"I'm not a scientist, but I play one on TV ..." (my worries about getting too glib)

By now, no doubt, you've seen Randy Olson's advice for evolutionary biologists trying to communicate more effectively with members of the general public. While a number of his suggestions are common sense (e.g., try not to be boring), there was something about the ten suggestions, taken together, that bugged me. Not just me, either. John Lynch notes:

Randy Olson, following an MFA in filmmaking from USC, has decided that the way to improve evolution education is basically to engage in sort of dumbed-down glossiness that anti-evolutionists specialize in; all surface flash with little real depth. Olson seems to have forgotten that communicating science is difficult and it's complexity doesn't yield to simple Hollywoodization. Taking a bunch of acting classes - which he seems to suggest is necessary - wont solve that problem.

PZ Myers adds:

I'm not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message.

After turning it over in my head for awhile, I've decided that Olson's suggestions bug me precisely because following them would probably undermine scientists' communication with laypersons, not improve them.

Here's the specific recommendation from Randy Olson's list that I find most problematic:

6) Understanding - intellectuals are handicapped as mass communicators. I had this line in my film, but took it out because it sounded too insulting. But its true. Mass audiences do not follow people who think, they follow people who act. Intellectuals are trained to think, not act. Its one of their charming traits, but it's also a handicap. Try taking an acting class and you'll get to know about this intimately. And it's not that you necessarily need to do something about this right now, it's just that you need to start developing some awareness of it.

It is true that losing your audience can thwart your attempts at communication. It is also true that, to the extent that they have been trained to communicate their findings to other scientists doing research in their field, some scientists are most effective in their communications within this scientific "club". The mass audience is quite a different audience than the crowd that peer reviews your scientific papers.

But lots of scientists communicate with students, too -- including frosh and general education students (which is to say, the science avoiders who need to take a science class to graduate). The scientists who decide that these audiences can't be reached or aren't worth reaching have opted out of communicating here -- qua teachers, they're not doing their job -- but I don't think it's their intellectualism that's handicapping them here, just a bad attitude. And watching the scientists whodo take the frosh seriously, you'll certainly see some stagecraft, but not at the expense of intellectual content. Communicating your points clearly is an intellectual challenge.

The sentence that's killing me here is, "Mass audiences do not follow people who think, they follow people who act." What is that supposed to mean -- be more like an actor? Try to elicit an emotional response from your audience? Do stuff rather than just saying stuff? To some extent, the good science teachers (who, one would think, might be among the scientists sent out to work on communication with the general public) already do this. But, the aim in communicating science to the public is sufficiently different from the actors's aim in acting a scene that becoming too actor-y would be counterproductive.

It may be enough for an actor to get the audience to feel something. However, the scientist usually aims to get the audience to think. Successful scientific communication doesn't just dump a bunch of facts at the audience's feet. Rather, it leads the audience through a thought process -- what could these facts mean, what are the most consistent ways to fit them together, and how are these conclusions more reasonable than the alternatives? Just as artists, novelists, and yes, even the makers of your better films and television programs make the audience do some work, so should scientists and populizers of science. Audience participation (at least in the sense of an audience actively engaging the message rather than having it poured into their skulls) is not an unreasonable thing to ask.

Part of this is pragmatic. Dumbing things down so the audience isn't challenged at all underestimates the lay audience, and it actually comes off as patronizing. This just adds to the resentment some members of that lay audience have felt since their school days, when certain teachers will have hit them with the attitude that only some people are smart enough to get science and math, and that everyone else is as good as unreachable. (Yes, a bunch of bad communicators -- these wrongheaded teachers -- makes future communication with this audience harder. That's karma for you.)

Do you like a movie or TV show that treats you as if you're dumb and easily manipulated? Probably not. So backing away from intelligence in scientific communication seems like a bad call. Yes, a big segment of the general public seems fairly anti-intellectual -- but maybe it's really that they're tired of being talked to as if they were dumb.

But the reasons for engaging the audience's head are more than pragmatic. Were scientists to focus on surface flash, the evaluation of the scientists' message against competing messages might come down to which is represented by the prettiest spokesmodel or the catchiest theme song. A mere cast change ("They replaced the British dude in the chair who talks with a Speak & Spell with some leggy blonde") and you might lose your audience -- which misses the very point. The scientific reasoning is the message, and it's to be evaluated based on its fit with the world -- and with the rational powers of the audience. It's plot- (and thought-) driven, not actor-driven.

