Michael Shermer documents the decline and fall of Scientific American

November 18, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’ve written about a dozen posts calling out Scientific American for its fulminating wokeness (give me another word if you don’t like that one), in particular its use of op-eds to discuss and promote woke ideological views that have little or nothing to do with science.  A lot of readers here have canceled their subscriptions, but that hasn’t stopped Editor-in-Chief Laura Helmuth from subverting what was once the premier popular science magazine in America, turning it into a “progressive” political mouthpiece whose “real science” articles get lamer and lamer.

Michael Shermer has personal experience of this, as he wrote over 200 columns for the magazine, eventually parting ways because the editors didn’t like the messages of some of his columns. He recounts this, and makes two other points, in his longish column at his new Substack site, “Skeptic“. The title below tells the tale (click below to read for free, but subscribe if you read often).

It’s a tripartite column, making three points.

1.) The magazine has published a lot of woke and relatively nonscientific op-eds over the past few years. We know this becaise I’ve singled out almost all of the ones that Michael mentions (and more), but let’s reiterate a few (with links to the original columns and my critiques):

 “Modern Mathematics Confronts its White Patriarchal Past,”   My critique is here.

“Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy.”  This is a particularly ludicrous column implying that the motivation for creationism is white supremacy. Any fool knows that it’s almost always religion. My critiques are here and here. I do not understand how the editor allowed such an egregious misrepresentation to be published.

“Why the Term ‘JEDI’ is Problematic for Describing Programs that Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.” This was a real doozy, unhinged in its claims. My critique is here.

There are others, but these are the three that Shermer singles out. He discusses each at some length, so go see what he says.

2.) Despite the magazine’s claims, inequities in areas or professions are not prima facie evidence for bigotry, racism, or bias. Riffing on the first article above, which uses the paucity of female and black mathematicians as evidence for misogyny and racism, Shermer makes the obvious point that while there is racism in every aspect of human endeavor, academics is about the least racist area of all. That’s shown by the frenetic efforts of nearly every department and college to hire women and minorities. Shermer’s point, which the woke hate (and thus ignore) is an obvious one: that disparities between sexes or races in representaiton could have other causes, such as differential preferences—or a “pipeline” issue that reflects lack of opportunity due to past discrimination but not present day bigotry. Why can’t progressives grasp this point and parse out the various causes of inequities before crying “sexism and racism”? Because they have a preconceived bias that they don’t want addressed with data. It’s an example of what J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobiska’s Theorem”: “What I say three times must be true.” (This is from Lewis Carroll.)

Shermer supports his arguments—and the woke will really hate this—by showing that there’s a huge disparity between men and women in the number of doctoral degrees awarded—in favor of women. Overall in U.S universities, the percentage of doctorates going to women in 2019 was 52.9% as opposed to 47.1% for men.

Further, the disparity depends on the field. The chart Shermer gives below showing doctorates divided by sex and field of study won’t surprise you:

(Note the near-equality in Biology as well as in the Arts and Humanities). But Shermer further points out that the disparities favoring women are never cited as examples of anti-male bias, while those that favor men are cited as examples of sexism. Shermer notes:

When the data is [sic] presented in a bar graph rank ordered from highest to lowest percentages for females earning doctorates (below), the claim that the fields in which women earn lower percentages than men can only be explained by misogyny and bias is gainsaid by the top bars where the valance is reversed, unless we are to believe that only in those bottom fields are faculty and administrators still bigoted against women whereas those in the top fields are enlightened.

3.) Shermer was eventually booted from the magazine, ending his column, because he adduced facts and explanations that the woke editors didn’t like. Shermer’s conflicts with the editors grew gradually, starting when he pointed out that people can get false impressions of the prevalence of a phenomenon if they pay attention only to coincidences and not exceptions. He uses as an example the “horror movie curse”, in which stars of horror movies are said to suffer later mishaps more often that stars of other movies. He notes that “those seeing supernatural intervention” in this “are remembering only the horror movies that seemed cursed (‘hits’) and forgetting the other three possibilities (‘misses’, ‘false alarms’, and ‘correct rejections’ in Signal Detection Theory parlance.”

