Sci had a LOT of trouble with this book. It took me a long time to read it. This is mostly because Sci, unlike many people on the internet, actively avoids things that make her mad or negatively impact her blood pressure. I’ve got plenty of pressure and things in my life that make me unhappy (Sci is, after all, in grad school) without deliberately seeking out things to upset me. And so, when things annoy me or make me incoherently angry, I try not to waste energy on them, close the window, put the book down. And thus it was with this book. The day it arrived on my doorstep, I sat down, and got through about 15 pages before throwing it down in sheer aggravation. I thought maybe it was my mood (frustrating day, you know), and so two days later tried again. Same thing. Then I thought I needed a break, read an awesome book on squid. I finished the book on squid. Then I looked at this book again, and just looking at the cover made me so annoyed that I read an entire textbook on evolutionary theory first (It was great, though!).
So you’d think, well if it annoys me that much, perhaps I should not have read it at all, or reviewed it at all for that matter. Perhaps. But I got the book in mail, and thus I SHALL read it. Also, it was a book I WANTED to like. I wanted very much for it to make good points, I wanted it to make new inroads on scientific communication. I want HELP with how to communicate with people. I want to know how to make people stop believing things that aren’t true, and how to help them understand the deep concepts in science that make it so incredibly cool.
And so I kept trying (sporadically). Finally, I sat down to it on the plane ride back from Chicago’s SFN meeting. I thought I would be exhausted enough that I wouldn’t be able to get annoyed. I was wrong. Within minutes I was scribbling things in the margins. Then I threw it down AGAIN, and only picked it up again this past week when I just felt I had to GET THROUGH IT.
So here’s the thing. As you can tell, I completely loathed this book. Absolutely hated it.
The guy has some good points.
Sci would like to begin this with a disclaimer:
I arrived on the blogging scene (by “arrived”, I mean started blogging to an audience of about 3) around the time Dr. Olson’s movie “Sizzle” came out. As I hadn’t seen it, I didn’t read the reviews, though I heard there were fights over it. But that’s normal. So for the record: I have not seen Sizzle, or Flock of Dodos, and this is my first real exposure to Randy Olson. So I have no pre-existing agenda about loving or hating his work.
“Don’t be SUCH a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style” is about scientific communication, and mostly about how scientists are getting it wrong. We are boring, far too fixated on the facts, and often have a total inability to notice when our audience is bored. And Dr. Olson does make some good points on how to solve this problem: scientists need to learn to tell a story. To put the facts in context, grab some dramatic tension, and make people WANT to know the answers. And we’ve got some good material to work with, I mean, it’s SCIENCE!
What we need is to add is some style. I’m not talking about how we dress. I’m talking about how we communicate. Scientists are all about substance, often at the expense of things like passion and emotion, which don’t tend to go over well at scientific meetings. But, as Dr. Olson points out, we are in an age of style. Unless you have a style that people can relate to, no one is going to listen to your substance. They don’t come primed to be excited about your latest ideas on memory formation in the hippocampus. This is a hard thing for some scientists. Science is the last bastion where it’s COOL to be nerdy, and totally ok to spend all the time you’re out for beers discussing your work. And some people go into science because they DON’T want to communicate. They want to study, they want to find out new things about the world. They want to cure diseases.
And that’s ok. Heck, that’s great! But we’ve got to get the word out about how fabulous our work is somehow. And there are those of us who want to communicate, and who want to help people understand what science is all about, why it’s cool, and why it’s extremely important. And we need help, we need advice, we want to do better. Considering a large proportion of people don’t believe in evolution and a scary minority think vaccines are evil, we need to really up the PR.
So there is a place for a book like this. There is a place for a book that can give scientists who want to communicate to the public ideas about how to do so. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the book we need is this one.
Dr. Olson notes that this book is not a guide to how science communicators can communicate, it’s more of how to rethink your style. But I don’t know how much rethinking I’m doing beyond “you’re doing it wrong”. Dr. Olson himself says that negativity is one of the things that makes scientists so unlikable and makes it so hard to listen to what they say. Positive attitudes are more likable and make people want to listen to them. Unfortunately (perhaps it’s the scientist in him), the book itself is overwhelmingly negative. He tells us all sorts of things we SHOULDN’T do. Don’t be unlikable, don’t fixate on facts, don’t stick to sound bites…but what should we DO?! Without any really clear ideas on this point, this book is nothing but another attack on science communication as it stands currently. I think we can all agree that there is a problem, the question is, what can we (on both sides, science and non) DO about it? The author does end up trying to tell us what to do. It appears to boil down to three main points:
1) Be Carl Sagan
2) If you can’t be Carl Sagan, be as funny as possible, talk style, and make sure you’re at the right buffet table with the big filmmaker guy and that your martini has three olives.
