Speaking of Scientific American. . .

January 7, 2022 • 1:15 pm

The latest webpage of Scientific American shows a big, bold, headline article that has nothing to do with science—at least as far as I know. Click on the screenshot to see the page, and then on this link to see the article on citizen militias, which of course decries them as white-supremacist organizations that constitute a profound danger to the Republic. That may be true as a generality, but it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.

Here’s the author; Ms. Cooter apparently has training at sociology but not science. (The article is classified under “sociology”.)

And just two quotes, one from the beginning of the article and the other from the end.

This was the third militia event I had attended. I am a sociologist, and at that time I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan just beginning in-depth fieldwork and interview research about the militia movement in the U.S. I had approached members of this group a month earlier during a public meeting at a strip mall diner because I wanted to understand why people join civilian groups that prepare for armed combat, and I planned to examine whether militias propagate racism and violence. My fieldwork in Michigan, as well as in-depth interviews that included groups in other states, continued through 2013. Since then, I have maintained regular contact with militia members, especially in Michigan, and they update me with their activities and responses to political and social events. We regularly speak about their values and their motivations. I follow their online posts. Last summer I conducted a survey asking members what they thought about protests related to COVID social restrictions and George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota.

. . .Speculating on how militias may evolve in the future under increased scrutiny is difficult, in no small part because the units are still adapting to the aftermath of Trump’s presidency. In contrast to what many members had predicted, they did not see President Biden enact martial law or start an immediate attack on Second Amendment rights. Millenarian militias and other groups on the extreme end of the nostalgic group spectrum nonetheless remain vigilant, and some are eager for violence. Members may be plotting deadly actions, but now they are on increasingly private and secure Internet platforms that are more difficult to monitor.

So the reality is that the danger has not abated. Quite the opposite: Militia emotions and activity could be easily exacerbated by another political leader who encourages exclusionary thinking and paranoia or by a foreign terrorist attack that nostalgic groups perceive as threatening to America’s safety or culture.

Law enforcement must remain watchful for signs of radicalization in the movement, but as uncomfortable as it is, we as a society also must recognize that militias’ violent potential is not limited to these groups. They are not fluke outliers. Members share ideological similarities with other white Americans who distrust the government and believe the country has declined because of increasing liberalism. Much work remains to repair the distrust and to protect innocent people from the violence that it breeds.

This belongs in the op-ed section of the NYT, not in a science magazine.

35 thoughts on “Speaking of Scientific American. . .

  1. I do not see any science in this. In fact I can define these groups much faster that this author and save the ink. Militias are republicans in camouflage. There, all done.

      1. I stand corrected on that one. However, I am not sure one unit of a thousand individuals is anything but a small start. More power to them. The first democrats to do something.

        1. More power to them? Is it not profoundly disturbing that on both ends of the political spectrum you have people who think the answer to the US’ problems is to form armed militias? Insofar as I can see from the eastern side of the Atlantic these militias are much more characteristic of the extreme right at the moment but it is hardly a welcome (if unsurprising) development if they start to be matched up with counterparts at the other end of the spectrum.

  2. On its “About” page, the mission of the magazine is stated as follows:

    “Scientific American covers the most important and exciting research, ideas and knowledge in science, health, technology, the environment and society. It is committed to sharing trustworthy knowledge, enhancing our understanding of the world, and advancing social justice.”

    So, the magazine is not hiding what it is doing. In effect, it is inviting its intended audience to do with “advancing social justice” as it will. Clearly, the article under discussion falls under the category of sharing knowledge about society. For the editors, despite the name of the magazine, they are committed to publishing articles that most people would not consider about science.


    1. But isn’t there already a glut of media outlets dealing with social science in general and “advancing social justice” in particular? What does it say that we can’t sustain a popular science magazine that really focuses on science per se? When I began high school in 1968, I took a biology class and was hooked. Despite having relatively little money, I quickly obtained a subscription to Scientific American (hardcopy of course), which reinforced my interests. I wonder if there is a niche for a popular science magazine anymore, so that branching out to peripheral areas (at best) is needed to survive. We should not be surprised if scientific literacy in the U.S. continues to decline.

      1. Quanta magazine is pretty great, they run real science stories. Perhaps aimed a bit closer to the frontier than Sci.Am was?

        Interestingly, they do not live on subscriptions or advertising, but are bankrolled by Jim Simons. That frees them from chasing outrage for clicks, and although I don’t know if that explains Scientific American — they could just be steering by the mean level of woke that prevails in their staff meetings.

        The landscape for high-school students seems vastly different to 1968 (or 1998). Once you are a little bit interested in something, you can easily find discussion of every aspect of it online, find out which are the classic books you need to read, find out what lectures to watch on youtube… all of this was just about impossible back then, the magazine was the end. So despite the decay of the magazine, interested students might have a better time. Perhaps the less interested will be less literate.

