Archive for February, 2010

Quicker feedback for better performance

By Ed Yong | February 28, 2010 12:00 pm

We’ve all experienced the agonising wait for feedback, whether it’s for exam grades, news from a job interview, or results from a grant application. These verdicts can have a massive influence in our lives but they can often take weeks or even months to arrive. And that’s a big problem, according to Keri Kettle and Gerald Häubl from the University of Alberta.

They have found evidence that we do better at tasks the sooner we expect news about our performance. If we think we’ll be evaluated quickly, the threat of a negative appraisal looms ever larger. And this greater sense of danger motivates us to work harder.

Kettle and Haubl asked 271 students to give a four-minute presentation as part of a university course. Their performance would be judged by their peers and it would count towards their final grade. The students were told about the date of their presentation and when they would hear about the results, with waiting times ranging from a few hours to 17 days later.

The duo found that students who anticipated the quickest feedback achieved the higher grades. On average, those who knew they would hear back later on in the day scored within the top 40% of the group. Those who thought they would hear back 17 days later received scores that skirted the bottom 40%. It seems that even the anticipation of quicker feedback can boost performance.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Neuroscience and psychology

OM NOM NOM NOMinations are in for the Research Blogging Awards!

By Ed Yong | February 25, 2010 3:25 pm


The nominations for the first ever Research Blogging Awards are in! The awards were created to “honor the outstanding bloggers who discuss peer-reviewed research”. Nominations were sent in by readers and an panel of judges have selected the finalists. Voting begins in a week’s time and bloggers who are registered with the community can cast their votes. I’m in the running for:

I’m really honoured, and doubly so because the panel of judges who selected the finalists reads like a Who’s Who of science blogging. I’m also thrilled for several friends who have very deservedly made the list.

If anyone’s just come onto the blog for the first time, hello. This blog covers almost nothing else besides peer-reviewed research, except for the occasional opinion piece on science journalism or wildlife photo. If anyone’s wondering why I don’t use the Research Blogging tag or aggregator that often, check out yesterday’s rant about the post-embargo publication window – it’s the same reason.


The hidden face codes of fish

By Ed Yong | February 25, 2010 12:00 pm

Take a look at these two fish. At first glance, they seem incredibly similar but in fact, they belong to two separate species. The one on the top is an Ambon damselfish (Pomacentrus amboinensis) and the one on the bottom is a lemon damselfish (P.moluccensis). If the distinction is hard for us to grasp, it’s because we’re not looking with the right eyes. The fish have a secret communication channel that’s hidden to us. To hack into it, we need to look at the fish under an ultraviolet lamp. 

The glare of a UV light reveals that the even yellow colours of the damselfishes’ faces are actually streaked with complex patterns. These masks are like facial fingerprints. They are the key to telling one species from another and they may even allow the fishes to distinguish between individuals, just as we humans recognise friends and family from their facial features.

Ulrike Siebeck from the University of Queensland deciphered these visual codes by relying on the fact that damselfish are unusually aggressive towards members of their own species. These potential competitors must be seen off by charges and bites.

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Kill the post-embargo publication window

By Ed Yong | February 24, 2010 12:45 pm

I can’t find the paper you’ve written about and your link doesn’t work. What’s going on? 

I keep having to answer this question and it’s getting tiresome (although, as we’ll see, this no fault of the people who ask it). This post is borne of that frustration.

Hulk.jpgAt the bottom of every piece I write about peer-reviewed research (which is most of them), I include a citation for the paper in question and a link. This is good practice. Every journalist should, in theory, do it. The link is almost always to a DOI number rather than to the journal page. And often, those links don’t work. This post explains why and I will link to it from every single post I write with massive bold letters.

A lot of the stories I write are embargoed – this means that people can only publish their pieces about the story at a certain point in time. However, even after the embargo lifts, there is often a time gap before the journal in question actually publishes the paper and before the DOI listing works. For some journals, this time is negligible – Nature and Science, for example, reliably have their papers up within minutes or hours of the embargo lift. For others, it can be much longer. PNAS is the most obvious example – I’ve waited for up to two weeks before the paper actually went online after it made the news. The record so far is several months for a Journal of Zoology paper.

It’s very important to realise this because at the point when most journalists write their pieces, there is no paper to link to. What they’d have to do is to go back to the piece after it’s been published and retrospectively add a link. Which, and I speak from personal experience, is an absolute pain in the nethers. By then, we’ve got other things to do and (as with PNAS) it’s never entirely clear when the paper is actually going to go live.

The alternative, then, is to do what I do, which is to provide the DOI and as full a citation as possible so that when the paper does come online, readers will at least be able to find it.

That’s not ideal however, because people still get confused when they search for something that isn’t actually out yet. I get a lot of comments to this effect. Of course, the best solution would be to totally eliminate the gap between embargo and publication so that the public can actually see the paper (or, at least, the abstract) when the news hits.

