Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Demise of Scientific American

 
Yesterday one of my colleagues delivered a lecture on the cracking of the genetic code. I ended up discussing it with a student during the afternoon. That was an exciting time back in the early 1960's and as a teenager I followed the new biology in the pages of Scientific American. All the big names had articles in Scientific American.

Later on as a graduate student, a postdoc, and a young faculty member, I still looked forward to reading the monthly issue of Scientific American for accurate summaries of what was going on in science. But something happened in the 1990's. I started to see articles by scientists I'd never heard of even though they were writing on areas close to my interests. Furthermore, the quality of the articles was way below the standards set in previous decades. Often the authors were clearly promoting their own work and downplaying or ignoring the work of others. I started to lose confidence in Scientific American because I recognized that in my own areas of expertise the articles were no better than what you find in the tabloid science magazines. I assume this is true for all other disciplines as well.

I've criticized some of these articles in previous postings. For example, an article by Gil Ast on The Alternate Genome makes silly statements about basic molecular biology [Facts and Myths Concerning the Historical Estimates of the Number of Genes in the Human Genome]. Also see [Junk DNA: Scientific American Gets It Wrong (again)] and [The Hypocrisy of Scientific American].


[Duesberg has] proposed the hypothesis that the various American/European AIDS diseases are brought on by the long-term consumption of recreational drugs and/or AZT itself, which is prescribed to prevent or treat AIDS.
... from Peter Duesberg's website
April 14, 2007
Imagine my lack of surprise when I picked up the latest issue and noticed that Peter Duesberg was the author of one of the feature articles. The editors know full well that this will provoke controversy so here's what they say in their editorial.
Even mentioning the name Peter Duesberg inflames strong feelings, both pro and con. After gaining fame in 1970 as the virologist who first identified a cancer-causing gene, in the 1980s he became the leading scientific torchbearer for the so-called AIDS dissidents who dispute that HIV causes the immunodeficiency disorder. To the dissidents, Duesberg is Galileo, oppressed for proclaiming scientific truth against biomedical dogma. A far larger number of AIDS activists, physicians and researchers, however, think Duesberg has become a crank who refuses to accept abundant proof that he is wrong. To them, he is at best a nuisance and at worst a source of dangerous disinformation on public health.

Readers may therefore be shocked to see Duesberg as an author in this month's issue. He is not here because we have misgivings about the HIV-AIDS link. Rather Duesberg has also developed a novel theory about the origins of cancer, one that supposes a derangement of the chromosomes, rather than of individual genes, is the spark that ignites malignant changes in cells. That concept is still on the fringe of cancer research, but laboratories are investigating it seriously. Thus, as wrong as Duesberg surely is about HIV, there is at least a chance that he is significantly right about cancer. We consider the case worthy of bringing to your attention.
Now let's unpack that opinion and put it in a different perspective to see where it takes us.

When it comes to AIDS, Peter Duesberg is a kook. He has consistently ignored scientific evidence in order to promote himself and his losing cause. In the face of overwhelming evidence that HIV causes AIDS he has steadfastly maintained a contrary position.

It's okay to take a minority position in science. We all do that from time to time. It's how science advances. However, there is such a thing as scientific integrity and scientific honesty. When your favorite theory goes against all scientific evidence you have two choices. You give up your theory or you stop being a credible scientist. Duesberg has chosen the second option.

There may be a chance that Duesberg is right about his new cancer theory but that's not the point. He has stopped being a scientist and he should not be given a platform in any magazine that pretends to be scientific. Once you lose your scientific credibility you have lost it forever. We don't reward such people by continuing to take them seriously as long as they avoid the one topic where their lack of integrity is known.

There are plenty of credible scientists out there who could write about cancer. The fact that Scientific American has chosen to put it's reputation behind Duesberg is just one more example of the demise of a good journal. The fact that the editors knew exactly what they were doing is not mark in their favor. They don't get bonus points for doing something wrong with their eyes wide open.

I will now put Scientific American in the same class as kooks like Duesberg. It does not deserve respect.

