Archive for December, 2008

For Psychologists, a Fine Line Between Scientific Discovery and Torture

By Melissa Lafsky | December 12, 2008 12:16 pm

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association voted (at last) to ban its members from participating in interrogations at U.S. detention centers, including the notorious Guantanamo Bay. This marked a major shift from its previous stance, which permitted work with interrogation (some of which is known in certain circles as “torture”) despite the fact that both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have banned any affiliation with the practice for years.

So what’s different about psychologists, that it took them this long to decide that participation in torture wasn’t something the field should strive for? Stanley Fish at the New York Times blog “Think Again” offers the following explanation:

One answer can be found in the A.M.A.’s explanation of its prohibition: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.” The American Psychiatric Association is even more explicit: “Psychiatrists . . . owe their primary obligation to the well being of their patients.”

Psychology, on the other hand, is not exclusively a healing profession. To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

Fights Over Space! NASA Head Disses Obama's Transition Team

By Melissa Lafsky | December 11, 2008 2:05 pm

space fightYou’d think that NASA might have some heavy incentive to make nice with the new president-elect. But instead, it appears NASA administrator Mike Griffin is doing just about everything in his power to give Obama’s transition team the proverbial middle finger. Via the Orlando Sentinel, Griffin’s current acts of un-hospitality include obstructing efforts to obtain information, dictating what NASA employees and civilian contractors can tell the space transition team, and insulting the team’s leader to her face. Charming!

No bad deed comes without a motive, and Griffin’s is clear: to make darned well sure that his pet project, the absurdly over-delayed and over-budget Constellation program, escapes the ax in the new administration. And worry he should: Now that the Bush “go forth and conquer” agenda for space (an agenda accompanied by liberal check-writing) are leaving Washington, there’s a good chance Obama might scrap large parts of the program.

When Griffin got wind of this possibility, he started in with the gestapo tactics:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington
MORE ABOUT: NASA, obama, space

Out of a Job? Electronic Warfare Firms Are Hiring!

By Melissa Lafsky | December 10, 2008 2:42 pm

Most people peruse blogs at the office, meaning that if you’re reading this, there’s a decent chance you weren’t a victim of Bloody November, in which around 500,000 jobs were systematically purged from the U.S. workforce—many of them from the tech sector. But one industry that’s been hiring in droves, reports the Boston Globe, is defense contractors, particularly those focused on the latest in war technology.

The cluster of defense companies based in New England is expected to weather the downturn reasonably well, because of their tech focus:

[R]ather than building entire jets, ships, tanks, or ground installations, many of the region’s defense firms develop the electronics, combat, and communications systems they use…

Area contractors, for instance, work on electronic eavesdropping, signal processing for radar systems, and equipment used to integrate intelligence from different sources, technologies critical to helping the US military and allies battle terrorists in multiple countries.

Not that we’re suggesting qualified applicant shouldn’t jump at a well- (or any-) paying gig, but it’s worth asking: Is this really the place we want to be re-channeling our tech talent?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science in Wartime

The Rape of the EPA: Bush Appointee Steven Johnson Called to Task

By Melissa Lafsky | December 10, 2008 1:24 pm

Mashing scientific evidence into a pulpy soup of agenda-laden misinformation seems to be a common theme for the modern GOP. The latest (and arguably most egregious) example is outgoing EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson, whose reign has been dominated by a poverty of factual information, with hard science routinely twisted to suit political designs.

In a scathing profile in the Philadelphia Enquirer (via ThinkProgress), writers John Shiffman and John Sullivan delve into the cult of mediocrity that dominated Johnson’s time at the agency. The piece is filled with forehead-slappers like the following:

Perhaps one of the best insights into Johnson’s vision for EPA can be found in written testimony he submitted to a Senate committee this year. In the document, Johnson laid out his top 11 goals.

No. 1 was clean energy, particularly approving drilling for “thousands of new oil and gas wells” on tribal and federal lands. No. 2 was homeland security.

Environmental enforcement and sound science ranked ninth and 10th.

And that’s not even the worst of it:

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Does the "Less Sex in a Recession" Trend Have Evolutionary Roots?

By Melissa Lafsky | December 9, 2008 6:55 pm

It’s been a rough few weeks for anything male. According to a study released this week, males of just about every species are being feminized—or even wiped out of existence—by the slew of unregulated chemicals in our water and environment.

And for those already locked in male adulthood, there’s more bad news: Men in New York City are reportedly losing their desire for sex because of the financial crisis. According to a (highly non-scientific, but not unbelievable) trend piece in the New York Post, many former masters of the universe are shunning coitus due to anxiety over job losses, lost wealth, and other monetary realities of 2008.

While a host of psycho-social factors are likely behind this reported mass libido-loss (assuming that it’s true), it’s possible that a growing disinterest in sex during an economic crisis is linked to physiology, and perhaps even evolution. In other words, hard economic times may translate into a built-in desire for less procreation.

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Second Life in Islam: Virtual Reality Hits the Muslim World

By Melissa Lafsky | December 9, 2008 4:24 pm

It’s always interesting when technology and religion/culture collide like Mac trucks. The BBC reports that Muxlim Pal, the first virtual world aimed at the Muslim community, is now live in Beta, and will officially launch in 2009.

