TIME commentary

The Big Bang Did NOT Occur 50 Years Ago

The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964
The Big Bang: Just to be clear, this did not happen in 1964 LAGUNA DESIGN; Getty Images/Brand X

Human beings are a very small part of a very big universe. Figuring some of that universe out is to our credit—but let's not overstate the things we've accomplished.

If you’re over 50, you probably remember the Big Bang—indeed, it would be hard to forget it. One moment you’re part of an infinitely tiny, infinitely dense point that contains the entirety of the universe, and the next moment you’re accelerating outward faster than the speed of light, expanding along with space-time itself. That’s a remember-when day if ever there was one.

You might argue that the Big Bang occurred a bit earlier than 50 years ago—13.8 billion years earlier, in fact—and most people might agree with you. What actually happened 50 years ago was that Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs made measurements of the cosmic background radiation that provided the first solid evidence of the Big Bang’s existence. Still, that didn’t stop Bell Labs itself from noting the event with a recent e-mail blast inviting recipients to “Celebrate the 50th Anniv. of the Big Bang.” In light of a just-released AP poll showing that a stunning 51% of Americans say they are “not at all confident” or “not too confident” that the Big Bang even occurred, the last thing we need is more confusion on the point.

OK, it’s not entirely fair to pick on Bell Labs. The mere fact that whoever composed the message felt a need to abbreviate the word “anniversary” reflects how hard it is to get anyone to open an e-mail message today unless the subject line is short and semaphores excitement. Still the e-mail does, even indirectly, speak to a certain anthropocentrism in the way we think about science and the entire enterprise of discovery. It’s not the event or the phenomenon itself that counts, it’s the fact that we—a clever if sublimely narcissistic species—at last stumbled onto it.

Geneticists have been guilty of this for a while now, talking about having “discovered” the genes for this or that trait, even though the genes were there all the time and the only things that changed was that we finally looked for them. Some researchers are self-correcting—preferring to talk about “pinpointing” or “identifying” genes—but others still opt for the Christopher Columbus phrasing, if only because it makes their work sound more dramatic.

Columbus himself came in for similar revisionist thinking since, like the genes, the New World was there all along. And of course, if anyone did any discovering, it was the indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years before the Europeans even hoisted anchor and ventured out.

Explorers have always gotten the hyperbole treatment. Ever since the mid-20th century we’ve been talking about the “conquest of space,” despite the fact that with the exception of nine trips to our nearby Moon, we’ve never gotten out of low Earth orbit. Calling that the conquest of space is a little like paddling around in Boston Harbor and saying you’ve conquered the oceans.

We do something similar with heroic accounts of “taming the continent,” something of an overstatement given that multiple centuries worth of droughts, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, dust bowls, forest fires and more have shown that the continent has retained its feral ability to bite back. We even overstate our talent for causing wholesale destruction—something you’d think we wouldn’t want to boast about. Environmentalists themselves have long warned that there’s a misplaced egotism in feel-good slogans about “saving the Earth.” The Earth will be perfectly fine, thank you very much. It’s survived multiple glaciations, asteroid hits and more in its long life and it will surely survive us, even if we temporarily toxify the place so much that the very species that created the mess—us—can’t live here anymore.

In the case of the Big Bang, it’s understandable to play up, even inadvertently, a graspable time frame like 50 years ago as opposed to a far less fathomable 13.8 billion. My colleague Michael Lemonick once playfully considered opening a story in TIME with the line, “Twelve million years ago last week a supernova exploded.” The then-science editor prudently nixed the idea—too great a risk of real misinformation leaking into the popular conversation. But the idea did speak to the way we all wrestle with the tininess of the time scales on which we live our lives compared to the vastness of the cosmic clock.

Human beings are undeniably an ingenious species. The things we’ve built, created and sussed out are genuinely remarkable. But they’re pinholes in the curtain compared to all there is to know. There’s no harm in being proud that we’re allowing some light in—just not too proud.

