Politics Psychology Science

The gruesome crime gets the longest time, study finds

Research out of Duke University finds that, when presented vignettes of crimes that are more gruesome and violent, study participants were more likely to assign a higher penalty. 17 subjects read 84 vignettes while being observed under MRI scan. The stories presented to the participants were also matched up to crimes in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Two crimes that would have received the same penalty under those guidelines were painted in more and less gruesome terms. The results were consistent:

While participants accurately matched federal standards for the strong disgust vignettes, they suggested less punishment than the standards recommend for crimes considered weak in disgust.

Parts of their brain engaged in logical reasoning also reflected this bias. Logical reasoning areas responded less when faced with biological descriptions of the perpetrators’ personality and when faced with less gruesome crimes.

This is one of those “well, that was obvious” kind of studies. Everyone – especially prosecutors – understands that a gruesome crime will be treated more harshly than a relatively benign one. And everyone understands that a jury’s verdict can be influenced with a bit of shock and horror. But “obvious” is not a scientific term; what seems obvious is often not the whole truth. In this case, it raises an important question.

If federal guidelines are best followed when jurors are the most disgusted, does that suggest that perhaps federal guidelines are too harsh? Are they established based on the same cognitive bias that this new study explores? One researcher says as much:

“Similarly, many years ago our legal systems were perhaps built with violent, gruesome crimes in mind,” [professor of social psychology and cognitive neuroscience at Duke University Lasana] Harris said. “Therefore legal penalties for crimes better match people’s modern intuitions when the crimes are gruesome. Both factors — the mind of the accused and the gruesomeness of the crime — demonstrate built-in bias within the legal system.”

Adding in the phrase “many years ago,” is a nice nod to diplomacy. But the more likely answer is that the “Law and Order” politicians who tout their tough-on-crime stances for the sake of electoral success are pushing our nation towards unrealistically harsh penalties in the long term.

Journalism Science

No, sorry. Acetaminophen is not “tied” to ADHD.

Here we go again. Another study comes out and another round of sloppy journalism puts out crap content that scares everybody and informs no one.

Researchers studied 64,000 pregnant women, over half of whom took acetaminophen during their pregnancies. The researchers then followed up with the children those women gave birth too, looking for signs of ADHD. The results?

They found that children of women who had taken acetaminophen were 13 percent more likely to have ADHD-like behaviors by age 7, including issues with attention span and temper. Those same children had a 30 percent greater chance of requiring the use of an ADHD medication. Additionally, the further into pregnancy and the longer the duration for which the woman took acetaminophen, the greater the risk.

Let’s break that down, shall we?

64,000 women took part in the study. About half of them – let’s guestimate 34,000 to be generous – actually took acetaminophen. Out of the resulting children, 13 percent had ADHD-like symptoms, which is different than saying they have ADHD. Out of these, as many as 30 percent of those children might require medication later in life.

In other words, out of 64,000 births, there might be 1326 kids in need of ADHD medication. Maybe, or maybe not. Based on a single study.

To be clear, it isn’t that the study’s findings aren’t significant. They are, from a scientific point of view. They make the case for further study. UCLA’s press room released a more detailed explanation of the study here, which is worth a read.

But to say acetaminophen is “tied” to ADHD presumes a level of certainty that is entirely absent from the facts of the case. Neither are these two things “linked,” as the L.A. Times chose to express it.

There are still people out there refusing to give their kids immunizations based on thoroughly discredited science from the 90’s. Please, let’s not start another ugly rumor for the sake of headlines.

Health Rochester Science

Does quitting smoking ease back pain? U of R study

Scientists are often fond of saying “correlation does not prove causality.” That meaning: just because two things happen at the same time or in sequence in no way implies that one caused the other. They may simply have coincidentally happened in an order tantalizing us to make hasty assumptions.

