Welcome to Altmetric’s “High Five” for November, a discussion of the top five scientific papers with the highest Altmetric scores this month. On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
The theme for this month’s papers is shocking (and not-so-shocking) findings.
Paper #1. Sharing stickers – Are nonreligious children more generous?
In our first High Five paper for this month, “The Negative Association between Religiousness and Children’s Altruism across the World,” researchers in the fields of psychology and education investigate the relation between religiosity and morality in children. Using a sample of 1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six different countries, the study authors found that children from non-religiously identifying households were more apt to share their “favorite stickers” with others than were children from religiously identifying households (Christian and Muslim households). There were no significant differences in favorite-sticker-based generosity between children raised in Christian versus Muslim households.
Overall, our findings cast light on the cultural input of religion on prosocial behavior and contradict the common-sense and popular assumption that children from religious households are more altruistic and kind toward others. More generally, they call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite. – Decety et al. 2015
This paper was picked up by nearly 70 different news outlets and tweeted over 1,000 times. “Religious children are meaner than their secular counterparts, study finds,” headlined The Guardian.
Children from religious families are less kind and more punitive than those from non-religious households, according to a new study. At the same time, the report said that religious parents were more likely than others to consider their children to be “more empathetic and more sensitive to the plight of others”. – Harriet Sherwood, The Guardian
“Some religious people say religion is what makes people moral,” wrote Rachel Gross for Slate. “[But] many studies find no relationship between religion and morality. […] A new study from the University of Chicago claims to show that religion does not necessarily provide the foundation for more moral beings.”
Sharing stickers is a small thing, of course, but the researchers concluded that nonreligious households were better at fostering a sense of generosity and altruism in their kids. But why? It might be that nonreligious households encouraged children to use reason and logic to form moral conclusions, rather than laws and codes. – Rachel Gross, Slate
Gross pointed out several potential limitations of the study however. These include that the study focuses only on young children, whereas we may be more interested in the behavior of religious vs non-religious adults when it comes to people’s real-world altruistic tendencies. The study findings also contrast with some previous research that finds limited effects of religion on adults faced with morality tests.
The question is neither “is religion necessary for morality?”, nor “is religion evil?”. Rather, it is – the admittedly cumbersome – “what aspects of religion are related to which aspects of morality, under what conditions?”. Judging by the current state of the evidence, it looks like psychologists and other social scientists still have some work to do. – Jonathan Jong, The Conversation
Paper #2. Americans’ midlife distress
Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling. – Gina Kolata, New York Times
Our second High Five paper is titled “Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper documents a reported increase in the mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the United States between 1999 and 2013. According to Princeton University researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton, “[c]oncurrent declines in self-reported health, mental health, and ability to work, increased reports of pain, and deteriorating measures of liver function all point to increasing midlife distress.” Suggested reasons for the rising mortality among midlife white non-Hispanic Americans include increased opioid painkiller use and other substance abuse.
Anne was working on [researching] pain and morbidity, and I was working on suicide. At some point, I thought it would be useful to put the suicide data in the context of overall mortality, and did so in comparisons with other countries. We then immediately saw that the U.S. was doing very badly in this group, discovered the rising mortality rate, and saw that it could not all be suicides, though suicides contributed. So then we went through the causes of deaths, and found the poisonings. At first, we thought of cyanide, or accidentally drinking Drano, but then we realized what it was [alcohol and drugs]. – Angus Deaton, in a Q&A with Slate
The paper was covered by over 70 news outlets and over 35 blogs. It sparked some debate in the blogosphere, where some argued that the paper’s mortality findings for white non-Hispanic U.S. adults were inflated due to errors of age aggregation during data analysis. However, the general consensus in media and blog reports about the study was that the observed relative increase in white American mortality is robust, even if the effect is not as large as originally reported.
Case and Deaton find dramatic decreases in mortality rates in other rich countries, decreases on the order of 30%. So, even after we revise their original claim that death rates for 45-54’s are going up, it’s still noteworthy that they haven’t sharply declined in the U.S., given what’s happened elsewhere. – Andrew Gelman
The PLOS Health Perspectives blog provided a contextualized summary of the paper’s primary findings.
The best findings in science aren’t the ones that make you go “cool!”, they’re the ones that make you go “huh?” A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported a strange and unexpected finding. By looking at data from the CDC, researchers were able to evaluate mortality rates per 100,000 individuals, and compare this between ethnic groups. While there’s generally been a decrease in all-cause mortality, they found an increase in the mortality of middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women in the US between 1999 and 2013. – Atif Kukaswadia, PLOS blogs
- Further Speculations on White Mortality, by Ross Douthat, New York Times
- Is the Death Rate Really Increasing for Middle-Aged White Americans? By Andrew Gelman, Slate
- The full study is available here.
Paper #3. Invasion of human tissue by genetically altered… tapeworm cells
Our third High Five paper, “Malignant transformation of Hymenolepis nana in a human host,” was published this month in the New England Journal of Medicine. The title of this scientific paper may seem banal, but the topic of the study is quite the opposite. The paper is actually based on a case study of a 41-year-old man in Colombia who presented with fatigue, fever, cough and weight loss, and who was later diagnosed with… a cancer he caught from his tapeworm! It appears that cancer can spread from the tapeworm Hymenolepis nana, the most common type of human tapeworm, into a human host.