TIME human behavior

Your Baby Is a Racist—and Why You Can Live With That

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It don't come easy: bonding across racial lines requires overcoming some very old genetic programming Hero Images; Getty Images/Hero Images

From humanity's earliest era, we had evolved to distinguish in-groups from out-groups and to assign powerful value to those differences. Call it racism, but it helped us survive

You always suspected babies were no good, didn’t you? They’re loud, narcissistic, spoiled, volatile and not exactly possessed of good table manners. Now it turns out that they’re racists too.

The latest evidence for that decidedly unlovely trait comes from research out of the University of Washington that actually sought to explore one of babies’ more admirable characteristics: their basic sense of fairness. In the study, 15-month-old toddlers watched an experimenter with a collection of four small toys share them either evenly or unevenly with two other adult volunteers. When allowed to choose which experimenters the babies wanted to play with later, 70% of them preferred the ones who had divided the toys evenly.

Nice, but there was an exception: when the two adults who were receiving the evenly or unevenly divided toys were of different races and the race of the one who got more toys matched the babies’ own, the 70% preference for the fair distributor dropped and the share of babies wanting to play with the unfair one rose. The implication: unfairness is bad, unless someone from your clan is getting the extra goodies.

“If all babies care about is fairness, they would always pick the fair distributor,” said University of Washington associate professor psychology of Jessica Somerville, in a statement that accompanied the study. “But we’re also seeing that they’re interested in consequences for their own group members.”

OK, so that doesn’t speak well of human nature at even its sweetest and most ingenuous stage. But here’s the thing: if we weren’t rank racists when we were very little, the species probably never would have survived. The idea of in-group bias is well established in behavioral science, and it has its roots long ago, in humanity’s tribal era. The fact is, the people in your own band are more likely to nurture you, care for you and protect you from harm, while the people from the tribe over the hill are more likely to, well, eat you.

As soon as you become old enough to toddle away from the campfire and wander out on your own, it thus pays to recognize, at a glance, what an alien other looks like. Sometimes it’s dress or hairstyle that provides the telltale cue, but just as often it’s skin tone, hair texture and the shape of facial features. It was the human tendency to migrate and settle in parts of the world with varying climates that caused these physical differences to emerge in the first place.

“We didn’t start off as a multi-racial species,” psychologist Liz Phelps of New York University told me in my upcoming book about narcissism. “We have races simply because we dispersed.” Once we did disperse, however, those differences in appearance—skin tone especially—turbocharged our suspicion of the outsider.

A study by psychologist Yarrow Dunham, now at Yale University, showed that color is an especially salient feature for very young people to overlook. Children in a classroom experiment who were divided into two groups and given two different color t-shirts to wear were, later on, much likelier to remember good things about all of the children who wore their color shirt and bad things about the ones who wore the other. “Kids will begin to show these preferences right away, in the lab, on the spot,” Dunham told me. “It’s not just a preference, it’s also a learning bias—the children actually learn differentially about the in-group and the out-group.”

Sometimes, for small children, there can be a certain sweetness to the bias, since they may feel concern for the person of a different race, the assumption being that anyone who doesn’t look like them must be unhappy about that fact. When my older daughter was three or four years old, we approached an African American cashier in a store and she asked her, “Are you sad that you don’t have light skin?” I winced and began to splutter an apology, but the woman answered, “No, honey. Are you said that you don’t have dark skin?” When my daughter said no, the woman responded, “So you see? We’re both happy with who we are.”

The sweet phase of simply noticing racial differences fades, to be replaced either by a higher awareness of the meaningless of such matters or a toxic descent into assigning ugly, negative values to them. Which way any one baby goes depends on upbringing, community, era, temperament and a whole range of other variables. What we will never be, like it or not, is an entirely post-racial species. Our better impulses may wish that weren’t so, but our ancient impulses will always test us. They are tests we must, from babyhood, learn to pass.

