Here’s Why I Canceled My Subscription to SciAm After 30 Years

The second magazine subscription I ever had was to Scientific American. I think I was still in high school at the time. For the first 20 or so years, I read most issues cover to cover within a week of getting them. Gradually, my interest tapered off, as the articles became less scientific and more American. Finally, the articles, tucked between ads for Range Rovers and jewelry, became, at the same time, so dumbed down and so in complete harmony with Big Government politics I couldn’t take it. I canceled my subscription.

Now comes this masterpiece from Michael Shermer with the promising title. But, alas! he’s just taking pot-shots at people he doesn’t like (just like he used to in his Skeptic magazine – which I also subscribed to for a year or two, until I realized the ratio of actual information to smug and condescending BS was approaching zero.

He starts out throwing around percentages, because that’s all scientifilicious:

58 percent of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans believe that Earth is getting warmer.

Now, while I don’t dispute there’s a high degree of ignorance of science out there*, I do have to wonder about a couple things. It seems the survey is asking what people “believe”. If someone asked me if I believed in science and my options were Yes/No/Not Sure, I’d have to say No. I accept science as the correct and privileged method to understanding the material world. I provisionally accept the conclusions of validly conducted scientific inquiry. But I don’t *believe* in science.

And I’d also like to see the exact questions and possible answers to the survey, and maybe see an explanation of the methodology. For example, were the surveys done on college campuses? On Sundays at the door of the 4-Square Bible-Thumping True Gospel Church? On Ashby Street in Berkeley? Are the questions unambiguous and not leading? It does matter. In any event, surveys are not science, so we’re now defending science with non-science. And Shermer is a smart guy, and his knows this. He just doesn’t care to be skeptical when what he ought to be skeptical of bolsters his position.

Next, it gets egregious:

Many conservatives seem to grant early-stage embryos a moral standing that is higher than that of adults suffering from debilitating diseases potentially curable through stem cells.

Whoa, there! What is the scientific basis for challenging whatever moral standing anyone else cares to give anything? That’s your Philosophy 101 question right there. So, the lab coat parts, and we see – a willfully ignorant partisan bigot. Shocking, I know. And note the by now traditional refusal to acknowledge that almost all medical progress has been made using non-embryonic stems cells – to which virtually no one objects – rather than the highly objectionable embryonic stem cells. ‘Potentially curable’ is a broad claim – so broad as to be meaningless except as propoganda. Diseases are potentially curable by bloodletting and trepanation – or by sacrificing virgins to the gods. Yes, there are some ‘cures’ that we refuse to try – it’s that pesky moral value again.

And most recently, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin gaffed on the ability of women’s bodies to avoid pregnancy in the event of a “legitimate rape.” It gets worse.

Without downplaying the magnitude or offensiveness of Akin’s gaffe, it’s a gaffe. Perhaps it would have illustrated his point better, keeping with the promise of the title, if he’d have quoted any number of liberal politicians saying stupid things about fracking or nuclear power or SETI. Or, even better, talk about all the New Age liberals. (I live in NoCal, where shakra-adjusting crystal waving Obama devotees are as common as – something really common.)  I’d agree it’s scientific ignorance to believe sex, even ‘legitimate rape’, doesn’t cause babies. If that’s what he’s getting at.

And I seriously doubt it gets worse – because if there were worse, I am confident Shermer would have told us all about it.

In addition, consider “cognitive creationists”—whom I define as those who accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

While he may have a point here, I suspect (from having read a bit of Shermer’s other writings) that there is here an assumed equivalence between brain and mind. It seems likely to me that many people do not understand this distinction and are instinctively rejecting the idea that the human brain/mind is just quantitatively different from a rat’s brain – we’re just bigger and smarter than rats, but essentially the same. I think we suspect that human being are qualitatively different, the concept captured in the idea of a rational soul. But it’s also possible that some people are just much more philosophically advanced than Shermer, and know his assumptions about brain/mind equivalence are wrong. And it seems clear Shermer would not be interested in entertaining this distinction.

Shermer does get points here for taking on, however furtively, the educational establishment. Yes, dogmatic Lockeans (and, more virulently, Marxists and their spawn) rule academia, and they will have none of this ‘evolution’ voodoo if it challenges their claims that it’s all in the power dynamic, man. But he devotes a sentence to tangentially attack those people – who are, after all, *his* people, for the most part, under the enemy of my enemy is my friend rubric.

