TCS Daily

New Scientist, Old Problem

By Iain Murray - August 5, 2002 12:00 AM

I grew up with New Scientist. It was to British households what Scientific American was in the United States - an authoritative magazine that demystified science by writing about it in terms the educated layman could understand. I would scratch my head over its fiendishly difficult mathematical puzzles and enjoy many of its excellent articles. I was therefore delighted to find that it was available in the USA, having recast itself as "The global science and technology weekly." But, somewhere along the way, the New Scientist has begun to suffer from an old problem with British journalism. Its news articles are often little more than editorials in disguise.

The July 27th issue provides three startling examples in its first three pages. The lead news story, for instance, is about the new 100-kilowatt infrared laser being developed by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon for the F35 Joint Strike Fighter. The laser is designed for use in attacking non-human targets, such as other aircraft, ground vehicles or static targets such as fuel dumps, anti-aircraft batteries or power grids. Yet, because the laser's energy could be reflected from these targets and thereby cause accidental blinding, the focus of the story is not the science of the laser, but the magazine's barely disguised outrage that the laser is not banned by the Geneva Convention.

This reportage goes beyond merely inserting opinion into a news piece. It is demonstrably factually inaccurate. The article states baldly that the Geneva Convention's Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons "overlooks blinding that might be caused incidentally." Yet, on the very next page a sidebar quotes directly from Article 3 of the Protocol: "Blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems, including laser systems used against optical equipment, is not covered by the prohibition of this Protocol." In other words, far from "overlooking" incidental blinding, the Protocol actively considers it and regards it as permissible.

Normally, when one comes across an article as tendentious as this, one would look for the hallmarks of an advocacy group in terms of a spokesman or press release that had inspired the writer, but they are conspicuously absent here. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the writer is expressing his own opinions as a news story.

The next page contains an article entitled "For children, depleted uranium shells are the dirty bombs" (available online for subscribers only). Relying heavily on new data from an Italian research institute, the article spends three columns expressing concern that children in the Gulf and Balkans, where depleted uranium weapons were used in recent conflicts, might suffer kidney damage if they swallowed "a pinch of heavily contaminated soil." Other recent research on depleted uranium is also surveyed, including the shocking news that DU fragments are quite dangerous if they are embedded in the body. The kicker, however, is saved for the last paragraph: "While an overview of the latest research by IAEA [the International Atomic Energy Agency] experts concludes that any health effects from DU weapons 'appear to be very minor,' they are certain to be seized upon by those campaigning against the use of DU in weapons." Including the New Scientist, it seems.

The page after contains yet another example. The New Scientist first reported a few weeks ago that genes from genetically modified food could be taken up by bacteria in the human gut under very special circumstances. Despite the comments of Friends of the Earth campaigner Adrian Bebb, this article concluded with the comments of the researchers that "These data support the view that GM soya does not represent a significant risk to human health through gene transfer." In the July 27th issue, however, they return to the fray with an article entitled "Does it matter if genes can jump from GM food to bugs in the human gut." The opinion of the researchers quoted in the story seems to be that it doesn't. Mr. Bebb, however, thinks it does. The argument is much less even-handed than the headline leads one to believe.

The New Scientist has a worldwide readership of half a million people. That's quite an audience for science news. It is a pity they are being given opinions instead.



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