Neuroscience, culture, and practical application

September 23, 2007

The oak tree at Jena's high school -- now cut down

My hypothesis is that a normal person may not peruse this site, The Situationist, without finding something of use for the person’s work or homelife — or at a minimum, something extremely intrigueing about a problem the person has in an organization to which the person belongs.

For example, check out these discussions:

  1. On the Jena 6
  2. On l’affaire Chemerinsky at UC-Irvine
  3. On college debt
  4. On confronting mistakes — especially one’s own

It’s a project at Harvard, interdisciplinary so far as I can tell.  Here’s the explanation:

There is a dominant conception of the human animal as a rational, or at least reasonable, preference-driven chooser, whose behavior reflects preferences, moderated by information processing and will, but little else. Laws, policies, and the most influential legal theories are premised on that same conception. Social psychology and related fields have discovered countless ways in which that conception is wrong. “The situation” refers to causally significant features around us and within us that we do not notice or believe are irrelevant in explaining human behavior. Situationism” is an approach that is deliberately attentive to the situation. It is informed by social science—particularly social psychology, social cognition, and related fields—and the discoveries of market actors devoted to influencing consumer behavior—marketers, public relations experts, and the like. The Situationist is a forum for scholars, students, lawyers, policymakers, and interested citizens to examine, discuss, and debate the effect of situational forces – that is, non-salient factors around and within us – on law, policy, politics, policy theory, and our social, political, and economic institutions. The Situationist is associated with The Project on Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School. To visit the Project’s website, click here.

Go see, and report back, if you don’t mind.

Texas earthquake!

September 23, 2007

Epicenter of Texas earthquake

Really. A Texas earthquake. September 15, 2007.

Missed it? Well, it was at the dinner hour, 06:16:42 PM (CDT). You may have thought it was Bubba’s great sauce for the barbecue, or the raspberry in the iced tea.

US Geological Survey provides a state-by-state listing of latest earthquakes. Texas is not a particularly active zone — but there are quakes, even here.

This last one, just over a week ago, was a 2.7 on the Richter scale, too weak to merit much news coverage even in the flatlands. It shook Milam County and surprised people there, but it didn’t do much damage:

In terms of destruction, the earthquake was hardly significant.

Emergency responders said they knew of only one report of damage: A teapot fell off of a woman’s stove.

In California, people probably wouldn’t have even noticed the tremor. But this earthquake happened in the Lone Star State and left Brazos Valley residents baffled.

“You just don’t expect your house to shake,” said Burleson County resident Karen Bolt. She was in her trailer home cleaning dishes when the temblor began.

USGS provides more details than you can use:

Magnitude 2.7
  • Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 23:16:42 (UTC) – Coordinated Universal Time
  • Saturday, September 15, 2007 at 06:16:42 PM local time at epicenter
  • Time of Earthquake in other Time Zones

    Location 30.74N 96.74W
    Depth 5.0 kilometers
    Distances 35 km (20 miles) W of Bryan, Texas
    65 km (40 miles) ENE of Taylor, Texas
    110 km (70 miles) ENE of AUSTIN, Texas
    170 km (105 miles) NW of Houston, Texas
    Location Uncertainty Error estimate: horizontal +/- 16.2 km; depth fixed by location program
    Parameters Nst=4, Nph=4, Dmin=123.3 km, Rmss=1.25 sec, Erho=16.2 km, Erzz=0 km, Gp=130.4 degrees
    Source USGS NEIC (WDCS-D)
    Remarks Felt in the Caldwell-Rockdale area.
    Event ID ushhc

    Still, Texans should be relieved it was a small one. The largest recorded Texas earthquake was in 1931, with an epicenter near Valentine. At 5.7 magnitude and VII intensity, it nearly destroyed the little town of Valentine.

    In terms of magnitude and damage, this is the largest earthquake known to have occurred in Texas. The most severe damage was reported at Valentine, where all buildings except wood-frame houses were damaged severely and all brick chimneys toppled or were damaged. The schoolhouse, which consisted of one section of concrete blocks and another section of bricks, was damaged so badly that it had to be rebuilt. Small cracks formed in the schoolhouse yard. Some walls collapsed in adobe buildings, and ceilings and partitions were damaged in wood-frame structures. Some concrete and brick walls were cracked severely. One low wall, reinforced with concrete, was broken and thrown down. Tombstones in a local cemetery were rotated. Damage to property was reported from widely scattered points in Brewster, Jeff Davis, Culberson, and Presidio Counties. Landslides occurred in the Van Horn Mountaiins, southwest of Lobo; in the Chisos Mountains, in the area of Big Bend; and farther northwest, near Pilares and Porvenir. Landslides also occurred in the Guadalupe Mountains, near Carlsbad, New Mexico, and slides of rock and dirt were reported near Picacho, New Mexico. Well water and springs were muddied throughout the area. Also felt in parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and in Chihauhua and Coahuila, Mexico.

