Laelaps

Don't Be Such A Scientist

In the middle of the summer of 2008 the ScienceBlogs cat herders relayed some exciting news to my blogging colleagues and I. Randy Olson, creator of the documentary Flock of Dodos, had created a new movie called Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy and wanted to send us all screener copies for a coordinated review “party”. It sounded like a fun opportunity at the time, but little did I know what a headache the movie release would become.

Even though I enjoyed Flock of Dodos, there was one aspect of it that didn’t sit right with me. Part of Randy’s thesis was that scientists fail at helping the public to understand evolution because they are “meanies” while creationists are sugar, spice, and everything nice. Randy supported this by comparing a private poker game of evolutionary scientists to one-on-one interviews with creationists in rustic settings. Even though the poker game was not a public event it was still used to represent how socially inept and out-of-touch scientists are whereas creationists are “nice” when in public and therefore always win. In this way Randy played up the stereotypical image of scientists, and this would remain a running theme in his work.

As I remarked in my review of Randy’s second major film, Sizzle, the promotional tagline “A movie you’ll feel passionate about (even if you don’t know why)” was particularly apt. By the time I finished it I knew I didn’t like it, but I did not know what it was meant to be. The “comedy” wasn’t funny and the “documentary” part lacked coherence, yet despite these criticisms (which had nothing to do with the scientific accuracy of the film) I was branded as being “too much of a scientist” to appreciate the film. Obviously Randy was frustrated by the negative reactions his film received, and his new book Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist seems to be his catharsis in the wake of the failure of Sizzle.

In the book’s introduction Randy tells us about two other books he wanted to write but never completed. The first, an unpublished memoir called “Coral Reefs and Cold Beers” was about his life as a marine biologist, while the second unwritten volume was meant to be a study of how scientists are portrayed in popular culture (which Randy says has already been covered by this year’s Unscientific America). Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist is something of a mix between the two. It uses Randy’s experiences in Hollywood (and a few in academia) to explain how scientists are failing to connect with the public the same way reality tv or pop singles do.

The slim 174-page pamphlet is organized into five sections; “Don’t Be So Cerebral”, “Don’t Be So Literal Minded”, “Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller”, “Don’t Be So Unlikeable”, and “Be the Voice of Science!” Much like Sizzle, though, Randy’s narrative is a bit scattered, and at times it was difficult to determine where he was going with his stories. Rather than supporting the story he wanted to tell, the overload of name-dropping and anecdotes from tinseltown sometimes came off as smarmy.

That said, there are some good ideas buried here and there, like bits of good fruit in an otherwise unappealing Jell-O mold. (Not that I find fruit-filled gelatin particularly appealing; the imagery just fits my rhetorical needs best.) In communicating to the public scientists must be aware of how to “hook” their audience early on and then fulfill that desire to know which they have just created. Don’t assume that everyone is just as interested in the scientific topic as you are. You must work to generate that interest and then fulfill it.

Nor is interacting with the media all about soundbites. As Randy points out, training yourself to be a soundbite machine will only make you come across as stiff and you will eventually trip yourself up. Preparation for talks and interviews is important, but what is more vital is to have the confidence in your material to improvise if need be. If you simply lecture at people you will be very easy to tune out, even if what you have to say looks good on paper.

I saw this firsthand during my visit to Yellowstone at the fireside lectures. The best rangers were those who were knew their topic well and were good storytellers. The worst was a new ranger who relied heavily on pre-written notes that he read aloud to the audience. Despite his prep work he was the only one who obviously got tripped up and flustered when his slides got out of sync with the material. The audience was visibly uninspired by his dull delivery.

As with Sizzle, there is some good advice in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist, even if Randy needs to work on how that material is presented. (Despite its aims, it does not seem to be a book written for an audience of scientists.) Obviously many scientists might be turned off by the title or Randy’s insistence on stereotyping scientists (more on this in a minute), but I would encourage anyone interested in science communication to at least give it a look. It can easily be read in an afternoon and even if you vehemently disagree with Randy on some points there are still some useful practical suggestions in the book, something that similar books have thus far failed to provide.

What most frustrated me about Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist, though, was that Randy uses it as a public forum to lick his wounds and brand sciencebloggers as humorless eggheads. In Randy’s hit-and-run jabs at science bloggers it is clear that he believes that we are all minions of PZ Myers, and this is made all the worse by the fact that he refrains from actually getting into specifics. Science blogging is still a relatively new thing and is certainly not beyond criticism, but Randy’s criticisms hold no weight as they appear to stem entirely from the fact that a number of us did not like his last movie.

(Nor does Randy mention that he was once a member of the ScienceBlogs community. Not only does Randy make the mistake of identifying ScienceBlogs.com as the whole of science blogging, but in his attacks against us he never mentions that he helped found the now-defunct Shifting Baselines blog. I guess, in the wake of Sizzle, Randy doesn’t have anything nice to say about us anymore.)

Randy’s frustration over the failure of Sizzle is especially apparent in Appendix 1, “The Sizzle Frazzle.” After pointing out the social ineptness of us mean ol’ bloggers, Randy concludes;

In the end, while most of the negative reviewers complained most loudly about the absence of information in the movie, I think there was also an unspoken second source of irritation – the presence of humor and emotion. Think back to what I had to say about the robotic nature of technical science communication. In the end, Sizzle was a traditional scientist’s worst nightmare – a big dose of messy humanity. And thus the response was as predictable as clockwork.

I honestly don’t know where Randy is pulling this from. (I have an idea, but in the interest of decency I’ll refrain from airing my hypothesis.) The reviews he is referring to are entirely unlike the ones I saw.

Take my review, for instance. My main criticisms had nothing to do with scientific accuracy. Instead I remarked that the film was a muddle with no clear storyline and that it just wasn’t funny. I understood that Sizzle was not meant to be another An Inconvenient Truth or all about scientific data. Yet in his new book Randy says that, as a scientifically-minded person, I MUST have been obsessing over the data and panned the film because I’m an egghead.