TIME

We Want Your Pictures for Earth Day

Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006.
Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006. Camille Seaman

Google+ and TIME are teaming up to find beautiful pictures of our planet. Selections made by TIME's photo editors will be featured here on TIME.com on Earth Day

Earth doesn’t do ugly. There’s virtually no place you can live on the planet that at some point can’t knock you out with its flat-out gorgeousness—and we’re not just talking rainforests and coral reefs here. Badlands are anything but bad when you appreciate their raw, rugged beauty; the same is true of tundras and deserts and sprawling plains—fruited or not. The odds are at least one of these bowl-you-over vistas is located in your part of the world.

OK, so prove it. To honor Earth day 2014, Google+ and Time want to see your best picture of your beautiful Earth, which you can share with the straight-up hashtag #MyBeautifulEarth. Google+ will feature your images on a page of all of that local loveliness from now through April 22, which can be seen and savored in real time, as the page grows. Time’s photo editors will cull through the submissions, and the best of them will appear here on TIME.com on Earth Day. Earth being what it is—and people being what we are—it’s almost certain that at some point you’ve looked around yourself and wished that everybody could see the mesa or glacier or mountain or river or coastline or canyon or valley or bay just outside your window. On April 22, 2014, they could.

To share your photo, go to plus.google.com and click on “Share what’s new” in the Share box at the top of your stream, or open the Google+ app on your phone, and click the blue camera icon. Add a description for your photo, and include the hashtag #mybeautifulearth. Add your photo to your post, then add “Public” in the “To:” box. Click Share, and you’ve shared your part of the planet with the world.

TIME space

It’s a Moon! Saturn Expecting a Baby

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A small bulge in Saturn's A Ring (bottom left), may be the first signs of a moon being born NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

New findings from a NASA space probe suggest that one of the solar system's most fertile planets may be adding offspring number 63 to its family. The new moon has not been directly spotted yet, but scientists have already given it a nickname: Peggy

It’s not as if Saturn needed any more kids. The ringed planet already has 53 known moons and 9 more candidate ones—putting it just two shy of 64, which would make it kind of an octo-octo-mom. That’s an awfully big shopping bill when it’s back to school time.

But Saturn apparently can’t help itself, and according to new findings by NASA’s Cassini-Huygens space probe just published in the journal Icarus, baby number 63 may be being born.

The new arrival has not been spotted directly yet. What Cassini, which has been orbiting through the Saturnian system since 2004, has seen instead is a sort of bulge in Saturn’s A Ring—the outermost of its larger, brighter bands—that measures 750 mi. (1,200 km) long and 6 mi. (10 km) wide. The rings — made of ice, rock and dust — are believed to be the nurseries in which all of the moons were born, with material coalescing and clumping, adding more mass and thus more gravity, and growing bigger still. The new moon—if it exists—is a pipsqueak, perhaps only 0.5 mi. (0.8 km) in diameter, somewhere within the 750-mi. clump, though there’s no telling exactly how large it will get.

As befits something so little and—if you’re an astronomer—irresistibly cute, the moon has been given a nickname: Peggy. It will eventually be given a formal name, but that will only be after it has, effectively, grown up and left home.

“We have not seen anything like this before,” said astronomer Carl Murray, the lead author of the Icarus study, in a statement. “We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.”

If so, Peggy could represent the end of the line. Since the largest of Saturn’s icy moons are located furthest from the planet, the belief is that they are also the oldest, growing bigger and bigger and moving outward as they did. The formation of those big siblings as well as all of the smaller ones is believed to have depleted the rings of much of their moon-forming raw material. What’s left is enough to keep the overall ring system alive, but not enough to allow the emergence of any more moons. At 4.5 billion years old, Saturn may at last be ending its child-bearing years.

