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Science Sunday #26

Posted by Don McLenaghen on December 11, 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:


A care, sharing rat –

Rats often are seen as selfish uncaring animals. Many a movie shows rats drive to cannibalism. Our language has “you’re a rat”, as a major insult (well in my grandfather’s day at least). New research has turned the negative stereo type on it head.

The observation, published December 8 in Science, places the origin of pro-social helping behavior earlier in the evolutionary tree than previously thought. Though empathetic behavior has been observed anecdotally in non-human primates and other wild species, the concept had not previously been observed in rodents in a laboratory setting. The study demonstrates the deep evolutionary roots of empathy-driven behavior, said Jeffrey Mogil, the E.P. Taylor Professor in Pain Studies at McGill University, who has studied emotional contagion of pain in mice.

The experiments placed two rats that normally share a cage into a special test arena. One rat was held in a restrainer device — a closed tube with a door that can be nudged open from the outside. The second rat roamed free in the cage around the restrainer, able to see and hear the trapped cage-mate but not required to take action.

The researchers observed that the free rat acted more agitated when its cage-mate was restrained, compared to its activity when the rat was placed in a cage with an empty restrainer. This response offered evidence of an “emotional contagion,” a frequently observed phenomenon in humans and animals in which a subject shares in the fear, distress or even pain suffered by another subject.

To ensure that the response was to the ‘emotional outburst’ of the restrained rate, the experiment was repeated but with a ‘stuffed toy rat’, and the ‘free’ rat ignored it. To remove the ‘reward’ possibility (like social interaction…ie getting to play with other rat), the experiment was again repeated but the trapped rat, when rescued, was released to an independent cage. The reaction of the ‘free’ rat, was the same as the first, leading researches to conclude the motivation was purely emotive.

As a test of the power of this reward, another experiment was designed to give the free rats a choice: free their companion or feast on chocolate. Two restrainers were placed in the cage with the rat, one containing the cage-mate, another containing a pile of chocolate chips. Though the free rat had the option of eating all the chocolate before freeing its companion, the rat was equally likely to open the restrainer containing the cage-mate before opening the chocolate container.

“That was very compelling,” said Mason, PhD, Professor of Neurobiology. “It said to us that essentially helping their cagemate is on a par with chocolate. He can hog the entire chocolate stash if he wanted to, and he does not. We were shocked”.

Science Daily

Eureka Alert

New Scientist

 Quirks and Quarks Podcast

Helping your fellow rat

Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats


Circumcision save and will save million from AIDS  –

Another PEER reviewed scientifically respectable paper s which  supported by evidence and research shows that if we continue our efforts to ‘circumcise’ the world, AIDS can be dramatically deduced.

Adult male circumcision, in which the foreskin of the penis is surgically removed, has emerged as one of the more powerful reducers of infection risk. Some studies are finding that it decreases the odds that a heterosexual man will contract HIV by 57 percent or more. With HIV vaccine research still limping along, condoms being underused and the large-scale vaginal gel trial Vaginal and Oral Interventions to Control the Epidemic (VOICE) just called off early last week after disappointing results, the operation has been gaining ground.

For the past three years 13 countries in southern and eastern Africa at the heart of the HIV/AIDS epidemic have been on a mission to circumcise 80 percent of their men by 2015 in an effort to cut in half the rate of sexual transmission of the disease from 2011 levels. And a new series of nine papers, published online Tuesday in PLoS Medicine, assesses whether the ambitious goals could work—and whether they are worth it.

The analyses “give a pretty optimistic assessment,” says Atheendar Venkataramani, a resident physician and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the new papers. But from his own research in the field, he says, he is inclined to share the optimism. <read more>

Exposing class in a “classless” society –

In a recent paper published in American Sociological Review entitled “‘I Need Help!’ Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School” by Jessica McCrory Calarco et al. based on a longitudinal ethnographic study of students in one socio-economically diverse, public elementary school, found class struggles playing itself out in classrooms across America.

For three years, she followed a cohort of students from third to fifth grade, observing them regularly in school and interviewing teachers, parents and students to show that children’s social-class backgrounds shaped when and how they sought help in the classroom.

“We know that middle-class parents are better able than working-class parents to secure advantages for themselves and their children but not when and where they learned to do so or whether they teach their children to do the same,” Calarco said. “My research answers those questions by looking at children’s role in stratification — how they try to secure their own advantages in the classroom”.

