Like any excreted bodily substance, earwax (also called cerumen) is regarded as unclean and must be purged from our anatomy. It is also frequently and wrongly accused of causing hearing difficulties and ear infections. In our quest to rid ourselves of this naturally occurring lubricant, sealant and cleanser, we turn to the most notorious and dangerous available instrument: the cotton swab.

The general purpose cotton swab was invented in the 1920s and has been widely used as an ear cleaning tool. While the device does serve countless household and commercial purposes, physicians around the globe concur that aural hygiene is not one of them. In fact, the use of cotton swabs is known to cause infections, push wax deeper into the ear and sometimes irritate or even puncture the eardrum. There is even a warning label on cotton swab packaging that warns consumers not to insert the instrument into the ear canal, but this does little to deter us from probing deep in search of sludge. So why do we continue to risk our health and hearing for the sake of hygiene?

Part of the answer is likely that the cotton swab was originally marketed, in part, as an ear cleaning device. It’s long, narrow shaft and absorbent tip make it seem like the perfect tool for cleaning our inner ears, and its effectiveness is clearly visible after use. Basically, even if we know that it shouldn’t be used this way, the cotton swab appears to be the perfect ear cleaning apparatus.

Another factor could be the mere mild acknowledgment by cotton swab manufacturers that inner ear cleaning is not a viable use for their product. These organizations know that their product is dangerous, and they know that people continue to hurt themselves, yet they hide behind a warning label. This argument is not meant to excuse us of responsibility for what we do to our bodies; it’s meant to incriminate organizations that distribute a product with the knowledge, and even expectation, of its misuse. Cotton swab manufacturers could help to end this misuse by using ads to educate the public on the correct uses of their product, but this could hurt their sales, so they do nothing. Tobacco companies are the most infamous culprits of hiding behind warning labels, but there are many more advocacy groups educating consumers about death sticks than deaf sticks.

Much like the Sauron’s One Ring, cotton swabs were forged with an evil purpose – a purpose served by men too frail to resist its power. In our weakness, we lust after sparkling clean ear canals, accepting aid from even our enemies. Let’s do ourselves a favor and cast these vile things back from whence they came.

Plot X

The X-Men must foil Magneto’s plan to bring about mutant dominance. A device is created which kills or changes either humans or mutants. Later it is discovered that the device has an unexpected effect.

Which of the first three X-Men movies fit this plot summary?


Since the discovery that many diseases are caused by microscopic organisms called germs, we have developed complex habits and strategies for avoiding these invisible, infectious cretins. Such strategies include avoiding insects, wild animals and corpses, habitually cleaning our bodies, clothing and dwellings, as well as amassing large varieties of soap. When we are confronted with something unclean, like a rotting animal carcass, a response is stimulated and we are compelled to cringe and pull away. What’s fascinating about this behavior is attempting to determine whether the stimulus is conditioned or unconditioned.

The terms unconditioned and conditioned stimulus were coined by a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, who fed bells to his dogs until they began to salivate. We can think of an unconditioned stimulus as anything that causes a basic physiological reaction. In other words, something that triggers an instinct such as hunger, fear or pain. A conditioned stimulus is something that may trigger a similar response, but only because an association has been made between that stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus.

For example, someone who falls ill after venturing outdoors without wearing shoes might make an association between shoelessness and illness. From there, the sensation of stepping out of their house barefoot may actually disgust them. Another common example would be the fear of insects. Many people despise insects, especially spiders, and believe that these creatures are unclean. But is this fear an innate response intended to protect us from potentially poisonous pests, or is it an acquired response from a past experience?

What’s even more interesting is that these conditioned stimulus can be transmitted, either consciously or unconsciously, to other individuals. One who is fearful to step outside without footwear may teach this practice to others, perhaps without even explaining its origin. The result of the spreading of unexplained conditioned stimulus is a society that strictly adheres to customs and procedures that may have no known or legitimate purpose. To be clear, germs are real and they can cause serious health issues, but our sense of cleanliness may have less to do with the realities of the microscopic world than with these transmitted stimuli.

Saliva, for example, is generally considered an unclean substance, for most of us would be hesitant to share can of soda with another person. However, there are several encouraged activities which promote the exchange of saliva, such as kissing. We view saliva differently depending on how it is transmitted, since we know that saliva transmitted by a lick is more volatile than that by kiss. Some will argue that the saliva of those we most often kiss, such as friends and family members, is less hazardous, but that belief only reveals the unsubstantiated stereotype that strangers possess more dangerous germs than the people we know. By refusing to ingest someone’s saliva we’re insulting them, as if saying, “I think you’re a diseased liar who is trying to trick me into getting sick.”

