Fighting global warming through animal burps.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 6 2007 9:16 AM

Hold the Fart

Fighting global warming through animal burps.

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

The U.S. teen birth rate increased, and births tounmarried women jumped 8 percent to a new record. . The teen birth rate had fallen by more than a third over 14 years until now; nearly 40 percent of births are now to unmarried women. Liberal spins: 1) Abstinence programs have failed to stop teen sex. 2) They've scared teens away from contraception. 3) They've made kids sexually ignorant. Last year's conservative spin: Teen pregnancy is down because abstinence programs are working. This year's conservative spins: 1) Teen births are up because liberal sex ed isn't working. 2) The abstinence message is being drowned out by our sick culture that pushes kids into sex. 3) The birth rate is up because teens want more babies, not more sex. 4) The real problem is that we're failing to preach the evils of illegitimacy. Associated facts: 1) Birth rates are up generally. 2) Acceptance of illegitimacy is up. 3) Teen sex rates are up since 2001. 4) Condom use is up since 1991 but apparently down since 2003. 5) The decline in condom use might be due to a decline in fear that AIDS will kill you. Human Nature's view: Contraception is a net positive in reducing the abortion rate. (Discuss.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Scientists are trying to fight global warming by changing animal flatulence. Emissions from livestock reportedly account for up to half of greenhouse gas emissions in some countries. Kangaroos have stomach bacteria that eliminate methane from their gas; scientists want to transfer these bacteria to sheep and cattle. Bonus: The bacteria could improve digestive efficiency by 10 to 15 percent, thereby reducing feed costs. Alternative proposal: Eat less cattle and more kangaroo meat: "It's low in fat, it's got high protein levels," and "it's the ultimate free range animal." (Related: HN's previous update on global warming and animal flatulence.)

China says it will stop sending women to labor camps as prostitutes for carrying condoms. Prevailing practice, according to an expert: "We have investigated many education-through-labor camps and we have found that for those sentenced for prostitution, the sole evidence was that they possessed condoms." New concern: AIDS prevention. New policies: 1) Police will "no longer take condoms as the proof of illegal sex activities in entertainment venues." 2) The government is calling for condom vending machines in public places. 3) "All hotels in Beijing will be required to provide condoms in every room by the end of next year." Related: 1) Hurray for condoms! 2) Do spray-on condoms count?

Car washing is the next target of environmental regulation. One county has banned rinsing car-wash detergent down storm drains; another city plans to restrict Boy-Scout car-wash fund-raisers; another has proposed to ban washing your car at home. Potential penalties include tickets or jail. Reasons: detergent pollution and water waste. Alternatives: commercial car-washes or "waterless" soaps that require no rinsing. Complaints: 1) The car-wash nannies will come for you next. 2) Car-wash detergent is nothing compared to all the other crap that gets washed into storm drains by nature. 3) Car-washing teaches kids teamwork and effort. 4) What if a dog poops on my sidewalk? 5) What about homeless people who wash themselves in public waterways? Human Nature's view: This is an easier call than regulating salt (see below) or trans fats—and it's better than wasting water and praying for rain.

A chimp beat trained college students at a number memory game. The game: You get a quick glance at numbers spread around a screen. The numbers turn into white boxes, and you have to click them in the order of the now-hidden numbers. Results: 1) At the beginner level, chimps matched humans at accuracy and beat them at speed. 2) At the most difficult level, the sole chimp competitor smoked the humans, getting 80 percent right vs. 40 percent. Human rationalizations: 1) The only reason chimps can beat us at this petty memory stuff is that we evolved a better use for our brain space: language. 2) It wasn't a fair fight because kids are better at this than adults are. (Related: 1) Humans are more spiteful than chimps. 2) Are we the offspring of human and chimp ancestors?)

A study says divorce is bad for the environment. Reason: Two households use more heat, light, and water than one. Cost: More than 70 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and more than 600 billion gallons of water in the United States in a single year. Unapproved conclusions: 1) Don't divorce. 2) Marry earlier. Approved liberal conclusions: 1) This isn't a matter for public policy. 2) Be more energy-efficient in your divorced household. 3) Get your own apartment instead of a house. 4) Remarry. 5) Cohabitation is just as good as marriage. 6) Polygamy is even better. 7) In fact, how about a commune? Unapproved conservative conclusions: cough, abortion, cough, gay marriage. (Related: 1) The case against polygamy. 2) It doesn't even work on TV.)

Doctors restored amputees' sensations of lost limbs. Method: They took nerves that used to connect to the patients' (now amputated) arms and hands, and they connected these nerves instead to the patients' chest muscles. Results: 1) The nerves spontaneously "traverse through muscle and breast tissue to the skin and occupy skin territory" on the chest. 2) "When this reinnervated skin is touched, the amputee feels as if the missing hand is being touched." 3) Received sensations include touch, heat, cold, and pain. Authors' conclusions: 1) Through mechanical transmission of stimuli to reinnervated skin, "An amputee may one day be able to feel with an artificial limb as although it was his own." 2) The more naturally you can feel things with your artificial hand, the more naturally you can use it. 3) Sensations from one body part can be relocated to another. Prurient view: We've seen that movie already. (Related: cyborg soldiers; cyborgs and transhumanism.)

