Featured

Is American democracy in crisis?

The Federal shutdown may be the most striking evidence to support claims that America’s political system is broken, but it is far from the only example. Writing in Governance, acclaimed political scientists Norman Ornstein and Jared Diamond explore if tribalism is at the heart of the problem, or if the U.S. is facing a far greater political crisis.

“The state of our overall political process as the most dysfunctional I have seen in over 44 years of watching Washington and American politics up close,” writes Norman Ornstein, from the American Enterprise Institute. “If we are not in the most dysfunctional period in our history, we are certainly in the top five.”

American political history has recorded many inept and ineffectual congresses, from the scandals of the 1970′s to the divided house of the 1860′s, so what makes the 112th and 113th congresses any different? Ornstein argues that the rise in political extremism, manifested in open tribalism, is to blame. Read more »

World

Infamous study of humanity’s ‘dark side’ may actually show how to keep it at bay

In 1961, with memories of Holocaust atrocities and the prosecution of Nazi officials at Nuremburg still fresh, psychologist Stanley Milgram undertook a series of now infamous experiments on obedience and reprehensible behavior.

About two-thirds of Milgram’s nearly 800 study subjects, pressed by an authoritative experimenter, were willing to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to an unseen stranger despite cries of agony and pleas to stop.

“Milgram claimed to have found sort of a dark side to human nature that people were not quite as attuned to,” says Matthew Hollander, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “His study participants were much more likely to obey than he expected, and that was an understandably uncomfortable result.”

But Milgram divided his subjects into just two categories: obedient or disobedient. After examining the experiences of more than 100 of Milgram’s participants, Hollander sees a great deal more nuance in their performances — and maybe a way to prevent real-world occurrences of authority overriding ethical judgment.

“The majority did cave, and follow the experimenter’s orders,” says Hollander, whose findings were published online today by the British Journal of Social Psychology. “But a good number of people resisted, and I’ve found particular ways they did that, including ways of resisting that they share with the people who ultimately complied.”

Hollander’s unprecedentedly deep conversational analysis of audio recordings of the experiments yielded six practices employed against the repeated insistence of Milgram’s authority figure.

Some are less insistent. Hollander found study subjects resorting to silence and hesitation, groaning and sighing to display the effort it took to comply, and (typically uncomfortable) laughter.

They also found more explicit ways to express their discomfort and disagreement. Subjects stalled by talking to the recipient of the shocks and by addressing their concerns to the experimenter. Most assertively, they resorted to what Hollander calls the “stop try.”

“Before examining these recordings, I was imagining some really aggressive ways of stopping the experiment — trying to open the door where the ‘learner’ is locked in, yelling at the experimenter, trying to leave,” Hollander says. “What I found was there are many ways to try to stop the experiment, but they’re less aggressive.”

Most often, stop tries involved some variation on, “I can’t do this anymore,” or “I won’t do this anymore,” and were employed by 98 percent of the disobedient Milgram subjects studied by Hollander. That’s compared to fewer than 20 percent of the obedient subjects.

Interestingly, all six of the resistive actions were put to use by obedient and disobedient participants.

“There are differences between those two groups in how and how often they use those six practices,” says Hollander, whose work is supported by the National Science Foundation. “It appears that the disobedient participants resist earlier, and resist in a more diverse way. They make use of more of the six practices than the obedient participants.”

Therein lies a possible application of Hollander’s new take on Milgram’s results.

“What this shows is that even those who were ultimately compliant or obedient had practices for resisting the invocation of the experimenter’s authority,” says Douglas Maynard, a UW-Madison sociology professor who leads the Garfinkel Laboratory for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. “It wasn’t like they automatically caved in. They really worked to counter what was coming at them. It wasn’t a blind kind of obedience.”

If people could be trained to tap practices for resistance like those outlined in Hollander’s analysis, they may be better equipped to stand up to an illegal, unethical or inappropriate order from a superior. And not just in extreme situations, according to Maynard.

“It doesn’t have to be the Nazis or torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or in the CIA interrogations described in the recent U.S. Senate report,” he says. “Think of the pilot and copilot in a plane experiencing an emergency or a school principal telling a teacher to discipline a student, and the difference it could make if the subordinate could be respectfully, effectively resistive and even disobedient when ethically necessary or for purposes of social justice.”

Health

Study shows how E. coli thrive in patients with inflammatory bowel disease

The survival and proliferation of usually harmless Escherichia coli in the gut of inflammatory bowel disease patients may now be better understood, as researchers have defined a fundamental mechanism through which the bacteria can thrive during flare-ups.

