Book Review: Don’t be SUCH a Scientist

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.
But.
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.

Randy Olson’s “Don’t be SUCH a Scientist”
dontbesuchascientist.png


“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.

24 Responses

  1. I threw it on the floor after 15 pages myself. Good to know I did not miss anything by not trying to slog through the rest of it. I guess he WAS a boring type of scientist and then got entranced by the Hollywood swindlers and smoothtalkers who sold him their version of “communication is entertainment” snake-oil. Pass….
    BTW, every post of yours is BOTH fuller of substance AND more entertaining than those first 15 pages (ah, the lost time I will never get back) of this book that I read.

  2. This:

    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.

    has as much potential to turn people off as it does catch their interest. Maybe I’m totally unique on the face of the earth, but I cannot stand it when scientists think they need tepid and embarrassing attempts at humor to communicate with me. Besides, people today are pressed for time. Scientists can make a virtue of straight-up communication and not bombarding people with fluff. People tend to be sensitive to dishonesty, and trying to sell science as more fun than a roller-coaster isn’t going to sit well with most.
    On the other hand, a little show of enthusiasm wouldn’t hurt and nice-looking illustrations are almost universally appreciated. Above all, our common humanity connects the scientist with the layman. Somewhere along the way, people who are in science got fascinated with it. I think successful communication of science has to do with recapturing that state, when it was all so fresh, when a whole new world, complete with its own new language, was opening up. Recapture and translate the knowledge of now into the naivete of then.

  3. I don’t like celebrity gossips. The stories just bore me to death. It doesn’t matter how good the communicators are, if they are talking about those stuffs, their messages will get at most a quick glance from me.
    I think the same thing might apply to science. Some people are just not interested in the “substance” of science, no matter the quality of “style”, no matter how cool we think science is.
    (BUT IT IS! :D)
    On the other hand, when it comes to the topics that can catch my interest, I find that one of the best formulas for storytelling is just to enjoy it. If you have fun writing/speaking/blogging, chances are your audience will have fun digesting it too. If your communication style leaves you with a depressing mood, seething anger, or a bad taste in your mouth, the audience will likely follow suit.
    By the way, I often find myself smiling and giggling along as I read your articles. If you were also giggling while you were writing them (you know which ones), that PROVES it. :)

  4. I think that science communication should be made according to some general communication rules. And they can be quite simple, like in the book “Made to stick” (http://www.madetostick.com/).
    Another thing is that science communication has – and should have – many levels. So the style and style/substance ratio should be tailored to the specific medium & audience in order to be effective. If I’m going to appear on morning TV show for seven minutes (which equals something like two to three minutes of talking), I have to be brief, light and then informative. Writing a pop-sci article 1500 words long on the same subject is another story completely. And so on.
    Blogging is yet another specific medium, especially on sites like ScienceBlogs. Style is important here – no wonder that so many of us adore Sci’s posts! – but the substance rules, as far as I’m concerned…

  5. You should not be so annoyed yourself Sci. I read your post on oxytocin and the big O on the other day. Figure this: standing on and endless line, in the traffic department, in a small screen on my PDA. It was just a medical paper, like kilos of others I have read since the far nineties. And the paper itself was not specially good. But you describing it made it become lots of fun. Thanks.

  6. 5acos(phi/2): Sci giggled while she writes ALL THE TIME! Unless her mouth is full of ice cream. That makes it hard.
    And thanks guys, flattery will get you everywhere! But unfortunately, most of the people who read my blog are already primed to want to know about science (and that’s good!!! Go SCIENCE!), or at least the scientific term they were Googling when they came across me (the people who were Googling “how to insert pen ejaculation”…well…). It may be really necessary to make your story full of more style than substance to communicate with people who aren’t already interested. Sci is still trying to figure out how to do that one, though.

  7. Well, sounds like the book is inspiring. I would be annoyed too – clearly, this man has never heard of constructive criticism.
    That being said, maybe I’ll be able to provide you with actual tips after today — coincidentally, my university is holding a workshop for grad students today on how to communicate with non-experts. That for the price of: FREE!

