Random Samples

Science  16 May 2003:
Vol. 300, Issue 5622, pp. 1083
  1. Blowing Off Self-Esteem

    The self-esteem wave may have crested. For the last couple of decades, it has been an article of faith among experts of many stripes that high self-esteem is the font from which all human goodness springs. The movement reached a fever pitch in the 1980s when California funded a state task force on self-esteem, claiming that “many, if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in … low self-esteem.”

    Self-esteem movement promotes egalitarian superiority.


    Research on the subject has yielded a mixed bag of results. But a lengthy review of the literature, led by psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, Tallahassee, confirms that high self-regard per se is not necessarily good nor does it translate into higher estimates by others of a person's brains, beauty, or virtue.

    Psychologist Robert Bjork of the University of California, Los Angeles, says faith in the powers of self-esteem has led to the credo that “every kid should feel good about him- or herself … in some contest, for example, whatever the actual merits of their carved pumpkin every kid had to get the same prize.” In fact, though, “self-esteem is a result, not a cause, of doing well,” the authors write in this month's issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

    They also observe that “indiscriminate praise might just as easily promote narcissism.” After all, points out Brown University psychologist Lewis Lipsitt, Hitler thought highly of himself.

    Self-esteem as panacea is “a very compelling illusion,” because it correlates with happiness and other good things, says Baumeister, but psychologists “were a little too eager in promoting the program before the data were in.” Baumeister says his current research contains quite a different lesson: “Forget about self-esteem—concentrate on self-control.”

  2. No Zygote Shortage

    Although scientists say fertilized human embryos are not easy to come by, a new survey of fertility clinics shows that there may be a lot more potentially available for research than previously thought. A survey conducted by RAND Corp. and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology reports that there are 11,000 human zygotes sitting frozen in fertility clinics that parents are willing to donate to science.

    Overall, the 340 U.S. assisted reproductive technology practices that responded to the survey said that they were holding 396,526 frozen embryos as of April 2002—almost double previous estimates. The vast majority—88.2%—were being held for possible future use by the donating couples. Another 9000 are slated for donation to other couples, and 9000 are marked for later destruction. The survey, which didn't include about 90 other clinics, is the first concrete accounting of embryo supply and disposition, the authors claim in the May issue of Fertility and Sterility.

    Lead author David Hoffman, a partner in IVF Florida Reproductive Associates, says that for now, most of the 11,000 embryos are sitting unused partly because couples are wary of passing them off to what they view as “unregulated” private researchers. Lifting the ban on the use of federal funds for research on human embryonic stem cells derived after 9 August 2001 would help alter that perception, he said. Hoffman and colleagues estimate that if all 11,000 were to be donated for stem cell studies, at least 150 new cell lines could be created—more than 10 times the number now available to U.S.-funded researchers.

  3. Spying On The Cortex

    “Behavior genetics is just the beginning with respect to privacy [concerns]. … The invasion of privacy from brain imaging will make some of these genetic issues look almost simple.”

    Harvard Provost Steven Hyman

    former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, at a “conversation about behavioral genetics” held last week at AAAS, publisher of Science.

  4. Bend It Like AIBO


    The referee blew the whistle; a player from Georgia Tech broke out of the pack and kicked the soccer ball toward the goal. But the Carnegie Mellon goalie blocked the shot and sent the ball back the other way. The players stopped to search for the ball, their eyes flashing and heads twitching. The game had gone to the dogs—Carnegie Mellon's soccer-playing robot dogs, to be exact.

    The scene was the final day of the first American Open in robot soccer, held at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh last week. More than 110 researchers from North and South America watched the autonomous robo-dogs playing in a large room. There were plenty of unforeseen challenges. Some robots were distracted by a group of preschoolers—they thought the toddlers' small hands and knees were balls. The lighting made it hard to spot the orange ball. And sometimes the dogs would act like dogs—clustering in packs that had to be broken up.

    All the players are the same breed—Sony AIBO robots—but owners customize the software, programming the dogs before the games and during breaks. Things never go as expected, “so you really hack on the code as you go through the competition,” explains CMU roboticist Brett Browning. The dogs' next challenge will be at the International RoboCup games in Padua, Italy, in July. The long-term goal of the International RoboCup Federation is to design “humanoid” robots that can beat human soccer players by the year 2050.

