On science blogs this week: Spyfall

SPYFALL: NOT YOUR FATHER'S JAMES BOND STORY. I've been searching urgently for a way to tie the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-Jill Kelley-John Allen-Frederick Humphries II-CIA-FBI-Pentagon-Gmail scandal to science or science journalism so I could write about it here legitimately. But I gotta confess it's a stretch.

Knight Science Journalism Tracker Faye Flam managed it by tying the scandal to journalistic ethics and Broadwell's book about Petraeus and how for a journalist to sleep with a source is very, very naughty. By implication that would also rule out a science writer sleeping with a scientist to get an insider account of the work that got him the Nobel Prize. (Or her, ha ha ha.) So if the opportunity arises, don't.

Of course Broadwell is not a journalist. Flam links to a Washington Post piece by Broadwell's coauthor Vernon Loeb, who is one, and a tad embarrassed about this whole thing he is, too. The book is selling well, which could take the edge off embarrassment, but it's possible Loeb doesn't share in the royalties; co-authors/ghostwriters often get a flat fee.

SPYFALL IS NOT A COMEDY, BUT IT HAS QUICKLY BECOME A FARCE. I was hoping this would turn out to be one of those media sagas that continues the noble tradition of Restoration Comedy; I'm always on the lookout for those. That's because our heroine's name is Paula Broadwell, and she titled her Petraeus hagiography All In. An excellent start on the precedents laid down in the 18th Century by Lydia Languish and Mrs. Malaprop. But nobody else (so far) has an amusing name except maybe the obsessive shirtless counter-terrorism agent who triggered the FBI investigation. He's called Frederick Humphries II, but that's only a marginally comical name, largely because of the II.

Some science-related blogs have managed to leverage Spyfall with apparent dignity by discussing digital privacy issues, how the FBI accessed Gmail, etc. At Tech Review, Tom Simonite provides a useful list of 5 things not to do if you want to send anonymous emails. At Ars Technica, Timothy Lee explains some of the FBI's search techniques and notes that the Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizure may not apply to cloud-based services. At Bloomberg Businessweek, Sam Grobart warns that achieving digital anonymity is hopeless.

David Petraeus ran the largest, best-funded, most capable intelligence service in the history of the world, but even he failed to learn the lesson learned long ago by small-time mobsters and corner drug dealers: If you want something to remain a secret, stay off the phones and — more important — stay off e-mail. You have to presume that anything sent electronically can be discovered, duplicated, decoded, and un-deleted — because it can. Digital files can be infinitely reproduced, and they leave a trail of data wherever they go.

If you haven't been following every bizarre revelation like the rest of us, catch up with Barton Gellman's summing-up post Spyfall (from which I pilfered my hed) at Time's Swampland. Wherein he reveals that Broadwell, Homecoming Queen at her North Dakota high school, was voted Most Likely to Be Remembered. How did her classmates foresee that the more common Most Likely to Succeed would turn out to be not quite accurate?

SPYFALL AND OXYTOCIN AND MONOGAMY. But Halleluia, a report this week does provide a lawful sciencey take on Spyfall — and, bonus point, a lawful reason to be snarky about social science research methodology. Again.

At the LA Times, Melissa Healy links the Petraeus Affair to a new study purporting to show that, after using a nasal spray containing the hormone oxytocin, heterosexual men in committed relationships try to keep their distance from attractive women. The link being that If only David Petraeus had snorted oxytocin ...

In a somewhat credulous post at io9, George Dvorsky describes the study's methodology, which seems to me to be in the well-known but not-much-discussed shaky tradition of social science research.. For example, the study was small and relied on self-reports by the subjects about how uncomfortable they felt at various distances from the taboo woman they were exposed to.

Commenting on the study, Paul Zak, who declared oxytocin to be the Moral Molecule (not to mention, ta-da, a book of that name, are you surprised?), takes another of his breathtaking leaps of illogic. In Healy's piece, he declares the results to be evidence that evolution has designed our brains for long-term romantic relationships. "Hugh Hefner," he says, "is the exception, not the role model for men." I guess he's been sniffing oxytocin. For an antidote to oxytocin twaddle, see Ed Yong's brilliant takedown in Slate.