  8. “How DO you talk substance, without losing your style?”
    Um, if you find a formula for that kind of communication, it will itself become science and will stop being art. Professional artists often struggle the whole of their working lives to develop their own style or voice. Many fail.
    You do pretty well yourself. I often find it interesting that scientists are so locked on their views on the institutions and practice of science that they loudly profess an ignorance of art, while freely indulging their artistic sensibilities.
    Odd.

  9. I’m glad i saw this in my email. I was thinking of getting this book.
    I’m not a scientist but I consider science THE most important tool we have for making life here better and for understanding how we got here and how and why we might leave against our collective will.
    Your blog was the first site of all the ScienceBlogs I read and it prodded me to explore many others. I now regularly read neurotopia, neurophilosophy, effect measure (and I’ll admit it, I’m not a big fan of certain vaccines, but it isn’t logical to dismiss anything without examining all sides to an argument), good math, bad math, and a couple of others that I look at sporadically.
    You write in a very accessible way and if your subject is something specific to other scientists, like the SFN meetings, then I don’t need to understand it or take an interest. But the posts you write intended for, I guess, a general readership I appreciate and find very communicative.
    There’s nothing wrong with being passionate about something you are devoting your life to as long as you remember to leave room for others’ passions, and other passions, as well.

  10. Hello – I was forwarded your review of my book, which even though you say you’re not funny, is actually a pretty funny review. Not sure if you mind my entering your conversation, but here goes.
    Let me offer up three joyously negative comments about things that I hate.
    1 I HATE THE CONTENT AND MESSAGE OF MY BOOK as much or more than you. When I was a graduate student I wrote a very cool article on larval behavior of the sea squirts I was studying and sent it to Natural History magazine where I thought they were actually interested in natural history. They rejected it, saying it was “too obscure” of a topic. In retrospect it probably wasn’t written as well as I had thought, but it was one of those life altering experiences. Why didn’t they want to listen to my cool little stories about sea squirt larvae? They said there wasn’t a sufficient audience for it. And of all places, Natural History.
    2 I HATE THAT MAJOR JOURNALISTS TODAY HOLD UP THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART as the ultimate public speaking destination. What has gone wrong with our society?
    3 I HATE THAT THE ANTI-SCIENCE MOVEMENT HAS EMERGED over the past decade and quickly realized how easy it is to take advantage of honest, trusty, non-media savvy academics.
    I’ve tried to post a few comments on blogs regarding the book to say simply that, “I am not the enemy.” I can tell you in very clear terms who IS the enemy. It’s the anti-science movement folks. It’s the people politicizing evolution to the point that K-12 teachers don’t want to go near the subject. It’s the global warming skeptics who right now are trying with all their resources to discredit hard working (and again, honest) climate scientists with this current “climategate” beat up they have engineered. And it’s even Bill Maher who ended up arguing against science, and even against a conservative Republican, Bill Frist, of all things, on his HBO show as he did his best to spook the general public about the flu vaccine with a number of untruths.
    That is your real enemy. I’m mostly trying to share with the science community what I’ve learned about broad communication by having pursued a very different pathway in leaving a tenured professorship and moving to Hollywood 15 years ago. The book is getting favorable reviews and there are several major ones coming in the next month or so. There’s no reason to attack it. And I think you largely aren’t here. I think you’re mostly conveying all of our frustration that the world has changed. It’s not the world that sat still and showed deep and abiding respect for Carl Sagan in 1980 when he unveiled his “Cosmos” series. It’s a different world today. It needs a new mindset. I’m not certain of exactly what that needs to be, but I do know there’s a dire need for open minds who are willing to listen to new perspectives.
    Thanks for reading the book.

  11. It strikes me that Mr. Olson probably doesn’t run in the same scientific circles that I do. At our recent international field-specific meeting there was much guffawing and joking and general good-times in the audience. Granted, the audience was comprised of mostly other scientists who already have an interest in this field, but I would argue that even correcting for this skew, most talks were indeed entertaining. In fact, on several occasions we were asked by hotel staff or people in restaurants about this conference and what we studied. I agree with the author that times have changed. I disagree that all or even most scientists don’t have a handle on this already.

  12. 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.