Training scientists to grab an audience by the heart or the guts puts us on the road of just making scientific communication to the public one performance among many. Not only does that make science even easier to tune out (due to the bombardment of mass media performances and limited TiVo disc space), but it ignores the features that make science (and thus, good communication of science) different from punditry, docudrama, or a clever beer commercial. Science isn't just putting forward a point of view, it's inviting the audience to check it out and see how it holds up. Nothing for sale -- the audience already has the critical faculties that are needed. They just need to be taken out of the box and warmed up.

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I agree that "acting" is a bad choice of word. What is really needed is effective communication. Some people might be able to do this using what might be called acting skills, but that would be just one technique.

Effective communication means knowing who your audience is, but even more important, knowing what it is you want them to take away. Sometimes the hardest part about communicating -- especially complex ideas -- is figuring out what to leave out. Leaving things out doesn't mean "dumbing down." It means making sure the key points do not get lost in too much detail.

As trite as it may sound, the basic steps of presentation really do work: 1) tell them what you're going to tell them, 2) tell it to them, then 3) tell them what you told them.

Well said. I heartily agree.

Olsen's advice is actually so vague that it's difficult to determine what he's actually arguing for. Does improving communication mean pandering to the audience, manipulating their emotions, taking advantage of peoples' emotional responses, changing the message for the medium? Who knows, but it's difficult to imagine how much of what he's proposing would help people understand science or scientists be better at communicating their work.

What does Ken Ham do? He is ugly as hell and uncharismatic, but he gets his audience on their feet. How? He constantly asks questions. Remember a few days ago, the report when he was talking to 2000+ schoolkids? Every thing he said was a question and every answer was "God" - the answer they knew and readilly gave in chorus.

I know I use questions in teaching all the time, but it was pointed to me recently that I use that in my blogging as well, something I was not aware of.

If you ask a question, you are making the assumption that the audience is smart enough to know the answer and figure out the answer. A good question, asked correctly, cannot be construed as "eltist arrogance". Declarative sentences can.

And I went to the hated IE, jsut so I could post this comment on your blog. What does it say about me?

Unfortunately, the deck is stacked against scientists (even engaging and entertaining personalities such as Ken Miller) because of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. A number of people I know who hold right-wing views live in the outer suburbs, and have very long commutes. They have to leave for work too early to read the newspaper, and they get home too late to watch the network news. And after spending 8 hours at work plus another 3+ hours on the freeway, the last thing they want to do is watch "educational" programs like Nova or Nature.

So where do these folks get the "information" that forms the foundation for their world-views? Right-wing talk-radio. Sean Hannity. Rush and/or David Limbaugh. Mike Savage. Rick Roberts (local San Diego wingnut). And when have these talk-show hosts (or any other right-wing talk-show hosts, for that matter) *ever* given scientists a fair hearing? Does anyone think that even an engaging and personable scientist like Ken Miller would ever get a "friendly" interview with any of these right-wing radio hosts?

Here in San Diego, we have a well-known wingnut radio personality by the name of Rick Roberts. He has, on multiple occasions, attacked the concept of global-warming and has disparaged the professional scientists who have been trying to inform the public about global warming. This, in spite of the fact that San Diego is home to one of the world's premier research institutions that has conducted global-warming research, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO). In spite of the fact that San Diego has a world-class "home-team" conducting climatology research at SIO, Rick Roberts has never been able to trouble himself to give any of the local SIO scientists a fair hearing on his show.

Thanks to the repeal of the "Fairness Doctrine", Rick Roberts is free to trash and smear the professional climatology community, knowing full well that there's *zero* chance that a professional SIO scientist will be given a 30- or 60-minute time-slot on his station to rebut the misinformation he spreads. The Fairness Doctrine repeal not only has helped to silence the scientific community, it has eliminated any sense of accountability that these talk-show hosts might otherwise feel. And that has been bad for public science literacy, and bad for democracy in general.

