November 6, 2012
Most of us believe that our political views are based on the issues, or at the very least, on our views of the candidates’ personal qualities, which might matter when it comes to governing. We imagine that we vote for good policies, or politicians that can serve as steady leaders in times of crisis.
But when it comes to voting, as with many other areas of life, we’re not quite as rational as we like to believe. Sure, with high-profile contests like the race for president, most of us have held views for a long period of time, and these are more likely to be based on logic. But research reveals that, especially for local races or ballot propositions about which we’re less informed, a number of weird, utterly irrelevant factors can easily influence our vote.
1. Timing. Whether a policy question is perceived as a long-term issue or an immediate problem can strongly affect a person’s response to it. In a study published in August by researchers from the University of California, Davis, college students were polled on a local bicycle policy and an affirmative action policy, with the initiatives framed as either something that would be put in place in the next month or in the next year. The researchers found that framing both questions as distant, long-term issues led students to think of them in a more abstract way—and be more likely to change their opinions to conform to the beliefs of the group as a whole. In contrast, when the proposals seemed like immediate possibilities, the students’ views were less flexible.
2. Location. Simply being near a church or school might be enough to change your views on social, religious and educational policies. Last January, psychologists from Baylor University conducted street interviews in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and discovered that people interviewed near churches tended to describe themselves as more socially conservative than people near government buildings—this trend could be seen even when the researchers controlled for religiousness and ensured that the people polled near churches were simply passing, not entering or exiting them. A 2008 Stanford study came to a similar finding, discovering that people who voted in schools were more likely to support an education funding initiative.
Scientists speculate that these findings might both be the effects of contextual priming, in which environmental cues can unconsciously affect decisions and behavior by activating certain associative areas of the brain. The takeaway from these particular studies? Maybe we shouldn’t put our polling stations in churches or schools.
3. Your Home Team’s Performance. As we reported in September, a study by social scientist Michael K. Miller suggests that one especially irrelevant factor can increase an incumbent’s chances of getting elected: a local sports team’s winning percentage. Looking at mayoral races in 39 cities across the United States from 1948 to 2009, Miller found that an incumbent mayor of a city where all home teams made the playoffs had a nine percent better chance of getting reelected than a mayor of a city where none made the playoffs. A 2004 German study came to a similar conclusion, finding that a win by the national soccer team made the party in power more popular, no matter which party it was. Miller attributes this to the “prosperity model” of voting, in which voters simply vote for the status quo when they feel happy for any reason, related to politics or not.
What does this mean for Obama and Romney? Hard to say. Deep into football season, in Ohio, an important swing state, the Ohio State University team is ranked number five in the country and undefeated—but the team is banned from bowl play due to NCAA sanctions resulting from recruiting and other violations. Both of the state’s pro teams have losing records.
4. Candidate Appearance and Attractiveness. In politics, as in business, we give an unfair advantage to the beautiful. A 2008 Northwestern University study found that people were more likely to vote for candidates, both male and female, that they found attractive. This bias was much stronger, however, when male study participants evaluated female candidates. Female participants also cared about the appearance of “approachability” in males, while male participants found the appearance of “competence” the most important factor in male candidates.
5. A Fear of Death. This might be the strangest one of all. A 2005 study that examined the 2004 Presidential Election found that people in a psychologically neutral state of mind were more likely to vote for Senator John Kerry, but when a similar sample of voters was asked to contemplate death and the afterlife, they became more likely to vote for President George W. Bush. The researchers speculated this may have been related to Bush’s “tough on terror” image in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks—and that a tape by Osama bin Laden that surfaced days before the election might have played a role in tipping it for Bush.
August 17, 2011
A planet orbiting a star some 750 million light years away is extraordinarily dark, according to astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Princeton University who report their findings in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. They used data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft to study the alien world and found that it reflects only 1 percent of the light that reaches it.
