The cantankerous Jerry Coyne, in a recent post, takes issue with popular
“science-lite” books that offer superficial analyses of and solutions to social problems or””most disturbing to me””superficial descriptions of scientific work.
This is a recurring bugaboo for scientists. It springs from a deeply rooted attitude that science journalist Deborah Blum aptly described here.
So which authors have committed crimes against science, according to Coyne? What are some of the faulty, superficial best-sellers? He obliges:
To me, these include books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (a page-turner, but one that left me cold), Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (with its unfortunate concentration on group selection) and The Happiness Hypothesis, David Brooks’s execrable The Social Animal, Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct (funded and vetted by the Templeton Foundation), and all of the books and writing of the now-disgraced Wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.
Gladwell receives the lion’s share of abuse from Coyne and his readers pile on. Then something interesting happens: A mystified Gladwell shows up to defend himself. His exchanges in the comment thread are worth reading, especially this bit from him:
I have to say that I find some of the hostility here towards my work a bit puzzling. As anyone who writes for a living knows, it is very difficult to write about science in a way that satisfies all audiences. You have to choose who you want to reach”“and if you aim at the left side of the continuum it is almost inevitable that you will alienate someone on the right side of the continuum. (And vice versa). I have chosen, for better or worse, to be “popular” science writer, which necessarily entails sacrificing some degree of complexity for accessibility.
This is an explanation that should resonate with science writers who aim to reach a lay audience. But it’s probably not going to sway Coyne and I don’t think it addresses what David Dobbs, a science writer I’ve long admired, raised last week. Ed Yong succinctly captured its essence:
David Dobbs on the No 1 challenge for a science writer: portraying complexity & uncertainty, and avoiding tidy fables
I’m sure there are wide ranging views on how to accomplish this. Personally, what I have found is that the more politicized and emotionally charged an issue–such as climate change–the less appetite there is for conveying complexity and nuances. But that is a topic for another post.