So when did popularising science make people bad scientists?

I saw something the other day by Neil de Grasse Tyson, explaining that anybody in the sciences who popularises the field is usually not regarded as a ‘serious’ scientist.

Gravitational lens attributed to the presence of Dark Matter. NASA, public domain.
Gravitational lens attributed to the presence of Dark Matter. I’ll explain how this works in another post (watch this space). NASA, public domain.

He explained that even astrophysics – his field – is at best ‘neutral’ in such attitudes. I recall an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon’s childhood science populariser, “Professor Proton” (Bob Newhart!) said much the same thing – underscoring the fact that this attitude is well enough known to field mention in fiction.

Actually, that’s true of all the intellectual pursuits. Certainly here in New Zealand there is a strong sense that anybody who writes popular history, for instance, is not merely failing to do ‘serious’ history, but must by definition be incapable of it (although on my experience the intellectual history community still feels so threatened by popular writing in their field they have to perform like imbeciles to tear it down).

The reality is that the best writers of accessible popular work in a field are usually also thoroughly qualified in it. Some – I’m thinking here of Stephen Hawking – have not merely contributed to that field, they’ve re-defined it. Others divert their careers into popularising, thus truncating a potential contribution to their discipline to do so. Remember Patrick Moore, Britain’s TV astronomer for more than half a century? Well, he was actually an astronomer, and among other things worked on mapping the edges of the moon in pre-space days – parts of the far side are visible thanks to a slight wobble, libration, that brings them into view.

Other writers popularise – well, everything. I’m thinking of Isaac Asimov, who was a biochemist by profession but was such a talented all-round total genius he was able to write popular works describing everything from the Bible to history to all the sciences. That’s apart from his science fiction, his mystery stories, and his very clever (and rude) limericks.

My take is that the people who popularise ‘complex’ stuff, like the sciences – or the social sciences, or any of the things that are often upheld as somehow inaccessibly difficult, like maths – not only have to know the stuff backwards and inside out, need to know the stuff to greater degree than those who merely master aspects of it to suit the academy. That’s because they have to be able to explain it in basic terms. They also have to be able to master writing (or TV presentation) in ways that aren’t required by the academy for intellectual ‘cred’.

The popularisers, in short, have to show deeper knowledge of the field – and wider talent – than those who merely meet the narrow definition of ‘intellectual quality’.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


31 thoughts on “So when did popularising science make people bad scientists?

  1. If more qualified people popularized then perhaps we’d have more people pursuing and fewer shunning. How much better for humanity to have a better educated populace and a larger pool of minds entering such fields. What we have these days are young people pushed into one business-related field after another while the sciences and social sciences wither because those most powerful in those fields huddle together to protect their intellectual egos. Of course, it comes down to priorities and whether we value conserving resources, developing safer energy, and combating global warming over sending more people to Wall Street.

    1. I agree – the issue of intellectual ego is a big one in New Zealand, for sure, because it’s such a small pond. And I also suspect that the priorities you and I (and a lot of other people) might hold about educating in science, properly dealing with global warming, and a host of other things that seem both obvious and sensible, aren’t held by those who wield sticks big enough to actually do something useful in those areas. Sigh.

  2. I am always astounded by such attitudes. “Popularising” ANY field of study brings it to the attention of more people. Why could that ever be considered a bad thing? But you are so right – here in Canada, Pierre Berton was for years a “popular” historian, and not taken seriously in the field. On the other hand, he is the one who instilled the love of history in me, and I went on to take two degrees in it. Great post!

    1. Thank you! Yes, I was inspired into history by a teacher in my last high school year – kind of odd, because I’d always done music and the sciences, but it was SO COOL, and I managed to major in it at university (along with a major in one of the sciences), and then I did a couple of post-grad degrees in history after that. The thing was that I’d also been inspired into the sciences by Asimov, and that stuff was SO COOL, and it was kind of like being torn two ways because EVERYTHING I looked at was cool and interesting and – and –

  3. “Actually, that’s true of all the intellectual pursuits. Certainly here in New Zealand there is a strong sense that anybody who writes popular history, for instance, is not merely failing to do ‘serious’ history, but must by definition be incapable of it (although on my experience the intellectual history community still feels so threatened by popular writing in their field they have to perform like imbeciles to tear it down).”

    I was going to note that very same thing. I’m not sure what causes this, perhaps people are protecting their rice bowl, or perhaps its a degree of snobbery, but it’s quite common.

    1. I think there is a certain mind-set that finds comfort and assuages their insecurities in intellectualism. Not all academics or those who follow the values that the academy uses to define worth are insecure, but on my experience I’ve found a lot of them are. It’s worse in a small place like New Zealand because they feel very threatened, very easily – and, usually, everybody knows each other after you reach a Certain Point in the profession. Not a very high point, either.

