Higher Education No Longer Killing God; DOA Instead

downloadIt’s a widely accepted fact that going to college has a negative effect on a person’s chances of remaining religiously inclined. And for sure, that used to be absolutely true. By looking at recent trends and statistics, however, researchers from the University of Nebraska say, “Not so fast.”

It appears that the trend is over. By and large, going to college no longer raises a person’s likelihood of disaffiliating from their religious views and practices. In fact, for those born after 1970, going to college actually increases the chance that he or she will remain with their church.

So what gives?

It’s a widely accepted fact that higher levels of education has a negative effect on a person’s chances of remaining religiously inclined. And that remains true.

The difference, it appears, is in the education of the masses. Back in the early 1900s, the public education system isn’t nearly what it is today. More children were dropping out early to help with agrarian chores. More people lived in rural areas without much of a chance of having a decent teacher, let alone a decent school.

Today, people have access to—comparatively speaking—awesome educational opportunities. Even if they live out in the middle of nowhere, they probably go to a decent public school and at least have access to the entire world’s worth of knowledge via the internet.

So, Philip Schwadel argues, the rising of the educational tide sinks all religious ships. Since people are already more likely to have a decent education and drop their religious views, going to college for even more education doesn’t have the same religious impact that it did 50 years ago.

Plus, Schwadel argues that there are many more opportunities to join religious groups in today’s colleges than there used to be.

“College education has grown so much that it’s also possible that who goes to college has changed and led to some of the changes we see in the study,” he said. “There are a lot more opportunities to maintain your religiosity while you’re in college. Unless something drastic happens to change this relationship again, I would expect in 50 years, the college-educated would be no more likely, and potentially less likely, to claim no affiliation than the non-college educated.”

And in case you’re wondering, no, most of the respondents did not go to Liberty or any actual institutions of higher education in the south. The data comes from the General Social Survey, which takes place biannually across the entire nation at random.

The study, “Birth Cohort Changes in the Association Between College Education and Religious Non-Affiliation,” was published in the journal Social Forces by Schwadel and Schwadel alone.

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Progress Toward a Blood Test for Depression

Researchers at Northwestern University are trying to devise a simple blood test that not only can diagnose depression, but can also tell clinicians which treatments the patient is most likely to respond to. It may seem like a far-fetched, futuristic idea, but they’re making strong headway. Two years ago, the team reported the finding of 11 biomarkers that could accurately differentiate between untreated teens with depression from those without. In a new study, the team reports nine biomarkers that can do the same in adults.

Borrowing heavily from that post two years ago, depression is a difficult condition to fight. For one thing, there’s no physical manifestation like a lesion or rash that gives a chemical imbalance in the brain away to a physician. The only way to diagnose it is through a patient voluntarily describing all of his or her conditions in an accurate manner, hopefully to a trained specialist who is able to recognize the problem.

First of all, a lot of people don’t really like opening up and talking about their feelings, especially to a stranger. Plus, social stigmas may make them apprehensive about telling the whole truth about what’s going on in their noggin. And when a lot of people see their depression and think, geeze, I just have to be happier – let’s just say a lot of depression goes undiagnosed.

Eva Redei, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences is trying to create a blood test to recognize depression, and she may have just taken the first step. Depression isn’t all just about being sad or having whacky emotions. There can be real, physical changes that occur in the body that trigger the symptoms. Naturally, Redei thought, “Why not try to figure out a way to spot these changes?”

Redei took a line of rats that have been bred to show classical signs of depression. For example, they give up really quickly and easily when swimming for their lives in a tub of water with no way out. She took blood samples and compared the genetic activity between them and rats that fought like hell in the pool to find 26 biomarkers that could be useful in differentiating blood from a depressed person and one feeling just fine and dandy.

Next, Redei took blood samples from 14 adolescents with major depression who had not been clinically treated as well as samples from 14 normal teenagers. After running the samples through the genetic tests for the biomarkers, she discovered that she could indeed spot the depressed individuals using 11 of the biomarkers together.

In the new study, Redei took blood samples from 32 clinically depressed patients as well as 32 controls. The participants covered a wide range of gender, ethnicity and age. After some fancy pants statistics, the researchers showed that nine RNA biomarkers could accurately differentiate between depressed and non-depressed patients. What’s more, after an 18-week therapeutic intervention, the researchers also found a set of genes with a particular “fingerprint” in those who responded to the treatment but not those who remained depressed. This means these genes might be useful in predicting who would respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Finally, a separate set of three genes remained significantly different from the control group whether or not the depressed patients recovered or not. The researchers believe these might be the hallmarks of spotting people vulnerable to depression even before it hits.

Of course, this study only looked at 32 depressed patients, and only 22 completed the entire study with treatment and additional blood draws and all. They’re going to need to do a giant study of thousands of different people in a large cross-section of the population to find out if these RNA biomarkers are actually useful for predicting and spotting depression.

