April 29, 2002


As a 30+ year subscriber to Scientific American, I think the decline can be explained in one sentence: The main articles used to be exclusively written by scientists about their field of expertise, but now most are written by journalists. They have gone from being a journal where scientists exchanged information on the state of the art to just another glossy magazine about science. In addition, the editorial slant has gotten more and more pronounced as they evolved from written by scientists to written by journalists. In the 70s, an article in SciAm was considered a major publication event in the career of an academic – an acknowledgement that you were at the top of the heap in your field.

And reader Larry Thacker serves up this historical nugget:

Your Scientific American post jogged my memory about a TV show I recently watched about airplanes or Boeing. The show mentioned the folks at Scientific American Magazine and their thoughts about the future of the airplane back in the early 1900′s. I can not remember the shows name, the cable channel, or the exact quote, but thanks to google I was able too find this small quote: “To affirm that the airplane is going to revolutionize the future is to be guilty of the wildest exaggeration …” –Scientific American Magazine, 1910

Yeah, that’s of a piece with their nanotech article from a few years back. To be fair, they’ve backtracked considerably on their nano-ridicule since then, in light of the response they got. I expect they’ll do the same thing here, though probably without admitting any errors along the way.

Reader Carl Raymond Crites was one of many noting that John Rennie (who responded to Lomborg and questioned his credentials) doesn’t have much in the way of scientific credentials himself. According to this interview in The Moment, “Mr. Rennie has a background in biology. He has worked in biological research, but he decided that he enjoyed explaining science more than doing research. Since then, he has worked in scientific publications, and he became editor-in- chief of Scientific American last year.” His sole degree appears to be a bachelor’s degree in biology from Yale. Crites notes:

My seventeen year old daughter is graduating from high school this month at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas at Denton TX. For two years part, of her curriculum has including working as a laboratory assistant to her physics professor, Dr. Duncan Weathers . Dr. Winters uses Resonance Ionization Spectroscopy for sputtering analysis. John Wong, of The Moment, could honestly say that Abigail has a background in mathematics and science and that she has worked in physics research.

As to the degeneration of Scientific American over the years, the comments of your readers Andy Freeman, Kevin Thompson, and George Zachar are absolutely on point. Interesting to me is that the decay began about two decades ago when John Rennie and some of his like-minded colleagues came on board the editorial staff. They included Timothy M. Beardsley, Marguerite Holloway, John Horgan, and Gary Stix. It was at about this time that the magazine began to feature fewer reports of research by bona fide scientists and engineers (e.g., Roman Aqueducts and the North Atlantic Current and the Ice Age) and instead the readers were treated to the distilled wisdom of the “science writers” such as Rennie, Stix, Holloway, et al. As your readers correctly point out, the magazine developed a “green” agenda and a markedly left wing bias to almost all the reporting. I can add little to the comments that your readers have made. For more than twenty years I read and saved every issue. I finally bailed out about ten years ago.

I would mention an interesting point made by Wong in the 1995 article in The Moment that I cited above. In response to Wong’s question as to who are the main readers of Scientific American, Rennie answered, “Surprisingly, only about 4% of the readers are research scientists.” It might be surprising to Rennie and his journalistic colleagues but it should not be to any of your readers who had formerly looked to the publication for objective information on scientific matters presented by credentialed scientists and engineers.

Not very impressive.