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Scientific American Proposes Socialism As Means To Eliminate Murder

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.

15 thoughts on “Scientific American Proposes Socialism As Means To Eliminate Murder Leave a comment

  1. “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.”

    I don’t think I’ve read anything scarier today. He’s effectively saying, as I understand it, “the facts are against me, but I like where this is going, so ignore the pesky facts.” He has a great career in politics ahead of him.

  2. gcb,

    Politicians do not ignore the facts — at least not pertinent ones. Pertinent = whatever will lead to re-election.

    Briggs,

    Cut Horgan a little slack. There is nothing really wrong in hating to admit a distasteful truth as in “I hate to admit it, but taxes are a necessary evil.” It’s the rest of what he said that earns him the “hate to admit the truth” label.

    I take it you have canceled your SA subscription but are still drawn to it (moth –> flame) nonetheless?

  3. DAV,

    I disagree. I too hate taxes, but for the ugly fact that they are necessary. It is another to hate that fact because it doesn’t support a beautiful theory I cherish, which is what Horgan does.

    I actually don’t read it, except when diligent readers like yourself send me links (as Mr Anonymous did in the case of Horgan’s piece).

  4. It is especially odd to hate the fact that the murder rate is low… that is basically what he hates, right? I’m not sure what studies he refers to but I imagine they conclude that when gun control laws are taken away, the rate of illegal-gun-using does not increase. Which is unfortunate I guess…

  5. I used to read Scientific American every month, but it started going downhill and turned into Pseudo Scientific American. Now they publish nonsense. As an example, in the Nov 09 issue there is an article on sustainable energy where the authors tell how we can replace our conventional electrical generation with wind, sun, tidal etc generation. The article is nonsense but the editors at Scientific American evidently can’t recognize nonsense and don’t realize they are being spoofed.

  6. Magazine decay —

    Magazines, much like television networks, usually start out pandering to one or a few interests: video games, movies, human-interest stories, the list goes on. Publishers like the brisk sales, and people in the demographic groups like the fact that they’re getting a magazine for their interests.

    But then along comes Magazine Decay.

    Some exec at your magazine realizes that he could attract more people in your demographic by, say, adding some dirty humor to your video game magazine. Or adding celebrity gossip to your housekeeping magazine. After all, housewives like housekeeping, housewives like George Clooney, so why not combine them?

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MagazineDecay

  7. I got suckered into subscribing for Wired magazine. It is filled with ads for products I cannot afford (like the Ipad and the latest Cadillac coupe). The latest issue carries many details of how criminals perform their activities and how New York prostitutes used Twitter to render pimps redundant and how many panties they carry in their handbags. Two issues before, the main article about breast implants and I had to keep explaining to my wife why there was a close-up of titties on a sci-tech magazine cover.

    I had bought Wired because of the fond memories I had associated with it, from its Hotbot and Webmonkey days.

  8. The treatment of Lomborg by Scientific American will always be a defining moment for me.
    The piling on was another case of ideology blinding critical thinking. The Gervais research study in your last post is a product of the same poisoned tree.

  9. I discovered Scientific American in the 1970’s my the school library and local municipal
    library. It is no exaggeration to say it changed my life – I loved it. Martin Gardiner,
    C L Stong, Jearl Walker. The interesting articles (except the medical ones) and the
    lovely line drawings and photographs always drew me in – and the tantalizing adverts
    for books, calculators and computers – the Altair 8800. I cancelled my order in the late
    90’s after the change in direction became obvious. Unlike you, I am never tempted to
    look under the garish covers. The Lomborg affair confirmed I made the right decision
    along with other post-modern nonsense by Horgan and co (“End of Science”, “Death
    of Proof”, etc).

    I also enjoyed the weekly British magazine New Scientist for many years. It had some
    good columns too. Alas that too went to the dogs. It is now also a dumbed-down pop
    magazine.

    Currently, I read the American Scientist which is decent most of the time but it is a
    shadow of the old SciAm – it lacks a great column like “Mathematical Recreations” or
    “The Amateur Scientist”.

    Are there any decent “hard core” science magazines left or is their age past?

  10. I believe this approach is called Policy-based evidence-making. Climate science has a virulent infestation which may be terminal for the field.

    SciAm and Popular electronics were the magazines that strongly influenced my career path.
    I canceled my subscription to SciAm immediately after the Lomborg embarrassment.

  11. DM,

    Science News fills the gap for me. They report on conferences and journal articles without a lot of detail. But the featured articles have plenty of relevant factual information on a particular topic.

  12. They’ve had a left-wing slant for years. The difference is that the politics used to be segregated. It was most common in “Science and the Citizen” and the book reviews remember their treatment of Herman Kahn?). Most of the rest of the magazine was ideology free.

    If you want to ridicule a recent SA article, I recommend this one.

  13. At my grandfather’s urging, I read SciAm every month from the age of 10. He maintained that if you read it faithfully, you really didn’t need a formal technical education. I went on to get a degree in physics and hold 6 patents. But for years, an enjoyable moment of each month came with the current issue of SciAm. I am now fully retired but active in our local technical community. However, I no longer subscribe. Jon Rennie drove me bonkers (we were on a panel together once) but the new editor in chief is worse. So sadly, last year, I dropped the subscription that I have held since 1959. I still have a collection of classic articles I have saved from the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is sad to compare what was and what it is. But enough. Let’s move on to more enjoyable topics. Like how about those Steelers?

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