    Bullshit. The best scientific presentations are delivered with passion and emotion.
    I once gave a seminar that was attended by an administrative individual who has absolutely no scientific training whatsoever. After my talk, she approached me and said, “I had not the slightest clue what you were talking about, but your seminar was absolutely gripping!”

  13. 1) Be Carl Sagan

    Nice work if you can get it, but there haven’t been any openings for the position since 1934.
    The more fundamental problem is that communicating science well is hard (just like doing science), and people are not good at doing two hard jobs at once. The cost of being Carl Sagan was largely giving up scientific research (he did not give it up entirely, but clearly his output was more focused on leadership and writing, not his own astronomy).
    Most of the work scientists do will never be of general interest, because it’s mostly technical work that although part of interesting projects is often not particularly interesting to someone who is not familiar with the subject area.
    This is not a knock against science—everyone enjoys movies for example, but as entertaining as the product is, few people are interested in the details of the jobs those people who show up in the credits after the actors do.

  14. 1) Be Carl Sagan

    Nice work if you can get it, but there haven’t been any openings for the position since 1934.
    The more fundamental problem is that communicating science well is hard (just like doing science), and people are not good at doing two hard jobs at once. The cost of being Carl Sagan was largely giving up scientific research (he did not give it up entirely, but clearly his output was more focused on leadership and writing, not his own astronomy).
    Most of the work scientists do will never be of general interest, because it’s mostly technical work that although part of interesting projects is often not particularly interesting to someone who is not familiar with the subject area.
    This is not a knock against science—everyone enjoys movies for example, but as entertaining as the product is, few people are interested in the details of the jobs those people who show up in the credits after the actors do.

  15. Hi Dr. Olson! I’m really pleased you came by, as I always appreciate authors coming by when I cover anything to offer their perspective. But there’s a couple of things I’d like to address:
    Sci…has never really been interesting in Carl Sagan. I mean, he was fine and all, but I wasn’t exactly the kid watching his stuff with dropped jaw and joy in my little heart. And I’ll be honest…I wasn’t born yet.
    And Sci LOVES Jon Stewart. A lot. Though it’s probably a sad thing that he’s the best newsperson on the air right now, Sci would totally go on the show if she were that famous. I think news related with humor is more interesting, appeals to a younger crowd, and often helps to coat a bitter pill or get us riled up about something.
    And I agree that the world has changed. I’m not upset that it’s changed, either. Sci will admit that she has fallen asleep in seminars given by very prominent scientists, because they were BORING. And this, even though she was primed to like the material and in grad school at the time (*cough cough* she might still do it *cough cough*). There are some INCREDIBLE public speakers among my scientific colleagues, but there are also some bad apples. But within the scientific community, I don’t think this is such a problem. We are judged on what we DO, not on how we talk (though speaking well is an often unanticipated bonus). Unfortunately, this can make talking to the public very difficult, but perhaps not all scientists should be made to communicate with the public.
    And I am all for making science more interesting and accessible to the public, but I just don’t feel that your book really addresses HOW. I really liked the parts where you mentioned trying to tell a story, and talked about adding style, and I think the book would have been a great deal stronger if you’d spent more time developing those points.
    I didn’t intend to convey a frustration at the place of scientific communication today. Though that is something that frustrates me, it’s not the focus of this review. I actually agreed with your main points, but what got me about the book was your style, the way that you were conveying yourself. I realize that you were probably trying to go for self-depreciating humor, but it’s VERY hard to write self-depreciating humor which also includes your audience, without losing the “self-depreciating” part and ending up just making fun of your audience. I know that you’re not the enemy, but you ended up coming across, not as an enemy, but as someone who’s advice I did not wish to take, regardless of how good that advice may have been. I think, for future books, you might want to rethink the style if you’d like to convince a scientific audience. And I would really appreciate some practical advice and examples of creating a good scientific story.
    matt carmody: awww, you’re too sweet! I’m glad you like the blog!

  16. But within the scientific community, I don’t think this is such a problem. We are judged on what we DO, not on how we talk (though speaking well is an often unanticipated bonus).

