Don’t Be Such a Scientist

Review by John C. Snider © 2009

Science is controversial, whether we like it or not.  The nature of science is churn: old ideas are replaced by newer, better ideas; everything “known” is contingent, accepted only as long as new data doesn’t contradict it.  Still, science is a human process, and therefore imperfect.  Factions dig in their heals, refusing to see the truth even as the data piles up to the ceiling.  Reputations are lost (and, of course, made) when paradigms shift.

That said, not every paradigm shift becomes an eternal battlefield.  Astrologers don’t vie with astronomers to teach alternative facts about the cosmos, nor do alchemists lobby state legislatures for the right to be called chemists.

But, for a variety of reasons, some areas of science are controversial; for example, the realities of evolution and climate change.  There is, essentially, no debate within the scientific communities that a) all living creatures on earth–including human beings–evolved from a common, single-celled ancestor; and b) the earth is warming and civilization is one of the primary causes.

So why is it that, in the public arena, science is losing the battle for hearts and minds?  Despite all the data, why are average people–nevermind policymakers–convinced of the exact opposite of the truth?  The perennial power of religion and the influence of corporate greed definitely are at play here, but scientists can be, well…cold: off-puttingly intellectual, overly analytical, impatient, a bit Aspergery when it comes to dealing with non-scientists.  In short, some–including scientist-turned-filmmaker Randy Olson–are convinced that working scientists have been flat-out out-communicated by their ideological rivals.

Olson has practically made a second career out of showing scientists how to step out of their lab coats and slip on their metaphorical cardigans–a la Mister Rogers–in order to relate to regular folks.  Olson, who left a tenured position as a marine biologist to pursue his dreams in show biz, has made several films (e.g. the short Talking Science, the evolution/creationism documentary Flock of Dodos, and the global warming comedy Sizzle) that either seek to make science interesting, or try to show scientists how to be interesting.

Olson’s latest effort is not a film, but rather a book: Don’t Be Such a Scientist (pub. by Island Press, Aug 2009, 206 pp trade ppb, $19.96).  Using his own experience in the world of acting/writing/directing for film, and copiously illustrated by humorous real-life anecdotes, Olson lays out his case.  Scientists shouldn’t be so cerebral, literal minded, or unlikeable.  What people want are good storytellers, engaging personalities who can make them not just understand the complexities of science, but also understand why they should care.  Olson compares the effectiveness of two recent climate-change documentaries: Too Hot Not to Handle and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.  The former was a straightforward, accurate film packed with impressive scientific evidence; the latter had only a modest dose of hard science (and even a few factual errors), but was a memorable film that left Gore looking like a real person and not a cardboard cutout.  Which film do you remember?

Don’t Be Such a Scientist might easily have been called Don’t Be Such an Atheist, Don’t Be Such an Engineer, or Don’t Be Such a Lawyer.  The lessons are applicable for any vocation or avocation which tends more toward the intellectual than the emotional.  And at a couple hundred pages, it’s an easy-to-read and convenient-to-have handbook.  The book has one pointless figure (showing only the titles of the two documentaries mentioned above) and one unreadable photograph (of a message scrawled into the sidewalk outside the USC film school), but otherwise it’s an entirely professional and useful volume.

Some scientists will resent Olson’s advice.  They’ll find it frustrating–even demeaning–to have to “put on a dog-and-pony show,” but it’s hard to see that they have much choice.  They’ll either do what it takes to earn the trust and affection of the public, or they’ll get used to the proponents of bad science (or anti-science) getting all the air time.

Don’t Be Such a Scientist is available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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