That’s true (Steve Pinker has made this point about the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is smaller than we think because the news tends to play up the bloody stuff an ignore people falling in bathtubs and the like). But the editors got upset when Shermer made a similar point about child abuse with a similar four-celled dissection (below). As he said in the column, in a bit that wasn’t published:

I then added a more serious example of the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions, provided to me by the renowned social psychologist Carol Tavris, citing her skepticism about the theory that sexually abusive parents were themselves sexually abused as children. This was a common explanation until researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children, and that most abusive parents were not abused as children (see the 2×2 matrix below from my PPT lecture).

Not that got the editor’s hackles up, because even though there is a possible confirmation bias here, it involves sexual abuse and we must ignore other explanations. As the editor said:

I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask for a revision on your November Skeptic column. The overall idea is sound—another example I often think of is “I was just thinking about you—and then you called! It’s ESP!” But we’re unwilling to publish a piece that suggests—even in a quote attributed to someone else [Carol Tavris]—that sexual harassment and the phenomenon of abused children growing up to be abusers are less of a problem than most people imagine. Heuristics are all very well, but unlike with spooky deaths related to horror movies, these involve real harm to real people.

But it could be less of a problem than most people imagine, just like the “horror movie curse” example.

Shermer responded in part:

I’ll find other examples and send you another draft, but the point is NOT that sexual harassment or abuse is not as large a problem as we think (or that its effects are not as harmful as we thought); the point is that in our attempt to understand why, say, the sexual abuse of children happens, the hypothesis that their abusers were themselves abused as children is gainsaid by the cell in which all those kids who were abused as children grow up to not only not be abusers, but to be loving parents who wouldn’t dream of harming their children; and the other cell in which abusive adults were not abused as children.

I understand why we need to be sensitive to victims of abuse, but from a purely scientific hypothesis-testing perspective, it doesn’t serve society to refuse to consider the other cells in the matrix that contain disconfirming evidence of the hypothesis just because someone is committed to the hypothesis that abused children grow up to be abusers, and abusive adults were abused as children. The evidence shows otherwise. It should be okay to point that out.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and in fact sussing out why people sexually abuse children is far more important than studying the “horror movie curse”. Analysis of the former must take into account biases, and the editor didn’t like that—simply because the topic was sexual abuse.

Matters came to a head (I don’t like that phrase as it’s about boils and pimples) when Shermer submitted a column about tribalism, which he reprints in its entirety. and made what today is considered a serious mistake: citing Martin Luther King’s dictum that people should by judged by their character rather than their pigmentation. (This is now verboten, as it contravenes the dominant narrative that we must see color.) Shermer was given one “farewell” column and then handed his walking papers.

The interchange between Michael and his editors gives us some insight into the termites chewing into the edifice of Scientific American. My prediction is that unless the editors go back to its original format and lay off the propagandizing, the magazine will fold. After all, you can read about social justice and wokeness nearly everywhere, including Teen Vogue, but Scientific American was once unique.

h/t: Luana

46 thoughts on “Michael Shermer documents the decline and fall of Scientific American

  1. Ditto Nature, sadly. Numerous op-ed pieces in Nature over the last year have refused to even mention any possible explanation for disparities other than “racism”.

    1. Sadly true! The same unfortunate trend has been apparent at the JAMA and at The Lancet as well. It is no longer possible to believe that the hard sciences and the study of medicine will somehow remain unaffected by the tsunami of “wokeness” engulfing every realm of our culture and the entire body politic, not to mention nearly all of academic life..

      1. The Canadian Medical Association Journal, admittedly never remotely close to the stature of JAMA or The Lancet, long ago stopped publishing scientific articles that didn’t draw politically acceptable conclusions. Even if the Methods and Results sections were value-neutral, the Discussion would be biased toward a certain social-engineering ideology not directly supported by the Results. E.g. The truth of A is demonstrated by our study. We believe that A is both bad and able to be ameliorated if and only if government would do B. Therefore government should do B, based on our study.

        Their editorial and news sections are filled with anti-colonialism and anti-racism of course.

        1. It is well known that it is taboo to hypothesize a difference in cognition (and to a lessor extent, behaviour) between different populations, but the CMAJ now apparently also thinks that it is a “racist belief” to consider possible population differences in the immune system (https://www.cmaj.ca/content/193/43/E1666). A CMAJ editor titled a reference to this article “Racist beliefs and TB research”. My comment: https://www.cmaj.ca/content/193/43/E1666/tab-e-letters.

          1. As an anthropologist I would also find the idea to “to consider possible population differences in the immune system” as a “racist belief” disturbing. I read the entire CMAJ article and your submitted letter in response. However, I am not sure if I am missing something. In your response, you say: “I found the article “Indigenous Peoples, tuberculosis research and changing ideas about race in the 1930s”(1) misleading. The headline, probably written by an editor rather than the author, stated “Racist beliefs and TB research”.

