Recently, there has been a plethora of books put out by journalists like Malcolm Gladwell Stephen Dubner, Stephen Levitt, and David Shenk dealing with scientific issues in a way explainable to the lay public. I’ve heard some folks call this the “Gladwellization” of information. Of course, this was meant as a pejorative meaning something similar to the “simplification” of information. And in a sense, that is what these journalists are doing: taking highly specialized information from disciplines and writing books intended to explain to and interest the lay public.
Instead of either praising or bemoaning the trend, I want to think about the benefits and costs of this new emerging breed of popular science writer. First, it should be noted that while the trend of writing science books for the lay public is not new, it has tended to be done by that rare breed of scientist who has a knack for distilling complex concepts into simple and readable prose: Gary Becker in economics, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins in biology – all of these writers are bonafide experts in their field as well as popular writers devoted to explaining their science to the masses.
Not man y will argue that this is not a useful or necessary endeavor. Well, correct that: it is not necessary that the general public understand genetics or supply-side economics, but it is certainly good to provide the option to interested members of the lay public. After all, no one wants to see a world where only scientists understand what scientists do, and only economists can understand economics.
But these new journlsits – Gladwell and the like – are just that: journalists. They are often writing about areas they have not gotten degrees in, reading journal articles aimed at a technical audience, and (often without technical acumen) are interpreting data for us. So, it begs a question: in what ways is this a good thing and in what ways is it a bad thing?
To attempt an answer, it is necessary to understand that all of this is being done on account of the division of labor (or, we might say, the division of knowledge). The sciences, and most other fields we see nowadays, have advanced to a point where careers are devoted to them. That is a good thing in that it means we are advancing a great deal (because the more advanced the field and its knowledge, the more time initiates must spend mastering that field and its knowledge). But there is a downside here: it kinda leaves the general public – those whose careers are not devoted to that particular science – behind. (Even professionals in other closely related fields often don’t know the ‘inside’ information of fields around them because each sub-discipline now often rests on knowledge exclusive to those in that sub-discipline.)
So, the obvious good of having journalists writing books distilling these often heady and complex fields for the lay public is that it, to the degree possible, disburses previously monopolized information. In a sense, it lessens the barrier between disciplines and between the technician and the expert. True, I don’t exactly need to understand molecular biology or chaos theory, but at least I can, in theory, get it if I want it. Going along with the American (and European) tradition of egalitarianism, these journalists make sure that everyone’s got a shot at this information.
But here is where I see a subtle downside. (more…)