'Just Babies': In Praise of Popular Non-Fiction

"The one year old decided to take justice into his own hands." Thus opens Paul Bloom's Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, an exceedingly enjoyable distillation of the findings of decades of "baby studies"--research into the behavior of infants, toddlers, and young children.

The book combines these baby studies with old and new psychological research to provide insight into the origins of human morality. The opening story recounts one of these "baby studies"; during an experiment designed to evaluate infants' moral inclinations, a baby not only indicated disapproval of a puppet that refused to share with another puppet, but actually smacked the naughty puppet on the head. Bloom acknowledges that some readers may reject the very concept that babies and young children have any inherent moral leanings, but he then proceeds to show how ingenious experiments play havoc with these "blank slate" assumptions.

The style of Just Babies is everything popular non-fiction should be: concise, clear, punchy, direct, insightful--the kind of writing that sings when read aloud. It is also filled with warmth, humor, and genuine wisdom. The only thing I might change about the book is its title. A casual pursuer could misinterpret the phrase "just babies" as meaning "only about babies," when Bloom's actual message is that babies have an inherent (if incomplete) sense of what is just.

I enjoyed Bloom's book so much that it has inspired me to write a broader defense of the entire genre of popular non-fiction. I developed a taste for good popular non-fiction after binge reading vast quantities of it while preparing to write my own first book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate (which was officially released in paperback last week, hint, hint). While a successful non-fiction book can launch an author into a stellar career, the genre of popular non-fiction suffers from something of an image problem in some circles, particularly those of academia, science, and law. Yet today's popular non-fiction is far from a mere guilty pleasure; it's an arena in which some of the most interesting, important, and productive social discussions are taking place.

First, let's clarify some terms. By "popular non-fiction," I mean non-fiction that is intentionally written for a mass audience. It does not have to be a bestseller, or even especially commercially successful. Rather, the designation indicates the book's style and intended audience. Popular non-fiction exists in contrast to more academic, technical, or niche-specific publications. Some criticism of this genre is legitimate, such as the assertion that it "dumbs down" certain topics, leaving out key nuances that cannot be easily expressed to a mass audience. But simple, old-fashioned snobbery lurks behind much of the antipathy: in the words of my alt-rock-loving compatriots of the late 80s, "If it's popular, it can't be good."

This sweeping generalization, of course, depends on what you mean by "good." Good as compared to what? Any writing, however serious, can suffer from crippling defects. It is true that Jonah Lehrer damaged the reputation of popular non-fiction by fabricating material for his book Imagine, but one of the reasons his misdeed was so quickly exposed is the sheer number of people scrutinizing the work, including reporter Michael Moynihan. Meanwhile, more prestigious publications may actually be better able to keep massive fraud from public view: case in point, we recently learned that "reputable" science publishers had to withdraw more than 120 papers when it became clear that they were computer-generated gibberish.

The democratic benefit of whisking knowledge out of its ivory-tower hiding holes and bringing it to the public is fairly obvious. What is less obvious is how beneficial translating one's work for mass consumption can be for an author. It is easy for scholarly writers to get wrapped up in discourse with groups so small and specialized that they never encounter the fresh, thought-provoking questions that a non-specialist might ask. Exposure to a mass audience quickly reveals whether or not your work stands up to plain common sense among people who do not take for granted your bubble of assumptions. (And the strikingly beneficial role of the insight of the non-specialist is very effectively made in Erik Brynjolfsson's and Andrew McAfee's recent The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, which is, itself, an example of popular non-fiction at its finest.)

A lesson I learned well in law school was that if you cannot explain your position relatively simply and clearly you probably do not understand it well enough. In the process of trying to make a complex idea intelligible, you learn a lot about your own thinking and the assumptions that undergird it.

As Bloom's book demonstrates, popular non-fiction does not shy away from serious or profound topics even as it tries to scale the bestseller list. In the past few years alone, some of the best popular non-fiction works have presented a powerful argument against the over-militarization of the police, a fascinating theory that the net energy of the universe is, in fact, zero, and a groundbreaking take on the universal pillars of human morality. Other fare in this genre can provide genuine insight into topics academics might ignore, including the nature and role of glamour, the importance of failing, and the ancient art of memorization. And, at its best, popular non-fiction can spark a broad, national, or even, global conversation.

One grand conversation that has dominated popular non-fiction for years now is the nature and role of human rationality, with authors like Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, and even David Brooks painting an intriguing picture of a species that can seem almost hopelessly irrational. The authors demonstrate ways in which our major decisions, moral leanings, and politics rely on sub-rational impulses and inclinations. To use a famous metaphor of Haidt's, we are like an elephant and its rider. We prefer to believe that the rider--the rational mind--is leading the way; most often, however, the elephant--our emotions and subconscious inclinations--is actually doing the driving, while the rational mind is merely serving as a PR flack who justifies the direction the elephant has taken.

Bloom leaps into this debate with gusto, stating that the marginalization of rationality in moral decision-making has gone too far. Bloom argues that:

Moral deliberation is ubiquitous, but psychologists typically overlook it. This is in part because everybody loves counterintuitive findings. Discovering that individuals have moral intuitions that they struggle to explain is exciting and can get published in a top journal. Discovering that individuals have moral intuitions that they can easily explain, such as the wrongness of drunk driving, is obvious, uninteresting, and unpublishable. It is fascinating to discover that individuals who are asked to assign a punishment to a criminal are influenced by factors that they are unaware of (like the presence of a flag in the room) or that they would consciously disavow (like the color of the criminal's skin). It is boring to find that individuals' proposed punishments are influenced by rational considerations such as the severity of the crime and the criminal's previous record. Interesting: We are more willing to help someone if there is the smell of fresh bread in the air. Boring: We are more willing to help someone if he or she has been kind to us in the past.

Here, Bloom provides not only a spirited defense of the role of reason in moral deliberation, but also a common-sense critique of an admitted weakness in popular non-fiction: that a hunger for novelty can obscure less exciting answers. But far from being a mark against the genre, the fact that this issue is being explored within popular non-fiction itself is, to me, a sign of the field's health.

The nature and origins of morality is just one of the many intriguing topics that are enlivening today's popular non-fiction and adding provocative new ideas and perspectives to our national discourse. It's a great discussion in a vibrant genre, and Just Babies is a great way to join the conversation.