22 September 2017

Polarization and Education

True or False: Is more science education all it takes for us to agree on scientific and technological issues?

Welcome back. As you can see from the blog post title, today’s post is about polarization, not partisanship, which I’ve blogged about many times. To be clear, I’ll define polarization as a division into contrasting opinions or beliefs, and partisanship as a strong adherence to a party or cause. 
Human evolution, a controversial
topic. (multiple websites)

The two can certainly overlap, particularly on controversial topics, such as human evolution, the Big Bang Theory, stem cell research, climate change, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and nanotechnology.

Since those six topics fall into the realm of science, wouldn’t you expect reduced polarization with increased education, at least education in the sciences? Isn’t that in line with why we marched last April (Marching for Science)?

Well, it doesn’t happen, as shown most recently by researchers from Carnegie Mellon University. In fact, they found the opposite: increased education, increased polarization.

General Social Survey Data
To investigate whether people with more education and greater science knowledge express beliefs that are less polarized, the researchers used nationally representative data from the General Social Survey. GSS data on American society--demographic, behavioral and attitudinal, plus topics of special interest--have been collected since 1972 by NORC at the University of Chicago (that is the name), with National Science Foundation support. The GSS is considered the single best source for U.S. sociological and attitudinal trend data.

The researchers focused on 2006 and 2010 iterations of GSS questions regarding both general and scientific education, scientific literacy, political and religious identify, as well as opinions on various scientific issues, including those pertaining to the six topics.  

Stem cell research, a controversial
topic. (multiple websites)
Correlating Polarization with Education
As you’d expect, they found that beliefs were correlated with both political and religious identity for three topics--human evolution, the Big Bang Theory and stem cell research--and with political identity alone for climate change.

But here’s the biggie: They also found individuals with more education, science education and science literacy displayed more polarized beliefs on those issues.

On the bright side, they found little evidence of political or religious polarization regarding nanotechnology and genetically modified foods, topics that are controversial on other grounds.

Overall, the patterns suggest that greater scientific knowledge, rather than fostering agreement, may facilitate the defense of positions motivated by nonscientific concerns. A key factor is thought to be trust. On all six topics, people who had more trust in the scientific enterprise were more likely to accept its findings.

Wrap Up
I go along with those who judge that the politicization of scientific issues is, at least in part, a consequence of the decline in trust in science among conservatives.

In a 2014 blog post, Trust a Scientist, I reported: polls that address science find that differences attributed to political affiliation exceed other differences--gender, age, race, family income, geographic region. Republicans, especially Tea-Party Republicans, had by far the least trust in what scientists say.

Note the overlap in polarization and partisanship. And thanks for stopping by.

Has the U.S. population clustered as Bill Bishop suggested in The Big Sort? (Cartoon by Rick Meyerowitz from www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/books/review/Stossel-t.html?mcubz=0)
Carnegie Mellon study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/08/15/1704882114
Articles on study on Ars Technica and ScienceDaily websites:
General Social Survey website: gss.norc.org/About-The-GSS

15 September 2017

Problem-Solving Squirrels

Vicki’s home-built,
bird feeder.
Welcome back. In one of my earliest blog posts (Lawn, Garden & Squirrels Photo Addendum), which was an addendum to a post voted exceptionally humorous (Time for Lawn and Garden), I described my wife Vicki’s struggles to defend birdseed from squirrels.

After failing with commercially available, squirrel-proof bird feeders, she painted and stood a pvc tube, about 8-foot tall, 8-inch diameter, on our deck and hung bird feeders and faux vegetation from its top.

As I wrote: Was it fear of jumping, missing and falling that restrained the squirrels, or were they just laughing too hard? Whatever it was, it worked for a couple of days.

Oops. A squirrel
made the leap.
Although I needed no further insight concerning squirrels’ problem-solving ability, researchers from the U.K.’s University of Exeter felt differently. They set out to examine how memory, together with behavioral traits, enhance squirrels’ problem-solving efficiency.

Testing Squirrels’ Memory
The researchers assessed five gray squirrels’ ability to retrieve food from the same puzzle box the squirrels had overcome 22 months earlier as well as from a physically dissimilar puzzle box that required the same actions for success.

The original puzzle box was a transparent plexiglass cube, outer dimensions about 10 inches. Ten holes were aligned vertically on each side, and 10 levers were inserted through holes on opposite sides. One end of each lever had a container for a hazelnut positioned just inside the box; 5 levers held a nut, 5 were empty. The box stood on legs, allowing space for squirrels to obtain nuts that fell from the containers.

Squirrel-testing puzzle boxes. Top: original box, first used 22 months earlier; Bottom: two views of new box. (Photo from link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-017-1113-7)
The most effective squirrel behaviors to obtain a nut were pushing the end of a lever near the container or pulling the opposite end. Pulling the near end or pushing the far end wouldn’t work.

The new puzzle box added for the study was an A-frame, four-sided triangular prism. There were only 5 levers inserted through side holes, which were horizontally, not vertically aligned. The effective and ineffective squirrel behaviors for retrieving a nut still applied, though all of the levers had nuts.