32 comments:

  1. Oy vey!

    You are right - something happened in the 1990s. It's a shame - it used to be such a great magazine.

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  2. Hi Larry,

    I came across your earlier critique regarding "junk DNA" in Scientific American via this post (I'm new to blogging, so I am a little behind here). I recently posted a summary of Ohno's ideas about "junk DNA" which may be of some interest if you don't have access to his early publications on the topic (I quote from them extensively). My main comment would be that people have known since the early 1950s that total DNA content (the majority of which is non-coding DNA) is linked to cell size and other parameters and that the importance of genomic size has been the subject of continuous study since that time.

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  3. Scientific American has been dead as a real science magazine for many years.

    It deserves no more respect than a tabloid.

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  4. Duesburg?! F**K**G DUESBURG??!!??
    Oh gods. We'd cancel our subscription if we hadn't already cancelled our subscription, about five years ago.

    I first encountered SciAm in the 70's during high school and university, then started subscribing in 1982. It was hard to read. I had to work to understand many of the articles. And I read every issue, pretty much cover-to-cover, and enjoyed every minute of the experience. Then....yeah: definitely by the late 90's they lost their edge. They moved down-market to occupy the niche vacated by Discover (which was in the process of re-inventing itself to be the new Omni[spit] - did you notice that Duesburg and Mullis have had their say in Discover lately?). Fortunately, by then I could get better intellectual stimulation than that on talk.origins.

    But let us all raise a glass and shed a tear for the glory that once was.

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  5. Hmm...I wonder if this is what exactly those 'framing' folks want? A tabloid-reincarnate 'science' magazine?

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  6. Yes, Scientific American died awhile ago.

    For it's replacement, please get _American Scientist_

    http://www.amsci.org/

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  7. TR Gregory said: I'm new to blogging, so I am a little behind here but forgot to blame me for this. How odd.

    I'm too young to have met an issue of Scientific American that wasn't fluff - unless that one issue I read back in junior high school (early 90s) was actually pretty good - I can't remember any of the details, and I was too ignorant back then to appreciate the differences.

    I've been enjoying SEED, hopefully they won't slip down that same path. The recent issue did not serve to bolster my optimism, nor does Mooney's current batch of asinine "frames" and "don't bash religion" publications.

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  8. This is another reason why reviewed outlets/archives like arxiv can be good. If the theory is good enough to be presented it can be, without publicly promoting the authors or giving them undue credit.

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  9. Oh dear. I hadn't realised it had got that bad. I also subscribed in the 1980's (I've still got most of the 1980's issues in the attic, much to the distress of my wife, who wants the space) but desubscribed in about 1993. Then I bought loose issues from time to time, but none recently.

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  10. Imagine my lack of surprise when I picked up the latest issue and noticed that Peter Duesberg was the author of one of the feature articles.

    Jeebus. I thought I was unshockable, but unlike you, I'm shocked by this. I didn't think even the dumbed-down piece of trash that contaminates the once-proud name of SA would stoop that low.

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  11. Interesting that earlier this evening I was reading a SciAm article on dinosaur growth rates co-authored by Jack Horner, someone who I imagine is known to others in his field. It was from 2005, well into SciAm's supposed "low period."

    Disappointing, then, to read such absolutist statements in your post, particularly backed up by the example of your earlier "gene numbers" post.

    In the "gene numbers" post, you presented a quote from Gil Ast saying that "some observers" were shocked by the low number of genes in the human genome (30-35k, as opposed to a center-of-the-curve-of-guesstimates nearly twice that number). You started off criticizing Ast's "some observers" by misquoting it as "most genome experts." By the time you'd finished, the misquote ante had been upped again: "It is simply not true that *all* the experts were surprised at the low number of genes." [Emphasis yours.] Now, a month later, Ast is characterized as making "silly statements about basic molecular biology...."

