Leon Jaroff, 73, is a
retired senior editor at Time magazine. He now writes occasional stories for Time, as well as the
monthly column "Skeptical Eye, " in which he debunks popular myths and attacks what
he considers pseudoscience. Here, he discusses how he combined a love of science and journalism for
a long and productive career.
With such an interest in
science, how did you end up working in journalism?
At the University
of Michigan I was sitting in an engineering mechanics class - I think it was my sophomore year -
and I looked around and there were all these guys in the room, and they were all dressed the same,
in dungarees with slide rules hanging from their belt loops. I had just gotten out of the Navy and
I was young, so I turned to the guy next to me and asked, 'Where are all the women?' He
said, 'They're over at the Michigan Daily. ' And on such small things careers
Where did you go from there?
I got my degree in electrical engineering and mechanics, went to work
on the Michigan Daily and became the managing editor. Then I decided I'd try to combine my two
learning experiences, so I worked for Materials and Methods, an engineering magazine in New York,
for about six months. I didn't much care for it, and went to work as an office boy at Life
Were you active in journalism in high school?
In high school I wrote a humor column for the school paper
called"Rambling at Random. " I also used to write little poems, though I was very
interested in science.
How did you end up at
I'd been a fan of Time since I was in high school. In college I
used to have fantasies of being a Time correspondent out covering some foreign war, with one foot up
on a shell casing and a notebook in my hand, dressed in fatigues, and feverishly scribbling notes
while shells whizzed overhead.
It was a boyhood fantasy. I always wanted to
write for Time and the way I got to do it was by starting as an office boy for Life. I worked there
for many years before I switched. Eventually I became a senior editor at Time and was in charge of
the Science, Medicine, Environment and Behavior sections. Over the years I wrote something like 44
Time cover stories.
How were you involved in the creation of
While writing and editing the Times tories, I
began to notice that the newsstand sales of issues with science or medicine covers tended to shoot
way up. Around 1971 I started suggesting to Time, Inc. that they start a science magazine. It took
a long time to make their decision. In the meantime, there were Science Digest and Science News,
then Omni; all those started while Time was making up its mind. That made it a much more competitive
situation, and it made it more difficult for Discover to survive. Oddly enough, although Time, Inc.
eventually sold it, of all those magazines, it's the only one that still exists.
What was your role at Discover?
After founding the magazine, I was managing editor for four and a
half years. Then I had a little disagreement with the editor-in-chief. He wanted more psychology
and psychiatry stories, and I told him I didn't think they were very solid sciences. He fired me
and sent me back to Time, so I took early retirement.
you choose to take early retirement?
Well, I was 60. I had a chance
to write under contract, which meant that I didn't have to be a corporate employee anymore and I
could write at home, which I still do. I travel occasionally to do some reporting, but I've been
writing cover stories for them.
I did one on the 50th anniversary of
the so-called Roswell landing, so my story basically told what really happened there. Of course, the
hate mail flooded in. The magazine loves me because I generate a lot of hate mail when I knock
conspiracy theories and irrational thought.
Not all my stories are like that.
For example, I did a story on prostate cancer and we put Norman Schwarzkopf on the cover. He has
prostate cancer. It's only within the past few years that we've been able to talk about that with
a reasonable degree of comfort. I do all sorts of regular routine stories, but this is my real
hobby: bashing the irrational.
Tell me about your other
I am one of the founding members of a group called CSICOP,
and that stands for the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. It's
now a thriving worldwide organization with headquarters in Amherst, New
How did CSICOP get started?
