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Friendships in Iraqi soccer league show ‘contact hypothesis’ works, but has limits



Aug. 13 (UPI) — Christian soccer players who played alongside Muslim teammates in an interfaith soccer league in Iraq were more likely change their behavior for the better toward Muslim players.

The experiment, detailed Thursday in the journal Science, however, revealed the limits of the “contact hypothesis” — while players built relationships on the field, the benefits of the hypothesis did not extend far beyond the soccer-based relationships.

The contact hypothesis is the idea that intergroup contact, under certain conditions, can reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members.

Sectarian tension in Iraq has ancient roots, but those antagonisms have been exacerbated in recent decades by the destabilizing effects of the U.S. invasion, and more recently, by the violence of ISIS.

In the parts of Iraq where ISIS seized power, many Christians were forced to flea their homes to avoid persecution. Across the war-torn country, the ISIS invasion made tolerance more difficult.

“On the whole, neighbors became suspicious of neighbors,” Salma Mousa, a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford University, told reporters during a telephone call this week. “These group boundaries really hardened and people really dug in.”

In an effort to understand whether intergroup contact can build social cohesion in the aftermath of war, Mousa intervened in a soccer league. She randomly assigned Christian Iraqi refugees to soccer teams that were composed of either all Christian players or a mixture of Christian and Muslim players.

Mousa said her experiment proved that the “contact hypothesis” extends to amateur sport.

Christian players who played on interfaith teams were more likely than those on all-Christian teams to vote for Muslims for sportsmanship and performance awards. Members of interfaith teams were also more likely to sign up for interfaith teams for the following season.

“They would invite each other for tea or coffee and hang out at the local cafe,” Mousa said of the Muslims and Christian players on mixed teams. “They described it as these brotherly love bonds that didn’t exist before.”

But Mousa found that the positive behavioral effects were limited to interpersonal relationships within the soccer league.

Christian players were not more likely to visit the area of Mosul previously controlled by ISIS, and surveys showed the positive feelings Christian players developed for their Muslim teammates did not extend more broadly to Muslim groups outside the context of soccer.

“Soccer can build friendships between Muslims and Christians without making Christians comfortable hanging out in the former ISIS capital,” Mousa said. “It’s much more challenging to extend these positive benefits to everyday life after a war.”

Mousa said to make lasting changes, interventions must address the structural causes of sectarian conflicts.

Melani Cammett, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University who studies sectarianism in Lebanon, said she thinks Mousa’s study is important and was well-designed, but that she wasn’t necessarily surprised by the findings.

“You can see the same kinds of limitations among Israeli-Palestinian youth groups,” Cammett told UPI.

Still, Cammett said Mousa’s work reveals sport to be an ideal setting for improving interpersonal relationships among members of rival groups.

“It is really valuable because people love sports and they can have a really unifying effect on people,” she said. “But I’m not surprised that it didn’t necessarily change underlying prejudice.”

Cammett agrees that long-term solutions to sectarian conflicts require interventions that address the roots of the problem — the larger political issues.

“You’re not going to see meaningful change until the underlying systems that sustain the politicization of sects is modified,” she said. “Unfortunately, this is very difficult because you have patronage structures that build up around this sectarianism.”

“Its very hard to form alternative political groups, because the resources are all monopolized by leaders who have vested interests in the sectarian status quo,” Cammett said.

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Florida Current study confirms decline in strength of Gulf Stream



Aug. 7 (UPI) — New research suggests the strength of the Florida Current, which forms the beginning of the Gulf Stream, has weakened considerably over the last century.

The findings, published Friday in the journal Nature Climate Change, corroborate the predictions of several models that suggest the Gulf Stream has slowed over the last several decades.

The Florida Current is a thermal ocean current that flows from west to east around the tip of Florida, joining the Gulf Stream off Florida’s east coast.

Scientists have been tracking the strength of the Florida Current since the early 1980s — not long enough to identify multi-decadal or centennial trends.

