Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Don’t be Such a Scientist – Randy Olson ***

I have to admit up front that this book doesn’t score as well as it should because it’s not really popular science. I think it’s an excellent book – but the audience really is the science community, and though scientists do read popular science (often outside their own discipline), a true popular science book should appeal to non-scientists.
The reason it’s so targeted is that this book is designed to tell scientists how to communicate better. It’s rather strange that it’s subtitled ‘talking substance in an age of style,’ because what it really is about is teaching scientists how to add style and subtract substance. That might seem like heresy – but Randy Olson argues quite rightly that the scientist’s pernickety insistence on getting everything just right and not really worrying about how glossy the presentation is simply doesn’t wash in a mass media world.
Olson went from being a biology professor to Hollywood, so is ideally placed to gently lead the scientific lambs to the communications slaughter. He rightly points out how scientists can bore people, and even worse can put them off by talking down to them. He points out how some science bloggers (and though he doesn’t mention him, the likes of Richard Dawkins) take an attitude that’s effectively ‘if you don’t agree with me, you are stupid.’ This isn’t any way to win people over to your argument.
In the main it’s a great book with lots of useful guidance. The only area I’d disagree is Olson’s assertion that the future is film, and that in the future we’ll see lots of scientists communicating via home made videos. I think video content will increase, but blogs and Twitter (for example) are, to me, much better ways to communicate science than amateurish videos. And realistically, most scientists aren’t going to do what Olson did and take time off from their careers to go to film school for several years.
So – highly recommended for all scientists and even science writers. We all could be better at the way we communicate science. Though Olson’s book isn’t a step-by-step guide to science communication – it’s much more broad brush – it will help get an understanding of where scientists get it wrong. which is more than half the battle. For the right audience, highly recommended.
Review by Brian Clegg

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