William H. Calvin, "Filling the Empty Niches," (18 February 1998 talk at MIT Media Lab). See also

Communications Forum -- Thursday, Feb. 18, 1999.
"Beyond the Ivory Tower: Academia in the Age of Popular Media" A panel discussion on the role of the "public intellectual" in the media age.
Speakers: Stephen Jay Gould, Lester Thurow, William Calvin, Alan Lightman (moderator).
Webbed Reprint Collection
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA

Filling the Empty Niches

William H. Calvin
This is the script for a 30' talk;
about a third was omitted to shorten the talk.

When surveying the spectrum from pop psych to neurology in works addressed to general readers, one is struck by how few major figures there have been - certainly when cognitive neuro is compared to a far smaller field(1), evolutionary biology, where real literary talents like Loren Eiseley once flourished, where "media dons" like Richard Dawkins regularly clarify our thinking, where there are magnificent series like those of Stephen Jay Gould (fifteen major essays a year, plus scholarly books and research papers, spanning three decades) which have influenced millions to read more. Many writers in the cognitive spectrum have occasionally written an influential book or two, but few could fill the largest available campus auditorium on name recognition alone, even without announcing a topic for the lecture.

I don't have any answers for why evolutionary matters have such an edge, though let me quote Jacob Bronowski on the subject, speaking nearly four decades ago:

A difficulty of lay discussion on scientific subjects is usually this, that there exists no common language in which scientists and laymen can talk together about scientific ideas. In each generation, the subjects which blaze into the headlines are therefore those rare exceptions where such a language does happen to exist. This is why the nineteenth century got so excited about the age of the earth and the descent of man. Those were not the largest, the most interesting, or even the most popular advances of science. No, they were typical scientific ideas, but they were in the one field where everyone knew the language. Here therefore the issue between traditional opinion and the new scientific approach could be clearly understood and argued.

That "argued" reminds me of what a Boston neuropsychologist once told me about his college-age son not being interested in science. "But you can't debate science like you can history or politics," said the son. "You can't just express an opinion about something scientific -- it's either right or wrong. It's much more fun to talk with the guys about other things where an opinion counts." So it's not just shared vocabulary, as in Bronowski's example, but what you feel licensed to express an opinion about, over coffee or beer.

Our occasional successes in popularizing science need to be studied for the lessons they contain. So let me contrast the popularization of evolutionary biology with that of brains and behavior - and let me do it with the aid of an evolutionary concept called the empty niche, looking at successes elsewhere and arguing that they illustrate routes to success for anyone hoping to contribute to the popularization of cognitive neuro.

A niche, in ecology, is all that a species needs to function: the right food, climate, protection from predators, migration routes, nesting sites, and so forth. An empty niche is a proven niche going unused.

Migration Routes (Where Do the Readers Come From?)

Science reporting is very uneven in its coverage (just try comparing what the New York Times covers with a list of major projects funded by foundations and governments). That's because science reporters (or, more likely, their editors) find it hard to imagine that potential readers are readily available for many subjects. There's an "entry level" aspect, from which one can later make a transition to serious stuff -- but general circulation magazines, newspapers, and trade publishers often have an entry-level cutoff.

They're not multilevel. It's the same sort of widest-possible-audience reasoning that has made television news programs so shallow. For example, even though very important for our battle with a changing climate, ocean currents must seem, to editors, like a subject with few ready-made entry-level readers(2).

Fortunately, we in cognitive neuroscience don't have the same problem as oceanography - or, indeed, most other important fields of research -- because everyone comes with an innate interest in other people's psychological makeup. Unless they've been terminally put off by the froth of some pop psych, they're likely to give a glance to something featuring minds/brains. No other field of popular science comes with the built-in advantages of anything involving cognition.

Though it may take a while to convince some that the mind is surely in the brain, this bleed-over from popular psychology into cognitive neuro is easily our major source of readers (those writing about other fields can likely identify similar major migration routes). We also have some secondary sources: there's the medical route, as when stroke or dementia patients in the family serve as an impetus to read more. And there's the "mechanistic" route which attracts readers in from physics and computer science.

While academics in adjacent fields are one example (hopefully, neurophysiologists will read some linguistics now and then, and vice versa), there is a much broader base when it comes to cognitive neuro: the entire range of creative people, from poets to programmers. They're curious about how they pull off their successes. University Presses readily publish these serious-readers books, but trade publishers may do so only if they anticipate an additional draw via name-recognition, entry-level, coffee-table, or flattery-by-gift types.

Readers in adjacent fields are an extremely important audience, just for the progress of science. Pharmacologists are likely to get much of their information about cerebral localization of function from newspapers, television specials, and popular books, reading a review article only if they actually have to give a lecture involving the subject. Many interdisciplinary research opportunities have been opened up by an article intended for a more entry-level reader. Certainly, I got my beginning education in evolutionary biology back in 1980 via Steve Gould's monthly columns.

