Nature, Brain, and Culture

Although many neuroscientists are trying to figure out how the brain works, Mark Changizi is bent on determining WHY it works that way.

How to Write a Popular Science Book

What's a good popular science book?

John Brockman, agent to the science stars
The hardback of The Vision Revolution has been out for one year, and I couldn't be happier with the reaction it has received, including reviews in fantastic places like the Wall Street Journal and Sciam Mind and mentions in places like the New York Times. It even made New Scientist's "best books of 2009″ story. Soon it will appear in China, Korea and Germany.

There has, however, been one gnawing problem with the hardback.

...the problem is its hardbackiness.

To understand my trouble with hardbackiness, let me back up and explain what I was aiming for in writing the book.

As a start, let me first describe what I was not aiming for: Not an academic monograph, to be read only by specialists. Not a journalist-style coverage of a topic. And not a book about how to help your brain, like "20 ways to make your brain smarter than the Johnson's next door."

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My aim was not only to write a book that is readable (and funny) to non-specialists (i.e., a "trade" or "popular" book). Rather, my aim was to build a book that is part of the scientific conversation.

By "part of the scientific conversation," I mean that the book is filled with ideas and evidence that go beyond what is found in the technical journal articles.

That, I believe, is what makes a popular science book exciting to non-specialists and laymen: in reading the book they are not merely learning about science, but are witnessing a portion of the lively scientific exchange.

The reader is put within the scientific conversation itself.

I didn't come to this philosophy about what makes a good popular science book on my own. As I struggled with the drafts of my first trade book proposals, I had the opportunity to meet with John Brockman, the noted literary agent, author and the founder of The Edge ( http://www.edge.org ). That's his photo at the top. It was he who laid out this good-popular-science book philosophy to me, and although it sounded obvious after he said it, it by no means was obvious to me beforehand.

That's what makes authors like Desmond Morris, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Pinker. Daniel Dennett and Andy Clark so compelling. It's not merely that they write well, but that they're making a scientific case for their viewpoint. ...and you and I get to watch.

And so that's what I did in The Vision Revolution, take the reader along as I lay out the case for a radical re-thinking of how we see. Color vision evolved for seeing skin and the underlying emotions, not for finding fruit. Forward-facing eyes evolved for seeing better in forests, not for seeing in depth. Illusions are due to our brain's attempt to correct for the neural eye-to-brain delay, so as to "perceive the present." And our ability to read is due to writing having culturally evolved to make written words look like natural objects, just what our illiterate visual system is competent at processing.

In aiming to be part of the lively scientific exchange, there was another thing I tried to inject into the book: I tried to not take things too seriously.

As I have discussed in an earlier piece, too often science is treated as a set of textbook facts. Textbooks usually give that impression, and even when they are careful to say that science is in fact deeply in flux, the textbook look and feel dupes most of us into imbuing the book with too much truthiness. This is especially a problem for the cognitive and brain sciences, because the object of study is the most complicated object in the known universe, and we very often don't know what we're talking about. (We don't know jack.)

And that brings me back to the most significant flaw with the hardback version of The Vision Revolution: its hardbackiness. The rigidity of a hardback suggests truthiness, and although I do believe the ideas I put forth and defend in the book are true, I don't want the cover's hardness to be part of my argument.

Luckily, The Vision Revolution is now out in paperback, and is so remarkably bendy that the reader cannot help but to read with that engaged maybe-this-is-not-correct mindset, rather than the oh-look-at-all-those-true-things-science-has-figured-out mindset. With that mindset, the reader will be in the right mindset to truly be "part of the scientific conversation."

Mark Changizi is Professor of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books) and the upcoming book Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella Books).

Mark Changizi is author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella), and Director of Human Cognition at 2AI Labs.

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