TIME psychology

Your Brain Has No Idea Where It’s Going

How direction can equal closeness which equals tribes which equals trouble
How direction can equal closeness which equals tribes which equals trouble David Johnston; Getty Images

The direction you're moving can play tricks with your mind. That can mean trouble not only for travel but for human relations too

Want proof that your brain isn’t as smart as it assumes it is? Take this pop quiz: Say you’re standing at 42nd St. in Manhattan waiting for an uptown bus and plan to get off at 52nd St. Say a person on the opposite side of the avenue is waiting for a downtown bus and plans to get off at 32nd St. Whose trip will cover a greater distance?

Neither, obviously, since they’re both 10 blocks. Now try telling your lyin’ brain that. The fact is, your trip will somehow feel like it should be shorter and the person across the street will feel the same way about the trip going in the other direction. When it comes to distance, it turns out, your brain always thinks the route you’re traveling at the moment is the shortest. An upcoming paper in Psychological Science explores that oddly geocentric—and egocentric—phenomenon and explains how it may have implications not just for our sense of place, but for human relations as well.

The study, conducted by a team of investigators from the University of Toronto and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, took place first in the Toronto subway system. Investigators on both the eastbound and westbound platforms of the Bay St. stop asked riders if they believed the St. George station (one stop to the west) or the Bloor-Yonge station (one stop to the east) was closer. They repeated the question for a pair of named stations two stops to the east and west. By a significant margin, the westbound passengers believed the westerly stations were closer and the eastbound passengers said the same for the easterly ones.

Next, the investigators moved up to street level, standing on a corner that was equidistant between two drug stores. They stopped pedestrians walking in both directions and asked them how long they believed it had been since someone in one of the two stores had found an item on sale. On average, the subjects who were asked about the store they were approaching said that a bargain had been snagged 7.65 minutes ago. Those asked about the store in the opposite direction said it had been almost twice as long, 14.83 minutes. The bias went the other way when people were asked about a negative event—specifically, how recently a customer at one of two equidistant Starbucks had gotten the wrong order. In general, the pedestrians believed the baristas were better at the Starbucks they were approaching and worse at the one they were leaving behind.

This me-centered, place-centered thinking may also help explain why the first hour of a two-hour journey often seems to take longer than the second hour, the investigators suggested. The same perceptual distortion that seems to bring good things closer also somehow collapses time, as if the desired destination is moving toward you while you are moving toward it, hastening your arrival.

None of this says anything terribly bad or terribly good about the quirky nature of human perception. But a final part of the study got at something a little more troubling. Subjects at a Toronto shopping mall were asked to imagine a traveler at Los Angeles airport who was either leaving for a trip to Chicago or returning from a trip there. They were then asked how similar they felt to that imaginary person on a scale of 1 (not at all similar) to 7 (very similar). On average, the subjects professed to feel closer when the person was moving toward Chicago (an average of 2.41 on the 1 to 7 scale) than away from it (just 1.61). Chicago, of course, is much closer to Toronto than it is to L.A.. The mere direction of travel, approaching the subjects rather than moving away, appeared to make them feel a greater kinship to the traveler.

In a primally—sometimes dangerously—tribal species like ours, that’s revealing. We’ve long been accustomed to assigning all manner of pernicious meanings to such arbitrary differences as skin color or language or religion, and the worst among us have always tried to make those ideas stick: some races are inferior to others; some religions are barbaric or wicked. But if we’re all working with a brain so nonsensical that it makes human value judgments based on whether a stranger boarded a crosstown or an uptown bus, the whole premise of tribes starts to fall apart. It’s only in real estate that location, location, location is important. In human relations, it’s just a trick of the mind.

TIME Opinion

That Moment When You Must Have a Word With Jenny McCarthy

Jenny McCarthy hawking something that is not, for the moment, bad science.
Jenny McCarthy hawking something that is not, for once, bad science. Andrew Toth; Getty Images

The Playboy model and chat show host tries to whitewash her anti-vaccine stand. But there's no ducking the misinformed things she's said.

