Stories tagged identity


Experimonth: Identity is an opportunity for you to explore the social, psychological, and physical aspects of identity in the Twin Cities by participating in a month-long blogging experiment on Science Buzz.

For the month of November 2011, Experimonth participants will gather online and in person for unique and challenging assignments that take place on Science Buzz, in the exhibition “Identity,” at special events in the Science Museum of Minnesota, and on solo or group missions in the community. The assignments you choose are up to you, some will allow you to participate from a home computer in your slippers and others will require putting on your walking shoes and socializing with new people.

The Science Museum of Minnesota’s Experimonth program is funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and is conducted in partnership with the Museum of Life & Sciences in Durham, North Carolina. Museum of Life & Science is running a concurrent project this November called Experimonth: Race. To learn more about the history of Experimonth, click here.

Be inspired to view your own identity and the identity of others with new eyes. Register to participate in Experimonth: Identity beginning November 1, 2011.


Dear Tooth Fairy: You can't handle the tooth! (At least not if a new research idea becomes popular)
Dear Tooth Fairy: You can't handle the tooth! (At least not if a new research idea becomes popular)Courtesy Rev Dan Catt
A new study just published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry says our third molars - aka wisdom teeth - could serve as an excellent source for stem cells. Rather than yanking them out and discarding them (often under our pillows), the molars could be kept as a repository of stem cells for our own use in regenerative medicine. The Japanese study, which was led by Yasuaki Oda, states cloned cells derived from wisdom teeth closely resemble embryonic stem cells.

It sounds like wise use of what's otherwise considered medical waste, but don't be surprised if the Tooth Fairies' Union says it bites.

Going to the Minnesota State Fair is mostly about putting bad things into your body. Occasionally on the midway, things can come out of your body. But University of Minnesota researchers will be at the 2010 State Fair with hopes of taking DNA out of about 500 kids. And those who donate will get lots of cool stuff. But some wonder if this is the proper way to conduct medical research. What do you think?


Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.
Why does this baby appear so well-adjusted?: Difficult to say.Courtesy Manda
A recently published, 25-year study suggests that children raised by two lesbian parents may actually be behaviorally and psychologically better adjusted than their peers.

The study tracked mothers from pregnancy or insemination, interviewing them and their children multiple times over their development, until the kids were 17 years old. The kids were asked questions focusing on their psychological adjustment, peer and family relationships, and academic progress. The research found that despite occasionally being stigmatized for their parents’ sexuality, the kids tended to rate higher than the average in “social, academic, and totally competence,” and displayed less problem behavior (rule-breaking, aggression, etc.).

The researchers behind the study propose that the difference may have to do with the fact that lesbian couples often choose to become pregnant later than most people, and, being older, are more mature and better prepared for parenting. Growing up in households with “less power assertion, and more parental involvement” is tied to healthier development, and more mature parents may fit this model better.

The research was funded by a variety of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy groups, which some people consider to be evidence against its validity. Wendy Wright, the president of Concerned Women for America, “a group that supports biblical values,” says that the source of the funding “proves the prejudice and the bias of the study.”

Wendy Wright is, of course, wrong. There may or may not be aspects of the study that are biased or invalid, but the source of the funding doesn’t prove that at all. She’s seeing a causal relationship where there is none. Consider the following: JGordon buys a plum. Does this prove that JGordon will be eating a plum? Nope. Plums are frequently acquired for the purpose of being eaten, but there’s nothing about my getting a plum that necessarily means I’m going to eat it. Perhaps I will give it away. Or I might just be adding it to my plum collection.

The mystery of what JGordon does with all his plums, however, has far fewer social implications than a study on what makes for good parenting. So it’s important that we consider what actually “proves” what here.

Mrs. Wright also claims that the outcomes of the study “defy common sense and reality.” Common sense, though, may not be the best standard for judging scientific results. And, as for “reality,” how exactly do we figure that out? Careful observation, I suppose.

The study may still need more scrutiny, but it’s an interesting piece of potential evidence in the discussion of what constitutes a good environment for raising kids.

What do y’all think?

