Why We Need “Pop” Science

Open source. Open access. Open science. As demonstrated by their recent fixation on approachability, the collective faith that science communities place in the cultural and […]

Open source. Open access. Open science. As demonstrated by their recent fixation on approachability, the collective faith that science communities place in the cultural and social potential of accessible academic research is stronger than ever before. Just this past Friday, the National Science Foundation announced that it would make greater strides toward providing public information on its funded projects and results. The objective behind increased transparency and public access to scientific research is evident, as the NSF states: “Policies that mobilize these intellectual assets for re-use through broader access can accelerate scientific breakthroughs, increase innovation, and promote economic growth.” Even at Oxford, the trend toward increased access to research is not only visible but also becoming more vigorous, with projects such as the Open Science initiative and the Akorn platform for researchers continuing to gain momentum.

So why has pop science, the epitome of accessible research, gotten such a bad rap?

The March 1947 issue of Popular Science. Source: Modern Mechanix.

By pop science writing, I mean a broad subset of the popular press, a way to communicate science that couches itself as the presentable, comely sister to its more homely and less gregarious counterpart in academia. Tomes like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or Stephen Hawking’s volumes on the universe could fall within this category. But given these authors’ legitimized training, institutional affiliations, and achieved acclaim, their books aren’t exactly vulnerable to accusations of being mass fodder.

Rather, I have in mind Malcolm Gladwell’s anecdotalism and Kevin Kelly’s lofty proclamations to the “technium” and the future of technology. Works that may not necessarily have an accredited academic, peer-reviewed backing but have nonetheless achieved public recognition and several notches on the Royal Society’s shortlist. Works written by authors who may not necessarily have the academic training but have acquired experience, literacy, and intellectual legitimacy in whichever topic they write about.

Kevin Kelly speaking at TEDxAmsterdam in 2009. Source: TEDxAmsterdam (Ivo Kendra).

What differentiates this genre of science writing is its popularization of theoretical concepts—a bringing down to earth of abstract, specialized theories that would not otherwise gain traction amongst the lay population. As Columbia University’s Director of Astrobiology, Caleb Scharf, puts it, “I realized that I wanted to try to write a real book—something that wasn’t just another peer-reviewed journal article reporting the minutiae of a piece of research that precisely ten other people on the planet were genuinely interested in (one posthumously).” Plenty of respected academics and public intellectuals such as Scharf occasionally subscribe to this style in attempts to appeal to a wider public. One could even argue that Lisa Randall, famed theoretical physicist, falls under this category with the mass release of her book on extra dimensions of space. (Whether or not it is intelligible to the layman is another issue altogether.)

So why do professors and students alike tend to mock the style of popular science? As consumers, critics, and audience members of such writing, we should also acknowledge the critical reception that surrounds popular writing on science. Especially within an academic institution, writing for a wider audience is often frowned up and, more often than not, derided.

Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science. Source: Pop! Tech.

We can somewhat blame the Internet. Part of the reason is the mass trivialization of research endeavors and the rise of the online pseudo-intellectual. From OKCupid dating tests to Wikipedia edit wars, the Internet has given ample public opportunities for the pseudo-intellectual to play out his or her whimsies, serving as an example of exactly what not to be. As an “integral part of Internet culture,” this perpetrator “vomits forth spurious, incoherent keyboard ramblings hiding under the veil of intelligent discourse,” thereby polluting all public discourse spaces in cyberspace.

The Internet is only one culpable root of the problem, however. Sometimes, it just has to do with the mere laziness associated with pop science’s superficial lack of depth and accountability. Daniel Bor, an Oxford and Cambridge-trained neuroscientist, wrote about pop neuroscience writer Jonah Lehrer’s fall from grace in his blog, stating that Lehrer’s biggest source of shame involved not only blatant plagiarism but also his disregard for scientific integrity. In this case, Bor argues that “with the internet an increasingly interactive place, many times you have the power to check facts yourself, badger authors for sources, or other scientist bloggers with questions and clarifications. This way we can all do our bit to raise the quality of scientific writing.”

Jonah Lehrer with his books at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2012. Source: Tablet.

In any case, professional academics have tried to combat this lackadaisical approach with their work. I remember a professor’s recent feedback on an essay he returned to me. Although I received a good mark, he nevertheless mentioned in passing that my writing style was “much too journalistic.” The writing style—and communicative catch-22—inherent in academia manifests in a sometimes blinding attempt to mortar up all gaps between the bricks of logical argument. If someone else can poke a hole in a researcher’s argument, that hole needs to be filled, even to the detriment of straightforwardness. But usually, that makes the writing arrogantly indigestible—and on purpose. Stanford Professor Kristin Sainani admitted to PopSci in October, “For students, when you are joining an academic field, it’s quite intimidating. You feel like you need to throw in all the big words and the jargon to show that you’ve mastered it.”

The beauty of popular science writing lies in its accessibility that academic writing staunchly and adamantly avoids. I recently discussed this very gap between theory and practice as well as their perceived values with Sara Watson, a contributing writer who focuses on technology for The Atlantic. Like me, Watson is a proponent of making research knowable—but not necessarily at the expense of conceptual rigor. “There is a role for academics and recovering-academics to play in framing and explaining the social implications of technology,” she explained. “It should be informed by lots of theory and empirical work—as opposed to the lazy model of ‘Internet intellectualism‘ that Evgeny Morozov lambasts—but for popular audiences … sometimes that requires telling relatable stories.”

And ultimately, as Lewenstein commented in 1987 on the arrogance of scientists, “Most people are interested in science only sporadically, or when it addresses their particular concerns.” What pop science achieves is exactly what “real” science, whatever that means, tries to thwart: accessibility and communicated relevancy to other people not within that particular field of expertise. The potential to spark interest and create enthusiasm in a subject previously inaccessible to a curious reader actually grants a degree of openness to popular science writing that few academics—despite claiming they adhere to the value of transparency—perpetuate.

Patrick Keating’s Handcrafted Particle Accelerator with super/collider, a collaborative organization bringing together science, pop culture, and art. Source: super/collider.

I am not arguing for a disintegration of professional, intellectual protocol and that academics should start citing The Tipping Point or include animated GIFs in working drafts for peer review. Nor do I claim that that scientists and researchers need to “water down” their work and simplify their contributions to intellectual life in giving into mass appeal. I am suggesting, however, that public intellectuals in training need to rethink the value in writing for a specific pinprick of an audience and the cost that incurs on the wider public. The point of research is not to hoard it for oneself like an overly erudite vulture. As scientists, technologists, whatever-ists—we need to question the breaking point between maintaining a healthy level of intellectual criticism and shooting ourselves in the foot by ignoring the issue of accessibility. Norms need to be challenged, and openness needs to be encouraged, both institutionally and culturally. Because, to be honest with myself, I’d rather be experiencing science through attending a super/collider project than reading a paper about the other one.

About Qichen Zhang

Qichen is a master's candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, a Balliol College member, and the current Online Editor for Bang! Blogs. She thinks "Impact" font and cat memes have singlehandedly changed the historical canon of western culture. Read more at qichenzhang.net.