Do Fish have Personalities?

Re: “Odd Man Out,”1 animals don’t have personalities since they are not persons. But individuals in many species (most, all?) differ from one another in the way they behave. If you do a behavioral experiment on rats, they will differ in how they respond, and the differences are in some situations consistent across tests that measure similar characteristics (like fear responses). So the rats differ in behavioral characteristics. You might want to call it something besides personality, but that’s a matter of labeling.

Joseph LeDoux
New York University
New York, NY

Sociologically, we often have a knee-jerk response to using terms typically isolated to humans when studying animals.

At the same time, if the best word for what we are attempting to describe in animals happens to be “personality,” then for conciseness in communication I would argue to allow the word to be...

Greg Pronger
Suburban Laboratories, Inc.
Hillside, Ill.

1. A. Katsnelson, “Odd Man Out,” The Scientist, 24(3):34, March 2010.

Porn: Good for Us?

“The data seem to indicate that pornography is not harmful to society.”1 Not necessarily true; it just indicates that there is no positive correlation between pornography and violence. However, that is only a small part of the picture. What about the strain on marriages and destruction of families due to pornography? On balance, it may still be very harmful to society even after you take into account the sequestering of the few disturbed individuals with violent fantasies.

Gary Huber
Howard Hughes Medical Institute
La Jolla, Calif.

“You, sir, have convinced me that your grant is a well thought out scientific effort deserving my tax dollars.”

My ideology is that violence against anyone is destructive and, if violence is stimulated by pornography (as it sometimes certainly is) then we should examine the harmful effects of pornography. I think the issue deserves more scientific exploration, starting with interviews and surveys of rape victims and partners of men who use violent porn to discern their perspective on its contributions to their victimization. Depending primarily on the self-disclosure of perpetrators is problematic.

Granted, “erotica” may not be to blame in violent sexual victimization, but I challenge you to locate at your local porn outlet a large selection of explicit sexual material that does not involve the humiliation, domination and degradation of women. Porn has become more and more explicitly violent, and it is this type of pornography that may contribute to victimization and rape.

Cheryl Soehl
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC

Porn is not the problem. Several articles I’ve read over the years from various disciplines show that after the Internet made porn readily available, rape and child sexual abuse went down, not up. There is a great deal of research that shows that the relationship between domestic violence and porn is that if a person is already prone to violence, then the porn will stimulate that violence. If the person is not prone to violence, then the porn will not create that tendency. The reason that research seemed to show that porn created the violence is that researchers, in their zeal to show the detrimental effects of porn, were only using forensic studies of domestic violence and generalizing to the entire population from the small segment of the population that was violent after using porn, ignoring the huge population that viewed porn with no adverse effects.

Rick Umbaugh
Saybrook University
San Francisco, Calif.

1. M. Diamond, “Porn: Good for Us?” The Scientist, 24(3):29, March 2010.

Opinion: Encourage Alternatives

Nathan Vanderford makes many good points.1 When I decided academics was not for me, it was a very stressful time as I felt I had wasted a lot of time preparing for a career I hated. While I don’t necessarily agree that a PhD program (or medical fellowship) can or should prepare everyone for any possible alternative career, it would be very useful to have classes discussing possible alternatives and to have contacts in industry and elsewhere willing to mentor graduate students and postdocs. I ended up finding my way to a very good job (I’m the pathologist director at Amgen), but it took me quite a while on my own.

Suzanne Coberly
San Francisco, Calif.

Expecting to follow the traditional career path to college professor, I had an unexpected opportunity while on my first postdoc to head up a live butterfly exhibit at a natural history museum. Some of my mentors seemed to think this was “beneath” someone with a PhD since the position involved no research. In fact, it has been a terrific (and fun) opportunity that uses the skills I acquired in grad school (knowledge of field, problem solving, oral and written communication) while also demanding the use of other skills that are not taught—staff management, budget preparation, interpreting science to the public, etc. PhDs with “alternative” careers can have an important role as liaisons and dispellers of the “ivory tower” image of academia.

Nancy Greig
Houston Museum of Natural Science
Houston, TX

1. N. Vanderford, “Opinion: Encourage alternatives,” The Scientist News, March 17, 2010.

My Time on FOX News

Thank you, Anthony Cognato, for the excellent response to Hannity’s allegation that your request was a waste of stimulus dollars.1 Your analogy of the collection as a library and each “bug” a book was perfect, and you clearly explained why this information needs to be preserved in terms that the average American taxpayer can understand to evaluate the benefits of your grant.

Politically (as a fiscal conservative and social moderate), I like the transfer of wealth concept about as much as I like the plague. However, the necessity of requiring a reasonable transfer of wealth to maintain a successful America cannot be denied. You, sir, have convinced me that your grant is a well thought out scientific effort deserving my tax dollars.

Robin Link
Yachats, Ore.

First, let me say that Cognato’s project is an important and worthwhile one. However, that is not the question here. The objective of the stimulus package, including the ARRA grants, was to create or retain jobs. Thus, the question was not concerning the project’s importance, but its ability to create jobs. Did it? Cognato simply stated that he purchased from American manufacturers, and thus, “Clearly jobs were preserved and created.” I find this statement to be a bold assumption without actual facts to support it.

I am a scientist and a conservative on fiscal matters. It is amazing how many people in our society see the government as a bottomless well of money. Let me clearly state that, yes, federal research funding is truly critical to the advancement of science and human health. Nevertheless, the reality is that scientific research typically advances in extremely small, incremental steps (and many of these steps are dead ends). Thus, even though such investment is essential, the return on investment is small, indeed. Scrutinizing and defending the use of research dollars is an important component of maximizing the potential return on taxpayer investment.

Scott Gordon
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC

1. A. Cognato, “My time on FOX News,” The Scientist News, March 25, 2010.

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