Research bries

23 January 2002 |

Below are highlights of recently reported campus research findings. For the complete story, see

Minorities, women get better car prices on the Internet, research finds

The Internet serves as an equalizer for those who typically pay more at the car dealership — African-Americans, Hispanics, and women, says a recent study by researchers at Berkeley and Yale.

In their study, “Consumer Information and Price Discrimination,” researchers found that minority buyers pay about 2 percent more than white consumers (about $500 on the average car), with most of this premium due to differing income, education and search costs.

Women pay, on average, 0.2 percent more than men (about $45 on the average car).

Shopping on the Internet levels the playing field, the researchers found. Data from the online car buying service showed that minorities paid the same prices as non-minorities, regardless of their level of education, income and search costs.

Said Florian Zettelmeyer, marketing professor at the Haas School of Business: “African-Americans and Hispanics, consumers who are least likely to use the Internet, are the ones who would benefit the most from it.”

After an extinction, life is slow to bounce back
The 500-million-year history of life on Earth is a series of booms and busts. But while the busts, or extinctions, can be either sudden or gradual, life seldom rebounds quickly from an extinction, says a new study by a campus professor of earth and planetary science.

Professor James Kirchner based his findings on an analysis of the fossil record of marine animals over the past 530 million years.

“There seem to be biological mechanisms that limit diversification of new organisms and control which ones become successful enough to persist,” Kirchner said. “Biodiversity is slow to recover after an extinction.”

This finding has major implications for present-day extinctions.

“If we substantially diminish biodiversity on Earth, we can’t expect the biosphere to just bounce back. It doesn’t do that,” Kirchner said. “The process of diversification is too slow. The planet would be biologically depleted for millions of years, with consequences extending not only beyond the lives of our children’s children, but beyond the likely lifespan of the entire human species.”

Last year Kirchner and colleague Anne Weil reported that the Earth needs, on average, about 10 million years to recover from global extinctions, whether they involve the loss of most life on Earth or wipe out far fewer species. This was much longer than most scientists thought.

One possible explanation is that extinction eliminates not merely species or groups of species, but ecological niches. Recovery thus becomes more complicated.

“Extinction is not like knocking chess pieces off a chessboard, with the empty squares ready for you to plunk down new pieces,” Kirchner said. “Extinction is more like knocking down a house of cards. You only have places to put new cards as you rebuild the structure of the house.”

Scientists study changes to environment, culture of Hawaiian islands
A multidisciplinary team led by Berkeley archaeologist Patrick Kirch is studying the Big Island of Hawaii and Maui in search of clues to its environmental and cultural changes over time.

Led by Professor Kirch, an expert on the archaeology and prehistory of the Pacific Islands, the study aims to trace the intricate interactions between earlier human habitation and changes in the environment over a period ending around 1800.

During that time, the indigenous Polynesian population increased dramatically and their sociopolitical complexity grew, helping to define Hawaiian society. Local physical environments underwent staggering transformations as farming-based economies took hold.

“Although the project is focused on the Hawaiian Islands, issues addressed are global,” said Kirch. “Many of the cultural and natural co-evolutionary processes that happened in Hawaii over the millennium prior to European contact have also happened elsewhere and are taking place today on a global environmental scale.”

Those processes include unprecedented population growth, widespread deforestation, soil degradation through forest clearance and nutrient depletion, population migrations into marginal lands, and increased centralization of political power and economic control, he said.


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