Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Decline of Scientific Publishing Standards, and Publishing Standards in General

At John Reilly’s site, the commenter HopefulCynic68 has an interesting post about the decline of standards in the magazine publishing industry. This thread provides immense food for thought; indeed, it presses the trigger on several loaded barrels that I’ve been meaning to fire off lately, especially vis-à-vis the precipitous drop in educational standards. However, since I find that subject very difficult to discuss dispassionately, I have for the time being confined my response to those issues pertinent to scientific publications (and why I no longer read them). The line in HopefulCynic68’s post that occasioned my response was this:

“Even the comments on the trends in the magazine world matched my own observations, such as the lefty drift of Scientific American (which is becoming sufficiently pronounced as to damage the credibility of the publication), and the recent improvement in Popular Mechanics. If that trend holds, the 'lowbrow' PM might just steal some thunder from some supposedly highbrow sources.”

I used to love reading Scientific American as a young teenager, circa early-to-mid nineties. As I recall, the magazine was at that time a vehicle for the best popular science writing around. Of the many attractions it offered, one could expect at least a half dozen lengthy, well-written articles per issue, mathematical puzzles by Martin Gardener, the wonderful Connections column by James Burke, and colorful graphics that were among the best in the business. I especially enjoyed the articles on physics and astronomy, which as a rule were included in every issue.

But by the late nineties I began to notice a serious downward trend in the quality of the scientific thinking behind the articles in the magazine. I had a difficult time of it, having to admit that I could no longer lie to myself about the serious methodological flaws that they allowed to slip into print. I had to question the reasoning behind many of the conclusions drawn in the articles, and I came to the uncomfortable realization that a good portion of the scientific establishment did not know when a thing was proven and when it wasn't.

I still remember the exact statement that caused me to lay the magazine aside, never to pick it up again. The year was 1999, early in the summer. I was reading a blurb about plate tectonics, in which a pair of geologists was claiming that great quantities of ocean water were being dragged down into the mantle with the subduction of oceanic plates. This much is certainly true, but the geologists proceeded from these humble beginnings to a rather flippant apocalyptic prediction. The subducting water, they said, posed no threat to the sea levels of planet earth for most of its history, because the interior of the planet was so hot that the water would be quickly converted to high-pressure steam and vented back to the surface. However, by late pre-Cambrian times the interior of earth had cooled sufficiently, such that the water was carried deep into the mantle where it was lost to chemical disassociation, and "sea levels have since dropped more than 2000 feet."

It would be an interesting exercise to enumerate all the errors contained in that statement, but we need not proceed further than to note that there is absolutely no geophysical evidence to support the conclusion that sea levels were ever that much higher than they are now. A 2000 ft higher sea would have inundated much of the continental landmass of the planet, and that simply hasn't happened. Whatever the geologists' speculations about the chemistry of the mantle might have told them, there is no prima facie case that their assertions are at all true. The known geological record is incompatible with what they have stated.

As an aside, I might also mention that I was thumbing through an issue of Discover magazine at a bookstore sometime in 2004, when I saw what had to be one of the most ridiculous examples of scientific illogicity ever to appear in print. To wit: New research had apparently revealed that the class of antidepressant drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors were not really at all efficacious in increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the synaptic cleft; a finding which, if true, would invalidate decades' worth of theorizing concerning the neurophysiology of depression. "Thus," read the byline of the article, "Scientists were under new pressure to figure out why antidepressants work."

Evidently, the idea that antidepressants do not work had never crossed the minds of the editors at Discover; the materialistic myth of the physically determined mind was too much of a non-negotiable element in their worldview. Here we have a case in which the entire theoretical justification for their understanding of the causes and cures of depression had fallen away, and yet these drugs were still somehow, mysteriously, osmotically, occultically held to "work." It ought to go without saying that a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor has absolutely no attributable mechanism of action that would be profitable for relieving depression if low serotonin levels aren't the cause of that malady; and this becomes even more ironically and laughably true given that the substance in question does not even inhibit the reuptake of serotonin. But none of this is likely to make an impact on the so-called scientific community. I mumbled something about "cycles and epicycles" and put the magazine back on the shelf. They'll endorse the notion of homeopathic SSRIs before they abandon their model.

Bio-psychiatry is a large, lucrative, and harmful fraud that directly affects the lives of the untold millions of people who have been told (and sometimes forced) to take these useless and potentially dangerous substances. It is the redux of phrenology, but perpetrated with even less romance and human understanding than its forbear. It is, however, not the only such fraud to which the contemporary scientific establishment has given its imprimatur. At the top of the list we have the massive Anthropogenic Global Warming hoax, and the attendant possibility of serious damage to the U.S. economy if its backers succeed in implementing their agenda. Other entrenched errors of reasoning are less immediately threatening but no less egregious. The ideas of "dark matter" and "dark energy" postulated to explain the contradictions observed in the material content of the universe are naught but mere phantasms. Darwinian evolution has been utterly thrown down by the evidence, only to be revived by ad hoc notions of "punctuated equilibrium" and "inclusive fitness" (both oxymorons).

The list could be extended, but it is not necessary to continue. It is clear enough already that real theoretical science has been replaced by an insipid and rather unmanly appetite for pleasing visions, technological gimmickry, "signs and wonders" -- it is science according to Herod Antipas. The Principia Mathematica has fallen to The Tao of Physics. The trend will be reversed eventually; the necessity of living demands it. But when contemporary scientific fluff goes, it will take most of the philosophical presuppositions of modern society with it.


  1. Really like your blog. I am a catholic and a microbiologist ( retired lecturer living in the UK). I have been looking for a blog that addresses these concerns for a long time. Congratulations.

  2. Hi Philomena,

    Thank you so much for stopping by. I'd be happy to have your insights any time.

    Since you live in the UK and you have a background in biology, I was wondering if you ever heard of Dr. Stephen Rose. He's a professor at Open University and the University of London. About a decade ago he wrote a book called Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism. The book does a pretty good job of demolishing the strong deterministic caste of modern biological thinking; and while I think Rose reaches a few incorrect conclusions for his part, it's still a very helpful read.


  3. While science is not my thing (other than the electronic world) I'm setting right now in an area of America known as the Permian Basin where every thing used to be underwater...salt water.

    Much of the salt water is still here in fact.

    Now I don't know how deep it was but I'm sure some of the oil field geologists could give you an educated guess, but I would bet it was at least several hundred feet.

    Just saying...

    Papa Ray

  4. I think something went really wrong at the helm of the magazine. Some really "smart" publisher felt they needed to make science dramatic and "appealing" to the general public. It happens that ignorant people get into positions of power and spoil what once was really good. And yes it became more of a pseudoscience magazine. I was very sad, it is interesting that nature magazine has bought "scientific american" and doing something with articles from 95 to 2010. I would love to find out.