What Not to Say to a Pop-Science Author

(Note: This was not prompted by any particular comment. Just a slow accumulation of stuff, that turned into a blog post on this morning's dog walk.)

It's been a couple of years now that I've been working on writing and promoting How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, so I've had a lot of conversations where the subject of writing a popular audience book on quantum physics comes up. I've had enough of these now that I can recognize a few different categories of responses, one of which drives me up the wall. I suspect that the same is true for most pop-science authors, so as a public service, let me throw this out there for the non-scientist reading public:

If you meet someone who has written a popular-audience book about science, DO NOT make a joke about how you'd like to read it, but are too dumb to understand it.

Really, this is absolutely infuriating. I mean it. Please don't.

The whole point of writing a popular-audience book on something like quantum physics is to reach the people who are "too dumb" to understand quantum physics. That's my target market. I sweated blood writing my book so it would be comprehensible to my English-major editor-- you could at least try to read it before throwing up your hands and declaring you can't.

This pre-emptive declaration of incompetence is also infuriating because it plays into the "two cultures" thing that drives me nuts in academia. Nobody says the equivalent to a scholar from the humanities-- if somebody in English tells me they're writing a book about Shakespeare, I wouldn't dream of saying "Oh, I'd love to read that, but I'm too dumb to understand literature." If I did that, I'd get laughed out of the room.

And yet, I have had people with Ph.D.'s and tenured faculty jobs laughingly declare that they couldn't possibly begin to understand the book I wrote for a general audience. Given that I've gotten numerous emails from parents of pre-teens telling me that their kids loved it, I don't think this speaks particularly well for the humanties side of the academy. It does, however, point to one of the fundamental problems with our society, namely that it is socially acceptable for otherwise smart people to proudly proclaim ignorance of science.

Ultimately, though, it's rude. Saying that you can't understand the book that I worked very hard to pitch to a general audience is basically telling me to my face that you think I did a bad job. Which is bad enough if you've actually tried to read it and found it too difficult, but it's even more insulting when you say it up front, without even cracking the covers of the book. You're saying "Having met you, I don't believe you could explain a complex topic well enough for me to understand it. Have a nice day."

So, please, if you meet a person who has written a popular audience book about science-- me, or anybody else-- do them a favor, and don't crack jokes about being unable to understand their book. It's not remotely amusing. If you're not interested in the subject of the book, say something vague and change the subject, just as you would if you met somebody who wrote a non-scientific book that you have no interest in. ("A post-structuralist study of the hermeneutics of medieval knitting, you say? Fascinating. Say, how about that local sports team?")

(Also, a quick note specific to my books: Please don't make a joke about how my dog is smarter than you, or your dog, or your other pets. That got real old even before the book got published, and I'm having a hard time feigning amusement at it these days.)


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I wonder how many times Hawking gets/got that. On the other hand, I did read "A Brief History of Time", and found sections of it EXTREMELY difficult to get through, despite Hawking's best efforts. When the material itself feels completely outside most intuitive reach, yes, people will even think the best efforts of someone to "bring the subject down to their level" would automatically fail.

But yeah, I can see how you would find it a direct insult. FWIW, I loved your book. And it didn't make me feel dumb. I just can see how others might have a hard time even picking it up. What if they don't get it, even after you tried your damndest to allow them to understand? Then they really will feel like an idiot. It's sort of like the "better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt" saying, you know?

By Kenneth Cavness (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

I keep re-reading your post, but I still don't understand what you're saying. But I'm sure my cat would! She can even knit medieval-style!

By frank habets (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

I keep re-reading your post, but I still don't understand what you're saying. But I'm sure my cat would! She can even knit medieval-style!

By frank habets (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

Ken @1: The difference between your case and what Chad is talking about is that you actually read Hawking's book and can point to specific passages where he apparently fell short of the objective of making the subject understandable to laymen. You therefore have evidence to back your opinion. What Chad is talking about is the person who claims, without reading the book, that he won't be able to understand it. That amounts to saying directly to the author, "I am convinced that you have not met your objective even though I have not read your book." The latter is always insulting. The former need not be.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

... and above all, do not make a joke about how you'd like to read someone's pop science book but are too dumb to understand it - when the two of you are alone on an elevator. Seriously. Uh, guys: don't do it!

Kidding aside, and while I am totally feeling you on the unintentional sleight to the author even when when the offender is feigning scientific illiteracy - I would encourage you to be patient. Be magnanimous. Take your ego out of it.