    1. You’re right. I think the old adage is true to the extent that some teachers can’t actually do what they are teaching – but these people are also useless teachers. I had plenty of them at school. Whereas the people who inspire others and imbue them with a joy and desire to learn – well, as you say, I figure they’re usually competent all round. I know that the best teachers I had were also very capable at what they were teaching.

    2. It applies in the construction trades where teachers are out of touch with the pressures an rough.and tumble of daily work.
      Many are taught the safe way only to find it is the long nonprofitable way.

        1. Yes academics who teach those theoretical subjects needed for engineering are not practical men.
          The world is bolted together by doers.
          I can teach a man about electrical theory but he may not be able to wire a house.

  4. I totally agree – it’s a lot harder to explain something complex and technical without jargon or shared references. It should really be a test of how well you understand something – can you explain it in plain English?

    1. Often it’s a matter of deconstructing the concepts and figuring out the dependencies – what do you need to understand first, before the next idea makes sense. I think – certainly with the sciences – it’s possible to hook people with something totally cool or apparently counter-intuitive (such as high-end physics) – and then they’ll want to follow the journey. Tyson does that brilliantly. So does Brian Cox. So did Sagan. So did Asimov.

  5. Einstein supposedly said that if you couldn’t explain the theory of relativity to a first-grader, then you didn’t understand it. If that isn’t the essence of “popularization” I don’t know what is. Science needs a sense of wonder just as much as science fiction does.

    1. Totally true! For me, the sense of wonder I get from both science and from science fiction is very much the same – and I was inspired into it, largely, by Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein.

    2. Explanation requires two : the teacher and the taught. The taught has to be capable of understanding.
      Often the highly intelligent don’t suffer fools gladly.

  6. Often intelligent experts cannot stick to their specialist subjects. Intelligence confers an equiring mind so they automatically delve into all related fields.
    Does simlification produce clarity or does it muddy the original work?

    1. I don’t think popularising or presenting in accessible ways means ‘simplifying’ something. I’d prefer to see the complex presented in its full complexity – but accessibly – and I think that is also the secret behind a lot of science popularisation. To me the secret is to properly break the concepts down into accessible parts, at which point – as Tom remarked above – even four-dimensional space-time can be understood.

      1. Let me say from the point of veiw of an average layman with an IQ of 105 that there are somethings which may well be beyond my grasp.
        But simplification is the answer although it loses some authenticity it gives the layman some idea of complex problems.
        This does boil down to the modern assumption that anyone can grasp anything ; Steven Pinker suggests we are all potential atomic phyisists.
        How can quadratic equations be understood with no basic algebra?

  7. We need both and they should complement each other, helping push forward knowledge, without popularising, how would we ever inspire a new generation, we come across countelss stories of how people who eventually go on to research or specialise, first heard about or encountered something thanks to those who promulgate it.

    I recently finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks written by Rebecca Skloot who popularises cell cultures in her nonfiction narrative that researched the origin of the HeLa cells bringing another aspect of science to the masses, and importantly generating a discussion of the importance of humanity in its pursuit.

    1. It’s that spark of inspiration that counts. Something ‘clicks’ for those listening, and they’re fired up to know more. Happened to me with history, a jag I pursued for quite a while before reverting more to my more sciency-oriented interests.

      I must check out that book – something that links the sciences to humanity is always going to be good. And it’s surprising how obscure (‘serendipitous’) the links can be – but they are there.

  8. Popularising anything risks being shot down by those who want a closed shop around their speciality. How many bands are accused of ‘selling out’ when they become popular? The criticism usually comes from a few journos who want to keep these bands to themselves and a small clique of ‘with it’ supporters. It’s a form of power-play and there’s usually some private language that goes with it; another means to keep outsiders out.

    I can listen to Carl Sagan all day, and I know being a leading authority in Cosmology, didn’t stop him going into classrooms and describing moons in the Solar System as potatoes. In Britain, there is a quantum physicist called Jim Al-Khalili who has presented some fantastic documentaries on the subject and I sometimes wonder whether his peers try to look down on him for daring to address the plebs about science.

    1. There’s also Brian Cox – not just a 1990s ‘boy band’ keyboardist but a brilliant physicist and science explainer! And Brian May – rock guitar god, astrophysicist… I don’t know why music and the sciences go together, but they do. I studied both myself, and the thinking is the same for both – but I still don’t know.

      That thing of bands ‘selling out’ is weird – I mean, can’t musicians evolve, explore new creative sides? I remember Nightwish got bolloxed for ‘selling out’ more than once (every time they changed lead vocalist, I think), but as far as I am concerned all of it is brilliant and displays what a total genius Tuomas Holopainen is!

