If you read this column even occasionally, you know that one of my pet peeves is how scholarly research too often gets distorted in the popular press and the public winds up misinformed by hyped up claims of “fact.” (See especially "My Brain Made Me Do It!" Are We Seduced by Neuroscience?
and Beware the Neuroscience News Cycle
Well, some of us are taking it into our own hands and experimenting with ways to bring our work to the general public ourselves. I’ve been researching this for a few months and here’s some of what I’ve found.
There does seem to be a growing desire among academics to popularize their work and get feedback from “ordinary people.” Among the more creative and far out are those who take to the dance and comedy stages to present their work. Check out Dance Your Ph.D., Sophie Scott, the stand up scientist, and the CERN laboratory’s stand up night to see the risks they’re taking—and judge how well they succeed in sharing their work.
No less challenging but a bit more conventional are those who turn to writing fiction to get their ideas across. Among them is Larry Harrison from the University of Hull. Interviewed by The Guardian this past November, Hull said,
I was already a published academic author, and my books on alcohol and drug problems were selling well. I wrote a BBC radio feature on the history of tobacco which was well received, and this gave me the idea that I might achieve more if I could reach a wider, non-academic audience. I was keen to counter stereotypical views about the need for the war on drugs, or the 12 steps cure for addiction, and thought this could be done through fiction. My publisher was only interested in selling more textbooks. Sending out unsolicited manuscripts to other commercial publishers was demoralizing…So I decided that the only way to write the fiction I wanted to write was to self-publish. A number of other authors were reaching similar conclusions, so we joined together in an informal cooperative, and helped each other with editing and promotion.
Some of us don’t want to (or aren’t ready to) share our work by writing fiction or dancing or doing stand up. It turns out there’s quite a few of us and few choices to publish. Scholarly presses seek academic and professional practitioners books, and trade publishers seek how-to books. Neither has been particularly responsive to the need to bridge the gap between academics, practitioners and the public. Thus, the slow but steady trend by established academics to self-publish.
I’ve decided to join the ranks with my new book, The Overweight Brain: How Our Obsession With Knowing Keeps Us From Getting Smart Enough to Make a Better World. Even more, by self-publishing I can make the most of being in control of the book to use social media to get input and feedback as I write. I’ll be posting chapters one by one over the next several months. I invite you to visit my website, and become a reader and commentator.