Why do most popular science books suck?

On the overwhelming needlessness of nonfiction

A bookshelf is laid out before you. It’s stuffed with photorealistic covers showing off black holes, the curvature of Earth seen from space, glossy pictures of double helixes, along with faded images of the Vitruvian Man. Everything is impossibly exciting. Did scientists just uncover the God Particle? Who killed Pluto? Wait, I killed Pluto? Here’s what’s definitely going to happen at the end of the universe. Here’s why 90% of the universe is a mystery and we have no idea what’s going to happen. Here’s a theory of consciousness that solves the problem by ignoring it. Here’s an idea others have said a million times, but wait, this time it’s in an original jargon. What if you are your brain? Ever think about that? And did you know everyone is the outcome of a complex interplay between environment and genes? Also, heredity is 100% deterministic for everything. By the way, a technology that doesn’t exist yet is going to change the world. Cephalopods are smarter than your dog!

In the science section of the average bookstore rests a bunch of overhyped and uninteresting books. There are a slim number that are original and interesting—they’re there, but they’re rare. Most are instead the outcome of a long game of pretend. The writer pretended to have something original to say. The agent pretended to be excited. The editor pretended to love the umpteenth book on how cool black holes are or how amazing it is that the brain is plastic. And now the cover, pretending that any of this is important or original. They are not so much driven by their contents but rather from it being a certain time in the author’s career. In every wannabe public intellectual there’s a clock ticking down internally. If you lean in to their chests you can hear it tick away. . . book time . . . book time . . . A couple years after your TED talk? It’s ringing and won’t stop, it’s waking you up at night. So here comes the nonfiction book, with all those little Gladwellian asides that authors don’t realize work poorly if your name isn’t Malcom Gladwell. Does the sum of the non-trivial information and cutesy story padding in the book mean it’s really a lecture disguised in book form? To find out, go to their talk, tickets are only $75. They’ll tell you some anecdotes and platitudes so buckle in tight.

I’ll be honest: a mild nausea overcomes me the sight of a bookshelf in a science section. For I’m to add my own contribution soon. Currently I’m under contract to publish a nonfiction book in 2023 from Simon & Schuster. The way nonfiction works (unlike fiction) is that you sell the books before you even write them—a coup from a writer’s perspective, since you are being paid to work on a book, rather than writing one and hoping you can sell it later, like with fiction. I’m still refining the draft, though the bulk of the work is done.

Yet I am afraid. I don’t want to end up putting out just another of the above books. Let me given an example of what I don’t want to do by picking on someone I know can take it: Michio Kaku. Note, I’m definitely unfairly singling out Kaku here.1 Let’s face it, someone needs to be the resident brainiac scientist that CNN dials up, and he does a good job of this. And Kaku actually seems like a really lovely person in his personal life, having raised two impressive daughters who obviously love him very much, and he has done original work in physics, so complete props on so many things. But his books. . . oh man, his books are terrible. Here’s some coverage of him promoting his popular science writing to a crowded lecture hall:

"What is the most complex object in the known universe?," asked futurist, physicist and bestselling author Michio Kaku at DePauw University tonight.  "Believe it or not, it sits on your shoulder." 

Wow. Who knew? On my shoulder(s)?

"We can connect a human mind to a robot and make the robot move. That could be the future of the space program. Space is dangerous. . . Why not mentally control robots?"

I don’t know, the time delays? Maybe because a wayward thought might send a billion-dollar piece of equipment careening?

He added that in the future, "We could have astronauts on the moon who are actually robots. The real astronaut is sitting in his hot tub in his living room controlling the robot by remote control."

Right. You know, we met once, on the subway in NYC. I told him I was a fan. I don’t know why I said that, it’s just what you say when you meet someone like that.

At this point it should be noted that I doubt Kaku cares one whit about my opinion; again, he can take it. Assuredly his advances put mine to shame and he reaches a huge audience.

I’m also aware that I’m breaking the Iron Law of Reciprocal Publicity, which is essentially you are required to hype all other books endlessly in the hope someone hypes yours. Criticizing the average pop-sci book sets me up for high standards on my own. Good. I hope I live up to it. Maybe a high bar helps.

