(For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)
Australia proposed genetic engineering as an answer to global warming. Problem: Drought, driven by climate change, is ruining Australian farmers and forcing the government to prop them up. Response: The agriculture minister says the government is "considering genetically modified crops as a possible solution." Quote: "There's some answers that may well be provided through genetically modified crops." Reply from the National Farmers Federation: 1) Farmers will buy into GM crops as a "green" solution if these crops can thrive with reduced water use in an increasingly hot climate. 2) "The jury's in" on GM crops—"they've been around for more than 10 years and there's been no adverse events." Human Nature's view: Now all we need is to modify our progeny to survive on a boiling planet … (Related: 1) The deluded world of air conditioning. 2) The new global-warming action plan. 3) Fighting global warming through kangaroo flatulence. 4) An Australian proposal to carbon-tax parents for procreating.)
Taser is turning stun guns into women's fashion accessories. (Preferred euphemism: "electronic control devices.") New products: 1) The "leopard print TASER(r) C2 personal protection device." 2) Same device in "red-hot red" or "fashion pink." 3) The "TASER MPH (Music Player Holster) … a combination MP3 player and TASER C2 holster," with a gig of memory. Company spins: 1) "Personal protection can be both fashionable and functionable" (sic). 2) Leopard print offers "a personal protection option for women who want fashion with a bite." 3) "The 1GB TASER MPH allows for both personal protection and personal music for people on the go." Cynical view:The leopard-print Taser—because when you're facing an assailant, there's nothing more important than feeling like a lady.
A study suggestsa drug can compensate for sleep deprivation. Monkeys that were kept awake for 30 to 36 hours were "significantly impaired" on cognitive tests, but in those that got a peptide dose just before the tests, "cognitive skills improved to the normal, non-sleep-deprived, level." Official market: "patients suffering from narcolepsy and other serious sleep disorders." Unofficial market: truckers, "shift workers, the military and many other occupations where sleep is often limited." Caveats: 1) The drug didn't enhance performance in well-slept monkeys. 2) Let's check it for side effects before troops and truckers start using it.
Height growth in the world's tallest country has leveled off. In the two decades before 2000, average Dutch male height grew more than in inch, reaching 5 feet, 11 inches. Since then, it has stalled. Female height growth has slowed, too. Theories: 1) "They've probably reached their genetic limit." 2) "Previous gains are usually attributed to improvements in nutrition and health care," which have now maxed out. Caveats: 1) Dutch men still exceed Americans by more than two inches, and that advantage has increased for decades. 2) "An influx of immigrants has lowered the average Dutch height slightly. Male immigrants are 2.4 inches shorter, decreasing the national average by less than half an inch." 3) Government charts suggest that in fact, Dutch height continues to increase. (Related: The decline of American height relative to other countries.) Human Nature's view: As we genetically screen embryos and identify genes that control height, look out.
Some commercial airliners will be equipped with anti-missile lasers to prevent terrorist shoot-downs. Time frame: April or later. Number of planes: unknown, but the lasers could be tested on more than 1,000 flights. Method: The device senses the missile's heat and jams its guidance system by firing a laser. Project name: Jeteye. Fine print: 1) The lasers will be ready for action but won't be tested on passenger flights. 2) Tests so far show they don't disrupt pilots' controls. (Related: The future of non-lethal beam weapons; the temptation of remote-controlled killing.)
A study argues that violent movies reduce crime. Old idea: Violent movies arouse violent feelings. New idea: Yeah, but these movies attract violent people, thereby keeping them off the streets. Data [PDF]: 1) "Between 6PM and 12AM, a one million increase in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.1 to 1.3 percent." 2) "After exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, violent crime is reduced by an even larger percent." 3) "Violent movies deter almost 1,000 assaults on an average weekend." Theory: "Self-selection of violent individuals into violent movie attendance" results in their "voluntary incapacitation," keeping them away from booze and mischief. Caveats: 1) The study doesn't address long-term net effects of violent movies. 2) Non-violent movies reduce crime more effectively than violent movies do. 3) So would midnight basketball, video games, and any other activity that keeps young men off the streets. 4) The guy who did the study doesn't let his own kids watch violent movies. (Related: Steven Landsburg's take on the movie data a year ago—plus evidence that Web porn reduces sex crimes.)
