Commentary Magazine


"Scientific American"

To the Editor:

Rather than reply point by point to Jeremy Bernstein’s cranky rant [“What Happened to ‘Scientific American,’ ” May] and expose how ignorant of both science and publishing he has apparently become, I will confine myself to facts he conveniently omitted. One is that his low regard for Scientific American has not stopped him from contributing to it three times since 1995, well after the changes he dislikes began. We invited him to write a fourth time, but he declined on the grounds that—as he mentioned in his article—we don’t pay enough. Is that his central complaint? Or is it that, like Groucho Marx, he would rather not belong to a club that would have him as a member?

Mr. Bernstein glosses over the fact that Scientific American was sold in the mid-1980′s because it had ceased to be a “hugely profitable operation,” in no small part because even many of the scientists in its audience were losing patience with the “really incomprehensible articles” he idolizes. Today, as a result of “what happened to Scientific American” circulation and advertising pages are again up. The magazine is more timely, lively, and understandable, as long-time readers attest to us on a regular basis. It continues to attract the same top-flight scientific authors that it always has, such as Nobelists Christian de Duve and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard. Scientific American has also recently had two consecutive nominations for the National Magazine Awards; in April it won for its single-topic issue, “What You Need to Know about Cancer.”

I realize that physics, not biology, is Mr. Bernstein’s strong suit, but there is a popular biological concept about which he must have heard: evolution. Successful magazines adapt to their times. We appreciate Mr. Bernstein’s invitation to join him in the tar pit, but we prefer the view from here.

John Rennie
Editor in Chief
Scientific American
New York City

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To the Editor:

Thank you for publishing Jeremy Bernstein’s fine article, “What Happened to ‘Scientific American.’ ” Chronicling examples of the intellectual decline of this country may not stem the tide, but at least it lets those of us concerned about this decline know that someone else is noticing.

One minor quibble (actually a quibble with a footnote, for goodness’ sake, which is known technically as “nitpicking”). In that footnote, Mr. Bernstein quotes Niels Bohr’s famous statement that “A deep truth is one whose opposite is also a deep truth.” As an example of such a truth he cites “the proposition that extraterrestrial life exists.” But I do not think this captures the meaning of Bohr’s statement. Either extraterrestrial life does exist or extraterrestrial life does not exist. Whichever is true, its opposite must be false. Like Mr. Bernstein, I have always liked Bohr’s statement, but I am not certain it withstands scrutiny. That nature is logical and that no two truths can be in contradiction (at least on a super-atomic level) is a basic assumption of all science, an assumption that has always proved justified.

Perhaps Bohr was referring to quantum duality, but if so, his statement would seem pretty limited in scope. I suspect that what he had in mind was “opposites” (loosely speaking) like the aphorisms “absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind.” The epistemological status of such aphorisms is an interesting issue, but not one possible to consider seriously here. My guess is that, like great works of literature, “opposite” aphorisms are, in principle, empirical statements but ones that trade testability in practice for subtlety, penetration, and depth. In practice, I would guess, the aphorisms cited above are not contradictory but oracular. As in science, which one of the two is correct can be ascertained only after the experiment (i.e., experience), but, unlike in science, the complexity of real life prevents any meaningful prediction or retrodiction.

Incidentally, had Mr. Bernstein chosen to focus on the issue of Scientific American which contains the hatchet job done on Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, he would have found bias and deception even more egregious than the examples he cites in his “mini-autopsy” of the February 1997 issue. The article on The Bell Curve was written by Leon Kamin, whose long career has been dedicated to attacking IQ and its causes (as the editors had to know) with pathetically fallacious arguments that were easily refuted long ago in the scientific journals (as the editors certainly should have known, and—who knows?—may well have known).

In its choice of reviewer, Scientific American was in fact right in step with the general-circulation magazines and newspapers, which have nearly all lauded Kamin’s “brilliant work.” It seems to be a requirement that book reviewers for these publications combine an almost total ignorance of science—indeed, of elementary logic—with an ideological leaning that leaves truth in the dust.

Steven Goldberg
New York City

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To the Editor:

I enjoyed Jeremy Bernstein’s article: Scientific American‘s loss of scientific depth has been a great disappointment to many.

