Scientific American continues its departure from science and descent into illiberal politics

January 8, 2023 • 11:30 am

Somebody called my attention to three new articles and op-eds in Scientific American that have no science in them, but are pure ideology of the “progressive” sort.  I agree with some of the sentiments expressed in them, as in the first one. But my point is, as usual, to show how everything in science, including its most widely-read “popular” magazine, is being taken over by ideology. Not only that, but it’s ideology of only one stripe: Leftist “progressive” (or “woke,” if you will) ideology, so that the “opinion” section is not a panoply of divergent views, but gives only one view, like a Scientific Pravda.  Remember that the editor refused when I offered to write an op-ed expressing different (but of course not right-wing) views.

Click on the screenshot below to read the pieces.

The first article’s argument is in the subtext: anti-LGBTQ+ “hate speech” leads to violence against members of that community. It’s clear that anti-LGBTQ+ belief does in some (but not all) cases, but of course as a First Amendment hard-liner I wouldn’t ban such speech unless it was created to promote imminent and serious violence. Still, I oppose it, or any speech that calls out not beliefs, but demonizes believers. The question though, which the piece doesn’t answer, though it takes it as an article of faith, is whether rhetoric leads to violence down the line.

Read on:

The article indicts Republicans and white nationalists for their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and actions (e.g., banning the teaching of CRT, for example—laws that I oppose).  Of course “hate speech” doesn’t always lead to action, even at a temporal or spatial remove from the speech, and the article doesn’t give solid evidence for the connection between speech and action. Of course some killers are motivated by “homophobia” or “transphobia”, but not as many as the media suggests. Omar Mateen’s 2016 mass shooting at the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example, a horrific act that killed 49 people and injured 53, was immediately touted by the press as a likely act of homophobia, but no evidence was ever found that Mateen was motivated by hatred of gays. Rather, his motive appears to have been revenge for American airstrikes in the Middle East, and Mateen appeared not to even know that the club was gay. (He died in the assault.) The media likes what fits a narrative, particularly the progressive media—but they’re not always right.

However, the DOJ says that 19.2% of single-incident hate crimes were classified as crimes related to gender identity and sexual orientation, while 64.8% were related to race/ethnicity/ancestry. So what is the evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric is a major cause of this violence? There’s very little in the paper, which mostly cites (and properly damns) the rhetoric but can’t pin it down as a cause of violence the cause, although there’s evidence that anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric does increase animus toward that group.

Here’s the evidence, but it’s all “may cause” or “can motivate”:

The false claims and rhetoric used by right-wing extremists dehumanize and vilify the LGBTQ+ community and provoke stochastic terrorism, a phenomenon in which hate speech increases the likelihood that people will attack the targets of vicious claims. Research has also shown that this type of rhetoric can motivate people to express and possibly act on their prejudiced views.

and

The potential for any individual extremist message to push people toward violence is low, Ophir says. But continuous exposure to this hate speech from many different media platforms and politicians can contribute to radicalization.

Check the final link in each paragraph.

I’m not denying the hypothesis, of course, nor am I excusing LGBTQ+ hatred or violence, only that the connection is not as clear as Sci. Am.’s headline suggests. More important, this connection has been made a gazillion times before, and not just for LGBTQ+ hate crimes, but also for the triply-frequent crimes caused by hatred of people’s race and ethnicity. So we have a familiar but largely unevidenced message, but one appearing in a science magazine.

What is it doing there? It’s because the editor, Laura Helmuth, has decided to turn Scientific American into a mouthpiece for the illiberal Left. Other magazines do that much better, and more regularly, and don’t harp on Mendel and Darwin being racists. It’s as if you picked up an issue of an LGBTQ+ magazine and found op-eds and articles on how genes can be edited or how we found gravity waves.

Finally, note that this is not an op-ed piece, but an article. In contrast, the two pieces below are labeled “opinion”,

I immediately saw though the one below without even reading it, for why would black men experience disproportionate violence in football? Are they being deliberately targeted on the field? If not, then the violence they experience is the same violence that every football player experiences.

