Letters to the editor

Gregg Easterbrook replies:

Mr. Meyung is right that the Earth has warmed and cooled many times in the past, for reasons not understood. It’s also true that many diseases of the past were caused by natural forces poorly understood, but we don’t say, Therefore we should not fear new diseases today.” Human activity is placing into the air large amounts of heat-trapping gases, and nearly all science academies have in recent years concluded that the current observed climate change is caused by those emissions. The science academies could be wrong, but it is prudent to work from the assumption that they are right.

I caution Professor Miller that I did not suppose global-warming problems are “easily” solved—rather, that solutions may prove less expensive than assumed. In the 1960s, it was said that auto engines simply could not function without expelling smog-forming compounds. Now we know they can, and the control technologies required are affordable. Today engineers don’t know how to build engines or power plants that burn fossil fuels without expelling carbon dioxide. If society creates a profit incentive to discover solutions, we may be pleasantly surprised.

As for Mr. Hertsgaard, I have never written anything suggesting that global warming might be “a fantasy promoted by environmentalist Chicken Littles.” My 1995 book on environmental policy, A Moment on the Earth, devoted a chapter to weighing the arguments of global- warming believers and naysayers, supposed it was impossible to know which side was right, and concluded, “Any reasonable policy that reduces the odds of climate change is more than worth the price.” Fifteen years ago, a thoughtful person looking at global-warming studies might have focused on the uncertainty; at that time the National Academy of Sciences itself emphasized uncertainty. Today a thoughtful person who looks at recent science, including recent National Academy of Sciences statements, must deduce there is a danger. Mr. Hertsgaard’s own work on this subject labors to divide the world into Sinister Conspirators twirling their mustaches and Noble Crusaders crying atop parapets; perhaps Mr. Hertsgaard has trouble grasping that someone can be skeptical, then be gradually persuaded by the evidence.

The Height of Inequality

It will be hard to forget the image, created by Jan Pen and recreated by Clive Crook in “The Height of Inequality” (September Atlantic), of the long parade of tiny low-income workers followed by a few mega-rich giants. Still, I have to point out that this is at its heart just a trick of statistics: Pen is juxtaposing one variable—height—which exhibits a tight variance (its graph would look a lot like the standard “bell curve” distribution of, say, SAT scores, and the numerical average would be about the same as the median), with another variable—income—which has large variance. You could get the same effect using many variables other than income. Imagine, for instance, that the parade walkers’ heights were based on number of lifetime sexual partners (Wilt Chamberlain would be quite a bit taller than even he actually was), or the number of hours each walker has spent piloting small aircraft.

The interesting question is whether a highly skewed distribution of income matters. I happen to think it does, but Crook doesn’t even get to the issue except with the throwaway “How much longer before the dwarves get restless?” line at the end of the article. Some would respond that income distribution has always been skewed, from the time most people were peasants and a few were dukes and kings; moreover, if you arranged this parade at any time in history until very recently, 90 percent or more of the marchers would be fending off their families’ starvation, whereas today you wouldn’t have to get too far into the parade, in the United States at least, to find that most marchers own television sets and air conditioners and are battling obesity instead of starvation. The question, then, is: If the lowest- income workers have been elevated to a certain level, does it matter (beyond some primitive, envy-based response) how big the people at the other end of the parade grow?

To ask the question this way is to answer it, at least for now. Despite historical progress, the first 50 million or so American marchers don’t yet even have health insurance; some percentage of the marchers are still underfed and ill-housed, as are their children. The image of the parade is an argument for redistributive taxation and other economic policies. Only after all of the marchers are provided with some reasonably humane minimum should a few of the marchers be permitted to grow grotesquely tall.

Andrew Stumpff-Kane
East Lansing, Mich.

The Hive

Marshall Poe’s illuminating article on the history of Wikipedia (“The Hive,” September Atlantic) includes a few problems: one of style, one of fact, and (possibly) one of judgment. First, although he explains the origin of many words unfamiliar to the nonspecialized reader, such as Wiki, mud, and gnu, he uses slashdotting without providing the origin of this term, which refers to sudden influxes of new Web-site visitors. (The technology-news Web site www.slashdot.org routinely posts articles about other Web sites and links to them; then when thousands of slashdot readers simultaneously try to link to the subject of the latest article, they sometimes cause the linked site to slow considerably or even crash.) Also, in Poe’s outline of the history of multi-user dungeons, two of the three examples he cites are not multiple-user programs. (Zork and Myst are single-player games, though a sequel to Myst did briefly exist in a multi-user form.)

Finally, Mr. Poe’s admission that he created an article about himself is likely to raise the eyebrows of Wikipedia users, as Wikipedia guidelines frown on this: the Wikipedia:Autobiography article tells would-be contributors, “Creating or editing an article about yourself is strongly discouraged.” Since Mr. Poe says that he has been interested in Wikipedia for about two years, I can only assume that he wrote his essay to inspire discussion, debate, and further research, as any well-written Wikipedia article should, and I applaud his sly experiment in provoking Wikipedian-type behavior in the readers of TheAtlantic.

Kate Foster
Chicago, Ill.

Marshall Poe responds:

Kate Foster is correct: Mist, not the more-famous Myst, was one of the first MUDs, and the original Zork was not a MUD, as it was a single-player game. The first MUD, however, was essentially a multiplayer version of Zork called (appropriately enough) “MUD.” As for my “sly experiment,” Ms. Foster gives me too much credit. When I added the “Marshall Poe” entry, I didn’t know I was running afoul of the rules. I just wanted to see what would happen, and what happened persuaded me to look further into Wikipedia itself.

Upstairs, Downstairs

While we appreciate Sheelah Kolhatkhar’s description of Pinnacle‑ Care services (“Inside the Billionaire Service Industry,” September Atlantic), we must clarify that PinnacleCare advocates are professionals, many with graduate degrees and all with many years of health-care experience. In fact, one of the two advocates Ms. Kolhatkar interviewed received her bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, her M.B.A. from the international business school INSEAD, and another master’s degree from the Health Advocacy Master’s Program at Sarah Lawrence College. The other advocate Ms. Kolhatkar met has been in the health-care field for twenty years and, among her many achievements, has developed innovative, award-winning disease-management programs.

The fact that most of our advocates are women does not mean that they are “motherly” (though compassion is a strong suit), that they “coo” (though they are persuasive and diplomatic with surgeons and hospital administrators alike), or that they extend their “claws” (though they are fiercely dedicated to getting the right health care for our members). The article’s accolades were wonderful, but—as our members would agree—our advocates deserve substantially more respect.

Miles J. Varn, M.D.
Chief Medical Officer, PinnacleCare
Baltimore, Md.

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