Sweet, bland and uplifting

Andrew Orlowski writes that Malcolm Gladwell is a guru for the brain dead.

Gladwell is a walking Readers Digest 2.0: a compendium of pop science anecdotes which boil down very simply to homespun homilies. Like the Digest, it promises more than it delivers, and like the Digest too, it’s reassuringly predictable.

..

“…In embracing the diversity of human beings we will find the true way to human happiness.”

So there you’ve got Gladwell in essence: he always ends with a Hallmark style greeting telling you something sweet, bland and uplifting – that you already knew.

Gladwell isn’t the worst offender, but the anecdotal approach to popular science often results in a kind of pretend learning. It’s something you read so you can feel on top of current research, without doing any hard work. It doesn’t teach you facts, and it doesn’t teach you how to think about the subject. It’s like Guitar Hero. It doesn’t make you a better guitar player, it just reduces guitar playing to your level.

There are a lot of good popular science books. There are two signs to look for: The first is that the book doesn’t rely on anecdotes. The second is that it doesn’t make you think you actually understand the subject. Science is really really hard. If you close a book thinking you understand the subject, but the part that sticks in your mind is a story about some wacky scientist, then you’ve read bad pop-sci. Stop doing that. It’s making you dumber.

2 Responses to Sweet, bland and uplifting

  1. KEE says:

    Maybe you’ve already mentioned it in your links- didn’t bother to check. I just want to highlight a good read that popularizes science: Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart’s ‘The Science of Discworld’ trilogy. Apparently vol.1 has been revised recently as well.

  2. Bjørn Stærk says:

    Yup! Seconded.

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