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Readers Respond to the November 2020 Issue

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In “Orbital Aggression,” Ann Finkbeiner discusses options for avoiding conflicts in space. But she does not address the question of whether any such space war would be inherently self-defeating. Even if a war in Earth orbit was entirely one-sided, with the “enemy” not retaliating, the creation of large amounts of new orbiting debris from deliberate satellite destruction could become self-propagating. An attacker could find access to orbital space denied to all countries, including itself, because of an ever escalating cascade of debris-satellite collisions—making any space war a mutual-assured destruction of the orbital environment.

MARK PROTSIK San Jose, Calif.


In “Scientists: Use Common Sense” [Observatory], Naomi Oreskes criticizes the World Health Organization for initially advising people not to wear masks in response to COVID-19 in April. She gives two reasons the WHO did so: (1) A medical mask shortage would result for critical care workers. (2) Masks would give people a false sense of security. I concur with Oreskes in rejecting 2. But 1 was a powerful argument at the time. If an N95 mask manufacturer could get a higher price from pharmacies or other customers than it could from hospitals, what does she think would have happened?

Fortunately, the problem was solved—at least here in Los Angeles County, where our local officials wisely recognized that wearing any mask, even a simple cloth one, would help and organized local garment manufacturers to turn them out. Yet at present, with the start of the third wave and companies openly selling N95 masks to the public, we might be back in trouble again. I hope this doesn’t happen. But I also note that a responsible U.S. federal government could have prevented it.

D. S. BURNETT California Institute of Technology


Your recent editions have had a number of articles about misinformation. I would like to introduce the notion that data precede information, whether it constitutes misinformation or not. As any scientist can attest, there are good and bad data. Good data are obtained by careful control of conditions and demonstration of reproducibility. Bad data can arise from sloppiness, confirmation bias or intentional falsification. Information of any kind arises from analyzing data; misinformation arises from bad data or a distorted analysis of good data.

There are an enormous number of sources of intentionally bad data created to entrap people. How can our society step back from the edge? Science in the U.S. is taught as a series of facts to be accepted unquestioningly. Instead children need to be taught the clear, critical thinking that underlies the scientific enterprise. Many of the most egregious bits of misinformation are, on inspection, stupid. Far too many Americans have no capacity to identify “stupid.”

ARTHUR MOSS Wilmington, Del.

This article was originally published with the title “Letters” in Scientific American 324, 3, 6-8 (March 2021)


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