Author Archives: ro215

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Theorists and a Mental Disorder?

A study recent by a of scientists from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the NCSR in The Netherlands and Professor Karen Douglas here The University of Kent in the UK have discovered a link between conspiracy belief and “illusory pattern perception,” the tendency of the mind to see order where none exists. The group used a series of randomly simulated coin tosses and asked respondents to rate whether those tosses were actually random or in a sequence. The respondents who saw patterns in the coin tosses were also the ones who scored highest on belief in existing conspiracy theories and belief in the supernatural.

Because science isn’t done with just one experiment, they then followed up with a second run to investigate whether being prompted to look for patterns skews the results, as well as a third using abstract art instead of coin flips for the subjects to find patterns in. In addition, they “primed the pump” with one group by having them read a little conspiracy literature beforehand, which also increased credulity.

Here’s the thesis on what’s going on. The human brain is a pattern-making machine. We learn from experience and store memories together to influence our future behaviour. That gift for connection and correlation has enabled our ballistic advance as a society. But for most of human history our brains existed in a comparatively information-poor environment. It’s only in the last century or so that the rise of mass media has come to dominate our lives. Four generations simply aren’t enough time for the complex biology of our brains to adapt to that.

Subconsciously, we are desperately trying to find connections in the chaos, and many minds aren’t capable of realizing which of those connections are valuable and which aren’t. And it’s also hard for people to comprehend “true” randomness, because random sequences can create patterns and connections purely by accident. We don’t like to admit that existence is a vast and careless web of chance. Building a narrative allows us to comfortably process random events in a way that we feel control over.

The increased availability of conspiracy literature and videos has also made them more potent. As evidenced by the study, being exposed to materials that lend credence to “alternative facts” raised susceptibility in the subjects. Now that conspiracy theories are on everybody’s Facebook wall as opposed to lamp posts and crank phone calls to Art Bell, exposure is a given. What used to be fringe beliefs are now widespread, and the more they spread the more power they have.

Interestingly enough, a 2008 study might shed some additional light on the subject. It also tackled illusory pattern perception, but from the angle of the agency. In it, they found that if people had little or no control over their current situation, they were more likely to see patterns in random images like TV static, as well as more likely to believe in the supernatural. And who out there doesn’t feel like they’re losing control of their lives? We’re subconsciously reaching out for some method of ordering this chaos, even if the connections are bogus.

What’s the solution for this plague of lies? Peddlers of conspiracy theories aren’t going anywhere, especially now that they’re making money out of it. What our world really needs is more focus on critical thinking and media literacy. Rewiring the biology of our brains is a tough order, but training ourselves to ignore specious connections and focus on what can be factually proven is a good start. Check out the Foundation for Critical Thinking website for a good place to start.

Dr Jennifer Tullett

Lifespan Prolonged by Inhibiting Common Enzyme

An enzyme called RNA polymerase III (Pol III) that is present in most cells across all animal species, including ourselves has previously been known to be essential for making proteins and for cell growth. Its involvement in ageing however was under-explored until now.

The study involved Dr Jennifer Tullet of the University’s School of Biosciences. Led by a team from University College London (UCL) and also involving the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Jenny and colleagues found that the survival of yeast cells and the lifespans of flies and worms were extended by an average of 10% following a modest reduction in Pol III activity in adulthood.

The effects of inhibiting Pol III were found to be comparable to the action of the immune-suppressing drug rapamycin, which has previously been shown to extend the lifespans of mice and many other animals. This discovery will help scientists understand the mechanism of action of drugs, such as rapamycin, that show promise for extending the lifespans of mammals.

Jenny said that it was ‘amazing’ that one small genetic adjustment can impact so positively on lifespan and intestinal health. Understanding more about the underlying molecules at work promises new strategies for anti-ageing therapies.

The team now plan to continue their work on Pol III to understand its function in an adult organism and hence shed light on how a reduction in its activity can extend lifespan.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Royal Society, the Medical Research Council, the EU’s Horizon 2020 and UCL.

The paper, entitled Longevity by RNA polymerase III inhibition downstream of TORC1 (Danny Filer, Maximillian Thompson, Vakil Takhaveev, Adam Dobson, Ilektra Kotronaki, James Green, Matthias Heinemann, Jennifer Tullet and Nazif Alic) was published in Nature.

Protest Image

Abortion, Booze and Father’s day

Professor Ellie Lee has been active in the press over the summer – commenting on a number of controversial stories.

