Breakthroughs in the Popularization of Science: A Comparative Analysis of Popular Vs. Scholarly Psychology Books

Course Information

Categories: ,


Debra Lynne. Katz, Ph.D., M.S.W. 
Mapleton, OR, USA 

Introduction:  Many academic psychologists hold negative and stereotypical views about popular psychology books, even though there have been few formal, methodological investigations into these materials to understand their content, construction, purposes, or orientations, or their author’s credentials. (Campbell, 2017). 

This dissertation explored the subject of the popularization of psychology. It sought to determine whether the current delineations between scholarly and popular materials are as clear cut as those making such delineations seem to suggest, or if an alternative model of the relation between academic and popular psychology literature could be offered.  

Methods:  Research questions were addressed by means of analyzing a set of popular psychology books through a version of the qualitative case study methodology developed by Robert Yin. 

Initially, a spreadsheet was created containing titles and related data of all published books titles that focus on the psychological category of attention. Next, from this larger set (145 Titles), a sampling of books was selected for the purpose of performing a more careful analysis of their actual content. This included six academic based books and six popular books, of which the determination of each was made through the application of pre-established guidelines set forth by university libraries.  

While several characteristics of their books and authors were compared, three foci were central to this examination: 1. A handling of factual statements in relation to references, which involved examination of a minimum of six statements or passages per each book; 2. bibliotherapeutic value; 3. how much potential the book had for helping its readers in the aspects for which it was intended to do so. To support investigations into these aspects, a thematic analysis of Amazon reviews and Google Scholar citations was also conducted. 

Results:  Investigations into the literature and background of writers critical of popular psychology materials found these criticisms to be more related to a clash of philosophical frameworks largely go unrecognized as such. The present author discovered that some of the most vocal opponents are members of skeptical societies who are also influential within the APA. Critiques were not based on hard evidence, but rather on challenges towards concepts connected with psychoanalysis, parapsychology, and those related to humanistic and transpersonal movements and topics. Another group of critics include those espousing religious values and moral values, some of which were critical not only of popular psychology but against the entire field of psychology.  

A systematic review of the books themselves found that some books were easier to distinguish and categorize than others. The most obvious indicator that set the books apart were not based on the book’s traits but rather on whether the publisher was an academic one affiliated with a university. Some titles of books such as those that had terms associated with behavior, cognitive science or neuroscience were easiest to separate than titles that had terms related to “how to” or empowerment.  

It was found that scholarly books did back up statements more frequently and consistently with references to original sources than popular sources. Scholarly sources tended to be more reflective of the language and intentionality of the original authors. Popular sources more frequently seemed to reflect statements made by less formal, popularizing sources over the language used in the original research articles. Still, for both categories there was a wide range of number of sources, types of sources, and how well they were integrated into discussions.  

A review of credentials of 145 authors within the Master Spreadsheet and of the 12 authors of books chosen for closer evaluation demonstrate that most authors had at least the equivalent of a master’s degree, while many held a PhD or equivalent even within the popular category. Those who were not academics were often professionals within their domain of expertise or held dual credentials in multiple professional or academic disciplines.  

Differences between popular and academic books were not simply related to a difference in quality or presentation of information but were found to be reflective of dueling epistemological and ontological approaches to knowledge, such as those reflected within the natural sciences vs. human sciences frameworks.  

Several books seemed to hold bibliotherapeutic value. However, no evidence was found to suggest that information being shared should be called “naïve” or homespun, or of the folk categories. While some other’s shared personal experiences about significant events in their lives, information provided was based largely on professional experience gained through client interactions, professional associations and training pursuits, interviews, extensive reading of books and other materials (even if not all referenced properly), and through attending conferences.  

Discussion:  Separating books into two distinct categories turned out to be not only a challenging and subjective task, but for about a dozen titles, this was an impossible chore, leading to the conclusion that the dichotomy between scholarly and popular books should be seen as existing on a continuum, rather than fitting into only one or another. It was also determined that the idea of hierarchy of sources (with the peer-reviewed journal article on top) needs to be reconsidered, given there were instances where important, relevant information was appropriately shared of a historical nature, or for biographical purposes, that wouldn’t have ever been appropriate for publication in a journal. Therefore, the criteria should be changed to whether the author referenced the most logical, original source instead, even if this source is a newspaper clipping or a speech or personal conversation.  

It was found that not all books should be held to a single, universal set of standards, but rather each author’s stated and/or implied purpose should be used as a guide to determine whether their own objectives were achieved.  

It is notable that all Popular books were weakest in their coverage of topics related to cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as were a couple scholarly books of a philosophical orientation. It is recommended that authors wishing to include chapters on neuroscience reference original sources and do a more artful job of discussing such topics, or they would be wise to forego discussions of these highly technical topics all together. To a lesser extent, scholarly books did sometimes lack proper referencing, had outdated website links, and none of them were on par with the popular books in terms of the technological functionality of their e-book versions. The number of collective reviews the six scholarly books received (14 total) on Amazon was remarkably low compared to those in the popular category (3740). This may be partially due to their expense – scholarly books were much more expensive than popular books, with one e-book costing as much as $186.00 (but it did contain over 4000 references).  

Further a search of Google scholar found that books in the popular category were cited almost as frequently as scholarly books, indicating the work of professional practitioners, and historians and marketing professionals does make its way into scholarly arenas. This further supports the new view of popularization. 

This project’s findings have implications for educators, researchers, librarians, and journal editors, across all scientific disciplines, who may presently disqualify useful materials without fully understanding them, and for writers who could improve in their research and writing skills.  

Course Instructor

Debra Lynne Katz
Debra Lynne Katz Author

Debra Lynne Katz, Ph.D., M.S.W. is a professional member of the PA, a member the SSE & the Rhine, and President of the International Remote Viewing Association. She is also founder and co-director of the IRVA research unit, the author of several popular books and journal articles, director of the International School of Clairvoyance, and a professional remote viewer, clairvoyant, medium and instructor. She resides in Mapleton, Oregon.


  1. Thank you, your insights are very helpful, and I appreciate the work you’ve done to clarify so many questions that have come up for my colleagues and me.

  2. Now that the conference is over I am catching up on the poster sessions and your was the first I checked out.

    First, this is right in line with my own research into skepticism. My book was: PSI WARS: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet where I examined the culture of organized skepticism, so I totally related to your thesis.

    I had not realized that the organized skeptics were influencing the field of psychology so much, but it makes sense. They attack absolutely everything holistic and are probably responsible for taking psychology in such a dead end materialistic direction.

    I have volunteered to be part of the PA public relations program and understanding just how far this materialistic atheism is reaching is valuable to me.

Course Information

Categories: ,