Monthly Archives: April 2011

New York Times reports that “supercomputers alter science”

The New York Times reports:

Computer power is transforming the sciences, giving scientists tools as important to current research as the microscope and telescope were to earlier scientists. Their use accompanies a fundamental change in the material that scientists study.

Individual specimens, whether fossils, living organisms or cells, were once the substrate of discovery. Now, to an ever greater extent, researchers work with immense collections of digital data, and the mastery of such mountains of information depends on computing power.

The physical technology of scientific research is still here — the new electron microscopes, the telescopes, the particle colliders — but they are now inseparable from computing power, and it is the computers that let scientists find order and patterns in the raw information that the physical tools gather.

Computer power not only aids research, it defines the nature of that research: what can be studied, what new questions can be asked, and answered.

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New test can help diagnose autism in children as young as 12 months

USA Today reports:

An early screening test for autism, designed to detect signs of the condition in babies as young as 1 year old, could revolutionize the care of autistic children, experts say, by getting them diagnosed and treated years earlier than usual.

The 24-item checklist takes just five minutes to complete and can be filled out in a pediatrician’s waiting room, when parents bring children for their routine 12-month checkup, says a study of more than 10,000 infants, published today in the Journal of Pediatrics.

Sleep-deprived neurons can simply shut down, even when one is nominally awake

Wired.com reports:

When deprived of sleep, parts of the human brain may doze off, secretly snatching moments of slumber even as people seem to be awake.

That could explain why our sleep-deprived selves are so cognitively challenged: We are, if not precisely half-asleep, partially asleep.

New research on the debate over nature, nurture, and parenting

The New  York Times reports:

Research has found that lifestyle differences — discipline, consistent mealtimes, reading and television watching — account for some differences between lower- and middle-income children in their readiness for school. But does a wealthier parent who forces a child to practice piano 20 hours a week make a huge difference to her overall well-being? “We don’t really know,” said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development at Columbia. Paradoxically, the kind of parents who follow debates about parenting — typically more affluent and educated — are those who may have the least to worry about. But there is a group for whom the debate is really important: low-income parents. Differences in parenting can matter a lot to poor, underprivileged children, and research shows that better parenting could help improve their opportunities in many ways…

“In one sense you can say parenting doesn’t matter very much if you’re looking at a bunch of upper-middle-class parents who are all basically good parents,” said Janet Currie, an economist at Columbia University. “Then variations don’t matter. But if you’re looking at people who are in difficult situations and aren’t able to be good parents, then improvements in parenting would make a huge difference. That’s part of the problem with the discussion.”

Paradoxically, the kind of parents who follow debates about parenting — typically more affluent and educated — are those who may have the least to worry about. But there is a group for whom the debate is really important: low-income parents. Differences in parenting can matter a lot to poor, underprivileged children, and research shows that better parenting could help improve their opportunities in many ways.

‘Motivated reasoning’ and our pre-existing beliefs

[Hat tip to Dr. Eric Snow for letting me know about this article.]

Mother Jones reports:

an array of new discoveries in psychology and neuroscience has further demonstrated how our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions. This tendency toward so-called “motivated reasoning” helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, “death panels,” the birthplace and religion of the president (PDF), and much else. It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

How do you know that you actually know what you think you know?

The New York Times reports:

Psychologists have long known that people’s instincts about how well they’ve learned a subject are often way off. The feel of a study session can be a poor reflection of its nutritional value: Concepts that seem perfectly clear become fuzzy at exam time, and those that are hard to grasp somehow click into place when it counts.

In recent years, researchers have begun to clarify why this is so, and in some cases how to correct for it. The findings are especially relevant nowadays, experts say.

“So much of the learning that we do now is unsupervised, on our own,” said Robert A. Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “that it’s crucial to be able to monitor that learning accurately; that is, to know how well we know what we know, so that we avoid fooling ourselves.”

Experienced Web users less likely to surf the Web aimlessly, new Microsoft study finds

Reuters reports:

Spontaneous activity on the Internet is on the wane among experienced users as they shun aimless surfing and plan their online sessions more, according to a study published by Microsoft and two agencies.

The survey found that spontaneous use of the Internet fell to 21 percent in 2009/10 according to diaries kept by users in Brazil, Britain, France and Canada from 39 percent in 2007, when a similar survey was conducted in those countries.

Microsoft and its survey partners, mec and Mindshare, attributed the change in usage patterns to a growing resistance among seasoned Internet users to becoming too dependent on the Web, as well as to greater efficiency.

“I’ve stopped bringing my laptop into the bedroom at night, as I would just sit there for hours surfing aimlessly,” said one French user. Another said: “I spend less time on the Internet but I manage to do much more than before.”

The report is available from Microsoft here (PDF).