You can be confident your book is understandable - it's great, really! - and respond to the stupidity in the spirit it is given. So why not say to dumbass, "I'm sure you don't mean to insult me, but when you say x it makes me feel y. If that's really how you feel about your ability to understand physics, though, you're my target audience - may I send you a promotional copy? Read it and email me with any sticking points you hit. It would really help me refine and improve the book and I'd appreciate your input."

Just sayin' ... treat the dumbasses as a focus group.

By ManOutOfTime (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

Argh argh argh, I can only imagine how frustrating that must be given the work you put into the book.

It's akin to the responses I usually get when people find out I'm a physicist (and that I imagine you get):

1. "You must be smart!"
2. "I hated physics in college."

If I am tired or uninterested in being polite, I tend to reply:

1. "Oh, yes, very."
2. "That's okay, I hate whatever it is you do for a living."

As a math teacher, I frequently get comments from people who "can't do" math or "never understood" it. No one seems to feel much compunction about admitting to innumeracy. When I tell them that the basic ideas of calculus (oh, no! scary!) are accessible at an elementary level (rates of change, accumulated increments), they tend to shake their heads and say, yeah, maybe to supergeniuses -- which is the exact opposite of my point. Sheesh. That's probably why I've had no luck in finding a publisher for my little calculus intro (which tries to give the general reader a sense of what calculus is about without larding it over with the overwrought prose that Berlinski used in his egregious but successful Tour of the Calculus).

I do indeed know where you're coming from.

I loved your book, and my daughter loved your book. So, respectively, you have aimed your book to take care of the dumb (moi) and the brilliant (her), and done so brilliantly.

Would that be ok to say in an interview? Cos it's true.

"If the professor can't explain what he is studying to his maid, he should not be a professor". very old one from someone at Oxford I think. If only there were more making the effort you have. Thompson's very old Calculus Made Easy was an incredible eye-opener for me..

Keep it up.


By Warwick Rowell (not verified) on 11 Jul 2011 #permalink

I think the two culture thing isn't so much that people are proud of being ignorant. I think it's more that much of science doesn't feel like it touches people's lives -- yes, I know, computers are largely quantum-mechanical devices because that's how semiconductors work, but most folks don't know that.

The other thing is that science really is hard, at least at the college level once you get into the real stuff. I don't think my own story is unusual when I say I got stuck in 3rd semester physics. The problem? Bra-ket notation. I had no idea what it was, and it wasn't getting covered in my calc classes (and I had trouble with differential equations as well which wasn't helping).

The physics class assumed a pre-existing knowledge of the notations they were using and the math class wasn't covering it. Everyone seemed to know what it was and I didn't even know it meant anything -- nobody said anything to me and I wouldn't have known to formulate the question (as I didn't know there was one)!

It was years later -- in like, 2005 -- when I finally found a coherent explanation of the notation. That was about 18 years too late for me.

I ended up a B/B- physics student. So I bailed on physics. (I had gotten interested in languages and then just needed a major-- English-- I could fill with the minimum of class slots. This also is a problem of over-specialization in universities, even at the undergrad level, but I digress).

In the humanities I have to say my science training was useful. At least for anything but language learning I could bullshit all kinds of stuff for an A. I still marvel at how easy it was.

And that might be the heart of it -- we are told that humanities are intellectually challenging (and I think they can be) but it is in a way that is easier for more people than physics is (and I mean real physics, not getting a good layman's understanding). So people feel smart for reading and understanding the Bard (and you should feel that way) but physics seems so out there by comparison. It isn't. It just requires more structured learning. (I do not think it accidental that a typical physics course resembles the history of the discipline -- mechanics, EM, Modern with Relativity and Quantum in that order).

I am sad that I cannot mark this "Like" more than once on Google Reader.

on the other hand, bet you don't get people you've just met "correcting" you about your own project at dinner parties. this inevitably comes after they ask me about my work yet without letting me complete a sentence in reply.

as a "soft" social scientist, i seem to carry no authority: the opposite problem.

Frankly I don't understand literature in the least. I just read the stuff.

"Really, this is absolutely infuriating. I mean it. Please don't."

My understanding was that, in this community, we are not _allowed_ to ask people not to annoy us with improprieties. It's not as if you're being raped, you know.

I don't think people are meaning to be offensive, but rather engaging in a little self-deprecating humor to try to be chummy. You may be overthinking the banality of conversing with strangers. In fact, if I think too deeply about it, I might find it rude for you to claim that you had to work very hard to make something simple enough for me to understand. See what I mean?