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.

Sciencenewsroom@wiley.com
44-012-437-70375
Wiley

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

Recent developments in science are beginning to suggest that the universe naturally produces complexity. The emergence of life in general and perhaps even rational life, with its associated technological culture, may be extremely common, argues Clemson researcher Kelly Smith in a recently published paper in the journal Space Policy. What’s more, he suggests, this universal tendency has distinctly religious overtones and may even establish a truly universal basis for morality. Smith, a Philosopher and Evolutionary Biologist, applies recent theoretical developments in Biology and Complex Systems Theory to attempt new answers to the kind of enduring questions about human purpose and obligation that have long been considered the sole province of the humanities. He points out that scientists are increasingly beginning to discuss how the basic structure of the universe seems to favor the creation of complexity. The large scale history of the universe strongly suggests a trend of increasing complexity: disordered energy states produce atoms and molecules, which combine to form suns and associated planets, on which life evolves. Life then seems to exhibit its own pattern of increasing complexity, with simple organisms getting more complex over evolutionary time until they eventually develop rationality and complex culture. And recent theoretical developments in Biology and complex systems theory suggest this trend may be real, arising from the basic structure of the universe in a predictable fashion. “If this is right,” says Smith, “you can look at the universe as a kind of ‘complexity machine’, which raises all sorts of questions about what this means in a broader sense. For example, does believing the universe is structured to produce complexity in general, and rational creatures in particular, constitute a religious belief? It need not imply that the universe was created by a God, but on the other hand, it does suggest that the kind of rationality we hold dear is not an accident.” And Smith feels another similarity to religion are the potential moral implications of this idea. If evolution tends to favor the development of sociality, reason, and culture as a kind of “package deal”, then it’s a good bet that any smart extraterrestrials we encounter will have similar evolved attitudes about their basic moral commitments. In particular, they will likely agree with us that there is something morally special about rational, social creatures. And such universal agreement, argues Smith, could be the foundation for a truly universal system of ethics. Smith will soon take sabbatical to lay the groundwork for a book exploring these issues in more detail.

Inflammatory bowel diseases are associated with a decrease in the diversity of bacteria in the gut, but a new study led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has linked the same illnesses to an increase in the diversity of viruses.

The scientists found that patients with inflammatory bowel diseases had a greater variety of viruses in their digestive systems than healthy volunteers, suggesting viruses likely play a role in the diseases.

The research appears online Jan. 22 in Cell and in the journal’s print edition on Jan. 29.

Scientists only recently started recognizing the role of the microbiome — the bacteria in and on the body, and the bacteria’s genes — in illness. For example, changes in the gut microbiome have been linked to obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases.

The new research is the first to associate disease with changes in the virome, or the viruses in the human body and their genes. According to the researchers, the results raise the possibility that viruses may have unrecognized roles in obesity and diabetes and the two most common inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

The findings suggest that scientists should be studying the virome as closely as the microbiome, said senior author Herbert W. Virgin IV, MD, PhD.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “A significant portion of the viral DNA we identified in these patients is unfamiliar to us — it comes from newly identified viruses we don’t know much about. We have a great deal of groundwork to do, including sequencing the genetic material of these viruses and learning how they interact with the gut and gut bacteria, before we can determine if changes in the virome cause these conditions or result from them.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that inflammatory bowel diseases affect about 1 million people in the United States. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are thought to involve misdirected immune attacks on gut tissue and can lead to weight loss, bleeding in the gut and rectum, and loss of appetite. Surgery to remove part of the bowel is often necessary to treat Crohn’s disease.

Virgin and his colleagues studied three groups of patients with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis living in Chicago, Boston and the United Kingdom. In each group, they compared viral DNA purified from the feces of participants with viral DNA from the feces of healthy people living in the same areas and, in some cases, the same homes.

“Much of the increased viral diversity in participants with inflammatory bowel diseases was in the form of bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria and can incorporate themselves into the bacteria’s genetic material,” said Virgin, the Edward Mallinckrodt Professor of Pathology and head of the Department of Pathology and Immunology.

