Human Nature

Wetting Her Appetite

The latest female arousal drug.

New year-end columns on the top Human Nature stories and privacy threats of 2007. (For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.)

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.)

Scientists are testing a vaccine for cocaine. It blocks the high (and thereby discourages continued use) by prompting your immune system to attack the drug. Other vaccine targets: nicotine, meth, heroin. Skeptical reactions: 1) Lots of anti-addiction drugs have failed. 2) Addicts might override the immune response by increasing their cocaine dosage. 3) They might switch to new drugs. Ethical questions: 1) Should the vaccine be used preemptively on non-addicts? 2) Should it be imposed on addicts who are pregnant, to protect their babies? 3) Could parents force it on kids, like other vaccinations? 4) Should judges be allowed to offer it in exchange for sentence reductions? Human Nature’s view: If you’re addicted, you’re already under coercion, so anti-addiction drugs may not be such an imposition. (Join the Fray thread on addiction vaccines.)

Britain implemented a ban on junk-food ads during TV shows for minors. The ban applies to 1) “foods high in fat, salt and sugar” and 2) shows that attract a “significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16.” This follows a previous ban that applied to kids 9 or younger. The government also “plans to ban the use of celebrities and characters, such as cartoon heroes, to advertise unhealthy food.” Rationale: Controlling child obesity. Britons’ objections: 1) The ban doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t cover adult-oriented shows that some kids watch. 2) It should cover all shows that air before 9 p.m. 3) The government caved in to the financial greed of broadcasters and “the food industry.” (Related: The battle against junk food; the war on soda; regulating salt; the worst privacy invasions of 2007.)

Foster kids outscored orphanage kids by 8 IQ points in a Romanian study. To remove confounding variables, the study randomly assigned kids to stay in orphanages or go to foster families. Results: 1) At age 4.5, orphanage kids averaged 73, foster kids averaged 81, and kids in biological families (who may have started with confounding differences, since they weren’t randomly assigned) averaged 109. 2) “Children who were placed in foster care before age 2 saw a 12- to 15-point increase.” 3) “For every extra month spent in the orphanage, up to almost age 3, it meant roughly a half-point lower score on those later IQ tests.” Interpretations: 1) Governments should stop pretending that institutional care beats foster care or adoption. 2) The earlier a kid gets out, the better. Caveats: 1) Orphanage kids “might catch up” as the study tracks them through later years. 2) The study “used high-quality foster care that is not the norm in many places.” 3) “There’s much more to functioning in life than your IQ.”

The U.S. government is assembling a huge biometric database. It includes fingerprints, palm prints, and facial scans. Next: iris scans, facial details, and motion patterns. Buzzword: “Next Generation Identification.” Objectives: fighting crime and preventing terrorism. Bonus: “The FBI will also retain, upon request by employers, the fingerprints of employees …so the employers can be notified if employees have brushes with the law.” The U.S. already 1) has centralized 55 million sets of fingerprints, 2) stores iris and face images of many foreigners, and 3) “has been using iris scans at some airports to verify the identity of travelers.” Objections: 1) Your body is becoming an ID card. 2) Face-recognition technology often misidentifies innocent people as miscreants. Rebuttals: 1) We’ll keep your information private. 2) By scanning your face from a distance, we can spare you more invasive scrutiny. 3) Security is more important than privacy. 4) The more metrics we use, the more we can eliminate misidentifications. (Related: The top privacy threats of 2007.)

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?