Cliodynamics: The mathematical science of history

Mathematician Peter Turchin is putting his genius to work in a novel new area: history.  By studying population sizes in relation to collective violence in empires, he's managing to predict periods of civil unrest.  He calls his new science cliodynamics, after Clio, the muse of history.

There is much to be wary of in this; history is not easily reduced to numbers.  Turchin does not deny oversimplifying history, but he says ultimately if the predictions hold true there's got to be something to it.  He's made some falsifiable predictions for unrest in America around 2020, and if it doesn't happen by 2030, he'll admit he was wrong.

Calculated violence: Numbers that predict revolutions   New Scientist

More studies show human cause behind climate change

This landmark study links rise in greenhouse gases to ocean warming with "virtual certainty."

It also has a list of the top ten carbon-emitting countries.  The USA and China lead by a huge margin.

Human-induced ocean warming study addresses the 'dominant role' of people   HuffPost

And this one shows insane ice melt this week in Greenland.  Normally about 50% melts, but this week it reached a whopping 97%.

Greenland ice melt, measured by NASA satellites, reaches unprecedented levels   HuffPost

Are VENs the brain cells of consciousness?

New studies suggests that von Economo neurons (VENs), which are involved in empathy and shared by humans, chimps, gorillas, dolphins, whales, giraffes, hippos, macaques, and perhaps all mammals, may be the cells that give rise to the experience of consciousness.  That's a big ol' thorny philosophical claim, but if true it could revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and give us still greater reason to feel kinship and compassion for non-human creatures.

Interestingly, though VENs are shared by many animals not particularly known for their social intelligence and unable to recognize themselves in a mirror (such as giraffes and hippos), animals that can do these things (such as apes, dolphins, and humans), have VENs concentrated exclusively in the smell and taste regions.  Researchers suspect VENs originally evolved in mammals to serve some other purpose, and later became functional for creating consciousness.

From the article:

That work might even help us understand how these neurons evolved in the first place. Allman already has some ideas about where they came from. Our VENs reside in a region of the brain that evolved to integrate taste and smell, so he suggests that many of the traits now associated with the FI evolved from the simple act of deciding whether food is good to eat or likely to make your ill. When reaching that decision, he says, the quicker the "gut" reaction kicks in the better. And if you can detect this process in others, so much the better.

"One of the important functions that seems to reside in the FI has to do with empathy," he says. "My take on this is that empathy arose in the context of shared food - it's very important to observe if members of your social group are becoming ill as a result of eating something." The basic feeding circuity, including the rudimentary VENs, may then have been co-opted by some species to work in other situations that involve a decision, like working out if a person is trustworthy or to be avoided. "So when we have a feeling, whether it be about a foodstuff or situation or another person, I think that engages the circuitry in the fronto-insular cortex and the VENS are one of the outputs of that circuitry," says Allman.
There are also a lot of studies showing links between smell and taste and the feelings of strong emotions. Our physical reaction to something we find morally disgusting, for example, is more or less identical to our reaction to a bitter taste, suggesting they may share common brain wiring (Science, vol 323, p 1222). Other work has shown that judging a morally questionable act, such as theft, while smelling something disgusting leads to harsher moral judgements (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 1096). What's more, Allman points out that our language is loaded with analogies - we might find an experience "delicious", say, or a person "nauseating". This is no accident, he says.

Are these the brain cells that give us consciousness?   New Scientist

The power of disgust

The emotion of disgust is turning out to be a major factor in our supposedly rational thinking.  Studies are showing those experiencing disgust are more likely to morally reject minority groups, and that our supposedly-rational moral judgments may be just ad hoc rationalizations for emotional moral reactions.

The following article is especially good for its links to actual important studies, free as pdfs.

The yuck factor: The surprising power of disgust   New Scientist

Must porn stars be ostracized from other jobs?

Thankfully, no, they mustn't.  Harmony Rose, who made over 200 videos before leaving the industry recently, is now training as an EMT.  There has been controversy, including the consideration of firing Rose.  But fortunately:

"Of the over 500 comments that appear under the story on WDBJ's Facebook page, nearly all support Rose's continued work with the rescue squad."

As I see it, it is crucial that our society learn to see sex workers as full, valued persons.  The industry is never going away, especially in an age of birth control and digital media, so denigrated them is just a pointless option no matter how you look at it.  Instead, we must as a society recover respect for them.  If we can, we will be one step closer to reviving the sacred dimension of human sexuality.

Ex-porn star Harmony Rose, AKA Tracy Rolan, volunteers as EMT   HuffPost

How global warming is driving our weather wild

The problem with articles like these is they don't help the layperson understand how to tell climate change results from just randomly extreme weather patterns, leading to a public that blames every unseasonal freeze and heatwave on global warming, in reaction to which the climate change deniers become even more skeptical.

How global warming is driving our weather wild   New Scientist