Tangents From a Psychologist I: Can a Former Academic Go Pop and Stay Sharp? Composing, 03/06/2015

A single article in a psychology journal is usually about a single experiment or set of related experiments, and interpreting those experiments. A book is different, especially one written with a popular audience in mind. Each chapter of Dan Ariely’s Dishonesty covers several related experiments, and the whole book covers years of research history. 

Each chapter presents the accumulated evidence of many different experiments. They all proliferate from his basic inquiry, which the book represents, to discover the motivations behind why people cheat. Now, the criticism that I’m about to make in this blog should be taken as the criticism of a man with a blog, not a professional experimental psychologist.

Every non-fiction writer for the mass market needs to
find ways to deliver their ideas simply without
stripping them of substance or spoon-feeding their
audience. TED Talks don't have the best reputation for
either. Pictured: Dan Ariely giving a 2009 TED Talk.
Because I could be off the base entirely here. I could be missing the point entirely when it comes to my interpretation of psychological studies, as presented in a popularly-aimed book. There are two reasons for that. One has to do with me, and the other has to do with the nature of popular books that synthesize years of disciplinary academic research.

Let’s consider the research first. I haven’t read the articles where Ariely first published his results from this years-long chain of experiments. But those articles are behind academic journal paywalls, probably the most prohibitively expensive in the world. They’re so expensive that only university libraries can afford them, and many libraries can’t any longer. 

This is something that I’ve run into, and discussed before, on the blog. It isn’t just that I’m still a writer who publishes non-fiction. I come from the academic world – teaching in universities was going to be my career until every job opportunity there that opened itself to me beyond a hair’s width over three years was either slammed shut on my fingers or was institutionally corrupt from the start. 

Publishing academic writing (distinct from non-fiction that aims for both critical and professional respect as well as a mass-market audience) requires access beyond those paywalls. It wasn’t just that the paywalls were enormous. It was that the hassle to access papers behind academic paywalls when you don’t personally have a role in university institutions is itself a barrier to being an independent scholar. 

It’s why I decided not to be an independent scholar, and pitch my work as non-fiction instead. However trippy the Utopias project will ultimately be, once it’s finished, I’ll be pitching it as a non-fiction work for the mass market. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity exists in a weird, kind of hybrid place: originally written as an academic book, but with the tone of trippy non-fiction. I don’t know how that will affect its impact, and I’m not sure what my editors at Palgrave will think of it.

Maybe I’ll have to tell them to read this post. 

Writing a work of non-fiction from outside a university setting means that you can’t always rely on research material that stays behind the paywalls. Writing non-fiction for an audience outside the university system means that relying too heavily on research material that’s stuck behind the paywalls might get in the way of connecting with your audience.

As I look for work in my communications career, one thing I’ve had to overcome is that fact that I do sometimes write like a nerd. I can craft a communications plan, an outreach strategy, write public relations products, and build relationships on social media. But when it comes to writing about myself, I’m still a big nerd. And that gets in the way sometimes when you’re looking for work in an industry where not everyone is a big nerd like you.

Writing non-fiction for a wide market, you have to write like a nerd, with conceptual rigour and depth. But you still have to be approachable. It’s a fine line. Too much approachability and a lot of academic work can sometimes be conceptually sloppy. As much as I like a lot of what Ariely writes in this book, and as fascinating as his subject matter is, I do find sometimes that he gets conceptually sloppy. . . . To be continued.

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