Save New Scientist!
October 7, 2006 3:50 PM   Subscribe

A plea to save New Scientist magazine from SF author and programmer Greg Egan (whose home page crashes my browser at the moment).
posted by thatwhichfalls (33 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an excellent job about 70% of the time. But the 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."
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:52 PM on October 7, 2006

A "real threat"? Is New Scientist that widely read in the UK?

Because in my experience, the people who know New Scientist even exists are not the most pressing problem in "public understanding of science".
posted by smackfu at 3:59 PM on October 7, 2006

Oh... it's not (a plea) (to save New Scientist from Greg Egan).

It's only (a plea to save New Scientist) (from Greg Egan).

I had wondered if maybe Greg Egan had been devouring their editorial staff, or subsuming them into his mindstate, or summat.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:33 PM on October 7, 2006

poster missed the n-category post New Scientist Reacts!
New Scientist now has a blog thread on the Shawyer article. It starts with a statement by the editor defending the article - see below.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 4:36 PM on October 7, 2006

The New Scientist is a weekly science news mag and occupies a space somewhere between newspaper and actual scientific journals. As such 70% accuracy is pretty incredible (and probably overly generous).

Given the unbelievable crap that is available in every other outlet in the UK (The coprafetishist diet consultant on 'You are what you eat' and the NHS approval of magnetic therapy spring to mind) there are at least 100 more appropriate targets for concern.

Giving the new scientist feedback on their accuracy is of course a good thing but don't loose perspective. You're correcting the one good student while the entire rest of the class is failing.
posted by srboisvert at 4:46 PM on October 7, 2006

New Scientist links get routinely bashed around here when posted.
posted by delmoi at 4:49 PM on October 7, 2006

My first thought was that Greg Egan had pulled a Yukio Mishima on the offices of The New Scientist. I'm glad he didn't.
posted by Kattullus at 4:54 PM on October 7, 2006

"My first thought was that Greg Egan had pulled a Yukio Mishima on the offices of The New Scientist."

He didn't? If I'd realised that I wouldn't have posted. Administrator please hope me!

(Sorry for the poor wording - I was in the middle of de-boning a New Scientist editor chicken when I posted).

Seriously though - twenty years ago NS was much better. They've been getting sloppy for quite some time and I wish they would stop it.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 5:03 PM on October 7, 2006

The other 30% are all the articles that get linked to on the interwebs.

Talking of declining standards, anyone here remember when Horizon was good? Those were the days.

Also has the standard of docs on the Discovery channel and History always been as low as it is at the moment?
posted by Artw at 5:20 PM on October 7, 2006

Is New Scientist that widely read in the UK?

Well, you can find it at pretty much any decent news agents, so I'd guess "yes".
posted by Artw at 5:26 PM on October 7, 2006

Oh, and I really should mention Ben Goldachres one man campaign against bad science reporting. He's also quite often the best bit of the Guardians weekly science section.
posted by Artw at 5:28 PM on October 7, 2006

The editors call it an "ideas magazine"
posted by stbalbach at 5:34 PM on October 7, 2006

New Scientist has always been the sensationalist tabloid rag of the science community. It's always got at least one completely wacked-out story in it. Part of the fun of reading is trying to figure out who the nutjobs are and what's really serious---NS editorial doesn't differentiate for you. The really fun bit is that some of the nutjobs turn out to be right. It happens extremely rarely, but it does happen.

If you want serious, read Nature or Science (you should be reading those anyway, if you're at all serious about modern science).

I seriously need to cut-down on my use of the word "serious"
posted by bonehead at 5:45 PM on October 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Having asked for a subscription to New Scientist last christmas, I received instead a subscription to American Scientist, compared to which New Scientist looks like Popular Mechanics. I'm glad the mistake was made.
posted by unmake at 6:22 PM on October 7, 2006

As a scientist who has had my work discussed in the popular press on a few times, I know what it is like to have ones work butchered by the popular press (in one instance Discover magazine got some facts wrong) perhaps the reporting of the emDrive is a case of this.
posted by christopher.taylor at 7:15 PM on October 7, 2006

New Scientist also is a weekly that tries to turn stories around quickly. So if it's published in a journal this week, it should be in the NS issue this week too. I'm sure that leads to problems if they take things at face value.
posted by smackfu at 7:39 PM on October 7, 2006

Also has the standard of docs on the Discovery channel and History always been as low as it is at the moment?

