April 29, 2002

THE SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN POSTS have generated a lot of email. (So did the interracial marriage post, but more on that later). It was about 90% unfavorable to Scientific American. Here are a couple of examples. Reader Ross Nordeen writes:

To clearly see how bad Scientific American has become, one only has to look at the disparity in the treatment of two people, Paul Ehrlich and Bjorn Lomborg. Ehrlich, who has been wildly wrong about so much, received a fawning profile in the October 2000 issue while Lomborg is subject to repeated attacks for the sin of writing a balanced book on the environment.

Yeah, Ehrlich has a track record that puts him squarely among the “creation scientists” in terms of his legitimate ability to claim the title of “science” for his work, but he does continue to get respect from a lot of people who should — and I suspect, do — know better. Reader Kevin Thompson says:

I agree with Andy Freeman about the decline of this once-great publication. I received a gift subscription as a young boy in the late 1960s, and devoured every issue. I learned a lot of fascinating things. I still remember a neat drawing of how rapidly-rotating neutron stars can produce radio waves.

Alas, over the subsequent decades, Scientific American has become less and less about science. I remember one issue in the last year which had only one (1!) article about real science. The rest were about specific technologies or social issues. During this same period, the non-science content has not only grown (why does an article about injuries due to small arms in war-torn countries belong here?), but displayed an increasingly liberal bent.

The liberal bent started with the steady beat of nuclear disarmament. It has expanded to regurgitate liberal dogma on global warming, anti-religious bias, reasons why missile defense technology won’t work or is a bad idea, the joys of conservation, and, of course, the twin catastrophes of ecological destruction and overpopulation. I distinctly remember one editorial responding to a complaining letter with the statement that Scientific American should serve as a vehicle to promote social issues. After more than thirty years as a subscriber, I reluctantly decided not to renew my subscription this year. The content I loved is gone, and the new content does not do justice to the title.

Reader George Zachar writes:

I’m a longtime SciAm subscriber. They’ve gone whole hog for global warming, as highlighted by their pitched battle with Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjørn Lomborg. They also do a lot of cultural relativist stuff, root cause-y sociology, articles blaring “the [fill in the blank] is threatened with extinction”, predictable-outcome gun control pieces, etc. etc. Sciam is also a willing outlet for press releases by politically correct programs (AIDS research, eg) looking for funding.

My non-cancellation is clearly the triumph of hope over experience.

On the other hand, reader Aaron Bergman writes:

“Churlish”? How would you like it if someone from a field completely unrelated to yours tells you you’re full of crap based on doing some internet research? The sheer hubris of Lomborg is amazing. What’s depressing is that so few recognize it. You cannot make an informed critique of science based solely on secondary sources.

Why are people so surprised when someone who hasn’t gone through any education in a field proceeds to call the vast majority of its practitioners corrupt or naive? Do you dispute the completely thorough refutation of pretty much everything Lomborg has written, or would you rather keep attacking the messenger?

Well, the piece didn’t look like a thorough refutation of Lomborg to me. And I don’t think this is a very fair characterization of Lomborg’s work: since he’s a statistician, examining statistical data, I don’t really see that he’s out of his field, nor is his work any more riddled with citations to secondary literature and websites than, say, Stuart Pimm’s latest book. And Scientific American’s attitude throughout — including its rather nasty demand that he remove its criticisms from his website response — has not been the attitude of a disinterested seeker of truth.

But hell, I’m a lawyer. Everybody offers their opinion on what the law is or ought to be. And I can deal with that. And as a lawyer, I’m pretty good at telling when people are blowing smoke. I’m an agnostic on global warming; I had a lengthy airplane conversation with a pretty famous atmospheric chemist from Berkeley (I’m blanking on his name at the moment) who made a convincing case, but I’ve heard some convincing refutations, too. What I can say with certainty is that the public argument over global warming has long since become one of orthodoxy treating its critics with disdain. That doesn’t prove that the orthodox are wrong, of course. But such a degree of defensiveness bespeaks a lack of confidence in the data.