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Book Review: Don’t be SUCH a Scientist

ScientistI kept thinking three things while I read Don’t be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, by Randy Olson:

1) No wonder Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are so popular;
2) Carl Sagan, I really miss you; and
3) Most people I know would hate this book.

Randy Olson, a former scientist now turned filmmaker, says most scientists don’t get their point across when they try to tell the public the truth. They don’t communicate in a way people can hear, given the social and media styles of our day. They feel they must lay out all the facts, and believe the facts will speak for themselves no matter how boring the presentation. And then they’re shocked and disappointed that these presentations are routinely ignored, while films and speeches that are “all style and little substance” get devoured by an eager public.

Olson’s point is that that’s how scientists need to communicate, too, if they are ever to get an audience. They have to stop appealing strictly to the head, and start pulling responses from the heart and the gut as well. Tell a story with bits of their information, to get the audience so engaged they want to see “how it turns out.” Use humour. Don’t take themselves so seriously.

This will result in less actual information getting out there, yet it will make people respond. And gradually, some may explore further and get a stronger grounding on the information side. But you can’t lead solely with that.

Olson fully acknowledges that at least a third of scientists will always shrink in horror from the thought of sacrificing information for the sake of “style.” And they’ll go on being listened to only by each other, and never by a public who might really need to know what they have to tell. I’m a bit that way myself, and have had/am having to unlearn much of that attitude. And I have lots of friends like those scientists, except in the political realm. They, while laying out all the important political facts, often get about the same results as those boring scientists, and would shrink in similar horror from the thought that they shouldn’t explain things in detail.

And yet…there’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Both do convey some information, but they grab people’s attention exactly as Olson teaches: going for the emotion and the gut, i.e. laughter. Has it been a coincidence all these years that so many people relied more on Stewart and Colbert for political information than the more cerebral network news anchors?

Often, while reading, my “sober scientist” side would start metaphorically kicking this book up and down the hall, yelling, “You can’t teach nothing but fluff, and dumb everything down!” Then I’d take some breaths and remind myself that Olson isn’t talking about doing that – just adding some pizzazz while cutting back on the reams of information. If you can grab the interest, empathy, and friendliness of the audience first, many will go on and find out the rest of that important information. If you bore them to death, on the other hand, they won’t retain a single word of what you tell them. So which way, really, gets the best results?

CosmosI’m a prime illustration of this, and here’s where Carl Sagan comes in. I fell in love with both Sagan and the universe when I first saw his series, Cosmos. Taking a metaphorical “journey of the mind” (there’s the story Olson says you need to tell), Sagan took a whole generation of us with him into the vast, stunning, exquisite universe, teaching us to think of ourselves as “star stuff.”

Years later, I was a fundamentalist creationist – one of the sorts of people Olson profiled in his movie, Flock of Dodos, in fact – and I met creationist scientists who told me how “awful” Carl Sagan was. These were people I respected and even revered. Yet I would just smile and nod, and know that I still adored Sagan and his vision of the universe, even if he was now technically my “enemy.” He had “gotten” me, years before, through the wonder and excitement he conveyed for exploring the universe. And no creationist with mountains of counterarguments would ever change my mind about him. Eventually, looking at the facts on both sides (because I am, after all, that way), I decided for Sagan with my head too.

Olson has an uphill climb with this book, and he knows it. But he’s absolutely right: scientists have to find ways to get the reality-based world view across, without standing up and droning at everyone in a fact-filled lecture. The problem is that this doesn’t come naturally to many scientists, and they’re going to be outraged that Olson’s book is trying to get them to “abandon the facts” just to be “fluffy or funny.”

Elegant UniverseSome scientists have begun to do what Olson suggests, and bring science to the public in an engaging, compelling way. (Think of Brian Greene and his NOVA series, The Elegant Universe, about string theory, the “theory of everything.”) (And if you want to see an ongoing great example of science being made fascinating to the general public, be sure to check out the Rocket Scientist blog!) And yet if I had to calm myself down sometimes as I read, even when I actually agreed with Olson, I have a feeling the people who most need this book are not going to be touched by its message at all. This is their loss, certainly, but the world’s loss even more.

(Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of this book. Don’t be Such a Scientist is published by Island Press.)

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