Archive Science and Society

Hope for prominent cheekbones! The fate of faces. Siouxsie Wiles Jul 22

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Researchers from the University of Toronto have just published an interesting paper about the impact of the ‘trustworthiness’ of a person’s face on the sentence they received for committing a crime. It’s essentially a study of the unconscious biases we associate with facial characteristics. Apparently, humans are quick to judge how trustworthy someone is – just by their face. The paper didn’t go into any details about what makes someone look trustworthy or untrustworthy so I looked around online and found the infographic below. It looks like we confer trustworthiness on features like cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc – untrustworthy faces are ones with a furrowed brow, shallow cheekbones, low inner eyebrows and a thinner chin, while trustworthy faces have more prominent cheekbones, high inner eyebrows and a wider chin.

untrustworthy faces

Previous research has shown that in hypothetical crime scenarios, faces that look more ‘criminal’ (whatever that looks like) are more likely to be found guilty, while faces that are rated as trustworthy require more evidence to be found guilty. So the question is, does this happen in the real world? To answer this, John Paul Wilson and Nicholas Rule set out to see if this unconscious bias impacts on the sentences prisoners actually received.

They used photos of the nearly 400 people on Death Row in Florida and then matched them for race with another almost 400 people serving a life sentence for first degree murder. They ended up with a final database of 742 photos, half serving life and the other half sentenced to death. The images were converted to greyscale to minimise differences in lighting and the colour of outfits the prisoners were wearing. Then over 200 people were each asked to look at about 100 of the faces and rate the trustworthiness of each face on a scale of 1-8, with 1 being most untrustworthy and 8 being most trustworthy.

What the researchers found was a statistically significant difference between the mean ‘trustworthiness’ of the people sentenced to death versus those sentenced to life in prison – people on Death Row had faces rated less trustworthy. But it’s worth noting that the effect size was small – the mean score for the Death Row prisoners was 2.76 (with a standard error of 0.03) versus 2.87 (with a standard error of 0.03) for those sentenced to life.

Next the researchers gathered photos of people listed by the Innocence Project, an organisation dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing. They ended up with 37 people, all men, 20 of them sentenced to life imprisonment and 17 sentenced to death. Again people were asked to rate each face’s trustworthiness. And again, there was a difference between those sentenced to death and those sentenced to life imprisonment. And these were actually innocent people. Scary stuff.

So there you have it, your face determines your fate. Hope you have been blessed with prominent cheekbones and a wide chin!

I talked about this story, and the science of screams with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon programme. You can listen here.

J. P. Wilson, N. O. Rule. Facial Trustworthiness Predicts Extreme Criminal-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/0956797615590992

My 2c worth on latest sexism in science debacle Siouxsie Wiles Jun 11


If you aren’t aware of it, this week another eminent old white guy (OWG) dug himself into a hole. This time it was Oxbridge-educated Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, also a Fellow of the Royal Society. In other words a privileged old white guy in a position of power and authority. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul he apparently made some rather stunning comments about women in science, saying gender-segregated labs were better for science, because women cause trouble for men by falling in love and crying, or something to that effect. His comments were live-tweeted by Connie St Louis.

He has since apologised for upsetting people but stands by his comments – he says he was just being honest and humorous. It’s worth noting that according to Wikipedia, Sir Hunt also sits on the Shaw Prize Life Science and Medicine selection committee; just one of the 25 people awarded this Prize has been a woman*. The Royal Society have released a statement distancing themselves from the debacle, saying Sir Hunt was speaking as an individual and adding “Too many talented individuals do not fulfil their scientific potential because of issues such as gender” and that the Society is committed to helping solve the problem.

I want to raise two points:

1. That’s not an apology.

Sir Hunt has made the classic mistake of thinking he has apologised when he hasn’t. This is what an apology should look like:

I am sorry that I hold such unsubstantiated biased views. I apologise to all the women I have disadvantaged as a result of holding these views while also holding positions of power and influence. Similarly, I apologise to the men I have advantaged, further perpetuating the endemic bias and privilege in the sciences.

2. The Royal Society (and other such bodies) need to do more to solve the problem.

It is not enough for the Royal Society to just distancing themselves from comments like these by people they have bestowed honours on, and pointing to what they are doing to try to help. Here is another suggestion. Give all your Fellows and Council training to recognise ALL their unconscious biases and to see that they are unjustified. Such a move is crucial to tackle the systemic disadvantage faced by many who aren’t privileged OWGs, or privileged OWGs in training.

*This year, the amazing and fantastic Bonnie Bassler. Woohoo!

Monday Micro: Middle East Respiratory Syndrome in Korea Siouxsie Wiles Jun 08

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"MERS-CoV electron micrograph1" by Maureen Metcalfe/Cynthia Goldsmith/Azaibi Tamin - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

MERS-CoV electron micrograph1” by Maureen Metcalfe/Cynthia Goldsmith/Azaibi Tamin – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 2012 a new virus emerged in the Middle East. Causing severe respiratory and flu-like, the disease was called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)* or “Saudi-SARS”. The virus responsible was found to be a novel coronavirus related to the SARS virus, and named MERS-CoV. Until recently, almost all cases have been confined to the Middle East, with some limited cases imported into other regions of the world, but with limited onward transmission. It’s thought that virus might be initially transmitted to people from camels. Since the virus emerged there have been over 1,100 laboratory-confirmed cases of infection with MERS-CoV, including at least 440 related deaths.