In “Why, 50 years after the Abortion Act, it’s time to abolish the law altogether” she said There have been 50 or 60 abortion bills put to the house since 1967, and they’ve all tried to restrict access to abortion. I think this is the first time there has been a genuinely liberalising reform bill.”

She commented in the story “BABY BOOZE How much alcohol units can you drink when pregnant, how much is safe and what is foetal alcohol syndrome?”

And in “Can we just keep the politics out of Father’s Day?” – The mother-child interaction has become a laboratory, where politicians, professionals and experts of all kinds ­experiment about an expanding range of problems, real or imagined


Poetry Event

University Scientists’ Role in Canterbury Arts Festival

Scientists Dr Alessia BuscainoProfessor Darren GriffinDr Neil Kad and Dr Gary Robinson – alongside Professor Charlotte Sleigh of the School of History – explored their scientific passions with poets in the science-poetry slam Experimental Words on 1st  November, 20.00 at Canterbury Cathedral Lodge).

Biology met balladry, physics encountered pentameter, and chemistry confronted cadence as Kent’s leading scientists were paired with Canterbury’s finest spokenword artists – and challenged to create new microperformances.

The result? A diverse display of rhyme, rhythm and reason, which celebrated the creative similarities between science and the performing arts.

Hosted by scientific poet and former Canterbury Laureate Dan Simpson and poetry slam-winning scientist Dr. Sam Illingworth, this was an evening of precise delights and unexpected insights.


Suffragette Image

50th Anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967

October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, a law which has had an enormous impact on the lives of women in Britain and beyond, offering a direct inspiration for reform in a number of other countries.   Working with colleagues from the University of Bristol and  the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Professor Sally Sheldon organised a two-day conference to mark the event.  The conference was sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and held at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which generously offered free use of its facilities (

The conference heard from many of those who campaigned for the introduction of the Abortion Act as well as from those who have fought to protect it over the years, including the Act’s sponsor, Lord David Steel.  Other speakers included members of the Lane Committee, which offered a significant and authoritative review of the operation of the Abortion Act in the early 1970s, senior health care professionals, a range of academic speakers, and past and current politicians who have been active in abortion law reform.

Professor Sheldon is currently conducting a major two year, AHRC-funded study of the Abortion Act.  She also spoke at a second event to commemorate the 50th anniversary, Beyond the Backstreet, organised by Abortion Rights (; and gave a well-attended public lecture on her research at Keele University in a series designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Law School, where she previously taught (


Image: ‘George Rawlinson Collection, reproduced with kind permission of the GCU archives’.

George C. Williams Prize awarded to 3 CISoR members

Congratulations go to three CISoR members from the School of Anthropology and Conservation, who were recently awarded the prestigous George C. Williams Prize, from the International Society for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health.

The prize was awarded to Sarah Myers, Dr Oskar Burger and Dr Sarah Johns for their paper entitled “Postnatal depression and reproductive success in modern, low-fertility contexts“.

Further details of the award scheme can be found here.


Chimpanzees modify grooming behavior when near higher ranking members

Research by Dr Nicholas Newton-Fisher from the University of Kent has found chimpanzees modify their interactions with other chimpanzees if higher ranking members of their community are nearby.

Dr Newton-Fisher, based in the School of Anthropology and Conservation (SAC), and Stefano Kaburu, from the Department of Population Health and Reproduction, School of Veterinary Medicine, UC Davis, University of California and formerly of SAC, observed grooming interactions between members of a community of chimpanzees in the Budongo Forest Reserve in Western Uganda.

Grooming plays a key role in chimp interactions as it helps reduce stress and remove parasites. Within chimp groups lower ranking members often groom higher ranking members in the hope of receiving benefits such as protection, acceptance and the hope of receiving reciprocal grooming.

However, Dr Newton-Fisher’s findings suggest that if another chimpanzee with a higher rank than the chimp being groomed is nearby, the grooming chimp will stop far sooner than if not.

It appears chimpanzees do this so they do not invest too much time grooming with one chimp if there is a risk the chimp being groomed will not reciprocate but instead look to groom the nearby higher-ranking chimp.

This echoes prior research by Dr Newton-Fisher which found that if a larger number of other chimpanzees are nearby then, regardless of rank, the grooming chimp would usually stop grooming sooner than if there were no other chimps nearby, or a small number.

However, this latest research focused on a group with a more defined social hierarchy, so it was the rank of the nearby chimps that was of more concern to those grooming, rather than the number of others nearby.

