Scientific American dedicates itself to politics, not science; refuses to publish rebuttals of their false or misleading claims

August 21, 2022 • 10:30 am

On August 14, I received a conciliatory email from Laura Helmuth, editor of Scientific American. As you know if you’re a regular here, I’ve spent a lot of time criticizing their woke coverage and editorials, which make all kinds of accusations that don’t hold water (see emails below for some examples, or you can access all my posts here).

My critiques of the magazine have been similar to those of Michael Shermer, who wrote a regular column for Scientific American for eighteen years. After he turned out a couple of columns that weren’t woke enough for the journal, and were rejected, he was given his walking papers. Michael documented the decline and fall of the journal in two Substack pieces, “Scientific American goes woke” and “What is woke, anyway? A coda to my column on ‘Scientific American goes woke’.” His columns, particularly the first, cite and link to a number of ludicrous pieces published in the journal. I’ll give some of those links below.

At any rate, since I told Laura in my response that I’d keep her initial email confidential. I’ll just characterize what she said in a few words. She was kind enough to be conciliatory, though she noted that I was unhappy with some of her coverage. She praised my criticisms of theocracy and emphasized that, politically, she and I were on the same side with respect to matters of reason and social justice. Finally she urged me to contact her to discuss any ideas I had for stories or my own pieces for the magazine.

It was a polite email, but the last bit—the invitation—prompted me to respond in this way, by suggesting that I write my own op-ed:

From: Jerry Coyne To:Subject: Re: Greetings from Scientific American

Hi Laura,

Thanks for your conciliatory message, which I appreciate. I’m sorry that I have had to go after some of your stories sometimes, but I’m truly puzzled at the direction the magazine is taking. One blatant example was that editorial by McLemore that accused not only Darwin of racism, but also Mendel!  Seriously, how did that get through the editorial process? Is there no fact-checking? Likewise, nobody bothered to look up what SETI is really doing when it tries to find life on other planets. One look at the photos that Carl Sagan included on the Voyager record shows that he was emphasizing the diversity of life on earth, both human and nonhuman.  What bothers me, and you surely know this, is the magazine’s Pecksniffian tendency to call out racism in everything, most recently the SETI program.

Yes, we are indeed both liberals and against the theocratic strain that’s taking over American life.  But if you must be political (I don’t think science magazines should be, of course), why not commission pieces about the stuff you mention below and leave out the authoritarian progressivism and pervasive accusations of racism? In my view, that not only doesn’t do anything to ameliorate racism (how does falsely accusing Mendel of racism do anything for minorities?), but also dims the patina of class that the magazine had.

Of course I had to say this, but you know this already because I’ve written about this stuff a fair amount.

I do appreciate your reaching out, and of course will keep your email confidential, but would you consider an op-ed about how extreme Leftist progressivism is besmirching science itself by distorting the truth? (Example: arguments that sex is not bimodal in humans, but forms a continuum.) I could make a number of arguments like that about biology that, contra McLemore, have truth behind them.

If you’re really interested in presenting a diversity of views on science and politics in your op-eds, I’d be glad to write something like that (and no, it would not be shrill).

Thanks for writing.

Best,Jerry

The correspondence continued, with Laura emailing me to explain the political leanings of the journal, which in my view were not concerned in science but with social justice. And of course she rejected my offer to contribute an article to the magazine because it didn’t comport with those leanings. Such a letter would be “kicking down” (i.e., “punching down”).  I won’t reproduce her second letter even though, in my response, I didn’t say I would keep it confidential. But I will characterize her words in my response—and quote a few of them—in the email I wrote her this morning. Here it is. I’ve added links to the Sci. Am. articles that I mention or to my discussion of them (each of my posts links to the orginal Sci. Am. piece). I’ve corrected a few of my  errors of spelling and punctuation.

Sun 8/21/2022 6:14 AM

Dear Laura,

I of course expected that you would accept editorials only from the “progressive left” point of view, even though, as you noted, we’re both on the Left. That is your editorial call, but I disagree with it.  When “progressives” are engaged in attacking science with lies or distortions (i.e., claiming there’s a spectrum of sex, not gender, in humans, or that Mendel was a racist), I would think that Scientific American would publish, indeed, want, some kind of corrective. Seriously, you let one your writers accuse Mendel, Darwin, and E. O. Wilson of being racist, and SETI of being likewise and that denial of evolution is white supremacy; and yet you refuse to publish rebuttals of that calumny because to oppose those ridiculous accusations would “feel like kicking down.”  Do you really think that someone not as famous as Mendel is allowed to call him a racist because to deny that would be “kicking down.”