I cannot say for certain that the study the University of Rochester released today does or does not display that false sense of causality. But my sense is that much more research is probably necessary. This study followed about 5,000 respondents to a questionnaire about pain after treatment for back issues. The results pretty conclusively correlated less back pain with those who either quit smoking years ago or never smoked, compared to those who currently smoked. However:

Of the 5,333 people, those who had never smoked or had quit some time ago reported less pain than smokers or those who had just quit. By the end of the follow-up period, the people who had recently quit or who quit during treatment showed significant improvements in pain. People who continued to smoke during treatment had no improvement in pain on all scales.

Behrend noted that younger people tended to comprise the group of current smokers and those who only decided to quit during treatment; this is consistent with other studies showing that smoking is associated with degenerative spine disease at a younger age. Older patients tended to comprise the group who had never smoked or quit long ago.

The trouble here is that we’re dealing with two hugely divergent groups of people. To simply say that the fact that they smoke or don’t smoke is one correlated item is to completely under cut all the other vastly significant differences between these two groups. For example: those who continue to smoke into old age are probably also making a great deal many more decisions which are not beneficial to their health. And those who quit smoking while still young are probably eager to move on.

When I quit smoking six years or so ago, I swore I’d never be what I always referred to as a “Born Again Non-Smoker.” It is easy, when smoking is such a great scapegoat and straw man, to blame the habit for all the ills of any individual and claim the Holy Grail of health benefits every time something seems to prove a socially agreed-upon conclusion. But this report leaves a whole lot to be desired in the facts department.

Rochester Science

Sick of being broke? Why not get sick for cash? U of R’s norovirus vaccine tests

The @UofR Medicine department is currently testing out a new vaccine for the norovirus – the virus commonly known for its disastrous outbreaks on cruise ships in recent years, but which the CDC identifies as the culprit for the majority of food-borne illnesses in the country. They’re looking for twenty volunteers willing to submit to both the vaccine and the virus and in return, they plan to pay out $1,165. Which buys a lot of ginger tea.

But before you head to the mall for your get-well-soon shopping experience, you should be aware of just what you’ll be subjected to. Subjects will be given two shots containing either the virus or a placebo, spaced four weeks apart. Four weeks after that, they will be exposed to the virus to see how they react. During this testing phase, subjects will be held in isolation for five days, to avoid the risk of spreading the disease or of contaminating the results by getting sick.. you know.. “the old-fashioned way.”

All you have to be to participate is between the ages of 18 and 50, not working in select professions, and of course willing to withstand a nasty stomach ache for a few days. Sound good? Well, by all means, give them a call at the Vaccine Research Unit at (585) 273-3990 or click here to read the press release.

History Science

Think natural selection doesn’t play a role in modern humans? New study says that yes, it does.

As humans, we like to believe that no, natural selection does not play a role in our continuing development. Our intellects and ability to conquer nature are what have pushed us forward.

But a new study of birth, death and marriage patterns in a single village in Finland between the years 1760 and 1849 suggests that all the patterns we expect to find in animals are present in humans. At least, they were 200 years ago. Most villagers died off before they were 15 – suggesting that disease and a lack of adaptable qualities took their toll. Of those who did not die, 20% never married or reproduced, suggesting that sexual selection also played a role in the village’s continued existence.

Whether the same holds true for an era of modern medicine remains unanswered by this study. But one interesting note is that, in this village at least, comparable wealth had no particular bearing on the success of the individual. You might think that the availability of modern medicine would now be weighing against evolution. Considering the fact that the U.S. ranks 50th out of 221 countries in life expectancy, well, maybe evolution is indeed still weighing in on our future?

Natural Selection Is Still With Us – ScienceNOW.


Are Cannabinoids Painkillers?

Well, no. They aren’t. But that’s not to say that they’re not responsible for at least some placebo effects, including as one study found, painkilling effects.

The whole thing’s a bit complicated, but here’s the gist: science has long known that cannabinoid receptors – chemicals in the brain whose only seeming purpose is to receive and utilize cannabinoids, basically what gets you high in pot – exist in the body. But in studying why the Placebo Effect works in some cases but not others, scientists have stumbled upon the theory that certain cannabinoid receptors are being utilized when the brain is fooling itself into believing a drug works or doesn’t.

Check it out here:

Body May Use Cannabinoids to Make Placebos Work | Wired Science |