I don't know, but friends who work for the National Geographic Channel - where every fact, as in every department of NG, is supposedly verified from three different sources - say Discovery 's reliability in particular is a joke. Little to no fact-checking, sensationalism, etc...
posted by gottabefunky at 8:06 PM on October 7, 2006

I don't think a "real" science journal, not even a general one like Nature or Science, is appropriate for the layperson wanting to stay abreast of recent research. It's just not what they are for. But there's just not a good popular magazine of science—Scientific American once filled that role but its quality has declined in the last fifteen years.

Omni's and then Discover's sucesses proved right off the bat that what the popular audience wants is science mixed with pseudoscience and sensationalist science. New Scientist includes this stuff by editorial design, don't doubt that.

But the general quality of science reporting is quite bad and this has puzzled me for a long time. I strongly suspect that this is the result of an emphasis on a general j-school background for science journalists and a great underestimation of the level of science and math literacy required to properly report science news to a general audience. If science news appealed to a wider readership then science journalism might be of much higher quality following something closer to the sports journalism paradigm, where a very strong emphasis on technical competency in the field is a definite requirement. But science reporting isn't popular, so there's not such an emphasis.

The deeper problem, in my opinion, is the divide between the humanities and the sciences. Non-scientists with college degrees are becoming more and more science and math illiterate while, at the same time, scientists are becoming less competent at general subjects and particularly as writers. There's just very few people with both the temperment and education qualified to be science reporters.

I think there could be much improvement if journalism schools and media companies cooperatively created and enforced strong and rigorous science reporting curricula and hiring policies, but I don't see this happening any time soon. Again, if the public doesn't much care about it, then the media companies won't, either.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:10 PM on October 7, 2006

the general quality of science reporting is quite bad

Chemical and Engineering news does a decent job for chemistry and chemical engineering, Physics Today for chemistry, those being the fields I know anything about. I just had a blub in C&E and thought the reported did a really good job (an experience quite unlike that I've ever had with a news item before, I assure you). The New York Times Science section is quite often worth reading.

But you're very right about almost all the others. The decline of Scientific American has been particularly painful to watch. A lot of it is just plain advocacy now.
posted by bonehead at 9:18 PM on October 7, 2006

Physics Today for chemistryphysics.

And I'm off to bed.
posted by bonehead at 9:21 PM on October 7, 2006

So, what, now we're supposed to send $23 to this magazine, too?
posted by soyjoy at 9:23 PM on October 7, 2006

New Scientist really did used to be better. Pretty much every kid doing science-based 'A'-levels at my school was encouraged to get an NS subscription, and they were distributed in school. It was a good read, and lot of it was excellent. It was fortnightly back then. I also got American Scientist, which was harder science. American Scientist had longer articles, but a lot of them required much more than a general level of scientific knowledge.

I resubscribed to NS a couple of years ago in a fit of nostalgia and was really disappointed - populist crap, gee whizz stuff. All the real science seems to have fallen out of it. I read it for the year, on and off, but I didn't bother renewing my subscription.

I just wonder if the reason is competition from the interweb. Back then NS was very newsy - it had a lot of articles that were just updates on x, y or z bit of research. Now all that stuff appears on slashdot et. al., maybe they need to try and provide something different to sell at all?
posted by winjer at 11:36 PM on October 7, 2006

I must admit that when I first read the article I didn't realise that the principles discussed violated any laws of nature. Also, I didn't realise the magazine discussed theories as if they were facts, which appears to be the case. I'm not a scientist and, not reading any other science magazines, I thought New Scientist was some kind of highly-respected scientific journal. I was completely misled by that article. I honestly thought that in a few years the world would be astounded by the new flying machines and travel would be revolutioned... Although I did forget all about it almost as soon as I put the magazine down.