Dear Jenny:

Look, it’s clear we haven’t always gotten along, and it was never likely we would. You believe vaccines cause autism, that they are related to OCD, ADHD and other physical and behavioral ills, that they are overprescribed, teeming with toxins, poorly regulated and that the only reason we keep forcing them into the sweet, pristine immune systems of children is because doctors, big pharma and who-knows what-all sinister forces want it that way. I live on Earth.

Yes, I have often called you out by name, never favorably, and you’ve always left me alone—until today at least, when you name-checked me in a jaw-droppingly disingenuous piece you wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, trying to launder your long, deeply troubling, anti-vaccine history. You quote yourself from earlier interviews in which you said:

“People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines,” I told Time Magazine science editor Jeffrey Kluger in 2009. “Please understand that we are not an anti-vaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins.”

That’s absolutely true, you did say those things. But let’s take a look at some of the other things you said in that same interview, such as the way you responded when I asked you about the outbreaks of polio that have occurred in Africa, Asia and American Amish communities when vaccines are not administered:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop vaccines that are safe. If the vaccine companies are not listening to us, it’s their f*cking fault that the diseases are coming back. They’re making a product that’s sh*t. If you give us a safe vaccine, we’ll use it. It shouldn’t be polio versus autism.

Then there was your answer when I asked you if you didn’t believe (like the overwhelming majority of doctors, research institutions and medical journals everywhere on the planet) that the rise in the incidence of autism has nothing to do with vaccines and is just a result of better recognition of autism symptoms, a widening of the diagnostic criteria for the condition and, as often happens, some overdiagnosing too:

All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they’ve never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we’re overdiagnosing it by maybe 1%. Now you look around and there are five shadows — kids with disabilities — in every class.

And about that line in which you claimed not to be anti-vaccine. Let’s take a look at the entire quote:

People have the misconception that we want to eliminate vaccines. Please understand that we are not an antivaccine group. We are demanding safe vaccines. We want to reduce the schedule and reduce the toxins. If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f*cking measles.

Yes, and if you ask people whether they’d prefer witches to be burned at the stake or their community to be demonically possessed, they’ll stand in line for the witch burnings too. But they don’t have to make that choice because witchcraft is make-believe, as is your anti-vaccine nonsense.

Jenny, as outbreaks of measles, mumps and whooping cough continue to appear in the U.S.—most the result of parents refusing to vaccinate their children because of the scare stories passed around by anti-vaxxers like you—it’s just too late to play cute with the things you’ve said. You are either floridly, loudly, uninformedly antivaccine or you are the most grievously misunderstood celebrity of the modern era. Science almost always prefers the simple answer, because that’s the one that’s usually correct. Your quote trail is far too long—and you have been far too wrong—for the truth not to be obvious.

Sincerely,

Jeff

 

TIME politics

Science Proves It: The Senate Really Is Junior High

Abandon hope all ye who enter—especially if you're heading for the Senate
Abandon hope all ye who enter—especially if you're heading for the Senate Dwight Nadig: Getty Images

You'd think our nation's leaders would have quit worrying about who gets to hang with the cool kids—but a new study shows you're wrong. That's a bad thing for the health of a nation

(Correction appended 4/11/14)

If you’re like most people, it’s been a while since you thought of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” a term popularized by, well, the U.S. Senate. Instead, you think of it more as a junior high cafeteria, where cliques form, snits play out and someone is always trying to give someone else a legislative wedgie. You don’t get a 9% approval rating by behaving like grownups.

Now there’s proof that the cafeteria image is more than just metaphor. According to a new study by the University of Toronto School of Management’s Jillian Chown and Christopher Liu, one of the least appreciated variables in determining whether any two senators will work and play well together is how close they sit to each other on the Senate floor—a jock table versus nerd table dynamic if ever there was one.