Protection from Predators

The scientist contemplating writing for a wider audience will often assume that others in the field will be critical, that such a writer will constantly have to justify simplifications or omissions. Or that others will be suspicious that the writer is seeking fame via bypassing the long hard grind of academic publication. While such comment surely happens on occasion, the writer is more likely to be nearly invisible within the field, even if moderately-well-known outside the field.

The reason for this invisibility is simple. Scientists are also general readers. They only have so much time to read, and so they mostly read outside their own field. Neuroscientists will tend to read popular books on cosmology or evolutionary biology, not popular books on brains (they'll assume they know it all, even if you're sure they don't). In my experience, experts learn about a popular book on their subject only years after publication, and then only because a new student tells them about it or because they go looking for supplementary reading material for an introductory course.

Nesting Sites

The widespread curiosity about minds is a start, but writers also need an established way to reach their audience. Attention is a precious commodity, and people tend to rely on trusted gatekeepers, such as magazines, newspapers, television -- though this is breaking down somewhat, with the web's ability to bypass them.

The "op-ed" pages of local newspapers provide a place for well-written articles of about 700 words. This is an entry-level niche that didn't exist several decades ago, and it will likely expand with the expansion of web portals having editor-selected commentary.

Regular columns have played an important role, particularly if later converted into books. Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould came up by this route, thanks to far-sighted editors of the New England Journal of Medicine and at Natural History, but the regular column for a wide audience is largely unexploited in cognitive neuro.

Science journalists have largely filled this "columnar niche" in many fields; they write as observers rather than participants in the great exploration, but the sustained output of someone like Daniel Goleman reporting on psychology is very important. It doesn't require a Ph.D. in your subject (as Goleman has) to be a good reporter; many science reporters are simply literature or journalism majors who have developed into real fans of science over the years, and they are often better at judging what will confuse general readers than are people used to dealing with students who have taken all the prerequisites.

It may be possible to bypass some of the getting-space obstacles in newer media. Given the "re-invent everything" attitudes seen among web developers, there will be nonprint analogs to columns and books, perhaps with important multimedia advantages and new entry-level options for science popularizers.

Where the writer comes from

Interlopers from other scientific fields have their advantages and disadvantages as writers. Last year, I ventured outside my own field to write a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly about abrupt climate change, its history and likely oceanographic mechanisms; the editor, Bill Whitworth, really had to twist my arm for weeks to get me to undertake it but, in retrospect, I worried too much.

I fully expected that people within geophysics would be somewhat unhappy about this trespass. I reasoned that even if I were to avoid all the usual conceptual errors, that they'd still be unhappy -- probably with my metaphors, with who I'd left out, with my own interpretations of instability mechanisms. I actually got very little such feedback; it was mostly along the lines of "Well, it's really even more complicated, you know" -- and that's the inevitable problem (as most of them appreciated) when reducing a book-length topic to a mere 6,600 words.

The hardest part of writing the article was finding suitable metaphors for a whole series of technical terms, processes, and possibilities; I might have figured out the oceanographers' unique use of the word "water" but I knew it would throw most readers -- and that they'd never wind up reading my finale. It took months before the trial-run metaphors settled down. I also had to straighten out their graphs, rotating cores so that time ran from left to right, flipping them so warm was up and cold was down.

I also realized that what made it possible for a neurophysiologist to write about geophysics was that the oceanographers and atmospheric scientists have been very good about putting up on web pages their teaching materials (including huge glossaries with literature references), grant proposals, and review papers. They are years ahead of the neurosciences in this regard, one reason why it would currently be hard for someone in geophysics to undertake a similar article about the latest spectacular findings in cognitive neuro.

One advantage of a scientist writing about other scientific fields is this sensitivity to terminology and reader's hardships. And such an outsider may also be better at spotting what piece of the whole makes for a good limited story. Researchers immersed in a field tend to see things as a morass of unfinished problems and unsatisfactory precision, with lots of loose ends -- but a writer who can tentatively navigate around the research area may often see some part of it that can stand alone and be memorable, constitute a "good story." An example in my formative years was the astronomer Carl Sagan writing about my field, neurobiology, in his 1974 book, The Dragons of Eden.

One disadvantage of interloping scientists, of course, is that some may come with an agenda, such as an answer in search of a question (quantum physics as the answer to - Well, how about consciousness!). Or the interloper may invent an unfortunate term. Consider how the term "neural networks" was coined by the physicists to represent a web of abstract elements, in ignorance of the more concrete, structured connotations among neurophysiologists who had been working for decades on actual neural networks like those in Limulus, that won Keffer Hartline a Nobel Prize in 1967. Every time we had to say "real neural networks," we cursed the physicists for hijacking our term.

