Stylized Substance


Style and substance. When it comes to communicating, that's what matters. This is the central premise of Randy Olson's new book Don't Be Such a Scientist. It might be the central premise of existence.

To understand this book, you have to understand Randy Olson, so the book is part advice, part autobiography--tales from Olson's career as a tenured academic and his unique and therefore bumpy transition to Hollywood. Because he is a bit of an outsider in both worlds, Olson is well positioned to examine the strengths and shortcomings of both science and communicating.

For the sake of disclosure, I should mention that Randy Olson and I have known one another for over two years now. We met after I sent him an accusatory email (quibbling, like SUCH a scientist, over proper accreditation in an article Olson had written) that wound up with Olson co-inviting me to give my first academic talk at Scripps, me blogging on the topic of Shifting Baselines for two years (our seafood debate kicked it off), and, earlier this year, a friend and I pulling a cunning New Year's prank on Olson (my friend pretended she was an escort who was looking for Olson's neighbor and he fell for it like SUCH a scientist).

Disclosure out of the way, I can honestly (and perhaps a bit biased, too, as I have heard much of this book over the last couple years and always found it engaging and worthy of repetition) say: buy this book.

It takes enormous bravery (or stupidity--but, in this case, I can confirm it is the former) to opine on how to effectively communicate. The lambasting can go wrong and the missiles of scrutiny can easily turn toward the pro communicator. Olson must balance delicately between self-assuredness and self-deprecation. He also must practice what he preaches. He does.

With humor, anecdotes, and succinctness, the book is an effortless read (for a title with 'science' in it, this is a real feat). Olson's years of experience and valuable insights are particularly valuable for young scientists who can still alter their ways undetected. He advises on the power of positivity, spontaneity, and marketing. He discusses the two types of errors scientists can make when communicating: accuracy and boredom. Both are fatal but only one of which is ever discussed in the halls of academia (you can guess which one).

Olson is also convincing that film is a new language and we all must learn to speak it. However, he does not delude us (or himself) that they will ever replace more conventional educational techniques. Olson says films are not designed to educate but are designed to motivate. And in today's inhospitable climate (think global warming or stem cell research), motivation should be an end product of science. Indeed, what is the use of all this knowledge, if nothing changes as a result?

The niche-ness of Don't Be Such a Scientist is evident (it's a book mainly for scientists, after all, but it's also probably more for Americans than Britons). And some scientists might be put-off by the accusations that they are dry, boring, and disconnected to the 'lower regions' of the body. But I can imagine that the same scientists who have a difficult time digesting Olson's Hollywood-steeped conceits will enjoy his erudite anecdotes about Ayn Rand and John Steinbeck and his Popperian quips: "Film has infinite power. And guess what - that's not a falsifiable hypothesis so you can't tell me I'm wrong!"

What is a falsifiable question is: does society take science as seriously as it did 50 years ago? The answer is a resounding no. This is not because scientists are poor communicators but because, as Olson touches on lightly, we now live in an attention economy and the competition is stiff. Today's scientists must struggle even harder for center stage. Olson is not concerned with the broader phenomenon of dumbing down our culture (although I do know one of his favorite films is Idiocracy). He says: this is how the world is changing; here are some tools so that you can adapt and be heard above the cacophony. But he never asks if this is the world we want to live in. That is up to us.

More like this

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…
Randy Olson is a film maker and marine biologist who has focused in recent years on the critique of science communication. You may know him from his documentary work on the sexual practices of barnacles, the evolution-creation debate, or global warming. Randy is coming out with a new book, Don't…
Randy Olson left a career as a marine biologist (Titleist!) to become a film maker. His first feature project was Flock of Dodos, a movie I enjoyed. His second film is Sizzle, a movie reviewed by lots of ScienceBloggers a couple weeks ago. The gist: a lot of ScienceBloggers didn't like sizzle.…
Randy Olson's newest film, Sizzle, bears the subtitle, "a global warming comedy". To my mind, it delivered neither the laughs nor the engagement with the issue of global warming that it promised. Maybe this is just a sign that I fall outside the bounds of Olson's intended audience, but perhaps…

It seems to me that the statement "Film has infinite power." is meaningless. It sounds like some marketing claim -- or an advertising slogan for a film!

(Maybe that puts me in the "Scientist" camp instead of the "Communicator" camp.)

By Sweetwater Tom (not verified) on 10 Sep 2009 #permalink

I should read this book and maybe it will change my opinions. I can understand the basic premise, but I can also tell you that the miscommunication or distortion of a complex scientific issue to get people's attention (or for motivation) will always be a tragedy to those who do good science.

I love this site!

This post definitely has my brain rewiring itself in another internet induced brain storm. Thank you.

I look forward to seeing the perspectives from âDonât Be Such a Scientist.â

I will keep this reply short, but your introduction into the considerations on thinking about other ways of communicating, thinking and motivating the public and student audience in regards to âScientist Speakâ made me consider another communication model and book title that could use some tweaking: âDonât Be Such a Businessperson: Think More Like a Scientist (Or at least learn how to listen to them).â Well, I do have the right and capacity to fantasize that one day the business world will actually widen their spread sheets to include more holistic and altruistic perspectives. Then when really big encompassing commerce decisions are being made, the singular bottom line profit will be the last priority.

Your commentary on communication is what is all about. Everything revolves around the sharing of thoughts, so I find it greatly encouraging that our most primary and vital human technology of transferring intraspecies information is being looked at with a different slant.

I will be back soon!

By Chris Martell (not verified) on 13 Sep 2009 #permalink

"What is a falsifiable question is: does society take science as seriously as it did 50 years ago? The answer is a resounding no."

Without any supporting evidence, this sounds exactly like the kind of confident claim in which the creationists specialize. Does Olson actually offer any empirical support for this claim or does he simply state it and expect us to take his word for it?