Vital Statistics

April 26, 2010

The size of the dating pool affects partner choice

A new study indicates that the traits people search for in potential partners may depend on the size of the dating pool. According to psychologists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, people are more likely to focus on physical characteristics when scanning the crowd for potential dates. In part, this is because physical features do not require a lot of time to asses. The opposite is true in smaller groups where people are more likely to hone in on personality characteristics.

Chemistry of ocean changing rapidly

According to a report from the National Research Council, due to the carbon dioxide being absorbed from the atmosphere the ocean’s chemistry is changing faster that it has in at least 800,000 years.  The report discusses the declining pH levels, which raises concerns about the effects this chemistry change will have on fish, coral reefs, and other sea life.

Is indoor tanning addictive?

According to a new study published in the Archives of Dermatology, about one third of college students who use tanning beds on a regular basis could be classified as addicted, based on the same criteria that is used to diagnose substance abuse addiction. It was also found that those who frequent tanning beds reported greater alcohol and marijuana use, as well as having more symptoms of anxiety.

Study finds students are dependent upon social media

New research out of University of Maryland challenged 200 students to abstain from using media for 24 hours, and then to blog about the experience. Students who participated in the challenged suffered from symptoms of withdrawal, using terms such as, “anxious, antsy, and jittery”. Students also seemed to suffer from emotional anxiety, saying they felt alone and secluded. Participants wrote about 110,000 words on their experience, according to the press release this is equal to about a 400-page novel.

Drama – the key criterion for assessing volcano ash risk

April 20, 2010

Frank Furedi, the world’s formost sociologist on fear, weighs in on the air travel chaos created by the eruptions from the world’s most unpronouncable volcano — Eyjafjallajokull — on Spiked Online:

“I am not a natural scientist, and I claim no authority to say anything of value about the risks posed by volcanic ash clouds to flying aircraft. However, as a sociologist interested in the process of decision-making, it is evident to me that the reluctance to lift the ban on air traffic in Europe is motivated by worst-case thinking rather than rigorous risk assessment. Risk assessment is based on an attempt to calculate the probability of different outcomes. Worst-case thinking – these days known as ‘precautionary thinking’ – is based on an act of imagination. It imagines the worst-case scenario and then takes action on that basis. In the case of the Icelandic volcano, fears that particles in the ash cloud could cause aeroplane engines to shut down automatically mutated into a conclusion that this would happen. So it seems to me to be the fantasy of the worst-case scenario rather than risk assessment that underpins the current official ban on air traffic.”

Furedi’s criticism might seem, on the face of it, careless: The consequences of an aircraft sucking in volcanic ash are, based on previous incidents, potentially fatal. But in light of an admission by European Union officials that many of the grounded flights would have flown under U.S. rules for dealing with volcanic ash, and that the computer models used to predict the ash cloud were flawed give credence to the complaint that “worst-case thinking”  is bypassing rational, probabilistic,  risk assessment.

This is not, Furedi notes, an isolated phenomenon, but rather the result of a  broad societal amplification of fear as a criterion for dealing with and regulating life. It is a radicalized skepticism which places far greater value on what is unknown, what might happen,  than what can be known about what will happen. And this fear of the unknown demands action — government intervention and regulation on the grounds that it is better to be safe than sorry. For more, read the full article.

Superbug spreading

April 12, 2010

New strains of the life-threatening infection MRSA are spreading, creating a health crisis that did not exist several years ago, according to the op-ed “Backing away from the MRSA crisis” published in the LA Times. Johns Hopkins Hospital reported that 61 percent of the patients in the pediatric intensive care unit were carrying unusual strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. These children are carrying strains that are more infectious and more difficult to detect, leading to serious bloodstream infections that never would have occurred several years ago.

Maryn McKenna, author of the op-ed, writes that the new strains of MRSA have been spreading the past few years throughout livestock and farm workers in Europe and North America. So when it was reported that six Canadians were infected with these particular strains of MRSA, it was curious that none of them had been in contact with livestock or farming.

What exactly is going on with this deadly infection? McKenna, also author of the book “Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA” explains:

MRSA managed its advance in part because we were not paying attention, and in part because a bacterium that produces a new generation every 20 minutes will always outpace pharmaceutical companies that take a decade, on average, to bring a new drug to market.

But it also escaped our control because we created the conditions that allowed it to. Patients expect prescriptions when they’re ill, and doctors have been too quick to prescribe antibiotics even when they might not be necessary. We’ve crammed prisons beyond their capacities without taking into account that bugs bred in a prison will walk out with inmates when they are released and with correctional officers at the end of every day.

More than anything, the crisis was bred of our craving for cheap protein, which led to industrial-scale farms that consume 70% of the antibiotics used in the U.S. each year. We failed to realize in time that antibiotic-resistant bacteria would leave those farms not only in the animals that received the drugs, but in their manure, in groundwater and in dust on the wind.

According to McKenna, MRSA is the most important healthcare-associated infection. It causes 19,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone, 370,000 hospitalizations, millions of hospital and doctors’ office visits, and an estimated $8 billion healthcare bill (one projection estimated the healthcare costs to be a staggering $38 billion). There is much more to her interesting analysis of this epidemic. You can read the full op-ed here.

Sick people are good for you, sort of

April 8, 2010

A new study finds that simply looking at sick people may help you to stay healthy. The research showed that seeing symptoms of illness, such as coughing or sneezing, triggers a response from the immune system.

Mark Schaller, lead study author and psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had one group of people watch a ten minute slide show of people suffering from various illnesses, including images of rashes, coughing and sneezing. The other group watched a slideshow of people waving and pointing guns. The participants that viewed the gun slideshow reported more distress than those who viewed the images of ill people.

The participants had blood samples taken before and after the slideshows. The samples were then exposed to infection and analyzed for the immune substance interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is produced by white blood cells to fight off potential infections. Discovery reports that while people who viewed the gun slideshow had white blood cells that increased IL-6 production by 6 percent, the production of IL-6 in participants who saw the images of sick people increased by 23 percent.

The research team doesn’t know exactly why this occurs; however, the higher ratings of distress from the gun slideshow participants and their lower levels of IL-6 indicate that stress is not a factor. Schaller does hypothesize it could be some some sort of survival mechanism, telling Psychology Today:

“If you see a bunch of people around you who look sick, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re in imminent danger of infection. Which means that this is one of those times when it’d be wise to allocate more of those precious bodily resources to mount an especially vigorous immunological defense.”

This study is published in Psychological Science.


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