Not to knock down the fourth wall entirely, but I’m also aware that the cynicism I’ve indulged here is easy. And cheap. There’s been enough sarcasm in this essay to rot away all but its foundations. So let’s start building up instead of tearing down and ask: What makes a nonfiction book really good? Or at least, objectively not terrible.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harrari might not be your cup of tea, but it is undeniably not-terrible tea—it’s written in a lively manner about a well-ploughed subject that he nevertheless manages to make feel less tilled than usual. It sold 12 million copies. Is it original? Well, it’s original in its synthesis and scope and writing quality, and the pith of the book, the idea that human progress rests on fictional stories (democracy, religion, money—according to Yuval) was original enough that I hadn’t really heard it put together like that before.

Which gives us a hint. For at first one might hypothesize the best books are works by scientists about their own research, but then this relegates a book to a kind of boring public announcement. Why buy it if the writer has already said its contents in other formats?

Instead, I think the best nonfiction books are fundamentally amateurish, authored by dilettantes. I know that sounds strange—wouldn’t the best ones be the most authoritative? But amateurish doesn’t mean not researched. Gödel, Escher, Bach is amateurish. The ruminations of Plato at the Googleplex, or the poetry of Dava Sobel’s The Planets—amateurish. I mean this in a good way.

The Selfish Gene isn’t a classic of science writing because Dawkins offers such a pellucid view of genetics, no, it’s because of the final highly playful section where he introduces the idea of memes, a part that is fundamentally amateurish. Memetics never made it as a science. The Journal of Memetics closed its doors in 2005, and with good reason, because what’s the unit of cultural selection, Dawkins?

But wait, now-a-days memes are everywhere. The idea of memes is everywhere. So is the idea of memes true? Well, it is true-ish, a perfect thing for a nonfiction book. It’s a good frame of understanding, even if it’s not precisely accurate, even if you never get a scientific journal or subfield devoted to it.

Another example: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes is incredibly amateurish, clearly wrong. It makes unsupportable claims about how how Homeric poetry could tell us about the evolution of corpus callosum density between human hemispheres. It’s nowhere near any sensible standard of rigor. And yet it’s also a genuinely interesting book and a classic in the field of consciousness research, and, in its own way, immensely influential.

Consider Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Its thesis on historical social progress made it one of the most influential books of the last decade. But why did it take a cognitive psychologist to write it, and not a sociologist or historian? What about neuroscientist Ian McGilChrist’s celebrated The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World? Note that last part. By any reasonable academic standard Ian McGilChrist should not be writing about the “making of the western world.” He puts forth a kind of neuro-fairy tale of historical development. But it’s a good tale. It’s a good book!

So the very thing you’re afraid of—that you’re going to produce something amateurish—is precisely what you should embrace. The playful, the interdisciplinary, the ranging.

Creating something that feels necessary is always about using a medium to the best of its abilities. Any new nonfiction tome that demands your time and attention should contain within it the implicit reason for its writing—why is this a book you’re giving to the public? It could have been anything. A TED talk, blog post, scientific paper, monograph, essay, website, video. Anything at all. So the raison d'etre must innately be something only a full-length manuscript can support. By which I mean that a nonfiction work of “popular science” should take full advantage of the fact that it is a discussion occurring outside the normal standards of academia. In the cases of Pinker and McGilChrist and Yuval, their books are so influential precisely because they skipped the peer review of a normal scientific paper, as well as the hierarchies within the fields that they, as dilettantes, touched on. Again, I know that sounds strange—isn’t peer review a good thing? Aren’t academic hierarchies a good thing? Sure, in some contexts. But they can also be limiting for grand sweeping theses. What makes a good pop-sci book is an idea that won’t fit in an essay, but which is not quite serious enough, academic enough, for a scientific paper. Which leaves the lowly dilettantes with their ranging manuscripts. Even if the authors are wrong, and they often are, they enrich the intellectual culture, like turning over soil.

To join them I’ve been trying to get into this mindset, to shed the strictures of traditional academia. It is a strange sort of sloughing off. Somewhat akin, I imagine, to what bugs feel when they molt.

1

While writing this essay I realized Michio Kaku was criticized in a previous post. I hereby swear to never criticize Kaku ever again, much like I’ve sworn to not buy Doritos or eat peanut butter straight from the jar.