Arms and the Boy
Children seeking athletic enhancement through surgery.
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Computers have conquered checkers. A program called Chinook hasn't lost since 1994; a systematic scan of the game's 500 billion possible positions shows it can't be beaten. Hype: 1) Checkers has lost all suspense, just like tic-tac-toe. 2) Humans will never beat computers at it. 3) We'll stop playing altogether. 4) Next, computers will conquer chess and poker. Rebuttals: 1) "We kind of knew the game was a draw anyway." 2) We'll keep playing each other, because no human can master billions of positions. 3) Computers will take decades or centuries to become unbeatable at chess, since it's vastly more complex. 4) They'll never conquer poker, since it involves deceit. (For Human Nature's take on chess computers vs. humans, click here.)
Anecdotal evidence suggests healthy teenage pitchers and their parents are seeking reconstructive elbow surgery to improve their throwing speed. (The "Tommy John" surgery was originally developed to repair the arms of pro pitchers.) Evidence: 1) One doctor used to do 5 to 10 such procedures per year on high-school pitchers; now he does up to 75. 2) Kids as young as 14 are getting it. 3) A minor-league pitcher "trumped up his symptoms" to get the surgery; other "young pitchers with marginal injuries" are seeking it. Reasons: college scholarships and pro contracts. Objections: 1) The kids don't need it. 2) It doesn't improve throwing speed. 3) The underlying problem is abusive overexertion of kids' arms. 4) Maybe they should stop throwing hard pitches till they're "old enough to shave." (For Human Nature's take on steroids, laser eye surgery, and other athletic enhancements, click here. To discuss the invasion of childhood by professional athletics and surgery, click here.)
England's health secretary proposed to declare everyone a postmortem organ donor unless they officially register their refusal. The British Medical Association agreed. France, Italy, Spain, and other European countries already presume you're a donor. Rationales: 1) People aren't donating enough organs to save others in need. 2) Polls show 70 percent of people want to donate, though only 20 percent register to do so. 3) "Safeguards" will prevent abuse. 4) If we don't do this, people will increasingly buy organs from live donors overseas. Rebuttals: 1) "The state does not own our bodies." 2) You can't presume somebody's consent based on a random sample. 3) People exaggerate their altruism in polls. 4) If you freak people out, you'll cause an uprising against the whole medical system. (For Human Nature's take on buying organs overseas, click here. To comment on the government's authority to harvest your organs, click here.)
In a prison study, 85 percent of men who got kiddy porn from the Internet said they had sexually abused children. Seized pedophilic computer images are doubling every year; in five years, one clearinghouse has compiled more than 8 million explicit images. Alarmed reactions: 1) Kiddy porn users are so likely to molest that we should sentence them more harshly. 2) In fact, they're likely to have molested already. Caveats: 1) The study only included men who were in jail—and in therapy—for child porn use. 2) The government says the sample might be skewed. Bonus finding: In therapy, the men admitted to abusing 20 times more children than courts had identified. (For Human Nature's take on cybersex with teenagers, click here. For male vs. female child molesters, click here. To post your views on criminal treatment of porn downloaders, click here.)
A wrestler who killed his wife, his son, and himself had a testosterone level 10 times higher than normal. He is at least the 27th pro wrestler to have died at age 45 or younger in the last decade. A medical exam indicates he had injected himself with synthetic testosterone. Examiner's caveat: "An elevation of this ratio does not necessarily translate to something abnormal in a person's behavior." Cynical translation: But it sure helps. Wrestling industry's spin: Synthetic testosterone isn't illegal, and we never caught him using steroids. Rebuttal: Exactly, you useless scumbags. (For a previous update on random steroid testing of high-school athletes, click here. For Human Nature's takes on steroids as athletic boosters, click here and here. To discuss the role of testosterone poisoning in male violence, click here.)
NFL quarterback Michael Vick was indicted for dog fighting. Charge: "sponsoring and exhibiting an animal fighting venture." (Dog fighting is illegal in 48 states and under federal law if state lines are crossed.) Alleged details: 1) The dogs fought for hours to the death or near-death. 2) "Sometimes dogs were starved to make them hungry for the opposing dog." 3) Vick and others killed several losers and weaklings through drowning, hanging, shooting, strangulation, electrocution, and slamming to the ground. NFL comment: "The activities alleged are cruel, degrading and illegal." Humane Society expert's comment: This story isn't just dog-bites-dog; it's man-hangs-dog. (For a previous update on outlawing cockfighting, click here. For Human Nature's takes on killing animals, click here and here. For the evils of dog breeding, click here. To discuss human abuse of animals, click here.)
Humans are more spiteful than chimps, according to new research. Experiment: A chimp is put near food on a table and is given a rope that can collapse the table and get rid of the food. Result: When the food is within reach and a second chimp takes it, the first chimp pulls the rope as punishment. However, when the food is visible but unreachable and the second chimp takes it, the first chimp seems indifferent. By contrast, "humans are more likely to get upset at unfairness." Self-serving spin: Humans have a greater sense of justice. Cynical translation: We're meaner. (For Human Nature's take on men, women, and schadenfreude, click here. To discuss human spite and class warfare, click here.)
A study says IVF "improves childhood growth and metabolism." Findings: "IVF children were taller than controls [by more than an inch] when correctedfor parents' heights," with slightly better cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides. Researchers' speculation: IVF alters expression of the relevant genes. Approved conclusion: IVF isn't bad for you. Unapproved conclusion: IVF is good for you. (For a previous update on the superior intelligence of taller people, click here.)
The sprinter with prosthetic legs failed to run fast enough for the Olympics. The sprinter, Oscar Pistorius, runs on carbon-fiber blades to replace his amputated lower legs. The International Association of Athletics Federations originally indicated that his blades were a prohibited "technical device" but has decided to let him race while it monitors him. This weekend he competed in two track meets but failed to post times good enough to qualify for the Olympics. In the first meet, an IAAF official complained that the blades helped Pistorius "spend less energy" and gain speed. In the second, Pistorius finished last and was disqualified for stepping out of his lane. Old complaint: He's too fast to allow in the Olympics. New complaint: He's too slow. (For previous updates on Pistorius, click here and here. For Human Nature's takes on athletic enhancement, click here and here. To debate the rules of athletic enhancement, click here.)
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of nun on Slate's home page by Digital Vision.