Don’t Be Such a Scientist

Randy Olson
2009

Scientists, Olson writes, are “handicapped by a blind obsession
with the truth. This is the burden that scientists and science
communicators face. It is the eternal struggle between storytelling and reality.”

Why do scientists, armed with all the right arguments, regularly lose public debates on human origins to creationists?

At a time when the fate of the entire planet, not to mention all of us, may rest on our ability to understand and employ science, why are so few people listening to scientists?

According to Randy Olson, marine biologist and documentary filmmaker, the answer is simple — Scientists think and act too much like scientists.

In Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style (Island Press, 2009), Olson aims to teach other scientists how to be better communicators. What good is it to have the right message, if no one’s listening?

Olson’s expertise as both a scientist and a filmmaker gives him a unique perspective on the difference between doing science and communicating it. It’s not just science that has two often conflicting parts. Communicating anything, including science, involves both substance and style. And the politics that acts on the reports produced by science  is a blend of information and marketing.

What does this have to do with scientific communication? Scientists are “brainiacs,” and they live in their heads. But good stories, the kind to which people really pay attention, have a more directly emotional appeal.

Much of Olson’s insight comes from the process of creating and promoting his 2006 documentary film, “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus.” Of particular importance was Olson’s struggle to understand that he had to do much more than to accurately convey information. He had to learn how to make his information tell a story that people wanted to see and hear.

Olson outlines what he calls “The Four Organs Theory of Connecting with the Mass Audience.” The organs are the brain, the heart, the guts, and the sex organs. The head is the home of logic and analysis and reason. The heart is the home of the emotions, from melodrama to religion. The gut is the source of the “gut feeling,” of humour and instinct. And the sex organs? Well, they’re about sex.

So the task for scientists is simple: Move the message downhill, out of the brain and into the rest of the body.

Storytelling is challenging for scientists. They spend their time in a world of empirical facts and carefully-arranged experimental outcomes. They may enjoy the same things that the rest of us enjoy, but they enjoy them in that special, nerdy way that scientists have. Olson puts it this way:

This is not to say that scientists can’t enjoy lots of stories. But still, I promise you, they simply do not enjoy them as much as the general public. They view themselves as the “designated drivers” of the story-telling audience. While everyone gets drunk on entertainment, the scientist maintains a certain level of sobriety, always keeping an eye on the facts.

This tension between content and presentation is the great challenge for scientists, Olson says. Scientists are cerebral and literal-minded, and they have trouble paying attention to anything but the data, to the point that our stereotype of a scientist includes not only a big brain but an unkempt, often unattractive appearance and few — or no — social skills.

From Dr. Frankenstein to The Nutty Professor, the public image of the scientist is a barrier to communication. Talking down to the audience, or intellectual arrogance; letting the message get lost in endless details; treating public debate like a peer review panel — all are ways to lose the war before you begin the battle. As Olson puts it, “Style becomes much more powerful than substance in large public venues  with broad audiences.”

Scientists weren’t always inept communicators. In the 19th century, before the mass media with which we live today, prominent scientists travelled the country on popular lecture tours. Sold-out audiences gathered in cities large and small to listen to the latest theories and hear about the newest research. These scientists were skilled public speakers, and the science news they spread was one of the few public entertainments the literate part of the public could access.

Times have changed, Olson says, and now most scientists depend for their careers and livelihoods much more on grant applications and tenure-producing journal articles than on communication with the public. For many scientists today, effectively communicating — talking about science in terms to which “ordinary people” respond — is a sign more of academic weakness than of rhetorical adeptness. It’s the attitude behind the negative term “popularizer,” which to many scientists means “not good enough to do primary research.”

The bulk of the book details the pitfalls science communicators need to avoid. All of them come down to scientists’ tendency to get stuck in their heads, unable to move the conversation down to the heart and guts, much less the sex organs.

Scientists, Olson writes, are “handicapped by a blind obsession with the truth. This is the burden that scientists and science communicators face. It is the eternal struggle between storytelling and reality.”

How did Olson solve his own communication problem? Well, it can only help any film to have a sequence with comically dancing dodos. For the rest, he turned his hours of accurate but boring interview video into a simple story about his mother and her neighbour, who just happened to be the ID camp’s chief attorney in the Kansas education policy debate which is at the centre of Flock of Dodos.

Olson, the hero, rushes a film crew to his Kansas homeland to protect his mother, the damsel in distress, from the evil dragon, the attorney — but he finds that the real villain is an evil empire, in this case, the Discovery Institute in Seattle.

Olson credits this iconic, almost mythic storyline with saving Flock of Dodos from being just another boring Science Wars documentary, and he’s right. Dodos is entertaining and fun — and because it’s entertaining and fun, it makes its point to a larger and more receptive audience than it would have otherwise.

After all, March of the Penguins was a science documentary about animal behaviour, but its success came because it was a story about love, loyalty, courage, and survival.

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