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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 3

Readers Respond to "Why the Brain Prefers Paper"

Letters to the editor from the November 2013 issue of Scientific American.


November 2013


PERILS OF E-READING

“Why the Brain Prefers Paper,” by Ferris Jabr, is a fascinating study on how the brain reads paper versus e-texts. The differences seem to call for further study, especially given the increasing reliance on online, high-stakes testing in education. These tests involve a lot of reading, even the math tests. If studies show a definite decrease in comprehension when people read e-texts, then we are doing a disservice to our students, teachers and schools by imposing less beneficial testing on them. Even though online testing may be more efficient, the consequences of poor testing results would be catastrophic.

ROBERT HANNA
Choctaw, Okla.

DON'T TEXT AND DRIVE

After describing a recent study that found that texting by hand and hands-free by voice were equally bad for driving in “Crash Text Dummies” [TechnoFiles], David Pogue writes that “the results surprised me.” It would, in fact, be very surprising if they had showed any difference: the reason that driving performance is impaired when people are making phone calls and texting, hands-free or not, is that such tasks require attention. That's why a sensible driver would, say, stop talking when navigating a curvy ramp.

JIANJIAN (J.J.) QIN
California State University, Sacramento

Currently there is a misconception that voice-activated texting is safe. Furthermore, some believe laws forbidding texting by drivers are unenforceable. I agree with the second point, but there is a foolproof solution: pass laws requiring that all texting devices include a GPS with a default that stops the texting function from working when the device is in motion.

J. G. MCCULLY
via e-mail

HUMANS AND EXTINCTION

In “King of Beasts,” Lars Werdelin makes an interesting case for the influence of early humans, who arose in Africa around two million years ago, on the decline of large carnivore species in that continent around the same time. How does the decline compare with species diversity of large carnivores everywhere else, where there were no humans until much later, such as in North America?

DAVID SMITH
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador

WERDELIN REPLIES: Each continent has to be viewed separately because history and environment, as well as the time of appearance of Homo, differ. Overall, there is support in most parts of the world for a reduction in large carnivore diversity coincident with the appearance of Homo. This is clearest in the Americas, where the debate over whether humans or climate caused Late Pleistocene extinctions has raged for decades (the truth is probably a combination of these two factors, including a trophic cascade caused by human-mediated extinctions of large carnivores).

In Europe, there is a reduction in large carnivore diversity that coincides with the first permanent settlements of Homo in the continent, about 800,000 to 700,000 years ago, although this needs further research. The situation in Asia is unclear because of the existence of very few well-dated localities in the critical time period (1.8 million to 1.5 million years ago).

TABLET TEACHING

An interview with Maryanne Wolf, “A Is for App,” by Ferris Jabr [Advances], describes Wolf and her colleagues' work in designing a tablet-based system to teach children to read, which they have been testing in the Ethiopian villages of Wonchi and Wolonchete.

I have a question for Wolf: Did you consider using the tablets to help the children in Wonchi and Wolonchete learn to read and write their own mother tongue before teaching them to read English?

JIMMIE DAVIS
via e-mail

WOLF REPLIES: We reflected a great deal on the fact that it is generally easier to learn to read in one's own first language. The kind of apps we want for teaching the precursors of reading, however, are not available in these children's first language, Oromo, or most languages. Even in English, there are too few apps that address what we call the “reading brain circuit.”

Furthermore, the children's parents wanted them to learn English as much as they wanted them to learn to read because it would enhance their later economic opportunities and would also be the second language taught in their schools, should they ever be able to attend them.

Finally, we are currently developing our own apps that teach oral and written vocabulary in English and Oromo. And two of our goals involve developing templates for how to design apps in any language that best represent our knowledge of the reading brain and forming communications networks around the globe in which children can teach one another the words that describe their worlds.

ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORDS

In “Data Glitches Are Hazardous to Your Health” [Science Agenda], the editors decry that no centralized body is keeping track of errors in electronic medical records.

It should be noted that all the examples they cite are manual-entry errors committed by humans. While they should be identified as much as possible, there is no particular benefit in separating other errors from such e-record errors, and they should be included in error tabulations that already exist, along with, say, hospital-acquired infections.

A more pervasive problem with electronic records is the cacophony of systems that are unable to “talk” with one another, with many older computerized records not being readable by current software.

EDWIN G. TAFT
via e-mail

CARBON SEQUESTRATION

In “The One-Stop Carbon Solution,” Steven L. Bryant proposes sequestering carbon dioxide by injecting it into hot brine from deep underground and sending it back.

Coal-fired power plants are a major source of CO2. But sequestration schemes do not solve other problems the plants pose.

Coal combustion releases chromium and arsenic (carcinogens), lead and mercury (neurotoxins), and dioxins and furans (endocrine disruptors).

For this and other reasons, Canadian doctors support a complete phaseout of this dirty fossil fuel. Pipe dream? Ontario will be closing its last coal plant in 2014.

GIDEON FORMAN
Executive director, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment

GAMBLING ADDICTION

I was delighted with Ferris Jabr's article on disordered gambling, “Gambling on the Brain” [The Science of Health]. What has historically been referred as “problem gambling” is now appropriately regarded as an addictive disorder that can be identified and treated. More states are addressing this downside of adult gaming and affiliating with the National Council on Problem Gambling, which advocates for programs and services to aid such individuals and operates a national Helpline at 800-522-4700.

GEORGE SEWELL
Program director, Helpline operations Louisiana Problem Gamblers Helpline

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

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