Featured

Is American democracy in crisis?

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

From acts seeking to tighten the rules over gun ownership, to commissions established to tackle America’s debt problem, the list of legislation that has been sunk by tribalism continues to grow into President Obama’s second term.

“Political dysfunction has serious consequences for the health, well-being, and future prospects for the country that go well beyond gridlock or political gamesmanship,” concluded Ornstein. “American history suggests that these problems are cyclical, that eventually we will come out of it and restore a modicum of problem-solving rationality. But ‘eventually’ does not mean anytime soon.”

In contrast, Jared Diamond, writing from the University of California, proposes that the United States is facing four existential threats to its democratic system.

“Our form of government is a big part of the explanation why the United States has become the richest and most powerful country in the world,” said Diamond. “Hence, an undermining of democratic processes in the United States means throwing away one of our biggest advantages.”

Diamond argues that political compromise has been deteriorating in recent decades, that restrictions on voting are reversing the positive historical trend of political enfranchisement, that the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and that public spending by the government In areas such as education is declining.

“Large segments of the American populace deride government investment as ‘socialism,’ but it is not socialism. On the contrary, it is one of the longest established functions of government,” said Diamond.

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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

Common bacteria on verge of becoming antibiotic-resistant superbugs

IMAGE
IMAGE: Bacteria that cause many hospital-associated infections are ready to quickly share genes that allow them to resist powerful antibiotics. The illustration, based on electron micrographs and created by the Centers.

Credit: CDC/James Archer

Antibiotic resistance is poised to spread globally among bacteria frequently implicated in respiratory and urinary infections in hospital settings, according to new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The study shows that two genes that confer resistance against a particularly strong class of antibiotics can be shared easily among a family of bacteria responsible for a significant portion of hospital-associated infections.

Drug-resistant germs in the same family of bacteria recently infected several patients at two Los Angeles hospitals. The infections have been linked to medical scopes believed to have been contaminated with bacteria that can resist carbapenems, potent antibiotics that are supposed to be used only in gravely ill patients or those infected by resistant bacteria.

“Carbapenems are one of our last resorts for treating bacterial infections, what we use when nothing else works,” said senior author Gautam Dantas, PhD, associate professor of pathology and immunology. “Given what we know now, I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that for certain types of infections, we may be looking at the start of the post-antibiotic era, a time when most of the antibiotics we rely on to treat bacterial infections are no longer effective.”

Dantas and other experts recommend strictly limiting the usage of carbapenems to cases in which no other treatments can help.

The study, conducted by researchers at Washington University, Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan, is available online in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

The researchers studied a family of bacteria called Enterobacteriaceae, which includes E. coliKlebsiella pneumoniae and Enterobacter. Some strains of these bacteria do not cause illness and can help keep the body healthy. But in people with weakened immune systems, infections with carbapenem-resistant versions of these bacteria can be deadly.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae as one of the three most urgent threats among emerging forms of antibiotic-resistant disease. Studies have shown the fatality rate for these infections is above 50 percent in patients with weakened immune systems.

Two genes are primarily responsible for carbapenem-resistant versions of these disease-causing bacteria. One gene, KPC, was detected in New York in 2001 and quickly spread around most of the world, with the exception of India, Pakistan and other South Asian countries. This gene was present in the bacteria that recently contaminated medical equipment in a Los Angeles hospital where two patients died.

A second carbapenem resistance gene, NDM-1, was identified in 2006 in New Delhi, India. It was soon detected throughout South Asia, and most patients infected by bacteria with NDM-1 have had an epidemiological link to South Asian countries.

Dantas and his collaborators were curious about why the two resistance genes seemed to be geographically exclusive. For the study, they compared the genomes of carbapenem-resistant bacteria isolated in the United States with those of carbapenem-resistant bacteria isolated in Pakistan.

Based on the apparent geographic exclusivity of the two resistance genes, the scientists expected to find that bacteria from the two regions were genetically different. Such differences could explain why the two resistance genes weren’t intermingling. But the researchers’ results showed otherwise. The bacteria’s high genetic similarity suggests that the antibiotic resistance genes could be shared easily between bacteria from the two geographic regions.

The researchers also sequenced a special portion of bacterial genetic material called plasmids. Most of a bacteria’s DNA is found in its chromosome, but bacteria also have many extra, smaller and circular bits of DNA known as plasmids that easily can pass from one bacterial strain to another. A plasmid is like a bacterial gene delivery truck; it is the primary way antibiotic resistance genes spread between bacteria.

The researchers identified a few key instances in which the plasmids carrying NDM-1 or KPC were nearly identical, meaning they easily could facilitate the spread of antibiotic resistance between disease-causing bacteria found in the United States and South Asia. Recent evidence suggests that this intermingling already may be happening in parts of China.

“Our findings also suggest it’s going to get easier for strains of these bacteria that are not yet resistant to pick up a gene that lets them survive carbapenem treatment,” Dantas said. “Typically, that’s not going to be a problem for most of us, but as drug-resistant forms of Enterobacteriaceae become more widespread, the odds will increase that we’ll pass one of these superbugs on to a friend with a weakened immune system who can really be hurt by them.”

US News

A more tolerant America?

As the nation’s headlines turn more and more to issues of tolerance — race, religion, free speech, same sex marriage — research by San Diego State University Psychology Professor Jean M. Twenge shows that Americans are actually more tolerant than ever before.

In a paper released this month by the journal Social Forces, Twenge, along with Nathan T. Carter and Keith Campbell from the University of Georgia, found that Americans are now more likely to believe that people with different views and lifestyles can and should have the same rights as others, such as giving a speech or teaching at a college.

“When old social rules disappear, people have more freedom to live their lives as they want to, and Americans are increasingly tolerant of those choices,” said Twenge, who is also the author of “Generation Me.”

“This goes beyond well-known trends such as the increasing support for gay marriage. People are increasingly saying that it’s OK for those who are different to fully participate in the community and influence everyone else.”

Tolerance for different views

The researchers used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of adult Americans conducted from 1972 to 2012. The survey includes a series of questions related to tolerance of people with controversial views or lifestyles including homosexuals, atheists, militarists, communists and racists.

Only tolerance for racists has decreased over time, showing people today are less tolerant of the intolerant.

So why have recent incidents of racism on college campuses garnered so much attention? “A few decades ago, racism would barely have been noticed — it might have even been rewarded,” Twenge said. “Now it’s noticed, and the consequences can be swift. It shows how much things have changed.”

Tolerance by generations

The study showed that the biggest generational shift in tolerance was between the Silent generation and the Baby Boomers who followed them. Generation X and Millennials continued the trend toward tolerance.

“American culture has become more individualistic, which has some negative consequences such as overconfidence and social disconnection. This study shows the upside of treating people as individuals: More tolerance for those who are different,” Twenge said.

Previous research has shown that Millennials (called “Generation Me” by Twenge), are less empathic and more dismissive than previous generations, so it may be surprising to some that they are also more tolerant than past generations.

“Tolerance and empathy are not the same thing,” Twenge said. “Millennials believe that everyone can live their lives as they want to — thus, they are tolerant — but that doesn’t always extend to taking someone else’s perspective or feeling empathy.”

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March 26, 2015 | Leave a Comment


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