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Social Studies: Sons of the revolution, knee problems, and the baboon brain

New research shows artificial intelligence is better at diagnosing knee osteoarthritis in Black patients than doctors.Brian Feulner

Founding fathers

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention were likelier to vote for a strong national government if they had more sons and less likely to do so if they had more daughters, even controlling for the delegate’s age, whether he had been an officer in the Revolutionary War, the number of slaves he owned, and his financial situation. The effect of child gender on voting was as large as, or larger than, the effects of these other factors. The hypothesis is that fathers expected sons to have future roles in a strong national government.

Pope, J. & Schmidt, S., “Father Founders: Did Child Gender Affect Voting at the Constitutional Convention?” American Journal of Political Science (forthcoming).


Flexible treatment

Knee osteoarthritis patients who are Black report greater pain than non-Black patients. But doctors reading X-rays, using established standards for determining the severity of arthritis, don’t pick up on most of the disparity. One consequence is that Black patients are less likely to receive the surgical treatment that might be applied to more serious problems and more likely to be prescribed opioids (which carry risk of addiction) in this context. To help address the diagnosis problem, a team of researchers trained an artificial-intelligence program to predict patients’ pain based on its own reading of the X-rays. The program did a much better job than the established (human) standards, though the researchers can’t say exactly why, given the black-box nature of their program. The researchers suggest that established standards may be flawed because they were “developed decades ago in white British populations.” And indeed, the artificial-intelligence program got better as it was trained on X-rays from a more diverse set of patients.

Pierson, E. et al., “An Algorithmic Approach to Reducing Unexplained Pain Disparities in Underserved Populations,” Nature Medicine (January 2021).

Social intelligence


Brain scans revealed that captive baboons that had been allowed to live in larger social groups had larger brains. This suggests that bigger brains are needed to process more complex social situations and can adapt to do so even in a short period of time.

Meguerditchian, A. et al., “Baboons (Papio Anubis) Living in Larger Social Groups Have Bigger Brains,” Evolution and Human Behavior (January 2021).

Rise up

In a series of survey experiments, people thought inequality was more unjust, and they were more interested in countering it, when it was framed as disadvantage for the poor rather than advantage for the rich. In other words, helping the poor rise has broader support than bringing down the rich. This framing effect was largely the same regardless of the respondent’s class or ideology.

Dietze, P. & Craig, M., “Framing Economic Inequality and Policy as Group Disadvantages (versus Group Advantages) Spurs Support for Action,” Nature Human Behaviour (forthcoming).