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Science Sunday #25

Posted by Don McLenaghen on December 4, 2011

– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. Short line up this week thanks to our old friend The Cold <i.e. I am sick this week> This week’s top stories:

This week’s top stories:

Prejudice Vaccination –

Evolutionary psychologists suspect that prejudice is rooted in survival: Our distant ancestors had to avoid outsiders who might have carried disease. Research still shows that when people feel vulnerable to illness, they exhibit more bias toward stigmatized groups.

However, new research published by Julie Y. Huang et al in Psychological Science is showing that is we create a literally healthy environment this innate tendency can be overcome.

The researchers conducted three experiments. The first two (with 135 and 26 participants, respectively) looked at people’s reactions to threats of the flu. In both experiments, participants answered questionnaires assessing their level of prejudice — in the first, particularly toward immigrants, in the second, toward numerous groups, including crack addicts and obese people..

In the first, some participants were already vaccinated, others not. Half the subjects — including members of both groups — read a cautionary passage about the flu. In experiment 1, among those who read the text — and were thus reminded of the disease threat — the vaccinated showed less anti-immigrant sentiment than the unvaccinated. There was no significant difference among those who didn’t read the passage.

In experiment 2, all the participants had been vaccinated. They read a similar text, but some of them read one with a section saying the vaccine is effective; the others received only an explanation of how it functions. In experiment 2, those who got assurances of the vaccine’s effectiveness showed less disease-related bias. “Even when everyone is actually protected,” comments Huang, “the perception that they are well protected attenuates prejudice.”

In the third experiment, with 26 undergraduate participants, half used a hand wipe to wipe their hands and the keyboard of a computer they were using. The others didn’t. The text they read included the statement that anti-bacterial hand wipes help protect against contagion. These students were assessed for their nervousness about germs — a signal of feeling vulnerable to disease — and their feelings toward seven out-groups and two in-groups (undergraduates and their families).

As expected, among those who did not wipe their hands, germ aversion correlated positively with aversion to stigmatized groups. But the germ-averse hand-wipers didn’t express prejudice. None showed bias toward people like themselves and their loved ones.

Now, it should be noted that this is also placebo effect, that is there is not actual reduction is risk (assuming you accept ‘out groups’ are NOT more innately diseased). It also reinforces the idea that when demagogues attempt to vilify a minority, they will ‘naturally’ turn to this (apparently evolutionary) meme that ‘they are diseased’ and will ‘infect our pure society’.

Science Daily

Eureka Alert

A Vaccination Against Social Prejudice


Abstinence-only FAIL!  –

In a number of conservative/fundamentalist states in the US (and sadly) as well as a number of communities in Canada and around the world, there is a prevailing believe that if we keep our sexually active (or soon to be active) teenagers in complete ignorance about sex, birth control, STDs and the like educations; they will somehow be immune for the desire for sex. All we need to do, according to this view, is tell them out cold showers, long (lonely) walks and prayer; and millions of years of healthy biology will be wiped away.

According to recent research by Kathrin F. Stanger-Hall et al published in PLoS ONE, not only conclusively shows this not the case but that it may have the exact opposite effect.

The researchers looked at teen pregnancy and birth data from 48 U.S. states to evaluate the effectiveness of those states’ approaches to sex education, as prescribed by local laws and policies.

“This clearly shows that prescribed abstinence-only education in public schools does not lead to abstinent behavior,” said David Hall, second author. “It may even contribute to the high teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. compared to other industrialized countries”.

Along with teen pregnancy rates and sex education methods, Hall and Stanger-Hall looked at the influence of socioeconomic status, education level, access to Medicaid waivers and ethnicity of each state’s teen population. Even when accounting for these factors, which could potentially impact teen pregnancy rates, the significant relationship between sex education methods and teen pregnancy remained: the more strongly abstinence education is emphasized in state laws and policies, the higher the average teenage pregnancy and birth rates.

The paper indicates that states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates were those that prescribed comprehensive sex and/or HIV education, covering abstinence alongside proper contraception and condom use. States whose laws stressed the teaching of abstinence until marriage were significantly less successful in preventing teen pregnancies.

These results come at an important time for legislators. A new evidence-based Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative was signed into federal law in December 2009 and awarded $114 million for implementation. However, federal abstinence-only funding was renewed for 2010 and beyond by including $250 million of mandatory abstinence-only funding as part of an amendment to the Senate Finance Committee’s health-reform legislation.