Randy’s assertions do not hold up to scrutiny. Have a look at some of the reviews from my ScienceBlogs peers. Josh Rosenau made similar criticisms about the film as I did, as did Kevin Zelnio, PZ, Tara Smith, Mark Chu-Carroll, GrrlScientist, Razib, Martin Rundkvist, Maria Brumm, ERV, Nick Anthis, James Hrynyshyn, and Janet Stemwedel (who, like me, viewed Sizzle multiple times). Each reviewer had slightly different reasons for disliking the film, among which some mentioned a lack of solid scientific information, but I think Janet summed up the general feeling of the reviewers best when she wrote, “As a movie-goer, I can handle complexity, but I expect something like coherence.” Sizzle failed to deliver in this respect and left most of us confused.

But Randy could not accept this. It did not fit in with his thesis. Why would scientists care about narrative, humor, coherence, and the misguided use of racial stereotypes in Sizzle? No, it really must have been the absence of data that annoyed us so. Yeeeeah, that’s the ticket. It did not matter what we actually said. To Randy, the fact that we were scientists alone was enough to explain why we “just didn’t get” his story.

Randy can’t understand why the test-screening groups liked the movie and science bloggers did not, but it appears that the general public did not like Sizzle much either. It has been over a year since the film was released and, other than the occasional showing at a science film festival, it has sunk into obscurity. It did not gain wide release and there is no DVD. I am sorry, Randy, but Sizzle fizzled, and the reason for that had nothing to do with a lack of data.

Now you might think it unfair to spend so much time on Randy’s last project when this is a review his new book. I beg to differ. Sizzle contained many ideas that resurface in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist and Randy himself holds up the movie as an example how scientists “just don’t get it” when it comes to the public. Perhaps it will only prove Randy’s point, but I am concerned with his inaccurate depictions of science blogging and the reactions of scientists to his beloved film. This is not about nitpicking data but plain honesty, and apparently Randy was so hurt by the response of writers like myself to his film that he had to find someone to blame.

That “someone” is the stereotypical scientist. It would seem to Randy that we are all the same; a robotic, humorless lot who only speak to each other in arcane languages and never, EVER have any fun. Perhaps that is what Randy must do to shield himself from criticism, but I do not think that it is honest or fair.

Obviously I was quite hurt by Randy’s book. He had sent science bloggers (like me) his work, asked for our honest opinion of it, and when we gave it the response was basically “Well, you’re all just a bunch of nerds.” I really don’t see how Randy, or any other science communication pundit, is going to help scientists improve their public communication skills if they refuse to actually listen to what we have to say.

Overall, there are a few good pieces of advice in Don’t Be SUCH A Scientist. I think scientists who want to improve their communication skills could benefit from thinking about some of the points Randy raises. Other than that, though, the new book is more of a memoir and often gets bogged down in Hollywood anecdotes. If you can bear being antagonized a bit, it might be worth skimming through, but otherwise there is not very much information of practical use for a scientist who want to improve their interactions with the public.

Comments

  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    October 8, 2009

    I know I’ve mentioned this somewhere before on some similar occasion, but I might as well repeat it now:

    I’ve met lots of science people who as youngsters found themselves inspired by Sagan’s Cosmos or Burke’s Connections or Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. These shows had plenty of facts — I mean, they’re documentaries, after all — but they didn’t dish those facts up as tables of numbers. They don’t play like presentations at a scientific conference. And they certainly don’t lack humour and emotion!

  2. #2 stripey_cat
    October 8, 2009

    The Sizzle comments sound a bit like the way, when the Lord of the Rings films came out, any criticism of them was assumed to be because you objected to changes from the books. In my case at least, I didn’t like them because I found them boring as films! In any case, it sounds like a classic bit of rhetoric to dismiss the (straw-man) opinions of your critics so you don’t have to address them.

  3. #3 ~L.K.
    October 8, 2009

    The blogs I read daily are all science blogs, and I have yet to find dry and boring material that would put me to sleep. I usually send links to other people quite regularly–most who are NOT science-minded people, who find the posts interesting.

  4. #4 LB
    October 9, 2009

    “I really don’t see how Randy, or any other science communication pundit, is going to help scientists improve their public communication skills if they refuse to actually listen to what we have to say.”

    I really don’t see how your communication skills are going to improve if you continue to think that they do not need any improvement.

    I have an advanced degree in science communication and have worked extensively in public engagement in biotech and now physics. I can tell you that this post is losing me. I think your audience is more hard-core than you realize, and if you want to appear to a wider group of readers, you need to re-think your communications techniques.

  5. #5 Laelaps
    October 9, 2009

    Well, LB, I would expect someone who was going to flaunt an “advanced degree in science communication” to actually read the post before commenting on it. It is obvious that you did not. I clearly said that the book has some nuggets of value in it but that Randy, and other communicators like him, are going out of their way to antagonize their audience (i.e. scientists). I don’t think that’s very wise.

    Look at the rest of the quote that you split in half. I said;

    “Obviously I was quite hurt by Randy’s book. He had sent science bloggers (like me) his work, asked for our honest opinion of it, and when we gave it the response was basically ‘Well, you’re all just a bunch of nerds.'”

    The quote you mined had to do with Randy’s film. He sent it to us, asked our opinion, and then said that our views were worthless because we were scientists. Such a reaction makes no sense, and added to your own practically worthless comment (all you did was assert your own superiority) it seems like a condescending attitude is a required trait for anyone who is going to claim themselves an “expert” in science communication.

  6. #6 Naraoia
    October 9, 2009

    It would seem to Randy that we are all the same; a robotic, humorless lot who only speak to each other in arcane languages and never, EVER have any fun.”

    Like speaking in arcane languages and having fun are mutually exclusive :P

    I really wonder what in his academic experience makes him portray scientists like that. Without reading the book or watching either of the movies you mention, it just sounds like personal bitterness, especially in the light of what you said about Sizzle.

