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Help save New Scientist

by PhilipJ on 21 September 2006

Via the n-Category Café, sci-fi author Greg Egan wants us all to help save the weekly science magazine New Scientist from itself. Quoting Egan:

[T]he combination of a sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

There are many areas in cosmology, fundamental physics and so on where there are controversies over issues that are hotly contested by various competent, highly educated and respected scientists, and I have no quarrel with New Scientist publishing views on various sides of these debates, even when those from the opposing camp would consider the claims to be nonsense.

However, I really was gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy in the article “Fly by Light� in the 9 September 2006 issue, concerning the supposed “electromagnetic drive� of Roger Shawyer. If Shawyer’s claims have been accurately reported, they violate conservation of momentum. This is not a contested matter; in its modern, relativistic form it is accepted by every educated physicist on the planet. The writer of this article, Justin Mullins, seems aware that conservation of momentum is violated, but then churns out a lot of meaningless double-talk about “reference frames� ...

I used to have a subscription to the magazine as a high school student, and I always found the magazine an extremely interesting read, though I didn’t really have the scientific sophistication to judge most of the content. Later, as an undergrad, the physics department had a subscription as well, so I’d leaf through them in the physics library. Even years ago stories were sensationalised beyond necessity, and the odd entirely foolish piece would get printed.

The comments at the café the post are also worth reading, with Jennifer Ouellette discussing how sensationalism is a problem for many popular science magazines:

The sensationalism he talks about arises from a broad editorial policy, not from any single writer, which is ultimately the responsibility of the publisher. It’s not just NEW SCIENTIST that is feeling the pressure to pump up the volume, so to speak, to grab their readers’ attention. Many popular science magazines have also been struggling to find a workable balance between the two.

Making a buck at the expense of scientific integrity is the last thing I would expect a science magazine to do, but there you have it. I can imagine it is an even bigger problem for New Scientist as it is a weekly publication, instead of the more common monthlies (Discover, SciAm) here in North America. It’s also worth noting that New Scientist is owned by Reed Elsevier, who I’ve taken issue with before. Hmm, maybe we shouldn’t help save New Scientist after all?

  1. dr. dave    3983 days ago    #

    I’ve always found New Scientist to be a little flaky. Whenever I read about some amazing science headline on Slashdot, and then see that the story comes from New Scientist, my reaction is always to ignore it until I hear about it someplace else.

  2. Igor    3979 days ago    #

    I tend to forgive them for their naivety and sensationalism sins. There are surely worse yellow press journals with a larger percentage of factually wrong and deliberately deceptive articles, cf. Science / Nature and co.
    And in the end innocent naivety is an important ingredient of creative inspiration.
    A wise guy with white mustache used to say:
    “Fantasy is more important than knowledge, because knowledge is limited.”
    So let the New Scientist fantasize, we will benevolently understand what they tried to tell us.

  3. John Baez    3969 days ago    #

    The editor of New Scientist has written a blog entry to defend their article about Shawyer:

    Anyone with something to say about New Scientist should post it there! That way, the editor is likely to read it. Be polite and persuasive.

  4. John Baez    3969 days ago    #

    By the way, the guy’s name is Greg Egan, not Eagen. Feel free to correct that and delete this.

  5. PhilipJ    3969 days ago    #

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the link and pointing out my typo!

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