The squirrels (Arnold, Leonard, Sarah, Simon and Suzy) were lab residents, average age 6 years, with similar experimental histories in cognitive tasks. The researchers had them participate individually in a series of trials that began when the squirrel touched the box; it ended when the squirrel obtained all the nuts or specified times had elapsed.

Squirrel Performance
Encountering a new stimulus, the squirrels took on the order of 23 seconds to make contact in the first trial with the new puzzle box, compared to about 11 seconds in the last trial with the original puzzle box.

Once they got started, however, the squirrels needed about half the time to retrieve nuts in the first trial with the new puzzle box than they did in the first trial with the original box (2 sec versus 4 sec) and only about 1 second more than they needed in the last trial with the original box.

The researchers used video to analyze four behavioral traits: persistence (rate of attempts), selectivity (proportion of effective behaviors), motor diversity (rate of trying different tactics) and flexibility (rate of switching tactics after a failed attempt).

All squirrels demonstrated a high proportion of effective behaviors, reflecting the interaction between memory and behavioral traits for problem-solving. Remembering task-effective tactics, they consistently changed from ineffective to effective behaviors after failed attempts.

Wrap Up
Now that the role of memory in the problem-solving ability of squirrels (at least five) has been addressed, it’s appropriate to ask: Do squirrels find the nuts they hoard?

Here, the findings are mixed. I’ve seen comments about studies that show squirrels fail to recover most of the nuts they bury, but I haven’t seen those studies. In contrast, small sample, controlled studies I’ve reviewed had the opposite results. One article posited that just because a squirrel hasn’t retrieved a nut doesn’t mean that it won’t.

Perhaps the answer is muddied by the generally agreed findings that squirrels repeatedly rebury nuts to deter thieves and pretend to bury a nut to deceive onlookers. They’re pretty smart. Thanks for stopping by.

University of Exeter study in Animal Cognition journal: link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-017-1113-7
Article on study on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170713154843.htm
Example studies and articles on squirrels’ ability to locate hoarded nuts:
- www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347205805068?via%3Dihub
- www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000334729690528X?via%3Dihub
- animals.mom.me/smart-squirrel-6321.html
- www.nytimes.com/1994/12/11/nyregion/cuttings-now-it-can-be-told-all-about-squirrels-and-nuts.html
- en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_gray_squirrel

08 September 2017

Drug Safety

Welcome back. Maybe it’s me and my TV viewing habits. Other than Netflix offerings in the evening, I watch nothing but news, though I am eclectic about the network--Bloomberg, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, NBC et al.--even if I often mute the sound and just read the news tapes.

Whatever the reason, I’m seeing an increasing number of ads for drugs, particularly prescription drugs. Presumably, TV viewers are supposed to see the ad, pay attention if the drug treats a malady they or a loved one have, remember the product name and suggest it to their physicians, because the billions of dollars pharmaceutical companies spend marketing directly to physicians isn’t enough.

New drugs are continually coming
to market. (multiple websites)

Given advertising costs and the need to promote new products, it’s likely that what’s being pitched via my TV is in some way new, if not seasonal.

If the new drug is intended to replace an older drug for my malady, my physician and I have to ask, Should I switch? The answer implicit in the results of a study published last May is, Maybe not.

The study was conducted by a team of medical researchers led by an investigator from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. And once again, I’m indebted to the University of California Berkeley Wellness Letter for bringing the study to my attention.

Monitoring FDA-Approved Drugs
The researchers examined the safety record of all new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 2001 through 2010, following up through February 2017.

The post-product release safety issues they tallied included (1) product withdrawals due to safety concerns; (2) FDA-issued “boxed warnings”--warnings added to the label or to a product’s package insert; and (3) FDA-issued safety communications.

About a third of the drugs FDA
approved from 2001 to 2010 had
safety issues after coming to
market. (multiple websites)
They found the FDA had approved 222 new drugs (183 pharmaceuticals and 39 biologics) during the 10 year period. Of these, 32% were affected by post-product release safety issues over a median follow-up period of 11.7 years. There were 123 safety events--3 withdrawals, 61 boxed warnings and 59 safety communications. The average time to the first safety event was about 4 years.

Analyzing the statistics further, the researchers determined the safety events were significantly more frequent among biologics, drugs for treatment of psychiatric disease and drugs that received accelerated and near-regulatory deadline approval.

Wrap Up
For the researchers, the findings highlighted the need for continuous monitoring of new drug safety throughout the drug’s life cycle. The Berkeley Wellness Letter article focused more on the importance of considering all the options before switching to a new drug.

Is the improvement offered by the new drug worth the increased risk? Is it possible to allow more time for the new drug’s benefits and potential problems to be evaluated? When you see those TV commercials, don’t forget the warnings given at the conclusion are only the initially recognized limitations. Of course, unlike me, you have to have the sound on and be listening. Thanks for stopping by.

Drug safety study in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA): jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2625319

University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, August 2017, “Sometimes it’s good to be a neophobe.” pg 3.

