my posts may be infrequent at best as I write manuscripts, finish experiments, pack and move, etc.  Instead, I found this great t-shirt at phd comics.  I will still try to keep posts coming, but I think I may have to put this pic up on the header or somewhere more permanent... at least for the next month or so.

Book Review (sort of): The Greatest Show on Earth

I just (finally) finished reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth.  Normally, I would write a bit of a book review, but I am kind of swamped right now with trying to finish my graduate career and move on to a post-doctoral fellowship that is waiting in the wings.  I will say that the book was excellent and very well written. I am always amazed at Dawkins' ability to distill important concepts in biology and evolution and convey them so simply and elegantly.  If you want a book that gives you numerous readily understandable explanations of the evidence for evolution (and instances of UNintelligent "design") it is certainly a must read.
And though it took me a while to finish, I imagine someone not writing a dissertation would be able to read it cover to cover in a week or less (I know some who took it all in in one sitting.)
All said, a great book, I highly recommend it, and, if time permits, I will post a more thorough review of the book in the near future.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday Comics

It is, after all, "just a theory".

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Just because I find it....

Sad and humorous all at the same time.  Cigarette companies pumped money into fighting the science that linked several types of cancer and heart disease to smoking, just like many companies are pumping money into fighting climate science.  With cigarettes, several decades passed before the science won out, and countless people died.    I'll leave it at that.

Fish Oil and Cognitive Decline

Following the recent study that showed Ginko Biloba's purported effects to be overblown, another study has looked at fish oil supplements and found that they were neither effective in boosting brain power nor in preventing cognitive decline.  Here's a summary at Brain Blogs:

While I am always skeptical of the real power of nutritional supplements (usually because rigorous study finds them minimally effective at best, or because scientific studies that do show promise are almost always epidemiological or in vitro, the former being limited by an inability to control for numerous other factors, and the latter being limited by the stark differences between the environment in a dish and that inside the body), this isn't a "nail in the coffin" in terms of fully debunking the potential of fish oil, but it is a strong case for not forcing your grandparents to choke down cod liver oil in hopes that it will stave off dementia.
That being said, I am out of town at the moment, and not really able to read up on other studies on the purported benefits of fish oil supplements.  So, it may be true that fish oil still has some cardiovascular benefits.  Or, since olive oil was used as the control supplement in this study, it may be that it, or any other unsaturated fat is just as good for protecting the brain from decline, and perhaps a better control would be to compare unsaturated fats (like olive oil and fish oil) to saturated fats (like butter and bacon fat).  Also, since the background for this type of study is epidemiological, it may mean that fish oil needs to be taken throughout life, rather than just for 2 years during old age (though that's a pretty long time to not see an effect).  However, fish oil may be beneficial in people who are more susceptible to cognitive decline (or already experiencing symptoms of dementia).  Since this study tested healthy adults, and none of them experienced cognitive decline, we can't say it has absolutely no effect, just that it has no effect in healthy individuals.
So, while I will try to do some more research when I get home, and see if fish oil really does anything, the one thing I can say for sure is, if you are healthy and in your 70s, fish oil isn't going to help you any more than olive oil, and I don't know if either is going to help you that much (at least not as a supplement).

Thanks to Bill Nelson for giving me the heads-up on this study.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Comics

Another good one from SMBC.  If you don't get it, you should read this post.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Underscoring the Importance of Publicly Funded Science Research

It is clear that (financial) incentives can motivate and alter our behaviors.  This lies at the core of free market capitalism (just ask Ayn Rand or Adam Smith).  And scientists, sadly, are no exception. Almost all peer reviewed journals ask authors to disclose any financial interests or potential conflicts of interest in what they are attempting to publish... and with good reason.  A recent study (pdf) shows that research that is funded by pharmaceutical companies is more likely to be biased to give positive results.  Now this isn't to say there is outright fraud, but the difference between a truly significant finding and a weak trend may not be all that much.   For example, if you are a researcher who is getting paid to conduct this research, give lectures, etc., and you are relying on money from a company to keep your lab funded, you may be more likely to make small concessions to keep that company happy and keep the money flowing.  For example, you might let the company have some input in the experimental design or in determining what types of statistical tests should be run.  Something like this is not overt "fudging of data", but it can affect the results and skew them in favor of the pharmaceutical companies' interests.  (Or it could be overt fraud in the interest of personal financial gain, as in the case of Andrew Wakefield who ignited tremendous and unwarranted fears over vaccines and autism.)  Of course, all of this doesn't mean that we should throw out all findings from research that was funded by private interests, but it should be evaluated with added scrutiny, and any claims of veracity should be withheld until an independent research group (or groups) can replicate the findings.  

