Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Don't be such a scientist...

Don't be so cerebral, don't be so literal minded, don't be such a poor story teller, don't be unlikable and don't be such a scientist. That pretty much sums up Randy Olson's book Don't be such a scientist: Talking substance in an age of style, since I just named all the chapters. The book is meant to be a guide for scientists floundering through the process of communicating with the public.

The book opens with the trials and tribulations of our plucky hero Randy Olson, a tenured marine biologist trying to break into the world of Hollywood. Throughout the book we get glimpses of his life and the lessons he has learned about science communication. He goes through the pitfalls of communicating as a scientist and what to things to avoid.

Olson spent about 15 years as a university professor and it shows. A lot of the book felt like being in a university course with a long-winded professor that tells more than a few, mostly related anecdotes before getting to the point.

That being said, Olson does have many good points. As scientists we tend to be overly critical of things because that is what we are trained to do. When reading a paper or listening to a presentation, we try to poke holes in peoples arguments or methods. As he puts it, we start with a "no" rather than a "yes". However starting with a "no" and being the skeptic puts a gap between you and the public. It is like being the kid who doesn't believe in Santa Claus and ruins it for the rest.

The book has some good analogies like the "Four organs of connecting to a mass audience". Basically you have the head, the heart, the gut, and the sex organs. Scientists and people who think too much tend to communicate from the head. The public however, tends to communicate more from the rest of the organs. Olson states that to communicate to the broadest audience we have to "move the process out of the head, into the heart with sincerity, into the gut with humour, and into the lower organs for sex appeal". (Sounds like rhetorical analysis).

For all the "Dont's" he has in the book, there are not a whole lot of "Do". His main suggestion is to be Carl Sagan, one of the greatest science communicators so far. Many people are critical of the book for the same reason.

The point of the book as he puts it, is not to teach you to be a mass communicator. (You should join our program if that's what you are interested in.) The book is meant as a lesson to help scientists "rethink [their] style of communication...to reach a larger audience". I think if Olson prefaced the book with this statement, the book would have gotten better reviews with the scientific community.

I enjoyed this book. I didn't agree with everything in it, but the good points really stuck with me. Life is too short to make every mistake in science communication. Read the book and learn from Olson's experiences. Take away the messages that can help you be a better communicator.

As a last note, what is the deal with all these marine biologists becoming science communicators? Randy Olson was a marine biology professor at the University of New Hampshire, Sheril Kirshenbaum completed her thesis on sea cucumbers. I guess we just like to talk...

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