Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Stuffy Inquirer

Skepticism, for those of you who don't use the word fifteen times a day, means an unwillingness to believe anything without good reason. These days, it's also an international movement that can be seen as the antithesis of a) New Age, b) pseudoscience. Skeptics don't believe in herbal remedies, astrology, spiritism or self-improvement coaches. But they do believe in rational scientific enquiry and deliberation.

I'm one of the editors of the Swedish skeptic magazine Folkvett. It's a quarterly publication of the Swedish Skeptic Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning. (This actually means "The Society (for) Science and Popular Enlightenment".) I'm also a subscriber to two large US skeptic magazines, Skeptical Enquirer and Skeptic Magazine. Skeptic Magazine is good fun, always a lot to read. But I'm dropping Skeptical Inquirer. It takes me a quarter of an hour to flip through it, because there's very little in it I want to read. Here's why.

S.I.'s content appears to be written by old men for old men. Now, many elderly people of course retain their intellectual vigor and curiosity. But many don't. And few of them realise what they've lost. We all run the risk of becoming slightly pompous, a bit too fond of hearing our own voices, of losing touch with what happens now, holding on to what we learned in the prime of our lives as if it were timeless wisdom. (Ask me about this in 2046 and check out how I'm doing.)

The summer issue of S.I. reached me today. On the cover is a lady of about 65, holding a giant magnet to her head: the cover story is about medicinal magnets, which are of course a load of crap. It was written by the celebrated professor Bruce L. Flamm, who has practiced obstetrics and gynaecology for over 20 years and looks fiftyfivish in photographs.

Other features and columns in this issue were written by:
  • D. Alan Bensley (57)
  • Mario Bunge (87)
  • Kendrick Frazier (about 65? S.I.'s editor-in-chief. He's been an journal editor at least since 1969)
  • Ragnar Levi (45)
  • Joe Nickell (62)
  • Massimo Pigliucci (42)
  • Massimo Polidoro (about 35?)
  • Paul Quincey (about 50?. PhD 1986)
  • Robert Sheaffer (about 60? CISCOP Fellow since 1977)
They're all men, and their mean age appears to be about 55. This is perhaps not surprising given the age and gender of the editor-in-chief. And there's no denying that these guys have seniority and authority. But there's something lacking. A lot of the articles in S.I. seem to be about hoaxes and "mysteries" current when I was a kid. Uri Geller is still very much an ongoing concern in S.I. And in the current issue they discuss Central American crystal skulls again! Every issue carries an ad where the reader is invited to provide for the journal in his will.

I certainly don't mean to say that all old folks are boring. But I do believe that, sadly, most old folks were a bit more fun back before they became old. Ideally, I think a journal should have contributors of various ages and genders, to tap the insights of people whose minds have been formed in different times and environments. So until Skeptical Inquirer lowers the mean age of its contributors and finds a few more ladies, I'll stick to Skeptic Magazine.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been too much of a cheap bastard to subscribe to either, is SM thicker (more bang for the buck) or just addresses different topics?

06 July, 2006 10:45  
Anonymous Nihonshu said...

Föreningen för folkvett should really update their info on some aspects like what the debate is on radiation from GSM and G3 cellphones. A couple of months ago SSI updated their recommendations when a lot more researchers than the debated "Lundagruppen" started to report a connection between cancer and digital cellphones. If SSI can change their opinion and there for admit to have been premature with their prevoius advices, so could (should) "Folkvett" do.

06 July, 2006 11:05  
Anonymous Nihonshu said...

Link to SSI new stricter recommendations

No disrespect intended towards Folkvetts expert från KTH, but he is getting more alone in his "skeptical" approach towards radiation among his peers.

The problem has been that lots of nutcases have stood behind the claims of radtiation damage. But "guilt by association" should hardly be the retoric that Folkvett uses if they want credibility in this matter.

06 July, 2006 11:14  
Blogger Martin said...

Vitnir: SkepMag isn't noticably thicker than SkeptInq, but it covers other things and in another tone. Recently they had a big interview feature on the Mythbusters, for example.

Nihonshu: I'll forward your words to the VoF board.

06 July, 2006 13:43  
Blogger A.M. Kuchling said...

I also find the skeptical magazines often have a strong 'preaching to the converted' flavour. Say there's an article debunking homeopathy. I can't give that article to a homeopathy-believing relative in an effort to change their minds because the writing may have a tone of disdain for believers that would put them on the defensive and make them resist the message.

06 July, 2006 22:15  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually I find that Skeptic is usually thicker than SI, but that's presumably because Skeptic is a quarterly and SI is a monthly.

06 July, 2006 23:13  
Blogger Martin said...

A.M. Kuchling: I agree. A lot of the pseudoscience bashing in the skeptic press is just preaching to the choir. Take book reviews, for instance: the most important ones in my opinion are critical reviews of skeptic books.

Anon: Silly me, you're right. Individual issues of either mag may be comparable in girth as I said, but that's not very interesting.

07 July, 2006 09:06  
Blogger CFeagans said...

I sometimes get mixed feelings about SI, perhaps for the same reasons. The SI staff are mostly old white guys and seem more like club members than an editorial staff. I love the work they've done (Joe Nickel is great to read or listen to in interviews) but they need some new blood.

I haven't picked up the most recent issue yet, but the May/June issue had a very interesting article about the Tuscan sword in the stone. I was surprised, however, at their inclusion of Elizabeth Whelen's two-page article. She has such an obvious political ax to grind and seems such an obvious shill for deniers of all sorts of environmental issues (not that skepticism of environmentalists isn't warranted).

18 July, 2006 17:17  
Blogger Martin said...

The sword/stone story was interesting but didn't have much to do with scepticism. I mean, how important is that particular "relic" to Catholics? Reading more concentratedly skeptic pieces in SI, I often get the feeling that I'm not very interested in skepticism.

18 July, 2006 19:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would suggest that you look beyond the US magazines - a young woman (Karen Stollznow) is the co-editor for the Australian Skeptics Magazine.

Perhaps the US is not where we should turn to when seeing role models for skepticism, especially with the recent tendency for non-scientist 'skepchick groupies' who tout nude calendars and boast of their copious drinking and bed-hopping fests at conferences. I certainly hope that the European publications avoid that approach!

05 October, 2007 05:41  
Anonymous alvast said... - the blog entry is now famous!

Also check out for the podcast reading of the essay.

28 October, 2007 02:46  

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