Frankly, I find that response disingenuous. Sticking up for correct science in the face of ideological distortion is not “kicking down”: that phrase—or its alternative “punching down”—is used by every ideologue to immunize their ideas from criticism. Science is supposed to be a debate in search of truth, with nobody barred from criticizing anyone, but yet you are placing much of that debate out of bounds because it’s “kicking down”!

The telling part of your email is at the end when you assert that science isn’t really a target of your editorials, but politics is, and the “targets” you say the magazine has chosen include “the Supreme Court endorsed forced pregnancy, Florida is denying care to trans people, white nationalists are infiltrating every branch of government, and anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists are causing people to die. . . . . But with limited resources, those are the sorts of issues we’re focused on in our opinion coverage.” But when is it the editorial policy of Scientific American to address those issues at all? Given its title, I thought your magazine was about science, even in its opinions, and not a program for enacting a brand of social justice that has either little or nothing to do with science. There are literally hundreds of magazines, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other media sources that cover those issues endlessly 24/7 from left, right, and center.

SciAm readers go to your site to get straight science, not political commentary, and deciding that the “progressive” (i.e., extreme) Left has the correct positions on these issues is to essentially alienate over half the country, including moderate liberals like me being turned off by this risible political posturing.

Let me speak frankly: some of the editorials I’ve criticized involve lying or distorting the truth for politics. It’s simply not true, for example, that mathematics and other STEM fields are irredeemably racist and misogynistic [see also here], that Darwin and Mendel were racists, that the Jedi in Star Wars are toxically masculine white saviors, that SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is implicitly racist and colonialist, and that denial of evolution is an expression of white supremacy. These assertions are ridiculous, and yet you not only give them space in your magazine, but refuse to publish any opposing opinions. Thus others like Michael Shermer and I have to rebut them on our websites (as you know, Shermer wrote a column for Scientific American for eighteen years, but then was fired because he failed to hew to the ideology you’re promoting).

It is your magazine, of course, but I am not alone in being appalled at the direction it’s taken. I can assume only that you have given it that direction. This is a great pity: Americans can get their politics in a million places, but there are few where they can get straight science untainted by ideology.  Scientific American used to be that way, but it isn’t any more.

cheers,Jerry

I’ll note one more thing: Thirty-one biologists, including some very notable ones, wrote a letter to Scientific American pushing back on their article that E. O. Wilson (along with Darwin and Mendel) was a racist. Of course the magazine refused to publish our critique. You can see that letter, the signers, and my take on it here.

What is crystal clear is that Scientific American has decided to take on a social-justice program of a particular stripe—that of the “progressive” or “woke” Left—even if the politics the journal espouses have nothing to do with science. Not only that, but they refuse to publish any pushback or criticism of some of their crazier assertions. (Show me where Mendel was a racist, for instance!) It’s very odd that what was once America’s premier science magazine not only has taken up woke cudgels, but is stifling criticism of what they publish. In this way Scientific American can act as if there’s no opposition to the politics they cram down the throats of curious people who just want to read about science. They are censorious, and certain they’re right. Such views have repeatedly stifled and misguided science over the years, right up to the time of Lysenko.

And that is why I’m writing this post.

_________________

About Sci Am’s refusal to let me write; sent by a friend:

It would be so easy to just let you have your say in the magazine and then whenever so accused of bias they could say “we published Jerry Coyne’s rebuttal!” And could hold their heads high for at least offering some balance, but they obviously can’t even bring themselves to do that! It’s all so unnecessary, but if they feel it is necessary (to do their share of social justice) then at least let the other side speak.

 

37 thoughts on “Scientific American dedicates itself to politics, not science; refuses to publish rebuttals of their false or misleading claims

  1. I don’t know the exact content of Helmuth’s response but it seems to me that she knows that Scientific American is publishing poor quality material. I infer that because she said that publishing rebuttals would be “kicking down,” apparently meaning that rebutting would so easy as to be unfair or cruel or embarrassing to the authors. If she thinks that rebutting would be so easy as to be embarrassing, she *knows* that what she is publishing is garbage. Is that really how Scientific American should be run?

    1. “Kicking down” or “Punching down” means one of two things. One, if the author is an old white guy writing about an oppressed group then he can’t use facts for any of his arguments because that is “Punching down” at the oppressed group which obviously makes you a racist bigot. Two, if the author is not an old white guy then if you try correct anything you are denying the author’s “Lived experience” which trumps all facts so you are still a racist bigot.

