Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: Don't Be SUCH a Scientist!

Full Disclosure: I met Randy Olson during my Science Cheerleader event in Washington, DC and consider him, if not a friend, at least a friendly acquaintance with a shared appreciation for SciCheer and engaging means of talking to the public about science and technology.

Having gotten that out of the way, I'll now talk about Randy's book, Don't Be SUCH a Scientist! which I read in less than a day. It's what a book club member I knew once called "a cracking good read." But then Randy's book is directed at people trying to communicate science to the public, which more or less includes me, so of course he had my attention.

As I said, Randy produced the Science Cheerleader video from the Science & Engineering Festival, and it's a fun piece of work (now over 37,000 viewers as of this writing). Randy himself turns out to have had quite an interesting career path: an oceanographic scientist and professor, he shifted careers at age 38 to enroll in film school at USC, which is not an easy transition, as he illustrates throughout this book. In fact, he opens the book with a scene from an acting class from USC, where a rather abusive acting prof was yelling at him from always being cerebral ("You think too much! You mother f***ing think too much!"), which he notes is one of the first failings of scientists trying to communicate with the public.

The other sins he accuses scientists of include "Don't Be So Literal-Minded," "Don't Be Such a Poor Storyteller," and "Don't Be So Unlikeable," which represent the first four parts of the book. And if you consider that a spoiler alert so egregious that you feel you don't now need to read the rest of the book, brother (or sister), buy the book, pull up a chair, and prepare to be educated and entertained. What makes Randy's arguments telling and selling is that he has been on both ends of things: he has been a scientist and he is now in the business of telling stories on film. He provides concrete, wince-inducing examples of blatantly bad communication. What makes the writing less like a lecture and more like a standup routine is that a lot of the time he turns the magnifying glass on himself and points out where he has exhibited the very behaviors he is now trying to stop. Nothing teaches like experience.

As an English major among rocket scientists, I like to think that I'm immune from some of the pomposity or literal-mindedness of the science-minded, but alas, no. Spend enough time around scientists or engineers, and you will end up thinking, writing, or even speaking like them. One piece of advice in the book I'd heard before, though I cannot remember where, is when Randy talks about reaching not just the head in communications, but also the heart (emotions), gut (humor, intuition), and gonads (sex appeal). It's very easy to write good, logical arguments for space flight or this or that vehicle configuration, but sometimes a little more is required. I notice this when a piece of writing that people at work (rocket scientists, remember) think is great but my non-space friends or family members "just don't get." I've left out some of that emotional stuff that grabs a larger audience. I notice this tendency most when I generate content for our mutual friend Darlene the Science Cheerleader. I can do intellectual/logical very well, and depending on the person or subject, I can reach down and touch the heart or make people laugh. But I'm not very sharp on creating "sexy" on the page. The Science Cheerleaders do that, and I'm duly grateful. Perhaps that's why Randy and I both respond to Dar's Science Cheerleader concept--she's got a message that covers all the bases.

I didn't agree with everything Randy wrote. He dislikes the defensive, control-the-interview approach many scientists take toward the media. This happens to be the approach I learned at a media training course offered through NASA. The logic is simple, really: while scientists have a story to tell, so do members of the professional media. The scientists want their stories told and try to keep the discussion focused on those messages. Reporters don't just want a story, they want a story that will grab ratings. And if that means asking off-topic questions that get a headline-grabbing quotation from an eminent scientist or cause said eminent scientist to get angry and have a flash of temper on camera, so be it. That is a good reason of why scientists are distrustful of new media or the "gotcha" mainstream press. That said, there are ways of telling a good story and giving the interviewer an engaging interviewer without getting hauled into the Administrator's office the next day for comments made in the heat of the moment.

One of the chapter headings reads, "Choose: Accurate but Not Popular or Popular but Not Accurate." In this instance, he was discussing the differences in public reaction between a fact-based HBO documentary on global warming and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," which won both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. The documentary disappeared from public awareness despite having noted scientific flaws and inaccuracies. The point, in Randy's mind and in that of many of the scientists who noted the faults but endorsed the film anyway, is that "the message is too important!" To which I would say, rather impolitely, BS. If the outcomes of a scientifically inaccurate piece of propaganda (the one word Randy doesn't use in his book) result in bad law or harmful policies, then a so-called documentary has crossed the line from inaccurate to fraud or blatant harm. To his credit, the very first sentence after this heading is "I will never, ever endorse the idea of striving for anything less than 100 percent accuracy in the making of any film realted to real issues in the world of science." However I'm not certain he completely resolves the matter of public "engagement" (propaganda) vs. informing the public about a scientific issue.

Don't Be Such a Scientist challenges scientific communicators with the simple fact that the facts no longer "speak for themselves," if they ever did. Film, video, or new media are good ways to engage or enrage the public, but not particularly good at educating them--a point Randy makes several times in the book. However, before the education can happen, there must come the motivation; and those motivations must come from the head, heart, gut, and groin or the education will never happen. The public will tune out, as they have for many years now.

I recommend this book for scientific communicators of all stripes, from those generating the content or doing the science to technical communicators like me, who are not scientists but nevertheless must communicate technical information to an often-uninformed public. Don't Be Such a Scientist is a good companion book for followers of,, and ECAST. Professional scientists need to communicate their discoveries and ideas clearly and compellingly. The public needs to be interested enough in science to get educated about it or even do it. After the engagement and education, it is possible to have informed debates about the scientific and technical issues of the day, resulting in good decisions being made. And ideally, that's the whole point of the exercise.

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