    Alternatively, my sample of scientist acquaintances might be obscenely biased towards perfectly normal people with well-developed senses of humour.

  7. #7 Terrorbad
    October 9, 2009

    The quote you mined had to do with Randy’s film. He sent it to us, asked our opinion, and then said that our views were worthless because we were scientists.

    Last time I checked, very few of the ScienceBlogs crowd are actual working scientists. I thought you yourself were a blogger with a bachelors in biology, Brian, not a scientist.

    Beyond that, this community is incestuous. It’s encouraged by the admins I’m sure to find consistency and fill their front page with coherent, topic-based navigation for traffic generation. There are tremendous redundancies in posting between bloggers. The same issues covered from the same perspective. You read Laden? He’ll pretty much repeat what Myers said or the other way around. You’ve seen Naish’s take, don’t need to read Switek’s. Actually, just pick up the original paper if you can. A lot of the posts on this site are just rewrites under the guise of interpretation. It’s all an inflated justification of your existence and persistence.

    Across the board bloggers are stuck in their own sphere, but continue preaching the potential of the medium to reach the masses. The truth is you’re all preaching to the choir. Evolution isn’t accepted or understood because ordinary people don’t care. You can wax poetic all you want about opening minds, but greater scientists and greater writers have tried in the past and could still only reach a minority. It’s important to realize that stupid people will believe stupid things and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to change their minds.

    Additionally, I don’t believe that you all were asked by Randy Olson the Friend to review the book, but by Randy Olson the author and publisher; you all give free publicity to publishers and filmmakers looking to drum up their search engine potential.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s a futile gesture and you should just give it all up – that’s not my business – but let’s not inflate your importance. At best you’re all science fanboys, at worst you’re devaluing the job market for actual journalists and whoring your URLs for big businesses like the Seed Media Group.

  8. #8 gg
    October 9, 2009

    Brian wrote:

    It would seem to Randy that we are all the same; a robotic, humorless lot who only speak to each other in arcane languages and never, EVER have any fun.

    That’s one of the pet peeves I’ve always had about the various folks who would tell scientists that they need to have a better sense of humor or better communication skills — they don’t seem to have met any actual scientists. In essence, they always seem to be pushing their own stereotypical, unrealistic, views of scientists.

    Blake: I’ve vowed never again to click on any video links you post, for fear that you’ll inflict another horror like Archimedes upon me… (Yes, it’s been a year, and I’m still traumatized.) :)

    Terrorbad wrote:

    Last time I checked, very few of the ScienceBlogs crowd are actual working scientists. I thought you yourself were a blogger with a bachelors in biology, Brian, not a scientist.

    Ah, a red flag of crackpottery: an obsession with credentials. After 18 years of working with and arguing with scientists, I have to say that I never saw a scientist stand up and shout, “I don’t have to listen to you!!! You don’t have a Ph.D.!!!”

    For the record, Brian has put more effort and thought into his blog research than many scientists have put into their own research. If you look around some of the comments on the blog, you’ll find that many, many “official” scientists hold his opinions in high regard. It’s no accident that he has was able to get a book contract writing about science.

    Beyond that, this community is incestuous. It’s encouraged by the admins I’m sure to find consistency and fill their front page with coherent, topic-based navigation for traffic generation.

    Another red flag — certainty based on pure speculation! Though you may be sure of your “facts”, that doesn’t make them true.

    The truth is you’re all preaching to the choir. Evolution isn’t accepted or understood because ordinary people don’t care. You can wax poetic all you want about opening minds, but greater scientists and greater writers have tried in the past and could still only reach a minority. It’s important to realize that stupid people will believe stupid things and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to change their minds.

    You must be a ray of sunshine in your daily life!

    Terrorbad, circa 1861: “It’s important to realize that Americans will always own slaves and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to change it.”

    Terrorbad, circa 1911: “It’s important to realize that women will never be allowed to vote and there isn’t a damn thing you can do to change it.”

    At best you’re all science fanboys, at worst you’re devaluing the job market for actual journalists and whoring your URLs for big businesses like the Seed Media Group.

    Me-eow! Someone sounds like an out of work journalist.

  9. #9 Daniel J. Andrews
    October 9, 2009

    [“At best you’re all science fanboys, at worst you’re devaluing the job market for actual journalists and whoring your URLs for big businesses like the Seed Media Group.”]

    Dr. Ben Goldacre points out that actual professional journalists have failed miserably in communicating the science to the public. Google his article, “Science Journalists? Don’t Make Me Laugh”. If “actual journalists” were doing their job properly, perhaps science blogging wouldn’t have taken off as much as it has?

    A few months back Dr. Goldacre and three others (non-doctors) held a discussion group on how traditional media has failed, in part because journalists were too lazy to check sources or take the time to ensure they got things right. An “actual journalist” showed up to complain that the four doctors on the panel were being unfair.

    Dr. Goldacre, probably taking great delight in his response, pointed out that there was only one doctor on the panel as was evident from the printed material, and that the journalist in question had gotten his times wrong and showed up at the wrong hour.

    Science bloggers have taken up the role that “actual journalists” forfeited a long time ago. The bloggers are far from fan boys, but they are a reliable source of information as they have the habit of linking back to original sources so you can check for yourself. Who is an “actual journalist”? One who gets paid for interpreting science and getting it badly wrong, or one who does it for free (or peanuts) but actually gets the story right?

    And while the science bloggers may, as you say, be preaching to the choir many in that choir are teachers, professors, communicators and we take the information we find on the blogs and work it into our respective classes or public talks, or even just chatting with coworkers and friends.

    Bloggers are educators and they reach other educators who can reach people who may not be reading through science blogs. E.g. Brian’s and Carl Zimmer’s posts on Ardi will be incorporated into my human evolution lecture in 3 weeks (along with the source links provided by Brian and Carl). I’ve already encouraged my students to check out many of the available science blogs, and if they like what they see, they will pass on the information to their friends.

    You judge the science bloggers based on the starting breeze and forget that the breeze may eventually become the storm.