In fact, it turns out that there is no evidence that football injuries disproportionately accrue to black men in football, at least compared to other players on the field.  The author is trying to somehow find a racist slant to the fact that there are proportionately more black players in football than black people in the American population, thus turning football injuries (which I abhor) into signs of racism. Not the slippery use of the word “disproportionately” in the following:

This ordinary violence has always riddled the sport and it affects all players. But Black players are disproportionately affected. While Black men are severely underrepresented in positions of power across football organizations, such as coaching and management, they are overrepresented on the gridiron. Non-white players account for 70 percent of the NFLnearly half of all Division I college football players are Black. Further, through a process called racial stacking, coaches racially segregate athletes by playing position. These demographic discrepancies place Black athletes at a higher risk during play.

Higher risk than white players? What’s the comparison here?

Read on; the author is a sports anthropologist at Duke University.

Indeed, if bigotry is cause of an underrepresentation of black managers or owners, that needs to be investigated, for there are causes other than racism. And if it is bigotry, then by all means efface it.  But the “racial violence” clearly implied in the headline doesn’t seem to exist, and the author admits she doesn’t know:

While I am not aware of research that compares the rate of injury between Black and white football players, heatstrokes, ACL and labrum tears, ankle sprains, bone breaks, and concussions are just a few of the consequences of how these bodies are used.

Yes, but all that shows is that football is violent. So is hockey, and you could write the same headline, but using “the violence white men experience in hockey.”

Remember, though, that although Canada approvingly quotes someone saying that football fields “are never theoretically far from plantation fields,” the players play voluntarily, get huge salaries and public acclaim, and although I despise football for its violence, these men are making decisions to play an are aware of the possible consequences. For many, it’s a way out of poverty, and who’s to tell a talented black running back in high school that he shouldn’t try to make $2.7 million a year because there are disproportionately few white men in upper management?

What we have is just another propagandistic article that’s basically misleading the reader in its headline, admits that it misleads the reader, and, in the end, doesn’t belong in a science magazine. Even if you vetted propaganda like this on the basis not of ideology but on evidence for its claims, this article is a loser. But Laura Helmuth collects these risible pieces like Nabokov collected butterflies.

Finally, there’s this article (click to read):

I haven’t grappled with the issue of Universal Basic Income in the U.S., so I have no real opinion here, but do agree with the author that there should be a universal childcare allowance that’s higher than the tax deduction we get now.  The article adds this:

No country has yet introduced a universal basic income sufficient for essential needs. But in the U.S., Alaska has enacted its Permanent Fund Dividend, which is an annual cash payment, averaging around $1,600, that goes to every resident without means test or work requirement. It contributes to poverty reduction and has no negative effect on people’s willingness to work.

In the U.S., a universal child allowance and Social Security for seniors would mean that the two most vulnerable age groups in our population would have near-universal and unconditional income guaranteed.

This doesn’t seem like much of a solution to me, and we do have social security for older folk, though it’s based on your lifetime earnings. If there’s to be a universal basic income, it’s got to be much higher than that, and of course would involve huge tax increases. (I’m not necessarily opposed to those.)

27 thoughts on “Scientific American continues its departure from science and descent into illiberal politics

  1. Aside from the politics, it is peculiar to see these articles in Scientific American. There are better places for these articles.

    I wouldn’t want to see anyone who is curious about science discouraged by having to see political battles follow them at a time when they are not choosing to be engaged. Moreover, broadening of perspectives through grappling with science can, as a concomitant effect, have diversifying effects that could enable people to transcend their local milieu in ways that can improve our political discourse.

  2. Former ‘skeptics’ and regressives such as Hemant Mehta and PZ M*ers will be busy defending Sci-Am and the New Religion. And probably crying again about genuine skeptics.

  3. Helmuth is not helping the cause of social justice by publishing these opinion pieces masquerading as science. A better approach would be for her to insist on solid evidence-based articles that she and the rest of the scientific and lay community can defend. If there are good arguments to be made, why isn’t Scientific American making them?

    1. Sci-Am isn’t making them because the ‘social justice’ articles they are now fascinated with are not evidence-based at all. As Matt Dillahunty saysand the New Religionists state: “facts don’t matter.”

  4. I would expect that a truly science orientated magazine would have articles like:

    Does Anti-LGBTQ+ Rhetoric Fuel Violence?
    Does football’s violence disproportionately affect Black men?
    How could an Universal Basic Income help solve America’s Poverty Problem?

    Posing a question rather than leading with an assertion.

    The New Scientist lost my subscription after its ‘Darwin Was Wrong’ assertion.