The exploitation of scientific ignorance

But most such borrowing is, of course, an innocent search for analogies. There are examples, however, where outsiders borrow terminology in order to borrow the prestige of science or technology. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," in part, because there are people who will exploit the situation with a shell game that calls one thing by another's name.

The classic is when someone appends "Science" to the name of their favorite nonscientific enthusiasm. But sometimes they simultaneously borrow from three fields -- say, from neuro, linguistics, and programming -- to suggest a magnificent convergence, one that few among the involuntary donors would recognize.

Part of the caution about popularized science within the scientific community is, of course, due to seeing too many examples of what happens when people of little understanding grab something and run with it -- particularly when they do it to exploit those who cannot tell the difference between science and hyperbole. There are, of course, inevitably areas where knowledge is thin and wisdom is thinner yet; that's just the current state of affairs and there is no point in trying to hold some new therapy up to the evidence standards of physics. Yet some fields are nothing but the popularization of some notion: one book and its one idea will become the "bible" of a movement. Even the well-intentioned ones may exhibit some of the problems of the advertising agencies and their exploitation of scientific terminology. While most fads will merely constitute a waste of time and money, some -- repressed memory therapies are likely an example -- may not be harmless and their incautious fans unlikely to diligently adhere to that Hippocratic aphorism, "First, do no harm."

One appropriate response is more popularization, not less. So long as the power of science and technology is known to the public, there will always be a niche for impressing the clueless - and we all, at some stage in our life, are ignorant. We are all, in some areas, gullible. And expertise in one area may not produce appropriate caution in other areas (some physicians, for example, have a reputation for gullibility regarding investments, despite their everyday experience in dealing with patients who were gullible about "natural" therapies and delayed too long).

It's not that the public is uninterested in science - they are, and certainly in matters cognitive. But they don't have the time to become experts and learn all the pitfalls that experts eventually learn to avoid. The best statement on the subject that I know was made 20 years ago by Carl Sagan in Broca's Brain:

There is a vast untapped popular interest in the deepest scientific questions. For many people, the shoddily thought out doctrines of borderline science [parapsychology, astrology, ancient astronauts] are the closest approximation to comprehensible science readily available. The popularity of borderline science is a rebuke to the schools, the press, and commercial television for their sparse, unimaginative and ineffective efforts at science education, and to us scientists, for doing so little to popularize our subject.

Delivery Vehicles

The very short pieces needed for entré into science popularization (whether op-ed columns or book proposals) rely heavily on exposition, pure and simple. Longer pieces may benefit from some structure. Scientists usually will think in terms of a logical development of concepts as the natural structure, but let me also suggest some of the principles of narrative and story-telling.

They offer two major advantages: hanging the material on a narrative framework makes it more memorable, more likely to still be there two weeks later when the details are slipping away. And it makes it more likely that the reader will make it all the way to the end of the article or book. "Spontaneous abortions" are very common in reading, and the writer needs to constantly worry about losing the audience. Consider this description of our orientation toward narrative by the writer Kathryn Morton(3) :

The first sign that a baby is going to be a human being and not a noisy pet comes when he begins naming the world and demanding the stories that connect its parts. Once he knows the first of these he will instruct his teddy bear, enforce his world view on victims in the sandlot, tell himself stories of what he is doing as he plays and forecast stories of what he will do when he grows up. He will keep track of the actions of others and relate deviations to the person in charge. He will want a story at bedtime.

Nothing passes but the mind grabs it and looks for a way to fit it into a story, or into a variety of possible scripts....

The medical detective stories make implicit use of such narrative structure, and some books are crafted more explicitly around journeys. My rationale for writing a 600-page book around a two-week-long float trip down the Colorado River(4) was that the Grand Canyon was full of ways of illustrating evolution on both geological and cultural time scales - and that the journey itself gave me the freedom to gamble a little with material that some subset of readers would consider "more than they wanted to know." Skimming over the hard parts is thought not to be possible with science (indeed, because of the logical progression of science textbooks, if you don't understand chapter two, you'll never make it through chapter six) - and this attitude, carried over to popular writing about science, may cause the reader to needlessly drop out, to never finish the book. But with a familiar framework such as a journey, the floundering reader is more likely to skim the hard part in anticipation of picking up the thread of the journey. This sense of continuity and expectation was surely the case back in the oral-tradition days before stories such as the Iliad and the Oddessey were actually written down.