  2. Helmuth: “… Florida is denying care to trans people, …”

    This could alternatively be phrased, Florida is protecting minors from ideologically driven medical interventions that have life-long consequences for which there is little-to-no good evidence that they will benefit, and plenty of evidence that an unacceptably high fraction will seriously regret it in adulthood.

    Helmuth, on the off-chance that you’re reading this, are you aware that in the UK, a review led by senior padiatrician Dr Cass has led to the closing of the Tavistock clinic (the UK’s clinic for medical interventions on trans-IDing youth), saying that it wasn’t fit for purpose? And several European countries are doing similar, rowing back hard on such medical interventions, after a hard look at the actual evidence.

    A suggestion: commission a suitably qualified person who is skeptical of medical transition in trans-IDing youths to write a review of the actual evidence on this topic (whether life satisfaction or mental health improves or worsens, and what fraction later regret the interventions, what sort of sex life their body will be capable of as adults). Maybe you could also commission a companion article by someone who is in favour of such interventions?

    If you’re unwilling to do this, either because you’re unwilling to question woke ideology, or because you fear being yelled at or ostracised by the woke, maybe you should do some sole-searching as to whether the word “Scientific” in your magazine title is still appropriate?

  3. To be fair to Laura Helmuth, she is not really a scientist herself. She may not understand what Jerry is talking about when he criticizes the SciAm approach to writing about science.

    Although Helmuth’s wikipedia entry says she earned a PhD in “cognitive neuroscience”, her training at Berkeley was in psychology. Her published work is limited to her PhD research, which consisted of a handful of tiny studies of people with brain diseases (e.g., “24 PD patients…”, “Four patients were tested…”, “A total of 12 patients with confirmed lesions of the cerebellum were tested”). She did behaviour observations on these patients. She also has one published study of handedness in mechanical tasks, which was based on (again tiny samples of) undergrads at Berkeley. She didn’t study neurons or brains or anything remotely considered to be “neuroscience”. Immediately after her PhD, Helmuth obtained a certificate in science journalism and got a job as a journalist.

    Helmuth is scientist-adjacent however. Her brother Brian is a highly accomplished marine ecologist at Northeastern University. But clearly that connection plus her own brush with “neuroscience” at Berkeley hasn’t equipped her to understand Jerry’s criticisms. It’s all very sad, both for Laura herself and for the readers of her magazine.

    Edit: just to be clear I’m not generally criticizing PhD students who switch to journalism (or some other kind of work or profession). The world is better when people with great PhD training then go on to something other than academics & research. I’m specifically criticizing the quality of Helmuth’s research training and how it failed to prepare her for leading Scientific American.

    1. I’m sure Laura is smart enough to understand what I mean. Lots of people have criticized those articles, and there was that multiply-signed letter. I mean, really, do you have to be an Einstein to realize that there is no evidence that Mendel was a racist, nor that SETI is colonialist. Laura is no dummy, believe me. She just ignores inconvenient criticisms when the scientific facts (or rational analysis) conflicts with her political program. And her career description to me eminently warrants her ability to understand criticism.

      If readers here can see through the palaver that passes for “scientific discourse” at the magazine, then why are you exculpating the editor, who has a Ph.D. in science?

      1. You’re right of course one doesn’t have to be a genius to understand the criticisms in that letter. “Why am I exculpating the editor?” Steel manning I guess. From my pov, Helmuth’s ignoring of inconvenient criticism in the face of scientific facts does imply she may not be very smart or not very well trained. But now I’m just redefining “dummy” (and I’m at risk of name-calling, which I don’t intend).

        I agree with your take on all of this, am just trying to make sense of how the editor in chief of Scientific American could adopt these views. If Helmuth’s training occurred in the kind of Potemkin village that describes many other psychology labs, that would be one possible explanation. There could be lots of other explanations of course.

  4. The tsunami of wokeism—inserting the posture of “social justice” tunnel vision into
    everything—has even reached academic STEM departments, now everywhere enjoying DEI committees for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice. No surprise, then, that the same wave has swept over magazines.

    One searches for precedents in history. There are some resemblances to the Lysenkovshchina in a galaxy far away, but the similarities are narrow, like the Lysenkoist movement itself. I think a better precedent is found in the USA of the 19th and early 20th century : in tandem with the Progressive movement, there was the Temperance movement. This trend gradually swept all before it, formed its own political party, took over whole states, and finally achieved its greatest success: the 18th amendment to the US constitution. That brilliant experiment lasted 14 years, with outcomes, before it was reversed, that finished off the Temperance movement forever. [Timeline at https://www.thoughtco.com/temperance-movement-prohibition-timeline-3530548 .]

