Skeptical magazines

Martin Rundkvist has some complaints about the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, specifically about their staff and contributors.

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.

Now wait a minute—being in your 40s and 50s and 60s is no problem! It’s actually a very sensible age. The lack of female input is a serious shortcoming, but let’s not give people grief for their commendable longevity and long-term activism. (Also, Martin seems to have missed that young whippersnapper, Chris Mooney, who has a column in the magazine.)

The problem isn’t old people: it’s the lack of diversity. When I see the list Martin puts up, what I see is a group in trouble, one that has failed to extend its reach beyond the fairly narrow circle of its founders, and one that is going to fade away as that group dies off. As he notes, it also means the magazine acquires an old-fashioned tone that is going to fail to bring in new blood.

He recommends Skeptic magazine, to which I also subscribe, and which definitely tries much, much harder to extend its reach—it has a whole section, the Junior Skeptic, specifically for kids. My one complaint about it is similar to the one about SI, though: sometimes there isn’t enough diversity, because there’s too damn much Michael Shermer. Nothing personal against the guy, but sometimes it does seem like it’s a glossy magazine dedicated to showcasing Shermer…and that also has perils for long-term viability.


  1. Gobear says

    Aren’t magazines dying anyway? The reason that the readership and contributors to these magazines have such an advanced median age is that younger skeptics do their reading on the Web.

  2. says

    SI has a lot of content online. The Skeptic doesn’t. That ready web availability doesn’t seem to be drawing in many new skeptical leaders.

  3. says

    I’m 54 years old, and I would give Rundkvist a piece of my mind regarding having a little respect for a group of men with a mean age of 55, but I’m too tired. Maybe tomorrow, if I remember.

  4. says

    I subscribe to Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer and Free Inquiry. SI and FI both seriously need a graphic design uplift. They are stuck in the 1970s. Their covers are ok, but the inside is bleah. If they want to compete, they are going to have to find a designer. (Ok, I’m a graphic designer and I’m sensitive to that.)

    I don’t agree about magazines dying out. They have largely replaced books as favorite reading material. In fact I know a lot of marginally illiterate people who refer to magazines as “books.” It always makes me shudder.

    They *do* need to be actively soliciting younger contributors. Get out and read some blogs. Approach the better writers. There are lots of people out there who are funny, sharp and skeptical. I know, because I read them on the web.

    And for the record I am a female of relatively advanced age (57). All the younger females I know are *way* too credulous, but I’m working on them.

  5. quork says

    Perhaps SI should feature an annual swimsuit issue to increase the female content of their magazine.

    Or squid porn.

  6. Theo Bromine says

    Their covers are ok, but the inside is bleah. If they want to compete, they are going to have to find a designer.

    I don’t currently subscribe to any skeptic magazines – I tend to do my skeptical reading either in books or on the web. But, apologies to Susan, I have yet to see the attentions of a graphical designer have a positive impact on my enjoyment of any magazine. Design changes I have seen invariably result in more colour, more pictures, more distractions from reading, and less overall information content. (For the record, I am a 47 year old female curmudgeon.)

  7. says

    If you look at the masthead of Skeptic magazine, you will notice it only has three people who actually put the “book” (an industry term) together: Shermer, who, for all intents and purposes, “is” Skeptic magazine; Pat Linse, Art Director, who does all of the design and layout; and Senior Editor, Frank Miele. Jr. Skeptic is put together separately by Daniel Loxto. That is it, that is the whole staff for the magazine. The rest are people who contribute articles and provide other part-time help. They do this once every three months. That is a huge task for such a small group.

    Unfortunately, as good a job as such a small group does, it does give the whole thing pretty much just one voice – Shermer’s They do a commendable job making the magazine feel professional and credible – certainly, the editorial content speaks for itself – however, you can still see through the seems. It does, for all of their efforts, still fell “fringy” and small-time.

    Both magazines are in desperate need of a serious refreshing. They do need a much more up-to-date graphic design. I’m not talking “youthful” necessarily (I see too much of that loud, brash, hard-on-the-eyes “youthful” look.), but, a sleek, modern, yet layed back feel to them. They need to do what all good graphic design does – guide the eye and present the information in a accessible, easy-on-the-eyes, visually interesting way. Also – go glossy for the guts, not just the covers. I know a good, opaque, high-clay content, glossy, white sheet costs a few pennies more than the matte stuff used in Skeptic but, it really adds to the look and feel of the magazine.

