“The Latest Face of Creationism,” by Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott, details the tactics of those agitating against the teaching of evolution in public schools. Scientists have, to some extent, contributed to creationists’ arguments by using the term “theory” when referring to evolution. It is not a theory but an established law.
Robin A. Cox
Simply suppressing the teaching of intelligent design (ID) sends the wrong message to students. They ought to learn that science is about understanding the world and that it proceeds in stages. The questions they should ask are, Does ID make predictions? And can those predictions be tested? If the answers to both are negative, they themselves can conclude that ID is “only a nonscientific theory.”
Emeritus Professor of Medical Informatics
University of Amsterdam Medical Center
Read an extended version of this letter here.
George Musser’s “Space Sticker Shock” [News Scan] cites the challenges of developing cutting-edge NASA missions within fiscal bounds. In recent years NASA has thoroughly reviewed and updated our approach to grappling with uncertain cost projections for first-of-a-kind missions.
NASA commits only to a cost and schedule after completing a detailed study that ascertains technological readiness, manufacturing capabilities and funding availability. In cases such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a thorough technology evaluation phase was first required. NASA committed to $1.6 billion in 2006 for the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) and plans to make a commitment for the JWST in early 2009. The National Academy of Sciences’s decadal survey cost numbers for those projects that Musser quotes never represented NASA’s commitment.
When we commit to a mission in a confirmation review, we strive to develop it within its approved budget. We are also working constructively with the next decadal surveys to improve early cost estimates for new initiatives.
Planetary Science Division
Pop Psychology Probe
In “Four Fallacies of Pop Evolutionary Psychology,” David J. Buller tries to dismiss evolutionary psychology (EP) as “pop” science. Yet all thriving sciences are (and should be) popularized. The primary research in EP has been published in leading scientific journals and has garnered top scientific prizes. Buller errs in claiming that EP’s main goal is to identify when psychological mechanisms evolved (it is to characterize their function), that it attributes all adaptation to Pleistocene conditions (this is an empirical, not an a priori, question) and that adaptation can only be demonstrated by phylogenetic comparison (it hinges on the fit between predictions from optimality analyses and data from genetics, experimentation, ethnography and social science databases).
His accusation that EP is “speculative” has long been refuted (in the November 2003 Psychological Bulletin, one of us documented over 50 empirically supported novel predictions), as has his claim that topics such as sexual jealousy are only studied with questionnaires (methods range from psychophysiology, neuroimaging and reaction time to ethnography and divorce records). All scientific endeavors should be subject to criticism, but Buller’s polemic manufactures misinformation.
David M. Buss
University of Texas at Austin
BULLER REPLIES: Buss and Pinker credit me with too much originality. For the most part, I have simply synthesized criticisms of EP made by numerous biologists, anthropologists and psychologists. I discuss those criticisms in my book Adapting Minds (MIT Press, 2005), which also addresses EP’s primary research. Moreover, I’ve never made the strong claims they attribute to me (for example, about “EP’s main goal” and that jealousy is “studied solely with questionnaires”). That is misinformation. Finally, publication in “leading journals” and receipt of “top prizes” are not hallmarks of truth. Half a century ago the behaviorist paradigm could have been similarly defended. Yet today the majority of psychologists agree that it was fundamentally misguided. Skeptics like me merely suspect that 50 years from now the current EP program will appear much the same.
In “Flies and Projectors and Bears, Oh My” [Anti Gravity], Steve Mirsky ridicules Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin for criticizing federal funding for specific scientific projects. Mirsky must not believe that those who benefit from research should pay for it. He notes that the fruit-fly research Palin cited would benefit olive growers in California. So why, then, shouldn’t California and the growers be responsible for the funding? And Illinois should pay for its planetarium’s projector. Research at the public’s cost is not an entitlement but a subject open to debate.
J. J. Marinello
West Hartford, Conn.
MIRSKY REPLIES: I could have considered McCain’s and Palin’s attacks on federal funding as opportunities to mull over whether the projects were prudent uses of federal money. But that wasn’t the criticism the candidates offered: they clearly argued that the projects were self-evidently ridiculous, as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal did by ridiculing “something called volcano monitoring” in his reply to President Barack Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress. This apparently deep-rooted disrespect for science is counterproductive.