Archive for June, 2008

Can Your Genes Affect Whether or Not You Vote?

By Melissa Lafsky | June 27, 2008 4:10 pm

voteWe’ve covered how the location in which you vote can influence your choices (not a huge surprise, given the expanse of research on visual cues). But now a landmark study in the American Political Science Review suggests that whether or not you head to the polls this November may be partly attributable to your genes.

In the first empirical test of the genetics-voting theory, political scientists James Fowler and Christopher Dawes of U.C. San Diego and psychologist Laura Baker of U.S.C. studied whether variation in political participation can be partly attributed to genes. They found that individual genetic differences make up a “large and significant portion” of why some people vote and others don’t, even after controlling for socialization and other environmental factors.

For their data set, they turned to that most useful of tools for genetics research: identical twins (who share all their genes) and non-identical twins (who share about half their genes).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health Care, The 2008 Election

A Hidden Downside of High Fuel Prices: Climate Research Boats Are Stuck in Port

By Melissa Lafsky | June 27, 2008 10:33 am

vesselClimbing fuel costs have likely been sweet music to climate activists’ ears. But one unexpected downside of the hefty prices is that ocean researchers who study climate change can’t afford to make their trips.

The federal government is scrapping at least four trips for The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and slashing the number of days at sea for research vessels—in 2000, the number was 5,000 days, and it’s now at 4,000 and dropping.

Those given the ax include a cruise to measure the effects of factors like hurricanes, disease, and climate change on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico. In Alaska, a salmon survey in the Bering Sea and a North Pacific marine ecosystem study have both been tossed.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy

Brits Play Pollyanna on Global Warming, While Floridians Brace for Disaster

By Melissa Lafsky | June 26, 2008 1:51 pm

londonThe residents of Florida and the U.K., though alike in their proximity to a whole lot of seawater, don’t appear to have much in common when it comes to views on global warming. In a recent poll of 1,039 adults in the U.K., six out of 10 of the respondents reportedly agreed with the statement “many scientific experts still question if humans are contributing to climate change,” while four out of 10 sometimes thought that “climate change might not be as bad as people say.”

Those who reported the most worry were more likely to have a university degree and “be in social classes A or B,” as The Guardian put it (you’re assigned an actual grade! How handy!).

Less doubt is plaguing the residents of Florida, where concern about climate change is hitting all-time highs. A May survey of 1,077 adults found that 71 percent are convinced that global warming is real, while 55 percent think it’s caused primarily by human activities. A whopping 65 percent believe that global warming has already had or will have dangerous impacts on Floridians in the coming decade, while 69 percent think that parts of the state’s coasts may need to be abandoned within 50 years.

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Brain Research for Sale? Gaming Industry Looks to Science to Beat Class Action

By Melissa Lafsky | June 25, 2008 3:28 pm

casinoDISCOVER’s own Eliza Strickland had a report last week in Salon about a class action brewing in Canada, in which 119,000 gambling addicts are gearing up to sue Loto-Quebec, the manager of the province’s gambling operations. The plaintiffs, a group of gambling addicts, are claiming that slot machines “dragged [them] into addiction,” and are claiming nearly $700 million in damages.

Meanwhile, Loto-Quebec’s defense attorneys are scrambling for neuroscientific research to prove that people who develop a gambling addiction are genetically and biologically predisposed to do so. The funding for the defense’s research comes from the National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), a nonprofit associated with Harvard University—a link that has raised eyebrows in the past. As Strickland points out, the NCRG is part of the American Gaming Association, a massive casino trade group that has committed funds to the center to the tune of $22 million. Major donors to the group also include Harrah’s and MGM Mirage.

It’s true that the source of their funding alone doesn’t preclude NCRG studies from having scientific merit. But we’ve seen many times that when research is paid for by a private interest with a particular stake in the outcome, that outcome will more often than not wind up serving the private interest.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

And Now for Something Seriously Sick: Torture Game Mocks Real-Life Misery

By Melissa Lafsky | June 25, 2008 9:52 am

tortureMSNBC has a review of “The Torture Game 2,” a game that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Created by Carl Havemann, a 19-year-old in Johannesburg (who also graced us with “The Torture Game 1”), the game revolves around a limp, expressionless avatar strung up by his arms in a dark room. “Playing” consists of nothing more than torturing him with an array of repulsive paraphernalia including razor blades, ropes, spikes, guns, and, for the pièce de résistance, a chainsaw.

