Monday, July 25, 2011

How to talk to real people

Not everyone speaks 'geek.' A graduate course aims to give students less technical ways to explain their science research. Credit:

The New York Times "Education Life" writes about a new course at Emory:

Recognizing that scientists can be really, really hard to understand, Emory last semester introduced “Communicating Science” to teach grad students to write for and talk to laypeople. Students create presentations, blog and compose “elevator speeches” addressing various scenarios.

Pat Marsteller, a biologist, developed the course and co-teaches it with two chemists, which she says is good because most of the 23 students last term were chemists, who apparently speak a dialect. She says she had her work cut out for her: “The first day somebody said, ‘Why should I want to talk to anybody who doesn’t understand carbon?’”

Read the whole article in the New York Times

Cultivating brains for science
Where you have friction, changes can occur
Sparking a love of chemistry in teens

Friday, July 22, 2011

Nazi eugenics versus the American Dream

It’s the year of genetically modified super heroes at the movies. The latest, “Captain America: The First Avenger,” is set in World War II, the era when the comic book character was introduced to readers.

“Captain America is the archetypal Marvel Comic,” says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics and a comic book fan. “You have the scrawny kid who wants desperately to do good. You have technology coming to his rescue. And then you have him modified to become this incredible fighting machine.”

The irony is that the Marvel story created an anti-Nazi figure by using genetics to perfect the human form, which is exactly what the Nazis were trying to do.

“Of course, the difference is that America does it in a way that doesn’t involve genocide or denigrating any other group,” Wolpe says. “They take a specimen that in Nazi ideology would be dispensable and say, all of us have within us the ability to be great, this guy just needs a little help.”

The ideology in the United States at the time was to help people who come here with disadvantages to live the American Dream, Wolpe says. “Captain America becomes a symbol of he way in which the United States thought about itself. I think because eugenic ideas were so much of what World War II was about, that different model of how genetic science can be used became a very powerful symbol of the difference between the German and American views of technology.”

The science and ethics of X-Men
Is Iron Man suited for reality?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What we can learn from African pastoralists

The most severe drought in decades is taking a terrible toll on even the rugged cattle breeds of southern Ethiopia. Despite the harsh environment, the pastoralist way of life endures. Photo by Peter Little.

By Carol Clark

Emory anthropologist Peter Little was in southern Ethiopia last February, during the height of a major drought that continues to scorch the Horn of Africa. He is researching how climate change is affecting livestock herders in the region. During the past year, drought has killed about 20 percent of the cattle, or about 225,000 animals, within Ethiopia’s Borana pastoralist community.

At a watering hole, Little watched herders bring their animals in from northeastern Kenya and Somalia, where the effects of the drought are compounded by armed conflict. “I was amazed by the skill and discipline of these herders,” Little says. “They got thousands of thirsty animals to line up like schoolchildren. Some of the camels hadn’t had water for seven days.”

First the herders themselves approached the water’s edge with buckets and canteens. Then the goats were sent in an orderly procession to drink, followed by the cattle, and finally the camels.

Double click on the photo, below, to get the panoramic view:
Calm amid the crisis: Despite drought, herders and their animals from Somalia and Kenya converge on an Ethiopian watering hole in a systematic order. Photo by Peter Little.

“We could learn a lot from African pastoralists about how to collectively manage resources,” Little says. He contrasts their cooperative use of extremely limited water supplies to the inter-state battles fought over Atlanta’s Lake Lanier reservoir, and the ever-shrinking Colorado River.

Related: Check out this satellite animation of the ongoing drought on

Pastoralists occupy about half of Africa, herding goats, camels, sheep and cattle through the semi-arid rangeland and savannah edging the continent’s deserts and tropical forests. Often garbed in striking traditional dress, pastoralists can be a boon to tourism, but a bane to governments that want to control the movements of people.

“If God wanted us to farm,” a Borana elder told one researcher, “He would have put four legs on a farm so we could move it.”

Pastoralists are the ultimate survivors, making a livelihood in harsh environments for millennia. At first glance they may seem like people subsisting on the margins of society, but the reality is much more complex. Pastoralists are on the vanguard of many of the biggest issues facing Africa: from the effects of climate change to disputes over land to wildlife conservation.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about pastoralists, even among other Africans,” Little says.

In Ethiopia, pastoralists have developed an elaborate system of deep wells and covered cisterns – some of them 500 years old (see photo, at left).

