THURSDAY, 12 MARCH 2015When I promised another book review, I didn’t realize this would be so hard to write. At first glance, writing a book review about a popsci book seems quite easy: one reads the book, airs some opinions, compares the book to others in the genre, and voila! generates a respectable review.
Unfortunately, it isn’t so easy – or it shouldn’t be. Popular science books implicitly claim to tell a truth about the world we live in, and they claim to do this in a more accessible way than a textbook. However, ths means that they do not undergo the same amount of scrutiny that publications and to a lesser extent textbooks do. This public scrutiny – the academic discourse within a discipline – is fundamental to academic science, and it is what distinguishes a peer-reviewed paper from an article in the Telegraph.
Thus, we can say that popsci books are fundamentally different from science books. Popsci books are written by authors independently of their potential role as academic scientists (and not all of them are written by scientists in the first place). For example, a book on language and the brain might be published by Dr. Jane Doe, Neuroscientist, who conducts research in the function of voltage-gated channels in neurons. Jane Doe might be also very knowledgeable about language function in the brain, but her expertise in this area cannot be taken for granted on basis of her academic research. It can only be established by scrutinizing the book itself and checking its references.
This is important because popsci books fall on a spectrum from the descriptive to the normative. There are many descriptive popsci books which are engaging, delight in capturing the reader, and pull them into the story being told. Those books are great! We need to be more cautious, though, when a book starts to draw normative conclusions from the science it describes. Here, the reader must distinguish between the scientific detail, the author’s interpretation, and the author’s intention to convince the reader of their judgement. These popsci books can be problematic when it is not clear to the reader that the author is constructing an argument based on the science being described. This is not to say that such books are less interesting or valuable, but it is dangerous to mistake them for the first kind.
In short, deciding whether a book falls into the descriptive or normative category is not easy for anyone, even scientists. It takes careful reading, some literature research, checking that the references actually say what the text claims, and a lot of time. In short, it requires dedication.
To make things easy for this post, I shall just recommend a very good read by an eminent figure in the field: In Search of Memory, the autobiography of eminent neuroscientist (and well-known textbook author) Eric R. Kandel. At least with an autobiography, we can be clear about the genre!