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Textbooks are not mere non-fiction books. Whereas you can feel free to doubt what is presented in a typical non-fiction book (mine excluded), textbooks are a record of the true facts and principles in a field. Textbooks, you see, should not be questioned.

Or, at least, textbooks have a knack at giving us that impression. Textbooks are, well, so heavy and substantial – they just feel true. Their typography furthers this perceptual effect; how could something in such a serious font not be true? (For example, LaTeX excels at perceptually amplifying the truth of theorems.) And not only is the font serious, but the authors tend to take their subject seriously, with nary a potty joke for 500 pages!

In addition to the “serious” perceptual qualities of textbooks, we encounter textbooks at an impressionable age when we’re likely to believe that everything has already been discovered and worked out. And this conclusion is not entirely without reason, because there are fields with textbooks that are mostly or entirely filled with truths. The mathematical and engineering disciplines are mostly of this sort, as are science fundamentals such as physics and engineering.

The very concept, “textbook”, thereby gets imbued with truthiness. And although that’s fine in weighty, well-deserving fields like math and physics just mentioned, it becomes a problem in the fields within the psychological and brain sciences. And the problem is simply this: there are few agreed-upon truths in the psychological and brain sciences.

Said even more simply: we very often have no idea what we’re talking about. The problem is not so much us – i.e., us brain scientists – but that the brain is the most complicated object in the known universe.

And I don’t mean to suggest that the brain sciences haven’t made great leaps. Great progress has, indeed, been made. Often the most ingenious experiments ever carried out are within this discipline, providing data that most scientists in the field would believe are sound. Where disagreement will usually be found – or ought to be found – is on how to interpret the data. Scientists may agree on the data, but disagree profoundly on what it means.

That’s what makes being a scientist in the brain sciences fun. Unlike many fields where much of the furniture is nailed firmly to the floor, in the cognitive and brain sciences one can move the couch to the other side of the room, or maybe even turn it upside-down!

But that’s why textbooks are a problem. Truthy textbooks just don’t fit a discipline with so few truths floating around. And even when brain science textbook authors are careful to say all that we don’t know, the textbook aura tends to overwhelm their words.

Textbookiness means truthiness to most students, and that, I now realize, is one of the principal reasons I have found myself dissatisfied with the textbook options for my brain, behavior and evolution course I have taught for the last several years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I have been teaching from my own notes, with an attempt to communicate to the students how “open” the field is to new ideas. I would be grateful, though, for a companion book for the students, one light on textbookiness.

And this year I finally found the non-truthy book for me: Mind Hacks: Tips&Tricks for Using Your Brain, by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb (O’Reilly, 2005). Rather than taking the traditional textbook approach, Mind Hacks is organized into “hacks,” most of these hacks allowing the reader to do little experiments illuminating some aspect of their brain.
These are great.

But what I like most of all is that the book doesn’t take itself too seriously, a tone that helps communicate that the behavioral and brain sciences is not a stack of known facts and principles, but, rather, a messy array of confusion, and that the student should feel free to “push back” at what they are told.

You may have noticed that I, too, take this approach in my writing. My books and my pieces show, I hope, a level of non-seriousness that is appropriate for the field. We don’t know what we’re talking about most of the time, and although we’re making progress, my attitude hopefully communicates that we scientists are struggling with the most complex object in the universe.

This first appeared on March 18, 2010, as a feature at ScientificBlogging.com.

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Mark Changizi is a professor of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella Books).

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