The Sobel Effect: The problem with making science popular
By Tamara Moffat

History of science books seem to be proliferating within the science sections of major bookshops and libraries. The popularity of this genre of writing has been attributed to the phenomena of “The Sobel Effect”, a term coined by UNSW’s own David Miller. The effect is named after successful author Dava Sobel, whose works include Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter and The Planets.

The Sobel Effect refers to books presenting an underdog approach to the history of science. These books often tell of an epic adventure of a character’s lone struggle and eventual triumph over an evil scientific bureaucracy. The concept sounds engaging, but are scientists responding well to these incredibly popular books? After all, aren’t they promoting science to a wider audience? Educating the masses? Recruiting new students?

It is not so much the scientists themselves as the science historians who object to this sort of writing. They are left wondering: why it is that they have spent their entire career in science and can barely sell one thousand copies of their book, while Sobel and company (who are mainly journalists and authors) can make the best seller list? Jealousy?

The Sobel Effect has meant that academics are now being pressured by publishers to write in the style of these popular books. They are being asked to  “dumb down” the content and provide a good versus evil caricature of history. Publishers are even intent on using long subtitles, characteristic of Sobel’s writing style. The full title of her debut novel is Longitude: The true story of a lone genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. When David Miller, a lecturer in the history of science, offered his critique of the writing style, he used an equally wordy title: “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The amazing tale of how multitudes of popular writers pinched the best stories in the history of science and became rich and famous while historians languished in accustomed poverty and obscurity, and how this transformed the world. A reflection on a publishing phenomenon (Metascience, July, 2002)”

The real problem that some science historians have with the Sobel Effect is the simplified way that such stories portray the history and progress of science. The Sobel style of storytelling has been referred to as an account of a ‘horse race’ where scientists compete to be the first to discover the Truth or the Answer. In this lies the problem, as it is felt among the scientific community that science cannot arrive at definite and flawless description of reality. The stories portray a romantic and idealised image of science and those who work within it. The processes of science are distorted and simplified for dramatic effect, and important problems are often glossed over.

These books have made heroes out of scientific characters, which may not be such a bad thing in a society where sports players and heiresses are the bigger idols. Some could argue that The Sobel Effect is even doing science a favour in getting people interested in the history of science. And giving the academics something to criticise!

For more information on the Sobel Effect, visit the Journal of Science Communication here

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