What’s the problem with popular science?

Popular science, pop neuro especially, seems to be stuck as of late in a quagmire of unenthusiastic skepticism.  With criticisms being lobbed for the first time from the outposts of both journalists and scientists, it’s tempting to ask how this situation arose and what should be learned from it.  This question came up during a conversation I was having with my cousin last week and I thought it deserved a bit more reflection.  I should state for the record here that I am an enthusiastic supporter of popular science writing when it is done right, the key phrase there being “done right”.  I get the old complaints, making science interesting and ingestible to a large audience is difficult, especially in the era of short attention spans.  But this does not excuse sloppy ideas.  There are still many science writers who do get it right (my cousin amongst them), and in a terrifically engaging fashion.

Why is it that now, though, after what seemed like nearly a decade long spate of popular neuroscience tomes battering their way onto our bookshelves, do we find that bombastic barrage slowed to a trickle?  Why is it that now, the once rampant hunger for tidy neuro-factoids has faded?  Could it be because much of the pop-neuro field verged on a pseudo-scientific smorgasbord of  self-help cliches?  Certainly it can’t be, human’s can never get enough wild-eyed, optimistic boot-strap pulling, especially not Americans.  In that case,  could it be that we liked the koolaid when we were drinking it, but now, a few years later, we are unhappy with the results ?  It seems like this may be the case.  With the recent betrayals of certain paragons of pop-sci (Jonah Lehrer among them), there seems to be bitter after taste in people’s mouths.  Those out of the know conflate the failings of the messengers with the failings of the field, bringing about a crisis of contextual authority.  Those in the know lament once bright stars who weren’t more careful in their selections and interpretations of singular studies.  Paralysis abounds, demand falls, rinse, repeat.

I’m tempted to think of this period as the awkward adolescence of pop-neuro.  What started with an innocent nativity, the first appearance of a brain scan in a major newspaper, soon grew into an all out youthful overindulgence of every single pretty picture science could pump out, all neatly wrapped in a package that purported to carry within it the meanings of our truest selves.  I think we’re now in the reactionary stage.  The stage where we look back, slightly embarrassed, and hope that no one questions us about the things we did last year.  The stage where we buy a new wardrobe and insist that we never ever thought that wearing dayglow pants was cool (dating myself?).  It’s also the stage where we gain a more mature understanding about the power of the body of knowledge that we are gaining about the brain.  In this stage, we come to terms with the fallacies of the single study proves x, or fMRI showed that you love your iphone because “the love” region of the brain lit up when you looked at it.  We realize that the brain is complicated, too complicated to wrap in any package that feels as good and as tidy and as complete  as we would like.  But we start to recognize that its complexity is its beauty, and that beauty deserves treatment with careful gloved hands and delicate tools, like an antique painting.

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