I Got My Personal Genome Mapped and It Was Bullshit
Last Friday, the FDA forced personal genomics company 23andMe to stop marketing its tests to the public in their current form. Before the order came in, customers would send a spit sample to the firm, who would sequence the DNA and look for genes indicating a risk of up to 254 diseases and conditions, providing a breakdown of any issues.
The FDA cited a lack of supporting evidence for some of the claims made and expressed particularly serious concern over their assessment of the BRCA gene, which is linked to breast cancer, suggesting 23andMe’s tests might result in false positives that could lead to women undergoing traumatic and unnecessary surgery. The FDA’s actions have led to an explosion of opinion across the science blogosphere, but in all of that commentary a big question remains unanswered: What exactly is the point of personal genomics?
My first experience with the industry came about three years ago, when I was offered the chance to have a test done with Navigenics, a firm since taken over by a biotech firm called Life Technologies. Being a curious sort of guy, I jumped at the chance. A sample tube arrived via Fedex a few days later, which I duly spat into and sent back for analysis.
The results came back in the form of a sort of “wall of death”—a breakdown of all the things that might harm or kill me over the coming decades, detailing how likely I am to have each condition. Drilling into the figures, I can see that I have a higher risk of prostate cancer than 95 percent of the population and a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s—twice the average risk. So I’ll probably get cancer, but on the plus side I’ll be too forgetful to care about it.
If You Think You Can Survive on ‘Junk Food and Cigarettes’ You’re an Idiot
The Daily Mail has been trailing a new book this week by “leading science writer” Tony Edwards. Titled The Good News About Booze, which sounds like an off-license run by a Jehovah’s Witness, it tackles three of the middle class’s greatest obsessions: dying of cancer, mediocre sex, and drinks that middle-class people like. The first extract from the book, published last week, gave the paper a valuable opportunity to address the important question of whether red wine causes or cures cancer.
The book (or at least the extracts—the email I sent requesting a review copy remains unanswered) is exactly what you’d expect. Edwards claims to have conducted an “in-depth study of around half-a-million scientific papers about alcohol”, which is basically impossible unless he has an army of minions in his basement. In the best traditions of Malcolm Gladwell, he takes a banal and well-known truth—that drinking a moderate amount of red wine is healthy—and pretends it’s some kind of shocking revelation that some indefinable cabal of wine-hoarding misers don’t want you to know about. Throw in a few silly exaggerations for added measure, like “red wine may well be one of the most effective ‘medications’ in history” or “I’m just an averagely intelligent science journalist,” and you have a perfect piece of click-bait for the lazy editor to shove in the paper.
India’s Nuclear Scientists Keep Dying Mysteriously
Indian nuclear scientists haven’t had an easy time of it over the past decade. Not only has the scientific community been plagued by “suicides,” unexplained deaths, and sabotage, but those incidents have gone mostly underreported in the country—diluting public interest and leaving the cases quickly cast off by police.
Last month, two high-ranking engineers—KK Josh and Abhish Shivam—on India’s first nuclear-powered submarine were found on railway tracks by workers. They were pulled from the line before a train could crush them, but were already dead. No marks were found on the bodies, so it was clear they hadn’t been hit by a moving train, and reports allege they were poisoned elsewhere before being placed on the tracks to make the deaths look either accidental or like a suicide. The media and the Ministry of Defence, however, described the incident as a routine accident and didn’t investigate any further.
This is the latest in a long list of suspicious deaths. When nuclear scientist Lokanathan Mahalingam’s body turned up in June of 2009, it was palmed off as a suicide and largely ignored by the Indian media. However, Pakistani outlets, perhaps unsurprisingly, given relations between the two countries, kept the story going, noting how quick authorities were to label the death a suicide considering no note was left.
Why Do Insects Have Gay Sex?
For centuries naturalists have observed and recorded homosexual behavior in nature. Famed explorer George Murray Levick was so shocked by the “astonishing depravity” of the male Adéliepenguins he observed on the 1910-13 Scott Antarctic Expedition that he successfully hid his research notebook from the public for 100 years. The recently unearthed document detailed such acts as penguin-on-penguin rape, chick molestation, and displays of gruesome necrophilia, as well as widespread homosexual relations among birds that the disgusted adventurer, discarding all impartiality, called “hooligan males.”
Although cultural biases have long obscured observation of “deviant” acts in nature, a spate of recent studies have established that a wide spectrum of species engages in non-reproductive sexual behavior. As the evidence mounts that same-sex sexytime is a common occurrence in the animal kingdom, scientists have come up with a variety of explanations for why going “gay” might be an evolutionarily advantageous trait, despite the fact that doing so cannot result in baby making. Some scientists have posited that non-reproductive orgasm is a way to keep sperm stocks fresh; some guess that animals need the practice; some observe that same-sex sexual (SSS) activity strengthens social bonds or establishes hierarchal structure; and others suggest that animals just wanna have fun.
The Act of Puking
Like many people over a certain age, vomiting no longer disgusts me. I’m not proud to admit it, but on occasion, I throw up after poisoning my body with too much alcohol. As a result, I’ve developed a handful of techniques that take me from retching to flushing without too much discomfort. Sometimes, when the first pangs of rusty saliva leak down my throat, I like to pretend that I’m an angry dragon, hurriedly flapping my wings to spray an unsuspecting porcelain city with waves of bilious puke-fire. It’s pretty awesome.
“Nausea and vomiting can be at the end of a whole buildup of things,” said Charles Horn, a neuroscientist who specializes in emesis, the clinical term for blowing chunks. “But the truth is, when you vomit, you feel better, almost every time.”
