Don’t Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson

This book is, in some ways, a complement to Unscientific America. Subtitled “Talking Substance in an Age of Style,” this is a book talking about what scientists need to do to improve the communication of science to the general public. This is not likely to make as big a splash in blogdom as Unscientific America, though, both because Randy has generally been less aggressive in arguing with people on blogs, and also because while he says disparaging things about science blogs, he doesn’t name names, so nobody is likely to get their feelings hurt.

Olson is a scientist-turned filmmaker, who resigned a tenured professorship to go to film school in the early 1990′s, and made the documentary Flock of Dodos. You can get the basic idea of his advice from the title, and from the table of contents:

  1. Don’t Be So Cerebral
  2. Don’t Be So Literal Minded
  3. Don’t Be Such a Poor Storyteller
  4. Don’t Be So Unlikeable
  5. Be the Voice of Science!

The book is informed by his experiences moving from the world of academic science to Hollywood, and the vast majority of his examples come from his own personal experience. Which means that it’s a little hard to separate the book from the rest of his work– if you dislike his style on camera or in his occasional blogging, you’ll probably find it grating, but if you’re ok with his style, it’s a good read. A quick read, too– I read the whole thing Saturday in the waiting room of the local Ford dealership, while my car was being looked at.

Assuming you’re ok with his voice, the book is very good at identifying the common communication problems of scientists. He’s guilty of a little exaggeration for effect– either that, or the standard of presentations in marine biology is much, much worse than in atomic physics– but for the most part, he nails the areas where the culture of science makes it difficult for scientists to communicate effectively with a mass audience.

It’s a message that needs to be heard, but as he notes, there are a lot of scientists who don’t want to hear it:

At the Scripps Institution for Oceanography, for the past four summera we have taught a week of communications during the twelve-week intensive orientation course for new ocean science graduate students. Each year at the end of the course students fill out evaluations. And each year the same simple pattern seems to emerge: about a third of the students talk about our communications week as a “life-altering”experience. They so thoroughly enjoy themselves and find it so eye-opening that they feel certain a major aprt of their future scientific work will involve communications.

A second third calls the week very worthwhile. But the final third, oh, yeah. You guessed it. They lash out against the communications week, call it a total waste of their time, insult me as some sort of “poser,” see no relevance of the material to their career in science, and basically hint at the possibility of a refund of their tuition.

(Presumably there’s a “demanding” missing from the last sentence, but you get the idea…)

That’s probably about right, from what I’ve seen. It’s somewhat magnified in blogdom, because the third who resent getting communications advice are so very, very loud about it.

On the whole, the advice that Olson gives is excellent, and matches well with what most effective communicators– in science or elsewhere– have figured out for themselves. If you want to get your message across to a mass audience, you need to give it an appeal that isn’t just intellectual. If you want to get your message across, you need to embed it in a coherent narrative. If you want to get your message across, you have to come across as a likeable person. Those are key principles, and shouldn’t really be controversial.

There’s obviously got to be some balance between these elements, and finding that is an individual process. No two effective communicators speak in exactly the same voice, and anybody setting out to communicate science will need to find a voice that works for them. This precludes giving really specific advice on what to say, which I’m sure will disappoint the more literal-minded readers, but there’s no way around it.

There are a number of things in the book that struck me as good points– the observation that the culture of science is reflexively negative was a good one. There are also elements that don’t work so well– in a few places, he talks about specific applications of these ideas in his own short films, most of which I haven’t seen. Some of these are Google-able (the Ocean Symphony spot, for example), others are not. Some indication in the text of where to find these things would’ve been nice.

I also could’ve done without the appendix on Sizzle, which comes off as a little too defensive. It walks right up to the line between Good and Bad responses to critics, and will probably strike some as over that line.

all in all, though, I enjoyed the book. It’s a brisk, readable, and personal look at the problems scientists have with talking to a mass audience, and offers some useful guidelines to help those who are interested to improve their communications skills.

Comments

  1. #1 Josh
    September 28, 2009

    The thing that cracks me up about the type of people who would complain that the communications seminar mentioned in the excerpt is a waste of time are almost always the people who give crappy, boring, incomprehensible and apparently pointless seminars and talks to other scientists. When I’m stuck in the audience of such speakers who don’t feel the need to demonstrate any skill at communication, I feel like THEY are the ones wasting people’s time.

  2. #2 kate@welsheldorado.com
    October 15, 2009

    Olson’s point of view makes sense and I did hear him being interviewed today, where he kept going on about science being so slow and meticulous in checking their data for accuracy I never heard him talk about the issue that non scientists/lay people do not easily ‘hear’ scientists or accept the data as true, is because it can be found to be wrong: ie Thalidomide was supposed to be safe, and plenty of drugs since, DDT spraying, HRT for women, radiation/X-rays were safe (children’s feet were once x-rayed in shoe stores) and doses were heavier with minimal screening, vitamin supplements were unnecessary, margarine was good, and many more….