Scientific American: No, no, no…

My Google homepage just fed me a series of stories from the Scientific American website about “The Science of Beauty.” First I rolled my eyes–how many awful beauty magazines have I read that tout the same exact headline? But, I thought, this is my beloved science magazine. Even though the wonderful editor and skeptic supporter John Rennie will no longer be working there, I trusted SciAm for quality science reporting and news.

Now I have my doubts.

Rebecca over at Skepchick has already tackled the worst points about this article on cellulite. But I want to briefly make my own rant.

For one, all of their information comes from Lionel Bissoon, a mesotherapy practitioner. (Mesotherapy involves injecting various things, such as vitamins, pharmaceuticals, and homeopathic solutions into the skin to cure lots of things–most popularly, to dissolve fat or smooth away cellulite.) Stephen Barrett at Quackwatch and three other dermatological or plastic surgery associations have warned that mesotherapy does not have enough proof to back its use.)

I know this is an argument from authority, but why should we listen to Lionel Bissoon? His own practices are dubious. So the arguments he uses to justify his practices–i.e., the information he gives about cellulite–are also dubious. I think Scientific American should recognize this basic fact. There’s no reason to contribute to the promotion of pseudoscientific practices by publicizing their practitioners and giving them credence. This is important in journalism. Since they are giving us, at best, second-hand information, we must rely on them to validate their sources. Reading Lionel Bissoon’s site does not make me think he is a credible source at all.

Secondly, why in the world is SciAm devoting all this space and time to beauty science? This is what the tagline says on their front page:

Just in time for Mother’s Day: From Mother Nature’s timeless skin remedies to the latest findings in anti-aging research, science helps to explain how treatments work and whether they’re safe

I’m guessing–just guessing, mind you–that they’re trying to increase female readership by these articles on beauty. They are driving away many more readers by the poor quality of some of these articles. The “latest findings in anti-aging research” and other beauty research is mostly sponsored by cosmetic companies who have a large stake in positive results. Indeed, the article on this new research quotes researchers worker for P&G, Estee Lauder, and L’Oreal. Somehow I doubt they are unbiased and reliable sources.

But the thing that annoys me most is that they are trying so hard to target women by presenting inferior articles about not-that-interesting research just because, of course, all females are beauty-obsessed. Granted, the articles about safety and natural skin remedies don’t cut much slack to the cosmetics companies. But safety nuts are never surprised by the idea that manmade chemicals might harm them. And the debunked natural remedies are inconveniently presented in a slideshow, where the major focus is on the stock photos of cucumber masks. Even I didn’t want to read all the way through. It all feels frivolous and more befitting of a woman’s lifestyle magazine than a science magazine. I felt like Scientific American could benefit from a lashing from the awesome Sarah Haskins of “Target Women”.

A skeptical look at beauty products would be much more beneficial. I stumbled across a decent blog while googling for this post, The Beauty Brains. Here there’s a much more critical, though still beauty-focused approach to cosmetic marketing and cosmetic products. I like the beauty jargon post. I recommend going there if you have doubts about silly treatments, because they at least provide you with research and real science.

I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-beauty. Whatever floats your boat–smelling like sugar-encrusted flowers, wearing pigmented whale lipids on your face–is fine with me. I support the female freedom to look however the heck she wants to. But I would rather not be treated like beauty is the only thing I’m interested in. I love science way more than I love my moisturizer.

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Vy is a recent graduate working in a neuroscience lab with children and monkeys. She likes sewing, knitting, lifting weights, and reading in her free time. Especially reading about science!


  1. May 10, 2009 at 7:31 am —

    There seems to be a lot of this ‘let’s appeal to women by doing something about fashion/cosmetics’ around, even in usually reputable publications.

    I have a feeling that the kind of women who /are/ only interested in beauty won’t read the science-y articles, and the kind who are interested in science won’t read them because the ‘science’ is rather flimsy.

  2. May 10, 2009 at 12:44 pm —

    Crap, is this for real?! They are interviewing a guy who does freaking homeopathy! AKA Drink water with nothing. Sci Am is doomed.

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