Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style

You know, I think communicating science is an extremely important enterprise, one that I think scientists need to work at more. That interface with the general public is poorly cobbled together and we often seem to be working in completely different directions, producing a lot of, well, chafing, where the citizenry is off supporting some lunacy like creationism or homeopathy and pissing us off, and we’re grumpily tossing off thunderbolts of scorn and pissing them off…and unfortunately, we do not have the benefit of the automatic deference given to such scoundrels as the clergy. I suppose we could aspire to indoctrinate the public into believing in our infallibility and saintliness, but it seems to me that learning how to communicate better would be easier. Not easy, of course, but at least achievable.

While I admit that scientists need to improve their communication skills, you may have noticed that I tend to be scathing in my reviews of pundits who try to tell us how to be better communicators. Too often they seem to have no understanding of how scientists actually think; they’re outsiders who don’t seem to understand our perspective while telling us to bow to the whims of non-scientists. They’re also fond of dispensing generic advice, like “get more education in communication!”, without actually telling us any specifics. It gets rather infuriating after a while.

And then there’s Randy Olson.

He can be very annoying, and even infuriating, too: his movies, Sizzle and Flock of Dodos, generate some interesting reactions from scientists, where “interesting” covers a range of emotions from bafflement to outrage. But the reasons he annoys are different from the way the communications experts and framers and media folk are exasperating: in his case, it’s because he actually is a real scientist, one who left the ivory tower to try and succeed in the fantasy land of Hollywood. He has more credibility and a more informed view of both sides of the argument, so his criticisms have a little more bite to them. He’s also a weird chimera, a kind of crocoduck of the science and media worlds, so he freaks us out a little bit.

Randy has a new book out, Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). It’s another of that genre that nags scientists to be better communicators, but it’s a productive kind of nag. He tells us exactly what the public finds annoying about us, and is specific about what we should do differently.

It’s a short book with chapters with simple commandments: don’t be so cerebral, don’t be so literal minded, don’t be such a poor storyteller, and don’t be so unlikeable, and each chapter is illustrated with stories from his experiences in the transition from science to movie making (See? He’s practicing what he preaches, by trying to be a good storyteller.) There is plenty of material here to convince any empiricist that we need to change our attitudes.

For example, he gives the case of the Pew Oceans Commission report, a major scientific policy report that should have fired people up to protect our coastal resources. Most of you probably haven’t heard about it — I hadn’t — because scientists sunk a huge amount of effort into it, and then plunked it down on desks in Washington DC…and left it to speak for itself. They invested a grand total of 3% of their budget in marketing. Randy reports that one of the staff members said, at the completion of the study, that “I’m not sure we’ve even got enough money for coffee at the press conference.” Compare that to a movie that was released at about the same time as the report, Napoleon Dynamite: 96% of the budget was marketing. You’ve probably heard of Napoleon Dynamite. It doesn’t matter if you liked it or not…it raked in the cash at the box office.

There are lessons worth learning throughout the book; one of them is one I’ve known for a long time, that science is at odds with popular culture because it is largely an exercise in constant criticism, and people hate being criticized. We encourage a culture of negativity, because it works for us…which means, of course, that I can’t simply let the book slide by with a happy two thumbs up. I must be such a scientist. One of the things Randy seems to be oblivious to is the fact that character and personality are an essential part of the style element he is endorsing, and scientists can capitalize on their particular, peculiar, aggravating set of common characteristics. He tells his story of being the scientific dufus in the company of artists; the guy who takes things too literally, who has strange stories, who can obsess over odd stuff that no one else cares about, and who has enough character that his friends can talk about “being a Randy” and everyone knows exactly what they’re talking about. He writes as if this was a problem, and I can sympathize with some of his embarrassing moments…but it was a strength. He sounds like he was one of the interesting people in his group.

So I end up feeling a bit torn. He’s telling us “Don’t be such a scientist”, and it’s true that there are many occasions when the scientific attitude can generate unnecessary obstacles to accomplishing our goals. At the same time, though, I want to say “Do be such a scientist”, because it’s part of our identity and it makes us stand out as unusual and, like Randy, interesting, even if it sometimes does make us a bit abrasive. But, you know, some of us revel in our abrasiveness; it’s fun.

It’s definitely a book worth reading, even if what I’m saying is that a better title would be “Be Conscious of When You Are Being Such a Scientist and Modulate Your Behavior According to the Situation”. But then I’m being such a scientist, and his choice of a title is a bit snappier. Probably more marketable, too.

You can find more about the book on the official website.


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