Friday, April 5, 2024


 I am a vulgarizer. That is, my science books are intended for ordinary intelligent people (the original Latin meaning of vulgar), not for other scientists. This is true for all five of my published books (see links at, and for the sixth book that is under contract. I have written very few journal papers for other scientists to read. Most of my journal articles have been about science education, that is, for students and teachers. The reward for me was not to hear from a fellow scientist, “Good paper!” but to hear from a high school student who wanted to do a project based on one of my American Biology Teacher papers. My eight magazine articles in Skeptical Inquirer were a humorous approach to literalist creationism. And, of course, this blog and my YouTube channel are for all of you, not just for scientists.

In France, where I now live, la vulgarisation is not a bad word. It describes the work of writers and Youtubeurs such as myself or, in France, Jamy Gourmaud (see my earlier essay) who want to make science not only comprehensible but exciting to non-scientists. Traditionally, in America, scientists were supposed to look down their noses at non-scientists, especially artists and musicians. That is, not only their professional advancement but their sense of self-worth relied on the number of scholarly books and papers they had written, even when nobody outside their field could read or understand them. Popular books didn’t count. Only peer-reviewed papers and books in your field of expertise counted.

Increasingly, fields of expertise grow narrower and narrower. Decades ago, many scientists read papers from many different fields of science. It wasn’t just astrophysicists who read Edwin Hubble’s paper about the red shift. But, in writing my new book, I ended up citing a paper that had been published in the Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Obviously, I found the paper only by the use of Google Scholar.

At the same time, younger scientists are becoming disillusioned by the restriction of their audiences. They, like me, not only enjoy reaching out to the rest of the world, but feel a sense of emptiness at not doing so.

Heather O’Leary, a young anthropology professor at the University of South Florida published a paper that she knew hardly anyone would read. It was about the effects of toxic algal blooms in the Gulf on the tourism economy. It was, as she described it, mostly just records of visitors saying, over and over, that they didn’t like the smell of dead fish. So she decided to set her research data to music. She asked a composition professor to write the music and the university band director to perform it. This met with a lot of enthusiasm. And, now that NPR has covered the story and embedded a link to the paper, she will probably get a hundred times as many readers as she would otherwise have reached.

The message behind the work is that climate change will, among many other things, kill a lot of fish and spoil beaches that would otherwise enhance the local economy. But if you listen to the music, which is more or less a transcription of her data, you will not get this message. It sounds to me like a hundred other modernistic musical works (and I was in bands for almost two decades). To me, it is much more fulfilling to write simple (some would say, simplified) books that will, in fact, leave readers with a better understanding of the world.

Viva la vulgarisation!

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