Taken together the findings challenge the ‘relationship model’ theory that, like other primates, chimps engage in grooming on the basis of prior social interactions.

Instead it appears they are motivated by the circumstances in which they engage in the grooming and the possible benefits they will derive, giving weight to the more economic-orientated ‘biological markets’ theory of primate social interactions.

The research has been published in the latest edition of Animal Behaviour titled Grooming decisions under structural despotism: the impact of social rank and bystanders among wild male chimpanzees.

Study of premature babies has implications for future treatment

Research carried out by the University of Kent with doctors on the neonatal unit at the William Harvey Hospital and Brunel University have provided further insight into the biology of premature birth, with findings that may have implications for treating premature babies.

The results of the research are now published in an article entitled Preterm infants have significantly longer telomeres than their term born counterparts in PLOS One.

The team from the School of Biosciences led by Professor Darren Griffin set out to look for a genetic marker that might identify “at risk” children early in life so that they could embark on monitoring and treatment at an earlier opportunity.

Focusing on the telomeres – the caps at the end of the chromosomes that degrade as people age, they compared the length of telomeres in premature babies compared to babies born at the expected time.

Three groups of infants were studied:

1. 25 babies who were born prematurely (but were assayed at the time they should have been born)

2. 22 premature babies sampled at birth

3. 31 babies (sampled at birth) born at the expected time.

The expectation was that the first group would, genetically, appear more “aged” i.e. have shorter telomeres than the others. The findings were somewhat of a surprise in that, although there was some evidence of telomeres shortening over time in the premature babies, it was the normally born ones that had the shortest telomeres of all.

These results suggest that other, as yet undiscovered, factors may influence telomere length in premature infants and raises the intriguing idea that telomere shortening rate may be influenced by the degree of prematurity of the baby.

In any event, identification of genetic differences between premature and term-born infants may identify those at most risk and hence at greater need of treatment to mitigate problems that could occur later in life.

There are well-established problems associated with premature birth including respiratory, learning and developmental disorders, as well as the more recently discovered problems inlcuding hypertension, insulin resistance and altered body fat distribution. These latter problems may suggest early ageing in premature babies.

Studies suggest that these may persist into adult life, essentially mimicking early ageing and also posing a significant public health concern.


Preterm infants have significantly longer telomeres than their term born counterparts by Vimal Vasu, Kara Turner, Shermi George, John Greenall, Predrag Slijepcevic and Darren Griffin is published in in PLOS One.

Doctors, Conscience and Abortion Law and Practice

This event, held on 29 June 2017, brought together academics from a range of disciplines, graduate students, providers of abortion services and campaigners, to discuss abortion law and changes in abortion practice. The event was part of dissemination work for a Kent University Faculty of Social Sciences Research Fund Award, given to Ellie Lee and Sally Sheldon, for a project ‘Abortion Doctors, Professional Identity and the Law’.


Dr Ellie Lee

With a backdrop of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, and a vote at the British Medical Association Annual Conference two days previously to support the decriminalisation of abortion, participants at the event discussed: the history of the British Abortion Law; research about the motivations and experience of doctors who ‘do’, that is those who provide abortion; and research about those who ‘don’t’, with a focus on conscientious objection.

Participants were particularly privileged, at the start of the event, to hear from Malcolm Potts, a pioneer of abortion provision and law reform in Britain, and from US colleagues Dr Lori Freedman and Professor Wendy Chavkin.

Thanks to Kent Law School and British Pregnancy Advisory Service for their financial support for the event.


More about the event here:


Key Findings Document: ‘Doctors Who Provide Abortion: Their Values and Professional Identity’


Published work by presenters

Potts, M. and Campbell, M. ‘History of Contraception’

Sheldon, S. ‘British Abortion Law’

Greasley, K. ‘Arguments About Abortion’

Bristow, J. ‘The Sociology of Generations’

Freedman, L. (with Weitz and Kimport) ‘The Stratified Legitimacy of Abortions’

Lee, E. ‘Constructing Abortion as a Social Problem’

Lohr, P. (with Fjerstad, De Silva and Lyus) ‘Abortion’

Chavkin, W. (with Swedlow and Fifield) ‘Regulation of Conscientious Objection to Abortion’

Neal, M. (with Fovargue) ‘‘In Good Conscience’: Conscience-based exemptions and proper medical treatment’

Mishtal, J. (with de Zordo and Anton) ‘A Fragmented Landscape’

Furedi, A. ‘The Moral Case for Abortion’