Thursday night, and the Sheldonian is packed out. People jostle for seats and chatter in anticipation. Suddenly, a hush descends, and an immaculately dressed man with wild, curly grey hair walks out, taking his position on a small podium.
This is not the conductor of an orchestra, about to wave his baton and stir strings and brass into life: it is Steven Pinker, the famous scientist and linguist, and the crowd have come to hear him talk about his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. In a broad American accent he presents a summary of the book, joking with the audience about the fact that the ‘do your own thing’ ethos of the 1960s probably caused an increase in murders as a large number of people’s ‘thing’ turned out to be violent crime.
Afterwards, I am surprised to see people lining up to have their photos taken with him, like a rock star. Pinker is not alone: science authors are starting to be treated like celebrities (well, c-listers), increasingly being chosen to present the television tie-ins for their own books and generally breaking out of the lecture hall and into the public domain. But is there a cost to this? How much do populist books about ‘academic’ topics actually teach us? Like many, I am an inveterate reader of nonfiction.
The whole thing boils down to the fantastically fallacious idea that I am somehow improving myself by learning how Oppenheimer didn’t actually quote the Bhagavad Gita as he tested the first atomic bomb but instead said something along the lines of “Holy Shit!”. Or how massively dense rotating neutron stars can beam pulses of radiation in our direction that keep time better than an atomic clock.
Of course, none of this will ever be of the slightest use except as an incredibly dull replacement for actual conversation, of the sort that occurs at formal halls, awkward first (and last) dates and drinks events that you only went to because they were free. The problem is that you almost never get enough depth to be able to have an actual conversation about the topic of the book.
General knowledge is very much overrated, particularly in a place like Oxford where expressing an opinion on almost anything without actually being the world’s foremost expert on it is likely to expose you as the posing charlatan you are.
However, it is not yet time to put away A Brief History of Time and pick up the Mills & Boon. There are some books that bridge the gap between casual knowledge hunting and academic rigour; that you can read and that will actually change the way you think about the world. The Better Angels of Our Nature is one such gem. At 696 pages plus another 75 of references, it is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive source on the subject matter, which is itself both fascinating and engagingly presented.
The book describes in exhaustive detail how, contrary to the apparent glut of bloodshed we hear of daily, violence has been declining over the history of human society as we have developed progressively more powerful mechanisms to control and dissipate aggression.
We ought to accept that, most of the time, reading popular science books is as much for pleasure as is picking up a trashy paperback and should be entered into with the same gleeful sense of guilt. Just please, for the love of Dawkins, don’t bother with The God Delusion.