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In Review

Don’t Be Such a Scientist

by Randy Olson
216 pages, Island Press, 2009

Scientists, writes Randy Olson in Don’t Be Such a Scientist, are too cerebral and literal-minded. Not to mention boring.

The observation would be insulting if Olson weren’t a scientist himself, but the author is a biologist-turned-filmmaker who left a tenured faculty position for film school, emerging, years later, as the director of Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus. The book reads like a lighthearted field guide that dissects a collective failure of scientists: the inability to communicate well with the public.

Some of his advice is common sense. Don’t be condescending. Humor is good. Be a storyteller, not a fire hose of endless facts. But at the heart of his message is the uncomfortable truth “that science, in itself … simply isn’t enough for the general public – it’s too cold, too complex, too informational.” For instance, when the Pew Oceans Commission released a 35-page report on the dire state of America’s coastal waters, barely any money was spent on public outreach. The report ended up on page A22 of The New York Times, where “instead of a big bang, there was hardly a whimper.”

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Compare that to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which packs personal stories and (attempted) humor alongside the science. Despite getting a few of the facts wrong, it won both an Oscar and praise from NASA climatologist James Hansen. On the flip side is HBO’s Too Hot Not to Handle, another global warming documentary released the same year. Too Hot is 100 percent accurate on the science. But have you seen it? Thought not. Substance alone doesn’t sell; Gore’s movie – “sleek, cool, and as hip as the formerly dull vice president could possibly be packaged,” as Olson puts it – at least has some style, an element missing from too many science films.

As for Olson’s own style, the book is an easy read, if a bit long. After a while even the self-deprecating anecdotes become repetitive. Overall, though, Olson has written a much-needed bridge between the disparate worlds of academia and everyday life, all in the hope of bringing science to a wider audience: “With the knowledge of science we can solve resource limitations, cure diseases, and make society work happily – but only if people can figure out what in the world scientists are talking about and why they should care.”

– Lisa Song


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