Zoologists are intrigued by African pastoralist animal breeds, hardy enough to get by on less water and survive extreme heat. Cognitive psychologists are interested in the thought processes enabling pastoralists to continuously make life and death decisions on the fly. Ecologists can learn how grasslands are created and maintained over time by studying the practices of pastoralists.

Little is fascinated by the social networks and relationships that help give pastoralists their resiliency. His latest book, co-authored with John McPeak and Cheryl Doss is called "Risk and Social Change in an African Rural Economy: Livelihoods in Pastoralist Communities."

During the early 1980s, Little was one of the first anthropologists to do in-depth studies of the political aspects of environmental and food problems, a field now known as political ecology. In 2003, he published “Somalia: Economy without a State,” which refuted the conventional wisdom that Somalia’s economy, which is heavily dependent on pastoralism, deteriorated into chaos after the state’s collapse in 1991.

Certain sectors of Somali society, including pastoral communities, remained vibrant and dynamic, Little says. “The people showed incredible innovation. They learned to develop a unique set of informal finance, trade and banking institutions in order to survive and make a living.”
Afar herders of Ethiopia with their goats and camels.

Top five myths about African pastoralists

Myth #1: The pastoralist lifestyle and land use are bad for the environment.

Pastoral traditions often play an intrinsic role in wildlife conservation, Emory anthropologist Peter Little says. “For instance, the Maasai, who raise cattle near national parks in Kenya and Tanzania, maintain grasslands and prevent the encroachment of invasive bush species in the parks, which are bordered by dense forests. Pastoral grazing systems tend to fit well with migratory herd species and other forms of biodiversity. In contrast, wildlife doesn’t do as well with fenced farming and more settled human populations.”

Myth #2: Pastoralists have little connection to the global economy.

Pastoralists play a vital role in many African economies, and hold the potential to drive more growth, Little says. Overland trucking routes and boats transport their livestock to supermarkets throughout northern Africa and the Middle East.

Pastoralism accounts for about 25 percent of gross national product (GNP) in Ethiopia and closer to 30 percent in Sudan. About 80 percent of foreign earnings for Somalia come from livestock. Somalia is one of the world’s top exporters of live animals, annually supplying as many as three million animals to the Gulf Arab states in the run-up to the annual haj.

Myth #3: Pastoralists are traditionalists who resist change, wander constantly, and are ruled by the sacred bond they have to their animals.

“Just because you don’t dress like everyone else doesn’t mean you’re opposed to modern technology,” Little says. “Many pastoralists use cell phones now to get information on rainfall, grazing or market prices.”

Or maybe they are just phoning home, since not every member of a pastoral system is necessarily mobile, Little adds. Some family members may have settled in towns where they attend school, own shops or sell livestock products, such as milk.

A Maasai herder, left, in traditional dress, carrying his cell phone.

The movements of mobile pastoralists are dictated not by whim, he adds, but complex systems of land-use rights and changes in the seasons and weather.

And while animals may serve as powerful symbols in the religion and rituals of pastoralists, livestock are primarily a source of food and income. “They also value their animals as commodities,” Little says.

Myth #4: Large swaths of land in Africa are unclaimed and worthless.

Virtually no land in Africa is unclaimed or unused, Little says. What looks like barren wilderness to a casual observer is more likely a community’s source of forest products, like wood and meat, or part of a seasonal grazing area.

“Moving animals to follow rainfall patterns and pastures often makes good use of lands that can’t be cropped without expensive irrigation,” Little says.

Increasingly, however, foreign investors are willing to pay for that irrigation, he adds. Spurred by rising food prices, water shortages in their own countries, and interest in bio-fuels, investors from Europe, the Middle East and India have been buying and leasing hundreds of thousands of hectares in Africa in recent years to create large-scale, commercial farms, Little says. “Much of this land is being carved out of customary pastoralist grazing lands,” he notes.

Myth #5: Pastoralism is a disappearing way of life.

“Pastoralists have been an important fixture for millennia,” Little says, noting that they include many of the revered figures in the Bible and Koran. Consider the origins of the word “pastor.”

“Pastoralists may adapt and change, but as long as people eat meat, there will be some version of them around.”

