Christie Aschwanden in Undark:
Standing in a powerful pose increases your testosterone levels. Ten thousand hours of practice leads to mastery and high achievement. Eating out of large bowls encourages overeating. These are just a few examples of big ideas that have formed the basis of popular science books, only to be overturned by further research or a closer reading of the evidence.
“Pop psychology is sort of built on this idea of the one true thing,” says Amanda Cook, executive editor at Crown who has worked on many science books. “Good scientists treat the truth as provisional. They know that science is dynamic and the scientific method is going to lead them to new truths or a refinement of truth, but readers want the one true thing, and in pop psych that means the one true thing that will change their lives.”
It’s a tension that Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki attempts to address in his recent book, “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.” The book is written in the breezy, accessible style typical of pop science bestsellers, but Zaki concludes it with a twist: an appendix that rates the robustness of the claims he makes. The numerical rating system is his attempt to acknowledge that some ideas have more evidence to back them than others, and that some of them might turn out to be wrong. Zaki hopes his system might provide a model for other authors who want to avoid trading in hype.