    [“You can wax poetic all you want about opening minds, but greater scientists and greater writers have tried in the past and could still only reach a minority.”]

    Perhaps, although that’s debatable too (Sir David Attenborough comes to mind). For the most part though those greater scientists and greater writers didn’t have access to the mediums of communication we have now. Future greater scientists and greater writers will have access to these mediums of communication.

    And they may be more successful because of the groundwork laid down by current science bloggers. Not only will their successes show how things can be done, but their failures will also guide these future (and present) communicators.

    I think it is too easy to underestimate where science blogging will lead. This is just the start.

  10. #10 Terrorbad
    October 9, 2009

    @ gg: I never called into question Brian’s credentials and I didn’t criticize his work. He made a claim that was false; many of the crew here are not scientists, including himself.

    I’m not a crackpot, a failed journalist or a ray of sunshine. You slam me for speculation, defending someone you admire, someone worthy of defense, surely, but then proceed to speculate about me.

    Furthermore, I’m sure I don’t have to describe to you the distinction between the extremes of racism and sexism and the lack of acceptance of evolution in this country. Apples and oranges. It’s not a crime against humanity. It’s not oppressive or dangerous or as widespread as most science bloggers would have you believe. It’s business as usual, people letting their worldview dictate their every impression. We’re all guilty of that to an extent.

    @ Daniel: I should have clarified my statement a bit. I’m talking about blogging in general versus journalism in general. There are some excellent journalists out there and there are some terrible ones. Some have science backgrounds, some don’t. The point is, Brian and company are writing well for free, which puts professional writers – people that actually studied the craft – out of business. Not your problem? Perhaps. But its the bloggers’ problems as well. Few of them get any recognition and certainly won’t be paid what they should be (as you stated). Essentially, valid, useful jobs are being replaced with volunteer positions purposefully by media organizations like Seed.

    The “fanboy” statement was a poor attempt at humor. Like you said, Brian is writing to you, a professor. He’s writing to science enthusiasts. He’s preaching to the choir. It’s an effective means of getting information across to people that want the info – the internet is necessarily built this way – but it’s not reaching the people they all claim they want to “save” with the Blessings of Evolution. Additionally, science enthusiasts can drum up their outreach, but so can their opponents. So while the two sides battle it out, the people in the middle just shrug, go to work and live their lives with or without an interest in science by choice. I’m sure you have students that are fascinated by the information you teach them, and probably just as many that want to get the class over and done with so they can move on.

    I know quite a few writers in my industry (science tech editing) who started off as aspiring journalists. There just isn’t any work for them. Why? Because the public doesn’t care about science until it’s flu shot season or blowing up the moon. There’s no reason to report it because the majority of people aren’t into it and that means media corporations won’t make any money from it.

    Neither you nor I have the data to back up our assessments of science blogging and its influence to make any firm statements of fact. We can only relate what we’ve seen and experienced. It seems to me there’s a lot of noise from bloggers justifying their existence and very little proof that they are doing anything aside from rewriting published papers, speculating about the coming triumphs of science blogging, whining about the lack of scientific knowledge among the public and then blaming entertainers (boggle), and in some cases, deplorably, using evolution as a spearhead for evangelical atheism.

  11. #11 acı çehre
    October 10, 2009

    I have the data to back up our assessments of science blogging and its influence to make any firm statements of fact.

  12. #12 Laelaps
    October 10, 2009

    GG and Daniel; Thank you for the defense. I am humbled that you think so highly of my work here.

    Terror; You wrote

    “[Brian] made a claim that was false; many of the crew here are not scientists, including himself.”

    I think you are mistaken, or at least have not looked closely at the people who write here. Many are presently working as scientists and carrying out research, or at least have done so recently. (I am not going to make a full listing. The information is readily available in the biographical information on each blog.) This includes myself. You do not require an academic post or a degree to be a scientist. All that is required is to engage in the scientific process, something which I am doing here, in peer-reviewed papers (in press), a popular-audience book, and in private, as-yet-unpublished research. I might not be a great scientist, but I think the work I carry out every day is justification of the title.

    Furthermore, even if I do not count as a “true” scientist, I was still included within the “tribe of science” in Randy’s reaction to the film. According to Randy, “normal” people liked the film whereas scientists did not. By Randy’s criteria I fall in with the scientists, and I think he did a disservice to us by making us sound like data-obsessed geeks.

    I also do not believe that I am putting any journalists out of business. You claim that I (and other science bloggers) are preaching to the choir, yet that we are popular enough that we are running “real” journalists out of town. Which is it?

    It is true that many science sections in newspapers and other news outlets have been closed, but that is a sign of the rough time the journalism industry is having as a whole. When money is tight, science gets downsized, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. From the negative reactions of many professional journalists to blogging I would be very surprised if news corporation execs said “Well, the bloggers have got it covered and will do it for free, so let’s axe the science section.”

    If anything I think science bloggers are filling gaps left open by professional journalists during this lean time, and bloggers provide important supplementary information to anyone interested enough in a subject to run a Google search. Case in point, my average page visits on a given day are about 700, but since I posted about Ardipithecus ramidus that number has gone up to over 1,300 a day. Through sitemeter I can see that many of those extra visitors are coming from Google searches for Ardipithecus. I can only assume that those searches are being made by people who want to know more about the story but do not regularly follow science blogs.

    Maybe, on a day to day basis, the only people who are reading are those already interested in science, but there are times when science blogs can provide important information to a wider slice of the public. Another example would be my involvement in the “Ida” fracas this past May. I was the first person to write up a skeptical take of the fossil and this not only brought in more visitors (over 25,000) but influenced coverage in more traditional media outlets. The post was widely cited and I was interviewed on the BBC4 program “Material World” and wrote an op-ed for the London Times. I am not listing all this to puff myself up, but merely to point out the way in which science blogging and traditional modes of journalism can interact in the wake of a big story to bring important information to a wider swath of the public. I never know what posts might be popular (I didn’t think anyone would care about my take on “Ida”) so I do my best to write in such a way that a background in science is not required to understand my essays.