Her study showed that middle-class children regularly approached teachers with questions and requests and were much more proactive and assertive in asking for help. Rather than wait for assistance, the middle-class children called out or approached teachers directly, even interrupting to make requests.

Working-class children, on the other hand, rarely asked for help from teachers, doing so only as a last resort. Furthermore, when working-class children did ask for help, they tended to do so in less obvious ways, for example, hanging back or sitting with their hand raised, meaning that they often waited longer for teachers to notice and respond.

She noted that, “unlike their working-class counterparts, middle-class parents explicitly encourage children to feel comfortable asking for help from teachers and also deliberately coach children on the language and strategies to use in making these requests.”

<My interpretation of results>

This may be because there is a greater sense of entitlement in the ‘middle’ class. That in order to maintain the social hierarchy, the middle class (of course to a lesser degree but similar way) must expropriated as much of the communal resources (in this case the teachers time) as possible to ensure their profitability (ie. better education) regardless of its effect of the social environment (less time for the other students).

Working class students, being more different show the classic signs of cultural indoctrination (do not confront authority, do not get noticed) as well as the social safety-mechanism for protecting the commons – ask for what you need, try not to diminish what others have and leave enough for the next. In their passive request of assistants (only when needed) shows a innate understanding of the common good of sharing.

Science Daily

Eureka Alert

Social Class and Children’s Help-Seeking in Elementary School


Most poor people live in rich countries? –

Researchers used a poverty measure which accesses a range of deprivations in health, education and living standards at the household level to uncover vast numbers of poor people in middle-income countries. They found that 1,189 million (72 per cent) of the world’s poor live in middle-income countries as compared with 459 million living in low-income countries.

They also discovered that far greater numbers of poor people in middle-income countries are living in ‘severe’ poverty – 586 million as compared with 285 million in low-income countries. Severe poverty captures the very poorest of the poor – those whose poverty is most intense. Entire regions within middle-income countries also have poverty rates comparable to the world’s poorest countries, the findings show.

The poverty measure which produced these findings – the Multidimensional Poverty Index or MPI – takes into account a range of deprivations in areas like education, malnutrition, child mortality, sanitation and services. By measuring directly which deprivations poor people experience together, the research team has produced a high-resolution picture of where the poor live. If people are deprived in one-third or more of the (weighted) indicators they are identified as ‘MPI poor’. MPI poor people who are actually deprived in more than half the weighted indicators are identified as ‘severely poor’.

Key findings about specific countries and regions

Half of all MPI poor people live in South Asia and 29 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa. South Asia is home to 827 million MPI poor people, compared with 473 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.*Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest MPI poverty of any world region. However, the poorest 26 sub-national regions of South Asia (home to 519 million MPI poor people), have higher MPI poverty than Sub-Saharan Africa’s 38 countries, which 473 million MPI poor people call home. These 26 sub-national regions and 38 countries have comparable rates of multidimensional poverty.

Nigeria (a middle-income country) is Africa’s largest oil producer, but its North East region has higher MPI poverty than the poorest region of Liberia, a low-income country still recovering from a prolonged civil war. The North East of Nigeria also has over five times more MPI poor people than the entire country of Liberia.

Disparities within countries can be startlingly wide.  Overall 41 per cent of people in the Republic of Congo are MPI poor, but in the Likouala region, 74 per cent of people are poor; whereas in Brazzaville, the capital region, 27 per cent of people are poor. In Kenya’s regions, the percentage of MPI poor people ranges from 4 to 86 per cent; in Timor-Leste, from 29 to 86 per cent; and in Colombia from 1 to 15 per cent.

Income classifications hide wide disparities in MPI poverty. In low-income countries, the percentage of people living in MPI poverty ranges from 5 per cent in Kyrgyzstan to 92 per cent in Niger. In lower middle-income countries, this varies from 1 per cent in Georgia to 77 per cent of people in Angola who are MPI poor; and in upper middle-income countries, from 0 per cent in Belarus to 40 per cent in Namibia.

Using updated data for 25 countries, OPHI researchers analysed a total of 109 countries in 2011, with a combined population of 5.3 billion, which represents 79 per cent of the world’s population (using 2008 population figures). About 1.65 billion people in the countries covered – 31 per cent of their entire population – live in multidimensional poverty.


Most poor people don’t live in the poorest countries


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