The investigators relied on a very big data set to do their work, surveying the seating chart and the ever-changing Senate make-up over the course of 10 Congresses—the 96th to the 106th, from 1979 to 2001. Some of the people who filled the seats then were institutions themselves: Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Bob Dole. Some were one-term wonders: Carole Mosley Braun, Paula Hawkins, Mack Mattingly. There were, of course, only 100 senators at a time in any sample group, but over the course of those two decades, the number of s0-called dyads—the total number of possible one-on-one pairings between any particular pair of senators—was huge, a whopping 53,955.

As a measure of the senators’ collegiality, Chown and Liu looked to the number of bills they co-sponsored—essentially putting their names on another senator’s piece of legislation, either because they really did support it and planned to work for it, or because it’s just a free and easy way to take a ride on someone else’s work, often for legislation that will appeal to the voters at home. Either way, senators who can’t abide each other rarely get close enough to co-sponsor anything.

The researchers calculated that in a Senate chamber that measures 52 ft. by 85 ft. (16 m by 26 m), any one senator sits an average of 30 ft. (10 m) from any random other, though they may be as close as shoulder to shoulder if they share adjacent desks or as far as the full 85 ft. apart if they sit on what the researchers call the “distal wings” of the chamber. Since seniority determines who chooses desk location first when positions are shuffled every two years, it’s the newbies who typically find themselves sitting off at the sides and the ones with more longevity who gravitate toward their BFFs.

On the whole, any two senators who sat farther apart than the 30-ft. mean co-sponsored 7% fewer bills than the average senator, while those who sat closer than 30 ft. co-sponsored 7% more. Such a single-digit difference doesn’t seem like much, but during a 20-year sample period in which the share of bills the Senate actually passed ranged from a low of 4% to a high of just 17%, every edge a piece of legislation could garner meant a lot. That’s truer now than ever as Congress after Congress continue to set serial records for least productive ever.

A place of privilege, power and titanic egos like the Senate is hardly typical of all workplaces, but the get-close-to-do-good-work rule applies everywhere. One of the reasons telecommuting has been less successful than advertised is that even if technology makes it easy to get work done anywhere in the world, it can’t replace serendipity—the random scrap of exchanged conversation or the unplanned meeting of two people in a hallway that leads to great things, and sometimes great friendships. Marissa Mayer took a lot of heat when she assumed the reins at Yahoo and promptly canceled its generous telecommuting policy—and her decision may yet yield nothing but employee ill-will—but it was based on solid research in human behavior.

None of this may save Congress from itself. Children who can’t get along sometimes simply need to be separated for the sanity of the grownups around them. But if, as President Barack Obama perhaps naïvely hoped before the 2012 election, the partisan fever ever does break in Washington, the simple act of rubbing elbows—sometimes literally—on the Senate floor may turn out to be one of the simplest and best good-government tools there is.

(An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the study’s authors. He is Jillian Chown.)

TIME vaccines

Video: Penn and Teller Versus the Anti-Vaxxers

The anti-vaccine crazies should watch this mildly obscene Penn and Teller clip. If hard science won’t persuade them, perhaps rubber balls, bowling pins and humor will. The world has tried everything else.

 

TIME human behavior

Good Manners on Death Row: Why Condemned Southerners Are More Polite

After you: Good manners may prevail even in the death chamber
After you: Good manners may prevail even in the death chamber Edward McCain; Getty Images

Ancient codes of courtesy can be hard to unlearn, even for the worst of the worst. A new study shows why.

Let’s say you’re about to be executed. Let’s say you’re given a chance to say some final words. What are the odds you would say, “Go Raiders,” or “I could sure go for some beef stew and a chicken bone,” or “For what? You motherf*****rs haven’t paid any attention to anything I’ve said for the last 22-1/2 years…”? In the alternative, what are the odds that you might say, “I wish to apologize to the people I’ve hurt and I ask their forgiveness, I don’t deserve it but I ask for it,” or “I know I took someone very precious to you…I would pay it back a thousand times to bring back your loved ones…”?

