New Scientist Magazine Fails Smell Test

the smell test

I used to love the New Scientist magazine with its well written stories of the latest scientific developments. Other friends liked Scientific American with its more detailed and comprehensive articles. But New Scientist covered more topics in a simpler format. It was designed for the average reader and suited my nature, flitting over the top of a broad range of issues. Jack of all trades, master of none, as my father used to say.

My old work library had a subscription to New Scientist and I regarded it as part of my professional reading to keep up with science developments around the world. And it was fun.

So when I left my work and set up my own business I made sure I signed up for a subscription. Things went well for ten years or so and I always looked forward to the magazine arriving in the mail and spending an hour or so a week catching up.

blurred New Scientist 20041211_800

(New Scientist deliberately blurs the image. Silly or what?)

But one day New Scientist gave the front page to a creation science Intelligent Design advocate, Paul Davies. (11 Dec 2004, Issue 2477). Paul’s Vital Spark canvassed the idea that aliens had implanted messages in our “junk” DNA“. Yes aliens. Wow. I wondered what the evidence for that was. I opened the mag on my long walk back up our dirt road from the letterbox (we lived on a battle axe 8 hectare bush block outside Canberra). I read the article and found no evidence at all.

No problem. They probably just want to be provocative and get a debate going and sell more magazines. Well I can help with that. I’ll organise a response. And remember, this was the time when Stealth Creationists (pdf) had risen to power. The late Victor Stenger used the term in a clever reference to US Stealth Bomber, flying under the radar and pretending to be invisible in order to achieve its disgusting purpose.

Stealth Creationists were also in power with their Stealth Bombers in the administration of US President Bush. Religionism plus militarism makes a toxic taliban tabernacle. They had mandated the sale of creationist literature in US National Park shops at the same time they were actually complaining about the Taliban. I love irony. And now here was the New Scientist, my favourite magazine, lending them support. Groans.

So I emailed the then editor Jeremy Webb on 17 December 2004. I had been in touch with James Randi and thought that James’s style of writing would suit the New Scientist. James was well known for the Million Dollar Challenge. Anyone who could prove anything paranormal could get a million dollars. James has now retired and the challenge is no longer on offer. As of 1 Sep 2015 the Foundation which James established has decided that the time and effort dealing with the deluded is not worth it.

Anyway I said to Jeremy in my email:

“Would you consider an opposing article jointly authored perhaps by Victor Stenger, James Randi or others (Dawkins or even Stephen Rose spring to mind)? If so how long would you want it to be and what guidelines would you want to give?”

Jeremy said no.

I was shocked and disappointed but kept up my subscription. It’s a bit like voting in political elections – vote for the least worst or you’ll get the worst.

About a year went by when lo and behold New Scientist published a book review that wasn’t a book review. It was a spray from the reviewer full of her own ideas and not much about the book being reviewed. Of course a good review lets you know where the reviewer stands, but it also has to tell you about the book. That’s the point.

The “book review” (behind New Scientist’s silly new paywall these days but with a teaser) was by Karen Armstrong (30 July 2005, Issue 2510, p42). It was an unintelligent attack on Richard Dawkins and anyone else who disagreed with her religionism. There wasn’t much about the content of the book (The Evolution-Creation Struggle by Michael Ruse) or how Ruse marshalled his evidence if he had any. (There’s that word evidence again and here is my favourite exponent discussing evidence and how its used, Naomi Oreskes.)

The review was the sort of pseudo review that I had seen before in Roman Catholic magazines as a child during my indoctrination. It wasn’t the sort of review which belonged in a popular science magazine. It might have been the sort of review to appeal to post-modernists (another form of religionism) who were still popular in the culture of the time. Unfortunately, despite the advice of Saint Paul (and I love the irony) religionists never reach intellectual maturity and it showed in buckets in Karen’s review.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

I cancelled my New Scientist subscription that day. BTW the quote from the christian bible above comes from a great website where you can compare various translations/bowdlerizations of the bible. Funnily enough the greatest bowdlerization is the King James Version (see God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson).

Two weeks later New Scientist published a letter from Ian Leslie, nicely saying:

The trouble with faith

Karen Armstrong would have it that religion is reconcilable with science if we understand religious beliefs not as literal truth but as myth (30 July, p 42). Fine by me: as an atheist I can appreciate myths, ancient legends, Greek tragedies and so on, and agree that they enrich my life.

I am moved to tears by Bach’s St Matthew Passion and I deeply enjoy the choral evensong every Wednesday on BBC Radio 3 – as a dramatic, musical and often poetic experience.

Unfortunately, this kind of experience is not enough for those who adhere to a religion. They profess to believe that there exists at least one supernatural intelligent being who knows them individually and makes specific commands, ranging from harmless but futile codes of diet or dress to killing people. For the existence of such a being there is no testable evidence whatever, so for that reason alone such a belief is irreconcilable with scientific understanding.

Published 17 August 2005

My working hypothesis is that New Scientist (owned by Reed Business Information Ltd) prefers profits to science when it comes to the crunch. Given their links to that paragon of scientific publishing Elsevier that wouldn’t surprise me.

RIP New Scientist


2 thoughts on “New Scientist Magazine Fails Smell Test

  1. Hello Kevin, Thank you for the excellent review. The fact that it comes from a longtime subscriber of New Scientist lends strength to your argument. I reached your blog via another WordPresser who has just written a post involving The New Scientist ( ), it is very fine to make your acquaintance here — I’m now following your blog. 🙂
    Vetting is serious business, as you well know — and to have encountered your work from a friend in England. Great stuff. Reaching fellow travelers through WordPress makes every effort worth the while.
    Wishing you a wonderful day from another hemisphere. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s