A plea to save "New Scientist"

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Greg Egan

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Sep 15, 2006, 8:17:36 PM9/15/06
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New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay
people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an
excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a
sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most
obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to
constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

There are many areas in cosmology, fundamental physics and so on where
there are controversies over issues that are hotly contested by various
competent, highly educated and respected scientists, and I have no quarrel
with New Scientist publishing views on various sides of these debates,
even when those from the opposing camp would consider the claims to be
nonsense.

However, I really was gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy in
the article "Fly by light" in the 9 September 2006 issue, concerning the
supposed "electromagnetic drive" of Roger Shawyer. If Shawyer's claims
have been accurately reported, they violate conservation of momentum.
This is not a contested matter; in its modern, relativistic form it is
accepted by every educated physicist on the planet. The writer of this
article, Justin Mullins, seems aware that conservation of momentum is
violated, but then churns out a lot of meaningless double-talk about
"reference frames" which he seems to think demonstrates that relativity
somehow comes to the rescue.

Mullins quotes one engineer who says Shawyer's claims are "a load of
bloody rubbish", but that's really not good enough, when the rest of the
article is full of apparent endorsements from various authorities. If
Mullins had tried, I'm sure he could have found someone to explain to him
exactly *why*, however clever Shawyer's design might be, the only possible
source of net thrust for this device would be the release of the
microwaves in a unidirectional beam, and that the ceiling on the thrust
imposed by relativity is P/c (where P is power), or 3.33 microNewtons per
kilowatt. As the article stands, it leaves readers with the impression
that while one engineer has raised some unspecified quibbles, it's quite
likely that Shawyer is correct.

I wrote a letter to the magazine politely pointing out the relevant
physics, but even in the event that this letter, or similar comments from
other physics-literate readers are published, the underlying problem seems
to be the editorial culture at the magazine that allows this kind of
article to appear in the first place. Maybe it's unrealistic to demand
that every science writer who covers a physics story have a physics
degree, but surely there's some level of quality control that can be
introduced, to ensure that claims that flatly contradict established and
uncontroversial physical principles are either clearly flagged to the
magazine's readers as such, or (in cases of perpetual motion machines,
magic anti-gravity devices, etc.) just not published at all.

So, this message is a plea to everyone who cares about the public
understanding of science. New Scientist has a very large readership, and
its reports are often quoted in the mainstream press as if they carried
the same authority as a peer-reviewed journal. I know that some people
think New Scientist is just a tabloid joke that should be written off as
beyond redemption, but I don't share that view; I don't believe its
mistakes come from bad faith or cynicism, but the editor and publisher
really need to get the message, both from the physics-literate portion of
their readership and the academic physics community, that they need to
raise their standards or risk squandering the opportunity that the
magazine's circulation and prestige provides.

If any of these issues matter to you, please read the article and -- if it
worries you even half as much as it worried me -- please write to the
magazine and let them know.

--
Greg Egan

Email address (remove name of animal and add standard punctuation):
gregegan netspace zebra net au

Ben newsam

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Sep 15, 2006, 8:27:38 PM9/15/06
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On Sat, 16 Sep 2006 08:17:36 +0800, greg...@netspace.zebra.net.au
(Greg Egan) wrote:

>New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay
>people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an
>excellent job about 70% of the time.

IMO a smaller percentage. It is an awful rag, with the noble exception
(years ago) of the Grimbledon Down cartoon and the paragraphs about
"my <insert suitable adjective> friend Daedalus"

> But the combination of a
>sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most
>obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to
>constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

What worries me is that when the major newspapers carry a "scientific"
story, they almost inevitably quote the New Scientist as if it had
some kind of authority.

--
Posted via a free Usenet account from http://www.teranews.com

Martin Hogbin

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Sep 16, 2006, 4:27:59 AM9/16/06
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"Greg Egan" <greg...@netspace.zebra.net.au> wrote in message
news:gregegan-160...@220-253-142-146.wa.netspace.net.au...

> New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay
> people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an
> excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a
> sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most
> obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to
> constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

I wish you the best of luck but I fear you are fighting a wider
problem. Physics and astrology now have about equal public
credibility.

Martin Hogbin


Jan Panteltje

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Sep 16, 2006, 7:16:30 AM9/16/06
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On a sunny day (Sat, 16 Sep 2006 08:17:36 +0800) it happened
greg...@netspace.zebra.net.au (Greg Egan) wrote in
<gregegan-160...@220-253-142-146.wa.netspace.net.au>:

>New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay
>people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an
>excellent job about 70% of the time.

This is twenty first century, the start, we all have moved to Internet.
Last time I bought a magazine now is years agao.

We have google, wikipedia, everybody publishes.
Give it up, hug a tree.

Igor

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Sep 16, 2006, 2:57:56 PM9/16/06
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I don't think it's just New Scientist, which for the most part I don't
really have much of a problem with. I think it's popular science
writing in general, both in print and other media such as TV. In the
process of "dumbing down" to reach a wider audience, the tendency has
been to throw out critical thinking and replace it with fluffy
nonsense. But I think that's been true in all areas, and not just
science writing. This has always been a concern, but it seems to have
gotten worse in the last few years.

Greg Egan

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Sep 16, 2006, 7:15:30 PM9/16/06
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In article <1158433076....@m7g2000cwm.googlegroups.com>, "Igor"
<thoo...@excite.com> wrote:

> Greg Egan wrote:
> > New Scientist is a British-based publication where many thousands of lay
> > people get their information on scientific matters, and (IMHO) it does an
> > excellent job about 70% of the time. But the combination of a
> > sensationalist bent and a lack of basic knowledge by its writers (most
> > obviously in physics) is rendering it unreliable often enough to
> > constitute a real threat to the public understanding of science.

[snip]


>
> I don't think it's just New Scientist, which for the most part I don't
> really have much of a problem with. I think it's popular science
> writing in general, both in print and other media such as TV. In the
> process of "dumbing down" to reach a wider audience, the tendency has
> been to throw out critical thinking and replace it with fluffy
> nonsense. But I think that's been true in all areas, and not just
> science writing. This has always been a concern, but it seems to have
> gotten worse in the last few years.

Of course it's not *only* New Scientist, and of course there are worse
offenders.

But this is a case where New Scientist has been unambiguously derelict in
its duty to its readers, so if you think they're not a lost cause
completely, now is the time to tell them that they've crossed the line.
If they are allowed to shrug this off as some kind of arcane difference of
opinion between experts, both sides of which deserve to be published
(though the experts who thought Shawyer was wrong got short thrift in the
article), then they really will have lost the plot completely.

I mean, this isn't just a matter of their usual practice of hyping some
exotic new theory fresh from the arXiv that 99% of physicists would
consider implausible, but which can't actually be disproved yet. This is
misrepresenting a fundamental principle -- relativistic conservation of
momentum -- that is accepted by every competent physicist. That Shawyer
could (apparently) find people in the UK government and NASA to take him
seriously is depressing, but it doesn't change the fact that any physics
graduate who stayed awake for the definition of the energy-momentum
4-vector will know, as a matter of certainty, that the centre of mass of a
closed system can not accelerate, no matter what is bouncing around inside
it. Maxwell's equations and special relativity, on which Shawyer
supposedly based his calculations, certainly do *not* violate conservation
of energy-momentum, so any calculation that suggests they do is simply
wrong.

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