Changes in the gut that eliminate bacteria in inflammatory bowel diseases may unleash bacteriophages in the dying bacteria, Virgin speculated. Or the introduction of a new bacteriophage to the gut, perhaps through the foods in a person’s diet, may trigger a reaction in the digestive system or the microbiome that causes the disorders, he said. It’s also possible that a combination of these mechanisms may contribute.

To develop better treatments for inflammatory bowel diseases, scientists need to learn more about how the gut microbiome and the gut virome interact with a patient’s genes.

“We know that mutations in human genes affect the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases, and scientists also are exploring how bacterial genes may influence risk,” Virgin said. “Our results show that the virome’s potential effects on the gut also need to be a part of these investigations.”

The researchers are developing an animal model of inflammatory bowel diseases to make it possible to determine whether human, bacterial or viral genes, or some mixture of all three, are driving these illnesses.

US News

New Poll on What americans fear most

Chapman University has initiated the first comprehensive nationwide study on what strikes fear in Americans in the first of what is a planned annual study. According to the Chapman poll, the number one fear in America today is walking alone at night.

The Chapman Survey on American Fears included1,500 participants from across the nation and all walks of life. Underscoring Chapman’s growth and emergence in the sciences, the research team leading this effort pared the information down into four basic categories: personal fears, crime, natural disasters and fear factors.

The survey shows that the top five things Americans fear the most are:

1) Walking alone at night

2) Becoming the victim of identity theft

3) Safety on the internet

4) Being the victim of a mass/random shooting

5) Public speaking

“What initially lead us into this line of research was our desire to capture this information on a year-over-year basis so we can draw comparisons with what items are increasing in fear as well as decreasing,” said Dr. Christopher Bader, who led the team effort. “We learned through this initial survey that we had to phrase the questions according to fears vs. concerns to capture the information correctly, so that is how we present it,” Bader continued.

The top five things Americans worry or are concerned about are:

1) Having identity stolen on the internet

2) Corporate surveillance of internet activity

3) Running out of money in the future

4) Government surveillance of internet activity

5) Becoming ill/sick

“The sky is falling (and a serial killer is chasing me)”

Turning to the crime section of the Chapman Survey on American Fears, the team discovered findings that not only surprised them, but also those who work in fields pertaining to crime.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

“Fear of Disaster – Little Action to Prepare”

Chapman’s growth in global climate change research and extreme events led another portion of The Chapman Survey on American Fears into the area of natural disasters and people’s preparedness. The findings showed that despite widespread fear, the vast majority of those surveyed do not have emergency kits—even in regions hardest hit by natural disasters.

The top five most feared natural disasters by Americans are:

1. Tornado/hurricane

2. Earthquakes

3. Floods

4. Pandemic or Major Epidemic

5. Power Outage

Despite these fears, only 25 percent of Americans have a disaster preparedness kit that includes food, water, clothing and medical supplies.

“Our research indicated that Americans are aware, but better communication strategies are needed to encourage the nearly 75 percent who are unprepared for catastrophe,” said Dr. Ann Gordon, who led this portion of the survey. “We are conducting follow-up studies to examine why so many Americans remain unprepared despite lessons learned from recent natural disasters,” Gordon continued. “And, we are also taking a closer look at ‘preppers’—a community that takes preparedness to the extreme.”

Dr. Gordon’s work includes maps of America that breaks down the fears of natural disasters by region, which can be seen at http://www.chapman.edu/fearsurvey

“Fear Factors”

The remainder of The Chapman Survey on American Fears looks at fear factors.

“Through a complex series of analyses, we were able to determine what types of people tend to fear certain things, and what personal characteristics tend to be associated with most types of fear,” said Dr. Christopher Bader, who performed the analysis.

Factors Bader and his team looked at included: age, gender, race, work status, education, income, region of the country, urban vs. rural, political preference, religion, TV viewing, and gun ownership.

Through their analysis two key factors emerged: having a lower level of education and also high frequency of television viewing were the most consistent predictors of fear.

 

###

A comprehensive list of the top fears from The Chapman Survey on American Fears can be foundhttp://www.chapman.edu/fearsurvey. The researchers at Chapman University plan to make this an annual endeavor so they may track trends over time. In addition to Bader, Day and Gordon, student involvement was key in helping throughout the process.

sledbett@chapman.edu
714-289-3143
Chapman University
@#!/ChapmanU

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