    I was also a bit nonplussed to see you laying down rules regarding scientific credibility: "Once you lose your scientific credibility you have lost it forever." Yeah, that Newton and his alchemy - this calculus, gravitation and optics stuff must be trash, too, eh? Ad hominem ain't science - if Duesberg isn't worthy of belief, the data should show it soon enough. Hard for me to fault SciAm for failing to suppress publication of a hypothesis when, in your words, [t]here may be a chance that [it] is right...."

    I'm not a scientist, and don't have independent knowledge on which to evaluate SciAm articles, but you haven't given me a solid scientific basis for skepticism about the magazine's worth.

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  12. Dear experts at Scientific American, and dear Blog Editor,

    In this months Scientific American May issue, you have a wonderful and astounding piece by Peter Duesberg on Cancer. Thank you for finally bringing this to the publics eye.

    However, the "editor" felt that he needed to put in a disclaimer that Peter Duesberg's theories on whether HIV causes AIDS have been "thoroughly rebutted".??? Ohhhh Really????

    Peter Duesberg's theories on HIV have been, are, and continue to be, outright rejected, and are not anywhere rebutted!

    I am, to say the least, disappointed in the editors choice of words, as well as disappointed that he even felt the need to run such a "disclaimer" regarding one of the most astute and integrous scientists of our time, National Academy of Science member Peter Duesberg.

    1)Scientific papers still all currently show that HIV is never found in a quantity that can damage an immune system or body, let alone be even a contributing cause of death.

    2)They currently all show that CD4 counts and viral load counts DO NOT predict AIDS.

    3)They show that no mechanism by which HIV affects the immune system has ever been found.

    4)They show HIV has never been found in T-Cells or infected tissues.

    5)They show that HIV has NEVER caused AIDS in any of the chimps that were given it - that DO get absolutely EVERY other human disease.

    6)They show that the symptoms of AIDS in Gays, hemophilliacs, heterosexuals, and Africans are ALL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT, and are ALL explainable by other factors!

    7)They show the leading cause of death in HIV positive Americans has been PROVEN by Dr. Amy Justice to be directly related to who takes the AIDS medications!

    8)Even Nancy Padian's study showed HIV was NOT sexually transmitted in any of her 160 some sero-opposite married couples in the only and longest running study of heterosexual transmission.

    9)Look at the years of high HIV deaths. They are identical to the exact years of high dosage AZT monotherapy given to all HIV positives! This clearly shows that AZT caused the majority of deaths from 87 to 96 during the period of greatest death attributed to "complications" of HIV.

    10)The studies on HIV tests clearly show HIV tests are not verified against any isolated HIV virus, and they show these tests are notorious for false positives, including the Oraquick test that was found to be giving at least 1/4th false positive results in San Francisco last year.

    And furthermore, every passing year that there is no "cure" and no vaccine continually proves again and again that Peter's theory is most likely to be correct! Even Bob Gallo admits since 1993 that he has NEVER FOUND HIV in any T-Cells, and he admits that he NEVER FOUND HIV in Kaposis Sarcoma.

    Pray tell?
    Why would Scientific American keep this information from the public?
    Would the SA editor et al continue to have people who have been diagnosed as HIV positive be unecessarily placed into the very well proven immune system destructive emotional states of extreme fear and panic and stress?
    Does the SA editor et al feel the need to enhance the pharmaceutical company sales of very poorly tested and proven toxic HIV therapies?
    Does the SA editor et al feel the need to be the moral watchdog on the publics sexual behaviors and choices?

    Bob Gallo, the so-called "co-discoverer" of HIV, who had been at one time found guilty of scientific misconduct, did quite a miserable job when he testified 3 weeks ago to the Supreme Court of Australia, in still trying to prove that HIV is the cause of AIDS. The opposing lawyer nailed him on some crucial facts, and in the trial transcript, Gallo himself admitted that he only found evidence of HIV in 40 percent of AIDS patients, he admitted that his Electron Microscope picture of supposed HIV was NOT HIV, he admitted that he never found HIV in any T-Cells or KS, and he admitted that there were a lot of problems with his supposed isolation of HIV. Read the transcript for your own self at: http://garlan.rethinkingaids.info/Cases/Parenzee/Gallo.html and http://garlan.rethinkingaids.info/Cases/Parenzee/

    In the piece by the editor "When Pariahs Have Good Ideas", the editor says "Thus, as wrong as Duesberg surely is about HIV". Oh is he really so wrong? And what evidence do you hold up as proof for such a supposed "statement of fact"??? What seminal paper do you uphold as the proof that HIV is the cause of AIDS???

