Random Samples

Science  21 Sep 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5845, pp. 1657
  1. NETWATCH: Taking Back Archaeology

    Cranks continually shanghai archaeological discoveries to support nutty arguments about lost civilizations and visits from ancient astronauts. Now, two self-described angry archaeologists in Britain want to set the record straight.

    Bad Archaeology debunks a range of pseudoscience, including claims that a 1513 Ottoman map accurately depicts Antarctica. Touted as evidence that ancient mariners—or even aliens—surveyed the continent long ago, the map actually reflects belief in an as-yet-undiscovered southern landmass with little resemblance to Antarctica. The site also reveals the pseudoscientists' habit of plucking puzzling artifacts out of context to undermine orthodox interpretations. An example: the “batteries of Babylon,” 2000-year-old Iraqi jars that some authors assert were used to generate current even though no electrical devices existed.



    According to a new study conducted at Cornell University, the digits in the price of a house can subliminally manipulate how much you're willing to pay for it.

    In housing data from Long Island and south Florida, consumer behavior researcher Manoj Thomas and colleagues found that the number of zeroes in a house's list price affected the sale price, with each zero reducing the final price by about a third of a percent. Thus, a house listed for $484,700 will sell for about $1300 more than a house listed for $485,000. “This is arguably the most important purchase we make,” Thomas says. “So this is not an error of neglect, it's the way our brains work.”

    The researchers hypothesize that everyday experience teaches us that round (imprecise) numbers are usually larger than nonround (sharp) numbers. Buyers perceive the more precise price as being lower already—and firmer—and do not try to undercut it by as much. If the phenomenon holds up, says Priya Raghubir, a consumer behavior expert at the University of California, Berkeley, it could be useful in other settings. For example, a speed limit of 24 or 26 could cause drivers to slow down more than a speed limit of 25.



    For more than a decade, British shopkeepers have had to display both metric and imperial measurements in preparation for a full conversion to metric. But many traditionalists have fought the trend—such as the Metric Martyrs, inspired by a grocer who in 2001 was convicted of selling bananas by the pound.

    Now, after getting extensive feedback from both industry and the public, the European Commission has backed off plans to eradicate imperial measurements by 31 December 2009. Instead, it will allow the United Kingdom to keep its pounds, feet, miles, and pints for domestic use. Exports have to be metric.

    E.U. Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen said the decision “honors the culture and tradition of Great Britain,” adding that he hoped this sign of E.U. flexibility would help the United States. see the virtue of accepting “metric-only labeled” imports. The U.K. and the U.S. stand alone among major nations in refusing to capitulate to metrication.



    Good chess players are really smart, right? Only up to a point, according to a study that concludes practice is more important than brains.

    Merim Bilalić, a psychology doctoral student at Oxford University in the U.K., studied 57 primary and secondary school chess players, giving them chess problems and IQ tests and logging their daily chess practice.

    Although years of experience and IQ correlated with chess skills, the researchers found that the highest correlation was with the number of hours a day the children spent playing or studying the game. And among the top 23 players (all boys), the correlation of chess skill with IQ disappeared. Within this high-IQ group (average 133, versus 114 for the other 34 players), it wasn't the brightest but those who practiced the most who did best, the researchers report in the September issue of Intelligence. The smartest ones actually practiced less.

    Chess has long pitted proponents of “expertise” theory, which emphasizes the cultivation of specific skills, against those who argue that talent is important. Psychologist Neil Charness of Florida State University in Tallahassee says that the study bears out “the drudge theory of expertise. Once you're about average IQ, the most important predictor is deliberate practice.” But Robert Howard of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, points out that chess prodigies “rapidly outpace the average grandmaster” despite much less practice time.

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