    I also reject your claim that this blog is redundant in terms of science coverage. Darren writes great review-style articles about groups of vertebrates whereas I write about the history of science and (occasionally) new discoveries. I am hard pressed to think of a time when we ever posted about the same thing at the same time. We both write about zoology and paleontology, but we do so in very different ways that I think are complimentary rather than competitive. A side-by-side comparison of our work (not hard if you just open a new window) shows little to no overlap.

    And I don’t really believe that the “fanboys” comment was meant as a joke, especially when it is followed by the assertion that I am “whoring” myself out to SEED. It was a direct insult, and if you were chuckling about it, you were the only one.

  13. #13 gg
    October 10, 2009

    Brian wrote:

    You do not require an academic post or a degree to be a scientist. All that is required is to engage in the scientific process, something which I am doing here, in peer-reviewed papers (in press), a popular-audience book, and in private, as-yet-unpublished research. I might not be a great scientist, but I think the work I carry out every day is justification of the title.

    Exactly. Albert Einstein was working in a patent office when he published his ‘miracle year’ papers — by TB’s argument, he apparently wasn’t a scientist. I guess the world would have been better off if academics had just ignored the impudent little gnat.

    TB wrote:

    I’m not a crackpot, a failed journalist or a ray of sunshine. You slam me for speculation, defending someone you admire, someone worthy of defense, surely, but then proceed to speculate about me.

    I wasn’t speculating about you — I was mocking you. Well, ok, I feel pretty comfortable about the ‘crackpot’ designation, considering you hit two of the red flags.

    Furthermore, I’m sure I don’t have to describe to you the distinction between the extremes of racism and sexism and the lack of acceptance of evolution in this country. Apples and oranges. It’s not a crime against humanity.

    Wow. How hard do you have to try to miss the point? You argued, in essence, that it is impossible to change society’s views on a topic. But society’s views have changed, on a numerous topics far more entrenched and emotional than perception of science, e.g. slavery, women’s rights, gay rights. I find the attitude that “nothing will ever change” offensive not only because of its utter uselessness and cynicism, but that it is demonstrably false. Hell, we only need to look to Europe to see that disbelief in evolution is not a universal trait of humanity.

    In the end, I’m not sure what your real beef is with scienceblogging. Any points you were trying to make were completely obscured by your hostile and complaining tone. There are certainly valid questions to be asked about the role of blogging in science communication, but visiting sites and insulting their hosts is really not the way to go about it.

  14. #14 Terrorbad
    October 10, 2009

    “I think you are mistaken, or at least have not looked closely at the people who write here.”

    If following this site since its inception isn’t looking closely enough, I don’t know what is. Most of the solid writers and scientists in the science sphere have left or never bothered to join. My point still remains, however you try to construe it; if you are not working as a scientist, you are not a scientist. That includes the majority of the folks in this community. I have a masters in molecular, but I’m a tech writer. Does that make me a scientist too? I’ve done research, published a paper. I still don’t consider myself a scientist because I don’t work as one. I’m a writer. It’s a little strange that you dwell so heavily on credentials when your work is here for all to see and judge.

    “Furthermore, even if I do not count as a “true” scientist, I was still included within the “tribe of science” in Randy’s reaction to the film. According to Randy, “normal” people liked the film whereas scientists did not. By Randy’s criteria I fall in with the scientists, and I think he did a disservice to us by making us sound like data-obsessed geeks.”

    For the most part, you are. Most of you will admit it in a self-deprecating way. What you have trouble with is his undeniable claim (as well as mine) that you’re not reaching anyone outside the realm of the enthusiast, especially with the level of detail that you write, and yet you all boast about blogging potential and this great evangelical cause. If my “fanboy” and “whoring” comments stung a little, even after I said it was a joke, so be it. Figure out why it did.

    “I also do not believe that I am putting any journalists out of business. You claim that I (and other science bloggers) are preaching to the choir, yet that we are popular enough that we are running “real” journalists out of town. Which is it?”

    Nice try, but you’re taking separate points in my argument and mashing them together. As I said in my first paragraph in response to Daniel, I was talking about blogging in general (and the internet as a whole) causing problems for media companies and journalists across the board. Writer’s jobs are becoming devalued. Think about how much time and effort you put into a post. I’m certain, as I said before, that you are not compensated properly for it. I’m sure they throw free books and movies your way and somehow you can justify that, but it’s not the same as a job, and if the Noble Cause of Blogging for Free for the Cause isn’t panning out, then what’s the point?

    The majority of the rest of your response I suppose is purported proof of impact – justification of existence – but you’re just proving my point in divulging the numbers; 700 hits a day for a longview average for little pay and much invested time (not to mention that a significant portion of those hits are from bots and aggregation), with the occasional chance (biannually? more frequently?) that science enthusiasts will want more information. They searched the specific thing they wanted to know and you happened to write on it, so you got a lot of hits.

    These low expectations cannot be good for an industry in our society. Apply it to any other and it becomes more apparent.

    It’s unfortunate to see snark and bristle from a typically level-headed blogger. I’ve been reading Sb for years and have a list of favorites I follow, but as I said, the posturing and warmongering between “scientists” (bloggers) and journalists and science writers is getting old. It’s pompous and pointless and not getting anyone anywhere.

    If science bloggers cannot prove that they have reached beyond the club, then why continue to babble on about reaching people and “puffing up” your importance and relevance? Randy Olson hit a sore spot and highlighted something important: people in communities, no matter how enlightened at first, become entangled in group think. You make a poor rhetorical attempt to tease out the differences between reviewers when you were all saying the same thing.

    “I also reject your claim that this blog is redundant in terms of science coverage. Darren writes great review-style articles about groups of vertebrates whereas I write about the history of science and (occasionally) new discoveries.”

    It’s good for your admins that you have that worked out for them. (By the way, nice touch with the rejecting my claim bit; sounds very scientific.)

