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 CoyneTo: Subject: Re: Greetings from Scientific American
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.
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.
From: Jerry Coyne
Sun 8/21/2022 6:14 AM
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.
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.