    I agree, the editorial needs to be more varied from younger, more diverse writers. There are several here in Science Blogs alone who are experienced, credentialed writers who would be great editorial contributors to both “books.”

    They really need to step up their advertising. Getting a few good, national, mainstream advertisers will go a long way to adding perceived credibility to the magazines. Right now, the only advertising you see is either their own stuff or, what can best be described as “fringy.” It kind of pulls the whole book down. Even if they have to give a full page or even a spread away, it would be worth it. Publish a rate card, offer discounts for repeats, offer to take glossy inserts, do what ever it takes to get the adds – short of compromising the editorial of course.

    Marketing. OK, that one is obvious. The need for money to do that marketing and the absence of it are also pretty apparent. But then, getting a few good advertisers could help rectify that.

    In short, Shermer and Co. need a bigger budget with a bigger staff to offer a “bigger” magazine with more presence and “cred.”

    One of my biggest complaints in the skeptic movement is the lack of a strong, slick, professional front. Skeptic, and Skeptical Inquirer are the best we have. While their editorial content is pretty good much of the time, the rest of the package is not. We do have a good presence with SciAm, Discover, and now, Seed but, they are more focused on science – as they should be. We need the same presence for skepticism as well.

  8. David Harmon says

    On the other hand, sometimes graphical changes can represent a sort of inadvertent “truth in advertising”. When Discover changed it’s format, I looked at the title and immediately thought “Penthouse font”. Then I found out who’d bought the mag. And rapidly discovered that the quality had fallen through the F-ing floor, with pretty but irrelevant photos replacing informative illustrations and sidebars….

  9. says

    Honestly, I have not read and issue of Discover for a while, I pretty much stick to SciAm.

    On a side note, back in the early ’80s, Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, started his own science magazine, first called Nova, then quickly changed to Omni (copywrite issues). It failed after a couple of years. Somewhere, I still have the prototype of Nova with dummy text and placehoder photos but with real headlines and main illustrations in place. It was what was used to market the magazine to advertizers and other publishing insiders.

    Yeah, graphic design is a huge part of the ID of the publication. It is what first catches the eye gives it a “brand identity.” Good design will reflect the content of the magazine in an eye-pleasing, accessable way. And, yes, it can inadvertently reflect “truth in advertising” if you will. If what was once a fairly sober and elegant design becomes “brash and bright,” it is quite likely that that will reflect a change in tone of editorial content as well. It is a good bet that if good attention is paid to the design and layout of a magazine to reflect its content, be accessable, eye-pleasing, and elegant, that similar attention is also paid to the quality of the editorial content. If the design is cheap and brash looking without that attention to detail, you can bet that there is a similar lack of care given to the editorial content as well.

    In the case of Skeptic, I personally think the editorial content is not necessarily well reflected in the design and, is, in fact, better than the design would indicate. Some of the covers have been well done, but others have not been so great.

    Of course, like anything else, quality costs money and that is one resource, I suspect, is sorely lacking at both Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer. Even the best designer is limmited with budget and time.


  10. Kagehi says

    It would also help readership, among those that take it seriously, if places like Hastings, put it in the “Science”, section, instead of “New Age”… That one threw me the first time I went looking for it. I mean, its being categorized right along with UFO weekly magazines, Christian archeology and the latest craze in crystal healing and feng shui. Sort of funny in some ways, but also completely counter productive.

  11. ej says

    I have every issue of SI back to when it started out as The Zetetic, but when my current subscription expires I won’t renew. There is apparently a limited supply of targets to skeptically inquire about, so each one has been revisited many times, and it’s getting boring. Of course the number of suckers never ends so I hope SI keeps reaching new generations.

    By the way, if anyone wants a complete set of SI back issues, let me know. It seems a shame to just throw them out.

  12. Steve LaBonne says

    I think better science magazines(remember how great Scientific American one was?) are a more urgent need than “skeptic” magazines that largely preach to the choir. Learning to appreciate the true strangeness and majesty of the universe we live in- so much more amazing than any story we could possibly make up- is the surest route to rationality, IMHO. Without that, the essential but purely negative virtue of scepticism is unlikely to attract those who aren’t already imbued with it.