A British court has ruled that belief in climate change qualifies for protection under laws safeguarding freedom of religion in that country. (The ruling stems from a case where a man was fired from his job as head of sustainability at a real estate firm because of his strongly held ecological beliefs.) According to the ruling, “A belief in man-made climate change and the alleged moral imperatives is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religious and Beliefs Regulation.”

This is wrong. Whatever your position on climate change, it is a scientific issue, one based on observable evidence and interpretation of said evidence. Calling it “a philosophical belief” removes it from debate, and means you can accept it or deny it, regardless of evidence. That’s not science, and that’s not right.


Stay sober, stay stimulated: Stay off sensory deprivation! Oh... wait... that wasn't the point of the study?
Stay sober, stay stimulated: Stay off sensory deprivation! Oh... wait... that wasn't the point of the study?Courtesy mikebaird
Stay in school, little dudes. That’s important. Also, stay off drugs. That’s also important.

Why? Because school embiggens your brain. And because drugs interfere with the brain embiggening process. Your uppers, your downers, your sliders, your narcotics, your kool-aid/cough syrup concoctions, your hallucinogens… they’re all dangerous, they will all keep you from focusing your brainwaves and chi and stuff.

But it’s easy avoiding those effects, right? The secret is to just not do drugs, right?

Wrong! Just 15 minutes of sensory deprivation can trigger hallucination! That’s just you and your brain, alone together in a totally quiet and dark room, making each other craaaaazy!

200 participants were given a questionnaire to determine how prone each person was to hallucinations. 9 of the highest scorers (that is, they had a high propensity for hallucination) and 10 of the lowest scorers (the least likely to hallucinate) were then (after volunteering) placed individually into an anechoic chamber. The anechoic chamber is build to muffle as much external sound as possible, and there’s no light inside, so once the participants were shut inside, they were in complete darkness and silence for the 15-minute duration of the test.

The study found:

“Of the nine volunteers who had high scores on the first questionnaire, almost all reported experiencing something "very special or important" while inside the chamber. Six saw objects that were not there, five had hallucinations of faces, four reported a heightened sense of smell, and two felt there was an evil presence in the chamber with them.”

Even the participants who scored low on the first test experienced hallucinations and delusions, although not as heavily as the first group.

The research seems to support the idea that hallucinations (or some hallucinations) are caused by the brain misidentifying its own thoughts and activity as something that comes from outside the body. So… you bring your crazy with you into the sensory deprivation chamber, I guess.

You hear that kids? If you’re not careful, and, like, accidentally fall into a sensory depravation chamber, your straightedge lifestyle will suddenly count for nothing! And you won’t get into your favorite ivy-league college, you little junky, you. So, whatever you do, stay stimulated! And if you ever do get trapped in an anechoic chamber, try to create your own sensory experiences until help arrives. I can't recommend whistling, because you’ll need your mouth for the arm-licking that I do recommend. But I think you should be able to hum and lick your arm at the same time, so do that. And, if you’re able, fart like crazy. With all this stimuli, you should be able to maintain some level of sobriety until a fireman axes the box open to find you sanely humming, licking your arm, and farting.

The more you know. You know?


Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.
Karina has some competition: This baby is WAY smarter than other babies.Courtesy quinn.anya
Silver bells are ringing across Britain as the nation celebrates the discovery of its lil’est genius. Two year old Karina Oakley has scored a 160 on the Stanford-Binet IQ test, administered to her by the professor her mother hired.

An IQ scored of 160 places little Karina on the lower edge of the “exceptionally gifted” intelligence classification. The high IQ society Mensa only requires an IQ score of 132 to enter, so Karina’s evaluation places her solidly in the ranks of such official geniuses as Cutthroat Island star and V8 juice fan, Geena Davis, as well as Playboy Playmate Julie Peterson and General “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf.

Despite all of the “Raising Your Gifted Child”-type books that are no doubt currently filling the padded horizontal surfaces of the Oakley household, raising this little genius will be difficult work. This is surely why Karina’s mother allowed the story to be printed in the respected British periodical The Daily Telegraph; she’s looking for support. So let’s help out.

