Posted on May 6, 2024

Unscientific American

James B. Meigs, City Journal, Spring 2024

Michael Shermer got his first clue that things were changing at Scientific American in late 2018. The author had been writing his “Skeptic” column for the magazine since 2001. His monthly essays, aimed at an audience of both scientists and laymen, championed the scientific method, defended the need for evidence-based debate, and explored how cognitive and ideological biases can derail the search for truth. Shermer’s role models included two twentieth-century thinkers who, like him, relished explaining science to the public: Carl Sagan, the ebullient astronomer and TV commentator; and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote a popular monthly column in Natural History magazine for 25 years. Shermer hoped someday to match Gould’s record of producing 300 consecutive columns. That goal would elude him.

In continuous publication since 1845, Scientific American is the country’s leading mainstream science magazine. Authors published in its pages have included Albert Einstein, Francis Crick, Jonas Salk, and J. Robert Oppenheimer—some 200 Nobel Prize winners in all. SciAm, as many readers call it, had long encouraged its authors to challenge established viewpoints. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, the magazine published a series of articles building the case for the then-radical concept of plate tectonics. In the twenty-first century, however, American scientific media, including Scientific American, began to slip into lockstep with progressive beliefs. Suddenly, certain orthodoxies—especially concerning race, gender, or climate—couldn’t be questioned.

“I started to see the writing on the wall toward the end of my run there,” Shermer told me. “I saw I was being slowly nudged away from certain topics.” One month, he submitted a column about the “fallacy of excluded exceptions,” a common logical error in which people perceive a pattern of causal links between factors but ignore counterexamples that don’t fit the pattern. In the story, Shermer debunked the myth of the “horror-film curse,” which asserts that bad luck tends to haunt actors who appear in scary movies. (The actors in most horror films survive unscathed, he noted, while bad luck sometimes strikes the casts of non-scary movies as well.) Shermer also wanted to include a serious example: the common belief that sexually abused children grow up to become abusers in turn. He cited evidence that “most sexually abused children do not grow up to abuse their own children” and that “most abusive parents were not abused as children.” And he observed how damaging this stereotype could be to abuse survivors; statistical clarity is all the more vital in such delicate cases, he argued. But Shermer’s editor at the magazine wasn’t having it. To the editor, Shermer’s effort to correct a common misconception might be read as downplaying the seriousness of abuse. Even raising the topic might be too traumatic for victims.

The following month, Shermer submitted a column discussing ways that discrimination against racial minorities, gays, and other groups has diminished (while acknowledging the need for continued progress). Here, Shermer ran into the same wall that Better Angels of Our Nature author Steven Pinker and other scientific optimists have faced. For progressives, admitting that any problem—racism, pollution, poverty—has improved means surrendering the rhetorical high ground. “They are committed to the idea that there is no cumulative progress,” Shermer says, and they angrily resist efforts to track the true prevalence, or the “base rate,” of a problem. Saying that “everything is wonderful and everyone should stop whining doesn’t really work,” his editor objected.

Shermer dug his grave deeper by quoting Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald and The Coddling of the American Mind authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who argue that the rise of identity-group politics undermines the goal of equal rights for all. Shermer wrote that intersectional theory, which lumps individuals into aggregate identity groups based on race, sex, and other immutable characteristics, “is a perverse inversion” of Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind society. For Shermer’s editors, apparently, this was the last straw. The column was killed and Shermer’s contract terminated. Apparently, SciAm no longer had the ideological bandwidth to publish such a heterodox thinker.

American journalism has never been very good at covering science. In fact, the mainstream press is generally a cheap date when it comes to stories about alternative medicine, UFO sightings, pop psychology, or various forms of junk science. For many years, that was one factor that made Scientific American’s rigorous reporting so vital. The New York TimesNational Geographic, Smithsonian, and a few other mainstream publications also produced top-notch science coverage. Peer-reviewed academic journals aimed at specialists met a higher standard still. But over the past decade or so, the quality of science journalism—even at the top publications—has declined in a new and alarming way. Today’s journalistic failings don’t owe simply to lazy reporting or a weakness for sensationalism but to a sweeping and increasingly pervasive worldview.

It is hard to put a single name on this sprawling ideology. It has its roots both in radical 1960s critiques of capitalism and in the late-twentieth-century postmodern movement that sought to “problematize” notions of objective truth. Critical race theory, which sees structural racism as the grand organizing principle of our society, is one branch. Queer studies, which seeks to “deconstruct” traditional norms of family, sex, and gender, is another. Critics of this worldview sometimes call it “identity politics”; supporters prefer the term “intersectionality.” In managerial settings, the doctrine lives under the label of diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI: a set of policies that sound anodyne—but in practice, are anything but.


