Don’t be such a scientist.

by Jen

Well, that’s the main idea, anyway. I’ve finished Randy Olson’s book, Don’t Be Such A Scientist, and am glad I kicked off my literature review with this one. Olson is a scientist-turned-filmmaker, and Flock of Dodos, his documentary about the intelligent design debacle of 2005, is a great example of the type of science storytelling he heralds in this book and throughout his many interviews, (which include this one for Point of Inquiry, where I first heard about his work.)

The powerful and effective communication of science has to be much higher priority than ever or the science community will lose its voice, drowned out by either the new anti-science movement or just the cacophony of society’s noise.

In the book, he gets rather quickly to the heart of the problem: the scientific community does a pretty poor job of communicating important ideas to the public. He offers some basics on the nature of mass audience appeal, suggesting it all boils down to connecting with four body parts (each with increasing power to captivate and engage): the head, heart, gut, and,  ahem, crotch. He does a superb job of unpacking the strategies that scientists employ, (many ill-informed), and ignore (to their peril), and Olson sells the power of good storytelling in a compelling mix of anecdotes and examples.

Having sought out and completed a year of coursework in a program that espouses the “compelling narrative” philosophy, I’m probably a poor test of how persuasive his efforts are, (preaching to the converted here, Randy), but there are certainly some seeds for thought and reflection that I’ll take forward into this project. In a nutshell, his advice for the science community is:

  1. Don’t be so cerebral.
  2. Don’t be so literal-minded.
  3. Don’t be such a poor storyteller.
  4. Don’t be so unlikeable.

 A few quotes to reflect on:

Scientists fall victim to the belief that information alone is enough to effect change. They think, “if I can just put these facts together into this specific argument, when people see it all assembled they will change their their outlook.” Which might be true if people actually see it… but that’s the problem.
Motivate, then educate. When you begin to digest this, you realize that most failed communication efforts are the result of falling down on one side or the other.
The attackers of science are a potential communication opportunity. They are a source of tension and conflict. They can actually be used to tell a more interesting story, one that can grab the interest of a much wider audience.
Good communicators believe in the power of communication. Poor communicators don’t.

All in all, Olson’s ideas are nothing new; Kenneth Burke would be proud to see the marriage of drama and rhetoric championed within these pages, but it’s refreshing to see these ideas applied to a field that is unfortunately bringing up the rear when it comes to communication design.