  9. There’s a very real prejudice and perception in academia about that the proper goal of an academic is to become “a tenured non-teaching research faculty member at a top-tier university”, with a preponderance of effort on “research”. The more things you take out of that, the less you’re considered to have “made it”.
    Neil de Grasse Tyson is tenured, effectively, as Director of the Hayden Planetarium; the American Museum of Natural History can’t be considered anything but top-tier, but… he TEACHES (voluntarily!). And does no RESEARCH.

    1. That’s certainly true in New Zealand. I think a lot of it flows from people using the academy as a device to validate their self-worth – certainly, here, various academics still use their employment title and/or affiliations and qualifications as a kind of validation of their status, rather than simply allowing their work and personalities to speak for themselves. The more I see of it, the less I want to even mention my academic side, though I actually have as many degree and affiliation letters after my name as are in it (including my middle name) and can cite an international university affiliation if I want to. But why bother? I don’t validate myself via the academy.

  10. I completely agree! Knowing your science is one thing, but being able to present it to others in a comprehensible manner and (gasp) getting those non-scientists to get excited about your science is a whole other ball game. I truly admire those who have mastered both sides.

    1. Me too. It’s truly fantastic when someone can inspire others to get fired up about stuff that’s meant to be ‘complicated’ or ‘boring’. I think a lot of interesting stuff gets made boring, for various reasons, when it need not be.

  11. The trouble with holding up Asimov as an example of a real scientist doing great popularizations is that he was a fantastically irrelevant scientist. He had a couple of publications, none of them of any general interest, and the influence on the biochemistry field was as nil as you can get and still exist. That’s not me sniping; that’s his own assessment. Maybe that doesn’t qualify as ‘bad’ — as far as I know none of his work has been found to be wrong, or defective, or fraudulent or anything. But he can’t be used to counter the stereotype that great popularizers aren’t great scientists.

    1. Yes, he did virtually nothing for science (the only paper I can think of that he wrote was a spoof about resublimated thiotmioline). His true calling was writing. I think the reality is that any prolific populariser is going to have to devote their time to that, rather than pure research. However, I would also point to Hawking! And, in the sense of a ‘futurist/conceptualiser’, Arthur C. Clarke.

  12. If it wasn’t for the popularity of ‘Time Team’, (along with my husband’s enthusiasm for all things historical) I do wonder if my son would ever have been introduced to Archaeology – he recently graduated with a BA in the subject, and wants to make archaeology his vocation. The documentary channels are full of wonderful shows which explain, for instance, quantum physics (How long is a piece of string? My husband and son talked about that one for ages) and so many other mind-boggling subjects, and who knows how many young people might have been inspired to pursue further education and a particular career because of them? I can’t profess to understand much of what Stephen Hawking writes about, but I find it fascinating, nonetheless. Popularity does not necessarily make a thing bad… it just means even more people get to hear about it. Education is all. 🙂

  13. I’ve felt that the more I apply myself to studies the greater the disconnect becomes between what I am doing and what people around me are capable of understanding. I think this disconnect is highly prevalent in a lot of the purer (and even some scientific) fields today, such as physics and mathematics. Astronomy is no exception because it’s a very expensive endeavor to maintain or build any instrument and relies in many places throughout the US upon tax dollars for support.

    For example, I read the other day that Green Bank (host to the world’s largest steerable radio dish and the largest equatorial mount) was facing shutdown because they don’t have the funds to keep it open. What a shame.

    But back to this “disconnect,” what I mean is that people start asking questions because they don’t understand. I think everyone is naturally curious, and not because they feel a need to know something as I know it, but because they want to understand why I do what I do, and why I think it’s important; usually it’s not easy to put it in a way that they understand.

    Astronomy is not hard to follow until you start putting equations on the board. “Planet X” (or 9, it seems) has always come across as a hoax shish kabob because there has never been any evidence, just crazy crackpot theories with no supporting data or analysis. But the idea that it might, after all, be true that we have not mapped the entire solar system is a huge opportunity to secure funding for the next generation of telescopes and job positions related to the field, etc.

    It’s a bit like making a breakthrough; e.g., if Intel is able to make a faster, smaller, more powerful chip than IBM, and at a very low cost, then they will drive the industry forward to new heights. But if they do not, or realize that they cannot, then they will look elsewhere for the opportunity. We’ve been scanning the sky with telescopes for decades recording Kuiper belt objects, but the idea that a very massive planet lies beyond is the same uncharted territory as that better chip or product is to a slowing market in IT.

    Just a bunch of thoughts. You have a great blog here, I’ll probably be back to read future articles.

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