            Is that headline in the print journal? I cannot find it anywhere in the PDF that is available online. I am referring specifically to the headline “Racist beliefs and TB research.”

            If so, that is indeed an injustice — as the article does not in any way suggest that Dr. Ferguson was himself racist. The article does, however, point out and describe how the predominant racial susceptibility view was unfortunate and eventually disposed in light of more thorough research. In that regard, it is an interesting and useful historical article included in the section “Humanities” in the journal. Although I do not agree entirely with the last sentence of the article (Surely the differential rates of TB today are seen to have multiple complex and nuanced ultimate causes, that are not solely (perhaps largely, tho) due to colonization and policies rooted in racism).

          2. As a Canadian physician, I am on an email list for CMAJ that gives me a heads-up on upcoming articles. I took a screenshot of this but don’t think I can attach it here. It had a headline, “Racist Beliefs and TB research” with the subtext “In the early 1900s, researchers believed indigenous people were physically different than whites, making them particularly susceptible to TB.”

            It is interesting to view this in the context of current public health policy with respect to COVID19 vaccination. Indigenous people are given priority (a policy I agree with) on the basis that they seem to be particularly susceptible. If this susceptibility were purely environmental (ie due to socioeconomic status) then I would think the policy should be to give priority according to class, not ancestry.

    2. This hyper focus on wokeism is the reason I stop subscribing to New Scientist. It was once a great magazine, but they sadly lost their way.

  2. One publication, in my non-expert opinion, “Science News” seems to be doing a fine job of staying on track with concise and current articles popularizing news about Science.

  3. I was very disappointed when Shermer was axed. His columns were great because he never substituted plausibility for truth. His strength in Sci Am was in criticizing commonly held beliefs by holding them up to the statistical rigor enabled by proper comparison groups—his 2×2 matrices illustrate this beautifully.

    Michael Shermer wasn’t the only casualty. Other long-term columnists went their own ways as well, if my memory is correct. I wanted at the time to believe that each must have had his or her own reasons, but I couldn’t help but think that a purge of undesirables might be taking place.

  4. The letter about from the Sci. Am. editor that Shermer quotes is as perfect an encapsulation of wokely thinking as one could find: “the overall idea is sound…but we’re unwilling to publish a piece” that departs from the revealed truth of doctrine. “Inclusion” now means the exclusion of empirical evidence, just as “Diversity” now means imposed uniformity.

    The graph of doctoral degrees by field and gender does bring up a question. What does the huge predominance of females in “public administration” PhDs imply about the nature of, uhhh, public
    administration? And could it possibly relate to the way administrative offices, uhhh, administrate?

  5. It’s ESP! The editor’s example shows that she did not understand Shermer’s point about Excluded Exceptions. When he went on to clearly explain what she got wrong, she wouldn’t budge. She’s either dumb as a rock, or she’s lying. I have to guess a little of both.

    1. Ha! Was to write on the same astonishing detail. Unless Shermer is omitting something crucial, the editor is apparently talented in other ways than thinking.

      You don’t even need to understand anything technical. The basic statement of Shermer can be understood as: do not burden victims of abuse with the stigma that they are potential abusers themselves as an adult. That is an actual positive thing. But as usual with the woke, they aren’t the best people, and their actions are often harmful.

  6. (This is another instance of the WP Reader failing me. I posted the following about 30 minutes ago but haven’t seen it yet. I’m reposting, this time directly to the Website using MS Edge browser on a Windows 10 PC. I hope it sticks, as I believe I’m making a good point.)
    I’m glad to see Shermer pointing out the Fallacy of Excluded Exceptions. I’d like to point out another fallacy that Jerry alludes to at the top of this post, namely, the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, otherwise known as the Converse Error. It seems to me that this is a core fallacy of the current woke arguments concerning racism and inequity. Let me illustrate. I believe this statement is true: If there is systemic racism, then there would be inequities by race. The mistake the Woke make is to invalidly infer the converse: If there are inequities by race, then there would be systemic racism. This is faulty reasoning because there are other antecedents to “there would be inequities by race,” for example, the pipeline problem or the absence of fathers from some Black families, to name two well-known and valid causes. We should point out these converse errors where they occur. Though Ibram Kendi and his disciples would most likely not be amendable to having their formal fallacy corrected, I believe those who are confused by the current discussions on racism would value the clarity that would come from giving the woke arguments nuance and context.

