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The 9 Most Controversial Science Stories in 2009

Denmark climate summit

Journalists and participants at the main meeting venue on the second day of a UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009.AP Photo/POLFOTO, Claus Bjorn Larsen

The best science answers tough questions, and some of the hardest-hitting discoveries often elicit controversy, ruffling the feathers of readers and sometimes even other scientists. Here are some of the most loved and hated science stories of the year.

Boys' issues are neglected.
Growing up can be tough for girls and boys alike. But research out this year suggests while plenty has been done to help girls achieve academic and social success, boys have been neglected...to their detriment. The study found that compared with girls, American boys have lower literacy rates, lower grades, less engagement during school and higher dropout rates. Boys also have higher rates of suicide, arrests and premature death. The solution boils down to paying more attention to guys.

Spanking bad for the brain. A study involving hundreds of children ages 2 to 9 showed the more a child was spanked the lower his or her IQ score compared with others their age four years after the initial intelligence test. Since kids were followed over time, researchers could rule out the possibility that those with less brainpower cause more trouble and thus elicit more spanking. The researchers suggest various potential causes of the link, including the idea that spanking is a traumatic experience that can adversely affect the noggin. Another idea: By using hitting rather than words or other means of discipline, parents could be depriving kids of learning opportunities.

Dinosaurs succumbed to toxic algae. Scientists have yet to pin down with certainty what wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, though there are some leading theories, including the most widely accepted one involving an asteroid impact. So when a scientist puts forth a novel and less-than well-established idea, there's bound to be some controversy. This year, Clemson University researchers suggested that toxin-producing algae not only killed off the dinosaurs but also had a hand in four other mass extinctions. Other scientists weren't convinced, saying evidence was at best lacking and that to point the finger at just one culprit for one mass extinction, let alone five, was nonsensical.

Fetuses have memories. Though you likely don't remember your time in the womb, a study out this year showed at just 30 weeks of age, fetuses have short-term memory. At this age, fetuses became habituated to a low sound that makes a vibration, and so weren't startled after repeated stimulation. Fetuses younger than 30 weeks never showed signs of habituation, while those older could remember the stimulation for longer and longer stints with age. The discovery both fascinated and churned up some lively debate on abortion and what makes us human.

Happiest states revealed. Who knew research on happiness could enrage so many? But two studies on happiness levels by state got lots of reader response. One study showed the wealthiest and most tolerant states stood out as particularly smile-y places. Another research team proved for the first time that a person's self-reported happiness matches up with objective measures of well-being.

Sounds scare wimps. Labeling people as a scaredy cat or wimp is likely to draw a reaction. And so it was no surprise our readers showed interest in a study finding that scrawny people perceive approaching sounds to be closer than do strong people. The researchers speculate this inclination may have evolved to help the weaker of our ancestors to escape from approaching danger. Even now, wimps might benefit from having a greater safety margin of potential hazards on the way.

Our ancestor, 'Ida?' Evolution-related science is sure to stir the pot. This year, in one of the biggest findings in the field, scientists unveiled a 47-million year old primate fossil dubbed "Ida." The discovery grabbed plenty of headlines and even got scientists debating over how to interpret Ida's remains, with some saying her features could redraw the evolutionary tree of life, going as far as saying Ida is an early precursor of humans. Others weren't convinced of Ida's direct link to a direct line leading to humans.

How the government spends "our money." Science and politics exchanged blows early this year, after President Obama's speech on the economy in which he noted a sum of $140 million for various projects, including volcano monitoring. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal criticized the spending as wasteful saying, "Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.," according to news reports.

Scientists responded with the facts on volcano monitoring. For instance, understanding how volcanoes blow their tops and the warning signs could help to save lives, as natural disasters are just that. "This is a hazard we can do something about," said John Eichelberger, program coordinator for the USGS's Volcano Hazards Program. "We can spend a modest amount of money and prevent a tragedy."

The firestorm of 'Climategate.'
Nothing spells controversy like climate change. And global warming skeptics got plenty of fodder this year when thousands of private (and seemingly incriminating) e-mails and files of prominent climate scientists were hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia in England, a leading climate research center. The e-mails, which were made public, appeared to show scientific misconduct with some addressing ways to combat skeptics, whether certain data should be released and some derisive comments about people known for their skeptical views, according to news accounts.

Here's how LiveScience's Bad Science columnist summed up the debacle dubbed climategate: "Personal e-mails between climate scientists may be ill-advised and embarrassing, but by themselves do not provide hard evidence of scientific fraud." He added, "The fact is that the evidence for climate change does not hinge upon data from the East Anglia University researchers whose e-mails were exposed."

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