James B. Meigs joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss the decline of science journalism.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is James Meigs. Jim is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a valued contributing editor at City Journal. He co-hosts the How Do We Fix It? podcast, and he writes the tech commentary column for Commentary. He’s the former editor of Popular Mechanics and his writing on energy, environmental policy, culture, and other topics has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Slate, the New York Times, and other publications in addition to City Journal. Today we’re going to discuss his recent essay, Unscientific American. It appears in City Journal’s spring issue and examines the decline of science journalism. So Jim, thanks very much for coming on.

Jim Meigs: Oh, it’s great to be here, Brian.

Brian Anderson: So Scientific American is, a real striking test case of the decline of science journalism. You have to say it. This publication goes back to the mid-19th century, when it was founded, and it’s published rigorous reporting from great scientific minds over the years. I think it’s counted upward of 200 Nobel Prize winners among its contributors. It’s encouraged writers to challenge established viewpoints over the years. But as you recount in the piece, there has been a shift in Scientific American and other major scientific outlets aimed at broad audiences. These aren’t specialist journals. National Geographic, Smithsonian, they began to shift their content to align more carefully with progressive views. So, I wonder if you could describe when this shift in coverage began, and how it’s affected the way these magazines address certain topics, and what topics they’ve decided to focus on.

Jim Meigs: Conservatives might look at this and say, “Oh, this isn’t news. This has been going on for 30 years.” And on some level, that’s true. But something happened about 10 years ago that really brought this progressive—as I say in the piece, it’s hard to put one name on this trend. I think Chris Rufo and others have called attention to this sweeping set of ideas, overlapping, interlocked ideas about race, about culture, but also a postmodern attack on even the possibility of truth. Everybody has their own truth, their own lived experience. And the mission of trying to sort out some kind of objective truth through a rigorous process like the scientific method, that’s considered a fool’s errand in these circles. So that mindset moved out of the academy, out of schools of postmodern study and into the mainstream. It really started to hit about 10 or 15 years ago.

And then ever since Trump got elected, and then the summer of George Floyd, it’s been nonstop. And Scientific American, which was kind of the crown jewel of mainstream science journalism in this country and maybe the world, is sadly a particularly acute example of this trend. What do they cover? They cover things that are of interest to progressives. So there’s going to be a lot of emphasis on structural racism. The idea that racism is an underlying driving principle in our society, that we’re all subject to all kinds of implicit racial bias, whether we know it or not. A lot of emphasis on, not just on climate science, which is a legitimate topic for a science magazine, but the claim that anytime the weather is bad or anytime some trend occurs, it has to be attributed to climate change, whether there’s much evidence for that or not. And one particularly poignant area in recent years has been a lot of coverage of transgender issues, especially youth gender transition, which very much reflects the point of view of activists and disregards a lot of the genuine doubts and concerns about these treatments that are coming from scientists.

Brian Anderson: Well, traditionally, science journalism, and this was the case I think with Scientific American, was more descriptive than normative in the way you’re describing. So that the writers would explain the scientific discoveries that were happening, technological advances, and maybe then they weren’t perfectly neutral, but they tried to be fair. Now, as you’re describing the science writing is more often becoming a kind of advocacy. With the reporters, basically looking to guide readers toward particular progressive conclusions. And I wonder, you give some striking examples of how this affected the way Scientific American, and they certainly weren’t alone in this regard, covered the pandemic and the Covid crisis.

Jim Meigs: That is something I’ve been covering for City Journal and others from the start, and it was really, I think, a missed opportunity for Scientific American. It could have been a chance to . . . Well, they did cover Covid, and they did a lot of perfectly good stories about how the virus works and different things you were learning, but they showed a marked lack of curiosity for some of the big questions like, how they were slow to pick up on the idea that it was transmitted through the air. This is something the public health officials were slow on, and Scientific American very much took its cue from the official line. If we’d focus on that earlier with better ventilation and other things, we could have prevented a fair number of cases, reopened schools sooner, and the like.

