The Island of Doubt

Don’t be such a scientist: A review

Don’t be SUCH a scientist
by Randy Olson
195 pages, Island Press

In my review last year of Randy Olson’s 2008 film, Sizzle, I wrote that I wanted to like it. I’m exactly the kind of viewer who will eat up anything a marine biologist has to say about communicating science and climate change. But I didn’t. Though it was billed as a comedic mockumentary, I found the laughs too few and the central message a tad condescending.

When I found Olson’s latest effort to tackle the challenge of communicating science, this time in the medium of short book, I still wanted to like it. This time, I did. Which came as a surprise, as Olson is a trained filmmaker with almost no track record in the print world beyond a brief stint at ScienceBlogs.

Olson’s thesis in Don’t be SUCH a scientist remains the same: scientists have got to loosen up and learn how to tell stories, if they want to have any real impact on society. If that sounds familiar, it should; fellow ex-ScienceBloggers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum make the same case in their recently released book, Unscientic America, and there’s a lot of common ground. Both are fast and easy reads. Both take aim at academics who dismiss the value of communications style, and both use Carl Sagan as a prime example of a brilliant communicator who was torpedoed by jealous colleagues precisely because he was so popular.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum ran into trouble, directly criticizing PZ Myers (still of ScienceBlogs) and Richard Dawkins (never a member, sadly), among others with no patience for anyone who doesn’t consider religion a silly thing. They argued that you don’t win any converts by being rude.

Olson strays dangerously close to the same territory, but manages to avoid the rabbit hole. First, he doesn’t name names, although he does make it clear how uncomfortable he is with foul-language-spewing members of ScienceBlogs. Second, he wastes no time worrying about superstition or other abstract concepts. Instead he fills his book with painfully real anecdotes from his own career — most describe a constantly humbled fumbler on the way to enlightenment that you can’t help but come to like.

Which is precisely the point. Scientists, says Olson, need to be likable. Citing studies that show most people form their impressions of others in the first few seconds of exposure regardless of matters of substance, he emphasizes the need to leave scientific process, with all its skepticism and cold, hard logic, in the lab. When you go public, you need to be all warm and fuzzy.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in Olson’s argument. But many of the preceding efforts to teach scientists how to be good communicators miss the mark by embracing the very pitfalls their authors want us to avoid. Sure, it’s important not to let a journalist trap you into saying something incendiary. But like most veteran journalists, the moment I sense that a source isn’t really interested in answering my questions, I know we’re both wasting our time. Olson is the first critic of science communication theory or practice I’ve read that gets it.

“In the one form of science communications training, you are told to arm yourself with a stack of sounds bites, metaphors, analogies, and message points. Then, regardless of what the interviewer is asking, you are to push your own agenda and get your message out.

This orientation leaves the scientist thinking, “Me, me, me —;;;;I need to make myself look good.” Which seems logical. But consider this—;;;;what if there is actually something unique to be gained by taking the opposite approach—;;;;by thinking, “Him, him, him—;;;;I need to make the interviewer look good?” Yes, it’s counterintuitive. And so are a lot of things when it comes to communication, since it’s not entirely rational. Sometimes you need to be a little less direct and literal-minded.”

Exactly. It seems Olson has at last freed himself from the straitjacket of “framing” that seemed to lurk behind the scenes in Sizzle in favor of just being human. It’s a welcome and refreshing approach that anyone interested in taking science to a wider audience should embrace.

Don’t be SUCH a scientist isn’t a perfect book. I found Olson’s voice to be a bit on the hackneyed side at times. Ending section after section with ellipses is distracting and Olson has a penchant for repeating apocryphal stories from the annals of science. I also found his frustration with the criticism leveled at Sizzle by many of my fellow ScienceBloggers to self-serving and suggestive of a thin skin (Sorry, Randy —;;;; when someone doesn’t get it, it might not be their fault.)

But that’s just quibbling. Just as a scientist dressed as a clown can still win over a room full of peers if he or she has the science right (one of Olson’s examples), so Olson’s thesis will survive a sometimes awkward delivery, so long as the audience is truly interested in being a better communicator of science. That might seem to undermine the whole premise of the book, but not if you remember that another of Olson’s axioms is the notion that scientistists are very different from non-scientists. And this book, unlike Unscientific America and other similar recent works, is meant for consumption by scientists.

Not every scientist can be an expert communicator any more than a film star can be expected to formulate scientific hypotheses — a reality that doesn’t get enough attention from Olson. But for those that are willing to make the effort, Don’t be SUCH a scientist should prove invaluable.

I finished the book recognizing the flaws in my own approach and promising myself to avoid the mistakes Olson describes so vividly. And that’s about the highest compliment I can give such a book.

Comments

  1. #1 Phyllograptus
    September 22, 2009

    There is an excellent interview of Dr. Richard Alley of Penn State in their “Conversations With” series. The guy is such an absolute and total geeky scientist, but the enthusiasm and joy in his subject matter shine across and you just can’t help yourself, you have to love him.
    He uses all sorts of methods to bring his love of science across and is supposedly one of the more popular instructors at Penn State.

    In addition his measured and reasoned approach and balanced opinions on the realities of the Climate Change debate and how we can deal with it are refreshing.

    The video is a little long at 57 minutes but worth the effort.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfAswUeljQ0&feature=PlayList&p=7FF103A53C2ACF4C&index=7