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Associated Press/Photo by Gregorio Borgia

The Buzz

Need-to-know news

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

Pope says nope

Two months after an open letter from 60 Catholic groups called the Church's stance on contraception "catastrophic" for the world's poor, Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed the Church's 40-year-old injunction against members using artificial birth control. He said the position is meant to protect "the beauty of conjugal love" but allowed that Catholic couples in "dire circumstances" could still employ the natural rhythm method to prevent pregnancy.

The Church first issued its encyclical against contraception in 1968 when widespread use of birth-control pills helped ignite the sexual revolution. Millions of Catholics, including many committed married couples, have ignored the ban ever since. More recently, human-rights groups have argued that the Church's stance contributes to the spread of AIDS in undeveloped countries. The Vatican ­dismisses such charges as propagandistic and has never wavered in its position.

Good works, bad motives

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A recent article published in the journal Science contends that religious people dedicated to belief in an all-knowing moral God tend to be more helpful to others and generous than the irreligious. But there's a catch, according to University of British Columbia psychologist Ara Norenzayan, whose study relies on data collected over the past three decades. Norenzayan says improved behavior among the religious depends on two conditions: first, that the situation presents a chance to enhance the subject's reputation, and second, that the subject has received a recent subconscious reminder of God's ever-watchful eye.

Defenders of religion have long cited such concerns for reputation and divine judgment as agents for social restraint and cooperation. Some atheists argue that a working criminal justice system and widespread acceptance of a do-no-harm social contract are equally effective means of promoting good behavior. Norenzayan concedes that non-supernatural entities like police, courts, and surveillance cameras can help prevent criminal acts, but he points out that they do little to curb selfishness.

Of course, the motivations of the religious cited in the study are ultimately selfish also, focusing on reputation and eternal happiness. Only the behavior modifier of biblical grace, one left unconsidered in Norenzayan's research, can substitute God-centeredness for selfishness.

Cell phones blocked

The federal Railroad Administration on Oct. 2 banned the use of cell phones and other electronic devices by rail workers. The emergency ruling came a day after investigators said Robert Sanchez, a Metrolink commuter-train engineer, sent a text message seconds before running a red light and slamming head-on into a freight train on Sept. 12, killing 25 people.

In investigating the Chatsworth, Calif., accident, the National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence of mechanical malfunctions, or problems with the rail signal or track. Instead, preliminary evidence showed that Sanchez, who was killed, was distracted at the time of the crash. Sanchez's cell phone records showed he sent and received 57 text messages while he was on duty on Sept. 12, including one sent 22 seconds before the collision. The Railroad Administration said rail workers are increasingly using cell phones and other potentially distracting devices. Six train accidents between 2000 and 2006-four of them deadly-involved the use of cell phones.

Unfiltered air

American Airlines came under fire recently after it downplayed concerns about its new in-flight and unfiltered internet service, Gogo, which critics warn will open the door for passengers to troll for pornography while air bound. In response to complaints from passengers and flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants called on the airline to install filtering software to block inappropriate sites. The airline has acknowledged the potential for abuse but is leaving it up to flight attendants to monitor internet usage for inappropriate material. While JetBlue Airways already filters internet content in its terminals and Continental plans to do so as well, Alaska, Delta, Northwest, and Virgin are following American's lead and will soon offer unrestricted services, too.

Finally found

Search teams finally located Oct. 1 the plane wreckage of missing adventurer Steve Fossett in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just days after a hiker stumbled upon Fossett's pilot's license, FAA cards, and other personal effects. The 63-year-old thrill seeker, who was the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon, vanished in the single-engine plane last September while scouting a site for his next record-breaking feat. Although remains uncovered at the crash site had yet to be identified, Fossett's widow, Peggy, issued a statement saying she hopes "to be able to bring to closure a very painful chapter in my life. I prefer to think about Steve's life rather than his death and celebrate his many extraordinary accomplishments."

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