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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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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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
(Carl Zimmer, author of "Microcosm" and the award-winning science blog The Loom)
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Top customer reviews
I am a scientist (with Ph.D., post-doc and everything). Many of the people I work with are also scientists.
Most of us probably went into science because it suited our innate interest in analysis and experimentation as a way to understand the universe. Any honest scientist will be able to give case after case in which the tools of science have forced him- or herself to abandon previously held opinions or beliefs. This trains us to respect the scientific method, quantitative and qualitative evidence, and to view intuition and emotional responses with distrust.
It is probably human nature to think that others think and work the way we do. Thus many scientists are really mystified that homeopathy, creationism and the like remain unvanquished, and science-sounding arguments are being used to argue against vaccination (perhaps the greatest benefit-to-cost ratio of any human endeavor)!
Because of our value system, scientists (including me) tend to think that getting that additional piece of support for the mainstream science ideas will make a difference in how everyone views the science. However, a very little thought reveals that this is probably not a good approach. After all, most of the pieces of evidence that are still bandied about by modern creationists (including "intelligent design") were actually disposed of by Darwin. (There are things that Darwin got wrong, and there has certainly been a lot of biology discovered since then, but the evidence obtained since then has verified the truth of common descent and of natural selection being an important [though not the only] driving force of change through time.) The common approach yields yet more evidence that convinces other scientists but not the general public.
Randy Olsen makes the (somewhat bitter) suggestion that scientists should spend less effort gathering the evidence itself and more effort in "selling" its value. What hit me the hardest was his analysis of the Pew Oceans Commission report which was a geek's dream full of careful analysis and topical points. The Commission spent less than 3% of its budget on distribution and marketing. In contrast the movie Napoleon Dynamite, released in the same year, spent 96% of its budget on distribution and marketing. Is it any wonder that everyone has heard about the movie, but hardly anyone about the much more important Pew Oceans report?
Olson's chapter titles give an overview of his arguments and include "Don't Be So Cerebral", "Don't Be So Literal Minded", "Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller" and "Don't Be So Unlikeable".
Any good scientist will be really conflicted reading this. Olson's recommendations go against most everything our training stands for. Certainly being cerebral and literal minded and not being overly influenced by a good story are important to finding science truths. But having a cadre of knowledgeable scientists who are ineffective at communicating these ideas outside of their community does not benefit society very much.
This is not a particularly scholarly book, and it will not take long to read. But its point is very important. I suspect that the world would be a better place if all scientists read this once a year, even if there are parts that are very uncomfortable. It would also be a book that laypersons who are interested in science could read to get a glimpse of the values of scientists that can prevent them from being effective advocates of their positions.
I also struggled with the somewhat male-oriented perspective of this book. As a woman in science, I find that, although negation and condescension are present, it is not the defining characteristic of scientists. Particularly not female scientists. My husband (also a scientist) experienced this first-hand at a recent scientific conference. After attending sessions typically dominated by loud, negating and aggressive (older) male scientists, he sat in a session dominated by female scientists. He was so shocked by the supportive "Yes and" tone of the questions and comments that he actually called me right after the session to tell me! Olsen ignores this growing demographic in his book, but perhaps that isn't surprising, given the era in which he obtained his PhD.
Clearly, not all scientists fit the bland, generalized description Olsen puts forth in this book (we can not suspend disbelief, we hate positive, emotional and fulfilling stories (a la Oprah)and are strictly cerebral). Olsen spends much of his time directing very generalized barbs at "scientists", many of which miss the mark (we didn't all join science to avoid interpersonal communication). I might suggest that Olsen take a page out of his own book and focus more on "likability". Generalizing scientists into a bunch of negative, anti-social savants doesn't entice the reader or make a scientist who DOES fit those descriptions more apt to take his advice.
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