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April 10, 2014

GenePeeksScreening Digital Embryos
A service that creates digital embryos by virtually mixing two people’s DNA will give a clearer glimpse of their possible child’s health, and perhaps much more—before it has been conceived. The Matchright technology will be available in two U.S. fertility clinics later this month, allowing people to screen out sperm donors who, when their genes are combined with those of the intended mother, could increase the risk of a child inheriting genetic diseases. The company that markets the technology, GenePeeks, hopes to expand worldwide. But the technology’s patent also includes a list of traits that aren’t necessarily related to health. (Catherine de Lange, New Scientist)

Enhancing Intelligence
Julian Savulescu: Researchers at Cardiff University discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone, are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4 percent of the U.K. population. Importantly, if you had just one of these factors, but not both, there did not appear to be an increased risk of low intelligence. These are early results, but suggest that it might be possible to treat children early with thyroid hormone supplementation to enhance their intelligence. This raises many ethical issues. (The Conversation)

Scientists Regenerate an Organ in Mice
The team manipulated a single protein in very old mice that caused their bodies to rebuild their thymuses—an organ that produces white blood cells. After receiving the treatment, the senior citizen mice not only had thymuses that were similar in structure to a young whippersnapper’s, but they were also twice as large. Scientists have in the past grown organs using stem cells, but this is the first time a living organism has repaired its own organs via a chemical trigger. (Carl Engelking, D-brief, Discover)

Marble-Hand Illusion
No matter how much of a critical thinker you consider yourself, your brain is pretty gullible. With a few minutes and a couple of props, your brain can be convinced that one of your limbs is made of rubber or invisible, or that your whole body is the size of a Barbie doll’s. All these illusions depend on your senses of vision and touch interacting. But a new illusion trades sight for sound. By hearing the sound of a hammer striking marble each time it tapped their hands, subjects came to feel that their limbs were made of stone. (Elizabeth Preston, Inkfish, Discover)

Are the Australopithecus Sediba Fossils Actually the Remains of Two Species?
The first fossils of A. sediba were found at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008. At 2 million years old, they show a mix of features, some similar to the ape-like australopithecines, others more like our genus, Homo. To its discoverers, this hotchpotch means A. sediba was becoming human, and that the Homo genus first evolved in South Africa, not east Africa as is generally thought. But a new analysis suggests A. sediba didn’t exist. “I think there are two different hominin genera represented at Malapa,” says Ella Been at Tel Aviv University in Israel. (Colin Barras, New Scientist)

A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects

Jenna Weissman Joselit: Taking the measure of stone, incense, drums, crosses, and bread, S. Brent Plate’s book is an extended exercise in the materiality of faith. You might even call it a manifesto. Blurring the lines between inquiry and advocacy, it doesn’t just ask us to consider the multiple ways in which religion is a tactile phenomenon. It also calls on us to affirm and perhaps even to celebrate the sensory elements of faith. “The religious point is to pay attention, to feel, now,” he writes. (New Republic)

April 9, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationHalf of Americans Support at Least One Conspiracy Theory
“Using four nationally representative surveys, sampled between 2006 and 2011, we find that half the American public consistently endorses at least one conspiracy theory,” Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood write in the American Journal of Political Science. “Far from being an aberrant expression of some political extreme, or a product of gross misinformation, a conspiratorial view of politics is a widespread tendency across the entire ideological spectrum.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Death-Row Offenders and the Southern Honor Culture
Judy Eaton, an associate professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Brantford, Ontario, analyzed the final words of executed prisoners from across the U.S.—299 Southerners and 60 non-Southerners—between January 2000 and December 2011. She found that offenders were twice as likely to apologize in their final statements if they were from a Southern state. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Southerners were more remorseful. (James Eng, NBC News)