I’ve written about embargoes before (and thrilled to see that Ivan Oransky has started an Embargo Watch blog). They’re controversial but on balance, I’m favourable towards them. The big change I want to see is the extinction of the post-embargo publication gap. It’s existence is a vestigial leftover from the age where journalists acted as sources of authority and it’s a complete anathema to the internet world.

People expect to be able to tumble down the rabbit-hole of links to find original sources and check them out for themselves, if they are so inclined. These outmoded policies mean that the rabbit hole ends in 404 purgatory.

This practice punishes scientists who are unable to see, comment on, or discuss work that is outed in the mainstream media, it punishes journalists who are trying to link to original sources, and it punishes readers who are inquisitive and skeptical enough to try to verify the information they read. None of these is acceptable.

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Chimps trump university students at memory task

By Ed Yong | February 24, 2010 12:00 pm

This article is reposted from the old WordPress incarnation of Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Chimps trump university students at memory taskWe humans aren’t used to having our intelligence challenged. Among the animal kingdom, we hold no records for speed, strength or size but our vaunted mental abilities are unparalleled. But research from Kyoto University shows that some chimps have a photographic memory that puts humans to shame.

In 2007, Sana Inoue and Tetsuro Matsuzawa found that young chimps have an ability to memorise details of complex images that is literally super-human. Boffin chimp Ayumu, outperformed university students in memory tasks where they had to rapidly memorise numbers scattered on a touchscreen and press them in numerical order.

This is the first time that an animal has outmatched humans in a mental skill. Recently, I’ve previously blogged about animals that show abilities once considered to be uniquely human, including jays that can plan for the future, rats that know how much they know, armour-wearing octopuses, fable-confirming rooks and premeditating chimps.

But in all these cases, the animals merely showed that they could do similar types of mental feats to us. They never actually challenged our abilities in terms of complexity or scale. Simply put, a crow may be able to combine tools together, but it’s never going to be able to engineer a computer.

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RCT: video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities

By Ed Yong | February 23, 2010 9:30 am

I grew up in the days of the SNES and the Sega Megadrive. Even then, furious debates would rage about the harm (or lack thereof) that video games would inflict on growing children. A few decades later, little has changed. The debate still rages, fuelled more by the wisdom of repugnance than by data. With little regard for any actual evidence, pundits like Baroness Susan Greenfield, former Director of the Royal Institution, claim that video games negatively “rewire” our brains, infantilising us, depriving us of our very identities and even instigating the financial crisis.

Of course, the fact that video games are irrationally vilified doesn’t mean that they are automatically harmless. There’s still a need for decent studies that assess their impact on behaviour. One such study has emerged from Denison University, where Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky have tested what happens when you give young boys, aged 6-9, a new video game system. 

They found that after 4 months, boys who had received the games had lower reading and writing scores than expected, failing to improve to the same degree as their console-less peers. They also faced more academic problems at school. At first this might seem like support for the rewired brains of Greenfield’s editorials, but the reality is much simpler – the games were displacing other after-school academic activities. While some children were finishing their homework or reading bedtime stories, those with games were mashing buttons.

There is much to like about Weis and Cerankosky’s study. For a start, it is a randomised controlled trial (RCT), one of the most reliable ways of finding out if something is truly causing a specific effect. Indeed, it is the first such trial looking into the effects of video games on the academic abilities and behaviour of young boys.

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A life in the trees is a longer one

By Ed Yong | February 22, 2010 3:00 pm

An assortment of tree-living mammals

In The Descent of Man, Darwin talked about the benefits of life among the treetops, citing the “power of quickly climbing trees, so as to escape from enemies”. Around 140 years later, these benefits have been confirmed by Milena Shattuck and Scott Williams from the University of Illinois.

By looking at 776 species of mammals, they have found that on average, tree-dwellers live longer than their similarly sized land-lubbing counterparts. Animals that spend only part of their time in trees have lifespans that either lie somewhere between the two extremes or cluster at one end. The pattern holds even when you focus on one group of mammals – the squirrels. At a given body size, squirrels that scamper across branches, like the familiar greys, tend to live longer than those that burrow underground, like prairie dogs.

These results are a good fit for what we already know about the lives of fliers and gliders. If living in the trees delays the arrival of death, taking to the air should really allow lifespans to really take flight. And so it does. Flight gives bats and birds an effective way of escaping danger, and they have notably longer lives than other warm-blooded animals of the same size. Even gliding mammals too tend to live longer than their grounded peers.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Ageing, Evolution, life history

Extra chromosomes allow all-female lizards to reproduce without males

By Ed Yong | February 21, 2010 1:00 pm

Whiptail lizards are a fairly ordinary-looking bunch, but some species are among the strangest animals around. You might not be able to work out why at first glance, but looking at their genes soon reveals their secret – they’re all female, every single one. A third of whiptails have done away with males completely, a trick that only a small minority of animals have accomplished without going extinct.

