January 15, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationHow Secular Family Values Stack Up
Phil Zuckerman: My own ongoing research among secular Americans—as well as that of a handful of other social scientists who have only recently turned their gaze on secular culture—confirms that nonreligious family life is replete with its own sustaining moral values and enriching ethical precepts. Chief among those: rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of “questioning everything” and, far above all, empathy. (Los Angeles Times)

Pope Francis Is Expected to Issue an Encyclical on Climate Change
Its message will be spread to congregations around the world by Catholic clergy, mobilizing grassroots pressure for action ahead of the key UN climate summit in December in Paris. The encyclical may be published as early as March, and may be couched in terms of the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that we have responsibilities to our fellow humans. It will be the first encyclical to address concerns about a global environmental issue, and will provide “important orientation” to all Catholics to support action on climate change, says Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences in Vatican City. (Andy Coghlan, New Scientist)

The Global Catholic Climate Movement
Catholic environmental groups from around the world on Wednesday announced a new global network to battle climate change just as many Catholic conservatives are sharply criticizing Pope Francis’ campaign to put environmental protection high on the church’s agenda. “We are certain that anthropogenic (human-made) climate change endangers God’s creation and us all, particularly the poor, whose voices have already spoken of the impacts of an altered climate,” the new Global Catholic Climate Movement says in its mission statement. “Climate change is about our responsibility as God’s children and people of faith to care for human life, especially future generations, by caring for all of God’s wondrous creation,” the statement continues. (David Gibson, Religion News Service)

Can the Smell of Lavender Promote Interpersonal Trust?
“Lavender has this effect because of its calming property,” said study co-author Lorenza Colzato, cognitive psychologist and assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands, in an email. “This hypothesis is supported by the fact that, from an anatomical point of view, the olfactory nerve is connected to the medial prefrontal cortex a brain region that ‘controls’ the way we trust others.” (Mandy Oaklander, TIME)

Another “Academic Freedom” Act in Missouri
Missouri’s House Bill 486, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 13, 2015, would confer “academic freedom to teach scientific evidence regarding evolution” to teachers. If enacted, the bill would in effect encourage science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased, and discourage responsible educational authorities from intervening. The bill specifically cites “the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution” as controversial. (National Center for Science Education)

January 14, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporatioHow Religion Can Move Us to Do Terrible Things
Susan Pinker: Time and again, social psychology experiments have shown that ordinary people can be spurred to commit horrific acts of cruelty. Giving them authority over arbitrarily defined transgressors can prompt brutality, as the Stanford Prison Experiment—in which students were assigned to playact the roles of either guards or prisoners—showed in the 1970s. Persuading them that outsiders are less than human can disable their natural powers of empathy. Priming religious believers with passages showing that God endorses revenge against malefactors is dangerously effective, too. (TIME)

Who Believes Conspiracy Theories?
New research from the Netherlands suggests the answer is people on the political extremes. Those on both the far right and far left tend to “adhere to their belief system in a rigid fashion, leading them to perceive their political ideas as the simple and only solution to societal problems,” writes a research team led by psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen of VU University Amsterdam. This in turn “induces them to perceive evil conspiracies as causal explanations for various events,” they conclude in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. (Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard)

Toolmaking, Teaching, and Language
If there’s one thing that distinguishes humans from other animals, it’s our ability to use language. But when and why did this trait evolve? A new study concludes that the art of conversation may have arisen early in human evolution, because it made it easier for our ancestors to teach each other how to make stone tools—a skill that was crucial for the spectacular success of our lineage. (Michael Balter, Science)

More on the Link Between Doors and Memory
The simple act of passing through a doorway induces forgetting. Now, psychologists at Knox College have taken things further, demonstrating that merely imagining walking through a doorway is enough to trigger increased forgetfulness. (Christian Jarrett, BPS Research Digest)

