How do we get along?

Illustration by Henry James Garrett (New York Times)

Unless someone is completely self-absorbed and amoral, most people care for somebody, some group, or at least something besides themselves.

Research has shown that “people tend to empathize more readily with those who look, sound, and behave like themselves.” Note how the algorithm-driven thought bubbles of social media take advantage of and feed into this tendency.

Humans are not alone in being able to empathize–to feel the pain of others. Other animals can as well. Rats can do it–and are used in research to test this effect.

For example, research has found “that a white rat raised among only white rats will do nothing to save a black rat from a trap.” “Rats, like humans, can be biased in how they act on, or don’t act on, their empathy.”

But, it’s not color alone that causes the bias. “A white rat raised among only black rats would save a black rat from a trap–but would fail to save other white rats.” And, white rats raised with both black and white rats will rescue rats of both colors.

It is the social context that determines the extent of empathy–not the color and physical appearance.

What can this mean for us?

“Prejudice is not baked-in; it is the result of our ignorance.” “A failure to learn about people of different kinds”–immigrants, people who observe a different religion, who live in a different place, who speak a different language, who look different, who are of a different gender, who are a different sexual orientation, and on and on–can mean “we fail to recognize their pain as genuine pain.”

Read the article; see the illustrations (Henry James Garrett, New York Times, December 28, 2018).

See also —

You have the power to make your own decisions about issues important to your life–use it!

Scapegoats and self-blame

Why is it so hard to change people’s minds?

Algorithms increasingly control our lives; is that a good thing?

How do people determine right from wrong?

Tornadoes form from the ground up

The El Reno tornado, USA

A significant finding for countries that experience tornadoes …

For decades, the theory has been that tornadoes form high in the atmosphere (hundreds to thousands of meters high) and then later touch down on the Earth’s surface. Many of us have seen funnel clouds form in the sky and then stretch down toward Earth in the familiar narrow twisting shape of the tornado.

Now, surprising research based on tornadoes that occurred in Oklahoma and Kansas, USA, suggests that the tornadoes’ “swirling winds first develop near the ground.”

The research “compared radar measurements that tracked wind speed” with photographs and videos of tornadoes taken by storm chasers. The tornadoes’ “funnel was already on the ground several minutes before the radar data–taken roughly 250 meters off the ground–recorded any rotation.”

In addition, radar measurements taken nearer the ground “found rapid rotation … before it appeared higher up.” That pattern has been confirmed in multiple tornadoes.

This research has important “implications for how weather forecasters issue tornado warnings.” If tornadoes actually form first at ground level, weather warnings based on readings taken higher up may be slow “in sounding the alarm for tornado-strength winds.”

Read the article (Katherine Kornei, Science, December 13, 2018).

For more information about weather, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

The Northeast Corridor may be underwater

A northbound Amtrak train moves along a track near the Delaware River as seen from an aerial photograph taken over Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. Photographer: Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg

Here is another direct impact of climate change. The Amtrak Northeast Corridor, in the United States, carries 12 million people by rail each year on stops between Washington, D.C. through New York City to Boston–a total of 457 miles.

According to a multi-year Amtrak study (completed in 2017 but kept private until a public records request in November 2018), parts of the route “face continual inundation” through “flooding, rising seas, and storm surge [that] threaten to erode the track bed and knock out the signals that direct train traffic.” “If one of the segments of track shuts down, it will shut down this [entire] segment of the Northeast Corridor.” “There is not an alternate route that can be used as a detour.”

As with many other coastal areas on the U.S. east coast, “sunny day flooding”–flooding on days with no rain–is already impacting homes, roads, businesses, and, in this case, one of Amtrak’s major routes and even its Consolidated National Operations Center in Wilmington, Delaware.

Chronic inundation–“flooding an average of at least twice a month”–will impact the Northeast Corridor route in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey as well as Delaware by 2050-2100, if not before.

The Northeast Corridor route runs close to rivers and the ocean through many heavily-populated urban areas. “If the Northeast Corridor starts to go underwater, Amtrak won’t be the only entity with an issue.” Amtrak runs through the heart of many cities; if there’s a risk, there’s a risk to much more than Amtrak.