By caerbannog (not verified) on 19 Feb 2006 #permalink

Janet said
"Science isn't just putting forward a point of view, it's inviting the audience to check it out and see how it holds up. Nothing for sale -- the audience already has the critical faculties that are needed."

no! No! and NO!
They do not. You and PZ are extremely intelligent people. You seem not to be able to accept how much less intelligent most of the populace is. After all, if they had critical faculties, they would be college graduates. They don't know and don't want to know how to "check it out". They need to have it spelled out in simple words - with pictures.
Think of who have been the most popular exponents of science in the last 20 or 30 years - Sagan and Feynman. What made them popular? Presentation! Demonstration! Pictures! Even in teaching college classes they were lively, animated, entertaining - fun to listen to.
You, who write all these science blogs are brilliant, informative, but duller than ...(can't think of a witty metaphor).
You seem to have the same attitude as a Republican administration toward the working class. They don't know what life is like when you don't have a couple of mil in the bank. Why would you need Social Security - just invest 40 or 50K in the stock market every year. And YOU seem to think that everyone has an IQ of 120 or higher. Just hit your local library, or the Internet, and read all the wonderful blogs explaining about science.
Well that can't happen. We need programs on network television that are attention-grabbing, dramatic, lively and geared towards the mass audience.

caerbannog has a very good point about the "educational" sources most often used by anti-intellectuals. And I'm not willing to dumb down my content to be accepted by the public, but I do recall one of my best, award-winning profs remarking that good teaching is like theatre. So, is there some happy middle ground where we don't have to compromise our messages while still having mass appeal? Carl Sagan got grief for going mainstream, but I think he did it in a very responsible way. However, caerbannog is quite right that today's society is too distracted to watch a show like Cosmos.

Alternatively, do we draft a few like-minded scholars who are maybe a little more attractive and pithy than the norm to gain access to big media and use the O'Reilly/Rick Roberts/Ann Coulter approach? Al Franken and Michael Moore have a headstart, but both are unfortunately blown off by the wing-nuts because they are too comedic, visually unkempt and, for this scientific discussion, not scientists.

I know that most of us would be uncomfortable berating ID or mercury-autism guests in an O'Reilly or Limbaugh format, but many of us have no problem doing so in our writing on blogs. There have got to be a few rabid scientists who wouldn't mind this sort of media approach and university lecture circuit thing. The breach of civility is not for all of us, me included and I'm sure Janet would object on ethical grounds. But wouldn't you secretly enjoy cheering on Jim Watson telling a creationist that they were f-ing out of their mind after giving a stepwise refutation of their argument.

Don't mean to pander to the lowest common denominator but instead of taking our message Hollywood as Randy Olson would have it, couldn't we equally take it to the gutter?

a few successful examples of what i think Oslon intended, even if his presentation lacked (oh, the irony :) :

Dinosaur documentaries: notice how much more successful Walking with Dinosaurs (BBC, imported by Discovery Networks) was over When Dinosaurs Roamed America (A Discovery Channel original). The latter was more a presentation of dinos in their environments, interspersed with the fossil finds (to me, the more interesting part of the show), but wasn't nearly as successful, in America or outside, as the *story* oriented Walking With series (in spite of the over-speculation in places; "monogomous" cynodonts? really...). That success of "story" is what probably drove the next major CGI-dino series, "Dinosaur Planet" (though that was more kid-oriented, inspired more by the kid-oriented rewrite of Walking With Dinosaurs as Dinosaur Planet). Dinosaur Planet did have a VERY impressive pro-evolution take, as one episode discussed the preditor-prey species around a volcano in jurassic-era Montana, and then as an epilogue, talked about the larger, tougher, yet strangely similar (and therefor, descended & evolved) species who inhabited the same area 10 million years AFTER said volcano erupted.

In Cosmology, Neil deGrasse Tyson in Origins on PBS (Nova) was one of the more impressive works in this field in the last few years, although I think they wasted the hour on UFO skepticism as the "general public" would look at that and think of the "you scientists don't believe anybody but yourselves, do you" form of elitism that they're accused of.

Origins had a very good balance (in my view) between "telling the story" (in a respectable order) and the occasional interruptions to present the evidence, especially for discoveries made since Cosmos (PBS's lasat major cosmology series) like the comets with organic molecules, the earth-premoon collision, and especially the whole dark-matter/dark-energy problems.

Discovery Channel Networks have had a few semi-speculative features on what evolution would be like without human interference, in "Alien Planet" and "The Future is Wild", and though they've both been criticised for their speculative nature by the anti-science side (and some within the scientific community), they at least demonstrate the speculation (and imagination) is an important part of science and forming a hypothesis to test. Its akin to Sagan and Feinstein talking about the "back-of-the-envelope" calculation being more important to science than most of the rest of the peer-review process.

At any rate, all of them combined their "scientists speaking their views with evidence" with strong naration, story-driven plots, good special effects (the most expensive part), and in some cases excellent background music (especially the Walking With series).

By Joe Shelby (not verified) on 20 Feb 2006 #permalink