    This is untrue. Being an effective scientific speaker can open *many* doors, including most importantly the ability to secure jobs like post-doctoral and faculty positions. And being a poor speaker can prevent exactly these things from happening. Faculty job candidates who give poor job talks rarely get offers. Furthermore, giving effective talks at meetings and conferences is also hugely important in building your reputation as a scientist.

  17. “Sci…has never really been interesting in Carl Sagan. I mean, he was fine and all, but I wasn’t exactly the kid watching his stuff with dropped jaw and joy in my little heart. And I’ll be honest…I wasn’t born yet.”
    It’s good to know there’s someone else like me! He’s just so 80s!

  18. This will change your mind about Carl Sagan…
    watch and enjoy:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc

  19. This will change your mind about Carl Sagan…
    watch and enjoy:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSgiXGELjbc

  20. I don’t think Olson gets it. Nor do I think he has anything useful or interesting to say. I wish it were different. But if he hates the “content and message” of his book how can he in all seriousness even imagine other people would find it interesting, let alone useful?
    I see, as usual, he really didn’t address your concerns, setting them aside with vague talk about favorable reviews, but nary a reference in sight to support his claim. I saw FoD and it was so boring I can scarcely remember now what was in it. It did carry a distinct and ineradicable message however: Avoid Olson’s Material! You can even chant it: AOMMM! AOMMM!
    I never bothered with Sizzle, but I again got Olson’s message: even when he sends out copies of the movie to encourage comments from the successful science communicators at sci-blogs, he has little interest in learning listening to them (as he again demonstrated in this particular blog) and will send out his minions to talk down and talk over those who would comment.
    The bottom line is that only way to get people interested in science is to teach it to them at a young age as opposed to forcing facts and dates down their throats at a young age so they’re completely turned off it and have no interest in it at all as adults.
    Olson almost got there when he commented above, “It’s the people politicizing evolution to the point that K-12 teachers don’t want to go near the subject.”, but he doesn’t seem able to make the connection that kids are the future and they will be whatever we force them to be as long as we’re forcing them. If we force them to be turned off by science as we do now, they will have no interest in it. If we “force” them to love science by teaching them how to reveal for themselves how fascinating, useful and necessary it is, we’ll have a different world twenty years from now.
    It’s that simple.

  21. “Be Carl Sagan”?
    Great. I’ve got the corduroy Members Only jacket. Who brought the bong and the Vangelis LP?

  22. I don’t think dr. Olson will read this, but there’s one important thing about the anti-science movement – they will always have more style, because they don’t have to stick to the facts, as science communicators should. We may hate it, but that’s the fact. Science takes thinking, anti-science does not – which one is more easy-going then?

  23. Hi there – Busy time, so I haven’t been able to check back until now. For starters, I love Jon Stewart. He’s tremendous. And it is possible to love the product, but hate what it says about our society — that serious journalists and politicians battle their way to get on the fake news show. Stewart himself is constantly commenting humorously, but also seriously, on what it says about how our society has changed.
    A few specifics to the comments above:
    Sci – the book is working fine as is. It’s not really written in a totally scientist-friendly voice because my feeling is that the science community needs a little more stick than carrot. Sorry. I just listen to way too many science communicators who convey endless frustration at the difficulty of dealing with scientists in trying to help them communicate with the general public. The response to the book mirrors this. One very major newspaper journalist said to me, “there’s nothing new in your book, the only thing that’s new is that you’re the first person with a science Ph.D. saying these things to the science community, maybe they’ll finally listen to you since they refuse to listen to any of us journalists.” It’s a real problem. Scientists have a tendency to band together and tell each other, “we’re really not that bad with communication.” But try asking the journalists. Yes, you are. It’s the truth. Sorry if it hurts sometimes. It hurt me to tell some of the tales in the book of being a doofus in Hollywood. I’d rather tell about being the life of the party at Hollywood parties. But that wouldn’t be the truth.
    IanW – the book is about broad communication, not academic communication. Broad communicators are appreciating it, academics not quite as much. Which is to be expected.
    Jan Stradowski – If you get the chance, please read the third chapter of the book — the chapter on storytelling where I tell about how we took Flock of Dodos from being a film for academics into being a film suitable for a broad enough audience that it was accepted to Tribeca and acquired by Showtime (not PBS!). How did we do that? It wasn’t by not sticking to the facts. The film is completely scientifically accurate — which was crucial when Jonathan Wells began attacking the Haeckel’s Embryos segment, and PZ Myers was able to examine every word of that part of the film and verify it was all correct. But the way we managed to achieve both accuracy and popularity was by paying a LARGE price in terms of time, energy, and money. And that is the overall message of the book — you have to invest more in communication. Which is something most of you know, deep inside. If you go to a scientific meeting and write your talk on the plane (as I did more than once during my science career) you may think it won’t matter because you feel you’re great at “winging it.” But the sad truth is, you get what you pay for. Giving a good presentation takes a huge amount of time and effort.
    And as Comrade Physioprof says above, it (somewhat sadly) REALLY does matter. This was one of the most baffling experiences my fellow grad students and I had in getting to know the science world — the idea that mediocre researchers who could give great talks could end up being the hot item at the meeting. We would walk around and say, “What’s the deal, I’ve read that guys papers, his work is lousy, why does everyone think he’s great?” Style does matter.
    Anyhow, don’t know if anyone’s still reading this thread. If you are, Happy Thanksgiving!
    (p.s. – I never was a great Sagan fan, but the record does show he was an effective communicator)