There is a very cool map of MERS cases online here but it doesn’t look like it’s been updated recently. MERS is not thought to be a particularly transmissible virus and most people are not thought to be at risk of becoming infected. The exception to this is people with underlying medical conditions, like diabetes, chronic lung disease or who are immunocompromised in some way.

According to the WHO, on the 20th May, the Republic of Korea reported that they had a case of MERS in a 68 year old business man who had recently returned from 4 countries in the Middle East. According to the Wall Street Journal, the latest figures seem to be that over 60 people have been infected and 5 have died. According to media reports, the hospital at the centre of the outbreak has been closed as have over 1,000 schools. The Guardian reports that over 2,000 people are under quarantine and the government will be tracking their phones to make sure they stay at home.

What seems to be a little unusual about the spread of the virus in Korea is that the index case, the 68 year old business man seems to have infected many more people than are usually infected by someone with MERS-CoV. He seems to be what’s called as a super-shedder. One theory is that he may have been producing more virus in his secretions that normal and so has transmitted the virus to more people. It’ll be interesting to know if this is because of mutations in the virus or something about the man’s immune response. There is an amazing visualisation of the first 36 cases by Maia Majumder here. It’s worth noting that this cluster involves spread of the virus in a hospital setting – so presumably amongst patients who were more susceptible to becoming infection. Saying that, some of the infected are healthcare workers.


*The WHO have recently issued guidance on how new diseases should be named to “minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people”. According to the document, the terms to be avoided are:

- geographic locations (e.g. Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Spanish Flu),
- people’s names (e.g. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, Chagas disease),
- species of animal or food (e.g. swine flu, bird flu),
- cultural, population, industry or occupational references (e.g. legionnaires),
- terms that incite undue fear (e.g. unknown, fatal, epidemic).


1. What is MERS-CoV?

A respiratory virus – a positive-sense, single-stranded RNA virus of the coronavirus family.

2. What are the symptoms of MERS-CoV infection?

Most people have a fever, cough and shortness of breathe. Some people also get gastrointestinal symptoms, so nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. Severe complications include pneumonia and kidney failure.

3. How is MERS-CoV transmitted?

The virus is spread person to person, through respiratory secretions by coughing. It’s thought very close contact is needed.

4. How is MERS treated?

There is currently no vaccine for MERS, or any specific treatment except to support an infected person’s vital organs.

The building blocks of bias Siouxsie Wiles May 21

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In late 2013 I wrote an open letter to Lego, with an idea for how they could stamp out gender-stereotyping in one simple move. Earlier this month I got to speak about my idea at TEDx Auckland. Have a listen and if, like me, you think Lego should fix this, then please sign my petition.

*Oops, when I said Lego introduced Harry Potter lego in 2011, I meant to say 2001. Must have been nerves!

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Siouxsie Wiles lego graph 1

Those “illegal” school science kits and our illogical Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act Siouxsie Wiles Apr 08


The Dominion Post recently ran an article about “Glowing GE bacteria” which were “produced illegally in New Zealand using mail-order kits from America”. Perhaps unsurprisingly given that the phrase ‘genetically engineered’ was mentioned, Green MP Stefan Browning and GE Free New Zealand spokesperson Jon Carapiet chimed in to share their dismay that people/kids were fiddling with complex natural systems and things that posed a threat to our GE-free status (which we aren’t). I’m paraphrasing here, but I think that was the sum of it. The usual GE = evil sort of stuff. Let’s look at what happened and if it posed any risk to anyone.

Who made what and why was it illegal?

A global biotech company originally founded in the USA, and which makes lots of laboratory reagents scientists like me commonly use, make a kit for school kids to teach them about genes. The kit includes a piece of DNA called a plasmid*, and a harmless strain of the bacterium E. coli. Heat the bacteria up a little and they will take up the plasmid DNA, technically creating a genetically engineered strain of E. coli. In this case, the plasmid carries the gene for an amazing jellyfish protein called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP). When you shine light of a particular wavelength at GFP, it emits a beautiful green light. so once the E. coli have the plasmid and the GFP gene is turned on, the bacteria glow green.

So it turns out that two educational facilities in NZ imported the kits from the USA (which is allowed) and then presumably used them to teach people (presumably kids or undergraduates?) how bacteria can be manipulated to express different genes, and how genes can be turned on and off. The problem is that in NZ, thanks to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act**, such genetic modification can only be done with approval from the Ministry for Primary Industries and in suitable containment facilities, like the one I work in. Because this is what my team and I do for a living. We use genes from other glowing creatures like fireflies. Only we put them into nasty bacteria, not harmless strains of E. coli. And we have all the relevant paperwork. Reams and reams of it.

