Rubbers and Ratzinger
Will the Vatican bend on birth control?
Companies are making employees who smoke pay higher health premiums. Roughly eight to 10 percent of firms apply penalties or incentives to smokers; Gannett Co., PepsiCo, Northwest Airlines, and others are charging smokers an extra $20 to $50 a month. Alabama and Georgia already do this to state employees. Rationales: 1) It saves the companies money. 2) It encourages smokers to quit. 3) It makes smokers pay their due, since their health care costs employers 25 percent more than health care for nonsmokers. 4) Workers shouldn't have to "pay for others' lifestyle choices." Critics' warning: Employers will start penalizing workers for other unhealthy habits.
French Catholics are asking the Vatican to reconsider its ban on contraception. Their arguments: 1) The ban is less than 40 years old. 2) A papal commission initially recommended against it. 3) Pope Benedict's encyclical on love last year said nice things about the human body and erotic love. Maybe we can win him over. Counter-argument: Have Benedict's previous writings never been translated into French, or did you guys just not bother to read them? (For Human Nature's take on Benedict and gay priests, click here. For Slate's debate on abortion and contraception, click here.)
New diet products try to trick your brain into feeling full. Companies say low-fat is dead, and Atkins proved people prefer diets that don't leave them hungry. Early techniques: 1) Alter fat molecules so they trigger your small intestine to tell your brain you're full. These molecules are already in some SlimFast shakes. 2) Add a starch that's released slowly so your blood sugar stays constant. This starch is already in Lu nutrition bars. 3) Add fiber that slows digestion and stretches your stomach, preferably without causing constipation. Skeptics' warning: "If the only way we judged hunger was how full the stomach is, no one would ever have dessert." (For Human Nature's update on dieting through implanting false memories, click here. For the latest study debunking low-fat diets, click here.)
DNA evidence is rattling Mormonism. The church converted millions of Native Americans and Polynesians with its scriptural story that they came from a lost tribe of Israel. * DNA says they came from Asia instead. Old Mormon argument: The scripture is literally true. New arguments: 1) DNA evidence is being twisted by enemies of the church. 2) Maybe the folks who came from the lost tribe were few, and their DNA was "swamped" by immigrants from Asia. Try falsifying that! 3) "The Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science." 4) We're "willing to live in ambiguity." (For Human Nature's take on religious evasions of science in the case of creationism, click here. For Slate's take on Mormons and stem cells, click here.)
Intelligent design took another hit. Ohio's board of education, which four years ago led the movement to target evolution for classroom scrutiny, reversed itself. Reasons: The groups that won a court fight against a similar policy in Dover, Pa., had threatened to sue Ohio, and the governor advised the board to rethink the policy in light of the Dover ruling. Creationist spins: 1) The reversal is a "gag order on science." 2) It's a "slap in the face to the citizens of Ohio," who support the policy in polls. Evolutionist spins: 1) Pretending there's a scientific controversy wherever people's feelings might be hurt "misleads kids about the nature of science." 2) "The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it." (For Human Nature's previous take on Dover and the future of creationism, click here.)
Video games are training soldiers for combat. The military has used games to develop training simulations; soldiers in Iraq are playing games in their spare time. Two military officials say the games condition soldiers to kill, but a writer who has accompanied troops says real killing makes some lose their taste for games. Quotes from soldiers: 1) "It felt like I was in a big video game. It didn't even faze me, shooting back. It was just natural instinct." 2) "It felt like I was playing 'Ghost Recon' at home." 3) "Think to yourself, This is a game, just do it." 4) "It was like 'Halo.' It didn't even seem real, but it was real." Washington Post's warning: A game "comes with a restart button." (For Human Nature's take, click here.)
Chinese women are taking fertility drugs to evade the country's one-child policy. Pharmacists are selling the drugs indiscriminately to women who want to increase their chances of getting two or more kids from their one allowed pregnancy. Twin births are up nationwide; a hospital that used to deliver 20 sets of twins or triplets a year now delivers 90. Chinese government's warning: These drugs are dangerous for women and kids because multiple-fetus pregnancies can lead to abnormalities and premature births. Critics' rejoinder: Women will stop taking the drugs if you let them have two babies the normal way. (For Human Nature's previous takes on IVF and multiple-embryo pregnancies, click here and here.)
Penis-enlargement surgery doesn't measure up, according to a survey of 42 men. Average length increase: half an inch. Percentage of patients dissatisfied with results: 70. Researchers' conclusions: 1) Don't believe the spam. 2) Don't try the surgery. 3) Get help for the organ at the root of the problem: your brain. Patients' conclusions: 1) The surgery did nothing for my penis! 2) I want another surgery! (For Human Nature's previous update on penis size, click here. For Slate's take on the science of penis measurement, click here.)
Cosmetic surgery is becoming a popular career move. Facial plastic surgeries increased by one-third from 2000 to 2004; 15 percent of female patients and 22 percent of male patients said they did it for professional reasons. From 2003 to 2004, male Botox treatments, forehead lifts, and laser resurfacings doubled. Reasons: 1) Employees fear being pushed out if they look old. 2) Studies and anecdotes teach that good-looking people get paid more. 3) Surgeries are getting cheaper, so they're cost-effective if they earn you a raise or promotion. 4) They increase your confidence, which improves your performance. Criticisms: 1) Why not skip the surgery and go straight to the improved performance? 2) Screw up the surgery, and you'll become the office freak show. (For Human Nature's previous update on "virginity restoration" surgery, click here.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of Pope Benedict XVI on the Slate home page by Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images.