Vol. 1 / No. 36 — Passing the Buck, “Shocking” Results, and Giving Science “Due Weight”


Passing the Buck

This week, PNAS issued a “statement of concern” regarding their publishing of the recent study performed on Facebook users meant to alter their moods and performed entirely without their consent. The long and short of it is that they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong, and they’re not sorry at all. You see, Cornell’s Internal Review Board looked at the study and has since repeated its stance that the project does not fall under Cornell’s Human Research Protection Program. Facebook, being a private company, doesn’t have to follow ethical guidelines. And so PNAS is adamant that knowing all that, it was “appropriate to publish the paper.” One can only suppose that the editorial board of PNAS doesn’t see publishing unethically obtained data as explicit endorsement of the means of obtaining the data, because otherwise they wouldn’t ever be able to look themselves in the mirror again. If you want to leave them a comment, feel free to. The article now has a comment thread.

“Shocking” Results

A recent study published this week in the journal Science highlights some of the problems inherent in science reporting. The study, designed to test people’s responses to being “left alone with their thoughts,” led to news reports you may have seen: “People, and especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain,” or “students prefer jolt of pain than being made to sit and think.” As one of ten different variations within the study — in which participants’ desire to “just sit and think” was gauged by means such as self-reporting and giving alternatives — participants were put in a room with nothing to entertain them but their own thoughts. They were also given a device that would, if they pressed the button, deliver a mildly painful shock. Many of the participants chose the shock over no stimuli whatsoever. This is not as strange as it sounds; after all, isolation and lack of stimuli are commonly held to be forms of torture for humans. We even use it on our children as punishment (we call it “time out”). The authors expressed surprise that even when given time to prepare something to think about, participants found the experience unpleasant — which would be well explained by the fact that we have little experience in developing thoughts complicated enough to be stimulating without paper and pencil (or computers) at hand to record and refine them. But instead we get trite headlines like “Men would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly — anything but spending time thinking.” You can read the article for yourself, “Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind” at Science this week.

“Due Weight”

This week the BBC Trust issued a progress report detailing its ongoing work to improve the way it does science reporting, specifically in regard to fixing a problem endemic to science (and all) reporting in the US: false impartiality. This is the technical name for it when, for instance, you have 97% scientific consensus on humans as the cause of climate change, but you have one person on the show representing that perspective, and an oil company executive on as well, to make sure your viewers’ experience is “fair and balanced.” The Telegraph put it in a more succinct but certainly also more provocative way the next day, saying that the BBC staff had been “told to stop inviting cranks onto science programmes.” Katharine Trendacosta over at io9 has more on the story, and you can get even more detail from the BBC Trust itself.

A Fitbit For Your What?

In tech news that’s going to make more than a few people snicker (I admit, I was one of them), a new kickstarter has more than reached its $90,000 goal with 29 days left to go. It’s a “fitbit,” as it were, for your vagina. Well, I mean presumably for your own. Thing is, it’s not as absurd as it sounds. Being pregnant puts a lot of strain on what are called the pelvic floor muscles, and can actually lead to incontinence during and after birth, so many in the childbirth sector advocate exercises that strengthen these muscles. The problem is, of course, that unlike your abs or your thighs, you can’t actually tell if your pelvic floor muscles are getting any stronger. So that’s what it’s for, and judging from the kickstarter’s success, it’s not a completely crazy idea. It’s called the KGoal (a pun on the name of the exercises, called “kegels”), and they’re expecting to be sending them out by December.

In other crowdfunding news, Reading Rainbow’s kickstarter has finally closed, earning $5,408,916 of its original $1,000,000 goal. Oh, and Seth McFarlane decided to kick another million in on top of that. Just thought you should know.

Easy Come, Easy Go

Just like gravity waves, another promising discovery has vanished into the digital ether. Remember potentially habitable planet Gliese 581 d? Turns out it probably doesn’t exist. A new study out of Pennsylvania Statue University calls into question not only its existence, but also a number of other potentially interesting planets. When you’re dealing with such great distances and such small numbers, sometimes it just takes a sunspot to give you false hope. The paper, “Stellar activity masquerading as planets in the habitable zone of M dwarf Gliese 581” was published in the journal Science on June 17.

Red and Blue, Hot and Cold

An odd bit of news this week in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that our mental associations of the colours red and blue with hot and cold may have an idiosyncratic effect on our mental ability to judge temperature. In a study involving plates heated to specific temperatures and lit with either red or blue light, scientists in Japan found that when an object is red, it has to be half a degree Celsius warmer to feel the same as a blue one. What’s more, the results changed when it was the hands that were lit, rather than the plates. Check out the article at Scientific American for more.

Best of the Rest

Other things floating about the internet this week included: a 3D printer that uses recycled soda bottles; a “beautiful” way to learn to code; a study suggesting that some plants make global warming worse by releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere; another reminder that the world’s coral reefs are screwed if we don’t act soon; and a review of the OnePlus One, by all reports the best low-priced phone money can buy.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.