Meantime, this week at Neurotic Physiology, Scicurious reports on some real science about this hormone. It's in a paper about the oxytocin variation present in science's favorite nematode, C. elegans. This molecule has been named nematocin, and it seems to be involved in learning. She promises the word on love among the worms and its relationship to nematocin next week.

Scott Routley, a vegetative patient "speaks." Credit: BBC

Scott Routley, a vegetative patient "speaks." Credit: BBC

VEGETATIVE PATIENT SPEAKS. IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING. I was deeply skeptical about the tale of the patient in a vegetative state telling a researcher, via fMRI, that he was not in pain. David Cyranoski explains at the Nature Newsblog, and you can see the video at the BBC News site.

But Steven Novella's post at NeuroLogica has persuaded me that, in a small number of patients, something is indeed going on. Novella, a neurologist, has been following this tale since a 2010 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, which reported that "a small proportion of patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state have brain activation reflecting some awareness and cognition." The implication is that communication with these few patients is possible and might give them something of a say in their own care.

Since that effort requires an fMRI machine and several physicians and other specialists, we're not talking here about dropping in for a friendly bedside chat. Nor, probably, do such studies do a lot to mitigate what must be terrifying isolation for these working brains imprisoned in non-working bodies, not that it's possible to know how well the brains are working. But Novella is cautiously optimistic.

My sense of the data overall is that it is fairly robust, and it is plausible, but I would still like to see some further replications to make sure that the results are not just an illusory pattern pulled out of the noise ... While still preliminary, this is exciting research. It will become increasingly more exciting not only as the technology and techniques are refined, but as new potential treatments for the brain injured come closer to reality. The two big areas where I see potential are in stem cell treatments and brain-machine interfaces.

THE PEOPLE SPEAK TOO, AND SO THE ELECTION FALLOUT CONTINUES. At the Health Care Blog, Katie Booth rounds up results on the various health-related initiatives voted on in states.

Cannabis near Dhaulagiri in Nepal.  Credit: Arne Hückelheim

Cannabis near Dhaulagiri in Nepal. Credit: Arne Hückelheim

Among the most intriguing of these is the increasing acceptability of marijuana. And not just for medical use; Colorado and Washington State legalized it for any use, including plain old enjoyment.

Not much has yet been made of this, which I find puzzling. Whatever the Federal government says right now, it's clear that criminalization of marijuana use is on the way out. Which will very likely mean increased research attention. How long before the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) becomes the National Institute on Alcohol and Cannabis Abuse (NIACA)? Or maybe the Institute will finally merge with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and let NIDA cover it all. Which plan has been vaguely in the works for years, for reasons both economic and neuroscientific. Not to mention logical.

Marijuana legalization is not just an attack of libertarian fervor; states can make money, perhaps serious money, from regulating and taxing legal pot. The Seattle Police Department is fully prepared. Its plan was announced on the Department's blog, SPDBlotter, just three days after the election.

The people have spoken. Voters have passed Initiative 502 and beginning December 6th, it is not a violation of state law for adults over 21 years old to possess up to an ounce of marijuana (or 16 ounces of solid marijuana-infused product, like cookies, or 72 ounces of infused liquid, like oil) for personal use.

DUI laws will continue to be enforced there, of course, and unlicensed sale and production of pot will continue illegal. But note these last strictures will apply only to marijuana that is not state-sanctioned (and taxed, of course). This is quite a brilliant strategy. It ought to cut crime rate statistics, free police to work on important crime, reduce the ridiculous, unnecessary (and costly) strain on prisons, and eventually could bring Washington state acres of new money. I can't imagine that other states aren't going to find this prospect intriguing.

Incidental Economist Harold Pollack takes a different view. He doesn't think legalization will cut crime much or raise as much revenue as states hope. He also forecasts that the price of pot will drop sharply, and he's worried about the effects of legal and cheap availability on the young. But it strikes me that a simple way to deal with both of those problems is to tax the hell out of it. Taxing tobacco heavily has been quite helpful in reducing consumption.

These issues will take years, probably decades, to play out. Legalization of marijuana will create problems, but it could also help alleviate some. In any case, the trend to making marijuana legal is a very big deal, and following what happens next will provide science writers with much to do for a long time to come.