News from the technological frontier.

Science, technology, and life.
Feb. 7 2005 11:25 AM

Too Dumb to Fail

And other news from the technological frontier.

Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers. 2) Life arrives on a moon of Saturn. 3) The creature genetic engineers fear most. 4) The creepy solution to the stem-cell debate.

Virginia may execute a killer because he's no longer retarded. Years ago, he scored 59 on an I.Q. test, qualifying as too retarded to be constitutionally executed. (The cutoff in Virginia is 70.) He recently took another I.Q. test and scored 76. His lawyer blames the improvement on the inmate's participation in litigating his appeals--"a forced march towards increased mental stimulation," according to the psychologist who tested him. Law-and-order spin: Low test scores are a joke. Anybody smart enough to plan a crime like this one is competent to be executed. Civil rights spin: I.Q. increases with age, so the state can retest an inmate for years until he scores too high. Cynical spin: The test nails exactly the wrong people, because anybody too dumb to figure out how to score below 70 when his life is at stake really is too retarded to be executed.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Cops are being investigated for using or selling steroids in nine states. They reportedly use the drugs to get strong enough to handle or intimidate suspects. Problem: Steroids can fuel rage and aggression. Two cops convicted of unwarranted shootings have blamed the drugs. Debate: 1) If steroids are criminal, only criminals will have steroids. 2) If steroids are legal, more cops will be criminals. ... 8:30 a.m. PT

Sunday, Feb. 6, 2005

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A  NASA study indicates greenhouse gases could revive Mars. Using ingredients already on the planet, astronauts could start a greenhouse effect and turn Mars into "a living and breathing world that could support future human colonies." Caveat: It "could take centuries or millenniums." Implication: It might be easier to make a nearby planet habitable than to reach a habitable planet far away.

A judge ruled that you can sue for the "wrongful death" of an embryo. The plaintiffs sued a fertility clinic for accidentally throwing out embryos it froze and stored for them. The judge cited 1) Illinois' Wrongful Death Act, which says "the state of gestation or development of a human being" doesn't disqualify a claim, and 2) another Illinois law that says an "unborn child is a human being from the time of conception and is, therefore, a legal person." A different judge previously tossed the case without explanation. Pro-choice spin: This ruling for embryonic personhood will be overturned because it defies other legal precedents. Pro-life spin: Other legal precedents will be overturned because they defy embryonic personhood. Political spin: Never mind abortion—the ruling will be axed because it defies stem-cell research. ... 6:00 p.m. PT

Friday, Feb. 4, 2005

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The Food and Drug Administration may approve an electronic implant for depression. The implant, which was made to treat epilepsy, sends pulses to the brain. One expert calls it "a pacemaker for the brain." Similar implants already treat chronic pain. Patients would have to try drugs and other therapies before getting it. Implication: We're increasingly treating the mind as part of the body.

Cops are fingerprinting speeders in Phoenix, Ariz. Sheriff's deputies are asking for a thumbprint when they ticket a driver. Critics say drivers don't know they can refuse. Sheriff's spin: We're doing it to protect the innocent. Cynics' translation: They're doing it to catch the guilty. Implication: Government is finding new ways to collect evidence from ordinary people. ... 3:00 p.m. PT

Thursday, Feb. 3, 2005

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Cell phones make young people drive as badly as old people. A simulator study indicates drivers 18 to 25 years old who use cell phones, even hands-free, react as slowly and overlook things as badly as drivers 65 to 74 years old who don't use cell phones. Implications: 1) Don't talk on the phone while driving. 2) If phone use by young drivers is dangerous enough to ban, why do we let old folks drive at all?

An ex-priest accused of child rape rested his entire defense on a recovered-memory debunker. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus testified that "many people who have false memories have a lot of confidence and have a lot of detail about their memories." The accuser says he remembered three years ago that the priest abused him as a child. A psychiatrist previously testified for the prosecution that recovered memories are true. Critique: Loftus has shown the ability to implant false memories only in a lab. Reply: Speaking of bad memory, have you forgotten the McMartin case? Implication: We're using psychological generalizations to decide the truth of individual accusations.

The average consumer of a pay-per-view porn movie watches for just seven minutes.Implication: Don't ask. ... 1:30 p.m. PT

Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005

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Medicare will cover Viagra and other drugs for sexual dysfunction. Critique: Just when you thought government couldn't get dumber, here comes the boner subsidy. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, will file legislation to ban Medicare coverage of "lifestyle drugs." King tells  NYT, "We are promoting abstinence for young people with raging hormones, and yet we are going to ask them to pay taxes for sex-enhancing drugs for seniors?" Defense: Medicare is just following precedent: Insurers already cover "quality-of-life" drugs for pain or indigestion, and the Department of Veterans Affairs covers Viagra for 150,000 men. Rebuttal: My God, it's worse than we thought. Implication: The distinction between necessary and elective medicine is breaking down.

Pro-lifers are using sonograms to dissuade women from abortions. One group plans to spend $4 million this year to put ultrasound machines in pregnancy counseling centers. Pro-life spin: Giving women information is pro-choice. Pro-choice spin: Then why don't these centers offer information about contraception or abortion options? Implication: The abortion war is shifting from politics to advertising.

Adult marrow cells might replace embryonic stem cells. Tufts University researchers say the marrow cells can become various kinds of specialized cells. They don't know whether the cells can become all types, as embryonic stem cells can. Upbeat spin: Science can now bypass the moral debate. Skeptical spin: Let's keep investigating embryonic cells in case this bulletin turns out to be a false alarm, as others have.

China is reversing its one-child policy. The old problem was unsustainable population growth. The new problem is an aging population, declining fertility rates, and as many as 40 million men doomed to bachelorhood because sex-selective abortions have led to only five girls for every six boys. New policies: 1) Criminalization of sex-selective abortions. 2) Free school tuition for some girls from poor families. 3) Pensions for some old folks if they just have daughters (so couples won't feel obliged to keep trying till they have a son). 4) Possibly a "two-child policy to prevent a looming baby bust." Implication: Central planning distributes population as brilliantly as it distributes food.Critique: Central planners never learn to stop planning; they just change the plan.

Sports doping cops have detected a new "undetectable" steroid. They found the drug, DMT, through a tip, not through urine tests, which it was designed to foil. They're trying to devise a urine test for it. Scientists' conclusions: 1) Doping technology is evolving rapidly. 2) The complexity of DMT suggests sophisticated chemists are involved. Implication: Dope chemists are joining hackers and terrorists as the price of knowledge diffusion.

Birds are smarter than we thought. We thought they were stupid because they don't have our brain structure. It turns out they're just different. Implication: We aren't as smart as we thought. Factoids: 1) Crows reshape natural objects to make tools. 2) Crows put nuts in front of traffic to get us to crack them. 3) Nutcrackers can recover thousands of seeds they hid six months earlier. 4) Magpies learn "object permanence" (i.e., just because you conceal something doesn't mean it's gone) faster than any other animal. 5) Pigeons try to fake out other birds about the location of food. 6) Parrots create language and pass along learned knowledge. Related: Al Sharpton is boycotting KFC.

Hard liquor and beer are good for old women. In a study, those who drank up to half an ounce of booze a day scored as well on a mental skill test as did nondrinkers who were 18 months younger. Likely reason: Alcohol improves blood flow and lowers the risk of small strokes. Caveat: Women who drank more than half an ounce scored as poorly as nondrinkers, so watch it. ... 11:30 a.m. PT

Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2005

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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.

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