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"Marmite neglect" ad generates deliciously slimy complaints

Marmite is tasty or disgusting, depending on who you ask, and marketing campaigns have long acknowledged the 'acquired' quality of its unique appeal. The latest ad, however, is ruffling feathers for its fakeumentary format, in which jars are rescued, animal-welfare style, from the homes of neglectful owners.

The best Marmite is the rare Marmite Extra Old special edition; the Gold Edition was just a stunt and can be safely ignored.

Previously: Denmark bans Marmite.

Screaming black female circumcision cake controversial

Swedish culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth cut into an unusual cake at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm this Saturday, and found herself at the center of a controversy some might say could have been predicted.

The remarkable cake design--featuring a edible black torso and the artist's head screaming as guests tucked in--was intended to draw attention to female genital mutilation in Africa.

Campaigners, however, say it is itself an unacceptable caricature. From Sweden's The Local:

"In our view, this simply adds to the mockery of racism in Sweden," [said] Kitimbwa Sabuni, spokesperson for the National Afro-Swedish Association."This was a racist spectacle."

... the culture minister began cutting a large cake shaped like a black woman, symbolically starting at the clitoris. Makode Aj Linde, the artist who created the installation and whose head is part of the cake cut by the minister, wrote about the "genital mutilation cake" on his Facebook page.

"Before cutting me up she whispered, 'Your life will be better after this' in my ear," he wrote in a caption next to the partially eaten cake.

Minister in 'racist circumcision outrage' [The Local]

After (arsenic) life: Great profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon

In early 2011, Felisa Wolfe-Simon published a scientific paper purporting to show evidence that bacteria from California's Mono Lake could, if pressed, live without the essential element phosphorous, and use arsenic, instead.

The story was wildly misconstrued in the press. (No, nobody ever found alien life happening naturally in Lake Mono.) And the evidence and methodology of Wolfe-Simon's research was roundly trounced, not just in academic journals, but also in blogs.

And that's all left Wolfe-Simon in a very weird position. She's certainly not the first scientist to publish a high-profile paper that other researchers tore to shreds. But, because the "arsenic life" story was so high-profile, she's now worried her career might be over. Is that fair? In Popular Science, Tom Clynes presents a nuanced profile of Felisa Wolfe-Simon that doesn't really answer that question definitively. Frankly, there probably isn't a really clear black/white answer out there. But Clynes does do a really good job of introducing us to Wolfe-Simon as a person, and her story exposes flaws in the peer-review process and the traditional avenues of scientific debate, indicts the media and PR professionals for creating the very sensational story that led to such a harsh response, and shows what can happen when a scientist is unprepared to deal with the public presentation of their own work.

In other words, this story is about lots of people making mistakes, including, but not limited to, Felisa Wolfe-Simon.

In June, Science reported that Wolfe-Simon had left Oremland’s USGS laboratory to look for a location with better molecular and genetic research facilities. “Actually,” Wolfe-Simon says, “I didn’t leave out of choice. Ron basically evicted me from the group. It was a political decision on his part that I don’t understand, and I didn’t see it coming.” Although she received a NASA fellowship in 2010 that provides support through 2013, she is still seeking a new home for her work.

I find it hard not to feel sympathy for her. In a matter of weeks she was catapulted to fame, then singled out and assaulted with professional and personal criticism, some of which resulted from missteps beyond her control. Wolfe-Simon is an early-career researcher in a field dominated by older men. Few scientists, no matter how established, would have the skills to navigate the situation that she found herself in. What made the level of criticism so extraordinary is that the paper, in itself, is not so flawed that it should not have been published. The argument was compelling, the conclusions were measured, the data was thorough, and the paper made it through the same peer-review process as other articles in Science.

It will take a few years to better answer the questions surrounding GFAJ-1. In the meantime, Benner—who says he would be “more than astonished” if arsenic replaces phosphorus in any genetically relevant molecule in GFAJ-1—says Wolfe-Simon’s hypothesis is ultimately useful if it motivates people to look in new places and ask bigger questions.

Wolfe-Simon says the paper’s publicity attracted new collaborators who she wouldn’t have otherwise met, some of whom are already analyzing GFAJ-1. And her fame has played out in surprising ways. Recently, her husband, Jonathan, an engineer, was speaking with a colleague who asked if he happened to be married to Felisa Wolfe-Simon. When he said yes, the colleague said, “My seven-year-old daughter dressed up as Felisa for her school’s science day!” The girl wore a sun hat, with her pants rolled up and flip-flops on her feet, dressed for a day wading the waters of Mono Lake in search of bacteria.

Image: Mono Lake, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kidsloveanimals's photostream

The neurobiology of politics

What, if anything, should we make of studies that purport to find neurological differences between people who self-identify as "conservative" and people who self-identify as "liberal?" You've seen studies like that in the paper. You've heard them argued about on radio and TV shows. But what do they actually mean? Is this just so much high-tech phrenology? Is it a smug way for one group to make snide commentary about the other group under the guise of "science?" Is your political affiliation determined by your mind, or by your brain?

Behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski has a great guest post up at The Intersection blog, looking at what we can (and can't) learn from the handful of studies that have attempted to link politics and neurobiology. None of these studies have been perfectly well-done, she writes. But, despite being flawed in different ways, they're coming to some of the same conclusions—conservatives seem to have a more active amygdala and liberals seem to have a more active anterior cingulate cortex. You can shorten that into a headline-grabbing statement about conservatives being driven more by emotions and liberals by logic. But it's really, really not as simple as that.

If you're going to talk about these studies at all, Kuszewski writes, you're going to have to understand the context behind them. In other words: This is an issue chock full of yesbuts. And, without them, you're going to come to some very wrong conclusions.

This is definitely a story worth reading all the way through. It is, however, a difficult story to excerpt ... at least, without committing the very sins the article is meant to correct. But out of all the yesbuts Kuszewski identifies, I'd like to highlight this one, in particular, because I think it's often overlooked in many popular discussions of neurobiology and culture.

1. The brain is plastic. Meaning, every time we engage in any activity, our brain changes somewhat, even if only to a very small degree. In fact, your brain is a little bit different right now than when you started reading this article. And a little different now. Engaging in any activity excessively or intensely over a long period of time changes your brain even more—such as training for a sport or spending a long time practicing and becoming proficient at a skill. Conversely, if you stop using an area of your brain to a significant degree, it will probably shrink in size due to lack of connectivity, similar to the atrophy of muscles. When it comes to the brain areas measured in these studies, we aren’t sure how much of the difference was there to begin with, or to what degree the brain changed as a function of being in a particular political party. I suspect both things contribute somewhat. How much? We have no way of knowing at this point. To say conclusively, we need a longitudinal study, with control groups, measuring brain volume before and after joining, leaving, or participating in a political party’s activities or ideologies.

Primer on GM crops

Check out this great primer on the science behind the safety of genetically engineered food crops.(Via Kate Clancy)