The answer may depend on where you grew up. If you’re from the North or West, you’re likelier to stay badass till the end; if you’re from the South, you’re likelier to show some remorse. The bad guys who talked football, chicken and trash were from Arizona, Ohio and Ohio; the ones who showed some curtain-call decency were from Alabama and Texas.

The last second good manners of Southerners going to their deaths after a life of the worst kind of crimes was documented in a new paper published in Sage Open, titled, straightforwardly, “Honor on Death Row.” Its curious findings tell us a lot about not just the exceedingly specialized population of condemned men, but about the curious duality of human morality as a whole.

The study, conducted by Judy Eaton, a professor of criminology and law at Wilfred Laurier University in Ontario, surveyed the last words of 279 white males, looking for six qualities: an apology, an acceptance of responsibility, a request for forgiveness, an expression of regret, a sense of remorse and a general phrasing that suggested earnestness. Consistently, Eaton found, it was the Southerners who did better than the Northerners, and the reasoning has to do with what she called the “honor culture” of the Old South.

Honor cultures are built on highly codified, Kabuki-like courtesies and by-your-leaves, which themselves grow from a finely honed sense of the kinds of things that give offense and the serious price that may be paid if you cross that boundary. In the case of the South, Eaton and earlier researchers believe that honor culture goes all the way back to the herding populations of the Scots and Irish who were among the first to settle the region. When you’re a herdsman, everything depends on respecting territory and grazing grounds and you’d best have a good excuse and a believable apology ready if you don’t stay on your side of the line. Once a mind-your-manners ethos gets encoded in the social genome, it doesn’t go away.

Not everyone is invited into the honor culture. In the Old South, it was a white males only club, which is why Eaton eliminated 231 non-whites and nine women from her executed sample group. The variable she was investigating, at least in this study, was geography alone.

OK, most folks don’t have a lot in common with the moral monsters who usually wash up on death row. But the fact is, we’re all born with a basic moral software that evolved over millions of years, got more and more complex as our brains did and was absolutely essential if a highly social species like ours was going to survive. Ethicists and behavioral scientists refer to that fundamental set of behavioral guidelines as moral grammar. As with real grammar, its rules are often broken; as with real software, it can become corrupted.

A lot of things can cause that breakdown: life experience, deprivation, poverty, psychological disorders. All of those can be turbo-charged by nothing more than a mean streak. Not every poor or deprived person winds up on death row, after all, and moral grammar does include a component of accountability: sometimes you get in trouble because you’re just a nasty bastard and make bad choices. But good choices—and good manners—can be become permanent habits, one more reason we have survived as a species.

I’m put in mind of a young, southern officer I met during a visit to the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower. The difficulty of navigating the narrow corridors of all Naval vessels is simplified a bit by the rule that a lower-ranking person must always yield to a higher ranking person approaching from the other direction. The officer I spoke to admitted that that became hard for him when he began serving with lower-ranking women.

“I was brought up to stand aside and let a woman pass,” he told me. “It just feels wrong not to.”

Archaic? Maybe. Out of step with our supposedly sexually egalitarian military? Sure. But sweet too—you have to admit it’s sweet. And his mother would probably be proud.

Such tiny grace notes occur all the time, every day, and help us—in our own flawed and fractious way—get along. That is no bar to the worst of us coming to an ugly end. But the fact that, even as that end plays out, a flicker of our better tendencies sometimes resurfaces, provides a small bit of hope.

TIME anti-vaccinators

Chili’s Burns Anti-Vaxxers — and Probably Saves Some Kids’ Lives

Bad science on the menu?
Bad science on the menu?

