Shut Your Mouth
The newest unsafe sex act: French kissing.
Promiscuous French kissing nearly quadruples your risk of spinal meningitis,at least if you're a teenager. The disease is "potentially life-threatening." The good news: A vaccine can block one version of the illness (but not others), and "there was also a lower infection rate among those who had attended a religious service." Reactions: 1) Happy Valentine's Day! 2) Let's see—genital contact is unsafe; kissing is unsafe; how about holding hands? Would that be too much to ask? 3) Does religion protect teens who French kiss multiple partners, or are those who go to church more likely to be lying about the multiple partners? (For Human Nature's take on more dangerous intimate acts, click here.)
Polygamous inbreeders are pumping out children so retarded they need constant care. Ninety percent of the 8,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which occupies two towns on the Arizona-Utah border, are reportedly related to at least one of two founding families. Most members carry a recessive gene for fumarase deficiency. Relations among these relations have produced at least 20 kids with the full-blown disease; doctors expect many more as the inbreeding, which began with the community's founding 76 years ago, continues. Community's view: We marry our kin because we're the chosen people. Outsiders' view: We draw the line when you ruin kids and dump their lifetime medical costs on taxpayers. (For Human Nature's takes on cousin marriage and incest, click here, here, and here.)
Congress and the Bush administration are fighting overhorse-butchering. American firms slaughtered 88,000 horses, mules, and related animals last year; Congress tried to stop it by defunding obligatory veterinary inspections, but the Agriculture Department plans to circumvent that restriction by asking slaughterers to fund the inspections. Anti-slaughter outcries: 1) The department is "thumbing its nose at Congress." 2) It's a reign of "commerce and greed." 3) It's disgusting to kill animals that "served us faithfully and provided us with companionship." Pro-slaughter arguments: 1) Nobody can afford to care for horses once they're useless. 2) Slaughtering them is humane, because the law requires us to render them impervious to pain beforehand. 3) If we don't slaughter them, Mexicans and Canadians will. Bonus disclosure: Americans don't eat most of the meat from our slaughtered horses; Europeans and Asians do. (For Human Nature's take on animal rights, click here; for Slate's take on eating dogs, click here.)
Male circumcision protects women from AIDS. In a Ugandan study, circumcision lowered women's infection risk by 30 percent. In men, the risk reduction is 50 percent to 70 percent. Researchers' theory: Cells in the foreskin are susceptible to the virus and likely to pass it on. (For Human Nature's previous update on circumcision as protection for men, click here. For circumcision as an adult, click here. For bloodsucking circumcision in the United States, click here.)
Eating less fat won't reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease, according to a huge study. Also, low-fat diets don't reduce weight, and high-carbohydrate diets don't increase it. This is the latest study to debunk conventional diet wisdom; previous studies debunked theories that fiber and vitamins helped avoid cancer. Excuses/interpretations: 1) The key is to cut saturated fat, not all fat. 2) The key is to eat fruits and vegetables. 3) The key is to eat fewer calories. 4) The key is exercise, not diet. 5) Maybe you'll get the benefits if you eat even less fat than people ate in this study. 6) You should still eat less fat, because maybe it helps you in some other way. 7) You "experts" don't know squat, so stop telling us what to eat. 8) Give it up; it's all controlled by genes. (For Human Nature's updates on the benefits of coffee, click here and here. For the benefits of chocolate, click here and here. For the benefits of alcohol, click here and here.)
Olympians are abstaining from sex to boost their performance, despite evidence that they should have sex instead. Triathletes, skaters, swimmers, boxers, ice dancers, and others avoid nookie before big contests; one says he abstained for 233 days. The Canadian swim team required an abstinence pledge; Pittsburgh Steelers coaches order players not to stay with wives or girlfriends the night before games and enforce this with room checks. Rationales: conserving strength, energy, focus, or your edge. But studies refute all these benefits and suggest sex can actually help by steadying you, increasing your tolerance for pain, and boosting your testosterone levels, which is so performance-enhancing it would be illegal if you did it with dope. Cynical theory: Abstinence rules are a fraud used by coaches to make sure their athletes get enough sleep. (WSJ link requires subscription.) (For previous updates on the benefits of sex, click here. For Human Nature's take on athletic doping, click here.)
Nearly 80 percent of Alzheimer's cases are caused in part by genes, according to the largest-ever study of the disease in twins. Interpretations: 1) If you don't have the genes, maybe you're home free. 2) If you don't have the genes, maybe it'll just take you longer to get Alzheimer's than it took 80 percent of the people in this study. 3) If you do have the genes, diet and exercise might still delay it. Bonus finding: Being chronically depressed earlier in life makes you deteriorate more rapidly once you get Alzheimer's.
The face-transplant patient showed her face at a press conference. The good: 1) She can talk. 2) She can eat normal food, which used to be impossible. 3) She can drink from a cup. 4) She's regaining sensation. 5) She can "show emotions through my face," sort of. 6) You can hardly see her scar from a distance. 7) She can go out now without drawing stares from everyone—unless you recognize her. The bad: 1) Her face hardly moves. 2) Her voice is slurred, since her lips do nothing. 3) You can see her teeth all the time. The unknown: 1) She might not regain much facial mobility. 2) Her body tried to reject the face once and might do so again. The worst: 1) Here's how she discovered her face was gone: "When I woke up, I tried to light a cigarette and didn't understand why it wouldn't stay between my lips. That's when I saw the pool of blood and the dog beside it." 2) She's still smoking. (For previous updates on the face transplant, click here and here. For an update on transplanting fingers, click here.)
Opponents of evolution are meeting unexpected resistance in Utah. The state senate narrowly passed a bill requiring teachers to tell students that scientists disagree about the origins of life, but some key Republican lawmakers are fighting it. Supporters' views: 1) If some scientists dispute evolution, we should say so. 2) The bill isn't religious; it just about "not overstepping what we know." Opponents' views: 1) God has no problem with science. 2) Mixing faith and science will corrupt faith. 3) Mormons, being a minority, should beware religious majoritarianism. 4) Mormons, believing in progress and spiritual transcendence, have no problem reconciling a higher future with a lower past. Question: If creationists are telling kids to respect dissent regardless of its evidentiary merits, aren't they the new softheaded pluralists? (For Human Nature's take on the future of creationism, click here; for Slate's take on Mormons and stem cells, click here.)
Cops are busting minors for "internal possession" of alcohol. The old rule required police to find a can or bottle on you, but under new laws in some states, booze on your breath, wobbly walking, and/or a .02 blood alcohol level is proof enough. Critics' complaints: 1) How can you assert proof of possession when you can't see the thing allegedly possessed? 2) How can you hold someone responsible for intoxication unrelated to a criminal act, especially since intoxication, unlike drinking, is a state, not an act?
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.