pop science

There has been quite a bit of push backs against pop science (TED, Gladwell) recently. The main arguments are that they oversimplify, over-promise, and make claims not rigorously supported. The label middlebrow infotainment seems to sum it up.  This is deemed detrimental to the real intellectual/research community because solid academics who discuss their results lucidly but do not sell the big picture now seem dull by comparison.

I think this is, for the lack of a better word, an academic complaint. Many people love digestible entertainment that makes them feel smarter afterward, and this is what is promised and delivered by pop science talks and books. The alternative is not mass consumption of scholarly books; it’s simply not realistic for most people and, by and large, scholarly books shouldn’t be addressed to the lay audience anyways. The alternative is some other form of entertainment–facebook, maybe the New Yorker, a mystery novel bestseller, etc. Compared to the alternative, TED is above par.

But there might still be the concern that people are changing their behavior/beliefs based on pseudo-science. For better or worse, I do not think most people who view TED videos take away anything that they’d still remember in two weeks. People’s attention is constantly fragmented by so many sources of infotainment, each presented in bite size forms, that few has any long lasting influence. A ten minute TED talk, a 3 minute Youtube video, a 10k words New Yorker piece: it’s all a dime a dozen. At most, an extremely successful presentation whet the curiosity, which can’t be a bad thing.

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