  15. #15 Terrorbad
    October 10, 2009

    gg, very quickly: I never said that nothing will change, I just doubt that science blogging will play a big part in the public’s acceptance of science from what I’ve seen. If you sit down with a hardcore creationist, you are not going to change his mind with words. It takes experience and exposure and an openness to make a change. Stupid people believe stupid things and you personally are not going to change their minds through rhetoric. They have to make the change, or they just watch society pass them by.

  16. #16 Daniel J. Andrews
    October 10, 2009

    In the end, I’m not sure what your real beef is with scienceblogging. Any points you were trying to make were completely obscured by your hostile and complaining tone.

    I agree. TB, there are some good points to make, but your message comes across as bitter and it is hard to determine what your actual points were.

    You are right, I don’t have any data (although with some time I’m sure both of us could find something). From my aged perspective of working in the science field BI (Before Internet) and AI (Artificial Intelligence After Internet),:-), I’m still amazed at how easily reliable information is obtained. It is a vastly different world, really hardly comparable now, yet when it was starting out there were people such as yourself who thought this stream of information wouldn’t change anything (or it was a passing fad).

    With the science blogging movement I’m seeing some of the same trends I saw when the net started coming online. I’m convinced that science blogging is just the beginning. To paraphrase 2001, Something wonderful is coming.

    Additionally, science enthusiasts can drum up their outreach, but so can their opponents. So while the two sides battle it out, the people in the middle just shrug, go to work and live their lives with or without an interest in science by choice.

    I think this is a good point. Lot of nonsense and noise online. I think, however, that makes it even more crucial for science bloggers to get the proper information out, and to increase their numbers.

    Yes, there may be some small overlap on some blogs about some momentous discovery, but that makes it easier for those searching to obtain reliable information. Many people may shrug, but at some point in their lives some science topic will capture their interest and they’ll Google it. Thanks to science bloggers they have a better chance of finding reliable information on the subject.

    It is all about outreach. Book contracts, interviews, education, passing along knowledge. Sure, many will not get it, but they’re not the ones we (educators) can do much about…there will always be a subset who aren’t interested. It is the ones who do get it, the ones who will be the next writers and scientists and educators, they are the ones that make an impact.

  17. #17 Daniel J. Andrews.
    October 10, 2009

    oops, formatting error. sorry.

  18. #18 Randy Olson
    October 10, 2009

    Hi there. Hope you don’t mind if I step into this little chat here for a moment and contribute a few thoughts since you were talking about my book and movies. I have to start with an apology for writing so much (this from the guy with the book that pleads for concision!).

    Let me start with a few things about the “Sizzle Frazzle” of last year. I know you guys all want to think that I was thrown into deep dark depression on “Sizzle Tuesday” — the day all the blog reviews went up, but I’m afraid that just didn’t happen. As you can read in the book, plus I also said in an email to all the blog reviewers last summer, we foresaw the pattern long before that day. Also, as I’ll explain here, I’m such a battle scarred veteran that it really takes a whole lot more than reviews of a crazy experimental movie to rattle me.

    The “Sizzle Frazzle” dynamic began in the fall of 2007 when we had two very enthusiastic test screenings of the film with non-science friends and thought we maybe had something good for a product, but then I really did get a couple of blasts of depressive shock. First when I gave it to three science colleagues, two of whom I have known for over three decades and have great respect for their opinions. They really disliked it and were deeply disappointed. One of them I ended up in a heated and unfortunate argument with over it (that’s life). It was the first thing that set me to wondering whether they might be right in what they said.

    Then the big shocker was at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in San Antonio where I gave a copy of the movie to my good friend John Pearse, professor emeritus in marine biology. I had intended for him to pull together a group of grad students and postdocs to drink some beers and watch it in his suite at the hotel and have great fun. But he couldn’t figure out who exactly to invite, and so instead invited only the senior advisory board of the organization, all of whom were over 60. Needless to say the viewing was a train wreck.

    I showed up ten minutes after the movie finished to lead a discussion, but all I found was John, sitting alone in his room drinking a beer with a sheepish grin. He said, “Good thing you weren’t here ten minutes ago — they all HATED the movie and fled immediately.”

    Well, that was the real shocker. A few more scientists watched it in the spring and had the same response. Yet we did another screening for my film school friends (all non-science types) and they absolutely loved it — praising how the film interwove three genres — mockumentary, documentary and reality. Few, if any movies, have EVER done that. I was on a panel last fall at the American Cinematheque where they also praised the film and talked with fascination about it. Believe me, a lot of filmmakers see a totally different element in the film (they could care a less about the science) and have said these things. The review in Cinemasource called it “brilliant filmmaking.”

    So we pretty much knew all this as we approached the premiere in July. And still being of scientific mind for much of this science communication stuff, I thought it would be interesting to get a clearer picture of the divide, which is why we staged the mass reviewing exercise with bloggers. By mid-July, when the reviews were posted, we had already pretty much heard it all from the voices of scientists in terms of complaints about the movie lacking substance, etc.

    I’m not sure where the impressions of me being bitterly disappointed came from, aside from the bloggers assuming their opinions meant that much to me. I don’t know how to address this without sounding dismissive, except to simply say, listen, I’m 54 years old. How many of you are older than me? I am a war torn veteran. As I tell in the book, I’ve been through 20 years of the film world, actually living IN Hollywood for 15 of those years. I’ve been screamed at not just by acting teachers (as I tell about in the opening of the book), but by major producers — producers who make $100 million movies — one of whom I collaborated with for three years and you wouldn’t believe the verbal abuse I endured. And by big agents and managers and people with large amounts of money and power. And I’ve been through USC film school where some of the faculty childishly insult and tear your work to pieces. I wrote and directed a musical comedy film that one professor said, “You could have cast it with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and it still wouldn’t have worked,” and then a month later it became the only USC student film to be accepted to the Telluride Film Festival in over a decade.