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

We Are...


Finally, two of my favorite things, together at last, science and Penn State Football.  Anyone who has ever been to PSU's Beaver Stadium knows that it can get pretty loud.  So loud, in fact, that the fans dress in white to add a visual effect to all the white noise that is now known as the "Penn State White Out".  Visiting quarterbacks have a tough time calling plays on the field, and the effect of this home field advantage can be seen pretty readily in the team's record over the past several years: Since 2005, the Nittanny Lions have won 32 games at home and lost only 4 (while their record on the road is 22 and 9).  Now, a graduate student at Penn State has mapped the acoustical properties of the stadium and figured out a way to make the roar of the cheering fans almost 50 percent louder down on the field.  You can read about it here or here.
And if you were wondering why an overall increase in volume wouldn't hurt the home team just as much as the visiting team, the answer is because the fans tend to be less noisy when the home team has the ball... so there still might be an effect, but hopefully it will be more pronounced on the visiting team.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Where do I sign?

255 members of the National Academy of Science put out a statement on why scientific consensus should NOT be undermined by political or other non-scientific ideological attacks.  I don't know how much good it will do since it was published in Science and I doubt that most of the general public will ever see it (as I think most politicians will also never see it).  But, at least, if you're reading this, then you'll see it (here) and hopefully it will have some effect.  Of course, if I could add one thing, I would say, you won't do a lot for the cause of Climate Change by throwing its lot in with The Big Bang Theory, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth.  While scientists clearly see that these are well established facts, they are among the most contested by certain groups of non-scientists who have been successful in persuading a large part of the (American) population that these things are not true.  Personally, I think it would be more helpful to show that Climate Change is on par with theories the public does accept, like the Germ Theory of Disease or the Theory of Gravity (Gravitation).

Want your surgeon to use antibiotics and wash his or her hands?  Why?  I'm sure you'll be fine.  After all, Germ Theory is "just a theory".

Anyway, the letter is still solid, and I thoroughly endorse its sentiments, particularly this:
"there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:
(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact." 

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some interesting things about motherhood...

Men and women may both be as likely to want to get married and have kids (at least in the state of Virginia), but both sexes perceive that women want both marriage and kids more than men do.

Pregnancy causes deficits in memory that may be long lasting:  We know that steroid hormones affect cognition and memory, and pregnancy is a time of varied and high levels of estrogens, progestins, and corticosteroids.  A study due out next week suggests that the result of this hormonal exposure on the mother is diminished memory performance.

Perhaps that effect on memory has something to do with the fact that mothers tend to have less Testosterone than non-mothers (at least in the Phillipines).  And not to be left out, men show a similar trend, in that, males who are fathers and/or in long term committed relationships have lower levels of testosterone than single men who have no children.

Have high blood pressure?  Maybe you should have kids... it seems that men and women who have children tend to have lower blood pressure than those who do not have kids (and that's both systolic, the higher number, and diastolic, the lower number). Interestingly, the difference was larger in women than in men, where mothers had the lowest average blood pressures and women who were not mothers had the highest blood pressures.  So, if you forgot to get mom a gift this year, just go ahead and tell her she owes you thanks for her low blood pressure.

Sunday Comics: Deja Vu?

This one is a classic.

