"The standards of this criticism alter to the degree that historiography approaches journalism." (Martin Heidegger)
For me, 2015 will be the year that I finally lost all respect for "science writing". Not that I had been holding the genre in especially high esteem until now. Five years ago I participated in what Brayden King called a "backlash" against Malcolm Gladwell's "tsunami of wrong". I was especially worried about the reverence that social scientists have for his writing, and the influence it seems to have on the way they think and teach. I even found myself comparing Gladwell with Daniel Pinchbeck, who was at the time among those arguing that December 21, 2012 marked "the end of time" (in an admittedly only vaguely specified sense). (Last week, I finally got around to buying Terence McKenna's Food of the Gods, which has inspired much of Pinchbeck's project. More on that in the new year.) To my own surprise, I found Pinchbeck's writing to be more credible than Gladwell's (in a sense that I really hope you'll let me specify).
Even back when I was writing my PhD, my romance with popular science was beginning to unravel. I recently rediscovered an old anecdote about Erwin Schrödinger that I read in Leon Lederman's popular The God Particle, written before the Higgs boson was discovered, and before I lost my faith in the genre. At that time I was just beginning my master's studies in what would turn out to be the philosophy of science. But I was getting my history of science by this highly unscientific means. Indeed, this was the source of my understanding of physics beyond the high school level, and I cringe a little now recalling the confidence with which I declared what the metaphysical consequences of quantum mechanics are.
It was probably while reading Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as a PhD student, that I started to realize that something was amiss with my approach to what is known by science. I had gone into my reading of the book expecting simply to "deconstruct" it (that's the sort of thing I was doing back then) but I found it to be a very compelling and illuminating read. It really did teach me, or so I thought, a great deal about evolutionary theory, and about how evolution "works". It helped me to understand things I had previously only vaguely believed. But at the time, a friend of mine was also telling me about the somewhat radical ideas of Paul Shepard and his "pleistocene paradigm" so I was thinking very hard about the evolutionary account of what it means to "be human". Also, though Steve Fuller hadn't yet testified in the Dover case, I'm sure I had discussed intelligent design with him by then. There was much to think about, in short, and I was trying to make up my mind.
I remember very clearly reading Dawkins' chapter on "the extended genome". I won't try to do it justice except to say that Dawkins made a compelling case for the idea that some of our features are the expression of genes that are not our own. (Some snails, as I recall, have thick shells because these shells are, not to their own evolutionary advantage, but to the advantage of parasites they carry. The parasites, not the snails, transmit the "selfish gene" that produces this thickness.) Bringing together my conversations about Paul Shepard and intelligent design, and no doubt my earlier reading of Lederman, I began to work out a theory of the "God Genome", i.e., a sense in which all the human body's traits are actually to God's (or some "advanced" alien species') overall advantage in the universe, or simply incidental products of some other, more or less divine, advantage, and not really to the benefit of our own genes. It was heady and exciting stuff.
But then a kind of depression set in. Dawkins' himself said that his chapter on the extended genome was really just a summary of a book he'd written for a less popular audience. I.e., an actual work of science, a piece of scientific writing. My friend was writing a dissertation about the evolution of cognition and would constantly correct me on elementary factual errors. It was frustrating for us both. He felt like he was teaching me high school biology, I felt like he was stifling my creativity. He, of course, was more right than I was. I simply had no basis to propose a paradigm-shifting account of human nature that makes of our bodies a divine "emanation". Though it was very exciting to think about these things, it just wasn't a very serious intellectual activity. I lacked a proper basis in science. I lacked knowledge. I was an ignoramus.
This, like I say, despite reading a great deal of popular science writing. As I've come to understand, especially since the invention of the TED talk (a "dark art"), it gave me the feeling of knowing without actually providing me with knowledge. Popular presentations of science tell us stories about what is known without giving us the critical foundations we need to engage with it, i.e., to question those stories. I know there are some people who will say that Darwin's Origin of Species is essentially a work of popular non-fiction. But the important difference is that his "public" was highly educated. They didn't lack the knowledge to engage with his ideas, only, perhaps, the time and equipment. Someone who had the necessary resources, would not need a more "specialized" version of his argument before his criticism could be of use.
At some point, perhaps around the time of The Selfish Gene, this stopped being true. Evolution became a theory you should believe even if you don't understand it, and even if it is beyond your abilities to understand it. The public became thankful for popularizers who could give people the feeling that they were "in on" this important theory. I don't have a good historical account of this process worked out yet, but as I write this post, it seems to me to be a worthwhile project to try to pinpoint the moment that scientific belief and a real scientific understanding were separated from each other. It is a consequence of the enormous advances in science and technology, of course, and the specialization that has driven it. I fear this has also affected the quality of our scientific writing.
I will definitely have to say more about this in the weeks to come. After all, the concept of "academic writing", my bread and butter, tells us a little about what is being lost. Knowledge was once something you acquired through years of study, guided by books, but framed by a classroom (other people), an observatory (other vistas), a laboratory (other experiences), a library (other books). If you did not have access to these "academic" conditions you did not presume to understand the topic. Scientists wrote about their discoveries for people who had the knowledge, intelligence, time and apparatus to test them. These days, "science" is becoming something that is produced in a lab and consumed in a book you buy at the airport.