    Texas history courses could make some use of these data, for map reading exercises, and for general geography about the state. Click on the map below, the isoseismal map of the 1931 Valentine, Texas quake, and geography teachers will begin to dream of warm-up exercises right away.

    Isoseismal map of 1931 earthquake near Valentine, Texas

    USGS offers a wealth of information on Texas’ geology and geography — stream flow information, drought information — collected in one spot for each state in a “Science in your backyard” feature.

    Pick your state, pick your topic, and go.

    Politics and DDT

    September 23, 2007

    Little Miss Attila explains the politics of DDT, how the hysteria is driven by a lobbying group.

    Good history, if you’re new to the issue.

    Quote of the moment: Washing hands of the matter

    September 23, 2007

    Ignaz Semmelweiss

    This is one of the classic stories of public health, an issue that most U.S. history and world history texts tend to ignore, to the detriment of the students and the classroom outcomes.

    This is the story as retold by Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky in The Experts Speak:

    In the 1850s a Hungarian doctor and professor of obstetrics named Ignaz Semmelweis (pictured at left) ordered his interns at the Viennese Lying-in Hospital to wash their hands after performing autopsies and before examining new mothers. The death rate plummeted from 22 out of 200 to 2 out of 200, prompting the following reception from one of Europe’s most respected medical practitioners:

    “It may be that it [Semmelweis’ procedure] does contain a few good principles, but its scrupulous application has presented such difficulties that it would be necessary, in Paris for instance, to place in quarantine the personnel of a hospital during the great part of a year, and that, moreover, to obtain results that remain entirely problematical.”

    Dr. Charles Dubois (Parisian obstetrician), memo to the French Academy
    September 23, 1858

    Semmelweiss’ superiors shared Dubois’ opinion; when the Hungarian physician insisted on defending his theories, they forced him to resign his post on the faculty.

    Update, September 26, 2007: Stephen J. Dubner at the Freakonomics blog pointed to a video, to an essay by Semmelweis, and to a column he and Steven D. Levitt had done earlier on handwashing. Maybe things aren’t as good as we had hoped.

    Breastfeeding still recommended, despite DDT contamination

    September 23, 2007

    Despite DDT’s being affiliated with reduced cognitive ability in infants after intrauterine exposure, and despite indications that DDT may retard fetal development, a team of Spanish researchers urges mothers to breastfeed anyway. Their study shows that breastfed kids develop better despite after birth even when exposed to DDT in utero, despite any dangers of exposure to DDT and other chemicals in breast milk.

    No, the study does not say DDT is harmless.

    From the American Journal of Epidemiology, abstracts of the study have been released in advance of publication in the October 2007 edition.

    Beneficial Effects of Breastfeeding on Cognition Regardless of DDT Concentrations at Birth

    Núria Ribas-Fitó1, Jordi Júlvez1, Maties Torrent2, Joan O. Grimalt3 and Jordi Sunyer1,4 1 Centre de Recerca en Epidemiologia Ambiental, Institut Municipal Investigació Mèdica, Barcelona, Spain
    2 Àrea de Salut de Menorca, Servei de Salut de les Illes Balears, Menorca, Spain
    3 Departament de Química Ambiental, Institut d’Investigacions Químiques i Ambientals de Barcelona–Centre Superior d’Investigacions Científiques, Barcelona, Spain
    4 Departament de Ciències Experimentals i de la Salut, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain

    Correspondence to Dr. Núria Ribas-Fitó, Centre de Recerca en Epidemiologia Ambiental, Institut Municipal Investigació Mèdica, C. Doctor Aiguader 88, 08003 Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain (e-mail:

    Received for publication March 19, 2007. Accepted for publication June 13, 2007.

    The authors previously reported that intrauterine exposure to background concentrations of p,p’-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) reduces cognitive performance among preschoolers. Breastfeeding has been associated with both increased exposure to certain pollutants during infancy and better performance on cognitive tests. Thus, the authors examined the role of breastfeeding in cognitive function among preschoolers, taking prenatal DDT exposure into account. Two birth cohorts in Spain (Ribera d’Ebre and Menorca) were recruited between 1997 and 1999 (n = 391). Infants were assessed at age 4 years using the McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities. Levels of organochlorine compounds were measured in umbilical cord serum. Information on type and duration of breastfeeding was obtained by questionnaire when the children were 1 year of age. Children who were breastfed for more than 20 weeks had better cognitive performance regardless of their in utero exposure to DDT. A linear dose response between breastfeeding and cognition was observed in all DDT groups (for children highly exposed to DDT, adjusted ß = 0.30 (standard error, 0.12) per week breastfed). Despite the possibility of harm from environmental contaminants in breast milk, breastfeeding for long periods should still be recommended as the best infant feeding method.

    breast feeding; child; child development; child, preschool; cognition; DDT; infant; intelligence

    Abbreviations: DDE, p,p’-dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene; DDT, p,p’-dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane; IQ, intelligence quotient

    Some of the members of this research team have also tied DDT’s daughter product, DDE, to increased asthma in children, in research published in Environmental Health Perspectives in December 2005.

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