Bats and Needles

Does technological change transform life, or does it mainly repackage age-old questions? Paul Farhi's look at the history of performance-enhancing substances in baseball in the Washington Post is a balanced analysis of a passionately argued issue. (Of course I'm biased; I was a source for another piece he wrote, on the iPod, in 2007. I liked that one, too.)

In perhaps the earliest instance of a performance-enhancing substance, ancient Olympians sought a testosterone kick . . . by consuming sheep testicles. A physician of the era, Galen, advised Olympians to consume "the rear hooves of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil, and flavored with rose hips and rose petals."

Athletes, sports historians, and physicians -- and Dr. Bill Mallon is all three -- weigh in on what's natural, what's a drug, and extent of the placebo effect.

Despite the success (and later ignominy) of some steroid users, Mallon says science hasn't really established whether steroids actually make better baseball players. Yes, the empirical evidence is undeniable -- steroids make you bigger and stronger, as one glance at a pre- and post-'roid Barry Bonds would show -- but how it affects hitting, pitching and throwing hasn't been subject to rigorous evidentiary tests, he says.

After reading Farhi's article I have a question. Jim Bouton, the former Yankees pitcher and author of the pathbreaking expose Ball Four, is quoted as saying that players would still willingly take substances they knew would forfeit years of life if these could produce winning seasons. Yet the economist Robert Frank, citing the work of his Nobel Laureate colleague Thomas Schelling, has observed that hockey players accepted mandatory helmet rules even though individually they could have performed better without helmets. The law became a means to prevent a dangerous quest for relative advantage.

Why hasn't the same logic applied to steroids, which may in the long run not only shorten life but reduce its quality? Is the reason the way some people discount future harm, while others endure hunger for the promise of longevity? Part of the answer may be that micro-cultures, like those of various sports, can affect how people think about the future. One extreme case I found when writing encyclopedia articles on the history of fashion technology: the needle polishers of Redditch, England, the world center of needle production in the early nineteenth century. They were some of the best paid workers in Britain -- working-class heroes -- because the respiratory hazards of working in a cloud of dust commanded premium pay. They rarely lived beyond their thirties. For years they resisted innovations like mouth guards and ventilation fans on the grounds that less danger would mean lower pay. On the other hand, once safety technology was installed, workers did change their minds, and newcomers to the trade probably had saner expectations, reinforcing the changed culture. A contemporary account is here.

What's next? Nerds as well as jocks may have some hard decisions. The cumulative effects decades-long use of cognitive enhancing drugs like modafinil -- "smart pills" -- won't be fully understood for years. Are they "steroids for the brain"? David Dobbs has a good commentary.