Puffing Cryonics in New Scientist?

Posted by Pete Shanks on July 13th, 2016

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New Scientist is a British-based popular science magazine. It’s been around for 60 years, which is long enough to stumble and recover a few times. For instance, in 2009 it published a cover story with the startling headline “Darwin Was Wrong.” (Not so, even if his concept of the “tree of life” was simplistic.) The story is mostly behind a paywall but still on-site; the cover image can be found elsewhere.

To be fair, New Scientist has also published informed and incisive commentary by experts such as Donna Dickenson and our own Marcy Darnovsky. The magazine has also been, at least on occasion, sensitive to questions of ethics, as in this 2014 editorial on “three-parent babies.”

But they just stumbled again. The July 2 issue featured on the cover “The Resurrection Project.” The articles included:

Ark of the immortals: The future-proof plan to freeze out death
A visual tour of the weird world of the cryogenically frozen
I want to put your death on ice so that you can live again

The perpendicular pronoun in the third title refers to Max More, the transhumanist who currently runs the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. We last mentioned More and Alcor in March, when we referred you to Corey Pein’s excellent article in The Baffler. Pein describes the folks behind Alcor as “technophilic necromancers” and digs deep into the risible history of More’s Extropy Institute and “proactionary principle.” As science (and business) goes, cryonics is on the quackery side of reality.

It would not surprise me to learn that, behind the paywall (I’m not paying) there was criticism of cryonics. But the topic was on the cover, not to mention featured in at least three email blasts, two of which used the term immortals. How should we understand those choices by a publication that calls itself a science magazine? As the writer of the aforementioned Darwin article admitted in response to complaints registered then:

Well, the cover is designed to sell the magazine. If we run very straight, sober covers, we sell fewer mags, we get fewer clicks and nobody blogs about us, so fewer people read what we produce.

What they think of us, the readers, is hard to tell. But here are the subject lines of the four most recent email blasts, as of this writing:

Self-promotion comes naturally to narcissists (July 10)
Your ultimate guide to reality’s true strangeness (July 9)
How to be a successful narcissist (July 8)
Embrace your inner narcissist (July 7)

And here is a worrying piece from the archives, 23 October 1999, to be precise. (So long ago, it took the Techno-Eugenics Email List, a distant ancestor of this blog, months to note it!) It’s a New Scientist Editorial titled “The Last Taboo,” in response to reports that scientists had, in principle, invented artificial chromosomes. The speculation around them was that they could be used to introduce heritable changes, in mice and theoretically in people. The technology was not then ready for use, by any means, but the editorial concludes:

For all these reasons, it would be a mistake to expect the taboo on human genetic engineering to last forever. Some day someone will want to try it. The invention of artificial chromosomes doesn’t make that desirable—only people can make that judgment. But it does add to the forces that are now beginning to make it seem inevitable.

As for taboos, they are simply a bad excuse for not thinking.

Apparently, sales are a good excuse for not thinking. Or perhaps the editors just suffered a brain freeze.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Image via New Scientist

Posted in A "Post-Human" Future?, Biopolitics, Parties & Pundits, Civil Society, Inheritable Genetic Modification, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Stem Cell Research, The United Kingdom


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