In “Put Science Back in Congress” [Science Agenda], the editors advocate for a nonbinding science advisory board to educate Congress on scientific issues. The problem, however, is much deeper. Having congressional committees such as the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology composed of nonscientists is in itself quite ridiculous. And most of the people on them don't even want to be advised about science. They surely wouldn't take any advice seriously. The very least that is needed is a blue-ribbon panel of real scientists.
Further, the editors suggest that “industry representatives” can “still have a voice” but should “counsel the committees separately.” There is no need to include such nonscientist representatives. They are only thinking about their profits.
Science is not a debate society where sophistry is more important than facts and evidence. I urge Scientific American to take a much stronger stance against science deniers.
JOHN JAROS Philadelphia
GUNS AND CRIME
Melinda Wenner Moyer's article “Journey to Gunland” ignores virtually all of the literature on right-to-carry laws and gun ownership since 1998. About two thirds of the peer-reviewed, published literature show that concealed-carry laws help to reduce crime. I provided Moyer with those papers, but she doesn't give a single reference to them, and she appears unaware of any of my research after 1998.
Moyer quotes physician Garen Wintemute: “Few studies ... suggest that liberalizing access to concealed firearms has ... beneficial effects.” But she ignores 24 peer-reviewed publications just showing that crime in the U.S. drops after people are allowed to carry concealed handguns.
Take one example of Moyer's bias: She has a long discussion about Arthur Kellermann's work on the risks of guns in the home and says that Kellermann studied “444 people who had been killed between 1987 and 1992 at home.” But she fails to note that in only eight of these 444 homicide cases was the murder weapon a gun that had been kept in the home.
JOHN R. LOTT, JR. President, Crime Prevention Research Center
MOYER REPLIES: My investigation involved far more than the impact of concealed-carry laws and ultimately concluded that more guns—period—are associated with more crime and violence.
Lott's claim that two thirds of the literature show that concealed-carry laws help to reduce crime comes from a 2012 paper he wrote for the Maryland Law Review. It asserts that 18 of 29 studies showed that result. One third of those citations refer to his own work, and many of the studies are off-topic in that they do not evaluate concealed-carry laws at all. Lott also omits peer-reviewed studies that belong on the other side. And included among the 24 papers he refers to, which are listed on his Web site, are the irrelevant papers mentioned above, as well as other studies that do not show links between concealed-carry policies and low crime.
Finally, the Kellermann study found the odds of being murdered nearly tripled among those who kept guns at home. Lott says it is important that most of these homicides did not involve the resident's gun, but it is not. The study was designed to assess the relation between keeping a gun in the home and the risk of being murdered by any weapon. Murder victims are murder victims, regardless of weapon or means.
EDITORS' NOTE: This exchange between Lott and Moyer was edited for space. Readers can examine Lott's research studies at http://bit.ly/2ipGErA; the full letter and reply are available at www.ScientificAmerican.com/gun-debate
“Dangerous Medicine,” an excerpt of Lindsey Fitzharris's book The Butchering Art, ends by justly celebrating Joseph Lister's lifesaving work in elucidating and fighting postoperative infection. But it is troubling that it fails to note the earlier, disregarded discovery of antisepsis by Ignaz Semmelweis. It has become sadly customary to fault cantankerous, self-assured scientific pioneers for the failure of their benighted contemporaries to recognize their genius. The tragic delay in implementing antisepsis should remind us of our obligation to see truth for what it is, regardless of the social niceties of the creative genius.
JEFF FREEMAN Rahway, N.J.
FITZHARRIS REPLIES: Ideas are never created in a vacuum, and Lister's life very much attests to that truth. I discuss Semmelweis, as well as many other medical practitioners working in parallel with Lister, in my book. That said, Semmelweis's methods and theories had little impact on the medical community during his lifetime. Lister visited a clinic in Budapest where the beleaguered physician had recently worked and later reflected that “Semmelweis's name was never mentioned to me having been, as it seems, entirely forgotten in his native city as in the world at large.” It should also be said that Lister's contribution wasn't his discovery of antisepsis; rather it was his application of germ theory to medical practice through the systematic implementation of antisepsis.
CONQUISTADOR OF THE COSMOS
In “Sky Gods for Skeptics” [Skeptic], Michael Shermer quotes an earlier column in which he said that “any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence [ETI] is indistinguishable from God.” How advanced is “sufficiently” advanced, and which observer determines it? And for whom is it “indistinguishable”? An iPhone-worshipping Neandertal?
Also, clerics usually assign to God the attributes of mercy, even regret and anger, which are obliquely if at all related to intelligence. How can an all-knowing being regret anything? Would Shermer's God-like ETI thus lack mercy or regret or need to control anger?
ROBERT N. TAUB Retired professor of medicine, Columbia University
SHERMER REPLIES: First, I seriously doubt that an omniscient, omnipotent and, especially, omnibenevolent deity would have human emotions like anger and regret. Second, the example of an awestruck Neandertal bewildered by an iPhone would seem to fulfill most people's criteria for sufficiently advanced technology, but obviously this is not yet a testable hypothesis.
Third, Italian astronomer and mathematician Claudio Maccone has developed a mathematical equation to measure the amount of information and entropy representing different civilizations throughout history and compared them with what an alien civilization a million years more advanced than ours might be like.
For example, he computed that the difference between the Aztecs and the Spanish in their first encounter in 1519 was 3.84 bits of information per individual over around 5,000 years of technological difference. And he calculated the difference between our civilization and an alien one a million years more advanced as 10,000 bits per individual. Given how easily the Spanish conquered the Aztecs, such an alien civilization would not only seem God-like but could prove catastrophic for us if its members did contain those human emotions.
“The Neutrino Puzzle,” by Clara Moskowitz, refers to most particles, including protons and neutrons, acquiring mass by interacting with the Higgs field. Protons and neutrons do not directly interact with the field, but their constituents, quarks, do.