Throughout its 169-year history, Scientific American has been an august and sober chronicler of the advance of human knowledge, from chemistry to physics to anthropology.
Lately, however, things have become kind of a mess.
A series of blog posts on the magazine’s Web site over the past few months has unleashed waves of criticism and claims that the publication was promoting racism, sexism and “genetic determinism.”
Late last week, the publication took down the latest alleged outrage, a post about the late physicist Richard Feynman and his notorious womanizing. Then it republished the post with an editor’s note explaining that it was restoring the article “in the interest of openness and transparency.”
And it fired the blogger who wrote it.
The trouble started in April when a guest blogger, a doctoral student named Chris Martin, wrote about Lawrence H. Summers’ assertions when he was president of Harvard University about the paucity of women in some scientific fields. While acknowledging that discrimination played a role in holding back women, Martin also concluded, “the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot.”
The post drew a sharp pushback, particularly on social media, from readers who questioned Martin’s scientific and cultural bona fides. “This slovenly article above is so full of outdated information it is painful,” wrote one commenter.
The second land mine was a post in May by Ashutosh Jogalekar, which favorably reviewed a controversial book by Nicholas Wade, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.” Jogalekar praised the book, saying it confirms the need to “recognize a strong genetic component to [social and cognitive] differences” among racial groups.
This time, some social-media commenters accused Scientific American of promoting questionable racial theories. In early July, the reaction led the publication’s blog editor, Curtis Brainard, to post a note that read in part, “While we believe that [the racism and sexism] charges are excessive, we share readers’ concerns. Although we expect our bloggers to cover controversial topics from time to time, we also recognize that sensitive issues require extra care, and that did not happen here.”
The last straw was Jogalekar’s post on Friday about Feynman, the Nobel-winning father of quantum electrodynamics. Commenting on recent biographies of Feynman, Jogalekar noted the physicist’s “casual sexism,” including his affairs with two married women, his humiliation of a female student and his delight in documenting his strategies for picking up women in bars. But while expressing disappointment in Feynman’s behavior, Jogalekar essentially dismissed it as a byproduct of the “male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years.”
Within a day of the column’s appearance, Scientific American pulled it from its site, with another note from Brainard: “The text of this post has been removed because it did not meet Scientific American’s quality standards.”
One other thing: Jogalekar was fired.
Brainard and Scientific American declined to discuss their actions, pointing instead to Brainard’s editor’s note, which appears atop Jogalekar’s republished Feynman post. The note said the magazine was reposting the deleted column “ in the interest of openness and transparency and because we believe that more will be learned from its presence than from its absence.”
Jogalekar, on the other hand, is more than happy to discuss his dismissal.
“I think this is unworthy of the organization,” he said by phone from the Boston area, where he is a chemist with a biotech company. “As far as I can tell, SciAm reacted based on what they saw on social media. Curtis never mentioned any other reason.”
After his review of the Wade book, Jogalekar said Brainard had asked him to run posts about “controversial” topics by the editor before posting them. Until then, Jogalekar had written almost 200 blog items, none of which were edited or had prompted widespread complaints.
But Brainard never specified what topics were “controversial,” and Jogalekar said he didn’t believe his Feynman post fell into that category. He posted it without consulting his editor.
“It’s perfectly fine for an organization to decide what kind of content it wants, but they should let their bloggers know what the policy is,” Jogalekar said. In this case, “it’s apparently controversial if a lot of people say it’s controversial. That’s dangerous territory. You’re leaving yourself open if 10 people complain on Twitter.”
Scientific American may be extra sensitive to allegations of sexism because of an unrelated episode last year. Its previous blog editor, Bora Zivkovic, was publicly accused of sexual harassment by two freelance writers. Zivkovic apologized to both of his accusers on Twitter and subsequently left the magazine.
Jogalekar said his dust-up with the magazine left him disappointed, but not angry or bitter. He intends to continue blogging under his own heading, the Curious Wavefunction. “This was a teachable moment,” he said.
One lesson he said he learned: “Scientific American writes about some controversial topics, like climate change and [genetically modified organisms], and evolution. Race and sex are much more sensitive than GMO or climate change.”