  5. Curator Sues Museum Over Firing

    Anthropologist Anna Roosevelt stirred up her peers in 1996 when she suggested that human settlers may have had a significant ecological impact on the Amazon hundreds of years before modern-day loggers came along. Now, she's taking on her former bosses at the Field Museum in Chicago.

    Roosevelt and the Field Museum: relationship gone sour.


    Last week, a federal court held its first hearing on her gender-discrimination lawsuit against the museum, which fired her in December 2002. The museum says it was because she was double dipping by holding a second full-time job at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). But Roosevelt claims the museum dismissed her because she had repeatedly spoken out against what she perceived as sexist attitudes among many of her male colleagues and supervisors.

    Roosevelt was hired by the museum in 1991 and by the university in 1994. For the next 5 years, she worked half the year as a museum curator, at half salary, and half as a full professor at UIC. “But after the agreement expired,” says Felisia Wesson, the museum's general counsel, “she continued to work full-time at UIC for half the year even though she resumed drawing a full-time, full-year's salary from the museum.” Roosevelt disputes that claim, saying that for years she took unpaid leaves of absences from UIC for a portion of each year and only became full time in January 2003.

    Museum officials say her conduct was unethical and, thus, grounds for dismissal. But Roosevelt says that the museum was “looking for a pretext” to fire her. Both sides agree that their relationship had been strained, but disagree on the causes of the tension. For example, Roosevelt says that the museum denied her research space for her collections but routinely granted it to male curators. In response, museum officials say that they first needed title to the collections, which she refused to hand over.

  6. They Said It

    1. Richard Alley, Penn State glaciologist
    1. chair of the National Academies committee on abrupt climate change, at a 7 May Senate hearing to review the Bush Administration's strategic plan for climate change research. Alley made the point that scientific uncertainty should not stop efforts to mitigate climate change.

    “We are uncertain human beings … but we still have to do things. I'm teaching my oldest daughter to drive … even though I'm worried that a drunk driver could come out of nowhere and cause an accident.”

  7. Jobs

    New Hope. After a 3-year stint with the pharmaceutical industry, cancer researcher Michael Friedman is returning to his roots in medicine. Friedman, 59, has been named CEO and president of the City of Hope medical research center near Los Angeles.

    A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Public Health Service and former administrator at the National Cancer Institute, he was also acting director of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the late 1990s and approved the direct marketing of drugs to consumers, the re-introduction of thalidomide for select therapies, and a continuing partnership with industry to help fund FDA.

    The City of Hope job “weaves together all the threads of my career,” says Friedman, adding that he aims to build on the center's “great strengths in basic biology and clinical research,” particularly work on stem cells and developmental biology.

    Clay head. Boston's Clay Mathematics Institute has chosen James Carlson of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to succeed founding president Arthur Jaffe, a Harvard mathematician who resigned last fall after a simmering feud with the institute's founders.

    “It's a way to give something back to the community,” says the 56-year-old Carlson, who has accepted a 3-year term but will continue to run a summer program for high school students at Utah, where he's been a math professor since 1975. “Clay does wonderful things in support of young mathematicians and promising students.”

    Carlson says he will lean heavily on a five-person scientific advisory board, rebuilt after two of three former members left in solidarity with Jaffe's departure. “We wanted someone who is congenial and gets along well with everybody,” says Princeton's Andrew Wiles, a member of the advisory board and head of the search committee.

    “I wish him luck,” says Jaffe, who clashed with the all-in-the-family board of directors that runs the 5-year-old institute best known for its million-dollar Millennium Prizes (Science, 26 May 2000, p. 1328).

  8. Awards

    A Nobel sign? If you've got some spare cash, put it on cosmologists Andrew Lange of the California Institute of Technology and Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to win a Nobel prize. The pair has just been jointly named California Scientist of the Year by the California Science Center museum in Los Angeles, which brags that nearly a quarter of its 59 recipients have gone on to win the big one. More to the point, scientists believe that the importance to cosmology of Perlmutter's observations of distant supernovae and Lange's precise measurements of the cosmic microwave background make them solid bets for Stockholm.

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