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How the mind worked: some obstacles and developments in the popularisation of psychology

Department of Economic History, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Bf Psychology


Chronicling the history of science and health popularisation in the United States, John C. Burnham sees a decline from the Victorian “men of science” to a situation in the mid-1980s where what passed as the popularisation of science consisted of little more than a litany of unrelated facts. Burnham’s contention is that these “scientific facts” will not travel as such (that is, as scientific facts) unless they are firmly embedded within a coherent scientific framework. It is this framework – a theory capable of organising the data – that he perceives to be lacking from the modern popularisation. Whilst this may have been the case at the time Burnham was writing (the mid-1980s), it is a position that is increasingly untenable today. Looking here at the popularisation of psychology, this paper demonstrates how those unifying theories have since returned. Through a close reading of Steven Pinker’s 1997 How The Mind Works (in comparison with Cyril Burt’s 1933 book of the same title), this paper illustrates the ways in which facts and theories are interpolated by the modern populariser in precisely the manner that Burnham feared had been abandoned forever.

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