You see, I was aware that there were some scientists who were writing well-written, but conceptually poor books on cognitive science (I won't name names, but let's just say that the most prominent such scientist is a little more rose-colored, by name), and judging from conversations with students, as well as their placement on the Barnes and Noble shelves, that people were reading these books, people who probably wouldn't have the requisite background knowledge to determine that these books didn't represent sound cognitive science. I even knew that linguists had a hard time justifying their work to the general public (Ray Jackendoff told me this in the introduction to one of his books), and that it wasn't always easy to explain cognitive scientific concepts, and their importance, to my grandmother. I never knew just how misinformed many people out in the world were about cognitive science, though. Blogs have been one hell of an education.
Recently it seems to have gotten worse. That could be because the scales have fallen from my eyes and I am now able to see (in cog sci talk, I've activated the relevant schemas, making the perception of previously knowledge-inconsistent and perhaps even irrelevant information available), or it could be because cognitive science is getting more and more attention from non-experts. There was Todd Zywicki's kindergartener-like inability to grasp even the simplest concepts related to implicit attitudes, the consciousness and the cognitive unconscious, or the various implicit tests. Then there was Will Wilkerson's attempt to sketch out the implications of Evolutionary Psychology for political thought, despite the fact that it's all-too-apparent that Wilkerson has never really read any Evolutionary Psychology (short of, perhaps, a couple trade books), along with this strange attempt to defend Wilkerson's essay. Finally, there was this shot at the "mirror test" (sometimes called the "mark test") of self-consciousness, which repeats an alternative explanation that was ruled out years ago, a fact that is cited in pretty much every paper on the "mirror test." There have been other examples, but these are three of the most recent, and at least in the first two cases, most egregious misrepresentations, misuses, or just plain misses, on topics of cognitive science in the blogospohere that I have read.
Like I said, I want to crawl back into my hole deep inside the Ivory Tower. But I won't. Instead, I'll offer some advice to anyone who wants to talk about cognitive science, but has not spent a lot of time studying it. This advice isn't unique to the cognitive sciences; you'd probably hear it from any scholar, or at least any scientist, in any field. Naturally, I don't expect anyone to follow it, but I feel like if I'm going to stay out here, I have to actually try.
- Read before you write. Do not write about any scientific idea that you have not read about extensively. Extensively. I particularly hope that Zywicki and Wilkerson take this to heart. It's the best way to avoid making yourself look like a fool, or worse, and it also avoids pissing off people like me. I'm not sure the last one is really a motivation for reading before writing (it might actually be a motivation to do the opposite), but I imagine most people do want to avoid looking like fools.
- When it comes to science, do not go by what you read in the popular press. The popular press generally doesn't know what it's talking about, either. It may be a good place to discover interesting research, but before you write about it, go read the primary sources. You'll find that at least as often as not, the presentation of scientific work in the popular press barely resembles the presentation of that same work in peer-reviewed journals, and that's not just because the latter is more technical.
- Again, when it comes to science, do not go by what you read in books, especially books that weren't written for experts. You can say anything in books, and people do. I have read books on cognitive science that sounded to me like they were written in a parallel universe in which the findings in the field were entirely different than they actually were. Even when they describe the empirical research correctly, book authors may interpret it in ways that no one else in the field would. Often, people write books because they want to express ideas that wouldn't see the light of day in the peer-reviewed literature. This can be a good thing, in that it allows the more speculative ideas of scientists to be expressed, and thus influence the direction of the science (if they're worth considering), but in most cases, it just means you're going to get shitty ideas.
- Given 2 and 3, you should probably know what you have to read -- the peer reviewed literature. If you're going to write about, say, the neuroscientific research on moral reasoning, don't, I repeat do not, read a book by a journalist with no training in EP, cognitive psychology, or neuroscience, on a related topic, and think that you are now qualified to make political arguments on the basis of that research. Instead, look at the journalist's citations, go to your local university library, read those articles, and the articles that they cite. After this, search some article databases (you could even use Google Scholar) for papers that aren't cited in the ones you've read, because there may be research that contradicts that you've read, but which you haven't seen cited. Scientists aren't above forgetting some recalcitrant data, now and then, even when it's been published. After you've done this, maybe you can start to think about what you want to say on the subject.
- Before you publish something in the press, official reports, or even popular blogs, consult an expert or two. Scholars are generally willing to look over pieces that will be representing their work, or work in their field, to the general public. Hell, if you're writing about cognitive science for a blog, feel free to send me a draft. I'd be happy to look over it, and if I don't feel qualified to evaluate it, I'll send it to or recommend someone who is. I wouldn't recommend sending me posts about EP, of course, because I'll just tell you EP is shit, and you shouldn't write about it. Anything else is OK though.
UPDATE: Mark Liberman responds to this post at Language Log. I agree with his comments on open access wholeheartedly. In fact, open access would making following my advice much easier. The only point with which I really disagree is the one about popular science books. I genuinely dislike them, at least as anything more than introductions to fields and ideas. If that's all you're looking for (and I readily admit that for some fields, like say physics or paleontology, that's all I am looking for), then they're probably OK, but if you want to delve deeper, attempt to draw inferences that go beyond the text, or (and this is the biggie) represent the field you've been introduced to the public, then they should not be relied upon. In fact, given the ways in which our initial exposure to concepts influences our later representations of those concepts, and that there are so many misrepresentations in so many science books, if you plan on doing anything more serious, or more public, than writing about a scholarly idea on a podunk blog like this one, you'd probably do well to avoid trade books altogether.
Also, in response to a couple commenters, I should note that I don't expect every blogger to follow my advice, but I do expect well-read bloggers, especially those who are experts in some other field, and therefore treated as authorities by the throngs, to do so. Whether they like it or not, these bloggers influence public perception, even when they don't know what they're talking about. I believe that influence comes with a responsibility to at least make an effort to get it right. You don't have to agree with what the experts say, but you at least have to know what it is that they say, if you're going to comment on it.