    1. Your identification of the converse error is important, but your example struck me as problematic. “Systemic” racism is a vaguely technical term for historical events: redlining; restrictive covenants; Jim Crow mortgage lending practices, for example. These were real things. The interpretive challenge is to understand if, and if so how, they may have had a lingering impact on Black families. The explanatory challenge is to account for the difference — in this example — between Black family ‘wealth’ and white family wealth. What are the available explanatory frameworks? One is the traditional appeal to racial stereotypes: Black folks are lazy, less intelligent, etc. Another is to consider the impact of discriminatory practices, often enshrined in law, that could have reduced the ability of Black families to accumulate forms of wealth such as home equity that could be converted into social mobility: college tuition; moving to a better neighborhood and increasing the value of one’s home, etc. In your example, my understanding is the people studying these things don’t commit the ‘converse error’ in the simple way you describe, but rather ask: if there are inequities by race, what is the role of systemic racism, if any, and what is the role(s) of other factors? I’d recommend researchers such as Carol Stack, whose classic book “All Our Kin” looked at ‘absent fathers’ as an economically smart option in the context of the systemic features I mentioned.

  7. “researchers pointed out that most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children”. This must give great comfort to those who were sexually abused as children, some of whom may be terrified that they might [according to prevailing right-think] be capable of abusing, or be looked on as potential abusers. It seems inhumane to stifle this good news.

    1. Great point. I see similarities here to the resistance of some to acknowledge the success of certain minority groups in academics and SES. Aren’t they glad that this proves that racism is often feeble in the face of certain social and cultural conditions, such as sound family structures and an emphasis on hard work and academics?

      Instead of looking at this as a way to understand how racism is often overcome, they seem to want to ignore it in favor of the narrative that racism is some all encompassing, undefeatable force.

    2. Suppose a population has 100 couples that abuse their children (group A); and 900 that do not (group B)
      Now; 40 children from group A and 50 from group B grow up to abuse their children
      This situation is consistent with the statement “most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children”
      In fact one could also say “most people who abuse their children did not have abusive parents”
      Is that what is being said here?
      Because the above statements, albeit true, do not deny that “abusive parents” is a serious risck factor for “growing up to be an abusive parent”
      It would be much more probable (in the above example) to become an abusive parent if one comes from an abusive family
      Condtional probabilities are tricky

  8. “My prediction is that unless the editors go back to its original format and lay off the propagandizing, the magazine will fold. After all, you can read about social justice and wokeness nearly everywhere, including Teen Vogue, but Scientific American was once unique.”

    Excellent insight. I know you’re a scientist, but any savvy marketing professional would say the same thing. They see “wokeness” as some huge growth market, but since going woke is such a low barrier to entry, unless you are one of the leaders no one is going to pay attention to you. “Wokeness” is not SA’s brand or area of competency.

    In contrast, if they truly understood their readership, they would realize that they would probably appeal to them more by eschewing wokeness and sticking with the science. Perhaps that appeals to less people, but they would continue to be a leader in that smaller niche, and therefore would have a devoted core of customers.

    Right now, they are doing the worst of both worlds…failing to attract new readers with this pivot to wokeness, and losing the readers they have who are there for the science.

  9. Extremely offensive to me, personally, as an immigrant. If this critical race Theory of Everything (“all things are the way they are because race”), then how come I had more rights and more opportunities in America than in my birth place in the middle east? How did I end up doing BETTER than so many people who were born here? Do the wokes ever care about MY living experience? Or am I just a “fly in the ointment” to them?
    Shermer was, for all I knew, the truest skeptic, always on the lookout to correct his own opinion in light of new information (eg, he stopped calling himself a libertarian once it became clear he could not convince his fellow libertarians that climate change was real). And he was paid back nicely for his consistency. First he was slandered by PZ Myers, and now this.
    Well. I am sure sure not many will agree with me, but I think this is why it was a good thing that Glenn Youngkin won in VA. Ultimately the point must be made that average citizens cannot be bullied and silenced by accusations of racism, “transphobia”, “islamophobia”, blah blah.

  10. The left’s woke-folk are destroying this publication just like the right’s religious-folk ruined Nat. Geo. It’s sad to see these once great publications spinning the drain because of overarching ideologies.

