Thursday, October 28, 2010

Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, by Randy Olson---Review

Island Press, (c)2009, ISBN 1597265632

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.