I still think the magazine is great for some entertaining science-based reading but I guess I'll have to be less credulous in future.
posted by spacedog at 1:34 AM on October 8, 2006

Disclaimer: I love reading NS. I've subscribed for a couple of years now.

Defence: Please, people, get over it. True, NS is sort of like the Popular Mechanics of science writing. Who cares? Nobody with any intelligence will mistake it for a serious science journal, and anybody who does doesn't deserve to be doing any science that you and I should care about.

NS is actually interesting enough to sell copies, and for god's sake, we could use a lot more people developing an interest in science.
posted by Dunwitty at 1:51 AM on October 8, 2006

Oh yeah, the other disclaimer. I hate Greg Egan.
posted by Dunwitty at 1:53 AM on October 8, 2006

I also subscribe to New Scientist, but I have to agree with mr. Egan. I subscribed based on rosy memories from my teenage years when it was politically active and about "real" science. Now it just seems to chase the latest sexy story and the writers often seem to know even less about their subject fields than I do. The "tabloidisation" of New Scientist is not just depressing - I think mr. Egan is right to worry about its influence. Although it might not have a huge readership, it does seem to be read by an awful lot of other journalists - many stories that appear in New Scientist will often appear in the popular media a few days later (often with the same spin on the story).
posted by silence at 2:37 AM on October 8, 2006


I love New Scientist but have noticed (with a couple of computer related stories) that they can accidently misrepresent the facts. However, there's always good stuff in there, and if you need a light science based journal, it's good stuff.

I won't be canceling my subscription.
posted by seanyboy at 2:41 AM on October 8, 2006

I think the sensationalism and dodgy science is not beneficial to the reputation of the NS. Including bad science and not realising is not a reassuring thing for a so-called science magazine to do.

I don't care if it comes out quarterly or daily, the focus should be on trying to provide good science not page filler. If I can't trust the NS scientific credentials what can they offer me?
posted by asok at 6:28 AM on October 8, 2006

I gave up on New Scientist ten years ago. Any rehabilitation will be going against the grain of at least a decade of sloppy, sensationalist reporting. That kind of change is going to have to come from well-established people within the organization who are at least as interested in accurate reporting as they are in their circulation, and to judge by the editor's disingenuous defence, it doesn't look like there are any at the moment.

In the 80s, when I was a kid, it did seem terrific, but maybe I just lacked the background to tell when they were full of shit, back then.

Greg Egan is one of my favorite science fiction authors, though. Schild's Ladder was brilliant.
posted by Coventry at 7:44 AM on October 8, 2006

True, NS is sort of like the Popular Mechanics of science writing.

Yeah, well, I don't read that either.
posted by sonofsamiam at 8:36 AM on October 8, 2006

But there's just not a good popular magazine of science

We subscribe to Science News at work; I look forward to it every week. It's written for the lay person, covers a wide set of disciplines and is very clear, not to mention interesting. It also doesn't waste space on what appear to be patently ridiculous hypotheses.

Coventry's right, that editor's defense was completely unsatisfying, as is Dunwitty's. The issue here isn't the use of speculative science stories to become "interesting enough to sell copies;" the issue is whether or not New Scientist is truly interested in fair presentations of the facts in those stories. Doesn't look like it, and that sucks.
posted by mediareport at 8:51 AM on October 8, 2006

E.g., Science News on the recent psilocybin experiment reports.
posted by mediareport at 8:54 AM on October 8, 2006

A "real threat"? Is New Scientist that widely read in the UK?>/i>

According to the Audit Bureau of Circulation, New Scientist sells 170,000 copies in the UK every week. That's more than the Economist.

posted by Hogshead at 9:14 AM on October 8, 2006

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