ANTISCIENCE ORIGINS

If Shawn Lawrence Otto wants to stop the antiscience movement in the U.S., as he describes in “America's Science Problem,” he needs to blame the people who are actually leading the movement. Otto's article makes the ludicrous claim that Democrats ignore science as well as Republicans. Yet while Otto cites numerous examples of Republican legislatures enacting antiscience laws and major Republican leaders pushing policies attacking established scientific facts, he can only counterbalance that with the weak assertion that a few unnamed Democrats fear cell phones and vaccines. (Indeed, the only politician he refers to publically making false statements about the dangers of vaccines is Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.)

Incorrect claims that both parties are antiscience make the problem worse because they make people who want science-based policies feel like they have nowhere to turn. There is no doubt as to which is the only major American party advancing an agenda that rejects science.

Michael Campbell
Eudora, Kan.

Otto's critique of postmodernism as an antiscience philosophy suffers from some of the same ignorance that he attributes to it. It is not a unified ideology that preaches that truth is relative, as he describes, but a descriptive analysis of society since the 1960s (give or take) that can help us understand the antiscience forces Otto fears.

In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge in 1979, Jean-François Lyotard predicted that as information became more central to the economy, control and manipulation of that information would become more common. He specifically pointed to science as a force to prevent these self-reinforcing feedback loops and the control of information.

James D. Hastings
Berkeley, Calif.

I am appalled by Scientific American's editors' obvious bias toward President Barack Obama in their scoring of his and Governor Mitt Romney's answers to the ScienceDebate.org questions in the “Science in an Election Year” section of the article. On the space question alone, President Obama should have been marked much lower than the score of 3 he was given, considering that his stated goals for nasa are contradicted by his slashing of funding for the program. When I went to the Web page of the candidates' full responses. Governor Romney gave much more of an answer than President Obama.

Joshua McDonald
via e-mail

ADDING PREONS

“The Inner Life of Quarks,” by Don Lincoln, describes possible building blocks of quarks and leptons called preons. Lincoln summarizes Haim Harari and Michael A. Shupe's prescription for composing known particles from preons in the box “A Particle Cookbook,” which gives the preon content for a positron as three preons of a certain type (+ + +), for an electron as three of its antimatter companions (− − −) and for a photon as one of each (+ −).

There is a well-known, experimentally verified and reversible reaction in which an electron-positron pair annihilates into two photons. Yet according to the box, in terms of preons, this would mean there would be an extra photon. What gives?

Bill Karsh
via e-mail

LINCOLN REPLIES: On the face of it, the preon count doesn't seem to balance. Matter and antimatter preons, however, can annihilate each other. Thus, one of the + preons annihilates along with one of the − preons and returns to the vacuum. This leaves the correct number of preons to make the two observed photons.

QUANTUM DILEMMA

In “A New Enlightenment,” George Musser interprets research on the subject of quantum mechanics and the Prisoner's Dilemma scenario (in which two caught thieves will go to jail if both snitch or will go free if both stay mum, but if only one snitches, she will receive a reward, and the other will receive a maximum sentence). Musser indicates that quantum methods may help solve the dilemma if the prisoners can take particles entangled with each other into the interrogation.

[break]

Actually the jailer would have to cooperate by performing an entangled measurement. Further, I think the empirical behavior of players in the dilemma can be understood without invoking the metaphor of quantum superposition but by using a concept that cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter has called “superrationality”—that is, based on players thinking, “My opponent is like me, so he will do what I do.”

Howard Barnum
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com

MUSSER REPLIES: Jailers in the real world are unlikely to let prisoners use entangled particles anytime soon. The question is how to model an expanded notion of rationality mathematically; it is one thing to suppose that human beings do behave rationally in some sense, quite another to capture this notion with precision. That is where quantum superposition might help. It provides a useful set of mathematical tools without having to assume that our thought processes literally are quantum.

RIGOROUS REPLICATION?

Michael Shermer's notion that the Dateline NBC program he worked on, as described in “Shock and Awe” [Skeptic], replicated Stanley Milgram's famous shock experiment (in which an authority figure instructs a subject to take action that the latter believes is harming a second subject) is flawed. The point of the original experiment was testing whether people would follow authority, and scientists doing a scientific experiment were used as that authority.

Shermer's Dateline “replication” told the subjects that the purpose was a reality TV show! “Trusting authority” does not mean “trusting anybody who tries to make me do something.”

Alice Savage
via e-mail

SHERMER REPLIES: Savage makes an excellent point, but this would apply to Milgram's original studies as well because they were inspired by the obedience to authority the psychologist thought was on display in the Holocaust. At no stage of the extermination of Jews and others did the Nazi perpetrators think they were being instructed by scientific authorities conducting research in the name of science for the betterment of humanity. Their motives were entirely different from those of the subjects in Milgram's lab or in our TV studio.

The most such social psychological research can hope for is an approximation of conditions that an institutional research board will approve of, and neither this experiment, nor Philip Zimbardo's famous Stanford Prison Experiment, will likely ever be approved for replication again. So we have to come at these social problems from different angles and interpret our provisional results cautiously and extrapolate them judiciously.

CLARIFICATION

“What Is It?” by Ann Chin [Advances], asserted that “about 97 percent of Greenland's ice sheet melted” last summer. It should have stated that 97 percent of the surface of the ice sheet melted.