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See Inside Scientific American Volume 308, Issue 2

Readers Respond to "The Other 1 Percent"

Letters to the editor from the October 2012 issue of Scientific American
October 2012 Scientific American, Scientific American Issue Cover



Scientific American

RESEARCH AND INCOME

In “The Other 1 Percent,” Paula Stephan provides no evidence that income inequality positively affects scientific output, as she argues. As she mentions, the U.S. pours more than 0.3 percent of its (very large) GDP into science, and there are 100 other reasons—social, economic and historical—for high U.S. publication rates. The only evidential statement made, about Saudi Arabian output, goes against the article's main point (illustrating that high pay has not correlated with top research rankings), but even here it is difficult to discern the relative contributions of size, geographic location, and so on.

Adrian Robert
Spafford, N.Y.

STEPHAN REPLIES: Robert's point is well taken. In my book How Economics Shapes Science, I explore a number of factors that contribute to scientific productivity and provide a considerable amount of quantitative analysis.

INTERDISCIPLINARY EXCESS

Although I can appreciate Arizona State University's efforts to redefine the boundaries of existing departments to develop synergies (such as by combining cosmology with geology), as described by Michael M. Crow in “Citizen Science U.,” I can't help but remember my experience as an undergraduate computer science major at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Geology 105 taught me many basic premises about fossil fuels—gross availability, practical aspects to extraction, and application of the various products. I am skeptical that recasting the topic of geology into a larger department spanning from coal production to the formation of gas giants would lead to a similar depth of classroom content.

Eric Mann
Hillsboro, Ore.

NONCODING DNA'S VALUE

In Stephen S. Hall's interview with Ewan Birney [“Journey to the Genetic Interior”], Birney deprecates the term “junk DNA” for sequences whose function we do not know, but he is conservative on how much of nonprotein-coding DNA may be functional (“between 9 and 80 percent”). The fact that the entire genome is copied at every cell division suggests that close to 100 percent of DNA must be functional. Had any significant portion of DNA been nonfunctional in the past, evolutionary pressure to develop an editing-out mechanism to increase the cell's energy efficiency would have been tremendous.

Birney also uses the conservative term “regulation” to describe how the 98.8 percent of nonprotein-coding DNA interacts with the 1.2 percent of protein-coding segments. It is more useful to describe the entire genome as software: instructions for cells to build copies of themselves and assemble cells into life-forms. In this view, the protein-coding segments are thought of as fixed-value strings within the code.

If we could send a personal computer with Microsoft Excel and a copy of its source code back in time to Alan Turing, it seems unlikely that on comparing the screen output with the source code, Turing would conclude that fixed values such as “File,” “Edit” and “View” were the essence of the software and that the other 99 percent merely “regulated” the operation of the fixed values.

Malcolm Hamer
New York City

SPEAKING SCIENCE

In “Culture of Creativity,” Fred Guterl interviews Paul Nurse, who concludes, “Scientists speak the same language.” This may be figuratively true of the language of science, but verbally, they speak many different languages. It might thus be interesting to read an article on the language barriers to scientific communication and how they are overcome. Because American science predominates, is English the lingua franca of global science? Do our schools promote STEM students learning foreign languages?

David W. Briggs
Marion, Mass.

WHY NOT WIDGETS?

In “Why Germany Still Makes Things,” Stefan Theil points to the use of new technology and manufacturers and researchers working closely as major reasons German manufacturing remains competitive.

Both the U.S. and Germany still excel at making complex, high-tech items, but it seems that the former can no longer economically produce simple items, such as Keck clips (plastic clips used to hold pieces of glassware together), whereas the latter still can. Perhaps Germany has something to teach us in this sort of manufacturing as well.

Howard J. Wilk
Philadelphia

EMPATHY AND PSYCHOPATHY

“The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” excerpted from a book by Kevin Dutton, refers to a lack of empathy as a psychopathic trait that can be beneficial. Yet the term “psychopath” refers to a person whose behaviors are habitually amoral and antisocial.

The intensely focused individuals cited by Dutton are engaged in prosocial activities, which is moral, not psychopathic, behavior. Principles such a rationality, identity, group or creedal loyalties, fears of punishment/consequences and long-range self-interest direct their morality even though they lack empathy. Lack of empathy does not a psychopath make. Dutton's “wisdom” of psychopathy is a misnomer.

Andrew D. Whitmont
via e-mail

DUTTON REPLIES: No one defining feature separates the psychopath from the nonpsychopath. The characteristics that mark psychopaths out from the rest of us, like any other personality characteristic, are evenly distributed across the general population as a whole. Just as there exists no official dividing line between someone who plays the piano and a concert pianist, the frontier between a “pure” psychopath and someone who merely “psychopathizes” is blurred. One individual, for example, may be ruthless, fearless and demonstrate a sublime lack of empathy but at the same time act neither violently nor antisocially nor without conscience.

Scoring high on three psychopathic characteristics, such an individual might rightfully be considered further along the “psychopathic spectrum” than one scoring low on those three traits but wouldn't be anywhere near the “danger zone” of someone scoring high on all of them.

Taking such a dimensional perspective on psychopathy, there is indeed “wisdom” to be found in possessing various combinations of psychopathic traits, at various levels, across various professional contexts.

THE BRAIN AND AGENCY

“The Language of the Brain,” by Terry Sejnowski and Tobi Delbruck, raises several philosophical questions. The phrase “the brain makes sense of our experiences” spurs the question of where the implied “I” comes in. Later, I read that “a neuron fires a spike after deciding….” So neurons do the deciding! And further on, we have: “the brain takes such synchrony to mean that the signals are worth noting.”

The question is: What is the difference between brain and mind, and how much control does my brain or mind (or I) have over my actions and thoughts?

Andrew Milne
Dunstable, England

This article was originally published with the title "Letters."

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