  5. We look forward to further such revelations in Sci Am. One is that conductors of symphony orchestras, particularly those who use a baton, have the risk of suffering carpal tunnel syndrome disproportionately. This disparity clearly reflects the systemic racism, sexism, and ableism of the orchestral music system. Moreover, the conducting profession shows an even more glaring case of disparate impact: all symphony conductors can read music, but only 11% of US inhabitants can do so, in clear violation of the dictates of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We surely need to have orchestral conductors who cannot read music in exactly the same proportion as in the general population, and not only at the Boston Pops.

  6. The comparison to hockey is interesting. I was surprised bc I think overall the SciAm perspective is bullshit. I’m trying to keep an open mind about these things (as Leslie reminded me last week).

    In 2021-22 there were 1123 NHL players (https://www.gaimday.com/blog/how-many-nhl-players/); currently there are 34 black NHL players (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_black_NHL_players; not sure about the quality of that list) or 3.0%.

    In the 2022-23 season so far there are 111 players who were or are still on the injured reserve list (unable to play for >7 days; https://www.spotrac.com/nhl/injured-reserve/); of those, 4 are black (Anthony Duclair, Mathieu Joseph, Evander Kane, Oliver Kylington) or 3.6%.

    You’d rather have an individual comparison (e.g., injuries per game played for each black player vs. injuries per game played for other players) instead of these population comparisons. And you’d like to unpack some of the injuries (Kane’s injury wasn’t “violent” – he fell to the ice and was stepped on accidentally by another player resulting in a severe skate cut to his arm).

    But there’s at least a little bit of evidence that black players end up with significant injuries slightly more often relative to their representation. It’s weak evidence of course.

    1. I just did the 2 X 2 table for hockey that you cite: 1089 nonblack players, 34 black players
      107 nonblack players on injured reserve, with 4 on the reserve list that are black.

      Fisher’s exact test gives a p of 0.77, the chi-square test a p of 0.74. Neither is even close to significance. So there is NO evidence of a significant difference in injury rates.
      This is why you should do statistics instead of saying “there’s at least a little bit of evidence”. No, there’s no evidence.

      1. Yes I agree it’s not a significant difference in rates. My comment seemed too long to include a statistical test so thanks for adding that.

  7. Agree, UBI is an odd topic for Sci Am, given how little science there is behind the idea.
    The claim that Alaska’s $1600 giveaway to every citizen is not a disincentive to work is not a very convincing argument that an amount, say, ten times that ($64,000 for a family of four), would also not be. Especially if the UBI is added to existing welfare programs, which there would be intense pressure to do, even if the theory of UBI is that it replaces means-tested welfare. So out with Medicaid and subsidized Obamacare? Not very likely.

    The Manitoba paper cited by the Sci Am article is 11 years old — still paywalled — and describes a quasi-randomized experiment with UBI in a single town done between 1971 and 1979. It’s by a single author who is a well-known activist at U of Manitoba. Since then, no Canadian province, NDP, Liberal, or Conservative, has wanted to touch UBI with a ten-foot pole unless Ottawa pays for it. No one at the federal level, even with the wokest federal government we’ve ever had, essentially a coalition majority between socialists and what you call liberals, with no pesky Senate or presidential veto to block things, has breathed a word about it. They’re all for providing light sentences to Native criminals, safe drugs and injection sites for homeless tent camps, free dental care and carbon taxes and censoring the Internet and affirmative action and confiscating guns from white people, but UBI? Nope. UBI is a non-starter.

    1. $1600 would be a nice annual bonus, but its use in a claim that UBI is not a disincentive to work is so manifestly risible that it is very difficult not to accuse the author of either stupidity or dishonesty.

      For context, here is the first hit from a search for USA median income.

      The average personal income in the U.S. is $63,214. The median income in the U.S. is $44,225. The average American annual real wage was $67,521 in 2020. The average U.S. household income is $87,864. The median U.S. household income is $61,937.

      Whether these figures are for all incomes or only for incomes from full-time work, I don’t know.

    2. Safe drug injecting sites, while they sound like terrible idea, actually have a lot of data backing them up in as being effective and life saving. The rest you mention, they can keep.
      D.A.
      NYC

  8. There is a fix for the non evidence given here, switch to touch gridiron, non contact OR, virtual gridiron but watch out for the rise of wrist injuries… which will also likely show the non evidence of injuries between white and black players.
    Vitual programmed sport could also fix the farce of trans women playing in biological women’s sports. In fact lets apply this to war while we’re at it. Full on non contact virtual war we can all go home at the call for dinner.
    With all the savings to hospital, medical bills, military spending, you could afford to pay for the elderly and young.
    Just like we could feed the fucking world if we really wanted too.

