Too Dumb to Fail
And other news from the technological frontier.
Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005
People aren't fully rational until age 25. A study indicates the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex, which weighs risks, consequences, and long-term goals, keeps changing past age 21. Implication: Young adults may not deserve the freedom or responsibility of older adults.Applications: 1) Virginia's state Senate has passed a ban on cell phone use by drivers under 18; the sponsor cites brain research as a basis. 2) The Supreme Court is considering whether brain research should limit use of capital punishmenton teenagers. Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will direct California's juvenile prison system to focus on therapy and "positive reinforcement rather than punitive disciplinary methods." 3) The cortex forms earlier in women—should they get rights and responsibilities before men do? 4) Should we rethink marriageor military enlistment by people under age 25?
Companies are firing or refusing to hire smokers. The reason? Not passive smoke, but health insurance costs. Tactics include "nonsmokers only" in job ads, no-smoking agreements in applications, and all kinds of tests (breathalyzer, polygraph, urine). Critiques: 1) Tobacco is legal. 2) Smoking outside work is your own business. 3) Fat workers may cost employers more than smokers do. Reply: Don't joke—Alabama may ask obese public employees to pay higher insurance rates. Implication: Money now defines the limits of tolerance.
A new magazine is devoted to cosmetic surgery.NewBeauty promises "the latest advances in plastic surgery, dermatology and cosmetic dentistry," plus "profiles of leading plastic surgeons, facial plastic surgeons, dermatologists, and cosmetic dentists." The editorial director promises "the ultimate guide to breast enhancement" and "everything you need to know about lasers and injectables." Critique: Great, more self-hatred of the natural human form. Defense: Your lips say no, but your eyes say yes.
Congress is moving to restrict cold medicine because an ingredient can be used to make methamphetamine. Ten Democratic and seven Republican senators have signed on to S. 103, the Combat Meth Act. Summary by sponsor Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.): "The most effective thing we can do to make meth harder to manufacture is to put cold medicine behind the counter at pharmacies and require purchasers to sign for it and show photo ID." Implication: The line between licit and illicit drugs is blurring.
President Bush says gay couples are inferior parents. He says, "Studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family with a man and a woman." NYT replies that studies show "no significant developmental differences" when kids are raised by gay couples. (Righty critique: The samples are too small to prove anything.) Caveat: In a British study, six of 30 kids raised by lesbian parents had a gay relationship by their 20s. (Lefty critique: The sample is too small to prove anything.) Implication: While defending Florida's antigay adoption policy, Bush is conceding that science, not religion, is the judge of parental fitness.
Fidgeting fights obesity. A study indicates thin people fidget enough to burn 350 more calories a day than fat people do, for an annual difference of 30 to 40 pounds. The good news, according to the researchers: You can control your weight by fidgeting. The bad news: You can't control your fidgeting—it's based on "genetically determined levels of brain chemicals." Critique: The researchers infer that if your weight doesn't determine your level of fidgeting, your genes control it. But there's a third option: Get off your duff.
We can turn stem cells into motor neurons. Scientists have derived cells that communicate from the brain to the spinal cord. Implication: We could eventually treat ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease.
An antidepressant gave a woman a two-hour orgasm. According to NYT, "While shopping, she said, she spontaneously had an orgasm that had lasted on and off for nearly two hours." Prescribing doctor's response: Uh oh—what went wrong? Woman's response: Wrong? Implication: I'll have what she's having.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of man in truck on Slate's home page by Corbis.