The planet, TrES-2b, is a gas giant about the size of Jupiter. But that’s where the similarities end. Jupiter is cool enough to be surrounded by bright clouds of ammonia that reflect a third or more of the sunlight that falls on it. TrES-2b is much hotter—more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit—and lacks the reflective clouds. It’s atmosphere is full of chemicals that absorb light, such as gaseous titanium oxide and vaporized sodium and potassium, which explain, in part at least, the planet’s dark nature. The planet is so dark, it is blacker than anything in our Solar System, blacker than paint, blacker than coal.
“It’s not clear what is responsible for making this planet so extraordinarily dark,” says study co-author David Spiegel of Princeton University. “However, it’s not completely pitch black. It’s so hot that it emits a faint red glow, much like a burning ember or the coils on an electric stove.”
TrES-2b is weird in another way—it is tidally locked, like our Moon is with Earth, so that one side always faces its sun, the star GSC 03549-02811, and one side always faces away.
If you don’t like our choices, tell us yours in the comments. (HT: Geeks Are Sexy)
July 26, 2011
Pluto has a fourth moon, scientists announced last week. They used images from the Hubble Space Telescope to find P4, the smallest of Pluto’s satellites, estimated to be between only 8 and 21 miles in diameter. It orbits between Nix and Hydra, which circle Pluto on the outside of Charon’s path.
P4, however, is just a temporary name for the new moon. And while there are many suggestions for a permanent name, I can say that it definitely won’t be Mickey, Donald or Goofy. That’s because there are strict naming conventions for astronomical bodies. When it comes to our solar system, we’re stuck with Greek mythology and each planet (or dwarf planet, as in this case) has its own set of stories to choose names from. Let’s look at the Pluto system:
Pluto: The dwarf planet—discovered on January 23, 1930 in Flagstaff, Arizona—is named for Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld. Perhaps better known as Hades, Pluto had two brothers, Zeus, ruler of the skies, and Poseidon, who held dominion over the seas. Pluto abducted his niece Persephone to be his wife and queen. But when Persephone went missing, her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest, became overcome with grief; the seasons ended and everything began to die. Zeus sent a messenger to retrieve to Persephone, but because she had eaten pomegranate seeds, she remained bound to Pluto for several months every year. Her yearly return to her mother brings the spring season.
Charon: Pluto’s largest moon was discovered in 1978 when astronomer Jim Christy, examining photographic plates with Pluto’s image, noticed an odd, periodic bulge. Charon, in mythology, was the ferryman who carried souls to the underworld. (The choice of Charon as the moon’s name, however, wasn’t entirely due to its connection to Pluto in mythology; Christy wanted to name the moon in honor of his wife, Charlene, and Charon was as close as he could get.)
Nix: One of two moons discovered in 2005 with Hubble images, Nix named for Nyx, the goddess of the night and Charon’s mother. (Nix is the Egyptian spelling; Nyx was already the name of an asteroid.) Nyx lived in Tartarus, the dungeon of the underworld, and in some stories she is said to be involved with dark doings, such as protecting spies during the Trojan War.
Hydra: The other of the two moons discovered in 2005, Hydra is named for a many-headed, serpent-like beast of ancient times. If one head was cut off, two grew in its place. The hydra guarded an entrance to the underworld near the city of Argos. Heracles (a.k.a. Hercules) slew the hydra in the second of his Twelve Labors.
Mark Showalter of SETI, the discoverer of P4, has said that the name of Cerberus comes up most often in discussions of potential names for the new moon. Cerberus would certainly fit in with the mythology of the Pluto system—he was the three-headed dog that guarded the gates to the underworld. The spelling of the name would have to be altered, though, as, like Nyx, Cerberus is already the name of an asteroid.
But are there other characters that would fit in? Major characters, such as Persephone, would be inappropriate for a moon so tiny, but there are plenty of options. Here are a few of my favorites:
Erberus: Husband (and brother—ew) to Nyx and father of Charon, he personified darkness.
Styx: The river that was the border between the living world and the underworld.
Hypnos: One of Nyx’s many sons, Hypnos was the personification of sleep. His twin brother was Thanatos, the personification of death.
June 11, 2010
Dead birds smothered in icky, gooey brown oil are the iconic images of most any oil spill, including the ongoing one in the Gulf. Even a small amount of oil can kill a bird. Oil sticks to feathers, destroying their waterproofing ability and exposing the bird to extremes of temperature. And ingested oil can harm internal organs.
