01 February 2010

Do you like me? Or any scientist?

Dr. Doyenne at Women in Wetlands has, like me, been reading Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist.

(A)re scientists likeable? Well, some of them are, but why? In the coming posts, I’ll try to delve into how scientists can be more effective at science communication.

I look forward to her takes! And her posts are a nudge to me that I had been meaning to write about this myself.

The first element to consider is something that is entirely out of any scientist’s hands: culture. I think it’s fair to say that there is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in the United States. In other countries, intellectuals are probably more valued (France and Israel may be a couple of examples, though I don’t pretend to have any hard data on this.) If the culture doesn’t value deep or abstract thinking, scientists are going to have a hard time being seen as likeable.

In her follow-up, Doyenne writes (emphasis added):

I’ve noticed in the blogosphere that some science bloggers gain notoriety by engaging in negative rants, heavily laden with cursing and rude attacks on anyone with a different opinion. You probably know which blogs I’m talking about. Some have huge followings, probably because readers mistakenly think that an angry voice is bound to be a truthful one. Instead of expending effort to develop an intelligent, interesting, or useful voice, these angry bloggers use their vitriol as an easy way to attract attention. Take a close look at some of these blogs, and you will see that very little real information or useful insight is conveyed.

Olson writes about this at some length. He argues that so many bloggers are amateur communicators that it’s no surprise they use anger. Anger’s easy to convey.


I have read many science bloggers whose writing is both angry and truthful; profane and insightful.

A lot of people will point at the former and use it as an excuse to ignore the latter. (I’m not saying Dr. Doyenne is doing so. She doesn’t name names, so I have no basis for comparison.)

That writers accomplish both demonstrate what I think is a much bigger advantage for scientists than likeability. Likeability for scientists is an uphill battle at best. (To be clear, I’m not saying that scientists should try to be unlikeable. Trying to improve would be a good thing.)

In his book, Randy Olson also writes about the emergence of unscripted entertainment; reality television and the like. On one of his commentaries for Doctor Who, writer Russell T Davies said of such unscripted shows, “That’s what drama is now,” using Susan Boyle’s run on Britain’s Got Talent as an example. Olson says people enjoy the spontaneity in such moment; I think it also has to do with seeing genuine reactions. I think people enjoy a lack of artifice, even though we are constantly advised to create façades and hold things back.

Authenticity is something that scientists have in abundance. Something like ClimateGate is damaging not so much because scientists were seen being unlikeable, but because they were seen as not being straight-shooters.

I would hate for researchers to lose their authenticity in pursuit of likeability. As Danielle Laporte wrote elsewhere:

Authenticity is incredibly efficient. Consistency builds velocity. When you’re who you really are, people know what to expect of you, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Show me who you are, even if it’s a bit risky (risk = momentum.)

Additional: See also this post on authenticity in game promotion.

1 comment:

WhiteHotTruth said...

great perspective. good luck on the 'likable scientists revolution'