What does an IQ of 160 really mean? Beyond “exceptionally gifted” or “Geena Davis-smart,” I mean. Let’s explore. For Karina’s sake.

The Stanford-Binet test administered to Karina had its beginnings more than a hundred years ago, when the French psychologist Alfred Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were studying mental disabilities in school children. They devised a test of increasingly difficult questions and activities (ranging from touching one’s own nose to explaining abstract concepts) and determined the age at which a typical child could answer or perform them correctly. How well a kid tested would determine his or her “mental age,” or their level of development relative to others. But even a hundred years ago, Binet cautioned that the results of these tests should not be interpreted literally, because there’s a margin of error inherent in such testing, and because intelligence is plastic, or changeable, anyway.

Ten years later, researchers at Stanford University expanded on the Binet-Simon test, removing some items, and adding some new ones. The resulting Stanford-Binet test has been revised several times, and it’s now one of the standard IQ or “intelligence quotient” tests. The “mental age” concept from the original test, however, is still the key idea. It’s basically the same concept as an “intelligence quotient”—both are measurements of an individual’s intelligence (or mental age) compared to a standard or average intelligence.

So an IQ score near 100 is about average. That doesn’t mean that if you have an IQ of 100 you’re just okay, while most people might be smarter than you. Necessarily, most people should fall right around 100. With IQ tests, what you end up knowing is whether you test below, about the same, or above most people.

Now, little 2-year-old Karina has an IQ of 160. Does that mean she’s tossing around quantum mechanical problems, fixing the refrigerator, and deconstructing Proust in her spare time? Probably not. The test is going to be relative to her group; two-year-olds. So most of Karina’s colleagues will have an IQ of about 100, but Karina herself, well, she’s notably more intelligent than most two-year-olds. But, then again, so is my golden retriever.

It seems like administering an IQ test to a tiny kid like that is kind of silly. Their weird child-brains are all growing and developing, and all at different rates (which is normal). So does this just mean that Karina is as smart as a 3-year-old? The dog certainly aspires to that.

Karina will probably continue to be a clever little dude for the rest of her life, but what’s important is that she now has an official test, taken when she had been alive for just two years, to prove it. That test will be like the North Star, guiding her through life, and, like the star, perhaps just out of reach. It will be the trump card in shrill arguments with school councilors. And it will, above all else, make Karina friends, especially if she’s placed in a gifted and talented program early in her education. It’s the first stepping-stone on a glorious path to a nervous breakdown as a 16-year-old college freshman. Cheers, Mr. and Mrs. Oakley.

PS— Really, what it boils down to is that I’m insanely jealous of this little girl.

PPS—A fun little bonus story regarding child geniuses:
My young cousin: The doctor tested me to see how smart I am. He said I’m a genie!
My brother: You mean “genius.”


Yes, this is on the list too
Yes, this is on the list tooCourtesy tsweden
Check it out: it turns out that women have more powerful immune systems than men. (I include myself in the “men/boys” group.)

So, let’s see… if we’re arranging the list in terms of the order in which I’ve realized each one, then this new development falls at the end, right after “better resistance to sunburn” and “less likely to get testicular cancer.”

If the list is alphabetical (how nice and neat!), it goes between “more powerful backstroke” and “more powerful interpersonal skills.”

Despite my rabbit-killing-strength grip and my powerful stammer (each unlikely to be beaten by women as a whole), the bite of each item on the list burns like jalapeño scorpion stings.

It’s nice, then, that this new fact isn’t quite so painful to accept. See, I like getting sick. I want to get sick. In particular, I want to get the swine flu. My great-grandfather was beaten (i.e. killed) by the swine flu back in 1920 or so, and I’ve been aching for a rematch. Swine Flu vs. JGordon Round II: The Final Showdown: This Time it’s Personal: A Century-Old Family Feud Comes to Blows: To the Death!

Sure, I don’t actually want to die at all, but this disease needs to at least get a foothold in my system if we’re finally going to see who’s the bigger man. (Me, duh.)