Famine in Somalia driven by conflict
Climate change, from the hooves up
Dawn of agriculture took toll on health

When government made things worse

By Elaine Justice

Government wrangling over raising the debt ceiling, cutting spending and raising taxes has a familiar ring to Emory economic historian Leonard Carlson, who says that throughout the nation’s history, colliding economic philosophies have produced mixed or even negative results.

During the Great Depression, he says, “a couple of really stupid policy decisions come to mind.” Herbert Hoover, who ran for president during a period of prosperity, promised tariff protection if elected. Then, despite the devastation of the 1929 crash, the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act was passed in 1930.

“Every economist advised against the idea,” says Carlson, adding that leading economists even petitioned the government to no avail. International trade plunged even further as a result.

In 1937, in the midst of the Depression, Congress, increasingly antagonistic to then President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives, pushed to cut government spending and raise taxes, causing unemployment to spike again briefly. Looking back, says Leonard, “it’s another example of a move that nobody thought was a good idea at the time, but government went ahead and did it.”

He cites other 1930s Depression examples, such as the Fed’s tightening of monetary policy and the reserve ratio at a time when banks were still reeling from the aftershocks of bank runs after the crash. Banks, nervous about their cash reserves, stopped making loans, further slowing the economy.

“Right now,” says Carlson, “almost every economist is saying don’t default on the national debt, and we still could do it.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Monkeys embrace 'friends with benefits'

When did the word “dating” start sounding dated?

The new romantic comedy “Friends with Benefits” features Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, acting out the idea that men and women can be both friends and occasional sex partners, without any romantic rituals or messy emotions.

So is this concept a step forward or back on the evolutionary scale?

Rhesus monkeys, known for their brief and frequent sexual liaisons, appear way ahead of humans when it comes to having friends with benefits. The females are the ones in charge of this system.

“Because of the social structure, females essentially control what goes on in a rhesus monkey group,” says Emory psychology professor Kim Wallen, who studies the behavioral neuroendocrinology of sex. “The females control pretty much everything, including sex.”

Although rhesus monkeys don’t form committed sexual relationships, it is not a random free-for-all. They are still constrained by their social structure and social contexts, Wallen says.

“I think that a common theme of what we know from rhesus monkeys and what we know from humans is that sex is actually not a behavior that can be taken lightly. Even though rhesus monkeys may be promiscuous by human standards, sex is actually still a very difficult and challenging aspect of the social life of rhesus monkeys. It threatens the social structure, so they’ve had to develop behavioral ways of dealing with sex. And I think the same is true of humans.”

The strange science of female pleasure

Friday, July 15, 2011

Psychology's public image problem

By Carol Clark

We are all psychologists, at least in our own minds.

“In everyday life, in love, relationships and work, everyone deals with psychology, and most of us find it fascinating,” says Emory psychologist Scott Lilienfeld. “That’s great, but it’s a mixed blessing because people confuse familiarity with true understanding. Your mind is actually a lot more complex than you think.”

Lilienfeld hopes to rally his field to do a better job of educating the public and regulating itself. His paper, “Public Skepticism of Psychology: Why Many People Perceive the Study of Human Behavior as Unscientific,” will be published by American Psychologist.

“I hope that policymakers read it,” Lilienfeld says.

The paper counters what he describes as the widespread perception that psychology is “a soft, gooey science” based largely on common sense. The same rigorous, scientific methods applied to the “hard” sciences are used in psychology, Lilienfeld writes. He cites analyses showing psychology research can yield repeatable results comparable to the findings in particle physics.

U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) is calling for the National Science Foundation to defund its social and behavioral sciences division and focus on “truly transformative sciences with practical uses outside of academic circles and clear benefits to mankind and the world.”

In fact, basic psychology research has played a role in everything from reducing errors made by airplane pilots to helping law enforcement catch criminals, Lilienfeld says.

Related: Five myths about memory (and why they matter in court).

Lilienfeld notes that the powerful imaging tools of neuroscience, which are mapping biological responses in the brain, are immensely useful for some purposes but typically fall short of explaining behavior. “Neuroscience can tell me that when I get scared, my amygdala becomes active. But it can’t explain why I’m scared,” he says. “It can give you correlations, not causation.”

Behavioral research also benefits many aspects of well being beyond the mind. “Mental health issues are a vastly underestimated contributor to, if not cause of, physical health problems,” Lilienfeld says.

Clinical psychology faces some of the same lack of respect as the research realm. Drug companies advertise a quick visit to a psychiatrist for pills to treat disorders such as anxiety and depression. Clinical psychologists, however, offer long hours on the couch, spread over weeks or months.