To better understand the current’s historical changes, Christopher Piecuch, researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, decided to study the relationship between coastal sea level and the strength of near-shore currents.

While researchers have only been measuring the Florida Current for a few decades, scientists have been recording sea level data since the early 1900s. Piecuch was able to use the data to predict historic changes in the strength of near-shore currents.

“In the ocean, almost everything is connected,” Christopher Piecuch, sole author of the new study, said in a news release. “We can use those connections to look at things in the past or far from shore, giving us a more complete view of the ocean and how it changes across space and time.”

The statistical analysis performed by Piecuch showed the Florida Current and Gulf Stream are the weakest they’ve been during the last 110 years.

The findings are in agreement with ocean current models that suggest climate change has caused a slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, of which the Gulf Stream is a part.

Piecuch said he hopes his research will help other scientists use coastal current data to study changes in bigger currents like the Gulf Stream.

“If we can monitor something over the horizon by making measurements from shore, then that’s a win for science and potentially for society,” he said.

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SpaceX, ULA win large government launch contracts



Astronauts make round trip to space station from U.S. soil

NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley (C) waves to onlookers as he boards a plane at Naval Air Station Pensacola to return him and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken home to Houston a few hours after the duo landed in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft off the coast of Pensacola, Fla,, on August 2, 2020. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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High levels of mercury, plastic toxins found in stranded whales, dolphins



ORLANDO, Fla., Aug. 10 (UPI) — Dolphins and whales stranded on beaches in the southeastern United States had high levels of toxins, including mercury and chemicals found in plastic, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

Scientists who led the study said the data provides new, troubling information about the impact of pollution on marine mammals — knowledge that could help save vulnerable and declining species.

The findings also could be a warning for humans, because whales and dolphins eat seafood that people also eat, researchers said.

“We must do our part to reduce the amount of toxicants that enter into our marine environment, which have important health and environmental implications not just for marine life, but for humans,” lead author Annie Page-Karjian said.

“Dolphins eat a variety of fish and shrimp in these marine environments and so do humans,” said Page-Karjian, an assistant research professor of marine wildlife at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, Fla.

Besides plastic chemicals, the study found toxins in the animals that included mercury, triclosan — an antibacterial agent used in consumer products like in soap and toothpaste — and atrazine, an herbicide.

The study, published last week, examined tissue from 83 dolphins and whales that became stranded from North Carolina to south Florida and died from 2012 to 2018. Eleven animal species were tested for 17 toxins.

The study is the first to report concentrations of toxicants in a white-beaked dolphin and in Gervais’ beaked whales, species for which the scientific literature remains sparse.

The researchers involved in the study are licensed to retrieve bodies of marine mammals nationally and internationally as part of a network to respond to the stranding of marine animals.

Such science collected from the dead animals is difficult to collect from live animals, and the stranded animals often are in stages of sickness or decay, said Justin Perrault, another study participant, who is director of research at Loggerhead Marinelife Center Juno Beach, Fla.

“Some of the mercury levels we found were the highest found anywhere in the world,” Perrault said. “It is eye-opening. To see the levels of some of these contaminants is alarming.”

Despite those high levels, the study was unable to determine if the toxins caused the animals to beach themselves, said James Sullivan, executive director at Harbor Branch.

“It’s really hard to judge, when an animal strands, if the toxins in the animal were related to why it stranded,” Sullivan said. “But these health problems do stack up. The animal is much more susceptible to succumbing to natural disease and environmental problems, just like humans are more likely to get ill from coronavirus if they have underlying conditions.”

Although the study focused on the Southeast, it has broader implications for marine mammal conservation, said John Calambokidis, senior research biologist with Olympia, Wash.-based Cascadia Research.

“There are many things we do not know about how many contaminants accumulate and might impact marine mammals,” Calambokidis said. “This is valuable especially because there are so many chemicals that are used by humans and enter the environment and many are not tested for.”

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