14 September 2009

Review: Don’t Be Such a Scientist

ResearchBlogging.orgDon't Be Such A ScientistLet me try to apply one of the suggestions in Don’t Be Such a Scientist and practice a little concision:

I love this book. I devoured it in one evening.

Whew. Now, I can go back to my normal science mode.

Randy Olson has been working in Hollywood for over a decade, but he’s still one of us. He gets what being an academic scientist does to you: you become literal, critical, and absolutely focused on destroying error – and it never goes away. He gets us. But he also gets how other people see us, and Olson has a message for us, his former colleagues: For other people, it’s not just about the data, guys.

Olson isn’t the first person to say that persuading non-scientists about the truth of things requires more persuasion than just evidence. This has not been a popular message, particularly among a lot of my fellow science bloggers.* These kinds of messages get characterized as weak-kneed capitulation, compromising the truth.

For that reason, Olson will probably face his strongest criticism for suggesting that scientists not be unlikeable. It sounds a lot like admonitions of other writers never to offend, which has generated a growling response that there are some people that we scientists want to offend: the people who deal out lies, errors, and untruths.

Olson has not cracked that hard problem: how to communicate with those nice people who are just like you and me, except for a few beliefs that are divorced from reality. You know the ones: the creationists, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaccine campaigners, the moon landing conspiracy theorists, the birthers, and so on. Olson’s tips and suggestions won’t matter when dealing with those people, but that’s not Olson’s book. It’s a book that somebody needs to write – badly – but Olson’s approach shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. He’s pointing out that when you launch a full out assault on your enemies, you risk inflicting a lot of casualties on people who might have been on side.

Part of what convinced that Olson is on the right track were uncomfortable moments reading this book when you recognize yourself, and think, “Oh, damn, he’s right.”

For instance, Olson talks about how being an academic means being critical. We academics forget that even honest and correct criticism can be very deflating.

Have you ever walked out of a movie that you loved, and you’re replaying some of those favourite moments and lines in your head... and one of the people you’re with points out something that’s completely illogical? Do you happily respond to that honest and correct criticism, “Wow, I’m so glad you pointed that out!” If so, you’re a better person than me, because my response was an irritated, “That’s not the point.” **

And yet, we scientists are routinely praised for pointing out those annoying little untruths. On the very day I received my copy of Olson’s book, one of my blog posts was picked as an editor’s choice specifically because it was critical.

On that note, I don’t think it’s any accident that the words highlighted in the blurbs on the back are the ones that say how critical this book is. After all, this book is aimed at scientists and academics, so if you want their respect, you’ve got to show them that you’re criticizing! In fact, the tone here is very amiable and affable. The most critical sections of the book seem more exasperated than stinging.

On a similar note, Olson also talks about how scientists are extremely literal. Here again, you don’t have to look further than recent stuff on the blogosphere. The new film Creation is starting to get reviews, and here’s Eugenie Scott’s review on Panda’s Thumb.

As someone with a stake in how the public understands evolution and it’s most famous proponent, the bottom line for me was that the science be presented accurately. The second was that the story of Darwin’s life be presented accurately.

Her bottom line is not whether the movie has a good story, is emotionally powerful, well acted, or any of the other dozens of things that most people look for in a movie. Her bottom line is accuracy. Such a scientist. For many, looking for that first is missing the point of why they watch a movie.

Finally, Olson has something in common with Adam Savage. It’s not just that they do science-y stuff on film. MythBusters host Savage was quoted as saying recently:

I realized that my humiliation and good TV go hand in hand.

Olson is not afraid to make a point at his own expense. Don’t Be Such a Scientist starts with Olson on the receiving end of a truly terrifying bawling out by an acting teacher. Those four pages alone are near worth the price of admission, but it’s not the lowest or most embarrassing moment for Olson in the book. This is self deprecation taken to a new high, and it’s an illustration of one of Olson’s key tactics for communication: don’t “rise above,” as he puts it. In other words, don’t be high and mighty. Audiences tend not to like such people.*** I’ve tried to avoid righteous indignation on this blog, there are occasions where I bet someone reading it thought, “Boy, is he full of himself.”

There is more about this book that I’d like to comment on and explore, but I’ll leave them for later. I’m teaching a class on biological writing this semester, and I hope I can bring some of the issues Olson raises into the class. Don’t Be Such a Scientist is a rich source of ideas, and I’ll be riffing off them for some time to come.


Olson, R. (2009). Don't Be Such a Scientist. Island Press, 1-216 ISBN: 9781597265638

* That Olson mentions the tenor at scienceblogs.com as something damaging rather than helpful... let’s say I’ll be interested to read the response.

** For me, the movie was Edward Scissorhands.

*** I do have to wonder what Olson makes of the success of House, a show that has a character that seems to violate almost single suggestion that Olson has. The character is unlikeable, always rising above...

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