My guess is that in this case, the kit was perhaps used without the proper approvals, or outside of a proper containment lab, or someone who made the modified bacteria in a containment lab thought it was so cool they took it home. Any of those scenarios would be illegal. But let’s be clear. The bacteria ‘created’ is harmless and highly unlikely to pose any threat to NZ’s environment. In the USA (with the exception of California, I’m told, who are as hysterical about genetic engineering as NZ), you can buy pet fish which express GFP and other fluorescent proteins. They are beautiful.

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NZ needs to have a rational discussion about genetic engineering

All around the world, the evidence shows that genetic engineering as a technique is safe. The hysteria and fear-mongering of people like Browning and Carapiet isn’t helpful. NZ needs to have a rational discussion about the technology. If we decide to be GE free, it won’t be because the science is dangerous, it isn’t, it’ll be so that we can appeal to markets that want GE free products. That’s economics.

New Zealand’s ludicrous New Organism designation

As a final comment, the Act’s definition of a New Organism is problematic, especially for microbiologists. Here’s the definition:

A new organism is—
(a)an organism belonging to a species that was not present in New Zealand immediately before 29 July 1998:
(b)an organism belonging to a species, subspecies, infrasubspecies, variety, strain, or cultivar prescribed as a risk species, where that organism was not present in New Zealand at the time of promulgation of the relevant regulation:
(c)an organism for which a containment approval has been given under this Act:
(ca)an organism for which a conditional release approval has been given:
(cb)a qualifying organism approved for release with controls:
(d)a genetically modified organism:
(e)an organism that belongs to a species, subspecies, infrasubspecies, variety, strain, or cultivar that has been eradicated from New Zealand.

Read part (a) again. If an organism is not on any database or listed in a paper as showing it was present in NZ before 29 July 1998, its considered a new organism. I’m told the first time NZ researchers sequenced the gut microbiome of a person in NZ, they came across a whole heap of microbes that according to the law didn’t exist in NZ. Seriously. The flip side to this of course, is that each time anyone comes here from overseas, be it a holiday-maker or NZ resident returning from a trip, they are likely bringing in a whole heap of new (micro)organisms in or on their person. And there’s not much the government can do about that!

*A plasmid is a piece of DNA that exists outside of an organisms chromosome and can replicate itself independently. The wikipedia page for plasmids uses a nice analogy – think of the chromosome of the organism as its hard drive; a plasmid is like a USB drive that contains extra information.

**According to the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, its purpose is “to protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms”.

Biolumination II: Meet Gareth Baston! Siouxsie Wiles Apr 07

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On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I’ve introduced you to all the artists but now want to introduce you chief petri dish wrangler Gareth Baston. Gareth took the Vault at Q Theatre and turned it into a gallery space, and spent many hours getting all the petridishes up on the walls.

Meet Gareth Baston!


Since graduating from Rose Bruford College with a BA(hons) Technical Theatre, many moons ago, Gareth has stage and production managed for various companies around the UK and toured the world. Highlights include The Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The Queens Diamond Jubilee, Brighton Festival and Auckland Arts Festival as well as The Royal Opera House, Oman. He has worked at the Royal Albert Hall, Queens Wharf, on The London Eye and at Butlins. It is commonly agreed he is the best in his price range.

Glowing fun at the MOTAT Science Street Fair Siouxsie Wiles Apr 02

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Thanks to Heather Hendrickson for the photos!

Thanks to Heather Hendrickson for the photos!

Last weekend the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab took part in this year’s Science Street Fair at MOTAT in Auckland. We had the GlowBooth up and running again (at least until the camera’s battery died!) and 262 people joined us to make some bioluminescent art. There were lots of smiley faces drawn this time!

GlowBooth photos are up on Flickr here.

Glowing art photos are up on Flickr here.


Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Katherine Yang Siouxsie Wiles Apr 01

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Biolumination - Katherine

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Katherine Yang!

Katherine low res

Katherine is a renegade high school student. Seeking release from the traditional brush and canvas, she veers toward the intersection between Art and Technology. Watch out for this one. In her piece, Decay, she illustrates the eventual exchange from order to disorder. Though a virtual slave to the austerity of the straight line, Katherine concedes the emergence of wibbly bacterial forms in her work. Only when nature takes over, though.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Helen Beech Siouxsie Wiles Mar 31

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Biolumination - Helen

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Helen Beech (@beechworks)!

Helen low res

Born Morecambe England 1972
Currently living in a lovely cottage beside the
Puhoi River, surrounded by birds and trees.
Painting her heart out.
And selling it online.

Biolumination II: Meet the artists! Julia Marchwicka Siouxsie Wiles Mar 30

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Biolumination - Julia

Photo taken by Benj Brooking.

On Saturday the 14th March I organised Biolumination II as part of thinkScience day at the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival. I challenged a group of artists and illustrators to each come up with a work of art using just a solution of harmless bioluminescent bacteria and a collection of 25 x 25 cm square petri-dishes. I want to introduce you to each of the artists and show off their amazing pieces.

Meet Julia Marchwicka!

Julia low res

Julia is currently finishing her BA/BSc at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and Biology. Just like in her study, she enjoys exploring the links between art and science on a daily basis. Whenever Julia is not writing last minute assignments or cramming for tests, she spends her time working with black ink and watercolours.

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