Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Growing up with science periodicals

In my childhood and through my teens, I was a voracious reader.  Many of the books and periodicals I read at the time were science-oriented, and indeed I credit much of my early interest in science to works involving or talking about science, math, and technology.  To this day, although much of my nonfiction reading is in the realm of politics or economics, I still read several science-oriented books and periodicals on a regular basis.  

In recent days, I've been increasingly reflecting on how my reading tastes have changed and how my opinion of books and magazines I once enjoyed has risen or fallen as I've progressed in my education.  This post will be the first of two that looks at periodicals.

I'll start with the evolution my opinion of technical or science-oriented periodicals.  At various times in my life, I've been a subscriber and regular reader of National Geographic Magazine, Scientific American, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and Technology Review.  Although some of the reason I no longer subscribe to many of these publications is because of a lack of time, for each of them I have seen my interest and respect for their work wax and wane independently of their quality.  If I had to say why, it would be because my attitude has gone from using them as a source of facts towards recognizing that my own scientific background is in many ways better than the journalists writing the articles.

Sometime around when I turned 15, I asked my parents to drop first Popular Mechanics and then Popular Science, which I'd been reading since I was about 9 or 10.  Both of these magazines are oriented to an audience with no technical background, and by the time I started taking molecular biology in high school I was beginning to spot factual errors and naked sensationalism in their writing.

Popular Mechanics went first because it was fundamentally a magazine about whizz-bang technology that had lost much of its former hobbyist focus and become much more like a hybrid garage tinker's version of ostentatiously male magazines like FHM.  Their annual "swimsuit" edition, where they reviewed portable kayaks with scantily clad women, was more or less the last straw.  Its writing was too informal and too lacking in understanding, and most of all it was trying a little too hard to retain my interest in multitools with boobs, and I didn't like it.

Popular Science was a different story.  I dropped popular science because not only did the science become too basic, I found the sensationalism distasteful.  I remember in particular writing a letter to the editor about how it was irresponsible to claim one could resurrect dinosaurs by reporting a single paper in which a computational biologist had claimed to reconstruct a single protein (this, remember, at age 14).  Needless to say it didn't make it in.  The more I learned, the less relevant PopSci became, and I let my subscription lapse.

By the time Technology Review rolled around (after I graduated from college), it was already too late for me to appreciate a popular science magazine.  After a few rounds of desultory bathroom reading I dropped it.  I give it credit for having slightly higher standards than the others I remember, but I emphatically decided not to continue my subscription after reading an infuriatingly poorly researched article about renewable energy technologies.

National Geographic is the only one of the above periodicals I continue to subscribe to.  It has continued to maintain extremely high standards of journalism, even if their TV channel has degenerated into sharks, lions, tigers, and Bear Grylls.  To be fair, I've become well aware of their naturalistic bias, but most of the time National Geographic has maintained fairly objective as otherwise environmentally oriented publications go (and its photography, documentary and anthropology work is wonderful).

NatGeo holds a special place in my heart - I remember reading back issues in my closet late at night up to the year I was born.  But like the others, my attitude towards its science journalism has changed.  A recent article in the latest edition, on sugar, is the most recent but hardly the only example.

The person who wrote the article, for example, took some incredibly overbroad statements about diabetes rates in the United States in 1900 vis-a-vis now being entirely due to sugar at face value.  Really? Diabetes rates were low entirely due to sugar consumption, and not, say, better diagnosis?  Anyone paying marginal amounts of attention to public health will recognize the phenomenon of better diagnosis increasing apparent rates of illness even as overall treatment improves.

Similarly, the author also seems to have gotten their head the notion that
and then used that to guide the remainder of their writing, including bombastic claims about how sugar acts on "pleasure centers" (actually a myth) in the brain by working with the same neurotransmitters affected by cocaine and heroin - a blatant oversimplification and scare tactic analogous to the chemophobia brilliantly parodied by the DHMO Research Division*.  

To its credit, the author had done their research - for example, it does note that there has been no clinical difference shown between HFCS and sugar.  But it was still a shocking example of how I, a chemical engineer with no particular neuroscience or public health experience or education, could figure out within a thousand words that the writer didn't have enough background to know what they were talking about.  And that was a very disappointing moment.

Alone among the publications I once subscribed to, Scientific American retains my respect probably because they've maintained the highest standards of scientific writing I see in journalism today - probably because many of their writers are themselves scientists.  Sadly, I no longer subscribe due to my lack of time.

* For those not in on the joke, DHMO is an otherwise scary-looking shorthand for dihydrogen monoxide, aka water.  Among the many satirical scaremongering claims on the website, it includes sections on how DHMO is found in the brain and is associated with many diseases, poisonings, and other horrors.  It's found in baby formula, guys!  Be afraid!

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