  13. says

    To be picky Omni started in 1978. To my surprise it supposedly last published in paper form in 1995. I thought it had ended years before that. Ben Bova was the original editor. Personally I think Wired magazine owes a lot of its feel to Omni.

  14. Torbjörn Larsson says

    What a coincidence! As Martin, I’m a member of the Swedish Skeptic Society, Föreningen Vetenskap och Folkbildning. The member magazine “folkvett” is webpublished too, but I will stay as a paying member – each contry has it’s own history, archeology, litterature and ad material that need scrutiny. (BTW, Martin has published some excellent diverse articles there including bible translation, creationism, postmodernism and his speciality archeology. But in swedish.)

    Since I am a member I can tell you that the meetings have a comfortable spread in ages. But both meetings and the magazine Martin is an editor in has a shortage of women too.

    1 of 5 women are editors, and assuming they wrote about the same amount of editorial material about 6 % of all material have at least one woman author. (I excluded international reports and genderambigouos names.)

    Of course, “folkvett” seems rather vigorous anyway, as you can assume by trusting Martin’s complaint on others reflecting his baseline in his ‘own’ magazine. At least it doesn’t take mere 15 minutes to flip through for me.

  15. Torbjörn Larsson says

    “each contry has it’s own” – each contry has its own
    “1 of 5 women are editors” – 1 of 5 editors are women

  16. says

    No Mooney in the summer issue, at least.

    I agree about the Shermer cult in SkepMag. But in SkeptInq, the same kind of veneration is paid to Paul Kurtz.

  17. bernarda says

    Do any of you know the British magazine, THE NEW SCIETIST?

    It gives a goood review of scientific work in all fields. They try to keep it understandable to a large public. You can also sign up for their email newsletter.

  18. says

    “Perhaps SI should feature an annual swimsuit issue to increase the female content of their magazine.”

    And the cover story will be, “They’re not real!”

  19. says

    About two years ago I attended a couple of meetings of the Minnesota Humanist association. One of the things I noticed immediately was the age and gender makeup of the meetings. Almost all of the attendees were older white men, just like those contributing to the magazines mentioned above. The generation gap goes beyond the magazines. Some possible explanations for this might be: 1. overall decline in science education 2. social stigma 3. lack of time for activism. I’m just throwing these out there to generate some comment.

    I think the two most relevant to me are potential stigma and lack of time. In most of the jobs I’ve had there’s been an unspoken assumption against talking about religious matters. People who have broken that assumption were usually looked down upon, whatever side of the line they advocated. This may or may not be a good thing. I’m not sure I want the workplace to become yet another battleground over religion. But the workplace is where people spend the bulk of their time. To me it seemed obvious that a lot of the people who were attending the humanist meetings were retirees who were finally able to publicly advocate for their beliefs once they didn’t have to worry about holding a job.

    Another huge barrier for me being more open about my atheism has been a niggling voice in the back of my mind that says if I ever wanted to be active in politics, to run for office for example, then I would be sunk before I even began by admitting to be an atheist. I think this is just an outgrowth of the ongoing war on science and rationality perpetrated by the political right over the last two decades.

    I’ve just started subscribing to SI recently and so far the material has been OK. I’ve gotten a lot more out Pharyngula over the past few years. I think there’s clearly a place for both magazines and weblogs or other online material. So keep up the good work PZ, and thanks.

    P.S. For science magazines I’ve preferred the American Scientist over SciAm, Discover, etc for at least the past 3-4 years.

  20. David Harmon says

    There’s also Progressive magazine, which frequently flirts with secular humanism, and has an interestingly arty look.

  21. says

    bernarda: Yeah, The New Scientist is pretty good, I read it once in a while on line. But it doesn’t do as much of the “investigation of fringe claims” stuff that Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic do. Sort of different purpose.

  22. thwaite says

    Strongly second the vote for American Scientist over SciAm and most any other general-science mag, with possible exception of Natural History (and yes New Scientist; and Science News which serves a different role). AmSci is a publication of the Sigma Xi Honor Society for scientists & engineers, but it has open subscriptions and some newstand distribution. Its articles and book reviews are lucid, sometimes clearly opinionated, and less, um, authoritarian than SciAm’s.