If I were what we often call a “lady,” my powerful immune system would make the flu showdown less likely. So thank goodness that that’s not the case. My female body would be producing estrogen left and right, and that estrogen would be blocking the production of an enzyme called Caspase-12. Caspase-12, precious Caspase-12, is needed in my body, because it blocks my inflammatory processes. Inflammation is one of the body’s primary defenses against infection. Blood flow increases at the site of an injury or infection during inflammation, beginning the healing process and delivering structures that kill and absorb pathogens. And I don’t want that. I mean, if every time Evander Holyfield approached Mike Tyson’s boxing ring a flood of blood and plasma crushed Holyfield and washed him away, how would The Dynamite Kid ever have gotten the chance to prove who’s tougher? I want to let the swine flu into my ring, and then I want to bite its ear off and threaten to eat its children.

I’m leaving it up to my frail male body to arrange this fight.


The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.
The formula looks right...: But it's not happening.Courtesy FireFawkes
The journal Sexual Health has blown minds the world over with a new study’s assertion that, of all students, science students have the least sex. And male science students? They have the least sex of all, ranking neck and neck with amoeba.

Do you know who the study says has the most sex? Female art students. But I’ve never pretended to understand art kids, so we’ll leave that be and get back to our poor science nerds.

What gives? Is it the chicken or the egg? (The chicken being people who don’t often have sex, the egg being the study of science. Duh.) Does deciding to study science equate to putting on an invisible chastity belt? Is it (if we’re talking about chickens) a persistent rooster-block, if you will? Or are people for whom sex is not a huge priority, or even something to be avoided, attracted to the study of science?

The answer, according to the study, is “yes.”

The research was performed at the University of Sydney in Australia. The science department at the university has a high proportion of international students, who may have different cultural attitudes towards sex than those hedonistic, liberal arts, Australian-born students. Also, as we have discussed on Buzz, girls are often less attracted to studying math and science than boys, and boys, according to the psychotherapist quoted in the article, start having sex later than girls.

The demands of studying science, likewise, aren’t helping things. Students are kept out of environments where they would meet women, and spend most of their time “carrying on doing experiments, going to the library, and doing their assignments.”

A horde of very busy introverts—it’s the perfect storm. But don’t let this dissuade you from studying science, Buzzketeers—maybe this is just the sort of social environment you’re looking for. Or maybe you can start a brand new scientific revolution.


Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?
Women in science: Should government-funded labs make a point of hiring an equal number of men and women?Courtesy NIOSH—Nat’l Inst. For Occupational Safety & Health

(With the Republican National Convention literally across the street, the Science Museum of Minnesota will be closed starting Friday, August 29. But Science Buzz marches on! To honor our convention guests, I’ll be posting entries focusing on issues where science and politics overlap. Hopefully this will spur some discussion. Or at least tick some people off. Previous entry here.)

Affirmative action. Another nice, safe topic that we have talked about before, though in a different context.

In 1972, Congress passed an education bill which included, among its amendments, the following language:

"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Certainly sounds fair. But this amendment, known as “Title IX,” has caused its share of headaches. The law states that men and women should have equal opportunity in educational activities. But “opportunity” is often hard to measure. If few women partake in a given activity, is it because of discrimination? Because of lack of interest? Or, in the case of athletics, because of physical limitations?

Hard to say sometimes. So instead, the courts look at outcomes. If significantly more men than women are participating in a activity, the courts tell the schools they need to get the numbers in line. Usually this means trying to increase women’s participation. Too often, however, it has meant cutting support for men – a surreal Harrison Bergeron result if ever there was one.

This same “logic” is now to be applied to academic science departments. Under pressure from Congress, several federal science agencies are now looking for discrimination in college science departments. And, since motive is hard to prove, there are fears that courts will again fall back to looking solely at results, and force schools to hire equal numbers of male and female scientists, regardless of their qualifications. Which is fairly antithetical to the pure meritocracy science is supposed to be.

No one wants discrimination. But it would be a national tragedy if the pursuit of political correctness ended up hindering American science, just as science has become more important than at any moment in human history.

New York Times reporter John Tierney has reviewed the National Academy of Science’s report on discrimination, and has found very little evidence of bias. And, as we discussed earlier, many women do not pursue math careers, not because of discrimination, but simply because of individual choice.

This appears to be a solution in search of a problem.