The Business of Pop-Science

I admit it. I bought Imagine: How Creativity Works . I skimmed a couple of pages at Barnes and Noble and was curious enough about creativity to buy the book. Well, Isaac Chotiner made me feel like an idiot. Here's what he said in the New Republic

IMAGINE is really a pop-science book, which these days usually means that it is an exercise in laboratory-approved self-help. Like Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Lehrer writes self-help for people who would be embarrassed to be seen reading it. For this reason, their chestnuts must be roasted in “studies” and given a scientific gloss. The surrender to brain science is particularly zeitgeisty. Their sponging off science is what gives these writers the authority that their readers impute to them, and makes their simplicities seem very weighty. Of course, Gladwell and Brooks and Lehrer rarely challenge the findings that they report, not least because they lack the expertise to make such a challenge.

4 thoughts on “The Business of Pop-Science

  1. I think it’s a little bit unfair to criticize Lehrer saying that he doesn’t have the background to critically evaluate the studies he cites; he does have an undergraduate degree in neuroscience. Mind you, I don’t think that makes him an authority, but a cavalier dismissal of his expertise doesn’t seem appropriate.
    And, the same genre of book is written by others with undeniable expertise (Kahneman for example).
    I do think that a lot of the creativity literature overlaps with the marketing literature and has a limited view of creativity (as Chotiner argues, that creativity == sales). I do think there’s such a thing as creativity and that people can be trained to reach for more complex thought, but that defining creativity often becomes an oversimplification.
    And, I don’t believe any of the pop-science unless I can read the study and it’s published in a peer-reviewed publication. A lot of the cites are awful when you actual dig down into them (the gender book by Leonard Sax is my cite for a particularly bad offender, one that spawned a web site pointing out the errors).

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  2. Um, there isn’t a single sentence in the book that betrays his undergraduate major. Indeed, he doesn’t even include it in his bio.
    The problems with that book–which we read in our non-fiction book group–are immense. Not only does he confuse caustion and correlation throughout the book, he also conflates a number of very different concepts under the rubric of “creativity.” We had a long, heated discussion about the book and ultimately decided it was the most discussable bad book we had read in years.
    But Laura, I think you will be interested/depressed to see how few women are mentioned in the entire book. Not to mention the fact that he gets the story about Barbie all wrong. Sigh.

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  3. “I do think there’s such a thing as creativity and that people can be trained to reach for more complex thought, but that defining creativity often becomes an oversimplification.”
    In her book on animal and human behavior modification “Don’t Shoot the Dog,” Karyn Pryor talks about training animals (dolphins, I think) to be creative. It does work. However, the creative dolphins are a big nuisance.

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  4. Wow. You just made me determined to read this book over the weekend, RC. Bad books can be fun, too. If it can generate a good discussion about creativity, then it’s worth a look.

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