[ASC-list] Perth: This Friday 11 March: Science Communication Book Club; Randy Olsen's Don't Be Such a Scientist, UWA

Nancy Longnecker nancy.longnecker at uwa.edu.au
Wed Mar 9 13:30:10 UTC 2011

The University of Western Australia  Science Communication Seminar Series; Semester 1, 2011

When is a seminar not a seminar? When it's the Sci Comm Book Club!

    Speaker: all of us
    Book: Don't Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson
    Location: Centre for Learning Technology, Physics Building UWA
    Time & Date: 4pm, Friday 11 March 2011
    Drinks and Nibbles Provided


Don't Be Such a Scientist; Talking Substance in an Age of Style
by Randy Olson


REVIEW NATURE|Vol 462|10 December 2009
by Gia Milinovich
Gia Milinovich is a science and technology
broadcaster for the BBC, Discovery Channel
and Channel 4 and a new-media consultant for
Hollywood films.
e-mail: giagia at gmail.com

The gulf between science and the rest of the
world seems to be widening. If you think that
keeping your head down, doing your research
and not attempting to bridge that gap is
enough, two books might convince you that
science needs your voice — now.

The first is Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such
A Scientist. Olson was a tenured professor
of marine biology at the University of New
Hampshire in Durham before packing in his
job, packing up his life and moving to Hollywood
to learn how to make films. He passes on
everything he’s learned and saves you the trouble
of the embarrassment he experienced as a
scientist being cut down to size by film types.
Although the book focuses mainly on making
and watching films, it gives some excellent
insight into the general areas of communication
in which scientists often fail.

Olson has five areas of advice that he uses as
chapter headings: ‘Don’t be so cerebral’; ‘Don’t
be so literal minded’;’ Don’t be such a poor storyteller’;
‘Don’t be so unlikeable’; ‘Be the voice
of science!’ He advises that scientists need to
communicate in broader terms, add some
humour once in a while, not shy away from
speaking about things in an emotional way, tell
interesting stories and be congenial.

Olson gives an excellent explanation of why
scientists often have problems communicating
with the public, saying that science is a
process of “attempting to falsify ideas in the
search for truth” and noting that “the masses
thrive not on negativity and negation but on
positivity and affirmation”. He postulates that,
when talking to a general audience, a scientist
should try to suppress any urge to be negative
because it comes across as arrogant and
condescending, something that will often
turn an audience against the speaker. This
suggestion might not be welcomed by those
readers who feel that scientists should never

Olson believes that science holds the fate
of humanity in its hands, and if scientists are
incapable of sharing their knowledge with the
public then the results could be catastrophic.
As more and more people make up their minds
about a subject on the basis of a speaker’s style,
rather than the substance of what they are saying,
learning how to speak about science with
style is a crucial skill.

The only problem with this book is that the
kind of people who need to read it are those
who may be most put off by its style. Olson
communicates with his audience in exactly the
way he suggests — with humour, emotion and
plenty of stories. Some readers may feel that it
shouldn’t be so much, well, fun. ■

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