Scientific American is a popular U.S.-based magazine covering science for a lay readership. The quality of its climate coverage, formerly excellent, became uneven after the departure of editor-in-chief John Rennie in 2009.
Coverage of climate change
A strong science background was not among the qualities editor-in-chief DiChristina said she looked for in science journalists, in an October 2010 article:
...I’m looking for...someone who is comfortable with the material. They don’t need a science degree. I don’t have one. Perhaps the most critical quality of an editor is sheer enthusiasm. We always want that senior-level editor...who can take a car wreck of an article and can figure out the narrative line. We also want someone who is comfortable with expressing themselves in visual terms. ...
Narrative vs. informative
Also in October 2010, the "narrative-friendly" title and framing of a profile of climate communication contrarian Judith Curry painted Curry as a heretic against a scientific orthodoxy, sidestepping the reasons why her writings have attracted concern. Jim Naureckas of FAIR was struck by the article's truth-agnostic tone: "the article seems to leave the impression that the truth on climate change is somewhere in the middle", adding,
- "Climate scientists feel embattled by a politically motivated witch hunt, and in that charged environment, what Curry has tried to do naturally feels like treason--especially since the skeptics have latched onto her as proof they have been right all along. But Curry and the skeptics have their own cause for grievance. They feel they have all been lumped together as crackpots, no matter how worthy their arguments."
Naureckas continued, "So, there are "worthy...arguments" against the idea that human alteration of the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm up? If so, Scientific American is sitting on the scientific scoop of the decade."
Naureckas also noted the irony of a science magazine featuring a pair of decidedly unscientific polls - one tied to the Curry profile, and an equally shoddy "'Energy Poll' conducted 'in association with' the Shell oil company" - pointing out that "taking money for science journalism from a company with a critical interest in denying science is inherently problematic" and noting that the quality slide was seen as early as October 2009, in an article on ways to pump more oil, in which climate went unmentioned; its author was an oil company executive..
Subsequent misuse of SciAm poll in Congressional testimony
In November 2010 Congressional testimony, climate denier Pat Michaels "who recently said Big Oil funds some 40% of his work, based a key part of his testimony on the ‘results’ of an online poll by Scientific American that was gamed by the deniers themselves".. To her credit, editor-in-chief DiChristina responded: "...I personally deplore such misrepresentations of science and was dismayed to see Scientific American’s good name put to that purpose."
Articles and resources
- Jason Fell (2009-04-23). Scientific American Editor, President to Step Down; 5 Percent of Staff Cut - Changes come as part of transition to Nature Publishing Group.. FolioMag.com. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. “...longtime Scientific American editor-in-chief John Rennie is planning to leave the magazine in June after 15 years, [Scientific American president Steven Yee] said. Executive editor Mariette DiChristina will step in as acting editor-in-chief following his departure.”
- Unknown author (Unknown date). Scientific American. Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. “# John Rennie, seventh editor-in-chief, 1994–2009; Mariette DiChristina, eighth editor-in-chief, appointed December 2009”
- John Rennie (date unknown). Selected Writings. johnrennie.net. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. ““Okay, We Give Up” (April 2005)...“15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” (July 2002)...“Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense””
- Unknown author (Unknown date). John Rennie (editor). Wikipedia. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. “He holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Yale University. After graduating in 1981, he worked for some years as a researcher at Harvard Medical School”
- Jason Fell (2010-10-14). Would These Editors Hire You?. FolioMag.com. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. “the first thing I’m looking for is someone who is comfortable with the material. They don’t need a science degree. I don’t have one. Perhaps the most critical quality of an editor is sheer enthusiasm. We always want that senior-level editor-a person with five to 10 years of experience, who can take a car wreck of an article and can figure out the narrative line. We also want someone who is comfortable with expressing themselves in visual terms. Part of our magazine’s special forte is to deliver information not just in words but in informational graphics and illustrations that help explain the science.”
- Michael D. Lemonick (2010-10-25). Climate Heretic: Judith Curry Turns on Her Colleagues. Scientific American. Retrieved on 2010-10-28.
- Jim Naureckas (2010-10-27). Is Scientific American Running Away From Science on Climate Change?. FAIR Blog. Retrieved on 2010-11-16. “...So there are "worthy...arguments" against the idea that human alteration of the atmosphere is causing the planet to warm up? If so, Scientific American is sitting on the scientific scoop of the decade. Perhaps worse, the article was accompanied by an online poll ...[asking] whether Curry is "a heroic whistle-blower, speaking the truth when others can't or won't," or someone who has "gone off the scientific deep end, hurling baseless charges at a group of scientists who are doing their best to understand the complexities of Earth's climate." Among the specific questions the Web poll asks is, "What is causing climate change?" There's something strange about any kind of poll on questions of science, as if the laws of nature responded to public opinion. But the adjective often used alongside of Web polls--which record the opinions of a non-random selection of Web surfers--is "unscientific." So why is Scientific American using one to gauge opinion on climate questions? ...website also features an "Energy Poll" conducted "in association with" the Shell oil company. It's hard to say whether this is an ad disguised as content or content that is underwritten and influenced by a self-interested advertiser--but either way, Scientific American has a major ethical problem. Simply taking money for science journalism from a company with a critical interest in denying science is inherently problematic...”
- Correction to FAIR post: author Lemonick has reported he was not involved in creating this poll.
- Joe Romm (2010-11-18). Scientific American editors slam science deniers Patrick Michaels and George Gilder for misusing their unscientific online poll. Climate Progress. Retrieved on 2010-12-08.
Related SourceWatch articles
- Scientific American website