In fact, vomiting makes some people feel so good that they’ve devoted their lives to studying it. This year, along with another neuroscientist named Bill Yates, Charles co-hosted a two-day, single-track academic conference at the University of Pittsburgh, officially known as Biology and Control of Nausea and Vomiting 2013—the International Vomiting Conference for short. In attendance were 62 prominent doctors who share the goal of advancing research on the biological mechanisms that cause nausea and vomiting. Their ultimate goal is to answer the questions: Why do people blow their grits, and what are we to do about it? The answers are more complicated than one might think.
What Does It Mean to Be a Pervert?
You may have recently seen the soft-spoken Jesse Bering on Conan recalling the strangest of sexual fetishes. Be it arousal from falling down the stairs (Climacophilia) or feeling steamy from rolling around in stones and gravel (Lithophilia), nothing surprises the Western New York author and psychologist. That’s why Dr. Bering just wrote Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which unloads the morality of all things sexually weird.
Being a pervert is more than just what initially springs to mind. Armed with an academic backbone, the former psych professor adds a dash of humor to his research, many of which are learned from written reports. Bering has studied them extensively, and said he developed immunity to shock, in the process. His writing style is not an undergrad snorefest, so his book is getting a lot of much-deserved hype. Sex research is a touchy topic. Jesse believes cracking someone’s desires helps understand them fully. He spoke with us about the depths human erotic imagination, “objectum sexuals,” and how he views homophobes as types of pervs.
VICE: What is a perv in your eyes?
Jesse: If I could rewrite the definition for the word “pervert” based on my own criteria, it would be a person who intentionally causes sexual harm to another. Note that this definition applies not only to the obvious examples—rapists, child molesters, those who abuse animals, and so on—but also to those whose bigotry causes harm to sexual minorities. A homophobe is a perv in my book, for instance, by dint of his or her invasive, voyeuristic preoccupation with the private sexual lives of an innocuous minority.
What kind of weird things did you find in your research?
Well, when you set out to read everything that’s ever been written about the subject of sexual deviance, you quickly develop a sort of immunity to shock. But some of the more memorable case studies included a morbidly obese Australian teenager who’d developed ulcers on his body after he failing to bathe properly; he came to, essentially, fall in love with these bubbling cankers, masturbating to the image of a beautiful woman who was sucking on his fingers while he inserted [them] into his festering wounds. Disturbing, yes, but also a testament to the power of the human erotic imagination. Then there was the Indian man with an insect paraphilia (“formicophilia”) who could only get off by placing slugs and beetles around his testicles and anus; and the young actor from London who thought his hay fever as a boy led to his sexual attraction to sneezing men.
Are there more male than female pervs or is it about the same?
In terms of people with certifiable paraphilias and fetishes—and by that, I mean in the clinical sense of either requiring or being largely dependent on something outside of the norm for their sexual gratification—it’s an overwhelmingly male phenomenon. Most sexologists believe that there are 99 paraphilic men to every one paraphilic woman.
CSI Afghanistan: Solving Murders in a War Zone
The man’s headless body was found sprawled in the middle of a road in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province. Pinned to his chest was a bloodstained note that read: “Anyone who attends this man’s funeral can expect the same fate.” The Afghan National Police had suspects, but nobody was talking. That’s when they called the nation’s first and only forensics laboratory, the Criminal Techniques Department in Kabul.
The CTD gave the case to Noorullah Sangarkhil, their document-exploitation expert. Using a highly specialized $98,000 machine consisting of specialized lights and digital sensors his NATO instructors had trained him on, Noorullah was able to match the handwriting on the note to the handwriting of one of the suspects the police had apprehended. Thanks to the murderer’s capture, the headless victim’s funeral was well attended.
I traveled to the CTD with a six-man military escort. Here in Afghanistan—an environment of frequent insider attacks—the amount of armor NATO soldiers choose to wear is a good indicator of how they feel about the Afghans they’re dealing with. Once we arrived at the lab, the soldiers shed everything but their rifles, leaving their heavy, ceramic-plated vests and ballistic helmets inside our up-armored SUVs. “We’re here a lot,” explained US Senior Advisor David Jacobson, “These are good guys who care about what they do. I mean, they actually show up for work every day, which in this country isn’t always the case.”
Kansas Creationists Are Claiming That Science Is a Religion
You’ve really got to hand it to creationists. Say what you will about their unyielding ignorance, blind devotion, and shitty museums, but like an eager virgin on prom night, they never ever seem to give up. It’s almost embarrassing to atheists, including theassholes on the atheism subreddit, how hard these people campaign and twist to get their point across, while we sit here endlessly masturbating with our evolved thumbs.
This week in Kansas, nonprofit group Citizens for Objective Public Education, representing a handful of parents and their undoubtedly reluctant children, filed suit against the Kansas State Board of Education for including a science handbook as part of a nationwide refurbishment of the science curriculum, primarily because it includes sections on the dreaded scourge evolution. By itself, this is decidedly annoying; students have a hard enough time trying to grasp the core fundamentals of science without having an anti-intellectualist special interest group fucking with their bare bones public school education. But what is so deeply exasperating about this lawsuit in particular is their line of reasoning, namely that accepting evolution “will have the effect of causing Kansas public schools to establish and endorse a nontheistic religious worldview in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.”
I’ll let that sink in. Defining atheism as a religion in order to remove science and humanities, justified as separation of church and state in order to promote their own actual religion. I promise you that somebody fucked their wife in the missionary position to celebrate being so clever. If there’s anything that says “God’s Will,” it’s semantic loopholes and egomaniacal reappropriation.