It’s fair to defend games like this by arguing—as many have—that they’re nothing more than escapist entertainment, and don’t translate into harm in the physical world (particularly a game like this that offers none of the realism of, say, Grand Theft Auto IV). And there’s evidence to support this point: To date, no definitive link has been drawn between playing violent video games and real-life acts of violence—in fact, some researchers have argued that violent games can even have developmental benefits for kids.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Congress Steals from the Clean and Gives to the Dirty

By Melissa Lafsky | June 24, 2008 11:44 am

Earlier this month, Senate Republicans blocked a proposal to tax the windfall profits of the five largest U.S. oil companies. The GOP’s filibuster of the bill, which would have rescinded $18 billion in tax breaks for oil companies, not only lessened the chances of Big Oil footing some of the bill for record high gas prices, it also meant the likely death of tax breaks for another cause: growth and development of wind, solar, and other alternative energy sources.

Existing tax breaks have been crucial for alternative energy providers, allowing them to raise the capital they need for growth. But while most members of Congress express continued support for the tax breaks, and even take occasional action to safeguard them—the Senate voted overwhelmingly in April to give the breaks a one-year extension—they’ll nonetheless expire by the end of this year. Last week, the breaks lost another battle when Republicans blocked yet another Senate vote, this time on a proposal to raise the $18 billion for alt-energy tax credits by closing a tax loophole for hedge-fund managers.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy

20 Years Later, Andy Revkin Responds to Groundbreaking Global Warming Story

By Melissa Lafsky | June 23, 2008 8:26 am

revExactly twenty years ago, on June 23, 1988, James E. Hansen of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies testified to a Senate committee that he could state with “99 percent confidence” that a recent, persistent rise in global temperature was occurring, and had long been expected. That landmark statement, and the dawn of the global warming discussion, was covered by Andy Revkin, then a DISCOVER senior editor and now an environmental reporter for The New York Times. (More discussion of Hansen’s testimony can be found on Revkin’s blog.) Revkin kindly agreed to take our questions about his piece.

Q: How, if at all, were the 1988 predictions wrong?

A: Not much was really wrong. The range of warming projected—a doubling of greenhouse gas concentrations from the preindustrial norm—remains similar today.

The things that were uncertain in 1988 remain uncertain now, including the mix of warming and cooling influences in clouds. As Steve Schneider, a climate modeler at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado—who is still a frequent source of mine—put it in 1988:

“Clouds are an important factor about which little is known… When I first started looking at this in 1972, we didn’t know much about the feedback from clouds. We don’t know any more now than we did then.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy

How Using Food for Fuel Could Decrease Food Prices

By Melissa Lafsky | June 19, 2008 5:05 pm

food to ethanolWith worldwide food prices on the rise, it’s time to play the blame game. President Bush started it off with a bang, stating in a May 2 news conference that India’s growing industrialization and increased food demand from the middle class were, in essence, the culpable parties.

No surprise, his remarks spurred indignant responses from Indian commerce and economics officials, who fired back with the argument that the increase in food prices has as much—or more—to do with American overconsumption as it does with industrialization in India. Their argument is supported by recent research showing that the 34 percent of Americans (and similar percentage of British) who are obese consume 18 percent more food energy than the rest of the population.

But another major factor that’s, er, fueling the price increase is ethanol. Since the embrace of the corn-based product as an alternative fuel source, the federal government has mandated that large amounts of U.S.-grown corn be converted into biofuels. To this end, the feds created additional subsidies to induce farmers to grow corn for fuel as opposed to food—meaning that substantial amounts of what was once food-producing land has been diverted to non-food production. Combine less product with higher demand and prices are bound to creep up.

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Science’s New Best Friend: The IRS?

By Melissa Lafsky | June 19, 2008 3:30 pm

IRS formDespite heavy doses of skepticism from economists and other critics, Bush’s 2008 stimulus package does appear to have boosted the economy—for the moment, anyway, and not without its price. But apparently the folks in Washington are worried that not everyone is taking advantage of their one-time-only rebate. So worried, in fact, that they appear to be turning to just about any possible venue to get the word out about this year’s stimulus check—or so it seems, based on the following email we received at DISCOVER’s offices from a media relations staffer at the IRS:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Polar Bears Finally Make Endangered List, Then Get Zero Benefit

By Melissa Lafsky | June 19, 2008 12:34 pm

polar bearRecently, we covered the disproportionate deluge of cuddly animals that make it onto the endangered list, the most recent example being the polar bear. But while their cuteness might win them a spot on the list, it looks like it may not do much else. According to the AP, the Bush administration has given the go-ahead to oil companies to “annoy and potentially harm” the bears in the pursuit of oil and natural gas. According to the report:

The Fish and Wildlife Service issued regulations this week providing legal protection to seven oil companies planning to search for oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea off the northwestern coast of Alaska if “small numbers” of polar bears or Pacific walruses are incidentally harmed by their activities over the next five years.

Given that around eight percent of all Arctic polar bears live near the Chukchi Sea, and that the bears are known to be particularly sensitive to changes in their environment (not to mention the presence of humans), this decision does plenty to undermine the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act.

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