A study says junk food is getting cheaper while healthy food gets more expensive. Sample: Seattle supermarket chains. Results: 1) Foods with low "energy density," such as fruits and vegetables, cost 10 times as much per calorie as foods with high energy density, such as candy and potato chips. 2) From 2004 to 2006, junk-food prices fell slightly, while healthy-food prices rose nearly 20 percent. Researchers' conclusions: 1) Poor people are getting fat because junk food is all they can afford. 2) Blame obesity on society, not individuals. 3) Change farm legislation to subsidize healthy food instead of crap. Rebuttal: Extra, extra! High-calorie foods deliver calories more cheaply! (Related: The battle against junk food; the war on soda; regulating salt; the worst privacy invasions of 2007.)
Roger Clemens denied using steroids or human growth hormone and sued his ex-trainer for defamation. The trainer had told baseball investigators that he injected Clemens with the drugs 16 to 21 times, before the drugs were banned. Clemens on 60 Minutes: 1) "Never happened." 2) He did inject me, but only with vitamins and painkillers. 3) "I had no knowledge" that friend and fellow pitcher Andy Pettitte used HGH. 4) Clemens won top honors in baseball during years when McNamee doesn't claim to have injected him. 5) "Why didn't I keep doing it if it was so good for me? Why didn't I break down?" 6) "Why would I … put something harmful in my system that's gonna cause me to break down?" 7) "If he's putting that stuff up in my body … I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead. I should be pulling tractors with my teeth." Rebuttal from trainer's lawyers: 1) Clemens is lying. 2) Now he'll make himself a criminal by repeating his lies to Congress. (Related: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.)
Nearly half the doctors in a survey admitted to using placebos. These are pills that have no proven benefit relevant to your problem, but they might make you feel better just because you think they'll help. Sample: 231 Chicago internists. Results: 1) 45 percent said they've used placebos. 2) 96 percent said "placebos can have therapeutic effects." 3) "Most believe in the mind–body connection." Ancient doctor's attitude: I can't explain why this drug would help you, but it will. Modern doctor's attitude: I can't explain why this drug would help you, so it won't. New doctor's attitude: I can't explain why this drug would help you, but it will. Objection: To get informed consent, your doctor should tell you up front that the pill is a placebo. Rebuttal: But then it wouldn't work. (Related: placebos and compulsive gambling; placebos and premature ejaculation; fake acupuncture works as well as the real thing.)
Another female libido drug is being tested. One hundred medical facilities are testing LibiGel, a testosterone lotion. You rub it on your arm, and it migrates to your blood. It's supposed to make you energetic and horny, but you're eligible only if you've been diagnosed with "hypoactive sexual desire disorder." Hype: 1) In previous research, it "led to a 283 percent increase of satisfying sexual encounters." 2) It's "better than previous testosterone treatments because it keeps levels of the chemical constant, much like naturally occurring testosterone." 3) "A lot of women have this problem, but unfortunately they've been largely ignored by pharmaceutical companies." Skeptical views: 1) Actually, drug companies have tried hard to find a female libido booster, because they'd make a fortune selling it. 2) And none of the drug candidates has worked, so don't get your hopes up about this one. (Related: The previous hyped female libido drug.)
Latest Human Nature columns: 1) The best Human Nature stories of 2007. 2) The top privacy threats of 2007. 3) Are cultural trends changing our genes? 4) The travesty of political robo-calls. 5) Are Jews genetically smart? 6) Race, intelligence, and James Watson. 7) The lessons of Iraq. 8) Rethinking the age of consent. 9) The best sex stories of 2007. 10) Are conservatives stupid?