Lost Among Europeans

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I’ve been reading the book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, in an effort to get myself back to shape after mental exhaustion. Very often, I get into the same situation when inquiring into areas where I’m ignorant: I buy a well liked popularization book. Almost always, I end up disappointed. Why does the book dumb down the concepts? Why the profusion of silly jokes? Why the pop culture references?

I discuss this topic with friends now and then. The conventional wisdom is that the authors of these books use these tricks to draw the audience in, to make the subject more digestible and appealing. I think the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Take the aforementioned book, for instance. In a particular section, it states that research shows attention and learning increase when subjects are supplemented with examples. Throughout the book, there are plenty of examples to illustrate particular points. The author is being coherent, then.

But many of those examples are so silly, they detract from the information. When explaining that a memory is located in the same area of the brain that processed the initial perception, the author gives the example of the Charlton Heston movie Planet of the Apes. You see, Charlton Heston’s space ship lands in what looks like a distant planet ruled by apes. At the end of the movie, he discovers he is in Earth, in the future, after humanity has finally succeeded in destroying itself. Ah yes, this explains how memories are in the same place they originated. Same place, future time. Get it now? Charlton Heston, man. Of course! Without this superfluous piece of information, you’d be lost. Just like Charlton Heston was in that planet.

Does this example seem silly to you too? I don’t know many people who share my contempt for silliness in popular science books. But back to the conventional wisdom on popularization books. My theory is that the authors are less concerned with making the subject digestible than with making friends. They want to show that they are nice, smart, funny guys, and that their book is relevant to you (buy it!). It is insecurity, and narcissism that disguises itself as populism and humility. It seems to me a particularly American disease. In Europe, of course, we suffer from elitism and obscurantism. I don’t know which of the two tendencies I prefer.

Maybe I’m wrong, of course. Maybe there are many people with a genuine interest in science, who would never read a book with diagrams, drawings, numbers, but truly love those silly pop culture references. These people’s romance with science seems a star-cross’d one indeed.