Foresight Debate with Scientific American

Foresight Institute vs Scientific American:
Debate on nanotechnology: Overview

For the result of the debate, see Sci Am correction.

    Round 1    
    Round 2    
    Round 3    
    Round 4    
    Epilogue 1997    

Round 1

Scientific American publishes a six-page news story on nanotechnology in their April 1996 issue. The story is inaccurate and biased. From this six-page story, only two paragraphs are published on the Web by SciAm at this point.
On the Web, Foresight publishes Ralph Merkle's complete rebuttal of the full text of the SciAm story. (March 19)
Carl Feynman, son of late Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, sends letter to SciAm objecting to their misuse of his father's name and misrepresentation of his opinion of nanotechnology. (March 22)
Others, including some interviewed for the story, send letters to SciAm objecting to it.
Chemical & Engineering News, a publication of the American Chemical Society, publishes a news story on the debate. (April)

Round 2

SciAm sends demand that Foresight not publish any quotations of their news story on the Web. SciAm says "proper way" to comment is a letter to the editor. (April 5)
Foresight replies, pointing out that the Web publication is clearly fair use and is a valuable contribution to the debate by bringing it onto the Web where all parties may participate. (April 13)

Round 3

SciAm's editor-in-chief John Rennie responds to Foresight's rebuttal, still with no technical content supporting his negative position on nanotechnology, but claiming he could get some if he tried. (May 10)
Foresight publishes Rennie's letter with rebuttal, pointing out his errors in reasoning and logic, and poor standards of science journalism. We had fun writing this. (May 18)
For another reaction to Gary Stix's article in Scientific American, see Will Ware's essay.

Round 4

Ralph Merkle responds to Rennie with an analysis of the May 10 letter, including "the curious omission of David Jones." (May 14)
Foresight chairman Eric Drexler responds to Rennie, pointing out complete lack of scientific content in SciAm's position on nanotechnology. (May 14)
SciAm publishes a new article on the web which amounts to a correction of the previous story, giving links to work in nanotechnology being done at institutions such as Caltech, IBM, and the Naval Research Lab. All links but one are supportive of nanotechnology; the only negative link is to their own original story, now belatedly available on the SciAm server. (late May)


The August Scientific American printed four letters received (available on their Web site) about their nanotechnology story, including Carl Feynman's letter listed in Round 1 above.
Foresight commends Scientific American for acknowleding the negative reactions to their article (the section was entitled "Mega-discord over nanotech", and three of the four letters were critical of their article).
However, some of the points expressed by one letter writer and by the editors in their reply seem to us to be based upon strange logic and thus require a response from Foresight, including our thoughts on why Scientific American chose to publish a biased story with such limited technical content.
A recent addition to the discussion is "TOO HARD?", an editorial by Stanley Schmidt published in the January 1997 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact.


This result shows the value of debate on the web: It's a concrete example of the effect described in Drexler's article "Hypertext Publishing and the Evolution of Knowledge".

Epilogue, a year later

April 1997, an article on the Scientific American Web site hails computational nanotechnology work done at NASA Ames Research Center as showing that "...molecule-sized machine parts ... are certainly plausible and could have enormous potential." After describing the supercomputer molecular dynamics simulations of gears made from fullerene nanotubes, done by Al Globus and colleagues, the article concludes that "...more and more, research is demonstrating that such things are possible--possibly sooner than most of us think."
June 1997, a post on sci.nanotech: "SciAm Now Advertising Nanotech"

We at Foresight are heartened by this evidence that the web is already coming to be an effective force for higher-quality journalism and information on topics of public interest. Eventually, these higher standards can be expected to influence paper publishing as well.

We salute Scientific American for recognizing the growing importance of nanotechnology.