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

de Randy Olson

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"You think too much!  You mother F@$#%&* think too much!  You're nothing but an arrogant, pointy-headed intellectual -- I want you out of my classroom and off the premises in five minutes or I'm calling the police and having you arrested for trespassing." -- Hollywood acting teacher to Randy Olson, former scientist After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science is about to be restored to its rightful place.  But is the American public really ready for science?  And is the world of science ready for the American public? Scientists wear ragged clothes, forget to comb their hair, and speak in a language that even they don't understand.  Or so people think. Most scientists don't care how they are perceived, but in our media-dominated age, style points count. Enter Randy Olson.  Fifteen years ago, Olson bid farewell to the science world and shipped off to Hollywood ready to change the world. With films like Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca '06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest '08), he has tried to bridge the cultural divide that has too often left science on the outside looking in. Now, in his first book, Olson, with a Harvard Ph.D. and formerly a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, recounts the lessons from his own hilarious-and at times humiliating-evolution from science professor to Hollywood filmmaker.  In Don't Be Such a Scientist, he shares the secrets of talking substance in an age of style. The key, he argues, is to stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human. In a book enlivened by a profane acting teacher who made Olson realize that "nobody wants to watch you think," he offers up serious insights and poignant stories. You'll laugh, you may cry, and as a communicator you'll certainly learn the importance of not only knowing how to fulfill, but also how to arouse.… (més)
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I can't think of a more important book for scientists, especially environmental scientists, to read. We don't have plenty of research showing climate change is real, yet 40% of the public doesn't believe it. Much of this is a well-funded campaign to undermine environmental science (see Merchants of Doubt), but scientists don't help their cause by refusing to use mass media (especially video) to get the message out.

Here's a synopsis of the book: be spontaneous, arouse and fulfill, appeal to people's hearts/guts/gonads, tell a good story, be likeable, and promote yourself.

( )
  Silvia_rubicula | Oct 8, 2018 |
Randy Olson is a marine biologist who did his research, did his publishing, and became a tenured professor at the University of New Hampshire.

And then he resigned to become a filmmaker.

In Don't Be Such a Scientist, Olson talks about his own journey from scientist to science filmmaker, and explores the problems of communicating science to a broad audience. He finds the problems to lie mainly in a disconnect between how scientists learn to communicate with each other and the kinds of communication that work with the general, non-scientist public, and especially what does and does not work in the mass media.

Scientists place the highest value on accuracy; they correct inaccuracies, they question assumptions, they demand evidence. This is all vital to what scientists do; without these behaviors, real advances in knowledge can't happen. But when scientists use those same behaviors when talking to the general public, and especially when speaking on tv or making films and videos intended to reach the general public, these same behaviors come across as negative, argumentative, and unlikeable. Scientists, Olson says, work almost entirely in their heads, while reaching a broad audience--even getting the attention of a broad audience, due to how inundated we are with information--requires reaching the heart, the gut, and even, as he delicately phrases it, "the lower organs."

To illustrate the impact of an over-emphasis on being serious and relentlessly accurate, vs. presenting the information with style, heart, and even humor, he compares the reception given to two 2006 movies about global warming--HBO's April 2006 Too Hot Not Too Handle, and Al Gore's May 2006 An Inconvenient Truth. The first, he says, was "solid, relatively impersonal, objective effort featuring interviews with many top scientists." The second is a personal narrative by Al Gore, featuring his stories of long-term involvement with the issue, the tragedies involving his sister and his son, some humor, along with lots of substance. With all the emphasis on style, Gore nevertheless used PowerPoint graphs in abundance to communicate facts and data.

The HBO movie was completely accurate--but also boring and depressing. It sunk without a trace. Gore's was filled with important information, but had some inaccuracies that would never have survived in the HBO effort. But none of those errors were important enough to undermine the central point--and An Inconvenient Truth was a huge hit, and won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Which was more effective in getting real knowledge of global warming to the general public?

Some of the entertaining stories Olson has to tell include his own collision with acting class (news flash: scientists are not naturals at just going with their feelings), the struggles to make his own 2006 film on evolution vs. "intelligent design," Flock of Dodos, watchable--and then the reaction of science bloggers to a movie that still wasn't accessible enough for distributors to want it for general audiences.

I'm not doing justice to the book, but it's short, pithy, and completely readable, along with providing ample food for thought on how to communicate science to the general public.