Neuroscience Niche Examples

I don't propose to survey the people who write popular books about some part of the cognitive spectrum. But I would like to identify several "neighborhood niches," both perspectives from slightly outside of the research mainstream. It's almost as if there were "licensed commentators," people coming from disciplines that are expected to have a broad perspective. First there's the viewpoint from philosophy into cognitive science. It's occupied presently by a number of people, one of the most quotable of which is Daniel C. Dennett. In Kinds of Minds (1996, p. 147), he writes:

There is no step more uplifting, more momentous in the history of mind design than the invention of language. When Homo sapiens became the beneficiary of this invention, the species stepped into a slingshot that has launched it far beyond all other earthly species in the power to look ahead and reflect.

In Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 460), Dennett writes:

We, unlike the cells that compose us, are not on ballistic trajectories; we are guided missiles, capable of altering course at any point, abandoning goals, switching allegiances, forming cabals and then betraying them, and so forth. For us, it is always decision time, and because we live in a world of memes, no consideration is alien to us, or a foregone conclusion.

That's the level of writing, and mastery of ideas, that it takes to influence a lot of readers.

The other neighborhood niche is the perspective from the medical end of the spectrum. It too has a number of contemporary practitioners, and the neurologist Oliver Sacks is widely known for very good reasons. He is not especially quotable, because he is the master of the humanistic narrative -- everything's too connected to excerpt -- but here, from Seeing Voices, is his description of an eleven-year-old deaf boy, reared without sign language for his first ten years, showing what life is like without syntax:

Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with perceptual categorization or generalization, but he could not, it seemed, go much beyond this, hold abstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan. He seemed completely literal -- unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities, unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm.... He seemed, like an animal, or an infant, to be stuck in the present, to be confined to literal and immediate perception, though made aware of this by a consciousness that no infant could have.

More consistently quotable is Mel Konner(5), who views cognitive neuro both as a research insider and from the perspective of medicine and anthropology:

At the conclusion of all our studies we must try once again to experience the human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bioelectricity; the human will as will, and not just a surge of hormones; the human heart not as a fibrous, sticky pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in them as metaphysical entities -- they are as real as the flesh and blood they are made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments, but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.

Most popular writing about matters cognitive does not aspire to this literary level. And it can be effective without such poetic density. Most of our information comes from science journalism, plain unadorned prose from a writer who has taken the time to understand something of the subject and to select a limited piece of it which will make a good story.

The Available Empty Niches

But any writer who aspires to a wider audience has a number of role models to chose from, each of whom created a significant niche. Some of these niches are now entirely unfilled: Loren Eiseley and Jacob Bronowski died in the mid-seventies, Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas in the mid-nineties, and there's still no one new on the scene who is comparable, not to any of them. Other niches are empty only in the sense that no one has become established as a cognitive counterpart to such evolutionary biologists as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.


The Loren Eiseley Niche

Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the [spider] web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.

The Star Thrower, 1976(6)

The Richard Dawkins Niche

Any suggestion that the child's mathematical ineptitude might have a genetic origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in the genes "it is written", it is "determined" and nothing can be done about it; you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse, others may be easy.

The Extended Phenotype, 1982

Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes which is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king's genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today... but who cares? The memes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still going strong.

The Selfish Gene, 1976

The Carl Sagan Niche

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements -- transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting -- profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

The Demon-haunted World, 1996, p.26

The Lewis Thomas Niche

Only two centuries ago, we could explain everything about everything, out of pure reason, and now most of that elaborate and harmonious structure has come apart before our eyes. We are dumb..... We have discovered how to ask important questions, and now we really do need, as an urgent matter, some answers. We now know that we cannot do this any longer by searching our minds, for there is not enough there to search, nor can we find the truth by guessing at it or by making up stories for ourselves. We cannot stop where we are, stuck with today's level of understanding, nor can we go back. I do not see that we have any real choice in this, for I can see only the one way ahead. We need science, more and better science, not for its technology, not for leisure, not even for health and longevity, but for the hope of wisdom which our kind of culture must acquire for its survival.

The Medusa and the Snail(7)

The Stephen Jay Gould Niche

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life's continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.

Natural History, 1984

End Notes

1. Evolutionary biology encompasses perhaps 3,500 workers. The largest neuroscience society has about 25,000 and that doesn't include many people who identify themselves primarily with psychology or neurology-neurosurgery.

2. William H. Calvin, "The great climate flip-flop," The Atlantic Monthly 281(1):47-64 (January 1998). See also

3. Kathryn Morton, "The Story-Telling Animal," New York Times Book Review, pp.1-2 (23 December 1984).

4. William H. Calvin, The River that Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain (Macmillan 1986).

5. Melvin Konner, in On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays, edited by Richard Reynolds and John Stone (Simon & Schuster, 1991).

6. Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, p.202 (1978).

7. Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail (Viking, 1979), p.175. || Home Page || Calvin publication list || The Bookshelf || February 1999