This is part of a series reviewing last year’s stories, according to theme and topic.
These stories are about the intersection of science and society. Some deal with the potential of scientific techniques to reveal and solve wider social problems. Others are about expanding the very practice of science to include wider groups of people.
A group of computer gamers made it into the pages of Nature by playing Foldit. The game taps the collective efforts of tens of thousands of people to work out the complicated three-dimensional structures of proteins. The best players could outperform software designed to do the same job and best of all, they could do it without a PhD or any scientific training at all. The controls are so intuitive and the mechanics so much like a proper game, that two-thirds of the top scorers had no biochemistry experience beyond high school.
When Robert Weis and Brittany Cerankosky gave a new video game system to young boys, aged 6-9, their reading and writing scores failed to improve in the same way as peers without consoles. But the study also showed that this isn’t because of some Greenfield-esque brain “rewiring” – it’s simply because the games displace other after-school academic activities. The games also had no effect on the boys’ maths skills, attention spans, ability to adapt to new problems, or behaviour. The debate about the possible harms of videogames has been raging for as long as I can remember, largely based on hand-waving and gut reactions. Studies like are valuable in providing actual evidence (from a randomised controlled trial, no less).
Brain scans are increasingly finding their way into courtrooms amid claims that they can accurately predict if someone is lying, or work out if they remember a specific event. While warnings have already been sounded, a new study made it amply clear that this potential has been overplayed. Jesse Rissman found that brain scans can accurately decode whether people think they remember something, but not whether they actually remember something. The scans are only as good as the memories of the people who are being scanned, and that gap between subjective and objective memory is a vast chasm as far as the legal system is concerned.
In 2009, three fake CVs were sent to recruiters around France, and revealed that that anti-Muslim discrimination is rife in the French job market. A fictitious Muslim candidate is around 2.5 times less likely to get a job interview than a Christian one, with all else being equal. And that translates to a serious deficit in earnings. The study nicely bridges the gap between lab research, and its careful experiments, and field studies, with their obvious real-world relevance.
The relatively simple act of a man staring at a woman’s body can act as a psychological muzzle. In a carefully controlled study, Tamar Saguy showed that women become more silent if they think that men are focusing on their bodies. Men had no such problem. Nor, for that matter, did women if they thought they were being inspected by another woman. This was one of the first studies to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification.
In October 2009, Charles Hambleton, diver and film director slipped a sample of ‘sushi’ from a Los Angeles restaurant into a plastic bag and sent it to Scott Baker from Oregon State University. The test revealed that the meat came from an endangered sei whale, and set off a chain of events involving hidden cameras, genetic sequencing, a few arrests, and the first solid proof of an illegal international trade in whale meat. It’s a great example of how modern scientific techniques can be used for conservation, to track the trade of endangered species.
Evolution itself served as a witness for the prosecution in two recent US cases involving men who deliberately infected multiple partners with HIV. David Hillis and Michael Metzker relied on the fact that HIV evolves at furious speeds. Carriers have a great variety of viruses, and this community goes through a genetic bottleneck when it spreads to a new host. By comparing viruses from different people, the duo managed to trace the path of infection, from the accused to the people they allegedly infected. It is ironic that in a country where evolution itself often seems to be put on trial, that an application of this most powerful of ideas could find a use in the courtroom.
This is quite possibly my favourite story of the year, full stop. A group of 25 primary school children, aged 8 to 10, designed their own study on the perception of bees, ran their own experiments and got their paper published in a journal from the prestigious Royal Society, complete with ‘kidspeak’ writing and colouring pencil diagrams. They show us that anyone can be a scientist, if given the right inspiration and support. As the children themselves write, “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.” And in a similar vein, another project turned secondary schoolers into infectious disease researchers.