The study, “Blood transcriptomic biomarkers in adult primary care patients with major depressive disorder undergoing cognitive behavioral therapy,” was published in Translational Psychiatry by Redei, Brian M. Andrus, Mary J. Kwasny, Junhee Seok, Xuan Cai, and Joyce Ho.

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Saving the World $1 Trillion on Climate Change (or Not)

According to the study, the red areas would yield the most calories while preserving the most carbon; the green areas have the highest carbon storage potential and lowest yield potential.

According to the study, the red areas would yield the most calories while preserving the most carbon; the green areas have the highest carbon storage potential and lowest yield potential.

Don’t feel like eating crops that have been genetically altered in a laboratory to produce more food? Think we have a moral obligation to stop others from eating such “unnatural” products around the world? Well, then you’d better get ready to expand the current amount of landmass used to grow food, because we’re going to need a hell of a lot of it. And a recent study from the University of Minnesota points to where we out to look.

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing what land to turn to food production, and unfortunately, almost nobody cares to look at any of it. Governments and corporations everywhere are just haphazardly turning wilderness into farmland—a practice that spells trouble for global warming.

Plants store a lot of carbon. When you kill them off, that carbon gets released into the environment. Plus, they’re no longer alive to breath in carbon dioxide and further sequester existing carbon in the atmosphere. To mitigate this effect as much as possible, global agencies out to be looking to expand food production in areas that will release the least amount of carbon while producing the most about of consumable calories.

The new study led by Justin Andrew Johnson, an economist with the Natural Capital Project at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, did just that. Johnson analyzed high-resolution geospatial data from approximately 10 million locations around the world for 175 different crops in search of prospective croplands that produce the most calories relative to the amount of carbon stored, called the crop advantage.

The researchers valued the carbon storage potential of each area using the social cost of carbon, an estimate used in economics that monetizes the damages carbon contributes to the economy. The higher the crop advantage, the higher the calorie potential and the better the trade-off for lost carbon storage due to cultivation. If done right, the researchers estimate the world could save $1 trillion in climate change mitigation costs over “business as usual” growth.

So where should we grow food for India and China’s future population?

Areas with the highest crop advantage include the U.S. Corn Belt, parts of Western Europe, the Nile Valley, the Ganges River Plain and eastern China. Although these regions are already heavily farmed, the researchers found that expanding farmlands at the edges could produce more calories while limiting carbon loss relative to expansion in other parts of the world.

Parts of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Russia and several pockets in Southeast Asia also showed potential for agricultural expansion; tropical regions such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Southern India, parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Central America were found to have a low crop advantage. “There are high costs with developing agriculture in the tropics, and we need to consider them,” Johnson said.

Johnson did not, however, have any insight into how to get global governments to agree on something as mild as a preferred brand of toothpaste, much less who gets to dominate the future global agricultural economy.

So I’m guessing not a whole lot is going to come out of this one.

The study, “Global agriculture and carbon trade-offs,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Johnson and colleagues Carlisle Ford Runge, Benjamin Senauer, Jonathan Foley, and Stephen Polasky.

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Wandering Peepers Give Away the Creepers

downloadI’m pretty sure every single woman in the world has experienced talking to a (straight) man and having his gaze slip down from her face about a foot. Intuition would probably tell a woman in such an instance that the guy she was talking to might be interested in more of a short term engagement rather than something more permanent than a night – or a few hours, for that matter.

Well, now there’s science to back that intuition.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have shown that a person’s feelings can be deduced by the motion of their eyes. More specifically, if a person’s – that is, a man’s or woman’s – first thought is love, their eyes tend to focus on the face. If they have more physical thoughts on the mind, however, their first gaze goes toward the body.

Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the UChicago High-Performance Electrical NeuroImaging Laboratory, who co-authored the paper, had a group of males and females look at a series of images. In the first run, the images all showed a couple interacting with one another. In the second, the images were of people from the opposite sex looking straight at the camera.

Some photos were a bit more provocative than others.

Some photos were a bit more provocative than others.

In both cases, the scientists asked participants to report as quickly and accurately as possible whether the image stirred feelings of love or pure unadulterated sexual desire. While people responded with love just as quickly as lust, making it impossible to predict their answer based on response time, their first eye movements within a half-second gave their thoughts away.

I personally don’t find this very surprising. When presented with a photo of attractive yet fully covered women, my own eyes don’t go straight for the body quite as fast as they do in more provocative photographs.

I mean, look at the difference in the photos used in the experiments. I’ll give the method credit for the types of photos shown above, but in the picture below, how does anyone’s eyes go to the bodies of the couple to the left or to the faces of the couple on the right? They might have picked some more ambiguous photos with both the faces and bodies of the folks readily visible.

