15 February 2017

Don’t Be *Such* a Scientist, by Randy Olson

Posted by Callan Bentley

With the current political climate being what it is, I’m newly motivated to learn the best way to communicate science with the American public. I’ve decided to read several books on the topic that I’ve been aware of for years, but not yet made time for. The first is Randy Olson’s Don’t Be *Such* a Scientist. Olson has a unique perspective to apply to the question: he was a tenured professor of biology before quitting academia and moving to Hollywood to make movies. He knows how academic scientists talk, and he knows how Hollywood tells stories, and the two are really different. More to the point, one works for communicating with the general public, and the other slams the door in their faces.

Key points: Science is a negating profession, and communicating that way comes off as condescending. We scientists are in the business of nurturing fledgling hypotheses, only to slaughter them with facts both blunt and sharp. Karl Popper’s ‘falsifiability’ is the name of the game – we love to find the holes in arguments, the flaws in studies; our prestige is enhanced when we can find new and clever ways of saying “no, that’s not how it works.” This brutal crucible of negation leaves the strongest ideas standing, and we can trust in their robustness relative to weaker notions. But when a scientist takes this inherent negativity into general conversation, it comes off as grouchy or disdainful. I was thinking of this myself the other day when a friend who’s concerned about climate change emailed me a link to an article about the lengthening crack in Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Olson’s book made me see my response (“I wouldn’t see it as a major scary item by itself though – this is what ice shelves do – ice gets added ‘upstream’ by glaciers, and it “ablates” (breaks off) downstream. People seem to like big dramatic events though, and this is charismatic enough to grab folks’ attention!”) as an example of this negative sort of reaction. I essentially pooh-poohed her engagement with the story of the growing crack in light of my understanding of ice sheet dynamics. In retrospect, I wish I’d engaged differently – it was an opportunity missed for participating in a discussion.

We need to be conscious of where we are pitching out stories. By “where,” I mean where in the human psyche. Olson proposes a “Four Organs” theory of science communication. Metaphorically, we respond to communications with our (1) heads, (2) hearts, (3) guts, and (4) sex organs. Scientists communicate with other scientists head to head, but if you want to reach the general public, it’s more useful to frame your message in terms of an emotional appeal (heart) or humor (guts). Appealing to sex is the most widespread human approach, but it’s so jiggly and disorganized down there in our gonads that it’s difficult to communicate a coherent message. So Olson aims his science stories below the neck but above the belt.

Stories are good. I knew this intuitively, but Olson makes the point well by recounting the construction of his film Flock of Dodos, and how the first several cuts of the movie elicited weak reactions from his screening audiences. He then re-cut the film with an archetypal narrative (“hero saves a damsel from a dragon”) and the audiences found it much more compelling and enjoyable. This is a lesson I pledge to apply going forward. At the very least, I’m going to experiment with it where I can.

A corollary of the ‘make it a story’ edict is that you need not make it a story and have it be a textbook. He examines several films on the same topic (global warming, in this case) and qualitatively compares their information content to their emotion and humor content. While scientists are very interested in information, they value fact-heavy films over fact-light films. But Olson suggests that if there is no “heart” or “gut,” then the fact payload will never be delivered, as a general audience will be bored and change the channel. But a non-scientist audience knows what it likes, and it finds much more of a connection to films that speak from (and to) the hearts and guts of the audience, and the actual amount of information involved really doesn’t matter to them. This is a distinctly non-science conclusion to come from – and it makes me feel astonishingly uneasy to contemplate communicating in that way. That’s why Olson’s book is useful: it forces our community of science communicators to examine ideas that wouldn’t otherwise occur to us, in hopes they might prompt a change in our practice.

If you do science communication, you should read Olson’s book.