Some strains of E. coli normally live in the intestines of humans, and are important for a healthy digestive tract. However, for people who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), these innocuous strains may proliferate during a flare-up and further contribute to disease and discomfort.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 1 million Americans suffer from IBD, which includes a broad range of gastrointestinal tract problems such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

“Several types of inflammatory bowel disease are characterized by expansion of the opportunistic E. coli in the gut,” said Matam Vijay-Kumar, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and medicine at Penn State. “However, the mechanisms by which E. coli can thwart the hostile host innate immune system are poorly understood. Identifying these mechanisms will help to reduce the E. coli burden in the inflamed gut and prevent chronic extra-intestinal diseases.”

Vijay-Kumar and colleagues studied the interactions between enterobactin, myeloperoxidase and lipocalin 2 and how they regulate E. coli in the intestine and report their findings today (May 12) in Nature Communications.

Enterobactin (Ent) is an iron-loving chemical secreted by E. coli that takes iron from host proteins in the body and aids the proliferation of E. coli. Myeloperoxidase (MPO) is an antibacterial protein that white blood cells produce to fight bacteria. However, Ent inhibits MPO from doing its job.

Lipocalin 2 (Lcn2) is another protein, also produced by white blood cells, that gathers up Ent — so that bacteria fail to obtain a sufficient amount of iron for their survival. The researchers found that Lcn2 can counter the effects of Ent on MPO.

“These bacteria can be harmful under special circumstances, such as IBD,” said Vijay-Kumar. “Most E. coliexpress enterobactin, a siderophore, and to avoid its recognition by the host lipocalin 2, they have the flexibility to express stealth siderophores. Strictly speaking, chelation of iron in the gut by enterobactin and inhibition of host MPO at the same time is positive for E. coli and negative for the host.”

With this study, the researchers say, they have defined a new defense mechanism used by E. coli residing in a human or animal host — the inhibition of MPO by Ent.

“We have to find a way to identify the drugs which can inhibit or degrade secreted enterobactin,” said Vijay-Kumar. “Alternatively, since MPO is known to be pro-inflammatory not only in IBD but also in other inflammatory diseases, it may be possible to develop enterobactin-based drugs to alleviate inflammatory pathways.”

US News

Nation’s beekeepers lost 40 percent of bees in 2014-15

Beekeepers across the United States lost more than 40 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning April 2014 to April 2015, according to the latest results of an annual nationwide survey. While winter loss rates improved slightly compared to last year, summer losses–and consequently, total annual losses–were more severe. Commercial beekeepers were hit particularly hard by the high rate of summer losses, which outstripped winter losses for the first time in five years, stoking concerns over the long-term trend of poor health in honey bee colonies.

The survey, which asks both commercial and small-scale beekeepers to track the health and survival rates of their honey bee colonies, is conducted each year by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). A summary of the 2014-2015 results is available upon request prior to May 13, 2015; thereafter the results will be added to previous years’ results publicly available on the Bee Informed website.

“We traditionally thought of winter losses as a more important indicator of health, because surviving the cold winter months is a crucial test for any bee colony,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. “But we now know that summer loss rates are significant too. This is especially so for commercial beekeepers, who are now losing more colonies in the summertime compared to the winter. Years ago, this was unheard of.”

Beekeepers who responded to the survey lost a total of 42.1 percent of their colonies over the course of the year. Winter loss rates decreased from 23.7 percent last year to 23.1 percent this year, while summer loss rates increased from 19.8 percent to 27.4 percent.

Among backyard beekeepers (defined as those who manage fewer than 50 colonies), a clear culprit in losses is the varroa mite, a lethal parasite that can easily spread between colonies. Among commercial beekeepers, the causes of the majority of losses are not as clear.

“Backyard beekeepers were more prone to heavy mite infestations, but we believe that is because a majority of them are not taking appropriate steps to control mites,” vanEngelsdorp said. “Commercial keepers were particularly prone to summer losses. But they typically take more aggressive action against varroa mites, so there must be other factors at play.”

This is the ninth year of the winter loss survey, and the fifth year to include summer and annual losses in addition to winter loss data. More than 6,000 beekeepers from all 50 states responded to this year’s survey. All told, these beekeepers are responsible for nearly 15 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.74 million managed honey bee colonies.

The survey is part of a larger research effort to understand why honey bee colonies are in such poor health, and what can be done to manage the situation. Colony losses present a financial burden for beekeepers, and can lead to shortages among the many crops that depend on honey bees as pollinators. Some crops, such as almonds, depend entirely on honey bees for pollination. Estimates of the total economic value of honey bee pollination services range between $10 billion and $15 billion annually.

“The winter loss numbers are more hopeful especially combined with the fact that we have not seen much sign of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) for several years, but such high colony losses in the summer and year-round remain very troubling,” said Jeffery Pettis, a senior entomologist at U.S. Department of Agriculture and a co-coordinator of the survey. “If beekeepers are going to meet the growing demand for pollination services, researchers need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses.”

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Is American democracy in crisis?

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