Important note: I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher, Island Press. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
I would say it is a must read (or at least browse) for teachers. Even though the author is science professor turned movie maker he has some fantastic points about getting "a message to people". It is also a great tool for reasons why "writing across the curriculum" makes so much sense.

Interesting point to be made though... If he is so good and he follows his own examples... why have we not seen or heard of any of his movies? ...Hmm
( )
  ksmedberg | Aug 15, 2018 |
This has been on my to-read list for ages, and now that it's semi-relevant to grad school goals, finally took it off my amazon wishlist. I watched Flock of Dodos during Darwin Week 2010; my review of that is here. Curiously, my opinions of his other work reflect what I got four years later in his book.

Dr. Olson argues that since we live in a world of short-attention spans, scientists need to learn to let go of some of the jargon and embrace subjective emotional/sexual/whatever appeal. Arouse the audience, pique their interest, and they'll follow you to your message. It's important for science communication, and here, nearly five years later there's a proliferation of science communication workshops, courses, etc. (I wonder if Randy ever goes to ScienceOnline in Raleigh?)

While his ideas are good, I'm not going to give it a full 4-5 stars because a good portion seemed to be writing out his disappointment in the blogger community on rejecting Sizzle (which I have yet to see). Science blogs are what drew me towards the world of SciComm, and while there are those who are considerably abrasive (PZ Myers, for example), there are many excellent writers out there (Carl Zimmer, Brian Switek, the Deep Sea News team, etc.) who talk about cool things in the science world without getting condescending (I would definitely have a beer with any of them).

Still, readers should take away from this that it's not just what you say, but how you say it that matters. One of Randy's points from Flock of Dodos is that the Intelligent Design movement is full of buzzwords and as I put it at the time, "shiny wrappers" that make it seem like a palatable product. When Bill Nye debated the legitimacy of Intelligent Design with Ken Ham last month, a sizable number in the science community felt it would be validating a worthless idea by even showing up. However, it was watched by millions, and brought Bill's joy in the scientific method to households that would otherwise never be exposed to critical thinking. Sure, Bill's an engineer and didn't have all the technical details right, but he's insanely relatable and easily communicates these big ideas. The reboot of Cosmos by Neil deGrasse Tyson also shares this enthusiasm over science without talking down to the audience. Get rid of the Ivory Tower, and share what you love! ( )
  Daumari | Dec 30, 2017 |
A (entertaining) book that covers science communication from a "to the masses" and "film" perspective, rather than e.g. "how to prepare for an interview" perspective. While at times I felt it focused too much on the medium of film, it is hard to overstate the importance of film (including 'videos' of all types) for mass communication, I just think I cam slightly biased against it. That said, I felt that just about everything here is relevant, whether talking about film or not, and whether talking about communicating directly to a mass audience or only indirectly. ( )
  dcunning11235 | Oct 17, 2016 |
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"You think too much!  You mother F@$#%&* think too much!  You're nothing but an arrogant, pointy-headed intellectual -- I want you out of my classroom and off the premises in five minutes or I'm calling the police and having you arrested for trespassing." -- Hollywood acting teacher to Randy Olson, former scientist After nearly a decade on the defensive, the world of science is about to be restored to its rightful place.  But is the American public really ready for science?  And is the world of science ready for the American public? Scientists wear ragged clothes, forget to comb their hair, and speak in a language that even they don't understand.  Or so people think. Most scientists don't care how they are perceived, but in our media-dominated age, style points count. Enter Randy Olson.  Fifteen years ago, Olson bid farewell to the science world and shipped off to Hollywood ready to change the world. With films like Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca '06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest '08), he has tried to bridge the cultural divide that has too often left science on the outside looking in. Now, in his first book, Olson, with a Harvard Ph.D. and formerly a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire, recounts the lessons from his own hilarious-and at times humiliating-evolution from science professor to Hollywood filmmaker.  In Don't Be Such a Scientist, he shares the secrets of talking substance in an age of style. The key, he argues, is to stay true to the facts while tapping into something more primordial, more irrational, and ultimately more human. In a book enlivened by a profane acting teacher who made Olson realize that "nobody wants to watch you think," he offers up serious insights and poignant stories. You'll laugh, you may cry, and as a communicator you'll certainly learn the importance of not only knowing how to fulfill, but also how to arouse.

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