R.I.P.: John Maddox

Literary agent and Edge impresario John Brockman is reporting that John Maddox, long-time editor of the journal Nature, died Monday night at the age of 93. Maddox, who trained as a physicist, edited Nature for 23 years, making the publication arguably (well, I would argue) the best scientific journal in the world. Brockman has a nice Q&A with Maddox from 1997, in which Maddox is his usual irascible self.

I’ll most remember Maddox for two things. In his fierce commitment to empirical reasoning, in 1988 he arranged for one magician (James Randi) and one science-fraud investigator (Walter Stewart) to observe an experiment in which French scientist Jacques Benveniste claimed, essentially, that water could retain a “memory” of compounds it had been exposed to, which is the basis for homeopathy. The compound was an antibody, and the claim was that even when the antibody had been diluted billions of times, it still had an effect on white blood cells. (Randi describes it here.)

Maddox had allowed the original claim to be published in the June 30 issue of Nature, because it was receiving coverage in the popular press. But his, Stewart’s and Randi’s investigation debunked it. The headline of the Nature story describing the result of the investigation, in July 1988, says it all: “’High-dilution’ experiments a delusion.” Benveniste claimed he was the victim of a witch hunt. The New York Times archives’ has a nice write-up of the whole affair here.

But I will also always recall the many editorials that Maddox wrote or ran casting doubt on anthropogenic global warming. As he told Brockman in their 1997, “I accept that global warming, because of carbon dioxide, is going to be a reality at some stage in the future. I disagree with the way in which the forecasts have been made by the organization called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. . . the real problem is that all this is based on computer modeling, and . . . I think it’s dangerous to rely on computer modeling when you are trying to make predictions about the real world.” It’s not just that this is wrong from the standpoint of 2009; it was also wrong in 1997. I’ve always wondered to what extent scientific and political efforts to come to grips with climate change were thwarted by the skepticism of the world’s leading science journal. Nevertheless, science will miss him.

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