Another case of inconsistency is our understanding of the relationship between cleanliness and time. Some things, like food and garbage, become less clean over time, while others, such as toilet seats and beds, become more clean. In the case of toilet seats, warmth can even be considered unclean, since it indicates recent contact with another human being. We aren’t so much disgusted by the idea of sharing a toilet seat, as long as there isn’t any observable evidence of prior use.

Touch is another thing that disgusts us only in certain situations. We feel unclean when interacting with animals and washroom gadgetry, yet we erroneously assume that most mundane objects we encounter are benign. Simulations using substances visible only under black light to represent germs have shown that nothing is safe from touch. We are constantly making contact with our hair, face, clothing, phone, keys, keyboard and food, but we are sure to wash our hands after using the restroom so that we remain sterile. The actual cleanliness of many objects and surfaces with which we regularly interact may come as a shock to us. Let’s look at a few examples, as it appears we are mistaken about a great many things.

Things that are actually dirty: desks, money, doorknobs, railings, dishcloths, light switches and shopping carts.

Things that are actually clean: dirt, insects, lake and river water, mustaches and fresh meat.

There is much obscurity about germs in the minds of commoners. We know that germs can cause illness, but we aren’t always sure which germs we’re avoiding. What illness, exactly, do we think we will contract by drinking from a river, touching an insect or sitting on a warm toilet seat? Many of us believe that we must sanitize our surroundings to neutralize the unseen threat of germs and bacteria, yet few could identify the pathogens we’re bent are eradicating. There are legitimate culprits, like E. coli, but we don’t really think our homes are breeding grounds for fecal contamination. We’re afraid of germs – ambiguous, invisible, malevolent germs.

In summary, the motivation for our hygienic practices is more social and emotional than factual, and we shouldn’t let society pressure us into believing that something is or isn’t clean; we should make informed decisions. In many ways this may liberate us from the bondage of a false sense of filth. Of course, we may also be crippled by an overwhelming concern for the contamination of our environment, but mysophobia is a problem only afforded to those whose lives are devoid of legitimate threats.

The next time someone offers to share their soda with you, drink it.


Imagine that a bomb’s been planted somewhere in a major metropolis and the only person who knows the location is the one who put it there. If the bomb isn’t disarmed the explosion’s effects will be catastrophic. There isn’t enough time to search for the device, but the suspect was apprehended shortly after he armed it. Unfortunately, the interrogation of the suspect has proven fruitless, and our time is running out. As the person in charge of the situation, what do you do?

  1. Continue to interrogate the prisoner and hope for a change of heart.
  2. Torture the prisoner and almost certainly acquire the necessary information.

The second option is much more effective than the first, but everyone knows that torture is wrong because it undermines the presumption of innocence – the foundation for the western judicial system. But what is torture, exactly, and how can we be certain that we aren’t already torturing our prisoner through confinement and interrogation?

The definition of torture is the act of inflicting pain, either physical or mental, often for the purpose of punishment or retrieving information. Conventional torture methods include beating, lashing, shunning, rape, confinement, deprivation of sleep or nourishment and joint manipulation. Most of us would never condone these barbaric tactics, but there are many other techniques that are more subtle and ambiguous.

Aggressive interrogation, or enhanced interrogation, is a term used to describe methods that more closely tread the line of legality, such as waterboarding. Most consider aggressive interrogation to be disguised torture, but how do these techniques differ from those of conventional interrogation? Suspects are regularly isolated, accused, mocked and berated by their captors in order to encourage a confession, and by its very nature, incarceration is a violation of fundamental a human right. In another common example of sanctioned torture, parents will often confine their children or restrict their diet in order to encourage or discourage certain behavior.

It’s clear that our concept of torture may be disturbingly inclusive, but what if there was a way to avoid all these moral predicaments? There is a technique which causes no pain or discomfort, yet it’s powerful enough to cause family members to turn on each other. We’re speaking, of course, about tickling.

Tickling makes the passive flail and claw, the reserved scream profanities and the reasonable abandon their sensibilities. We don’t really consider tickling a serious thing, yet we’ll resort to extreme measures to escape it, often threatening, insulting or injuring those we care about. If tickling can make friends and family commit acts of violence against each other, it must certainly be strong enough to elicit a confession from our bomb-planting prisoner. Even if tickling wasn’t effective in this case, torture methods have been honed for thousands of years, while our understanding of tickling is still quite elementary. It’s likely that, with adequate research, new techniques and devices would be created that would take tickling to a degree we could never imagine.

Terrorists should be tickled.