Of course, the last bit, about having brains the size of walnuts is not true.  As this article points out immediately, 

"Stegosaurus is often said to have had a brain the size of a walnut. This is grossly unfair – it was probably the size of a lime."
So, dinos still had pretty small brains, but then, as I've pointed out before, bigger doesn't always mean better (at least not when you're talking about brains).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Power of the Press

It seems pretty obvious that our behavior would be different depending on whether or not we are in public or in private.  For example, I often find that when I go for a run in the park by my house, I run faster when there are lots of people around than when the park is deserted (say on a Wednesday morning)... basically, I am shamed into pushing myself harder because I don't want to appear slow or out of shape.  This same principle applies to politicians, except, for them, the other onlookers are usually news reporters, and if there are no reporters (or no news stories reaching their home districts), then the politicians behave differently.  Rather than being shamed into trying harder, the politicians do what you'd expect, or what I do when no one is around to see me run... they slack off.  A study that I came across via the Barking up the wrong tree blog concludes:

"Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress."

This is particularly interesting and perhaps troubling as newspapers (especially local newspapers) find themselves unable to stay afloat financially, and are thus cutting back on constituency-oriented political coverage.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A lot of buzz about Oxytocin lately

Just in the past couple of days I have come across two different posts (1,2) about the hormone Oxytocin, and its use in a nosespray.  These new studies are all really good examples of why we shouldn't pin down hormones or genes to a single function.  For example, estrogens had been thought of for years as the "female hormones" and yet, it is estrogens that are necessary for male sexual behavior.  In the case of oxytocin, it had long been called "the love hormone" because it, along with the closely related peptide vasopressin, has been shown to be involved in pair bonding (which is the scientist's rough equivalent of "falling in love and getting married").  Also, oxytocin is involved in childbirth and "labour" (which is why doctors give injections of it, or the analogue pitocin, to induce labour), and accordingly with its "love" moniker, it is believed that this surge of oxytocin helps the mother to bond to her offspring.  Now, however, oxytocin is being linked to feelings of empathy, and trust, and it may even help autistic children who have difficulty with these emotions, leading them to interact more with their peers.
For more of a well-rounded, if off the wall, background on the subject of oxytocin, check out this site:
which reports on oxytocin as if it were a scandal in a tabloid.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Poor Grades? Maybe It's All That Red Ink.

A recent paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that teachers who use red pens to grade assignments might be more stringent than if they were to use blue or black pens.  We all know that red ink is the standard for making corrections to a school exam or paper, and apparently that association is not lost on the person wielding the pen.
In the first study, participants were given a series of word completion tasks that could be completed in several ways, but could also spell a word related to poor performance.  For example "FAI_" could be "FAIL" or "FAIR", and "WRO_ _" could be "WRONG" or "WROTE".  Participants were given either red pens or black pens, with those wielding the red ink being more likely to finish the word-stems with words related to errors.  In a second experiment, a group of participants were given an essay to grade, and either a red pen or a blue pen with which to grade.  Again, those with the red pens marked more errors than those with the blue pens.  Of course, the counting of marks was done by experimenters "blind" to what was actually being tested, so no one scored how accurate the marks were.  That is to say, it is possible that using a red pen simply makes you more likely to mark things wrong (regardless of whether or not they actually are), or, it is possible that the red ink heightens awareness or attention to detail, resulting in more marks that are deserved.  To try and determine whether or not red ink leads to deserved or undeserved scrutiny, the experimenters conducted a third experiment where they gave a group of participants an essay to grade that contained no spelling or grammatical errors.  As predicted, the subjects who used red pens gave the essay a lower grade than those who used blue pens.  So, if you're a student, I guess the appropriate gift for your teacher is not a shiny red apple, but a nice blue (or black) pen.

Of course, there were some other interesting tidbits in this paper:

"In addition to the many experiments demonstrating the behavioral impact of various subliminal and subtle presentations of words and images (e.g., on computer screens), a small but growing body of research has shown that physical objects and environments can also influence cognition and behavior. For instance, the presence of guns can intensify aggression (Berkowitz & LePage, 1967), the trappings of the business world induce more competitive behavior (Kay, Wheeler, Bargh, & Ross, 2004), and merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance (Friedman & Elliot, 2008). The presence of funeral homes can increase charitable behavior (Jonas, Schimel, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 2002), and even the height of a room’s ceiling can influence cognitive processing (Myers-Levy & Zhu, 2007). These examples of object priming show that, in essence, any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible."
 Along those lines, a recent study showed that just seeing a fast food logo can make us impatient and agitated.