    So I beg the experts and editors please tell me.

    Where is this rebuttal to Peter Duesberg? By Who? In what Paper? When were Peter's theories on HIV ever proven wrong? What and whose work establishes HIV as anything more than a possible, but most likely improbable cause of AIDS? When did Robert Gallo or anyone else ever debate Peter on this? When and who rebutted Peter's work on this?

    How is it possible that the editor says that Peter's HIV theories are "thoroughly rebutted" when in fact, they have never even been properly aired, debated, or tested, let alone ever proved wrong by anyone? If your magazine has some proof that Peter was wrong, please do share it with us, your public!

    Tony Fauci, Bob-'I found HIV in the mail from France' Gallo, and all of the virologists that still run the NIH are all still avoiding Peter's criticisms of HIV, because they have been, and are still, financially, egoically, and scientifically terrified that Peter is indeed correct that HIV is not, does not, and could not be the cause of AIDS.

    The supposed rebutters of Peter Duesberg and the defenders of HIV are simply still, after 20 years, running scared because they know they have NOT EVER rebutted or answered Peter. They are scared to death that Peter was and is right about HIV not causing AIDS. They are terrified of how the public would react after spending more than 100 billion taxpayer dollars betting on the wrong pony. And they are terrified of loosing this funding or admitting to the greatest and most costly error that medical science has ever made.

    'It should be fairly obvious to anyone who investigates this issue without bias, that Peter has not ever been rebutted. It is also fairly obvious, if one simply reads HIV research papers that HIV Does Not and Can Not cause AIDS! And to claim it does after 25 years with still no proof of how or why it possibly could, is a travesty of science unworthy of Scientific American, as well as a travesty of justice due to Dr. Peter Duesberg!

    Was your own editor simply afraid of the possible backlash by the terrified "experts" of HIV and do-gooder AIDS advocates if he was perceived as possibly even remotely backing Peter on the issue of HIV/AIDS?

    At least Harpers Magazine had the courage to stand up when they ran Celia Farber's piece on Duesberg in March of 2006: "AIDS: Out of Control and the Corruption of Medical Science. http://www.harpers.org/archive/2006/03/0080961

    I beg the "experts" at Scientific American to respond! Please tell me and please tell the rest of the world how and where, and who, and in what papers Peter Duesberg's theories on HIV have been thoroughly rebutted? Either respond and show us this rebuttal, or be ashamed of what must be your own magazines biased, willful, unscientific and unfounded misleading of the general public, as well as a lack of courage in dealing with this still very current issue and boondoggle of public health!

    It is an unfortunate shame for the world today that other mainstream magazines such as our own Scientific American have not yet also been able to muster such courage or clarity.

    You have done wrong to say Peter is surely wrong on HIV. But, either way, I sincerely DO thank you for running the current piece on Duesberg's groundbreaking work on cancer.

    Sincerely,

    Michael Geiger
    Board of Directors
    HEAL San Diego

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  13. Dear Larry Moron, or is it Moran. Thank you for your own opinion on HIV and the causation of AIDS. Glad you are such an all knowing expert on this scientific MORASS.

    It's okay to take a majority position in science. We all do that from time to time, and sometimes the majority is right, and sometimes it is not. Regardless, majority position IS NOT how science advances. Science is NOT done by popular vote.

    There is indeed such a thing as scientific integrity and scientific honesty. And when you can show me some of that in the likes of the pharma paid researchers of HIV, I may have more tendency to believe them. Glaxo, Boeringer, Tibotec, Hoffman LaRoche, Pfizer, and all are the leading funders of most HIV researchers. Another group of pigs feed regularly at the taxpayer paid trough.