Discredited science can lurk in seemingly innocent places, and a national restaurant chain very nearly paid the price

Correction appended: April 7, 2014

Today’s tip of the tinfoil hat goes to the antivaccine kooks who nearly contaminated one of their biggest victims. This time it wasn’t just a child who became infected with a vaccine-preventable disease or an entire community of children and adults coming down with measles (hello, New York City and Orange County, California) or mumps (you too, Columbus, Ohio). This time it was poor Chili’s, the restaurant chain that tried for a feel-good and do-good moment, announcing that it would donate 10% of Monday’s revenues to the National Autism Association (NAA), in recognition of Autism Awareness Month.

Good for you, Chili’s — and good for you too, NAA, for looking out for struggling kids. Except there’s this, from the NAA’s website: “Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children.” Worse, there’s this: “While mainstream science discounts vaccinations as a cause, members of the National Autism Association feel vaccinations have triggered autism in a subset of children.”

Chili’s got flamed on Facebook and elsewhere for cozying up to crazy and canceled the planned donation day, which is good. The company did the right thing and the antivaxxers lost a round. But the larger, more troubling issue is what poseurs like the NAA are doing hiding in plain sight anyway. The phrasing the group chooses, all by itself, ought to disqualify them from dispensing purported wisdom. When you open by acknowledging that “mainstream science discounts” the very case you’re about to make, you have pretty much bankrupted your argument before you begin.

Of course, in this case the word mainstream, which ought to suggest credible, is code for something else entirely — for the elite, the bought-off, the blinkered, the usual cabal of Big Pharma, Big Government and the media. The truth, the NAA and others will tell you, is to be found outside of the mainstream, in the crazy, swirling eddies of the Internet and the conspiracy blogs and the actresses and models who refuse to vaccinate their children because it’s “the best decision” for them, as shoe designer and TV star Kristin Cavallari put it. Never mind that the mainstream includes virtually every serious medical institution, journal, governmental body and health-policy NGO in the world. Never mind either that the antivaxxers never begin to explain how — or why — this vast conspiracy would have come together to hurt children. Who you gonna’ believe, the scientists or the celebs?

The NAA is not alone in gift-wrapping rubbish to make it look real. There’s the far more odious National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which touts itself with the giveaway motto, “Your health. Your family. Your choice.” The implication is that you, the discerning parent and information consumer, should make that same “best decision” Cavallari did. Of course, the NVIC does not mind helping you along, and so its homepage menu features such helpful tabs as Injury Compensation (“The vaccine injured can apply for aid”), Informed Consent (“The human right to voluntary risk-taking”), and yes, the Vaccine Victim Memorial (“Honoring those whose lives have been lost or forever changed by vaccination”).

O.K., so let’s honor lives that have been lost or changed. Let’s honor Jeremiah Mitchell, 10, profiled in a devastating piece in today’s USA Today, who lost both arms, both legs and parts of his eyelids at age 6 after he contracted meningitis — a disease against which his parents did not vaccinate him. Let’s honor too Brady Alcaide, who, as described in the same story, died, unvaccinated, at 9 weeks old, after he contracted whooping cough.

Simply invoking the “your choice” talisman does not mean that you are making a smart or informed or morally defensible choice. And while we’re on that, let’s be clear about one thing: the people who have the most at stake in the antivax follies are the kids, who get absolutely no choice at all. Instead, they are denied the protection their no-doubt nonautistic, fully vaccinated parents received when they were their age. For those babies, the “voluntary risk-taking” the NVIC applauds is nothing of the kind.

If there is anything good about the stubborn, gum-on-the-shoe nature of the antivaxxers — the way they won’t go away no matter how hard science tries to scrape them off — it’s that the toll their nonsense is taking is finally becoming evident. The rise in measles and mumps this year is no accident, nor is the 2010 whooping-cough outbreak in California — nor are the lost lives or the ruined bodies of children like Jeremiah and Brady. A blandly named website can conceal all manner of deadly mischief. Medical science, on the other hand, usually plays it straight.

An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Kristin Cavallari.

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