      2. It isn’t necessarily a bellwether (?), other metrics tell that story (graduation rates, etc, public understanding of science even).
        Individual brands (like Sci Am.) are subject to other factors. Look how great Time was in the 1970s. Since the 80s it has been downhill to jokestown all the way.

  3. Do you discount all social sciences as not being science? Where do you put anthropology, sociology, political science, and psychology etc. if they do not belong with other sciences. I haven’t read the article, but I do not see a problem with Scientific American covering the social sciences. I wouldn’t reject out of hand an article that looked at a social issue, especially one as important as the militia movement. (But then, I suppose having lived through a Minuteman invasion of my home with threats to burn it to the ground, taints my objectivity).

    I think the subject of violence can certainly be studied using the methodology of science — isn’t that what we should be doing so that we can develop rational policies to limit and curb violent outbreaks and so that we can help individuals find more constructive ways to solve problems.

    1. I haven’t read the article, just the excerpts here, but she says she has taken at least one survey and made numerous observations, so at least theoretically I think it could be science, broadly construed. “Why do people form militias?” seems like a reasonable question for the social sciences, and the title observation could theoretically be backed up by data and could also be falsified. I think an empirical claim that could be falsified should be considered more than just an opinion. However, I do not know how the authro treats this question, and maybe no supporting evidence is given. In that case the article would not be science.

    2. > Do you discount all social sciences as not being science?

      Most universities put them under the humanities, I thought. But regardless, the definition of “science” in the title is by example, and traditionally this meant natural sceince, some math, some engineering, paleontology but not anthropology… or at least that’s what I remember.

      > lived through a Minuteman invasion of my home

      This sounds awful, I’m sorry.

      Violence is a really serious topic which deserves more study. A serious popular magazine on social sciences would be interesting, but has there ever been such a thing?

      My impression is that these fields tend to be much more ideological. I struggle to see a magazine usefully covering different experts’ perspectives without being “cancelled” by at least half of them. Which leads you back to how such things are covered today, with different views in different venues.

  4. I can imagine Scientific American publishing an article on the *science* of citizen militias—one that evaluates the history, incidence, and influence of such movements using the methods of science. An example might be a study that employs field work, systematic surveys, and statistical analysis to argue that such movements are becoming more violent over time. But this piece has only the rudiments of that, and it presents no data for the reader to evaluate. It’s clearly an opinion piece and not science at all.

    As a former professional scientist, I have no trouble recognizing this as an opinion piece. One can only hope that the lay reader is not fooled into thinking that this is how science is done. It’s a slippery slope we’re on, where science is discredited as western colonialism and where opinion is elevated to science.

  5. Please define science so that any study of humans is relegated to non-science. Where does Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, Linguistics, etc. belong if not in the Sciences? I see no problem with Scientific American covering social sciences.

    For me, violence as a topic for scientific study seems on a par with climate change in its importance.

    But then I’m probably biased by having experienced the Minuteman invasion of my home with threats to burn it to the ground. Understanding why this group (and others like them) thought they could attack me and mine seems like a valid topic for scientific investigation. I do not find the statement ” Militias are republicans in camouflage. There, all done.” as a very helpful. The Minutemen who invaded my home and threatened to burn it to the ground (unclear as to whether that meant with us in it) were not particularly active in party politics. I also doubt that most Republicans at the time I was attacked, were in sympathy with this group. Indeed, at the time, I probably thought of myself as more or less Republican.

    For both personal and civic reasons, I welcome studies of violence and groups that think violence is a solution to whatever challenges they face. I see not reason to exclude the topic as unscientific or merely political.

      1. The claim in the title of the Sci Am article is an empricial claim, and it can be tested, and it has potentially-identifiable causes. Of coourse the article itself might not address this question with scientific rigor, but the question itself belongs to science and is actually quite interesting and important.

  6. Several comments.

    First, I read through Cooter’s CV: https://as.vanderbilt.edu/sociology/wp-content/uploads/sites/233/2021/07/Cooter-Amy-CV-July-2021.docx.pdf.

    She dedicates half of it to publications she didn’t author. Seriously! There are ~10 pages of essays by others under a section called “Public Sociology”.

    Second, in comparison to work in genetics, epidemiology, and bioinformatics (the fields I know best), what she has done since her PhD isn’t rigorous. But it does look as if she is only a lecturer, not a professor.

    Third, Ceiling Cat wrote about sociology as if it isn’t science. It’s not basic science for sure. But do we think Nicholas Christakis (who is an MD and a sociologist) would claim sociology isn’t science? Surely, Christakis doesn’t get his statistical chops only from his MD.

    That last point said, Cooter’s CV doesn’t strike me as science. Most of what she chose to include on it is opinion writing for the public.

