Talking substance in an age of style

don't be such a scientist

Book Review
Don’t Be Such A Scientist:
Talking Substance in An Age of Style
Randy Olson
Island Press, 2009. 206 p.

It takes more than just the straightforward blurting out of facts.

If scientists gather and produce knowledge but can’t, or won’t, communicate their work to others in a compelling form, why even bother to do science?

Science has two parts, the doing and the communicating. Communication has two parts, substance and style.

Randy Olson’s point is particularly compelling, as we live in an age of backlash against science. From evolution to global warming to mainstream medicine, and entire antiscience movement has emerged. Groups of people are fighting against hard, rational data-based science and clinical medicine. They simply don’t care what the science says.

A marine biologist, Olson left a perfectly good professorship to study filmmaking. He wanted to learn storytelling, and to master the secrets of Hollywood, “the most powerful, albeit hard to control, mass communication resource of today.”  (If you haven’t seen it, check out his pointed (and hilarious) video “Talking Science: The Elusive Art of the Science Talk.”)

In the midst of indifference to, and backlash against, science, Olson says, communication is not just one part of making science relevant: It is THE central element.  Unless communicating science receives higher priority, the science community will lose its voice.

Olson’s two careers, science and filmmaking, share a common element: they’re both exercises in storytelling. A scientist goes out into nature, gathers data, comes back to the laboratory, and puts it together to present to the world a story about how things are. A filmmaker goes out into the world, shoots film, comes back to the editing suite, and puts it together to present to the world a story about how life is. “Same basic creative process,” Olson says. “One group just tends to be a little better at the art of storytelling.”

Scientists, being literal minded folk, often think that communicating successfully with the general public means “letting the facts speak for themselves.” Unfortunately, facts need to be marketed. Consider the success of the report of the 9/11 Commission. It didn’t sell itself. The committee members toured the country, lobbied, and eventually testified before Congress. The report It was released as hardcover book and as a book on tape.

Speaking as a scientist, Olson says that marketing and selling take scientists out of their comfort zone. Scientists would rather stick to objective things (science, law, policy) rather than dabbling in the subjective (communicating, lobbying, persuading).

Want an example of how it’s done well? Olson calls Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth “plainly and simply, the most important and best-made piece of environmental media in history. End of story.”

With the advent of such innovations as blogs, video technology, and YouTube, a new day has arrived for scientists. They can themselves “be the voice of science.”  At its best, Olson says, the voice of science was and still is Carl Sagan.  “Given the scale of achievement of his popular books and television series, he is the most successful scientist in recent decades in communicating pure science to the general public.”

Olson does not argue that all scientists should drop everything and go to film school. And his motto “Don’t be such a scientist” does NOT mean to be any less of a scientist than your mind tells you to be. It simply means to develop a new awareness. “You want a healthy, productive life as a scientist? You’ve got to find ways to develop an awareness of the myopic drive and the need to split your attention. In essence, you need to be bilingual. – to be conversant in your area of specialty in both languages, academic and public.

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