The case study is heartbreaking in that the patient died from his strange disease before he could ever be treated once the CDC discovered he was suffering from a tapeworm cancer. However, the study might help researchers diagnose this disease in other HIV patients.
The study authors reported:
Human disease caused by parasite-derived cancer cells is a novel finding. Multicellular parasites that live in host tissue generally possess cellular mechanisms for host tissue invasion and immune evasion; these mechanisms could potentially be co-opted during malignant transformation within the host. The host–parasite interaction that we report should stimulate deeper exploration of the relationships between infection and cancer.
The study was picked up by over 70 news outlets and a dozen blogs. NPR headlined, “A Man In Colombia Got Cancer And It Came From A Tapeworm.”
DNA analysis revealed a shock: The cancer cells came from dwarf tapeworms (Hymenolepis nana), pathologist Atis Muehlenbachs of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and colleagues report in the Nov. 5 New England Journal of Medicine. Contagious cancers affect dogs, Tasmanian devils and clams, but this is the first time researchers have found a parasite giving a person cancer. HIV infection had weakened the man’s immune system so that tapeworm stem cells could grow unchecked, the researchers speculate. Mutations then turned the stem cells into cancer. The case raises concerns that people with weakened immune systems may be in danger of contracting similar tapeworm cancers. – Tina Hesman Saey, Science News
This disease is likely rare, but researchers have no idea how rare yet. According to Matthew B. Laurens, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Maryland School of the findings “highlight our need to strengthen cancer diagnosis and data collection in developing countries.”
- Horrified Doctors Find “Crazy” Tapeworm Cancer in Patient’s Brain, by George Dvorsky, Gizmodo
Paper #4. Is coffee good for me?
Coffee has long been lauded for its potential health benefits. But is coffee really good for you? Our next High Five paper is titled “Association of coffee consumption with total and cause-specific mortality in three large prospective cohorts.” This paper, published in Circulation, finds (not-so-shockingly) that higher consumption of coffee, both caffeinated coffee and decaffeinated coffee, is associated with lower risk of total mortality.
Compared to non-drinkers, coffee consumption one to five cups/d[ay] was associated with lower risk of mortality, while coffee consumption more than five cups/d[ay] was not associated with risk of mortality. – Ding et al. 2015
NPR headlined, “Drink To Your Health: Study Links Daily Coffee Habit To Longevity.” Nicholas Bakalar at the New York Times Well blog also covered the study, writing: “A large study has found that drinking coffee is associated with a reduced risk of dying from heart disease and certain other causes.” The authors of the study were careful to point out, however, that the findings are observational and thus can’t reveal any cause and effect relationships between coffee and heart disease or mortality.
We’re not sure exactly how coffee is [linked] to all these benefits. The coffee bean itself is loaded with many different nutrients and phytochemicals. And my guess is that they’re working together to have some of these benefits. We [see] similar benefits from caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. That’s important, because it suggests that caffeine is not responsible for [the benefit]. – Study co-author Walter Willett, in NPR Q&A
Paper #5. Spreadable antibiotic resistance
Our final High Five paper caused quite a stir in the media, and rightly so. “Emergence of plasmid-mediated colistin resistance mechanism MCR-1 in animals and human beings in China: a microbiological and molecular biological study” was published in The Lancet this month. The paper finds, in simpler terms, that antibiotic resistant E. coli, or bacteria that can survive the typical drug treatments used to fight infections, can pass the gene that makes them resistant on to other bacteria. And that is not good. It means, for example, that E. coli that develop antibiotic resistance in a farm animal environment, where animals such as pigs are often heavily treated with antibiotics, can transfer their antibiotic resistance to other strains of harmful bacteria.
The team already has evidence of the gene being transferred between common bacteria such as E. coli, which causes urinary tract and many other types of infection, and Klesbsiella pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia and other infections. – Kate Kelland, Reuters via Scientific American
“This is a reminder that, when it comes to resistance, it is not just about what antibiotics are prescribed locally, but their use at a global level,” Michael Loughlin, a senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, writes for The Conversation. “Antibiotic resistant infections are a worldwide issue, and the response to them should be at a similar scale.”
Researchers in China recently found E. coli bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic colistin, often called the antibiotic of last resort. While experts have been warning that the finding heralds a post-antibiotic era what is concerning healthcare professionals is that the circle of DNA that makes the bacteria resistant to colistin can be passed on to other strains of harmful bacteria. This circle of DNA, known as MCR-1, was found on a circular structure of DNA known as a plasmid. Plasmids carry “optional extras” for bacteria: genes that are not essential for survival but can provide a benefit. In this case, surviving in the presence of colistin. Some plasmids can be copied and passed on to other bacteria, giving them the optional extras. – Michael Loughlin, The Conversation
It is increasingly important to limit antibiotic overuse in the agriculture and farm animal industries. One thing consumers can do is purchase meats from responsible farmers who don’t treat healthy animals with antibiotics.
- The Guardian view on antibiotic resistance: a clear and present danger, The Guardian
- New “Superbug” Gene Found in Animals and People in China, Reuters, via Scientific American
- Gene that makes bacteria immune to last-resort antibiotic can spread, Beth Mole, ArsTechnica