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August 23, 2011

Supreme Court to re-examine teh valueof eyewitness testimony

Studies have shown that roughly one-third of postive witness identifications are totally wrong. Many of these (as many as 25,000 a year) result in wrongful convictions, while the actual perpetrators walk free and clear. 34 Years Later, Supreme Court Will Revisit Eyewitness IDs - NYTimes.com
In November, the Supreme Court will return to the question of what the Constitution has to say about the use of eyewitness evidence. The last time the court took a hard look at the question was in 1977. Since then, the scientific understanding of human memory has been transformed. Indeed, there is no area in which social science research has done more to illuminate a legal issue. More than 2,000 studies on the topic have been published in professional journals in the past 30 years. What they collectively show is that it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness’s identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination. The unreliability of eyewitness identification is matched by its power. “There is almost nothing more convincing,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote in a 1981 dissent, quoting from a leading study, “than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, ‘That’s the one!’ ” The American Psychological Association, in a friend-of-the-court brief in the new Supreme Court case, said “research shows that juries tend to ‘over believe’ eyewitness testimony.” Experts in the field are pleased that the Supreme Court will again consider the place of eyewitness evidence in the criminal justice system. . . .

August 22, 2011

Study finds that humans, not rats, spread the Black Plague

Black Death study lets rats off the hook | World news | The Guardian
Rats weren't the carriers of the plague after all. A study by an archaeologist looking at the ravages of the Black Death in London, in late 1348 and 1349, has exonerated the most famous animal villains in history. "The evidence just isn't there to support it," said Barney Sloane, author of The Black Death in London. "We ought to be finding great heaps of dead rats in all the waterfront sites but they just aren't there. And all the evidence I've looked at suggests the plague spread too fast for the traditional explanation of transmission by rats and fleas. It has to be person to person – there just isn't time for the rats to be spreading it." He added: "It was certainly the Black Death but it is by no means certain what that disease was, whether in fact it was bubonic plague." Sloane, who was previously a field archaeologist with the Museum of London, working on many medieval sites, is now attached to English Heritage. He has concluded that the spread of the 1348-49 plague, the worst to hit the capital, was far faster, with an impact far worse than had been estimated previously. . . .

August 20, 2011

Fun fact: Humans don't have pheromones

Pheromones, body care products, and sexual attraction: Don't believe the hype. - By Randi Hutter Epstein - Slate Magazine
. . . If only it were so. Pheromones, in scientific parlance, are aromatic chemicals emitted by one member of a species that affect another member of the same species, either by altering its hormones or by compelling it to change its behavior. When they work, they are truly bewitching. For instance, when a female silkworm moth wants to get her guy, she sprays a chemical called bombykol from her abdominal gland and her targeted male transforms into a sex slave, trailing the scent until he mounts her. It's an enviable feat. Still, it's a big leap to extrapolate from bugs to people—or even to lab mice, for that matter. No scientific study has ever proven conclusively that mammals have pheromones. "The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media," says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there "is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us—who we mate with, who we want to be with. It's this mythical perspective." And marketers, like women's magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That's how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone-cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies. . . . A true human pheromone would have universal appeal across the species. But the latest research on olfaction hints that our smell systems are much more individualized than we ever imagined. Scientists now estimate that humans have roughly 350 working olfactory genes, which may vary from person to person. Considering that spread, the idea of a truly effective bottled aphrodisiac seems silly—or as Rachel Herz, a Brown University psychologist and author of The Scent of Desire, calls it, a "commercial fantasy." Still, this evidence has not changed the fact that, today, you can go online and choose from an assortment of copulin-spiked fragrances or body lotions that provide a double-whammy of vaginal and sweat secretions. One company promises that the copulins in its cucumber-melon essential oils "block a man's ability to judge a woman's attractiveness based on her looks alone and has been shown to subconsciously raise testosterone levels in men by 100%!" For male shoppers, Dial has a new androstenedione soap, Dial Magnetic, that claims to lure women. . . .