The once great magazine Scientific American has actually had three lives. Around the turn of the last century and for many years after, there was a magazine called Scientific American, but it was a different magazine than the Scientific American that came after.
The progenitor’s target audience was scientists, engineers, and other hardcore professionals. The ads—always the best place to learn about who reads a periodical—were for ball bearings, vacuum tubes, and various mechanical and electrical apparati. The magazine sponsored an in-depth investigation into seances led by Harry Houdini.
The original died but the name was bought by another company. The audience remained the same, however; only now it was more affluent. The ads were for now cognac and Cadillacs. The writers were the readers and vice versa. The going could be rough but it was always rewarding. Martin Gardner had a column.
Then just before the turn of our current century, the magazine changed hands once more and began a slow spiral into the perfunctory style of leftism learned from lectures in “J” school of the new, non-scientist writers.
The official break from the old ways of strict objectivity came in 2002 when the magazine published a series of articles under the heading “Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist“, the book written by Bjorn Lomborg whose heretical thesis was, “Yes, global warming is real, but the economic solution lies elsewhere from where the non-economist climatologists say it is.” (I canceled my subscription immediately after this idiocy.)
The magazine is now a politicized version of Popular Mechanics, though it emulates the blood and muscle of that title poorly. The graphics are glitzy but not especially informative. The writing is dumbed down so that the reader thinks he understands what he doesn’t. Think New York Times Health & Science section and you’ll have what I mean (random quotes from a scientist and his rivals).
When the magazine underwent its third life, it hired journalist John Horgan, a genuine J-school graduate. An example of his reasoning power is contained in his “A modest proposal for curbing homicides: Socialism.”
Evidently, Horgan was incensed that Jared Loughner used a gun to shoot up the Tucson Safeway parking lot. “Common sense” told him that “unbalanced people” should not have guns. Like most journalists, Horgan reflexively jerked his knee right onto the “send” button (there is a positive “correlation between levels of household gun ownership and homicide”). He later acknowledged this view to be wrong.
So wrong that he said, “As much as I hate to admit it, these statistics support the slogan that guns don’t kill; people do.” What’s revealing about that is not the statistics, but his admission. I hate to admit the truth. Why?
He later develops another thesis, which is neither here nor there for our purposes, and says, “Naturally, some researchers have reported data that fail to support [my] theory of homicide. But I find [my theory] persuasive, especially because it points toward an attractive solution.” His solution is socialism.
Ignore the socialism, that cure for all ills, and look instead to how a journalist willingly and eagerly prods himself into over-certainty. In effect, he tells himself to ignore the rival theories, evidence, and data, and concentrate of the solution which to him is most attractive. The data he has do fit into that solution, and for him it is enough.
This is the nature of politics. Theories come first and are chosen for their beauty, for their conformity, because of their emotional appeal. It is only then that the search for evidence for that theory begins. Any will do, the smallest scrap marshaled to do its duty to uphold a cherished belief. The same evidence might and often says a rival theory is more likely true, but the rival theory is discarded for its ugliness or some unpalatable asymmetry which makes it unacceptable. As long as there is any evidence whatsoever for the desired theory, it is just true.
That is the way the “science” in Scientific American works routinely today. It is a weak engine to discover truth, but perhaps a good one to sell magazines.