from the world's big
Study: Cigarette Butts Help Birds Fight Parasites
Ever feel sorry for a sidewalk sparrow with a cigarette butt in its beak? Did you sigh in wistful sadness at seeing nature's beauty polluted by human industry, which turns all loveliness to grime? Or try to fight off the weltschmerz with gallows humor? Well, cut it out. Seriously. Wipe that smug frown off your face and know this: Urban birds have a good reason to put cigarette detritus in their nests. According to this paper, anyway, cast-off cigarettes help ward off parasites.
Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez and her colleagues at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México suspected that the nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes might serve as insect repellents, because many bird species are known to line their nests with plants that have that effect. In their study, published today in the journal Biology Letters, they tested this theory in two ways.
First, they found 55 active nests (27 from house sparrows, 28 from house finches) on their university campus, and rigged them up with a battery-powered heat source, which attracted heat-seeking parasitic mites. The heat source was covered with sticky tape. That let the researchers attach plastic fibers from filters taken from a case of Marlboros (some unsmoked, some from a tool of modern science I didn't know about—a cigarette-smoking machine). The two different forms of cigarette filter allowed the researchers to hone in on the chemicals of smoking, because after smoke passes through a filter it contains much more nicotine and other chemicals than does an unsmoked filter. The sticky surface also trapped the unsuspecting mites.
By counting mites in these traps, Suárez-Rodríguez et al. found a nice clear relationship between cigarette leavings and parasites: The more traces of smoked cigarette filters in a nest, the fewer mites.
So their theory worked "in the lab." Step 2 was to get confirmation in the "real world." So they collected 28 more sparrow nests and 29 house finch nests, in each case right after the latest chicks had fledged. They measured the total amount of cellulose fiber from cigarettes in each, and, again, counted parasites. More than four out of five nests had some cigarette butts, and, again, the more of those were present, the fewer mites were found.
Do birds actively seek out used cigarettes because of their anti-parasite effect? Or is it a happy accident that these things they collect for insulation happen to repel mites? The authors note that their study can't answer that one. But birds needn't be aware of what they are doing for their behavior to be a beneficial adaptation to urban life. (After all, cities themselves don't arise from conscious planning; they're a side-effect of a plethora of human motivations, from feeling safe in numbers to enjoying economies of scale.) Also, write Suárez-Rodríguez et al., their study doesn't touch the question of whether the benefits of nicotine from the butts outweigh the hazards to chicks posed by cigarette chemicals.
What we do know is that birds in urban areas seem to be adjusting to the environment we humans have made: Great tits in large cities sing faster and at a higher pitch (presumably to be heard over the din of city life) while other species just sing louder (Dave Hubbell notes here that nightingales in Germany, presumably unaware they're in such a law-abiding place, have been known to violate noise regulations by boosting their volume as high as 95 decibels). And robins in London have turned to singing at night, when the city is quieter.
So we shouldn't be too surprised if some birds are also making use of our recreational chemistry. (It would be fascinating to know, by the way, if cities with a lot of smokers have bigger sparrow or finch populations than places where few people indulge. Cigarette butts appeared in 90 percent of the house sparrow nests in this study, which suggests that if they confer a real advantage against mites, house sparrows have it a little easier in Tulsa (where smokers are nearly 25 percent of adults) than in New York City (14 percent). In any event, this study is a reminder not to sentimentally imagine that there is a "natural world," separate from ours, in which animals live their separate lives. We may prefer a bird's nest wreathed in beautiful green fronds that suit our idea of nature. But the owners might not.
Thanks to the good people at Evolution:This View of Life for the pointer to this paper.
Follow me on Twitter: @davidberreby
Suarez-Rodriguez, M., Lopez-Rull, I., & Macias Garcia, C. (2012). Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe? Biology Letters, 9 (1), 20120931-20120931 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2012.0931
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From "if-by-whiskey" to the McNamara fallacy, being able to spot logical missteps is an invaluable skill.
- A fallacy is the use of invalid or faulty reasoning in an argument.
- There are two broad types of logical fallacies: formal and informal.
- A formal fallacy describes a flaw in the construction of a deductive argument, while an informal fallacy describes an error in reasoning.
Appeal to privacy<p>When someone behaves in a way that negatively affects (or could affect) others, but then gets upset when others criticize their behavior, they're likely engaging in the appeal to privacy — or "mind your own business" — fallacy. Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who speeds excessively on the highway, considering his driving to be his own business.</li><li>Someone who doesn't see a reason to bathe or wear deodorant, but then boards a packed 10-hour flight.</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "You're not the boss of me." "Worry about yourself."</p>
Sunk cost fallacy<p>When someone argues for continuing a course of action despite evidence showing it's a mistake, it's often a sunk cost fallacy. The flawed logic here is something like: "We've already invested so much in this plan, we can't give up now." Examples:<br></p><ul><li>Someone who intentionally overeats at an all-you-can-eat buffet just to get their "money's worth"</li><li>A scientist who won't admit his theory is incorrect because it would be too painful or costly</li></ul><p>Language to watch out for: "We must stay the course." "I've already invested so much...." "We've always done it this way, so we'll keep doing it this way."</p>
If-by-whiskey<p>This fallacy is named after a speech given in 1952 by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noah_S._Sweat" target="_blank">Noah S. "Soggy" Sweat, Jr.</a>, a state representative for <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi" target="_blank">Mississippi</a>, on the subject of whether the state should legalize alcohol. Sweat's argument on prohibition was (to paraphrase):<br></p><p><em>If, by whiskey, you mean the devil's brew that causes so many problems in society, then I'm against it. But if whiskey means the oil of conversation, the philosopher's wine, "</em><em>the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning;" then I am certainly for it.</em></p>
Slippery slope<p>This fallacy involves arguing against a position because you think choosing it would start a chain reaction of bad things, even though there's little evidence to support your claim. Example:<br></p><ul><li>"We can't allow abortion because then society will lose its general respect for life, and it'll become harder to punish people for committing violent acts like murder."</li><li>"We can't legalize gay marriage. If we do, what's next? Allowing people to marry cats and dogs?" (Some people actually made this <a href="https://www.daytondailynews.com/news/national/cats-marrying-dogs-and-five-other-things-same-sex-marriage-won-mean/dLV9jKqkJOWUFZrSBETWkK/" target="_blank">argument</a> before same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S.)</li></ul><p>Of course, sometimes decisions <em>do </em>start a chain reaction, which could be bad. The slippery slope device only becomes a fallacy when there's no evidence to suggest that chain reaction would actually occur.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "If we do that, then what's next?"</p>
"There is no alternative"<p><span style="background-color: initial;">A modification of the </span><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">false dilemma</a><span style="background-color: initial;">, this fallacy (often abbreviated to TINA) argues for a specific position because there are no realistic alternatives. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used this exact line as a slogan to defend capitalism, and it's still used today to that same end: Sure, capitalism has its problems, but we've seen the horrors that occur when we try anything else, so there is no alternative.</span><br></p><p>Language to watch out for: "If I had a magic wand…" "What <em>else</em> are we going to do?!"</p>
Ad hoc arguments<p>An ad hoc argument isn't really a logical fallacy, but it is a fallacious rhetorical strategy that's common and often hard to spot. It occurs when someone's claim is threatened with counterevidence, so they come up with a rationale to dismiss the counterevidence, hoping to protect their original claim. Ad hoc claims aren't designed to be generalizable. Instead, they're typically invented in the moment. <a href="https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Ad_hoc" target="_blank">RationalWiki</a> provides an example:<br></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It is clearly said in the Bible that the Ark was 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Bob: "A purely wooden vessel of that size could not be constructed; the largest real wooden vessels were Chinese treasure ships which required iron hoops to build their keels. Even the <em>Wyoming</em> which was built in 1909 and had iron braces had problems with her hull flexing and opening up and needed constant mechanical pumping to stop her hold flooding."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">Alice: "It's possible that God intervened and allowed the Ark to float, and since we don't know what gopher wood is, it is possible that it is a much stronger form of wood than any that comes from a modern tree."</p>
Snow job<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This fallacy occurs when someone doesn't really have a strong argument, so they just throw a bunch of irrelevant facts, numbers, anecdotes and other information at the audience to confuse the issue, making it harder to refute the original claim. Example:</span><br></p><ul><li>A tobacco company spokesperson who is confronted about the health risks of smoking, but then proceeds to show graph after graph depicting many of the other ways people develop cancer, and how cancer metastasizes in the body, etc.</li></ul><p>Watch out for long-winded, data-heavy arguments that seem confusing by design.</p>
McNamara fallacy<p>Named after <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_McNamara" target="_blank">Robert McNamara</a>, the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Secretary_of_Defense" target="_blank">U.S. secretary of defense</a> from 1961 to 1968, this fallacy occurs when decisions are made based solely on <em>quantitative metrics or observations,</em> ignoring other factors. It stems from the Vietnam War, in which McNamara sought to develop a formula to measure progress in the war. He decided on bodycount. But this "objective" formula didn't account for other important factors, such as the possibility that the Vietnamese people would never surrender.<br></p><p>You could also imagine this fallacy playing out in a medical situation. Imagine a terminal cancer patient has a tumor, and a certain procedure helps to reduce the size of the tumor, but also causes a lot of pain. Ignoring quality of life would be an example of the McNamara fallacy.</p><p>Language to watch out for: "You can't measure that, so it's not important."</p>
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".
Generation Ships<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a1e6445c7168d293a6da3f9600f534a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/H2f0Wd3zNj0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Many of the most popular apps are about self-improvement.
Emotions are the newest hot commodity, and we can't get enough.