Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Various sorts of drug or whatever are supposedly common in professional (and higher level amateur) biking competition. The Tour de France, from everything I've read, sounds like utter torture, even for the most fit, most effective riders. So, people try whatever they can, including stuff that's illegal or against the biking rules.

People decry this practice, and with good reason.

But I ask you, if you could take a drug that would make you ten percent smarter, would you? (Let's pretend that "smarter" can be meaningfully measured in this context and isn't merely a number, but something that measurably affects performance.)

How about if you were likely to die five years earlier than otherwise?

Five percent smarter?

Ten years earlier?

I have to admit, in grad school, I would gladly have taken that risk to be ten percent smarter. And I don't imagine the competition in my grad school/field was one tenth that of being a professional bike rider. And I'm pretty certain that almost every other grad student would have taken the drug, too.

Today, yes, I think I'd probably take something that would make me even five percent smarter, even if I thought it would kill me ten years earlier.

However, I would be pretty darned reticent if the something were illegal, especially illegal to the point where people with guns (sellers or law enforcement) were interested. So let's think something that's maybe semi-legal, or prescription.

Would you take it, Smart Pill X? Why or why not?


  1. I wouldn't take it. I am too scared of death. I wouldn't want to do anything that brings that forward.

    On the other hand, if it were a definite 10% smartness improvement, but only a statistically higher probability of an earlier death, I might be tempted. I still don't think I'd take it, though.

    Flipping the situation around, if I could take a pill that would extend my life by 5 years, but would make me 10% dumber, I DEFINITELY would NOT take it. So I guess I'm inconsistent. Or conservative, or something.

  2. I'd take it. Five years? Shit. What are those last five years probably going to be like anyway? Nasty & brutish. Screw'm, give me smarts now.

  3. Well, I'm not really interested in Better Living Through the Miracles of Pharmaceuticals. Usually because the miracle doesn't happen quite as advertised and the unexpected consequences are, well, unexpected. And long term.

    Besides, I'm not sure how smarter would help me live better. Help being organized - yes! OrganizeRx would be tempting.

  4. Smart doesn't equal success, regardless of how one measures success. Being smarter wouldn't make me better at my job; perhaps my job would be easier, but not better. Being smarter wouldn't make my home life happier or more fulfilling. Being smarter wouldn't make me more motivated, productive, creative or organized. I wouldn't take it.

  5. Aw, now, we were assuming the smart pills did work. If you're telling me they don't work, that's a whole extra deal. But these are magic smart pills! They work.

    dulci has a point, on the other hand. I've known smart people that also weren't too great at what they did. Maybe that had to do with being smart, maybe it didn't. (The smart folk I'm thinking about also had other issues -- Aspergers, horrible parents, bipolar, like that. I've also known smart folk who are excellent at what they do.) This, though, would not be a quantum boost. We're not talking 50 IQ points. Just a tiny boost. A little rocket fuel in my engine. Enough to let me see a little more clearly, a bit further. I think that would help with my job. I think it might make me better at my life. Yeah, I'd take it.

  6. but what about the other parallel to performance enhancing drugs? the part where if you're caught taking them you get kicked out of the race and have a permanent pall hanging over your head? Would you be prepared to give up a tenure-track job or have your most recently published book 'unpublished' in order to be 10% smarter?

  7. No, I don't think I value being smart nearly as much as I value not being dead, and I'm getting along all right on the brains that I've got.

  8. OK, so I'm presuming a lot here, but the parallels between competitive cycling and academic labor are very different, not least of which includes the fact that I believe (naively, perhaps) being smarter in my line of work would help me make a larger contribution--to my field, to the world at large perhaps.

    On the other hand, I find it hard to imagine that a greater lung capacity of higher adrenaline burst contributes meaningfully to much beyond the cyclist's own interests.

    Finally, while academic work is competitive, it's not a competition so charges of unfairness are less of an issue, though it becomes an issue of classism if said pills were expensive...but then again that could also be said of an ivy degree.

    And while I'm on the subject (and regretfully hijacking the comments) one might argue that the stress of a post-graduate education (and its potentially negative impact on life expectancy via stress), coupled with the comparative educative benefits, that people make a similar choice as the smart pill proposition every time they start a phd program.

    So not only would I take it, I did take it. It's got me a phd and took me 7 years start-to-finish, plus added stress.

  9. StyleyGeek, I think one of the things with doping is that you see a benefit fairly immediately, but you don't see the downsides very quickly. So it's easy to pretend they're not there, perhaps.

    Delagar, If I could be sure I'd just die five years early, and skip the last five years of probably health problems, things would be easy to decide. But I'm guessing the way it would really work would be that you'd start getting sicker five years earlier or something.

    Gwen, I love pharmaceuticals, personally. I'd be long dead without penicillin. And probably long dead without numerous vaccines, gamma globulin, malaria prophylaxis. And my life is way better with birth control.

    Dulci, Well, there's no smart pill. But I was imagining one that would work like athletic doping, in measurable ways.

    Delagar, Yes, I'm imagining that boost. When you see that the Tour de France riders are within a few minutes of each other after 1800 or so miles, then a ten percent enhancement must feel huge. I was thinking like that.

    C, That would be scary, but since 30% of people in my field never get a tenure track job after a PhD, I might have felt it was worth it.

    Fretful Porpentine, You probably have more brains than I do!! No fair!

    Horace, You're right that it's not really a good parallel. But a bike racer's success also means a lot to people associated, teammembers, bike company folks, advertisers, family members, etc. You're also right that doing a phud program sucks, too!