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Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style Paperback – August 28, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In 1997, marine biologist Olson recognized that scientists needed better communications skills to address a growing backlash against "rational data-based science." Inspired by the "power of video," Olson gave up a tenured professorship and went to Hollywood to reach a broader audience through filmmaking. The crucial lesson he learned was how to tell a good story, a largely absent concern for scientists, who focus on accuracy rather than audience engagement. It was a lesson Olson learned the hard way, after his intelligent design documentary, Flock of Dodos, flopped for lack of a lively story line. By "starting with a quirky little tidbit" about his mother and the intelligent design lawyer she lives next to, Olson found the hook he was missing. Olson values motivation over education, looking to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth ("the most important and best-made piece of environmental media in history") for a hugely successful example of his principles in action. As if to prove all he's learned, Olson packs this highly entertaining book with more good stories than good advice, spurring readers to rethink their personal communication styles rather than ape Olson's example.
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"If you are a wildlife professional who has ever been faced with hunters not believing your data and questioning your management recommendations, or have had to deal with angry property-rights advocates questioning not only your results but your integrity, then Don't Be Such a Scientist should be on your professional reading list."
(Wildlife Professional)

"Don't Be Such a Scientist is a stinging critique, yet it's also a funny, heart-felt account of one scientist's efforts to make non-scientists care about the natural world."
(Carl Zimmer author of Microcosm and the award-winning science blog The Loom)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 216 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 1 edition (August 28, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597265632
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597265638
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (70 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #287,650 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Randy Olson earned his Ph.D. at Harvard University and achieved tenure at the University of New Hampshire before resigning and moving to Hollywood, obtaining an M.F.A. from the University of Southern California School of Cinema, and embarking on a second career as a filmmaker. Since film school he has written and directed the critically acclaimed films Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus (Tribeca, '06, Showtime) and Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy (Outfest, '08), and co-founded The Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project, a partnership between scientists and Hollywood to communicate the crisis facing our oceans.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By Saganite VINE VOICE on September 8, 2009
Format: Paperback
I suppose this disclaimer will have all the impact of one of those "Some of my best friends are..." statements, but I want it known that I really like Randy Olson. I think "Flock of Dodos" is a great documentary, and it would be hard indeed not to like Olson personally. He really does have a flair for film communication, and in that fairly narrow realm has something worth saying and consequently worth listening to.

But this book is too autobiographical--to the point where some sections should have started "Dear Diary"--to be of much practical use to scientists looking for clues how to communicate better. For those handful of scientists actually interested in filmmaking, sure, this is absolutely a must-have book. But for the lab denizen looking for ways to maybe spice up that presentation a little, there are tips and key principles presented in "Such," but perhaps not enought to provide enough help. I would recommend a more general book on how to create a memorable presentation if that's what's being sought.

As a critique of science's pitiful position vis a vis inspiring, motivating, and educating the public, "Such" probably has more value.

And let me add that apart from what I took to be an overabundance of sentences that began with "And," "But," and "Well," the writing of the book, the actual prose, is a paradigm of what Olson is trying to promote: A style wed to substance that helps pull an audience along with humor and stories and a refreshing nontechnical approach. Much as I liked that sort of element in the book, I closed it thinking there is still a need for another book, perhaps from a medium other than film, to provide additional perspective.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By science communicator on December 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
I am a professor at a research university and I care deeply about communicating science to the public. I am grateful to the author for writing a book on this important topic. The book does contain a few useful insights on what not to do. However, I feel that the useful part of the message could be condensed into a three- to five-page memo. A lot of the material deals with why the author thinks he is funny or innovative or right, why he thinks his work is under-appreciated, or why he thinks his personal history is relevant. All of the navel-gazing really distracts from the message. This is unfortunate, considering that this is a book on communication. I would recommend reading the three- to five-page memo to my fellow scientists, but I would hesitate recommending reading the book.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful By James T. Dickey on September 10, 2009
Format: Paperback
There are people in science who know what they're talking about. And there are people in the realm of science who make a greater impact on the general population. Often, these are not the same people, and Randy Olson takes us on his quest to figure out "why?". Why won't people listen to scientists who know what they're talking about? They've spent their whole lives focusing on their field of expertise. Why do their real-life adventures and thrilling discoveries go unnoticed by the general public? It is a common obstacle that I share with my peers in scientific fields who have a drive to use their knowledge to make a difference in the world. Can you imagine how discouraging it is when our thoughts and stories about our life's work are met with yawns and glazed eyes?

This book picks the issue apart scientifically, but (thankfully) is not written scientifically. I find scientific writing to be dense and, well, a little difficult to read (making me sleepy and blurring my vision a little). Olson practices what he preaches and presents his rather strong argument through compelling anecdotes and current examples that are common knowledge. His conversational writing style is a pleasure to read, and this is a must-read for all seasoned and aspiring scientists.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Emmeline R. Crowley on September 9, 2009
Format: Paperback
Over the course of the last half century, the teaching ability of professors at Universities has declined to a point that when a student actually gets a good teacher as a professor, it is an unexpected surprise. Those of us that have worked in the university research environment know the focus of most professors is their research, while the education of the student is an unfortunate but necessary requirement that allows one to continue his/her research. Scientists have forgotten that they actually are at universities for two reasons: 1. Teach students (and public), 2. Perform research. It is sad reality of the current university system that the first reason is often forgotten.

This book is a long overdue shock to the complacent college educational environment, and a must read for young scientists studying any curriculum. Randy Olson has combined his experience as a PhD professor of biology, training from USC Film School, and experience as a movie/mockumentary director to write a book that outlines a list of guidelines (not steps or rules) for scientists to use in order to make their work better understood to the masses. As Mr. Olson intimates and this reviewer would agree, what is the purpose of studying science to further the knowledge of man, if the scientist is the only one that understands the usefulness of their work?

It is the opinion of this reviewer that scientists have a moral obligation to become good communicators. Randy does a great job of outlining guidelines to better ones self as a communicator. These guidelines (chapters) include: Don't be so cerebral, Don't be so literal minded, Don't be such a poor story teller, Don't be so unlikeable, Be the voice of science. I would also add "Don't be afraid". Though not a chapter, Randy addresses this idea throughout.
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