(Note: This was not prompted by any particular comment. Just a slow accumulation of stuff, that turned into a blog post on this morning’s dog walk.)
It’s been a couple of years now that I’ve been working on writing and promoting How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, so I’ve had a lot of conversations where the subject of writing a popular audience book on quantum physics comes up. I’ve had enough of these now that I can recognize a few different categories of responses, one of which drives me up the wall. I suspect that the same is true for most pop-science authors, so as a public service, let me throw this out there for the non-scientist reading public:
If you meet someone who has written a popular-audience book about science, DO NOT make a joke about how you’d like to read it, but are too dumb to understand it.
Really, this is absolutely infuriating. I mean it. Please don’t.
The whole point of writing a popular-audience book on something like quantum physics is to reach the people who are “too dumb” to understand quantum physics. That’s my target market. I sweated blood writing my book so it would be comprehensible to my English-major editor– you could at least try to read it before throwing up your hands and declaring you can’t.
This pre-emptive declaration of incompetence is also infuriating because it plays into the “two cultures” thing that drives me nuts in academia. Nobody says the equivalent to a scholar from the humanities– if somebody in English tells me they’re writing a book about Shakespeare, I wouldn’t dream of saying “Oh, I’d love to read that, but I’m too dumb to understand literature.” If I did that, I’d get laughed out of the room.
And yet, I have had people with Ph.D.’s and tenured faculty jobs laughingly declare that they couldn’t possibly begin to understand the book I wrote for a general audience. Given that I’ve gotten numerous emails from parents of pre-teens telling me that their kids loved it, I don’t think this speaks particularly well for the humanties side of the academy. It does, however, point to one of the fundamental problems with our society, namely that it is socially acceptable for otherwise smart people to proudly proclaim ignorance of science.
Ultimately, though, it’s rude. Saying that you can’t understand the book that I worked very hard to pitch to a general audience is basically telling me to my face that you think I did a bad job. Which is bad enough if you’ve actually tried to read it and found it too difficult, but it’s even more insulting when you say it up front, without even cracking the covers of the book. You’re saying “Having met you, I don’t believe you could explain a complex topic well enough for me to understand it. Have a nice day.”
So, please, if you meet a person who has written a popular audience book about science– me, or anybody else– do them a favor, and don’t crack jokes about being unable to understand their book. It’s not remotely amusing. If you’re not interested in the subject of the book, say something vague and change the subject, just as you would if you met somebody who wrote a non-scientific book that you have no interest in. (“A post-structuralist study of the hermeneutics of medieval knitting, you say? Fascinating. Say, how about that local sports team?”)
(Also, a quick note specific to my books: Please don’t make a joke about how my dog is smarter than you, or your dog, or your other pets. That got real old even before the book got published, and I’m having a hard time feigning amusement at it these days.)