The birds that survive long enough to be rescued can often be cleaned. The International Bird Rescue Research Center has treated birds from more than 150 spills over the last four decades, and it has teamed up with Tri-State Bird Rescue to wash birds rescued from the Gulf spill.
Cleaning the birds is a multi-step process, and it can be a stressful one for the bird. Beforehand, the bird is examined and its health stabilized. It may be suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, hypothermia or the toxic effects of ingested oil. Once the bird is healthy enough to handle the ordeal of washing, trained staff and volunteers clean it in a tub of warm water mixed with one percent Dawn dishwashing detergent. (IBRRC discovered in the late 1970s not only that Dawn was great at removing oil, but also that it didn’t irritate birds’ skin or eyes and could even be ingested—accidentally, of course—without harm.) When the water is dirty, the bird is moved to a second tub, and so on, until the water remains clean. Then the bird is thoroughly rinsed. Once it is dry, the bird will preen and restore the overlapping, weatherproof pattern of its feathers. After it is deemed healthy, the bird is released to an oil-free area.
Cleaning one bird can take hours and up to 300 gallons of water. Survival rates are about 50 to 80 percent on average, the IBRRC says, though this depends on the species. (As of earlier this week, the center had rescued 442 live birds, 40 of which had been cleaned were healthy enough to be released back into the wild.)
Some scientists, however, have questioned the value of putting so much effort into saving birds when the benefits are unclear. “It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out,” University of California, Davis ornithologist Daniel Anderson told Newsweek. “But there’s a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering.”
There is no long-term data on survival after the birds have been released. But there is concern that many birds may simply return to their oil-soaked homes to die. And there is evidence that the survivors have shorter life spans and fewer surviving chicks.
But it’s hard to just leave these creatures to die, especially as they have been harmed by a man-made disaster. To me, at least, it seems irresponsible to not even try. As we begin to measure the damage from this spill, leaving these innocent victims on their own shouldn’t be an option.
May 5, 2010
Do animals have a right to privacy? It’s not something I’ve ever thought of, I will admit. Then again, I live with an animal that has no respect for any bit of privacy that I might claim (my cat follows me everywhere and has been known to fall asleep on my head), so perhaps I’m less sensitive than some others. Such as Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia. Here’s the abstract from a paper he’s just published in the Journal of Media and Cultural Studies:
This article examines the BBC wildlife documentary series Nature’s Great Events (2009) in order to investigate the ways in which such texts engage with (or ignore) debates about animal ethics, in particular, animals’ right to privacy. Through analysis of the ‘making of’ documentaries that accompany the series, it shows how animals’ right to privacy is turned into a challenge for the production teams, who use newer forms of technology to overcome species’ desire not to be seen. The article places this analysis within the context of broadcasters’ concerns over environmental issues, acknowledging that wildlife documentaries can play a vital role in engaging citizens in environmental debates. However, it is argued that the ‘speciesism’ which affords humans a right to privacy while disavowing other species such rights is one of the tenets upon which humanity’s perceived right to maintain mastery over other species is itself maintained; that is, in order for wildlife documentaries to ‘do good’ they must inevitably deny many species the right to privacy.
One of the great offenses the BBC committed, according to Mills, was the following of a narwhal under the Arctic ice (check it out in the video above). “Instead of thinking we’ll leave it alone, film-makers decide the only solution is to develop new technology so they can film it,” Mills told the Guardian.
And that would be a bad thing because?
Mills isn’t claiming that documentary makers are harassing the animals and causing them physical harm, rather, he argues that animals have a right to privacy and documentarians are denying it. Even if such a right exists, wouldn’t the benefits of these documentaries outweigh animal privacy? People tend to care more about the natural world when that world is made real to them. Concerns about the environmental effects of oil drilling, for example, are naturally on the rise after the disaster in the Gulf. And scientists can learn much about various species by watching the entirety of their lives.
The world is a wide and wondrous place, and wildlife documentaries help us to realize this. It seems to be a fair trade-off for the loss of a little privacy.