Editor's note

Deborah Y. Cohn has wondered for most of her life whether many people go out of their way to be mean when they give presents. After looking into it, the marketing researcher found that they do. “I’ve determined that sometimes people give bad gifts on purpose,” she writes in an article that explains why you shouldn’t do this.

And as Christmas approaches, stories about the birth of Jesus will get the most attention. But, Michigan State’s Christopher A. Frilingos urges readers to “spare a thought for the tween-age Jesus and his confused parents.”

Emily Schwartz Greco

Philanthropy + Nonprofits Editor

Top stories

Sometimes a gift that might seem reasonable is no nicer than a stocking full of coal. Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock.com

When cringeworthy gifts are worse than inconsiderate

Deborah Y. Cohn, New York Institute of Technology

Sadly, people sometimes deliberately give bad presents.

Hanging church courtyard tile mural showing holy family traveling. Daniel Mayer (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

How parenthood has changed the way I read ancient stories of Joseph and Mary's relationship with Jesus

Christopher A. Frilingos, Michigan State University

Family is not a clearly defined structure in the story: It isn’t biological or reflective of some 'norm.' It is instead a choice to stick together, come what may.

Science + Technology

With FCC's net neutrality ruling, the US could lose its lead in online consumer protection

Sascha Meinrath, Pennsylvania State University; Nathalia Foditsch, American University

As the U.S. weakens its protections for internet users, it risks falling behind the rest of the world, which is embracing the importance of regulation to preserve an open internet.

For baby's brain to benefit, read the right books at the right time

Lisa S. Scott, University of Florida

Psychology researchers bring infants into the lab to learn more about how shared book reading influences brain and behavioral development.

Designer proteins that package genetic material could help deliver gene therapy

Ian Haydon, University of Washington

One big challenge for gene therapies is delivering DNA or RNA safely to cells inside patients' bodies. New nanoparticles could be an improvement over the current standard – repurposed viruses.

AIM brought instant messaging to the masses, teaching skills for modern communication

Nicholas Bowman, West Virginia University

As it closes down 20 years after launching, a look back at the key role AOL Instant Messenger played in preparing people for today's digital messaging methods.

Arts + Culture

The secret behind the success of the new 'Star Wars' films

Subimal Chatterjee, Binghamton University, State University of New York

Why did most fans shun the prequel series, but embrace the recent spate of 'Star Wars' films? A recent study offers some clues.

Gold rush opportunists, hippie goat ladies, Latino newcomers: California entrepreneurs dream of cheese

Heather Paxson, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

California's artisan cheese-making industry has followed the changing tastes of the state's population waves, from the mid-1800s through today.

Politics + Society

Black voters won Alabama for the Dems. Here's what they need in return

Sharon Austin, University of Florida

Almost 100 percent of black Alabamians voted for Doug Jones. The Democratic senator-elect can thank this key base by addressing his home state's problems with rural poverty, education and health care.

Venezuelan regime sweeps mayors races, tightening Maduro's grip on power

Benigno Alarcón, Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB)

Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party won 39 of 40 major mayoral races on Dec. 10. A victorious President Nicolás Maduro is now likely to call a snap presidential election early next year. Can he win?

What Doug Jones's win means for Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon and the Democrats

David C. Barker, American University

Everything on the GOP wish list just became more daunting to achieve.

Alabama and #MeToo's disruptive force

Ashwini Tambe, University of Maryland

The word disruption describes an upheaval of institutionalized ways of doing things. Disruptors draw few distinctions between the valuable and less-valuable features of institutions.

Environment + Energy

Will China's crackdown on 'foreign garbage' force wealthy countries to recycle more of their own waste?

Kate O'Neill, University of California, Berkeley

China, which recycles much of the world's waste material, is slashing its scrap imports. This move could force the United States and Europe to boost recycling instead of shipping trash overseas.

Mercury from industrialized nations is polluting the Arctic – here's how it gets there

Daniel Obrist, University of Massachusetts Lowell

How do mercury emissions from industrialized countries reach the remote Arctic? Recent research shows that plants on the tundra absorb mercury vapor through their leaves, then pass it into soil.


You're not going to get accepted into a top university on merit alone

Natasha Warikoo, Harvard University

Students and government officials alike hope Harvard's admission files will yield clues about who gets in and why, but a Harvard researcher says their efforts will be in vain.

Can college 'promise' programs deliver?

Laura Perna, University of Pennsylvania; Edward J. Smith, University of Pennsylvania; Elaine W. Leigh, University of Pennsylvania

As more "college promise" programs are set up in the United States, researchers will be watching to see which ones do the best job at helping students realize their college dreams.

Economy + Business

American Jews and charitable giving: An enduring tradition

Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, Brandeis University

Theology and history help explain why US Jews give more to charity than people who observe other religions or are not religious at all.

Naughty or nice: Is there a financial reward for acting ethically?

Jay L. Zagorsky, The Ohio State University

Santa reportedly rewards children who behave with more presents than their naughty peers. The data suggest the real world isn't as clear-cut.

Ethics + Religion

The moral questions in the debate on what constitutes terrorism

Jessica Wolfendale, West Virginia University

A scholar asks: If two acts of violence kill similar numbers of people, have similar effects on victims and communities, and spread fear and terror, should they not be seen as equally abhorrent?

An archaeological dig in Israel provides clues to how feasting became an important ritual

Natalie Munro, University of Connecticut

Ritual feasting emerged around the time humans were beginning to farm. It came to play an important role in societal bonding, much as it does today.

Health + Medicine

You (and most of the millions of holiday travelers you encounter) are washing your hands wrong

Michelle Sconce Massaquoi, University of Oregon

With holiday travel in full swing and people packed together in small spaces, it's important to try to stop the spread of germs. But can we really get our hands clean with a few seconds of cold water?

Dreading conflict during the holidays? Let it go, let it go, let it go

Nicholas Joyce, University of South Florida

We all know the holidays can be stressful, but we may not realize that we often continue the cycle. Here's how to let things go and enjoy the holidays instead of dreading them.