Category: Science

Monkey see, monkey do?

Monkeys appear to have an innate sense of when they are being treated unfairly, read here. Capuchin monkeys will refuse beneficial exchanges, if they see another monkey getting a better deal. Sound familiar? Similar results are found in the literature on experimental economics for humans, as Robert Frank notes at the link.

Here is one summary from The Washington Times, the only paper I can find in today’s Virginia power blackout, they don’t yet have the link on-line:

When both monkeys were given a cucumber slice after handing over the token, they completed the trade 95 percent of the time.
But when one was given the tastier grape for the same amount of work, the rate of cooperation from the other monkey fell to 60 percent…The refusal to make the exchange increased as the experiment continued…The scientists concluded that capuchins apparently measure rewards in relative terms…the tropical forest-dwelling capuchins were chosen for the experiment because they often share food.

One commentator on the study, a Charles Janson of SUNY, suggests that the behavior of the monkeys might have been learned in captivity (again, cited in The Washington Times).

Are cell phones killing off ghost stories?

Could ghost sightings be declining with the advent of cell phones? Will haunted houses lose their luster? The link is from the ever-excellent

I can think of at least two explanations for this possible phenomenon. First, perhaps people with cell phones feel safer and hallucinate less. Second, perhaps it is harder to lie/self-delude right on the spot than afterwards, imagine telling your friend there is a ghost right next to you now. What if your friend asks to speak to it or hear it groaning? I also would like more data, how about alien abduction stories, noting that spaceships are presumably “dead zones.” My calling plan does not mention them…

The value of a lone dissenter

People will often abandon their opinions to conform to what a group expects of them, but a lone voice of reason can save the day. Cass Sunstein’s new book, Why Societies Need Dissent, reports the following (see chapter one):

You can give people a problem and allow them to solve it. Also give them a group of confederates, who unanimously advocate the wrong answer to the same problem. One confederate, proclaiming the wrong answer, will have little influence on the problem solver. Two confederates increased errors to 13.6 percent. Using three confederates increased errors to 31.8 percent. Under some results, more than three confederates do not increase the error rate, although this is controversial. But putting one voice of sanity in the group, who knows and proclaims the right answer, makes a big difference. “Conformity errors” were reduced by an average of three quarters, even if a strong majority of the group leaned the other way. Sunstein draws upon the work of Robert Baron, at the University of Iowa.

Mars in the Balance?

According to an article in the 23 Aug. issue of New Scientist magazine (unfortunately not available online to non-subscribers) scientists have been “absolutely shocked” to find that glaciers in the south pole have been “eroding at a rate of 3 meters per year or more.” According to one scientist “all the visible ice, all the carbon dioxide that we see in the ‘permanent’ ice cap could be eroded in less than a century.”

The scientists agree that the only plausible explanation of what they are seeing is “climate change” but none of them think that humans are to blame. Why not? The scientists are talking about Mars. The article doesn’t make the connection but it seems to me that global warming on Mars raises the plausibility of claims by global warming skeptics that solar activity could be responsible for much climate change on Earth. Here is a picture from Friis-Christensen and Lassen’s 1991 paper on this issue in Science (link to JSTOR, click on the picture to expand).


Global warming update

Fungi under the snow may contribute significantly to CO2 levels, according to this Washington Post article (brief registration required). Here is one bit:

“We’re living in a world where global warming is a constant threat, but in fact we have relatively little knowledge of what the inputs and outputs are for CO2.” said Steven Miller, a mycologist, or fungus specialist, at the University of Wyoming.”

Here is another:

“…global warming models can no longer ignore fungi in snowy regions and seasons as they have, scientists said – especially because about 40 percent of Earth’s landmass is covered with snow for at least part of the year.”

I am not one of those economists who wishes that global warming would go away, and simply assumes that science is on my side, or reads the evidence selectively. And of course items such as this can be cause for either optimism or pessimism, what if fungi under the snow contribute to a crisis rather than easing it? Still, Bush was not crazy to refuse to go along with Kyoto.

A response to Charles Murray

An article in today’s Washington Post cites recent research on the heritability of IQ. Here is the bottom line:

“Genes do explain the vast majority of IQ differences among children in wealthier families…But environmental factors – not genetic deficits – explain IQ differences among poor minorities.” The IQ heritability quotient is 0.72 for well-to-do families, but only 0.10 for poor families. The key data involves 623 pairs of twins born to poor black mothers. It seems that genes and environment interact to a greater degree than had previously been thought, perhaps good genes help you only significantly only when you have a certain minimum level of educational opportunity.

The piece will be out in the November issue of Psychological Science, here is the home page of the author, Eric Turkheimer.