NATURAL HISTORY REPEATS
“The Worst Times on Earth,” by Peter Brannen, describes past mass extinctions and what they could mean for our future. Brannen has written one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces I’ve ever read here, all the more so because a great sadness has overtaken me as I parse the odds of life on this planet making it through. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
SUSAN WILLIAMS Lakewood, Colo.
SCIENCE VS. ANTISCIENCE
In their article, “Reckoning with Our Mistakes,” Jen Schwartz and Dan Schlenoff state, “Americans who are willing to sacrifice the lives of people who are disabled, poor, elderly or from historically oppressed groups so that the U.S. economy can ‘go back to normal’ sound like modern-day eugenicists.”
I am supervisor of a day program for adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. After we were required to close our program in late March, I received continuous calls pleading for information about when we would reopen. These calls came from the individuals we serve, as well as their families. Our clients missed their friends and our structured program of vocational and social-skills classes, the volunteer jobs we facilitate for them around the community daily, our healthy lifestyle activities, and more.
Parents’ constant concern was that our clients were losing the abilities we had helped them develop to integrate into the larger community, to pursue lives of meaning and purpose.
Of course, we created a daily schedule of Zoom classes, but not every client is able to participate or benefit from those. And without our structure, some of our clients engaged in behaviors at home that endangered them and sometimes their family members.
I beg the authors and your readers not to write off those whose opinions are different from yours as oppressors or worse. Schwartz and Schlenoff ask “how else to explain” some people’s advocacy for “going back to normal.” But there are other ways to explain it. Rather than assuming those advocates believe “some of us are inherently more worthy of life than others,” put yourselves in the shoes of our clients and their families. They want the best for their loved ones, and that may mean masks and social distancing rather than lockdowns.
Rockland County, New York State
It is laudable that Scientific American acknowledges, and endeavors not to repeat, its role in disseminating and legitimizing scientific racism, sexism and imperialism. Human fallibility aside, Schlenoff and Schwartz mention several sources of scientific error, but they do not mention the potential for systematic error deriving from scientific methodology itself.
Because we can only gauge the likely truth of new hypotheses by drawing on existing beliefs, insofar as histories of racism, sexism and imperialism shape our current corpus of scientific belief, these legacies will continue to distort scientific inquiry. Science is a social enterprise, and it is shaped not only by theories and data but also by personal experience, common sense and the social uses to which it is put. Research may gain currency not from the weight of evidence but because it serves the political and economic interests of those with the power to promulgate it (for example, by justifying economic and racial inequality). When that happens, it has an enduring, distorting effect on science. Once absorbed into received knowledge, such research misinforms subsequent scientific judgments.
Thus, to foster accuracy in the field, we must do more than weigh the existing evidence. We must evaluate how relevant evidence may have been shaped by science’s social uses and actively investigate and correct resulting errors. That is, acting with integrity as scientists requires applying sociopolitical theories about how our political economy shapes scientific belief and organizing to overturn distorting forces.
Contrary to many scientists’ demands for a “politics-free science,” merely using sociopolitical theories to assess evidence is not “bias.” The reverse is true: failing to consider how our political economy shapes scientific evidence heightens the risk of error.
JERZY EISENBERG-GUYOT AND NADJA EISENBERG-GUYOT New York City
Schwartz and Schlenoff note that only half of Americans responded to a poll that they would get a coronavirus vaccine when it is available, which they called an “antiscience” stance.
The authors should be very careful of the context of the poll and answers to it. I am not in any way an anti-vaxxer. My wife and I get flu shots annually and were diligent in keeping our children up-to-date on their inoculations when they were young. But if I were asked whether I would get the hypothetical coronavirus vaccine, I’m not sure how I would answer.
After watching the Food and Drug Administration’s and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s responses to the pandemic, I fear that the basis for far too many of their decisions concerns politics, not science. These government agencies seemed to have become a wing of the committee to reelect President Donald Trump.
JOHN MELQUIST Caledonia, Ill.
THE AUTHORS REPLY: Melquist’s point is well taken. In criticizing individuals’ unwillingness to receive a potential vaccine against COVID-19 in our article, we indeed meant one that would be well tested, well studied, well prepared, and recommended on a sound scientific and statistical basis.
MITIGATING LETHAL FORCE
In “How to Reinvent Policing” [Science Agenda], the editors make a number of good points about bettering policing by improving police accountability and communities’ perception of officers. They do not mention, however, that improvements can also be made to hiring practices.
Police departments should recruit candidates who have good problem-solving, negotiation, communication and interpersonal skills, as well as empathy and sensitivity. They can come close to achieving that goal by expanding their pool to include more women, minorities and college graduates. Doing so will create a workforce that understands that all people should be treated with dignity, respect and fairness.
VASILIOS VASILOUNIS Brooklyn, N.Y.
I have been an avid reader of Scientific American since my college and university days in the 1960s, and the magazine has, to me, largely represented a specified direction for American scientific and economic culture. It is unsurprising that there has been a significant change of emphasis during the term of the most recent presidential incumbent. Like many overseas readers, I find this change welcome.
A particular, though not singular, example of it is a phrase found in “Return of the Germs,” Maryn McKenna’s useful and thought-consuming piece on the need for social interventions to fight diseases in the light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. On this subject, the article quotes physician and vaccine developer Peter J. Hotez as saying, “Poverty has more impact than any of our technical interventions.”
ALAN LAFFERTY London