The impetus for it was really Uri Gellar's appearance in this country
25 years ago. At that point I was the senior editor in charge of science for Time. A source on the
West Coast said, 'The people from the Stanford Research Institute are investigating this man who,
by sheer mind power, by projecting energy, can cause an electron beam to be diverted, cause objects
to levitate, cause metallic objects to bend. He can read minds. '
So I sent a
teletype to a couple of sources in Israel, and I knew a few people on the staff of the
Research Institute. It turns out this guy had been a nightclub magician in Israel and had started
making all these claims of supernatural powers. A team of professors from Hebrew University had
followed him around and exposed him as a fraud, but he came to this country and everyone, including
the New York Times and Barbara Walters, was totally taken in. I wrote a story in Time describing
all this, and the last line was, 'At week's end, it appeared that the prestigious Stanford
Research Institute had been hoodwinked by a discredited Israeli nightclub
That got others interested, and we met together in a restaurant
in Manhattan. One was Randi the Magician - the famous James Randi - another was the photo editor of
Popular Science and there was a psychology professor from the University of Oregon. We decided it
was important to form an organization to debunk some of these fantastic claims. And that was the
beginning of CSICOP.
Do you still have an active position
with this group?
I think I'm called a fellow. I've given a few
speeches, and I just wrote a piece for a book that commemorates the 25th anniversary. It's now run
by Paul Kurtz [Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York
What is your current status with Time?
In the masthead I'm called a contributor, which I've been since 1987.
In addition to the pieces I do for them, they've given me a column called "Skeptical
Eye, "which was the title of my column at Discover magazine.
first four years, I had this column in every issue of Discover. I looked at something -usually
science, medical research or the environment - that was, in my opinion, foolish or stupid. I dealt
a lot with the paranormal. I knocked the irrational, the
The things you were skeptical
Exactly. The month after I left Discover they did one Skeptical
Eye, then dropped it because they didn't have anyone nearly as skeptical as I am. So there was this
interim period of 17 years.
Then Time put out a couple of special issues
around the turn-of-the-century called "Visions, " where they tried to look forward
to what would happen in areas of human endeavor. They called me up one day and said, 'We'd like you
to do something on alternative medicine. ' I'm known as the corporate skeptic, so I said, 'You want
me to do it? You know what my feelings are!' and they said 'Yes, write what you feel. '
So I bashed alternative medicine and said people should wake up and not be
suckered anymore. As usual, the hate mail came roaring in, and Time was so delighted with that, they
said, 'Can we do something with this?' And I said 'How about restarting my"Skeptical
Eye" column?' So the first one was about the anti-vaccination
I know you write for newspapers in eastern Long
Island. Do you hold a position, or are these unpaid
Basically, whenever I see something totally irrational in
the local press I write a letter trying to keep things sane out here, because otherwise the
nuts would take over.
Who are the people who have had the
greatest impact on you?
Well, I guess Inoco, who was an engineer and
basically taught me to letter properly and do mechanical drawings. That sort of headed me toward
technology and influenced me to get more interested in science and
James Randi, the magician, probably the greatest
hoax-buster, fraud-buster and debunker in the world. He's a guy with a near-genius IQ. He's very
proud of [his] profession, and really resents people who use magicians' tricks to claim they have
In college, when I got out of the service after World War II,
I went to Michigan. I was 21, and met Dick Molloy, who'd been in the Army eight years and was 25,
which at that time was really an old man in college. His father had been the publisher and editor
of the Lorain, Ohio Journal. Dick taught me an awful lot about journalism, journalistic ethics and
what news pegs were.
At Time there was an assistant managing editor named Ed
Jamison who helped polish my journalistic skills.