Mr. Bernstein attributes that loss only to the new ownership that took over in the mid-1980′s. With that new ownership, he says, came a concomitant scrapping for “ever larger numbers.” But the change of ownership may have been only a part—possibly the smaller part—of the reason for the reduced scientific depth of the magazine.

Mr. Bernstein mentions in passing the “left-leaning politics” of Scientific American. I have noticed this too. I have also perceived a connection between the incorporation of political bias into the magazine and changes in format and authorship.

If a magazine aspires to the best coverage of scientific subject matter, only leading experimentalists or theoreticians should be asked to contribute, for only they can make general assertions which are at the same time technically impeccable. (For the sake of brevity, I assume scientists who write well.) But since such authors are selected on nonpolitical criteria, editors cannot predict their political leanings.

But with the introduction of opinion columns, of staff-written pieces, and of articles written only by scientists whose views they already know, the editors are free to select those whose political ideas correspond to their own. This obviously applies to the promotion of what we today call “political correctness,” but it can be used to promote any political position.

The price paid for such editorial direction appears, as might be expected, in dumbed-down presentations of the sort described by Mr. Bernstein, for even the best science reporter is not the equivalent of a working scientist.

Thus the present editorial condition of Scientific American may be largely attributed to the desire of its editors to introduce political bias into the magazine.

Charles G. Beaudette
Cumberland, Maine

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To the Editor:

I have appreciated and enjoyed Jeremy Bernstein’s work ever since The Analytical Engine. So when I saw his name on the cover of COMMENTARY, I had to read his article. I too am deeply disappointed in the direction Scientific American has taken in recent years.

More than 40 years ago a friend of mine subscribed to the magazine, and I was enthralled by the articles and graphics. As soon as I was able to, a few years later, I started to subscribe, and have been a subscriber ever since. It seems to me that, except for the obligatory articles on molecular biology, most of the pieces now are boring and trivial.

I am glad to see someone blow the whistle on Scientific American. Though I will probably subscribe to it till I die, I get more enjoyment from periodicals like The Sciences, published by the New York Academy of Sciences.

Ronald A. May
Little Rock, Arkansas

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To the Editor:

Congratulations on Jeremy Bernstein’s fine article. As a long-time subscriber to both Scientific American and the New Yorker, I have become increasingly aware and then dismayed at the decline of both magazines. Mr. Bernstein has incisively analyzed and captured Scientific American‘s fall from grace.

William Eisner
Pacific Palisades, California

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Jeremy Bernstein writes:

In response to John Rennie’s dyspeptic rant, let me say the following:

  1. The only way to expose my supposed ignorance of both science and publishing would be, alas, to discuss my article “point by point.” Coyness is not proof, neither is innuendo.
  2. It is true that I contributed to Scientific American three times since 1995. That is why I started reading it carefully again. I soon realized that it was not the club I thought I was joining.
  3. It is also true that I declined an invitation for a fourth article. The first three articles were ones I had already written on my own and then submitted to the magazine on speculation. To do the fourth would have required a great deal of research, and I concluded that the amount I was being offered was roughly equal to the minimum wage in Alabama. To put it simply, I felt that Scientific American was trying to exploit writers by trading on a reputation it no longer deserved. I also felt that I was in a position to object to this, and if one consequence was that I would no longer be contributing to a magazine I no longer respected, so be it.
  4. On the matter of circulation and advertising pages, Mr. Rennie knows, and I know, that you can build up these numbers if you are willing to pay the price—by subsidizing them, in effect. Would he care to tell us whether Scientific American is making money? Did it ever lose money before the Germans bought it?
  5. And while he is at it, perhaps Mr. Rennie would also tell us his strong suit in the sciences. Which, if any, has he worked in? If he had indeed been in the sciences, he might value what Scientific American used to be more than he seems to.

Let me briefly pick Steven Goldberg’s nit. It was, I think, and I am paraphrasing, J.B.S. Haldane who said either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both circumstances are remarkable. It is in that sense that the presence of extraterrestrial life, or its absence, is a deep truth. I think this is the sort of thing Bohr had in mind, although when you read him it is often difficult to understand what he did have in mind.

I would also like to thank Charles G. Beaudette, Ronald A. May, and William Eisner for their kind comments.

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