And some photos were much more provocative than others.

And some photos were much more provocative than others.

Would even the most star-crossed, giddy, vomit-inducing person in love immediately look at the faces on the right first? That’s not where the attention is drawn.

In any event, one situation where these findings might come in handy is in actual encounters where people are trying to lie about their intentions. It might be too difficult to spot the initial glance below the border in real-time, but I think the future potential for Google Glass applications is boundless.

The study, “Love Is in the Gaze: An Eye-Tracking Study of Love and Sexual Desire,” was published by Cacioppo along with colleagues from UChicago’s Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology, and the University of Geneva. – See more at: http://news.uchicago.edu/article/2014/07/17/eye-movements-reveal-difference-between-love-and-lust#sthash.GcwNpjrz.dpuf

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All Electric Fish Took the Same Bus to the Evolutionary Party

electric-eelThe famed electric ell of South America’s Amazonian waters isn’t really an eel at all—it’s more like a frog.

But it’s definitely electric.

The species is capable of producing an electric field of up to 600 volts—about 100 volts per foot of fish—which is pretty impressive. The electric eel isn’t alone in its abilities, however, as there are hundreds of species in six major lineages spread across the world that can perform the trick.

Now, researchers from the University of Wisconsin have shown that each of these species have developed this trick in much the same way. Despite being separated by millions of years and tens of thousands of miles, each of the six major lineages have used basically the same genetic tool kit to arrive at the same evolutionary destination.

The team of scientists completely sequenced the genome of South America’s electric eel for starters. They then produced protein sequences from the cells of the electric organs and skeletal muscles of three other electric fish lineages. When the dust settled on the time-intensive computational comparisons, they found that electric organs in fish worldwide used the same genetic tools and cellular and developmental pathways to independently create the impressive organ.

“I consider ‘exotic’ organisms such as the electric fish to be one of nature’s wonders and an important ‘gift’ to humanity,” says Michael Sussman, a professor of biochemistry and director of the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center. “Our study demonstrates nature’s creative powers and its parsimony, using the same genetic and developmental tools to invent an adaptive trait time and again in widely disparate environments. By learning how nature does this, we may be able to manipulate the process with muscle in other organisms and, in the near future, perhaps use the tools of synthetic biology to create electrocytes for generating electrical power in bionic devices within the human body or for uses we have not thought of yet.”

The ability to create an electric shock and the need for its use may seem convoluted, but it’s really not at all that surprising. Each muscle cell in your own body—or in any animal’s body—uses tiny electrical potentials to cause muscles to contract. If you remove the contraction part, amplify the potential, and align all of the cells together in series like a string of batteries, you can create a massive flow of positive charge.

It comes as no surprise either that each of these lineages and most of the species within them have evolved in the dark, murky depths of muddy waters. Besides shocking the hell out of prey and enemies, the electric field these fish generate act like echolocation does for bats and also gives them a way to communicate. And once subtle electric fields are evolved to “see” and “talk,” it’s just a matter of ramping it up to hunt.

And as for the electric eel, it ramps it up in 90 percent of its body.

“A six-foot eel is a top predator in the water and is in essence a frog with a built-in five-and-a-half-foot cattle prod,” says Sussman. “Since all of the visceral organs are near the face, the remaining 90 percent of the fish is almost all electric organ.”

The study, “Genomic basis for the convergent evolution of electric organs,” was published by Sussman with the help of 15 other authors from 13 separate institutions.

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All the Ingredients for Another 1918 Flu Pandemic Are Out There Somewhere

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza in a hospital ward at Camp Funston. The 1918 pandemic was one of history’s most devastating outbreaks of disease, resulting in an estimated 40 million deaths. Photo: U.S. Army

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza in a hospital ward at Camp Funston. The 1918 pandemic was one of history’s most devastating outbreaks of disease, resulting in an estimated 40 million deaths. Photo: U.S. Army

A huge controversy was stirring through the academic ranks a couple of years ago. Two research teams had taken it upon themselves to try to protect the world from another pandemic like the 1918 “Spanish flu” by basically creating the strain again in their laboratories using genetic engineering methods.

Naturally, people freaked out.

There are so many Hollywood portrayals of scientific experiments escaping into the world that people immediately saw the potential dangers. The question that remained was whether or not those potential dangers are worth the risk to figure out how to stop another Spanish flu before it even starts.

After months of debate, researchers around the world concluded that the safety features in place at these two institutions were stringent enough to allow the flu research to continue. One of these laboratories is located at the University of Wisconsin, and they recently published one of their first papers from their research.

In a recent study published in the journal Cell Host & Microbe, an international team of researchers led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin has shown that all of the ingredients for another flu pandemic are already out there swirling around in nature.