They also not only avoided the topic of, is it possible that Covid came out of the lab, but they really denigrated anybody who wanted to explore that view. And that was such an important scientific question that shouldn’t have been relegated to an ideological debate based on your priors. Well, Tom Cotton said it’s something worth looking into, so therefore it must be an idiotic conspiracy theory. Is the stance that the New York Times, Scientific American, and most of the rest of the mainstream journalism establishment took on that topic. And where Scientific American could have been a place that people could go to get a really balanced assessment of this very challenging question.

Brian Anderson: Is it really just a political motive here, or do the writers and editors of these publications, Scientific American included, have other motives to self-censor, to distort their coverage of some of these issues?

Jim Meigs: Yeah, that’s a complicated question. I think there are a lot of motives. There was an interesting study that I cite that surveyed not journalists, but actual scientists about their reasons to avoid certain topics or take certain stances. And one of them was, they mentioned what they call pro-social motivations. If you think that a certain research might be harmful to a marginalized group, you might avoid the topic or avoid uncomfortable conclusions, just to be nice or because you’re worried about them—about harming this group, and of course among progressives, this narrative that anything that people don’t like is a form of harm, a form of violence, a real transgression against them is a very powerful tool to shut down discussions or to claim victimhood. But also, professional scientists, academics, researchers, they’re very vulnerable to accusations, well, of being conservative for one thing. But mostly of being racist, being transphobic, homophobic, any of those kinds of charges, pack an enormous punch. Especially in these vulnerable industries.

The jobs have disappeared in journalism. Anybody in academia is in a very vulnerable position if they take an unpopular stance and are very open to being canceled, especially if they don’t have tenure yet. So there are some really powerful incentives for them not to get out of line on a topic like climate change or transgender medicine or many other things. And I think the journalists follow that clue, but I also think they believe their job is moving the public toward good conclusions. They don’t believe their job is just reporting on what does the science say, what are the debates? What are the issues? They believe their job is to nudge the public toward proper viewpoints on a range of socially important issues.

Brian Anderson: I guess a byproduct of this is that they’ll often downplay or even not mention at all when certain social problems might be improving, or new technologies point toward a better future in an area like climate change. I wonder if you could say a bit more about the transgender coverage in Scientific American and exactly how that was distorted. You gave a pretty good picture of the COVID situation.

Jim Meigs: The issue with transgender, it’s one of the most intense and heartbreaking cases of science being misrepresented to the public, partly through the incredibly effective work of some transgender activists who have managed to kind of hijack the natural Sympathy and tolerance we should feel towards people, toward adult people who are transgender. They’ve taken our desire to be open minded and not to discriminate, they’ve taken that and they’ve used that as a tool to make people also believe that we need to accept, in some ways, even encourage children who have doubts about their gender to rush into a gender transition, particularly being prescribed puberty blockers to prevent the natural process of puberty, which affects brain development, bone development, just pretty much every part of your body. And then to set them up to then go on cross-sex hormones a little bit later, and ultimately, perhaps surgeries to conform better to their ideal of the opposite gender.

So what’s really sad about this is, parents go into the situation their child has presented with this belief or claim that she might really be a boy, and a lot of children learn about these treatments on TikTok and other places from some of these activists. And then the medical community, which should be in a position to assess whether this is a good treatment or not, they’ve really abdicated this out of fear of being signaled out as being transphobic. So very often parents bring their kid to the experts and the experts just rush them right into this pathway towards transition. The scientists who question this have in some cases been absolutely pilloried by these activists. These activists have intimidated major medical groups, and especially in the U.S. Interestingly, Europe now, a lot of people have heard about this report from Hilary Cass in Britain for Britain’s National Health Service, where she assessed the literature with a team of everything we know about the youth transition and found out the evidence that youth transition is psychologically beneficial for these children is virtually non-existent. And ultimately recommended against rushing kids into these treatments.

So Britain, numerous other countries in Europe have pulled back from these treatments, even though in some cases these are countries that pioneer this treatment regimen. But in the U.S., major medical organizations are still standing behind it and journalists, some journalists are covering it more fairly. The New York Times has gotten much better on this issue, but so far, Scientific American remains very committed to what I think they see as a pro-transgender perspective, but in effect is not giving parents and families and the medical community the information it needs to really understand this debate.

