Don't Be Such a Scientist
Kevin Fong reaches an uncomfortable realisation that science communicators need to improve
OK, here goes. I'm going to write this review in the style suggested by Randy Olson. This means that I'm going to use my penis. Not literally, you understand - that would be exhausting, anatomically complicated and likely quite illegible. Blame Olson for that mental image, by the way. I'm only following his advice - for this is the opening gambit of Don't Be Such a Scientist: the suggestion that scientists should stop intellectualising everything they communicate. Sometimes you need to stop using your head and just get it out there, he suggests. For good communicators, the power of expression comes from the heart, from the guts and yes, sometimes even the "lower sex organs", if I understand him correctly.
This is the first bit of gristle one has to bite down on before getting to the meat of the thing. I say "the first" because there's plenty more to make you feel uncomfortable in this volume. The book has the feel, and at times the style, of a self-help text and this alone makes it hard to chew through. After all, to read and enjoy a book about how to improve yourself is to admit that you need improving in the first place.
"Don't be so cerebral, so literal, so bad at telling stories and unlikeable," command the first four chapters. It's hard not to take this stuff a little personally, and I must confess that had I not been reviewing the thing I might have stopped halfway and filed it on the floor to join the collection that props up my broken futon. But professional that I am, I persisted - and lo, a funny thing did happen.
There within its pages, I began to recognise the portrait of the archetypal bad science communicator that Olson was painting as a partial reflection of myself. It was quite a revelation, and an uncomfortable one at that. His text spews forth a stream of what he perceives as science's crimes against communication; these he dilutes with a few colourful anecdotes, often about him and some Hollywood grandee, but those helped the shot go down about as much as the salt lick before your 14th tequila slammer. The shock of it was awful: page after page telling me where I had been going wrong all my life. But just when my spirits had hit their nadir, I realised that Olson was there with me, recounting tale after tale of how, over the course of his career, he has frequently found himself out on a limb, being too much of a scientist and reaping torrents of abuse for it.
It is this that I most admire about the book: Olson's utter honesty over events and failings that most of us would want to paint over and edit from the movie of our lives. In one excruciating tale, Olson recounts how he found himself in a lecture theatre asking movie mogul Spike Lee such a long-winded and irrelevant question that the entire auditorium started chanting "get to the point" over and over again. If that had happened to me, I would be in therapy for terminal embarrassment. Olson instead integrates this as part of a how-not-to-do-it story in which he seems comfortable to have played the hapless protagonist.
And so I found myself agreeing with much of what this author had to say; particularly with the assertion that scientists rely too much upon the axe of pure logic to get their point across. Just because something's a statistically provable, scientific fact doesn't mean the rest of the world's going to believe you. The scientific community relies on public funds, which are shackled to public opinion, and it is going to have to box smarter than it does to win itself larger budgets. Improving its powers of communication is part of that game. Olson's five-step rehabilitation programme for communicators is not the ultimate solution to all of science's communication woes, but it is not a bad starting place.
I learnt something from this book and that's more than I can say for a lot of other stuff that I have had the displeasure of finishing and then wishing I could unread. In fact, I would go so far as to recommend it for being that rarest of rare things: a self-help text that might actually help you. Sure, the book isn't perfect, and not all of its advice is to be taken as gospel, but it does contain many gems of valuable guidance for those of us who are in the business of communicating with other human beings.
Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style
By Randy Olson
Island Press, 216pp, £12.99
Published 26 November 2009
Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.