The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.


List of pulpy compilation titles

Ray gun

Ray gun

There’s a soft spot in my heart for pulp, and especially certain very specific types, like rip-offs of Sherlock Holmes or mad scientists. There’s also a fairly specific type of title that many books have in a series that has continued for so long that the titles must only accomplish two things: evoke as much adventure as possible, and remain as non-descript as possible. This list of pulp titles is no “Devil’s Claw,” “Dutchman’s Ghost,” or “Giant Sumerian Rat.” It’s designed to alert you to titles that can reused as often as you’d like.

1. The Adventures of

2. The Return of

3. The Memoirs of

4. The Casebook of

5. The Reminiscences of

6. The Journey of

7. The Chronicles of

8. The Dossier of

9. The Secret Files of

10. The Exploits of

11. The Recollections of

12. The Threat of

13. The Escape of

14. The Sign of

And, not least and  (very often) not even last:

15. The Final Adventures of

Book review: The Boy Who Reversed Himself


The Boy Who Reversed Himself follows Laura, a young girl who befriends Omar, the weird kid in school, solely in order to figure out how he can do seemingly impossible things. Once she knows about 4-space, as the 4-D world Omar can access is called, she gets herself deep into trouble. The book is pretty slim, and while the plot and characterization are serviceable, the concept that the book centers around is the main draw.

Some authors write for their characters, or their plot. This book was clearly written for the idea. That’s not a bad thing. In The Boy Who Reversed Himself, Sleator explores the concept of the fourth spacial dimensional, explaining it and the possible consequences — our heroes accidentally ending up reversed in the third dimension, only seeing changing 3-D shapes when in the fourth dimension due to only possessing 3-D eyes, effectively teleporting in the 3-D world, ect. Even more possibilities are explored in the climax of the book, making sure the novel doesn’t turn into a one-trick pony. It’s a book for people who enjoy their minds bending through the dimension of imagination. Since the fourth dimension is a little hard to reach, this book is the next best thing.

I’m only giving the book three stars because it doesn’t stand as a book so well as it serves to address an idea in a fun way. If Sleator just gave up writing plots, and filled his books with these types of concepts, I’d enjoy them just as much. I need this guy teaching me abstract algebra.

3 stars out of 5 — first posted on GoodReads.

Book review: The Leviathan Trilogy

manual papers

I love Scott Westerfeld’s past work: the Midnighters trilogy is a favorite, and So Yesterday and Peeps are both fun, imaginative stand-along novels. As a result, I was thrilled when I heard about his steampunk trilogy. The steampunk genre has always been centered on aesthetics, with visual art and clothes being it’s most exemplary mediums. The only really great work of steampunk fiction, in my opinion, is the Girl Genius webcomic series, and it’s not even straight steampunk. However, Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy is sadly lackluster, particularly given the fun setting. Like most steampunk novels, the ideas are fun but the execution has problems. To be precise, I’ve boiled it down to two. Continue reading

Book Review: Such Wicked Intent


The best part of Kenneth Oppel’s Such Wicked Intent is how well it works as Gothic fantasy that subtly pays homage to its source material. As the second in a series about a young Victor Frankenstein, it sets up the original tale of a power-mad scientist creating a living being from a patchwork of dead guys zapped with electricity. The underlying personality traits are developed — Victor loves power, hates death, and wants to act like God — but actual patchwork corpses are not. Instead, Oppel packs the book with creepy, fun, gothic imagery like a decrepit mansion, a gateway to the afterlife, a prehistoric god-like being, and a pocket watch made out of a dead bird. The book works because it goes beyond its premise and stands alone as a gothic novel.

The plot follows Victor’s point of view as he tries to bring his twin brother Konrad back from the dead. The pacing is quite fast and the book juggles several plots that all come together for a slam-bang finale. While the final 50 pages were increasingly action-and-revelation-packed, this was actually almost a downer for me, because the rest of the book was such a slow burn: The ending was so different that it gave me whiplash. I’ve seen this before in Oppel’s books, notably the Airborn series. Oppel lovingly crafts his plot twists, leaving plenty of well-placed clues, but then leaves all the good twists for the climax of the book, when it would be more fun to have them all earlier, so that the readers can enjoy the consequences. Luckily, the rest of the book is still engaging enough to keep me until the climax.

The only real downside to the book, and the reason I dropped a star from my “fully enjoyable” five star rating, is that all the characters are fairly navel-gazing. They worry so much about their own emotions that they tend to devolve into jealousy. Victor, naturally, is the worst of the lot, due to his tragic lust for power. It’s supposed to add human interest, and it’s certainly in line with gothic literature’s proclivity for melodrama. But since there’s so much, it felt repetitive. And I don’t like reading about a bunch of whiners.

4 stars.

Originally posted on GoodReads.

Book review: Lies of Locke Lamora


I have never liked high fantasy — fantasy that takes place in world with no connection to our own. Inevitably, the author is in love with his world, and explains it endlessly, when none of it is completely original. Even Tolkien, who I admit to enjoying, based his own mythology heavily off of ancient Icelandic, Norse/Scandinavian, British, and a dash of German myths. Most of the rest are just influenced by him, with their orcs and tall, stately elves. It’s just not gripping to read about world-building unless it’s better than the average high fantasy writer makes it.

Luckily, Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora is. Continue reading

Facts about the Phantom Tollbooth


The Phantom Tollbooth, a children’s novel written by Norton Juster and illustrated by Jules Feiffer, is a spiritual predecessor of Alice in Wonderland that exchanges the world of animals, children’s toys, and crazy logic for a world of words, numbers, and about the same amount of crazy logic. Milo is a young, bored boy who travels to another land via the titular tollbooth to embark on an adventure to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason from banishment while learning lessons about how interesting the world can really be. It also comes with a level of stealth puns and wordplay that makes it just as rereadable as Alice in Wonderland. Witty, wordplay-packed kid’s novels are one of my favorite genres, and so I’ve been reading about Juster and the Tollbooth. Here are a few fun facts I found out.

Continue reading