    I’ve been through a lot. Just two weeks ago I was shooting my latest celebrity PSA (you can view it at our website http://www.mpaswork.org). One of the celebrities had me schedule my crew and gear up THREE times, and each time called the day before or THE MORNING OF the shoot and just canceled, costing me real money. I ended up on the phone with an assistant who said, “We’re too busy for this right now,” and hung up without even saying good bye. You don’t have these sorts of people in the science world, and if they do occasionally arise, they get dealt with in a sane and rational manner. But here … there’s nothing you can do, except quit. Which I don’t do. So I hung in there, and last night was at an event where everyone was congratulating me on recruiting the celebrities in the PSA. No need to share the battle scars with them. It’s just part of the process.

    As I said, I’m not sure what to say except that you folks haven’t been through what I’ve been through. You don’t know how thick my skin is. You should try coming out to Hollywood to visit me someday. I can tell you stories that will make you realize how safe and protected the ivory tower really is. There is a sign above the entrance to Disneyland that says, “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I’ve always thought there should be a sign on Hollywood Boulevard saying, “The Most Unhappy Place on Earth.” Hollywood is brutal. I did the whole academic career — four years of postdoc, six years as a professor. There was nothing in that life to compare with the sheer emotional insanity that rages all day, every day, in Hollywood. I tried to offer up a small sample with the opening vignette of the screaming acting teacher in my book.

    All of which is just to say that I did read over the science blog reviews last summer. Some of the critiques made sense, others didn’t. Who knows whether the movie was any good. The only thing that emerged was that the movie played, and continues to play, very differently for science/technical folks versus the broad non-technical public (last fall 250 scientists at a meeting in Sacramento watched it and hardly laughed at all, a week later undergrads at East Carolina University were roaring with laughter with it). And there is something to be learned in that. And because I am still an educator at heart, that is the spirit in which I talk about the overall pattern of the responses to the movie in the science vs. non-science audiences that I discuss in the “Sizzle Frazzle” Appendix in the book. There’s no need to view it as some sort of personal attack. Everyone has their opinions, and they’re all valid. But there are things to be learned in looking at the patterns that emerge.

    As for the suggestion that the book has an attitude of “you nerdy scientists” — that just isn’t true. Repeatedly in the book I tell incredibly embarrassing and humiliating stories of what a doofus I have been throughout my 20 year journey through Hollywood. PZ Myers was great in his review in how he picked up on this element and quoted the expression of, “I hate to be the Randy of the group, but …” The entire message of the book is that 20 years of intense training and study in Hollywood did pretty much nothing whatsoever in terms of changing the scientist in my creative voice, which turns out to be as indelible as your finger prints. Once a scientist, always a scientist. Might as well accept that.

    Which is why the final chapter of the book is titled “Be the Voice of Science,” and is all about how exciting it is today that scientists themselves no longer need to sit and wait for the journalists or documentary filmmakers to discover them. They can write their own blogs for broader audiences and make their own videos. I am totally supportive of all this stuff, and my biggest desire is to see media emerge that actually captures the first person experiences of scientists in a manner than can reach the general public and outcompete the voices of journalists because in the end, as I mention in the book, there is nothing more powerful than the first person narrative. And that is what the world of science simply needs more of — compelling stories of science told by scientists themselves. The four chapter titles can help guide you in doing a better job of it. That is the essence of the book.

    Anyhow, sorry to go on for so long but this seemed like a good place to address a few of these issues. We’re having the NYC premiere of “Sizzle” on Friday evening, October 23 as the Closing Night Film of the Imagine Science Film Festival (yay! there’s a now a major science film festival!). It would be great to see all of you there to have a major discussion of the film during the Q&A and at the party we’re organizing at a local bar. There’s nothing I enjoy more than talking about the content of my two movies, Flock of Dodos and Sizzle. So it will be the perfect place for you to offer up your critiques of the movie in public. That would be fun.

  19. #19 Isis the Scientist
    October 10, 2009

    I saw Flock of Dodos a few years ago at a showing at FASEB’s Experimental Biology conference and didn’t care for it. What was interesting after reading your post was remembering the reaction. There was a large contingent of scientists in the room (myself included) who did not care for the tone of the film. Many of the group I was with are very interested in outreach and dialogue with the public and were very concerned about the way the film treats the lay public. When this was brought up, Randy’s response was basically, as you say, “You’re a bunch of nerds and don’t get it.”

    Yeah, maybe scientists have a way to go in crafting their public image, but if there is crafting to be done, I certainly don’t want Randy Olson doing it.

  20. #20 Chris Rowan
    October 11, 2009

    Randy. Taking 10 paragraphs to tell us how unaffected you are by the criticism is not the most convincing way of going about it.

    More seriously, I thought part of the bitterness over the Sizzle bruhahaha was that people were solicited for their honest opinion on something, took the time to watch and write reviews of the film, and for their efforts got told that not only did their opinions not really matter, but they were the unknowing subjects of a social experiment to prove how “scientists don’t get it”.

    And perhaps your book doesn’t have an attitude of “you nerdy scientists” – but using the title “Don’t be SUCH A Scientist” certainly strongly implies something of that sort…

    Sadly these discussions always seem to devolve into arguments over some mythical ‘One True Way’ of science communication, whereby suddenly you can get people who aren’t interested in science to take it seriously. I personally think that this misses the point: the whole power of the internet is it allows people with different ideas to try a diversity of approaches, which reach a variety of types and sizes of audiences. And it’s a long term thing: it’s about getting good information out there, providing venues where people can discuss research and issues impacted by science, and hence slowly provide a clearer and more easily accessible picture of what science is, and what scientists actually do, than is generally provided by the 24 hour news cycle. Outreach with the aim of grabbing the public and gently pulling them in our direction, if you will.

    And with that, I shall return to Doing It Wrong.

  21. #21 Coturnix
    October 11, 2009

    Let me try to untangle this a little bit…

    A) Movie-makers are, according to two paragraphs of Randy’s comment as well my own personal experience, the biggest group of Narcissistic, adolescent, self-loving, immature, arrogant, ignorant, touchy, self-promoting, insecure jerks this side of Religious Right and Randian libertarians.

