Stop, or My Drone Will Shoot
Hunting terrorists with aerial killing machines.
The United States is globalizing its secret air force of killer drones. Several dozen drones patrol Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; others monitor additional countries suspected of hosting al-Qaida. They've successfully fired missiles at terrorist suspects abroad at least 19 times since Sept. 11 and have killed at least four al-Qaida leaders, plus civilians. Latest target: Ayman Zawahiri. A former counterterrorism official says, "We have the plans in place to do them globally," with or without the knowledge of the host countries. Rationales: 1) It's hard to find terrorist leaders on the ground. 2) They hang out in ungoverned areas that are too dangerous for our ground troops.
South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk forced two researchers to give him their eggs for his cloning experiment, according to a government investigation. The nation's bioethics committee says 1) Hwang gave the women egg-donation consent letters, which they were forced to sign; 2) he drove a junior researcher to a medical facility to have her eggs extracted; 3) his team collected more than 2,000 eggs from more than 100 women; 4) most of the women were paid; and 5) a clinic may have given Hwang's team "more than 100 ovaries from dubious sources." (For Human Nature's take, click here.)
A new planet in our solar system is bigger than Pluto. It's 100 times farther from the sun than we are, with a temperature of minus 418 degrees Fahrenheit. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, some astronomers said it was too small to qualify as a planet. Last year, when we found the new planetlike object, known as UB313, people asked why Pluto was a planet if the new object wasn't. Now it turns out UB313 is bigger than Pluto. Astronomers are divided between 1) the rational-basis camp, which says Pluto never should have been a planet and should be evicted, and 2) the starry decisis camp, which says Pluto "for historical reasons should remain a planet—otherwise school kids will be confused." Best argument for declaring UB313 a planet: We can finally give it a name and stop calling it UB313. (For Human Nature's take on our mission to Saturn, click here.)
A Swedish study suggests taller boys get longer educations. Height was measured at age 18; additional years of education were measured afterward. Findings: 1) "The probability of achieving higher education in later life increases linearly with height." 2) "Men taller than 194 cm (6 ft 4 in) were two to three times more likely to obtain a higher education when compared with men shorter than 165 cm." The correlation persisted when IQ and social background were factored out. Researchers' speculation: We discriminate against short kids by expecting less of them. (For Human Nature's update on a drug that can make kids taller, click here.)
A pill can control compulsive gambling. Nalmefene, a drug designed for alcoholics, significantly curbed the urge to gamble in nearly two-thirds of patients who took it over four months, compared with one-third who improved in a control group with a placebo. It works by disrupting your opiate circuits and your dopamine system—i.e., taking the fun outof gambling. Psychiatry journal's spin: This proves again that what we used to call moral problems are really biological problems. Clinicians' spin: Actually, the drug is just for getting gamblers under control so we can treat them with counseling. Social commentators' spin: Whether moral or biological, it's a national disease, with lotteries, online wagering, and celebrity poker.
Companies are peddling brain scans as truth detectors. One outfit says its computer-MRI combo detected lies in 28 of 31 volunteers; the military is funding some research. Marketed uses: 1) for lawyers, proving a client's truthfulness; 2) for government agencies, screening employees. Hypothetical uses: detecting employee theft, interrogating suspects, or interrogating foreign detainees. Objections: 1) It invades mental privacy. 2) It's been tested only on people with nothing at stake; in the real world, high stakes might screw up its performance, with awful consequences. 3) Despite being unproven, it'll wow juries by showing them brain images that look decisive. Defenses: 1) It's better than polygraph because it measures the brain directly. 2) The subjects have to hold still and remain conscious, so you can't test them without their consent. (For Human Nature's previous update on brain-scan discoveries, click here and here; for an update on using stomachs as lie detectors, click here.)
Being touched by your husband relieves stress. In a study, as women waited for electric shocks, scans of their brains showed high activity in regions that anticipate pain and regulate negative emotions. The activity subsided when a stranger touched their hands, but subsided far more when their husbands did so. "Supercouples" who scored highest on closeness in a questionnaire got the biggest reductions. This matches previous research that showed 1) seeing a picture of someone who recently rejected you causes pain, and 2) blisters take longer to heal during marital discord. Researchers' conclusion: Maybe stress reduction is why married folks are healthier than singles. Bonus finding: Women awaiting shocks "showed peaks of activation in regions involved in … heightening physical arousal." Question: The couples "all rated as very happily married" but agreed to subject the wife to electric shocks. What's up with that?
Countries are fighting over "altitude simulation" at the Olympics. Finland, which lacks mountains, has used indoor simulation of mountain air (more nitrogen, less oxygen) to acclimate its athletes to the heights they'll face at the Winter Olympics in Italy. Mountain air makes you produce more red blood cells, which help you compete. American athletes had also planned to do this, but Italy now says anyone doing it will be arrested. Anti-simulation argument from the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency: "It's artificial. … I'm not sure it's doping but it certainly is tacky." Pro-simulation arguments: 1) It isn't doping. 2) It literally levels the playing field between flat and mountainous countries. 3) It's no more artificial than "air-conditioning a hot gym." 4) Why is it OK to move athletes to mountain air but not to move mountain air to athletes? (WSJ link requires subscription.) (For Human Nature's take on athletic doping, click here.)
Scientists are debating how much further global warming can go before it spirals beyond our control. By century's end, two crucial ice sheets could be gone "for thousands of years," and the sea's rise might "take tens of thousands of years to reverse." Bush administration's take: Relax, nobody knows where the tipping point is. Europe's take: For God's sake, cut greenhouse gases! Nobody knows where the tipping point is! NASA official's take: The administration is trying to stop me from sounding the alarm.
Hundreds of Americans have received tissue from plundered corpses. Roughly a million transplants each year come from corpses; from 2004 to 2005, at least 134 patients got tissue now known to have been stolen without the deceased's (pre-death) consent. Recipients' complaints: 1) My new body part is from an old person, not a young one as the doctors claimed. 2) My new body part is from someone who didn't want to be "chopped up." 3) My new body part gave me syphilis. Authority quoted by the Washington Post on the wrongness of corpse-looting: FDA spokesman Stephen King.
Sex lowers your blood-pressure response to stress for days, according to a small study. For two weeks, 46 volunteers "kept diaries of how often they engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI), masturbation," or other "partnered sexual activity." Then they were assigned public speaking and measured for stress. Results: Those who had PVI "were least stressed, and their blood pressure returned to normal faster than those who'd only masturbated or had non-coital sex. Those who abstained had the highest blood-pressure response." Researchers' theory: The duration of the effect, and the fact that you get more of it from PVI than from other sex, suggests the benefit comes not from orgasm but from oxytocin, a pair-bonding hormone. Translation: It's not the sex; it's the love. Skeptics' suspicions: 1) People who volunteer to record and report their sex acts are not a representative sample. 2) Great, this news will really help us control teen pregnancy. 3) Maybe the low stress causes the sex, not the other way around. 4) This isn't a study; it's a pickup line. (For Human Nature's takes on noncoital sex acts, click here, here, here, or here. For PVI between unauthorized pairs, click here or here. For the costs of abstinence, click here or here. For the pope's take on love and sex, click here.)
Latest Human Nature columns: 1) Men, women, and the joy of punishment. 2) Scalia on abortion and suicide. 3) Teachers who have sex withboys. 4) Our creepy genetic experiment on dogs. 5) The pope's anti-gay tendencies. 6) Does Alito treat women like girls? 7) Bill Bennett's racial determinism. 8) The mainstreaming of anal sex. (Click here to return to top of page.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.