Texas' science curriculum director says she's been forced out over creationism. Chief offense: She mass-forwarded an e-mail about an upcoming presentation by a critic of intelligent design. Instigator of her ouster: a former Bush aide. Texas Education Agency's spin: Forwarding the e-mail "implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral." Evolutionist spins: 1) She was just forwarding an e-mail, not promoting criticism. 2) She was just promoting criticism, which is an educator's job with respect to all theories; she wasn't opposing ID. 3) She was opposing ID, which is an educator's job, because it's bull. Related: 1) intelligent design's lack of testables. 2) Monty Python's flying creationism.

Salt is the next target of health-habit regulation. Yesterday the FDA held a hearing to consider regulating it as a food additive instead of the previous "generally recognized as safe" category. Possible outcome: "federal limits on the salt content of processed foods." Arguments for regulation: 1) Americans eat about 50 percent more sodium than the recommended limit. 2) We can save 150,000 lives a year. 3) We can "cut health-care costs." 4) We can reduce obesity, too, because people drink soda or beer with salty food. 5) "No one would tolerate so many deaths from airline crashes, so why tolerate it from food?" 6) You don't really get to choose how much salt you eat, because it's packaged into the food. Food industry's arguments against regulation: 1) We're lowering salt already. 2) "Salt has been used safely in foods since antiquity." 3) Studies haven't proved it's really bad for you. 4) When we label food as low-salt, people assume it's bland. Human Nature's view: This is a replay of how we began the crackdowns on fat and sugar. Question: Should the government limit salt content in food? Discuss.)

The U.S. obesity surge slowed. Percentages of obese people in 2003-04: 31.1 for men, 33.2 for women. In 2005-06: 33.3 for men, 35.3 for women. Happy spins: 1) The data show no "significant" increase. 2) It looks like we're "leveling off." 3) It shows we're eating and exercising better. 4) It shows we're being more realistic about avoiding weight gain instead of insisting on weight loss. Killjoy critiques: 1) Actually, the numbers are "still creeping up." 2) They certainly haven't declined. 3) Kids are still getting fatter, so as they age, the numbers will go up again. 4) The only reason we might be leveling off is that we're hitting the limit of how many Americans are biologically prone to obesity. Human Nature's view: If so, be grateful the limit is this low. (Related: Is fat a cultural problem? Is it a bigger world problem than hunger? Is it OK to eat like a pig if you don't get fat?)

U.S. cities are recycling sewage into drinking water. "A dozen" localities do it, and more are considering it. Reasons: drought, growth, and water overuse. Methods: "microfilters to remove solids," "reverse osmosis," and "peroxide and ultraviolet light." Euphemisms: "reclaimed water," "gray water," "indirect potable water reuse," "Groundwater Replenishment System." Non-euphemism: "toilet to tap." Objections: 1) It's crap. 2) You can't really clean out all the filth, can you? 3) It's expensive. 4) The public doesn't want it. 5) We'd rather limit growth. Rebuttals: 1) The final product "exceeds drinking water standards." 2) It's no more expensive than buying the water. 3) We don't send the final product straight to your tap; we send it through a bunch of other mumbledy mumbledy mumbledy before it gets to your tap. 4) If your water comes from the Mississippi or Colorado Rivers, you're already drinking treated sewage. (Related: Drug-testing cities through their sewage.)

Engineers are integrating robots into animal societies. Latest example: Four robotic roaches persuaded 12 real roaches to congregate in an unnaturally dangerous place. Key trick: coating the robots with roach sex hormones. Objectives: 1) Study how animal groups make decisions. 2) See whether robots can fit in well enough to participate in those decisions. 3) Make robots better at learning and adapting. Other examples: robotic spiders, snakes, dogs, and monkeys. Scientists' official reassurance: "We are not interested in people." Fine print: "The scientists plan to extend their research to higher animals," starting with a robotic chicken designed to commandeer chicks. Warning: The roach robots were freed from ongoing human control, and in 4 out of 10 cases, they followed the decisions of the real roaches, instead of the other way around. (Related: a robot controlled by a roach; a robot controlled by a moth brain; a robot controlled by a detached eel brain; remote-controlled pigeons; remote-controlled rats.)

The U.S. military is funding a project to integrate human with artificial intelligence. Problem: Human brains are superior to computers at visual recognition but inferior at information processing. Solution: human-machine integration. Human component: A soldier or analyst who scans scenes or images. Machine component: Sensors that monitor the brain's activity and relay information about it to commanders or computers. Analytical application: Computers identify images and image areas flagged by the human scan and select those for more thorough scrutiny. Battlefield applications: 1) A prototype helmet already delivers "a visual readout for combat commanders showing the cognitive patterns of individual Soldiers." 2) "Brain pattern and heart rate data from system-equipped soldiers will be transmitted wirelessly to commanders in real-time to improve overall battlefield information management and decision-making." Project buzzwords: "real-time cognitive state assessment," "networked soldiers," "Augmented Cognition," "human-computer warfighting integral." Translation: We're fielding cyborgs. Human Nature's prediction: The next step will be to remove the human component from the battlefield and let machines provide the sensor mobility as well as the information processing. (Related: civilian cyborg enthusiasts; fighting terrorists with bomb-detecting robots.)

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Are Jews genetically smart? 2) Newt Gingrich, environmentalist. 3) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 4) The lessons of Iraq. 5) Rethinking the age of consent. 6) The best sex stories of 2007. 7) Are conservatives stupid? 8)  Larry Craig's anti-gay hypocrisy. 9) The jihad against tobacco. 10)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited.



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