Rennie explains what science ‘means’

Even after more than 20 years on the job, John Rennie’s ’81 mission as a science journalist remains the same. The role of his magazine, Scientific American, he said at a Pierson College Master’s Tea yesterday, is not to explain “what science or technology is,” but rather “what science or technology means.”

Rennie, who has served as Scientific American’s editor-in-chief for the past 14 years, spoke to an audience of 65 students and faculty members about his career, the changing field of journalism and, his pet issue, the environment. In response to questions from his audience, Rennie discussed what he sees as some current fads in journalism. The idea of labeling oneself as a “green” industry, he said, was popular until recently, but in the past few years, “green-ness” has become cliche.

“It’s important we discussed environmentalism in the context of it becoming something fashionable and how people become tired of fashion,” Pierson College Master Harvey Goldblatt said.

Audience members became enthusiastic when Rennie described his attempt “to be a good journalist agent in a commercial marketplace.” Some asked how he, as the editor-in-chief, approaches “green washing,” or advertisements that present companies to be more environmentally friendly than they really are.

“Various companies do things to look more environmentally benign,” Rennie said.

He said he tries his best to avoid becoming involved with the business side of the publication, including all advertising.

Instead, Rennie’s job focuses on the magazine’s content. The editor stressed the importance of balance to avoid misleading the public by drawing a disproportionate amount of attention to one subject. He also said publications must often deal with companies who prefer to keep certain issues like global warming under wraps.

To maintain balance, and to keep with the mission of explaining what science means, Rennie said some writers begin their research a year in advance, and the publication presents not only scientific aspects of a story, but also includes economic, policy-related and human-interest angles.

And with this level of research comes an understanding that allows the magazine’s writers to craft stories that are accessible to the general public, despite being rooted in highly complicated science, he said.

Max Webster ’12, who said he is interested in studying sustainability, said he was impressed with the user-friendly direction of Scientific American, and thought Rennie spoke with “a kind of approach we need to take toward science today.”

Jennifer Lin ’09, who has seen Rennie speak at Yale in past years, said she was glad to see him again address issues such as sustainability.

“It was a really relevant topic,” Lin said. “We see different publications emphasizing sustainability even at Yale,” referring to the Yale Scientific Magazine, of which she is editor-in-chief.

Rennie is the seventh editor-in-chief of Scientific American, which was founded in 1845.

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