Forgiving and Forgetting
Wray Herbert: Why is it that some of us find it easier to forgive and forget than others? Does forgiving help us to put aside disturbing thoughts—to forget—or does forgetting empower us to forgive? Or both? A team of psychological scientists at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, have been exploring these intertwined ideas. Saima Noreen suspected that the link between forgiving and forgetting might be the mind’s executive control system, specifically the ability to keep upsetting memories out of consciousness. Here’s how she and colleagues Malcolm MacLeod and Raynette Bierman tested this connection in the laboratory.(The Huffington Post)

More on Violent Video Games and Aggression
Researchers carried out a range of tests, including making a non-violent version of popular game Half-Life 2. Games modified to have counterintuitive, frustrating controls—leading to feelings of incompetence—produced more aggressive reactions. The team called for more sophisticated research into violent gaming. (Dave Lee, BBC News)

The Latest on the Acid-Bath Stem Cell Papers
In her first appearance before the press since her claims of an astounding breakthrough in stem cell research started unraveling, Haruko Obokata, of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, apologized for the trouble she has caused her employer, her colleagues, and the scientific community. But she also firmly maintained that STAP cells, the new type of stem cells she claims to have developed, exist, and said she will not retract the two Nature papers reporting her finding. (Dennis Normile, ScienceInsider, Science)

The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge

Jonathon Keats: As Manuel Lima’s book shows, the greatest impact of trees was in the realm of taxonomy, as visual representations of abstract religious and scientific concepts. Religion illuminated the way, with 13th-century scribes drawing trees to show relationships between scriptural texts, to aid memory and encourage exegesis—the practice of critical interpretation of texts common in monasteries. According to Lima, these tree illustrations supported “combinatorial invention and creativity.” His idea of exegesis is overly modern (monasteries were not tech start-ups) but it’s easy to see how visualization nurtured more systematic thinking. (New Scientist)

April 8, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationWhat Motivates Us to Believe in Free Will?
The study establishes that people have a greater belief in free will after thinking about others committing immoral actions compared to committing morally neutral actions. This finding suggests that belief in free will is a fluid concept, said Jamie Luguri, study co-author and a Yale graduate student. “One of the reasons that people believe in free will is that they have this desire to hold other people morally responsible when they do bad things,” said Cory Clark, a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine and the study’s senior author. (Phoebe Kimmelman, Yale Daily News)

Even Young Kids Make Snap Character Judgments Based on a Person’s Face
We’ve all looked at someone’s face and thought: “Now there’s someone I can really trust.” Or perhaps: “I wouldn’t trust him with a wooden nickel.” To the surprise of social scientists, children as young as 3 make the same sort of judgments based on nothing more than facial features. That’s what researchers found in a new study published in Psychological Science. (Marc Silver, National Geographic)

Facebook Funk
In a recently published study, psychologists Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck report people “expect to feel better after using Facebook, whereas in fact, they feel worse.” Their evidence suggests it’s not Internet browsing in general, but specifically social media use that brings people down. It also points to a likely reason: The nagging feeling that you’ve been wasting time. “Our findings suggest that—on a daily basis—hundreds of millions of people engage in an activity that they consider (not very) meaningful,” they write in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, “which in turn dampens their mood.” (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Meet the Prizewinning Catholic Biologist Creationists Can’t Stand
Karl Giberson: Many consider Kenneth Miller a paradoxical figure who occupies the thinly populated no-man’s land between science and religion, embracing both with enthusiasm and finding no conflict. He is a lifelong practicing Catholic and accepts church teachings on salvation, the virgin birth, and resurrection of Jesus. He described himself in the PBS Evolution series as simply a “traditional” Catholic, one who has not had to abandon or distort his beliefs to accommodate his other passion: evolutionary biology. (The Daily Beast)

What Happens to Your Body After You Die?

Whatever your beliefs, most people would agree that the body left behind when we depart this mortal coil is just a heap of bones and flesh. But what happens to those leftovers? (Mark Fischetti, Kathryn Free, and Eric R. Olson, Scientific American)

Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?

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