    1. Sure. And as an example, I am absolutely certain that there are more female than male head nurses and nurse administrators.
      So are we going to take this as evidence of “reverse sexism”?

  11. Scientific American started way back in 1845 but it wasn’t until 2020, under newly minted SciAm Editor-in-Chief and cerebral flatulator Laura Helmuth, that the magazine endorsed its first presidential candidate: Joe Biden. The scientific became shackled to the political. Her justification in doing this is one of the most mealy-mouthed excuses for sacrificing the reputation of an iconic US magazine for her own self-promotion in recent memory. Surely subscriptions and revenues are down so would someone please fire this incompetent and invite back Shermer to resume his writing with a welcome back op-ed: Anti-Scientific Charlatans: How Data Reveals Uncomfortable Truths and Why Science Cannot Accommodate Nor Console the Discomfited.

  12. PZ Myers and Hemant Mehta are probably huge fans of the new woke, anti-science Sci-Am.

    Organisations and companies fail when they are taken over by ideologues and extremists.

  13. I love the writings of Shermer and Coyne. And I haven’t had time yet to read the articles and critiques mention in the article above. But I strongly believe that scientific discussion should not be censored by politics.

    Science calls on us to be impartial and, where conflicts of interests may exist, declare them in the interests of ethics and science. It is difficult for me to be impartial regarding social science. As Richard Feynman once said, I am “…the easiest person to fool.” Society was created with me, a white man, in mind. And I have huge blind spots because of this fact.

    Therefore as a white man, I declare my conflict of interest as to why women or minorities are underrepresented in mathematics and science. Discussing diversity with me is like discussing bacteria before the invention of the microscope. If I can’t see it, how would I be able to contribute to the conversation?

    Likewise, shouldn’t articles about diversity and inclusion be written by people experiencing the phenomena? Aren’t THEY the ones with the best data? Therefore I would rather listen to women and minorities in science and mathematics about this topic. To do anything less is bad science – and gaslighting.

    1. Yes, and shouldn’t article about war be written by soldiers? Sorry, but you’re really misguided here. You don’t have to be a participant in a practice to have the best data on it. Economists and sociologists know this. Do you have to be a criminal to write about the best police practices?

      Sorry, but I can’t say more because your comment really doesn’t make much sense.

    2. Science is done not by relating personal anecdotes but though studies. Personal experience only applies when evaluating or interacting with an individual. In a scientific magazine, the basis for judging under representation is scientific analysis including the type of considerations Michael Shermer made.

  14. I suspect my history with SciAm is like many here, read avidly as a kid during its heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s, keep reading it until the mid 1990’s when the last of the original editorial team left and there was a rapid decline in feature article quality which has continued unabated till today. Whatever SciAm might have been at its height, its a sad parody of that nowadays.

    SciAm was sold in the mid 1980’s to a big German publishing company but it was only in the mid ’90’s when the new owners installed their first editor that article quality fell off a cliff. The editor the Germans put in was a pompous twit called Rennie who changed the way feature articles were written and over time removed most of the old staff who had made SciAm what it had been.

    Until then feature articles were written by working scientists with substantial area expertise and reputation. With editorial staff there just to help get the finished result into a polished form for publication. But starting under Rennie more and more “science writers” were hired to write feature articles and over time you ended up with the current situation, just looking though a recent issue, where all the feature articles are written by “science journalists”, editorial staff, or almost without exception authors who were selected purely because they were women not because of any substantial scientific work. Because I can see no evidence in the literature of any.

    As someone else pointed out the inevitable result is SciAm will stop publishing sooner or later. Their paid circulation is down 80% plus on its heyday of a few decades ago and once a brand is tarnished like SciAm is it can never be recovered.

    This has happened to a whole bunch once fantastic magazines. All either going or gone. An editorial staff who understood, liked and respected their readership, a staff most recruited from the traditional pool of magazine writers (people who could write engaging prose), replaced over the years by college graduates who not only had weak writing skills, if any, but who actively disliked if not despised most of their readership. So the “despised” stop reading and circulation over time declined and then one day most of the readers were gone. And the magazine soon followed.

    The old saying Go Woke, Go Broke applies particularly strongly in the magazine world. That world is currently going though a mass extinction event. Mostly self inflicted. Because people buy magazine to be informed or entertained not preached at by sanctimonious know nothings usually from very socio-economic privileged backgrounds. Mostly the kids of the top 5% in my experience.

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