Bill Nye on the Origins of Evolution

In February 2014, Bill Nye traveled to Kentucky to debate evolution with Ken Ham, a prominent creationist. Following the event, he set out to continue the conversation in what’s become his new book, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation. (Science Friday)

January 13, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationSomething the Human Brain Has That Chimp Brains Don’t
The human brain has a 4.5-centimetre-long groove running deeper along the right side than the left. Chimp brains lack this asymmetry, as François Leroy of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Saclay, and colleagues, have discovered. The groove’s function is unknown, but its location suggests it played a role in the evolution of our communication abilities. “One day this will help us understand what makes us tick,” says Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, who was not involved in the study. (Clare Wilson, New Scientist)

Biological Explanations for Psychological Problems Might Decrease Empathy
Matthew Lebowitz and Woo-young Ahn have published new evidence that suggests biological explanations of mental illness reduce the empathy that mental health professionals feel towards patients. (Christian Jarrett, Research Digest)

More on Stanley Milgram’s Famous Obedience Experiment
​One of the most damning experiments ever to probe humanity’s “dark side,” the infamous work of psychologist Stanley Milgram, has a new interpretation, courtesy of sociologists at the University of Wisconsin. The group, led by graduate researcher Matthew Hollander, argues that within Milgram’s results, which show an alarming willingness of everyday people to administer torture when commanded, we can find a new strategy for resisting just that dark side. (Michael Byrne, Motherboard)

Darwin Day and Evolution Weekend Are Coming Up
Hundreds of congregations all over the country and around the world are taking part in Evolution Weekend, February 13 to 15, 2015, by presenting sermons and discussion groups on the compatibility of faith and science. Michael Zimmerman, the initiator of the project, writes, “Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. One important goal is to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic—to move beyond sound bites. A second critical goal is to demonstrate that religious people from many faiths and locations understand that evolution is sound science and poses no problems for their faith. Finally, as with The Clergy Letter itself, Evolution Weekend makes it clear that those claiming that people must choose between religion and science are creating a false dichotomy.” (National Center for Science Education)


From how people deal with their deepest, darkest thoughts to the experience of living in a world without fear, a new podcast explores the hidden forces that shape human behavior. Called “Invisibilia”—Latin for “invisible things”—the show, told with engaging anecdotes through a scientific lens, is about the powerful effect that thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and feelings have on people’s lives. (Tanya Lewis, Live Science)

January 12, 2015

© 2015 Microsoft CorporationWhat Your Online Avatar Says About You
What can a given avatar tell us about the person who created it? It’s a hot area of study given the proliferation of interesting online worlds, and a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Katrina Fong and Raymond Mar of York University seeks to shed some light on it. (Jesse Singal, Science of Us, New York Magazine)

On Self-Control and Selfishness
Some would have you believe that people are fair-minded, even genuinely concerned for the welfare of others. Others would have you believe we humans are inherently selfish, and that selfishness might even be a good thing. So which is it? That depends on how much energy you’ve got to think about it, the results of a new experiment suggests. (Nathan Collins, Pacific Standard)

Negative News
Many people often say that they would prefer good news: but is that actually true? To explore this possibility, researchers Marc Trussler and Stuart Soroka set up an experiment, run at McGill University in Canada. (Tom Stafford, BBC)

Tasty: the Art and Science of What We Eat

Our current cultural obsession with food is undeniable. But, while the advent of the foodie may be a 21st-century phenomenon, from an evolutionary standpoint, flavor has long helped define who we are as a species, a new book argues. In Tasty: the Art and Science of What We Eat, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John McQuaid offers a broad and deep exploration of the human relationship to flavor. “Flavor is the most important ingredient at the core of what we are. It created us,” McQuaid writes. (The Salt, NPR)

Public Religion in America

The Religion and Public Life Program invites you to a lecture by Penny Edgell, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. Edgell will speak briefly about her latest research, which addresses Americans’ attitudes toward public religious expression, followed by a Q&A moderated by RPLP Director Elaine Howard Ecklund, professor of sociology.

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