3) Style Style Style Style (substance).
So, generally, this is another book on science communication which tells us what’s wrong, without telling us how to do things right (except, of course, to be Carl Sagan). And there’s nothing really wrong with another book saying what’s wrong. But where this book loses me is the style. A good section of the book is spent on “style” (how you say it) vs “substance” (what you’re saying). In an age of style, substance is boring, so scientists are boring and unlikable. But what Dr. Olson also notes is that your style needs to be likable and worth listening to.
And this is where he lost me. I don’t like the substance of this book (what there was, beyond “you’re doing it wrong” and a lot of acting anecdotes), because the style of the book is condescending and pompous, referring continuously to the “robotic” and “unlikable” scientific personality. In a book which is trying to educate scientists on how to communicate, I don’t know that you want to start with making fun of your audience.
And that’s the real problem. During all that time the author spent going to film school, learning to tell a story, getting yelled at by acting coaches, and learning to communicate with the lay public, he forgot one very important thing: how to communicate with scientists. This book may very well appeal to a set of people, but scientists are not those people. It may surprise Randy to know this, but scientists are human, too. Most of us HATE communicating like robots, and only learn to do so because academia requires it as part of our training. And like most humans, most of us have a pretty good sense of humor. But also like most humans, scientists don’t have a lot of humor when it comes to themselves. Insulting people is almost never going to get your point across. The people this book is going to appeal to are going to be the people who like making fun of scientists, who like to point and giggle and say “geeks!” Unfortunately, those are not generally the sort of people who want to communicate science to the public.
It’s not a pleasant thing, as any person will attest, to read a book about your career and profession, and find titles like “Don’t be so unlikable”: Wow, I’m really impressed about how you’re being so honest, and how you’re not insulting scientists at all and communicating with us in a really positive way. It’s a really good way to get across the message. And I’ll get all over that “unlikable” thing right after I’ve finished dealing with that personal hygiene problem you just told me I have. I’m so thrilled that you make me feel good about myself and my profession. I really want to hear the rest of what he has to say about how I’m a terrible communicator!! Can’t wait to get to the part where he talks about how ugly I am!
These were the kind of thoughts I was stuck with all through reading this book. And when I think about the book in retrospect, I don’t think about his good points (that takes an effort), or what we need to do to communicate better. I think, instead, about how annoyed I was. I think I took away the wrong point.
And I know what Dr. Olson might say in response to my opinions. He will say that Sci has no sense of humor. He will say that REAL people who REALLY want to communicate will like his book and that I’m stodgy and old and don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m totally that horribly boring presenter who throws up blue screen slides while droning monotonously and that’s why I don’t like this book. He’ll say that indeed, my distaste for this book proves the point that scientists are SUCH scientists, that we don’t WANT to communicate, and that we’re all unlikable and this is why we don’t like his book. He could say that I clearly don’t get it. He might even say that I’m not the type of scientist he was trying to communicate with, anyway.
To which I reply: who WERE you trying to communicate with, exactly? Because I’m a scientist. I’m a scientist that wants to communicate, I’m a scientist who wants people to understand and love science as much as I do, and to see how important and cool it can be. And if I don’t “get” it, why am I not getting it? I’m not unintelligent. I WANTED to like it, and I WANTED to get it. So is the fact that I didn’t like it, found it pompous, and do not want to take the advice therein because of the attitudes of the author entirely my fault?
…could this book perhaps use a rethinking of style?
So Sci wanted to communicate. She wants to know how to do it well, and how to persuade the public that science is interesting, or at least that it’s useful. And it appears that we do need a rethinking of style. But the style of this book fails to persuade me of its substance. I appreciated the points of telling a story and adding in some action, but practical advice is a bit lacking. “Be Carl Sagan” doesn’t really work unless you’re Carl Sagan, and an individual voice will serve you better in the long run. How do we create that voice? How do take specific science and make a narrative? How do we get the hefty background required of many modern day scientific enterprises into a good style, without losing the sometimes complicated substance? And how do we do it without being constantly interrupted by Stephen Colbert? How DO you talk substance, without losing your style? These are the questions Sci wanted the answers to, and I didn’t really get them. I’m waiting on that book to be written.
In the meantime, I’ll just go back to working on my severe unlikability. And that whole problem I have with body odor.
Filed under: Activism