Finally, the mandatory passage required by some journalistic law:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.

Not pretending that sex is no big thing (contrary to all observation and Darwin, too!) is obsessing. While your typical environmentalist holds his beliefs with almost religious fervor. Almost? Religious people should be so fervent!

As an educated layman, this sort of self-serving crap doesn’t affect my reliance on science.  But what about all those people who have effectively no science education? They’re not going to make the distinctions I make, because they reasonably enough think that what scientists say *is* science. And so the sloppy thinking, thinly-veiled bigotry and partisan fervor displayed by Shermer – and by Sagan before him – is seen as science. And properly rejected.

Shermer, Sagan and Co are largely responsible for the very situation they descry.

(Corrected 3/12 for a stupid misreading of a sentence. My bad.)


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Here’s Why I Canceled My Subscription to SciAm After 30 Years”

  1. Accept evolution of the body but not the brain? And here I thought the brain was a part of the body! The organ that we use while thinking, just as we use the feet while dancing. Of course, not believing in magical organs that use an organism — the brain is not even an organ separate from an entire organism — I don’t see how brains are mind any more than feet are dance.

    1. I don’t think Mr. Shermer would be willing to follow that argument. It’s turtles all the way down, and that’s that.

      What gets me is how unskeptical skeptics tend to be about the all the metaphysics and ‘mysticism’ needed to conclude that Mr. Shermer does anything. Is there a Mr. Shermer? In what sense? Can ‘he’ do anything? Can we say that how he chooses to do something is different from how snow chooses to melt? In what sense?

      These fine skeptical thinkers (with few and noble exceptions) seem to think metaphysics and philosophy are in some distant land and can be safely ignored, when they’re as close as a personal pronoun.

      And I’ve never mentioned (because I couldn’t find an email) how honored I am that you read and link to my humble blog. Thanks.

  2. “Potentially curable” diseases by embryonic stem cells is a lot greater jump than pregnancy being aborted secondary to the trauma of a “legitimate rape.” Aiken’s gaffe was only a gaffe because the media carries so much water for the liberals. Must conservatives prove they aren’t ignorant (as in knowing sex leads to children?) constantly? It seems everyone knows that stressors of many stripes decrease a woman’s chance of getting pregnant. Common stressors include exercise, changes in climate, stressful emotional excitement (rape?), febrile disease, etc. So why the uproar over a poorly worded phrase when we know what he was trying to say was true? Aiken had thoughts painted into his words to the hyperbolic effect that raped women don’t get pregnant. It is reminiscent of Bush’s pronunciation of “nuclear” in comparison to Obama’s 58 states (or more comparably to marine “corpse”).

    On a different note, culturally, I have heard a few sermons on how the “mind” has actually devolved. How Adam and Eve were freakishly intelligent in their prelapsarian state. Einsteins in math, Darwins in biology, Raphaels in art, etc. They named God’s creation! Sin darkened their intellect, will, and imagination — their higher senses — while making them more susceptible to the passions. Seems true to me. Modern man believes he is more intelligent than the “superstitious primitives” while arrogantly living on the shoulders of a multitude of generations and those generations learning. The hubris makes him less aware and less teachable. He already knows it all. And “it all” means nothing. Our modern nihilism. Default seems to be lower in the hierarchy of goods as expressed by Mr. Flynn in January Dancer — intoxication of the senses: drugs, alcohol, sex, entertainments.

    1. Very good points. Might have been trying too hard to be fair to Shermer, and thereby being less fair to Akin.

      I’ve often wondered how much we consider miraculous, such as St. Francis’ ability to communicate with animals, is not so much supernatural as eminently natural, as in the recovery of what would have been natural to our unfallen natures. Now, we’ve fallen so hard that any attempt to resist our concupiscence is seen as unnatural, while such effort would hardly have been an effort for Adam.

      And I hang my head in shame that I have yet to read January Dancer. It’s on the list.

  3. Followed this from your more recent post…

    I’ve wanted to like Shermer, but he always disappoints me. I’ve heard him speak here and there, and he is likable. But then you get a clearly imbalanced view of politics and religion, and nothing to back it up.

    As mentioned above, he seems committed to already knowing everything, so the possibility of an error on his part doesn’t rise to the surface.

    (I read the transcript of his debate with a theist on morality without God, and he just completely misses the is-ought problem. His interlocutor – wish I remembered the name – did a good job framing the dilemma, but Shermer just never saw the problem).

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