One other person who
influenced me was the guy who started Time magazine, Time, Inc. and the whole Time-Warner-AOL
mega-corporation, Henry Luce. I was told to shepherd him around, because he's a great man and
brilliant and all that, but he doesn't know how to handle routine things like making hotel
reservations. And he asks a lot of questions, they said, so just be
And he did ask a million questions. I started to think, Maybe that's
what makes him a genius, that he retained his childlike curiosity. Mr. Luce would say, 'I don't
understand that; what's that?' I started to think maybe this was the secret to his success. So I
have tried to remain very inquisitive and almost childlike in my wonder. And I think that
What were the speed bumps on the road to accomplishing
Time, Inc. is like any corporation in that there's a lot
of backstabbing. Maybe not as much as in some industries, but it's there, and I was stabbed in the
back a few times. Instead of quitting or getting mad, I just gritted my teeth and decided I would
move ahead. It happens to everyone; just look at anyone's career, anyone who you think is
successful, and just look into their background and you will find episodes of despair and anger and
disappointment. It happens to everybody. It happens to people when they get near the top, because
that's when everyone's out with their long knives. It's a competitive thing, sort of a gentlemanly
Do you have any regrets, perhaps not having gone
headfirst into science?
Only once in awhile, when I see what's
happened in electronics and say, 'Boy, I wonder what I would have done, what innovations I could
have made. '
On the other hand, I don't regret for a minute having gone into
journalism. It's not as remunerative as almost anything else, but my experiences include having
dinner with the King and Queen of Greece, interviewing Dwight D. Eisenhower, traveling with
Jack Kennedy during the 1960 primary and the election campaign, spending time with Mayor Daly in
Chicago, and meeting George Romney, the Governor of Michigan and a former head of American Voters
who was really not qualified to be governor of Michigan, much less President of the United States,
for which he was being touted for a while. Dealing with some of the real famous scientists, the
Nobel Laureates. James Van Allen, who discovered the Van Allen radiation belt, I've seen him a
couple times. I did a cover story on him shortly after the discovery of the radiation belts, and
we've been friends ever since. So that's been very exciting. Journalism makes you parasitic in a
way, because you're reporting mostly on other peoples' achievements and tragedies. But I can't
think of anything that could have been more interesting.
there one highlight to your career that has made everything worthwhile?
Oh, boy. I have written about all the perils posed to the earth by
asteroids in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, and in many stories in Time advocating more
money for the astronomers who are looking for these things, hoping to stop them in plenty of time.
As a result, an astronomer in California got the International Astronomical Union to name an
asteroid after me. It's 7829 Jaroff, five or six miles across and, just like me, it presents no
immediate threat. I guess the thing that has meant the most has been having that asteroid named for
me, because when I'm long gone, my grandchildren will know about that.
the most exciting projects was doing a cover story on the moon landing, because that occurred after
our deadline so I had to write like crazy. Neil Armstrong stepped out on the moon and made
a statement, and we were out the next week with a picture of him on the cover in a spacesuit,
carrying an American flag. That was very exciting.
the first thing you did that really set people off?
I suspect the
Uri Gellar story, that got me going after all these nuts.
that started the ball rolling?
I began to realize how much nonsense
was being promulgated on television and radio, in the press, and how people were just basically
promoting irrational thought. For some reason, that really bothered me. I've always been a
pragmatist, but I didn't realize how much nonsense was out there. I mean, astrology - it's totally
stupid, and yet there are people out herein East Hampton today who are terribly offended when I
poke fun at astrology. But it's fun, great fun.
Do you have
any advice for aspiring journalists, scientists, skeptics or skeptic journalists?
Basically, try to tell the truth as you see it and be as honest as
possible. There's no such thing as an objective person. There are some trying to be objective who
succeed somewhat, but we all have our little prejudices and quirks.
you're going to have a scoop, if you're going to expose somebody, you have got to make sure every
fact is correct, because if you make one little mistake on even a peripheral part of your story,
the critics will seize upon that to try to undermine your credibility. So accuracy is tremendous.
But then, too, you have to be able to write in a way that will attract people's
attention. You can be terribly accurate and terribly factual and boring as hell and people
won't read you!
I wish you luck in your career because I think you have
the curiosity and I think you'd be a worthy addition to journalism. So keep it up. Don't be tempted
by other professions that will probably make you more money. You want to enjoy your work, you want
to be thrilled by it, and journalism is the best way to do
Is that off the record?
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.