  24. Hi there – Busy time, so I haven’t been able to check back until now. For starters, I love Jon Stewart. He’s tremendous. And it is possible to love the product, but hate what it says about our society — that serious journalists and politicians battle their way to get on the fake news show. Stewart himself is constantly commenting humorously, but also seriously, on what it says about how our society has changed.
    A few specifics to the comments above:
    Sci – the book is working fine as is. It’s not really written in a totally scientist-friendly voice because my feeling is that the science community needs a little more stick than carrot. Sorry. I just listen to way too many science communicators who convey endless frustration at the difficulty of dealing with scientists in trying to help them communicate with the general public. The response to the book mirrors this. One very major newspaper journalist said to me, “there’s nothing new in your book, the only thing that’s new is that you’re the first person with a science Ph.D. saying these things to the science community, maybe they’ll finally listen to you since they refuse to listen to any of us journalists.” It’s a real problem. Scientists have a tendency to band together and tell each other, “we’re really not that bad with communication.” But try asking the journalists. Yes, you are. It’s the truth. Sorry if it hurts sometimes. It hurt me to tell some of the tales in the book of being a doofus in Hollywood. I’d rather tell about being the life of the party at Hollywood parties. But that wouldn’t be the truth.
    IanW – the book is about broad communication, not academic communication. Broad communicators are appreciating it, academics not quite as much. Which is to be expected.
    Jan Stradowski – If you get the chance, please read the third chapter of the book — the chapter on storytelling where I tell about how we took Flock of Dodos from being a film for academics into being a film suitable for a broad enough audience that it was accepted to Tribeca and acquired by Showtime (not PBS!). How did we do that? It wasn’t by not sticking to the facts. The film is completely scientifically accurate — which was crucial when Jonathan Wells began attacking the Haeckel’s Embryos segment, and PZ Myers was able to examine every word of that part of the film and verify it was all correct. But the way we managed to achieve both accuracy and popularity was by paying a LARGE price in terms of time, energy, and money. And that is the overall message of the book — you have to invest more in communication. Which is something most of you know, deep inside. If you go to a scientific meeting and write your talk on the plane (as I did more than once during my science career) you may think it won’t matter because you feel you’re great at “winging it.” But the sad truth is, you get what you pay for. Giving a good presentation takes a huge amount of time and effort.
    And as Comrade Physioprof says above, it (somewhat sadly) REALLY does matter. This was one of the most baffling experiences my fellow grad students and I had in getting to know the science world — the idea that mediocre researchers who could give great talks could end up being the hot item at the meeting. We would walk around and say, “What’s the deal, I’ve read that guys papers, his work is lousy, why does everyone think he’s great?” Style does matter.
    Anyhow, don’t know if anyone’s still reading this thread. If you are, Happy Thanksgiving!
    (p.s. – I never was a great Sagan fan, but the record does show he was an effective communicator)

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