Popular Science Attempts to Reach the Scientifically Curious

When he stepped into his new role as Editor at Popular Science last summer, Joe Brown found himself in an interesting position.

“In today’s political climate, ‘Popular Science’ sounds a little like an oxymoron. Some people’ denials of climate change, evolution, and the efficacy of vaccines — issues that scientific research has repeatedly affirmed — have helped make science itself into a partisan issue, and scientists themselves into another interest group among many,” writes Ricardo Bilton in NiemanLab.

Post-election, the partisan issues surrounding certain aspects of science are even more divisive. Yet Brown is clear on one thing:

“We’re not a political magazine at all,” he maintains. “I want to make the most inclusive science and technology publication possible, one that that does not alienate people.”

A tall order for any magazine in our super-politicized world, yet Brown is determined. Their title, after all, is Popular Science. Rather than trying to discredit science skeptics, Brown is actively trying to work with some of the populism that butts heads with science.

“This approach, which Popular Science has tried since Brown joined last August, can be most clearly seen in the magazine’s upcoming ‘Weird Weather’ issue, which will focus on specific ways that climate change is affecting weather patterns around the world,” Bilton writes.

“The focus on the weather rather than the larger idea of climate change is intentional, and Brown said it lets the magazine ‘tell stories that don’t put readers on the back foot. That issue [of the magazine] is a bit of a Trojan horse. We thought we weren’t going to be reaching people if we were too overt about it.’”

It’s an interesting approach for a publisher to take, and it’s backed by – you guessed it – science.

“Researchers at Yale recently found that the more ‘scientifically curious’ (as opposed to just knowledgeable) people are, the less likely they are to hold polarized beliefs about science and the more likely they are to be open to new information,” Bilton explains.

“It supports the idea that appealing to readers’ curiosity can be a more effective way to change their minds than just trying to convince them that they are wrong,” Bilton continues.

The overriding goal is, of course, to grow the magazine. Brown feels that this approach will make the title more welcoming and more inclusive.

“When you compare us to other science and tech publications, we are talking to those readers who might feel disenfranchised by much of the mainstream science and tech press — and I like that,” he said.

It could be exactly what the troubled title needs. After burning through four editors in five years, and a circulation decline of nearly 25% between 20014 and 2016, clearly a change was needed. In addition to moving to a bi-monthly publishing schedule, Brown has shepherded a move to a “single topic” format, like their recent Water issue.

Brown is hopeful this new approach will resonate. “If they stop by to read our coverage about tanks, I hope they stick around for our coverage about climate change,” Brown said to Bilton. “Come for the tanks, stay for the doom and gloom.”