    If a similar pattern prevails, we may expect a new amendment to the constitution: the new amendment will establish a Social Justice department of the federal government; outlaw all wrongthink in regard to E.O. Wilson, Genetics, the normal distribution, and gender identity; and impose Diversity Statements as a prerequisite for voting, receiving a driver’s license, and breathing US air. Enforcement of the amendment will foul up all of life spectacularly for about 14 years, before it will finally be jettisoned, taking its wokeism movement with it.

  5. It’s not politics, it’s religion. Telling them that it’s ridiculous to say that “denial of evolution is white supremacy”, is like telling a Catholic that the doctrine of the original sin is ridiculous.

  6. One of the saddest things about this, beyond the loss of a respected lay scientific journal, is that their mis-guided editorial policy will have the entirely predictable outcome of making it increasing more difficult for science to play its advisory role in government and policy. Because they are politicizing science, it will be seen not as arbiter of empirical evidence in support of policy but just another political take on an issue.

    In these blighted times, the blinkered short-sightedness of their editorial approach (not to mention the appalling mendacity) is as dismaying as it is unsurprising. Not that they (or anyone else) care in the slightest, but I will not buy another SciAm again and will advocate others not to. Like trying to hold back the tide with a broom, but it’s all I can really do.

  7. I no longer take the Scientific American as I had for years for the reasons you discuss in your letter to its editor. I miss it.

  8. I’m pretty sure that although Helmuth has (IIRC) a PhD in a science-related field, she has no idea what science per se is. I’ve known others like that, including one with a PhD in biology who believes in witchcraft. (She is now a practicing mental health therapist- quelle surprise!) Expertise using scientific tools does not automatically confer a knowledge of the character of science itself, which is diametrically opposed to “critical” ideology. If Helmuth obtained her philosophical bent on science from reading postmodern criticisms of it, then she has no idea how wrong she is.

    Perhaps, Prof CC, in your correspondence with her you could ask a couple of very basic questions about her knowledge of science in general and about biology in particular. I’m guessing her answers (should she not just cut off communication at that point- that’s what they tend to do) would be revealing.

    More generally, I’m not sure that throwing reasoned arguments at such ideologues is at all effective, just as with QAnoners. If they could think critically (not in their sense of “critical”) they wouldn’t believe as they do. Their explanations tend to fall apart when their interlocutor probes beyond non-explanations like “lived experience” and “social conditioning”, when trying to paraphrase their arguments (which are completely dependent on sounding “deep”) and such. Their philosophy is a house of cards, unable to survive any stiff wind. I for one find this fact comforting- when scientists understand that they are not talking to people taught to reason critically, and adjust their arguments accordingly, real progress might be made.

    1. “…and adjust their arguments accordingly…”

      When I wrote this I was thinking specifically about the Socratic method, discussing word meanings, following up questions with further questions, trying to pin down the logical implications of the ideologues’ explanations, etc. My claim is that throwing logic at people who don’t understand logic, but think they know *all* about it, isn’t particularly effective.

      1. Socrates got cancelled (sentenced to death) for asking too many questions.

        These ideologues aren’t interested in anything resembling philosophical method/practice (and that’s my nice way of putting it; “the emperor is not as forgiving as I am”). The magazine editor’s behavior here speaks for itself; “honorable” isn’t a term that would come to mind.

  9. Great comparison. However, I don’t think that there’s much parallel in the way younger generations are being indoctrinated in Wokeness.

  10. The only reason I can think of for Laura’s obstinate behavior is that the editorial entourage surrounding her induce group pressure to stick to the doctrine. If she wavers, she’d lose her woke cred and be left behind.

    1. From all I’ve learned about “critical” philosophy, I’m not at all sure Helmuth’s ignorance is insincere.

    2. One thing you should understand is that SciAm is part of Springer Nature, which has become extremely woke in recent years. Take a look at some of the equally crazy editorials from Nature News. It’s probably impossible for Helmuth to break ranks even if she wanted to.

  11. I cancelled my subscription to SciAm about 2 years ago.

    I did so because I lost confidence in the magazine to relay what science tells us about a topic free of political intervention.

    What made me lose confidence were articles largely devoted to anthropology, specifically its subordination of scientific research and outcomes to indigenous myth.