Some readers might rejoice at the prospect of a world without males but in general, this isn’t good news for a species. Sex has tremendous benefits. Every fling shuffles the genes of the two partners and deals them out to the next generation in new combinations. Sex creates genetic diversity and in doing so, it arms a population with new weapons against parasites and predators. These benefits are so big that sex is nigh universal among complex life. Only a few groups, like the incredible bdelloid rotifers, have found ways of becoming permanently asexual.

Doing away with sex is even rarer for vertebrates (back-boned animals). The whiptails of the genus Aspidocelis are a flagrant exception. Their forays into asexuality started when two closely related species mated. For some reason, these encounters produced asexual hybrids. For example, the New Mexico whiptail (Aspidocelis neomexicana) is a hybrid of the Western whiptail (A. Inornatus) and the little striped whiptail (A. tigris). In the hybrid species, the females (and there are only females) reproduce by laying eggs that have never encountered any sperm.

The problem is that this really shouldn’t work. Sperm and egg cells are created through a process called meiosis, where a cell’s chromosomes are duplicated before the cell divides twice. This produces four daughter cells, each with half the DNA of the original. This means that egg cells only contain half the total number of chromosomes that most other cells in the body do. It’s their union with sperm, which are also genetically half-cocked, that restores the full balance of chromosomes, ready for the next generation.

So how do the lizards get their full set? The answer is deceptively simple. They start off with twice as many.

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Parasitic wasps hitchhike on butterflies by smelling for chemical chastity belts

By Ed Yong | February 19, 2010 8:30 am

It’s not every day that you hear about spy missions that involve a lack of sex, but clearly parasitic wasps don’t pay much attention to Hollywood clichés.

These insects merge the thriller, science-fiction and horror genres, They lay their eggs inside other animals, turning them into slaves and living larders that are destined to be eaten inside-out by the developing grubs. To find their victims, they perform feats of espionage worthy of any secret agent, tapping into their mark’s communication lines, tailing them back to their homes and infiltrating their families.

Two species of parasitoid wasp – Trichogramma brassicae and Trichogramma evanescens – are particularly skilled at chemical espionage. They’ve learned to home in on sexual chemicals used by male cabbage white butterflies. After sex, a male coats the female with anti-aphrodisiac that turns off other suitors and protects the male’s sexual investment. These chemicals are signals from one male to another that say, “Buzz off, she’s taken.”

But the wasps can sense these chemicals. They feed on the nectar of the same plants that the cabbage white visit and when they do, the wasps jump her. They are tiny, smaller even than the butterfly’s eye (see the image below), and they hitch a ride to the site where she’ll lay her eggs. There, they lay their own eggs inside those of the butterfly. Amazingly, the wasps use the same trick for different species of cabbage white butterflies, which secrete very different anti-aphrodisiacs. They can even sense when the anti-aphrodisiacs are wafting among the general scent of a freshly mated female. It’s all part of a sophisticated “espionage-and-ride” strategy.

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How to avoid "he-said-she-said" science journalism

By Ed Yong | February 18, 2010 11:05 am

This post is written by a special guest – Ivan Oransky, executive editor at Reuters Health, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at Science Online 2010. I was delighted when Ivan accepted my invitation to follow up a recent Twitter exchange with a guest-post, and shocked that he even turned down my generous honorarium of some magic beans. Here, he expounds on the tricky issues of journalistic balance and how journalists can choose their sources to avoid “he-said-she-said” journalism. Over to him:

The other day, a tweet by Maggie Koerth-Baker, a freelance science journalist in Minneapolis, caught my eye. In it, she bemoaned the fact that editors and producers often encourage their reporters to go find an “opposing viewpoint” to make a story balanced. She said her journalism school professors — she graduated in 2004 — always told her the same thing.

That troubled me.

I’ve been teaching medical journalism at New York University’s Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Programsince 2002, and I taught a similar course at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism for three years. As I told Maggie and the othershaving the conversation on Twitter, I never tell my students to get “opposing viewpoint” but to get outside perspective — one that may agree with the study or the main idea being put forward by a source.

Koerth-Baker said she likedthat way of framing it, and evidently so did Ed Yong, so the idea for this guest post was born.

It’s easy to see why opposing viewpoints often rule the day. People like tension, and good journalists like skeptics. People who feel strongly about something are often media-savvy. They know how to give soundbites. They’re often telegenic — think Jenny McCarthy.

But I don’t have to tell you how this can lead to false balance. Others have written convincingly on this before, notably my NYU colleague Jay Rosen. In science and health reporting, you can end up with this.

Clearly, if the only sources you can find to “oppose” a study’s findings are from a scientific fringe, the best “opposing” viewpoint may be one that agrees!

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