“Psychotherapy is hard work,” Lilienfeld says. “For most disorders, people have to face some difficult things in order to get better. And yet data shows that, in many cases, psychotherapy works as least as well as medication, and probably better in the long term.”

“Media therapists” like Laura Schlessinger and Phillip McGraw are just adding to the confusion, he says. “Dr. Phil makes claims that go way beyond the scientific evidence, or in some cases, directly contradict the science.”

About 3,500 self-help books are published each year, but only about five percent of them are subjected to scientific testing, Lilienfeld adds. He supports a movement among professional psychologists to establish criteria lists for empirically supported therapies – treatments that have been demonstrated to work in replicated, controlled trials.

Test your behavioral IQ
The truth about hypnosis
The anger myth: Read this before blowing up

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The elephant in the classroom

Three Emory alumni, including Joshua Plotnik, above, are using computer technology to bring Asian elephant research into American classrooms.

By Carol Clark

In 2006, as a graduate student working in the lab of Emory biologist Frans de Waal, Joshua Plotnik showed that an elephant can recognize itself in a mirror. The discovery put pachyderms in a unique class of self-awareness shared only by some apes and dolphins.

Now Plotnik has shown that elephants can Skype – with a little help from humans. He started a foundation called Think Elephants International, which is using video-chat technology to link Asian elephants in rural Thailand with middle school students in New York City.

“We want to bring an otherwise inaccessible, lovable animal into the classroom to teach kids about conservation and animal behavior,” Plotnik says. “When I see how excited the NYC kids are on the other side of the Skype line, I realize it’s worth it.”

Currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cambridge, Plotnik is based in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where he is further exploring the social cognition of elephants.

The Think Elephants team includes two other Emory alumni – Jen Pokorny (now a postdoc at U.C. Davis) and Christine Webb (now a graduate student at Columbia) – and Darby Proctor, a graduate student at Georgia State.

Left: Plotnik and Webb pose with Poon Larb the elephant in Thailand.

For its initial project, Think Elephants collaborated with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and East Side Middle School in Manhattan. For the past year, a group of 12-to-14-year-old students attended after-school sessions where they learned about conservation and animal behavior research through live video sessions with the Think Elephants scientists, and once with the elephants themselves.

The middle school students helped design and interpret an actual experiment in social cognition. “We looked at how elephants respond to visual cues given by a human about the location of hidden food,” Plotnik says. “The work of Brian Hare at Duke University suggests that dogs do respond to human visual cues about the location of food, but chimpanzees do not. Hare suggests this is possibly the result of domestication. We wanted to test elephants, which are not domesticated, but in Asia often have a very close relationship with human caregivers.”

The students brought a fresh perspective to the work. “Because I’m around elephants all day, it’s difficult for me to see some of the potential issues that naïve observers pick up,” Plotnik says. “These kids came up with some of the test conditions on their own, and were able to provide important insights into the interpretation of our results.”
Students at East Side Middle School in Manhattan do their best elephant impersonations, as Plotnik joins them from Thailand via Skype.

The middle school students will also help author the paper that the researchers submit for publication. One finding is that elephants may be using different human cues than domesticated dogs. “This make sense in light of the fact that elephants gather much of their social information from olfactory and acoustic cues, rather than visual ones,” Plotnik says.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species, native to Southeast Asia.

“Our ultimate goal is to link American schools with Thai schools, so that both groups of children can work together on research and conservation programs,” Plotnik says. “American kids can be an integral part of raising awareness about endangered species, but it is the next generation of conservationists within range countries like Thailand that are the most important to educate.”

Cultivating brains for science
Bringing new blood to high school science

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Filmmaker turns back the clock in 'Tick Tock'

Steve Jobs once said, “Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. “

That quote, and the terror of a lab safety violation, lead to some serious, last-minute soul searching in “Tick Tock,” winner of both Best Picture and Best Director at the 2011 International Campus Moviefest, recently announced in Hollywood.

Emory junior Ien Chi wrote, directed and edited the short film. The psychological drama was shot in one take on Emory’s Oxford Campus. Shown in reverse, the movie ends, or should we say begins, with a twist. It has already become a YouTube hit with nearly 1 million views.

Chi describes his heroes as Steve Jobs, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. It will be interesting to see where this eclectic mix of science, technology and art leads him next.