Wednesday, December 12, 2018

How to write a science best-seller

Everyone knows how science writing works. Academic scientists labour with great diligence to tease nuanced truths from theory and experiment, only for journalists and popularizers to reduce them to simplistic sound bites for the sake of a good story.

I’ve been moved to ponder that narrative by the widespread appearance on Christmas science/non-fiction books lists of two books by leading science academics: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Robert Plomin’s Blueprint. I reviewed both books at length in Prospect, and my feelings about both of them were surprisingly similar: they have some important and valuable things to say, but are both infuriating too in terms of what they fudge, leave out or misrepresent.

I won’t recapitulate those views here. Plomin has taken some flak for the genetic determinism that his book seems to encourage – most recently from Angela Saini in the latest Prospect, whose conclusion I fully endorse: “Scientists… should concentrate on engaging with historians and social scientists to better understand humans not as simple biological machines but as complex, social beings.” Pinker has been excoriated in one or two places (most vigorously, and some would say predictable, by John Gray) for using the “Enlightenment” ahistorically as a concept to be moulded at will to fit his agenda (not to mention his simplistic and obsolete characterization of Nietzsche).

What both books do is precisely what the caricature of science journalism above is said to do, albeit with more style and more graphs: to eschew nuance and caveats in order to tell a story that is only partly true.

And here’s the moral: it works! By delivering a controversial message in this manner, both books have received massive media attention. If they had been more careful, less confrontational, more ready to tell a complex story, I very much doubt that they would have been awarded anything like as much coverage.

Now, my impression here – having spoken to both Pinker and Plomin – is that they both genuinely believe what they wrote. Yes, Pinker did acknowledge that he was using a simplified picture of the Enlightenment for rhetorical ends, and in conversation Plomin and I were broadly in agreement most of the time about what genetic analyses do and don’t show about human behaviour. But I don’t think either of them was setting out cynically to present a distorted message in order to boost book sales. What seems to be happening here is more in the line of a tacit collusion between academics keen to push a particular point of view (nothing wrong with that in itself) and publishers keen to see an eye-catching and controversial message. And we have, of course, been here before (The God Delusion, anyone?).

Stephen Hawking’s book Brief Answers to the Big Questions was also a popular book choice for 2018 that, in a different way, often veered towards the reductively simplistic, though it seemed to fall only to me (so far as I was able) and my esteemed colleague Michael Brooks to point that out in our reviews.

It seems, then, increasingly to be the job of science writers and critics, like Angela and Michael, to hold the “specialists” to account – and not vice versa.

I could nobly declare that I decline to adopt such a tactic to sell my own books. But the truth is that I couldn’t do it even if I wanted to. My instincts are too set against it. For one thing, it would cause me too much discomfort, even pain, to knowingly ignore or cherry-pick historical or scientific facts (which isn’t to say that I will sometimes get them wrong), or to decline to enter areas of enquiry that might dilute a catchy thesis. But perhaps even more importantly, I would find simplistic narratives and theses to be just a bit too boring to sustain me through a book project. What interests me is not winning some constructed argument but exploring ideas – including the fascinating ideas in Enlightenment Now and Blueprint.

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