Drug-testing cities through their sewage.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 30 2007 7:53 AM

Waste High

Drug-testing cities through their sewage.

(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

Dermatologists are offering faster access to Botox than to medical services. Evidence: Phone surveys of dermatologists in 12 cities to determine median waiting times for 1) Botox or 2) "urgent consultation" about a changing (possibly cancerous) mole. Results: 8 days for Botox, 26 for moles. Fine print: The mole survey preceded the Botox survey. Theories: 1) Demand for mole exams is outstripping dermatologist supply due to rising public fear of melanoma and other skin diseases. 2) Dermatologists are less eager to do mole exams because insurance payments are low and slow. 3) They're eager to do Botox because it's more expensive and is paid by the patient up front. Socialist solution: Force them to spend less time on Botox and more on mole exams. Libertarian solution: Stop insuring mole exams. Human Nature's theory: Longer waits are the price of cheaper services, and probably worth the trade. But if you're more outraged, speak up here.

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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Scientists are drug-testing whole cities through their sewage systems. Concept: "community urinalysis." Sample required: 1 teaspoon of wastewater. Drugs targeted: cocaine, meth, pot, oxycodone, and 11 others. Ten cities have been tested so far; more are in the works. In addition, "The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy has obtained samples from a dozen different waterways." Official purpose: Tracking drug use collectively so we don't have to target people individually. Unofficial purpose: Tracking drug use collectively so we can choose where to target people individually. Human Nature's view: Data-guided privacy invasions may be bad, but broader, unguided privacy invasions are worse. To disagree, add your teaspoon of wisdom here.

Surgery to repair female genital mutilation is spreading. It involves clitoral reconstruction and/or reopening the vagina. It started in France; roughly 100 women have now had it in Burkina Faso. Rosy spin: It's a feminist breakthrough. Complaints: 1) It doesn't restore wholeness or normal sensation. 2) It's no substitute for eradicating FGM. 3) It's dangerous for now, because few doctors have learned to do it right. 4) If the family that forced the woman into FGM finds out she's been repaired, they'll put her through it again. 5) If they think FGM is reversible, they'll be less hesitant to do it in the first place. (Related column: male vs. female circumcision.) To comment, enter the Fray.

Brazil will pay for sex-change surgery under its national health system. Fine print: Before the surgery, you have to get a psychological evaluation and approval from a committee of doctors. The policy was prompted by a court ruling that the surgery is a constitutional right. Government's objection: We don't have enough money to pay for all these operations. Court's conclusion: If we don't subsidize and supervise the surgery, people will do it themselves, and they'll butcher it. (Related columns: Transsexuality, transhumanism, and self-mutilation.) Question: Is genital mutilation a crime if you don't want it but a right if you do? Post your answer here.

Scientists discovered how a virus can cause obesity. In an experiment on tissue from liposuctions, most stem cells exposed to the virus became fat cells, but few stem cells unexposed to the virus did so. At least nine other microbes have been linked to obesity. Liberal reactions: 1) Being fat isn't your fault. 2) Maybe we can develop a vaccine to fix it. Conservative reactions: 1) Viruses explain only a fraction of the world's obesity. 2) If we tell people that being fat isn't their fault and that a vaccine will fix them, they'll keep eating too much and exercising too little, which are the main culprits. (Related columns: global obesity; fat and laxity; fat and stigma.) To "weigh" in, join the Fray.

A fat man had his digestive tract surgically altered so he can adopt a baby. Circumstances: The man and his wife have been married for 15 years, are licensed as foster parents, have cared successfully for another adopted child, are the baby's cousins, and have had the baby in their home from age 1 week to age 4 months. However, the man weighs about 500 pounds. A judge rejected their petition to adopt the baby; the man says it's because of his weight. The court says that it can't legally comment but that applicants' health is always a factor. Rationale: "permanency for the child." Weight has become a common factor in evaluating adoption applicants in the U.S. and China. The surgery in this case was a gastric bypass so the man can lose enough weight to qualify for adoption. Wife's take: The fact that my husband had to go under the knife to keep our baby tells you how screwed-up the system is. Adoption advocate's take: The fact that he went under the knife to keep the baby tells you what a great dad he is. (Related column: digestive surgery and gluttony without consequences.) To comment, click here.

