Is Scientific American a Trustworthy Periodical?

Scientific American is a monthly magazine aimed at popularizing scientific and technological findings. But how trustworthy a magazine is it?

This question is prompted by several articles that Scientific American has published on topics in philosophy. It is wonderful that the magazine’s editors recognize how much philosophy is relevant to science and scientific practices. But the quality of those articles has been questionable.

I’m not a scientist, so I’m not in much of a position to evaluate the quality of a lot of the magazine’s scientific content. Like most readers, I’m relying on the reputation of the journal as a trusted authority. However, as a philosophy professor, I am in a position to evaluate the quality of the work it publishes on philosophical matters.

How is that quality? Uneven. Some of the articles are perfectly fine for what they are (the pieces by John Horgan, for example, come to mind). However, some are not, and it is unclear that the editors of the periodical care. They have not, to my knowledge, responded to publicly-voiced complaints about some of these articles.

The uneven quality of Scientific American articles on topics I am familiar with has led me to question its trustworthiness more generally. I know I’m not alone in that questioning.

As for the quality of its articles on philosophy, let me stress that my complaint is not with the substance of the philosophical views their authors favor. Rather, it is that ideas, arguments, positions, and widely-used concepts have been deployed in mistaken or confused ways, or that highly relevant work (well known to experts) has been completely ignored. The result is that the magazine is misleading its readers about philosophy.

If you are skeptical that philosophy is the kind of thing an author could mislead readers about, imagine an article on football in which the author uses “touchdown” to refer to a kind of tackle, or wonders how a “field goal” is possible since the crossbar of the goal is not on the field but 10 feet above it, and you’ll get the idea of what has been going on.

A few recent examples of this are “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” and “Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God?” by Michael Shermer, and “The Fate of Free Will: When Science Crosses Swords with Philosophy” by Abraham Loeb. I commented on the Shermer pieces here and here. The Loeb piece, which just came out earlier this week, is being referred to online by philosophers as “utter drivel” and “a trainwreck.” Read them for yourselves.

Neither Shermer nor Loeb are philosophers. Shermer made his name as a popular “skeptic” of religion and psychics, and Loeb is an astrophysicist at Harvard. It’s great that they’re interested in philosophy. But it is unclear why Scientific American thinks that these people are the ones who should be informing their readers about philosophical matters. As Jeff Sebo, a philosopher who directs the Animal Studies M.A. program at New York University put it on Twitter:

i appreciate the liberal approach [Scientific American] takes to who can write what and look forward to pitching my piece about the physics of black holes from the perspective of a moral and political philosopher.

There are plenty of knowledgeable and talented philosophers out there who would be happy to be hired to write interesting, accessible, and accurate articles about philosophy for Scientific American. (If you’re one of them, list your name and area in the comments.) How about giving them a try?

Don’t get me wrong: one needn’t be a philosophy professor to write articles about philosophy for the lay public. But if you are going to write such an article, and certainly if you are going to publish such an article in a magazine you edit, you should run it by someone who actually is an expert in the field.

Publishing science-relevant articles on philosophy is good for the public and good for science, but only if the articles themselves are good. Scientific American, of all magazines, should be adequately respectful of expertise. Failure to do so would be… unscientific.


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