    Peter Duesberg takes NEITHER! No CONFLICT OF INTEREST IS TO BE FOUND Mr Moron, Moran, Morass!

    When your favorite theory goes against all scientific evidence you have more than two choices Mr. Moron. You claim there are only two: "You give up your theory or you stop being a credible scientist". Duesberg has chosen the third option of standing by his own beliefs and integrity even at the cost of all funding and being labeled a scientific kook and pariah by fools such as yourself.

    Get your own credibility in order you kook!

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  14. Re Michael

    As is demonstrated again, any commentary on HIV/AIDS denial brings the whackjobs out of the woodwork. However, even a stopped 12 hour clock is right twice a day so that it is possible that the fact that Duesberg is a nut case on HIV/AIDS relationships doesn't preclude the possibility that his work in the area described in the SA article may have some merit. I think it is fair commentary that the SA article should be judged on its scientific merit, not on the dubious reputation of its author. I would agree, however, that it should be given very close scrutiny and extra vetting given Prof. Duesbergs' obvious scientific incompetence relative to HIV/AIDS denialism.

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  15. Larry,

    You write:

    Imagine my lack of surprise when I picked up the latest issue and noticed that Peter Deusberg was the author of one of the feature articles.

    Imagine my surprise that a blogging Professor can't even spell Dr. Duesberg's name right:)

    When you gonna invited to join the National Academy of Science, Larry?

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  16. Thanks for catching the typo, anonymous. I spelled it correctly seven other time in the article. Does that count for something? :-)

    To answer, your question, I'm never going to be invited to join the American National Academy of Sciences. Do you have a point? Do you honestly believe that membership in that group makes you immune from criticism?

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  17. Do you have a point?

    Sure. You're a dishonest scientist. You wasted an entire "blog" entry on Dr. Duesberg, without even addressing any of the salient scientific points he made in his article about aneuploidy.

    So, my point is, you're a hack.

    Do you honestly believe that membership in that group makes you immune from criticism?

    Of course not. But, you offered no scientific criticism of his work, just bogus, infantile criticism of him.

    And, you can't spell.

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  18. [And, you can't spell.]

    Talk about infantile.

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  19. "I've been enjoying SEED, hopefully they won't slip down that same path. The recent issue did not serve to bolster my optimism, nor does Mooney's current batch of asinine "frames" and "don't bash religion" publications."

    Oh, Seed did a really bad article before I joined ScienceBlogs, an article that was in essence a puff piece on Mark and David Geier, two of the prime movers in the "mercury causes autism" brigade, whose bad science I have extensively documented in my blog. If I had seen that before I joined SBs, I might not have joined. Fortunaely, Seed has done nothing as horrible as that since.

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  20. "Sure. You're a dishonest scientist. You wasted an entire "blog" entry on Dr. Duesberg, without even addressing any of the salient scientific points he made in his article about aneuploidy."

    Maybe in his disgust with Scientific American Larry didn't, but I did.

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  21. Folks, what happened in the 1990s is that SciAm was sold -- IIRC some French publishing conglomerate. I don't mention the French so as to bash them -- it's just that the magazine is called Scientific "American" In any event, the issue was the publishing conglomerate, with it's myopic focus on the bottom line.
    I have the vaugest recollection that the conglomerate eventualy re-sold the magazine but don't hold me to that.

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  22. Sorry, shot first and asked questions afterwards! It was a German publishing conglomerate. Still a conglomerate and still focused strictly on the bottom line.

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  23. I recently read Amir D. Aczel's "The Mystery of the Aleph", and started thinking of Cantor, Gödel and even Newton, and remembered your post and I think you can hold bizarre, ridiculous and even dangerous beliefs and yet make scientific contributions. I don't think this post was necessarily a strong argument to discredit a magazine.

