Is New Scientist Losing Its Way?

8 12 2009

Science journalism is a funny game. I know that only too well from my experience editing two quite different science magazines. Building a bridge between the often esoteric world of science – with its breathtaking complexity, arcane language, super-specialised practitioners and often tangential relation to the real world concerns of every day people – is a daunting task.

Magazine publishing is also a funny game. Readers are fickle at the best of times. And they’re easily distracted by shiny new media. As advertising dollars dry up, budgets are also slashed, forcing magazine editors to do more with less. Often good journalism pays the price – not only because it’s expensive, but because that’s often not what the readers want.

How do you know what readers want? The easiest way is to look at your sales. If that cover story on a new strain of broccoli didn’t sell, but the one on super-duper-m-dimensional string theory did, then you know what to go for next issue. I imagine New Scientist – which also benefits from being a weekly, which means more granulated sales data to mine each year – reviews its sales very carefully, and uses that intelligence to plot its future issues.

A quick scan over the last three years of New Scientist covers gives a good indication of what sells well. Clearly psychology, particularly ‘mystery of the mind’ stuff, is popular. In 2009, 19% of New Scientist covers featured something about the mind – down from 22% in 2008, although up fractionally from 18% in 2007.

The environment has also been a big seller in recent years, particularly in 2007 – hot on the heels of the buzz from An Inconvenient Truth and the Stern Review – although it’s been less prominent this year, with only two covers featuring climate change.

But clearly the big winner – and the big money spinner – is super-duper-m-dimensional string theory/cosmology/zany physics; through 2009, a full quarter of New Scientist cover stories have concerned news physics and cosmology. In 2008 and 2007 it was even more prominent, capturing 28% and 34% of cover stories, respectively.

These aren’t any old physics or cosmology stories though. They don’t concern the nitty gritty of experiments going on in physics labs around the world – stuff like the behaviour of light passing through optical fibre, or nuclear physicists delving in to the structural properties of matter. No, these things are too mundane for New Scientist readers. They want to explore the lunatic fringes of physics, where dwell untold invisible dimensions and theories concerning strings.

Hence you get cover stories such as appeared in the last issue of New Scientist. This concerns what can only be called unfettered speculation about power sources for future – way future – spacecraft. One is to harness a one million tonne black hole and use the Hawking radiation as a source of propulsion. The other is to use a kind of Bussard scoop to gather up dark matter use use as fuel.

The only problem is – both notions are based on such flimsy science, such an abundance of unfounded assumptions and such wild fancy, that neither has much scientific value. We know only scarce amounts about black holes, less about Hawking radiation, and even less about how to create or even store one. Dark matter – well, we don’t even know where it is, let alone what it is. The idea of capturing a theoretical, unobserved form of matter to use as fuel is, well, absurd. Good for science fiction? Sure. But science? No.

Now, I can see why New Scientist insists on embarking on these wild jaunts into speculation. The readers lap it up. But it’s doing a disservice to science, and the long term prospects of the magazine. The more wild, unbelievable stories appear in New Scientist, the less stock serious science practitioners and enthusiasts will place in the magazine.

The solution? First, New Scientist should stop sourcing its stories from ArXiv.org. For those who are unfamiliar with ArXiv (pronounced ‘archive’), it’s a free pre-press server for science papers in physics, mathematics, statistics, computer science and quantitative biology. And by ‘pre-press server’, it means virtually any scientist can upload any paper to the server to be read by anyone.

There’s no peer-review, no strict selection criteria and little to prevent a scientist from uploading speculation rather than a considered, empirically-supported paper. That makes for some literally fantastic papers – and wonderful fodder for the cover of New Scientist.

In fact, both papers cited in the New Scientist feature on space travel are from ArXiv.org. Neither have been peer-reviewed. It’s questionable whether either would be accepted for publication in a reputable science journal.

Readers need to know that ArXiv.org is not a reputable science journal. Much of the stuff published there is of a high quality – but it lacks the checks and balances of a journal to be able to discriminate the solid from the fluff. That makes it a poor source for science journalism.

And I know first hand that New Scientist loves to use speculative material from ArXiv.org whenever possible. I authored a story for New Scientist last year on superheavy elements and was asked to use a paper published on ArXiv.org as the peg. However, that paper was thoroughly discredited by other experts in the field. The science was weak, the method was flaky, the conclusions were dubious. Yet New Scientist insisted the article be cited. As a freelancer, my job was to do what the editor ordered. So I did. Although I feel it went some way to weakening the article.

Don’t get me wrong. I love New Scientist. I want to see it thrive. I want to see it spread the word of science to the general public – which is a public service as well as a business. But I’m concerned with the magazine’s obsession with fantasy and speculation, and its reliance on dubious sources, primarily ArXiv.org.

New Scientist, please get back to your roots of reporting on real science, published in real journals and which affects the real world. It’s not too late to turn back and once again be the beacon for good science journalism in the world.

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3 responses

9 12 2009
Graham Lawton

Hi Tim,

Interesting post. We’re familiar with the arguments; we’ve been having them ourselves for years. They surface every time we debate whether or not to cover something of this kind, and how to execute it. But it’s good to get an outsider’s perspective on how this story looked.

It’s probably worth noting that we cover less of this end of physics than we used to (and also treat it with more care) while giving much greater prominence to what you call the “nitty-gritty”. Does that amnswer your question?

Best wishes
Graham Lawton
Deputy Editor
New Scientist

9 12 2009
Tim Dean

Thanks for the comment Graham. Good to hear the debates are running internally.

I should add that the bulk of the content in NS is excellent. And I have noticed a reduction in speculative physics stories over the past few years. But I do still see them make their way on to the cover from time to time.

9 12 2009
Sabio Lantz

Keeping honest about the politics and economics of “science” is one of its self-correction methods. Thank you.

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