Brian Anderson: It’s very unfortunate because our society is dealing with so many public policy issues, existential issues that involve a scientific dimension, and the science can be very complex. Where do they turn to find a careful, objective report of what the science says and what it doesn’t say, and give the public a better understanding about the scientific method and its limits.

Jim Meigs: One of the things we really learned in Covid is the public health authorities don’t trust the public with nuance. And I think a lot of journalists have taken their cue from that in the sense of the issue of whether or not to wear masks in Covid. The evidence for that was always very thin. It made sense that masks should probably help, but there was this great reluctance to really grapple with the evidence for that. And we see this on the transgender issue. I think the evidence is pretty strong against these treatments, but even if you really thought that this was a healthy and positive course for a lot of these young people, you could still engage in the science about what some of the risks are, what some of the downsides are. And in fact, Scientific American in particular, really swept those downsides under the rug. They did articles that were almost just flat-out advocacy for rushing children into these treatments.

And they did opinion pieces, which basically said, anyone who doesn’t support this path is like a Nazi scientist or a book burner. So it’s a kind of threat that if you step out of line and you try to inform the public about the complexities of the issue, in a way they’re going to come after your reputation.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, it’s unfortunately a pattern that we’ve seen reinforced by some, if not all of the social media platforms during the Covid crisis that they were adopting this attitude that the public needs to be told what we believe to be the truth at this particular moment in time, and any countering arguments are going to be viewed as, just disqualifying. And so very serious people who had questions about our approach to combating Covid, found themselves excluded from the possibility of communicating with the public directly. It was quite extraordinary. I hope we’ve learned a lesson from that, but it doesn’t sound like Scientific American has, at least not yet. What is your view, though, do you think that these kinds of publications can find their way back to a more restrained and reporting-based approach to scientific issues?

Jim Meigs: I sure hope so. As I mentioned, the New York Times, which was pretty bad on a lot of these issues for quite a long time, especially the transgender issue, they’ve made some progress. I think they’re making an attempt to be a little bit more balanced, although they’ve got a long way to go. A lot of people covering science on Substack or magazines like City Journal are becoming the last refuge of a place. You ask, “Where can people go to get clear-cut information?” And the sad thing is, there aren’t that many places, and it’s harder to assess the—it used to be if it’s in the New York Times, you had a pretty good sense for a non-political issue. You had a pretty good sense you’re going to get pretty fair coverage if it was in Scientific American, and it’s not true the way it used to be.

That leaves people open to all kinds of conspiracy theories, and it’s part of the reason why people’s trust in science has declined precipitously throughout the course of, since 2020. That started even before that and that’s really bad news for our society. When people just reflexively distrust what they hear from public health or distrust what information they get from a medical organization, then it is then, who knows who they’re going to listen to? Who knows what they’re going to trust and who knows what kind of destructive ideas might get out there. We’re already seen rebounds of certain diseases that are easily prevented by vaccines among people who turned off to the idea of vaccines during Covid, perhaps because the vaccines for Covid were somewhat oversold and some of the I think fairly small, but not non-existent risks of Covid vaccines for certain populations were swept under the rug. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Well, now that’s turned a lot of people off to vaccines in general. So there’s an overreaction on the part of the public.

I like to say I have some hope for the future, but we’re not in a great place right now when the leading institutions still have a long way to go to recover our trust.

Brian Anderson: Right. Well, thanks, Jim. That’s a very important point to make, and it’s an important article. It’s called Unscientific American, it appears in our spring issue. Don’t forget to check out Jim Meigs’s work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. You’ll find all sorts of superb content there from Jim, will link to his author page in the description, and you can find him on X too @jamesbmeigs. You can find City Journal on X @CityJournal. And on Instagram too. It’s @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, give us a nice rating on iTunes. Jim, always great to talk with you, and thanks for walking us through this very important essay.

Jim Meigs: Thank you, Brian.

Photo: selimaksan/E+ via Getty Images

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