The site, aimed at “Muslims in Western nations,” is based on the standard virtual world model popularized by The Sims and the eponymous Second Life. Each player gets an avatar that can be fitted with a number of inventory and wardrobe options including hijabs. Avatars can earn and spend currency, though the creators haven’t set up any of the money-making systems pervasive in Second Life. Each avatar multiple “meters” governing its “happiness, fitness, knowledge and spirituality that change when the character carries out tasks in the social world.”

Mohamed El-Fatatry, the founder of the parent site,, stresses that the focus of the site is not religion itself—of the 26 different content categories on the site, only one is religion. Rather, the focus is on creating a space for Muslim culture in the virtual realm:

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Power May Not Corrupt Politicians After All

By Melissa Lafsky | December 8, 2008 6:35 pm

With the beatific cloud surrounding Obama’s win rapidly fading, one question finding its way into the public ear is whether or not the president-elect’s newly-won power might/could/will degrade the integrity he’s shown throughout his career. The idea certainly has precedent, with big names like Duke Cunningham and Ted Stevens offering textbook cases of Washington insiders squeezing every last drop of abuse from their power.

But does power really lead to a change in personal perspective and morality? Not necessarily, according to a study in the December issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The researchers, led by Adam Galinsky of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, found that “power tends to shield people from outside opinions, leaving them to rely more on their own insights”—which, when the leader is legitimately insightful, is a positive result.

The team based its findings on college students who’d been primed to feel either powerful or powerless, through techniques like completing sentences that included “power” words, such as “authority,” “executive” and “control,” or words unrelated to power, such as “automobile” and “envelope.” Each group was then given creative tasks, such as coming up with product names or drawing hypothetical aliens. In most cases, participants were shown examples beforehand. Those who had been “primed for power” presented “more unique ideas that bore no resemblance to examples given.”

All of which is well and good. But does it translate to presidential politics?

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MORE ABOUT: corruption, obama, politics

Us Versus the Tigers: The Inherent Conflict of Conservation

By Melissa Lafsky | December 8, 2008 12:20 pm

tigerOne of the more fascinating—and troubling—undercurrents of the conservation movement is that it has a clear, unalterable lid: We want to conserve species and their habitats, but not at the expense of our own well-being. In other words, when it’s them v. us, the furry critters will get it every time (a phenomenon handily illustrated by just about every creature movie).

Now, as Michael Wall reports in ScienceNOW Daily News, this man-beast conflict is coming to a dramatic head in Nepal, where villagers have undergone an extensive campaign to rebuild degraded forests in an effort to restore the dwindling tiger population. The giant cats—or what remains of them—have been shoved for years into smaller and smaller spaces in between villages, fields, and roads.

To keep the species from perishing entirely, for over a decade the Nepalese government has been working to expand the tiger reserves. Local communities have also joined in, managing the recovering forests and learning to allocate now-smaller resources like firewood and livestock grounds. In fact, the program has been a near-model of conservation in action, with the tiger parks giving back portions of their revenues to the sacrificing communities.

The only party that isn’t complacent in this whole affair, unfortunately, is the tigers. With their numbers on the rise—and the number of humans surrounding them not decreasing—they’re attacking people in record numbers.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Goes to Washington

Weekly News Roundup: The Science of Layoffs

By Melissa Lafsky | December 5, 2008 1:46 pm

• It’s no surprise that Americans are losing sleep (though the label “sleep epidemic” is a bit extreme). So cue the comprehensive guide to insomnia treatments.

• The implosion of media spares no one: CNN cuts science and tech unit, bloggers mourn.

Greening Mexico City? If it happens, color us impressed.

• Michigan legalizes medical marijuana, but patient’s can’t use it ’til April. Ah government bureaucracy.

• The Facebook virus is coming! The Facebook virus is coming!

• Is the Bureau of Land Management holding a “fire sale” for Utah’s oil-and-gas drilling leases?

• Um, duh. Seriously, is this even a question?

The Internet Reveals Obama's First "Broken Campaign Promise"

By Melissa Lafsky | December 4, 2008 3:04 pm

Mother Jones has jumped on Obama for what may be the first “reneged promise” of his campaign: assigning a windfall tax to the profits raked in by Big Oil. According to MJ blogger Nick Baumann, a transition team staffer:

The President-elect’s transition team hasn’t explicitly announced it will drop the windfall tax plan, but a transition aide, commenting on the condition he not be identified, backed off the promise in an email. “President-elect Obama announced the [windfall profits tax] policy during the campaign because oil prices were above $80 per barrel,” he said. “They are currently below that now and expected to stay below that.”

Advocacy groups like the American Small Business League—which noticed almost immediately when the discussion of windfall taxes was removed from Obama’s Web site—are bemoaning the fallen tax as a disappointment, while economists (and common sense) note that it now seems far less necessary given that it would bring in substantially less money today than four months ago.

Still, the fact that this debate has arisen at all, before Obama has even taken office, is a testament to the dangers (or maybe just necessary consequences) of using technology for increased government transparency.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Climate Change, Energy
MORE ABOUT: big oil, obama
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