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.

 

16 Comments
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james
james
3 years ago

I’ve had doubts about SciAm for the past decade or so. It’s a unfortunate.Report

Wayne Myrvold
Wayne Myrvold
3 years ago

It’s not just the articles on philosophy. There has been a series of posts on quantum mechanics, by Bernard Kastrup, of abysmally low quality. A recent post, by Anil Ananthaswamy (https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/what-does-quantum-theory-actually-tell-us-about-reality/), corrects some of the misconceptions in those earlier posts, but it shouldn’t have been necessary. Every thing Ananthaswamy says in that article ought to be familiar to anyone before they begin to write on matters pertaining to interpretations of quantum mechanics.Report

Daniel
Daniel
3 years ago

Speaking as a philosopher, I don’t personally see why the Loeb piece is ‘utter drivel’. It’s the view of, for instance, Kit Fine that we’re nowhere near having the tools to understand free will; supposing that at some point we develop such tools, and our folk concept of free will were debunked, who knows what would happen? (I’m reminded of a science-fiction short story by Ted Chiang, in which he describes the languor that results when a technology is invented showing action to be predetermined.) The point is perhaps not terribly deep, but why should it constitute a ‘trainwreck’?Report

Daniel
Daniel
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

At any rate, I’m certainly not sure it’s worse than those John Horgan pieces from a while back..Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Daniel
3 years ago

It seems drivel to me. How are self-learning machines supposed to provide evidence for or against free will? He doesn’t say. I assume the thought is they might indicate that “our actions are a product of circumstances”. But we know that already. Perhaps he really means that such machines wouldn’t have alternative possibilities. But (a) it’s hard to see how we would know that (after all, we already have quite predictable self-learning machines- us – and that hasn’t been regarded as dispositive so far), and (b) most philosophers don’t think genuinely open alternative possibilities are required for free will.Report

Chinese philosopher
Chinese philosopher
3 years ago

I subscribe to the Chinese version of Scientific American, and I’m too very unhappy about some articles written by Michael Shermer. I wrote a letter to the editor to express my disagreement with his view. Unfortunately, they didn’t publish my article. Then I emailed my complaint to them questioning them why they never published letters that criticizing their articles. They never respond to me.
Now, I should consider canceling my subscription.Report

SCM
SCM
3 years ago

How the f#@% is philosophy supposed to give us knowledge about what was there before the Big Bang or whether humans are alone in the universe? Are we supposed to have magic powers of communing with the fundamental reality of the universe that go beyond what astronomers can detect with their telescopes?Report

Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
Reply to  SCM
3 years ago

Well on its own it obviously cannot… but physically trained philosophers (or vice versa) definitely can make an important contribution to the former question – e.g. to topics such as the validity of arguments from naturalness, or anthropic arguments, which are live topics within fundamental physics, as well to the foundations of QM etc.

PS I don’t think philosophy can tell us anything about wheher there are aliens; this is clearly possible (as we exist!) but is a staightforward empirical questionReport

William J. Rapaport
3 years ago

And to think that, once upon a time, people like Alfred Tarski and Jerry Fodor wrote SciAm articles.Report

Danny Weltman
Reply to  William J. Rapaport
3 years ago

There’s an excellent article by the Churchlands in the January 1990 Scientific American (“Could a Machine Think?”) that I like to assign when I’m teaching about the Chinese Room. I’m sad to hear the contemporary magazine isn’t keeping up with the standards of the past.Report

William J. Rapaport
Reply to  Danny Weltman
3 years ago

And these:
Is the Brain’s Mind a Computer Program?
John R. Searle – 1990 – Scientific American 262 (1):26-31.

David Chalmers, “The Puzzle of Conscious Experience,” Scientific American, 273 (1995), pp. 80-6.Report

Christopher Gauker
Christopher Gauker
3 years ago

In the 1970’s Scientific American was a serious review of the latest scientific developments, directed mainly at scientists. You could buy it in the University of Chicago Bookstore, but not in the supermarket. Articles were written by the primary researchers and did not shy away from technical details. I remember struggling to get through an article on protein folding. The only entertainment was Martin Gardner’s column on recreational mathematics. When John Horgan became editor he transformed it overnight into a sensationalist rag for the general public and I stopped subscribing. I cannot comment on its current state, since I have not looked at it for several decades. I just wanted to point out how very high the level was from which it has fallen.Report

Colin den Ronden
Colin den Ronden
3 years ago

I was a subscriber to Scientific American from the late 1970s to early 1980s, but as I had other demands on my reading time I had to give it up. In the last few years I started getting it again and noticed the difference. For a start it seems thinner. Way back then the articles were written by scientists, nowadays most of them are written by journalists, who are lesser experts. If they are using proof-reading it must be an automated spell-checker, not a human. I have found a few mistakes, and this blows their credibility as the propagators of the exact sciences. In other words, it looks like they have published science on the cheap, and are gravitating more towards sensationalist journalism.Report

Nicole
Nicole
2 years ago

I’ve noticed that SciAm often republishes (mostly health?) articles from QuickandDirtyTips.com. I guess that’s a reliable resource, as the nutrition/health expert they have on staff seems to have sufficient credentials… but it’s not really a confidence-boosting resource for what-once-was a serious magazine.

Here’s an example: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-you-be-going-barefoot-more-often/Report

Juan Daugherty
Juan Daugherty
1 year ago

Not any more, it’s not the same publication as in the WH Freeman days. Same level of trustworthiness as general mass media, and definitely subpar for a science pub which is sad. I look at the website now and again and might on rare occasion buy an issue for a topic of great interest but mainline pubs are where I go after something on the website seems to deserve a further look.Report