Rennie predicts future of science

Lauded by some as “the King of Sci-Am”, John Rennie ’81 reigns supreme over the magazine that delivers monthly news of the latest science and technological advances.

At a Morse College Master’s Tea on Thursday, Rennie, the editor-in-chief of “Scientific American”, discussed his vision of the role of science in today’s society with an audience of about 50 students. He emphasized the importance of keeping up with scientific progress, pointing to the tremendous advancements of the last 20 years.

“All of our lives, the very fabric of our society, are so intertwined with science and technology that you can’t even begin to fathom where we’re going in the 21st century without an understanding of science,” Rennie said.

He described the magazine’s coverage of issues such as the future of energy, which will be featured in the magazine’s September single-topic issue, as well as sustainable development, to show how the magazine addresses topics that will pertain to everyday Americans.

“Scientific American tries to present information that has relevance to society and political policy,” Rennie said. “However, there’s the problem of science literacy, since audiences are increasingly used to seeing things on television carved into little bits for them.”

Since taking the helm in 1994, Rennie has worked to modernize the magazine through a variety of measures, including the launch of a Web site and single-topic issues on more forward-looking topics such as “Key Technologies for the 21st Century.” He said one of the large problems the magazine faces in attracting a large readership is people’s difficulty in understanding scientific terminology, which has increased since the great acceleration of discoveries after the 1970s.

“We’re trying to put together a magazine that doesn’t look like it’s your grandfather’s,” Rennie said.

After graduating from Yale with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Rennie worked in a laboratory at Harvard Medical School before freelance writing for publications including The Economist and The New York Times. He applied twice for a position on the editorial board of “Scientific American” and was hired in 1989.

As a major figure in scientific journalism, Rennie is a frequent target of organizations that disagree with the magazine’s stances on issues such as evolution and global warming. He said he finds that science is being increasingly politicized and has become the object of great suspicion from those who think scientists make up evidence to receive more grant money.

“If you Google my name, you’ll see that I’m widely hated throughout the universe,” Rennie said. “It’s a sad manifestation that shows up in journalism. People have it beaten into them that if you don’t present all points of view in a publication, that you’re biased and can’t be trusted.”

Rennie indicated that society has ceased to see science as an empirical quest for truth and now sees it as a political activity.

“It’s a very bad thing for society that science has been relegated to the junkheap of vested interests,” he said.

Students at the tea said they enjoyed Rennie’s presentation.

“I was impressed by the diversity — there were both science and non-science people who came,” Brian Wayda ’07 said. “It was also good as a science major to hear about all the separate paths that you can choose outside of a Ph.D.”

Veronique Greenwood ’08 said Rennie’s take on science’s duty to truth was appealing.

“It’s really refreshing to find a scientist who isn’t willing to sacrifice his principles for public opinion,” Greenwood said.

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