Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In Praise of Popularizers

The Chronicle offers a brief review of Beth Luey's new book, Expanding the American Mind: Books and the Popularization of Knowledge (University of Massachusetts Press) which considers the successful "popularizing" ventures of scholars like Stephen Jay Gould, Elaine Pagels, and E.O. Wilson. (I might add, more recently in theology, Janet Soskice). Contesting the impression of a dichotomy, Luey notes the particular difficulties of writing for a wider audience rather than just the comfortable, jargon-laden familiarity of one's corner of the guild:

For Luey, popularizers are "academic philanthropists," echoing the Innumeracy author John Allen Paulos's remark that "mathematicians who don't deign to communicate their subject to a wider audience are a little like multimillionaires who don't contribute anything to charity."

But what is the cost of becoming a popularizer? Some have claimed that Carl Sagan's nomination to the National Academy of Sciences was scuttled by jealousy and derision over his best sellers. Luey says that there is no evidence that "academics are deterred from writing popularizations by anything except lack of interest or unwillingness to tackle a difficult writing task." Successful popularizers are usually successful scholars, she argues. "Because writing for nonspecialists is so challenging, it requires a mastery of the subject matter that is difficult to acquire without substantial scholarly achievement."

So what is Luey's advice for would-be popularizers? Many "focus first on avoiding or simplifying technical language, a necessary but insufficient step," she says. "In fact, language is the least of the writer's problems." Far more crucial is the need to find the right voice, the right structure, and a way of helping the reader relate to the subject.

Read the full article.