The DEI worldview took over our institutions slowly, then all at once. Many on the left, especially journalists, saw Donald Trump’s election in 2016 as an existential threat that necessitated dropping the guardrails of balance and objectivity. Then, in early 2020, Covid lockdowns put American society under unbearable pressure. Finally, in May 2020, George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer provided the spark. Protesters exploded onto the streets. Every institution, from coffeehouses to Fortune 500 companies, felt compelled to demonstrate its commitment to the new “antiracist” ethos. In an already polarized environment, most media outlets lunged further left. Centrists—including New York Times opinion editor James Bennet and science writer Donald G. McNeil, Jr.—were forced out, while radical progressive voices were elevated.

This was the national climate when Laura Helmuth took the helm of Scientific American in April 2020. Helmuth boasted a sterling résumé: a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the University of California–Berkeley and a string of impressive editorial jobs at outlets including ScienceNational Geographic, and the Washington Post. Taking over a large print and online media operation during the early weeks of the Covid pandemic couldn’t have been easy. On the other hand, those difficult times represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an ambitious science editor. Rarely in the magazine’s history had so many Americans urgently needed timely, sensible science reporting: Where did Covid come from? How is it transmitted? Was shutting down schools and businesses scientifically justified? What do we know about vaccines?

Scientific American did examine Covid from various angles, including an informative July 2020 cover story diagramming how the SARS-CoV-2 virus “sneaks inside human cells.” But the publication didn’t break much new ground in covering the pandemic. When it came to assessing growing evidence that Covid might have escaped from a laboratory, for example, SciAm got scooped by New York and Vanity Fair, publications known more for their coverage of politics and entertainment than of science.

At the same time, SciAm dramatically ramped up its social-justice coverage. The magazine would soon publish a flurry of articles with titles such as “Modern Mathematics Confronts Its White, Patriarchal Past” and “The Racist Roots of Fighting Obesity.” The death of the twentieth century’s most acclaimed biologist was the hook for “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson,” an opinion piece arguing that Wilson’s work was “based on racist ideas,” without quoting a single line from his large published canon. At least those pieces had some connection to scientific topics, though. In 2021, SciAm published an opinion essay, “Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.” The article’s five authors took issue with the effort by some social-justice advocates to create a cute new label while expanding the DEI acronym to include “Justice.” The Jedi knights of the Star Wars movies are “inappropriate mascots for social justice,” the authors argued, because they are “prone to (white) saviorism and toxically masculine approaches to conflict resolution (violent duels with phallic light sabers, gaslighting by means of ‘Jedi mind tricks,’ etc.).” What all this had to do with science was anyone’s guess.


“The old Scientific American that I subscribed to in college was all about the science,” University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller told me. “It was factual reporting on new ideas and findings from physics to psychology, with a clear writing style, excellent illustrations, and no obvious political agenda.” Miller says that he noticed a gradual change about 15 years ago, and then a “woke political bias that got more flagrant and irrational” over recent years. The leading U.S. science journals, Nature and Science, and the U.K.-based New Scientist made a similar pivot, he says. By the time Trump was elected in 2016, he says, “the Scientific American editors seem to have decided that fighting conservatives was more important than reporting on science.”

Scientific American’s increasing engagement in politics drew national attention in late 2020, when the magazine, for the first time in its 175-year history, endorsed a presidential candidate. “The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people,” the editors wrote. “That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden.” In an e-mail exchange, Scientific American editor-in-chief Helmuth said that the decision to endorse Biden was made unanimously by the magazine’s staff. “Overall, the response was very positive,” she said. Helmuth also pushed back on the idea that getting involved in political battles represented a new direction for SciAm. “We have a long and proud history of covering the social and political angles of science,” she said, noting that the magazine “has advocated for teaching evolution and not creationism since we covered the Scopes Monkey Trial.”

Scientific American wasn’t alone in endorsing a presidential candidate in 2020. Nature also endorsed Biden in that election cycle. The New England Journal of Medicine indirectly did the same, writing that “our current leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent” and should not “keep their jobs.” {snip}


Shermer believes that the new style of science journalism “is being defined by this postmodern worldview, the idea that all facts are relative or culturally determined.” Of course, if scientific facts are just products of a particular cultural milieu, he says, “then everything is a narrative that has to reflect some political side.” Without an agreed-upon framework to separate valid from invalid claims—without science, in other words—people fall back on their hunches and in-group biases, the “my-side bias.”

Traditionally, science reporting was mostly descriptive—writers strove to explain new discoveries in a particular field. The new style of science journalism takes the form of advocacy—writers seek to nudge readers toward a politically approved opinion.