In “Breaking the Bank” [The Future of Money], Alexander Lipton and Alex “Sandy” Pentland argue that a particular approach toward digital currency would make global financial systems more transparent, accountable and equitable. Their article and the others in this report somehow seemed to avoid the issues of the creation and distribution of real wealth: the production of goods and services that are valuable to people, of which currencies are only the medium of exchange.
Today much of corporate profit instead comes from finance. And cryptocurrencies seem to be detached from issues of real wealth and approach some sort of computer game to be speculated on by the wealthy. Currencies have the value that people give them, and when they are detached from the real economy, they encourage the kind of exploitation and corruption of those who are charged with preserving the integrity of the system that were front and center during the mortgage crisis.
It is hard to see why cryptocurrencies are going to make things more equal. What is needed is more social control of investment by all stakeholders and less imbalanced distribution of the proceeds.
STANLEY HIRTLE Dayton, Ohio
The authors clarify the workings of digital currency but make some distortions about the larger world. In describing the beginning of government-backed central banks in 17th-century Europe, they write that “the king typically repaid the loans [from merchants, in order to fight wars] with taxes imposed on profits.” Such loans were also paid back by looting other nations when wars were won. The exploitation of a conquered country was, and still is, a source of income for imperialistic nations.
The article does mention the issue of the undesirable concentration of wealth but attributes it to “outdated paradigms,” with the crash of 2008 described as caused by “not enough bureaucratic capacity to deal with the individual losses of tens of millions of citizens.” Without strict regulations, I doubt that any financial system will stop the greed that is driving an increase in the wealth gap and global warming. And I think the focus on rescuing the financial industry alone in 2008 was linked to the enormous influence that it had on the Bush and Obama administrations. It will take laws prohibiting the revolving door between Wall Street and government administrative positions, a limit on executive bonuses and salaries, and an estate tax increase to fix this problem.
JULIAN WEISSGLASS Emeritus professor, University of California, Santa Barbara
CATCH AND DECREASE
In “The Messy Facts about Diet and Inflammation” [The Science of Health], Claudia Wallis reports yet another recommendation of the Mediterranean diet, which calls for plenty of fish. But this can only be a short-term solution. We are already taking unsustainable quantities of fish from the sea, and if people follow the advice to eat more, that will hasten the day when we have to cut down drastically because there are not enough fish left. This raises the question of whether physicians have a duty to consider only the immediate benefits to health when giving advice.
DUDLEY MILES London
In Michael Waldholz's “War against Ourselves,” the immunosuppressant rapamycin is identified as an active component of the synthetic vaccine particles (SVPs) that are being developed to reduce immune system reactions to biologic drugs.
Rapamycin has a widening therapeutic role in inhibiting cellular proliferation, from suppressing tumors to preventing autoimmune rejections. But few may realize the origin of the drug, which was found in the 1970s in soil samples that had been extracted by scientists on Easter Island. (“Rapamycin” derives from Rapa Nui, the local name for the island.) In appreciating this discovery, let us consider how many other potentially beneficial medicines in remote natural environments may be challenged by climate change, land development and other threats.
ALAN L. KLEIN Boca Raton, Fla.
In “For the Love of Science” [Skeptic], Michael Shermer first calls out conservatives for their rejection of evolution, global warming and stem cell research. He then demonstrates a classic false equivalence by criticizing liberals for their opposition to “GMOs, nuclear power, genetic engineering and evolutionary psychology.”
Many conservatives do deny that evolution and global warming exist, but liberals are not similarly nuclear power denialists. Anyone can see that fissioning uranium 235 or plutonium can be used to generate electricity. The problem with nuclear power is its potential for long-lasting negative effects. And safe storage of nuclear waste involves preparing for contingencies 10,000 years in the future.
Likewise, no one believes that ingesting foods containing genetically modified DNA is lethal, but there are concerns about, for instance, herbicide-resistant crops spawning herbicide-resistant weeds. To say that GMOs are completely harmless is to overlook the law of unintended consequences. Finally, I'm not sure that opposition to genetic engineering is a liberal stance.
ALBERT CINELLI Sacramento, Calif.
SHERMER REPLIES: Science denial comes in many forms, but the underlying cause is group identity, in which scientific facts are autocorrected into ideologically charged claims that threaten tribal membership. When conservatives confront statements about climate change or gun control, for example, they hear big government intrusion into free markets and a slippery slope toward the abolishment of the Second Amendment, if not the entire U.S. Constitution. When liberals encounter statements about GMOs or genetic engineering, they hear corporate greed or Nazi eugenics. The motivating force behind the response is virtue signaling to one's ideological tribe. Scientific facts do not speak for themselves, so we must decouple them from such tribal identities.
“War on Science Agencies,” by Andrew A. Rosenberg and Kathleen Rest [Forum], made good points regarding the debasement and politicization of science by the current presidential administration. But three major harmful effects were omitted.
The first is economic. Vibrant scientific research is a source of important discoveries that have enormous economic value. The second area is national security. It takes little imagination to recognize the wide applicability of scientific discoveries in maintaining the nation's defense. The third is U.S. global leadership. What happens to the nation's standing globally if it is reduced to a second-class scientific power?
JAMES HECKMAN Halifax, Pa.
Research projects can sometimes end—abruptly. Just after Scientific American published “Building a Backup Bee,” by Paige Embry [March 2018], we learned the Wonderful Company decided to close the eight-year-long research project that the story describes. The goal was to develop a backup bee for the struggling honeybee. We think the science in the story remains intriguing, and the idea of having another commercial pollinator remains important.
“War against Ourselves,” by Michael Waldholz, incorrectly referred to inflammatory bowel disease as “irritable bowel disease.”