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

Clinical studies show ‘CHORI-bar’ results in broad scale health improvements

A fruit-based micronutrient and fiber-dense supplement bar (the “CHORI-bar”) conceived by Drs. Bruce Ames and Mark K. Shigenaga at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI), was shown in clinical trials to improve metabolism in overweight/obese (OW/OB) otherwise healthy adults in ways that are consistent with reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Consumption of the bar for two months also reduced chronic inflammation, and initiated a reduction in weight and waist circumference. Decreased inflammation and improved weight and weight distribution can lower the risk of many chronic diseases.

These effects occurred without requiring that participants make any change in their current diet or other lifestyle practices other than to eat two CHORI-bars each day for two months. The CHORI-bar is not just another nutrition bar. It is a serious intervention to improve health. Its composition is therefore complex, and required a number of years and a series of clinical trials to develop.

The publication describing this work appeared online today (April 22, 2015)1 at The FASEB Journal. The bar was developed over the past 10 years by a team of scientists led by Drs. Bruce N. Ames and Joyce C. McCann at CHORI (2,3), in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Most people do not eat an optimally nutritious diet – particularly the obese. This results in unhealthy metabolism, which not only diminishes vigor, but increases future risk of many diseases. While poor diets contain much that is not healthy (e.g., too much salt, sugar), they also are missing or deficient in a number of important components (e.g., vitamins/minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber) necessary for healthy metabolism. The CHORI-bar is intended to fill these gaps with components present in the bar in normal dietary amounts.

Considerable evidence in the scientific literature, including Drs. Ames and McCann’s work on vitamins and minerals, supports the idea that simply supplying missing or deficient dietary ingredients will improve metabolism (4-7). Development of the CHORI-bar has also been guided by Dr. Mark Shigenaga’s insights into the importance of a healthy gut supported by optimal nutrition for disease prevention.

Because of the strong flavors associated with some vitamins and minerals, CHORI partnered with the United States Department of Agriculture to produce a tasty bar. Formulation development was guided by over 15 small clinical trials to ensure that beneficial properties of the bar were retained. Most early trials were two weeks in length and involved primarily lean individuals, most of whom benefited by increased HDL cholesterol. Results presented in this publication are compiled from 3 two-month clinical trials that also included a significant number of overweight/obese individuals. These trials were conducted over a 4-year period using very similar bar formulations. These trials employed a simple, economical design in which participants acted as their own controls (i.e., change in metabolic markers was measured before and after eating the bar).

Healthy metabolism is like a complex, smooth-running machine. Unhealthy metabolism is like an old machine with many rusted out joints. There is no magic bullet ingredient in nutrition – “oiling” one joint is not going to allow the rusted out machine to run. The CHORI-team thinks the broad scale improvements observed with the CHORI-bar may be the result of “oiling” multiple joints by the complex nutrient mixture. They are currently conducting experiments to better understand which ingredients in the bar are most important in the complex mixture for the observed effects.

The increasing prevalence of obesity is taking a huge toll on public health. Conventional approaches that encourage weight loss by improving dietary habits, reducing caloric intake and modifying activity can be successful, but prove difficult for many to initiate and sustain. The CHORI-bar is intended as a non-traditional means to positively impact the obesity epidemic by initiating a healthier metabolism without requiring sudden drastic behavioral changes. It may therefore assist in weight loss programs by beginning a process of favorable metabolic change. Improved metabolism resulting from eating the bar is also associated with a number of reports of feeling better (though this observation has not yet been formally tested), which the CHORI team predicts will help people transition to improved lifestyle habits.

The power of nutrient-rich, properly formulated food-based supplements, such as the CHORI-bar, to move dysregulated metabolism in a healthy direction may help reverse obesity-associated conditions, and thereby reduce the risk of future chronic diseases. The full potential of food-based supplements to do the work of some drugs without their negative side effects is just beginning to be seriously investigated.

US News

Hurdles to US climate change action are in economics and politics, not divided science

The U.S. Congress successfully hears the “supermajority” consensus on the reality and causes of climate change, according to scientists from Texas A&M University, Idaho State University, and University of Oklahoma. In a paper published in Climatic Change, the scientists suggest looking at business interests, partisan predispositions and political ideology for the hurdles to policy action.

“Different perceptions and claims among lawmakers are a major hurdle to agreeing on action to address global warming and these were thought to simply reflect scientific uncertainty,” says lead author Xinsheng Liu. “However, our findings show that congressional testimonies are in fact consistent with agreement in the climate science community and that the sources of controversies must lie elsewhere.”

Liu and his co-authors, Arnold Vedlitz, James Stoutenborough and Scott Robinson, even found that despite Republican-controlled congresses in the United States being more likely to feature scientists with a skeptical view, the majority of experts called as witnesses still indicate that global warming and climate change are real and caused by human activity.

They analysed 1,350 testimonies from 253 relevant congressional hearings from 1969 to 2007. Among expert witnesses who expressed a view, 86 percent say that global warming and climate change is happening and 78 percent say it is caused by human activity. Under Republican-controlled congresses, a three-quarter supermajority of scientists say that it is real and anthropogenic. Most significant of all, 95 percent of scientists giving testimonies support action to combat it.

The near-complete agreement in the science community has been consistently presented to the U.S. Congress, the study reports. The researchers therefore challenge the view that simply providing more information is key to evidence-based policy making.

The findings in the study could help scientists to move past the information deficit model and shift research in new directions. This includes gaining a better understanding of how business interests, partisan predispositions, and political ideology shape the views of policymakers. Because of the economic costs, there can be strong political justification for denying the existence of global warming and climate change.

“Action on climate change requires courage to face the facts by acknowledging, incorporating and legitimizing the supermajority scientists’ views on the issue while recognizing different opinions beyond science,” says Liu.

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