I suspect that the theocratic-types know that abstinence-only education lead to higher birth rates, this will allow for more ‘religious’ children to be born and provide a cheap labour force for future service industries (for the 1% of course).

Science Daily

Eureka Alert


Abstinence-only education does not lead to abstinent behavior, UGA researchers find

Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S

‘Lethal’ radiation doses can be treated with drugs –

Okay, not as good as it sounds, but there is hope that some people may be help in future.

High doses of radiation harm the body, partly by damaging rapidly dividing cells, such as those in the intestine. The damage leaves the intestine leaky, allowing harmful bacteria to escape into the bloodstream – consequently antibiotics may be used to treat individuals exposed to radiation.

Mice can survive lethal effects of high radiation doses that are usually fatal when given a double-drug therapy – even when they get the drugs 24 hours after exposure. Because these drugs are known to be safe in people, it could be worth stockpiling them in preparation for a nuclear accident or terrorist attack, say the researchers behind the new study.

Guinan and Levy’s team studied 48 people who were receiving radiation doses in preparation for a bone marrow transplant. Following radiation exposure, levels of BPI fell to an average of 71 times below normal levels. In 37 of the transplant patients the protein was undetectable. The team say this is probably due to damage to the bone marrow, which leaves it unable to produce enough of the white blood cells that normally encourage BPI production.

The team then used the information in the treatment of mice given a typically lethal dose of radiation. A day after exposure, some mice were given the oral antibiotic fluoroquinolone while some mice were given a combination of fluoroquinolone and injections of BPI. A third group had no treatment at all.

Most of the untreated mice died within 30 days. As expected, the antibiotic boosted the survival rate: around 40 per cent of the mice given the antibiotic were still alive after 30 days – but survival rates jumped to almost 80 per cent in the mice given the combination therapy.

New Scientist

Bactericidal/Permeability-Increasing Protein and Fluoroquinolone Mitigate Radiation-Induced Bone Marrow Aplasia and Death


Keeping tabs on Skynet –

In line with the predictions of science fiction, computers are getting smarter. Now, scientists are on the way to devising a test to ascertain how close Artificial Intelligence (AI) is coming to matching wits with us, and if it’s drawing ahead.

Associate Professor David Dowe of Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology, together with Dr Jose Hernandez-Orallo from Universitat Politecnica de Valencia in Spain have developed and conducted initial trials of a prototype Anytime Universal Intelligence test designed to gauge and compare the intelligence of humans, animals, machines, and, in principle, anything.

Both humans and an AI program known as Q-Learning undertook different versions of the test, with considerable work on adapting the interface necessary before animals can be tested. Despite not being a sophisticated program, Q-Learning scored competitively compared with the human participants.

Associate Professor Dowe said the ambiguity of the initial test results indicates the complexity of moving to a broader understanding of intelligence than the traditional method of using human intellect as the yardstick – a development necessary to determine if, or perhaps when, AI outstrips humans.

“We are using a mathematically-based definition of intelligence which is based, in simple terms, on the ability to detect patterns of various degrees of complexity. In the future, the test should adapt to the user – becoming more complex if the user is scoring well, and more simple if the user is struggling,” said Associate Professor Dowe.

“Clearly, we have very specialised indications of the intelligence of computer programs, when they’re beating humans at activities like chess and the game show Jeopardy. We’re trying to establish a broader indication.

“With further research, this type of testing could help not only in assessing the progress of AI, but in driving development”.



QR Tags Can Be Rigged to Attack Smart Phones

You’ve probably seen QR tags thousands of times, from advertisements in the subway to coupon flyer in the mail to products in the supermarket. They look like stamp-size bar codes, a grid of small black-and-white rectangles and squares, usually with bigger black squares in the corners.

When a person scans a QR tag with a smartphone, the tag can do any number of things, including taking the user right to the product’s website.

But like any technology, they can also be manipulated to bite the hands — or phones — that feed them. On the mobile security blog Kaotico Neutral, researcher Augusto Pereyra demonstrated how these innocuous QR tags can be made into cyber-crime weapons.

In his proof-of-concept hack, Pereyra took a QR tag he created from a free online tag creator and embedded in it the URL for an attack server called When the target smartphone scanned the tag, the browser was directed to the spoofed site and fed malware..

“This is a serious problem since this is the equivalent of clicking a link with your eyes closed,” Pereyra wrote.

Tim Armstrong, researcher for the security firm Kaspersky Lab, said this streamlined process creates a “run first, ask questions later” mentality that benefits attackers.

Scientific American


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