Read the article; see the graphics (Christopher Flavelle and Jeremy C. F. Lin, Bloomberg Businessweek, December 20, 2018).

See —

The impact of sea level rise on Florida–and the world

For more information about the impacts of climate change, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.

Are we just playing a big game of chicken?

So, time to ponder. Some day when future humans or another species dig back through time, what will they find to “determine who we were and how we shaped our world.”

Yes, they will find “plastics and concrete … and radiation signatures in the rocks from nuclear tests.” Amazingly, what may be most plentiful though will be chicken bones.

“65 billion or so chickens [are] consumed each year.” At any given time, “there are about 23 billion chickens on Earth … ten times more than any other bird.” “The combined mass of those 23 billion chickens is greater than that of all the other birds on Earth.”

Beyond the incredible numbers is the equally incredible genetic and physical transformation of the chicken itself. Largely since the 1950’s, the “modern broiler chicken” has been bred and mutated to “eat insatiably” and “gain weight rapidly.” It grows so quickly, it is “subject to numerous bone ailments” and now is entirely dependent on human technology and factory farming to survive … which it does not for very long as chickens on average are sent to slaughter after only 5 to 9 weeks.

Depending on whether you work for or in the chicken industry, support animal welfare, or just don’t care, there are a range of opinions of what exactly this means, and what it says about human beings and the environment we have created.

But in that hazy future after humans perhaps are long gone, “the lasting sign of how we changed the living world, will be the broiler chicken.”

Read the article (James Gorman, New York Times, December 11, 2018).

For more information about human-caused impacts on the Earth, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database

Who do you believe?

Who do you believe?  What do you believe?  Why do you believe it?

All humans are biased to some degree.  Yes, we want other people to like the things we like, believe the things we believe, vote the way we vote, and on and on.  To try and convince others to do that, we often stretch and shade the facts, tell “harmless” little lies, and sometimes deliberately mislead.

There is no information purity out there; we need to accept that.  There never was.  There are all kinds of motivations (good, bad, and indifferent) that make humans do what we do.  We are crazily complicated creatures.  There are people and organizations (made up of people) who work very hard to be objective and factual.  There are also people and organizations who strive just as hard to deliberately mislead, lie, and sow disruption and fear.  And, then there’s the rest of us.

How do we cope in a world like that?

It gets down to the basics; if the questions and the information is important to you in some way —

*Dig deeper — do not rely on just one or two sources of information.  More than one source is a start, but seek information from a variety of sources and, as needed, a variety of opinions.  Strive for understanding, rather than skimming a topic.

*Go outside your information “comfort zone”; break the thought bubble of social media — this is not an easy thing to do.  Social media can provide for good things to happen, but it can also lead to very bad things.  Know that social media is a double-edged sword.

Take responsibility for your self, your actions, and your opinions.  Do not let yourself be herded along especially by social media.

The world is a big, complex place.  Technology may have made it smaller, but not less complicated.  Change is constant and not something to be feared; change provides opportunities.  Understand and participate …

(Kevin Engel, December 13, 2018)

See —

Why is it so hard to change people’s minds?

Clues to deception; who is telling the truth?

Algorithms increasingly control our lives; is that a good thing?

Narcissism and social media–a match made in heaven?



Cell phones, free apps, and location tracking data

Echoes of Orwell and 1984–if you have a cell phone in the United States and have downloaded free apps, your location is probably being tracked many times each day often very precisely.

“At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information.”  The movements of people are tracked “in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.”

“These companies sell, use, or analyze the data to cater to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior.”

While the companies claim this tracking is anonymous, it is not.  Particular cell phone users can be followed or, in reverse, identified by their movements.  “The explanations people see when prompted to give permission [to enable location services with apps] are often incomplete or misleading.”

Be smart–think twice before downloading apps (especially “free” apps), and go into the settings on your iPhone or Android to stop or limit location tracking.

Read the article (Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Michael H. Keller, and Aaron Krolik, New York Times, December 10, 2018).

For more information about the benefits and risks of technology, search the Science Primary Literature Database and the Headline Science Database.