    1. I’m afraid cancel culture has been at work in my household, and in fact we started long before the rest of the world caught on!
      1. Scientific American cancelled and replaced with American Scientist about five years ago (those titles sound a bit like the Judean Peoples Front etc, but are accurate).
      2. The Atlantic cancelled when it became too woke and preachy for me to read. Also, no more book reviews by Hitch.
      3. Vanity Fair cancelled once Hitch was gone, there was only silliness for wealthy people left.
      4. Ditto New Yorker. Was always just silliness.
      5. Newsweek cancelled itself when they stopped the print edition.
      6. National Geographic was stopped when they started on nonsense about the Real Jesus and the Afterlife.
      7. Spectator (UK) went when it made me too homesick.
      8. Counterpunch (seriously!) went when it got too revolutionary left.

      This all means I can divert those funds into more books and LPs. I’m happy with that!

  12. The worst of all in this travesty of a science journal is that her advisory board has said nothing and has allowed a propagandist (as opposed to someone with scientific credentials) to drag their reputations in the mud. They should fire her immediately if they give a fig about the journal’s credibility. Or there something hidden about the journal’s finances and politics that we don’t know?

  13. The “punching down” accusation is almost insulting. There is no “punching” in calling out people who make false accusations of racism, and the person making the false accusation is the one doing the “punching”.

  14. I assume that SciAm’s circulation figures are to some degree public knowledge (it’s monitored independently of publications themselves, somewhere, because it’s necessary information for comparing advertising rates), so an obvious question is whether they’re losing market share as (hopefully) decreasing numbers of science educators recommend it to students, or use diagrams and/ or articles from it in coursework. (Would that generate a data stream of re-use requests, whose summary would feature high in an editor’s in-box?)
    Of course, the nightmare situation – and quite possibly true – would be that their readership figures are actually increasing, simply because they’re appealing to a (numerically) larger readership of the woke. And the word “Scientific” in the title is just a meaningless piece of branding. How did that Barnum guy put it? “Nobody ever lost money by underestimating the taste of the [general] public.”
    Does anyone know enough about the economics of USian advertising to get hold of SciAm’s last few years of circulation figures?

  15. Jerry – your email was absolutely perfect, it hit all the issues SciAm should listen to (although it won’t). Personally, I’m commenting in the hope that someone from SciAm will read and take note of my insignificant grumble. It won’t make any difference on its own, but at least I’m trying!

    I used to subscribe to SciAm, but stopped several years ago. I got sick of reading articles and opinions based on ideology, and ignoring science. Seriously SciAm, please just stop it with the politics! I do not want to be preached to on whiteness, toxic this and that, or whatever else. I take even more umbrage on being fed anti-scientific content, e.g. your polemics claiming that biological sex is a continuum in humans. Come on!

    What’s worse, is that I, nor anyone else, can effectively object to your vapid political content, because you will never publish such objections. Even if you had the integrity to print reasonable opinions (i.e. those advocating science), you’d likely introduce them via a preamble on white fragility, colonialism or some other sin committed by the white man in the cause of western imperialism.

    I used to do a lot of international travel for work, and one of my few comforts was SciAm. I took a copy away with me on every trip, and would dip into it with relish whenever I had a minute. It felt like a little bit of home. I distinctly remember being really fed up and lonely in a hotel in Madrid about ten years ago. I picked up SciAm, and it had a brilliant feature on CTE in athletes (particularly male football players), which led me to investigate more, and kept me engrossed for hours. That is what a good science publication should do.

    So, what happened? Where did the science go? And why? I never read SciAm now, and that’s a real shame. It was a brilliant magazine.

  16. I fully agree with SciAm decision of not allowing your dissident opinion. Indeed, let SciAm be like Venezuela: the best example that persuades moderates of the dangers of the authoritarian and intolerant extreme left. From this point of view, the most successful SciAm pieces are those where they smear deceased scientists, and those so idiotic that JEDIs too get embarrassed. I congratulate the SciAm Editors for keeping these political pieces open to everybody, while paywalling the science that might have remained.

  17. My major problem with such developments is that once you see bullshit published in a field that you know reasonably well enough, you get also sceptical about other topics that you are not versed in. It poisons the author-reader relationship irreparably.

  18. I don’t even understand what the “punching down” is in this particular case. In general, the whole concept disturbs me. It requires believing that before we interact with someone we must assign ourselves and them to positions in a social hierarchy and tailor what we may say and do accordingly. Yes, there are some limited situations in which we should do this, but in most cases the whole idea is really pernicious.

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