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See Inside Scientific American Volume 310, Issue 4

Readers Respond to "Your Brain on Google"

Letters to the editor from the December 2013 issue of Scientific American.
December 2013 issue cover


December 2013

 

YOUR BRAIN ON GOOGLE

The Internet Has Become the External Hard Drive for Our Memories,” by Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward, discusses studies indicating that the Internet has changed the way humans have traditionally allocated remembering certain facts to others and our sense of self.

I worry that the Internet-induced high “cognitive self-esteem”—the sense of being smart or good at remembering—the authors report might discourage students from taking the care to patiently learn about profound concepts. Try looking up “topological group” or “chord progression.” Some of the most interesting subjects can't be understood with the touch of a button.

Lance Waltner
Colorado Springs, Colo.

Wegner and Ward mention, as evidence of a profound psychological change created by the Internet, an experiment in which subjects remembered facts they typed into a computer much worse if they were told that the computer had saved them. But the same would have happened if subjects had written facts on paper, and then some were told that the paper had been filed and others that it had been burned.

Guy Ottewell
Dorset, England

The authors ignored a big difference between asking friends and family for information versus looking it up online: you don't usually need to worry that the former have been paid to deceive you using sophisticated marketing or propaganda.

R. Allen Gilliam
Winter Park, Fla.

DO CETACEANS SPREAD FUNGI?

In “Strange Fungi Now Stalk Healthy People,” Jennifer Frazer discusses the unexpected spread of the airborne, lung-infecting fungus Cryptococcus gattii in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, where it was previously unknown.

C. gattii is described as infecting porpoises as well as people and other animals. How better to aerosolize and spread a pulmonary infection than for a sick and dying porpoise to spray fungus from its blowhole just offshore? And if C. gattii infects one cetacean, could it also be infecting others?

Jim Saklad
Baldwin, Md.

FRAZER REPLIES: According to veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty of the Animal Health Center at British Columbia's Ministry of Agriculture, based on extrapolation from terrestrial animals and from one case involving dolphins, it is unlikely that C. gattii is spread from one infected animal to another, just as humans cannot spread the disease to each other. Scientists suspect this may be because “wet” forms of the yeast in animals may not be infective. So far C. gattii has been found to infect Dall's porpoises, harbor porpoises and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Samples taken from killer whales roaming between northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and the Puget Sound have not shown evidence of C. gattii.

U.S. SCIENCE EDUCATION

In “Why China and India Love U.S. Universities” [Forum], Harold O. Levy expresses alarm at the percentage of graduate and undergraduate degrees in science and engineering awarded to foreign students in the U.S. He states that “the U.S. public education system ... does not produce enough high school graduates who are qualified for college work.”

The number of U.S. students taking Advanced Placement exams has increased every year since their inception, and the majority of students have been passing them. Last year more than two million students took almost four million AP exams. The pass rate was generally around 60 percent. It seems that enough students are qualified to pursue higher education in science and technology but choose not to do so.

George Schuttinger
Mountain View, Calif.

As a chemistry teacher in high school, I have watched the standards and testing increase while the breadth of the subjects narrows because we teach only what is on the test. Our school district has not even taught science in elementary schools for years because it is not tested. The more No Child Left Behind intruded into the school system, the less of a priority depth of understanding became. We need to get these “reformers,” who have never had a class of 38 students, out of education.

Furthermore, our students do not understand that education is a valuable commodity. If you want better schools, make education priority one at the dinner table.

Art Aronsen
Vacaville, Calif.

More Americans don't get Ph.D.s in engineering because it makes no economic sense. An engineer with a bachelor's can give up, say, one year's earnings to get a master's and expect to make that back in three to four years from the higher salary. An engineer giving up three to five years' earnings from a master's to get a Ph.D. can expect to make the lost income back sometime between 20 years and never.

Richard J. Weader II
via e-mail

INSECT FACIAL RECOGNITION

In “Insects Recognize Faces Using Processing Mechanism Similar to That of Humans,” Elizabeth A. Tibbetts and Adrian G. Dyer describe their work showing that insects such as paper wasps and honeybees are able to recognize individual faces of others in their species.

Do these insects show a difference between the sexes in this ability?

Dennis Weber
Kalamazoo, Mich.

TIBBETTS AND DYER REPLY: There are likely to be sex differences in insect-face learning, although careful experimentation will be needed. Insects often vary within and between species in perceptually difficult tasks such as color discrimination. Bees and wasps are particularly likely to have cognitive differences across the sexes because the social lives of males and females are so distinct. We are planning experiments to address this question.

SECULARISM AND SOCIETY

In “Is God Dying?” [Skeptic], Michael Shermer's argument that religion is declining is short on hard and social science. Shermer gives one point from a supposedly longitudinal study but asserts time trend results. Likewise, he surmises that because religions help the poor, richer nations become less religious, yet he pronounces the U.S. über-religious. By the way, nonreligious societies have a pretty bad track record (Soviets, North Koreans, Nazis, etc.).

J. P. Harrison
Atlanta

SHERMER REPLIES: The U.S. has long been an outlier in religiosity among developed democracies, showing substantially higher rates. Recent surveys show that we may now be shifting to be more in line with comparable countries. As for the last point: National socialism was not an atheistic regime, and its exterminationist policies were clearly motivated by hegemonic politics and racial hygiene, not religion. The Soviet Union and the North Korean regime (not to mention the People's Republic of China) were and are officially atheistic, but nothing they did or are doing had or has religious motives.

ERRATA

How Supercomputers Will Yield a Golden Age of Materials Science,” by Gerbrand Ceder and Kristin Persson [World Changing Ideas], incorrectly spelled the name of Stefano Curtarolo of Duke University.

Golden Goose Awards Highlight Weird-Sounding Science with Big Benefits,” by Rachel Feltman [Advances], refers to screwworms as worms. Screwworms are flies.

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

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