The team took the 1918 Spanish flu virus and reverse engineered it to determine what mutations would be required for modern flu strains to acquire similarly deadly characteristics. The resulting virus differed from its famous ancestor by only three percent of the amino acids that make the virus proteins. What’s more, the researchers identified seven mutations in three viral genes that accounted for this genetic similarity.

Then, by scouring databases of flu found out naturally in the world in birds, they determined that all seven of these mutations are already out in the world. True, the chances of them all accumulating into one super virus is slim—but it’s out there.

But there was a lot of good news, too.

First, the new virus was nowhere near as transmissible as the Spanish flu. It could not transmit between ferrets by means of respiratory droplets—the primary mode of flu transmission—and it wasn’t nearly as deadly. Also, they found that the virus was susceptible to existing vaccines and antiviral medications.

“The point of the study was to assess the risk of avian viruses currently circulating in nature,” explains Kawaoka, who, in addition to his appointment as a professor in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, holds a faculty position at the University of Tokyo. “We found genes in avian influenza viruses quite closely related to the 1918 virus and, to evaluate the pandemic potential should such a 1918-like avian virus emerge, identified changes that enabled it to transmit in ferrets.

“With each study, we learn more about the key features that enable an avian influenza virus to adapt to mammals and become transmissible,” says Kawaoka. “Eventually, we hope to be able to reliably identify viruses with significant pandemic potential so we can focus preparedness efforts appropriately.”

It might be dangerous to be creating viruses like this in the laboratory, for fear of it escaping. But the more we know about what makes the flu deadly to humans, the better equipped we’ll be to spot concerning mutations early and quickly create vaccines.

So which is more dangerous, creating viruses in a tightly secured laboratory or ignorance? Personally, I’ll take almost anything over ignorance every time.

The study, “Circulating Avian Influenza Viruses Closely Related to the 1918 Virus Have Pandemic Potential,” was published by Kawaoka and a whole host of collaborators that I’m too lazy to list out. That’s why the link is there.

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Teens Tell Tall Tales, Skew Scientific Surveys

Ever play the creative name game at the host stand in a restaurant? There’s just something compelling about making somebody yell out, “Tupperware Party of three,” “Republican Party of two,” or “Donner Party of five.”

Childish? Sure. Fun? You betcha. Mostly Harmless? Absolutely.

But there are some times when slightly childish antics aren’t quite so harmless. Take, for example, when social scientists give out questionnaires to teenagers as part of an experiment. Being silly or purposefully untruthful can skew statistics and lead researchers to incorrect conclusions.

Joseph Robinson-Cimpian from the University of Illinois, however, believes he has a solution. By asking several questions with possible “low frequency” responses, he can weed out the ones that are just having fun.

For example, if you include questions about gender identification, parenthood and unlikely size – questions that have little if anything to do with one another – you can spot the respondents who aren’t taking things seriously.

How many gay, extremely tall fathers of two could there possibly be in high school?

Robinson-Cimpian gave his method a shot in a recent survey that was collected from 11,800 students at 22 Wisconsin high schools. Based on 10 screener items from the assessment, more than 95 percent of the respondents provided fewer than two low-frequency responses, such as reporting that they were blind or exceptionally tall. Another 2 percent provided three or more of these types of responses.

Looking further into the data, Robinson-Cimpian found that a striking number of LGBQ-identifiers were in the group that claimed three or more low-frequency responses. Of that two percent, a staggering 80 percent claimed to be LGBQ, 76 percent claimed transgendered and 75 percent claimed disabilities. That’s compared to 1 percent LGBQ and 2 percent disabled in those who had less outlandish responses.

The solution? Nip that two percent of off-the-chart respondents in the ass.

Once removed, other percentages of responses started to fall much more in line.

Recent studies have suggested that sexual-minority teens are at higher risk of substance abuse, suicide and other poor outcomes. And data from the full sample of the 2012 Youth Assessment suggested that more than 25 percent of the transgender teens frequently considered suicide, compared to 1.2 percent of their peers.

However, when Robinson-Cimpian screened out respondents who provided three or more low-frequency responses (less than the top 2 percent of participants), the number of transgender teens reporting frequent suicidal thoughts dramatically decreased to less than 1 percent – about the same number as their heterosexual peers.

So there are two possibilities here. One is that about two percent of teens in the survey were answering questions untruthfully just to be asses. The other is that there are 236 LGBQ high school students in 22 Wisconsin schools that are blind fathers of two.

It also means that some studies that have reported a large discrepancy of suicidal thoughts and other concerning indicators among LGBQ teenagers might be way off base.

The paper, “Inaccurate Estimation of Disparities Due to Mischievous Responders: Several Suggestions to Assess Conclusions,” was published in the journal Educational Researcher by Robinson-Cimpian.

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