  7. Well, there are lots of smaller ones. The New Black Panthers, the John Brown gun club, the Huey P. Newton gun club, the Black Panthers Revolutionaries, and so on.

    I would be pretty hesitant to support any such movement. Even out here among the 2a supporting people who always take their hats off for the colors, people who dress up like fake military and march around with guns are not considered rational people.

    Beyond which, some of the groups I listed really, really hate Jews and cops. And the NFAC has a pretty poor record as far as negligent discharges during their events.
    If I found myself anywhere near a group of those people, I would make myself scarce, and quickly.

  8. “This belongs in the op-ed section of the NYT, not in a science magazine.”

    I’m fairly certain I previously saw the same article in the Washington Post.

  9. Sadly, Sociology and all of the Humanities for that matter have been overtaken by a cabal of anti-science ideologues just when we desperately need a real, rigorous science of Sociology. Sci-Am is not clearly more aptly named Anti-Scientific American.

  10. “In conversations, militia participants do not appear to be aware that racism is broader than the undisguised, legalized segregation of the past or the continued hatred from open white supremacists. Most have limited understanding of how systematic racism prevents equal economic attainment or equal access to quality health care or educational opportunities.”

    Is there systematic racism possible without undisguised, legalized segregation? She probably meant “systemic racism”. But then the use of non-observable causes to justify a claim is usually used to defend wishful thinking, not science.

    That being said, still I don’t think it’s a good idea to arm people with extreme ideas. And also I’m an extreme egalitarian; I don’t think it’s morally justified that a medical doctor should get more money than a garbage man. I’m in favor to decrease undeserved inequalities for all. But that’s open for debate.

    1. A surgeon collects his car from the garage. The mechanic says “Why do you make more than I do? We both repair complicated mechanisms, and before we can do it alone we have to learn and practice with others for years.” The surgeon says “Try to do all your work with the engine running.”

    2. I make no moral justification for a doctor earning more than a garbage man, either. I only know that, given the opportunity costs of medical education, there will be no medical doctors if you won’t let them earn more than garbage men.

      The beauty of capitalism is its amoralism. The Pareto equilibrium of prices achieves an efficient distribution without one group of moralists having to use violence to impose its moral formulation on all the other groups and leaving everyone worse off.

  11. It may feel for us that we deserve something for our abilities and hard work but this feeling has to be an illusion. The problem is that the inequalities in genes and prenatal environment that produce inequalities in our abilities, disabilities, temperament, character and intelligence, are never earned, no matter what.

    Still a nice story.

    1. What a tragic waste of human potential if those unearned differences in endowments were never tapped and nurtured to generate actual achievements, through the incentive of money. Tim Minchin developed your theme at an address to the University of Western Australia, his alma mater. Yet he is a phenomenally talented singer, comedian, musician, and playwright. Those talents plus his inner drive to achieve, which he cheerfully admits were all unearned, have made him wealthy.

  12. I’m trained as a cognitive psychologist, but I’ve published about the status of psychology as a science since the beginning of my career. When I retired, the grad Biopsych students gave me, in honor of my oft-quoted riff from Peter Wenkman, a t-shirt saying, “back off man, I’m a scientist!” Now when I see physicians in my U’s medical school I always wear it.
    Disciplines like psych and Sociology are usually placed in Schools of Arts and Science, sometimes in a subset of the Social Sciences, and consider themselves sciences. Here’s the statement of purpose of the American Sociological Association: “ASA’s mission is to serve sociologists in their work, advance sociology as a science and profession, and promote the contributions and use of sociology to society” (from their website).
    In Germany, where the modern university was formed, there was a distinction made between the Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) and the Geisteswissenschaften (literally, “spiritual sciences, but included the social sciences, with psych awkwardly bridging them). The latter were historically grounded and non – experimental, hence psych’s awkward position as an experimental science. Although this distinction drew in part from J. S. Mill’s classification of the sciences, it did not catch on in the US.
    At least with regard to psychology, an interesting lens is the Library of Congress classification of books. Most of psych is in the BF section, a subset of B, philosophy. Some is in LB (learning as part of education), RC (clinical psych as part of psychiatry), and some in Q, science. Some get scattered into econ, management and neuroscience. Another interesting observation is that most clinical psychologists get PhD degrees–as scientists. There is now the professional PsyD degree for practitioners, but the original impetus was to out-rank “mere” MD psychiatrists. Organized psychology was torn apart in the 1990s by these issues when the scientist types left the American Psychological Association to create the American Psychological Society (now the Association for Psychological Science).
    Whether or not the social sciences are “real” sciences is a sore and tender spot for its practitioners, and one can argue either way (I have). My alternative model is psychology as engineering, but I’ve found that psychologists hate that idea with passion.

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