But how trustworthy a magazine is it?

Justin Weinberg at Daily Nous yesterday:

Scientific American is a monthly magazine aimed at popularizing scientific and technological findings. But how trustworthy a magazine is it?

This question is prompted by several articles that Scientific American has published on topics in philosophy. It is wonderful that the magazine’s editors recognize how much philosophy is relevant to science and scientific practices. But the quality of those articles has been questionable.

Yes, I’ve noticed that, for instance when they publish Michael Shermer pretending to be a moral philosopher.

The uneven quality of Scientific American articles on topics I am familiar with has led me to question its trustworthiness more generally. I know I’m not alone in that questioning.

As for the quality of its articles on philosophy, let me stress that my complaint is not with the substance of the philosophical views their authors favor. Rather, it is that ideas, arguments, positions, and widely-used concepts have been deployed in mistaken or confused ways, or that highly relevant work (well known to experts) has been completely ignored. The result is that the magazine is misleading its readers about philosophy.

A few recent examples of this are “Does the Philosophy of ‘the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number’ Have Any Merit?” and “Will Science Ever Solve the Mysteries of Consciousness, Free Will and God?” by Michael Shermer, and “The Fate of Free Will: When Science Crosses Swords with Philosophy” by Abraham Loeb. I commented on the Shermer pieces here and here. The Loeb piece, which just came out earlier this week, is being referred to online by philosophers as “utter drivel” and “a trainwreck.” Read them for yourselves.

Ah look at that now, it is Michael Shermer.

Neither Shermer nor Loeb are philosophers. Shermer made his name as a popular “skeptic” of religion and psychics, and Loeb is an astrophysicist at Harvard. It’s great that they’re interested in philosophy. But it is unclear why Scientific American thinks that these people are the ones who should be informing their readers about philosophical matters. As Jeff Sebo, a philosopher who directs the Animal Studies M.A. program at New York University put it on Twitter:

i appreciate the liberal approach [Scientific American] takes to who can write what and look forward to pitching my piece about the physics of black holes from the perspective of a moral and political philosopher.

Shermer is convinced that he’s a profound and serious thinker.

From the comments:

Wow, that Shermer Utilitarianism piece is mind-boggling, really.

Yes that essay sucks… I particularly (dis)like the statement that ‘historically’ witch burners determined their course of action by applying a ‘utilitarian calculus’. Er, no they didn’t.

Indeed. I remember frown-laughing at that myself. (I didn’t read the article, because why would I, but someone must have tweeted it or posted it on Facebook or similar.)

Moral of the story: know the limits of your competence.

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