Saturday, July 20, 2013

Decisions! Decisions!

Every three years I face a difficult decision - shall I renew my subscription to Scientific American

I have now subscribed for over 50 years, and am constantly amused by re-reading the stories that were current 50 years ago, now repeated in the 50, 100 and 150 years ago feature. So why would the decision be difficult?

A journal is known by its editor.  Over ten years ago, the then editor was an eco-maniac.  When Bjorn Lomborg produced his Skeptical Environmentalist, the editor hired four hacks to do a hatchet job. Lomborg's book had criticized their weak science. 

The attacks were vicious and self-serving.  They did not address the criticisms.  Instead they criticized back using the worst of all arguments, the ad hominem.  Lomborg was not a biologist/ climatologist/ etc, but a mere statistician. The fact that the mere statistician had used official statistics to convincingly destroy their theses was immaterial.  40 000 species would disappear annually even if the official statistics put the loss rate at ~400 per century.

To add insult to injury, the SciAm editor then refused to allow Lomborg to respond. It was at that point that I seriously began to doubt whether I could ever support the publication again.

But bad habits persist.  I renewed my subscription, and in due course the offending editor left, unmourned.  There were some changes, a few for the worse such as an increasing reliance on science journalists.  Journalists usually have political viewpoints to advance, and it shows. But some changes were for the better. Unchanged was the belief that climate change was proven, but that is part of the overall Nature policy, and SciAm is part of Nature.  

So to the point of decision. This year, it was not made any easier by the collapse of the rand against the dollar.  With just over a month to go, I opened the latest issue with trepidation. For once, I was able to read it cover to cover.  

There was indeed a bit of journalism, but it was a great story about the salvage of the Costa Concordia, that 300-metre long cruise ship wrecked when the captain went to wave to his girlfriend.  The fact that the salvage master is a South African, Nick Sloane, made the tale all the more interesting to me.

There was a great investigation of MOOCs, massively open online courses.  Some really fascinating things are happening, like closing the learning cycle automatically, much like customer profiling in the retail trade.  This frees the teachers and allows them to interact with the more difficult questions personally - so that courses of hundreds of students can come close to the real classroom experience.

But the tale that really grabbed me was an end piece about how storm damage is likely to increase in the US over the next 35 years, not, they stress, because of "climate change" but because more people will put more material in harm's way. For SciAm to confess that carbon dioxide is not the absolute root of all evil has made me resolve to renew my subscription for another three years - and to hell with the rand/dollar exchange rate! 


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