Review: ‘Don’t be such a scientist’ by Randy Olson


Don’t Be Such a Scientist
Talking Substance in an Age of Style

by Randy Olson
Publisher: Island Press
Publication Date: 14th September 2009  
Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 9781597265638
Price: $19.95 (USD)


“If you care about science-or a scientist- this will be the most important book you’ll ever read,” says Randy Olson of his Don’t Be Such a Scientist. He’s only half joking.
In the United States we have a clear communication gap between the world of science and the general public. For starters, the vast majority of scientists say evolution is a non-controversial fact and global warming is a planet-threatening danger. But in contrast, polls indicate the majority of Americans simply do not accept evolution as fact and feel that global warming is over-blown.

It is a vast and potentially devastating divide. And at its core is the simple inability of scientists and the science world to communicate effectively with the general public. This is where Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker comes in.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist is what happens when a scientist goes to Hollywood. Fifteen years ago, Randy, a Harvard Ph.D. and tenured professor of marine biology, bid farewell to the science world and shipped off to Hollywood to understand why scientists are so inept at connecting with the public. A decade and a half later, with acclaimed feature films like Flock of Dodos (Tribeca ‘06, Showtime) and Sizzle (Outfest ‘08), he has synthesized what he has learned.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist delivers a potentially paradigm-shifting message that “scientists need artists” and scientists must “arouse and fulfill.” Contrary to decades of obsession by scientists over just one thing – the need for accuracy – Randy now makes the plea for adding a second objective – the need to be interesting.

In an age of information overload, the economics of attention play an even larger role. Scientists need not only to get the public’s attention, but they have to keep it. In Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Randy reveals how far the world of science continues to lag behind mainstream America when it comes to communication and how scientists can catch up.

Randy pulls no punches. As tough on himself as he is on his fellow scientists, he shares the jarring moment he realized his students listened to him because they had to, not because he was interesting. He relates his own public humiliation when a crowded auditorium heckled his longwinded question to director Spike Lee, and the day an acting instructor kicked him out of class with the full-throated reprimand, “You mother***king think too much.”

He explains what he terms “The Four Organs of Mass Communication” – head, heart, gut, sex organs – all diagramed over a flexing Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he implores the science world to come down out of their heads. And in so doing he reaches into his own heart with sincerity, his own gut with humor, and even into his own sex organs with … well, actually, he never quite gets that far (there is, after all, a fair amount of scientist still left in him).

My Review

Although this book is aimed at an American audience, the points Randy Olson makes are as relevant to science communicators from other countries. While the book is aimed at a specific academic culture, the general points apply elsewhere, that ti effectively convey science to a non-specialist audience, science communication needs to tell stories.

I’m not sure I like the author’s writing style, I was put off the book slightly by it, but other than that this is an interesting book.



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