Monday, March 23, 2009

So farewell 'New Scientist'

The very last copy of my subscription to New Scientist came through the door last Saturday. I shall not be renewing.

It has become a truism in the scientific community that New Scientist has turned into a trendy, faddish, superficial mag with inaccurate tabloid headlines and mistake-strewn articles. Some of us reflect back through dewy, nostalgic spectacles to the New Scientist articles of the 60s, 70s and 80s where there was a genuine project to bring rigorous scientific thinking to a generation of budding scientists. And BBC's Horizon used to be good, too.

Has New Scientist really dumbed down so badly, or is this merely old-fogey sentimentality and selective memory? I could go check the archives and do a comparison but it's not so easy, and besides there's another way to think about it.

Back when I was a lad, we had the Tripartite System of secondary education. Only ~25% of state-educated children went to Grammar School, the rest went to the - often sink-schools - called 'Secondary Moderns'.

The Grammar Schools were often only partially-selective, taking fee payers as well. Of that 25%, only slightly more than half were in any sense academic (i.e 14% of the total population).

Looking at the bell curve above, with IQ having a population mean μ of 100 and standard deviation σ of 15, the 86% population point is just above +1σ, with IQ of 116. So that academic 14% would have had IQs of at least 116: these were the people who were potential buyers of New Scientist at school, university and beyond. In the 1970s just 14% of school leavers went to University.

In today's era of mass education to graduate level, where around 40% of 18-30 year olds go on to university, it's clear that the IQ threshhold for doing a degree course has dramatically lowered (The 60:40 split occurs at +0.25σ = an IQ of 104). This of course has two effects - it increases the market-size for a science-based journal enormously, but only if it's dumbed down.

I think we see the results, but I guess we have to be realists. New Scientist gets no subsidy and still has to pay the bills. And what a treadmill - how much new, interesting science really is there on a weekly basis?

I may have sympathy for New Scientist's commercial plight, having to cater to the fashionably-green, the emotionally self-indulgent and the fuzzy-thinkers, but I don't have to read it any more. I currently subscribe to Scientific American and American Scientist.