by PhilipJ on 21 September 2006
Via the n-Category CafÃ©, 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 â€œFly by Lightâ€? in the 9 September 2006 issue, concerning the supposed â€œelectromagnetic driveâ€? of Roger Shawyer. If Shawyerâ€™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 â€œreference framesâ€? ...
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 sensationalism he talks about arises from a broad editorial policy, not from any single writer, which is ultimately the responsibility of the publisher. Itâ€™s not just NEW SCIENTIST that is feeling the pressure to pump up the volume, so to speak, to grab their readersâ€™ 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?