The Politics of Science
I am canceling my subscription to Discover. In your October issue, you presented a biased, dishonest, factually erroneous, and unscientific comparison of President Bush and Senator Kerry [“Bush vs. Kerry on Science”]. The worst lie was your editorial disclaimer, which stated how much you tried to avoid bias. Really? Clearly, your magazine favors abortion, fetal stem cell research, wacko environmentalism, and a distaste for the military. If I wanted an opinion on these things, I have Time, Newsweek, NBC, CBS, ABC, and most newspapers to get the liberal view.
I am immensely pleased to see Discover recognize that science does not exist in a bubble and that politics do matter. You probably got beat up from both sides covering Bush and Kerry, but I found it to be a realistic overview that successfully avoided mudslinging and innuendo. Your willingness to take on political issues and keep science connected to the real world is great. I’ll be extending my subscription!
A good, rational summary of scientific issues and the candidates’ positions was needed, but the author’s bias was obvious and overwhelming. Do it again, but next time make sure you have two authors—one from each side.
Woodland Park, Colorado
I am glad you ran the comparison between Bush and Kerry. Voters need to know where the candidates stand, and yours is one of the rare forums in which they will get a nonbiased list of facts. Burying your head in the sand is not going to make the link between science and politics go away.
I was disappointed in “Bush vs. Kerry on Science,” which in my opinion showed a bias toward Kerry. There was no mention of government and industry efforts to liquefy coal and biomass, the thrust toward ethanol production, and currently available nuclear reactor designs that are inherently quite safe. All are encouraged and supported by the Bush administration. Vice President Cheney’s energy task force and the ensuing imbroglio over confidentiality have little to do with Bush’s position, and the energy policies arising from the task force’s efforts were inexplicably not described. There was no mention of carbon dioxide sequestration development, even though there are significant governmental efforts using this approach. The author was obviously impressed by Nancy Reagan’s plea on behalf of Alzheimer’s patients, even though the applicability of stem cells to Alzheimer’s is discounted by some knowledgeable scientists. Also, the only issue mentioned under Kerry’s position on stem cells is whether the government should fund additional lines. Research is proceeding without federal funds.
CLAY W. CRITES
West Chester, Pennsylvania
Your statements in October’s Letter From Discover that “the editors . . . have determinedly avoided politics—and religion—as if they were plagues” and that “we will continue to avoid politics in our coverage of science in the future” are troubling. As one of the United States’ premier science magazines, it is your duty to take a stand when science is misused for political purposes. I am not referring to Iraq or tax cuts here. I am referring to such issues as religious extremists trying to replace the teaching of evolution with creationist mythology. You must speak out on such issues. Yes, you may lose some readers, but I would hope that truth is a bigger concern to you than money. I realize you must make a profit, but please do not do so at the expense of avoiding scientific issues just because they involve politics or religion.
PERRY D. CLARK
The October issue was the last straw. Your stand on the issues facing Americans today favors only the liberal view. Don’t even try to say otherwise. Your comment that “very few scientists have spoken out in Bush’s favor” begs the question: Have some scientists spoken out in favor of Bush? Where in your magazine do you print their comments?
North Jackson, Ohio
It isn’t our opinion that many scientists are worried about the current politicization of science, just as it isn’t our opinion that few scientists have spoken out in Bush’s favor. Those are facts. And note that scientists have traditionally clustered toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Discover reports on what scientists are saying—and what they are saying, by a lopsided margin, is that federal policies are harming scientific research. Throughout our feature, we give equal time to both candidates and clearly list the arguments in Bush’s favor in eight major areas related to science. The physicist D. Allan Bromley specifically speaks out in support of Bush’s integrity.
It’s Beyond Our Control
Under the title of John Horgan’s excellent article, “The Myth of Mind Control” [October], you pose the question “Will anyone ever decode the human brain?” The word myth in the title clearly indicates that the answer is no. To model a single brain, scientists would have to determine exactly which of the 100,000,000,000 neurons connect to which. The estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000 such connections—the synapses—may themselves each require megabytes of data to be specified. Also, astrocytes—the neuroglial cells that make up nervous tissue, of which there are about nine times as many as there are neurons—are now understood to play a major part in brain activity. Finally, we have no model of brain function that’s sufficiently detailed to simulate, even if there were a computer powerful enough to handle the processing requirements. Thus, even if we had all the data required, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Dobbs Ferry, New York
Your article on chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy [“Why Is She Numb?” Vital Signs, October] was outstanding, but I wish you had mentioned that the inflammation is also a peripheral neuropathy, which indicates damage to the peripheral nerves, the huge network that transmits information from the brain and the spinal cord to the rest of the body. There are an estimated 20 million people with peripheral neuropathy in the United States. Most of them do not know that their disorder has a name—they just have feet or hands that feel funny. Even without impairment, there can be a lot of pain and discomfort.
Fort Worth, Texas
Good Science Is Good Business
Your interview with Bose Corporation founder Amar G. Bose [“The Maestro of Acoustics Makes Waves,” Discover Dialogue, October] was a marvelous antidote to the Enrons and WorldComs that have dominated the news in the last several years. Bose clearly prioritizes scientific progress and investigation far above the bottom line, and his planned donation of the Bose Corporation to MIT looks to endow these values in perpetuity.
Hands Off My Identity!
In “How to Stop Identity Theft” [Emerging Technology, October], Steven Johnson overlooks a serious problem with biometric passwords. While biometric forms of identification can’t be forgotten the way current passwords can, they also can’t be changed if they are compromised. Fingerprints are especially insecure because people leave copies of them on everything they touch. In the author’s imagined future, thieves will lift your fingerprints from a discarded piece of junk mail, create copies good enough to fool a fingerprint scanner, and go shopping.
Paleomagnetist Joe Kirschvink’s answer to why Earth’s magnetic field sometimes flips over [Ask Discover, R&D, October] seems to ignore the most important consequence of this reversal. Creationists state that the observed mutation rate of today would simply not provide enough time to cause speciation to occur. Would not a weakened polar field over a period of, say, a few hundred years result in a greatly accelerated mutation rate due to direct cosmic-ray bombardment?
Camano Island, Washington
Some people have speculated on a possible increase in the mutation rate during magnetic-field reversals. Available evidence suggests that any increase in the mutation rate would not be significant, however. Most mutations are caused by chemical or radiation damage from the immediate environment or within the cell itself. Second, the fossil record does not show mass extinctions or the accelerated appearance of new species at the times of known magnetic reversals. That said, the most outspoken creationists have a long history of ignoring, selectively citing, or simply distorting the evidence in order to support their conclusions—which is to say that they are not following the procedures of the scientific method, and their claims should be viewed accordingly.
To Top It Off
I’m sure it was just a mistake in editing, but your pull quote on page 24 in November’s Discover Dialogue seriously changes the meaning of Lord Robert May’s quote in the text, so that he appears to say, “in relation to the size of the population, the United States isn’t even in the top 20 in science” rather than “in relation to population size, [Olympic] medals per citizen, the United States isn’t even in the top 20.”
San Diego, California
In October’s Discover Data [“Who Moved the Earth?” R&D], the volumes of earth moved should have read “million tons” rather than “tons.”
To read more letters (all Web-exclusive) on this month’s features and departments, see www.discover.com/letters.