2012 AAAS Meeting

Highlights from the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Vancouver, February 16-20

Social media didn’t spur Arab Spring
The protests and uprisings that began in December 2010 collectively known as the Arab Spring were characterized as Twitter and Facebook revolutions, but new research suggests that social media platforms had a mixed effect in driving political change. An analysis of 10 months of news, information and social media use in 18 Arab Spring countries found that the number of Facebook users did swell during that time. But the pattern of increased use of social media didn’t cleanly match up with the pattern of protests. Social media sites told people where to find information, not to revolt, Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh reported February 18. Concerns over human rights and international relations issues such as troop movements were more predictive of who protested where, and when. — Rachel Ehrenberg

Video games improve vision
Violent video games get a bad rap, but the gory games may have a benefit for people with vision problems, psychologist Daphne Maurer of McMaster University in Canada reported February 17. Playing the game Medal of Honor, in which the user sees scenes from the perspective of a soldier, for 40 hours over a month improved a host of visual abilities in adults who were born with cataracts.  Even though the participants had their cataracts removed when they were young, vision deficits persisted. But 40 hours of gaming that requires users to survey a wide field and react quickly to threats improved multiple visual abilities. “It’s like reading one to two lines farther on the eye chart,” Maurer said. She and her colleagues are developing a less gory version of a video game that can do the same job without all the bloodshed. —Laura Sanders

Bird flu studies should be published in full, WHO says
A study describing deadly lab-engineered mutations to H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu, will be published in full in the journal Science. Bruce Alberts, editor in chief of the journal, announced the decision February 17 after the World Health Organization recommended the complete, uncensored publication of the study and another submitted to appear in Nature. The studies describe the creation of strains of the virus that can spread among mammals as normal flu does, presenting the potential for a worldwide pandemic. Though the naturally occurring form of the virus rarely infects humans, it kills about half of the people who get infected with it. The decision to publish the full results, announced at the meeting, runs contrary to that of recommendation of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which in December called for redacted publication of the studies. The advisory board cited such concerns as the possible use of the studies’ methods to make a bioweapon. Alberts said that he will follow the WHO recommendations instead of proceeding with an initial plan to publish a redacted version in mid-March. “The aim is to publish a full version of the paper without redaction,” Alberts said. At this point, though, it’s unclear how the recommendation will affect the timing of publication. —Nadia Drake

Fracking isn’t tainting groundwater, study finds
Several communities have reported groundwater contamination associated with natural gas produced from deep shale deposits by hydraulic fracturing, sometimes called fracking. A new study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin concludes that such pollution results not from liquids pumped down to the shale deposits to fracture the deep rock — as often claimed — but instead from poor management of wastes or bore wells thousands of feet above the shale. Funded by the university with no industry contributions, the study doesn’t downplay drinking-water pollution associated with shale-gas production. But those risks “are very similar, if not exactly the same, as the impacts that we see from conventional gas development,” said Charles “Chip” Groat, who led the study. Groat reported his team’s findings February 16. —Janet Raloff