Friday, February 16, 2007


As I've pointed out before, one of the issues in philosophy of science that I think important that apparently no one else does is popularization as a form of general scientific pedagogy; and I've complained before that people seem to have a dangerously confused view of what popularization in general is and requires. H. Allen Orr, thankfully, gets it right (about a different sort of popularization):

Daniel Dennett's main complaint about my review is that I held Dawkins's book to too high a standard. The God Delusion was, he says, a popular work and, as such, one can't expect it to grapple seriously with religious thought. There are two things wrong with this objection. The first is that the mere fact that a book is intended for a broad audience doesn't mean its author can ignore the best thinking on a subject. Indeed it's precisely the task of the popularizer to take this best thinking and present it in a form that can be understood by intelligent laymen.

This is exactly right. Good popularization requires more rigor and careful reasoning than writing for those in the know -- precisely because it is writing for those who aren't in the know. When you popularize you need to work even harder to get it right than when you are writing in more scholarly mode because (1) you have to convey the ideas to people who aren't used to them; (2) you have to avoid shortcuts (metaphors, analogies, etc.) that are useful for experts who can distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, or else use them much more critically and carefully than the experts themselves do; (3) you have to make it easy for people to distinguish understanding the subject from understanding (say) the point of the subject; and many, many more. There are so many constraints to good popularization that it's inevitably going to be harder than scholarly writing, where you can trust that your already informed audience will be able to take away the point without becoming confused by incidentals. This is true for all forms of popularization in any subject. The worst forms of popularization are those that 'dumb down' or oversimplify or give themselves a free pass for bad reasoning and sloppy thinking because it's for the consumption of the masses. The ideal forms are those that revolutionize common sense by finding a way for ordinary people to see immediately the point, value, and content of an important discovery or theory. It's too much to expect that every (or perhaps any) popularization will succeed in the latter way; but as there is an entire spectrum between the two extremes, it's not too much to demand that they succeed better than popularizations in the former group.

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