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  24. The mention of Duesberg really brings out the quick-to-anger name-callers, but not much scientific discussion. Name-calling is what 5 year-olds do, and is fallacy ad-hominem. If you can't do better than call Duesberg a "kook", you might as well take your "scientific" debate down to the nearest grade school playground and debate with your intellectual peers. You'd experience an identical amount of valid scientific discourse.

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  25. Would it not be fair to also concede that neither has Scientific American's sustaining econosystem remained unchanged since the arrival of the invasive internet?

    As Jod points out, there have been many great scientists with a severe kooky streak. I don't see anything wrong with a magazine publishing a controversial piece from time to time, with the controversy noted as such.

    It's not just the old Scientific American that has passed on. I feel it is also time to retire the old notion of "respected" journal. Ideas are best debated on merit, not their mode of publication, or by virtue of an invisible and anonymous peer review. I would find it convenient to simply ignore all scientists who've associated themselves with the Templeton Foundation rather than contend with their ideas. Convenient and insular.

    For example, many people like to shout down Bjørn Lomborg as a kook. This strikes me as peculiar. I'm aware of few respected climatologists trained as social catastrophists. While they might be able to state that the climate will warm, I see no evidence of their qualifications to estimate how many trillions the world's nations should spend to avert this outcome. It's not their expertise to say so. What will happen to civilization if the world's water level rises by 10cm over 50 years is not science, it's futurology. The human race has yet to establish any credentials in that discipline.

    The great kooks of the world help remind us of this.

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  26. So...can you recommend any alternatives to Scientific American?

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  27. When Scientific American died I mourned as a reader of over 20 years. I wound up joining AAAS, even though I'm not a scientist and Science is an expensive weekly. The news in Science is always interesting and reliable. Often there are great review articles, written at a level a tad more difficult than the old SA, but always honest, complete and up to date.

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  28. I am taking a current environmental issues course at north hennepin community college and my professor had us subscribe to the magazine as "our textbook" because it "is a highly reputable science magazine written for a general audience". The first issue I started reading totally matches the criticism of the magazine found on wikipedia... oh joy...

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  29. I beg to differ...

    Scientific American may not be what it once was, but it's still good.

    I first encountered the magazine when I was 13, and immediately fell in love. Since then, I've bought secondhand copies, books, and even those ancient article reprints.

    Articles published since the 90s include (off the top of my head) an uncannily accurate warning about New Orleans flood defences, an early description of Google -- and a variety of other stuff that's generally well-written, provocative and ahead of its time.

    The most outwardly noticeable problem with the magazine now is that its graphic design has gone to the dogs. In Scientific American's glory days, the magazine had beautiful front covers, superb type design and illustrations by the likes of Ben Shahn alongside exemplary diagrams.

    Now it looks like a reborn Omni...

    The editorialising? I'm not sure. It goes against the grain, though I sympathise with the editor John Rennie's implied view that scientists now cannot afford politically to stand on the fence.

    Whatever -- the content is often still great and I'm not quite sure why people are so anti.

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  30. Sam Dutton says,

    Whatever -- the content is often still great and I'm not quite sure why people are so anti.

    I can't speak for anyone else but the reason why I think the magazine has gone to the dogs is because the content is horrible.

    The articles used to be written by prominent and respected scientists. Now they're written by other scientists or science writers who don't have a good understanding of the material.

    It shows.

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  31. I think the risk from a dumbed-down Sci Am is not so much that it publishes pieces by kooks or self-promoters. (Personally, I'd count the anti-Lomborg articles as partisan blather in service to an excessive ideology, but Your Mileage May Vary). After all, in a few years many facts sworn to by the best authorities will be known to be wrong.

    The bigger problem is that one can no longer learn science by reading Sci Am. In the old days, if you kept up with Sci Am, you'd be conversant with what was being done in science, to the point that you could browse Science magazine and be able to place each article in context (if not completely understand it), and you could filter out 80% of the popular idiocies about scientific topics.

    Now, reading Sci Am tells you what the hot topics of science are, but you don't learn anything deep about them. As Wikipedia puts it, "In the 1990s the target audience changed, from other scientists in unrelated fields, to educated general readers interested in science issues."

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