01 September 2017

Near-Death Experiences

Welcome back. In my unremitting search for riveting blog topics, I encountered the latest study of near-death experiences. Don’t fret if your knowledge of near-death experiences (NDEs) is limited or if you have never been, nor been acquainted with, a near-death “experiencer” (NDEr). That’s where I was when I saw the study.

Scene from Flatliners, a 1990 horror film in which medical students experiment with near-death experiences. (That’s Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt, with William Baldwin on the table.)
Introducing Near-Death Experiences
NDEs have been reported since antiquity. In different surveys since 1980, 4% to 15% of the population report having had NDEs.

Research interest in the topic shifted into high gear following the 1975 publication of Raymond Moody Jr.’s Life After Life, a book based on interviews with NDErs, who were revived after clinical death.

In 1978, researchers founded the Association for the Scientific Study of Near-Death Phenomena, which became The International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in 1981. IANDS publishes the quarterly, peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies, which began in 1981 as the semiannual journal Anabiosis. IANDS also organizes near-annual conferences. This year’s was held in Westminster, Colorado, 3-6 August.

Of the many books on the subject, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation is commonly recommended. Published in 2009, the anthology was coedited by Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson and Debbie James, all faculty members at different universities.

Characterizing Near-Death Experiences

In a recently published study, researchers from the University of Virginia gave 122 NDErs a questionnaire to rate their memories of the NDE and of both an actual and imagined event that occurred about the same time. Memories of NDEs were more vivid and detailed than those of actual events, which were more vivid and detailed than those of imagined events. The results suggest that NDEs are recalled as hyperreal, not as imagined events and more real than actual events.

One of the more intriguing aspects of NDEs is the similarity of what NDErs report. In his 1980 book, Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience, Kenneth Ring of the University of Connecticut described the core NDE stages as (1) Peace, (2) Body Separation, (3) Entering Darkness/Tunnel Experience, (4) Seeing the Light and (5) Entering the Light/ Meeting People or Figures. Ring found 60% of NDErs experienced the first stage, only 10% experienced the fifth stage.

In a 1983 study, Greyson had 74 NDErs complete a questionnaire to produce a 16-item scale of clinically meaningful NDE features. The scale was highly correlated with Ring's core NDE stages, and as a multiple-choice tool, the 16 items quantified the intensity of NDEs, allowing differentiation of NDErs based on depth of their experience.

NDE Feature Sequence
The NDE study that got me started addressed the sequence of what NDErs report experiencing.

Researchers from Belgium’s University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège collected freely expressed NDE narratives from 154 NDErs, who had all scored above the accepted Greyson NDE scale breakpoint.

Before conducting a text analysis of the narratives, the researchers compiled a list of characteristic NDE features, drawing from Greyson, Ring and others. They identified 11 isolated features and 5 diffuse features. Isolated features occurred uniquely and could be used to establish a sequential order; diffuse features occurred throughout the narrative, making it difficult to place them in a sequence.
Frequency of Near-Death Experience features reported in 154 narratives. (From journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00311/full)
In assessing the sequential order, the researchers considered every sequence of two and more consecutive NDE features. For example, 47 narratives contained Out-of-Body Experience and Encountering with Spirits/People; of those, 91% reported Out-of-Body Experience first.

The most frequently reported sequence of four consecutive NDE features was Out-of-Body Experience, Experiencing a Tunnel, Seeing a Bright Light and Feeling of Peace; however, only 6 of the 27 narratives that had those 4 features had them in that order.

Wrap Up
The analysis found an average of 4 isolated and 1 diffuse feature per narrative. The most frequently reported feature was Feeling of Peace (80%), while the features most frequently reported first and last in the narratives were, respectively, an Out-of-Body Experience (35%) and Returning into the Body (36%).

Though NDEs share many of the same features, their sequence appears to vary with the individual.

Overall, for me, the topic is one I’m no longer inclined to write off entirely as someone’s still active imagination. What do you think? Thanks for stopping by.

Moody Jr.’s book Life After Life: www.amazon.com/Life-After-Bestselling-Investigation-Experiences/dp/006242890X
The International Association for Near Death Studies and its Journal of Near-Death Studies: iands.org/home.html and iands.org/research/publications/journal-of-near-death-studies.html
University of Virginia study comparing NDEs with real and imagined events in Consciousness and Cognition journal: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810016304482
Ring’s book, Life at Death: www.amazon.com/Life-Death-Scientific-Investigation-Near-Death/dp/0698110323
Greyson’s NDE scale study in Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6854303
(16 item scale: iands.org/research/nde-research/important-research-articles/698-greyson-nde-scale.html)
Holden, Greyson and James’ Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: www.amazon.com/Handbook-Near-Death-Experiences-Thirty-Investigation/dp/0313358648
(Review of handbook: atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-42-10-02-236.pdf)
University of Liège and University Hospital of Liège study of NDE feature occurrence in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal and article on study on ScienceDaily website:
Background articles on NDE on The Atlantic and Wikipedia websites: