Modern day, real life demonstration of the lost letter technique exposes discrimination against atheism in the US Postal Service
Simon Oxenham covers the best and the worst from the world of psychology and neuroscience. Formerly writing with the pseudonym "Neurobonkers", Simon has a history of debunking dodgy scientific research and tearing apart questionable science journalism in an irreverent style. Simon has written and blogged for publishers including: The Psychologist, Nature, Scientific American and The Guardian. His work has been praised in the New York Times and The Guardian and described in Pearson's Textbook of Psychology as "excoriating reviews of bad science/studies”.
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In the 1960's Stanley Milgram introduced the lost letter technique which had a notable impact on the field of social psychology (unfortunately the original paper is still paywalled even though it is now two decades after his death). One of the greatest inherent problems with social psychology is that you can't look directly at what is going on inside someone's head. People have a tendency to say one thing and do another. Milgram assessed political views by dropping letters addressed to "friends of the Nazi party", the "friends of the Communist party", to "medical research associates" and to a control group; on the floor and waited for passers by to post them. In the original expermient 72% of the letters to the medical researchers arrived, the controls got 71% while the Nazi's and Communists both tied at 25%. In the years that followed the lost letter technique was altered by social psychologists to predicts elections and measure attitudes to race.
The technique has fallen out of use in the digital age. Today we have more high-tech ways of measuring behaviour, but it is still extremely difficult to accurately measure the difference between what people say in public and what people do in real life.
A small german company that could only be described as a gaggle of evangelical atheist shoemakers noticed in autumn of last year that their parcels to customers in the US were going missing at an alarmingly high rate. They made a number of enquiries with the US Postal Service (USPS) which naturally went ignored. Official complaints were logged with DHL but the response was always that “the disappearances were always stateside”. The German shoemakers wondered if the mysterious disappearances could perhaps be explained by the fact that they had recently begun wrapping their parcels in tape labelled “ATHEIST”. The company decided to take matters in to their own hands and run an experiment. The experiment only differs from Milgram’s experiment in that instead of dropping their parcels on the floor the atheists actually put them in to the post.
Now I should say at this point that the graphic below did ring my PR stunt alarm bells. We should take any study of this kind with a pinch of salt. I decided to contact the shoemakers and ask some more questions. I am informed that the group are working with a social psychologist to properly write the experiment up for peer review, I was assured that:
“We have numerous emails, letters and spreadsheets documenting complaining correspondence with DHL, who were in the tricky position of having to represent USPS to us. We have lots of customer testimony of disappearances and delays from pre the study and from within the study... we would include this in a full write-up of our study.”
I wish I could say that the levels of prejudice demonstrated in this study are shockingly out of kilter with how people say they would act towards atheists. Unfortunately, prejudice towards atheists is not so low it can only be measured using clandestine behavioural techniques. A Gallup poll conducted last year suggested that atheists are the most distrusted group measured. Only 54% of Americans asked said they would consider voting for an atheist President:
It seems atheists have a long way to go before their era of prejudice comes to an end.
Hat tip: @aughraseye for the Milgram reference.
Study website: Atheist Berlin
Image Credit: Atherist Berlin
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- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
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