    B) Scientists are, from my own personal experience, for the most part very normal, relaxed, fun and funny people.

    C) When a single scientist is surrounded by moviegoers, this is a case of a normal person being surrounded by a bunch of freaks. NOT the other way round, as Randy’s comment implies. If he felt out-of-place in their company, it is because he is the normal one.

    D) When a movie is shown to two kinds of focus groups – one made up of scientists and the other one of movie-makers – it is the reaction of movie-makers that is supposed to be dismissed as wacky and unusual, and the reaction of scientists to be regarded as representative of the population at large. NOT the other way round as Randy’s comment implies.

  22. #22 Dave
    October 12, 2009

    “the biggest group of Narcissistic, adolescent, self-loving, immature, arrogant, ignorant, touchy, self-promoting, insecure jerks”

    Generalize much? That same string of insults could be applied to any of the science bloggers on this site to varying degrees, or anyone who creates anything to be consumed by the public. I’m not sure how saying “people who make movies are bad people” and “people who do science are good people” actually says anything besides “I’m biased and naive.”

  23. #23 Laelaps
    October 12, 2009

    Randy; Thank you for your response. As Chris suggested, though, I think there is little fertile ground for dialog within it.

    The portrayal of scientists in your feature films and in your latest book is a bit passive aggressive. You want to help shake us out of the doldrums, but at the same time you constantly present scientists as nerdy, socially-inept characters. Whether you realize it or not, this approach antagonizes the very people that you are trying to reach and also perpetuates the stereotyped image of scientists. There is a persistent thread of “You’re nerds and don’t get it” through your recent work and in your responses to criticism.

    I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Those of us who are interested in reaching out to the public are tired of being characterized as dull bookworms. We want practical advice (which, to your credit, you do provide in parts of your book), and as much as we all love Carl Sagan I bet there are plenty more examples of scientists doing things right that we can learn from. This is not to say that we should be immune from criticism, far from it, but there is a difference between constructive criticism and caricature.

    More importantly, though, I still think that your portrayal of science blogs and the reaction to Sizzle was unfair. Without those parts I probably would have given the book a fairly positive review, but it felt as if you were using the book as a forum to editorialize about how we’re all data-obsessed geeks and we’re hip enough to get your work. Maybe that is not what you intended, but it is the way that it came off, and I do not feel that you presented the reaction to Sizzle or the current state of science blogging in a manner consistent with reality. Criticism is one thing, but (as Moe Szyslak might put it) what you wrote felt like “the ol’ fork in the eye.”

    I appreciate the invitation to see the screening of Sizzle to participate in the Q&A. I will have to think about it, and if I am going to attend I will let you know as soon as possible. For the moment, though, I am leaning towards “No.” It seems that we are talking past each other and your response to my criticisms does not make me think that we are going to make much headway. If I felt the discussion would be productive I would jump at the chance, but how you have responded makes me doubtful of that.

    Moving forward though, I would ask you to seriously consider why your message has not been well-received by scientists. As I pointed out in the review you do have some valuable things to say about how we can improve our communication skills, but those nuggets are wrapped in a rather bitter outer coating that many people have difficulty getting past. If we’ve been “doing it wrong” give us some real advice as to how to do things right without assuming that we’re data-obsessed robots. There are morsels of good advice in your book, but they can be hard to digest given your sour delivery. (Ok, ok, no more food metaphors, I promise.)

  24. #24 Randy Olson
    October 30, 2009

    Brian – Guess I’m a little late in responding to this (it’s been a busy month). I think the point you missed from the book is that its not written as “you nerdy scientists.” One of the first questions I got from the editor at Island Press was, “are you writing this book as ‘you scientists’ or ‘we scientists’?”. The answer was clearly the latter. P.Z. Myers didn’t miss this, nor have most of the scientists I’ve corresponded with. I tell some incredibly embarrassing and humiliating stories throughout the book — about how I bored Spike Lee, about how my Hollywood friends call me “the Randy of the group,” about what a bald headed douche bag I was in front of the acting class — on and on. I use myself as the type specimen. And I clearly concede by the end of the book that despite 20 years of re-programming efforts, I still have the voice of a scientist, which is okay. I couldn’t lay that stuff out any more clearly.

    And the starting point of the book is not to necessarily ask anyone to change anything, but rather to ask folks to take some time to think about and try and understand how some of these basic dynamics work. It all starts by gaining an understanding of the dynamic. For example, if people can absorb a thorough understanding of storytelling they can spend a lot less time mad at the general public for their infatuation with Britney, and more time trying to figure out how to subvert those dynamics towards their own ends.

    Bottom line, I’m not the enemy. I’ve done over 100 university visits in the past three years, all of which have been very enjoyable and productive. There’s never any resistance, anger, disgust, resentment, or hostility to what I have to say in person. Only in the blogosphere, where no one is confronting me face to face. And again, just look at PZ’s review. He didn’t call the book, or anything else I’ve done, brilliant. But he has respected the fact that I’ve invested a lot of time and resources in exploring a part of the world that is alien to academics — Hollywood. And instead of going off and making big money as even the most minimally talented of my USC Cinema School classmates have done in the decade since we graduated (many of them are earning over $1 million/year!), I’ve circled back to the science world to make no money and endure the non-support of the blogosphere. (and yet, in the end, I’m having more fun than all of them)

    Lastly, several of my friends have told me how much they love Jell-O, so thank you for the comparison.

  25. #25 kibarlı
    December 8, 2010

    the biggest group of Narcissistic, adolescent, self-loving, immature, arrogant, ignorant, touchy, self-promoting, insecure jerks”

    Generalize much? That same string of insults could be applied to any of the science bloggers on this site to varying degrees, or anyone who creates anything to be consumed by the public. I’m not sure how saying “people who make movies are bad people” and “people who do science are good people” actually says anything besides “I’m biased and naive.”

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.