Scientists provedthe brain can produce the illusion of an out-of-body experience. Methods: They put virtual-reality goggles on people, fed them camera angles of their own backs, and touched them with sticks or brushes while showing them images of foreign bodies or apparent body locations being similarly touched. Result: The people reported—and reacted as though—their minds were in the foreign bodies or locations. Conclusion: "What you regard as you is really a transient construct created by the brain from multiple sensory sources." Skeptical materialist view: That out-of-body "experience" in which you thought you were floating above your injured body was imaginary. Skeptical spiritualist view: Yeah, you're right—it must have been caused by my imaginary goggles and the imaginary camera floating above me. (Related column: the medical failure of prayer.) Do you believe in out-of-body experiences? To discuss, click here.

Old people have more sex than you'd think. A survey of more than 3,000 U.S. adults aged 57 to 85, including face-to-face interviews, finds: 1) Most people aged 64 to 75, and more than one-quarter of those aged 75 to 85, have had sex in the past year. 2) Among people aged 75 to 85 who have had sex in the past year, most do it at least twice a month, and 23 percent do it at least once a week. 3) Among those who have had sex in the past year, most people aged 57 to 75, and one-third of those aged 75 to 85, still give or get oral sex. 4) Women are getting less sex than men, but that's largely because their spouses and other men their age have died. Reactions: 1) Stop pitying old people; they're still getting lots of sex. 2) Those poor, horny old people need medical help so they can keep having lots of sex. 3) Those damned old people are getting more sex than we are. (Related column: Maybe, but young people are getting a lot more of this. By the way, if old people are healthy enough for sex, why can't they keep working?) To compare notes, join the Fray.

Sexual couplings in Second Life are fraying real marriages. Counselors are "seeing a growing number of marriages dissolve over virtual infidelity." One wife says her husband's avatar's marriage to another woman's avatar is cheating; he says he isn't. His arguments: 1) It's just a game. 2) He has never met the woman behind the other avatar and doesn't plan to meet her. 3) His participation in Second Life is no different from his real wife watching TV. Her arguments: 1) The virtual marriage includes a joint mortgage, dogs, and spending hours together. 2) The husband and the other woman spend real money on each other's avatars. 3) The other woman says, "There's a huge trust between us. We'll tell each other everything." 4) The husband met his real wife online in the first place. 5) His virtual avatar is all about lingerie, nude dancers, and redheads, which his fake wife is but his real wife isn't. 6) He's spending all day in Second Life and ignoring his real wife. Wife's summary: "When it's from six in the morning until two in the morning, that's not a hobby, that's your life." Human Nature's view: Leave him. (WSJ link requires subscription. Related column: Is cybersex real?) To get away from your spouse and join the discussion, click here.

Jurors acquitted a man of rape on the grounds that "sexsomnia" made him do it. Circumstances: He, the 15-year-old victim, and others went to sleep separately after a drunken house party. She woke up to find him on top of her, naked. His defense: "I laid down to go to sleep. The next thing I knew I was … completely naked in the middle of the street." Hypothesis: Sexsomnia, a disorder that "causes people to commit sex acts in their sleep." Evidence: 1) His fellow soldiers had nicknamed him "Night Rider" because he walked in his sleep. 2) His girlfriend says he previously "fondled her in bed while asleep." 3) He allegedly "had once punched his girlfriend during a bad dream, but had no recollection of it. " Number of women on the jury: five. Deliberation time: two hours. Skeptical views: 1) "I would think it was extremely difficult to perform such a complex maneuver as having sexual intercourse while asleep—especially if the other person is unwilling." 2) "There are a lot more people who will get off lightly using the same defense." (To comment, join the Fray.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) The jihad against tobacco. 2)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited. 3)  Liberals and bioethics. 4) The case for turning food into fuel. 5) Recombining  man and beast. 6) The spread of virgin births. 7) Abolishing menstruation. 8) The chess match of man and machine. 9)  Ultrasound and the future of abortion.

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