  9. I’ve no idea how reliable National Review is as a source, but I recently came across this article about how even in strongly Republican states, “anti-trans” legislation is being blocked thanks to lobbying by pharmaceutical companies with a vested interest in “gender-affirming” drugs and surgery: https://archive.ph/LGXQd

    1. Yes. Parents, you are on your own. And the state can take your kids away from you to castrate them if you get too stroppy against what the school “affirms” them to be. Your only hope is to stay married. If you split up, the advocates will pit one of you against the other to get the child “done.”

  10. “This ordinary violence has always riddled the sport and it affects all players. But Black players are disproportionately affected.”

    This reminds me of news reports over the past couple of years that covid (or covid hospitalizations) disproportionately affect people of color.

    But hold on–what is this supposed to mean? Are there “whites only” signs at hospitals? Have Jim Crow laws come back into force?

    Or is it because people living in poverty are more likely to live multigenerationally (kids and grandparents all in the same house, sharing germs), that people holding down 2 jobs might not have to luxury to take time off from work, and so on? The implication (to me) was the former but I’m sure it was more the latter in fact.

    And that changes the discussion. Instead of rooting out racism that’s (yet again) causing disproportionate hardship to POC, the issue is poverty. And that calls for a very different solution. Get the problem wrong and your solution is sure to be off target.

  11. I’m ashamed to have been a SciAm subscriber for 20 years or so, long ago, when it was on densely fonted shiny paper, many columns, almost unreadable to mere mortals. I think I should self-cancel.

  12. On the sport bit: Baseball is doing it right? This cardiac stoppage seems much more common in baseball, especially youth leagues where a kid gets hit in the chest and dies. But the % of blacks in baseball is decreasing, so the proportional effect on them is also decreased.

  13. If someone suggested a maximum percentage of black players in football teams to protect the poor kids from injury, I wonder if that would go over well with the woke crowd? …just kidding, of course not.

  14. Take back your magazine. Otherwise you’ll wind up like the History Channel with stories about UFOs and alien abductions instead of real content.

  15. I was kinda hoping that US football would evaporate and soccer would take over.
    Any chance? Way more watchable….. Gave up Sci Amer many years ago

  16. There has been little or no serious science in SciAm for decades. It was sold to a German owner in 1986 and soon after the last old guard editor retired in 1994 it went quickly downhill. The new editor in chief was a talentless non-entity who hired a whole bunch of “science writers”. Either had either failed as scientists or failed as writers. And the quality of the subsequent editor in chiefs has followed a death spiral decline in competence.

    So instead of science articles being written by important heavy weight scientists (with a little help from in-house editorial staff) it was now being written mostly by a bunch of low quality “science journalists”. Who are both deeply patronizing and mostly clueless about the subjects they write about.

    Then in the last decade or so any actual practicing scientists who get published are almost all “quota people”. Never chosen purely on the actual merit of their work. They just tick “diversity” boxes.

    A quick look at any SciAm issue from the 1950’s to 1980’s and who wrote the articles versus any SciAm issue in the last twenty years will show just how far the quality has fallen. You will recognize a lot of the names in the first group. For the last twenty years it is both a Who? And then a Why?

    SciAm is little more than a sad joke by this stage. As the collapse in its circulation proves. It was declining fast even before the web started its buzz saw path through mass circulation periodicals.

    The old issues of 50 plus years ago are still worth reading. When I pick up a modern issue every now and then I just have to shake my head. Such a great magazine destroyed by big publishing corp talentless drones.

    A story repeated many times over the last few decades.

  17. Re football injures: the so-called “skill positions” (WR, RB, defensive backfield) are dominated by black players. These are high-speed/high-impact positions. Not-coincidentally, these positions get injured a lot more frequently than, say, linemen. Linemen have a much more balanced racial mix.

    I’m a high school math teacher and even I could come up with better numbers than that article.

    1. Also, the author seems to assume that all members of the team spend the same time on the field. Of course that’s not true. I don’t know what proportion of second and third stringers are black or white, but based only on my spectating over the years, I’d bet proportionally more are white than black. Of course those who play more would get hurt more.

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