I have been reading Scientific American since I was in high school. I am now 90 years old and a longtime subscriber. The February 2022 issue is one of the richest ever. I just handed it to my daughter, the mother of a 13-year-old, to read the articles on teaching kids to spot disinformation in media [“Schooled in Lies,” by Melinda Wenner Moyer] and on how people often (wrongly) jump to conclusions [“Leaps of Confusion,” by Carmen Sanchez and David Dunning]. I read with enjoyment the articles on new research on the skills of Neandertals [“Neandertals Like Us,” by David W. Frayer and Davorka Radovčić] and how the promise of technological progress can conceal major costs and dangers [“Breaking the Techno-Promise,” by Naomi Oreskes; Observatory]. And I ordered two books you reviewed in Recommended.
MARION BUHAGIAR White River Junction, Vt.
SOURCES OF CONFUSION
“Schooled in Lies,” Melinda Wenner Moyer’s article about teaching schoolkids to distinguish among different kinds of information to protect them from disinformation, covers a topic that is dear to my heart, although one for which I have little hope. As part of my high school chemistry class, I had students do a project on the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame. I came to realize two things: The first is that assessing the validity of primary information on many topics is beyond most people’s capabilities. As a Ph.D. biochemist, I may be able to do so more than some others, but there are many topics that I am unqualified to analyze. The second is that we must therefore choose a source whose analysis we accept. Consequently, I added a part to the assignment asking why the students chose to accept, to trust, one source or another.
I observed that many of my stronger students chose to accept institutional sources, such as the American Cancer Society or the Food and Drug Administration, whereas many of my weaker students chose to accept more personal sources and stories. I wish I had more systematically collected the data, but these observations led me to hypothesize that those who prosper within a system tend to accept the system as trustworthy. Those who do not prosper so well tend to be more skeptical of the system, instead choosing to accept their own experiences or those of others known to them.
The article quotes journalism and media studies researcher Seth Ashley as noting “that the world is messy, and that’s okay,” but that is also what makes our choice of whose perspective to trust so challenging. There will always be reason to question one source or another. Maybe the best we can do is get to the point where students recognize the mess and, because of that, recognize that they could be wrong.
RUSSELL KOHNKEN Skokie, Ill.
Regarding Naomi Oreskes’s assertion that nuclear energy cannot help our climate crisis in “Breaking the Techno-Promise” [Observatory], I agree that nuclear plants have not lived up to their promise so far. As she notes, they take too long to build and bring online and are too expensive. And they result in high electricity costs. But I am surprised at the pessimism, given the urgent need to do something. New nuclear technologies are evolving, such as multiple smaller modular plants that don’t take so long to build. Renewables are critical but will never be enough to replace fossil fuels. Nuclear fusion is too expensive and far away. We need the political will to put a price on carbon and build smaller and safer reactors. Giving up is not an option.
STEVE MUELLER Colorado Springs, Colo.
Even though it’s long term, nuclear energy development should be a high priority. As a retired engineer, I understand the extensive effort required for the completion of efficient, economical nuclear electricity stations. Technology improvements, development engineering and construction time must be planned for and underway now.
For the short term, we must use the sustainable technology of wind and photovoltaic farms and eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies. Also, let’s add a federal tax on gasoline and reduce the dependence on transportation via Eisenhower-era highways with more use of our mass-transit systems.
DON FINAN, SR. Palos Park, Ill.
Reading Adam Becker’s riveting article on “The Origins of Space and Time” reminded me of when I was a high school student in Los Angeles in 1965 and read about two students at the University of California, Los Angeles, who were challenged by their science professor to devise a theory on time and space, complete with an example.
The two students took folding chairs to a street in nearby downtown Westwood, Calif., and sat in a vacant parking space for an hour after depositing the required coins in a parking meter. They subsequently wrote a report to their professor on what they had done, concluding, “In order to occupy space, you must first have time.”
DOUG WEISKOPF Burbank, Calif.
THE FIX IS IN
I was glad to read “Freedom to Tinker” [Forum], Kyle Wiens’s informative opinion piece on how Congress should uphold the right to repair electronic devices. Readers interested in getting involved with hands-on right to repair might be interested in checking out their local Fixit Clinic (https://fixitclinic.blogspot.com) or Repair Café (https://repaircafe.org). There are many such organizations around the world with dedicated volunteer repair coaches helping others learn how to fix their broken stuff. And over the past couple of years these clinics have been happening virtually, with global participants engaging in fun and informative repair activities. We try our best to work together to diagnose and repair appliances, electronics, and so on but are concerned about manufacturers making this more difficult, if not impossible or illegal.
Boulder U-Fix-It Clinic, Boulder, Colo.
TRUTH IN LABELING
“Inside America’s Militias,” by Amy Cooter [January 2022], is chilling. The media and academics must stop calling these groups “militias.” It gives them a legitimacy that they do not have and reinforces their irrational belief that they are the present-day equivalent of the militias that helped win the Revolutionary War. A more apt label would be “heavily armed political vigilante groups.” Labels are important.
TERRENCE DUNN Vancouver, Wash.
In “Smartphone Patrol,” by Annie Sneed [Advances; December 2021], much is made about the importance of the Amazon rain forest, which serves as a diminishing but necessary carbon sink and a provider of life-giving oxygen. Less attention, however, is paid to another forested region on our planet: the boreal forests in northern latitudes stretching across several regions of North America, Russia and Scandinavia.
In terms of sequestering carbon dioxide and contributing oxygen to our atmosphere, these boreal forests are as equally important as the tropical forests at lower latitudes. It should therefore be an equal priority to carefully monitor activities such as logging, clearing land for agriculture, road building and especially mining in these areas, which are often neglected in discussions about global warming.
BARRY MALETZKY Portland, Ore.